Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a prologue to the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in all but name. Kojima and Konami fully admit this, something backed up by the fact that pre-release the title’s RRP dropped from that of a full-blown retail game release to something more manageable; but this still was a significant chunk for your average gamer. Given reports of the game being done and dusted in under two hours there’s naturally concern about what this game is really offering to fans of Big Boss and newcomers alike. We can say right now with absolute certainty that here is an example of gaming where the length of it is entirely irrelevant for the content housed within will provide thrilling entertainment to any gaming fan, old and new, and will do so in a myriad of ways for as long as you’re willing to keep playing. Combining this joy and the true open world nature offered up - a first for an MGS game with the amazing game engine and associated presentation gives us not only a prologue to the tantalising MGS V: The Phantom Pain but also to this current generation of consoles and what they can actually do.
It’s safe to say then that everything about this title impressed us at The Digital Fix towers. Let’s start with the all-new FOX engine. From the lengthy (it is MGS after all!) opening in-engine cutscene it’s likely your jaw will be on the floor for the duration of the game for any number of reasons. This initial part of the game is sure to showcase what FOX can do and the graphics are mind-blowing. This is what the PlayStation 4 can do at the start of its lifecycle? Wow. The detail, the realism, the textures, the lighting and the real-life feel to pretty much everything (the dogs of war seem a little bit artificial in their animations) make for near-movie quality visuals allied to the always engrossing sinewy tales spun by Kojima and co. As you get to interact with the game and first take control of Big Boss - voiced this time around by Kiefer Sutherland in an understated and minimal role this time out - the impression doesn’t really change. In fact, it probably heightens further. We haven’t seen anything better on home consoles.
The engine enables the gameplay of course as well as just making everything really spectacularly pretty. What we have here is a true open world game that really is a sandbox. Not only a novelty for MGS but also perhaps something new for the genre as a whole given anything in the game really does go, if you’re happy to experiment and play with the tools at your disposal. In amongst the supplied tools are some rules, of course. The game is still the King of stealth and here the system is a simple one. Are you out of sight, in the shadows and quiet? If not then there’s a chance you’ll be spotted by the guards. So stealth relies on the player behaving as they would have to do in real life. Find the path of least resistance, plan it out on this massive map and get yourself from where you are to where you wish to be. There are guards walking around the camp, trucks moving, radio communications between all and various searchlights manned at points around the territory ready to shine upon you and give the game away. You can run, walk, crouch and go prone depending on how you choose to approach each challenge but you can’t rely on systemically-hindered AI. In one particular instance we’d made our way over the camp’s main road and behind some concrete low-level shelter. The area wasn’t in direct view of any searchlights but there was some external office lighting nearby so we knew we weren’t entirely hidden. A guard was placed North-West of us and we tried to move. He heard something and started to come over. We stopped, and he went back before he got all the way. As we moved again he didn’t relent this time and as he got closer he saw the light showing up part of our latent body and raised the alarm. Cue frantic action and eventual overwhelming of us. One-nil to the baddies, then.
The game does allow for a more action-oriented approach should you wish. The controls make for a standard third-person actioner if you choose to go in guns a-blazing. There are armouries dotted throughout the camp with all manner of weaponry you can use to replenish or add to what you already have. The problem with a persistent approach of this manner is that there will be no let-up. The guards are on infinite, if measured, respawn. What tended to be a better approach for us was to make use of the slow-motion afforded to the gamer when seen by someone in a (poor) attempt to go unnoticed. Downing the observer immediately before they get to raise the alarm, and then doing whatever was needed with their body, showed itself to be a steady action. You do need to do something about the body as the nearby guards will go and check out any shots in another example of the good and challenging AI.
In practice as we tackled our mission we found that gunning folk down was necessary as we often weren’t good enough to remain completely incognito or we tried something and it didn’t quite work out. If things get too hot and heavy - and you keep seeing the screen burn around you in a manner similar to seeing a projected movie burn out when the physical film being projected itself is burnt - then you can restart to the last checkpoint allowing you to go again fresh from a safe moment rather than get caught up in an endless loop of kill and be caught. It is fun for a while but eventually you tire and given the size of the area and ambiguity in the requisite next steps, starting again will always be a good bet.
As the game proper starts, you survey the glory of the world laid out in front of you when guided by your on-radio colleague to use your binoculars to allow for planning and safe execution of tasks rather than the aforementioned trailblazing. You learn quickly that by focusing on guards you mark them ensuring they can be seen easily as you rove around the area but also on your map as handled by your iDroid. The binoculars also have a directional microphone so any chatter can be picked up too, helpful as you move on and are trying to locate the places you need to go to. Your mission is to locate and extract two child-prisoners called Chico and Paz who are known to you from events in MGS: Peacewalker, the PSP game to which this is a sequel (we’re in 1975 here, many years before the events of the last generation’s MGS fare, Guns of the Patriot). You know only where the prison is located on the much larger camp and as you make good with your tasks the next ones open up but with very little direction. In fact, all you really know for the main action in part two of this game is that somewhere in the camp you can find what you’re looking for. There’s no hand-holding and no accurate pinpointing of your destination. It’s all left to you to work out from the scant info you have or by trial and error. Whilst to many this could seem horrific, in the modern-day gaming landscaping such lack of hand-holding is becoming more popular and in this particular instance works fantastically well given it further encourages you to try different things out and just explore the wonderful world that’s been painted for you.
You really can do any number of things to achieve the same aim, and you can do all sorts of things that you’re not really being asked to. For instance you can catch a ride in a truck to get to an area or you can blow it up to open the area. You can interrogate guards to learn where you need to go or you can ignore what you’re meant to do and save some POWs just to order the helicopter pick up in order to hear Ride of the Valkyries whilst it flies in. You can take out guards one by one and hide the bodies. You can grab a rocket launcher and take out whole parts of an area and you can use smoke grenades to escape a tight corner. You can do anything and you will replay the main mission and the side-missions in order to try out each thing you care to think about. You will do so and marvel at the freedom you have and the fact that this is really just one locale; one real mission. You will look forward to The Phantom Pain and hope that they can repeat what they’ve done here over multiple missions. In so doing they would create a masterpiece.
So here we have a glorified prologue which showcases the new generation with aplomb and makes the mouth water at what Kojima Productions can do over the course of a full game. You’ll revel in the backstory provided and audio logs littered throughout if you’re a Metal Gear aficionado and you’ll just about get what’s happening in this mission at least if you’re not. Either way when playing it all out you’ll find a wonderful bag of tricks that doesn’t bore a great many hours after first reaching the closing cutscene and its unsurprising lack of closure (it is a prologue/prequel after all). After all of this you’ll still be salivating. If this truly is a sign of things to come, then we might just get that perfect score.