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Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain feels like the end of an era, a stealth game triumph

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Thirty minutes into the latest, and perhaps final, Metal Gear game developed by series creator Hideo Kojima and his team at Kojima Productions, I couldn't help but think, "It's a shame that Kojima won't be allowed to give the world Silent Hills. The man knows how to make a good horror game."

I'm not permitted to divulge plot details on Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, per Konami's restrictive coverage demands for the game, but the opening hour of the latest game in the Metal Gear franchise is a surreal, terrifying wonder.

You might have seen some of it when The Phantom Pain was unveiled back in 2012 at the Spike VGAs, back when Metal Gear Solid 5 was surreptitiously revealed under a pseudonym, supposedly in development at the fictitious Moby Dick Studios. You might remember a flaming whale, a man on fire riding a scorched winged unicorn, a man who looked like Big Boss crawling on hands and knees to escape death. If you do, you'll see those scenes again during the game's prologue.

The opening moments of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain are memorable, and thanks to an apparent falling out between Kojima and Konami made somewhat more bizarre. I'm still not sure what to make of certain moments, certain decisions I'd been asked to make early on, but I couldn't shake Kojima's current reality with the situations presented in his game.

When we visited Konami's Los Angeles studio last month to preview The Phantom Pain, we did so without the presence of Hideo Kojima. The last time we were there, Kojima was joined by designer Yoji Shinkawa, producer Yuji Korekado and actress Stephanie Joosten, who plays the sniper known as Quiet in the game. I can't remember many times when I previewed a Metal Gear game and Kojima wasn't there — save for one, when Metal Gear Solid 4 producer Ryan Payton showed me that game in a one-on-one setting.

This time, there was no Kojima, no one we recognized from Kojima Productions. We were asked politely to focus on the game, not the turmoil of Konami and Kojima's break-up. And although we'd see the Kojima Productions logo in the version we played, we were told it might not appear in the final game.

But Kojima's presence is everywhere in The Phantom Pain. At the beginning and end of each chapter of the game, we see his name in credits that roll like an episode of a television show. This was written by Hideo Kojima, the game reminded us. This series was created by Hideo Kojima, bright white text said. It was an uncomfortable reminder, one that felt at times egotistical in its repetition and of some topical import. This is a Hideo Kojima game. The game's box art doesn't say so, but the game will, as often as possible.

Of course, Kojima's touch is apparent in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain in so many obvious ways, you won't need pre- and post-mission credits to remind you. This is a weird, wild game.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain screenshots

The Phantom Pain makes a pretty clear assumption that you're familiar not just with Metal Gear lore, but the events of stand-alone prologue Ground Zeroes as well. Players are dropped into the events of The Phantom Pain without much explanation, with the supposition that they'll have a good idea of what's going on. Admittedly, I didn't; I hadn't played Ground Zeroes prior to playing The Phantom Pain for some 12-odd hours over the course of a few days, but that still felt OK. I have gaps in my Metal Gear history, and they didn't necessarily detract from my enjoyment here.

The game's first mission — again, the game is split into TV episode-like missions in an open-world — sends Big Boss (aka Punished Snake) on a retrieval mission: Recover Kazuhira Miller from a base in Afghanistan. It's an infiltration mission, Snake, and the most memorable thing about it, according to my notes, is that Ocelot, who sent Big Boss on that prisoner extraction mission, wears J.F. Rey brand glasses. That's not to say that the opening mission was lacking or dull; sneaking into a base full of Russian soldiers is tense and engrossing. But being told mid-mission about product placement for a pair of glasses featured in the game stood out. It endeared me to Metal Gear's particular brand of quirkiness.

It was a simple mission: get in, don't get caught, get out. The breadth of The Phantom Pain's stealth gameplay and mechanics had yet to be revealed.

In the next chapter, Ocelot told me about Mother Base, the strategic base of operations for Diamond Dogs, the private military corporation led by Big Boss. Mother Base is where players will spend some of their time, but not much of it. It's where players will send recruits to further Diamond Dogs' cause, where they'll research new technologies and grow their base.

Metal Gear Solid 5

At Mother Base, players can pursue development projects. They can research new weapons and tactical items for Snake, like cardboard boxes and upgraded versions of his prosthetic arm. They can develop new technologies that augment Snake's capabilities on the battlefield but they'll need funds, materials and personnel to make that possible. And those can only be acquired in the battlefield.

Players will be presented with a list of missions available to them throughout The Phantom Pain, and they'll need to embark on those missions from a helicopter. It's there where players can listen to mission briefings on cassette tapes, customize Snake's loadout and decide which mission they should take on next. They'll then be deployed to the battlefield, where they'll typically have a half-dozen mission objectives — many optional — to tackle.

Those missions can be taken somewhat out of order, with "Side Ops" for optional objectives. Players can revisit them to attempt missions again and again, until they've perfected them.

In the early part of the game, the game's missions are all centered in the deserts of Afghanistan. Players are tasked with extracting hostages, destroying Soviet communications infrastructure and eliminating enemy forces — either by killing them or tactically ... acquiring them, turning them to the Diamond Dogs' side.

That last task, the non-lethal removal of enemy Soviet forces, is where Metal Gear Solid 5 shines. My favorite moments involved the stealthy kidnapping of Soviet infantry and commanders, an option enabled by the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system — using balloons and aircraft to extract soldiers through quiet force — that's central to The Phantom Pain's stealth mechanics.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain

Initially, the Fulton system can only be used to snatch up individual soldiers and wildlife (I recovered at least one donkey). But the balloons can eventually be upgraded at Mother Base to recover vehicles, weapon emplacements and more.

Players can send just about any soldier back to base, and the game procedurally generates some fun names for rank and file infantry. My base was home to the likes of Brass Armadillo, Dizzy Centipede, Sinister Tiger and Ochre Capybara, for example.

Fultoning soldiers with special skills can benefit Mother Base and the Diamond Dogs. In an early portion of the game, I was instructed to recover a translator via Fulton, someone who could interpret the Russian language in real time. Once he'd been recovered I could understand the dialog between Soviet soldiers. Not only did that open up the understanding of small talk and comms, it also let Snake interrogate soldiers for secret information.

During these away missions, players are presented with some critical path tasks, and plenty of optional tasks. Players may recover extra materials or soldiers who specialize in a certain task, or they may be able to recover special blueprints that will unlock new research technology back at Mother Base. Players can also recover totally superfluous objectives, like snatching cassette tapes out of boom boxes with '70s and ‘80s era hits like David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World" and Asia's "Only Time Will Tell" for their pure listening pleasure.

Players are also optionally available to add new "buddies" to the cause, like the puppy D.D. and the sniper Quiet. I mainly used the horse, named D-Horse, as my buddy in an effort to make travel through Afghanistan faster, but D.D., Quiet and other buddies will give players a tactical advantage during some missions.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain screenshots

They'll also affect morale, those buddies. The soldiers back at Mother Base absolutely adore D.D. — there's some hilarious dialog about how cute some of the other Diamond Dogs think the pup's paws are — but they clearly dislike Quiet. She can be a big hit to soldier sentiment back at base, and feels like a risky addition to your crew. However, the mission in which you meet Quiet is one of the most thrilling moments in the game, for reasons I won't spoil. And her sniper skills are apparently beneficial in sneaking missions, according to Kojima, something I was unfortunately unable to test for myself during the game's early portions.

Despite spending more than a dozen hours with The Phantom Pain, I felt like I'd barely scratched the surface of the latest Metal Gear. It came with its share of frustrations — like many stealth games, the game isn't much fun once you've been discovered, and like other Metal Gear outings, the controls can be achingly complex — but also with so many satisfying gameplay moments. Completely clearing a base of soldiers by Fultoning the entire detachment for the first time is immensely gratifying, and players have a wealth of options at their disposal for completing missions through stealth instead of violence.

It also took some getting used to hearing Kiefer Sutherland as the voice of Big Boss/Snake, despite the fact that he's more of a silent protagonist than ever, a suspicious change. But however intentional, however influenced by real-world events, The Phantom Pain feels like Kojima's swan song. It is, quite possibly, a beautiful and robust note to end on.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain will come to PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Xbox 360 and Xbox One this September.

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