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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - A Kojima Masterpiece

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When you play a Metal Gear Solid title, you should let go of and expect certain things. Do not ask for plausibility in the plot, characters or narrative. Do not look for realistic character development. Assume you're going to raise your eye-brows at the strangest of times. Game mechanics, graphics and sound design receive most of the attention during development. There will be long and numerous cut-scenes. The title will have plenty of challenges, and you won't have your hand held. Last, expect a smooth game-play experience over anything else.

Improvising is the name of the game

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the final installment in a long running series of games. It's also the largest, and most ambitious of all the Metal Gear Solid games released so far. The open world will see you globe-trotting through a variety of countries and locations. You'll stalk oil rigs, deserts and jungles. You'll be aware of day-night cycles affecting the way you play your operations. You choose between beginning your mission at night or during the day. Each setting brings unique enemy numbers and challenges. Do you begin at night and risk seeing more soldiers while gaining enhanced camouflage? Do you play passive-aggressive and attack during the day? Is stealth a viable option if you're limited on firepower during a nocturnal mission? You'll ask yourself these questions, and end up improvising due to changing conditions.

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It's a big, big world out there

The world is larger than in previous games. If you're not focusing on the main story, moving between locations allows much exploration. You'll earn in-game currency, allowing you to improve your private army's equipment and resources. Your weapons are upgradeable and there are paths for less and more aggressive play-styles. Many of these unlock as you level up. As an example, there is a silenced tranquiliser sniper rifle which you gain at level 30. Until then you're stuck with louder guns that pack more of a punch, or silent weapons that do less damage. Most players will reach this progression halfway through the game, though. You have fulton extraction devices which you use to recruit soldiers and steal kit for your own army. Metal Gear Solid V encourages non-lethal play over violence. You receive larger payouts when not seen or heard.

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Since the world is so big, you'll be assisted with D-Horse and other Buddies. Traveling in large areas can prove monotonous. This was a very useful addition, since the areas you'll be traversing will be so far apart. Open world games should by default give players a faster way of moving through the world, and I was glad that Konami implemented this.

A fit for all types of action players

Now we get to combat. Metal Gear Solid V caters for violent and non-violent approaches. As with a stealth-focused game your better off hiding and avoiding a fight. That's not to say that when you're in a jam you're powerless. Each soldier will drop an ammunition clip. If you're an accurate shot and smart about where you are, you'll survive taking on a platoon of soldiers. If not, and you end up in a place you can't get out of with ease you're likely to die and restart your mission. In short, you're encouraged to be smart about how, when, where and whom you fight. In all your missions, you can choose to commit mass murder or outmaneuver your enemies. Most times you're better off being a ghost. Even on normal difficulty, you'll die fast if you take just a few bullets. Stealth is further encouraged by weapon silencers that wear out with excessive use.

You'll have plenty of tactical options too. If you're tasked with taking down armoured vehicles, using explosives or rockets will work. Ordering airstrikes from a distances are also an option. The same goes with extraction operations. You either kill your target or rescue them. Either solution will let you reach your goal, but you'll be able to choose based on the way you enjoy the game.

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Melee is a great combat choice, and ties in with stealthy approaches. When detected, and close to your enemy you're able to perform a quick takedown. For most players this prevents them from alerting other enemies around them. Players preferring to sneak around will use this movement more than other aggressive gamers. As with Ground Zeroes, once you're seen there is a short space of time to take down enemies when the world slows down. This window has decreased a little since the The Phantom Pain's prologue. The cover system also works well where you'll be able to camouflage in brush on the ground. This helps when avoiding large groups of enemies or helicopters searching you out.

The game's A.I. also deserves a mention here. They're unpredictable. Just when you think you've figured out a guard's routine, he bunches up with others. Die, and he moves somewhere out of the way. If you're in sight and his platoon get alerted to your presence, expect them to flank you. They'll also flush you out or suppress you while looking for a gap to take you down.

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The Phantom Pain looks and runs great

Metal Gear Solid V is a great looking game, especially with the way Konami plays with light and shadow. In one mission where I chose to start just before sunrise, shadows moved with the sun. Conditions change here, and that made entering a cave within a canyon difficult. I loved how the world appeared too bright in Afghanistan during midday. Yet, when night fell colours shifted and the game world looked far different. Dark blue hues replaced bright orange tones, and shadows blended with the ground as the sun set. Character model detail impressed, with Snake's face showing its pockmarks and scars. The same applied to other NPCs. Enemies didn't have quite the same level of attention. There was a definite loss in texture quality for most enemies' faces. 

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I expect that Konami focused the bulk of the detail work on characters in cut-scenes. While the Fox Engine boasted some of great lighting, detail cuts were inevitable. Snake's hair, for example lacked physical movement. The game did run at sixty frames per second and on 1080p resolution, though. I assume that much of the game's visual potential was not lived up to because of hardware limits. Still, the PlayStation 4 version of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain ran smooth with few hitches, if any. There was strong optimization work done for the game.

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It's still a Metal Gear story

Here's where I'm going to complain. Parts of The Phantom Pain's introduction perplexed me. I won't give out spoilers. Just be aware that the adrenaline-inducing beginning works at odds with the rest of the game. In another puzzling moment, Quiet, the controversial female assassin, attacks you with a clothed body. Later in the game she drops the outfit and runs around half naked. That's a big inconsistency, and it's one I found myself raising an eyebrow toward.

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I found it puzzling why Snake received so much praise despite wiping out most of his team. In Ground Zeroes, if you haven't seen the ending yet, much of his team dies in a helicopter crash. Instead of mistrust, Snake gets reverence. Let me explain: Much of the game outside of operations involves watching cut-scenes. Now, if the bulk of the game is watching story unfold, consistency and good writing is critical. This is even more true when you have a game that only reaches 31% completion after over 30 hours. Fans of the series will love references the the franchise's lore, outsiders will find much of it confusing. Perhaps it will unfold later in the game.

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A must play

The Phantom Pain is game is rock solid, we will establish later on whether the story evolves and improves with a full review later on. No matter how you play, there's something to enjoy. For completionists collecting resources, and upgrading the Mother Base will be a massive time sink. Others, like me, who want competent and fun stealth, with a bit of shooting action have that too. For those looking for a challenging shooting experience, the option exists as well.

There is just so much to do, so much to explore.

Upgrade options exist for all types of players. The cover system works well, and there are so many ways to approach missions. As much as I love great writing, solid gameplay trumps story. Yes, I am that kind of player. As far as power fantasies go, this is one of the best.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is as big a conclusion to a franchise as you're going to get. Polished gameplay mechanics, detailed progression systems and overall spectacular visuals underline what could be the one of the best open world games out this year. The Phantom Pain is a great technical and gaming achievement. Just don't expect much from the plot.

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