Few franchises are spoken about in more hushed, reverent tones than those who bow at the altar of Hideo Kojima and what he’s accomplished in terms of storytelling and gameplay in the “Metal Gear Solid” series. And so the arrival of “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” on the PlayStation 4 should be a momentous, earth-shattering event. It should be the justification for the entire system; a machine that has had great difficulty building a fan base and creating a library of must-play games. At their best, the PS4 titles so far have been greeted with “sure, that’s not BAD”. Titles like “Infamous: Second Son” and “Knack” are entertaining while “Battlefield 4” and “Call of Duty: Ghosts” look great on the new system but we STILL need that breakthrough game. “Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes” isn’t it.
Why not? Well, while there’s a lot to like here, it’s undeniably an unsatisfying experience. Even with a high degree of exploration or failure that leads to checkpoint reboots, “Ground Zeroes” feels like a glorified demo. It is essentially an appetizer to the full meal of “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” (which will be released later this year and combine with this title to make a complete game). It introduces fans of the series to a slightly tweaked gameplay style, sets the table for some interesting narrative choices, and introduces a stronger than ever sense of authorship in the franchise. You can really create your own approach to what’s in “Ground Zeroes,” which should make for an amazing experience when it’s been expanded into an actual game in “Phantom Pain.” Until then, $30 for 90-120 minutes of gameplay, cut scenes included, is asking a lot, even for those who adore this series and even when one considers its strengths. Priced at ten bucks and download only? Different story. Marketed as a game on shelves next to 25-hour-plus experiences? It creates a different threshold of expectations that this game can’t meet. Let’s just put it this way—“Ground Zeroes” is so short that the end credits are a double-digit percentage of the entire experience.
And yet what is here is good to great. I enjoyed every minute of it, more than my typical “MGS” experience (you should know that this has never been a franchise that worked magic on me the way it does for millions). In a direct follow-up to the 2010 PSP game, “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker,” it is 1975 and Snake (now voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) has to infiltrate a Cuban prison camp called Camp Omega to rescue Cipher agent Paz Ortega Andrade and Sandinista child soldier Chico. It is essentially a two-mission game. Find Chico and get him to safety. Find Paz and get him to safety. Roll credits. What “Ground Zeroes” accomplishes is that it sets the stage for “Phantom Pain,” introducing you to what “MGS” will look like on the PS4 along with a few gameplay tweaks and alterations. And so it builds anticipation for “Phantom Pain” magnificently. I can’t wait to play it. However, in that sense it almost makes this a tutorial or demo more than a complete experience.
There is an amazing sense of authorship in “Ground Zeroes”. To get a sense of it, I played around with how I could approach my rescue mission with multiple checkpoint restarts. It never played the same way twice. Of course, the encouraged approach is stealth. Sneak up behind the enemy, grab them, interrogate them, and subdue them. There is a way through “Ground Zeroes” without the enemy ever knowing you were even there. You can also blow some bad guys up. A few times when I was spotted, I went “CoD”, destroying enemies with grenades and gunfire, fleeing to safety, and waiting for the alarms to die down. I loved the sense of control; the mission was mine to control. And seeing that deep sense of open-world exploration—even the landing sites for my extractions were up to me—in a longer, more complex game has me incredibly excited for “Phantom Pain”. (And, to be fair, side ops missions open after the game is completed, adding to the short running time.)
It should also look amazing because “Ground Zeroes” really takes advantage of PS4 technology. Snake moves smoothly and seamlessly through the environments and cut scenes look gorgeous. Voice acting and score are strong throughout as well. As expected, it’s technically strong throughout.
“Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes” is a fantastic opening chapter to a longer game and I understand Kojima and Konami’s decision to release it early to build excitement for “The Phantom Pain”. It worked for me. As a marketing tool. As a game? Not so much.