When Metal Gear Solid 4 came out on the PS3 a few years ago, it gave fans what they thought was the final chapter in the esteemed series. Many questions were answered, and the story of Solid Snake was presumably brought to a close. However, we wanted more, and although Snake was retired, there was much about his ‘father’, Big Boss, that we did not know. We saw his transformation from a green rookie into a disillusioned but masterful veteran during the events of Metal Gear Solid 3. Old school gamers may even remember fighting him in Outer Heaven during the events of the original Metal Gear games. However, there’s one piece of the puzzle that was missing; how was Big Boss involved in the ‘L’enfants terribles’ black project that gave birth to Solid Snake? Why would someone who seeks to establish a haven for men who are without a country willingly subject himself to such a project?
These are not questions that Metal Gear Solid Ground Zeroes answers. Ground Zeroes is essentially a paid prologue for the next main entry in the series, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. As a prologue, the game is rather short with the main mission taking only an hour and a half to beat…on the first try. More experienced gamers can cut their times down to anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour, if they know exactly where to go. In fact, you will hear a lot of griping about this as the game isn’t free like a typical demo, but will cost you about $30 in stores. I myself had some misgivings about this, but I still feel my money was well spent.
This is because even after you beat the main mission, the game comes with four extra ‘side ops’ to play that demonstrate a range of playstyles from a full on assault mission where you have to infiltrate a prison camp in a helicopter to extract a very special “VIP” that savvy players will recognize from Peace Walker (And real life) to a mission where you have to assassinate or otherwise eliminate two soldiers that are wanted for their horrible war crimes. Although I have yet to unlock it, there is also a special “Extra Op” for players who take the time to collect the nine XOF patches scattered throughout the main mission. The Extra Op actually differs based on which console you unlock it on; Xbox players get the op Jamais Vu, which is set in an alternate timeline and features Raiden from Metal Gear Solid 2, while Playstation owners get Déjà vu, which is presumably a very nostalgic mission that recreates the events of Metal Gear Solid 1 in the Fox Engine.
Speaking of the Fox Engine, Hideo Kojima spent many years developing it and it shows. The graphics are more amazing than expected, with capes fluttering in stormy winds that look almost real and brilliant lighting that is best displayed when a guard tower is shining a spotlight across the ground, or during the side op set during twilight hours. The landscape is beautifully rendered, and the play area is larger than ever. Truly, Kojima’s vision of a true open-world stealth game will be realized with the Phantom Pain, if we can use Ground Zeroes as a marker. The characters do look almost lifelike, although they are still in the ‘uncanny valley’, and the textures are wonderfully detailed. However, the visuals aren’t flawless. There is some pop-in with shadows, and as you’re walking you do tend to notice them being sharpened as you get closer.
The soundtrack is almost nothing to write home about, with there being barely any music. Although you can listen to music on your Walkman, most of the time you’ll be sneaking in silence. Perhaps that’s for the best, so you can hear enemy soldiers creeping around you so you don’t become the prey. Plus, there aren’t any boss battles or major action scenes during the main mission, so it’s understandable that there’s not so much focus on the music. There is one particular track, however, that plays during the credits. It’s actually rather catchy, and almost makes up for the otherwise lackluster soundtrack. The sound effects and voice acting differ, however. The guns all sound pretty dangerous, and the familiar sound of the silenced tranquilizer pistol reminds you you’re playing Metal Gear. Grass rustles underfoot as you creep along in the bushes, and you can hear the enemy soldiers plod along as they pass by whether they’re alerted or not.
As for the voices, for the most part they’re really great. Tara Strong, Robin Atkin Downs, and Antony Del Rio reprise their roles from Peace Walker for this game. The new villain, Skullface, is voiced by James Horan. Horan projects a distinct aura of malevolence and power with his acting, and one of the cassette tapes you find has Skullface explaining his past to an unknown P.O.W. in gruesome and chilling detail. I think Skullface has a lot of potential to be a very memorable and interesting villain in part because of James Horan’s acting. Unfortunately, Big Boss’ voice actor has changed, not necessarily for the better. David Hayter, who has been playing the roles of Solid Snake and Big Boss ever since the first Metal Gear Solid, has been replaced by Kiefer Sutherland, who played Jack Bauer in the TV show 24. Don’t get me wrong, Kiefer Sutherland actually does very well as Big Boss, and it will take some time for him to fill David Hayter’s shoes. The change of voice actor also fits in with the events in Metal Gear Solid 4. But it’s still quite jarring to hear someone else as Big Boss after nearly twenty years.
Finally, let’s get to the most important part: the gameplay. The game has most of the staples of Metal Gear Solid. You sneak around an enemy base in pursuit of an objective, which in the main mission is rescuing Chico and Paz from a U.S. Marine base in Cuba. You make use of various weapons and tools to accomplish that objective as well. Boss starts off with a silenced tranquilizer pistol and a silenced assault rifle, but throughout the mission he can find a sniper rifle, shotgun, silenced SMG, and other guns. He also makes use of his trademark CQC to interrogate or disable enemies as necessary. Of course, in MGS tradition, although you have all these toys to play with and slaughter enemies, this is a sneaking mission and you are penalized for killing enemies; if you take the road less travelled and make it to your objective without killing anyone you get the best score and rewards.
There are some new additions to the formula now, though. You can use your binoculars to mark enemies, which allows you to sense them through walls and other obstacles. This makes it a little bit easier, especially since you no longer have the Solitron Radar or motion detector from older entries. In fact, there isn’t even a typical item inventory system; Big Boss only has to manage his weapons inventory. Even then it’s not limitless like MGS4, or quite as limited as Peace Walker. You get one slot for a sidearm, four slots for grenades, C4, and other handheld items, one slot for a primary rifle, and finally, a slot for larger weaponry like the sniper rifle and the recoilless rifle (Rocket launcher, or Carl Gustav for you PW vets). The enemies no longer have a traditional ‘vision cone’ either. If you enter their field of vision an indicator shows on your screen and they will stare in your direction, pulling a flashlight from under their raincoat after a few seconds. If they spot you and an alert is about to be triggered, the game enters slow motion for about ten seconds. During this sequence, you can hold the aiming button and the weapon you had selected will be pulled out and you can then take out the enemy, or if you’re close enough you can also run in for some quick CQC. The game also feels much more grounded in reality, but still has some Kojimaesque silly bits, such as the fourth-wall busting cameo VIP and the Moai head collectibles in one of the side ops.One final bit, the traditional Codec system has been dropped in favor of an intel button. If you focus on something using your binoculars and tap the intel button, Kazuhira Miller will provide commentary over the radio.
Although Ground Zeroes is little more than a glorified tech demo for the Fox Engine, at the end of the day it accomplished its goals. Before I played, I was just vaguely looking forward to The Phantom Pain, and inwardly grimacing because I would be playing as Big Boss again rather than my favorite Solid Snake. After playing, however, I am now more excited for Phantom Pain than ever before, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. The only question for you, then, is whether you are willing to buy in for thirty bucks or wait for bargain bin prices.