Also on: Xbox 360, PS4, PS3
Developer: Kojima Productions
Snake isn't going to die until Kojima does; I think we've all come to that realization at this point. Until then, we're going to keep getting installments of Metal Gear V, beginning with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker back on the PSP, and now introducing Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, the connective tissue between Peace Walker and the upcoming release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
It's worth noting that if you haven't played the aforementioned Peace Walker, that your understanding of Ground Zeroes' story will be an exercise in self-defeat. The main menu has a Backstory option with an 11-page treatment explaining the events in Peace Walker, but it's a clinical retelling and without impact. Consider this your warning that you should probably go play Peace Walker on PSP or in one of the HD remaster formats. The rest of you, let’s keep going.
Before Ground Zeroes had its gold master build, its length was exposed and became a topic of debate– suggesting that there are only a handful of hours’ worth of content in Ground Zeroes. This seems to be so significant to audiences that it's become the focal point of deciding on a purchase. The price on Xbox One/PS4 pricing was additionally dropped on next-gen consoles to the current-gen release of $30 from $40. I'd like to look past that, but it keeps getting in my way
My first playthrough took 72 minutes. This was going in blind, following the instructions given by in-game characters to complete what is a search-and-rescue mission. This is the "Ground Zeroes" mission; the whole reason you bought this game. This is the mission with Kojima's cutscenes bookending it before and after. This is the mission with canon story you'll want to know about before playing the next game. This is the only mission of its type.
Upon completion, a handful of Side Ops are unlocked, each with a different objective on the Ground Zeroes map, slightly altered to fit the conceit. In my experience, these can take between 20-60 minutes to complete, depending on how skilled you are.
So using math, if you only play the handful of missions one time and never come back, you'll find the aforementioned 5-6 hours of content.
Ground Zeroes also shares a similar mission structure with Peace Walker, bringing players back to a main menu to select between standalone operations. Inheriting Peace Walker’s portable design helps to cast different lights on what’s basically re-dressing the same map for whatever purpose the mission calls for, and compliments the replayability of the game’s fractured structure.
It’s an interesting game, at least, in that with the restraint of one level, the team is trying to explore different uses for the same device. Players can poke around for easter eggs, and the open-world gameplay encourages experimentation in approaching enemies. The iDroid item trades menus and the persistent map we've known for a holographic display that's accessed in real-time as seen in Dead Space, mixing things up for players used to the game's habit of pausing action for swapping weapons and using inventory. Open-world design produces some interesting byproducts in dealing with alarmed enemies, as well, since there are no alternate map areas to escape to, exploiting the older MGS games' necessity to load its segmented rooms.
Ground Zeroes also debuts the team’s new FOX engine, which on Xbox One didn’t look like anything special. I’m no technical wizard, though, so maybe the FOX engine wizardry lies within solving background processes and freeing up developer’s hands to do more with less. To me, it just looked like a nice Xbox 360 game at a higher resolution, which shouldn’t be a stretch to imagine when considering that it’s been released on the last generation of consoles, as well.
Maybe if there was intent to explore what a Metal Gear Solid game would be like if it was a self-contained exploration of a single space, would Ground Zeroes have had more to offer. It really does feel like a tech demo, though, which I hate to say since it’s a genuinely good experience to play. The amount of content, lack of enemy types, and repetitive assets reveal a game that’s inorganic and feels rushed. If anything is worth noting, it was done previously in how the team attempts to hide this away with an arcadey approach to mission design based around the one island.
We didn’t have access to the Playstation-exclusive "Déjà Vu" mission, having reviewed this on the Xbox One, but default Side Ops try to shine a little levity in contrast to the main mission’s somber mood. Snake does say he’s sorry he kept us waiting, though, which seems a little backhanded when considering that’s the ultimate message in Ground Zeroes: “Stay tuned!”
MGS’ tongue-in-cheek humor is almost bordering on snark in Ground Zeroes, come to think of it. In one particular Side Ops mission, you’re tasked to rescue someone who turns out to be Kojima himself, who with a smirk turns to the camera, remarking, “What took you so long?”
So why does this game exist? Is Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes a cash grab? Is it a studio showing impatience with its own development cycle? Hell, it could even be a company's desperate attempt at generating revenue to finish the Metal Gear Solid V story. What it feels like to me is the best advertisement you'll find to generate interest in going back to play Peace Walker.
It relies too heavily on it to not be anything else, and if there was ever a game to find behind a Backstory option in its main menu, it would be Ground Zeroes. So little really happens here that it could be a paragraph of information or even an opening to The Phantom Pain. That kind of thing should be a pack-in, or a pre-order bonus. Why are we paying $30 to watch a half hour of cutscenes that look like they should be introducing a game we're about to start playing, instead of a game that's here because the next one is in development hell?
If this is how you look at Ground Zeroes, then it's not for you. If you want to talk value, Peace Walker itself was about 50 hours of content and was maybe $5 more than Ground Zeroes when it released. It's still cheaper today, even as an HD remaster.
Metal Gear Solid has always been a story-first game for me, but there's just enough gameplay in Ground Zeroes that it's a fair proposition for impatient fans. It would be nice to see Kojima Productions dedicating their resources to a fully-realized game, rather than spinning their wheels with appetizers.