When Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was revealed at the pre-E3 Microsoft press event last year, it was to a huge crowd roar. Not only did it look stunning, it was also the first time the series would go open-world and spoke volumes, at the time, about where next-gen was really headed. Fast forward to now, and The Phantom Pain is no longer on the 2014 release radar, leaving us instead with a taste-test in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.
The buzz you may have heard is, this is a relatively short campaign that can pretty much be knocked over in roughly two hours, and this is correct. However, what Ground Zeroes does is offer a compelling package of bite-sized replayability baselined with an equally compelling rewards system. The more you play, the more you unlock to uniquely replay. It also manages to slowly flesh out a chunk of what will be the main story for The Phantom Pain when it’s released next year, but what I feel the game does more importantly, is ready players for the density of the expanded MGS experience, while equally serving as a feedback platform for The Phantom Pain’s final design.
Kojima-san himself mentioned he was worried about the game after seeing what Rockstar had managed to do with GTA V, and so while it might seem a bit of a copout to pay for a taste-test ahead of the game’s release proper, at the very least you can have some serious fun with Ground Zeroes, while resting easy in the knowledge that the whole affair will go towards a better gameplay experience for MGS in 2015.
Interestingly, while the game is very pretty for the most part, it’s not a hugely consistent technical marvel as many were lead to believe after that
demo. The new Fox Engine is definitely capable of some sweet eye-candy, as you’ll experience in the main campaign’s rainy night time setting, but there’s a severe lack of polish and high-level detail in the game-world during the day. It’s all well directed from an art perspective, but it feels a bit square and archaic in parts, like they’ve simply repeated design patterns to flesh out the world. There’s also still the occasional bit of pop-up here and there, and some animations across both Snake and AI characters are off, leaving it a bit jarring at times. In it’s current form, it’d be hard to use Ground Zeroes as any sort of next-gen posterchild.
Still, the visuals are more than passable, and it’s the gameplay that truly wins here anyway. Ground Zeroes is perhaps the first Metal Gear Solid game I’ve personally felt compelled to keep playing, and while myself and I’m sure countless others will find the convoluted plot and ridiculous characters and past series entries throwbacks difficult
to understand, there’s also a pretty simple set of instructions to take on board. The initial mission sees you needing to extract two prisoners in a Guantanamo-style base in Cuba. As mentioned earlier, the mission takes place at night and in the rain, which sets a fantastic mood for the adventure ahead. As a stealth game, it also allows for more movement throughout the base, giving the player plenty of tactical recourse in how they wish to approach the mission. You’re also able to complete a series of side-quests such as extracting the targets without killing anyone, or releasing and extracting other prisoners, among others.
Most of these side-quests are discovered through interrogation of any enemy you silently grab, before being given the option of killing them, or simply knocking them out. Information can be for the aforementioned, or even to just learn the locations of certain weapons or devices, or even other patrol and enemy locations. In fact, despite being contained within a relatively small sandbox, the game does a fantastic job of dynamically mixing things up, especially when you get to the Side-Ops that are unlocked after a playthrough or two.
Most missions can be completed anyway you see fit, but after a while it becomes abundantly clear that the best way forward is to use everything else in your stealth arsenal. You can take cover behind most things, or even attempt to hide in bushes and long grass. It doesn’t always work, but enemy reactions aren’t binary either. In fact, the enemy AI is pretty good for the most part. They’ll enter different stages of alertness and carelessness, leaving your own patience as the biggest virtue when attacking a mission. You can hitch a hidden ride in the back of a military vehicle or even take the vehicle for a drive yourself. You can also interact with a few other placements around the map, including anti-air guns and more. The level of engagement across the whole thing is very good, and can even see you rescuing other prisoners not tied to any of your missions just for the good will of it all.
Each time you complete a mission you’re graded for your effort, with an “S Rank” being the highest. Completing certain challenges within each will also go towards unlocking more for that mission the next time you play, and each mission also comes with a Normal and Hard mode. So while the main campaign, as mentioned earlier, can be knocked over in a couple of hours, the completionists out there are easily going to pull more from the overall product than you may have initially thought.
The biggest argument then, for the whole package, boils down to price. Is Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes actually worth the $50-odd dollars the brick and mortars are asking (just AUD$29.99 on Xbox One via digital download, and AUD$39.95 on PSN)? The answer really lies in what sort of player you are: if you’re the completionist type, who loves bragging rights and hunting for Trophies and Achievements -- absolutely. If you’re after a new next-gen experience but can’t see yourself moving past the main campaign, I’d say this is probably not for you, at least not unless you have money to burn. It’s a terrific little package brimming with options to replay, but it’s not a large play-space by any measure, and there’s not a huge amount of variation on scenery or tone. This one boils down to preference.
Just hurry up with The Phantom Pain already, Hideo.