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Exclamation marks popping up over guards’ heads. A heavy emphasis on stealth and incapacitating enemies over running, gunning and killing. A convoluted story that will only make a lick of sense to a select few. Slick gameplay, equally slick visuals and a hero with a gravelly voice. There’s no questioning whether or not Ground Zeroes is a Metal Gear Solid game, but does it live up to the storied franchise that has kept players coming back for more over the past 20 years?
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes garnered a heck of a lot of attention leading up to this week’s launch on the PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. Fans were initially upset that the longtime voice of Snake, David Hayter, had been replaced by Jack Bauer himself, Kiefer Sutherland. There was talk of surprisingly adult content, including graphic gore and references to rape. Then, more recently, rumor got around that the main campaign, a single mission into a prisoner camp and military compound, could be completed in less than two hours. The short length was especially controversial because of the price of the game, originally set at $40 for next gen consoles and eventually dropped down to $30.
Let’s begin by addressing each of those elephants in the room in short order, then give the game the assessment and attention it deserves, shall we? For starters, Snake doesn’t do a heck of a lot of talking in Ground Zeroes but, when he does open his mouth, Sutherland does a fine job of getting close to that classic Snake growl without going too far overboard. He sounds more like a real person which, given director Hideo Kojima’s plans to make The Phantom Pain a more grounded experience, feels totally appropriate.
The ESRB rating was spot on when it comes to the game’s content, too. The Metal Gear series has never really shied away from controversial or adult material, but its tongue-in-cheek approach in the past made it hard to believe that Ground Zeroes would feature scenes of a bomb being pulled out of a woman’s gut or references to a violent rape. Both of those instances occur in Ground Zeroes, along with a couple of surprisingly graphic moments in cutscenes, but, again, it feels totally appropriate given Kojima’s decision to wash away most of the sugar coating that’s kept the series from being too serious in the past. Most of the graphic content is unavoidable but, if you’d prefer to keep away from the rape-related content, simply do not listen to “Chico tape 4” when you come across it in the field.
Finally, there’s the price and length of the game. My initial run through the main mission took about two-and-a-half hours, but a hefty chunk of that time (around an hour) was the result of getting lost during the second half of a rescue op and discovering, much to my embarrassment, that I had completely missed a stairwell that was pretty much in plain sight. I will not, however, speak to the price of the game. Whether or not what Ground Zeroes has to offer is worth $30 (or $20 digitally on PS3/360) is entirely up to you. Instead, I’ll take you on a journey through the content on the disc which, all things considered, is quite a bit more than you might realize at first blush.
Before jumping into the game, the first thing you’ll want to do is select the menu option that lets you read the 11-page rundown of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. It’s quite a bit to digest and so full of names, places, acronyms and plot twists that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to fully grasp what the hell is going on, but it’s the only way you’re going to get a better idea of what your main mission in Ground Zeroes actually is. Otherwise, you’re basically dropped into a rainy military base and told you’re supposed to rescue two hostages. That’s all the set-up you get, meaning series newbies will likely feel a bit confused as far as the story is concerned. Even the prologue leaves you feeling a bit too hollow, though it serves well enough as a direct lead-in to the proper Metal Gear Solid V, The Phantom Pain.
And that is perhaps the best way to think of Ground Zeroes. This is the sort of content that would typically be served up as a particularly hefty bit of prequel DLC after a game has already been released. It’s not a full game in its own right, nor is it “just a demo.”
The world here is wide open, and the player is left to explore it however they see fit. You receive plenty of guidance about the “best” way to accomplish your goals, but how you get from point A to point B is entirely up to you. There are entire sections of the compound that you don’t even need to visit and, if you feel compelled to see it all before completing the mission, I imagine your playtime would be increased by another hour or two. Along the way you’ll discover loads of guards to outsmart, a couple of types of collectables to gather, and even weapon caches that will greatly improve your options and chances of making it out of a firefight alive.
This being a Metal Gear game, stealth and non-lethal tactics are encouraged, but are by no means mandatory. Playing like a slithering serpent will result in fewer enemies to handle and far less sprinting, dodging and crawling under various objects in the hopes that you’ll be left alone long enough to heal. If your sneaky efforts go sideways, however, the combat controls and available arsenal are more than enough to get the job done. You can only take a few shots before you’re down for the count, though, so don’t think you’re going to roll in guns a-blazing and come out unscathed.
The new control scheme works nicely, even if it is a dramatic departure from previous Solid games. Your inventory is now controlled with the D-pad, freeing up the shoulder buttons, and you now have a handy little device that lets you check out the map, set markers, listen to recordings, call for a chopper, etc.
The other major changes include the elimination of med packs (Snake now heals over time or can use a never-ending supply of med spray if he can find a good hiding place) and the lack of an ever-present radar. Healing is slow and inconvenient enough to make taking damage feel like a penalty, which is good, and the new “marking” system is, again, more realistic. Look at an enemy long enough through your binoculars and you’ll sort of ping them in your view, meaning that Snake will basically remember that they are walking about. Get too hasty and forget to scout an area, and you’re likely to walk straight into an enemy soldier.
Playing on the PlayStation 4, Ground Zeroes looks and sounds absolutely amazing. There are enough options available that make me actually want to go back in and try to tackle the main mission in different ways, as well as explore areas I only passed through on my first run. But when the credits rolled, I couldn’t help but feel a bit unfulfilled. There isn’t a big enough player-controlled moment at the end to feel like a proper exclamation point to close out the action. As I said earlier, the story is only the opening lines in what is clearly going to be an epic war story once Phantom Pain finally gets here. I was absolutely impressed with the game in terms of technical achievement and what it foreshadows, in terms of gameplay, for the game proper. On its own, though, I felt like quite a bit of “oomph” was missing from the punch.
Aside from the main mission, there’s quite a bit more on offer within Ground Zeroes for those who don’t mind digging. As I said above, the main mission has a lot of nooks, crannies and secrets you will only discover if you’re willing to put in the work. Similarly, there are oodles of audio recordings available for those who want to flesh out the story a bit, additional intel to read through, and a handful of additional missions that take you back to the same camp under different parameters. You’ll explore the area in different weather and times of day, this time set on locating certain objects, taking out certain targets, etc. It’s nice to have these extra objectives but, after a while, you’ll likely grow tired of retreading the same ground and hunger for that next legitimate chapter in the story.
All in all, Ground Zeroes has made me very excited for The Phantom Pain to finally arrive, even if there’s no telling when that might actually happen. Taken as an appetizer meant to set the table for the main course, it absolutely achieves its goal. It’s just disappointing that this first taste of Metal Gear Solid V lacked much flavor or enough content to sate my appetite for the time being.
Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 (reviewed), PS3
Developer: Kojima Productions