Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Ze­roes

360, PS3, PS4, Xbox One

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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, and the other re­al­i­ties of war, and that’s be­fore any­one even con­sid­ers how such 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.

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

Scripted twists are sup­ported by emer­gent mo­ments as mem­o­rable as any from games a hun­dred times larger

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.

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