When you talk about the stealth genre of games, it’s hard not to think about Metal Gear Solid. For the past 15 years gamers have been nervously sneaking through corridors, dodging security cameras, tranquilising enemy guards and slipping on bird crap into the sea, and as the new generation of consoles dawns, so does a new era of Metal Gear Solid. Gameplay has been tweaked and slimmed down, and it leaves us with an experience that many fans of the series have been desperate to see for quite some time.
It’s been well documented that Ground Zeroes isn’t a full game, and that with a bit of skill you can easily see the credits after an hour. That much is true, but there’s two problems with making such a sweeping statement: firstly, most people will take their time and want to do things the right way, something that can easily stretch the main mission out to a strong couple of hours. Secondly, the credits don’t mark the end of the game, something which early adopters seemed to totally ignore or not actually notice. You can liken both of these things to a date with Scarlett Johansson (bear with me) – while it’s entirely the case that given the opportunity for a romantic evening with her you might rush straight to the bedroom, give it your best for 3 minutes then call her a taxi so you can go for a pint, the more sensible person would recognise what they had in front of them. They’d take their time, enjoy a meal and a discussion about local cheeses, they’d work slowly through the evening and then, once the night was through, feel entirely contented knowing full well that it won’t be long before they can enjoy a much longer encounter.
That’s how I see Ground Zeroes. After the first batch of credits you’re introduced to a further series of challenges, all in the same location but with very different objectives and, crucially, at different times of the day. The initial mission was never designed to be a whole game, it sets up Phantom Pain beautifully, and gets you back into the Metal Gear way of playing. It’s a small part of the greater content in the game, is most definitely not all there is. Believe the naysayers who moaned about spending £25 on an hour of game time, and you’re effectively walking out on Scarlett before you’ve even had coffee.
Ground Zeroes, I should add, also provides a relatively friendly introduction for those who are new to the series, and instead of throwing you headlong into a huge story spread across dozens of locations lets you get a feel for the more open environments, using daylight and shadows to your advantage and working out how to use the environment itself to your advantage. The area used for each mission is a large base with several routes in and out, plenty of buildings scattered around and enough bad guys to make life pretty tough going, and using the shelter and darkness to your advantage is key to success. The actual Ground Zeroes mission takes place at night in pouring rain, and despite the other one-off missions using the same base it’s a totally different beast in bright sunlight with nowhere to hide, or in the evening where the low sun provides plenty of long shadows to keep yourself out of sight. Whenever you’re playing though it looks awesome, even on the outgoing generation machines, and it plays an important part of drawing you in. But it’s not the only thing that helps with the immersion.
One thing you’ll notice is the absence of a minimap. Instead of always seeing waypoints, cones of vision or handy red dots on the screen you’re left a little more to your own devices. You can call up a map on your special handheld gadget to see where you are, and you can use your binoculars to tag enemies and keep their positions marked in your vision, but a cutting back of the HUD helps keep your eyes on what’s around you. That’s pretty important with the new style of play, taking you out of the stereotypical corridor based levels and into a much wider area with multiple ways to approach it. Do you crawl through underground tunnels, sneak behind guards or hop into a truck and sneak through the gates that way? These are only examples; you can, if you choose, get your gun up and just shoot your way through. The shooting mechanics are far better than before, although you still get the same problem of alerting everyone within a 400 mile radius that you’re sneaking around. One of the missions actually fails pretty immediately if you’re spotted too, so it pays to remember that you’ve got much more silent ways to get rid of guards.
Cut scenes are massively reduced too, and even though this is only a single mission it will relieve most people to learn there’s only a few minutes of stuff to watch before and after the mission. It’s a sign, among everything else, that the series is getting back to actually being a game and not an interactive movie, and if Phantom Pain carries on in the same way then we could be looking at one of the most amazing games we’ve seen for a long time.
Having said all that there is some truth in the whole “lack of content” argument (it’s a handful of missions on a single level if you want to be pedantic), but the way it’s delivered still makes each mission feel varied and gives an entirely new challenge. Each one needs to be approached in a different way, and playing on the Hard difficulty leaves absolutely no room for error – guards are smarter, don’t miss as much and are a deadly aim when it all kicks off. To get the best rating after each level you’ll be needing an immense amount of skill and concentration, and knowing the map inside out doesn’t always make that much easier.
The one question I’ve been asked a few times is “is it worth the money?”, and it’s a tough one. it really depends what you expect to get out of it: if you’re happy to know in advance that this is a prologue, a matter of quality over quantity and definitely not the next “proper” Metal Gear Solid then you should pick it up without a second thought. But if you’re likely to be one of those people who sees this as a shameless cash in, or has already decided it’s taking the piss to masquerade Ground Zeroes as a standalone release then you might as well turn round and leave this alone, but don’t be surprised in a few months when you realised you missed out on that defining moment in the Metal Gear series when everything came back to where it should be. You can already get this for £20, which considering the amount of time you can spend collecting stuff, replaying levels and unlocking all of the extra side-missions on offer actually doesn’t seem like a bad price at all. Maybe, just maybe, had it been released initially at that price the critics might be less vocal and managed to enjoy this for the excellent game it is.
Oh well. Their loss.
Reviewed on PS3