Ground Zeroes brevity will prove a sticking point for some but Stace Harman believes that it's more than the sum of its parts.
"The main narrative elements, those parts that will carry over to The Phantom Pain, come in at an hour, maybe two, but that really says so little of what Ground Zeroes constitutes."
Fifty-eight minutes and forty-five seconds. That’s how long it took me to complete the main narrative campaign level of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes.
For some, whatever else follows in the next thousand or so words will be rendered moot by that one statistic but it would be a mistake to dismiss the validity of Ground Zeroes’ existence based on a sensationalist headline figure. It’s an experience that runs broader than it does deep and while its price tag is sure to prove divisive – along with hearing Kiefer Sutherland occupying David Hayter’s shoes – it serves as both a refinement of Metal Gear’s core values and a refreshing progression of its mechanics.
Ostensibly, Ground Zeroes serves as an prelude to the upcoming release of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. It is by no means essential to the overarching narrative of the Metal Gear Solid timeline but instead serves as Kojima’s way of introducing a new direction for the Metal Gear universe. The PS4 build I played looks sublime; with the FOX Engine showcasing some tremendous lighting and texture effects and while Konami itself is unlikely to mention the “D-word”, it undeniably serves as an exceptional demo of what both the engine and veteran developer Kojima will be bringing to the table for The Phantom Pain main event.
So, less than an hour for the main mission and yet after four hours of play I’m nowhere near done with seeing everything there is to see. However, due to Ground Zeroes modular structure you’re going to have to relish replaying areas with a view to perfecting your run through, or be keen on experimenting with different approaches, if you’re to get the most out of Ground Zeroes.
Ground Zeroes is split into five individual missions plus a hidden one that varies whether you’re playing on Xbox or PlayStation. All of these missions take place across the largely open-plan Camp Omega level, with the main story-driven scenario tasking you with extracting Chico and Paz. If you’ve being paying close enough attention to Metal Gear’s extensive narrative then these names will mean something to you, but if they don’t then it really doesn’t matter.
There’s a truly extensive plot recap for Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker that goes into minute detail about these two child prodigies, plus of course there’s a lengthy opening cinematic that sets the scene. However, fans of interactive game play will be happy to note that this is one of only two long-winded cut-scenes, the other was that which made Brenna queasy last week and, to me, felt borderline gratuitous.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the narrative of Ground Zeroes is that it has had very little impact on my enjoyment of the game. Ground Zeroes stands less as a discrete narrative statement, like so many other entries in the Metal Gear franchise, and more as a freeform playground. It delivers objectives and then very much leaves you to your own devices to decide how best to go about achieving them.
"Ground Zeroes stands less as a discrete narrative statement, like so many other entries in the Metal Gear franchise, and more as a freeform playground."
From a gameplay perspective, it’s as much about what isn’t here as what is. Gone are the indicators telling you how visible you are to the enemy and the radar that highlighted troop placement that served as your eyes as you crept, crawled and dashed from one hidey-hole to the next. Instead, you’re left to experiment and to get a handle on enemy view distances and the extent to which the curiosity of the AI can be piqued before it will become suspicious.
Surveying the scene with your binoculars serves to tag enemies whose location can then be tracked in the normal game view but with so many games capitulating to the likes of Detective/Eagle/Survivor Vision, it’s initially alarming how vulnerable it makes you feel not to have a higher form of omniscience. Soon enough, though, it feels very welcome indeed and, in a small way, heightens the sense of danger and then accomplishment when you successfully weave through enemy patrol lines.
Bereft of a formal tutorial to drag the game down, it’s up to you to learn the parameters and mechanics through play - it’s an old fashioned idea and yet feels curiously refreshing, for how few games do it anymore. There’s also a degree of nuance to the stealth, diversion and traversal options available to you, which change across the different mission types. Some of the objectives offer a choice of approach, while some are very much focused either on stealth or hard and fast gun play. While Ground Zeroes certainly provides the opportunity to experiment with different play styles it also feels like it’s equipping you with the necessary skills that will be required to tackle The Phantom Pain.
In the interest of variety, many of the missions take place at different times of the night or day, exhibit different weather conditions and focus on different parts of the map, which helps differentiate one from one another and mixes up the challenge and logistics of each run. While the main Ground Zeroes campaign level comes in at anywhere between one to two hours, each of these side missions run from around 15 – 40 minutes. The objectives themselves are standard fare with a Metal Gear twist and include destroying gun emplacements, retrieving intel from an inside man and extracting a familiar face from Camp Omega as the compound throws troops, jeeps and helicopters at you.
There are other, less involved goals, like time-trial enemy-tagging and target-smashing but these are the minor objectives that will likely serve as filler once the mission objectives proper have been exhausted. Quite how long it takes to get to that point is very much up to you. There’s a ranking system for each mission that takes account of time, combat alerts and retries (amongst other things) but it’s a system that feels far too forgiving and easy to manipulate. Instead, the motivation to achieve a perfect run – the conditions for which change by mission – falls to you. Sure, you can wing it, but when the credits roll you alone will know whether you played the game in the spirit that Kojima and co intended.
"Bereft of a formal tutorial to drag the game down, it’s up to you to learn the parameters and mechanics through play - it’s an old fashioned idea and yet feels curiously refreshing."
That, really, sums-up Metal Gear 5: Ground Zeroes: that feeling that you get out what you put in. In some respects, Ground Zeroes feels like a new start for the franchise, its stripped back UI and feedback mechanisms belie the depth of the mechanics that underpin the whole experience. How long that whole experience lasts is, again, up to you. The main narrative elements, those parts that will carry over to The Phantom Pain, come in at an hour, maybe two, but that really says so little of what Ground Zeroes constitutes.
At a time when so many, more comprehensive, experiences go unfinished for want of time or effort on our part, Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes’ optional content approach offers an intriguing and refreshing prospect. That said, it’s one that you have to be determined to explore if you’re to derive from it both maximum enjoyment and value for money.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes is out today in the US, on March 20 in Europe and March 27 in Australia.