Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
Ground Zeroes is the prologue to the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

In 1975 Big Boss (still known here by his codename, Snake) infiltrates an American holding camp in Cuba under rainfall and dark of night to rescue his captured comrades. Ground Zeroes is titled Metal Gear Solid V, but really it serves as prologue to the full, coming-who-knows-when Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This is the cold open. This is the part the game that would happen before the music swelled, and the camera panned up, and they slapped "Metal Gear Solid V" across the screen. It's a miniature game from a guy and a series we've never known to do anything small scale.

All-told, even a slow playthrough of Ground Zeroes is only going to take about two hours, though there's an interesting openness to the objectives: you may wander off the beaten path and end up completing things in a different order than the game expects, and that changes the outcome a little. The main game is about twenty minutes of cutscenes and ninety minutes of gameplay on a single map, Camp Omega, comprised of some tents, some towers, some buildings, and some prison cells, all rain washed and moon swept. Everything is shiny, for some reason. The rain soaks crates, tents, and Snake himself until they glisten. Even the mud sparkles, and the effect is so overblown that it saps some joy from one of our first big tastes of next gen graphics.

The game is small, but it feels large. Ground Zeroes's single map is probably twice as big as any map in any other Metal Gear. It's great to crawl through vents and explore crevices without a loading screen, especially when comparing Camp Omega to Peace Walker's miniscule areas. Alert phases play out with vehicles screeching onto the scene and gun emplacements spinning up. It's a military base, so it's only natural that attracting attention sends a tank crashing down on your head. You probably shouldn't call a helicopter to evac a rescued hostage when you're in the middle of a firefight, but it might be fun to try. Putting a guard in a choke-hold can lead to him giving up the location of the base's armory or where your VIP targets like to hang out before you kill him -- or put him to sleep, if you're nice (you get more points for being nice).

There are a handful of extra missions that show the base in daylight with clear skies, but the base is the base and the one map is all you get. The refugee camp and the admin building look much the same by noon as they do by night, though descending into the boiler room during the day shows off some interesting lighting effects when the world transitions from light to dark. There are a bunch of unlockable weapons that serve about as much purpose as they have in any other Metal Gear game and there's a set of collectibles that open up a nostalgia-laden final mission and a couple costume changes to boot.

Calling this a demo is unfair. Ground Zeroes will keep you busy for several hours, as long as you're the type to scour a half-dozen sub-missions or listen to audio logs. Thirty dollars is not an unthinkable price, especially on the content-starved PS4 and Xbox One. It's not a terrible price for just the extravagantly detailed, very beautiful main mission alone, but it doesn't feel like the game has gone out of its way to justify itself. There are fun and extraneous things to do, once you've completed the storyline, but they never reach that height of foolishness and opulence that Metal Gear games usually do. There's nothing on the level of VR Missions in Ground Zeroes, there isn't even anything like Snakeboarding.

The sneaking around hews close enough to classic Metal Gear to pass muster. Options for silent takedowns are limited and the non-lethal ones can be tough to pull off, especially in quick succession. The short-range tranquilizer gun forces players into spitting distance of their targets, and guards are perceptive enough to make that a problem, especially on Hard difficulty, where they group up and are more suspicious. The difficulty dissipates if you decide to murder everyone with an assault rifle or rocket launcher, but that's how Metal Gear has always been.

Keifer Sutherland is in this game. He does a fine job as Snake, but it's hard to understand why they ditched David Hayter unless this is a long con on Kojima's part, and Solid Snake is set to appear across from his father in Metal Gear Solid V (which seems unlikely, given the Japanese Snake, Akio Otsuka, remains the same). Hayter's voice acting was not unimpeachable, but neither was the rest of the cast of anime and game dubbers, who have not been replaced, and who all, Hayter included, injected an infectious cheesiness that played perfectly well with a series that has you escape prison cells with naked cartwheels or by using ketchup as fake blood.

There's very little of that here. Where is the cardboard box? Given that this is a follow-up to Peace Walker, where is the tank-shaped cardboard box that fires concussive shells? Instead of a radar Snake has a pair of binoculars for marking targets and that's bit too Far Cry 3, isn't it? He's got a set of night-vision goggles, too. He pretty much always has, but this time there's an unmistakable whiff of Splinter Cell when he puts them on. Metal Gear's silliness made its superciliousness palatable. Here, the game cuts its jib too close to the strong jawlines of gruff-talking Western shooters, and it loses some of itself in the process.

There's some extremely graphic content hidden in the supplemental materials, multiple cassette tapes of characters being beaten, raped, and psychologically tormented. These tapes are items you have to find in the world, and most of them are well hidden, but they exist, and some are hard to listen to. This is beyond even that hoary shortcut of making your villain a rapist to cement his vileness. The tapes are grotesque in 90s-era extreme, the sort of phantasm of a comic book or rap album that an overly-concerned politician might conjure up to rally against. If this is meant to be commentary on the brutality of war in a nominally post-war era, or the complicity or desensitization of the video gaming public, then it is a phenomenally guarded one, given the nonchalance with which Snake jabs his knife into the chest of any guard post-interrogation.

Metal Gear, for better or for worse, has always been absurd and extreme. At its best moments it's using that bombast as a cloak for subtlety, for its overwhelming concern for humankind and the human condition. Even at its most bizarre and least effective -- recall Screaming Mantis, who spent some percentage of her childhood locked in a basement eating corpses -- the writing overflows with empathy, if not tact or clarity. There's no apparent empathy behind these tapes, just a hunger and a lust for cruelty. To visit multiple rapes and other violations upon a character purely to forward the main character's development doesn't seem like Metal Gear's style. Metal Gear's track record is not blemish free, but it's certainly never been as blatant as this. This isn't a commentary on the suffering of Guantanamo prisoners, it's a power-fantasy about the no-holds-barred hero that gets to go in and beat up all the bad guys. When the prisoners get punished it isn't putting their struggle on compassionate display, it's using it to amp up the main character's angst.

Maybe it's something better understood in context. Maybe it's something to be explained in The Phantom Pain. However, they released this as a stand-alone game, it should be judged as such. This extremity is especially off-putting when juxtaposed against other supplemental materials, like a tape of Paz, an undercover agent masquerading as a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl, describing a quasi-lesbian awakening brought about by another character sensually applying suntan lotion between her breasts. That tape is repurposed from Peace Walker's bonus content, and it raises hackles by its lonesome, but having it accessible from the same menu as the stuff depicting graphic violence and abuse seems disrespectful to the characters at the bare minimum. You can avoid almost all of these moments, but making them optional doesn't mean they aren't there.

Ground Zeroes is close enough to Metal Gear to fake it, but it's off where it counts. The long codec conversations have been relegated to bonus content or, worse, two-second dialogue chirps when you push a button while staring at something through your binoculars. There's still some fun to be had in full-body diving into unsuspecting enemies, in solicitously obeying the rules of the road and remaining undetected while driving around in your jacked armored car, and in piling a dozen tranquilized guards into a slowly-growing stack of sleepy soldiers. Ground Zeroes is not lifeless, but it's a little too grimy, a little too military, and a little too matte. A bad guy named "Skull Face" doesn't do much to lighten a tone beat down by dirt, and mire, and a Guantanamo commentary that's more shock than substance. If you squint, this is a Metal Gear game, and it's good enough. If you take a moment to think, this worry creeps in: that this might be something unenthusiastic, something aping trends, something cold. You get the feeling that you're playing something that might just be product. Whether they like the series or not, nobody expected a Metal Gear game to feel like product.

Overall : B-
Graphics : A-
Sound/Music : B
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : D+

+ Sneaking still requires more precision and thought than most other stealth games
Gratuitous scenes of violence without a lot of context or purpose

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