Would you pay close to full price for the opening hours of Skyrim? How much value can be measured from the first chapter and boss fight of Dark Souls? Despite Kojima Productions' public denials, this is the purchase conundrum that comes with Metal Gear Sold V: Ground Zeroes. It's a typically stylish and strategic Metal Gear game, but a gaunt one, built as a prologue the full sequel The Phantom Pain.
Carrying a £29.99 price tag for PS4 and Xbox One, and a slightly more reasonable £19.99 as a PS3 and Xbox 360 digital download, the entire Ground Zeroes package delivers around 4 hours of content on a single playthrough. That's just over an hour for the main campaign, and a further five SideOps missions that last roughly 30 minutes each, depending on your skill. On your second play through, Ground Zeroes' main mission can be completed in less than 19 minutes.
There's no hyperbole there. For the curious, here's a video guide to finishing the game in 18 minutes:
But, Kojima Productions will argue, the overall package delivers through its replays and score chasing. That's true to a point, but only the most ardent Kojima fans will get more than an afternoon's play out of Ground Zeroes. If you're not an MGS aficionado, that's a big problem.
What's so bittersweet is that there's an excellent no-frills Metal Gear experience somewhere in here, albeit delivered as a ration of entertainment rather than a feast. It's never looked better, never been more accessible and it indicates significant promise for its full bodied successor, which is likely to be released some time in 2015.
The game's main mission takes place in 1975 within Camp Omega, an American black site base on the coast of Cuba. Here, playing as Kiefer Sutherland's appropriately rugged Big Boss (father of Solid Snake et al), you're sent in by second-in-command Kaz Miller to rescue two imprisoned soldiers. The story leads directly from 2010's PSP entry Peace Walker, and a written plot summary is accessible from Ground Zeroes' main menu, which provides a useful catch-up for those who didn't finish the handheld game.
Unusually for the series, there's not a great deal of cinematic cut-scenes on offer, and the majority available have already been viewed by the majority of fans already via official trailers and gameplay videos. Sutherland's performance, though a little jarring for longstanding fans, adds nuance and emotion previously lacking in the series, and FOX Engine's facial animation is amongst the most impressive yet for next gen consoles.
Dig deep enough and Ground Zeroes does offer fan service, and it's the core players who will extract the most from the limited amount of narrative present in hidden cassette tapes (which can be played at any time via Big Boss's iDroid) and Kaz's mission monologues.
But it is the sandbox that steals the spotlight. Camp Omega, though moderately sized, is an entirely open environment, with players able to approach targets from any angle, commandeer vehicles, or even call in a support chopper for covering fire or a quick lift to another area.
It's a natural and welcome evolution of the traditional MGS gameplay. Big Boss is able to spot and mark soldiers using his binoculars, Splinter Cell style, and then track their movements on his iDroid device. Once tracked, X-ray skeletons of foes can even be seen through walls, giving players even more information when planning their approach. Hardcore players can opt to turn off these systems, but for the rest of us it facilitates a welcome brand of strategic freedom more familiar to the likes of Far Cry than Metal Gear, and the stealth series' sandbox renovation is equally flexible to a variety of different play styles.
Ground Zeroes is undeniably designed with stealth as its main concern, but a shoot-first approach is now also a feasible option when deftly assembled espionage plans capitulate. Health regenerates generously, large HUD markers indicate alerted enemies and a new Reflex mode literally slows down time whenever Big Boss is spotted, making it (somewhat controversially) easy to put foes down before they get anywhere near the alarm switch.
All of these systems can be turned off too, and they are absent from harder difficulties, but in default mode they equate to an experience that, while not entirely run 'n' gun, certainly makes escaping from fire-fights less stressful. Instead of the traditional countdown clock, guards will investigate Boss's last known position, setting up patrols and sniffing out his whereabouts. Radio chatter and the aforementioned X-ray vision make tracking enemies a cinch, and if you can move beyond the search net with no witnesses left alive, Big Boss will be incognito again in no time.
"While the experience is artificially prolonged, you'll still finish Ground Zeroes hoping there was far more to it"
Stealth is an option rather than the necessity of past entries, but it's still the most entertaining way to play. Metal Gear's traditional cardboard boxes and classic 'wall knock' decoy manoeuvres are gone, but otherwise it's vintage crawling, camera dodging, neck snapping gameplay.
Sneaking is best demonstrated within the five SideOps missions. Here, the darkness and drizzle of the main story is replaced with bright 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).
One SideOp mission tasks Boss with taking out a pair of wanted assassins located somewhere on the base, and they'll escape if the alarms go off. It's here 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.
Another 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 the crowd and then wait for the right moment to pull him into the shadows. The double agent's info then sends Boss to the heart of the map's military stronghold where events take an unexpected, though entertaining, twist.
Sadly the other SideOps missions are far more throwaway. One tasks players with taking out three anti-air emplacements in a mindless and swift action sequence. There's even an on-rails helicopter level which offers 15 minutes of target practice (complete with explosive barrels and VIP to protect) that feels particularly pedestrian.
But these criticisms are minor and don't necessarily worsen Ground Zeroes' otherwise blemish-free design. The central issue is its controversial lack of content. Scattered audio diaries and well-hidden XOF patches (required to unlock the platform-specific fifth SideOp mission) will artificially prolong the experience, but you'll still finish Ground Zeroes hoping there was far more to it.
What's available - an accessible, free-form brand of stealth and impressive FOX Engine visual flair - sets the ground work for what could be a very promising Phantom Pain. But nevertheless it's difficult to agree with Konami's decision to sell Ground Zeroes with such little content intact.
Ardent stealth fans will no doubt replay the prologue's few missions for many hours, but for the rest of us, and certainly those who value the Metal Gear series for its narrative above all else, Ground Zeroes presents a purchase conundrum that is not easily justified.
MGSV's prologue is an accessible and intricately designed open-world mission, but one that offers too little for its asking price.
- Masterful transition to open-world
- FOX Engine graphics are beautiful
- Splendid audio and visual effects
- Over in a few hours
- Light on story