Yes, the rumors are true: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a demo masquerading as a full-fledged videogame.
Now, it’s a reasonably enjoyable demo, mind you. If I’d flown out to Tokyo to visit Konami’s imposing, impeccably clean Roppongi headquarters and played Ground Zeroes as part of the standard preview process, I’d have written a generally positive impression.
The problem is that Ground Zeroes isn’t a preview. It isn’t a demo. It isn’t a pack-in. It isn’t a free download. And as a $30 boxed retail product, it presents serious problems for me as a videogame consumer for more than a quarter-century.
Let’s get this fact clear and transparent from the start, however. I am not a Metal Gear hater. The original is one of my favorite NES games. Metal Gear Solid is one of my favorite PS1 games. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is my favorite PS2 game—and may well be my top game, period. Even Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty holds a special place in my heart; its surreal, stupefying narrative emerged as a strangely comforting companion in the shocking chaos of a post-9/11 world. Hell, I’m even one of those people who likes the card-battling, strategy-infused spin-off, Metal Gear Ac!d. Series director Hideo Kojima fascinates me as a developer, and even if I’m not always enamored with the choices he makes, one thing remains true: I never, ever regret playing his games.
I also wasn’t going into this with “Kojima fatigue,” an affliction that many of my colleagues in the enthusiast press seem to be stricken with these days (the symptoms: snarky Twitter comments). After all, Kojima created one of gaming’s great period pieces with his swinging-’60s Cold War magnum opus, Snake Eater, and he seems poised to possibly do it again with Metal Gear Solid V and its take on Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in 1984—drawing a clear parallel to America’s depressing quagmire in the same country over the past decade.
Kojima may well deliver a game worthy of the Metal Gear name in the forthcoming second chapter, The Phantom Pain. But the prologue, Ground Zeroes, is about as straightforward as one of his notoriously convoluted narratives gets. I can break the story down into three sentences, in fact: It’s 1975, and Snake must extract two prisoners from Camp Omega, an American black-ops site in Cuba. He infiltrates an area and finds the first hostage. He then sneaks his way into a slightly more fortified location, rescues the second prisoner, and the game ends. Completing these two tasks took me all of 90 minutes, and as my fellow EGMers know, I like to take my sweet time with games (I’m the guy who spent 26 hours on BioShock Infinite).
Now, this isn’t the first time Metal Gear has introduced a new mainline chapter with a prologue segment. Some have argued that Ground Zeroes is akin to the Tanker section in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. While the length of the two segments is reasonably comparable, they’re not in the same class when it comes to direction, characters, drama, pacing, and action. Ground Zeroes doesn’t set the scene well at all and relies on a title-screen text dump to add context—information that will be straight-up nonsensical if you skipped Snake Eater or the series’ 2010 PSP incarnation, Peace Walker.
But it’s not just about inferior art or character direction. The Tanker environment back in Sons of Liberty felt so much more alive and intricate than anything you’ll find here; each individual room came across as a lived-in section in which a soldier on patrol would find a way to make himself a temporary home on the high seas. And unlike Snake Eater, Ground Zeroes might well be set in any time period over the last 50 years—aside from the clever use of a Joan Baez song, there’s not any real sense that you’re supposed to be in the turbulent mid-’70s and the dying days of the Vietnam War. (The anachronistic use of the Sony Walkman, not available until 1979, only adds to the odd, could-be-anywhere feeling.) And forget about Ground Zeroes offering anything even as infinitesimally awesome as the opening sequences to the first three games—you’ll find no Snake Eater–esque HALO jump and stirring orchestral accompaniment here.
And, yes, I must say it: Part of what’s missing, for me, is the emotional gravitas that erstwhile Snake actor David Hayter brought to the proceedings.
Whether you loved Hayter or detested him—or somewhere in between—you have to admit he was distinct. He had a presence. How many Lara Crofts have there been? Could gamers even identify the quintet of actresses who’ve voiced gaming’s most famous tomb raider over the past 18 years? Few game voice actors reach iconic heights, but Hayter’s Snake—a Dirty Harry–era Clint Eastwood in military fatigues—was one of them.
Kiefer Sutherland, for as much as he’s been lauded for various films and as Jack Bauer on 24, brings no such distinction to the role. Many Metal Gear fans recoiled in horror after hearing him butcher of one of the franchise’s famous phrases in the Ground Zeroes trailer, but there’s more to Sutherland’s failures here than atrociously poor timing. He brings no energy, no eloquence, no dignity.
Hayter cared about this role, he made it his own, he played the games, and he made Snake a lasting symbol to Metal Gear players across the Anglosphere. To Sutherland, it’s clear this is just another paycheck (as far as I can tell, he hasn’t even uttered the words “Metal Gear” in any interview associated with his new role).
And if that’s what Kojima—or whoever ultimately made this casting decision—wants, so be it. I was actually thankful that Snake stays pretty much silent for the five side operations (all take place in Camp Omega as well, and they’re all around the same length as the main story mission), almost like he’s some random soldier—because a paint-by-numbers grunt describes precisely how Sutherland approaches this role.
I will say, however, that while the narrative and character elements are far from Kojima’s best work, it’s nice to see him embrace some modern design sensibilities that make playing through Ground Zeroes more enjoyable than not.
To begin with, Kojima’s embraced regenerating health. You’ll find no more rations—a staple of the series since the NES days. Instead, minor wounds are now easily healed by diving into cover, while a mortal wound requires first-aid spray (a limited resource) in order to recover. This allows the action to unfold with fewer trips to the pause menu, making for more organic firefights after botched attempts to sidle past patrol towers.
Snake can also use his patented close-quarters-combat maneuvers to interrogate the enemy, a technique that actually comes in surprisingly useful—they might squeal on the location of a weapons cache or elaborate on the number of patrolmen in a particular area, and the map updates to take their intel into account. A new bullet time–esque option, Reflex Mode, allows you to slow down time when you’re sighted, giving you the chance to empty a few rifle rounds into an enemy’s cranium before they have time to radio their comrades. This is probably my favorite addition in all of Ground Zeroes, since enemy AI can be rather fickle in Metal Gear games, and this helps even the odds.
Max Payne is clearly far from the only game on Kojima’s playlist these days, though. Ground Zeroes also utilizes a Splinter Cell–style “last known position” (without the cool Sam Fisher silhouette, unfortunately), which makes it more intuitive to divert enemies from the scent of your trail. You can even use vehicles scattered across Camp Omega to make your way through the base—or proactively prevent baddies from revving the engine themselves.
But while some of these elements are welcome, the stealth segments also feel like a bit of a letdown in places. In past Metal Gear Solid games—particularly 1 through 3—Kojima did a great job of making Snake feel like a badass. That’s missing here. Even after mastering techniques both stealthy and lethal over the course of the six missions, I never felt like I was totally in control of the supersoldier as he slithered through the tall grass or peeked around a corner to ambush a prison guard. Cover doesn’t feel as intuitive as in previous entries, either, and the game emphasizes context-sensitive button prompts, which also feels a little like Splinter Cell—and not in a good way.
Apart from the side objectives, the game offers one last surprise: A handful of collectibles unlock one last console-specific secret operation, and if you’re a Metal Gear fan, you’ll want to replay the story-based Ground Zeroes segment to find ’em all. I should note, however, that I wasn’t particularly enthralled playing through the main narrative a second time, and the small setting really tried my patience by that point. There’s only so much to discover after you’ve explored the same area five times in five missions, especially when Camp Omega isn’t particularly large and takes approximately 90 seconds to jog through from north to south—likewise from east to west.
All else aside, here’s why I’ve never felt so baffled after finishing a game: I generally enjoy the content of Ground Zeroes, but the concept disgusts me. Whether this is a way to subsidize The Phantom Pain’s development or if it’s just an effort to get a Metal Gear–branded game on store shelves in the first few months of the new consoles, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this is an unfinished product—if we’re taking Kojima at his word, 1/200th of a product—and gamers shouldn’t shoulder the fiscal-year burden for publishers.
If Konami wanted to get players excited about The Phantom Pain, I’m sure there was a better way to go about it. Why not include Ground Zeroes as a pack-in alongside Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2? You know, like what companies used to do with demos (see Metal Gear Solid 2)? Or how about including Peace Walker—hardly flying off store shelves these days—free of charge in the package (not just for European PSN pre-orders), considering it’s essential to understanding the story? None of this is to say that The Phantom Pain can’t totally right what Ground Zeroes gets wrong. Even after playing the game, I’m still intrigued by Snake’s upcoming mid-’80s adventures, and I’m sure countless other Metal Gear fans won’t be totally soured, either.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes doesn’t represent the death knell for this venerable tactical espionage franchise. It’s not even a terrible way to spend a few hours of your time. I’ll go back to my earlier point about Kojima, which stays true here: I don’t regret playing this game. But I fear it represents a dangerous new line that Konami, as a publisher, has now crossed—and now that they’ve done it, can others be far behind? All I know is that we, as consumers, cannot be complicit in this cash grab.
As a potential preview for what Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain might do to revolutionize the series’ classic stealth-action, Ground Zeroes is an intriguing, bite-sized playthrough. As a $30 retail disc and $20 download, however, it’s a concerning, unwelcome step for game development—and it’s nothing close to a complete, finished product.
M – Mature
|Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. Primary version played was for PS3. Code/hardware was provided by Konami for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|