"At first, the game's brevity and lack of resolution made me question why it was released as a standalone title. But as I played, I came to realize that despite adding elements from the popular shooters of the moment, this game is actually a throwback to an older kind of game design."
You've just methodically crawled your way along the muddy path by the long winding road, to the location where your first target is being kept prisoner, stopping in the bushes whenever a vehicle drove by or a searchlight pointed in your direction. You've carefully observed as many guards as you could through your binoculars, and listened for any information you could glean from their conversations with your directional microphone.
The landing zone for the helicopter you'll need to call in to extract the target is an ideal location. You've checked it out. You know how long it will take you to carry the prisoner there from his cell. You've been watching the guards by the gate. You're going to need to pick the lock there. You equip your tranquilizer gun. Everything you've worked for now comes down to a small handful of high-stakes headshots that you hope will allow you to put the guards to sleep quickly and quietly.
Alternatively, you've shot your way to that gate, relying on the slow motion aiming provided by “reflex mode” and supplemented by your fast health regeneration. You've left a trail of dead bodies, up to and including the guards at the gate, and now you're going to pick the lock before the enemy reinforcements arrive.
In the first scenario, you are perhaps 30-45 minutes into Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. In the second, perhaps only 10 minutes. There is an incredible experience to be found here, but you have to want it.
The game breaking reflex mode, which provides a period of slow motion action whenever you are spotted so that you have a brief opportunity to silently disable the guard who found you, can be turned off in the options menu. What cannot be disabled is the fast health regeneration which, unlike previous games in the series, only requires a few seconds to fully recover you after a damaging firefight.
If you choose to play Ground Zeroes like you would any other shooter, even without reflex mode abuse, the main mission is easily beatable in under a half-hour. But if you choose to play it as a Metal Gear game, a first playthrough should provide you with at least two hours of tense, expertly crafted stealth action.
Gameplay isn't the only area that has seen big changes. The tone of the story has shifted, as well. The story isn't merely dark; it's blacker than black. Even the most hardened gamer will likely cringe at the gruesome nature of the ending cutscene. In the post game, carefully completing side missions and exploring the area will give you access to cassette tapes depicting an audio drama of heartbreaking torture and sexual violence. Furthermore, there isn't a sci-fi or fantasy element to be found, save a few recordings referencing events from Peace Walker, and Big Boss's “iDroid” device, which can display a holographic map in addition to more mundane functions. Lastly, Kiefer Sutherland is now the voice of Big Boss. Some of his lines seem to have the wrong emphasis, as if the context was not explained well when he was recording, but otherwise he does a fine job. The other voice actors’ performances range from good to excellent, especially considering some of the extreme subject matter.
It's important to remember that story-wise this is just a beginning, a first chapter for the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and that by sending Big Boss to Hell director Hideo Kojima is setting up the player for meaningful experiences of struggle and triumph in the next game. Still, it can be tough to accept all that happens, and all that does not happen, over the course of Ground Zeroes.
At first, the game's brevity and lack of resolution made me question why it was released as a standalone title. But as I played, I came to realize that despite adding elements from the popular shooters of the moment, this game is actually a throwback to an older kind of game design.
This is a game meant to be played and replayed. It wants you to try new things. What happens if you commandeer that vehicle you found? What happens if you hide in the back of it instead? Where will you find yourself when it arrives at its destination? What if you ignore the vehicle and instead follow that soldier slowly walking diagonally across the map? Almost any gameplay choice you can think to make has a satisfying, though not always positive, outcome. Sometimes, you may have an almost perfect silent infiltration mission end in a heart stopping, action movie-like shootout. Or you may have quietly taken out all your resistance and hidden the bodies on your way to your objectives, leaving a clear path to your final goal. Regardless of what happened in previous playthroughs you will want to see the other possible permutations.
To anyone who fondly remembers playing an 8 or 16-bit title until you could clear it in an hour on hard mode without losing a life, the philosophy behind Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes should feel familiar. The straightforward Story mode provides only the first fraction of gameplay. The rest, the real meat of the game, comes with the player's willingness to explore, to challenge, to know what's around every corner.
You probably know what kind of gamer you are. If you like to play through a game's story a single time and then leave it alone, this Metal Gear is not worth the price of admission. But if you enjoy challenging yourself, this tantalizing glimpse at the future of the series is something you will want to experience again and again.
Staff review by Jeremy Davis (March 24, 2014)
Jeremy plays video games, sometimes.
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