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Metal Gear Solid Ground Zeroes: Does size matter?

By Andy Robinson on Wednesday 5th Mar 2014 at 2:00 PM UTC

Last month, inside Konami's James Bond-esque mountain base in the Nasu region of Japan, a select group of games media watched one of the company's senior testers finish Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes' main mission, on the hardest difficulty level, in barely more time than it will take you to read this article.

The speedrun - which took place on stage in front of a dozen journalists - singlehandedly challenged Kojima Productions' staunch defence of the game's length, but it also offered perhaps the most apt demonstration of what the prologue is attempting to achieve.

Big Boss ghosting through Ground Zeroes's dank military base, with assists switched off and enemy AI dialled up to max, made for an enthralling spectacle. It was also flattering; The stealth gameplay opportunities in Ground Zeroes' open-world environment are arguably the most accessible, unpredictable and strategically rich the series has produced.

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And yet, for those who value Metal Gear for its narrative and all-consuming expanse above all else, the cross-gen title could prove to be a less pleasant surprise.

The content offered in Ground Zeroes' £29.99 / $29.99 package (or £19.99 / $19.99 as a last-gen download) is no more than a taster of Hideo Kojima's vision for MGSV. It is a crescendo cut short, expected to climax in the The Phantom Pain (a game with no solid release date yet).

Story and structure is secondary to the main attraction; the sandbox. But only the most ardent stealth fans, those willing to scour for secrets and perfect every S-Rank, will fully appreciate the offer.

Kojima himself refers to Ground Zeroes as a "tutorial". The prologue is comprised of the main Ground Zeroes story mission and five 'SideOps' (one of which is exclusive to either PlayStation or Xbox). Each mission takes place in 1975 within Camp Omega, an American black-site on the coast of Cuba. Kiefer Sutherland's Big Boss is dispatched to the camp on a one-man sneaking mission to rescue two imprisoned soldiers.

The main story mission leads directly from 2010's PSP entry Peace Walker, with a written plot summary provided for those who skipped the handheld entry. However, beyond setting up Boss's 9-year coma and eventual awakening in The Phantom Pain, the story here is surprisingly threadbare.

Beyond the cinematic opening (which you've undoubtedly seen online already) and explosive epilogue, there isn't a great deal of narrative to be found in Ground Zeroes aside from a number of hidden audio diaries.

"Big Boss ghosting through Ground Zeroes's dank military base, with assists switched off, made for an enthralling spectacle"

Instead, it's gameplay and sneaking across Camp Omega which takes priority. Ground Zeroes offers a no-frills Metal Gear experience geared towards replayability and score chasing. Speed through with tunnel-vision and you'll be done in just a few hours. Slow down and appreciate the multitude of tactical options and you'll extract more value.

Though moderately sized, Camp Omega is an entirely open environment, with Boss able to approach targets from any angle, steal and drive vehicles, or even call in a support chopper for covering fire or a quick lift to another area.

Kojima on Ground Zeroes "Ground Zeroes is a tutorial. We wanted to allow as much freedom as possible within this one small world so that people can easily learn how to use our new systems. Because of that, the time of day and weather does not change. In Phantom Pain these aspects will change and also the environment will be roughly 200 times larger. If players all of a sudden got thrown in to that vast world, I think a lot of them would get lost and wouldn't know what to do.

"The area in Ground Zeroes is constantly rainy weather at night [in the main mission], no matter how many hours you play. In the SideOps missions the time of day does change and the enemies and the player have more visibility. I wanted people to try this first in Ground Zeroes."

Using binoculars, players are now able to scout out and 'mark' patrolling guards, Splinter Cell style. Once spotted, X-ray skeletons of foes can be seen through walls, and Boss can track their movements using the futuristic iDroid device, which can be pulled out at any time in the vein of Dead Space's holographic inventory.

The extra planning tools introduce a brand of strategic freedom more familiar to the likes of Far Cry than Metal Gear, with players able to approach their targets in a variety of ways. Though stealth is the obvious choice, a shoot-first approach no longer equals disaster (thanks to regenerating health and the new 'Reflex mode' - which initiates bullet time when you're spotted).

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The 'Motherbase' companion app will display play stats and real-time map info.

When those deftly assembled espionage plans capitulate, guards will now investigate and block off Boss's last known position. It's a far less frustrating system than the layered countdown clocks of previous games, and using Boss's new tools to skilfully escape the search net - leaving no witnesses left alive - is as satisfying as any unblemished stealth segment.

In Hideo Kojima's sandbox, stealth feels like an option rather than the necessity of past entries, but it's still by far the most entertaining way to play. Metal Gear's traditional cardboard boxes and classic 'wall knock' decoy manoeuvres have been removed (they're promised to return in The Phantom Pain), but otherwise it's vintage crawling, camera dodging, neck snapping gameplay.

Sneaking is best demonstrated within the more volatile conditions of Ground Zeroe's bite-sized SideOps missions. Here, the darkness and drizzle of the main story is replaced with a harsh daylight or eerie dusk. Enemies can spot you from further away and new mission objectives demand you stay out of sight (or at least leave no witnesses behind).

"Stealth feels like an option rather than a necessity, but it's still the most entertaining way to play."

One mission tasks Boss with taking out a pair of wanted assassins located somewhere on the base (who will also escape if the alarms go off). Another satisfying stealth op which is sure to become a favourite with score chasers requires Boss to locate and interrogate a soldier who has turned. Using a reference photo, players must spot the target's face among a crowd and then wait for the right moment to pull him into the shadows.

It's within these harsher mission conditions that the introduction of vehicles becomes an integral part to strategy; Big Boss can sneak inside Camp Omega's main base concealed on the back of a supply truck, or commandeer the vehicle himself and nonchalantly cruise past groups of guards (players can also stash rescued hostages in the passenger seat for a quick getaway).

Yoji Shinkawa on Ground Zeroes "Currently we're putting a lot of importance in to photo realism. I think a lot of games have a similar direction as far as making things more realistic, but I don't want to be trapped in that. Another big focus we have for this game is conveying emotions to the player and that's the most difficult part.

"I'm not lying, but the strong lens flare effect you see in Ground Zeroes was Mr. Kojima's idea. He really likes this element and it's a key visual for the game. He kept asking me to put it everywhere! (laughs) To give you an example, when you're just about to be spotted you get this lens flare effect over your body. So this visual aspect also related to the gameplay."

It speaks volumes for Ground Zeroes' credentials as a stealth game that by far the weakest of the SideOps missions are the two which encourage players to 'go loud'. One such mission tasks players with blowing up three anti-air emplacements in a swift and mindless action sequence. Another equally pedestrian scenario combines all of the most unwelcome action game tropes; on-rails transport, computer 'VIP' to protect, stationary turret.

The fifth, platform exclusive mission, can only be unlocked after players collect all of the 'XOF' patches hidden within Ground Zeroes' story mission, which is no doubt a method of artificially prolonging the length of the overall package.

This will ultimately present Ground Zeroes' biggest challenge; convincing the game-playing public that its experimental package offers enough content to justify the price.

Ground Zeroes undoubtedly offers a refreshing no-frills Metal Gear experience; one that's never looked better, never been more accessible and which indicates a lot of promise for its full bodied successor.

But as that spectacular mountain base speed run suggested, those anticipating a more traditional, story-heavy, linear experience could finish Ground Zeroes hoping there was far more to it.