An hour of Metal Gear Solid 3 was enough for me. I wasn’t a fan of the first Metal Gear Solid – I preferred playing bodyguard to triangle-faced bullet magnet Natalya – and the second game didn’t impress either, with its frequent use of the forbidden question mark / exclamation mark combo, and cutscenes like a thick green paste of military acronyms and awkward emoting.
By Metal Gear Solid 3, I felt like I was in a slick-walled vat slowly filling with Metal Gear Solid, the stinking, bubbling mass nearly at my lips. The cutscenes were so super-concentrated that smaller cutscenes were crystallising in the corners of the screen; for every minute I’d spend playing, I’d seem to spend five watching Metal Gear lore being woven into every lore-permeable bit of recent American history. It was like having a child recant the plot of Apocalypse Now to you after reading the back of the DVD case.
So I gave up. If I wanted to spend hours matching fabric patterns and burning leeches off my torso with a cigar, I’d open a branch of Laura Ashley in a tropical swamp. My relationship with the MGS series was over. Until, that is, I heard that the campaign of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes was only two hours long.
When you’re a child, any game that you can complete is too short. When you’re a student, anything that clocks in at less than seventy hours is a waste of your valuable, near-infinite, time. When you’re an adult however, with house prices to discuss, weddings to attend, and many hours of cooking-based television to passive-aggressively half-watch with your partner while you wait for the big TV to become free, a two hour, heavily replayable game sounds like heaven; like you’ve been asked to put up some shelves and discovered they’re only half an inch long.
Those two hours aren’t heaven, but they’re certainly no Metal Gear Solid 3. It’s not so much what the game does right as what happens when everything goes wrong, and Ground Zeroes is a masterclass in things going wrong. There’s the Rambo narrative of being discovered and having to shoot my way out – and Ground Zeroes positively embarrasses its ancestors in this regard – but there’s also the emergent Coen brothers wackiness where the bodies start to pile up as guard after guard stumbles across my murderously inept attempts at infiltration. Every slip-up on a mission is thrilling, and requires genuine, usually violent, problem-solving; here, failure is a reward in itself.
The fact that one full playthrough takes less time than one of Metal Gear Solid 4’s cutscenes seems deliciously perverse, and it allows for experimentation too. The AI won’t be beating any Russians at chess, but it plays hide ’n seek to international level, with the simple underlying set of parameters creating chaotic little stories of action and concealment that change as you change your angle of attack.
It’s not perfect. The sole level is small and bleak, like a boutique music festival gone feral. The controls are occasionally a bit Metal Gear Flimsy. And then there’s the story. I’ve always been wary of the series’s cutscenes – given their length, complexity, and eagerness to tackle grotesquely inappropriate subjects, they seem rather like their own fan fiction. Ground Zeroes, after starting in such a lean and newcomer-friendly way, suddenly decides it can’t hold it in any longer and unleashes a hurricane of Metal Gear weirdness and raw, bloody violence that’s shocking and unconventional, but probably not in the way that Hideo Kojima intended – the scenes of anaesthetic-less surgery on a teenage girl are taste-deaf, and the subsequent gun battle on an oil rig leaves me watching something I should by rights be participating in.
It feels like punishment, or at least a confidence trick – like I’ve been lured into playing the game because of how un-Metal Gear it is, only to get more Metal Gear than I could have possibly imagined stuffed down my throat. It’s borderline incomprehensible, too. It seems churlish to wander into the fifth instalment of a series and expect to understand everything and unreasonable to demand a long-running, popular series be rebooted according to my preferences, but at the same time it seems absurd that any videogame series could be quite this histrionically convoluted.
And that’s a shame, because Ground Zeroes starts off like Metal Gear for people who don’t like Metal Gear, and ends up reminding them why they don’t. The Phantom Pain tempts me with the idea of more Ground Zeroes – 200 times more if Kojima is to be believed. But I can’t handle 200 times the Metal Gear. That ending cutscene, two hundred times over? I’ll just discreetly climb back into this inconspicuous box and sneak in the other direction.