Lets get this out of the way; Ground Zeroes is strictly for long-time Metal Gear fans. While most developers are happy to streamline their storylines to make their titles more approachable to newcomers, Kojima is not. In fact, you could call him a “narrative hoarder” of sorts. From strange inside jokes to convoluted plots, none have been abandoned in the series 27-year history. There’s no better example of this than Ground Zeroes. A prologue to the 4th sequel in a line of prequels leading up to the original 1987 MSX game Metal Gear. Are you still with me? If not you’re better off picking up Metal Gear: The Legacy Collection. But for those hip to Kojima’s jive, Ground Zeroes is worth the trip, but it’s only a sliver of what we’ve come to expect from a Metal Gear game.
Taking place a year after the events of Peace Walker, Snake must silently infiltrate a U.S. Military base and rescue two of his imprisoned comrades, who are being held and tortured by the leader of X.O.F., a mysterious, grotesque-looking man named Skull Face.
To go into the details of Skull Face’s motivations would spoil most of the game. What Ground Zeroes lacks in initial context, it more than makes up for in its devastating ending. Many times I asked myself “Why isn’t this simply the opening for The Phantom Pain?” The answer is simple; this is where everything changes for Snake. The effects of this ending will be irrevocable, and in an age of reboots I found that refreshing.
What makes Ground Zeroes so different from past titles is its emphasis on side-ops. The game opens with a chapter selection screen with only Ground Zeroes being selectable. From there, four more missions are available, with a fifth unlocking after certain criteria are met. Each side-op is focus on one activity. Assassinations, sabotage, and interrogation each receive their own chapter, though none feel particularly unique. This stems from all six chapters taking place in the same military base, albeit at different times of the day. Worse yet, most doors are just for show and completely inaccessible.
There is some satisfaction to be gained by learning the base’s layout. Before long you’ll learn the how to best utilize your surroundings for stealth. But it’s hard not to be let down by Ground Zeroes limited environment.
Thankfully, the stealth is incredibly satisfying. Once again, the Metal Gear series foregos the radar system it made famous for a more natural approach. By using your binoculars, you’ll be able to tag enemy soldiers and vehicles. By tagging them, a large indicator is placed on top of their head and each enemy is displayed as a silhouette, which can be seen through obstacles. Alerts have also been upgraded to be a more dynamic, forgiving feature. Rather than a single “gotcha” moment, being spotted can take place in a number of ways. Suspicious soldiers appear as white arrows on the screen, which instantly informs the player to hide in the opposite direction. Even if you are spotted, the game enters a slow motion mode, giving the player ten seconds to take out the soldier before the alarm is sounded.
What Ground Zeroes does better than most other stealth games is encourage risk. Exploring the environments from a distance not only adds information to your HUD but allows strategy to develop instantly. The buffer between being caught and the actual alarm adds a safety net to the traditional “trial and error” gameplay. Every shot fired, every body you send flying, is all recording and entered into leaderboards. All of this equates to a very rewarding experience. Holding up guards, stealing vehicles, and sprinting past spotlights would seem out of place in most other stealth games. But the ability to experiment is the core of Ground Zeroes. If you’re going for a strictly stealth playthough, reloading a checkpoint takes mere seconds. But if you do trigger the alarm, the shooting functions like most traditional third person shooters but is hardly the game’s main focus.
The Metal Gear Solid series has been noted for it’s incredible visuals, and Ground Zeroes certainly lives up to that legacy. The rain-drenched pavement or the glow of a spotlight are shockingly realistic and create a credible sense of atmosphere. Animations are equally inspired. Simple movements, like a guard casually walking his route, are meticulously created to give a sense of weight to the body. When the action does heat up the game the game remains at a solid 60 frames per second. With 1080p on the PS4, the game is a technical showpiece and is easily the best looking next-gen game so far.
Despite all these marvelous technical achievements, Ground Zeroes still has a number of shortcomings. Controls remain tight for the most part, but every now and again I found Snake’s prone position to be overly stiff and confusing. The game’s beginning tutorials will tell what buttons to press to perform and action but without the context of how. I found myself unable to perform a roll with the left stick and trigger until minutes later when I discovered you must be prone to do so. Presentation also lacks in some areas. Interrogating an enemy soldier results in text dialogue instead of voice acting. For such a short game, and especially a Metal Gear game, it’s bizarre to find common game elements missing altogether.
Finally there’s the issue of length. The main mission itself took me only a little over 100 minutes to complete my first time through. Taking into account the lengthy (though brilliantly directed) cut-scenes and you’ll still be done before the two hour mark. Even with all the side missions, the entire game took me roughly 6 and ½ hours to complete. Is that worth $30? Personally, I don’t take price into account when reviewing games but I can say the entire package does feel a bit bare bones.
Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes is a strange beast. With it’s breathtaking visuals and tight gameplay also comes a story that will make little-to-no sense to newcomers. Its only environment is claustrophobic and easily explored after only a few hours. As a Metal Gear fan, I thoroughly enjoyed the overall game, but I can’t recommend it to anyone but Metal Gear fans. Ground Zeroes is a ton of fun on the surface, but those without sufficient series knowledge will find it shallow.