You’ve got to applaud Hideo Kojima. No matter how many times the legendary developer expresses his desire to step away from Metal Gear Solid, he finds himself inexorably drawn back to the stealth-action opus one way or another. His latest venture, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, finds the creator well and truly back in his comfort zone; for Kojima-san, it must be akin to slipping back into a comfy pair of slippers. Here, we find the celebrated and esoteric franchise as strong as it’s ever been, and despite the fact Ground Zeroes is basically a teaser for the main event - namely, The Phantom Pain - Snake’s latest adventure is packing much more under the hood than various critics would have you believe - and more importantly, it’s also one of the most accomplished stealth titles you’ll play.
Set shortly after the events of MGS: Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes sees grizzly hero Big Boss infiltrating Camp Omega, where he must extricate two prisoners from the heavily-guarded fortress: Chico and Paz. After a lengthy intro, Snake is plonked down on the outskirts of the base in the pouring rain, where you are pretty much left to fend for yourself and accomplish your mission how you see fit. Yep, Metal Gear Solid has finally gone open world. Admittedly, the game environment feels more harmonious with Snake Eater’s larger areas rather than a sprawling sandbox, but nonetheless the tactical freedom on offer is truly liberating.
While the series paradigm has remained largely unmolested in the five years since Guns of the Patriots, Kojima Productions has made a concerted effort to trim the fat here and there. Consequently, some of the cumbersome controls and idiosyncrasies Metal Gear is known for are conspicuous by their absence. From regenerating health to on-screen alerts for guards’ awareness, Ground Zeroes has a far more contemporary feeling than its predecessors -- and it’s all the better for it. The slow-mo sequence that plays when a guard spots you - giving Snake seconds to react and neutralize the threat before they raise the alarm - is particularly neat, offering a tense and adrenaline-fueled aspect to confrontations. There’s also no stamina or psych meters to worry about, either, while HQ chatter now takes place seamlessly in-game by hitting L1.
Still, these changes ultimately pale into comparison by the main attraction, however: freedom. Camp Omega is a rich, strategic melting pot where you are free to go about your objectives however you wish. You have two prisoners to rescue, each one hidden away somewhere in the prison grounds; how you get there is up to you, and you can approach them in any order. Snake’s stealth skills are paramount to your survival, though thanks to the responsive controls, you’ll soon be crawling through shrubbery and sticking to waist-high cover seamlessly and intuitively. Much like Snake Eater, this is a methodical sneak fest, and I found it incredibly satisfying to slowly but steadily inch my way to my objective, exploiting holes in patrols and keeping to the shadows wherever possible. Whereas some games don’t give you the payoff until the end of the mission, Ground Zeroes is punctuated with personal accomplishment throughout; everything from surreptitiously landing a headshot to swiftly avoiding being spotted by a searchlight carries a weighty sense of achievement.