– Hideo Kojima, gamesTM.co.uk interview
That was his mission statement, and Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is Kojima’s first piece of evidence to make his case. And a strong case it is. Ground Zeroes is ambitious, breaking new ground with its open world design, and yet also a highly focused and confident entry in the series.
Taking place a few months after Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker for the PlayStation Portable (PSP), Ground Zeroes sees the player once again take up the mantle of Naked Snake (a.k.a. Big Boss). It’s 1975, and his private military company, Militaires Sans Frontières (MSF), is facing an upcoming nuclear inspection by the IAEA. MSF does have a nuclear deterrent in the form of Metal Gear ZEKE, carefully hidden away at the bottom of the sea near their offshore Caribbean base. The problem? Paz, a spy that had infiltrated MSF and formerly thought to be dead, has been found to be alive and a prisoner of a U.S. black site in Cuba called Camp Omega. To make matters worse, Chico, a volunteer recruit in MSF has also been captured in a solo attempt to free Paz and is held up at the same base. The risk of MSF’s nuclear secrets being compromised are high, and it falls to Snake to infiltrate Camp Omega, extract Paz and Chico if they are still alive, and determine the extent of what they revealed during their captivity.
If that was enough to make your head spin, you’re probably not alone. Knowledge of the characters and events of the portable Metal Gear Solid entries are essential to making sense of the events in Ground Zeroes. To help with this, the game provides a brief backstory for the uninitiated on Naked Snake’s previous exploits, covering Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and the PSP entries Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and Peacewalker. Audio cassette tapes help fill in more of Paz and Chico’s backstory, and allow Master Miller (MSF’s second in command) to debrief Snake and bring you up to speed.
If the backstory is heavy and a lot to wade through, the events of Ground Zeroes itself are presented more to the point. Perhaps acknowledging the overindulgences of past games, this is Kojima at his most restrained. To be sure, the main mission is bookended by epic, visually stunning, interestingly directed cinematics. But in-game cut scenes are kept at a minimum – intervening only when necessary to move the mission plot along, and they keep things short at that. Radio support conversations play out live with subtitles as you play, and other optional conversations regarding aspects of the military base are in your control to trigger or not. Thankfully absent from this sneaking mission are fifteen minute codec conversations with your ex-girlfriend about where your relationship went wrong. Much has been made of the introduction of Keifer Sutherland as the new voice of Snake. At this point the change has minimal impact, for better or for worse. It is jarring at first when Snake first speaks and someone other than David Hayter is heard. But Snake has few lengthy lines of dialog throughout Ground Zeroes and the results are better judged when Phantom Pain is released. On the upside, if you are going to replace the voice of Snake, Jack Bauer is a suitable substitute for an espionage game featuring global politics, secret intelligence organizations, military “detainees”, and nuclear deterrents. The focus of Ground Zeroes is rather in the gameplay, and its here that the things really start to shine.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence was the first in the series to introduce a 3D, third person camera, laying the groundwork for its use in Metal Gear Solid 4. However both games still took place in decidedly linear environments, pressing the player to move forward in a corridor-like fashion. Ground Zeroes instead places Snake in a full 3D, open world environment. Camp Omega is a sandbox – not only providing new opportunities for approaching stealth and traversal to your mission objective, but also new dangers and potential for being discovered. Soldiers you avoided or missed earlier may still become problems for as you double-back or take an alternate route. Guards patrol large areas in looping patterns, sometimes driving vehicles to and from destinations within the base. Other guards stand watch in towers, sweeping large areas with spotlights. Stealth is no longer an ordered set of encounters that you safely pass and move on from. Rather you’re an intruder in a base that feels alive, and the term ‘tactical espionage’ has never felt more appropriate than now.
To accommodate this new sandbox environment, many of the core stealth game mechanics have been rebuilt from the ground up. There is no radar, but guards can be tagged by watching them through Snake’s binoculars. Once tagged, a small icon appears above their head that you can see from afar that calculates the distance between you. When up close, the silhouettes of tagged guards are visible behind walls. You can also tag the locations of vehicles, anti-aircraft guns, prisoners, and other targets of interest. Once tagged, targets appear on your map display.
As you move around the base and enter a soldier’s line of sight from a distance, you may catch their suspicion. A white reticule appears in the centre of the screen, indicating the direction the threat is looking from, and giving you a chance to find cover between you and their line of sight. If you get spotted (and you inevitably will), Ground Zeroes next innovation is to snap the game into slow motion, giving you a few split seconds to react and take out the guard before they sound the alarm and notify the base of your presence via radio. A successful silent headshot or close-quarters takedown within the slow motion time frame can rectify the situation, keeping you incognito. Fail, and the base goes full alert, forcing you to escape and find a good place to hide until the search patrols give up and the base resumes normal status.
The beauty of these new mechanics is how they allow for multiple layers of success and failure, proving you options and outs without sacrificing tension or difficulty. Yes, guards can be tagged, but you have to work at it by using your binoculars. On several occasions I thought the coast was clear, only to be caught by surprise by a guard I had missed during my reconnaissance. With a full 360 degree field to worry about, tagging gives you the chance to spot threats in your periphery without tipping the balance too far in your favour. The ability to take down a guard in slow motion when spotted provides you an opportunity to correct minor mistakes and keep your momentum in the mission going. But it’s not a get-out-of-jail free card. You often can’t react in time. If you do manage a well-placed headshot, but use a gun without a silencer, other guards in the area will hear you and come running to investigate. Leave a bloodied body for them to find, and you’ll need to stay out of sight and deal with the search patrols that will be called on alert.
Once you get a feel for the flow of the game, you can find interesting ways to use these layered game mechanics to your advantage. Set a C4 charge on a parked vehicle, run to a safe location, and detonate the charge to purposely trigger the base to go on alert. While the search patrols and other soldier’s in the area rush to investigate the blast site, a hole may open up in their defences, allowing you to sneak with ease through a previously carefully guarded route. Snake’s aresenal of weapons and moves have never controlled better. Shooting is responsive and includes auto-targetting – though aiming for the head requires finesse on your part. Transitions between crawling through grass, to moving adeptly while crouched, and then breaking out into a jog or sprint are easy to do. Tired on your feet? Steal a vehicle and tour the base by wheels. Keep to a reasonable speed within covered vehicles and guards likely won’t give you a second look – at least until you run them over. Chokehold a guard by surprise in close quarters, and you have the option to interrogate for information such as untagged guards or the location of extra ammo and collectibles. Render them unconscious for a period of time, or silence them permanently for safe measure – the choice is yours. The options are limitless, and much of the fun is playing through again, finding different ways to accomplish each mission.
Aside from completing the main story mission (a little under 2 hours on my first go), a series of secondary missions called Side Ops are available. Each takes place in the same Camp Omega offering different lighting and weather conditions to show off the new Fox Engine. Whether tracking and stealth killing two targets on the base, rescuing a special “high-value” operative via helicopter cover fire, or making contact with an informant to retrieve secret intel, these missions provide additional opportunities to explore Ground Zeroes’ playground. There are also extra incentives to replay the main story mission, such as finding cassette tapes with additional backstory, or collectibles to unlock the final two Side Ops. Concerns and complaints about this being a glorified demo are unfounded. I’ve played the official demos of the first three games in the Metal Gear Solid franchise and Ground Zeroes offers far beyond what you’d find in a demo. A short prologue chapter rather than a full game, yes, but as with prior Metal Gear Solid games, Ground Zeroes is rewarding to replay, even if just for the sake of improving your skill and trying new things.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a crisp and satisfying experience. It’s a game that knows it’s a game first, and is fun. My appetite is whet for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Here’s hoping Joakim Mogren and Moby Dick Studio are up to the challenge.