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In The Phantom Pain, players take the role of Punished/Venom Snake (also known by his alias Big Boss) in a massive collection of open-world environments. The gameplay elements were largely unchanged from Ground Zeroes, meaning that players will have to sneak from several points in the game world, avoiding enemy guards, and remaining undetected. Included in Snake's repertoire are binoculars, maps, pistols, assault rifles and explosives. Following one of the series traditions, The Phantom Pain encourages players to progress through the game without killing, using non-lethal weapons such as tranquilizer darts to subdue enemies. Players may traverse the game world with vehicles such as cars and tanks, in addition to traveling on foot or on horseback, and as certain locations are mountainous, players can opt to scale a rock face as a short cut. They may also call for friendly helicopter support against enemy soldiers in a combat alert or send commandos to scout a target area. Snake can also call on AI companions—including Quiet, a silent female sniper with supernatural abilities; D-Horse, a horse with a customizable saddle for carrying more equipment in the field; D-Walker, a manned, highly agile mobile weapons platform that can provide heavy weapons support; and DD, a trained wolf acquired on the battlefield of war-torn Africa as a pup and trained on the new Mother Base—to assist him in the field. The companions' abilities and their effectiveness will depend on the player's relationship with them.
As in Peace Walker, The Phantom Pain will offer a base-building feature that allows players to develop weapons and items from their home base. Recruitment of enemy soldiers and prisoners has also returned for this purpose, allowing the base to grow through organization. The player is given the option to access their base from their real-life smartphones and other devices via a companion app. Unlike in Peace Walker where players can only see Mother Base from the air, they can control Snake as he explores the complex on foot. The Fulton surface-to-air recovery system, an item introduced into gameplay in Peace Walker, returns as well, with players now able to transport captured soldiers and other objects such as animals and vehicles back to Mother Base. Money for upgrading Mother Base's defences and technology can be collected from objects found all over the map, such as diamonds, shipping containers, and special blueprint boxes. The income is invested on upgrades to the appearance and abilities, weapons and equipment of Snake, his AI companions, and vehicles. For example, Snake's prosthetic arm can be modified with a taser, echolocation function, or remote controls that allow it to fly as a drone.
The enemy AI has also improved in terms of situational awareness. If players frequently use particular weapons or tactics to subdue enemy soldiers, repeats of the mission will see the enemy increase in numbers and be outfitted with better equipment; for example, the frequent use of headshots will see enemy soldiers don metal helmets to make targeting the head harder.
Series director Hideo Kojima revealed that the game has a new day-and-night cycle that runs in real-time, and that the time taken to travel from one location to another will affect the time of day when the player arrives at their destination. The cycle also fasts-forwards when Snake lights a "Phantom Cigar", a type of electronic cigar; a digital silver Seiko watch panel appears on screen to denote time. The passage of time enables players to analyze the movement of marked enemy forces in the area, such as shifts in sentry patrols and individual patrol routes. Weather effects, such as sandstorms and rain, will also affect the gameplay environment.