The most jaw-dropping thing about Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is its brevity. Despite all its brilliant stealth setpieces and plotting, the Metal Gear franchise is best known for the cinematic leanings of its creator, Hideo Kojima. It came to a head during Metal Gear Solid 4, which reached amazing highs in gameplay, narrative, and fanboyish nostalgia, but was laced with overly long interstitials crammed with far too much exposition.
Platforms: PS3, PS4 (Version Played), Xbox 360, Xbox One
Developer: Kojima Productions
Genre: Open World Snake ‘Em Up
Release Date: March 18, 2014
ESRB Rating: Mature
From the moment Ground Zeroes opens, things have changed. It’s no more than a few minutes of scene setting, all while showing off Kojima Productions’ stunning new engine, but it’s incredibly effecting. Eyes track, fingers waggle, and faces move with subtlety and emotion, adding to Kojima’s Kubrick-esque, detail-orientated style of directing to make a fantastic opener. It’s over as quick as it started, but it’s all the better for it. From those beginning junctures it becomes obvious that, in Ground Zeroes, Kojima finally seems to have learned that quality is better than quantity.
And how true that turns out to be. If there is one thing that has been divisive about Ground Zeroes since before its release is the length versus content conundrum. Depending on your source, the game can last anywhere from ten minutes to two hours. It has been labeled as a paid demo by some and a prequel by others (notably, Kojima himself). What is actually in the package is one reasonably-sized map with six separate missions that take place therein. This map and these missions serve as the opening section to a much larger game, the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Admittedly, this sounds like a bum deal, and when I saw the credits roll after 88 minutes, it felt like one too. However, when you return to the main menu and see the words “Completion Ratio 9%” across the bottom of the screen, you realise that there is much more buried within here. Within those six missions there are numerous pieces of gear to unlock, secret objectives, Trophies/Achievements, challenges, collectibles, and rankings, with everything slowly unlocking as you play and replay.
The prison camp playground is very much a decent size, but stretches the quality over quantity argument to its limit. Even so, the place has variety in its design. A curvy, rocky coastline near small, wrapping roads; makeshift campsites next to small outbuildings; and helipads outside large complexes. There are dips in the landscape to hide in, small passages to escape through, and large open spaces to get spotted in. Even after playing through each mission multiple times, I’m still finding new toys to play with. It’s a joyous sandbox, especially with item and guard placement remixed in each mission.
That sandbox feeling is reinforced by the way the mission objectives are set up. Essentially, the player is presented with just a goal, and it’s entirely up to them to decide how to complete it. Everything from the approach to the equipment, to the level of stealth and the extraction, to the way a mission objective is attempted – it’s all the player’s onus and totally adaptable, too. As is true with most of life, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, especially when you tend to play Metal Gear like I do. One missed headshot, wandering guard, or mistimed sneak can lead you to saying, “Ah, screw it,” and unleashing hellfire upon those poor, unsuspecting foes. Many missions ended with Snake making a daring escape piloting a tank, then escaping into my helicopter for extraction as Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” plays, before picking off a couple of stragglers just in time for the helicopter to shut its doors. However, just as many excursions to Camp Omega ended with Snake slipping out without the enemies knowing I was even there. The fun is in the replay, experimenting with your situation and adapting therein.
Great art always imitates life; better art always makes a commentary on it. All of the action takes places in Camp Omega, a place that can draw parallels to Guantanamo Bay in it’s design and the function that takes place therein. While the main narrative thrust is typically Metal Gear, albeit darker, the content surrounding Snake has little to no morals. As repeating plot threads state throughout, blacksites, like this one, are wrong and go far into proving that bureaucracy can triumph over ethics and what is “right.” The things you witness, both in person and in audio form, are enough to turn your stomach. For example, a thick bolt through the Achilles tendon is neither the most graphic nor mentally repelling thing that happens.
Stealth games live and die on the strength of the AI enemies placed in your path. In Ground Zeroes, the intelligence of the guards surprised almost as much as it angers. Along with the rather rote patrol routes you come to expect, a few kinks are added to give them a little more depth. Things from the sniffles to the hugely frustrating act of looking over their shoulder, to the annoying habit of being rather vocal over the radio with other guards in the base. Upon having a guard slowly approach my position, only to receive a knife in the throat, his patrol buddies investigated his disappearance. As in most MGS games, destroying a security camera with a silenced pistol should have signified a sneaking mission well snuck. Not so in Ground Zeroes: enemy command instructed nearby soldiers to find out why it stopped transmitting, and I was in hot water.
Similar innovations to the standard stealth affair include Reflex Mode, a slow-mo, quick-draw ability allowing Snake to take down a guard in the split second before sounding the alarm, and an enemy tagging system, which not only helps you to manoeuvre around the base but also adds an extra challenge to the game’s reward system. Overall, in gameplay terms, Ground Zeroes manages to progress the handling of the action while at the same time making it feel stripped back. It’s like Snake has nothing to work with, except masterful skills.
For something packed with not only great gameplay moments, but also content to make the player think, the question should never have been length versus content. Instead, the focus should have been on how good Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes actually is.
Review Disclosure: A retail copy of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes was purchased by Warp Zoned for the purposes of this review.