After the prologue/extended demo/tease [delete were appropriate] for Metal Gear Solid V that was Ground Zeroes, we were much more excited for the main game The Phantom Pain. There was little doubt that Kojima could produce another cinematic masterpiece, but thankfully he remembered that he was creating a game first, movie second. A rebuilt control scheme and a graceful fluidity to the mechanics subtracted the ambiguous complexity to performing every key move in a title that fused stealth and all-out action sequences, without sacrificing the scope of in-game combat and stealth. It was a reinvigorated overhaul that the franchise sorely needed. For the first time in a long while we felt totally in control, and while this extract of MGSV was short, we had a blast.
So then, to magnify the play area from a relatively compact POW camp to a sprawling desert sandbox, some 200 times the size of that first taste of the newest entry is a tantalising proposition. A slice of this widescreen perspective formed the basis of the behind closed doors E3 hands-off demo.
The majority of its 45 minute length was spent demoing Big Boss's exploration of a dusty valley, dense with military outposts, veined with shallow rivers, and filled rocky ground. The HUD marker to the objective that was a generous 900 plus meters away gives some idea to the larger scale of the locations. A long way to crawl and a lot of exposed ground. Luckily we enter the valley on horseback, and come still equipped with soldier-tagging binoculars and an iDroid virtual map to evaluate the terrain. Despite the inclusion of heavier firepower, sneaky bastard skills are still emphasised for our exploration.
As with Ground Zeroes, cutscenes offer Hollywood production values, and thankfully continue to be short and to the point rather than engorged. The warrior once known as Naked Snake enters the valley bowl on horseback with Ocelot (halfway to capturing his later, MGS1/MGS2 iconic look - he may be clean shaven, but the trenchcoat's in place). The gunslinger's closing comment that you have to go it alone and reclaim your legend after nearly a decade away from the battlefield, followed by your slow canter into the valley, hammers home that this is Kojima's ode to the Spaghetti Western. Even the latest E3 trailer, suggesting a man on the brink of damning himself in retribution for downed comrades, recalls the movie genre's best.
Weather reports flag incoming dynamic sandstorms that'll near-blind you as you explore, cutting down visibility to a few feet around you. The Fox Engine makes even dust look captivating, initial gusts whipping swirls around your feet, until you're swallowed wholly by the storm. You can use it as cover when passing patrols, or alternatively, you can lean over and clutch to one side of your horse's saddle to use your mount as mobile cover to pass enemies undetected. We can't help but watch Boss's ride into the wilderness and wonder just how good a new-gen Red Dead Redemption would look. As with several of its peers entering the next generation, Kojima Productions is using the added heft of new technology as a chance to expand the scale of the sandbox. Distant mountains may not be fully explorable - this is sandbox, not open world after all - but its impossible to decipher background detailing from foreground interaction. The illusion holds that you could potentially explore this place for days.
And recon lets you absorb the smaller details. Wildlife scuttles around the countryside and one thing Red Dead never did: horses defecating as you sit idle in the saddle. Kojima's oddball humour in force here despite the darker overtones of the story. Real-time lighting looks magnificent, dynamic music and weather altering the atmosphere. The best example of the former showcased during an enforced time lapse as Boss smokes a ‘phantom' cigar, the item used as a player-controlled trigger to change the time of day. The sun races across the sky, shadows lengthen and deepen in seconds.
The gameplay, which sees Boss sneak through the wilderness, we've seen glimpses of before in past demos, gameplay trailers. New though is the reveal of collecting supplies on a much grander scale than what you can fit into your (admittedly oversized) pockets, with the intention of outfitting your private army and their digs.
Mother Base, glimpsed at the end of Ground Zeroes, is now a fully-realised and completely customisable base of operations which you return to at the end of every mission, and the oceanic rig is freely explorable between missions. Kitting it out involves hooking containers, vehicles, dozing soldiers (and presumably only for the purposes of this demo, one rather irate goat) to tracking balloons (told you Boss's pockets were deep) that'll after a few seconds inflating, will catapult their load into the sky and drift back to base. You can even use it yourself for a quick mission abort, long as you stand on or sit in one of the bigger captured items.
The elastic band noise and the quickly distant screams of those fired into the heavens are completely comedic in design, and remain entertaining to watch and listen for through the demo's entirety. Within missions you'll be able to call on Mother Base via your iDroid for supplies (such as the return of the cardboard box disguise) to be dropped into the field, surveillance aids (captured soldiers now recruited to your forces giving approximations of where other patrols will be on the map) or offensive backup (air strikes, extraction helicopters).
Old favourites are given refreshes. The wall tap used to attract guards has been replaced; now Big Boss has a cybernetic artificial arm, he can crack off a noisy charge using his motorised joints anytime. CQC finishers are more aggressive, while even the classic cardboard box can now be exited from the rear and used as a decoy while angling round behind investigating patrols. The newer cover features debuted in Ground Zeroes have been refined further based on feedback. There's a lot to play around with.
It's these plus the story that makes us so intrigued to dig into The Phantom Pain. We expect twists and turns, but at heart, and going from the E3 trailer, this is as close to a straightforward tale the series has had. While we clamour for more heroic tales of Solid Snake, Kojima seems enraptured in fleshing out his father's life, a story as much about the man as the machinations of war. If this sets the stage for the descent of Big Boss, then it's a downward spiral that'll be thrilling to play as it will to be watch. Both aspects of the series seem perfectly in balance with one another.
This is the briefest of teases though. We have questions still, and continue to speculate on a theory. That is, that The Phantom Pain will overlap narrative-wise with the original Metal Gear. The E3 presentation flashes up that this is 1984, and we see from the new E3 trailer that Big Boss will form Outer Heaven and start building Metal Gear at some point during the story, the infiltration of which was the focus for the original MSX title. While the timing may not sync up exactly, Kojima's stated that after over twenty years and multiple titles, the timeline's going to be a little smudged.
We're speculating that the Kiefer Sutherland taking over voice duties is partly in place so Solid Snake, voiced by David Hayter, can be reintroduced come whatever epilogue The Phantom Pain conjures up. All footage so far points to Big Boss becoming the global threat that he was originally introduced as back in the MSX era, though this modern take on the 1987 original will explain his ultimate corruption in a growing distrust of world leaders. Yet more shades of grey to an already interesting character.
That is, however, pure conjecture (though we really hope for a new-gen Complete MGS Edition that covers every single Naked and Solid Snake adventure) But even if we don't get that payoff, this latest demo has reenforced the idea that MGS franchise has changed back from an ‘event' title that we feel obligated to revere, to a superb game we can't wait to play. Roll on the return to the past.