Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the video game equivalent of buying a next-generation console the night it releases. It’s fun to be there on day one, to see the sights and poke at the systems. It’s less fun when you realize how thin everything is, and how many months you’ll have to wait for even a hint of substance.
Just as I don’t regret attending a midnight launch for my PS4, I don’t regret purchasing Ground Zeroes. I’m a very specific type of person who will spend silly amounts of money just to get in on the ground floor. If you’re also that type of person, Ground Zeroes is probably the best game on the current generation of consoles to release yet. If you’re not, well, don’t waste your time.
This is not to say that Ground Zeroes is a wholly great game that’s been fun-sized. There are as many neat innovations that excite me for The Phantom Pain as there are problematic story beats that do the opposite. It’s part of what makes the game so frustrating on its face; it clearly deserves some expert level of dissection, but, well, I beat it in 50 minutes.
Fuck it. Here goes nothing.
The biggest and best things about Ground Zeroes are immediately apparent. We’re talking about graphics, control, gameplay. If you want a game on the PS4/Xbox One generation that looks way better than anything achievable on the previous consoles, look no further. Everything here, from the ripple on a tarp in the wind to the way Snake pushes open a gate is deliriously beautiful. This is some next-level shit, and easily the most impressive technical game I’ve played on a console.
The visuals stumble in just one, unfortunate area: weather. The game looks gorgeous during the main story mission, set during a dark and stormy night, but Ground Zeroes places some undue confidence in the pure aesthetic of its single military base by setting almost all of the side missions during different times of day. The darker it gets, the prettier it gets. Some missions set in the searing sunlight don’t look ugly, but they sure do look flat. In addition, one turret mission set in a helicopter flying over the base suffers from some noticeably ugly pop-in problems.
Most people who felt like Metal Gear Solid was in need of a gameplay overhaul will be pretty pleased by Ground Zeroes, I’d imagine. It pairs the sense of satisfying exploration and experimentation the series has had since its first entry with a modernized control scheme — one that feels closer to, say, Splinter Cell: Blacklist than it does Metal Gear Solid 2.
The things I dislike greatly about Splinter Cell‘s more modern stealth (its cumbersome gadget usage; its narrow scope and claustrophobic levels) have been replaced with a just as modern reimagining of Metal Gear‘s systems. The first challenge in Ground Zeroes provides the same thrill as crawling into that top-floor vent at the start of MGS1, but it feels fresh. The fact that it’s a graphical powerhouse doesn’t hurt.
Ground Zeroes also commits even further to the adaptability presented in MGS4, which was a far cry from series’ punishing origins. In that game, you could almost work your way out of any situation with enough bullets. In this game, the action-oriented options have been refined quite nicely. The shooting itself feels a lot better, and there are more options for getting out of a sticky situation, even with the removal of Metal Gear Solid‘s patented radar. Now, whenever an enemy spots you, time slows down for what feels like a generous 5-10 second. If you can successfully get a shot off, either killing or tranquilizing the enemy, then the alert phase is dodged entirely. If you can’t, well, get ready to run and/or gun. It’s a satisfying mechanic that limits frustration, but doesn’t ever feel game-breaking.
Even as I appreciate the way the game carves out a place for itself in the pantheon of Metal Gear, I can’t help feeling a little… alienated as a long time fan. The new mechanics are all well and good, but some admittedly dated series trademarks seem to have been stripped away. The biggest offender, in my eyes: the lack of a codec screen. Now, hitting L1 on the Dualshock 4 just prompts the voice in your ear to comment on whatever you’re looking at. It keeps the action moving, I suppose, but there was something interesting and appropriately self-indulgent about being forced to watch two talking heads pontificate on war profiteering. I hope there’s some equivalent to that in The Phantom Pain proper.
The new codec system is also curious, in this game at least, because Snake never seems to respond. I found it more blessing than curse, unfortunately, because Kiefer Sutherland’s performance is supremely unsatisfying. The spare bits of dialogue he actually has are all really flat compared to the expressive, over-the-top performances surrounding him, as if he doesn’t understand how voice acting works. I have no doubt his intonations would be more palatable if the camera were a couple feet from Sutherland’s face, but watching Snake deliver those lines contributes nothing but an icky feeling of… wrong. Snake’s first line is an iconic crowd-pleaser that falls completely flat under his performance.
The story issues don’t end there, unfortunately. Ground Zeroes is basically a glorified rescue mission — extract a hostage, extract a hostage, then escape — so the story beats are deliberately limited. Upon completion, I was largely satisfied with what little happened, and the events that lead up to The Phantom Pain. Then I read about the full picture you’d get by listening to ever tape, and unlocking every collectible. I felt sick.
Ground Zeroes takes a strong, female character from a previous title and turns her into tragic ragdoll that exists only to drive and heighten the emotions of three other characters — all men. For most of the game, she isn’t around. When she shows up, she’s either dazed or asleep, and always ineffectual. In 53 minutes, Kojima and Co. beat, rape, humiliate, torture, and kill a woman just to make a man seem super evil. It’s cheap, trivial, insensitive, and exploitative. It makes me worried about the advertised “controversial” elements in The Phantom Pain.
Ground Zeroes is, for all that unpleasantness mentioned about, a rather fascinating game. It’s not a cash grab, I don’t think — the quality of the game itself is too high. It’s also not a complete video game. It’s a glorified demo for The Phantom Pain at best, and a glorified advertisement at worst. The issue isn’t its length so much as its substance. Gone Home is a 20 dollar game that works as a 90 minute experience. The 3-4 hours you could wring out of Ground Zeroes feel cut from something larger, and that makes it a tough sell.
The best, most definitive things I can say about Ground Zeroes is this: it made me feel like I was six years old. When I was six years old, I didn’t make progress in games; I just played the first couple missions over and over again. Super Mario World ended at the yellow switch palace. Mickey Mania ended right around the boss I could never beat in the Steamboat Willie level. Sonic Adventure ended after that one part with the killer whale.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a pretty good first mission. It’s a shame I’m not six anymore.