Konami has given the world an answer to the question of whether or not a game can get away with only being a handful of hours and not be considered a demo. That answer is yes, but with reservations, as there’s no denying that the brevity of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is pushing it. I cleared my first rough playthrough in about an hour and a half, give or take fifteen minutes. In that time, I got to know a new voice for Snake, familiar yet different controls, and one of the grittiest bits of narrative I’ve yet seen in a Metal Gear Solid game. Despite Ground Zeroes‘ diminutive size, it signals a true evolution of the series that has made me genuinely excited for The Phantom Pain.
The entire campaign is confined to a small military facility where Paz and Chico, from PSP’s excellent Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, are being held hostage. Snake is on a mission to infiltrate the facility and rescue the duo without alerting their captors to his presence. It’s not unfamiliar territory for MGS, but there’s no denying that, tonally, Ground Zeroes is a different beast than normal. The opening cinema is typically vague, as Kojima is wont to be with the series, but there’s a sinister feeling to the proceedings that surprised me. Traditionally, MGS games are almost bombastically over the top, despite the series’ serious and intricate plots, but Ground Zeroes never felt very tongue in cheek. I thought it was a welcome change and integral to heralding this as a new approach to the franchise.
Not that Ground Zeroes is completely foreign. The mystery baddie leading the enigmatic XOF strike force goes by the name Skull Face, so there remains some of the absurdity that fans have come to love (and always seems to work). Kojima is now venturing into his second MGS game in a row focused on Big Boss, but with several titles already released detailing the character’s exploits, new players might be a bit lost going into Ground Zeroes. There is a recap to help get folks familiarized, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that you’re best off having played Big Boss’s games up to now. Of course, the buzz surrounding Ground Zeroes is centered squarely on the game’s ending, which I won’t spoil here. I will say that how gratuitous it is depends on your own sensibilities. I’ve certainly seen more controversial things in movies or TV shows, but it is gruesome and might be a bit much for some of you out there. I personally think that Kojima handled the ending well, and it has me completely on the edge of my seat for what comes next.
Graphically, Ground Zeroes is easily one of the best looking games on PS3 and 360, despite some drops in framerate that I experienced. The lighting has to be seen to believed, movement animations are smooth, and the sound was crisp and clean. MGS games have always pushed the limits of whatever hardware they’ve graced, but like the plot itself, Ground Zeroes seems to be vying for something more realistic than before. Snake’s weathered face has never looked more expressive, and the facility felt like a living, breathing compound plucked right from reality. Kojima and company took their time crafting the new Fox Engine powering this game’s visuals, and we’re reaping the benefits.
Ground Zeroes maintains the series’ signature third-person gameplay, but its been evolved and fine-tuned beyond even Peace Walker‘s excellent control setup. Sneaking and shooting felt precise and fluid. Swapping weapons was also snappy and convenient, and despite some tweaks to what many fans are accustomed to, becomes familiar after just a few moments of playing. Creeping around the facility was a genuine test of patience and skill, and ramps up considerably when played on higher difficulty levels. I was especially impressed by the guard AI, as they felt more like observant foes than bots with a limited conical field of vision. There’s a decent amount of things to do unlocking new missions and scouring every inch of the facility, so those worried that the game will be over in the blink of an eye can rest easy. Understanding Ground Zeroes is simply a preview of what’s to come makes it a much better time, all around.
I haven’t forgotten that I said Konami succeeded with reservations, and for me they stemmed mainly from the new voice of Snake. For those not in the know, Keifer Sutherland has replaced David Hayter, and yes, it’s as jarring as one might expect. Snake just didn’t sound right without Hayter’s voice, and it honestly detached me from the experience, at times. I will say that there’s absolutely nothing funadmentally flawed with Sutherland’s performance; in fact, he really doesn’t speak a whole lot for the duration. What’s there is suitably gruff and weathered, though, and matches the spirit of Snake as longtime players know him. In the end, I have hope that the switch has the potential to benefit MGS, because if the series is going to be more serious and realistic, a new voice for Snake is a solid (heh) way of signaling that to fans. If anyone’s up to the task, Sutherland is the actor.
Beyond the voice acting, I was let down that the core campaign ended as quickly as it did, even with the extra missions to play. While well-crafted and compelling, I couldn’t help but think that maybe Kojima didn’t quite have his plan for Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain firmly in place before pulling the trigger on releasing them as separate experiences. What’s here is immensely playable and fun, though, so I have no problems recommending anyone interested in stealth games or MGS go out and pick up a copy. I have yet to snag a PS4 or One, so be aware that my review is based on the PS3 and 360 versions of the game. Anyone still rocking last gen owes it to themselves to try out Ground Zeroes!
+ New direction for the series has promise; grittier and more realistic than ever; graphics are excellent; gameplay refined and better than ever; enemy AI almost creepily human-like.
-Too short, even playing all the extra missions; Keifer Sutherland as Snake is going to take some getting used to; minor graphical stuttering; ending is well handled, but might upset some fans as being overkill.