(Pocket-lint) - Since his first Metal Gear game in 1987, Hideo Kojima has carved out a reputation as one of the games industry's greatest visionaries, moving his favoured stealth genre forwards with every new MGS release and generating an unfeasibly massive fanbase.
So Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain – the first fully realised Metal Gear game for the latest crop of consoles – has understandably arrived amid a cacophony of hype. Much as our instinct would generally be to approach such situations with scepticism, The Phantom Pain proves to be so good that no matter how much hyperbole you chucked at it, it would still soak it all up and leave you impressed.
MGS 5 review: The main course we've been waiting for
In the past, Kojima's ambitiousness has occasionally got the better of him with, for example, his obsession with cinema leading to interminable cut-scenes that have got in the way of gameplay. With The Phantom Pain, though, it feels that technology has finally reached a level that lets him do exactly what he has always wanted to.
In the pantheon of the Metal Gear universe, The Phantom Pain is an origins story, set in Afghanistan in 1984, which has been overrun by invading Russians. A gloriously bonkers prologue sees your character, Big Boss (now codenamed Venom Snake), escaping from the Cypriot hospital in which he has been in a coma for the past nine years, and which has come under attack from both a military force. One that, but of course, includes a mysterious flaming super-being who can absorb bullets and send them back with interest in fiery bursts (although he can be neutralised with a judiciously administered cold shower).
Making up for lost time, Big Boss establishes a private military organisation called Diamond Dogs, after rescuing his associate Kazuhira Miller from captivity in Afghanistan and establishing a Mother Base on an oil platform in the Seychelles. From whence he helicopters back and forth to Afghanistan, enacting a vast array of (predominantly anti-Russian) missions and side-missions, as an increasingly gothic storyline develops involving the hideous Skull Face and his band of almost otherworldly super-soldiers, The Skulls, as well as various other outlandish beings.
Those who played the amuse-bouche MGS Ground Zeroes – which was excellent, albeit short – will have an inkling of the gameplay that The Phantom Pain has to offer, although the latter's scope is so breathtakingly ambitious, set in such a vast game-world, and with such a profusion of interwoven yet always fun and fascinating systems that Ground Zeroes ends up resembling the tiniest pinprick on The Phantom Pain's vast body.
MGS 5 review: Tactical masterpiece
While, as ever, The Phantom Pain is a stealth game at heart, it operates in a fully open world unlike earlier Metal Gear games. And although Big Boss has various associates offering advice and oversight (and accumulates a full-on intel-gathering army as the game progresses), it's very much up to you to decide how to approach each mission.
But that hasn't led to any decrease in the sheer rigour of its stealth gameplay. Enemies' vision-cones have been replaced with directional icons that pop up when you stray into anyone's field of vision; when you're irreversibly spotted those go red, and if you're close to your prey, a slow-motion period ensues, in which you have a chance to take them down before they raise the alarm. If you fail in that aim, reinforcements will be summoned, patrol patterns will alter, mortars will be swung into action and so on.
The Phantom Pain even adapts to your play-style; take out too many soldiers with head-shots from your tranquiliser pistol, for example, and they will start wearing helmets. Although you can run interference by, say, disrupting the supply of said helmets. Destroying communications satellite dishes, too, can curtail the ability of enemies to summon reinforcements from beyond their immediate vicinity, and there are countless such tricks you can employ to tilt the balance in your favour. It's wonderfully detailed.
The end result is a game-world that feels startlingly believable, and in which everyone you encounter (bar the more exotic characters) behaves in a strikingly plausible manner. Marry that with fabulously pin-sharp graphics and incredible environmental design, and you get an experience which is so immersive that it can almost feel incongruous when you put down your controller and return to the real world.
MGS 5 review: Bonkers yet brilliant
Above and beyond the vast array of missions and side-missions (some of the latter are deliciously arcane), there's a whole other game-within-a-game to enjoy, centred on your Mother Base, which starts off as an unadorned drilling platform and ends up as a sprawling metropolis in the middle of the ocean. You're equipped with a hilarious piece of kit called the Fulton Recovery System, which can be attached to stunned enemies and inflates into a balloon which whisks them back to Mother Base.
Thus (after some unseen indoctrination) you can build an army of your own. There are also vast amounts of resources, including medicinal plants, to collect; when you upgrade the Fulton Recovery System, you can even use it to send gun emplacements and containers full of resources back to Mother Base. You can assign individuals to particular teams in charge of research and development, intel-gathering, base management and so on.
One result of that is that Big Boss's array of gadgets grows hugely, as does your ability to upgrade your favourites. He starts with old favourites like the binoculars, a night-vision scope and the iDroid, a sort of PDA which would have been startlingly advanced in 1984 and, of course, there is the cardboard box (used to hide in; a classic of MGS games past). But this time around, the latter can be upgraded to fulfil all manner of generally distracting functions, via the application of designs such as scantily clad females.
One aspect of The Phantom Pain which might surprise even the most fanatical Metal Gear aficionados is that it is consistently hilarious. The Diamond Dogs, for example, have some affiliation with an animal rights group, so you're encouraged to use the Fulton Recovery System on any wildlife you encounter (building up what amounts to a zoo at Mother Base). The noises the animals make when the balloon kicks in will have you cackling, and the game is littered with humorous touches.
Often you encounter Russian soldiers listening to cheesy 1980s hits on ghetto-blasters; you can recover the tapes within and play them back at leisure. Die too many times and you're invited to don a comedy chicken-hat, which renders you more or less invisible to enemies until you're right upon them.
While The Phantom Pain's rigour dictates that it can be hard to progress at times, elements like the slow-motion system when you get close to enemies, and a great new hand-to-hand combat system, combined with the sheer real-world intuitiveness that stealthing around open-world environments brings, mean that even those who previously felt that they lack the patience to negotiate stealth games should find that in this instance, enjoyment comprehensively trumps frustration.
And The Phantom Pain is so vast, complex yet understandable, and entertaining – thanks to a storyline which is utterly bonkers in the grand Japanese manner yet still manages to explore Big Boss's inner conflicts – that we'd defy anyone to come away from it without having been completely blown away.
Hideo Kojima has crafted a string of classics over the decades, but The Phantom Pain is without a doubt his magnum opus. It's not just the best Metal Gear Solid title to date, it's the best stealth game ever made.