Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS3) – The Best is Yet to Come

Metal-Gear-Solid-V-Ground-ZeroesVIDEOGAME auteur Hideo Kojima has gone on record several times to say he will retire after each successive instalment of his Metal Gear Solid baby. Perhaps after the troubled development and monstrous self-indulgence of Guns of the Patriots one might have forcibly held him to his word, but the streamlined simplicity of Peace Walker and the madcap lightning bolt action of Rising: Revengeance (snicker) have since rejuvenated the flagging series. Ground Zeroes is the latest evidence that the passion hasn’t yet abandoned the mad genius.

The game is a strange package, putting it mildly. Marketed as the “prologue” to the “true” fifth entry, The Phantom Pain, and coming off the back of some very strange promotional material (Google “Joakim Mogren” and Moby Dick Studios), Ground Zeroes takes place a year after the events of Peace Walker. With Militaires Sans Frontieres firmly established as a world power, Big Boss/Naked Snake is sent into a “black site” Marines outpost to rescue two familiar prisoners and extract them back to Mother Base.

So far, so Metal Gear, but there’s a catch. The main mission should take most players around an hour and a half to complete. The game retails at £25. Though additional missions, varying in their objectives, unlock after completion of the main one, you’re still only looking at around 3-4 hours playtime for finishing the full gamut of gameplay (replays, XOF Patch and cassette collection notwithstanding). £25 for 3-4 hours of gameplay may seem like quite a stretch, especially for what is ostensibly the Tanker mission from Sons of Liberty, but the gameplay on show is of such a superlative stock that it’s difficult to feel particularly aggrieved.

Gameplay focused

Metal Gear has always been known (read: notorious) for its predilection for time-guzzling cutscenes, with Guns of the Patriots being the most grievous offender. It’ll please a lot of people to say the cutscene to gameplay ratio has been dramatically improved. Bar the reasonably lengthy bookending scenes and brief moments with the prisoners, Ground Zeroes emphatically places its gameplay at the heart of the experience. By trimming the cinematic fat, Kojima has finally allowed his videogame to truly shine.

The series’ trademark stealth has never felt so rewarding or as tense. The open world aesthetic expands the scope of sneaking to dizzying heights, even though the action (in each mission) is confined to the same Camp Omega map. Large though it is and sprinkled with gorgeous weather effects it may be, it’s understandable that players might feel a little limited. Happily, then, the limitation of location does not impair the sheer breadth of approaches the player can adopt in their infiltration. Running and gunning is a viable option; stealing an armoured vehicle and driving slowly round the oblivious base is another, while the standard sneaking has been expertly refined. The versatility offered by Ground Zeroes is even more impressive given the relative brevity of its playtime.

Fluidity

The Soliton Radar, a series mainstay, has been abandoned, along with the camouflage system of the previous three instalments. In their place comes the iDroid, an anachronistically-advanced piece of kit (somewhat resembling a Pip-Boy from Fallout) that brings up a map, mission information and helicopter extractions. The Binoculars, once rendered meaningless by the Radar, have become an integral part of the mission; by bringing them up with a tap of the R2 button, it’s possible to ‘mark’ enemy soldiers so that they will appear as red dots on the screen in the absence of a mini-map. There’s also the Reflex Mode which activates upon discovery; you’ll get a brief slow-mo window of opportunity to take down the enemy before he can raise the alarm. Both this and the binocular marking are optional – the former can be disabled altogether for the extra challenge. Every aspect of sneaking has been streamlined and given real fluidity; the feeling of satisfaction having mastered the new mechanics is nigh-unparalleled, powered by the magnificent and much-lauded FOX Engine. Even on an outdated system the game looks incredible, pushing the PS3 to its limits.

Just as the story has been pared down, so too has Snake himself. Deprived of David Hayter’s trademark growl, Kiefer Sutherland’s more nuanced performance matches the game’s grim atmosphere perfectly, pitching Snake as a more deeply human presence against a plethora of horrific cruelty. Ever the social commentator, Kojima sets his critical sights on U.S. foreign policy and Guantanamo Bay; though heavy-handed and indeed rather questionable in places (that 18 rating is not for laughs), the point is emphatically made. Scant though it may be, the game’s narrative is powerful in its brevity.

As a prologue to The Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes is a mouth-watering taste of what’s to come, a condensed glimpse into a truly exciting future. As a standalone game in its own right, it delivers on the promise of no-holds barred sandbox stealth with aplomb, showcasing the real power of the FOX Engine. Though the pricetag and short length might put some people off, I’ve already put seven hours in and feel no compulsion to ask for my money back. If Ground Zeroes is anything to go by, the inestimably larger The Phantom Pain ought to be one of the greatest games of all time. No hyperbole. Here’s to you, Kojima.