PREPOSTEROUS, yet extraordinary – what a way to go out. Hideo Kojima is the closest gaming gets to an auteur. After a much-publicised spat with long-time publisher Konami, he’s delivered the ultimate resignation letter in the form of his last and greatest Metal Gear Solid.
Phantom Pain could have veered further into Kojima’s tendency for self-indulgent twaddle to fulfil his nascent movie director ambitions. Instead, we get the most deliciously complex and satisfying stealth game his ideas have always teased.
Not that you’d know by the bizarre first hour, a barely interactive torrent of tortured exposition. Narrated by a gravel-voiced Kiefer Sutherland and featuring an eccentric montage of supernatural creatures, the opening chapter requires little of you except to press up on the controller every few minutes. It’s at once fascinating and tedious – you fear Kojima’s worst impulses have been give their head.
But then the plot clouds clear and a startling open world presents itself as Big Boss seeks revenge in the military theatre of 1980s Afghanistan and, later, Africa. Yes, he’s a goodie here even though in the tangled timeline of Metal Gear Solid’s history, he becomes a villain in the subsequent chronology.
Starting from a modest base on an oil rig in the Indian Ocean, you set out as Big Boss to build an offshore private army by raiding military encampments in Afghanistan and Zaire.
Free-roaming the rugged Afghan landscape on horseback is a pleasure in itself. But the real entertainment starts as you reach a village and begin a painstaking reconnaissance, identifying guard positions and plotting a route to your target.
It might be an assassination or an extraction or a burglary. But Phantom Pain grants exceptional tactical freedom augmented by a boggling range of gadgets. Sneaking is always the best option – disposing of guards along the way or timing your run to avoid any encounters at all. But as your weapons arsenal grows – built up from research back at base – playing it as a shooter becomes a practical possibility and an enjoyable one too, even if stealth produces better rewards.
The enemy soldiers don’t lack for intelligence, capable of unpredictable patterns and aggressive pursuit. Amusingly, after subduing them, you can forcibly extract back to your base, where they are “recruited” to your cause and add to your research capability.
Filled with a rich and intricate interplay of systems – from a day/night cycle to weather to challenging terrain – Phantom Pain proves endlessly fascinating.
If you can ignore the typically barmy cut-scenes and the completely sexist semi-naked sidekick, Kojima has signed off with one of the games of the year.