Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and the end of the beginning

Metal Gear Solid ruined The Legend of Zelda for me. As far as I was concerned, the most exciting news about video games in 1998 was the first Zelda game for Nintendo 64. I spent more or less the entire year waiting for it. A few years earlier, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past taught me that video games could be more than shallow, surface-level excursions. On new hardware and in 3D, I figured, it would be amazing. I couldn't have been more excited. I skipped my college classes the day it came out to get my gold cartridge pre-order and spend the day playing.

There was no way to prepare for the disappointment that followed, and it's all Metal Gear's fault. No game before or since has ever shown me a future of possibilities like Metal Gear Solid. And, in 1998, comparing the black CD-powered, adult-oriented story, the top-notch voice acting and the revolutionary gameplay I'd discovered weeks earlier side-by-side with the cartridge-limited, kid-friendly Ocarina of Time soured me on that beloved series for years.

The Metal Gear franchise taught me that video games had grown up. I spent the next two decades changed. I stopped being dumb, eventually softened my stance on Zelda. I realized that there's plenty of room for both approaches. But there was no denying the paradigm shift that had occurred inside of me. The adult version of this lifelong gamer wanted more like Metal Gear and less like Zelda.

Every few years, Konami has been happy to deliver. Despite frequent protestations, Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima — quirky, mysterious, often convoluted and contradictory but always impossible to categorize — never left the franchise behind.

That will come to an end, as far as we know, this September with Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. Konami will keep the franchise alive. But it sure seems like the man who created it is washing his hands of it all. He will not return, for real this time. Probably.

At E3 2015, we played an hour of The Phantom Pain. It is impossible to disentangle the product from the soap opera drama surrounding it. It feels inextricably like a swan song. And as farewells go, this one looks and feels amazing.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Snake and an unlucky Russian.


This is the story of a hero turned villain.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is the end of the beginning. It tells a story of transformation, of Big Boss, the baddest guy in the Metal Gear universe, and his emotional and intellectual journey to the dark side. It is designed to fill in gaps, to close a loop Kojima began drawing decades ago. And it will do so in ways that Metal Gear never did before.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

The Metal Gear Solid franchise was designed around the limitations of the hardware it ran on. As the hardware became more powerful, the games expanded. In time, the top-down, curated camera was replaced by user-controlled cameras and large, open areas. That evolution reaches its logical conclusion in The Phantom Pain.

Kojima has consistently described The Phantom Pain as an open-world game, but his definition requires a bit of explanation. It's not open-world like, say, Just Cause 2, where you can hop into a car and drive dozens of miles across open terrain. But The Phantom Pain is full of open terrain, vastly more open than any of the previous installments.

The change is more than aesthetic. It has significant gameplay ramifications. When your whole worldview is limited to a single room, it's easy to see and understand your surroundings. You had radar. Enemies appeared as blips walking easy-to-understand paths. But when your world is multiple square miles of dusty Afghan hardpan, the only way to know what's around you is by figuring it out yourself. This is a whole new way to play Metal Gear. Forget radar. It's your job to take the high ground, scope out and mark enemies, call for support with a single button tap to learn more about what you're looking at.

Our hour with Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain wanted to make sure we knew this. You're on your own. You'll fail if you don't do the work required to understand the battlefield. This is the subtext in long cutscenes. It's the voice in your ear when you call for help. It's the not-so-subtle clue implied by geography.

This is important because there's an army out there, and it's time for a rescue mission. Your friend's life depends on it.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Probably not good for Snake.


This hour of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain takes place in a single sprawling military encampment in Afghanistan. Overrun by Russian military forces, your friend is somewhere inside. Find him.

Anyone who played last year's prologue, Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, will find the controls familiar. They're kludgy as hell. This, sadly, is to be expected. At this point, it's as much a hallmark of Metal Gear as stealth.

It's never insurmountable, but I wasn't comfortable with it after an hour filled with trying to remember which button combination did what. Nor was I used to its menus. I felt like a fool poking through menu after menu in search of an option to invert my look controls until a Konami representative walked up and showed me where it was. This was not the first time he'd done that. As with stealth, mastery of the controls comes only with time and patience.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

There's at least a reason that the controls are complex: I had lots to do and many tools at my disposal. Pressing R1 raised my binoculars, for example. And while doing that, tapping another button called home for information. But I could also mark targets and set waypoints in this mode, too. These are central gameplay elements, but they exist at the price of complexity.

Set free, the open-world design made sense in a way it hadn't before. I had objectives, based on geography. What looked like my whole world expanded as I sneaked through, completed the objective and started to make my way on horseback to the other side of the map. But before I complete my next infiltration, I had to scope the joint out.

It is classic Metal Gear stealth with a new sense of empowerment. Because so much was up to me, I had a greater sense of ownership for success and failure, the latter of which I was about to understand.

The first objective complete, I rode on horseback over a hill where I sat perched, peering through my binoculars. I was looking at, between and behind a cluster of buildings on an adjacent hill. In one of these structures, I knew, my friend was being held captive. But I was under the gun. Time was running out in real life.

I rushed it. That was dumb. Instead of taking my time, I thought I'd wing it. I marked a few enemies, scanned the area again, marked one or two more, and then I was on my way.

If you would like to die in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, this is a great way to ensure that.

Enemies I never discovered saw me. The first time, this wasn't a problem. Against one Russian, I'm good. Time slowed down. I shot him in the face with a tranquilizer dart. This is Metal Gear.

When more than one caught me, it was no good. They chased after me. I ran. They called friends. When I thought it was safe, I went back in, still not learning from my mistake. They found me again. They shot me. I died. It was my fault.

I wanted to try again.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Targets marked, Snake infiltrates.


Despite being an occasional doofus, I loved my hour with The Phantom Pain.

There is exactly no way to know whether I will love the rest of the game. Will the level design hold up and continue to surprise me? Dunno. Will I get sick of having so much control and want to just fight? Maybe, and Snake's got plenty of lethal weaponry at his disposal if I decide to take a less stealthy route. But I like a thinking player's game. I like planning and executing. And the elation of a successfully executed stealth plan brings is a special, unmatched joy.

What I know — what I can say confidently after an hour's worth of game time — is that Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is off to a strong start. It feels, like Metal Gear Solid did to me so many years ago, like the logical conclusion to what came before it. I could almost hear Kojima, unchained from decades of hardware limitations, saying, "This is the game I've always wanted to make. I'm out. This is my legacy."

If Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is Kojima's end — and I wouldn't put a long con past the man who revealed his game with a gigantic fake out and a pretend studio — it's shaping up to be one hell of a ride.