Platform: Playstation 4
Developer: Kojima Productions
Time flies. Has it really been six years since Solid Snake romped around Outer Haven in the last mainline Metal Gear Solid game from Hideo Kojima? Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was a bloated, bombastic and memorable installment of the Metal Gear Solid series that saw Kojima well and truly embrace the excess that his series is known for, for better or worse. The game featured some wildly inventive stages that varied massively from location to location and concluded with a mind boggling ninety minute final cut scene. Depending on how you view the franchise, that moment was Metal Gear Solid at its finest or at its worst.
Although its convoluted control scheme has aged poorly, I was generally a big fan of Metal Gear Solid 4. It was so unique and unflinching with its shattering of genre conventions that I couldn’t help but admire its ballsiness, even if I couldn’t always follow what was going on.
So after a prolonged break (I didn’t play Peace Walker or the HD remakes), it was a pleasure to return to the franchise in this prequel to Metal Gear Solid V.
Ground Zeroes is a curious game, limited in size, but expansive in its depth and replayability. The game only has one location: Camp Omega, an America military prison which detains suspected enemy combatants and terrorists. Snake’s mission is to extract two child soldiers, Paz and Chico. They are held captive by a ridiculous looking military commander named Skull Face who has no skin on his face and presumably moonlights as a henchman for Cobra Commander on weeknights. Over and above the main campaign, there are a bunch of additional missions that can be completed and the scope of the environment is broad enough that it can be completed in a number of different ways. You can infiltrate the camp stealthily or go in guns blazing. There are vehicles that can be hijacked and C4 which can disable the anti-aircraft equipment. The selling point of Metal Gear Solid 5 is that it is going to be an open world game and it turns out that that is a terrific direction for the franchise to take.
For all the things I liked about Metal Gear Solid 4, I could understand loyalists who were disappointed with the linear direction that the game took. MGS4 predated the rise in popularity of Call of Duty and its canned campaign mode, where every explosion and every action set piece was predetermined, and that’s effectively what Guns of the Patriots was.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a move in the opposite direction. In Ground Zeroes, Camp Omega is a virtual playground with a ton of dynamic events that can occur organically, based upon your approach. Once the action kicks off, it still unfolds with the finesse and excitement of playing through a scripted sequence for the first time. Between each attempt I had at saving Paz and Chico, the way I attempted to clear an area could vary wildly. On a whim I could attempt to sneak into a base camp on the back of a truck and then take out the guards by accessing the ventilation shafts and dropping in on them unsuspected. Or alternatively I could commander a guard tower and take out the guards with a sniper rifle. Often I would attempt a well-intentioned sneak past the guard routine that would go pear shaped and lead into a Benny Hill sequence where I would scamper away with four guards on my tail. I love Metal Gear Solid but admittedly I’m not very good at it.
The openness and sheer scope of the full game is an exciting prospect for fans looking to see the franchise move away from its cinematic obsession and embrace its gamey roots. More than anything, I’ve missed how Kojima throws his creative force so whole-heartedly into the Metal Gear Solid series. Making video games like this can be a hundred man operation but with MGS, they have the feel and personal touch of a true auteur. Even with the change of voice actor from long time contributor David Hayter to Hollywood actor Kiefer Sutherland, Snake still feels distinctly like the heart and soul of Hideo Kojima himself.
As for the story, Kojima has expressed an interest in exploring some taboo subjects for video game narratives. Ground Zeroes and the full game Phantom Pain are expected to tackle difficult subjects including torture, the military industrial complex and child soldiers. Time will tell whether the introduction of more serious themes will work in the strange paradox that is Metal Gear Solid. The franchise has always cutting edge graphics and some impressive attention to detail but it has also reveled in silliness and meta-game awareness. Just how tastefully a game that is famous for its protagonist hiding in a cardboard box can tackle the nuances and sensitivities of child soldiers and torture remains to be seen. With the introduction of new characters like Skull Face and a mute bikini clad sniper, Kojima doesn’t appear shy about mixing his more challenging subject matter with outlandish anime tropes.
For now, Ground Zeroes is a brief but exciting glimpse at the future. The graphical grunt of his new Fox Engine is impressive, the expansive new gameplay shows signs of great promise and the allure of a Jack Bauer powered Solid Snake is strong. We’ll see if Kojima can deliver the goods when the full game arrives later this year.