Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Video Game Review: Metal Gear Solid V - Ground Zeroes

As you probably know if you read the blog, I'm a big Metal Gear Solid fan. Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots are amongst my favourite games of all time, and I've played through each probably at least a half dozen times. Naturally, I bought the game almost immediately, despite some trepidations about its short length. Is it really just an over-glorified demo as some are stating, or is it a solid prologue for The Phantom Pain? Read on to find out...

First of all, I have to get this out of the way: Kiefer Sutherland is fine as Snake. Fans were talking about boycotting the game if David Hayter didn't get the role, but if you seriously skipped out on this game only because you thought only Hayter could be Snake, then you're an idiot, pure and simple. I think I would have preferred Hayter, but I was surprised to find that Sutherland brought a more serious edge to the role. Rather than Hayter's awesomely over-the-top voice, we get a more subdued performance which sounds like Snake could actually be a grizzled veteran. In any case though, Sutherland does a fine job, and is not distracting in the least.

Now for the real talking point about the game - the length. It's true, the main mission in Ground Zeroes is pretty short - probably on par with the Tanker chapter or Virtuous Mission prologues from MGS2 and 3. I spent somewhere between an hour and a half to two hours on the mission and wasn't even doing all that much exploring - mostly just trying to get from point A to point B while minimizing kills and alerts (well, until I stole a LAV anyway, at which point I couldn't help myself...). However, that said, there is a lot more freedom to approach the mission, which makes it much more replayable and can vary the playtime significantly. Like any Metal Gear game, I can see myself playing through the main campaign a few times to try out different strategies and search for secrets.

The game isn't just restricted to the main mission though either; it also ships with 5 side ops. Unlike most open world side missions, the side ops are surprisingly compelling. Kojima has clearly gone to a lot of effort to make them interesting and varied. There's one mission where you have to visually identify two targets and stealthily assassinate them both. This would be fun in itself, but as we play the mission, we're given backstory into the war crimes these targets committed. Learning about how awful the targets were makes the mission completion all the more satisfying and compelling, rather than a chore. That's only one of the side ops too, the others are equally as enjoyable, and well worth playing through. People are getting way too caught up on the short length of the main mission itself, because I imagine on a reasonable playthrough you could get another 3+ hours out of the side missions themselves, and that's not including the inevitability of replaying missions to increase your score. If you really want to squeeze every second of value out of the game, there's also a bunch of collectable cassette tapes and XOF patches to find, and some weird tiki heads you can shoot too for a reward, all of which should keep dedicated players occupied for well over 15+ hours. So really, the game certainly has plenty of content for $30, but you have to be willing to work for it. In any case, if you're a Metal Gear fan like me, you already knew you'd be willing to spend $30+ up front. At worst, wait a few months for it to drop down to about $20, or wait until the inevitable Ground Zeroes + The Phantom Pain bundle that will drop in a year or two.

Anyway, now that the big controversies are out of the way, it's time to move onto my impressions in proper. First of all, the game is very much Metal Gear, but with a lot of needed refinement. The cutscenes are far less overbearing, which is welcome. As much as I enjoy the cutscenes in Metal Gear games, it becomes annoying having to wait upwards of an hour and a half to play the game again, only to have another cutscene interrupt me 30 seconds later. In Ground Zeroes, the cut scenes are still key, but they are spaced out far more infrequently, and don't meander nearly as much. The open world trappings also work very well and provide a lot of freedom and replayability for the player. Some people wondered if an open world was appropriate for Metal Gear, but I always thought such thinking was very short-sighted - these games have always aspired for an open world setting (yes, even since the original Metal Gear on MSX), but always lacked the technology to make that a reality. Instead, they've been restricted to maneuvering through linked corridors and open jungle and urban settings, but I can't have been the only player to think "damn, how awesome would it be if all these areas were seamlessly linked without loading screens?" Now that is a reality, and I couldn't be happier.

As far as the gameplay goes, it feels a lot like 2010's Peace Walker. Gunplay is certainly better than it was in the early games in the series, although it doesn't feel quite as smooth to me as something like, say, Uncharted does. Luckily, the game is about avoiding combat as much as possible, and so that's not a major issue by any means. Appropriately, Ground Zeroes also seems to have taken some cues from Splinter Cell: Blacklist, most notably the "last known position" mechanic, marking enemies on the HUD and Reflex mode. Reflex mode was a bit of a controversial addition, but I welcome it - sometimes it can be incredibly frustrating to sneak through an area, only to have an unseen enemy suddenly spot you and set off an alert phase. Reflex mode gives you a last chance to take that enemy out, although if you panic fire there's a good chance you won't pull off the shot. Perhaps best of all though is the fact that the developers made Reflex mode completely optional for those who want a challenge. I really appreciate when a developer gives players this sort of option, and it's just further incentive to become more skilled at the game so that you won't need to activate Reflex mode at all.

I would also like to point out that the game looks gorgeous on PS4. I've seen some comparison videos online and it looks quite good on last-gen too, so you really can't go wrong in terms of graphics (although current-gen is clearly superior). On the negative side though, there are still some issues I noticed with the engine which need to be ironed out before The Phantom Pain is released. Most noticeably, there's some considerable pop-in. I've tranquilized enemies, looked away from them and then looked back, only to have their bodies disappear for a couple seconds before the game reloaded them into the scene. It's not a major issue, but it is distracting and a surprising issue to see in a released title. I also notice that objects completely disappear at long distances, but can reappear when you zoom in on them. In the helicopter extraction side op, I noticed that exploding barrels were completely missing until I zoomed in on them - a pretty egregious issue because I could need to shoot those to kill enemies (or, theoretically, could accidentally shoot one and kill my target). These are relatively minor technical issues, but noticeable and annoying none-the-less.

I should also probably mention that the enemy AI can be pretty stupid at times. They're fine in general until an alert gets triggered, at which point they crouch through the open to try to attack Snake head on. When a full-on shootout occurs, it's not uncommon to gun down a half dozen idiots as they try to get closer to Snake (although I'll admit their animations when they get shot are very nice). That said, I was playing on Normal, so maybe they're improved in Hard mode... but somehow I doubt it. In my opinion, MGS2 continues to reign with the best AI in the series.

Moving on from gameplay, how is the story in Ground Zeroes? After all, for all its convoluted threads, story is just as important as gameplay to a Metal Gear game. In that respect, I'm pleased to announce that Ground Zeroes lives up to the previous games in the series, despite its short runtime. Of course, it's merely a prologue, but it lays the groundwork for The Phantom Pain very well, and am absolutely certain that that game is going to be gripping. It's also a far more mature story, touching on themes of torture and suffering in war (and explicitly drawing real-world parallels to Guantanamo Bay). Of course, there are still hammy bits, and lots of signature Kojima humour, but in general the story feels much more dark than normal. The ending is also not very satisfying, but it definitely leaves you pumped for the next chapter.

However, there are some rather shocking, and dare I say gratuitous, moments due to this mature emphasis. Paz ends up being subjected to some truly awful stuff - she has to have a bomb removed from her stomach sans anesthetic (which is shown in gory detail), and we find out that she was raped by the villain as well. That's pretty dark stuff, although it definitely tows the line of the "rape as plot device" trope. It certainly fits into the themes of the game overall, but Paz herself is reduced to nothing more than a torture plot point... a distressing reality which doesn't bode so well for Quiet's characterization later on. To be fair though, these sorts of dark moments have been a part of Metal Gear for quite some time now (probably most memorably with the origins of the Beauty and the Beast unit in MGS4, whose stories could probably rival anything on display here), but such moments tended to be off-screen and de-emphasized compared to what we have here.

All-in-all, it really is hard to score this game. It's fun, but it's clearly divisive. There's also some technical issues that need work, and its narrative leaves you hanging, but the core game play is very liberating. I think the best I can say is that you probably already know if you want to buy Ground Zeroes, and what price point you'd consider it to be worthwhile. If you aren't yet ready to take the plunge, hold off until it gets cheaper, or wait for the inevitable The Phantom Pain pack-in. If we take price out of the equation though, Ground Zeroes is undoubtedly a ton of fun.


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