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Metal Gear (almost) catches up with the genre it inspired.

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    Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

    Rating: 3.0 – Fair

    Metal Gear (almost) catches up with the genre it inspired.

    Metal Gear Solid is creaking a bit by this iteration. I think history is going to mark Ground Zeroes as simply the demo or first level for The Phantom Pain but this is no tutorial. It could be the greatest demo in history… or the most expensive; depending on your perspective.

    At the very start it shoots itself in the foot by neglecting to tell you how to play. I know that it is fashionable to "trust players" to find out how to play but Metal Gear Solid games have a history of having intentionally counter intuitive controls* so I came to it utterly distrusting the developer and got lost pretty sharpish. I’m not sure where I read it first but making you contort your hands to aim the gun was intentional in MGS. It stopped you simply shooting down all the guards in the first 3 games and forced you sneak by making the sneaking controls slightly less silly. Navigation and map controls were only slightly less daft though.

    The shooting mechanics have improved mightily since MGS4 but, compare it to just about ANY other sneak-em-up and you immediately start asking questions like "why does it take three buttons (letting go of some of them after pressing) and a joystick to aim a sniper rifle when every-other game does it in two? And why not just tell me how to do that in the game before my virtual life depends on it?

    The instructions are there of course. Part of the game is finding them via a "Look at stuff with a pair of binoculars and listen to Sutherland whisper it in your ear." But I’m deaf so I’m screwed on that one. Subtitles are pretty good but sometimes they get misleading. One particular one was a "gunshot" described in the subtitles that was actually nothing of the sort, but it had me looking for enemies for a few seconds before I realised. I was spotted while looking for a shooter when it was actually ambient noise mislabelled.

    The usual cinematic cutscenes are all present and correct but become infuriating very quickly, even if they are skippable. Many in the press touted them as being superbly cinematic. They’re cinematic, but weirdly naive, like they’re a list of shot types a GCSE student has to make in a film in order to achieve an A but without them understanding that putting them all in one scene takes some of the impact away. They are good, don’t get me wrong, but they’re not "watch it twice" good and they’re so derivative that they work better as parodies but that is kind of the point. Metal Gear Solid games have to be camp at times but Ground Zeroes is the least camp of the series so far.

    Apart from the introduction and instructions being all but absent the little camp is a reasonable play area. I have read it makes up for its’ small play area by packing in detail. It doesn’t. The first building I attempted to enter was a box with door textures on it. MOST of the buildings are boxes with door textures on them. For a late 360 game it is woefully short on detail and scale. For an Xbox One game it is desolate. Far Cry 3 has more detailed shacks. At least most of their buildings have interiors.

    It does however "look" very detailed. The sense of place is, like all MGS games absolutely nailed. It is brilliant until the next time you do something that involves the contextual action buttons. The game often fails to detect ladders. walls, rocks and other furniture around the levels. You learn to adapt quickly, get into the mindset of playing a game ten years older than this one, but that means you are playing a game with very old-fashioned mechanics. When was the last time you played a triple A title where your character had to be steered in circles like a Benny Hill sketch for a second around a ladder in order to lock on to it and climb it? Now imagine a game where being seen bouncing around like a bee in a jam-jar means being very slowly killed by high velocity peas. You quit way before the game get around to killing you.

    "Snake? Are you there? SNAAAUAAKE!"

    The sneaking mechanic is the same sort of thing we’ve been playing since MGS, slow, methodical, very consistent cones of vision for the bad guys but the behaviour of the AI still feels more like a puzzle game. The level is huge but whilst games like Sniper Elite 3 embrace the open nature of the levels they build, Ground Zeroes is still decided into smaller zones that are only very thinly disguised. There may not be walls but you only have to glance at the map to see the grid the AI patterns walk around. Only when on alert will they come looking outside of their invisible box. On hard mode they’ll even look in hiding places but never do you feel like they’re halfway intelligent. Even with marines after you they patrol in a handy sort of squatting line-dance, just the right size to take three out with one grenade.

    You grenade them the first time for a laugh. You reset the game every time afterward.

    Because the game is so open however, the cat and mouse gameplay is even more watered down than it was in MGS3, whilst Sam Fisher has now got a much more free flow to his goon hunting antics. MGS GZ borrows Fishers’ bullet-time-esque get out of jail card to give you a chance to escape being seen by lowing the observant guards head of, or flicking peas at his face, which is what the silenced pistol sounds like, and how they react.

    A dart to the face should hurt, not mildly irritate, particularly shots to the eyes.

    Unlike Fisher, getting seen still feels like a fail. Yes you can run away and hide in implausible locations, like under a prefab building, under a metal grid or between two blades of grass (only not behind a door since 90% of the time it’s just one painted on the side of a box.)

    The fun in this game is not from feeling like a super-spy-hero or ninja. The fun comes from finding out how the game works, uncovering the gameplay elements that are beautifully crafted together in an interlocking ecosystem of ideas most developers would bin from the start.

    This is what works against the game in my view. Instead of losing myself in the narrative, I found the fourth wall broken every time I attempted to explore because instead of discovering how this little world worked I was reminded that this was a game.

    Ground Zeroes makes you work hard to enjoy it, and there is a great sense of achievement in finding out the next little trick the developers crafted but, fond as I am of MGS, I kept thinking this has been done better, less obviously. There are games that do the same sneakiness effortlessly.

    It wasn’t a hard game to play. The core mission takes minutes to run through. One side mission took me less than 12 minutes to complete it, first time, on S rank (you get marked on how many people you avoided killing, number of alarms etc. S is the highest.) I’m not boasting. It too easy. The challenge was staying interested and in not thinking "Why didn’t the game just tell me this at the start? Things like how to aim the sniper rifle I had found. Even the ‘help’ system doesn’t quite get it across succinctly enough for new skills to be picked up quickly.

    In some missions I found myself needing to constantly restart the game. Not because I died. I got the timing of a chain of activities wrong by a fraction of a second and knew that I’d be hiding in a drain for longer than it would take to reload and replay the level from scratch in order of the patrols to get back to normal again. Once you start resetting the game like that you begin to question why you’re not playing something else while it reloads. There are checkpoints, and the system seems really convenient at first, auto saving you to the edge of one of those invisible boxes I mentioned earlier. But not only does it signpost where the edge of the box is but it also changes the guards patterns. Some of the guys you knocked out before are now stand up, blithely ignoring their friends snoozing away by their feet but ready to raise that alarm from a new location he has somehow teleported to.

    I liked playing Ground Zeroes. But I liked it in the same way I liked Time Shift, another B title in which it was more fun to work out what the mechanics were than to play the game. I’ve heard it compared to Dark Souls in the way you are left to discover how the thing works but ground Zeroes is nowhere even close to being as rewarding.

    Despite having some really good ideas and deceptive depth I can’t recommend it as a game you’d pay more than £10 for. There is a lot replay value but it never feels more than a demo of a bigger game. the fun is from uncovering what new things the series has added and from finding nods and winks to earlier MGS games. For a fan it has far more weight than I’m giving it, but for a stand-alone game you pay money for?

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