Ever since I randomly picked up a conspicuous looking Metal Gear NES catridge in 1990, I've been enjoying Snake's adventures. I've collected every Metal Gear game released in the US, and while I'm busy waiting for the next entry, I'm keeping up with the encyclopedic amount of data that fills the series' lore -- which is a task all on its own.
And wait we shall, as Phantom Pain is still completely up in the air regarding its release date, leaving Kojima and crew to satiate our needs with Ground Zeroes. But even as a fan, there are a few shortcomings that make me hesitant to call Zeroes a "must have" franchise entry, despite how fun it might be.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4 [reviewed])
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release: March 18, 2014
Price: $29.99 (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4) $19.99 (Xbox 360 & PS3 digital versions)
It's important that you understand what Ground Zeroes is before you proceed any further. For $30 at retail (and $20 digitally for 360 and PS3), you're embarking upon a taste of what's to come with the "real" Metal Gear Solid V entry that's yet to release -- Phantom Pain. Zeroes provides only one story mission in a sandbox that's roughly the size of the entire Tanker section in Metal Gear Solid 2, with a select few bonus scenarios that take place in the exact same sandbox.
The thing is though, Ground Zeroes is built to be played multiple times, and fully explored. The open world may not be massive, but it's large enough to mess around in for hours on end until you find everything. If you're just rushing through the story though, expect to spend around an hour or so, tops. You're also going to get very little in terms of exposition -- to the point where you could sum up the entire game's plot in a few sentences.
If you're lost as to what's happened so far you can choose the backstory option from the main menu, which gives you a comprehensive brief on the events of Peace Walker by way of text. The tale follows Big Boss and Kazuhira Miller as they kick off a rescue mission, and attempt to extract Chico and Paz -- characters Peace Walker fans will be familiar with. Again, there isn't much in the way of a narrative here, and outside of a short movie at the very end, there aren't many shocking moments the series is known for -- not even a boss fight.
As you may have heard Kiefer Sutherland has replaced David Hayter as the voice of "Snake," and he's done a pretty good job filling the iconic role. It's really weird at first as you can tell he's sort of acclimating, but you get used to it, especially considering that Kaz does most of the talking. I'm still not convinced David Hayter is completely out of the picture, and will make a surprise appearance in Phantom Pain as "Solid" to Kiefer's "Boss." For now though, Sutherland is not a deal breaker -- and this is coming from someone who loved Hayter.
Jack Bauer's voice isn't the only change in Ground Zeroes though, as the game has taken a decidedly more action-oriented direction. A lot of the modifications are tiny, but they all add up in the end, namely -- no more cardboard box, no more "flip roll," no more long codec conversations, no more rations, and no more knocking on walls. The most divisive ones for fans are no doubt going to be the lack of a box and rations -- the latter of which is replaced by the popular "regenerating health" mechanic that is seen in many first-person shooter games today.
You'll also see a few more "modern" designs slip through, like the "marking" of enemies from Assassin's Creed and later Splinter Cell games, as well as a "slo-mo" ability that gives Snake a chance take out an enemy before he calls for reinforcements. You'll also have an iDroid device that lets you view the entire map, as well as enemies that you've marked and important objectives. Before everyone starts accusing Kojima of going casual, know that these absolutely don't take away from the game in any way, not to mention the fact that Hard mode renders the two former "powers" moot.
The thing is, all of these changes in general don't take away from the core essence of Metal Gear Solid. From the get-go the emphasis is still on stealth, and Snake is just as formidable as he always has been. Like Metal Gear Solid 4 before it, which sought to add more options outside of pure stealth, Ground Zeroes expands your arsenal even further with jeeps, tanks, and anti-aircraft guns. Using stealth, tranquilizing guards, and knocking them out with CQC is still an option, but you also have more tactics at your disposal should you want to go in guns blazing. It's completely up to you, and I like that either option works.
What this does is it allows you to approach extended replays of the game's missions any way you want. Remember how fun it was to throw people overboard when you first messed around in Metal Gear Solid 2's Tanker? There are a still a lot of enjoyable moments here made possible by the new Fox Engine, and Ground Zeroes is basically your oyster. If you want to load up a jeep full of C4, ram it into a group of enemies and blow it up -- you can totally do that, all with zero load times.
It must be said that the game looks absolutely stunning, especially on a current generation console. For the purposes of this review my time was mostly spent playing it on the PS4, which features glorious 1080p (over the 720p on the Xbox One), and the power of the new engine is immediately apparent from your first helicopter touchdown. The rain effects, the lightning, the way enemy raincoats sway in the wind -- it's all mesmerizing, and truly, an excuse to show off your shiny new console. All of these touches add the gameplay as well, particularly the lightning, which makes it easier to see when you're in danger of being spotted.
Once you're done messing about in the pouring rain with the main mission, you can access a few other levels with brand new objectives and new lightning conditions. There's one that involves assassinating two VIPs solely based on their portraits, another involving the destruction of anti-aircraft guns, a search and recover mission, and even a bonus level that's exclusive to Sony or Microsoft. These take even less time to complete than the core story, but again, they are built for multiple replays to go for the highest score on the highest difficulty. This is taken a step further with full leaderboard support to compare scores with your friends, and "challenges" that pop up on the screen like "longest shot" and so on.
Having said that, I really wish that Kojima Productions went through the effort of making all of these missions feel different, environmentally. Although playing a level in the bright sun is decidedly different than at night, it's tough to shake the familiar feeling of playing the same map over and over. All it would have taken is the cordoning off of certain areas or a few new indoor locations to scratch that itch.
It's also disappointing that Ground Zeroes doesn't add that much to the overall narrative, as almost everything plot-wise has already been shown in trailers that debuted months ago. Of course there's that patented "Kojima tease" at the end, but this time around it would have been nice to get even one boss fight or something substantial. I'm going to be playing Ground Zeroes for quite some time, but not nearly as long as I would have liked with just a few more extras.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is not for everyone. I can't stress how underwhelming the game will be if you aren't a huge fan of the series, or you can't see yourself playing in the same sandbox enough to really get your money's worth. But for everyone else that can't wait to get even a taste of Phantom Pain, it's worth the budget price of entry -- especially on a current-gen console.