When I bought this game, I got a lot of uphill from my friends who work in the game store. “You don’t even like Metal Gear!”, they said in jest – but with a barb of accusation just barely visible beneath the surface. And I feel I’ve been misrepresnted a bit.
I’ll admit I take every opportunity to remind people of how awful Metal Gear‘s writing is every time it comes up, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like the gameplay. True, I think the story is more kitsch, over-written and melodramatic than the most ridiculous anime I’ve ever seen, but I also think the games are pretty reliable for presenting us with unique and innovative play mechanics. I guess you’re not welcome at the Metal Gear fan club unless you’re a blind devotee – and if that’s the case, I’m happy to just enjoy the game on my own terms, trying to tune out as much of the abusively-long cut-scenes and briefings as possible until I manage to dig out the mission objective from the caked-on melodramatic horseshit.
As it turns out, I couldn’t be happier with Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It’s a small teaser type of game, like Gran Turismo Prologue or Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D, to set the stage for and tide us over until Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which will be released… some day… maybe. The game consists of exactly one story mission, which is bookended and punctuated by the kind of tacky, boring, way-too-long cut-scenes the series is known for, and a handful of side-missions.
I’ve mentioned many a time before that I don’t keep up with gaming news, so I didn’t even know this game was available until I walked into the shop and saw it on the shelf, and I was suprised to find that it lets us play as Big Boss rather than Solid Snake. It takes place just after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the PSP, which I thought was one of the better games in the franchise. It turns out that Paz and Chico, two prominent characters from Peace Walker, have been kidnapped and are being held in an American black ops base in Cuba. I’m sure they explained why, but I’d fallen asleep by the time they got to that.
All I know – all I needed to know – is that I had to control Big Boss to get in there and rescue them. It wasn’t a clear A to B mission, either. The only piece of information I had was to head to the prison-camp part of the installation, where it was assumed the captives would be held – a logical deduction. Only Chico was there, however, and he gave me an audio casette he recorded that captured sounds I had to use to try and figure out where on the base Paz had been taken to. A fairly clever bit of game design, don’t you think?
Well, yes, it would have been, if not for Big Boss’s support agent, Kaz Miller, calling you up to tell you when you’re in an area that has something to correspond with the sounds you heard on the tape – you know, in case you’re too dumb to figure it out for yourself. I miss the days when games didn’t coddle us, like a nervous parent holding the saddle of their kid’s bicycle in case they fall. Also, given that the base is so large and there are so few missions, it would have been nice if Paz’s location would change on subsequent play-throughs, but no, it’s the same one every time.
It was the side-ops (which become available after you complete the main mission) that I really liked. And do you know why? No ridiculous cut-scenes before, after, or during the missions. They just plonk you in the starting position, tell you what you need to do (kill a target, take photos, etc) and leave you to it. This is how it should always be. Unfortunately, the developers couldn’t let it go completely, and Kaz Miller will still call you up every five minutes to remind you what your mission objective is. You know, developers, if I actually do forget what I’m supposed to be doing in a given mission, I’ll check the mission screen. I don’t need an incessant reminder every five minutes, and I could find no way to turn it off. I hope they fix that in Phantom Pain.
All the missions, including the main one, take place in a single, large map. That might sound like a bit of a letdown, and it could be, depending on your standards, but the map is very big, very detailed, and you get to experience it at different times of day and in different weather conditions. Another thing that tickles me about Ground Zeroes is that this single map has an element of sandbox gameplay to it. You can proceed directly to your mission objective – and you might want to, to spare your sanity before Kaz calls you again – but you can also explore and mess around.
The game actually keeps score of some of that messing about, like recording your longest-ranged headshot or tranq-dart shot, and the longest distance you’ve sent an enemy flying after ramming them with a vehicle. The map is also littered with a few new weapons and items you can find, after which they’ll be available at the start of a mission, which is good, because your initial equipment is a little barebones.
The stealth gameplay has been nicely designed too. I broke a security camera to see what would happen, and lo, I heard an enemy radio message ordering the nearest soldier to investigate why the camera stopped working. So, out of curiosity, I intercepted the soldier in question before he could give his report. The radio squawked again, saying that the last guy they sent hasn’t reported in, and someone else must go and see what’s up. It’s very clever and immersive and gives the game a real-world kind of feel. Also, if you leave evidence of your presence, like say a body, then the enemy soldiers will radio it in, after which their HQ will order them to be on alert, and they’ll be much quicker to identify you and sound the alarm, even from a glance.
Unfortunately, the game still has the problem that many stealth-focused games do. They award you with a huge bonus at the end of a level for not raising alerts and not killing anyone – but all the weapons and tools you find are only for making noise and killing people. If you don’t want us to kill people, stop tempting us – and start issuing some more non-lethal gear.
I played the PlayStation 4 version and it was very, very pretty, but I’m sure it looks good on all platforms, because that’s something we expect from Metal Gear, after all. See! I give it credit where it’s due! You’ll probably be happiest with this game if you adjust your expectations to view it as a demo rather than a full game, something with which you can get accustomed to the play mechanics and psyche yourself up for The Phantom Pain.