When you finish a mission in The Phantom Pain, the game dishes out a letter grade, based on your performance—S, A, B, C, etc. For the first few hours, I found this paralyzing, as I got anxious over any mistakes. Now, having ceased caring what the game thinks of me, I’m enjoying it a lot more.

The Phantom Pain is the first Metal Gear game I’ve legitimately enjoyed playing. Having endured previous entries to experience the eccentric magic that is Hideo Kojima, it’s lovely to have the game’s mechanics start matching its ambitions. It’s a wonderfully designed video game that provides seemingly limitless options for the player to tackle the many infiltration missions they’ll go on.

But to make the most of it, I’ve decided to ignore the way the game judges me.

This is somewhat rooted in my frustration with the previous Metal Gear games, which relied on a trial-and-error approach to stealth gameplay. Sneaking around was really fun—until you were caught. It was possible to mow down endless waves of enemies and hope for the best, but it was usually easier to restart from the last checkpoint or, if you felt like napping, waiting several minutes for the guards to forget you were ever there.

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Metal Gear games have always allowed you to pick up a gun and start firing away, but it’s primarily been a stealth game with run ‘n gun as a last resort. With The Phantom Pain, however, it might be disingenuous to even call it a stealth game; stealth has simply become another tool for the player.

There is far less trial-and-error driving The Phantom Pain, and players always have options, no matter how dire and chaotic the situation might become. This extends to tiny details like the reflex system, which gives you a few seconds to take out an enemy when initially spotted, to calling a helicopter for air support when it’s just too much for one man (and his horse/dog/female sniper).

Getting spotted in Metal Gear used to be the equivalent of a game over screen, even though the player wasn’t dead yet. In The Phantom Pain, it merely changes your approach. Now spotted, maybe you’ll shoot a rocket at the nearest satellite, ensuring there won’t be any backup units coming in. Or maybe you’ll plant C4 around the house you’ve decided to hole up in and trigger the explosion when the nearby soldiers think they’re moving in for the kill. You might even just go all Rambo and begin shooting everything that moves. Or or or or or or or or or.

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The Phantom Pain’s story missions are the only ones assigned grades. The many, many optional side ops aren’t looked at in the same way, so you’re encouraged to do whatever the hell you want. I decided to extend this to the whole game, since I seemed to be having way more fun with the added flexibility.

While I enter missions with a specific plan, I’m never worried about everything going to hell over one false move. That’s part of the fun! It’s truly exciting when you’re forced to throw everything out the window and improvise. Such inventiveness wasn’t part of previous Metal Gear games; now, I can’t imagine it without. The surprises keep me on my toes, forcing me to develop new techniques and consider weird but inventive uses for the game’s many items.

That’s a long way to explain why I’ve stopped worrying about how my “failures” might impact the score given at the end of a mission. I’m not sure how the game is figuring that out, anyway, and it doesn’t matter. Stressing over mistakes seems at odd with the game’s playfulness, so if the game wants to flunk me out of Metal Gear school, that’s okay. I’ll be blowing shit up, happily.

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You can reach the author of this post at patrick.klepek@kotaku.com or on Twitter at @patrickklepek.