Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes opens in typical Metal Gear fashion complete with elaborate cutscenes detailing Snake’s infiltration into an enemy base, a rousing musical score and series creator Hideo Kojima’s campy dialogue – “Kept you waiting, huh?”. But as the opening cutscene ends and the game relinquishes control back to me, I quickly learn that Ground Zeroes is anything but a typical Metal Gear experience.
The biggest departure from the status quo is the sandbox level design. All prior Metal Gear games were developer-driven experiences, meaning that users were funneled through pre-determined scripted paths. Ground Zeroes changes all that and relies on the user to drive the experience. The setting Camp Omega, a Cuban black site used by the U.S. to contain extradited prisoners, is an amazing sandbox. Yes, it isn’t as big or vibrant as Grand Theft Auto‘s Los Santos but the ecosystems within Camp Omega, which are complete with intelligent guards (who are no longer far sighted), various drivable vehicles, multiple points of entry, and exploitable systems (in a playthrough I discovered how to disable the power to the base), make for a very rewarding and engaging stealth action experience that is only limited by the creativity of the user.
Ground Zeroes takes a streamline approach to its mechanics. The game retains the basic tenets of Metal Gear gameplay, yet removes the obtuseness long associated with it. Users no longer rely on radar to keep track of enemy positions, and instead tag enemies (by aiming at them with a drawn weapon or zooming in with binoculars). Combat feels more intuitive. The gunplay borrows heavily from the best of modern third person shooters (it even has a “bullet-time” effect that slows down time when Snake is caught by an enemy. This is definitely a nice feature that affords you time to end the enemy before he calls for reinforcements). CQC (closed quarters combat) is more direct and no longer requires the user to memorize a complex series of button prompts.
Most of the cast from Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker returns and resume their respective roles, with one notable exception. Kiefer Sutherland (24 and Pompeii) replaces series mainstay David Hayter as the voice of Snake. Sutherland brings a pathos and relatability to the role of Snake that was largely absent from Hayter’s iconic yet, in my opinion, one note portrayal of the character. Hayter’s Snake is an infallible hero who’s always strong in his conviction, while Sutherland’s is a man who lets his convictions get the better of him.
The graphics encroach on photorealism in this iteration of the franchise where Snake’s mannerisms are nuanced, each guard has their own unique facial model, and the realistic dynamic lighting and weather effects are truly a spectacle to behold. Ground Zeroes looks amazing on Playstation 4 with its 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second. The game also runs well on Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3 (but I must admit that the Playstation 4 version looks and plays the best). It’s a testament to the versatility of the Fox Engine that Ground Zeroes looks great across all platforms.
Ground Zeroes narrative is darker in tone than the previous installments. Metal Gear has always dealt with controversial themes such as war, child soldiers, and torture. But these themes were always presented in a campy fun way (for us children of 80’s and 90’s, think G.I. Joe). But Ground Zeroes exposes the true ugly face of war (literally with the villain Skull Face), and the victims of manmade conflicts. Ground Zeroes‘ story doesn’t follow the typical three act plot structure. Instead of building towards a climax, the climax hits you like a freight train. I won’t dare spoil what happens at the end but I will say that what I saw cause me to reconsider my “no kill rule” when I get around to playing the next game in the Metal Gear Solid 5 saga, The Phantom Pain. I imagine those few who played Peacewalker will have similar reactions as they watch everything that they have built drown in flames.
Ground Zeroes‘ campaign is criminally short (I was able to complete the game in under three hours). Rumor has it that this game can be completed in 10 minutes if you skip the various side mission contents and cutscenes. A series of side missions are unlocked (five to be exact) after you complete the game. These missions are varied and do a great job of testing your infiltration and combat skills. The main campaign is also highly replayable offering multiple routes to your objectives. Despite these additions Ground Zeroes still feels a bit anemic for my taste.
Overall, I feel Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes is a worthwhile entry into the Metal Gear franchise. Ground Zeroes‘ short duration and controversial narrative may be sources of contention for some users, but I feel that its replayability, open world design, streamlined mechanics, and high production values more than make up for any subjective negatives.