When it comes to meals, appetizers can be absolutely fantastic; getting your taste buds warmed up and leaving you wanting more. Ultimately that is the job of appetizers. Some can leave you empty and wanting more, while others are more expensive and fail to live up to the price. The same can be said for video games in general. If The Phantom Pain is the incredible main dish it appears to be, then Ground Zeroes is a fulfilling appetizer; giving you a taste of the new Metal Gear while making you want more as soon as it's gone.
For those of you who have played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Ground Zeroes is essentially the Tanker chapter. The experience is very fun and thrilling but rather short. What we have is a bite size of The Phantom Pain, teasing us while making the wait much harder. There is only one story mission, but several other pseudo-history missions that help give the game more replayability. The only downside is these extra missions are all played on the same map, with enemy placement and objectives changed to keep things from getting stale.
The main story of Ground Zeroes is relatively short, clocking in at somewhere between 45 to 90 minutes depending on play style. There is no boss to fight at the end, just a short search and rescue mission setting up the story of The Phantom Pain. This might be disappointing to some Metal Gear fans, but there is no reason that it should be. Ground Zeroes is not looking to cram a big cinematic story into a short experience, it's introducing you to something grand. That's not to say there is an absence of story, it's just presented in a different way. Most of the story is told at the opening and after you've completed your extractions of Paz and Chico. Limiting lengthy story-telling cutscenes to before and after the main gameplay is an interesting experiment. Time will tell if this trend will continue in The Phantom Pain.
Rather than sit through codec screens just to explain a simple mission objective, it's all done in game. With the press of a button, Kaz provides intel and support without pausing the action. Hearing information in real-time while still performing actions keeps the pace going way better than staring at a codex screen for minutes at a time. Further story details can be obtained through cassette tapes that are found through the environment. While nothing groundbreaking is found on these tapes, they do provide details for the people who get the most out of Metal Gear's lore.
Metal Gear has done a good job in the past of guiding you along a path, while still giving you options on how to handle situations. Sneak by undetected or break everyone's neck? Semi-linear paths but still enough variety of actions to make the situations fresh hours into the experience. Ground Zeroes provides the first true non-linear approach to the series. There are many different ways to get to your objectives, and the game does not restrict you to a set path. Yeah Kaz will tell you to go rescue Chico first, but you don't have to. Rescuing Paz first will change enemy movements and positions. Once you are dropped into the world, the area is yours to play around in at your pace.
The shift to an open world changes the gameplay some, but stealth is still a factor. You are encouraged to avoid enemies, only engaging in combat when necessary. Gone are the very limited cone-shaped eyesight of guards, and replaced with more realistic enemies. In past games, if a guard suspects he sees something he walks over, checks where you were standing, and then goes back to his position. Simply moving out of sight or behind a wall was simple enough to fool a guard. The behavior of guards in Ground Zeroes is much more varied. If you just get into eyesight of a guard, their reactions can be different each time. Most will turn on their flashlight in the visinity of where they thought they saw you, some might go check it out, and a few call radio to say they are investigating. This new type of behavior changes your approach, as with an open environment there is more emphasis on staying out of sight.
Keeping an eye on enemy placement and behavior will be crucial, as Snake does not have a radar. However a few things help give you a leg up on your enemies. Using the binoculars (or by aiming your gun at an enemy) will mark them, giving sort of a glow that can be seen even through walls and objects. Marking an enemy helps tremendously, as the glowing of marked enemies makes them easy to identify. Getting just in sight of an enemy will produce a small white indicator in the direction of the enemy. This signal stays on screen as long as the enemy is curious of your presence, and fades away when the enemy goes back to their normal routine. Both of these new ideas work very well in providing player awareness, even in the midst of performing actions. Marked enemies and objectives can be clearly represented on screen, giving you a good deal of information without filling the screen with a massive HUD.
Something new added is the ability to call in helicopters to extract hostages. Be aware of where you call them in, as anti-air placements along with enemy gunfire can bring down the chopper. It's a nice addition that brings substance to extractions instead of going to a location and watching a cutscene. Bringing in a chopper can be done by either throwing a flare or calling it in with your Idroid. Calling the helicopter in before you arrive to the extraction point can save you from waiting for it to show up. Although being able to see the chopper come in from a distance does have it's little moment of "hey that's pretty cool."
Weapon and item selection is all done in real time here, rather than pausing the action. With a much smaller inventory to choose from, it was never an issue. My only problem is that menus take up the center of the screen, covering up most of your line of sight. It's best to use the menus when in cover or not doing anything to avoid taking un-necessary damage. Say goodbye to rations as they are no longer used to recover health. Taking a que from Call of Duty and Gears of War, health is based on how much accumitulive damage you take at time. Standing around and taking too many hits will cause the screen to change color, forcing you to either take some cover and heal or die. Sometimes you will be able to get away, but you still must heal yourself with spray before you continue to fight. While this system seems to replace most health bars, I'm not sure it was really necessary for Metal Gear to adopt this trend. Then again, how many rations are you going to find just laying around in a bush?
Should you happen to alert an enemy, you are greeted with the new Reflex system. Putting the familiar "!" over enemies heads, the action slows down to give Snake a few seconds to silence them before the alert is raised. Personally I find this system makes the game a little too easy. It is tough to get in a few tranquilizer shots (if you are going no kills) due to the time between shots, but an assault rifle can easily take care of an enemy during this small window. The option is set ON by default, but you can turn it off if you choose to live dangerously.
Getting into firefights presents a new type of fun. Gunfights in previous games could be problematic with extremely accurate enemies and shooting that was not made to handle large groups at a time. Triggering an alert is no longer a death sentence. Rather than running for cover, shooting your way out of a situation is more of an option than ever. Don't get me wrong, the enemies can be really aggressive if they find you, but fighting against them feels more fun than ever. Even more, different guns have a unique feel to each them. Holding the trigger for an automatic weapon will spray lots of bullets but accuracy will take a hit. Staying hidden is still generally preferred but the mechanics in place allow you to fight your way out of situations as well.
The brand new Fox Engine really shows itself even in this small adventure. Characters are very nicely detailed, objects appear real, and the weather during the Ground Zeroes mission is incredible. Light blinds your vision and rain drips off of Snake; the little effects are great and really stand out. Even on the Xbox 360 the graphics are very impressive with no slowdown.
Although few, the cutscenes are very well directed. The voice acting as always in the series is very solid. Fans of David Hyter might have a hard time getting used to the new voice of Snake, but you couldn't ask for a better replacement than Kiefer Sutherland. His performance is very well done, and quite fitting for the gruff character of Snake. The rest of the cast performs well too, with Kaz delivering my favorite line so far. If you want to get a feel for the tone the series is about to go, be sure not to miss the cutscene following the extraction of Paz and Chico. It is gut-wrenching to say the least...
At the price of $19.99, Ground Zeroes is a great purchase not only for Metal Gear fans, but fans of the genre as well. Although short in the story compartment, there is enough in here to get your money's worth. The action feels great, the challenge of stealth is still present, and the graphics are gorgeous. Ground Zeroes is just the thing to get your taste buds hungry for the upcoming Phantom Pain.
- Wonderful graphics and presentation
- Fun combat
- Open world concept works in Metal Gear
- Main story is very short
- Only one area to play in