The first entry in this series ended up being a lot more about the background lore of the Metal Gear Solid series than I really intended. It’s extremely easy to get bogged down in a bunch of stuff that’s maybe not so important to discussing the experience of playing this specific game, so I’ll try to refrain from talking about the larger series going forward unless it seems absolutely essential.
At the time of this writing, I’m pretty sure I’ve logged close to thirty hours in The Phantom Pain, and in that time I’ve advanced the story only a little bit. The structural design of this game is a massive departure from other numbered Metal Gear Solid games. Instead of a highly linear level sequence that’s reliant on the momentum of the plot to move the player from one segment to the next, The Phantom Pain goes for a much more open-ended feeling built around the central conceit that Big Boss is rebuilding and managing an unaligned private military force after spending nearly a decade in a coma.
The core gameplay is still built around solo stealth infiltration, but in the midst of all the sneaking through enemy bases the player’s free to take a break and manage the Diamond Dogs, the force that Ocelot has pulled together under Big Boss’s banner. You can assign staff to different roles which enable various support functions during missions, direct the development of new military technology, and deploy combat forces to complete automated missions for gathering more resources. Nothing is designed to require a whole lot of deep thought (if you want, you can just let the game auto-assign your staff to whatever team they’re best suited for, and things generally improve on their own without any careful planning on your part), but if you want to get into the nitty-gritty of min-maxing specific functions for your preferred playstyle, you are certainly welcome to do that. The only function that has be done manually on a regular basis is directing staff to build new base platforms so that you can assign more staff to the various teams for further upgrades. Otherwise, if base management isn’t your thing, you can safely ignore it for the most part.
When Big Boss isn’t directing his army, the player is free to wander around whichever areas of operation have been unlocked (this is based on progression through the main story). The maps are quite spacious with a multitude of enemy bases both large and small dispersed throughout for the player to explore and infiltrate as they like. Free roam is a fun mode if you just want to mess around with enemy soldiers free of any of the performance standards that are imposed on scored missions (being a stealth series, there’s always a high premium placed on a player’s ability to perform operations without being caught by or killing enemies). Side ops give some targeted objectives that players can focus on accomplishing during free roam if they are like me and prefer to have objectives instead of just enjoying sandboxes. When it’s time to advance the plot, you pick a mission from a list; each mission has a designated smaller hot zone inside the larger area of operation. During the mission, you have to remain in the hot zone until your main objectives are completed, or the mission will be aborted.
In terms of the scoring system, I actually find it to be a really refreshing update to the system that was in place in previous Metal Gear Solid games. Since the first Metal Gear Solid, there’s been a scoring system that keeps track of everything you do in a given playthrough that it then grades at the game’s conclusion. I always thought this was a really cool feature to discover after playing through the original game because once you finished enjoying the story, you had an incentive to go back and replay the game and enjoy it on a mechanical level (I’ve always had a soft spot for Metal Gear Solid games because they have incredibly absurd stories that I find nonetheless compelling combined with really polished action gameplay that’s not focused on just killing all the bad guys; you can get a lot of grace from me if you build in functionality that doesn’t require the player to be a killer if they don’t want to). The only problem with the system in the older games was that it turned playing into an endurance contest where you had to maintain a level of play for multiple hours at a time with steep penalties if you made a mistake. As someone who just doesn’t have the personality necessary to devote my leisure time to mastering the mechanics of one specific game, this was always torture for me. In The Phantom Pain, the scoring system’s been scaled back so it only applies to story missions, and each one gets graded individually (that completed missions can be replayed whenever you want helps out too). It allows you to treat a certain segment of the game as requiring whatever challenge you’re interested in giving yourself, and the rest of it is pretty much a free-for-all to do whatever goofy things occur to you.
And yes, there is a lot of goofiness on offer. The bread and butter of silliness in this game is the Fulton Recovery System (based on a real thing the CIA has used) which involves attaching a harness with a self-inflating balloon to pretty much anything, having the balloon inflate, and then watching as the
victim subject gets yanked up into the air to be caught by Big Boss’s air support. This is how you recruit soldiers from the field for the Diamon Dogs, collect gear like artillery placements and vehicles, and rescue larger wild animals from the battlefield. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds, and while you eventually just accept it as part of the cycle of play, the first few times you Fulton someone and watch them get yanked into the air, you remember that this is not just the gritty war drama that people not familiar with Metal Gear Solid series assume it to be.