(Warning: Spoilers below.)
Five times, now, I had lapped the ramparts of the Yakho Oboo Supply Outpost. I came to the cliffside military base — and put about 15 of its Soviet occupants to sleep — to secure the remains of a particularly hated enemy.
Surely, I thought, he'd be holed up behind a locked door or two. But I had picked every one I could find. I'd looked, and looked, and looked again, storming through every door in the base like someone ripping out every drawer in his room in search of a misplaced valuable. And there was still no sign of him.
Befuddled, I walked onto the helipad in the middle of the base. And there he was: In the middle of the base. Laid on an olive tarp next to an open casket, his charred body dim in the desert night, he was hidden in the plainest of sight.
You can spy any number of themes in "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain." Series creator Hideo Kojima, ever the juggler of Big Ideas, has a lot of them in the air during his swan song: The artifice of legend, the insatiability of vengeance, the colonizing power of language.
For me, though, the most salient message of "The Phantom Pain," the message that made this game set in 1984 feel the most meaningful in 2015, was the message I felt in that base: Just pay attention.
That late-game side op isn't the first time Kojima tells you to do so, and it isn't the last.
(Seriously: Spoilers below.)
You play "The Phantom Pain" as Punished "Venom" Snake, who comes out of a coma in a Cyprus hospital nine years after the Mother Base attack that concluded prequel/playable teaser "Ground Zeroes." You're led to believe he's the same legendary soldier who went by Big Boss in that game and "Peace Walker," and Naked Snake in "Metal Gear Solid 3."
But, as you learn at the end of "The Phantom Pain," he's not. He's a medic from Mother Base surgically altered to stand in for Big Boss while he, from the shadows, carves out a place in the Cold War world for his private military force, Diamond Dogs.
The force's abrupt name change from Militaires Sans Frontieres reminds you, early in "The Phantom Pain," that sometimes Kojima just seems to do stuff for no other reason than sounding cool or being weird. (Or, in the case of Diamond Dogs, because David Bowie: The mission in which you learn Venom Snake's identity is titled "The Man Who Sold the World.")
That's why it's easy to gloss over one weird part of Snake's awakening: When you're asked to create a new name and face for him, only for both to be replaced by Big Boss — eye patch, shrapnel horn and all — by the next scene. It was just where you make your "Metal Gear Online" avatar, you might say. It was just Kojima being Kojima.
If you just pay attention, though, you'll suspect there's more to it — more than just weirdness, anyway. That suspicion will harden when you hear the new voice of Big Boss, Kiefer Sutherland, lend his burlap pipes to Ishmael, the facially bandaged man who leads Snake out of the hospital. And so, 60 hours later, when you replay the extended cut of Venom Snake's hospital escape that is the revelatory Mission No. 46, the truth won't feel like a twist. It'll feel like an explanation.
"Metal Gear" being a stealth action series, and Kojima being a long-, long-winded storyteller, paying attention has always been part of playing his games. But he's never quite tested your ability to do so like he does in "The Phantom Pain."
From the moment Revolver Ocelot leads Snake out of Cyprus and into Afghanistan on horseback, you're pulled in every direction. The open world, which indeed appears to cover 200 times as much ground as "Ground Zeroes'" Camp Omega, locks into gear with tab after tab of tiny-fonted menus to make you feel like you're spinning 200 plates.
There are missions and side missions to complete. Raw materials and soldiers to extract. Weapons and platforms to develop. Cassettes and captive enemies to hear. With all of this to do, you most often find yourself in desolate stretches of Afghanistan's craggy desert, Angola's oily plains or the new Mother Base's steely decks, sprinting, impatiently, to the next objective.
Intentionally or not — OK, probably not — attentiveness is the only flaw in the otherwise incredible stealth action of "The Phantom Pain."
That is to say: Its AI sucks. Snake can sometimes crouch feet in front of enemy soldiers, in broad daylight, and they won't detect him. If they do, then thanks to the slow-motion reflex window introduced by "Ground Zeroes," he can calmly headshot them with his overpowered tranquilizer gun until they're all counting sheep.
The game's no cakewalk, though. Credited at the beginning and end of every mission (a trollish middle finger to publisher Konami), Kojima and his staff most often create challenge by beefing up the enemy ranks and rationing out the places where Snake can hide from them.
Considering the noise and iron sights of his nonlethal weapons, you might as well sneak through some of those canyons, roadsides and helipads with the water pistol Kojima gives you for seemingly no reason. You will be caught, and you will be killed.
Or, sure, you could load out with body armor and high-powered weapons, but the game's mission ranking and heroism systems punish you for going loud or getting wet. Even then: Good luck against the Soviets' scarcely shakeable gunships or the granite-skinned Skulls unit. And don't get too comfortable with that machine gun — killing a child soldier is, thank god, an instant game over.
The concerns of Mother Base also cook tension into the game by way of your tactics. You want to extract a skilled soldier to add to Diamond Dogs, but his comrades will see the Fulton balloon (a reverse parachute, basically). You want to go out of your way to Fulton that shipping container of fuel resources, but that means slipping by five helmeted guards.
The game's durable online modes — team multiplayer and solo base invasions — make it official: In a fluid 60 frames per second, girded by battle-ready controls, Kojima has designed in "The Phantom Pain" the most purely playable "Metal Gear Solid" game yet.
The other reason for that is the way the game's story unfolds. If the open world and stealth mechanics were shifts from Kojima's previous work, "The Phantom Pain's" story is a seismic one.
Snake's hunt for Skull Face — the cowboy-hatted ghoul who masterminded the Mother Base attack in "Ground Zeroes" — isn't told in Kojima's usual overwritten feature-length cutscenes and codec calls. The former are there, but they're short, terse. And the latter have been replaced by brief cassettes you can listen to mid-game, or aboard his command chopper, to color in the backstory.
Kojima's restraint is overdue, but refreshing. However, a game about a language-based epidemic, micro-organisms that enrich uranium and a floating ginger kid in a gas mask may not have been the time for it. Nevermind the fact that the story, particularly its setup of events from the first "Metal Gear Solid," isn't even finished. Chapter 1 is three-quarters of the game, Chapter 2 the fourth. A third, at least, is conspicuously absent.
Indeed, the story of "The Phantom Pain" may be one place where it's better to not pay attention.
And then there's Quiet. The scantily clad sniper may be the single best example in "The Phantom Pain" of Kojima's worst traits balancing out his best. The narrative justification he said would shame players for judging her sexualized presentation? It's silly. And it's drowned out by the continued attention Kojima's camera pays to her cleavage.
The creepiness doesn't end there. Like D-Dog, D-Horse and Walker Gear, Quiet can accompany Snake into battle as tactical support. Like them, doing so raises a relationship metric with Snake. Unlike them, however, Quiet's bond with Snake can strengthen off the battlefield, on his command chapper, with — what else? — prolonged gazes at her boobs.
They, sadly, seem to be the thing in "The Phantom Pain" that Kojima most wants you to pay attention to.