Snake is driving Jeep! How can this be?!
Considering that the series just celebrated its 25th anniversary, it might seem a little odd that Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is only the fifth game in the series. However, if you’re counting Peace Walker, it’s the sixth, and the seventh if you include Portable Ops, too. If you're counting every game with the words "Metal Gear" in the title, it's something like the thirteenth game in the series.
Plenty of other game franchises would've retired or rebooted by now (and plenty have) but somehow, this one manages to consistently reinvent itself, all the while staying within the confines of the same universe. Ground Zeroes makes some of the most drastic changes the series has seen in over a decade, while still managing to feel familiar.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 [Previewed])
The main mission of Ground Zeroes takes place a matter of months after Peace Walker, and twenty years before the original Metal Gear. Returning characters Paz (whose allegiances are unknown) and Chico have been captured by XOF, a newly introduced organization whose motives are unclear, aside from being bad guys. It’s up to Snake to sneak quietly into Camp Omega, where Paz and Chico are being held, locate them, and carry them a safe distance from the base for extraction.
So, basically, if you’re fuzzy about the plot, or are a newcomer to the series looking for a good point of entry, you’ll probably need to do some homework to make sense of the story beyond “a gruff man with an eye-patch must rescue teenagers from the clutches of a shadowy paramilitary organization.” In terms of gameplay however, Ground Zeroes is easily the biggest overhaul to Tactical Espionage Action since the jump between Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2, and for this overhaul, it seems to have taken some cues from other game franchises.
For starters, first-person view is gone. [Correction: first-person aiming is still there.] Snake primarily does his shooting in third-person, with the left trigger letting him aim more closely, in a fashion that should be familiar to us at this point. To switch into first-person, it's a matter of tapping the R1 button while aiming. The weapon selection and item management has been relegated to the D-pad. The health gauge is gone, and Snake will recover automatically as long as he stays out of harm’s way for a moment. Basically, the same regenerative health system you’ll find in most modern action games.
If he’s in really rough shape, an on-screen cue will appear to apply some form of health-spray, which will make him grimace in agony. Seriously, Snake? It’s probably just Bactine, calm down. Call me old fashioned, but I miss the silliness of hiding in a ventilation shaft and binge-eating rations to recover from half a dozen gunshot wounds.
Along with the health gauge and dual scrolling inventory slots, another thing absent from the HUD is anything resembling soliton radar or active sonar. Tracking guards now depends on tagging them, either by spying on them through binoculars, or by hovering the reticle on them long enough while in range. After doing this, a flag will appear above their heads. It’s very similar to the system in Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry 3. Once tagged, the exact position of enemies can be seen on the map, accessible from Snake’s iDroid device.
The iDroid is a portable device that’s also used to access intel and call in your chopper, and is the most anachronistic addition to Metal Gear Solid since Cold War-era giant robots. What’s interesting is that bringing up the iDroid doesn’t pause the game, which can lead to some fairly tense moments. I’d compare it to the on-the-fly crafting system in The Last Of Us; checking the map and calling a chopper are crucial parts of gameplay, so why should the entire game stop down and wait for you?
In addition to checking your iDroid, all radio conversations take place in-game. Kaz Miller will periodically chime in with tidbits of intel about your surroundings as you are playing. If you’d like more details about something you encounter (an APC, a guard tower, a security camera, etc) you can point your reticle at it and give Miller a call with a tap of the R1 button, and he’ll briefly give you intel. I really hope this is indication that The Phantom Pain’s story will be more smoothly integrated into the gameplay itself, instead of through exposition-laden codec conversations or long-winded PowerPoint presentations between missions.
Snake himself has a number of new abilities. One of the more controversial abilities is "Reflex Mode," which is a brief moment of slow-motion bullet-time that's triggered upon Snake's discovery. The concern is that this will make the game too easy, but I don't think it's the case. In fact, points are actually docked for each use of the ability. In any case, on the "Hard" difficulty setting, neither the enemy-tagging nor reflex mode features are available.
The big, huge, obvious change Ground Zeroes makes to the Metal Gear Solid formula is its transition into open-world. The series has always granted players a fair amount of freedom in how to approach situations, but Ground Zeroes is almost completely wide open. In addition to that, there’s the added element of verticality, and Snake can make his way up on certain rooftops fairly easily. Don't expect him to be parkour-ing up the sides of buildings, but it's a welcome addition. Oh, Snake can also pick locks, but it's really just a matter of holding down the action button by a door and waiting for him to do his thing.
Unfortunately, it seems as though some sacrifices have been made for the sake of the game’s scale. For instance, there’s nothing resembling a boss fight in Ground Zeroes, which will undoubtedly be a letdown for some fans given Hideo Kojima’s amazing track record for cool boss fights. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Ground Zeroes also feels lacking in quirky details, and the odd touches that have always made Metal Gear Solid games so unique. There are no lockers to hide in, or to use for storing unconscious guards. There are no cigarettes or cigars or girly magazines, at least not that I came across. Worst of all, there’s no cardboard box. I have confirmation on that, there's no box.
Ground Zeroes also adds vehicles into the mix. As far as controls go, they’re a simplified version of the driving in any modern sandbox game. Don’t expect to be getting any insane stunt bonuses, but it’s enough to get around.
There’s obvious stupid fun to be had, like stealing jeeps and using them to run over guards, or knocking several guards unconscious, loading them into a Jeep, and driving it off a cliff, but vehicles can also be key when quickly completing missions. Driving might be faster than crawling, but it’s also a lot louder and even if you’re going the speed limit, riding around in a large diesel truck will attract the attention of guards. But that’s if you’re behind the wheel. Another option is to hop in the back when no one’s looking, gathering recon of the base while the truck goes about its routine. In addition to Jeeps and trucks, there’s also an APC with a fully functional cannon on it, if you feel like throwing stealth to the wind and blowing stuff up instead.
The helicopter plays a major role, thought it’s less of a vehicle and more of a replacement for the Fulton Recovery System from Peace Walker. While it’s slightly less absurd than tying weather balloons to unconscious guards and sending them airborne, there’s still something rather silly about concluding your top-secret covert mission by calling in a noisy helicopter that’s blaring the Peace Walker theme or Ride Of The Valkyries out of its PA system. Yep, that’s right. You can set a custom ringtone for your helicopter.
Shortly after you select a landing zone on your map, a chopper will arrive at that point, and any prisoners you’ve brought to that spot can be loaded onboard. In the main mission, rescuing additional prisoners aside from Chico and Paz only adds to your score/ranking at the end of the mission, though considering the presence of a second-screen app devoted to running Motherbase, it’s possible that retrieving prisoners in The Phantom Pain could play a role similar to the recruiting of NPCs to the MSF in Peace Walker. After all, Snake is “Big Boss.” Managerial skills are part of his job title.
If you’ve been following coverage of Ground Zeroes, you might’ve heard about the presence of “side-missions” amidst the main campaign. I sort of assumed that these would be secondary objectives that could be completed during the course of the main mission. In reality, they’re more like VR Missions; completely separate challenges that make use of the same map, but with different objectives and placement of enemies.
While The Phantom Pain promises a real-time day-night cycle, the time of day and weather conditions in Ground Zeroes depend strictly on which mission you’re playing. The main “Ground Zeroes” mission is set on a dark and stormy night, affording Snake plenty of hiding spots. One side-mission, in which Snake has to assassinate a pair of targets, is set in broad daylight, giving the guards much better visibility and eliminating the option of keeping Snake in the shadows. I’ll probably be booed offstage for saying it, but … the difference is like night and day.
I know one the biggest concerns people have about Ground Zeroes is its length. After Game Informer announced that they’d beaten the main mission in under two hours, the internet had a hissy fit. During my time with the game, I completed the core "Ground Zeroes" mission twice, as well as playing the other missions (with varying degrees of success) and it’s clear that this is a game meant to played repeatedly. If you're the type of player who likes to screw around and explore, and really mess with enemy AI, you'll most likely have a blast. If you're the type of player who's hell-bent on achieving "Big Boss" rank on extreme difficulty, this is probably also up your alley. If you're the type of player who falls somewhere in the middle, it's a tougher call to make.
Ground Zeroes has been framed as an introduction to the new mechanics of The Phantom Pain, and a prologue to its story. I’ve often said, mostly kidding, that my favorite game in the series is the Metal Gear Solid 2 demo disc that came packed in with Zone Of The Enders. Others have expressed similar sentiment towards the demo for the first Metal Gear Solid. I would say Ground Zeroes is very much comparable to those.
The layout of Camp Omega feels reminiscent of the first few areas of MGS1, and the new mechanics like driving and climbing are as novel as arranging the bodies of unconscious guards in lewd positions, or hiding in lockers in MGS2. While I feel like I’ve experienced a lot of what the game has to offer, that doesn’t stop me from wanting to play more of it, and if the goal here was to whet my appetite for The Phantom Pain, I’d say mission accomplished.
Still, it really sucks about that cardboard box.
You can finally see the Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain E3 gameplay tomorrow
4:30 PM on 06.18.2014