One of the grandfathers of stealth, Metal Gear Solid, has seen a lot of changes over the years. You can almost track the slow evolution of the genre with each iteration, going from traditional stealth with the original title to a more streamlined, varied approach with Metal Gear Solid 4. The prologue to the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, titled Ground Zeroes, pushes the series even more away from its roots, making it the most modern adaptation of the classic formula.
Ground Zeroes picks up after the events of the last main game in the series, Peace Walker, with Big Boss infiltrating a prison camp to rescue two returning characters, Chico and Paz. If you don’t consider yourself up-to-date on the grandiose Metal Gear narrative, then Ground Zeroes’ plot won’t mean much to you. That being said, it’s still a relatively minor story in the grand scheme of things, only meant to set up the events of the The Phantom Pain. If anything, it demonstrates how drastically different the tone of Metal Gear Solid V is compared to the previous games, hinging on much darker themes.
The real draw of Ground Zeroes is its gameplay. It’s the first “open-world” Metal Gear game, leaving you free to explore a large base and approach each objective however you see fit. Metal Gear Solid 4 started toward this direction, with larger environments as well as allowing the player to take a more action-heavy approach if they so chose. It’s immediately apparent that Ground Zeroes is attempting to move away from its roots in some serious ways, but these shifts seem only for the best.
The stealth mechanics feel similar to previous games but with small improvements, like a dynamic cover system that lets you take cover without the press of a button. It also takes some cues from both the Far Cry and Crysis series, allowing you to spot enemies and tag them, thus making them easier to pinpoint at any time, as well showing you a small indicator when an enemy sees you (or at least sees something suspicious). When spotted, the game slows down and gives you an opportunity to silence the guard before he alerts his friends. All of these small changes make for dramatically-improved stealth and provide less-experienced players a chance to make it through the mission unscathed.
It’s not all about stealth though, or at least it doesn’t have to be. When you first start the game’s main mission, you’ll simply be set loose on your own and given an opportunity to tackle each of the objectives, or simply explore, however you see fit. If you find yourself in a tough spot, shooting your way out of a situation is never a bad move. Thankfully, the gunplay is excellent and responsive, allowing you to play the entire game as a third-person shooter if you so choose.
The AI initially seems more dynamic this time around, changing up its routines around the base regularly to make sure recognizable patterns, a stealth game tradition, aren’t noticeable. Despite this smart improvement, the enemies still lack intelligence. That’s not to say there isn’t a challenge, especially if guards gang up on you, but even if you take the action approach you can most likely pick off most of the guards in the base without much hassle.
These are all steps in the right direction for the series, and allow for multiple play styles and approaches. Unfortunately, the main mission in Ground Zeroes probably won’t take you more than two hours to finish your first time through. Just when you feel like you’re getting a handle on everything the game has to offer, you’re watching the ending cutscenes.
The main mission, while short, is highly replayable due to its open-ended nature. There are also a handful of excellent side missions that give you more chances to explore the game’s mechanics and the base itself. It’s not a game full to the brim with content, but there is enough there to keep you busy for a few extra hours beyond the campaign’s initial length.
As many have come to expect from the series, Ground Zeroes is visually remarkable. It’s both a technical showpiece for both Konami’s new Fox Engine and these new consoles. The weather effects during the main mission are stunning, and really demonstrate just how powerful the engine is. The daytime segments, which you see during some of the game’s side operations, aren’t as flashy, but still show promise. It’s an impressive demonstration of new technology and one of the nicest-looking games you’ll play on current-gen hardware.
It’s true, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is only an introduction to the mechanics and story of the main game, The Phantom Pain, but what’s here completely delivers what you would expect from the series. It makes some smart changes to the core formula and also maintains what you would expect from a stealth-action title, without compromising what’s so compelling about Metal Gear in the first place.
Pros: Main mission allows for experimentation, plenty of replayability, gorgeous visuals
Cons: The campaign’s length is undeniably short, weak AI