The Metal Gear franchise never shied away from marketing its demos as a significant sales booster. The original Zone of the Enders was packed with the first-ever demo of Metal Gear Solid 2, and it was such a strong selling point that many joked about buying the MGS2 demo and getting a free game with it. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is almost that joke made into reality. It's an introduction to the world and plot, sets up a timeskip, and gives the player room to play with the mechanics and concept that will be explored in the main game. The only difference is Ground Zeroes is one of the most expansive demos on the market, but that doesn't mean it's a bad game.
Ground Zeroes is set not long after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Big Boss, formerly known as Naked Snake, has set up a private military force on an oil rig in international waters. He and his soldiers have become the premier PMC in the world and have access to their own Metal Gear, complete with nuclear weapons. This has led to arms inspectors visiting the base. Big Boss is informed that one of his soldiers, Chico, and former double agent Paz, are being held at the U.S. detainment facility Camp Omega, which is located in Cuba. Both have been tortured and are facing death unless Big Boss can rescue them. As the base prepares for the inspection, Boss sneaks into Camp Omega to rescue his comrades, and these events set the stage for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
There isn't much plot in Ground Zeroes, which is surprising for a Metal Gear game. There's a lengthy intro cut scene and a lengthy ending, and that is about it. The series mainstay, Codec Calls, take place in real time and are significantly briefer than usual, much like in Peace Walker. There are also tapes you can unlock to flesh out the backstory.
Metal Gear Solid can be serious when it tries, but it always does it with tongue firmly in cheek. Ground Zeroes feels like it's taking itself way too seriously. There's realistic graphic violence, torture and some tasteless usage of rape and sexual violence. Metal Gear has visited this subject matter before but rarely as unambiguously. It ends up feeling tasteless and exploitative, far more so than any previous Metal Gear title. It's difficult to tell from the limited amount of content in Ground Zeroes how well The Phantom Pain will handle that topic, especially with the supposed reintroduction of a number of the sillier elements that are missing from Ground Zeroes, like supernatural bosses or the series trademark cardboard box. It will require a light touch, and a misstep could lead to a game that is uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.
Ground Zeroes sticks to the classic Metal Gear stealth gameplay, which mostly remains unchanged but has been updated and improved in a number of ways. The camouflage system in Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4 is gone, and in its place is an emphasis on light and shadow. Enemies are significantly more observant than they were in previous games, and they can and will notice Snake if he's out of cover and in a sliver of light. On the other hand, a strong amount of shadow can keep him hidden, even if they're right on top of him. The initial mission takes place in a nonstop rainstorm, which offers some protection from enemies, and later missions use bright daylight to leave you at a disadvantage. Guards also have a better grasp of when something is wrong. You can't depend on your tranquilizer gun to get you through the level unnoticed anymore, and ghosting enemies instead of taking them out is a more viable tactic.
Snake is about as mobile as ever. He can climb, crawl, shimmy and otherwise sneak through all kinds of dangerous areas. Camp Omega is designed to reward you for utilizing unusual methods to sneak around. You can enter heavily guarded areas in a truck, sneak through drainage canals, knock out enemies and go through side doors, scale walls, and many other methods. Enemies can be knocked out and extracted from the area by summoning a helicopter to cart them away from the area.
He retains the ability to CQC enemies, interrogate them for information, and hold them up with his gun, and he also has lethal and nonlethal countermeasures to take down enemies. Knocking out an enemy disables him for a short period of time, and the only way to keep him down is to use a tranq gun. On the other hand, holding up or choking an enemy keeps him out of action almost indefinitely — unless another guard finds him. The biggest change to stealth is the addition of the Reflex Shot. If you're caught by a guard, you have a short period of "slow time" to shoot them. Disabling or killing the enemy before the slow time ends prevents him from alerting other guards and doesn't count as being caught on the end-of-mission ranking. You're given a higher score for never needing Reflex Shot in the first place.
The biggest change to the game is that running-and-gunning is a much more viable tactic. The guard AI has been improved enough that it is easy to get caught and harder to stay out of sight. Ducking behind cover and having a firefight with foes is pretty easy due to the refined control scheme and the introduction of a more modern-style regenerating health system. Snake isn't superman. He can still be taken down easily by a barrage of bullets, but he can fight his way through an alert.
However, this tactic effectively ruins your end-of-mission score. It's possible to take on most of the missions in Ground Zeroes is an unstealthy manner, but every kill, alert and retry hurts your score. So running-and-gunning is only viable if you don't mind getting low ranks at the end of the mission. This is pretty much how Metal Gear has always worked, aside from stealth mechanics and concepts being better fleshed out than the shooting aspects. Ground Zeroes brings them more into parity, and it's mostly for the best. It offers players more options and more variety while still enforcing the series' trademark no-kill/minimal-combat design.
The game is divided into a Main Mission and Side Ops. The latter isn't available until you've finished the main mission at least once. The PlayStation versions of Ground Zeroes include a special unlockable "Déjà vu" mission with references to previous Metal Gear games. The Xbox versions contain a special Snatcher-themed mission with Raiden from Metal Gear Rising. Each mission can be replayed as often as you want, and finishing a mission once unlocks extra weapons and items to be used in that mission in future replays. The various Side Ops task you with rescuing hostages, assassinating enemy higher-ups, and disabling enemy weaponry. None is particularly complex but can be finished in a few different ways each time.
Ground Zeroes is tough to buy at $30. There's a lot of content, but it really depends on you being a big enough Metal Gear fan to replay a single area over and over again in an attempt to get a high score and find unlockables. It's not impossible to get your money's worth from the game. Each mission is replayable enough that someone who enjoyed the gameplay could easily squeeze eight hours from the game by finding all the different ways to go about the missions or achieve the highest rank on each stage.
If you enjoyed Metal Gear for the plot, boss battles, variety of set pieces, or any other iconic elements, Ground Zeroes is exactly what you feared: an extended demo. However, other demos of this type exist. Dead Rising 2: Case Zero comes to mind, and it contained an exclusive area, a boss fight, and some content and plot, but it was offered at a fraction of the price. Even as an excellent demo of the gameplay, Ground Zeroes doesn't justify its price tag unless you enjoy replaying the same content in different ways.
Ground Zeroes is probably the most next-generation-looking game I've seen thus far, which is pretty remarkable for a title that's being developed simultaneously for the last-generation systems. The PS4 version runs like a dream, with no noticeable frame rate drops or problems, and it features absolutely staggeringly well-animated character models. The game looks noticeably better in the rainy and dark Main Mission than the brightly lit side missions. There wasn't enough done with light and darkness in the side missions compared to the well-crafted main mission, and it was a slight disappointment. The voice acting is mostly solid. The hardest thing to get used to is Kiefer Sutherland's version of Big Boss. He isn't poorly acted, but after an entire franchise of David Hayter, it feels distracting to not hear that familiar growl from the character, especially when most of the other voice actors remain unchanged.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is an excellent first taste of the gameplay we can expect in the upcoming Phantom Pain. It's well designed, well tuned, and a lot of fun to play, but the general game design and lack of content make it feel like an extended demo rather than a full game. Viewed from that perspective, the $30 price tag is really steep. Die-hard Metal Gear fans and those who've replayed the games over and over to achieve Big Boss rankings will probably get their money's worth. Everyone else would be better off waiting for an inevitable sale. There's just not enough here for the average player to get his $30 worth.
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