A new entry in the Metal Gear Solid series is usually an event, surrounded by years of hype and critical acclaim upon release. However, things are a bit different this time for Metal Gear Solid V, the fifth main numbered entry (and 9th overall) for Konami’s long-running stealth series, as Metal Gear Solid V has drawn quite a lot of controversy in the last few months.
See, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes isn’t actually the fifth main console entry in the series, but is instead a prologue for the rest of Metal Gear Solid V, subtitled The Phantom Pain, due to release presumably next year. To compare MGSV to other games in the series, Ground Zeroes could be seen as akin to the “Tanker” chapter in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, whereas The Phantom Pain will probably be the “Big Shell” chapter of this analogy.
The key difference here, though, is the fact that MGS2’s Tanker chapter was originally a free demo (and then later included as part of the full game), whereas MGSV: Ground Zeroes is being sold as a separate piece of content, a choice that has soured many pre-release, especially in the wake of the oft-repeated news story that, from opening credits to close, Ground Zeroes can be beaten in less than two hours. So, is Ground Zeroes nothing more than just a paid demo?
Let’s get this out of the way - yes, Ground Zeroes’ main story mode can be completed in less than two hours, and even quicker than that on repeat playthroughs where you know what you’re doing. Further, the game is surprisingly light on story. Taking place in 1975, a year after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes finds Snake tasked with infiltrating a secret black site base known as "Camp Omega" (a fairly heavy-handed stand-in for Guantanamo Bay) in order to rescue Paz and Chico, Snake’s former comrades from Peace Walker. Those who elected to skip over Peace Walker will definitely feel lost going into Ground Zeroes, although the main menu features a lengthy backstory detailing Peace Walker’s events. After the opening cutscene, you’re left to explore the base, retrieve your targets, and escape the base, all without the interruption of cutscenes, save for a final one that essentially serves as a teaser to The Phantom Pain.
I can easily see Ground Zeroes’ short length as disappointing for long-time fans of the series, but dig deeper and you’ll find that there’s actually much more narrative content than meets the eye. Audio logs in the menu provide backdrop for all the major characters, and various others are hidden throughout the base and its various side missions. It could be argued that the real meat of Ground Zeroes’ story rests in these, and hunting them down and piecing together the story becomes almost as central to the experience as the gameplay itself.
Of course, the gameplay is the real star of Ground Zeroes, and in fact is the best the franchise has ever been, providing the biggest overhaul in game mechanics since the first Metal Gear Solid debuted over 15 years ago. Gone is the camo index - a percentage meter used in the past three main entries to measure how well you were hidden - as players now must rely on cover, darkness, shrubbery, wits, and common sense to stay out of sight from enemy soldiers. Enemy line-of-sight has greatly increased since previous entries, with guards being able to spot you from up to 80 meters away if you’re out in the open.
To account for the loss of the camo index and increased guard awareness, Snake brings a new set of tools to the table. A new dive mechanic allows Snake to quickly jump out of the way in any direction, instantly going to prone and potentially out of the way of any suspicious guards. This combined with a new sprint button adds a huge deal of mobility to what has traditionally been a slow, methodical franchise.
A new “Reflex Mode” has also been added to Snake’s repertoire, going into slow motion whenever spotted by an enemy guard, giving players time to dispatch the guard before sending the whole base on alert. Purists may decry this feature, but those looking for more challenge can turn this mode off in the settings, creating for a much more tense and slow-paced experience.
The biggest new addition is the ability to tag enemies by focusing on them, allowing players to see their location no matter where they are on the map. Initially it seems like a cheap tactic, but Camp Omega is dense enough that it’s still incredibly easy to be blind-sided by an unseen enemy, so staying aware of your surroundings is a must.
The enemy AI in the Metal Gear Solid series has always excelled in each new entry, but it reaches new heights in Ground Zeroes. For the first time, it feels like you’re trying to outwit actual people, rather than exploiting a set of systems. Enemies will announce on their radio when they think they’ve spotted you, thus meaning the base will go on alert if you take them out and they fail to report in. Destroying cameras will cause the nearest guards to investigate. The base feels like a whole ecosystem, and disrupting one element sends the rest into disarray. As a result, all your tactical decisions matter - it’s just a shame you only get to see them develop over such a short runtime.
That’s just the main mission, however, as Ground Zeroes also features five extra Side Ops that give you extra objectives to complete within Camp Omega. Be it tracking down undercover soldiers, an air assault from your helicopter, or destroying anti-air guns with C4, these missions give you more opportunities to explore the mechanics outside of the main story, each taking anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour to complete, bringing the total amount of content in Ground Zeroes to about six hours worth (much more if you hope to 100% complete the game). Some may argue that the side missions don’t make up for the short length of the story mode, but in this case the side missions are arguably just as much the main attraction, not only exploring other avenues of gameplay but also fleshing out and expanding the story of the main mission.
It seems absurd to praise a game that takes place in only one relatively small location, whose entire library of content features you going back to the same base over and over again for a different set of objectives, but it really works here. Camp Omega is dense enough that it doesn’t feel redundant to run through it multiple times, and I’m always discovering something new each time I play (or replay) a mission. Many games boast replay value, but in Ground Zeroes replayability is a bona-fide feature.
There really isn’t enough I can say about Ground Zeroes’ presentation, other than that it’s absolutely outstanding. The PlayStation 4 version is easily the best looking console game in existence right now, from the way Snake’s sneaking suit crinkles and reflects light, to the amazing rain effects, and the high frame-rate that never dives. Hollywood actor Kiefer Sutherland makes his debut in the role of Snake (who in all previous appearances has been voiced by fan-favorite David Hayter), and his take brings new range to the character. Hayter will always be iconic in the role, but Sutherland’s subdued performance feels more appropriate for Ground Zeroes’ more serious take on the series’ mythology, going surprisingly dark for this entry.
The irony of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes’ controversially short length is that this is by far the densest game review I’ve ever written. There’s so much going on here that I feel like I could go on for hours, but know that the main takeaway from all of this is that Ground Zeroes’ gameplay must be experienced. Of course, most reading are wondering, is it all worth it? How you perceive the game's value will ultimately come down to what you want to get out of the experience. If you’re looking for the next chapter in the decades-spanning Metal Gear saga, you will likely leave disappointed. Those willing to give it a try, however, will enjoy some of the best stealth gameplay ever crafted. My only real complaint is that Ground Zeroes makes the wait for The Phantom Pain feel that much longer.
Will the legacy of Metal Gear Solid V be negatively affected by Ground Zeroes’ backlash? It’s hard to say. Perhaps once The Phantom Pain is released, we’ll be able to view Metal Gear Solid V as a cohesive whole. Until then, we’re left to judge Ground Zeroes on its own terms. As a prologue to The Phantom Pain, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is disappointing. But a demo it is not, and taken on its own, there is plenty here to enjoy.
This review is based on a retail copy of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes for the PS4