Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes takes the patented Kojima formula and polishes it until it shines - leaving it with a slick, frictionless surface, punctuated by jagged spikes of shock content. Brenna's not sure how to feel.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes is a feat of technical wizardry. Kojima Productions doesn't do nearly enough talking about its new Fox Engine - not near as much as Epic, Square Enix and Crytek do - and I don't have the knowledge or the language to explain what makes it so brilliant. Happily, you'll only need a minute or two in-game to be completely au fait - the water, the lights, the animations, the physics, the silky frame rate are immediately apparent. It's probably the best-looking and smoothest game I've played or seen on PS4 so far.
In my demo, I was tasked with breaking into a military compound to rescue Chico and Paz, characters who ought to be familiar to series fans as they were prominent cast members in Peace Walker (a game franchise creator Hideo Kojima once described as "Metal Gear Solid 5"; if you haven't played it, correct this oversight). The action began with - what else? - a lengthy and very cinematic cutscene, "filmed" from a strange perspective - a free-floating camera that hung about at eye-level but never looked straight at whatever you were most interested in. Kojima's been watching too many French films, I'd say.
In the course of this cutscene we met the antagonist - or rather, what we believe to be the antagonist now, but this is Metal Gear, so god knows what we'll think 12 hours in ("I'm confused," most likely). Our hero, Snake, is the leader of Fox, a freelance army-for-hire, and its rivals are the dastardly Xof.
Xof. Yes, Fox backwards. Its logo is the same as Fox's, but facing the other direction. "This is definitely a Metal Gear game," I said to my PR minder, who politely didn't immediately kick me out for being cheeky.
Xof is led by Skull Face, a dude with a serious skin condition, bless him, but Snake didn't have to deal with him, because he flew off in a fleet of helicopters to inspect Mother Base, the abandoned oil platform home you spent all of Peace Walker laboriously upgrading. Snake and Fox decided to use this opportunity to sneak in and rescue Paz and Chico, who were captured because - hang on, let me check the in-game briefings... oh you know what, come on, let's just go choke some guys.
When Snake appears at the start of the game, he removes his mask and says "kept you waiting, huh?", which is an in-joke. The difference between this and other in-jokes in the series to date is that it's not funny. There's no reason for Snake to say it at that point, because he has not kept the guy on the radio waiting in any way. He says it because we're playing a Metal Gear game, and that's how they start. If you're a really intense fan, you'll hopefully squeal with delight. If you're only a pretty intense fan, like me, you might start to worry a bit.
The reason I started to worry is that once I got control and actually started playing, I noticed a couple of things. One: this is very clearly a MGS game, with the familiar controls, UI and sound effects you know and (hopefully) love. Two: The gameplay has evolved considerably, taking lessons from modern stealth titles while maintaining the core MGS gameplay loop. Three: it's not funny. More on that later.
I really enjoyed playing Ground Zeroes. It's wonderful how many of the franchise's rough patches have been smoothed away. The perspective no longer feels unnaturally caught between top-down and over-the-shoulder; Metal Gear Solid 4's camera issues were, for me, one of its greatest weaknesses, and that's all been rectified. Loading times when you restart a checkpoint are delightfully brief. Codec conversations are short, and take place while you're playing (welcome to the future where the future is about 2005 I guess).
Kojipro seems to have rid itself entirely of soliton radar and other HUD visualisation devices like the sound detector, in favour of pure sensory stealth - you look, and you listen, and you bloody well hope you're getting it right. To make things easier, you can use the binoculars to tag enemies. They stay on your map permanently then - your map that does not pause the game when you look at it, by the way, and takes up your entire field of view - but also outlines them in glowing auras that show through walls, ala Far Cry 3. It seemed like you could only see them through walls if they're moving or very close, though, so it doesn't make it super easy - especially as patrols are cleverly designed to maximise your chances of making a terrible mistake. It's sort of a visual representation of Snake's senses and trained instincts, which are much better than yours, Mr "a twig snapped I think the enemy has gone away NOPE HE IS BEHIND ME SHIT FUCK JESUS CHRIST RUN".
When you do have to run, it's best to have a plan, as the enemy are much better at taking you out than in previous games, and Snake can take far fewer hits. The various tasks I had to complete took place in a map that felt much too large when I was picking my way across it, and instantly claustrophobic every time I found myself in a jam. It adds up to a tense and challenging stealth experience, but one that feels fair once you learn the rules, and immensely rewarding when you get it right. Gunplay isn't dreadful when it all goes shit-shaped, either, which is a relief.
As ever, the wonderful sandbox-style approach means you have loads of infiltration options. You can ghost it; tranquillise the guards; get in close to stun them; or even kill them. Again, as ever, exploration yields more resources in support of different play styles, like more ammo. I can really see myself having a ball running even this one mission multiple times, finding the optimal strategies.
Even from my few hours with it, I can see Ground Zeroes has been thoroughly polished; no corners have been cut. I had a great time running around exploring the base, capping fools and slipping through the shadows, and I absolutely would not hesitate to recommend the gameplay, nor to praise the wonderful things Kojipro has done with the PS4 (I haven't seen any other builds, unfortunately).
Click through to the next page for the less fun parts.
"The humour is an intrinsic part of the Metal Gear experience and one of its key differentiators when stealth became a power genre in its own right."
Unfortunately, while enjoying playing the game itself, I was a little disappointed by the tone.
Metal Gear games have always dealt with weighty subjects - nuclear weapons, politics, genetic engineering, personhood and ownership, and most centrally the role of military bodies. I like that, a lot. But at the same time they've always been fun. And I really liked that, too.
The first Metal Gear Solid is a really good example. I remember reading a very early preview of it and being amazed at the little touches, like the DARPA chief responding to knocks on doors, or finding a guard taking a whizz. "This is the first game that knows it's a game," is one line that really stuck with me - think of the way it asked you to change discs, for example, or chatting about save files on the CODEC.
For me, the humour was an intrinsic part of the Metal Gear experience - wearing a tuxedo in new game plus, distracting guards with porn, faking my death with ketchup - and one of its key differentiators when stealth became a power genre in its own right. Interacting with the environment in small ways exposed a lighthearted sense of whimsy, and that made the two hour political diatribes worthwhile.
Obviously, I didn't see the whole game in my few hours of preview time, and Ground Zeroes is not even the full story (stay tuned for The Phantom Pain), but what I did see was almost entirely lacking in humour. Apart from that bit with Snake taking off his mask, a going-through-the-motions sop to past games, nothing pleasant happened in my play through. It rained the entire time. Everything was muddy and rusty. People gave disturbingly realistic cries of pain and distress.
Towards the end my session, when I'd stopped faffing about having a good time and got serious about finishing the mission before my time ran out, I hit a lengthy bank of cutscenes. But I did not then instantly fall asleep: Kojima's style has evolved since the famously dull offerings of Metal Gear Solid 2, which spawned a reputation still dogging the franchise today.
Boy, has it evolved.
I don't want to tell you what happened in the cutscene, and I hope you won't read any spoilers before you experience it for yourself, but I will say it really affected me. You should probably stop reading if you want absolutely no clues.
When I watched this scene, I felt genuinely sick. The impact of the word has been sorely diluted by marketing overuse, but it was literally visceral.
I watch quite a lot of horror and I don't have any problems with gore. As you'd expect given how many games I've played, I'm pretty comfortable with violent media. But when I watched this scene, I felt genuinely sick. The impact of the word has been sorely diluted by marketing overuse, but it was literally visceral. My stomach clenched and my fists knotted and eventually I realised I had unconsciously climbed backwards up the couch, one hand over my face, as far from the TV as physically possible given the controller's charging cable.
I can't stop thinking about what I saw in that scene, and the conclusions I drew after a later cutscene, having thought back to some of the material presented earlier in the demo. Another games writer who'd been to the same preview session, in another room, text me about it the next day, verifying my interpretation of what I'd seen and heard.
It's been five days now and thinking about it again, I still feel sick.
When you see what I'm talking about it's entirely possible that you won't draw the same conclusions. Even if you do, maybe you won't be anywhere near as affected as I was. That's okay - we all have different life experiences and perspectives that affect how we receive media. I won't call you an emotionally stunted neanderthal if you won't call me a wussy little child. Let's just agree that experiences are subjective, okay? Neither of our perspectives are less valid.
I can't speak for Kojima's intentions with this scene. Was he hoping to provoke the shock and horror I felt? Did he want bros to fist-bump and say "ha ha, sick". Did he think of the character involved as a person, or just a useful vehicle for the emotions he was trying to convey? Is this how he's pushing the boundaries of games, driving them ever closer to acceptance as art?
When I said that Ground Zeroes was the MGS formula polished until it shines, I meant it. This seems to be, by all standards of technical brilliance and gameplay, a Good Game. But polishing, you see, removes a lot of the surface texture. The jokes and the heart are both gone, and in their place is self-reference and recognisable elements like the UI and sound effects; the personality of the series has been ground away until it's nothing but a veneer. That means it's frictionless, and in order for gamers to get a grip on it, Kojima's had to implement something else; these spikes of "boundary pushing" may well be what ends up defining the project in our memories.
I want those boundaries pushed, I really do, and I certainly believe games should be moving and memorable. I think games as a medium have incredible power for storytelling - and their ability to provoke such an intense reaction from me is proof of that. Without the broader context of the game, I have no idea whether this scene is justified; whether it works in tandem with other parts of the game to convey an emotion or a message; or whether it is a piece of gratuitous violence included for shock value (It's certainly shocking, in the literal sense). I guess I'll have to wait to play the whole of Ground Zeroes to find out.
Whether I want to play the whole of Ground Zeroes is another question; this isn't the Metal Gear Solid I fell in love with. This is something else, something more modern, darker, slicker and less unique. Maybe that's what Kojima wants, but I don't know how I feel about that.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes arrives on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One on March 18 in North America and March 20 in Europe.