Idle hands are the Snake's workshop.
I loved Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Despite only having one location to explore and a small handful of missions to undertake, I played the game for nearly 20 hours. The open format of Ground Zeroes allowed me to approach missions from numerous angles, leading to new and unexpected challenges. I could test my stealth abilities or wreak havoc on Camp Omega with explosives, or a mix of the two if I was in the mood. Even though I wasn't seeing new locations or learning more about Big Boss's downfall, I was learning how to be a better super soldier every time I booted up the game.
Of course, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Ground Zeroes left me hungry for more. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes' much bigger brother, has long loomed overhead. I've waited patiently to continue where I left Big Boss at the end of Ground Zeroes, careening into the ocean in a helicopter. A few weeks ago, my chance arrived. I had two days to play The Phantom Pain at Konami's Los Angeles studio, and though that sounds like a lot of time, I was shocked to see that I had only scratched the surface of the game by the end of day two. There's a lot I'd like to talk about, but for obvious reasons, I can't get into the specifics about the story, characters, or missions, lest I ruin any surprises.
Given these restrictions, I'd like to give you a taste of my experience in Afghanistan, the first of The Phantom Pain's massive, open world maps. According to Kojima, The Phantom Pain is 200 times bigger than Camp Omega and Ground Zeroes, and I'd estimate that Afghanistan alone is as big as 50 Camp Omegas. As you might imagine, there's a lot that you can get into when exploring an area that big. Here are a few of the many activities you can engage in during your tenure in the Afghan desert.
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Ride on Horseback
If you were to travel on foot in The Phantom Pain from one end of Afghanistan to the other, you would likely need 45 minutes, if not more. It's covered in large mountains and valleys, meaning that there's no such thing as a straight shot. Lucky for you, you've got access to a fast and reliable horse. With a whistle, it appears in a matter of seconds, regardless of where you are and where you may have last dismounted.
The horse is animated exceptionally well, giving The Witcher 3's horse a run for its money. The bob of the camera and dust in the air goes a long way to communicate the feel of galloping. When you come up to the top of a hill and see enemies you didn't expect on the other side, it's easy to reign it in, but if you want to feel like a boss (sorry), you can hide from your enemy's view by hanging off to the side as the horse slowly trots through enemy territory. When you're in the clear, saddle up and charge onwards.
Partake in Tactical Narcotic Action
The Phantom Pain has a day/night cycle that impacts enemy locations and behaviors. In certain circumstances, the cover of darkness is invaluable. Rather than wait for the clock to do its thing, you can smoke your Phantom Cigar, powered by mind altering substances, to quickly pass the time. This tool is incredibly useful, but I wonder: is giving drugs to a coma survivor really the best idea?
Wildlife is common in Afghanistan, especially herds of goats, but on one special occasion, I was face to face with a bear. The next thing I knew, I was fighting that bear and losing spectacularly. I ultimately died, but I had to give it another go. I found it again and I did my best to fend him off, but he was relentless. Though I probably could have taken it out with well-placed C4 or a shotgun, I opted for the non-lethal approach. It ultimately took 10 tranquilizer darts to bring him down, by my count. Having already used the Fulton recovery system to send goats back to Mother Base, I tried to do the same with the bear, but it failed to lift off. I needed to upgrade my Fulton recovery system, and while I didn't have time to do that during the event at Konami, you better believe I'll make it a priority when the game comes out, especially if I can eventually ride the bear into battle. That probably won't happen, but a guy can dream!
Recruit (Kidnap) Soldiers
In order to rebuild Mother Base, a soldiers' haven run by Big Boss, you need capable people to oversee the base's multiple research divisions. Not one to ask for volunteers, you increase membership to your group by forcibly capturing soldiers from the field. It's easier than you might think: knock a soldier out, and use your Fulton recovery system--modeled after real military equipment--to send them back to Mother Base via air balloon. Once they arrive at Mother Base, they'll be sorted into groups based on their strengths in various skills, though you can manually assign them, if you wish. You can even learn how to interpret foreign languages if you Fulton a soldier that's multilingual, which can give you a major tactical advantage. I recovered goats as well, but I'm not sure that they're good for much on an offshore military base. Mutton, anyone?
Listen to Your Walkman
For some unexplained reason, The Phantom Pain abandons the use of the codec, a video calling device used in pretty much every Metal Gear game. You can ping Mother Base to gain some light intel, but the only way to recreate the odd, sprawling conversations that used to take place during codec calls is by listening to cassettes of conversations between Big Boss, Ocelot, and Master Miller.
You can also use your Walkman to listen to tapes that have been confiscated behind enemy lines. Sometimes these are fruitful, giving you insight into enemy movements, but you also come across tapes with licensed music, circa 1984. These can be used to provide background music and ease tension during stressful missions. You can also blast music from a helicopter and swoop into battle, if you like. There are also tapes in the world that are difficult to categorize, such as the one I found under a building, with audio of a soldier struggling to go to the bathroom. It's vulgar, random, and very Metal Gear.
Small enemy outposts dot the Afghan countryside, and while they present unexpected challenges if you happen to stumble into one by accident, they're also opportunities to gain an advantage down the road. You capture outposts by taking out guards, either by killing or subduing them, and once you've gained control, enemies at nearby bases will be incapable of calling in reinforcements, at least until enough time has passed for someone to notice their outpost was hijacked. If you take out radar and communication relay devices, such as satellite dishes, you can also unlock new landing zones for helicopters. These are super helpful because missions are only complete after you exit a large perimeter known as a hot zone and get into a helicopter. If you have to book it across mountain ranges to get to the nearest landing zone, you may end up encountering new batches of enemies that threaten your escape, so it behooves you to capture outposts when heading into a mission to ensure a quick and painless getaway.
Search for Diamonds
It's important to keep an eye out for certain plants and materials in order to provide for your team back at Mother Base, but once in a while, you stumble upon rough diamonds, which net you a lot of credits, or GMP, which you need to upgrade and unlock new gear. These valuable gems are often hidden where you least expect them. Keep an eye out for tiny glimmers in the environment!
Cosplay as a Chicken
If you happen to fail a mission multiple times in row, the game will offer you a chicken hat, which makes you less visible to enemies. It may make your life easier, but you also look ridiculous. Rightfully so, soldiers that see you will laugh at you, rather than treat you as a threat. This will work a couple of times before the effect wears off, but your pride may never recover.
Go Cardboard Box Sledding
Cardboard boxes are a mainstay of Metal Gear, allowing you to hide from your enemies in plain sight by appearing as a generic box. The Phantom Pain lets you do more than hide and sneak; you can pop out of cardboard box from the front or the top, either to escape from or to surprise an enemy. You can even upgrade your cardboard box with large decals, such as a woman in a bikini or with the image of the enemy's commanding officer to distract unsuspecting soldiers
My favorite moment with a cardboard box was a bit of a happy mistake. I was sneaking on the top of a hill when an enemy approached me unexpectedly. I furiously tried to dive out of the box, but rather than leave it behind me, the box came with, and I proceeded to sled down the hill while still inside it. I'm not sure if this was a glitch, but it felt totally normal, and given Hideo Kojima's love of goofy moments, I wouldn't put it past him to take advantage of every creative opportunity he finds.
I Wish I Could Say More
I would love to talk at length about Big Boss, Master Miller, and Ocelot as characters, but I'm not allowed to. I interacted with Quiet, the silent, barely-clad sniper, on more than one occasion, but Konami would have my head if I went into any more detail than that. There were so many unexpected moments that left me agasp that I simply can't talk about.
Afghanistan is one of several locales in the game, and I walked away amazed that it took me so long to get through the main missions there, let alone the side op missions, many of which fell by the wayside as I tried to get through as much of the story as possible. I had a lot of questions going into the event, and while some were answered, there are so many more that cropped up. The Phantom Pain is unlike any other Metal Gear game I've ever played, and I can't wait to finish what I started.