In late 1996, Tobal No. 1 was one of the hottest games around because it had the one thing everyone wanted -- the Final Fantasy VII demo.
A friend of mine picked it up shortly after launch and we all got together to ooh and ahh over the summons and high level magic while the actual game sat forgotten. It was the perfect appetizer for Final Fantasy, and an even better way for Square to make a few bucks off an otherwise unremarkable release.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is 2014's answer to those old demos, the twist being that Ground Zeroes is being offered as a standalone release rather than a pack-in with a middling fighter. Despite its price point -- around $30 -- it's much closer in spirit to the old Final Fantasy demo than similar efforts like Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. Being little more than a single mission, Ground Zeroes exists primarily to show off the new Fox Engine, let players mess around a bit with some of the new features like the iDroid, and get a taste of what's to come. It succeeds thanks to its open-ended design and wide variety of bonus objectives, but it's still a stretch to call it an honest-to-goodness game.
The entirety of Ground Zeroes is set amid a rainstorm at Omega Base -- a military installation faintly reminiscent of the original game's Shadow Moses complex. Divided between the sea cliffs, a gravel pit, outdoor prison cages, a helipad, and a boiler room, Omega Base is less a base than a sandbox to play around with Snake's new toys. Left to my own devices, I ended up sneaking over to the APC parked near the prison complex and wandering off to run over guards and basically make a nuisance of myself. Afterward, I spent a long time creeping around the base looking for alternate entrances and exits while tranquilizing guards and dragging them over to the cliffs.
Messing around in Omega Base's sandbox is the real pleasure of Ground Zeroes, and easily the biggest thing that it gets right. There are multiple ways to get into the complex, from wandering over the nearby cliffs to sneaking in through the gate, and much to do once you're inside. In addition to the APC, there are XOF patches scattered about that can be collected to unlock version-exclusive content, and completing the story mission unlocks new weapons like the sniper rifle. In a lot of ways it plays like a smaller scale version of Grand Theft Auto, and though it doesn't last too long, trolling guards with the APC is a fun way to while away the afternoon.
Much as I enjoy Metal Gear Solid's freeform approach to stealth though, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the guards are frankly dumber than a sack of hammers. They're attentive enough when on patrol, but in the midst of an alarm they prefer to charge straight ahead without looking to the left or right while I sit in nearly plain sight around the corner. They're also deaf as well as blind, even failing to hear Paz as she cried out and mumbled "Pain is illusion" during my escape attempt. In many ways, the guards in Ground Zeroes bring me back to the days of the original Metal Gear Solid, where the "Next-Generation Special Forces" had sight cones and blithely returned to their patrol routes even after having the crap beaten out of them.
I'm not going to mince words here: This is a real problem. There was a time when silly guard AI was almost forgivable, but that time has long since passed. Beautiful as it might be, the goofy guards make Ground Zeroes feel almost like a PlayStation 2 game at times. I really hope that Kojima Productions focus their resources on improving the guard AI for the Phantom Pain, because right now, it's just not cutting it. As for the rest of the gameplay, there are some good ideas and some bad ideas. I like that Ground Zeroes goes into slow-mo when an alarm sounds to give me a chance to take out the guard, allowing me to cancel the alert at the expense of having to shoot to kill. I'm iffier on the context-sensitive cover mechanics, which can make peeking around a corner feel finicky during tense moments. The interrogation mechanics feel like business as usual--grab a guard and make them give up information or get them to call their buddies over before putting them to sleep.
In the end, I suppose this is all par for the course. Metal Gear Solid has always been a series that is simultaneously innovative and backward. That this trend is likely to continue with the Phantom Pain isn't exactly breaking news. But there are times where I swear that Metal Gear Solid is being willfully obtuse. Why make the Y/Triangle the button for climbing? Why not let me press a button to get into cover? There are so many little things -- AI, controls, whatever -- that would make Metal Gear Solid a much better experience if they were addressed. But I suppose the more things change, the more they stay the same.
All told, Ground Zeroes lasts about 90 minutes, give or take the unlockable operations that are opened up after the main mission and a handful of bonus objectives like rescuing the nameless, faceless prisoners surrounding one of the targets. It ends on a cliffhanger, wrapping up with the usual post-credits conversation and a trailer for the Phantom Pain, which makes Ground Zeroes come off as something of an extended advertisement rather than a standalone product.
As an appetizer though, it does its job. The story, brief as it is, has its share of shocking (and gruesome) moments, which are made all the more powerful if you've previously played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The mission itself likewise does a good job of taking you all over Omega Base and forcing you to puzzle out prisoner locations before appropriately ending with a bang.
It's a decent little package, and I enjoyed hunting assassins and blowing up AA batteries in the subsequent side missions, despite my slight disappointment at their reusing the Omega Base setting. But though there was plenty more to unlock, I didn't really feel like playing through the complete mission a second time. Instead, I ended up tooling around the base a bit more, trying out the new guns, and putting it away. In a way, Ground Zeroes has done its job a little too well. With my appetite whetted, I'm definitely ready for more Metal Gear Solid. But I think I'm done with the appetizer. Time to bring on the main course.
The Nitty Gritty
- Visuals: The Fox Engine really shines in Ground Zeroes. Running at a rock solid framerate, both its character models and environments look terrific. The lighting is especially impressive; whether in the diffuse beams of the spotlights or the glare of headlights, it really stands out as a next-gen effort.
- Sound: Ground Zeroes' sound is typically excellent. The reverb-heavy music is used sparingly; but when it puts in an appearance, it does its part to put an exclamation mark on the action. The sound effects are likewise excellent, particularly the alarms and the guard chatter, which reinforce the feeling of danger when Snake is spotted.
- Interface: As with most Metal Gear Solid games, Ground Zeroes' interface is too clever by half. The action buttons, which can't be remapped, are all pretty strange for a third-person shooter, which oddities including O/B being used to reload and Triangle/Y being used for context-sensitive actions. In addition, the context-sensitive cover is a little too finicky at times. I eventually got used to it, but Ground Zeroes' interface is awkward to say the least.
- Lasting Appeal: Unlocking every weapon and bonus mission while getting a perfect mission ranking extends Ground Zeroes' appeal a bit, but Kojima Productions isn't kidding when they call it a "prologue." Don't expect it to last longer than a weekend.
Interested in learning more about Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes? Take a look at the first fifteen minutes of the Xbox One version.
Ground Zeroes is definitely fun while it lasts, and it offers an interesting taste of what is to come in Phantom Pain. As appetizers go, it's terrific. Just don't expect a full meal.