The Phantom Pain – The Ultimate Mono-Game
Phantom Pain is the latest in this years long list of mono-games. Mono-games are long, expansive, deep, demanding games that ask for a lot of time and commitment from the player. To see and do everything within them will take months – if not longer – and mono-games are confident enough to back load much of their best content. They’re so stuffed with great ideas and locations and characters and story that you will still be seeing and doing new things after hundreds of hours.
Mono-games take over all of your gaming time. With varied gameplay styles and complex systems, they offer multiple ways to reward the player. Base building, exploring, leveling, collecting loot, constructing teams or weapons or potions or spell and managing relationships with NPC’s. The mono-game is so called because it is the only game you need to play and the only game you’ll have time to play.
Earlier this year we had The Witcher 3, the ultimate mono-game. Just a few months later, it has been equaled – if not eclipsed – by Metal Gear Solid 5.
The mono-game is here to stay, and in the battle to combat second hand game sales, it’s the publishers ultimate weapon. A game of such depth and quality that you will never want to stop playing. A game so engaging that you will devote your time to it ahead of all others. A game that will make you monogamous.
As a mono-game, Phantom Pain can be hard to talk about. Take the fairly straightforward question, “Is Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain good?” That’s very hard to answer. Or very hard to answer well. I mean my shallow, succinct answer is “Yes. Yes it is.”. It’s good. If you’re just asking if you should buy it, then the answer, again, is “Yes”. Pretty much anyone that likes videogames should buy Phantom Pain.
Going very slightly deeper though and asking WHY is it good, or WHAT is good about it is much, much harder to answer, both because of the scope of the game and the complexity. It’s entirely possible to say that broad sections of Phantom Pain (and similarly The Witcher 3) are pretty good, broad sections are great and you can even say that some sections are pretty poor. In both games, the massive campaigns rise and fall in quality, with objective measures of their respective value fluctuating wildly.
In a conventional game review, Phantom Pain is a 10 out of 10 game for long sections, an 8 out of 10 game quite a lot of the time, and occasionally a 6 out of 10 game. With a story that oscillates wildly from interesting to cliched to obliquely infuriating, assigning a value to the games quality is like reviewing not just an episode of a tv series (or indeed a whole series), but rather a boxed set that contains series 1-10 and also features some making of documentaries, an animated feature and a laminated table coaster. Is it good? Yes, it’s good. It keeps the coffee table clean.
You see Phantom Pain feels like about ten other good games mashed together, then – as is customary with a Kojima game – there’s an additional batch of brand new ideas poured into the mix. This results in a game that feels both familiar and fresh at the same time.
Phantom Pain takes the best ideas from all the best open world AAA games made in the last 10 years, improves upon them, then adds just as many new ideas. What that creates is a package that’s unimaginably generous; almost too stuffed full for it’s own good. It’s a rich playground for creative mayhem, encouraging gamers to come up with creative solutions (and subsequently upload them for their friends), while also presenting a world full of personality and a unique setting that stops the open world nonsense feeling as generic as something like GTA or Just Cause or Far Cry.
From the synthy 80’s soundtrack to the quirky characters to the ubiquitous humour in every aspect of the game (fultoning troops never stops being funny, especially when their helmets fall off and rattle on the ground), there’s so much character in Phantom Pain that you can’t help but feel like you’re in a playground with someone who understands exactly how you want to play the game. While other open world titles might chastise you for being sneaky and attempting to clear objectives without playing the way the developer prescribes, in Phantom Pain you feel like the developer is on your side, goading you on as you try ever more ridiculous distractions. “I want to attach a balloon to this truck while the bad guys are still in it and send them into the sky, but I probably can’t….. Oh wait, I totally can. And it’s hilarious.”
One of the biggest challenges for the mono-game is how it deals with mounting complexity which can ostracize the player. When the player is asked to manage a base, assign staff, send teams on missions, develop items and equipment, upgrade helicopters, go on missions, capture assets, steal vehicles, keep track of a story, listen to Billy Idol songs and dress a dog in armour, the complexity can escalate till the player feels overwhelmed. At this point – great though each individual system may be – the end result might be to push them away to play a simpler game. While some players might relish the chance to construct a sprawling military city in the middle of the sea, others might only be interested in story and singleplayer missions, and as such might look elsewhere for those experiences.
This is where the quality of Phantom Pain’s fundamental gameplay comes into play. Simply put, there’s no finer open world action game available to play right now. The robustness of the gameplay means that the distractions between the missions only serve to highlight how good those missions actually are.
Moving members of the Diamond Dogs around into different teams to empahsize their best skills might be moderately distracting, but the ultimate purpose of that between-mission busy work is to remind you how good the missions themselves are. The filler between missions helps prevent burn out, because infiltrating a base, sniping enemies and escaping is tense and wonderful. Almost too tense.
There’s something about the combination of the high fidelity world with the restrained soundtrack that makes stealth in Phantom Pain incomparable. When Naked Snake is in a tense situation, you feel that tension too. In every fiber of your being. The down time between missions – where you listen to some tapes and check your finances – is absolutely essential in recovering your equilibrium and keeping you playing. Returning to the chopper and planning your next move under the soporific whirling of the blades – or even heading home to the base and having a shower – acts as the perfect way to close the gameplay loop and keep the player playing Phantom Pain instead of doing something else, like eating, sleeping or going to the bathroom. Ultimately, it’s the tightness of the gameplay loop that makes Phantom Pain a great game, and it’s the reason that the frame of the game can hold the weight of all the content. From top to bottom, this is a perfectly balanced, expertly designed game.
I could go on for thousands more words, and still never capture even a tiny fraction of Phantom Pain’s genius. It’s a marvel. After thirty hours, I’m still trying things for the first time. I’m still scratching the surface. Still uncovering more secrets. Finding new ways to play that totally change my experience.
And I’m sure every players time with the game will be different too. Playing with my friend, we have different approaches and teach each other more and more about the game as we watch each other play. He tranquilizes guards, then wakes them up to interrogate them for more info, and I’m amazed by his methodical, scientific approach to taking out a base. Meanwhile, I show him how I use the missile launcher to blow up guard towers.
Horses for courses, but no matter which of us play, we are constantly generating anecdotes. The game is constantly throwing up surprises and dynamic systems result in missions becoming far more intense than even the developers could anticipate. So many of these adventures will stick with us after the campaign is done. A sandstorm sweeping in saving a mission that looked like it was doomed at the last minute, cloaking our escape. A slow motion missile that we fired from horseback, that we then overtook as it slammed directly into a guards face, letting us ride through the explosion like a harbinger of the apocalypse.
And all of those moments arose from a monogame. A game that could spawn an almost infinite number of unique moments of suspense, adventure, excitement or elation. When you get all of that from just one game, do you need to play anything else?