You can never really be sure what you're getting with Metal Gear Solid until the credits roll. If you played Metal Gear Solid 2 on release day, for instance, marketing trickery meant you wouldn't have known who the main character was. Metal Gear Solid 4, meanwhile, was portrayed as a gritty stealth-action game set in the Middle East, rather than the incoherent shambles it descended into after the opening chapters.
All of this is to say that, although I've now spent some time with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I don't really feel like I have much of a handle on the game at all. It appears to be a pretty major deviation for the series, but who knows what'll happen? Maybe Big Boss isn't really Big Boss. Maybe major characters will return. Maybe there'll be extended cutscenes about fried eggs.
The Phantom Pain plays much like Ground Zeroes
So far, at least, I can tell you that The Phantom Pain plays much like Ground Zeroes, the stand-alone episode released as a prequel last year. It takes a more freeform approach to stealth than previous Metal Gear Solid games, with vast, open areas that you can approach in various ways. As ever, you're better off not getting spotted, but the spacious stages mean there's less margin for error; you never feel as safe when enemies could appear in any direction.
There are reasons to be worried about Metal Gear Solid V. Ground Zeroes' dark tone came at the expense of the quirky humor many love about the series, Kiefer Sutherland's casting as Snake raised many eyebrows, and Konami's apparent split with director Hideo Kojima suggests a less than smooth time in development. Every Metal Gear Solid game is billed as the last, but this time it feels like there's less chance of a return than usual.
But although The Phantom Pain appears to continue down Ground Zeroes' gritty path, some reassuringly offbeat moments meant it felt more like Metal Gear to me. This is still a game where you can do things like prowl through undergrowth to hide behind a Jeep, then steal it for later use by using a ridiculous reverse-parachute to suck it up into the air, sending nearby terrorists into wild confusion. There's also an unsettling introduction for a surreal new enemy, and an unusual thematic fixation on sunglasses.
After playing The Phantom Pain and seeing its bombastic E3 trailer, the only thing I can be sure about is that Metal Gear Solid will continue to be unlike anything else. But until the fifth and perhaps final entry launches on September 1st, I don't want to speculate much more. This one really could go either way.