Surrounded in controversy, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a short prologue to the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Before launching, players were split on the high price and low duration of the title, resulting in Konami reducing the recommended retail price and in a lot of claims that Ground Zeroes was likely nothing more than a purchasable demo.
It’s worth prefacing this review with a note that the cost of the title will not factor into the review. Instead, readers will be expected to make their own judgement as to whether the game described here matches the value that they would be expected to pay for it, regardless of this reviewer’s opinion on the matter.
Developer: Kojima Productions
Genre: Action//Stealth, Sci-Fi
Platform: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Release Date: 21st March, 2014 (EU)
Rating: 18+ (PEGI)
Set directly after Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, players return to the role of Big Boss (now played by Kiefer Sutherland) in 1974, now tasked to go rescue children, Paz (Tara Strong) and Chico, from Camp Omega. At the same time, an inspection is due to be carried out to determine Militaires Sans Frontier’s nuclear capabilities. If that description makes very little sense to the reader, then Ground Zeroes provides pages of text to explain its backstory. Beyond that, there’s no real introduction to the cast. There has been very little effort to introduce new players to the franchise with this prologue. Instead, this is a game to let existing fans prepare for Phantom Pain, and become accustomed to the new mechanics.
There’s very little in the way of story. So little, in fact, that almost everything has been seen in just two of the released trailers. There should be little to no surprises, and no real contribution to the plot of Metal Gear Solid V beyond the unresolved conclusion.
Camp Omega is pretty large for a single area. It is most definitely not a vast, open-world environment, but serves its purpose to sample the offerings of the upcoming Phantom Pain. Players can uncover a number of routes to discover and rescue both Chico and Paz, while also having the freedom to explore and experiment with the gameplay.
The gameplay is simplistic, but conceals a surprising amount of depth. Many of Big Boss’ actions are context sensitive. Players will lean against a wall when pressing against it, or climb a wall, jump off of a ledge, or carry people when prompted, as well as reload. While offering multiple actions on a single button can often be detrimental to a game, risking the occasion in which the wrong action will be executed, Ground Zeroes handles this with care and it’s ubiquitous in nature; although, there is still the occasional instance when the context-sensitivity may still interfere. These tools still enhance the stealth mechanic of the series, with Big Boss now being capable of greater mobility to take advantage of more difficult hiding spots to reach.
Speaking of tools, Big Boss’ binoculars now have more significance. As a result of the sandbox environment, players are free to piece together their own methods of intrusion. No longer will cutscenes explain what Big Boss should do. The protagonist is, after all, Big Boss. He’s the one who makes the decisions. Instead, players may gather information using the coupled directional microphone and binoculars, both making a return from previous iterations of the series. With this, players may identify enemy patrol routes and obtain information from soldiers engaging in conversation through-out the facility. Furthermore, players may even use enemy vehicles as camouflage. Big Boss is capable of driving any vehicle found in Camp Omega, and will remain undetected while doing so unless a guard looks directly into the driver’s seat. These elements add an additional layer to the tactical stealth gameplay that hasn’t been seen in the series before.
It’s worth noting that the artificial intelligence for the guards has also seen a lot of work. During an alert phase, guards work together to clear rooms reminiscent of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, complete with their communication. Unfortunately, transitioning into the alert phase is still not as clever as Metal Gear Solid 2, as being seen results in an instant alert as opposed to a guard having to call an alert over radio. Players may be able to react quick enough to prevent raising the alarm, but this seems to require the optional slow motion mechanic which activates during this transition. It’s worth noting that while these guards may still not be perceivably as intelligent as Metal Gear Solid 2‘s guards, they are brought more to life through their interactions with other guards.
There’s a lot of focus on lighting in Ground Zeroes. Guards patrol dark areas with torchlight, cast spotlights on vast areas of ground, and lens flare floods the display. When the player is almost detectable, a lens flare is used as a warning which provides the player with subtle feedback in exchange for the removal of the radar that regularly shows up in the series, as well as the exclusion of any sort of camouflage to hide the player when in view. It’s not pervasive, and is complemented by the incredible lighting technology behind the FOX game engine. Overall the title looks surprisingly photorealistic, with high texture, lighting, and weather quality; although, it’s worth reminding the reader that it was the PlayStation 4 version that this reviewer had experienced which, incidentally, did not drop a single frame during the play time.
Centre to a lot of controversy, Kiefer Sutherland’s take on the protagonist is different to that of the previous voice actor, David Hayter. While still gruff, Big Boss no longer sounds quite as silly. Unfortunately, the improved voice acting only highlights how absurd some of the directing and dialogue can be, which is only emphasised further by some of the less capable actors cast alongside Sutherland. It’s this juxtaposition between being a clumsy title and a game that takes itself seriously while trying really, really hard to do its best that brings about the sort of charm that only the first Metal Gear Solid ever really exuded. It’s a shame, then, that it’s not really given enough time to flourish.
Admittedly, while the title can still have its whacky moments, there are also some incredibly dark and brutal moments. While not necessarily part of the story through a regular playthrough, the player may uncover audio tapes depicting these disturbing scenes. These tapes provide further context to the Ground Zeroes scenario.
As a Metal Gear Solid game, prologue or not, Ground Zeroes has high expectations to meet regarding its soundtrack. Fortunately, the soundtrack continues to deliver. It provides a particularly exhilarating rush at the right moments, and offers a very suffocating tension when sneaking through the facility.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes provides a pretty fantastic and incredibly polished experience that, unfortunately, is not a complete experience. There’s no doubt that the title is pretty much just a glorified demo, but it’s certainly a strong sign that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will be an utterly great game. Unfortunately, its release date continues to elude us.
(Side note: It feels weird reviewing something that’s ultimately a demo. It feels even weirder giving it a score, but consistency and all that.)