It's night in Afghanistan, as the soldier known as Big Boss surveys a Russian outpost from afar. Soldiers, searchlights, and machine gun emplacements pepper the settlement, making his mission to rescue a prisoner held there even more difficult. The question is: what approach should the legendary soldier take? Should he employ C4 explosives as a distraction, luring the guards away from their charge – or maybe use his trusty tranquiliser gun to put everyone to sleep? What about waiting for a sandstorm to blow through so that he can get in and out unseen?
During the opening hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, we went through this thought process a number of times, loving every minute as we planned and executed – with varying degrees of success – incursions against the Russian troops infesting the Afghan landscape. The addition of an open world – at least in the relatively short amount of time spent with the game so far – appears to have blown the Metal Gear Solid gameplay wide open, making any of the more expansive areas found in the previous games look like linear corridors by comparison.
After a bloody opening chock full of the trademark craziness that you'd expect from the mind of Hideo Kojima, the scene's set for a tale of revenge, as Big Boss builds up the military force he needs to exact his retribution for the tragic events of Ground Zeroes. The hours that follow, however, feel like a big deviation from what you might call the "Metal Gear Solid formula", with the story taking a back seat to the open world gameplay.
That's not to mean that there isn't any plot to absorb, with plenty of tape recordings available right from the start to help set the scene and add colour to the world. These play out like the conversations that you would've had via your codec in previous games, and it feels like a clever decision to separate these out on their own, allowing you to listen to them at your own pace, which stops them from getting in the way of you actually playing the game.
Whether this gameplay focus will run through the rest of the game remains to be seen, and who knows if it'll be to the taste of the Metal Gear faithful. That said, it's safe to assume that everyone will agree that this is the best playing title in the series yet. The controls feel precise and intuitive, and you never feel like you're fighting to pull off any of the badass moves at your disposal – whether you're choking out guards or engaged in a frenetic fire fight against a platoon of Russian Infantry.
As mentioned before, you have a lot of paths open to you as to how you can approach your early assignments, and even with your initially limited toolset – you don't even start with your trusty cardboard box – you'll spend ample time pondering how you want to complete your objective. Whatever route you decide, though, it's the personal stories that come out of your escapades that are the real delight.
In only these few hours, we've been pursued as we rode our horse in a mad dash to meet an extraction chopper, been hunted by enemy patrols in the dark as they used flares fired from a mortar to try and illuminate our hiding spot, and planted C4 all over an enemy base – completely undetected – before blowing it sky high. These are our stories, though, so when the game finally releases it'll be great to see gamers go to town working out the most insane ways of completing each mission.
With a massive area of Afghanistan to explore, the first thing that strikes you about the map is that unlike most other open worlds it isn't overrun with icons showing side activities you can try your hand at. There are no races or towers to climb – well, at least not yet – so if you want some time out from the main story missions there's an ever expanding range of side-ops to explore. These missions are much more varied than the distractions found in your normal open world game, and while some are short, others take a good hour to complete, with a number even providing a nice reward in the form of a weapon blueprint or a new recruit for your mercenary group.
The range of gear that you can take into battle starts to expand when you begin researching them back at Mother Base – your offshore base of operations. To do this you need to recruit new team members from the battlefield – by knocking them out and having them picked up by your support team – and collecting resources which act as a currency for buying any new guns or items. At any time while out in the field you can switch your team members between various work groups or kick-off research and construction projects from a handy menu system – even returning to Mother Base so that you can take a tour of your growing facility. However, this early in the game there doesn't seem to be much of reason to head home unless you fancy a time out from sneaking around a warzone.
With only four per cent completion after hours spent in the boots of Big Boss, it's safe to assume that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is going to be a lengthy experience. Fortunately, with plenty of smart design decisions and spot-on controls, the frustrations you always accepted in the past from the series are, as yet, nowhere to be found. Whether the changes to the structure of the game and the de-emphasised story pleases everyone will remain to be seen, but what is clear is that Kojima has – at least at first glance – delivered an open world game Metal Gear Solid style.
Have you got your bionic arm on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain yet? What are your impressions so far? Are you eagerly awaiting next week's official release? Sneak into the comments section below.