Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes Review
By making several smart additions to the stealth gameplay but abandoning nearly all the series’ trademark charm, Ground Zeroes is both the best and worst Metal Gear Solid game to date.
Metal Gear Solid games typically live or die by their campaigns, and what’s immediately clear is the scope of the story mission in Ground Zeroes- or rather, the lack of scope. It says a lot about what Kojima thinks of this entry’s campaign when it’s displayed on a mission select screen with all the other non-canon ‘Side Ops’ missions. Set a year after the events of Peace Walker, Big Boss is tasked with rescuing a few familiar faces from a prison camp in Cuba. While it stylishly uses an Alfred Hitchcock Rope ‘single camera angle’ wrapper, it’s ultimately very inconsequential to series lore- it mostly creates and then solves problems within its brief plot, rather than answering longer-standing series questions.
I certainly don’t have a problem with short video games either, but this narrative simply felt incomplete. With the game lasting about the length of a movie, one would expect at least the standard three acts- a beginning, middle and end. Ground Zeroes feels like it’s missing its third act- the story certainly left me wanting to see what’s next, but it was unfulfilling as a self-contained entry. Through its entire running time, there is none of the trademark MGS charm to be found either, leaving an oppressively dark narrative that tackles some truly uncomfortable issues. With a lot of the necessary pieces to understand what’s happening hidden away in collectibles as well, it feels like the game is compensating for a lack of plot by making the player waste time hunting for pieces of lore.
Once the credits roll however, it becomes apparent that this game isn’t meant to be played like a normal series entry- when the ‘Side Ops’ and ‘Extra Ops’ come into the mix, there is actually a respectable amount of content to play around with. Each mission has its own specific objectives, from assassinations to sabotage or hostage rescue, and there are a surprising number of secret tasks and easter eggs to find within. Everything takes place on the same map from the campaign, just with different times of day and weather conditions, but because guard patterns, weapons and vehicles are shifted around for each, the lack of scenery isn’t too much of an issue. The ‘Extra Ops’ missions are a lot of fun as well, one of which contains exhaustive references to the original Metal Gear Solid game from 1998, asking the player to participate in some pretty interesting ways.
This isn’t a sprawling epic like past entries in the series- Ground Zeroes is more about micro-level details, learning how the guards think and trying to outwit them. The guards are incredibly intelligent this time, able to spot Snake from huge distances and use context clues in some unexpected ways, and the scenarios can be equally dynamic. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut because of the world’s increased hostility, but once you start thinking outside the box for solutions to stealth problems, it becomes more of a puzzle game than a typically rote stealth experience. With each mission’s ‘trials’ there are different handicaps as well- for example, how do you sabotage anti-air guns when you can’t use weapons? How do you assassinate targets when you can’t kill anyone? Any Metal Gear Solid game could hold up to close scrutiny, but because this one forces you to inspect its gameplay systems with a fine-tooth comb by playing and replaying its missions, it really makes the brilliance behind its mechanics apparent.
While it can dish out hugely rewarding moments, Ground Zeroes can be very punishing as well, especially when you’re trying to learn the ropes. The checkpoint system is terrible, opting to reset the state of the world instead of saving the state of your session. This can cause any number of weird anomalies, like refilling all your ammo when you respawn, changing the guard positions, or spawning you beyond the area you had trouble with. These things made the game way too easy, which led to me restarting entire missions rather than use the checkpoints, and it can be very frustrating to throw away an hour of gameplay over one split-second mistake. One of Snake’s new moves, ‘Reflex Mode,’ which slows down time when spotted to give you a free shot at the offending guard, also massively detracts from your score. This makes it so you may as well disable the feature entirely if you’re going for a trial completion or high rating. These quirks shoehorn a level of seriousness into every gameplay encounter, effectively forcing you to into the shoes of a grizzled MGS master if you just want to play the game fair and square.
Ground Zeroes was never meant to be a full Metal Gear Solid series entry, but it should still be judged by how well it delivers within the context of its scope. While the trials can be a lot of fun, they can be hugely unforgiving and won’t do much for any but the most dedicated fans. The campaign has its moments, but its thin screenplay is crushed under the weight of what it’s trying to accomplish. I had a lot of fun with this game, but I had to dig very deep to find it- the punishing nature of the gameplay meant I was wiping from a mission just as often as I’d clear one. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is an experience with incredibly complex and rewarding mechanics, but in many ways the game itself can’t support them. If nothing else, I’m looking forward to using those mechanics in the upcoming larger portion of Metal Gear Solid V, so I suppose it has accomplished its mission there.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes / Kojima Productions / Konami / March 18, 2014 / December 18, 2014 (PC)
This review was conducted on the Xbox One and PC versions of the game.
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