“Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” is a prologue to “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, and also feels like an epilogue to “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”. In nature, it’s very similar to the Tanker mission from “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” or the Virtuous Mission from “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, in being a small-scale, tighter section of gameplay and story that sets ups the story of the bulk of the actual game, as well as teaches players the gameplay mechanics. Unlike those two examples, “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes” was sold separately, but as the the “V” in the title indicates, it is still very much part of a greater title, rather than a standalone entry into the series. As it is by its nature incomplete, there’s no grand thematic statements to really analyse, since the game is setting things up rather than making statements, but there is still plenty of story to look at, and a whole host of changes to the series that are interesting to examine.
[Note: This review has a clearly marked-off spoiler section for where the spoilers begin. Plenty of the review is in that section. The next few paragraphs are spoiler free, then there will be a clear marked-off space before the spoiler section begins.]
The gameplay is extremely engaging, well-executed, and fun. Kojima Productions moved “Metal Gear Solid” into an open-world setting (albeit small scale) very well, and the sheer amount of options for how to approach mission objectives is stunning. The world was so reactive; I tried all sorts of creative ideas I assumed the game wouldn’t let me do, and they were all supported. It’s a whole new type of gameplay for the series, and works extraordinarily well. Everything from the iDroid, to the revamped combat, the new inventory system…all these new systems work so well together, and integrate well with the few systems carried over from previous games (such as the cassette tape system from “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”). The gameplay to me resembles a modern version the Tanker mission from “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” in the best way, in that it feels part tech and gameplay demo for all these brilliant new features Kojima Productions came up with, offers a fairly short amount of story objectives but so many ways to carry them out, and sets up the story for the main game in an intriguing and engaging way.
The visuals are also fantastic. The FOX Engine that Kojima Productions created is a real marvel, and it’s great to see “Metal Gear Solid” done justice by modern graphical improvements. I was also really impressed by the one long take style the cutscenes used, akin to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”. It’s an extremely kinetic, dynamic style that keeps everything so clear…there’s never any confusion with what is going on, because it’s so logical to just follow a single “camera’s” movement, rather than frequent cuts. It’s extremely immersive, and a distinctive new stylistic choice setting “Metal Gear Solid V” (as “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” also follows this) apart from its predecessors.
I have a lot else to say about the game, but all of it involves spoilers, so I’ll save it for the spoiler section below. While the game is inherently incomplete, everything it does, it does perfectly. It’s an extremely impressive, well-executed game. The gameplay, the story, the new style…all of it is so impressive, and works so well. While I don’t really consider it a full game unto itself, I do give it five helicopters, and a hidden bomb.
[There are a load of paragraph below to prevent anyone accidentally seeing the spoiler section of the review. Scroll down to see it!]
[Spoiler section of the review]
The game is essentially a direct sequel to “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”. It revolves around extracting characters introduced in that game (Chico and Paz), the climax involves the destruction of the central feature of that game (Mother Base), and there are relatively few new story elements introduced without direct connections to that preceding game (Skull Face and XOF are the only real “new” story elements, though they’re heavily connected to Cipher/Zero, who we already know well). The climax is a brutal ending to the tale of “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, as a fully developed Mother Base (one players spent countless hours developing) is utterly destroyed, but what comes before is a fitting, though surprisingly dark, continuation.
Because of this, what is new stands out, and is even jarring. Kiefer Sutherland as Snake (Big Boss/Naked Snake) is a huge departure from David Hayter. Their vocal performances are completely different. Big Boss had a different voice in “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, Richard Doyle, but that Big Boss was so old, so past the Naked Snake introduced in “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, that it didn’t bother me at all. Also, David Hayter acting against himself for the ending of “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” would have felt clumsy. I’m not complaining about Sutherland, as he delivers a strong performance, and is a very talented actor (not just in the vocal department, as he also provides facial motion capture), but it does feel so jarring when the game is such a direct sequel to “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, taking place not long after its ending, for Big Boss’ voice (and to some degree, temperament) to be so radically different. I wish there was some sort of more graceful or less jarring exit for Hayter, but it is what it is. Apparently series director Hideo Kojima thought Kiefer Sutherland, as a much more practised actor, was more appropriate as the role of Snake now demanded facial motion capture as well, but the role of Big Boss had never been as comfortably Hayter’s as the role as Solid Snake was, with Kojima originally trying to recruit Kurt Russell for the English role, back for “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”.
It’s interesting the game starts with the song “Here’s to You”, which played during the end credits of “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”. Perhaps Kojima is simply a great fan of the song, but it felt to me like an indicator of connective tissue between “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” and “Metal Gear Solid V” (the two games, as a complete experience), like it was tying the two together. Neither “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” or “Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance” felt like proper, main series entries the way of the first four “Metal Gear Solid” games to me, but this, this certainly does. While it takes place decades before the Solid Snake games, all of the Kojima games are more focused on telling their own stories and making their own thematic statements rather than just following continuity linearly, and the game’s examination of Big Boss and Zero’s relationship and conflict, as well as the horrifying state that is modern warfare and espionage, feels like a very natural evolution from “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”.
The story of the game is notably darker than any of the preceding games. The fourth Chico cassette tapes was particularly horrifying, suggesting (and at times outright depicting) the gang rape of Paz by XOF soldiers, and Skull Face pushing Chico to rape Paz. Kojima uses a lot more horror elements in this game than he has in preceding “Metal Gear Solid” games. Sometimes what isn’t explained or shown is more unsettling than what is – the unexplained mutilated hole in Chico’s chest, that he pushes a headphone jack into, was especially unsettling to me because it was never commented on or explained. Implication and imagination can be a lot more disturbing than outright presentation, as was also the case for the bomb presumably inserted into Paz’s vagina. That said, the MSF medic extracting the other bomb, located in Paz’s stomach, was outright displayed, and was plenty disturbing.
Kojima said himself, on the topic of the darker subject matter in the game, that “I’m going to be targeting a lot of taboos, a lot of mature themes that really are quite risky. I’m not even sure if I’m going to be able to release the game and even if I did release the game then maybe it wouldn’t sell because it’s too much. As a creator I wanted to take that risk. Video games as a medium haven’t matured very much at all in the last 25 years. It’s always about killing aliens and zombies. Not that I don’t like those kinds of games, they are fun, but I think games have a long way to go before they can mature. Over the past 25 years I have tried to work with the Metal Gear series to introduce more mature themes, but really it hasn’t gotten there yet. Compared to movies and books it still has a long way to go. That’s precisely what I want to try and tackle with Ground Zeroes….I’m approaching the project as a creator and prioritising creativity over sales”.
While darkness for the sake of darkness isn’t particularly enticing, I agree with Kojima’s broad points there about the maturity (or lack thereof) in the industry, and I think the game was a good examination of a facility clearly meant to evoke places like Guantanamo Bay. Black sites, torture, and the nature of off-shore detention camps…I don’t think there is any inherent reasons video games shouldn’t be a medium to explore these issues. Video games don’t need to inherently be purely “fun” experiences where player sanctification is entirely derived from combat. While he mightn’t succeed all the time, I’m very happy there are people like Kojima trying to push the industry and medium forward.
The game isn’t all dark. The bonus “Deja Vu” and “Jamais Vu” missions are glorious fanservice for “Metal Gear Solid” and the character of Raiden. The side ops are also much lower stakes than the main mission, and are even in the daytime, so they’re literally not as dark too! I had particular fun with the “Deja Vu” mission and its many callbacks.
Skull Face seems to set up themes of voice and language (particularly in the “Agent’s Recording” tape), as well as revenge.The game is a prelude, so I’ll wait until playing “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” to dig into what statements “Metal Gear Solid V” as a complete experience makes. That final setpiece, the destruction of Mother Base, certainly sets up plenty of story for “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, and is a brutal incentive for revenge. The nature of the XOF remains something of a mystery, but it’s clear that Cipher/Zero are put forward as an antagonistic threat to Big Boss at this time, expanding on their conflict that Big Boss discussed in the ending of “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”.
The game is, by its nature, incomplete, a prelude. It can’t be satisfactorily judged as a full game of its own. But for what it is, I think it’s perfect. Kojima Productions was firing on all cylinders here, and delivered a fantastic – if short – experience. I give it five helicopters, and a hidden bomb.