I've finally had a chance to really sink my teeth into Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain this weekend, and I've already came to one pretty dramatic conclusion: it has the best open mission design that I've experienced in a game. A pretty bold statement, I'm sure you'll agree, but it's one that I'm quite confident in - and not just because everyone on the internet seems to be raving about how brilliant Hideo Kojima's latest release is.
If you don't already know, The Phantom Pain allows you to replay cleared missions in order to earn a better ranking. It's a feature that keeps score-chasers busy, but I reckon its purpose goes beyond simple numbers and ranks. It goes without saying that there are some fantastic operations dotted throughout the sneak-'em-up, and although the game undoubtedly slots into the sandbox genre, it still feels natural to jump back into previous missions and try a different approach.
The problem with me is that I'm crap at stealth games in general. I'm not a patient person, so the idea of sitting behind a wall and waiting for the right time to hatch the perfect plan isn't my idea fun, and when things do inevitably spiral out of control, I panic and tend to bugger things up even further. I've tried to force myself into liking stealth titles in the past - I got Dishonored as a Christmas gift years ago and desperately tried to enjoy it - but I've come to accept that I simply can't be arsed.
That's never been the case with the Metal Gear Solid series, though. For whatever reason, I've always been surprisingly good at them; they're the only stealth games that I can stomach, and I think that The Phantom Pain has helped me come closer to realising why this is.
Long story short, it's the mission design. Metal Gear Solid has always been about adapting to your situation, and that's exactly why it clicks. Unlike in other stealth titles, it's not necessarily game over when you're spotted - you almost always have options. All of the gadgets, the hiding places, heck, even the codec calls - they all combine to create stealth games that are about how you achieve your goal, rather than if.
Just briefly, let's compare this to the industry's most popular stealth franchise: Assassin's Creed. Before Unity introduced its 'black box' mission design, which finally allowed you to complete objectives with some freedom, it was either sink or swim when it came to assassinations. Supposedly to make sure that players wouldn't just slaughter their way to the target, Ubisoft's series employed incredibly linear mission design time and time again. Get spotted by a guard? Instant game over. Lose sight of your target for more than ten seconds? Game over. That's not really stealth - that's just funnelling the player through a series of linear challenges where their best friend is trial and error.
The Phantom Pain's missions are a world away from this stunted scope, and that's the main reason as to why they're so consistently engaging. In past Metal Gear titles, there's always been a sense of freedom - at least to an extent - and Metal Gear Solid V is the evolution of that. By embracing open environments, the development team has arguably given the series' core stealth mechanics the freedom that they've always deserved. The result is a stealth title that even I, Robert 'Just Let Me Shoot Them' Ramsey, can fully appreciate.
Going back to the fact that the game allows you to replay past missions, I decided to really put its open design through its paces. I chose to replay one of my favourite operations three times, and each time, I'd try a completely different approach; I'd grimace through a stealth run, go guns blazing through a third-person shooter run, and for the final attempt, I'd bank everything on my ability to adapt.
All three times, I succeeded in reaching the target which was housed deep inside of a Russian base, and all three times, I managed to extract in one piece. Sure, the stealth run got a little heated when I saw a guard go into the building where I'd hid two of his unconscious buddies , but the fact that I got out of that mess without once triggering mass panic is a testament to the title's expertly balanced difficulty. You can cut corners - just don't expect a smooth ride if you do.
The same was true of the action-orientated run - I ended up holding off an entire wave of reinforcements because some lucky git managed to make it to the radio before I could gun him down, but I still managed to do things my way.
But it was the third attempt that made me want to take the disc out of my PS4 and salute it. This run had a bit of everything - I started stealthy, mucked it up, killed a few guys, hid somewhere for ages, stole a jeep, retreated to the hills, sniped several pursuers, ran back to the base while everyone was outside of it looking for me, got to the target, made a run for it, took out three guards on the perimeter without raising the alarm, forgot about the bodies, and ended up playing cover-shooter with a platoon of soldiers at the extraction zone. It was absolutely ridiculous, but that didn't stop it from being utterly gripping.
That last run made me realise that the whole thing's basically tweaked to perfection. Where countless games have promised total mission freedom and ultimately been found lacking, Metal Gear Solid V swoops in and makes it look easy. As far as I'm concerned, sandbox gameplay has never been so impressively refined.
Do you agree with Robert or has his mind been replaced with Patriot AI? Attempt to stealth your way into the comments section below before going all Rambo on us.