Peter (Parrish): By now, I’m sure you’ve read the IncGamers port verdict for Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. Tim and I both came away impressed by the optimisation, decent mouse and keyboard controls and range of graphics options, but didn’t get too deep into the mechanics or design of the game. That’s what this joint review is for.

As a reminder, I’m somebody who (before Ground Zeroes) had basically only experienced Metal Gear Solid in a second-hand capacity through friends and cultural osmosis. Tim’s played a whole lot more, but still admits he doesn’t understand Metal Gear Solid 2. Possibly because no-one does.

Tim (McDonald): There’s no “possibly” about that. One of the few explanations I’ve seen which actually appeared to make sense ran to about 40 pages and was written by someone with a PhD. I found that years ago, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating much.

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Luckily, everybody understands THIS situation in a stealth game.

Peter: Let’s start by addressing the major structural sticking point about Ground Zeroes, which also popped up in the comments on our port article: the fact that, strictly speaking, it’s quite a short game. The main mission can be waltzed through in about an hour (even on a first play if you’re good,) and the collection of side-ops are about 20-40 minutes apiece, on the same Guantanamo Bay-esque map.

Tim: This bothered me a lot when I played it on the console, but not so much on PC. I think there are really two reasons for that, although neither of them are necessarily “good” ones.

First: I paid a lot less for it on PC. With the launch day discount, I think it was about £12, and I recall paying over twice that on console. Second: on PC I knew what I was in for, while on console I was rather disappointed that I was basically paying for an hour-long prologue for another game.

I’d actually say it’s probably worth it on PC – at that price, at least. It’s really subjective, though. I mean, if you want a full Metal Gear Solid game, then you’re obviously not getting that. If you want a fun little sandbox which allows for plenty of experimentation and a few unexpected surprises, and you’re happy to replay the same area over and over (with different objectives and in different styles, depending on the side missions) then it’s actually really good value for money.

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I’m still in love with the lighting effects.

Tim: I’ve played a fair bit of Ground Zeroes on console already, and I still easily racked up about five hours on the PC version without S-ranking any of the missions. I could very, very easily put in at least another five hours, both trying to beat my rankings on the missions and just tooling around, messing with the vehicles and different weapons and routes through the base and so on. I quite fancy finding a sniper rifle and picking off guards, actually. Or possibly trying one of the “trials” on each mission, like marking every guard on the map without being spotted. Or…

Well, yes, you get the point. It pretty much is a demo for Metal Gear Solid 5 (from what I’ve heard, it was originally meant to be the prologue chapter to that game, so it’s kind of an extended tutorial) but there’s quite a lot on offer – if you’re happy with getting a very, very small amount of story, and only one location.

Peter: It does remind me of a souped-up version of those great demos you now hardly ever get for games. Something like Just Cause 2’s timed demo which let you mess around in a pretty large bit of the map. Or Thief: The Dark Project’s demo which was just the entire first mission. Like those, Ground Zeroes is very replayable – but even more so, because it gives you different mission objectives to perform. It’d be like that Thief demo giving you another run at Bafford’s in the daytime, with specific instructions to knock-out his chief of security or something.

The major difference, of course, is that you have to buy Ground Zeroes. Like you though, I’ve put about six hours into it already and will quite happily play it for a few more. That seems pretty acceptable for $17, but the structure of the game is definitely something to be aware of up front.

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You can, obviously, just run in guns blazing. It’s just not necessarily a good idea.

Peter: To compare it with another game, it feels a bit like when Dishonored came out and some people were able to finish it in about five hours. Which you can do, if you just make a beeline for the targets. But if you’re someone who sneaks around and soaks up the atmosphere, it’ll take much longer. Ground Zeroes is like that. If you’re a player who likes to explore when given an open stealth area, and is happy to poke around at the edges of the defined objectives, you’re unlikely to feel ripped off.

I’m one of those types of players, which is probably why the main mission here took me two hours. Let’s go deeper into the stealth mechanics, because Ground Zeroes handles these in some of my favourite ways. It’s a title that knows you’ll probably screw up a fair amount, and is happy to let you do that. Too many stealth titles punish for failure in the wrong kind of way (the worst being a god-awful instant failure,) but the best ones realise that failure is just the gateway for more entertainment. Now you need to escape, find somewhere new to hide, dodge your way around more wary patrols. You get punished, but in a way which opens up more gameplay challenges and opportunities. The older Thief games understood that, and Ground Zeroes does it quite brilliantly too.

The amount it allows you to just “try stuff out” is very impressive as well. Being able to hop into the back of a passing truck to get beyond checkpoints feels like something from a Hitman game.

Tim: Hitman is actually a pretty good comparison too – not in the sense of “numerous, creative ways of committing murder undetected”, because it’s not that sort of game. Just in the sense that there are loads of little things you can do that you might not realise at first. I only realised recently that, unlike in basically any other stealth game you might name, vehicles are actually a really good disguise. Rather than a vehicle you’re driving instantly being painted as a big target as soon as you turn on the ignition, Ground Zeroes seems to understand that… well, there are lots of vehicles around, so one driving off really isn’t all that suspicious. There are supply trucks heading back and forth, and a couple of huge APC-like things, and little jeeps. Sure, if you’re in an open-topped jeep then it’s really obvious that you’re not one of the base’s marines, but if you’re driving a truck? You have to do something noticeable or drive pretty close to a guard to trigger an alert.

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I appreciate any game where sitting in the back of a truck constitutes progress.

Tim: There’s another way it’s a bit like Dishonored, too, in that you don’t actually have to do what you’re told. Your first time through the actual primary mission, you’ll probably follow the voice-in-your-ear’s instructions and do things in a “set” way… but you absolutely don’t have to. You can go and explore, and even complete the “second” objective (which you don’t normally get until you’ve already done the first one) before venturing anywhere near where you’re meant to go. The game seamlessly works around this, simply restructuring the mission objectives to fit. It’s admittedly not a long mission so I doubt it was particularly hard to do, but it’s one of those little touches I like to see; it would’ve been easy to just block that off with a locked door or an invisible wall until you were meant to go there.

It’s not all perfect, mind. There are a few invisible-wall like annoyances where you think you should be able to get somewhere, but you actually can’t. This mostly comes down to Snake’s climbing and mantling abilities – there are certain things he just will not hop onto, and this can be incredibly frustrating. I thought I’d found a way onto a roof, but oops, I’m not allowed on that roof. It’s low enough down that he should easily be able to climb up onto it, but the game says no. (Instead, that’s actually one of the areas where the ludicrously well-hidden XOF patches are located, which we’ll doubtless talk about soon-ish.)

Peter: Yeah, I did get shot to pieces when attempting to haul myself over a fence from the top of a pneumatic platform type device, because Snake insisted that, no, he couldn’t reach the top of that one (even though he absolutely could.) It doesn’t happen too much, but because a lot of the rest of the game is so flexible, and because such instances will often lead to you getting caught or dying, it does stand out.

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Does it look like you can mantle onto that platform by jumping off this generator? Well, you can’t. Tough.

Peter: Going back to the emergent gameplay possibilities for a second, the side op where you have to assassinate the two US snipers (or whoever) gave me a great example of this. If you make too much of a commotion, they flee the base in their jeeps. This is not especially desirable; unless you know which road one or both of them is likely to go down. Then they’re not so much fleeing as driving towards your carefully laid trap …

Doing it that way probably won’t get you an S-rank, but it is very satisfying.

Speaking of which, my best rank in anything so far is a B. I’m bad at Metal Gear Solid stealth, apparently (or I have too much fun just fucking about, I’m not sure which.) I think we both find the rank-based unlocks system a little bit annoying. It’s completely fine that you need to S-rank to get the best bits and pieces, but it’s kind of irritating that the unlocks are attached to individual missions. S-ranking the main mission on Hard won’t unlock (say) sniper rifles in everything. That nudges the replay factor a bit too close to grinding for my liking.

And yes, I’m actually going to spoil the location of one of the XOF patches because it’s so hilariously difficult. Make Snake roll around on the floor for a bit, and it’ll fall out of his clothes. Yes, really.

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Not exactly standard stealth, but fairly standard Metal Gear Solid.

Tim: Ground Zeroes is actually pretty different to standard Metal Gear Solid stealth, primarily because none of the other games have really had areas this open before, nor were they this freeform – they tended to be much more linear stealth games, which is perhaps why this is being billed as a “Stealth Simulator”. MGS3 had a few large areas, but nothing to this scale.

As much as anything, your ranking here is based on how quickly you complete a mission, how many hostages you rescue (if there are any), if you manage to complete unmarked secret objectives (if there are any), and so on. Being quick, efficient, and getting everything done with no kills and without getting spotted is the ultimate aim. But that’s perhaps slightly less fun than dropping a lot of mines on a road and then firing a rocket launcher to attract some attention. And yes, I do agree that the unlocks being separate for each mission is a bit grind-y, though I can understand that they want you to play each mission “as intended” at least once.

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The unlockable extra missions take things in a… slightly unexpected direction.

Tim: But let’s talk about the XOF patches, because this is simultaneously one of the best and worst things about the game. There are nine XOF patches scattered around the base, which can only be obtained in the main mission. They are incredibly hard to spot, they’re often tucked away in ludicrous locations, and it’s incredibly hard to find them without a guide (or without interrogating basically everyone on the base across multiple playthroughs). There’s nothing wrong with having insanely well-hidden collectibles, mind you.

What is perhaps a little wrong is that finding them all unlocks two more missions. Including those two, there are seven missions in total. Which means that roughly 30% of the game is incredibly well hidden.

It also doesn’t help that those two missions are endearingly silly and are two of the most entertaining in the entire game, offering some rather unique experiences in the map (and, without wishing to spoil them, a number of brilliant callbacks to past Kojima games). I’m pretty certain they’re proof that you’re meant to be replaying the missions over and over and hunting across the entire map repeatedly, but come on. I’d rather have seen them be unlocked after… I don’t know. Finishing all of the other missions once? Getting an A-Rank in the other missions? After your first S-Rank on any mission? Something other than an easter egg hunt that occasionally borders on trolling, at least.

This is maybe a slightly churlish complaint because you’re reading this on the internet and thus have access to approximately 10 million guides that’ll tell you exactly where to find the XOF patches, so you can comfortably unlock those bonus missions in about 30 minutes, but that still doesn’t mean it’s good design.

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Well, that’s one way to find out where things are.

Tim: There’s one thing I’ve been wondering, though, Peter. You’re new-ish to Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid. Did the plot make sense to you? Do you know what’s going on? And (although I realise this will be hard to answer until The Phantom Pain launches, so I will probably ask it again then) would you recommend Ground Zeroes as an entry point into the franchise for those who’re similarly unfamiliar?

Peter: I’m glad you separated “did the plot make sense?” and “do you know what’s going on?” into two questions, because they’re quite distinct queries.

Ground Zeroes is broad enough that I know what’s expected of me (“get the people out of the horrible 1970s CIA Black Site”) and so therefore know what’s going on in a “here are your objectives” type sense. The plot … not so much. Even though the game is kind enough to include an 11-page backstory, I spent most of my time flicking through that saying “what?”

Tim: Funny, that was pretty much my entire experience with Metal Gear Solid 2. Although that was less “an 11-page backstory” and more “a 10 hour game.”

Peter: To put it another way, I know (close enough) why I need to get Paz out of the camp, but if you ask me about her history with Snake/Big Boss and precise details about why what she knows is important then I’m going to struggle a little bit.

I don’t think it’s a great entry point for the series, but if you pay attention and read up on what it gives you then I think it’s good enough to give you a general idea. And it seems fine as a set-up for The Phantom Pain; which makes sense, since this is effectively a prologue.

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The side missions all offer wildly different takes on the same map, to the extent that one of them is basically a rail-shooter.

Peter: Where Ground Zeroes does succeed as an entry point, and quite superbly, is in providing an introduction to how a lot of the stealth systems and mechanics will (presumably) work in The Phantom Pain.

I do have a question about tone for you. Is Ground Zeroes representative of the series in that respect? From what I’ve seen of The Phantom Pain (kidnapping soldiers and horses with balloons, hiding in cardboard boxes,) that game seems quite a bit … campier than this one. I know Metal Gear Solid does pathos upon pathos, but Ground Zeroes seemed a bit grim in general. My delicate disposition would’ve preferred more villains called “Skull Face” and slapstick-tranquilising of guards with exclamation points over their heads, and a few less graphic implications of horrific sexual violence and torture. But that may just be me.

Tim: Um… okay, let’s start with specifics, and then go into broad strokes. For the most part, the horrific sexual violence and torture is new, and it’s not something I’m particularly happy with. That stuff is particularly dark for this series, and it doesn’t quite seem to fit. I’m deliberately being a little oblique about this because I really don’t want to drag this into a lengthy “can games use this sort of thing” discussion, but in this case, I don’t think it really serves much of a purpose except for establishing that Skull Face is a dick. And that’s putting it mildly.

Torture is nothing particularly new to series, mind you, although normally you’re on the receiving end. Most of the previous Metal Gear Solid games have included at least one scene in which the protagonist is mercilessly tortured (at least one of which was interactive, where you had to mash buttons to resist) but they were never as dark as this.

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Um. Yeah.

Tim: It’s not exactly unwarranted – Metal Gear Solid 5 is presumably meant to be the “final” bit of Big Boss’s plot arc, showing his ultimate descent into villainy, so some genuine horror is to be expected – but it still seems a bit out of place. Then again, some of the torture inflicted on the prisoners might actually be there to make you feel less guilty for shooting US Marines in the face. I can imagine more than a few players might have qualms about that. And obviously, the whole thing is a pretty overt reference to Guantanamo Bay, so sugarcoating it might’ve actually been incredibly insulting.

Peter: Yes, that’s fair. I suppose it didn’t seem out of place for the setting, just really jarring alongside some of the obviously sillier parts.

Tim: The wild shift in tone between slapstick comedy and brooding pathos is a Metal Gear Solid hallmark. That said, it’s normally more about things being bleak or hopelessly melodramatic rather than things being brutally horrible. Pretty much every past game starring Big Boss has ended on a pretty down note for the poor guy, despite any successes achieved; those games, at least, were big on the bittersweet endings (without wishing to outright spoil anything).

So yeah, Ground Zeroes seems a lot more grim. Whether that’s because of the story it’s trying to tell, or if it’s just because it’s one smaller part of a much bigger story, is impossible to say at this point. The trailers for The Phantom Pain indicate that things are going to get darker still, but that’ll hopefully be balanced out (at least somewhat) by the ability to kidnap goats with Fulton balloons.

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Pretty much what any torture camp deserves.

Peter: Well it does have PAIN right there in the title, after all.

It should be pretty clear by this point that I liked Ground Zeroes, quite a lot. The game feels like a delicious, sandbox stealth appetiser for whatever barmy stuff Kojima has planned for The Phantom Pain. I didn’t mention it earlier, and it’s kind of accepted videogame knowledge at this point, but he seems like one of the few industry people who actually directs cut-scenes. The chaotic scenes at the end of Ground Zeroes are marvellous. Though, ironically, I’d rather have been playing them to some extent.

Tim: I don’t disagree that the closing scenes are fantastically done, but that has its problems. Kojima’s one of the few people you can get away with calling a videogame auteur without looking like a total prick, but his influence also means that the games sometimes resemble movies more than games. Metal Gear Solid 4 is absolutely the worst offender and I hope he’s toned it down a bit for The Phantom Pain, because I could really do without another hour-long cutscene.

At least, I think it’s his influence.

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The opening cutscene is actually pretty short, as far as these things go.

Peter: Anyway, yes, great stealth mechanics throughout as well. Just enough classic Thief and Hitman and (presumably) Metal Gear Solid melded together into a lovely, emergent third-person stealth prologue. It is a bit short (though replayable) and has the odd quirk where it won’t let traverse somewhere fairly accessible-looking, but it’s one hell of a hype-generator for The Phantom Pain. Even for somebody (hello) who has next to no idea about the overall plot.

Tim: Yeah, we’re pretty much in agreement: Ground Zeroes is an appetiser rather than a game, but it’s a really mouth-watering one. You’re not getting a huge chunk of plot, story, or character, but you are getting a deliciously replayable chunk of open-world entertainment. As you said earlier it’s akin to older demos, but with so much stuff in there it should keep people occupied for a lot longer. For £15 or so I think it’s entirely worthwhile, but if you’re wanting a “proper” Metal Gear Solid experience, you’ll be disappointed. As long as you’re happy with one relatively constrained map and a series of game mechanics that can be abused in a number of wonderful ways, though, I’d guess you’d get your money’s worth.

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