It has been 17 months since Ground Zeroes was controversially released, retailing at £30 and teasing at a much more substantial main course (The Phantom Pain). Ground Zeroes has been on sale several times since then and has now been given free with pre-orders of The Phantom Pain, which is being released on the 1st of September. So how does the game hold up?
Ground Zeroes is gorgeous to look at and gorgeous to play, with the depth of Snake’s abilities giving players access to pretty much total control. Metal Gear Solid 4 felt like a refined version of its predecessor with many less-than-refined concepts piled on top from mission to mission and the portability of Peace Walker meant control felt less intuitive than ever. Perhaps The Phantom Pain will push players into situations unsuited to the controls, but the small scope of this intro mission at least means that Ground Zeroes can focus on fantastic core-gameplay.
The overall length of the game can be compared to a segment of an episodic game. Compared to The Walking Dead or Life is Strange, the graphical and gameplay polish is in another league, but an average episodic game offers 3 hours of essential storytelling. The essential mission in Ground Zeroes is over in around an hour and the other side missions are unambitious and are largely set apart due to the different weather and times of day. The tasks set in the side missions do allow players to test out some different skills but, while they do add precious hours onto the games run-time, they are hours that feel substandard to the great main mission.
Since the game is less dense than the usual Metal Gear title, it lacks the pretentiousness and strangeness that can come with many themes and threads being thrown into one pot. Ground Zeroes quarantines one idea and focuses on it. Simple is an alien concept to Metal Gear and Hideo Kojima, but just because Ground Zeroes’ story is simple does not mean that it isn’t ambitious. The story of Nicola and Bart is the central reference that the story, dialogue and music (with Ennio Morricone’s song) all connect to. The connections can still be indirect but the focus around this one story and piece of music makes the game just that, focused. Just as the gameplay does not have time to add frills that would usually introduce some imperfections, the story lacks the time to add the usual quirks. Some people find those signature oddities charming but they will, without a doubt, be back in The Phantom Pain and it is good to see a Metal Gear game trying to maintain a serious tone from start to finish (there are always the silly extra-ops).
The most substantial missions other than the centre-piece are the extra missions that were originally console specific additions. Playstation players had access to a retro-styled mission themed around recreating set-pieces from the original Solid game. Xbox owners had the privilege or dishonour (depending on who you ask) to play as Raiden in a sci-fi body-snatcher scenario. These missions are much lighter on enemies and are a refreshing break for more novice players, which is odd because these mission are tucked away and to unlock them players must collect several badges scattered around the main mission.
Finding the badges is not a satisfying experience: perhaps it was when Ground Zeroes came out and Metal Gear fans had nothing else to do other than wander around, but now, with the The Phantom Pain release impending, players really just want to get to those interesting missions. The bobbleheads in Fallout 3 do not unlock some precious essential content and at least look distinct and interesting. The XOF patches are just a waste of time to desperately make the game seem longer.
Game developers should feel more at ease with making shorter games for cheaper price points. In a world where ambitious story driven games feel the need to pad their length, it is disappointing that, rather than an organic mini Metal Gear game, we were given something that feels cleaved from a larger, complete package. Metal Gear games, as long as they are, rarely feel padded and it is shocking that that such a short instalment also feels the most like it is trying waste time. While much of the anger gamers felt upon the game’s release has diminished, it is still evident that this is just a demo with some fetch-quests and cool Easter-eggs added on top. Kojima’s ambition means that Ground Zeroes mostly gets away with it, but disregarding the need to debate if the game is worth the money, even if you are given the game for free, it is hard to ignore the feeling of the sparse content being stretched.