Saturday, August 1, 2015

Game Review: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
  • Publisher: Konami 
  • Developer: Kojima Productions 
  • Release: PlayStation 3/PlayStation 4/XBox 360/XBox One/PC, 18 March 2014 
  • Genre: Action (Third-person, Stealth) 
  • Players: 1 (Internet ranking) 
Question: What constitutes the true play-time of a video game? Is it measured in the length of its canonical story campaign? Or should any supplementary modes be included as well? And where does multiplayer fit in to all this? Well, this conversation got a little more heated with the release of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, billed as a prequel to the upcoming MGSV: The Phantom Pain. In case you haven't heard, the main story mode and six side missions of Ground Zeroes run, on average, about fifteen minutes apiece. Oh, did I mention that Ground Zeroes is being sold at US$30? Yeah, and it was going to be $40 at first. That may not be as much as the standard price of full-budget video games these days, but for something of this length, I'd expect nothing more costly than a ten-spot, not something treated with the same fanfare and pre-release scrutiny as... well, The Phantom Pain, for example. By any reckoning, I deem this unacceptable. So much so, that my original concept for this review was just an empty page, nothing but blank lines, made purely out of protest. But then I actually played it, and... well, just read on for yourself.

Ground Zeroes takes place in 1975 at a place called Camp Omega, a clandestine American prison-camp in Cuba, which is most certainly "not" inspired by the real-life one at Guantanamo Bay. The place is being run by a villain named Skullface, so named because most of the skin had been burned off of his face in some earlier time, who is in contact with an offscreen shadowy figure known only as Cipher (a.k.a. Major Zero from MGS3). It is here that Snake, alternatively named Big Boss or, as I like to call him, "The Artist Formerly Known as Snake", must rescue Chico and Paz, two children* who tagged along for the ride during 2010's MGS: Peace Walker, and have somehow wound up in Camp Omega.  Actually, with Ground Zeroes being a direct sequel to Peace Walker, I'd advise playing that game if you want to understand even half of the plot. No seriously, it's really good. I recommend picking it up as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, which in addition to Peace Walker also includes the special editions of MGS2 and 3, plus the original games made for the MSX. So go do that. I'll wait.

*Actually, it turns out that Paz is actually 24 years old by the time of Ground Zeroes. You see what I mean when I said the Japanese have a [verb]ed-up understanding of age? Ah well, at least it takes the edge off of what happens to her at the end.

Everybody caught up on their Metal Gear lore now? Good, let's move on. You know how I warned you in the first paragraph that each of the game's missions lasts but a fraction of an hour? Well, that's because Camp Omega represents the entirety of the game's playable real estate. The camp's large enough; I'm no good with estimating distances, but it could comfortably fit a fair handful of maps from any given multiplayer shooter. And one of the ending cutscenes is a shootout on Mother Base (the offshore headquarters Snake and company built up during Peace Walker), and the player doesn't get so much as a quick-time event! Come on guys; I know this cutscene is in-game, so you've already rendered the area just to make that cutscene which was apparently so bloody important! Why couldn't you have used it for some additional missions to fill out the game with!?

And speaking of ending cutscenes, at some point Snake and company extract a bomb from Paz's guts -- without anesthetic -- only for her to wake up and announce there was another bomb in her body, presumably in her womb. Dramatic, yes, but what was the point of showing us the ordeal with the first bomb if she's just gonna blow up anyway and send Snake into a coma which lasts him through the start of The Phantom Pain? And Paz, darling, it's lucky you're over 18 or else this would be even more effed up than it already is, and it is already considerably effed up, if you haven't gathered. And that's not even considering the stuff that goes on in the collectible cassette tapes, if you ever bother to listen to them.

For the gameplay we do get, Ground Zeroes introduces a new mechanic to its stealth-action gameplay, and by "new", I mean "borrowed from Far Cry 3". You can tag enemies by looking at them through your binoculars, allowing you to track their movements, even through walls. I must say, it encourages more careful play, or at least tries to. And even if you do get spotted, there's another new feature (and by "new", I mean "it might actually be new in how it's used in this game") caled Reflex Mode, wherein time slows down for a few seconds and you have a last chance to kill or knock out the guy who spotted you before the alarm gets triggered. This last feature is optional, but you get bonus points at the end of your mission if you don't use this feature. Further new features (and by "new", I mean "recycled from Peace Walker") include a revamped Codec system, which eschews the traditional text-based cutscenes in favour of a few lines of context-sensitive monologue, without breaking the flow of gameplay. If you ask me, this is how the Codec should have been implemented from the start.

And of course, Ground Zeroes implements "new" features that are being picked up by every triple-A video game with a drop of shooter blood in its body. Snake's inventory is limited to a maximum of two long guns, a pistol, and four items (such as grenades, C4, and empty magazines), and he regenerates health automatically. It is possible for him to suffer more serious injuries, thus limiting his healing factor, but you can cure these with a button prompt, and there is no limit to how often you can do this, so what's the point? Snake also has a sprinting ability, but I actually liked its inclusion here. Not only does Snake run longer and faster than characters in other games employing the technique, but it's handy for getting out of undesired skirmishes. And with an open world sandbox to play about in, running away to a different portion of the map is a reliable way to hide when you get spotted. Although I couldn't help noticing that the timers indicating the duration of the various alert phases have been taken away, and have been replaced by mere captions.

If you need any proof that the eight-generation consoles are totally unnecessary, look to Ground Zeroes. Both the seventh-generation (PS3 and XBox 360) and eighth-gen (PS4 and XBox One) demonstrate impressive visual details. Any weapons and items in Snake's arsenal are shown strapped to his body at all times (their excuse for limited weapon slots?), and even jiggle about when he runs or sprints. In missions with rainy weather, the water sticks to people's clothes, including fluttering ponchos, with suitable realism. Pretty much the only difference between the two tiers is that the newer platforms run the game at 60 frames per second instead of 30, which is nice, but hardly a dealbreaker, I say. Or, you could just get the PC version, which is essentially the same as the 8th-gen ones, but for a platform you probably already own (assuming you've upgraded it in the past couple of years). Yup, it's never been a better time to join the PC Gaming Master Race (unless Origin or uPlay are involved). Also, the voice of Snake has been swapped from his longtime actor David Hayter to Kiefer Sutherland. What can I say other than, "if you liked him in 24, you'll like this."

This may sound weird given all the examples I've read of the video games industry screwing over consumers, but Ground Zeroes left a positive impression upon me. Maybe I'm just positively inclined towards the game since I borrowed it from the library (even getting all the PSN Trophies in doing so) without paying so much as a cent, but I do have other reasons. Open-world gameplay is a natural fit for the Metal Gear franchise, even if in this case the open-world is smaller than expected. And that being the case, I'm actually kind of excited for The Phantom Pain. I might even pick up that game when it comes out... okay, I'll wait for the reviews first. For now, I can't approve of what Ground Zeroes represents, but if you like it for what it is, I won't hold it against you. So I'll tell you what I'm going to do: I'm going to give it a base score of 80% (B), but you, the reader, get to subtract 5 percent from that score for every US$5 you spent on the game.

+ The new tagging mechanic makes stealth gameplay more fun and satisfying than ever.
+ There's plenty of stuff to do if you stick around for more than one play-through.
+ Very impressive graphics quality, even on the seventh-gen (PS3/X360) versions.

- Excessively brief first-play length.
- Regenerating health and limited weapon slots.

Control: 4 prisoners out of 5
Design: 4 prisoners out of 5
Writing: 3 prisoners out of 5
Graphics: 5 prisoners out of 5
Sound: 4 prisoners out of 5
Value: 1 prisoner out of 5
The Call: 40% (F) to 80% (B) (80%, minus 5% for every $5 you spent on the game)

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