We’ll approach this from the end and work backward, and get the downside out of the way first, because, whether or not you’re fully aware of how Ground Zeroes slots into Hideo Kojima’s grandiose vision for Metal Gear Solid V, this eagerly anticipated return of Snake does most of what you’d expect of it, confidently refreshing the series’ core mechanics, adding some much-needed narrative gravitas (and restraint) and blowing the tightly wound stealth antics wide open in a miniature sandbox that endures countless retreads. You’ll emerge on the other side feeling that Kojima and his team have created something incredibly bold and entirely different to what has come before it. But, like the game itself, let’s not waste any time getting to the end.
All the rumours are true, Ground Zeroes is something of an appetiser to The Phantom Pain, a gameplay experience (not counting the Side Ops) that clocks in at around two hours when played at a leisurely pace and much, much less for those who take a more aggressive stance to stealth ventures. And it’s here that we found, once the seemingly endless credits had finished trickling down and we returned to the title screen, that just a mere 8% of the game had been completed. 8%? Clearly, Ground Zeroes is in denial. Yes, there’s a handful of Side Ops missions that’ll add a couple of hours to your gameplay experience, not to mention collectables to be scavenged around the world, but this is an undeniably meagre spree and whether or not it’s worth the £20-£30 (depending on your format) is entirely dependent on both your perception of value and replayability.
But, and here’s where things start getting better, once you do complete it you’ll want to jump straight back in. This is where Ground Zeroes manages to hold firm despite its contentious brevity because what Kojima has created is an elegant and robust playground, both simply designed and densely populated. Your first run-through is as much about chorography as it is ticking off a list of objectives, and gaining an understanding of the land is as fulfilling a pursuit as achieving your mandatory goals.
Snake is dropped on the outskirts of Camp Omega, a Guantánamo Bay-style internment facility where Peace Walker alums Paz and Chico, who have been captured for nefarious (and convoluted) reasons, are kept. You’re given a heap of audio logs and pages of backstory to trawl through for context, but it’ll still perplex anyone who hasn’t studied the Metal Gear timeline recently. The entirety of Ground Zeroes is set on this compact islet and you’re given the freedom to explore it at your own free will and embrace various play-styles. Various routes branch off from your starting point and Kojima has widely trimmed back bare landscape to ensure every direction is a viable option.
The base itself is buzzing with activity. Patrol guards constantly keep Snake on his toes, while passing vehicles and ill-treated prisoners create more immediate dangers as well as further avenues of exploration. You could jump into a passing vehicle and bulldoze your way through the map – perhaps fun for a quick jolt of excitement but somewhat missing the point – or, if you’re feeling in a humanitarian mood, rescue other captives (some of whom contain intel).
Even after a day playing through you’ll still discover new strategies and it’s possible that you won’t settle into a comfortable play-style until the third or fourth playthrough. That’s a testament to how deep the systems and geography have been synthesised – like we said, this is entirely different to any Metal Gear that has come before it.
Outside of the main mission, the Side Ops are all worthy pursuits. Set within the same area, there’s a few different mission types styled towards different tactical approaches. A mission to assassinate two priority targets is pure Hitman, utilising stealth and creative ingenuity to get the job done; while another involves the player picking off enemies from a chopper while escorting…well, we wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. More bite-size than the main draw and certainly enjoyable, we’d question whether Kojima could’ve just integrated the majority of these scenarios as optional objectives that could be completed in the main campaign. Still, it certainly puts the player’s skill to the test in a multitude of ways and offers further opportunities to familiarise yourself with the way Ground Zeroes tweaks the original formula.
You’ll notice that a lot has changed just in terms of the way Snake handles. The majority of the mechanics have been stripped back significantly since Guns Of The Patriots, which works both against and in Ground Zeroes’ favour. There’s no camouflage meter, which leaves a lot of skulking around in the bushes a matter of guesswork and a couple of other unnecessary gauges have been abandoned. Stealth is mostly effective, but there’s a general fuzziness to the on-screen alert indicator that makes it hard to tell whether an enemy is close to detecting your presence or not. So while it is a step in the right direction in terms of making Metal Gear more accessible again, it lacks crucial refinement to be as effective as it should be.
Still, the added touch of simplicity is a welcome one and more often than not, it’s implemented in such a way to enhance a more strategic stealth experience. One great example comes in the form of Snake’s binoculars. Replacing the need for a traditional radar, Boss can use these to tag enemies and track them around the environment, even through walls. The only new addition that could be criticised for scaling back difficulty is the ‘Reflex’ function that, when Snake is detected, flips into bullet time and offers a short window to neutralise the enemy before other guards are alerted. It’s not quite the shortcut to victory you might expect, as enemies can now spot you from further away now, but we can imagine it’ll stoke the ire of purists (calm down – it can be switched off in the menus).
There are some other great additions as well that bolster the already meaty gameplay: subduing soldiers presents a few options, enabling players to interrogate enemies to reveal more about the map; while you can designate your own landing zone for your chopper and even use
it to provide cover fire if you’re in a particularly sticky situation.
This all contributes, much to Kojima’s delight we imagine, to a game that feels effortlessly cinematic. Kojima has always had an affinity for some of Hollywood’s greatest but has never really had the tools at his disposal to fully realise his vision of making a game that evoked a filmic sensibility. The most obvious change in this regard is the employment of the gravel-toned Kiefer Sutherland in the role of Snake, replacing the one-note David Hayter and the performance adds to a more mature production. Kojima capitalises on this, injecting visceral imagery and brutal drama into each of the two cutscenes (which serve to open and close the game) and you get the sense that the helmer is trying to rein in the franchise from the spiral of convoluted drivel that it found itself diving deeper toward.
In many ways, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the biggest and most confident game Kojima has ever made, but you can’t escape the fact that while it’s certainly an immaculate world that has been created, it’s just a small fragment of something much larger we’ve yet to explore. After the conclusion of the anticlimactic denouement, one that leaves plot threads dangling limply with no immediate resolution in sight, Ground Zeroes comes off like a particularly generous and expensive demo. While we’re first in line for the final product, as it definitely impresses, this shouldn’t be considered as anything less than a substantial and mouthwatering tease of a game that promises to be something very special.