It’s been nearly two months since Hideo Kojima let the world get a taste of Metal Gear Solid V with the “prequel” entitled Ground Zeroes; the full game, The Phantom Pain, does not yet have a solid release window. According to Kojima, the intention of Ground Zeroes is to introduce players to the new mechanics involved in the larger game, so that the transition isn’t as jarring. There was also a lot more involved – a misleading trailer from a non-existent company overseen by a fake president who was just Kojima in a wig – but we’ll put a pin in that for now.

The short version, pun intended, is that news broke a few weeks before Ground Zeroes’ release that it was exceptionally brief. As in “one ninety-minute main mission and a few side objectives” brief; the resulting Internet rage actually caused publisher Konami to drop the price on most editions by $10. Even worse, a player in possession of an early copy of the game reported he had beaten the core mission in just 10 minutes. Suddenly, the new $30 price still seemed gratuitous to the community… of players who had not yet played the game for themselves.

I apologize, because this is a bit extraneous, but here’s the thing: I paid $50 for Zone of the Enders on PlayStation 2 the day it came out, and it turned out to be a three-hour semi-interaction anime about giant robots. Now that I think about it, the first Z.O.E. was basically “Ground Zeroes” for the far more engaging (and longer) Z.O.E. The Second Runner, which may be my all-time favorite PS2 game. That being said, I never really regretted the purchase, because it included a demo for Metal Gear Solid 2; a demo that could be completed in around five minutes once you knew the layout.

I knew the layout very, very well by the time I was done with that demo, which I played frequently right up until the day MGS 2 was released.  Much like Ground Zeroes, this demo was the first taste of MGS on an entirely new console generation, with all new mechanics to get familiar with; I can’t tell you how many guards I tranquilized and then dropped over things just to see how far they could fall before the game decided it was a fatal distance.


Keeping that in mind, I have been more than pleased with what Ground Zeroes beings to the table; the main mission offers just enough story to draw you in, the new mechanics on display completely revitalize certain aspects of MGS, and the optional missions are far more worthwhile than any of the reviews indicated. Sure, if you go in expecting a full MGS game, the result would be disappointing; I’ve paid more money for less entertainment, though, and anyone who keeps track of gaming in general – and MGS in particular – has no business claiming they were caught off-guard by the final product.

The experience opens with a Kojima-standard cutscene, which introduces players to some of the characters, shows off the layout of the Guantanamo-inspired outpost, and establishes what Big Boss is doing there. The scene is rendered with the in-game engine, and I am not exaggerating when I say that this is THE single best-looking video game I have ever seen, and probably the best digitally-generated world on top of that.

Imagine Pixar decided to make a movie about black ops tactical infiltration set in a US prison camp in 1975, at midnight in the middle of a rainstorm. Now make that movie an interactive experience, add slightly more violence than Pixar usually goes for, throw in torture and implications of rape, and you have Ground Zeroes. I say this as a compliment to all aspects of the game, by the way, as I have no doubt the minds at Pixar could tell an unbelievably engrossing story like this one if they were so inclined.

Big Boss finds himself at this ambiguously-administrated facility in order to rescue two members of his private military corporation Soldiers Without Borders. If that sounds too routine for Metal Gear, these two prisoners happen to both be child soldiers; a thirteen-year-old boy named Chico, and a twenty-something girl named Paz. I realize “twenty-something” may not register with some people as “child soldier,” but past games have revealed that Paz was trained to be an espionage agent from her childhood.


The mission open with Boss – now voiced and motion-rendered by Kiefer Sutherland instead of David Hayter, for better or worse – on the outskirts of the camp. Players are tasked with gathering intel to discover where the two captives are held, locating them, and then getting each to one of several rendezvous points for extraction via helicopter. In keeping with the more open-world design for MGS V, there are from more routes and infiltration options than its mostly linear predecessors.

The first thing that jumped out at me was the new lighting engine on display, and not just in a superficial capacity; instead of clearly defined areas of “light” to avoid and “dark” to hide in, every light source give off realistic rays that merge, overlap, and shift dynamically as you move through the base. Lights can be switched off, shot out, or even used to temporarily blind guards; all of these things can also attract attention, though, and so should be used sparingly.

The artificial intelligence on display is ground-breaking, both for the Metal Gear series and stealth games in general. While guards still have general routes, the A-to-B-to-A patrols are a thing of the past. Guards will wander off for a smoke, get distracted, interact with one another, and even doze off or succumb to coughing fits. They also have much more realistic reactions to odd sights or sounds: Move too quickly and loudly past a guard, and he will search the area with his flashlight after reporting to HQ; get spotted dead-to-rights by someone working a spotlight, though, and the base is going into full alert.

At least, it probably is, unless you take advantage of the new “reflex” system when you get spotted. In past MGS games, the level of a guards awareness was indicated by punctuation marks over their head; the red exclamation point – and accompanying music sting – from the first MGS has long been a staple of gaming culture. Later games introduced the ability to shoot the mark and daze the guard, or take him out before he could yell, radio, or fire to alert others.

In Ground Zeroes, getting spotted no longer comes with an assault from grammatical symbols, but time does slow down as the camera swings toward the source of the danger. If you can stun, silence, or kill the source of the alert, the base HQ won’t immediately be alerted to your presence. Of course, if the guard had previously reported unusual activity, or was tasked with reporting in at certain intervals, or was supposed to show up to help transport a prisoner ten minutes after you took him out, HQ may eventually catch on and send someone to investigate.


These mechanics are important because they go far beyond simply making the player work harder to get in and out undetected. As stated earlier, this is an open-ended game, and there is very little hand-holding with regards to the location of the prisoners, let alone the best way to rescue and extract each of them. The map on your facetiously named “iDroid” is exceptionally accurate, but doesn’t just point out objectives. Like in MGS 3, the Soliton radar from chronologically later games hasn’t been invented yet, and players must use their binoculars to mark guards, and keep track of surroundings with Boss’s ability to focus his senses when not moving. The binoculars also have a directional microphone, which can be used to eavesdrop on conversations, or just marvel at the sound design.

I managed to get Chico extracted without real issue, but getting to Paz was a much different story; Chico tells you she’s been tortured to death, and gives you a rather disturbing cassette tape as evidence. Master Miller, who has been your radio contact for the mission, advises Boss that even if Paz is dead, her body needs to be recovered. The tape proves useful in this regard, as Chico left it recording when he was taken to see her body, and you can follow the audio cues to track her location in the base.

The clues provide enough information to follow the trail to the base’s administrative and utility buildings, but from there it’s up to the player to either hunt through the area or interrogate soldiers for the exact location. I opted for the former, because I had no detections or alerts yet, and it proved to be an undoing of sorts. I was actually in exactly the right place, but got spotted, and so reloaded a checkpoint. Unfortunately, checkpoints take you back to a pre-determined place on the map, and reset other assets as well; I ended up inside the base, but in a complete different area, and with several guards in different positions than before.

The end result was that I spent the next half-hour carefully picking my way through the most heavily-guarded locations I had yet encountered, only to end up where I started the mission. Once I pieced together what had happened, and actually started using the map correctly, I was able to navigate back to the right place. Reloading the checkpoint turned out to be a moot point, because I managed to alert every last guard in the base as we tried to make our escape.


Paz isn’t dead, turns out, but needs to be carried to a safe rendezvous with the chopper. She is badly injured, physically and mentally, to the point where moving too quickly causes her to cry out in pain; she also sometimes lets out bursts of fear or confusion, which can alert guards to your presence. Regardless of what you do, they eventually discover she is missing, and sound the alarm. I made things worse by misunderstanding an order to “go ahead and call it the chopper,” thinking Miller meant to call it in at our current location. It was immediately shot down, time and again, until I realized he meant to call it to a safe location where it could be waiting for a quick exit.

The scenes that follow your escape can’t be described here, not with any real impact, and I wouldn’t spoil them anyway. Suffice to say I cannot wait for The Phantom Pain, whenever that might arrive. Overall, doing the main mission for the first time took me maybe two hours, and I ended up with an understandably crappy rating. Finishing the main mission unlocks five side missions – six, actually, now that each console-exclusive mission has been made available for free on all platforms – all of which take place at the same base, but alter the circumstances significantly.

I tried several of these missions the first week I had the game, and then put Ground Zeroes to the side as other things came to the forefront. During this time, Wildgrube managed to procure a copy of the MGS HD Collection on 360, and on my advice tried starting MGS 3. He hated it, and not without reason; stealth gameplay has come a long way since 2004, and the controls had been originally optimized for the PS2. Thankfully, he managed to get a copy of Ground Zeroes for himself thereafter, and loved every second of it, to the point where he actually dug in and played the side missions with enthusiasm. Talking to him got me back into it, and I am happier for it.


Most of the reviews passed off these missions as retreads of the main event, just with different time-of-day lighting effects and some tweaks to objectives and infiltration methods. While a couple of the missions do have a “get in, do this, get out” theme, the variety is far and away more worthwhile than I expected. The changes to time of day make an enormous difference, as sneaking in broad daylight becomes an exercise in patience and awareness far beyond the nighttime missions. These side objectives also give the team to show off even more of the open-ended nature of the game.

One of the side missions tasks you with disabling at least three anti-air emplacements so that an aerial attack on the base can be executed. The emplacements are marked from the start, and fairly easy to locate with your binoculars; finding explosives to eliminate them is your true task, and once again involves careful observation, exploration, and even interrogation. My personal favorite side mission eschews stealth completely, and tasks Boss with using a high-powered rifle to provide covering fire for an intelligence asset trying to make his escape from the base.

While I have greatly enjoyed my time with the game, especially after Erich renewed my interest, I can say flat-out that this is not an experience for everyone.  I can even admit that, if I were not the MGS fan I am then the price-to-play ratio would be ghastly. If you’re interested in seeing what changes have been made to the formula, or haven’t ever gotten into the series, I might suggest borrowing a copy from a friend. I won’t make the mistake of broadly suggesting this to Splinter Cell fans, for the same reason I wouldn’t suggest watching The French Connection just because someone says they like 24.

Overall, I’m very glad I picked up Ground Zeroes, and further pleased that it helped sway someone new to the Metal Gear Solid team. I will be very interested to see whether or not this section is included with The Phantom Pain, or if Kojima goes through with having them be two separate-yet-connected titles. My favorite MGS title is still Snake Eater, and the chance to once again play as Big Boss excites me to no end. The Phantom Pain is purportedly ambitious almost to a fault, but even if Kojima “only” gives us a standard-length Metal Gear game using this engine, the series will still stand head-and-shoulders above everything else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *