How can a classic gaming franchise betray what's made it so successful in the past and still be awesome? For that answer, spend some time with "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain."
The franchise known for superb stealth, memorable boss battles, near feature-length cutscenes and labyrinthine mythology has reinvented itself seven years after its last full-length console release, this time as an open-world game rather than the linear experiences of previous "Metal Gear Solid" titles.
The results of the evolution are impressive. Die-hard franchise fans will bemoan the myriad deviations from the series' status quo, but there's no denying how much more fun tactical espionage action -- the franchise's long-standing motto -- is in a sandbox.
"Phantom Pain" picks up the story of Big Boss nine years after the events of 2014's prequel "Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeros" left him comatose. His private military force has been decimated, and he must pick up the pieces as he hunts down those responsible. That's the plot in its simplest form, but no story is ever story in this franchise.
But the plot in "Phantom Pain" is too dense even by series standards and, ultimately, not nearly satisfying enough. It doesn't help that the main adversary, Skull Face, is one of the series' least-compelling big bads.
Such transgressions usually would cripple a game known for storytelling, but "Phantom Pain" goes relatively light on story-driven cutscenes and puts an emphasis on its strength: gameplay. The controls have never felt smoother. There's no awkwardness with the camera and no hiccups in movement. Navigating from menus to combat is lightning fast.
Missions in "Phantom Pain" play out almost like episodes of a TV show, with pre- and post-mission credits. The mission usually has one main objective that either remains static or changes mid-mission, and each one has hidden side objectives. These play out in a similar way to the PlayStation 2-era "Hitman" games, which means doing recon and planning before infiltrating and executing objectives while using an overhead map to chart the enemy's' whereabouts. That's if you're playing for stealth. You're free to go in guns blazing from the get-go.
Many story missions will feel similar, but rarely do they get repetitive. The same can't be said for the 150-plus side missions, but they are option and addicting nonetheless.
For series veterans who aren't keen on the loss of linear levels, you're not gonna like what else is different. The classic Codec conversations have been replaced by a series of cassette tapes to unlock and listen to. These are entirely optional and often dry, lacking the melodrama of past games' dialoguing. Also kept to a minimum are the famous boss encounters, a troubling trend in Triple-A games during 2015 also present in "Batman: Arkham Knight".
It's easy to dismiss the past "Metal Gear Solid" games' bosses as gimmicky, but the whole series is cherished as much for its gameplay as it is its quirks. One could go as far as to say the heart has been sucked out of the series.
Even if that's true, the gameplay is so polished and engrossing that it's easy enough to forgive these trespasses -- easier still for those who've never played the old games. "Phantom Pain" knows what it does best and hones in on that.
This entry isn't devoid of fan service. The cardboard box remains a useful tool. There's callbacks to past games both hidden and thrown in your face, and twists that tie the past and future of this world together. You won't find spoilers here, but suffice to say it's not the neat little bow fans will want, but there's enough 'ooh' and 'ahh' moments to whet the appetite.
But despite its shortcomings, "Phantom Pain" is a great game despite itself. It's just delightful to run around 1980s Afghanistan and Africa, extracting enemies to make them join your ever-growing Mother Base. Doing so helps the base grow larger, which in turn unlocks cooler guns and equipment for missions. You can even infiltrate other players' bases and steal resources and personnel to make your base better.
A game such as this one retains value after well over 100 hours, and that doesn't even account for the time one could sink into Metal Gear Online, a stealth-focused player-vs.-player mode entirely separate from the main game that wasn't ready at launch. It's different from the usual third-person multiplayer modes and is worth your time, although I'd have preferred all resources been applied to filling out what seems like an unfinished story.
"Phantom Pain" will be polarizing for more than a few, but it ranks as one of the best gaming experiences of the last few years.
"Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain," from developer Kojima Productions and publisher Konami, is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC.