Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a very different monster, one that ultimately reveals the origins of the saga’s heroes and villains and connects two separate parts of the series. The game tells the story of how Big Boss turned into the infamous villain of the first two Metal Gear games and the shadow that loomed over Solid Snake and his clone brothers for the rest of the series.

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Whether you find that story satisfying or not will depend on your ability to understand character motivations and the many twists waiting for you on the battlefield. This is certainly not the place to discuss story. What I can say, if you haven’t beat it already and have managed to avoid all of the spoilers on the internet, is that, while the tale has definite presence in the game, there is an obvious shift in focus on Kojima’s part to make the gameplay the dominant force in this entry.

There has never been a shortage of complaints about the series in terms of cutscenes and just how much game time each installment actually includes. Metal Gear Solid 4, for example, was massive, but there was plenty of debate about whether most of that was just an interactive movie instead of actually sneaking around and shooting bad guys. That game, which I love very much, almost seemed to have the opposite effect from most other games: the cutscenes felt like the true incentives. You played through the missions to get to the next big story section that gave you a bit more information on what the hell was going on (the game starts in media res). They were beautifully directed and carried with it some of the best moments in the series’ long history. While I thought they were completely worth it, many found the emphasis on cinematic storytelling bogged down the game as a whole.

Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear‘s beloved creator, obviously listened to these criticisms when it came time to create The Phantom Pain, which is the most story-lite installment in the entire saga, something I might’ve found worrisome for a chapter this important if it weren’t for the amazing gameplay held within the box.

metal-gear-solid-v-phantom-pain-2I dare call Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain the best action-adventure game I’ve ever experienced. You get a sense after being dropped into your very first mission in Afghanistan, where a lot of the game takes place, that the folks at Kojima Productions thought of everything when creating this sprawling epic. Countless hours into everything the game has to offer, you’ll be amazed by how little you’ve completed. There are so many objectives to accomplish, secrets to find, characters to meet, and tapes/posters to collect that you’ll find yourself lost in the deserts of Afghanistan simply waiting for something shiny to grab your attention. If there’s one sentence to describe The Phantom Pain, it’s “There’s so much of it.”

Mother Base makes a welcomed return in this installment, offering the metagame element that made Peacewalker such a winner a few years ago. A lot of emphasis is put on rebuilding your base and army from a tiny platform to a giant, imposing base of operations full of weapons, men, and state of the art tech. By building Mother Base, you’ll also be able to get better intel and tools for missions in the field. These two parts of the game go hand-in-hand, and equal attention to both is necessary to progress in the game.

The Phantom Pain is definitely not a straight narrative thread, either. Players can pretty much customize their own storytelling experience. You’ll only get as much story as you want at a time. A combination of main missions, side ops (which allow you to acquire better assets for your base), and metagame create a unique thread based on your preferences. Even main missions can be played a little bit out of order as they become available through progression. You’ll never feel bogged down by one thing or another because you’re the one in control of how you play.

Speaking of how you play, much has been done to improve the many ways you can approach missions. Where past games and Ground Zeroes really forced you to play it safe a lot of the time due to the closed quarters, The Phantom Pain gives you so much space that it’s suddenly feasible that you could go in guns blazing, chopper support above you, to complete a difficult mission. Or if you’ve decided to play it stealthy but get caught, switching to a more traditional third-person shooter is seamless. There were very few situations in which I felt completely defenseless. Of course, if you’re a perfectionist, you’ll want to go in quietly and non-lethal in order to get the “S” ranking. But on a first playthrough (you can replay missions for better scores at any time), I encourage you to experiment with different things.

While I definitely chose to sneak around as much as possible, I found the louder approach to be just as enjoyable. I even combined the two approaches together at some points. For example, in a mission where I had to infiltrate a Soviet base and steal a new weapon, I chose to call in my chopper to pick off enemy soldiers while I snuck around the warzone in my cardboard box, stepping over the fresh corpses. It almost feels like cheating if you’re a purist, but those are the kinds of options you have all the same. If you simply can’t bring yourself to start blowing things up, Reflex Mode is a good way to stay out of trouble when trying to play things quietly but get caught.

metal-gear-solid-v-phantom-pain-3On top of the weapons, gadgets, chopper, and intel support, you also get Buddy support. Snake always brings one of four companions into the battlefield with him, whether its D-Horse, DD (cute-puppy-turned-big-bad-wolf), D-Walker, or Quiet. Each buddy has his/her/its own repertoire of abilities, and you’ll have to consider who to bring with you on each mission based on your needs and the objectives. And even these characters have their own stories to tell, especially Quiet, and playing through specific missions with them will unlock their arcs. In general, everything in this world seems to come alive to tell its own story.

The Phantom Pain is largely what you put into it. While it carries a set story, many of the memories you make in the game will be by your hand alone. A month from now, you’ll still remember how hard it was to acquire that one weapon in a side op or how you outsmarted a group of enemies in an outpost. Or maybe your cherished story is all the work you put into Mother Base. The main missions, side ops, and metagame are the building blocks for your specific story, something uniquely your own and not controlled by a manipulative narrative. You’ll even find that there’s a specific reason for this design by the end.

A lot of the spotlight rightfully falls on Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal of Big Boss, who was previously voiced exclusively by David Hayter (also the voice of Solid Snake). Sutherland does a fine job of voicing the character, although you’ll notice that Big Boss has been silenced for much of the game. You won’t really see much dialogue from him, and the big monologues that are characteristic of the series don’t saturate many scenes. Instead, they’re delivered when the necessary exposition is needed, but gone are the days of rambling dialogue through CODEC calls.

Skull Face, the game’s villain, does a lot of the talking. The character proves to be a formidable opponent, with an original-enough plot full of convoluted over-explanations and twists, and a great addition to the roster of freaks and monsters in this series. You’ll see lots of the supernatural in this game from the very start. I was actually taken aback by how quickly the game got to the scarier portions of the story. The supernatural elements in Metal Gear games are usually introduced slowly once you’ve found your footing. But you’ll find in The Phantom Pain that you’re not even able to stand up on your own when the monsters start showing up.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a marvel of storytelling and gameplay, even if the balance has shifted in this installment. There’s still plenty of wonderful moments in this chapter, ones that will break your heart, others that will make you laugh, and many that will confuse you until the very end. This entry in the Metal Gear saga stands with the best that the franchise has offered to date, and a must-have for anyone looking for instant game of the year material.