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The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 19th: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

2015's best stealth game.

What is the best stealth game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today's door is...

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain!

Graham: "It's open world--" I'd say, before stopping myself. Ten-year-old me would interrupt that quickly. "What's 'open world' mean?" he'd ask. Well, it's a large expanse of land, I'd explain, that the game takes place within. You can walk for miles across mountains and into villages and towns and prisons and caves and enter inside any of those structures, but there are never any loading screens. Ten-year-old me wouldn't believe it. "You can't fit all that inside a video game." He's thinking: there must be a catch; it must be a text-only game; it must be static drawings of scenes with limited controls; it can't be as cool as the thing I'm imagining.

If I explained to him that the only catch was that after 60-hours it sorta ended but didn't, and that some of the systems made you feel too powerful too soon and so didn't quite cohere, then ten-year-old me would stop me again. He'd wallop me across the head with one of his toy space ships, drag me to the curb and leave me there.

Were I to keep using my time machine to hop forward in time to meet with 12-year-old, or 18-year-old, or 25-year-old me, they'd all similarly expect some sort of catch. And the catches they'd expect aren't there. Arrive in the present day and risk a paradox by talking to my present day self and there'd be nothing but agreement: in every way that matters, Metal Gear Solid V is unbelievably brilliant.

Even here in the grim meathook future of spaceyear 2015, it's not like open world, first-person, systems-driven stealth games are filling the trunks of every self-driving rocket car hovering above the cyber-roads. Regardless of scope or genre, there are few games that are as generous and flexible in their mission design - and it's the mission design that I think I like best about MGSV.

Dropped on a distant mountain path, you're always free to pick your method of approach, whether that's 'climb that clifftop perch' or 'crawl through that ditch', and whether that approach is taken while 'hidden on the side of my horse' or 'roaring upon the back of my personal mech.' Many games do this. But where MGSV differs is that most of the events that are going to take place during the mission's duration are not hard scripted and none of them pose definite twists or dead-ends. The wide open spaces create a similarly wide open possibility space, where you're never railroaded towards a destination or a particular plan. "Follow this person" doesn't mean you need to follow them; you can kill them or extract them or place a bomb on their car and run in the opposite direction, but in any instance you'll still find methods for completing the mission, and the AI and plotting will respond and adapt to whatever you decide. It's a game that supports and rewards creative ideas with a toybox of interlocking characters, weapons, resources, base building, team building, AI...

When MGSV is at its best, it is the best. When it's not at its best, think about how badly you'd have tried to convince your mum to ignore the age ratings on the box and buy it for your Christmas.

Alec: The first 20 hours of Metal Gear Solid V are my game of the year. No, actually, the first 40. No, actually, the first 60. OK, call it 70.

And isn’t it fucking crazy that that isn’t enough? That I can have 70 extremely happy hours with a single game but still wind up feeling that it can’t be justified as the year’s highlight, because the time that follows that became so hollow and unfinished-feeling?

The wild inconsistency time/value equation makes greedy fools of us all.

The question, for me, concerns the reason I kept playing MGSV. Was it:

a) To see its story through to its conclusion?
b) To reach some status of ultimate power?
c) To just enjoy dicking around in the desert/jungle with no fixed objective?

Little of column b, little of column c, to be honest, I think. I hadn’t meaningfully played any of this series before V, and despite moving on from youthful elitism enough to enjoy the rampant silliness, the plot parts of V still seemed very clearly to be the unedited indulgence and bitterness of a self-ordained auteur surrounded by yes men (and, worst of all, yes fans). I was in it to see what ridiculous thing/flaming whale it threw at the screen next, but never because I cared. So I can’t get onboard with any argument that MGSV is undeserving because its story screeches to an abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion.

The broader concern that this was a game that felt like it was going somewhere, and then it didn’t: it started repeating itself instead. And that’s true, and that’s a frustration I felt: my impetus and my compulsion kicked to the curb by over-familiarity, a sense that a great train had run out of steam.

I’m angry with myself for letting column b overwhelm the several weeks of pleasure I got from column c. What the hell do I need in order to be happy? Those 70 hours were incredible. The ad hoc nature, ever-shifting, self-set goals and solid, flexible, steely stealth of MGSV’s core was a sustained delight for so long, smashing straight through the scar tissue I’d built up after years of over-exposure to routine, more collectormania-focused sandbox games of this type. MGSV, for those 70 hours, always felt like an adventure, always felt a hair’s breadth from chaos, always felt like I was I was a secret agent behind enemy lines. The option for non-lethality and agreeably absurd balloon-based abduction was icing on the cake: I was having fun, not being a grisly murderhound. And pink helicopters and A-Ha too. Glorious.

The first 70 hours of MGSV is my game of the year. I genuinely don’t know if I can say that makes MGSV my game of the year.

Pip: I made it as far as the first mission in Afghanistan (maybe an hour or two into the game and most of that time was spent on the prologue) and then I sort of… drifted away. I've spent the rest of the year hearing how exciting it is from other people and seeing screenshots of things attached to balloons. I think it's one of those games – like Fallout 4 – where I didn't jump on the bandwagon immediately so now I need to wait until the memory of everyone's hot takes and opinions recedes and I can enjoy the game in peace. Is that weird?

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

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