The overriding question that continues to hang over Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is whether it can possible justify its price tag. On that front, I’m torn, as it really depends on the kind of player and how deeply invested in the series you are.
It’s something which hinges on a few points, one of which is the plot, set after the events of Peace Walker. Though there is a short written summary of the events from Metal Gear Solid 3 and Peace Walker, getting the most out of the story will require you to have played those games, so that you already know the characters and the events that led to this point.
In truth, the tightened scope of Ground Zeroes helps it to stand on its own. It’s bookended by some lenghty but impressively scripted and produced cutscenes, introducing XOF, Skull Face – who doesn’t appear outside of the cutscene – and some returning characters in the process, but even taking those into account, I finished the main mission in around 90 minutes. It is literally just the prologue and introduction to the grander scale of the upcoming Phantom Pain, setting events in motion for the plot of that game.
You take control of Big Boss – now jarringly voiced by Keifer Sutherland – on the edge of Camp Omega, a coastal US facility being run by the XOF organisation on the tip of Cuba. With Miller lending tactical support, he is tasked with a rescue mission that manages to pack several rather punchy twists within such a compact plot.
It all takes place within this sandbox military base and it’s really the ability infiltrate and explore this as you see fit which helps to elevate the game beyond the headline grabbing length of the main mission. Yes, you can just sneak through, going directly from one objective to another, but the real joy will come using this area as your personal playground.
With such a large area, there are a lot of watch towers with search lights, guards and patrols to evade, but it also opens up the possibilities, with multiple routes and options for getting from one place to another. It really lets you play it how you want, whether it’s trying to pass through completely undetected or being more combative in your approach. Similarly, exploration can reward you with more equipment and weaponry, but isn’t strictly necessary for completion.
I personally found it quite difficult to do that with pure stealth and was spotted several times when I was caught out by rather attentive guards or had worked my way into a tricky situation. I also wasn’t that great at hiding bodies.
Part of that is down to some fairly minor but important changes to the gameplay. Checking your map via the iDROID – just one example some thinly veiled modern day references – in game won’t pause the action and you no longer have a form of radar system but have to scout a situation and mark enemies with binoculars. As a consequence, there’s an emphasis on observing and scouting areas thoroughly and it’s easier to get caught by someone you didn’t see beforehand.
Having been spotted leads to the familiar fight or flight decision, the choice between shooting back or running off to a secluded hiding place for the alertness levels to decrease. However, it unintentionally led me to discover that you can essentially just run through the map with impunity, at least on normal difficulty.
You won’t be able to trigger certain objectives when guards are alerted, but feel free to break out a rocket launcher or hop into a vacant APC for a deliriously bombastic exfiltration.
It often comes down to your own self restraint and skill level or whether you’re chasing a high score and rating at the end of the level, but the side missions that you unlock after the main story mission do sometimes highlight a more intentional use of direct force.
Each side mission reuses the Camp Omega map, but shifts the time of day to give a very different feel and style to the game and stand in stark contrast to the rainy darkness of the main mission. It’s blazing sunshine as you go in to plant a series of explosives on some AA guns, or a beautiful dusk as you fly around the base in a helicopter and try to escort an operative to a suitable extraction zone. The latter example gets particularly messy.
For every side mission, there’s another small nugget of information that hints to the story of Phantom Pain, as well as collectibles and unlockable weapons that you can use to put another spin on proceedings. Then there’s the hard difficulty, which drastically ramps up how easily you can be detected by enemies and reduces the amount of damage you can take.
The real problem is that after a few hours, it’s up to you to go and search for the value in this standalone release. That’s where the personal investment in the franchise comes into play, whether you will find yourself returning to the game time and again to play in that sandbox environment.
Splitting Ground Zeroes back into a separate release was always going to be contentious. Thankfully, there is a lot more gameplay and depth than the early reports of the main mission’s length suggested and it’s full of potential for exploration, fan service and Kojima’s particular brand of hackneyed allegories.
Unfortunately, there is still too little primary content to justify the £29.99 price tag or even the £19.99 digital pricing for PS3/360, so I can’t recommend this to anyone but a die hard MGS fan.
This review is based off time with the game at a dedicated review event.
Version tested: PS4