Another Metal Gear and another suggestion it could be Hideo Kojima’s last. It’s all nonsense, of course; Metal Gear is Kojima’s palette and the painting is different every time. The series has become an outlet for all that’s on the developer’s mind, dealing with the rise of the Internet and private military companies alongside a love for Triumph motorbikes. Ground Zeroes, however, finds him preoccupied with Guantanamo Bay, war crimes and Grand Theft Auto.
Ground Zeroes’ version of 1975 drops Big Boss (né Snake) into a world of unspeakable atrocity that raises unanswerable questions about whether games are an appropriate medium in which to discuss rape, torture, murder and the other realities of war, and that’s before anyone even considers how those themes lend themselves to the usual Metal Gear silliness, where patrolling guards can be evaded from inside a cardboard box.
Still, Metal Gear is a chameleon that changes shades to become whatever its creator demands, and Kojima Productions’ authorial control is evident in every moment of Ground Zeroes’ brief running time. More than perhaps any other game, it successfully weaves an intensely authored experience into an open world. Wherever you go, it’s as if the developer got there first, always one step ahead of how the player’s mind works.
Every route you might take has been guarded, and every weak point in the soldiers’ defences has been measured. Every inch of Camp Omega’s open world has been touched by a designer’s hand and built for a reason: each blade of grass has been placed to give you time to hide between searchlight sweeps; all the patrol routes give you windows to exploit; every worthless crate will suddenly become a vital hiding spot in some unexpected emergent situation. A smoking guard seems to walk just far enough from his truck for you to steal it; the soldier who never turns his back will be prone to coughing fits; and the roaming tank will park just long enough for you to fit it with C4. When things go wrong in most open-world games, you’re offered nothing but chaos, whereas in Ground Zeroes discovery feels like a scripted reward, even when it’s not. The AI is so orderly in its pursuit of Big Boss and its responses so seemingly designed that it makes every retry a story.
And you’ll have to retread ground if you’re after value for money here. With only six missions and one map, which is just a few hundred metres across, this is a game that can be ‘completed’ in under an hour. Ground Zeroes defies explanation – it’s been called a prologue, a preparatory tutorial for MGSV: The Phantom Pain and a demo by different sources – but whatever it is, it’s overpriced when the likes of Dead Rising’s preview chapter sold for a few pounds on Live Arcade.
“Scripted twists are supported by emergent moments as memorable as any from games a hundred times larger”
But you’ll want to retry. No first run will be flawless, so you’ll hit restart and replay the main mission again, only this time under new rules you’ll choose for yourself. This time, maybe nobody on the base dies. Next time, everybody – all 40-something of them – will die without anyone knowing you were there.
The next, you’ll extract every prisoner by chopper. The next, you’ll hijack a tank and lay waste to the whole map. The next, you’ll sit in a bush making 300-metre sniper shots and climbing the global rankings. Over time, you’ll sneak into Camp Omega like a ghost, with every one of the game’s intricate systems mastered.
Ground Zeroes works because its systems are so carefully designed and well executed that they become toys with which to tinker. The AI is smart, yet it’s also predictably unpredictable, with guards tending to follow their eyes and ears, but inclined to suddenly glance over a shoulder without warning. They can be choked, held up at gunpoint – interrogating them reveals ammunition stashes and hidden items – or they can be made to call a nearby friend to lure them over. Guards can be disabled with a shot to the knee and their wailing can lead other guards into a classic sniper’s trap. Their reactions don’t bear the same hallmarks as Assassin’s Creed’s bumbling dimwits or Far Cry 3’s chaotic confusion; Ground Zeroes’ AI is precisely as smart as it needs to be to make its missions work.
These missions are varied, too. One has you extracting a familiar-looking Japanese agent from the camp while defending him from the skies, another asks you to assassinate two war criminals hiding on the base, and a third sees you meeting an informant and recovering an audio cassette. Each flexes Fox Engine’s beautiful lighting system with varied weather and a different time of day, and in every one the game changes the script at a moment’s notice, throwing a tank into a routine-seeming operation, say, or a double-cross. These scripted twists are supported by emergent moments as memorable as any from game worlds a hundred times larger.
Of course, the promise of The Phantom Pain is seeing Ground Zeroes’ mechanics and authorial intent writ large. There’s work to do before then, though. Even on PS4, Ground Zeroes’ version of Fox Engine feels optimised for PS3, with pop-in that the new hardware has more than enough power to overcome. The bad guys’ current tendency to disappear a few hundred metres away will make 1,000-metre sniper shots difficult in The Phantom Pain’s huge spaces, too.
Still, if it’s a demo, Ground Zeroes is the best demo ever; if it’s a prologue, it sets up the story so well you’ll spend the next year thirsting for revenge; and if it’s a tutorial, the systems it teaches are so intriguing that the prospect of spending an entire game with them is irresistible. Ground Zeroes is a resounding success in every respect bar its price tag, but value is relative. Fourteen hours in, we’re still learning.