Platform: Xbox One
Release Date: 18 March 2014
Developer: Kojima Productions
Where to get it: Xbox Live (Or anywhere that sells Xbone games)
I've long considered what I'd say about Ground Zeroes if it came to an actual review, and quite a while ago I decided that I simply wouldn't bother because I'd probably end up writing a bunch of contradicting nonsense and you, dear readers, wouldn't really get anything out of it.
However, Ground Zeroes is coming to PC in a couple of months, along with The Phantom Pain at some point in the future so what better time than now to talk about how pretty the weather effects in Guantanamo Bay - Uh, "Camp Omega" are.
Metal Gear Solid first popped up on the Playstation one back when IceT and Cyprus Hill were still cool and took the gaming world by storm with its hugely cinematic story about terrorists and bombs and such, likable characters and actually innovative gameplay.
From that point on the series took on a life of its own and David Hayter has been spouting gravelly voiced pseudo-philosophical Kojima brand bullshit out of our speakers ever since, all the while the story got more and more convoluted with the introduction of the legendary Big Boss, Boss, and my personal favourite; The Pain-ain-ain-ain...
If you're not already a fan of the Metal Gear Solid series it might seem like Ground Zeroes is a bit of a silly place to start, being that it's not at the start of the story and it's a prequel to a major entry in the series, and a bunch of other reasons probably involving time and money but Ground Zeroes actually provides an excellent jumping in point for players who have never played the series before (like the PC market) and are curious what all the fuss is about. The fuss is about nukes, it's always about nukes with Metal Gear Solid, just so you know.
Lets first address the elephant in the room; Ground Zeroes is, and is not, a glorified, paid for demo. The various reports of being able to finish the game in 45 minutes are true, for the primary mission at least but chances are you'll get far more play time out of the extra missions and different approaches but we'll talk about those a little bit later on.
Following the usual format we'll have a gander at the eye candy first: it's good. Looks tasty.
In all seriousness, Ground Zeroes is the best looking game on Xbox One by a considerable margin. Ryse is probably the next closest contender but the spectacular (and I do not use that word lightly here) lighting and weather effects bring so much to the table - a simple change of time of day, or the addition of a rain storm changes the way the map plays considerably by altering not just how much you can see but how perceptive the guards are, whether or not they favour covered guard posts or standing in the open, etc.
It's such a subtle yet significant change that it really does have to be seen to be believed and if this level of care to attention follows through to The Phantom Pain, and we have every reason to believe it does, we'll have something very special on our hands when it finally get released.
Similarly impressive are the character models and material effects. Seeing the details on material via high quality textures and cloth simulation and the like isn't anything new but Ground Zeroes has that kind of close-up-worthy detail in absolutely everything, there's not a single blurry texture or basic model to be found no matter how violently you mash the camera into an unconscious guard's crotchular region.
The most damning complaint I can level at the visuals is the use of bloom to an almost Halo 3 level in the night-time missions with headlights, torches and especially search-lights looking like they're heralding the second coming. It's perfectly fitting with the rest of the graphical style and does help you feel like you're really having a searchlight pointed at you on a dark, rainy night but bloom hasn't exactly endeared itself to me over the years so this complaint is a very personal one.
Sound design has been handled incredibly, as one might expect from a Metal Gear Solid game. Kiefer Sutherland does an excellent Big Boss voice and feels almost indistinguishable from the much loved David Hayter when he's not doing the shouty bits, where he slips firmly into Jack Bauer territory from time to time.
The NPC voices are equally well recorded and though there's not a lot of variety they are personable and informative for the enemies while allies, especially Chico, are absolutely chock full of personality, the kind that feels a little distant and muted in their previous adventure during the Peace Walker incident.
Weapon sounds are sharp and hefty enough to sound convincing but are far from realistic. The sniper rifle in particular does have a very satisfying boom but the shotgun sounds like it could have been lifted right from Counter Strike or Call Of Duty and the rest of the handful of assault rifles and pistols fall somewhere between.
Not quite as impressive however are the vehicle sounds, 1970's APCs should not sound like a modern electric car with a sore throat. The helicopter is the stand-out vehicle, with the sound of beating rotors and rushing wind accompanying its arrival but it still feels a little piffling especially when called into a combat situation where your silenced weapon firing can kind of meld with the sound to create a kind of homogeneous white noise though thankfully you seem to naturally tune it out much in the same way you ignore a busy road while walking alongside it.
The main story mission in Ground Zeroes is a direct follow-on from the ending of Peace Walker, taking place between Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain to bridge the plot gap between the games.
In this mission Big Boss is infiltrating a US government "black site", a thinly veiled take on Guantanamo Bay, complete with the horrific mistreatment of prisoners, wrongly imprisoned inmates and shady practices. The goal of his latest military base penetration is to rescue Paz and Chico (two key characters from Peace Walker, I won't go into more details because spoilers but the Metal Gear wiki will gladly spoil all the plot you want).
Naturally things aren't entirely straightforward and while it's not quite as convoluted gameplay wise as MGS' PAL Card shenanigans it still manages to present a short movie length plot about characters you don't necessarily need to be familiar with beforehand to enjoy.
I really could talk all day about the plot and theories and such surrounding Metal Gear Solid but I'm dedicated to remaining as spoiler free as possible here at Whiskey Reviews and doubly so in the case of Metal Gear Solid so that's all you'll get out of me.
Now, about that variety of gameplay I promised to have a talk about.
Ground Zeroes control scheme is a refined version of the Metal Gear Solid 4/Peace Walker HD controls and play wonderfully smoothly, even managing to have a button on the pad dedicated to diving prone so you don't have to fiddle with the normal crouch/prone control in a moment of panic or surprise.
Aiming controls are tight and mostly precise, often with the crosshair clearly showing your margin of error for taking a shot without pulling up the weapon's iron sights in first-person. Thankfully that's no longer a hassle as it was in MGS2 and 3 as now your choice of shoulder and whether or not you have the iron-sights up when aiming are remembered between uses of your weapons.
While sneaking around is the order of the day for general gameplay you have plenty of approaches and minute to minute choices to make that not only lend Big Boss a bit more personality outside of the cutscenes but also make the missions worth playing out multiple times just to toy with the layout and complex but consistent AI behaviour. Something as small as getting briefly spotted at location X instead of location Y 20 meters away can change the approach you'll take to the next ten or twenty minutes of gameplay.
Stealth isn't mandatory however, and with the refined third person shooting controls it's more viable than ever to let rip with Big Boss' more sensibly sized arsenal and straight up fight your way through a mission.
Unlike other stealth games this approach isn't necessarily harder, but you do open yourself to being killed relatively easily and so you have to approach your situation flexibly; no hunkering down behind the nearest waist-high wall and popping up and down to thin out the unnamed henchman ranks here - that'll get you flanked, exploded or surrounded in short order. Or the AI might just hunker down too and suppress you until air or armoured support arrives and annihilates your makeshift Alamo.
Big Boss has a wealth of new moves and gadgets at his disposal, the most impressive being the wonderfully satirical and out of place iDroid, a kind of holographic map and computer all in one that sits in Big Boss' pocket right alongside his tape-playing Walkman.
The new moves and gadgets range from small like choosing whether or not to turn on an underbarrel flashlight or silencer to larger choices like how you'll handle a guard; do you sneak up behind him and put a gun to his head to arrest him? Once you've done that do you chat for info or just make him lie down?
Maybe you'll shoot him instead or maybe you'll just quietly slip away and let his eventual realization that you're gone provide a distraction.
That's only one of the three broader ways to deal with guards, there's grabbing and CQC takedowns too that open up a whole bunch of other possibilities that even gamers who don't think think twenty moves ahead like a chess pro will be able to exploit to their advantage in a multitude of inventive, hilarious and sometimes sick ways.
For example; I had a guard I had stabbed and left in the road, an officer and his driver came by in a jeep a short time later and saw the body in their headlights and decided to stop to investigate. Naturally the officer hung back while the driver went to look so I quietly popped the officer with a tranquilizer dart and he collapsed off the side of the road into a bush.
At this point the driver looks around to find that his buddy has gone and proceeds to confusedly look around the jeep, his paranoia growing all the while before I decide to put the poor git out of his misery by jumping out around the edge of the jeep and knocking him out cold with a bit of CQC that'd make an MMA fighter cream their colourful little shorts.
I could've just as easily planted a mine or bomb in the road to blow the jeep up, shot the jerry can of fuel on the back or popped a tire and watched it careen into a wall or neatly picked off the two passengers from a concealed position. I could've sniped them or done it up close or I could have remained hidden entirely and let them leave. I could've lured them away from the jeep and then stolen it only to go on a Death Race 2000 style killing spree.
My point is that the choices feel endless, that was one example of one encounter out of dozens you'd have in a single play through and the consequences of those events can cascade into other events, like triggering the base alarm and calling out more guards or having them fall back to fortify a more important area and you can even exploit those events to your advantage.
The NPC AI is brilliantly complex and consistent, fair and alert but not psychic. It really presents the illusion that the men you're playing knifey-throaty with are people and not just a set of scripts being executed by the machine.
Guards will notice if you remove a patrol member that crosses their path, realising after a while that he hasn't passed them when he should. They'll notice if you take out a stationary guard behind someone's back and he turns around to see they're gone.
If that sounds unfair to you I'd like to provide the counterpoint that it provides not only a fair and balanced stealth mechanic but also empowers you while making the whole experience more engaging by having you think constantly about the short, and long-term consequences of every contact you make with the enemy.
Varying knock-out times depending on method used also provide more control and variety to the player, perhaps you need to draw away a stubborn guard at a door and so you want to knock out a nearby guard who's easier to approach; but another patrol passes this point in fifteen seconds so you want to make sure they pass before your victim wakes up; you might choose to choke your victim into unconsciousness so that he wakes up a bit after the patrol has gone rather than knock him out with CQC or a throw that bangs his head so that he wakes up at a slightly different time.
The standard guard AI is also coupled with two other types that I've noticed in Ground Zeroes; the CP AI, which is like an off-map commander that interacts with reports made by the AI soldiers via radio and dispatches orders or reinforcements, alarms and stand-down orders as it sees fit. CP acts as kind of a director to the action, ensuring that no alarm state is permanent but that it isn't locked to a gamey countdown timer like previous entries in the series.
The second type of AI is the combat squad; I believe these are separate from the normal Ai but I might be wrong there. The combat squad behaves like a squad of soldiers engaged in combat, just like the name suggests, they'll move together, provide overwatch while they perform leapfrog moves between cover and thoroughly make your life hell by typically being so coordinated and efficient at their role that you might as well be trying to take on real trained soldiers.
You'll still giggle like a schoolgirl in a sex shop when you manage to sneak up behind one of these squads and sit there watching and listening to them while they make thorough prats out of themselves. There's such a sense of achievement when you manage to outwit one of these teams and slip by undetected that it could be the whole point of the game and I'd be satisfied.
That's about the extent of the content in the game I'm willing to spoil in detail for now, it's something best experienced in person for maximum effect. I really mean it when I say you will be doing yourself a great disservice if you watch a stream or lets play of Ground Zeroes.
There is other content beside the main, canon story mission (which can last anywhere between about 4 minutes and 2 hours, seriously) which vary not in location but in objectives, guard layouts and patrol patterns, time of day and weather.
These additional missions range from saving an escaping prisoner by shooting out of the side door of your helicopter to assassinating two war criminals to eliminating Snatchers or recreating scenes from the original Metal Gear Solid (two missions which I really hope make it to the PC edition).
Overall, Ground Zeroes is a decently substantial package. Between the two difficulty modes, hundreds of gameplay choices and handful of objectives, secrets and collectibles the one map doesn't feel quite so small once you're there and it's not fair to call the package a demo.
That said, it's not a full game and you can pick up a full game for 20 quid or less but not one of this quality. You'd be hard pressed to find any game, at any price, that has this level of quality and depth but you are still paying for a game that you might blow through in about the same amount of time as your average Call Of Duty campaign.
My advice is, if you're the kind of person who plays through a game and puts it down, wait for it to get a bit cheaper. If you're the kind of person that tries to go for a 100% completion score, fastest runs through levels or enjoys taking different approaches and experimenting then jump all over this one and press its buttons with your greasy sausage fingers.
Score: 9 out of 10 nuclear equipped walking battle tanks are hijacked.
Ontop of being a decent chunk of entertainment, Ground Zeroes is about to take up the mantle of a huge Japanese developer and publisher actually taking the PC market seriously.
If Kojima Productions doesn't fudge the PC version with a shoddy port and provides proper post-release support the release of these games, and hopefully the rest of the series past and future, on PC could usher in a seriously monumental change to the industry.
If these products are successful, it would go a long way to changing the decades old cultural view of the PC from the standpoint of Japanese developers and publishers. In turn this could mean seeing more excellent games coming to PC with higher quality ports and less console exclusivity.
Lets face it, higher quality and more games are things we can all get behind whether you're interested in this particular game or not.