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.
Snake isn’t defenseless of course. From weapons such as Shotguns, machine guns and rocket launchers, our grizzly hero has more than enough hardware to complete the mission. You can also ‘tag’ enemies with you binoculars so they’ll show up on the map, meaning the loss of the radar isn’t as lamentable as it could have been. It’s just a well, as the enemy A.I. is easily the most competent and brutal the series has seen to date. Patrols on watch towers illuminate the rain-soaked soil with blinding flashlights, while ground troops remain ever vigilant below, raising an eyebrow to so much as a flicker of motion in the shadows. Fortunately, you have a myriad of options at your disposal, none of which feel arbitrary; each one has genuine appeal with varying pros and cons, whether it be using a jeep to cover distance more quickly – and nosily – than on foot, hopping into an APC to blast your way through, or sticking to the shadows. To say that Ground Zeroes has ample replay value would be a gross understatement.
Outside of the your main objective, Ground Zeroes also offers plenty of collectibles to keep you busy, such as cassette tapes that flesh out the story, hidden weapon caches and other bits and bobs dotted through the sprawling base. And, while hunting all these down will eat up a fair amount of time, the game’s length truly expands with the extra missions you unlock upon completing Ground Zeroes’ eponymous main campaign.
Here, the base is basked in daylight, and you are given a variety of different missions to tackle. One had me seeking out two marines to dispatch, using the mug shots provided on Snake’s iDroid to identify them — device you also need to call the evac chopper to several dedicated landing zones. However, you only get a sketchy outline of their patrols, and must rely on your own vision to spot them out among the crowd. It’s a tense experience, particularly as you must evade on-going patrols in order to get a clean kill — get spotted, and they’ll attempt to flee the area, resulting in an instant fail. Other objectives are just as diverse; one moment, Snake must disable Anti-Air installations via C4, while the other takes an all-out action route as you scan the base via chopper, peppering the enemy with machine gun and grenade launcher fire as you attempt to rescue an operative attempting to flee the base. I was pleased to find these missions add anything between 20-40 minutes of game time per challenge, making for varied and strategically-rewarding distractions from the main event.
The Fox Engine is given a sumptuous stage on which to shine, though it would be disingenuous to label Ground Zeroes as truly next-gen. Characters and lightning effects look great, and benefit from the nuanced layers you’d expect from a Kojima Productions effort. It also looks positively lush running at a silky-smooth 1080p/60fps. Still, it’s not the emphatic leap beyond MGS4 you might be anticipating, and the presence of some ugly foliage textures, mild pop-up and pixellated effects somewhat damper an otherwise gorgeous-looking game. It’s also lighter on exposition, and while we’re given a glimpse at the game’s eclectic cast – including a scarred chap named Skull Face – it’s obvious Kojima-san is saving the meat of the story for The Phantom Pain. As such, Kiefer Sutherland is given little time to shine, and the jury’s still out as to whether he’ll be a competent replacement for David Hayter.
Ground Zeroes is overall a superb tatser of things to come. It’s obvious Konami is holding back the bigger spectacle for The Phantom Pain, and I was left feeling that the main campaign could have definitely been bigger, with a little more plot thrown into the mix. However, the freedom afforded by the mission, combined with copious amounts of extras, side missions and strategies to uncover, means that fans and newcomers alike are going to be able to easily squeeze 30 quid out of Kojima Productions’ latest stealth-action extravaganza.
PSU’s review of Ground Zeroes was based off extensive hands-on time with the game at a dedicated event held by Konami UK.