12 missions completed, 73 times spotted, 72 tactical takedowns, 215 neutralizations, 75 interrogations, 93 recruits added and 30 hours of play time total. That’s the dossier on my experience so far of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I’m still pretty far from the finish line, but 30 hours is a lot of time to spend with anything, and so I can say this much—not a moment of it has been less than thrilling.
What do any of those metrics mean? With 30 hours of nose-to-the-grindstone play, the game tells me I’ve completed around one fifth (19%) of the missions where the philosophically convoluted, drowning-in-acronyms story plays out. But that 19% isn’t counting the barrage of compulsive distractions Team Kojima fastballs at you, including: photo gathering, luring and extracting animals to safety, and a daunting barrage of “side ops” you’ll have to chip away at to accrue the resources and personnel necessary to shore up deficiencies (and advance the mainline missions) in The Phantom Pain‘s elaborate base building game. Taking everything into account, the game tells me I’ve completed a tiny 7% overall.
Am I just slow? Methodical I’ll cop to, but I finished the story in Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity in less time. You can’t rush missions here, or slop your way through them. Even if you ignore the optional stuff, the physical space where the missions transpire is so vast, the dozens of enemies patrolling the areas so shrewd, and the penalties so severe if you lumber in guns-a-blazin’, that pulling off your primary objective can take hours, planning to execution to extraction. Whatever intimidated Kojima about Grand Theft Auto V a few years ago, The Phantom Pain is no less sprawling than Rockstar’s open-world opus.
But the label “open world” is all both games share. Rockstar’s expansive Los Angeles burlesque may look visually denser, but it feels brittler, an ocean of urban beauty that collapses if you want to do more than harass its vagabond citizens or play hide-and-seek with the cops.
The Phantom Pain takes the opposite tack, placing you on an offshore platform in the Indian Ocean, then letting you helicopter in to a craggy, population-zero rendition of Northern Kabul, Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war (circa 1984), and eventually prowl around a swathe of Africa’s Angola-Zaire border region. (I haven’t unlocked the latter area yet, but judging from the pack-in map, it’s just as big as the Afghanistan one.)
Imagine several village-sized nodes connected by roads surrounded by rocky hills you can’t go over, only around. That’s how The Phantom Pain keeps you semi-corralled. You can move between areas along these roads on horseback or in vehicles, bumping into military outposts and skirmishing with Soviet soldiers, but most missions involve picking a landing zone, surveilling the target area from afar (to mark enemies on your map), then executing whatever tactical approach you care to.
All that between-space is there to provide a semblance of openness, in other words, but almost all of the action transpires in the map’s labeled spaces, be they outposts, occupied villages, or repurposed ruins. That’s a good thing, because it’s also a focus thing: everything I was talking about taking hours to complete above takes place in those spaces.
The stealth stuff isn’t new, let’s be clear about that. You’re still doing the same basic thing you’ve been doing for decades in these games, sneaking around enemy haunts or in conflict zones, trying to creep up behind and dispatch your foes (ideally, as always, by knocking them out, not killing them). It’s just never been attempted on anything like this scale, or when it comes to your opponents, with this much behavioral granularity. The Phantom Pain has some of the brightest, meaningfully collaborative, and thus relentlessly hostile opponents I’ve ever battled.
Yes, much of it is iterative, and we caught a glimpse of some of those iterations in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It’s also not trying to be ultra-realistic. Metal Gear Solid games have their own kinetic peculiarities. This isn’t stealth à la Splinter Cell‘s sinuous slinking, or Assassin’s Creed frenetic parkour. The protagonist still crouches, gracelessly sprints and clumsily belly-crawls just as he has in The Phantom Pain‘s predecessors for decades.
But some of the changes feel monumental in how they impact the design. Interrogating enemies can produce intel on both items or personnel of interest, as well as the positions of other soldiers. Day and night cycles prompt different patrol patterns and change the places guards tend to hangout. Sandstorms roll in suddenly, turning dangerously open space into advancement opportunities or escape routes. Tech upgrades eventually let you suss the abilities of potentially employable enemy soldiers, turning battlescapes into talent-scouting exercises. And as promised, the game tries to frustrate your tactical habits by adding little wrinkles, like putting helmets on enemies in subsequent missions if you’re fond of headshots. (Word of your activities gets around, and you’ll even pick some of that up in overheard soldier-to-soldier confabs as time passes.)
All that adds up to an anthill I can’t stop poking. And that’s without saying a word about the base-building game, a vast (and at my 30 hour mark, only getting vaster) resource bulwark you have to ply to manufacture better weapons, intel scopes, mobile communications devices, balloon extraction systems, bionic limbs, camouflage duds, horse armor, helicopter armament and more. Even camo-boxes, a longtime series joke, have their own upgrade paths.
If I had to grade it now, 30 hours in, with 80% of the story yet to come, most of the equipment still locked away, my base still a nascent thing, and only a handful of the side missions complete, I’d give The Phantom Pain full marks, easy. But if you want to see whether another 30 or more hours changes my mind, I’ll be back with a full review before the game launches Sept. 1.