Developer: Kojima Productions
Ground Zeroes is a curious little thing. Neither full game nor free demo, Kojima's attempt to bridge the events of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and the upcoming Phantom Pain acts as both a FOX Engine showcase, a playable tutorial for Snake's massively overhauled gameplay and a shameless story teaser that sets up one heck of a cliffhanger. With concerns about its length, value and Jack Bauer making headlines, I approached my first hands-on session with a degree of trepidation.
Over more than five hours of contact time, however, I gradually came to realise that Ground Zeroes is more than the sum of its parts. Crucially it's a sandbox; a freeform playground designed to ease players into the new Metal Gear Solid experience by letting us experiment with the retooled mechanics on our own terms.
The scene is set in a lengthy intro cinematic that sees Snake rappelling into Omega Base, a Guantanamo Bay-inspired Black Site in which Paz (remember her?) may have been incarcerated. His mission is to extract her alive by any means necessary, even as we're introduced to the horrifically disfigured new villain Skull Face, who sets a sinister plan into motion involving the nefarious XOF forces. It's an excuse to get Snake back into his skintight stealth suit, but scant seconds after assuming control, you'll realise that Metal Gear has changed in several fundamental ways.
'Control' is very much the operative word here, since Snake seems to have enrolled in a semester of Sam Fisher's Stealth Steamlining School™. Responsive movement and aiming feels like any traditional third-person shooter, complete with context-sensitive cover, left-trigger ironsights and brutal one-touch CQC takedowns. Snake's traditionally sprawling palette of guns and gadgets have been compressed into slick 'primary' and 'secondary' D-Pad shortcuts. Health now regenerates over time. A circular indicator lights up centre-screen when guards are alerted, showing you their direction (clearly influenced by Splinter Cell), while being spotted throws you into the slow-motion 'Reflex mode' that grants a split-second of reaction time.
Even the mighty Codec has been replaced by a two-way radio activated by a simple tap of L1. Yes, for the first time ever, Metal Gear Solid feels like a traditional stealth action game.
Boo! Streamlining is the Devil! How dare you, Kojima! I can hear the pained cries from here, but you really ought to put the pitchforks down. Rather than cutting complex features, Ground Zeroes still provides all the versatility and stealthy options of the previous games, but slicker than we've ever seen it before.
Snake can hang from ledges, interrogate guards for intel, crawl, distract foes, tranquillise enemies, engage in brute-force CQC and go loud when necessary. By streamlining the mechanics, though, Kojima has introduced a real sense of flow that we've never seen from the series. Instead of fighting you, the controls put even the most complex and tricky manoeuvres directly at your fingertips, all the better for experimenting with them on the fly without breaking step. Even the map and mission data menu now takes the form of an iDroid device, a holographic HUD that activates without pausing the action, further increasing the sense of immersion and threat.
In effect, we've got all the series' trademark depth, but none of the series' trademark clunkiness.
The camera can be a little wonky in tight quarters, while the new cover system feels a little loose at times (resulting in Snake sometimes detaching from a surface or unwilling to fire around it at the angle I wanted), but on the whole it seems that Ground Zeroes has successfully managed to blend old with new. Let's be honest: even though we all love Metal Gear Solid, we can all admit that the controls have been long overdue an overhaul.
Armed with his new abilities, Snake is then loosed into the sprawling Omega Base with no preset objective beyond locating and extracting Paz. Rather than being led by the nose by locked doors and objective markers, you're free to go literally anywhere in the facility, using your own nouse and detective work to work out exactly where she's being held.
As you pick your own route through the base, dodging past searchlights, and engaging or evading guards at your leisure, Ground Zeroes does a great job of providing you with meaningful ways to improvise and experiment with new strategies. A searchlight tower can be sneaked around, or climbed to assassinate, subdue or even interrogate its operator. Or shattered into matchstick with an APC cannon or rocket launcher, since vehicles are now fully driveable around the Omega campus. Gantries can be climbed, rooftops can be scampered over and tunnels can be explored, all at your own pace as you ferret out numerous hidden caches of weapons and gadgets.
Shimmying past guards one moment and brutally interrogating them the next, all while luring patrols out of position and even enjoying the occasional slick gunfight (followed by evasion, intelligent searches and reinforcements), I was in my element, and free to mix and match my approach thanks to the intuitive streamlined mechanics.
I must admit to going on a little rampage with an RPG stashed in a locked supply shed... just because I could. I had the choice. Small enough to provide a dense sandbox full of toys yet large enough to encourage exploration, Ground Zeroes really is an impressive stealthy playground to enjoy yourself in!
Helicopters and optional missions add an exciting new taste of open world freedom, if not on an open world scale. Snake can call in Morpho and his trusty chopper to multiple landing zones around Omega Base, using the whirlybird to extract optional POWs (who will play an important role in The Phantom Pain if you save them and import the save file) or even support you in tough firefights from the air. It's vulnerable to RPGs and AA fire, though, so it's doubly important to pick your battles to avoid revealing your position. Without wanting to give the game away, my last few minutes were spent desperate running to the helicopter, which I'd summoned directly into the middle of the base. Holding out and taking down potential threats was uniquely exhilarating, followed by the sweet payoff of a mission accomplished.
As explained in detail earlier today, the Ground Zeroes campaign only lasts a breezy two hours even with plenty of optional exploration, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. Optional missions and additional lore items are up for grabs, their locations revealed by saving POWs and interrogating guards, while completion unlocks new toys to enjoy in subsequent playthroughs. I spent 110 minutes clocking the mission - only to discover that I'd completed a scant 9% of the game!
Better yet, Ground Zeroes contains an unlockable selection of 'Side Ops.' These non-canonical missions do a fantastic job of showcasing Snake's unique abilities in new situations and times of day, allowing you to mess about with both the open-ended gameplay and streamlined mechanics. As an example, an all-out aerial assault on the base sees Snake destroying watchtowers and vehicles in an effort to save a double agent, while a daylight assassination mission lets us unleash our inner hitman. After silently dispatching one of my targets by shadowing his jeep across the map, tranquillising him and throwing his body off a nearby cliff, I then purposefully raised the alarm and waited for the panicked villain to make his escape. Which he did... right into my trap, since I'd stolen an APC and parked outside the front gate. Game over. I can't wait to try it again and come up with more strategies, in all honesty.
In short, then, Ground Zeroes shows a brave new direction for the Metal Gear Solid franchise: a more open-ended experience that lets players express their own personality through gameplay. Even Kojima gets to express more of his cheeky personality in a spoilery cameo.
Mind you, it's not all good news, as Ground Zeroes' storyline inexplicably manages to be both straightforward, intensely confusing and irritating. On the surface it's just a hostage rescue mission, but you'll need a comprehensive working knowledge of Peace Walker to understand (and care about) the role Paz plays in the canon. It delights in leaving plot threads dangling in the breeze, awaiting closure once The Phantom Pain's credits roll, ending on a big fat cliffhanger that's bound to light up the forums.
What we do know, however, is that Kojima is trying to chart much darker and more controversial territory this time around. His humorous streak still runs through the game, but it's overshadowed by some shockingly graphic and gory scenes (one of which almost made me physically gag) not to mention incredibly disturbing themes. There's a big difference between being 'mature' and just laying on buckets of claret, so we'll be interested to see how far The Phantom Pain pushes the boundaries.
Can Kiefer Sutherland live up to the raw magnificence of David Hayter? Pass. It's far too soon to tell, but from what I played, the gravelly 24 star can't quite match Hayter's sheer force of personality. Hayter is Snake, at least for many of us, and it's a stumbling block that Sutherland never quite manages to hurdle over. Mind you, he seems to be willing to inject more humanity into the role, which might gel well with the darker themes we can expect from The Phantom Pain.
But hey, it certainly is pretty. The PS4 version looks absolutely gorgeous, showing off the impressive scalable textures, motion captured animations and detailed character models. Omega Base admittedly looks less impressive in the daylight 'Side Ops' missions, as the gorgeous rain effects mask a degree of pop-in, but the game is short enough to retain its 'wow' factor.
Will Ground Zeroes be worth the price of admission? The jury's out, especially since we have yet to test the platform-exclusive missions, but my five hours of contact time left me hungry for more - and critically, wanting to replay it again. Quality is a kind of value, after all.
For many of us, though, it could well be a cruel and unusual form of torture that teases all manner of stealthy delights, before making us wait for The Phantom Pain. We'll find out when Ground Zeroes releases later this month, so keep your eyes peeled for our full review.