Review by ChemicalReaper

Reviewed: 03/26/14

A Stealth-Action Game That's Light on Everything

Ground Zeroes is a one-mission campaign that takes place in Camp Omega, a black site based perhaps on Camp X-Ray of Guantanamo Bay. The player, Boss, is sent in to recover two POWs who fought in his private army: Paz Andrade and "Chico" Libre. That's the entire campaign, and it can go as quickly or as slowly as you desire. I went (almost) stealthily, trying to avoid guards wherever possible and (almost) only using nonlethal weapons and attacks: with 15 checkpoint retries and 7 kills, extracting Chico and Paz and all the other prisoners (including one on the other side of the camp), the mission took me just under three hours. (158 minutes and 44 seconds, to be specific.)

The game is inherently designed, as with all previous Metal Gear games (except, perhaps, Revengeance), to be played stealthily. In this regard, especially on the Hard difficulty mode, Ground Zeroes is proudly ruthless. Guards will go on the alert at the slightest noise (from knocking a pan or walking too quickly), they notice when other guards are missing from their assigned patrol route, and will not hesitate to call the Command Post if they suspect something even slightly amiss. And that's what makes this (and previous games in the series) challenging.

It may start to feel tedious after a few retries, however, since the guards' patrol routes and stationary positions are entirely static.

There are, however, a few cool features that I hope to see return in The Phantom Pain. The main one demonstrated in Ground Zeroes is the freedom to choose how you leave the area to complete the mission. You could grab a Jeep, covered truck, or an IAV Stryker and drive out of the camp; you could simply walk out, if you wanted to do so; or you can call for helicopter extraction.

Now, it may not sound like much, but to me it's pretty cool: you can grab people (even enemies) and extract them by helicopter. Removing enemies from the mission zone makes it easier to explore and find XOF patches, but calling it in is risky: the helicopter is loud and presents a massive target that enemies will notice. (And subsequently raise the alarm.) You can also drop flares and the helicopter will fly in and open fire on your enemies.

That added freedom presents options, and it can be fun to experiment with different tactics. Do you call the helicopter in early for an assault, and use it to thin the enemies without actually adding to your kill count? Do you call it in and risk it being shot down? Do you really want the whole base being set on alert for the rest of your mission? Do you call for extraction in the middle of the base and take the chance of being shot down, or do you carry targets out of the way for a slower, but less risky, evac?

One positive is that Metal Gear Solid has never looked as good as it does right now. Objects are nicely detailed even up close, graphics are crisp and clean, and even hair is more detailed than it has been in the past. Oh, and we finally have some decent anti-aliasing to render smooth curved lines. One drawback of this added detail – and I really hope it's only present because of the need to shoehorn the game onto the PS3 and 360 – is that the object rendering distance is quite short: at 50 yards, small scenery (plants, trees, etc.) is only partially rendered; beyond a few hundred yards, full objects and enemy A.I. are not rendered at all. In most games, this wouldn't be a problem, but because Ground Zeroes is one large, almost entirely open, level, it becomes fairly noticeable.

While the mechanics overall are far smoother than the controls in previous Metal Gear Solid games, they still feel distinctly unpolished. The new cover system is clunky: it seems to force you into cover when you don't want it, you get stuck to walls when you want to leave, and it just seems to refuse to work when you need it to do so. And even where animations are smooth, they could be smoother. For example, if you run toward a low wall or fence, you need to press the "A" button at precisely the right time to vault over it: it's so specific, you need to stop and stand near the object to get the action prompt. Why you can't just hold down the "A" button and automatically start climbing ladders or vault over low objects while sprinting (a la Splinter Cell: Blacklist) seems inexcusably outdated for 2014.

The game's audio, however, is disappointingly weak. Kiefer Sutherland has maybe half a dozen lines as Boss (and that's being generous by including his death screams and grunts of pain); the other major characters a dozen lines at most. Honestly, if nobody told me Kiefer Sutherland was playing Boss, I probably wouldn't have realized, because he has so little dialogue.

Like the guards' patrol routes, the extremely limited dialogue and occasional coughing quickly become repetitive as well: when interrogating enemies, their lines are nonexistent, despite the subtitles suggesting otherwise, and are replaced with a yelp. That you are unable to hear an enemy speak when you're three inches from him is a little odd, though, considering you can listen in on entire (albeit fairly short) conversations from 200 yards away, using your Magic Binoculars.

In addition to the watery, unsatisfying dialogue, there's not much to listen to in the way of music, either. There are maybe two or three original tracks in the game, one of which is a piece of licensed (pre-existing) music by Ennio Morricone; with the exception of a 40-second snippet of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries," the only other music available for you to listen to your Walkman is all taken directly from Peace Walker. While I wouldn't expect a brand new soundtrack for what is essentially a demo, a little more effort could have been made, especially as all of these audio assets probably already exist for use in The Phantom Pain anyway.

And speaking of sound effects, well, there are very few weapons available here, so it's hardly surprising there's a lack of sound effects, too. Your tranquilizer pistol goes "pthewp," and that's pretty much all you hear if you play the game right. There's a generic base alarm, three variations of an automatic rifle (one with a grenade launcher) that all sound identical, a submachine gun whose suppressed version sounds identical to the suppressed rifle, a rocket launcher, and a sniper rifle. None are particularly inspiring to listen to, and they hardly stand out as examples of stellar audio design.

One thing I do like is that, if you fire an unsuppressed weapon, or a suppressed weapon too close to a group of enemies, they'll go on alert for gunfire: if you're hidden or far away from the enemies, they'll call out that they can't identify the location. (Although they'll still usually make a beeline for your position.) Similarly, if you are close to them when you start firing, they'll identify where the gunfire came from and react accordingly.

Yet, strangely, popping a suppressed shot off and missing a headshot by a half inch doesn't make the guard even the slightest bit suspicious. Nor does anyone standing around him seem to care. Unless you miss, but still hit the guard in a non-headshot, in which case the entire base will descend upon you in a furious bullet storm.

Lastly, a quick note on driving: every vehicle feels like an underpowered, poorly maintained World War I tank. Vehicles accelerate and brake at the same speed, which is basically zero-to-go in zero seconds, and reverse at the same speed as they can drive forward. Vehicle physics are basically nonexistent, and driving anywhere is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Due in large part to the driving controls, it's not only easier, but also more pleasant to walk everywhere, even if your destination is on the other side of the map.

Ultimately, Ground Zeroes is a very pretty demo, but it's a terrible game. As a semi-open stealth/shooter sandbox, it lacks the detailed environments of Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater and Dishonored; it lacks the deeply programmed, fun-to-mess-with A.I. enemies of Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory; and it lacks the solid shooting mechanics of Splinter Cell: Conviction and Blacklist.

QUICK SUMMARY:
Story: 3.5/10 – the story isn't bad, per se; but it's too short, nothing really happens, and it lacks in Metal Gear Solid's trademark lengthy awesome-but-confusing cinematics and Codec conversations.
Gameplay: 7/10 – although smoother than any previous MGS game, some mechanics still feel too clunky for a next-gen game.
Replayability: 7.5/10 – it's fun to tackle the missions from different angles with different tactics, but you'll find that you hit the limits of the game's depth very quickly.
Graphics: 9.5/10 – this is one of the best looking games I've seen on any platform; the attention to detail on objects, especially as they are pelted by wind and rain, is remarkable.
Audio: 4.5/10 – Kiefer Sutherland is no David Hayter, and there isn't much detail beyond limited and repetitive A.I. chatter and bland-sounding firearms.
Multiplayer: Not applicable.

OVERALL: 6.3/10 (D)

The Bottom Line:
Ground Zeroes is a preview of a longer game, and has few other redeeming features. Although it is moderately entertaining for a couple of hours, being cast into the same small prison camp again and again (for the one campaign mission and several side operations) really only serves to remind you how shallow and unsatisfying Ground Zeroes is as a standalone title.

Rating: 6

Product Release: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (US, 03/18/14)

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