Metal Gear Solid has been in something of a steady decline over recent years. I actually consider Metal Gear Solid 4 as the most overrated game of the last generation. It’s not a bad game by any stretch, in fact some of the most memorable moments for me in the Metal Gear series are to be found in Metal Gear Solid 4. Nevertheless clumsy, antiquated gameplay and tiring story development and focus left a sour taste in my mouth. It felt very much like Kojima himself was becoming jaded; tying himself into knots and struggling to shake the burden of his legacy, no matter how enthralling it was. Kojima had to return to the roots of what made his brand of stealth so popular, whilst bringing a new sensibility and accessibility to his game design. Ground Zeroes might only be snack sized in comparison to the main course to be that is The Phantom Pain – allegedly some 200 times larger(?!) – But an invigorated Kojima may have just served up one of the most appetizing and enjoyable stealth experiences in recent memory.
Set in 1975, as Big Boss you are tasked with infiltrating camp Omega and rescuing Chico and Paz, returning characters from Peace Walker. In uncharacteristic fashion for a Metal Gear, this is where the exposition starts and ends. Of course there is more to the narrative, introducing a couple more characters and fleshing out the context with regards to why you must carry out this mission, but uncharacteristically Ground Zeros is light on story. Metal Gear games were always drawn out, often exaggerated expressions that raised numerous questions of modern society and geopolitics, proxy wars and nuclear proliferation to name a couple. The truncated story arc and minimal narrative direction may displease ardent fans, but it is unequivocally a positive move in what is, for all intents and purposes, a Metal Gear rebirth.
Kojima is on a mission to make Metal Gear relevant again, having thankfully been self-aware enough to realise that it was losing its appeal and gravitas. But instead of adding more obfuscating niceties akin to the likes of octo-camo say, Ground Zeros is very much back to basics stealth. There are no fancy gadgets here, just you, a rudimentary device which stores your map and collectibles and a world of almost infinite possibilities. The true achievement of Ground Zeroes is that it is capable of adapting to whatever the player demands it to be. Stealth may be the most natural means to progress, but Ground Zeroes also provides enough of an arsenal should the player want to mess with the sandbox provided. Neither however can be achieved, or at least won’t provide an appropriately satisfying experience without great exploratory diligence.
Camp Omega is one of the most expertly designed playgrounds to grace the medium. There is very little sugar coating or visual fluff in Camp Omega; everything is situated where it is for a specific reason that facilitates seamless transitions from one area to the next. Crates, grass patches, air vents; they all serve a particular purpose and only ever amount to being absolutely essential to uncover if you are to achieve the best possible rankings. With only a real-time device to check your map in favour of an omnipresent safety net in the corner of the screen, analysis and memorization is paramount to uncovering not just Camp Omega’s most elusive secrets, but Camp Omega itself. Every playthrough is its own unique story; its own special event that can never be repeated. With ‘solid’ A.I. implementation, a wealth of paths to follow and an excellent risk-reward balance, Ground Zeroes allows the player to mold this malleable playground into whatever shape they desire, very much conforming to the adage of quality over quantity. I’m inclined to agree.
That being said, we can’t ignore the semantic arguments that have raged since its release. Is it a demo? Is it a full-release? Well, in truth the answer is not so black and white. While it serves as a prequel to The Phantom Pain, you won’t be right or wrong regarding which side of the fence you sit on concerning the game’s content and objectives. It has to be said that numbers don’t shine Ground Zeroes in a positive light: 68 minutes first playthrough, six missions (generally shorter than the main ‘campaign’), one map. All of this for £30 next gen and £20 current gen? Ground Zeroes doesn’t present itself favorably stacked against statistics, but like camp Omega, it would be somewhat prejudicial to concentrate on these arbitrary, one dimensional figures and instead open yourself to the immense experience the game provides. The numbers become even less meaningful once you’ve realized that you’re still having a ridiculous amount of fun 12 hours in. Yes its light on content, yes it’s probably overpriced ever if you only intend to play through everything once over. That being said, I guarantee you will repeat missions several times because it’s that good.
Given that Ground Zeroes is a cross- gen release, the underlying technology has to accommodate for the lowest common denominator, in this case the 360 and PS3. Testing on the 360 platform, it holds up extremely well to other modern releases from last gen, with lighting in particular the star of the show. The 360 version may lack the dynamic, volumetric sky technology of the PS4, but it still presents a clean a clinical presentation that comes pretty close to mimicking the conditions of real life. Of course texture filtering and quality are hit miss and jaggies are omnipresent, but once you’re immersed in the stealth sandbox that Ground Zeroes provides these will be of little concern.
Where Ground Zeroes excels is in its authentic approach, far removed from the fantastical vibrancy many games adhere to. Depending on conditions Ground Zeroes can look and feel appropriately depressing or positive without ever going over the top, constantly directing the presentation with an acute pragmatism. Every saturated rain mac and blinding spotlight acts and acts as you’d expect and it’s a welcome departure from often incomprehensible visual styles. Kojima’s pursuit of photo-realism may not be fully realized on the 360 but it’s a valiant effort that is worthy of praise, even if some cut scenes and stretches of the game dip below the smooth 30fps threshold.
Whether Ground Zeroes is an unabashed, glorified demo, or a palatable slice of gaming that satiates the Metal Gear Solid fanboy in us until The Phantom Pain’s release, will ultimately boil down to how you play and what your expectations are. Yes the main event, so to speak, can be completed in under 2 hours for most, 10 minutes in fact if you watch many of the speedrun videos circulating the interwebs. That in itself is contentious to many when they consider what Ground Zeroes offers for their money. Playing in such a manner however defeats the purpose of what Hideo Kojima is offering here. This a playground that is to be toyed with, to be used and abused with the tools Kojima provides you; and therein lies the beauty of Ground Zeroes. It’s simply open world done right, bringing several inspirations from both the stealth and open world genres into a short but damn sweet package. The ‘value’ proposition is open to debate, admittedly, but it’s clear that Ground Zeroes provides a tantalizing insight into the immense possibilities of The Phantom Pain.
Snake. What took you so long?