This article originally appeared on Aspie Gaming on 3.20.2014.
The last time I played a numbered title in the Metal Gear Solid series, I was greeted by an install screen. Oddly, enough Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes begins the same way, however this is where its similarities with Metal Gear Solid 4 end. While not without flaws, Ground Zeroes answers nearly every criticism that’s been thrown at previous games. This is the best game in the series since Metal Gear Solid 3 and in some ways, Ground Zeroes is even better.
Much has been made of Ground Zeroes with its much disputed length, the replacement of David Hayter and the inevitable argument of quality versus quantity. Whether or not its short length justifies the $35 price tag will vary from person to person but I can say with certainty that Ground Zeroes delivers better stealth gameplay than its full-priced contemporaries such as Batman: Arkham Origins, Splinter Cell: Blacklist and if the reviews are any indication, the recently released Thief. For a game that is so determined to sell the player on an open-ended experience, Kojima Productions has made a surprisingly focused effort at delivering a pure stealth gameplay experience.
Ground Zeroes picks up where Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker left off. The game takes place in 1975 and the player once again takes control of Snake, a forty something mercenary who leads a Private Military Corporation called Militaries Sans Frontières (Soldiers Without Borders). Snake and Kazuhira Miller, his second-in-command, discover that Paz, a sixteen year old teenage girl who presumably died in Peace Walker, is still alive and is being held at Camp Omega, a US-owned prison camp on the Southern tip of Cuba which is evocative of Guantanamo Bay.
They also discover that among the prisoners is Chico, a thirteen year old boy whom Snake met during Peace Walker. At the same time, the United Nations are sending a nuclear inspection team to Mother Base, MSF’s base of operations. On the eve of the inspection, Snake infiltrates Camp Omega with the objective of rescuing Paz and Chico. There’s isn’t much story to be had and the actual plot is very straightforward aside from the bombastic ending.
In previous games, players who were unfamiliar with the Metal Gear Solid series would struggle to make sense of the story and that’s mostly true in Ground Zeroes. The game does its best to keep the plot simple and conveniently provides a short summary of the story thus far for players who aren’t familiar with the events of Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid 3. Oddly enough, the summary skips the events of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops which is either a sign that it isn’t canon or an attempt to keep things simple.
The Metal Gear Solid series is notorious for its heavy-handed use of cutscenes but Ground Zeroes goes in the opposite direction. The most glaring flaw in the entire game is the lack of a complete story, which is a series first. The narrative doesn’t end so much as it simply stops though it concludes at a logical point in the narrative. If you’ve watched the trailers for The Phantom Pain, you’ll know exactly how this first chapter is going to end.
The narrative is more content to prompt questions from the player and coyly hint at what’s coming next. The major antagonist Skull Face only appears in the introduction, though the story strongly implies that he has a history with Snake, opening up the possibility that he may be a familiar face. While hardcoreMetal Gear Solid fans may appreciate the ambiguity or the narrative and head to online forums to speculate, the casual player is going to be left wanting more.
Including the opening and closing cinematics, there are only five cutscenes in the main mission. The cutscenes themselves are all one continuous shot, heavily borrowing from the cinematic style of Alfonso Cuarón (director of Gravity and Children of Men). This makes the entire game feel continuous as the cutscenes seamlessly transition into the gameplay. Game Director Hideo Kojima is well known for his passion for movies however he’s done a remarkable job of toning down the story, the result is one of the most engrossing and atmospheric Metal Gear Solid games ever made.
The quality of voicework in a Metal Gear Solid game is so typically high quality that it barely merits mention, however Ground Zeroes is notable for replacing David Hayter with Kiefer Sutherland in the main role as Snake. Longtime fans will be pleased to know that Sutherland settles quite nicely into the role, though he doesn’t have the opportunity to fully assert himself as the character. At the very least Snake still feels like he is the same person despite the change in voice which is more than I can say for Sam Fisher, which had Eric Johnson replacing Michael Ironside in the lead role in Splinter Cell: Blacklist.
Every game in the Metal Gear Solid series has provided a unique gameplay experience with each game building on the last; Ground Zeroes is no exception. The player controls Snake from a third-person perspective similar to Metal Gear Solid 4 and Peace Walker. Snake can crawl, crouch-walk, sprint and quickly dive in any direction. The gameplay has been completely streamlined, stripping away everything but the bare essentials. The psyche meter and camo index have been done away with and Snake no longer has a visible life meter, resorting the on-screen strawberry jam method of indicating damage.
Snake has no radars, sensors or recovery items of any kind and can only carry two weapons. Enemies can be marked with binoculars and once marked are permanently tracked on the map screen. Changing weapons and checking the map no longer pauses the game, forcing the player to give thought to even the most mundane actions.
The reduction of resources gives more consequence to every one of the player’s actions. For example, Snake’s rifle comes with only one suppressor which wears down after a certain amount of shots and there’s no replacement. This make the player question actions they would never second-guess in other stealth games. Snake is equipped with a tranquilizer pistol with a permanent silencer but tranquilized enemies will eventually wake up. Killing an enemy prevents this but if an enemy discovers a corpse, every guard goes on alert. There’s a constant dynamic of risk versus reward and a wide berth of gameplay possibilities.
If Snake is spotted by an enemy they will call in reinforcements, but not before the game will slow-down and give the player an opportunity to take out the guard. This option, along with the ability to mark enemies can be disabled for purists out there. Snake can grab enemies using CQC and from there has multiple options. Snake can throw, choke, stab or question enemies to add waypoints to the map. One can even have an enemy call nearby guards to Snake’s position to set up an ambush.
Ground Zeroes is the most intuitive game in the Metal Gear Solid series. There are no light or sound meters to determine the player’s visibility. If you want to be hidden get out of sight, if you want to be quiet move slower. Taking cover is also easier, Snake will automatically press against a surface when he’s near though the system isn’t as intuitive as The Last of Us and Tomb Raider.
Despite playing it on a last-gen console, Ground Zeroes is a graphical marvel. The textures are smooth with little pop-in and the nighttime rain setting of the main mission allows for some excellent lighting effects. The animation in particular is outstanding. Snake will naturally transition from running to crawling, he’ll tilt his entire body when aiming a gun from a prone position and he throws enemies to the ground with notable ferocity. One can only imagine the graphical fidelity on current gen-consoles. Regardless of what system you play it on, Ground Zeroes boasts gorgeous graphics.
In addition to the main mission, Ground Zeroes features several side mission;, these missions take place in the same area as the main mission though with different enemy placements and are set during different times of the day. These side missions range from assassinating two specific guards to retrieving a cassette tape to destroying anti-air guns. Within the main mission, there are several collectibles such as cassette tapes which flesh out the story and XOF emblems which unlock a bonus mission.
Ground Zeroes is less of an open-world experience and more of an open-ended game. Each mission is structured so that it’s up to the player to decide how they will accomplish their objective. There are several hidden paths which encourages experimentation through multiple playthroughs. It’s biggest flaw in terms of gameplay is that it doesn’t actively encourage exploration. If the player desires, they can run straight to the goal, shooting every enemy along the way and complete the main mission inside of 20 minutes.
Many of you might be wondering about the length of Ground Zeroes and it is admittedly short. The main mission will take most players between two and three hours to complete (not including cutscenes) though it may be shorter depending on the playstyle. The tricky part is that the main mission lends itself to multiple playthroughs, not only to find the collectibles but also to explore everything that Camp Omega has to offer.
Just like Peace Walker, the player will be graded on their performance after each mission. Completing a mission without killing an enemy and without being seen earns the highest rating. The side missions are a similar affair, being shorter in length but also encouraging multiple playthroughs. It’s much more admirable for a game to be shorter and better as opposed to be bloated and lengthy. That being said, I would be surprised if anyone but the most diehard of Metal Gear Solid fan would get more than twenty hours out of Ground Zeroes.
Ground Zeroes is an excellent first chapter but it leaves the player hanging in a few too many areas. The narrative doesn’t incorporate any of the themes that the Metal Gear Solid games are known for and the plot is too thinly veiled to draw any reasonable conclusions about The Phantom Pain. There’s something admirable in a focused effort however, Ground Zeroes is a great primer for what’s coming. Kojima Productions offers nothing but quality gameplay and it’s among the best stealth video games to have come out in recent years. If you can look past the somewhat steep $35 price tag and its short length, Ground Zeroes is well worth your time.