Developer: Kojima Productions
"Kept you waiting, huh?"
As soon as Snake opens his mouth and Kiefer Sutherland's soft voice growls out, it's clear that nothing will ever be the same again. Metal Gear Solid V is the biggest shakeup the series has ever received, a complete mechanical overhaul that brings the classic stealth gameplay into a new console generation, keeping the depth intact but making both stealth and action infinitely more intuitive. Everything has changed, from regenerating health to slick gunplay, but in the main it's a change for the good.
However, this ain't Metal Gear Solid V. Neither full game nor free demo, Ground Zeroes is a gaming oddity; a bridging point that acts as a graphical showcase, ephemeral tutorial, versatile replayable sandbox and shameless cliffhanger designed to whip the fanbase into a frenzy before The Phantom Pain's rumoured 2015 release. As such, what will delight some will deeply disappoint others, leaving its value very difficult to pin down.
The scene is set in a lengthy intro cinematic that sees Snake rappelling into Omega Base, a Guantanamo Bay-inspired Black Site in which double agent Paz (remember her? - cast your mind back to Peace Walker) 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.
First impressions, at least on PS4, are all about the graphical 'wow' factor. Kojima's vaunted FOX Engine is very pretty indeed, providing crispness, clarity, sumptuous weather effects and fine detail that's unmistakeably 'next-gen.' From smooth animations to painstaking facial capture, it really is a visual treat, but Ground Zeroes' real 'wow' factor sneaks up on you as you play.
Snake is still a versatile stealth soldier, capable of fulfilling his mission with grace and tact. Ledges can be grappled and shimmied across, leaving guards completely unaware of your presence. Bodies can be moved, stashed or thrown off cliffs. Foes can be distracted out of position, non-lethally subdued, tranquillised or interrogated for intel, dispatched with either a knockout blow or a slit throat. Blowing your cover results in the trademark action, evasion and search phases as reinforcements deploy, comb the area and eventually saunter back to their break room. Be of good cheer, fans: everything we love about Metal Gear's gameplay is intact in some fashion.
Except that, this time, it feels like a much more aggressive and dynamic experience due to some massive changes. Snake handles like a traditional third-person shooter protagonist, fast and supple, sprinting between cover points, effortlessly ducking behind walls and leaping over rooftops with ease. Gunplay feels tight and precise, allowing you to rely on it much more heavily should the proverbial excrement hit the propeller, while one-button CQC can be used to smash enemies into submission with instant takedowns and even time-sensitive chain attacks that feel a little like Far Cry 3.
Stealth has also received an overhaul, with clear nods to Splinter Cell beyond a new radial detection indicator. Binoculars let us permanently tag enemy positions, making them visible on a real-time iDroid PDA that doesn't pause the action, leaving Snake vulnerable while using it. Being spotted kicks the action into slow motion for a nervy second, granting you a tiny window to desperately take down your would-be whistleblower. Even the codec has been changed to a single button tap, which relays context-sensitive advice directly into your earpiece without breaking pace. Ground Zeroes is still unmistakeably Metal Gear, only it flows more organically than ever.
In effect, Kojima has sanded down Metal Gear Solid's rough edges, making for a much smoother and frictionless affair that still delivers where it counts. We're free to experiment with the mechanics on the fly, on our own terms, without having to fight against the clunky controls that -- and we can admit this even as rabid fans of the series -- have long been a sticking point. You can turn some of these features off, but frankly, they're a great fit.
Armed with his new abilities, Snake is then thrown into Omega base with no preset objective save locating Paz, which then demonstrates Ground Zeroes' open-world pretensions. You're free to go anywhere, explore any tunnel, climb any searchlight tower and scamper over any rooftop. Omega base is full of optional collectibles to find, locked supply caches to break into, vehicles to drive and POWs to save, who you'll carry to a helicopter that can be summoned to several extraction points around the facility. Konami promise that these optional objectives will make an impact in The Phantom Pain proper, but on a more fundamental level, Ground Zeroes is a playground that lets us get used to the new order and mess about with the versatile mechanics. A sandpit, perhaps, as opposed to a sandbox, that offers us intoxicating gameplay freedom rather than browbeating us into submission.
Despite this freeform structure, however, your mission will end within an hour or so (the record stands at ten scant minutes). My first playthrough clocked in at 110 minutes, including time spent driving around in an APC and a lengthy Saints Row-esque rocket launcher rampage that I embarked upon simply because I could. It's disappointing, no matter how you slice it, especially since the story itself fails to launch.
Short without being punchy, Ground Zeroes doesn't so much spin a yarn as leave threads dangling in front of your face, where they'll remain for the best part of a year, while in-depth knowledge of Peace Walker's canon is necessary to understand or even care about the perfunctory objectives. It's the worst kind of tease, one that leaves us both unsatisfied, confused and out of pocket by £20-30.
Worse, Kojima's promise to include more mature and controversial material has somewhat backfired. An early scene involving a young boy is uncomfortable to watch but informs us about Snake's character, working well in context, but a late-game cutscene throws buckets of claret and unedited gore into the mix while not advancing the storyline or strengthening the characters in any meaningful way. Even as a conditioned fan of horror games and hack & slashers, I felt physically sick to my stomach. Kojima threw in this scene unnecessarily, courting cheap shock factor in the most gratuitous of ways. It feels decidedly immature, and we hope that this isn't a sign of things to come.
If that were the end of things, I'd be brutalising Ground Zeroes as if it was Grey Fox in one of his masochistic moods. "Hurt me mooore, Jon!" Thankfully I can put my hatchet away for the time being, because Ground Zeroes effectively begins once the story campaign comes to a close.
Completing your first story playthrough unlocks new toys to bring back into the sandpit, such as silenced SMGs and Sniper Rifles, granting you new tactical opportunities to experiment with. As mentioned, Omega Base is big enough to support multiple gameplay styles, and is impressively replayable on multiple difficulty modes. Asynchronous challenges and leaderboard runs are on hand for completionists, as are the platform-specific extra missions.
Better yet, Ground Zeroes contains a selection of Side Ops: non-canonical missions designed to showcase new ways to use Snake's enhanced repertoire. Set at different times of day, objectives include making contact with a double agent, blasting over the base in a helicopter rail shooting section, blowing up anti-air defences and more. By far my favourite mission is a double assassination in which your targets will run if you trigger the alarm... which I used to my advantage by silently dispatching one target, jumping in an APC, parking it outside the escape route and then blowing the gaffe - leading to my second mark driving straight into my gunsights. Each 15-30 minute mission boasts its own unlocks, brisk storyline and even post-credit sequences, further extending replay value.
Replay value that will make Ground Zeroes worth the asking price for some - especially if you've sourced one of the many recent deals. Just be aware that it's incomplete by design.
- Slick new mechanics round off the series' rough edges without losing the depth
- Freedom to explore and experiment over multiple playthroughs
- Exquisite visuals, impressive next-gen debut for the FOX Engine
- Impressive replay value thanks to Side Ops, unlocks and freeform structure
- Very disappointing storyline, both in terms of length and content
- Questionable raw value at RRP
- Pointlessly gratuitous scene makes us worry about the series' direction
- It's a great big tease
The Short Version: Ground Zeroes is a stealthy sandbox, a playground that lets us get used to and experiment with the slick new Metal Gear mechanics. Its weak storyline and fleeting length are disappointing, but impressive replay value, extra content and undeniable quality will make The Phantom Pain's prologue worth the price of admission for many gamers.
For others, though, Ground Zeroes will be the worst kind of tease: one that leaves us both unsatisfied, confused and out of pocket. Be sure to get involved at a price point that suits your level of excitement.