Snake is undoubtedly the star of the Metal Gear show, but in The Phantom Pain, Mother Base runs him a close second.
In The Phantom Pain, gaming's most famous off-shore plant returns, but this time it's fully explorable. It's a huge place, once it's been upgraded and extended from the initial oil rig, with plenty of nooks and crannies to explore and characters to interact with. It's where Snake - AKA Big Boss - returns to in between missions, where he trains to improve his skills, where UAV drones circle above, and it's also where Revolver Ocelot, circa 1984, calls home. If I could build a Metal Gear Solid-themed city in Disneyland, The Phantom Pain's Mother Base would be it.
During a behind-closed-doors gameplay demo of the PlayStation 4 version at E3, Konami emphasised that Mother Base will be customisable. You manage your resources as you see fit and you choose how to expand Mother Base's capabilities. Do you spend GMP, the in-game currency, on upgrading your defences with more UAVs, or invest in research and development? Either way, most of the time you'll have a new platform construction somewhere in the distance - a future wing of your hexagonal home.
Mother Base is also where you'll find items that you've successfully used Metal Gear Solid's Fulton balloon recovery system on out in the battlefield. You can Fulton almost everything, including enemy soldiers, metal containers, jeeps, anti-aircraft guns and even the Afghanistan wildlife (more on this later). So, depending on the items you've rescued and the upgrades you've made, your Mother Base will look different to other players'. Showing off and comparing bases will be part of the appeal of the game, Konami says.
Speaking of soldiers, while you're away, those you've recruited train in areas such as the shooting range. Snake can join them, helping to improve their skills in shooting and CQC alongside his own. In a neat touch, they salute you as you walk by. You're Big Boss, after all, leader of the mercenary group the Diamond Dogs, and a legend in the eyes of those on the battlefield.
While you're free to explore it - rekindling memories of Metal Gear Solid 2 perhaps by hanging off of a ledge for a bit - Mother Base isn't a safe haven. It's affected by the dynamic weather system that plays out across the rest of the game (it started raining during our demo), and it can be attacked, too, which is where your UAVs and other defensive artillery you picked up on the battlefield come in. When it's attacked an alarm will sound, your soldiers head to their battle stations and a chopper comes in to pick up Snake and air lift him into battle.
Konami says all the relationships you make - enemies and allies - out on the field come into play at Mother Base and affect its evolution, but it's a two-way street. An upgraded Mother Base comes in handy when Snake is sneaking around The Phantom Pain's battlefield.
Using the binoculars, Snake can add markers to the map and tag enemies, but there's always the chance that others might enter the fray. Using Mother Base's intel, you can improve your scouting capabilities, marking these enemy entry points on your map.
Snake can also use Mother Base's R&D department to send weapons and items onto the battlefield via supply drops. This could be something as basic as ammo (target the air drop on an enemy soldier for some satisfying death from above), as devastating as an air strike, or something that's more Metal Gear, such as the cardboard box.
The Phantom Pain's cardboard box has been upgraded so Snake can pop out of the top for a surprise silent takedown. You can also use Fulton from within it, and, in one of the better animations I've seen in a video game, abandon the box by bursting out of its side and landing on the ground in a crawling position. This is great for when a soldier has spotted the box moving and investigates. Abandoning it shifts Snake's last known position to the box, allowing him to sneak away.
It's super cool and kind of hilarious, which is just how I like my Metal Gear Solid games. If Konami's demo proves one thing, it's that superstar designer Hideo Kojima has lost none of his penchant for juxtaposition.
As Snake trots on his horse towards a Soviet encampment, his companion talks in gruff tones. At the beginning of our demo, Snake has been out of action for nine years. The battle that put him in a coma cost him his hand - now an advanced prosthetic (The Phantom Pain subtitle is starting to make more sense). And now, solo infiltration of the Soviet main ground forces is Snake's big comeback gig. But there's more at stake. Kazuhira "Kaz" Miller, second in command of the Diamond Dogs, has already been held captive for 10 days. Your companion predicts he'll be dead in three more. There's intel on his location somewhere out there, in the open world. If Snake fails, Kaz dies, and we lose our chance of revenge. This is a serious business.
10 minutes later, inside the encampment, Snake comes across a sheep and does what any highly trained soldier would do: creep up on it, tranquilise it, attach a balloon to it then send it off flying in the air towards Mother Base. With a befuddled "baa", away it goes. The ridiculous amid the grim - The Phantom Pain is classic Kojima. This is the developer who in one breath tells the player a story about the horrific realities of war, the next lets the player tranquilise sheep. It's a game that quotes Mark Twain and shows us what next-gen horseshit looks like. It's genius.The boy who stole Half-Life 2 The story behind the $250m robbery.
The Phantom Pain, for all the talk of targeting taboo and trailers that are supposedly uncomfortable to watch, is packed with hilarious little touches. During the demo, Konami's driver spent most of his time holding up guards then sending them off with Fulton. The thing is, every now and then the unconscious soldier will make a funny noise as he's whisked into the air by the balloon. "Whoo hoo!" was one I heard. Soldier after soldier after soldier, each one flying off into the air towards Mother Base.
Before Snake heads towards the enemy camp, he surveys his surroundings. It's a gorgeous scene. The Phantom Pain's stunning open world is 200 times bigger than Ground Zeroes', we're told. This is true next-gen gaming, I think. Then Snake's horse takes a dump, right in front of the camera. We see everything, from the rear, in all its 1080p60 glory.
Back at Mother Base, which you can return to at any point during a mission if you fancy a quick escape, Snake inspects his Diamond Dogs. Welcome back, Boss, they say, saluting. Then that sheep pops out.
I bloody well love it.