Konami and Hideo Kojima return once again to deliver upon us another bewildering and, most likely, convoluted tale involving acronyms, confusing character names and sneaking.
Acting as a sequel to the PSP hit, ‘Peace Walker’ and a prologue to the as of yet unreleased ‘Phantom Pain’ , Ground Zeroes could well have the more casual fans already scratching their heads. Especially considering the games built-in backstory which consists of around eleven paragraphs of heavy text that will go straight over the head of anyone unfamiliar with Peace Walker, which to be fair, could encompass quite a few people. After assuring yourself that things will pick up soon; that everything will probably be explained by the opening scenes, you’ll once again become nonplussed. Essentially it’s an extraction mission inside a heavily defended camp called Omega. Big Boss’s job is to infiltrate the base, determine the status of Paz Ortega; to extract him if alive, or confirm if he’s deceased. For the people that understand and follow the heavy lore involved, there will be a reasonable amount to sink your fangs into, for everyone else, try Wikipedia!
In contrast to previous entries in the series, Ground Zeroes is a fully fledged, open sandbox to gad about in. In keeping with this theme, other alterations have also been applied to fit in with the new style, some of which feel fairly progressive and suit the intended transition. Gone are the radar and the constant codec interruptions, they’ve been replaced by a snazzy pair of binoculars and a map which you must equip. As a trade-off for not being able to view enemy lines of sight and direction, instead, you can now tag enemies through the binoculars, making their positions visible at a quick glance around the screen. Enemy movements can also show up through walls once you’re in a given vicinity, hopefully, giving you time to either prepare an assault, or make a sneaky retreat. The replacement system for the codec, instead functions as a form of hint system; whilst aiming through the binoculars, your request might give off general hints such as describing what you’re looking at, or for instance, the affiliation of the enemy guards.
The gameplay itself still holds true to the Metal Gear ethos, being that you can either go full on stealth; not even subduing anyone, or go in completely the other direction and hop in a BTR to wreak havoc and destruction. The camp is filled with everything from patrolling trucks to catch a ride in, to hidden weapon stashes filled with goodies. You can hold up guards and attempt to wring some juicy information out of them, or you can lather the AA turrets with bricks of C4 for an explosive distraction. Taking the AA guns out in fact can help extraction, as you must call in a helicopter to one of a few designated positions, most of which, are heavily defended. The last thing you need when you’ve got a blabbering mission asset slung across your back, creeping through the velvet shadows, is to have to deal with extraction. Planning is paramount for a stealthy score.
Whilst obviously intended for multiple playthroughs, you may well get frustrated a few times on your first venture into the camp due to the lack of information you have regarding the sometimes unpredictable enemy AI. With the lack of radar sightlines, you’re left with skulking through brushes, wincing as an unexpected guard saunters past. Sometimes he might see you, others, he won’t. If they’re on alert however, they’ll not only call for reinforcements, but break off their original patrolling route and ascend towers, man searchlights and scour your previously known location. When this happens, it’s usually best to run as fast as your little legs can handle and try to hide prone somewhere. One good thing being that you can often manage to evade death and/or tortuous capture due to the large map and the new system: reflex.
Reflex is something that could well split opinion between the hardcore fans, essentially, once spotted, the game will enter slow motion; you have an opportunity to take out the guard that spotted you before he calls or radios for help. Whilst you can turn it off in the options if you’re up for an elitist session, it plays into the cinematic feel beautifully. When you are seconds from extraction, sprinting down a thin muddy path adorning a cliff edge, suddenly spinning around and silencing an alerted guard with a perfect headshot in slow motion before leaping at the waiting chopper feels pretty good. It’s not necessarily easy to do depending upon the equipped weapon, but it does give that same satisfaction of the newer Splinter Cell executions when it finally all goes your way.
The notoriously clunky and mind boggling controls have been refined this time around too. CQC is dealt with by a single (often brutal) trigger press. Aiming and firing is a far cry from the old, ‘press square to aim, release it to fire’ setup of yesteryear; although you can be fairly accurate, patience is still king. Get in an all-out fire fight on Ground Zeroes and you’ll likely win, partly due to the occasionally shocking AI which will often try to bum rush you into submission, essentially tripping over their fallen comrades bodies in an attempt to flush you out. That and headshots being fairly easy to get in the above scenario. Aside from the whole, ‘you’re not doing it properly if you get spotted’ mentality that can overcome us whilst playing, there are other side effects too. Not only will there likely be an increased presence of guards for the remainder of the mission, but also the suppressors on your weapons will degrade pretty quickly, making later silent takedowns, much more of a pain.
Onto the controversial topic, the length to value for money ratio. There’s no skirting around it, Ground Zeroes is short, very short. My first playthrough took me 86 minutes. I know, I’m grimacing as I’m writing this. It’s saving grace is that once you’ve completed it, you’ll start unlocking side missions, weapons and audio diary type collectibles, so whilst you may (understandably) be disappointed with the initial length, you’ll return to the main menu and notice you’re hovering around 8% completion. Whilst that may very well be a great incentive to replay the game, increase your score and take a stab at increasing that percentage, for most, the completion time shock will be enough for some to consider turning the game off. When I say side missions, I wouldn’t exactly get your hopes up for those either. The first I, admittedly poorly, attempted involved a Hitman style execution of two guards, they weren’t pinpointed on the map; instead I had to hunt them down in a vaguely marked area. Annoyingly, a guard managed to spot me through a wall, just before the target had apparently moved to across the other side of the camp. Cheers, timely intel guys. Either way, I had just managed to catch up to him when I was informed that my other target was fleeing the area, this preceded a very sarcastic cutscene of a Humvee quite casually driving off. Mission failed. Not only do all the side missions take place in the same map (at day time instead of night), but it’s the ho hum objectives that bore the most. For all they’ve accomplished over the years, could they not have thought of a more inventive main mission than, carry a person to extraction, then, do it again? It would have played out better had all the missions been available in the same scenario, letting you pick at the time what priorities you hold.
No Metal Gear Solid moniker would be complete without cutting edge graphics, excellent direction and those instantly recognisable footstep sound effects in cutscenes. Needless to say, Ground Zeroes doesn’t disappoint in any regard here. Camp Omega is stunning, the lighting sublime and the character animation fantastic. Kiefer Sutherland does a great job as David Hayter’s successor, adding a much needed burst of humanisation. Even if for the first few hours you can’t get Jack Bauer out of your head!
For what is one of the all time greatest franchises in gaming history, Ground Zeroes has certainly made a name for itself already, just not exclusively the most flattering ones. More of a playground for the devotees and a mere taste of what to expect with Phantom Pain than a fully fledged title, Ground Zeroes is to Metal Gear Solid as GT Prologue was to Gran Turismo.