Value for money is a touchy subject for gamers. Time was you would buy a game and that would be all you need for next 3 months. Now that we live in the age of on-disc DLC, online passes and 5-hour campaigns, people have a keen eye for games that would try to rip them off, which is why Ground Zeroes, the prologue to full game Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has caused such a stir. The game’s asking price is £25, which for a game that can be comfortably completed in about an hour, is admittedly quite steep. The odds would seem stacked against Ground Zeroes, if it weren’t for the fact that it is the first truly superb action game of this generation.
The first thing you will notice after firing up the game is the truly stunning look. On PS4, GZ flexes the Fox Engine’s muscles with an unparalleled visual fidelity. Previous Metal Gear games have relied on a semi-realistic, stylized visual style, but with the power of the Fox Engine, Ground Zeroes shoots for hyper-realism and does an admirable job. Especially during the game’s main night-time mission, the environments are dazzling. With rain glistening from rocks and each individual blade of grass swaying in the wind, there is a level of detail here that surpasses anything we have seen in the past generation. The character models look great too. Snapping necks has never looked better in 60 frames per second and Snake’s iconic buttocks rendered in 1080p is the first true sign that next-gen has arrived. The game does show a few signs of it’s cross-gen development, some textures on buildings look a little flat and there is very occasional pop-in, but these are very minor gripes on what is an otherwise flawlessly attractive game.
With these hyper-realistic visuals comes a darker, more serious tone. There is still typical Kojima quirkiness here, but it is significantly toned down, making way for a sombre plot dealing with some troubling themes including torture, war crimes and even rape. Kiefer Sutherland’s Snake is quiet, reserved and sometimes detached, painting the portrait of a man hardened and tortured by his many years on the battlefield. While I, like many MGS fans, was dissapointed that series veteran, David Hayter, would not be reprising his role as the iconic voice of Snake, I am excited to see where this new interpretation of Big Boss will go in The Phantom Pain, chronicling the character’s descent into madness that will inevitably lead to his villainy in the MSX originals. This makes a change from the cartoony tone of Peace Walker, one only hopes that Kojima and his team possess the intelligence and restraint to handle these dark themes in a way befitting of their weight. In it’s short running time, the plot makes some narrative turns that seem intentionally designed to indicate the shift in tone from Peace Walker and create a more adult aesthetic. The twist ending definitely succeeds in doing so, leaving the player gripped to their controller yearning for retribution.
For a franchise that, for all intents and purposes, invented the stealth genre, it only seems fair that Ground Zeroes borrows rather heavily from the new Ubisoft stable of Stealth/Action games. Fans of Far Cry 3 and the Assassin’s Creed series will notice the ‘marking’ mechanic that allows enemies to be identified with the binoculars and then be seen through walls as well as the detection meter that appears over enemies heads as they begin to notice your presence. But where these games fail, with less than ingenious AI, GZ excels, presenting the player with deviously crafty enemies that will see through simple deception and force you to think tactically every step of the way. There is also a new ‘Reflex’ mode that quickly snaps Snake’s sights to an enemy when he is discovered giving you one last chance to silence him with a bullet to the head or swift neck-snap. These features do make the game easier than previous entries to the series but they also make the game flow much more smoothly, alleviating some of the frustration of messing up. Being an open world, there are no convenient area transitions to act as checkpoints, so restart points are now much farther apart, meaning that the slight drop in difficulty is necessary.
Every inch of the game’s one location, Camp Omega, feels meticulously thought-out, from the unpredictable guard routes, to the thoughtfully placed bushes and crates to hide behind to the secret stashes of ammo and weaponry placed sparingly throughout the map. The various tactics for taking down enemies are as satisfying as ever. CQC allows Snake to grab enemies and interrogate, knock out or kill them. Interrogating enemies often reveals valuable information about ammo or weaponry stashes, enemy routes or locations of mission objectives (hostages). The open world setting allows for more freedom too. Vehicles can now be commandeered, however doing so is never necessary. Stealing a truck or even a tank is tremendously satisfying if you choose to abandon stealth and go guns blazing. The Side Ops missions add some variety to affairs, but even without these additional missions you will want to play through Ground Zeroes‘ main mission multiple times just to enjoy the refined mechanics and controls once you have surpassed the initial learning curve. Like other Metal Gear games, the variety of weapons and gadgets at your disposal as well as optional objectives like no-kill runs add incentive for multiple playthroughs.
Ground Zeroes functions excellently as both a tutorial and a prologue for the full-blown next-gen Metal Gear extravaganza. The inescapable question of value is indeed a tricky conundrum that makes it almost impossible to assign Ground Zeroes an objective score, so I will forego doing so. What I will say however, is that Ground Zeroes is a visually stunning and staggeringly enjoyable demonstration of what a current gen action game from one of the most talented game studios can be and if that isn’t worth the price of admission then you probably won’t mind waiting for The Phantom Pain. If it can make good on the promise of Ground Zeroes, The Phantom Pain may just be Kojima’s finest hour.