Metal Gear Solid titles tend to cultivate through distinctive qualities that separate them from the other titles within the franchise. The latest entry to the series, Ground Zeroes, is representative of this tendency to an abnormal extent. Plenty of signature core mechanics that have become comfortably familiar throughout the series are nowhere to be found. Kojima’s new vision for his signature franchise tackles bold ambitions and allows this Metal Gear to be the most unique, albeit construed title given its role as a prologue.
Acting as the setup for the full fledged Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes picks up a year after the events of Peace Walker. We travel back in time yet again to fill in the role of the heroic prodigy Big Boss. Sent on a mission to infiltrate Camp Omega, you are tasked to rescue a familiar acquaintance.
Given the short length of the prologue, this allows this specific storyline to be the least convoluted. However, there’s still a substantial amount of background to fully comprehend what’s going on; and on top of that, there’s a lot of story to uncover with tapes. If you haven’t played Peace Walker – even if you’re a long-time fan of the franchise – you probably won’t get the emotional response that’s intended in Ground Zeroes. The story is more justified as a short wrap-up for Peace Walker more so than a prologue to The Phantom Pain.
Kojima’s directorial return for another Metal Gear shines (quite literally) in Ground Zeroes. It’s apparent that the cinematic flair that accompanies the series is more developed than ever – especially with the stunning Fox Engine. There isn’ta dense amount of cutscenes here, which is unusual for a Metal Gear title. In fact, the few cutscenes we get aren’t at all lengthy compared to those in the past, but they still perfectly showcase how far the cinematography has advanced.
While the series always had some bit of cartoony and comedic undertones, Ground Zeroes yields a darker, more serious tone. The humor that we’re familiar with is still there, but we’re caught off guard with the grim nature of the title. There are moments that will make you feel uncomfortable in the 1-to-2 hour experience. Part of the reasoning for this shift in tone is to make everything feel more real. Kojima has also stated he wanted Big Boss to feel more human.
There was heavy backlash to the news that long-time Snake voice actor, David Hayter, was being replaced by acting veteran Kiefer Sutherland. At first, it felt like I was playing a totally different character. By the end of the game, I was won over by the expert performance and portrayal of Big Boss. It still felt like a totally different Snake, but it’s apparent that this is what’s intended for the new direction of the series.
Usually accompanying any Metal Gear title would be cardboard boxes, rations, weapon slots, an alert timer, and codec –these are all missing in Ground Zeroes. This drastic change in the core mechanics and tropes really sets this game apart from the past titles. Now we are given limited inventory, the ability to mark enemies, and even the ability to commandeer vehicles. The unsettling thing about the change in formula is that it works.
While the majority of fans were worried about the departure of the classic formula, abandoning sentiment in favor of better gameplay mechanics produced good results. I never felt so free and in control in a Metal Gear title before. Everything from the tight fixes of CQC to driving a truck feels natural and proves that Ground Zeroes caters to any approach. There’s still a heavy level of consequence as far as killing or tranquilizing an enemy.
Big Boss feels like he actually has weight in the world this time in the sense that I couldn’t do all of the acrobatic stunts that I was able to before. It makes the stealth mechanic of the game feel more challenging and Snake feels vulnerable at every second there’s a guard in sight. I was under the impression that the game would be made easy with the newly introduced reflex mode that slows down time whenever Snake is detected to allow a quick reaction to prevent an alert phase. This isn’t the case as I’ve only found myself using this feature a few times. With the other instances of reflex mode, I found myself too far from the enemy to take my last resort shot.
Ground Zeroes offers a small amount of side ops missions for those seeking more content. These missions offer a lot of variety but some still fall flat since they don’t give as much freedom as the main mission. It feels like cheap a way to prolong the playtime of the game once the credits have rolled. I’m glad those missions are there, don’t get me wrong, but something still feels lacking in the whole package.
The twists and turns that aren’t a stranger to any of the other Metal Gear titles aren’t here. Take it for what it is, but Ground Zeroes teases and sets up more than it satisfies and wraps up. Camp Omega – while it is beautiful in the Fox Engine – falls flat as an interesting location in the universe. Compared to Camp Omega, the tanker level in MGS 2 (which in part served as a demo bundled with Zone of Enders) had more depth and character.
What shines in Ground Zeroes aside from the handful of lens flares is the quality and careful tethering to the formula. It doesn’t feel like the franchise we’ve been playing for almost 16 years. What keeps it connected to the series are the characters, story, and the small amount of familiar tropes we’re left with. The small package might be too little for even the most dedicated fans but it still packs a punch for those who can’t wait for the rest of Metal Gear Solid V.
Verdict: 7.5 out of 10
With the long awaited return of Metal Gear Solid, Kojima gave us what we weren’t expecting. Ground Zeroes will undoubtedly surprise long-time veterans as a worthy entry to the series. It’s the boldest outing of the franchise yet, but it still feels hindered by its role as a prologue.