There’s a concession you have to make if you’re going to enjoy any bit of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. This is not the full, rambling, probably-going-to-be-good Metal Gear Solid V you’ve been waiting for. No, that’s going to be Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Ground Zeroes, instead, sits somewhere between a demo and a traditional, full-length Metal Gear game. But as oddly sized as it is, there’s a lot to like.
Ground Zeroes puts you back in the shoes of Big Boss/Snake, albeit with Kiefer Sutherland voicing the gravelly, one-eyed spy now instead of David Hayter, throwing you into the fray between Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and the aforementioned, upcoming The Phantom Pain. Set in 1975, you’ll be infiltrating an American base called Camp Omega, aiming to retrieve a handful of assets.
If you need to know the context to any of that, well, I’m sorry. Unless you want this review to be something around the size of three to four Harry Potters, you’ll have to hit up Wikipedia for that. Or check out the 11-page Backstory thing in the game. It’s just pure text, but it is, if nothing else, accurate. This should tell you that for as much as this is an oddity of retail, it is as wholly committed to the series’ mythos as any other game before it.
It also lavishes in its inanities. Or rather, its creator’s inanities. Hideo Kojima’s relatively toned-down narrative approach to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has gone full-on, well, Kojima. The 10-minute cutscene that opens the game, while incredibly gorgeous, exemplifies how well the designer takes the overly melodramatic and barely comprehendible elements of the franchise’s insane plotline and makes it seem like duh doy, this is how the world works.
In terms of gameplay, however, Ground Zeroes is quite the departure. It drops you into what is basically an open world and tells you to go accomplish some tasks. Past Metal Gear games are fairly open as well, but they put you in open areas that belong to discrete levels. Ground Zeroes is a single island, all of which is open you to, and throws in a day-night cycle with weather variability.
The switch from explicit levels to a fully, more traditional open world is surprisingly beneficial to the familiar stealthy mechanics of the game. The radar has been removed and been replaced with the soup du jour of open world mechanics: enemy tagging. But this allows you to take advantage of Snake’s greater maneuverability so that when you sneak your way somewhere you’re not supposed to be, you can reward yourself with increased awareness of what’s around you.
This also means that much of the tedium of waiting under a table or in a locker in the games of old (which, admittedly, were designed around those moments) gives way to facilitated travels. It makes sense, given that you now could potentially have an entire island to traverse, and inching your way across a whole base isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but it also gives the game a much faster feel, like this younger Snake is brasher than his more aged iterations.
A gimme to this is that Ground Zeroes is somewhat built around the idea of getting caught in an open world. One neat aspect of this is that if you do get spotted, time slows down for a bit, allowing you to give it your best to resolve the situation before reinforcements are called. It can make the game much too easy overall, but it also takes away the problem of getting spotted and being forced to vacate a whole section of the base while the open world AI resets.
After that, when you do get caught and alarms are sounded, is when problems are revealed. To solve the same problem, though from a different perspective (“you’re busted” instead of “you’re about to be busted”), Ground Zeroes integrates a more traditional third-person shooter scheme. Action has always been an option in the franchise, but now it’s been commoditized into something that wants to be familiar.
Except that it’s not. Shooting always felt off in Ground Zeroes. Either you’re lighting up a dude with what seems like three too many bullets or wishing you could get closer to CQC him or running away to let their meager ambition wither away. Obviously this is and probably always will be a series about stealth, but that doesn’t mean the moments where you’re caught should be unpleasant. (I will say, however, that driving a tank and blowing up huge fuel reserves is a lot of Bay-sian fun.)
The good news is that the stealth bits make up for it (also you can just reload a checkpoint when you are busted so you can avoid shooting or running your way to freedom). The additional bits that Snake is capable of now makes moving him around much more enjoyable. He’ll automatically cozy up to corners and whatnot if he’s close enough. CQC is no longer an arcane practice of hoping for the best but now intuitive and easily made to do what you want.
And it is such a smooth game. It feels fluid and looks fluid. The engine, previously boasted in an impressive GDC video, is capable of some insanely beautiful things. Rain and nighttime, two of the hardest situations to accurately portray in video games, both look exemplary here, and somehow even better combined. Facial animations and character models look straight-up out of a pre-rendered cutscene, but nothing here is; it’s all real time.
It is, however, a very short experience. You can probably finish it in less than two hours. Eurogamer actually beat it in ten minutes earlier today while CVG did it in 18 minutes with an S rank. And once it’s all over, you’re unlikely to feel fulfilled by the narrative. It touches on a lot of what was compelling about The Phantom Pains‘ (unbelievable) trailer, but it is ultimately lackluster.
But for those scant few hours you’re playing Ground Zeroes, it’s quite the ride. Experimenting with an open world of familiar but refreshed and refined mechanics is a ton of fun, and getting this little appetizer of Kojima narrative nonsense is titillating. As long as you’re aware of what you’re getting into, which is to say a brief, half-demo, half-full-length game (and priced accordingly) that doesn’t go far beyond whetting your appetite, then you have a lot to look forward to in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.
+ Absolutely gorgeous game with incredible effects and sound design
+ Moves like butter, like a game you wish every other Metal Gear would move like
+ The open world works amazingly well
– Disappointing in its narrative arc, ending somewhere between getting started and getting there
– Action bits don’t feel great
Final Score: 8 out of 10
Game Review: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Release: March 18, 2014
Genre: Third-person stealth action
Developer: Kojima Productions
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, PlayStation 4