Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is certainly not what most people expected it to be. The game, originally expected to be the next major entry in the series, is now no more than a taste of what is to come in the true successor, The Phantom Pain. Most have scoffed at the idea of what seems like nothing more than a $30 demo and Ground Zeroes, at least initially, may seem to be just that. Luckily, fans of the series will be treated to a superb sampling of what will be on offer in The Phantom Pain, as well as a game that is highly replayable and a joy to play.
Ground Zeroes primary mission, both as a game and from a story perspective, is to act as a prequel to the events of The Phantom Pain. Big Boss a.k.a. Snake, fresh from the events of Peace Walker, is tasked with infiltrating and overseas United States marine base to rescue two kidnapped members of Mother Base. Very early on you will be treated to Hideo Kojima’s infamous cutscenes, but these scenes are much easier to follow and understand than some previous entries in the series. Players of previous titles who found that cutscenes dragged on too long or were simply boring will be in for a treat with Ground Zeroes. For longtime fans of Kojima’s unique brand of storytelling, that is still in full effect here, just a bit more to the point. Ground Zeroes’ main mission is rather brief and runs about two hours, that is including some time to explore and get a decent layout of the base. This mission could be completed much faster by someone well versed in the mission, but two hours is a solid expectation for someone picking it up for the first time.
Despite this short length, the mission does an excellent job of selling The Phantom Pain. Gameplay in Ground Zeroes is the best ever featured in a Metal Gear Solid game. Pressing up against walls no longer requires you to press triangle as it did in MGS4 and is as simple as running up to the wall, similar to the earlier games in the series. Stealth is clearly the emphasis of gameplay and Big Boss has all of his old tricks up his sleeve. You can tag enemies with your binoculars from range and keep track of their movement in addition to planning out your desired path. This may sound cheap to stealth purists, but not every enemy can be tagged since not all enemies are immediately visible. Rushing brazenly into an area without so much as peeking around the corner will quickly get you noticed and have the entire enemy base after you. Guards follow predictable patterns making them easy to take out quietly in low numbers. Hiding bodies is still a must since certain enemies will conduct searches of the base at the first sign of suspicion. Enemies can be fairly forgiving when they initially spot you. If the distance is great enough they will either take no further action, or may simply investigate. This can be used to your advantage to move enemies from a specific location, or to isolate them for a swift knockout.
If you do get spotted, Ground Zeroes features strong improvements to combat that make playing it as an action game much more rewarding, if that is your thing. CQC, a specialty of Big Boss, is quick and punishing on enemies. In what sometimes seems like a split second, the helpless guard has been brought to the ground unconscious. Shooting is also much improved and packs a bigger punch. While guns felt a bit slow at times in MGS4 and enemies seemed to sponge a bit too much, Ground Zeroes makes you feel like an elite agent. More often than not it felt too easy to drop large numbers of baddies on the occasion I was spotted. The ease of the gunplay actually made me much more likely to reload the last checkpoint, at the risk of losing progress, rather than mow down a dozen or so guys. This does make the game a lot more fun for the less stealth inclined among us who still want a Metal Gear Solid game they can enjoy.
When you do finish the main campaign you unlock hard mode as well as four other side missions. These missions, much like the main one, can be finished rather quickly, but encourage repeat playthroughs to get a better rating or try a different style. One such mission requires you to eliminate two specific targets, but these targets move around the base at regular intervals. You could work to isolate them and take them out quietly, or simply go in guns blazing, taking them out in addition to every other soldier on the base. I managed a mix of the two, taking out my first target undetected. The second was difficult to isolate, so from a distance I managed a clean headshot, putting the base on alert, but unable to locate me. From there I could have called in the chopper to pick me up, but I decided I would much rather walk out like a…well…like a boss. Other missions have you extracting personnel, gathering intelligence, or destroying key targets. These are all very fun to play and offer a different enough challenge to warrant playing each mission again and again.
The Metal Gear Solid series has always been known for pushing the limits of graphics on their respective platforms, and Ground Zeroes nor The Phantom Pain, based in the same engine, look to be bucking that trend. Character models are full of life and detail, environments, especially the rainy night setting of the main mission, look stunning. Lighting effects are top notch and shadows deep and easy to hide in. The fact that the game looks as good as it does and runs at a steady framerate is a credit to Kojima’s new engine. There was only one brief instance when the framerate may have shuddered, but it was so brief that I wasn’t even sure it happened.
Matching up well with the visual standards is Ground Zeroes’ sound design. Guns sounded especially good when compared to older games and subtle sound like walking around or pushing up against cover sounded a bit improved as well. The music is, as with all Metal Gear Solid games, very well done, fitting the mood without ever overpowering the moment. To address the elephant in the room, and I know you are all wondering, Kiefer Sutherland delivers a fantastic performance as Big Boss. In fact, and don’t hate me for this one purists, his range and overall quality of acting actually surpasses that of David Hayter. Snake is not just in good hands with Sutherland, it is in better hands. It wasn’t until after finishing the main mission that I even remembered Hayter had been replaced by Sutherland. He immediately took command of the role from the very first lines and is a major standout in the cast. Returning characters like Kaz and Otacon have kept their previous actors, but none of the cast delivers a performance even close to Sutherland’s. If nothing else, Sutherland exposes some weaknesses that Hayter never did, and likely contributed to.
Ground Zeroes is a tough game to critique. On one hand you have what would often equate to nothing more than a demo, normally offered for free, but that is only if you are looking at the primary mission. Beyond that there is hours of additional content, a huge amount of replayability, and a game that, despite its length, is a much more enjoyable experience than most games twice its price offer. It is easy to shrug off Ground Zeroes and just say, “I’ll wait for The Phantom Pain,” but is $30 really so much money that waiting is really the better option? It might sound crazy, but even at the old price of $40 (PS4/XOne), this game would still earn a huge recommendation. Ground Zeroes is as good as a Metal Gear Solid game gets, just now available in a super concentrated form.