Snake is back.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes was the first part announced in the two-part storyline that, together, makes up Metal Gear Solid V. With Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain a significant distance away, Konami and Kojima Productions decided to release this slice of the full package to the public for around $30. Players are split, however, on many issues: Is this truly a glorified demo? Is it worth the asking price? Is it any good? Let’s find out
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Publisher: Square Enix
Release date: February 25th, 2014
Platform(s): 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4 (reviewed)
No More War Games
Fully understanding the story of any Metal Gear game at this point means grasping the overarching plot of an over 25-year-long franchise. Ground Zeroes keeps it short, though beware- spoilers for the previous installment, Peace Walker, are what kick off the adventure.
Snake, or Big Boss depending on who you ask, is now in command of a nuclear-equipped private army with the world’s eyes upon them. He and his Lieutenant, Kazuhira Miller, are preparing for a weapons inspection when they catch word that Chico, a former companion, and Paz, a former foe, have turned up in U.S.-run prison camp in Cuba. Snake sets out to retrieve the pair, and along the way comes face-to-face with the horrors of a black ops site beyond legal jurisdiction and the machinations of his greatest foe.
The plot of Ground Zeroes is very, very, very, very short. Clocking in at an hour and a half if taken at a slow pace, there really isn’t enough room for much of a plot to develop- but it’s impressive that enough happens in the time provided. The story goes to some ridiculously dark places, particularly if the player decides to seek out hidden tapes which tell the sad, gruesome story of Chico and Paz’s imprisonment, and it’s here that players may be split.
Some of the content in this brief game alone is going to shock a lot of people. Metal Gear Solid V, we can now see, is not the anime-esque, kind-of campy adventure that we’re used to. These enemies are pure, raw evil, and we can already tell that this is going in a direction that is dark, intense, and cruel. I would lay down a trigger warning for viewers who are sensitive to themes of sexual assault, violence against and torture of children, and the murder of innocent people. Which, I can imagine, may not be a small group of people.
Let it be known that the plot here, while brief, is very different in tone from what series regulars may be expecting. It’s also a tantalizing glimpse of where The Phantom Pain will go, and the final cinematic contains elements both brutal and absolutely riveting.
I Like Some Alone Time Now and Then
If the gameplay in The Phantom Pain is as fluid, entertaining, and challenging as it is in Ground Zeroes, we are in for something pretty great.
Controlling Snake just feels good, helped by the game’s amazing animations. He moves at just the right pace, changes stances at just the right speed, and in a combat situation- where this series has always struggled- you can gun foes down with just the right level of accuracy.
Our hero’s move set has expanded, and while the controls took me a little while to get used to, after a while I was ghosting through Camp Omega with ease. Every new area feels like a puzzle to solve- where am I going? What am I trying to do? What stands between it and me?
Most of Snake’s new moves and gadgets were very welcome: being able to mark enemies using your binoculars helps immensely when scouting ahead, the not-at-all-1970s holographic radar allowed for me to plan my missions out with ease, and the little tweaks made to improve the flow of his movements were great.
If you have a friend present, I highly recommend downloading the iDroid companion app. The app allows you to look at a map of the area updated live with your activities and marked enemies, and a heat map gives just enough information to have an idea what lies ahead but not enough to make it easy. Playing with my girlfriend acting as mission control using the device was quite a lot of fun, though I never felt like the addition robbed the game of its challenge.
What might rob the game of its challenge is the new “focus mode,” which is the name for the game entering slo-mo when spotted by an enemy: kill him in that period of time and he won’t alert anyone else. While it does help- the area has many open spaces, the guards are numerous, and all of them have excellent sight- it can feel cheap. I was caught quite a few times, but often it was for silly reasons: having my pistol equipped and unable to quickly shoot out a foe at range, or an enemy miraculously seeing me through a wall.
The addition of drivable vehicles is puzzling, but will likely make more sense in The Phantom Pain’s significantly larger open world. They control better than I thought they would, but I still never really found them useful. Camp Omega is spacious, but not worthy of a road trip, and escaping from a combat situation in a truck only ever resulted in my truck being blown up.
In the end, the gameplay’s biggest problem in Ground Zeroes is that there isn’t much of it. After the main story is finished, the player has access to less than a half dozen side missions- all of which are really fun, but none of which feel substantial.
You're a Real Man Now, Soldier
The presentation, though. Holy Jesus Christ.
Observing Snake’s perfectly motion-captured face during a cinematic shows droplets of rain sliding down his cheek, the individual hairs in his beard, the perfectly textured wrinkles on his face. Cloth physics are perfect, flapping dramatically- and realistically. The lens flares, overdramatic at first, are a perfect blend of cinematic direction and gameplay pragmatism- with spotlights that dramatically lit, it’s easier to plan ahead and know what to look out for.
Ground Zeroes’ main story is set during a rain storm, and I’m confident in calling it the most convincing storm I’ve ever played within. The patter of rain on the ground, the flowing wind, the streaks of rainwater running down every one of the varied and detailed character models. It’s amazing to watch and play, and in the Playstation 4 version’s full-blown 60 frames per second, it simply has to be seen in action.
The audio design, my god. Explosions pack a punch, footsteps across any terrain in any weather condition sound simply perfect, every one of Snake’s movements are met with just the right noise from his suit and equipment. It’s phenomenal. And met with a great, if so far subdued, soundtrack and an excellent voice cast, it’s hard to see or hear much wrong.
Yes, that’s right: Excellent voice cast. You know what I mean. Kiefer Sutherland’s Snake is excellent, honoring the legendarily gruff and low performance of David Hayter but taking his performance in a rougher, more raw direction to match the tone of the experience. Snake isn’t as chatty as he has been in the past, but when he speaks, it just works.
The cutscenes, what sadly few there are, are brilliantly directed: Hideo Kojima has opted to shoot with a single camera for the entire game, no cuts from gameplay to cinematic and no cuts even within the cinematics. It’s a daring, challenging technique, and it pays off. There simply aren’t any other cinematic directors in the industry experimenting like this, and for the first time in the Metal Gear series, I was wishing there weremorecinematics just so I could continue to see it in action. Kojima Productions has set a ridiculously high bar here, and it only goes to further prove that if The Phantom Pain is truly “hundreds” of times larger than Ground Zeroes with this level of quality, it really is going to take some time.
This Pirate Crackdown's a Go
I don’t believe the price of a game should factor into a review. Were I to do so, by that logic, I would be required to change this review when the game’s price eventually goes down. What I will say is that now, in Q1 of 2014, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is priced at $30, and right now only Metal Gear fanatics should apply.
You see, what’s here is excellent- all of it, truly. When my biggest problem with a game is “there isn’t enough of it,” that’s not a bad problem to have. There’s not enough of it, but what’s here is really, really impressive.
Taken for what it is: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a gripping, thrilling, polished experience, and I’d be crazy to say that about anything but an excellent game.