A curious specimen in the games industry with somewhat of a dual identity, hovering somewhere in the nether between game developer and film director, Hideo Kojima’s inclination toward the extensive use of cinematics in the Metal Gear Solid games has long polarised critics, drawing admiration and ire in equal measure. Pushing the envelope was the series’ last ‘full’ title, Metal Gear Solid 4, its supersize cutscenes driving players to the edge of reason with their marathon durations. Metal Gear Solid Ground Zeroes is a slimline prelude to the upcoming The Phantom Pain and whilst it far from disposes of the theatrics, this bite size titbit spoons them out in far more manageable mouthfuls.
There’s an element of bemusement when the game makes its pitch: essentially an extended demo of The Phantom Pain, there’s a sense that someone’s having a good hard laugh, writhing on a bed of cold hard cash earned from each game sale made at a frankly extortionate £29.99 price point. The coughing, spluttering, bile and rage as my debit card screeched and wailed, digital fingers moving digital numbers out from digital pockets and into the greedy mouths of oil-stained digital swag bags labelled Konami; that was hard to ignore.
Despite my misgivings over being held to ransom, plums gripped firmly in a vice, for wanting to indulge in a little bit of stealth action, when the initial spasms of regret fade and the game begins good and proper (after a lengthy but not overly-so opening cutscene) such concerns are replaced with tearful joy at the wonderfully rendered environments and weather effects, running down a gameface mottled with the marks of intense frustration; but after all, for fans of the series, the experience just wouldn’t be Metal Gear without regular episodes of barely-restrained, red-in-the-face, near-pad-throwing rage.
It’s a good job there’s not all that much here to get on with, if the game were longer anyone playing would soon become a danger to society, a lifetime’s worth of pent up aggression venting after just a couple of hours of being repeatedly spotted awkwardly shuffling the unconscious bodies of morally questionable US marines into bushes and behind rocks, those famed and timeless bastions of secrecy – regular cock ups only the brilliant ‘reflex’ bullet time stretches can save. And a couple of hours is pretty much all you’ll get, a fair chunk of that being made up by the cinematics.
Establishing the story of The Phantom Pain, the main content of Ground Zeroes consists of what is essentially an infiltrate, rescue, exfiltrate mission, retrieving Guantanamo-style inmates from imprisonment and torture, bookended by some dramatic and at times gruesome cutscenes with moments verging on the boundaries of gore porn. This is fleshed out with some side-operations and a slew of unlockable weapons, with the achievements and difficulties justifying multiple playthroughs using different playstyles. This extends the life of the game somewhat, but it’s still a rather emaciated offering, all told.
Visually it’s almost wholly brilliant, the smooth character animations, the complex realism of the lighting, the depth of field effects, they make it a pleasure to behold. Slightly incongruous are some blocky-looking vehicles and low-res textures in certain areas, though in the context of the missions, the player shouldn’t have too much time to dwell on these minor shortcomings. Easy to ignore too is the weak voice acting, with only Kiefer Sutherland voicing Snake managing to put in a worthy performance – though perhaps one that might disappoint hardcore fans, lamenting nostalgically over the Metal Gear of old.
Now the gameplay is a different story; it’s a tale of two halves. The general game mechanic is familiar as it’s no departure from the raft of previous titles in the series, and in fact the genre. The general set up is a tad stealth-by-numbers; recceing areas for enemies, tracking the patrol routes of guards and timing movements to avoid cameras and spotlights.
It’s the old song and dance we’ve done time and time again, but even with all the willingness to go around the carousel, this time holding hands with Ground Zeroes, it quickly becomes a chore due to clumsily implemented contextual actions and movement with all the subtlety of a stack of elephants dancing the waltz over an oil-slicked floor covered in mouse traps. The vehicles also handle like a tricycle on a treadmill and I questioned for a moment that maybe this was all part of the plot, that Snake might be developing a touch of Parkinson’s in his advancing years, though as it happens it’s simpler: the controls are simply cumbersome and ineffective.
For a game that excels visually and in its plotline, it’s a shame that it’s hindered so by the control system. Strange button mapping such as a held RB to use the binoculars adds to the unwieldiness and feels unnatural, detracting from the game’s immersion.
There are creative touches, such as the implementation of cassette tapes found around the level. These are played back on Snake’s iDroid device and can reveal backstory and clues on how to fulfil the mission objectives, enabling completion of the mission the ‘proper’ way, by maximising stealth and minimising chaos and exposure. When the clunky controls become too much, though it’s tempting to throw in the towel and go loud, bringing out the assault rifle and grenades, and at this point Ground Zeroes becomes just another third-person shooter and not a particularly good one at that.
Fans will enjoy the tease and be left finding after The Phantom Pain, whilst those new to the series will be left awed and curious about what comes next and indeed what came before. Not an essential for everyone, but Ground Zeroes is a must for fans of the genre or series. For those with an itch to scratch and a penny or two to spare there are far worse ways to spend your cash. Extortion it may be, daylight robbery at gunpoint by a man with an eye patch, grizzly stubble and a fetching silver-streaked mullet, but if I’m going to be robbed, then rob me like this.
Thanks to Xbox for supplying our review copy