Metal Gear Solid 5 might look familiar at first glance, but while The Phantom Pain and its prologue Ground Zeroes may share a genus with their predecessors, they are most definitely not the same species.
The departures were immediately apparent in the live gameplay demonstration I witnessed at Kojima Productions’ new studio in Los Angeles on Thursday: the Cuaron-esque single take and handheld camera style for the opening cutscene; Keifer Sutherland’s voice intruding into the space where David Hayter’s always stood; the seamless transition from non-interactive sequence to player control.
But those differences are merely cosmetic. The real, most significant change players will find in Metal Gear Solid 5 is the world itself.
The demo took us to the opening section of the game that has been heretofore dubbed Ground Zeroes. The purpose of this prologue is both to set up the plot of the game and to help players become accustomed to operating within a truly open space. While Kojima emphasized that Ground Zeroes contains a very small map when compared with the full landscape of the game proper, the military base which Snake must infiltrate certainly didn’t seem very small in a literal sense.
And when the Kojima employee who was operating the game pulled up the virtual map of the base, what we are getting into with this game became clear: this is not Deus Ex or Dishonored or Thief, in which you merely have several options for approaching your objectives while still operating within a linear space — no, this is a stealthy Grand Theft Auto. Kojima and co. place in front of you a legitimately open space within which you must work.
Sure, the objectives themselves might carry a linear progression – in truth, we weren’t shown the final game’s actual mission, so I can’t speak to that – but the possibilities for accomplishing those objectives are not limited by the way the designers built the world. You could, for example, walk around the outside of the base to the side opposite where you began and start your mission from there. It’s a true sandbox in that sense. Without the linear funnels we’ve come to expect from Metal Gear Solid and the stealth genre as a whole, you’re responsible for figuring it out on your own.
Within that sandbox, however, the actual play isn’t far off from MGS 4 or Peace Walker. Functionally, it does not appear as if the mechanics of the experience will be disorienting for people who already know how to handle a current-gen Metal Gear Solid, but even then nothing can be exactly the same as it was before.
Hiding bodies is still a good idea, to cite one example, though you’ll have to consider more variables in an open setting. And you can go loud if your sneaking skills fail you, but such an error carries heavier consequences than we’ve been trained to anticipate. No longer will the key to countering detection be clearing the present area.
During our demo, the man playing did end up in a firefight – this was not in the plans, Kojima pointed out afterward – and the chaos that ensued was telling. Once the shit really started going down, sirens began to blare, and soldiers scrambled everywhere. It was the sort of scenario that the term “FUBAR” was invented for, with an entire contingent of foes across the entire map aware that Snake is there and trying to kill him.
Knowing that such a situation is really, really not one you’ll probably want to get into all that often, Kojima did build in a bit of a failsafe; when detected by an NPC, time slows to a crawl as Snake is given the opportunity to line up a shot that will silence the offending party. This isn’t a license to be sloppy, though, because this mechanic’s application appears limited to a single bad guy.
The implications of all these things, when bundled together as they are in MGS 5, is both jarring and novel. It demonstrates that Kojima’s vision for the new Metal Gear Solid is truly ambitious, just as Metal Gear Solid’s blend of stealth and straight combat was ambitious years ago. Even if in the final game all these pieces don’t click it’s doubtful you’ll be able to say you didn’t experience something new while playing it.
A new voice for Snake aside, I believe the demo I witnessed provides reasons to be hopeful for what Kojima’s team is attempting with Metal Gear Solid 5. Good intentions don’t win wars, no, but it’s good to know that we can add another game to the list of titles not content to rest entirely on its own or any other developer’s laurels. I’m still skeptical – I always am – but I’m less so than I was 24 hours ago. That’s no small compliment for a hands-off demo.