The Hills Have Eyes
Ground Zeroes might have done a fine job of communicating how The Phantom Pain plays, but its setting—a sole military base—doesn't speak to the full game's scope. Though you're reigned in a bit when first introduced to the mountainous sprawl of Afghanistan, after an initial rescue mission that's meant to show you the ropes, MGSV basically lets you explore its vastness at your leisure. And while others at the event dove directly into the critical path, I had just as much fun with my agenda-free journey, mostly because there's so much to find, from wayward sheep to diamonds secreted away within the crevices of rocks.
This certainly isn't a novel concept for anyone out there who's played an Ubisoft game, but here, there's much less of a checklist mentality at play. Simply jumping on Snake's horse—a constant companion that can be summoned almost instantly—and steering him towards places of interest usually leads to something worthwhile, since many of the occupied settlements and villages contain plenty of treasures worth pilfering for the sake of Mother Base's growth (as well as soldiers who won't take much convincing to join your cause).
More importantly, mostly everything in The Phantom Pain happens without interruption, which really cuts down on the tedium that has me increasingly gun-shy about picking up games from this genre. Outside of the main story missions, MGSV doesn't stop to load instanced states of its world for the sake of side activities, and pulling up the iDroid—Snake's mini-map, for lack of a better term—provides necessary visual information without shoving you out of the game entirely. Typically, I'd throw down a few markers on my iDroid, head off to investigate these points of interest, then return to this device only when I wanted to check out a new location. Snake's iDroid is definitely useful, but you won't be as dependent on it as you would be in other open world games; I remember countless instances of playing "objective marker hot and cold" in the recent Far Cry sequels, where I'd be forced to keep returning to the map screen when I couldn't figure out the exact location of my current goal. (Is it above me? Below me?)
Here, the map is much more useful on a macro level rather than a micro level, which is something you'd expect from a developer who nerfed the series' radar system to draw players' eyes away from that little box in the corner of the screen. You can still use markers to guide you to your destination, but finding things within the environments is mostly the player's responsibility, outside of information gleaned from interrogating enemy soldiers. Again, this makes discovery all the more rewarding because you're actually doing it yourself—you're not just steering Snake towards a series of prescribed icons.
Though The Phantom Pain supports a more relaxed play style, the game provides a variety of optional Side Ops: mini-missions that play nice—and without interruption—with the open-world setting, and usually yield worthwhile rewards. While clearing a base of enemies, sabotaging equipment, and recruiting new soldiers contributes to the growth of Mother Base in some way, these Side Ops give Snake goals that are a little more designed. One tasked me with recruiting a dangerous sniper perched atop a cliff, which forced me to figure out the best way to sneak up behind him from the bottom of a valley.
Another Side Op, which made some enemy vehicles my next target, ended up teaching me just how much I could put The Phantom Pain's open world to the test. I climbed down from my horse and hid behind an embankment, only to see this convoy stop completely—turns out, I'd left my steed's hind quarters jutting into the dirt road, which caused these vehicles to halt their procession and shoo this animal out of their path. That gave me just enough time to surprise them with a few rockets, and, in later missions, using my horse—or a sleeping soldier—as a makeshift roadblock ended up being a key strategy for tangling with vehicles.
For the Motherland
If you've never played Peace Walker, the existence of Mother Base may come as a surprise. Essentially, it's the overarching system all of your actions play into, and, unlike in its last appearance, Snake's HQ amounts to more than just a menu. At any point, you can choose to travel to Mother Base and explore its interiors, talk to soldiers (which increases morale), and begin the shooting gallery-style missions it has to offer. Mother Base has a much bigger presence overall, too; while Peace Walker would provide updates between missions, messages from HQ continue rolling in while Snake's out doing what he does best. Essentially, everything you do feeds into the growth of Mother Base, meaning that simply farting around in the open world can bring plenty of rewards.
As with Peace Walker, The Phantom Pain incentivises pacifism by making the enemies themselves a vital resource. Any soldier you spot in the wild can be a potential recruit, so long as you take them down using non-lethal means. Then, it's just as easy as slapping one of the Fulton Recovery System's balloons onto them, which sends them flying off to Mother Base with a comical scream. Once they've reached HQ and joined the cause, you can then sort them into one of several categories, which will contribute to those respective departments. Leveling up your tech department, for instance, allows you to develop an increasingly powerful array of weapons and items by spending GMP (MGSV's universal currency, earned through doing mostly anything), while funneling new recruits into the intel department means you'll have new discoveries on the mini-map you won't have to find yourself.
One of my biggest problems with MGS4 was the fact that the game provided a non-lethal option for enemy encounters, but didn't give you any incentives to go this route. Peace Walker fixed this with the Mother Base system, and provided robot bosses to use lethal weaponry against. Again, there's only so much I can say about this, but The Phantom Pain takes the same tack: Though non-lethal approaches are generally incentivized, the game features a class of enemies that you can only take on with lethal weapons. As with Peace Walker, it's a nice compromise that lets us pacifist players take advantage of more than just the two standard tranq guns.