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Big Boss is looking mighty small right about now.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, the latest in the stealth-action franchise (coming to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 on Tuesday), was a confusing announcement, considering the upcoming release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain next year. Is it a wholly separate, prequel game? Or is it a demo? We recently attended a review event for Ground Zeroes, playing the PS4 version, to find out for ourselves just what exactly this “playable prologue” is.
What you’ll like
A sharp production (at least on PS4)
Like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots before it, Ground Zeroes is a decadent showcase of technical mastery. Big Boss’s mission to extract two members of his paramilitary organization from a black-ops site in Cuba is set against pouring rain and panning searchlights. Rocks, tents, and NPC ponchos are slick with moisture. Lights cast deep and distinct shadows. Simply put, no stealth game has ever looked this good, although we imagine a few more tricks should be in store when The Phantom Pain launches. Prerelease footage from Kojima Productions confirmed that the PS4 version we played as the ideal visual setup, so we’re not sure what you’ll get from other consoles.
Character models express an impressive range of subtle and dramatic emotions, speaking dialogue that is mixed just as smoothly and crisply as the many different gun discharges. More importantly, atmospheric effects can be incredibly subtle but powerful. Footsteps on grated floors or the shifting of a rifle’s weight by a tired guard escalate depending on how close you can approach them, selling an immediate and palpable sense of place. Ground Zeroes has few blemishes to speak of, outside of textures clipping into the ground when looked at up close or Big Boss’ glued-on beard whiskers.
Story bait for The Phantom Pain
Most players will have already seen a significant portion of Ground Zeroes’ cutscenes before they pick the game up. Only a handful of narrative sequences haven’t been shown in the several lengthy trailers. But that doesn’t stop every moment from being expertly shot, edited, and motion captured. Game director Hideo Kojima is in prime filmmaker mode in Ground Zeroes, making what little story progression there rings with nuance and emotion.
Two of the soldiers of Big Boss’s paramilitary outfit are being held at an American black site in Cuba, their recovery being your sole objective. These young militants suffer painful atrocities of war under stark camera focus, their eventual extraction only leading to further danger for Big Boss and company. You can glean some background information about the base or local rumors by zooming into whispering groups of guards with your binoculars, and collectible cassette tapes fill in the gaps of your soldiers’ torturous treatment.
While what happens in Ground Zeroes effectively amounts to a precredit sequence for The Phantom Pain, the minute-to-minute action is just as gripping as the Metal Gear Solid series’ reputation would suggest. And in true Kojima fashion, it all leaves you with far more questions than answers.
A streamlined interface that will still appeal to hardcore fans
Your days of menu surfing for camouflage paints and rations are over. The first few minutes of Ground Zeroes feel more like a recent Splinter Cell mission than anything Metal Gear. You do just about everything in real time — item and weapon selection or map perusal — and it often appears in-world through 3D projections. Focusing on a guard with your binoculars will tag their location, their icon remaining onscreen even through walls. Close-quarters combat is now more of a reactionary trigger press than minifighting game although guards can still be held up before being interrogated or put down.
Selecting your weapon is done with a few taps of the directional pad with attachments like flashlights or silencers just another button press away. Big Boss also cycles through his stances with a few button presses in one of the least changed aspects of the control scheme. Guards still seem to be suffering from cataracts, having only 40 meters or so in their field of vision when Big Boss is crouched. But their A.I. operate on a logical progression of discovery and curiosity before an official search for you begins.The color of your weapon’s targeting reticule shows its effective range, with red signifying your clearest shot.
Franchise veterans will take a few minutes to adapt to the streamlining, but the sacrifice of complexity for ease of use has been made wisely. As long as you are playing Ground Zeroes as a stealth game, this mission goes off without a hitch.
What you won’t like
Ground Zeroes is just as short as you’ve heard
I cleared the single story mission of Ground Zeroes in 1 hour and 40 minutes despite a death and several unpaused breaks. There have been few examples of gameplay perfect enough to merit $30 ($20 for a digital copy on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360) at that length of time, and Ground Zeroes certainly isn’t an exception. The attempts to lengthen the play time with unlocked challenges and audio logs comes off more as an admission of guilt about the paltry core content than any genuine attempt to broaden the experience.
Ground Zeroes operates on constant momentum and a plethora of unresolved story threads. While satisfying in the moment, little is ultimately achieved outside of technical tutorials and exposition. You can’t even properly judge Kiefer Sutherland’s work as the new voice for Big Boss. The vast majority of Big Boss’s dialogue in the mission is reactionary exposition of little consequence to his character. What you get above all else after completing Ground Zeroes is a fervent desire to play The Phantom Pain. That is the goal of a demo, not than a full game, bargain-priced or otherwise. This mission is an incomplete episode of a television show you won’t see until next year.
Unlockables don’t have lasting value
After finishing the Ground Zeroes mission, you unlock a handful of challenges that play out on the same map. Big Boss is sent back to the Cuban black site at various times of day to assassinate targets, steal intel, or destroy certain objects or items. The mini-missions are definitely a stiffer challenge than the story, with fewer guards patrolling larger areas of the base. But most only last 15 minutes to half an hour depending on skill level, with a few devolving into soulless shootouts with a control system not designed for third-person shooting. Running from a tank is made infinitely more complicated when Big Boss sticks to every flat surface worse than Altaïr from the first Assassin’s Creed.
The extra narrative information on certain characters or events gained after completing challenges is interesting but feels like data log entries that usually unlock naturally over the course of a single-player game. You can replay all missions — including the main story adventure — for a higher ranking, but that is hardly enough incentive to suffer the frustration of the challenges more than once. This empty filler feeling never dissipates no matter which extra mission you undertake.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a demo being sold as a bargain-priced game. While the Metal Gear franchise is renowned for having exceptional game teasers, the idea of selling one of them at this price is absurd. The unsatisfying, unlockable content is painfully obvious filler. Not enough moments of gameplay or narrative consequence happen in the main mission to justify a price above $10, let alone the $20-$30 range.
Pick up Ground Zeroes next year right before The Phantom Pain launches. By that time, it will have dropped in price, and the gap between games will be much more bearable. Even those that haven’t played Peace Walker are better served buying the HD version of that game online rather than sitting through dozens of minutes of plain audio tapes. Until we can get our hands on The Phantom Pain, this pick-pocketing by Konami is the only consequential bit of stealth to be had with Big Boss this year.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes releases on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 on March 18. Konami provided GamesBeat with a PS4 copy of the game at a local review event for the purpose of this review.