I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a videogame than the years I spent waiting for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Once it was finally out in 2015, the game shattered my expectations with its sandboxy stealth, rich toolset, wacky cast of characters, and reactive AI. It’s easily my favourite game in years, but after I’d sapped nearly 100 hours out of it, I never went back. Read our Metal Gear Solid V Review.
Release: September 1, 2015 Developer: In-house Publisher: Kojima Productions Link: konami.com/mg/mgsv
Seven years is a scary amount of time to be away from what I’ve considered the greatest stealth game of all time. I almost didn’t want to find out if I’ve been blowing smoke all this time. It’s time to face the 2022 truth: it isn’t quite the masterpiece I remember anymore, but it is still the gold standard for stealth game hijinks.
I hoped I’d fall right back into my old rhythm of sneaking into compounds and kidnapping skilled Russians by the dozens. Turns out it had been just long enough that I’d forgotten just how long MGSV takes to get to the fun part.
Remember the whole bit with the hospital attack at the start? Holy hell, what an awful way to start a game. In my head that whole sequence is about 15 minutes, but in reality it’s more like 45 minutes of mostly crawling on the floor and following a straight line down hallways while getting interrupted by cutscenes ever other minute. It’s a potent dose of Kojima bullshit to get hit with right off the bat, and pretty much the opposite of what makes the rest of MGSV fun.
But eventually I was let loose on the deserts of Afghanistan once more and got to the good stuff. I love that one of the first things the game teaches you is that there’s an entire button on the controller devoted to hanging off the side of D-Horse to enter ‘horse stealth’ mode. Does it look goofy? Absolutely, but it’s a totally practical mechanic that’s super handy for passing by guard posts without raising a fuss.
Horse stealth also establishes a mantra that MGSV will repeat over and over – every tool has multiple uses, including ones it won’t tell you about. This is one piece of magic that I’m sad I’ll never get to experience again. I can’t un-learn that Snake’s water pistol can short-circuit generators without raising alarm, or unsee the time D-Horse did a number two on the road and an approaching Jeep spun out in the massive turd like a slippery banana peel.
“It’s a potent dose of Kojima bullshit to get hit with right off the bat, and pretty much the opposite of what makes the rest of MGSV fun.”
Some of MGSV’s charms will never wear off, though, like its NPCs that still feel distinctly more ‘alive’ than your standard stealth action goon. Enemy AI is the soul of a good stealth game and MGSV’s still the most reactive around.
Instead of being stuck in either calm or alert mode, soldiers can enter varying degrees of ‘sus’ depending how long they caught a glimpse of Snake. If it was just a quick glance, they’ll probably stare in your direction for a bit then go back to their business. If they’re sure they saw something move, they’ll investigate your location and report what they saw.
The only game that comes close to this level of stealth AI these days is the new Hitman trilogy, and even that game doesn’t pull it off quite as organically. And that’s just the start of MGSV’s AI interactions. Place a poster of a Russian solider on a cardboard box while standing and faraway guards will think you’re one of them. With the right cassette tape, I can even hide in a toilet and convince a suspicious guard to leave me alone on account of horrible explosive diarrhoea.
Nab a soldier into a chokehold and I can make him give up the locations of his buddies. Approach with a gun drawn and Snake will initiate a stickup, at which point I can tell the obedient soldier to shut up and lie down. Why can’t I do this in any other stealth action games? It’s so cool! Try to hold a Hitman guard at gunpoint and they’ll throw caution to the wind to try to out-gun you.
Admittedly, a lot of these interactions are obscure and not exactly practical. Instead of going through the trouble of playing a poop tape, it’s a lot easier to simply knock out a suspicious guard with a tranq dart and Fulton him back off to Mother Base. But like any good immersive sim, the fun is in having options! The more ways I have to express Snake’s coolness, the more convincing the fantasy.
Having the foreknowledge of how many cool gadgets Snake unlocks made it all the harder to start over from scratch and wait for them. For the first dozen hours, Snake’s most sophisticated piece of tech is a cardboard box.
I had completely forgotten what it was like to deploy on missions without Quiet’s sniper support. Even my best boy D-Dog was a pain to unlock. First you have to randomly find him in the open world as an adorable little wolf pup, then you have to take him to Mother Base to train with Ocelot for an indeterminate amount of time until he grows into a silent killer.
One of my favourite weapons in the game, the Rocket Punch arm attachment, unlocked so late in the game that I was almost done playing. Even that silly water pistol I mentioned can’t be crafted until well over halfway through the main story. Having also replayed Death Stranding recently and finally unlocking the floating carrier after 20 hours, I’m noticing a pattern of Hideo Kojima games taking way too long to get to the good parts.
Thankfully, that’s where mods can come in clutch. My first MGSV playthrough was on PlayStation 4, so I was completely unaware of how many handy mods people have made over the years. Most of the mods on offer add new outfits for make slight alterations, but some of the most downloaded mods are simple cheats like infinite ammo, suppressors that never break, and so on. And yes, you can even unlock every item in the game immediately.
What mods can’t fix, unfortunately, is MGSV’s remarkably drab open world hubs. The valleys and rolling hills of Afghanistan and Africa are much smaller than I remember. Treks between compounds via horseback or Jeep are often just about a minute or two away, not even enough time to sing along to A-ha’s ‘Take on Me’ on Snake’s Walkman.
The maps’ meagre sizes aren’t due to an abundance of graphical detail, either. Basic ground textures look fine from a distance, but fix your view on the ground and its blurriness becomes unmissable. It wouldn’t be so bad if you never had to get close to the ground, but I spent half of MGSV in a full crawl. A lot of MGSV still looks pretty nice – Kojima’s attention to detail in characters and equipment models hold up, but everything organic in The Phantom Pain looks unmistakably last-last-gen.
That’s not too far from the truth, either. MGSV looked a bit dated even when it came out, especially compared against the other open-world darling of 2015, The Witcher 3. The disparity can probably be attributed to the fact that MGSV also released on PS3 and Xbox 360. That was a huge game to cram into a box manufactured in 2005. The multiplatform release made a lot of sense at the time, but lowering its graphical ceiling has done it no favours in the years since.
That said, MGSV is an old game now, and I don’t dive back into old games looking to be graphically wowed. Seven years later, few have even tried to create a stealth sandbox with a similar scope. Kojima Productions did outdo itself in some ways with the abundant goofy gadgets of Death Stranding, but if you’re looking for a stealth action that carries the torch for the abandoned Metal Gear series, the closest replacement out there is Sniper Elite 5. You should try that game out, and then maybe come back to The Phantom Pain. Just make sure to pick up a mod that skips the really awful opening hour.