Metal Gear Solid V is enormous, radical and already rather brilliant.
Having played six-and-a-half solid hours of it at a recent preview event, I can confirm that if this is Hideo Kojima's last game with Konami, he'll be going out with a bang. Blending open-world exploration with an extraordinary amount of gameplay freedom and choice, it's like nothing you've ever seen before yet still unmistakeably Metal Gear. Let me explain in a preview so big that I've had to split it in half!
The game begins nine years after the tragic events of Ground Zeroes, as Snake wakes up in hospital and all manner of bizarre madness goes down. Konami have sworn me to secrecy and that's a good thing too, since you wouldn't believe me if I actually told you. Seriously, a flying fire whale is involved at one point. It's a fascinating sequence that builds on last year's teasers and has major ramifications for both singleplayer and multiplayer.
But you'll have to experience it for yourself. Ultimately Snake emerges not as Naked, Solid or even Big Boss, but as Punished "Venom" Snake, a broken shadow of his former self sporting a bionic arm and a massive metal horn protruding through his forehead and lodged within his frontal cortex. It's up to this once-great hero to rebuild a new mercenary outfit, The Diamond Dogs, and get his revenge on CIPHER and the Skull Face Man in the process. One assassination, mission or tranquillised vulture attached to a helium balloon at a time.
First things first, though, I had to save Miller.
Snake's faithful cohort has been busy, rebuilding the organisation while working as a security advisor to pay the bills. Sadly, his last mission went badly wrong, causing him to be captured by the Soviets in Afghanistan and sentenced to death. He's being held somewhere in the mountain town of Da Ghwandai Khar and I had three days to save him.
Ocelot (oh yes) gave me a horse, a pair of binoculars and basically told me to get on with it, introducing me to Metal Gear Solid V's most unique feature. Instead of a linear game, it's a collection of massive open-world hubs in which players can roam freely, pick up missions and gradually rebuild Mother Base from the resources and personnel they find.
Afghanistan is the first such zone (I believe the next is somewhere in Northern Africa), an enormous sprawling desert of roads, checkpoints, towns, mountains and enemy bases. The whole place is under lockdown by the Soviets, but CIPHER also maintain a presence in the area, deploying their nightmarish SKULL squad that resemble nanomachine zombies. Spraying out a choking mist, these terrifying cyborgs can forcibly infect other troops and make life very difficult for you thanks to their inhuman speed.
Pleasingly, you'll see all the major players at the beginning of each mission, seeing as they're presented like a TV box set complete with credits. Starring Punished "Venom" Snake, Kazuhira "Kaz" Miller, Soviet Soldiers and the SKULL Parasite Unit was a fun if slightly foreboding reminder of what I was about to face.
At which point I giddied up and set out into this enormous open environment. The first mission acts as a handy primer that helps teach the basics: every situation can be completed in multiple ways, intel is key and exploration pays dividends. Without any idea of exactly where in Da Ghwandai Khar Miller is being held, Ocelot prompted me to find clues in outlying towns, settlements and bases, one of which was Da Wialo Kallai. Effortlessly charging around on my horse, dodging enemy patrols and forging off-trail, I eventually found myself overlooking the town that was swarming with soviet soldiers.
Ground Zeroes veterans will already know this, but Metal Gear Solid V is all about intel and planning. Using the binoculars, I tagged the enemies in visual range (ensuring that they would appear on my HUD during infiltration) and identified the biggest building in the area, which almost certainly had some tasty intel. I then slipped into the town, using the effortless cover system to remain hidden and even vaulting over a few roofs in an effort to maintain pure stealth. It's superb and incredibly tense.
I freely admit that I smashed one nosy guard into unconsciousness with Snake's bionic arm, which acts as an incredibly powerful sprint attack when equipped as a sub-weapon, but eventually found a document that showed exactly where Miller was being held. On the way out I grabbed a guard and tried to interrogate him, but found that Snake was no longer able to understand Russian due to that massive spike in his brain. Perhaps, intoned Ocelot somewhat cheekily, I'd eventually be able to recruit an interpreter.
On my way to Da Ghwandai Khar, I stopped off at a communications base and figured I'd 'pop in' to see if they had any useful intelligence for me. Like before I found a cliff, surveyed the scene and identified a few potentially weak entry points to start my infiltration. Once again, I attempted to maintain pure stealth, but got overconfident and spotted by a searchlight. At which point, Metal Gear Solid V revealed its true brilliance in that getting caught gives you loads of options.
If you don't manage to take advantage of the slow-motion reflex sequence, all-out gunplay is absolutely an option, especially if you abuse the Soviet command structure. Each base or outpost is its own CP that's connected to the central command, but with some quick grenade-work I destroyed two rooftop parabolic antennae, cutting off the CP from reinforcements. Quickly gunning down a few of the troops, springing and throwing myself into cover, I came under mortar fire.
After sprinting into its operator and smashing him into unconsciousness with Snake's bionic arm, I turned the mortar on the survivors and completely obliterated the remaining defenders. And for my troubles? A sexy poster to bring back to the Diamond Dogs lads... but more on that later.
Eventually I made my way to Da Ghwandai Khar, snuck in and rescued Miller... before desperately fleeing the SKULL Parasite Unit as they desperately hounded me down. Freed from their noxious mist, I called in the helicopter and took Miller back to Mother Base.
Afghanistan then opens up to become a quest hub that you can freely roam around or undertake a collection of missions in -- some of which advance the story while others (Side Ops) are optional but provide useful benefits. One side op, for example, challenged me to locate and extract an interpreter willing to defect, which involved knocking him unconscious and attaching him to a helium balloon (the Fulton Extraction System). Afterwards, I was able to understand Russian soldiers via useful text subtitles, which unlocked new opportunities for interrogation and espionage.
It's a blast to just roam around Afghanistan and enjoy some of the bizarre things that can happen. At one point I was attacked by a bear. I kicked a pack of wolves into submission. For fun, I tranquillised a gerbil and a vulture, then attached them to the Fulton Balloons and extracted them back to base for a monetary reward. Roving patrols, hidden caches and uncut diamonds reward exploration as well as sneaking into any enemy outpost you find, but let me tell you about a few of the missions.
Again, each mission encourages players to think around problems and approach them in their own way. One mission tasked me with killing a Spetznaz commander, which I accomplished by using a sniper rifle to knock out the base defenders, cutting off their communications and then punching my target unconscious. Instead of killing him, though, I carried him outside and gave him the old balloon treatment, meaning that he eventually joined Diamond Dogs as an intel operator.
After destroying some enemy comms equipment and helping an engineer to defect, another mission tasked me with recovering a secret weapon system from an overrun Mujahideen firebase. I used my experience to find the location first by freeing a prisoner from a remote outpost, then headed in for the kill. Once again a botched infiltration mission turned into an all-out firefight, which once again encouraged me to freely scamper about rooftops and quietly dispatch the guards searching for me, playing the hunter rather than the hunted. Getting spotted out in the open won't let you survive for long, but if you're decisive and deadly you'll emerge from a firefight in one piece.
Then SKULL and their menacing commander arrived... and I had to decide whether to use the weapon system on them or escape for the maximum payout.
Crucially you have the freedom to choose, to plan your own tactics, and then to think on your feet if everything goes to pot. You can even steal loads of period tracks to listen to on Snake's Walkman while you do it. Personally I'm all about a bit of Billy Idol.
During your travels, however, you'll collect a huge amount of resources. You'll find money, processed materials and even enemy personnel to extract, all of which are ferried back to Mother Base. Metal Gear Solid V's management mechanics are incredibly in-depth, powerful and unique, unlocking a host of upgrades and new equipment as you build your own private army over the course of the game.
You'll find out all the details in Part 2, right here: PREVIEW | Metal Gear Solid V: Mother Base, development and kidnapping your own private army