Metal Gear Solid is many things: it’s audacious, clever, aggressively stupid, endearing, and crazy, misguided, and far too often up its own ass.  There are plenty of adjectives we all can throw at Metal Gear; be they fans of the franchise or its biggest haters, but from where I’m sitting, no word describes this series better than rebellious. If there are meant to be inherent rules of game design, storytelling, philosophy, and how to treat your fanbase? Metal Gear Solid has never been big on following them.

Hideo Kojima’s baby has done business the way it wants to, and it’s been one of the more memorable franchises for it. Maybe not always consistent for everyone, but never forgettable. So I’m not necessarily surprised that Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, this “preview” or prologue of the upcoming Phantom Pain is being sold separately, and for many, might not have enough content to justify the price of admission. We could argue back n' forth all day on the finer points of whether this is a demo or a more flattering term like appetizer. I certainly have no desire to argue that some consumers have zero grounds for complaints against the game's price of admission. It is however, what it is: very much a prologue to the events of The Phantom Pain.

As someone who’s not big on judging games on gameplay per square inch, but more so on the game design as a whole compared to its competition: the latest Metal Gear is solid (Get it? Get it?) enough as a package for me to at least say it’s definitely worth a spin. Whatever price you deem is more appropriate is frankly up to you, but I would argue the game itself is worth playing at some point. So then the question becomes "why is Ground Zeroes worth a spin"? Well, that’s because I think, up until now this is the perfect implementation of the game mechanics that were introduced in 2004’s Snake Eater.

There are plenty of mechanics I can go over that have been refined or reworked for the better. Shooting mechanics are more in line with modern shooters, but with some excellent feedback to sell the brutality of bullets piercing through another human being's skull. The added environmental attacks worked into the CQC system or the fact that you can tag people using binoculars ala Far Cry 3. The enemies themselves have more dynamic systems in place to create a more engaging experience than what the franchise has done before.

You're less dependent on vision cones or a psyche gauge, as the player must make better decisions and respond to the environment. Staying in darker, dimly lit areas is an obvious improvement to your chances versus trying to be sneaky under the bright lights. But you must also account for how far the enemy can see, the fact they will notice quicker actions, sound, or what have you. Maybe one of my favorite improvements is the ability to break the line of sight which changes the ebb and flow of shooting segments in a game like this. Enemies will not only focus on your last known location, but aggressively attack it. They won’t sit back and leave themselves open for an easy flank, but their actions do leave them open for an attack if you can position yourself correctly with your environment.

All of these however would just be added layers and building blocks on this project, not necessarily the base of what will make The Phantom Pain special. No, if I had to guess what this project's ground zero was, it would definitely be the game world that makes everything click. Camp Omega would be incredible on detail and craftsmanship by sheer virtue of looking and feeling like an actual environment. None of it feels all that "gamey." A lot of it looks, feels, and works like you would assume a camp in the Metal Gear universe should work.

Everything about this environment is lively from how it works with the gameplay. Enemies patrol in a more organic manner, and with less scripted routes. They take time to just walk up to each other and talk and even get into vehicles from time to time. The entire camp will go on alert if someone is to knock out a camera, and maybe the craziest aspect is that the soldiers on this camp actually have a shift change schedule. You may have snuck around, knocked on doors, and interrogated people before in Metal Gear, but never quite in a manner that felt this alive in comparison. When you add in the fact that Ground Zeroes is just as happy being a playground as it is a covert ops mission for some highly decorated soldier and you get something genuinely breathtaking.

It’s these aspects that make it such a joy to talk about Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Beyond all the controversy surrounding its price of admission and what shady doomsday scenario can come out of fans not thinking wisely, as outlined best by Phil in his article a few months ago, the game is remarkably progressive. It’s open in a way modern open world games simply aren’t. There is room to experiment to really cut loose, and gameplay elements to master.

For purists, sneaking around this camp with all these dynamic elements will create a source of uneasy tension that you associate with some of the best stealth games ever on the higher difficulties. For everyone else, it’s a game that shows: hey, you can be sneaky, or you can shoot your way in if you really want to, using the stealth mechanics more as a means for dynamic firefights that go beyond the whack-a-mole nature of shootouts found in the likes of Uncharted or Gears of War. If you just want to be a punk? Find a tank and let loose 'till they kill you.

It’s just a shame this all comes with a giant "YEAH BUT." Ground Zeroes is impressive on many levels, but one can’t escape the premise that beyond its ability to showcase an impressive future, it is far from a complete game. As a playground to showcase the potential of next gen, Ground Zeroes earns respect. Its merits as a stealth game or even just a Metal Gear game? Well, it’s ultimately a little outclassed in the grand scheme of things.

First and foremost, the plot is paper thin, and largely brings up more questions than it provides answers. The basic set up is that Big Boss (now voiced by Keifer Sutherland, who is fantastic, by the way) is in Cuba on a rescue mission to save Chico and Paz, who, if I read the backstory correctly, are characters you meet in 2010’s Peace Walker. You sneak in and need to sneak your friends out. It all sets up this explosive endgame that sets up the events for what will happen in The Phantom Pain.

The extra missions in the game beyond the Ground Zeroes mission have no impact whatsoever in the plot. As a lot of them just feel like challenge room missions. Not to say they aren’t immensely enjoyable or replayble, but they don’t have any resonance beyond gameplay satisfaction. And most of them in any context would feel like filler to pad out a game to meet some criteria of game length.  

 

That alone would be enough of a drawback on a Metal Gear game, given how much stock the franchise has put in its narratives, but the gameplay itself never escapes its preview billing. For all of the progressive vision at display here you get a game that is fundamentally the simple beginnings of what is going to be a brilliant formula. In between the 6 or so missions you can play in Ground Zeroes, you have the main mission, as well as stuff that has you taking out turrets, finding and executing two war criminals on the base, and another extracting mission that I admire for the audacity and ego at display.

But it all feels like warm up, and not the most logical conclusion of these systems in place. The good games are the ones that showcase a bunch of game ideas, and then execute upon those ideas, ultimately escalating and building upon them to their logical endgame, and progressively providing a multi-layered experience that leaves you satisfied with your time with the game, regardless of how much time you spent on it. Ground Zeroes is a neat playground, but one that out right tells you even better and more gratifying stuff is on the way. Its main drawback isn’t necessarily that it is short in play time. It’s that in the grand scheme of things it’s a short-sighted project that only paints a brilliant future, but not a complete whole right now. 

Judged in a vacuum, as only a showcase or a prologue to a game? Sure, Ground Zeroes is purely a joy to play. Dare I say the most impressive showcase for these new machines currently on the market as of this writing, as it shows us what truly dynamic playgrounds these developers can create with a new generation of hardware. Judged like any other game among where it must be held to not only the standards of its own franchise, its genre, and what the market is pumping out now, and has pumped out before to fill up your backlog? Under those standards, Ground Zeroes doesn’t offer anything more than a glimpse at the future.

Yes, that future so far looks like it is going to be brilliant, but the here and now is a game that never evolves past being a stage setter for the real deal. In many ways, it very much does live up to its criticism of being a tech demo, albeit one that shows you that Kojima Productions have the foundation to create something that should completely outclass the competition. 

Final Score - 6/10

 

 

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