Hideo Kojima has become somewhat of a clown prince in game development, a goofy and spirited developer who’s become famous (or infamous) for perverting the most serious of topics into something absurdly convoluted and intentionally indecipherable. No better example of this is his prized creation, Metal Gear. The series’ espionage intrigue and political alternate histories have always possessed that playfulness, that same kind of whimsy that emits from his cheerful grin he displays at any convention he attends. But the latest Metal Gear game, Ground Zeroes, is not playful at all. It’s a serious deal from start to finish, from the dark subject matter to how seriously Kojima and his crew have addressed the evolution of the series’ stealth mechanics. But despite its brief length, Ground Zeroes is the most evolutionary take on the stealth genre yet, a teasing glimpse into Metal Gear Solid for a new generation.
Picking up after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes follows Big Boss (aka Snake) through a stealth mission to rescue child soldier Chico and long-time agent Paz, two characters who became significant as parts of Big Boss’ independent military unit in Peace Walker. As the leader of his organization, Big Boss handles the classic sneakiness that the Metal Gear series has been known for. The story is a single mission, but it still manages to provide a shocking number of intense moments and clever twists. It’s remarkably dramatic, a stark contrast to the subtle humor that Hideo Kojima had placed in past Metal Gear Solid games. It can be difficult to watch at times (especially one scene involving a makeshift surgery), but with incredibly memorable characters and an ending with a ferocious punch, Ground Zeroes is very potent considering its limited scope, a gripping setup to the next Metal Gear Solid installment, The Phantom Pain.
Ground Zeroes marks a crucial point for the Metal Gear series, one where simple linear design isn’t the focus anymore. The Ground Zeroes story (essentially the campaign) is a single mission taking place in one military base, but it’s how the base is constructed that makes Ground Zeroes such an enjoyable experience. The base itself is enormous, including a prison camp, soldier tents, an armory, a heliport, and more. In that regard, Ground Zeroes is the Metal Gear Solid series going open-world. Sure, it’s not some vast world like in Red Dead Redemption, but as a stealth game that demands a level of precise confinement, Ground Zeroes’ mission is more expansive than any Metal Gear game yet. Weaving around barriers to avoid enemy flashlight beams or climbing up watchtowers to ambush guards is very open-ended. The game does give you a main objective, but more objectives can be earned by interrogating guards, along with searching for intel cassettes or X.O.F. patches. There’s a remarkable sense of freedom in motion with Ground Zeroes, where you can take a shortcut to risk detection or play it safe by dodging flashlight beams more constructively. It’s a big step for the series, one that shows a ton of potential in its use for the incoming Phantom Pain.
Another big component to the game’s freedom is Snake’s moveset itself. Thanks to a smart use of context-sensitive commands and a great amount of traditional stealth skills, Snake’s ability list is varied and fun to use. The weaponry is limited between typical pistols, rifles and grenades, which might make some fans cringe, but the use of skills like CQC, interrogation, and carrying bodies keep gameplay exciting. The navigation is especially nice, involving three different movement speeds (with the fastest being the least stealthy) and a cover system that, while awkward at first, is frequently useful. Snake can even mark enemies by focusing his guns’ crosshairs on them while nearby, allowing him to track their movements even when they’re off-screen. The skills available aren’t anything too out-there, but the balance between the strong ability count and the difficulty of dodging an enemy’s line of sight is sharp and honed. It’s a brilliant way to break down the walls holding the stealth genre and give it some much-needed room to breathe.
And Ground Zeroes isn’t easy, especially if you’re true to the series’ history. While you can attack enemies with guns and complete the game quickly, you earn more rewards if you stick to the bread-and-butter of the series: stealth. Enemies can use their flashlights to see movement and if they find you, they’ll track you down, starting from the initial point where they found you (very similar to another stealth game, Splinter Cell: Conviction). Losing alerted enemies isn’t too complex, but it takes time and it’s just a hassle to deal with. In that regard, the game rewards taking out enemies undetected and being smart in your stealth, a trademark feature that the series has embraced since Day 1. Ground Zeroes is a real evolution in stealth games, but it retains a sense of control and accessibility, rewarding and empowering in all the right ways.
Now I know what you’re thinking. It’s the question that’s been on everyone’s minds for the last six months or so, so I’m just gonna’ address that elephant in the room: Ground Zeroes is not a long game. If you’re just going from story start to finish, the main Ground Zeroes mission can be completed within an hour. However, speeding through the story is not the way I advise gamers to experience Ground Zeroes, because like many open-world games, side-quests and alternative missions are a big part of the appeal. Rushing through Ground Zeroes denies the great use of side missions and hidden secrets. Even worse, the open-ended stealth evolution is practically ignored. If you complete the main story, you’re also given access to Side Ops, side missions that take place in the same Camp Omega base, but with different enemy placement, lighting conditions and required objectives. If you collect all the X.O.F. patches in the main mission, you can also unlock Extra Ops: Déjà vu (a mission based around the original Metal Gear Solid on Playstation 1) for Playstation owners, and Jamais Vu (a mission featuring Raiden of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance) for Xbox owners. While the price is still pretty steep at $20 digitally for PS3 and Xbox 360 ($30 if you’re going for physical copies on PS3/360 or if you’re getting the digital or physical PS4 or Xbox One games), the experience is comprehensive and layered enough to demonstrate a fantastic use of stealth in a more open design. If you rush through it, you simply aren’t getting the full experience.
As a stealth game, Ground Zeroes’ mastery of lighting is an absolute must, and thankfully, the use of illumination and shadow contrast is pitch-perfect. The shining textures gleam in the searchlights, signifying spots where it’s difficult to avoid detection and adding tension to when you must traverse them. The character models in the cutscenes are a bit rough and awkwardly textured at times, but technical performance in-game is as fluid as you’d expect. Another big change is the introduction of Kiefer Sutherland as Big Boss. While he certainly sounds much different than the now iconic David Hayter, Sutherland’s vocal performance as Big Boss is amazingly articulated. It’s not as snarly and gruff as Hayter, but it brings out an aged and almost professional vibe from the war hero. There’s always a sense of nervous desperation with Big Boss in Ground Zeroes, and despite my initial skepticism, I can say that the Snake role is in excellent hands. Additional voice actors like Tara Strong (Powerpuff Girls, Batman: Arkham City) as Paz and Robin Atkin Downes (Team Fortress 2, The Last of Us) as Miller are intensely performed, matching up perfectly with the darker subject matter. Ground Zeroes’ does display the Metal Gear Solid series through a different lens than its predecessors, but it’s a viewpoint that is sure to keep you involved the whole way through.
Ground Zeroes’ lack of length is its biggest weakness, and it’s not a weakness worth ignoring, but even that’s not enough to sour this poignant look into the future of Metal Gear Solid. The open-ended world design makes a single level into something layered and expansive, with varied landmarks and lots of ways to experiment with the game’s exceptional stealth mechanics. The ability count is tuned to all the right frequencies, offering multiple ways to take out enemies and dodge detection. Even the concise story hits the notes right on cue, with memorable scenes and a voice cast with a ton of promise. It’s short, there’s no denying it, but every moment spent playing Ground Zeroes shows a trace of progress for the genre itself, a way to interpret stealth alternatively and without any significant hindrances. If you simply play Ground Zeroes from start to finish, none of the most promising and progressive elements will be apparent. Whether or not this brief glimpse into the future of Metal Gear Solid is worth 20 or 30 bucks is up to you, but I can say without any hesitance that Ground Zeroes displays the biggest evolution of the series seen since the original Metal Gear Solid on Playstation, even if that evolution only lasts for a short, fleeting instant. Bring on The Phantom Pain.
Version Reviewed: Playstation 3