Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes takes place just a few months after the events of Peace Walker, the last previously released game in the series. Two characters prevalent in that game’s events, Paz (presumed dead) and Chico, have been captured and taken to an off-the-books American prison site called Camp Omega. Snake (really Big Boss, since this takes place in the older fiction) receives a distress call from Chico and plans to infiltrate the base, determined to rescue both Paz and Chico. Due to an important nuclear inspection of Mother Base, Snake must undertake this mission quickly and quietly, with no backup or further support.
There really isn’t a lot to the story in Ground Zeroes: in fact, there’s shockingly little. Aside from the beginning and end cutscenes, all the “plot” in the game just serves to tell you where to go and what to do on the base. Just as things start to get interesting at the tail end, it’s already over. It’s extremely thin, serving only to bridge the rather small gap between events in Peace Walker and those upcoming in Phantom Pain. I was reminded of an old shareware game or those demos that would play a trailer after you finished it (which Ground Zeroes also does, funny enough), trying to get you to buy the full game. It feels like the small story was just an excuse to make the game in the first place, trying to hook players before releasing the actual game later on.
The choice of characters, particularly the two from the previous game, used in the story also seems a bit strange. I feel it’s safe to say that a large portion of fairly diehard fans of the MGS series (myself included) didn’t bother to play Peace Walker, likely due to the fact that it was on the PSP originally and because it never sounded crucial to the fiction. Paz and Chico aren’t really that important to the series–at least at this point in time–so it makes me wonder why they needed to be included at all. It seems like nothing would have been lost in just making a couple throwaway, nondescript characters as prisoners with necessary information to push these events forward. As it stands in the game, it’s a very small callback with a poor resolution for fans of those characters: a lose-lose scenario.
It’s also worth noting that there is a bit of unpleasant material found in Ground Zeroes. Both Paz and Chico are tortured before Snake can come to rescue them, and there are multiple points where you can hear some of this for yourself. Very little of this is actually found in the main story; instead, it is relegated to the optional bits of story, found in various cassette tapes recorded by Chico during his imprisonment. Since these are all audio with no visuals, you can only infer what is happening. Still, it’s plain to hear that there is beating, intense mutilation, and even sexual abuse happening in these scenes.
For some people, this may go a bit too far, prompting the question of why the inclusion of these scenes is even necessary: isn’t knowing that Paz and Chico were tortured enough? I can, however, see potential value in this information, particularly in regards to the new villain introduced here, Skull Face. Knowing the distance he will go in his torture shows just how determined, or fucked-up, he really is. It could be a really important character-building moment that has relevance later on in Phantom Pain–or it could just be a shocking moment included to titillate. I feel an argument can be made for it either way but dismissing it outright for its shocking nature is a bit too kneejerk. It doesn’t really bother me, although I could see it being pointless in the long run. In the end, of course, your opinion of these scenes will come down to how they impact you in the moment. For those squeamish, however, I advise avoiding the tapes entirely.
Whereas the story doesn’t do much to impress, the gameplay of Ground Zeroes is remarkably solid, especially for a game series that has always felt a bit clunky. Finally, modern controls have come to the series and it feels fantastic. It operates much like you would expect a typical third-person shooter, removing all of the finger-acrobatics that the old systems required. Two new additions that are particularly noteworthy are the binoculars that allow you to mark enemies for easy tracking and a moment of slowdown that occurs if you are spotted, allowing you quickly down the enemy who just spotted you to prevent him from sounding an alert.
I had a blast playing this game, no matter how I tackled a situation. Sneaking around is made easy thanks to the great accuracy of the guns over range, the aforementioned slowdown feature to prevent instant alerts from unseen enemies, the ability to run while crouching (finally!), and increased speed in moving/hiding downed enemies. When a firefight breaks out, dealing with the vast number of enemies is easy thanks to tight aiming controls and a smart cover system. It just feels good to play, in that way that’s hard to describe but you understand the second you sit down and play it for yourself. Knowing that Phantom Pain will play just like this makes me that much more excited to play it next year.
Because I enjoyed playing the game so much, it’s really a bummer that the content in Ground Zeroes is so thin. There’s a decent amount to do–the main mission, a handful of side missions with new objectives, and two silly bonus missions–but it all feels a bit repetitive. Part of this likely stems from it all taking place on the same sizeable but limited landmass, while part of it stems from the very meager amount of story included throughout. Once you complete a mission, there isn’t much incentive to go back. Both a harder difficulty and trials, challenges that have you doing things like marking all the enemies in the base as quickly as you can, unlock once you finish a mission once, but these still have you playing the same handful of missions again and again. Furthermore, you don’t unlock anything of value for completing these extra bits, making them rather pointless. Even for how much I enjoyed the act of playing Ground Zeroes, I couldn’t help but get bored after just a handful of hours.
There are, however, a few collectibles found around the base to stretch the game’s length. These come in the form of XOF patches, which unlock the bonus missions after finding all 9, and the cassette tapes I mentioned above, which include some additional story information. These are remarkably hard to find, due to their tiny appearance in-game and the size of the base, and are scattered throughout the various missions; collecting them all without a guide was a bit too much of a chore for me. These can add a few hours to your playtime but can also be a bit annoying to track down. I do recommend at least finding the patches, since the bonus missions are quite enjoyable to see at least once.
Finally, I don’t think I can end this review without talking a bit about the new voice for Big Boss, Kiefer Sutherland. I will say that the voice seemed rather inoffensive–different, of course, but inoffensive–in my time with the game, perfectly suited to the character of Big Boss. Personally, I always found it a bit weird that they didn’t change the voice in MGS3, instead opting to use David Hayter’s iconic voice even though it was a different character. This new voice does feel a bit more natural for Big Boss; however, there really isn’t enough here to make a final verdict. Sutherland doesn’t have a ton of speaking lines, and I couldn’t really get a handle on how exactly I felt about it. We’ll have to wait and see how it turns out in Phantom Pain.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a weird game. It feels like a tech demo being sold to fans, getting them used to the new systems and making the small bridge in story needed to set up the next game. While I think the gameplay is absolutely fantastic and can’t wait to spend more time controlling it, I was a little bummed at just how thin the content is in scope. It doesn’t feel worth it, at least not for the full price tag. I paid under $20 for it, which I feel is the sweet spot for this product. If you want just a taste of the MGS craziness, and aren’t annoyed by the whole thing just being setup for the actual game, give it a shot. Just don’t pay $30 for it.