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With 15 hours spent on Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain, I'm sitting at a whopping 6% complete, which tells me I'd need a Fulton balloon the size of the Hindenburg to lift all the content out of this game. Naturally, I'm forced to ask the obvious question: besides a couple hundred hours of stealth, combat, base management, and story beats I can't even begin to understand, what else is there to do?
I consider myself something of an expert in playing games without really playing them. Ignoring all the stuff you're supposed to be doing in favor of finding something else is my jam. I spent ten weeks avoiding adventure in Skyrim (and one year, played Santa), I hitchhiked through GTA 5 Online, and I built a metropolis in Cities: Skylines but only left room for a single house so I could spy on the family. With its huge open world, I figured I could easily spend an evening playing Phantom Pain, not do anything useful or mission-related, and still have fun.
After my chopper dropped me off to the usual strains of "Weird Science," I set a distant waypoint and headed toward it. Getting to any given spot on the map is hard, of course: if you've played you know how the mountains restrict most of your travel to keep you on or near the road, and to avoid outposts you usually have to de-horse and stealth past. Apart from encountering a single truck, however, nothing else happened on the road in over an hour of riding and walking. Considering I recently played Mad Max, where you can't drive a few yards without running into random drivers, friendly wastelanders, or glimpses of something potentially interesting on the horizon, Phantom Pain's open world was already feeling a little empty.
I left the road whenever I could to scour the landscape for something else to do. I collected the flowers I saw, which is fun in that it makes a cool 'schweep' noise but not super-cool because I don't personally get to do any crafting with them. I found one or two diamonds. I tested my horse to see if he could hear me tell him to poop from really far away, and learned that he can. What a good horse! I chased down some donkeys, as part of the effort to remove animals from the warzone, despite the fact that there only seems to be war in the zone when I'm around. Rather than use my dart gun, which feels like the typical misson-based tool for animal capture, I instead tried riding over them with my horse to stun them. It's harder, but it works, though I wouldn't really call it a fun activity. I'd call it 'unnecessarily being a jerk to donkeys'.
I found almost no buildings or houses on the map that aren't part of an enemy camp or outpost, which is disappointing. What's more enjoyable than rooting around in dwellings and homes and stealing everything you can carry and smashing everything else? I found one little hut a good distance from anything else, so I popped in to investigate. Inside the tiny hut was a chair and a wooden box. A mystery box in an abandoned house? Score! Wait. Deduct that score. The box wouldn't open. I even shot the clasp. In my frustration, I emptied a clip into the chair. It didn't break or splinter. Come on, video game! You can't even give me the satisfaction of furniture destruction?
We're not looking so great on environmental storytelling, either. When there aren't big, exciting things happening, a little something in the scenery can give a glimpse of a larger world, the history of a place. During a couple hours of exploring I came upon one downed helicopter, four or five burned out trucks, and a single tire in the road.
It doesn't really paint a picture. Maybe throw in some vultures dining on a charred corpse or a skeletal hand clutching a locket. I'd even settle for some of video games' finest heavy-handed graffiti at this point. This is a country so supposedly warn-torn that every single non-combatant has fled and donkeys need to be trampled into unconsciousness and airlifted out... but I'm just not feeling it.
Speaking of which, I think it's disappointing that there seem to be no civilians at all. Nobody stayed behind? Not even one farmer who refused to leave behind his mystery box and his invulnerable chair? I guess there are only two kinds of NPCs in Phantom Pain: those who will kill you on sight and those who love you so much they're thrilled to be choked unconscious and wedgied into the heavens. I'm not asking for much, I just want someone besides donkeys to run over with my horse.
I even started disliking one of the few dynamic events the game has. Sandstorms that randomly arrive during an infiltration are great, sometimes blowing in just in time to cover an escape, sometimes screwing up a well-planned attack. Sandstorms that arrive while you're riding around doing nothing are not fun at all, since you basically just have to wait for them to pass before you can resume doing nothing. Also, don't try to extract stunned donkeys during a sandstorm. They don't make it.
Later, I came across a massive area filled with ruins. After exploring and climbing everything, and finding absolutely nothing, I figured it was probably a stage for a story encounter I haven't reached yet (this has been confirmed for me). I also realized it probably wouldn't have been that hard for the developers to put a diamond or a skeleton or a bullet-proof chair or something up on those damn ruins, just to reward any proactive snoops for exploring the map ahead of schedule.
After spending a good while fruitlessly Lara Crofting around the ruins, I decided to call it quits. There's just nothing to do in this game besides enjoying dozens and dozens of hours of missions, side-ops, stealth, combat, tension, destruction, base-building, resource management, and mystery.
Not a damn thing.