For a while now, many of you have been asking: where’s the Ground Zeros review? Well, better late than never, right?
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeros is where Western game design influence upgrades its grip meter, and grabs hold of Kojima Productions – for better and for worse. The last numbered game in the series may have introduced right-stick camera control (okay, fine, they first retroactively added it to Snake Eater in the Subsistence revision) and moved essential weapon-firing to the shoulder buttons. But mechanically, it still felt very much like the design was of two worlds – or two continents. You needn’t look any further than the rifle barrel that was dead-center in the screen (not that you could look past it, considering how much of the frame it obscured) to become acutely aware that the designers were new to some of these genre conventions.
Ground Zeros is the first Metal Gear game that plays fantastically. Previous entries in the series had medium-benchmark interactive setpieces, sure, but there was always a sense that you were interacting with them through a layer of mechanical obfuscation. That’s no longer the case here. Everything responds as well as you could hope, given the complex array of moves at your disposal. There are no 3-button claw grip controller maneuvers to be found in this far-flug 1970s future.
But the smart design choices don’t begin and end with the control scheme. The two most important additions are a brief moment of slowed time when you’re spotted by guards, and the Boss’ new ability to mark and track enemies once they’re in his view. The latter is especially essential given that there hasn’t been a proper “Pac Man” radar map in the corner since MGS2. Once a guard is tagged, they remain tagged – even if they walk (or drive) halfway across the map. This makes it crucial that you perform reconnaissance at regular intervals, because I guarantee there was that one guy you hadn’t previously spotted and he’ll totally be the one to catch you crawling out from under that jeep when you thought you were in the clear.
And about that map? It’s enormous: one sprawling, cohesive environment. This leads to one of the first double-edged survival knives of Ground Zeros: it’s very short. Once you know what you’re doing, you could probably run through in less than an hour (hopefully while crouching, to avoid drawing attention to yourself). It took me about 3, but I tend to play these games slowly with a lot of crawling on my chest, and getting caught, and dying, and getting caught dying. True, there are bonus missions you can undertake in different modes that aren’t part of the main story. But the core experience is a short, self-contained teaser of the real MGS5. That said, confining the game to one very large sandbox profoundly changes Metal Gear – not just defining a concrete sense of place, but locking in tactics and planning to a tangible reality. Is there actually a set number of guards? I can’t say for sure, but it certainly feels that way. And the reward for a well-plotted infiltration is far greater when you get the sense that those guys you took down are really down – not to be respawned when you crossed the threshold of a loading screen. I found myself playing more deliberately – not just because I’m admittedly terrible at stealth games, but because I really wanted to do my approach the right way. It’s the feeling of “if I could just clear out that zone by the tower, then maybe the next time that patrol walks by I could take those two dudes out without raising an alarm, and then my exit strategy will fall into place…”. This series has imbued that sensation in the past, but never in a macro sense. Previously, you wanted to successfully execute a particular encounter. Now, the feeling is that you’re planning your run from start to finish.
So no, the game length isn’t what disappointed me. I’ll take a shorter experience if it’s meticulously crafted, and if it encourages multiple playthroughs from new angles. Here’s my grievance: Remember when I mentioned that a Western influence was noticeable for better and for worse? Surprisingly, it most negatively affects the story. I’m kind of shocked, because during Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, I found myself wanting cybernetic eyes so I could roll them harder than a mere mortal eye would allow. The longform exposition, excessive non-interactive interlude, the…what, five ending segments? Once I sat through Meryl’s wedding, and then Raiden’s family reunion where he has, was it a synthetic flesh body to replace his human one…. You know what? Let’s leave it there. You know where I’m going with this. Lean storytelling was not MGS4‘s selling point. And that game was by no means the only offending entry. Even MGS3: Snake Eater, generally considered the narrative high-point of the series, would have greatly benefited from a script that axed about half of the dialogue.
But it seems like it’s feast or famine with Kojima Productions. There’s very little story to speak of here, and I mean that literally. Ground Zeros skirts close to silent protagonist territory (I guess new voice actor Keifer Sutherland charges by the minute), and none of the other handful of named characters pick up the slack. A five-page script in and of itself wouldn’t have been a problem, but the tale that is told feels more Splinter Cell or Syphon Filter than Metal Gear. Sentient arms and nano-vampires running on water may be silly, but how many of us want a MGS game that plays it totally straight? And sure, you still have a villain named Skull Face who has a….well, he has a skull face, so sure, that’s pretty dumb. But give or take the occasional cowboy hat and headphone jack in a kid’s chest, what we have here is “infiltrate the base and save the hostage” boilerplate.
The worst of it is that, when the game does get weird, it’s more unsavory than goofy. You’d have to dig into the audio cassettes (essentially the replacement for codec radio conversations this time around) to find the bit I’m alluding to but…actually, don’t find it. It’s hard to believe that no one chimed in to say “hey, let’s leave this one on the cutting room floor”. And it’s not just a few recordings buried in the menus, but also a major moment in the ending sequence. Let’s just say that there are a few plot beats that clash with the tone of the series, and Kojima doesn’t have a deft enough writer’s pen to not come off as tasteless. Juxtaposition of zaniness and rough subject matter can be moving if done properly, but Hideo Kojima is no Joss Whedon.
The real shame here is that Kojima has pulled off, if not this type of narrative cross-cutting, then a certain kind of it – and I’d argue, a better kind. Where the actual plot points of previous Metal Gear games could be hit and miss when they fired back and forth between the deadly serious and the seriously insane, interactive moments have almost always been greatly buoyed by them. Think back to every ah-ha moment the series has provided. It’s been filled-to-bursting with zany shit on the margins.
Where’s this game’s equivalent of the crock cap?
Or the Vulcan Raven Statue?
Or naked Raiden doing a cartwheel while covering his crotch?
Out of what I’ve seen of The Phantom Pain, the real Metal Gear Solid 5 that Ground Zeroes is a precursor to, it looks like the designers may have allowed themselves to have a bit more fun again – at least judging by the fever dreams of flaming whales and bandaged spokesmen that have been shown in the trailers. Maybe Ground Zeroes was simply a proving ground to fine-tune the mechanics while all the plot work and creativity were rationed for the boss fight. The actual sneaking is better than it’s ever been. Here’s hoping that the next mission scenario will be worthy of those improvements.