Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room: Ground Zeroes is short. Demo short. My first playthrough, including mistakes, deaths and cutscenes (and there were a few), came to an end in just over an hour. But what an hour.
An opening cutscene, which is almost exactly the same as the original announcement trailer, sets the scene. Chico and Paz – which you’ll remember from Peace Walker (you played that right?) – are in a prison camp, and you’ve gone in to rescue them. This is Kojima, so the story is more intricate than that, but I won’t spoil it for you. All I will say is that it ties together all the trailers you’ve seen for Metal Gear Solid V, and it has whet my appetite for the full title.
In a first for the series, Ground Zeroes is billed as open world, though in truth that’s a little generous. The entire prison camp map is open from the start, with the ability to approach objectives as you see fit, but it isn’t much larger than a level in MGS4, simply less linear now.
The extra freedom allows for various approaches though, ranging from pure sneaking through to a full-on third person shooter. It says a lot about Kojima’s perfectionist nature that Ground Zeroes feels accomplished at both extremes. Combat has a weight and punch to it that the series has lacked so far, and the wide open map means you can tackle foes however you like. You snap to cover automatically and can peek out to fire off a few rounds, before shuffling to a new position as return fire comes your way. Most modern shooters can feel like a shooting gallery, but there is a real to-and-fro in Ground Zeroes’ combat that feels right. Snake has often been described as a soldier, but in the past he has felt more like a spy. Now the title fits.
Of course, all out combat is a last resort, particularly given the amount of guards in the camp. Instead, stealth is the byword of the day. There are crates and long grass aplenty in which to conceal yourself, with the night-time setting of the main mission also providing the cloak of darkness. It becomes a game of patience, watching guard patrols and spotlight sweeps and choosing the right moment to dash for the next piece of cover. It’s made easier by a new enemy tagging ability, similar to Far Cry 3’s, only with the camera swapped with a pair of binoculars, highlighting nearby enemies through cover and helping you time your movements.
All is not lost when spotted, though. When Snake is noticed by an enemy, or a spotlight sweeps over him, there is a flash of lens flare, almost as if you’re in a J.J. Abrams movie. It’s enough of a prompt to duck back into cover without making things too easy. Even if you are spotted, time slows for a few scant seconds before the alarm is raised, allowing for a single chance to silence the guard. Again it doesn’t demean the stealth, instead providing a last a chance to save 15 minutes’ worth of painstaking work.
It’s helped by realistic AI, which causes guards to stop for a chat on their patrol routes, or go for a cigarette. Some even perform larger tasks, such as getting into a truck and driving to the other side of the base, for example. It helps create a believable world, a working prison camp, with guards placed logically and not just from where you might be coming from – because the game can’t possibly know that. The sheen is occasionally tarnished by a guard who will just stare in the opposite direction to where you’re headed, but only a handful of times was it noticeable.
The realism is aided admirably by the new Fox engine, which looks absolutely stunning in motion. I knew that the opening cutscene would seamlessly tail into gameplay, but even so I still wasn’t prepared for it. Suddenly you’re in control of Snake, pouring rain spitting onto fabric that looks real enough to touch. Coupled with excellent lighting effects, it makes Ground Zeroes one of the most impressive looking games out there.
There’s more than an hour’s worth of content, too. As well as Hard difficulty, there are five unlockable missions available once you have completed the main level. One sees you identifying and eliminating defecting marines, another has you extracting some hostages. All take place in the camp, but guard placements and the time of day differ, offering a variety of challenges. The difference sneaking around in daylight makes is almost unbelievable. Coupled with the various approaches available in each mission, Ground Zeroes becomes a juicier concept.
VERDICT: Ground Zeroes is excellent, it really is. Not only is it one of the best-looking games ever made, there is simply nothing I would change about the gameplay at all. It’s an appetiser that has me drooling for the main course, and that means it has done its job. If you can overlook the price tag and the fact that there’s DLC out there for other games that provides more bang for your buck, then this is absolutely worth picking up.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.
Review code provided by publisher.