Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, PS3.
Reviewed On: Xbox 360
Developer: Kojima Productions
This game was provided free of charge by the publisher for review purposes.
Vampires, massive robots, insane conspiracy’s, silver-haired girly men, over-complicated writing with lashings of heavy cheese and a melting pot of gameplay. The Metal Gear Solid franchise is certainly an interesting one and has garnered quite the following. My own relationship with it has been on and off – sometimes I love it, other times I hated it, but regardless I was always deeply fascinated by it. It’s hard not to be.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is not due to arrive until sometime next year, but thus far everything shown about it has successfully gotten me rather excited. And yet we don’t have to wait until next year to get some idea of what to expect as Konami have released this, Ground Zeroes, which is a…uh, prologue? Despite this it’s packed in a full retail box which boasts the blurb, “From Hideo Kojima comes the first part of the Metal Gear Solid V experience – Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, prologue to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.” which is bound to confuse a casual gamer just shopping around in the local store. Even Hideo Kojima himself was a bit unclear as to exactly what Ground Zeroes was when he first announced it, leading to many hastily edited news articles. He’s even very recently described it as a tutorial. Y’know, that you have to pay for.
Well, Ground Zeroes can certainly be described as a prologue to the main game, but in practice what it ultimately feels like is a glorified demo and a way for Konami to make a quick bit of extra cash. Cynical, I know, but through this review I hope to explain why it feels that way, and why it’s still a slice of fun regardless that will doubtless have long-time fans salivating in a rather unhygienic way.
For those hoping for a chunk of deep narrative to tide you over until the Phantom Pain finally arrives disappointment is ready and waiting to slap you in the face. There’s a couple of cutscenes on offer here that bookend the primary mission, which has you rescuing two old faces from a military base, and they present little in the way of story, though the ending does at least serve as a solid cliffhanger to get fans a little more excited for the real game. There’s no time given to over to any of characters, and thus the game seems to assume that you’ll already know who many of the people involved are, which is strange given that one of Ground Zeroes reasons for existing would be to help get newer players involved in the series, especially since the previous game was exclusive to Sony platforms.
However, where I cannot fault Ground Zeroes is in the presentation of that meager plot, as Hideo Kojima seems to have finally managed to master his own potential which I always felt was there, but never allowed to show in the often poorly scripted and meandering previous games. The dialogue here – what little of it there is – flows far more naturally, while the over-the-top nature has been toned down quite a bit, although long-time fans shouldn’t feel worried as this is still very much a Metal Gear Solid game and thus some weirdness still exists. Meanwhile cutscene length is far better judged and features heavy use of shaky cam, something I’m normally against as movie directors these days rely on it far too much, but it’s artfully done and combined with long, single camera shots. The end result is breathtakingly awesome to watch.
It helps that Ground Zeroes is a very pretty looking game, even on last-gen consoles. Running on the brand new Fox engine the primary mission takes place in a deluge of rain that serves to show off the game’s slick graphics, but it looks equally lovely in the bright sunlight that the side-missions favor. Get in close in certain areas and there are some flat textures to be found and the environment is a little sparse in places while bushes and even enemies have a habit of popping into existence or disappearing, sometimes at relatively close range, but overall Ground Zeroes looks mighty good and bodes well for the forthcoming Phantom Pain.
Ground Zeroes also gives us our first taste of Kiefer Sutherland in the role of Big Boss, and quite frankly he kills it, delivering a far more subtle and real performance than Hayter ever did, though the legendary voice remains an icon for good reason. Having Kiefer lend his talent to the role also helps differentiate the characters of Big Boss and Solid Snake, a problem I always had in previous games when both characters were played by Hayter. Still, with just a few cutscenes and lines of in-game dialogue it remains too early to declare Sutherland’s performance as masterful, but Ground Zeroes leaves me feeling very confident that even die-hard Hayter fans will be able to accept the transition.
While the game might be light on narrative there are background hints of darker plot elements, albeit handled with all the subtlety of pogo-stick riding cat trying to navigate through a minefield, but then Kojima never has been one for subtle, and that’s quite alright. Guantanamo Bay is the clear subject here, and a scattering of cassette tapes provide deeper insight into the base that you’re exploring and the sinister things that have been going on there, with something waiting to be found that borders on taking it a little too far without having any other point that shock value. They also create a better picture of a villain who is briefly glimpsed before vanishing, presumably to return in The Phantom Pain. A chance to rescue some prisoners with bags on their heads held within small cages presents a touching moment as the man cries on Snakes shoulder, talking about how he’d given up hope. It was clumsy in the way that both Kojima and videogames so often are, but still served its purpose well. I allowed myself a moment of satisfaction at having rescued these people, even if I didn’t know their crimes, or even if there were even any, before moving on.
The entirety of the game takes place in a single, relatively small military base that you’re free to roam around, using the games many mechanics and available routes to create some sandbox fun and tackle the mission how you wish, a massive departure from the previous games and their linear designs. It’s a freeform stealth system that is flexible and works well, creating satisfying gameplay that doesn’t insist on holding your hand every foot of the way. Maybe you’ll choose to hide in the back of a truck in order to move through the base, or for a more noisy approach you could just steal that tank over there and go on a rampage or scour the place for a handy sniper rifle. Other systems can be played with for fun results, like how shooting a guard in the knee renders him a quivering mess, his cries for help bringing another guard across the yard, straight into your perfectly set up sniper trap. Enemies can be grabbed and interrogated for information, revealing if there’s ammo, weapons or other handy stuff nearby, before the choice to knock ’em out or deal with them permanently must be made. This lead to a lovely little piece of gameplay where I grabbed a passing guard who, under some duress, informed me that there was a recoilless rifle at the other side of the base, a perfect weapon for taking out one of my two assassination objectives, resulting in me stealthing my way across the entire complex simply to get my grubby mitts on it. Had I never bothered to grab that one guard I would likely never have learned of the rifle, and assassinated my target by other, far less awesome means.
The iconic Soliton Radar has been relegated to an iDroid device that can be brought up for examination, while your destination, at least in the main Ground Zeroes mission, is no longer loudly advertised, leaving you to stumble, fumble and eventually discover your goal on your own. Indeed, there’s a brilliant section where you must listen to a cassette tape that your intended target left recording in his pocket while being dragged away. Using this tape and the background sounds you can deduce exactly where she was taken. It’s a brilliant piece of gameplay that sticks up a middle finger at modern game design which demands you must be led around by the nose. Here, Ground Zeroes gives you the tools and tells you to get on with it, after all you’re a big boy and more than capable. I garnered far more satisfaction from quietly working my way across the base, listening for clues and navigating guards, than I ever did from simply being told where my ultimate goal lies. The entire thing was only slightly undermined by the level design making it a bit obvious where my target was being kept.
In what feels like a nod to current standard game design Big Boss is able to automatically mark targets when looking at them through crosshairs or binoculars, allowing them to be tracked through walls. It’s one example of the game being softened just a little bit, but it can be turned off in the options menu if you’re looking for a more immersive experience where situational awareness is the only thing between you and a bullet between the eyes. Doing so allows for a deeper appreciation of the games brilliant sound design, as footsteps bounce off surfaces in a realistic manner, allowing you to track enemies through audio alone, though the ever-present danger of a lone guard simply standing his ground ensures you keep checking those corners.
Another slight softening of the difficulty comes in the form of Big Boss’ amazing reflexes, as when he’s spotted time goes into slow motion, giving you a brief window to respond to the threat via either gunshot or punch to the face, assuming their close enough to do so. It’s the perfect solution to those frustrating moments when you’re spotted by a guard who just happened to come around behind you at the wrong time. Again this can be disabled, and the game even rewards you for completing a playthrough in this manner.
The developers have finally gotten around to reworking the frankly bloody awful control systems seen in the previous MGS titles and tweaking overall handling, resulting in a game that’s all-round just far more pleasing to control, although games like Splinter Cell: Blacklist still make a mockery of them with their fluid movement. There are times when navigating Snake around the place feels overly awkward, especially in the heat of an emergency when your, for example, trying to run away from a tank and the camera often got in my way during tight sections, but overall this is a more able and precise game than its predecessors. In turn this makes stealth more fluid and natural than its ever been.
But while controls and movement have been improved from previous games, and are even downright great when compared to them, they still feel pretty lackluster when viewed alongside so many other games. For whatever reasons the developers still insist on using some strange controls, so in this instance B reloads your weapon and Y is used for context sensitive actions, including climbing. Speaking of which I encountered several moments when the game became rather confused with its contextual actions, at one point resulting in Snake leaping over a guard rail and falling nearly twenty feet, landing in front of a slightly shocked guard. All I had wanted to do was climb a ladder. Thanks game. Ground Zeroes also features a buttonless cover system, which sometimes proved to be a problem as Snake hugged walls when I was actually trying to sprint or sneak past them, or refused to enter cover properly. None of these things break the game, but do mar the experience considerably. It’s 2014, and games no longer have any excuse for feeling clumsy in their controls and general movement.
One area in which the gameplay stills falls down is in the shooting. Basic gunplay feels positively crap, to be entirely honest, with aiming being wonky and guns lacking much punch, but then combat isn’t the focus and you should only find yourself in the middle of a pitched battle when things go terribly wrong. In truth Ground Zeroes is masquerading as an open-world title that lets gamers tackle any way they wish. Sure, going in guns blazing like you can in something like Blacklist is an option, but Ground Zeroes is far happier when your slowly making your way toward the objective, rather than trying to headshot everyone in sight. Points are also removed from the final score for killing enemies as well, further enforcing the idea that while a head on assault is technically an option, the developers would really appreciate it if you would just go quietly hide behind that wall over there.
And then there’s the guards who suffer from all the standard stealth genre tropes that we’ve come to expect over the years. They are, and let’s be kind to them, dumber than a 3-year old that’s currently on a sugar high. While they’re simply on patrol they’re attentive enough, able to spy you pretty quickly. Indeed, the rules governing when enemies may or may not be able to see you seem rather vague and several times I found myself discovered by guards some distance away, despite me being pretty sure they shouldn’t be able to see me. Other times I was able to slip past when they really should have spotted me. Once alerted, however, the AI suddenly loses much of the intelligence it once held. Guards attempts to search the area are laughably pathetic, removing all tension from trying to stay one step ahead of them. Just hide in a vaguely quiet place and after a few minutes they’ll get bored and assume that the person who murdered the majority of their friends has simply left the area. At one point I eluded my pursuers by simply climbing a ladder and lying flat atop the catwalk . Not one of them thought they should maybe check it out up there, despite the fact it was in the area I was last seen. Another time I fooled them mid-gunfight by entering full sprint for a few seconds and then diving into a bush. Perhaps the most laughable example came when a guard clearly sighted me and came to investigate. His entire search amounted to opening the gate in the chain link fence and staring blankly for a few seconds before moving on. What the hell was that about?
I accept that there are certain clichés that the AI in stealth games must be largely beholden, else the genre as a whole would struggle to work. Guards must almost always follow set paths and never randomly look in a direction less gamers become frustrated, while they’ll also need to stop and investigate the same things over and over in order to provide ample opportunity for sneaking past. But sadly AI as a whole within the stealth genre feels like its going backwards, and Ground Zeroes is another example of that with moronic adversaries.
It’s not all bad, though, as they do exhibit the occasional signs of intelligence. Should they become overly suspicious, for example, they might radio in to say they’re checking it out, and should they suddenly meet an untimely end command will grow suspicious of their silence, possibly sending more guys to investigate. Another time I took out a guard as he was chatting on his radio, only to hear his friend calling out worriedly over it, checking to see if he was okay. Now that’s cool. if only they’d do believable stuff like that more often, bur once riled up I couldn’t shake the feeling I was dealing with people who weren’t taking their evil minion duties seriously.
You’re going to have to become very familiar with the layout of the base should you wish to truly get the most out of Ground Zeroes, as once you’ve completed the primary mission, which will likely take around an hour or two, there’s just a few extra side-missions unlocked, all of which unfold in the same environment as the main storyline and are relatively short. To put it simply those with an old-school mindset who like to replay levels over and over for higher scores or with self-imposed rule sets may be able to get around eight hours of gameplay here, but frankly I struggled to replay each mission more than twice as I felt there wasn’t enough things to discover around the base to support more playtime, and I had already exhausted the more interesting options presented by the mechanics. However, it must be said that the overall design of the base is impressive, with every crate and corner expertly placed, and every patrol perfectly judged. This is the benefit of having such a small area; attention can be lavished upon it and ever little section tested to death. I’m interested to see if The Phantom Pain will have the same degree of stellar design.
This brings us back to the topic of exactly what Ground Zeroes is, which also means chatting about the price-tag. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, the price of the game does not affect the final score of the game, as value for money is a very personal thing. However, in this instance it’s important to understand that the Xbox 360 edition of Ground Zeroes, for example, can be found on Amazon for £22, a fairly substantial amount for what does feel like a glorified demo.
And yes, that’s what Ground Zeros feels like. Let’s remove the price entirely from the equation and try to view this from a critical perspective; there are some games that feel perfect at just a few hours long, and others that feel perfect at thirty, but Ground Zeroes is not one of those. It feels like a chunk of a bigger game neatly sliced out and placed in a box before being put on store shelves and sold as a game in its own rights. It simply does not feel right. It’s out of context. Just as I was beginning to properly enjoy myself it was over, and with no real narrative beginning, middle or end to speak of it all left me feel rather empty. Certainly, it had me wanting more and wanting The Phantom Pain, but not in a good way. I’m left wondering exactly what Ground Zeroes is, or what it was supposed to be. It’s not a demo because you have to pay for it, it’s not really much of a prologue because the narrative barely exists and it doesn’t feel like a self-contained, fun little game, which is what it could have perfectly been.
There’s also the issue of whether the success of Ground Zeroes could pave the way for more developers and publishers pushing out tiny chunks of games with £20 price-tags. Again, this is something that will not be reflected in my final score or opinion on the actual game, because ultimately all games are reviewed as they are presented at release regardless of pricing, developement and name on the box. But it’s understandable how some people are very worried that the many Metal gear Solid fans who will doubtless purchase Ground Zeroes could inadvertently be paving the way for horrible practices that we, as gamers, don’t need or want.
Therefore I’d like to put in this personal aside, and remove my critical hat for a moment to offer my own view; I advocate quality over quantity, and the gameplay here certainly is of high quality, but there are limits. I would not purchase Ground Zeroes at its current price. Sold at £10 or perhaps even £15 with a few tweaks to the story and gameplay, and without the abrupt ending, I would recommend it wholeheartedly on a personal level. I would feel my purchase more justified. To be entirely honest with you, and for the sake of transparency, I somewhat struggled to write this review, as I wrestled with own constantly shifting views and opinions on whether a product like this is acceptable. But my approach to reviews is meant to be far more critical and thoughtful, as is my pride, so I leave it to you to decide if I’ve managed to maintain that, or if my other thoughts have managed to color this review.
Right, critical hat back on. The question that needs answered: does this feel like a complete, enjoyable game? Because that’s what it’s being sold as, a standalone prologue. One would naturally expect, then, a narrative that stands on its own but sets up the events of the main game, while also providing a gameplay experience that does much the same. Ground Zeroes doesn’t really do either of those things very well.
If nothing else Ground Zeroes serves admirably as a demonstration of what The Phantom Pain will hopefully be; a diverse, beautifully directed experience that will finally deliver on what I always thought the series could be. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it does feel like a demo, and a piece of a far bigger game. I loved every moment of gameplay contained with Ground Zeroes. Its mechanics are wonderfully designed, as is the base itself. Metal Gear Solid fans will have a ball experimenting with the various systems on offer inside a small but well formed playground. There simply isn’t enough of it, and it just doesn’t feel right. It’s like someone took a single level out of the Phantom Pain and slapped it into a box along with a few hastily created side-missions to pad it out. The end is a stunted story with an abrupt end and no satisfying build-up. It does not feel like a game within its own right, or like its even sure what it’s trying to be.
Conflicted, is what I am, and conflicted is what Ground Zeroes feels. Brilliantly short fun, is perhaps the best way to describe it. Choose whether that makes it worth the price-tag or not, because ultimately only you can decided that.
+ Well thought out mechanics.
+ Nicely designed map.
+ Good replay value.
– There’s a story?
– Generic mission goals.
– Feels like a piece of something bigger, and not in a good way.
– That old MGS clumsiness is still present.
The Verdict: 3/5 – Good
A solid offering of fantastic gameplay and lovely presentation, but one that ultimately doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be.