The Metal Gear franchise is 26 years old, and arguably one of the most beloved series in the history of video games. With this thought, it’s no surprise that many games in the series have been highly acclaimed by critics and fans alike; with most shifting millions of units. It’s been nearly six years since the last major console release, Metal Gear Solid 4, and while the PSP installment, Peace Walker, was well received, and the action focused title, Metal Gear Rising, was accepted for what it was; many fans have been holding out for a “AAA” Metal Gear experience.
Originally announced in 2012, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes was intended to act as a sequel to Peace Walker, and also as a prologue for the next major installment in the series; which we now know as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Creator and producer, Hideo Kojima later clarified that that the gameplay of the series was about to go through some major design changes; for example, shifting into an open world. Essentially, Ground Zeroes was designed as a way to help players transition to a new style of play, and to demonstrate the graphical power of the “Fox Engine.” In theory, it sounded like a really interesting idea, but for a series that’s so heavily associated with narrative, fans became outraged when they learned the main campaign would last no more than two hours.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Metal Gear game if I didn’t first have to spend a good while re-briefing myself on all the finer details and nuances of the previous games to have the slightest clue what is going on. Fortunately, Ground Zeroes is fully prepared for this, and provides all the necessary backstory; which is accessible from an option in the main menu. If you’re somewhat familiar with the most of the series, it will save you a trip to Wikipedia. However, for those of you who haven’t played Snake Eater or Peace Walker, it’s probably not going to be enough to fully appreciate what’s going on, and definitely not, for those who have never played a Metal Gear game before. Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you should expect to do some in-depth research if you want to fully understand.
However, with that being said, the narrative in the Metal Gear series is genuinely outstanding, and while it’s complex, it’s nearly always worth the investment to fully appreciate what’s going on. Essentially, Ground Zeroes takes place several months after the events of Peace Walker, with Snake flying out to infiltrate an American black site in Cuba called Camp Omega. His main objective is to recover an operative known as Paz who has information regarding the whereabouts of Snake’s old mentor, Zero, and his corrupt organisation, Cipher; as well as the extraction of Chico, an ex-child soldier, who single-handedly attempted to rescue Paz and got himself captured.
As a premise, and a way to introduce the characters, Ground Zeroes does exactly what it sets out to do. Kojima was not afraid to approach controversial subjects, and in turn, my expectations for the events in The Phantom Pain are now exceptionally high. Each of the characters feel surprisingly genuine; which is something I don’t think the more recent games delivered so well. In saying that, though, the narrative is as many had come to fear: very short. It could best be compared the Tanker Chapter in Metal Gear Solid 2, so you shouldn’t expect more than a tease of what’s to come. It is worth mentioning that there is a good level of depth for those who seek it, in the form of tapes and intel, but for the most part, it’s clear this game was intended as a way to explore the new gameplay elements of the series. This is where Ground Zeroes shines, and where you will discover its true value.
The most accurate way I could describe Ground Zeroes is a “next-generation playground.” The entire game takes place within Camp Omega and is split up into several core missions; the main mission, side-op missions, and one “special” mission. It might sound awfully limited by that description, but once you understand how much the formula has evolved, I think many players will be able to appreciate the open structure, and its purpose. For the first time, you are truly free to approach a mission how ever you want; for better or worse. You can score high by killing no one and silently achieving your objective, or you could commandeer an armoured vehicle and engage in an epic battle. It’s entirely up to you, and in my opinion, delivers the most rewarding gameplay of the entire series.
It’s only fair to note that the main mission, Ground Zeroes, can be completed in approximately 90 minutes. However, if you also take into account the side-ops and the platform-exclusive bonus mission, you should expect around 5 hours of content for a standard playthrough, and double that if you enjoy pursuing completionist styled challenges. Ultimately, it depends on what kind of player you are, as to how much you’re going to get out of this game. Personally, I enjoyed the nature of the side-ops, and didn’t find the location or it’s armed occupants growing tedious. Each mission was unique in it’s objective, took place at a different time of day, and with each return, I found myself enjoying the growing familiarity with the terrain. With that said, though, I am not the type of person who often enjoys replaying content, and as such, I would have appreciated a few more side-ops missions.
However, with that being said, for those players who value high replayability in a game, Ground Zeroes will not disappoint. There is a lot of potential for experimentation, different playstyles, and plenty of secrets and challenges to discover. The open-world design suits the fundamentals of Metal Gear perfectly, and I think if anything, my expectations were exceeded in terms of gameplay, and how dynamic my experiences were. I felt empowered playing as Snake, but at the same time, I appreciated the improved intelligence of the AI; especially in “Hard Mode”. I felt as if I could master the game, and that if I failed, it was because I messed up; not because the game had cheated me. If Kojima’s goal was to get me excited, then on that account, he hit the nail on the head.
The Metal Gear series has always been well known for its outstanding presentation, both in graphic fidelity and cinematography, and Ground Zeroes is no exception. In recent months, there have been growing concerns of discrepancies between the “preview footage” we’re being shown during development, and the final product. As such, I have to admit that I was a little dubious of all the praise the Fox Engine was receiving prior to launch. Fortunately, however, I can say with full confidence that the Fox Engine is the real deal, and even looks incredible on last generation systems, as well. For the purpose of this review, I was playing the PS4 version, and consistently, I was amazed by the level of detail, lighting, and the weather effects. Using the side-ops to demonstrate different times of day was a great idea, and in turn, I look forward to seeing the real time progression in The Phantom Pain.
Music and voice acting has always been an important part of the series’ history, and Ground Zeroes delivers; albeit in a different way. The themes in this game are more controversial than they’ve ever been, and in turn, the scripting and performances are a lot more grounded than in the past. Kiefer Sutherland and the rest of the new cast have delivered an outstanding performance, and while I appreciated David Hayter’s performance of Snake, I now understand Kojima’s decision for change. Most of all, though, I think the improvement in cinematography deserves recognition. There has always been an “infamous” barrier between narrative and gameplay in Metal Gear, and for the first time, this has been removed. There is a large focus on experiencing as much as possible in real-time, and it works incredibly well. This is the most important change the series needed to remain relevant.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is an excellent demonstration for what to expect from The Phantom Pain, and that’s exactly what it should have been; a demonstration. The truth is, if this game had instead been released as a demo/incentive with another Konami title, the general reception would likely have been phenomenal, and followed by a positive trail of excitement and discussion. For this reason, I find myself conflicted as I have so many positive things to say about my experience with the game, but I simply can not recommend it as a retail product. With that being said, if you are aware of what it is going in, I think enthusiasts will still have a great time given the high level of replayability. Ground Zeroes is “technically” outstanding and there is plenty of content, but it’s not a complete game. I imagine a lot of disappointed faces on those who bought it without understanding what it was.
Note: This review was based on the PS4 version of the game, and provided to us by Konami via Mindscape Asia Pacific Pty Ltd.