Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is short and brutal. As I completed my first play through of the main campaign – clocking in at just a hair under two hours – I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had just experienced the revitalization of the franchise, and what had been served up in that short time was just the right amount of Snake to prepare people for the upcoming Phantom Pain game. The abbreviated experience of Ground Zeroes allows the full gravitas of the Metal Gear Solid series to return to the forefront; anything more would have been overkill. That said, the game still manages to pack a punch with plenty of options for replay available to tide fans over until the longer game is released sometime in 2015.
A word to veterans of the series: I say Ground Zeroes is an “abbreviated” experience not just because of the short length of the campaign. Those who are familiar with the Metal Gear games will recognize that many of the hallmark elements have been stripped down or taken out entirely. There are few cut scenes, no boss fights, minimal radio conversations, and other familiar GUI elements like the radar and the life and psych bars are absent. The game opens with a long and beautiful cut scene that establishes the premise and then deposits you in control of Snake in front of the base you must infiltrate. This is just enough to make you feel like you’re playing a Metal Gear game, and from there the focus is almost entirely on how you conduct the stealth mission.
The controls mark another departure from past conventions. This was actually a problem for me in the first few minutes of gameplay as I had to adjust to the “shooter” control scheme. Aiming and attacking are handled with the shoulder triggers now, while the in-game inventory is accessed via the D-Pad. The face buttons perform their usual functions (i.e., Triangle is the “Action” button), and obviously character movement and camera control are achieved with the analog sticks. The control pattern feels closer to that of the portable game Peace Walker than the previous console games. I can’t say that I’m the biggest fan of this button mapping but it is adequate. I should mention that you can choose between four control configurations in Game Options: Shooter A and B and Action A and B. Despite my reservations about the controls I didn’t feel compelled enough to try something different. The most important aspect is that navigating around and interacting with the game world should be easy, which it is.
Speaking of the game world, Ground Zeroes is graphically stunning as expected. The natural environment on the periphery is a rocky cliff, complete with wind worn stone and cacti. The base itself is composed of barricades, guard houses, watch towers, a large administration building surrounded by smaller ones, tents, and a utility road that runs throughout the place. It all looks and feels very lived in, with a pleasing amount of variation in building textures that gives off the utilitarian sense of “function over form” that one might expect of a military base. The campaign mode takes place at night during a rain storm, which makes Ground Zeroes feel very reminiscent of the Tanker chapter of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. This setting also gives a chance to showcase interesting light and shadow effects, both from static sources such as lamp posts and smaller dynamic sources like the search lights and individual flashlights of the guards. Sticking to the shadows is an important part of the gameplay strategy, and the discomfort of being exposed too long in a relatively well light area is palatable. It all comes together nicely to provide a menacing environment to sneak around in, with a decent mix of obstacles that can either serve as cover and hiding spots or hinder your progress into areas you want to get into. Additionally this same world can be played in during the clear day time once you have unlocked side missions, and the striking contrast between day and night gives even more visual credibility to the already very realistic game level. It also provides a very different gameplay experience.
Sneaking is obviously the meat of the gameplay of Ground Zeroes. The freedom of choice given to the player can be a little intimidating, and the game quickly recommends that you gather information with your binoculars, which gives you a closer look at the layout of the base and marks soldiers as they move around. The binoculars are hot keyed to the R1 trigger and interestingly it is also equipped with a microphone for listening in on conversations. The other way to access information is through the “iDroid” subscreen. Snake can call up an area map, make radio calls for game tips, listen to cassette tapes for more information about the mission, and summon his chopper for extraction at certain points. Given the lack of a radar on the HUD, the onscreen tags provided by the binoculars and the iDroid functions become very important parts of the gameplay – if you’re trying to avoid enemy encounters that is. Snake can do this easily, as there is a helpful visual cue that lights up the screen when you have aroused the suspicion of a guard or have been flat out detected. It is possible to go in guns blazing, but that does feel a little like a violation of the spirit of the game. Not to mention the marine guards will quickly overwhelm you as it seems like they spawn out of every location imaginable.
Despite the ability to investigate the world on my own, I found myself making a beeline for where I felt the next objective areas lay. In Ground Zeroes you’re charged with rescuing two hostages, the significance of these individuals will only be apparent to you if you’ve played Peace Walker, the game in the storyline that immediately precedes Ground Zeroes. Finding the first hostage is relatively straight forward, but finding the second requires a bit of detective work: a combination of listening to a cassette tape for clues and getting information from the soldiers in a variety of ways. I managed to blunder my way to the second hostage eventually, though in terms of pacing I was half expecting a boss fight or similar confrontation to happen at that point. It didn’t feel “easy” in that sense: it took me a few tries to carry the hostage to a helicopter extraction point all the way across the map. But it does make the end game feel abrupt. There’s another long cut scene, parts of which are very gory, and the credits roll. True to the Metal Gear tradition there’s a brief conversation on the end title card after the credits, and you’re given a summary of how well you did clearing the mission. I managed to get a “B” ranking on my first try, and I do feel compelled to try for a better clear score now that I know my way around a little better.
If you’re a fan of the Metal Gear Solid series, chances are you’ve already bought Ground Zeroes or it’s on your buy list. It feels that this game is just right for fans who absolutely do not want to wait until sometime next year to play “next gen” Metal Gear. I just want to reiterate that this is merely the prologue chapter. After you’ve completed it the remaining challenge is in trying to 100% the game through the various alternate modes and side missions. The side missions are a little bit more produced than I had expected which was a pleasant surprise and extends the shelf life a bit more in my opinion. More casual fans may have a harder time justifying the $30 price tag for what amounts to a very short game with lots of challenge modes thrown in to counterbalance that fact. The game certainly has stellar production values, and it can show you what the PS4 is really capable of doing. I can envision myself playing Ground Zeroes for a while trying for all of the unlockable content, but it remains to be seen if all this is will be enough to last until the Phantom Pain drops. Metal Gear fans should check it out to take in all the changes to the franchise and the improvements to the overall Tactical Espionage experience. All others may be wise to wait for a further price reduction to see what all the fuss is about, or until we get closer to the actual release date of the larger Phantom Pain installment.