Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes review: A stealth sandbox, a glorified demo, an hour and a half

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

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First, let's pause and take a moment to appreciate that a full-blown Metal Gear Solid game came to PC. Did you ever expect to see Metal Gear Solid reviews on PC-centric sites? Yeah, me neither. But here I am, slinking around warehouses with Snake's butt in all its HD glory on my monitor.

Okay, finished with your quiet word of thanks to Hideo Kojima? Time to dig in then.

Metal Gear Solid 5.1.1

I think the prevailing question when it comes to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is "What is it?" And for once I don't mean that in the sense that the MGS canon is a miasma of Kojima-brand crazy. I quite literally mean "What is this thing called Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes?"

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

It's an intriguing thought experiment from a taxonomic stance. Ground Zeroes is sold as a stand-alone product, and thus there's a reasonable expectation that it, you know, stands on its own.

But Ground Zeroes doesn't. Not in the least. Kojima and Co. have referred to Ground Zeroes as a "prologue" for the larger Metal Gear Solid V, which is more appropriate. How do you judge a prologue though? And how do you judge the overall merit of said prologue without knowing its importance to the rest of the overarching story?

Similar questions arise with episodic games—Dreamfall: Chapters, all of Telltale's games, Broken Age—but they're largely mitigated by two factors. 1) The games are packaged and sold as episodes. 2) All of the titles listed are (by game standards) fairly cheap, coming in under thirty dollars for probably ten or so hours of content each. (For each entire season, not each episode.)

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Ground Zeroes is a standalone product priced at $20, with the real Metal Gear Solid V presumably priced at a standard $60 whenever it releases. Furthermore, the rumors are true: You can complete Ground Zeroes in about an hour and a half.

I know, Ground Zeroes fans—I can already hear your objections. "If you do all the side missions there's ten, twenty, even thirty hours of content available!"

Here's how Ground Zeroes is laid out though: When you boot the game, there's a single mission available. It's the titular "Ground Zeroes" mission, and can be completed in an hour and a half. Also—and this is important—nearly all of the relevant story information you're going to glean about the MGS storyline is contained within that ninety minute segment.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

It's a hell of a tale! It's all sorts of Kojima-crazy, with more twists and turns plugged into its diminutive script than most games manage in ten times the length. It's 1975 and you (Snake) are dropped into a Cuban prison camp, tasked with rescuing old buddies Paz and Chico.

Camp Omega is basically an immense stealth sandbox. You're told where you need to go, but how you get there is entirely up to you. Take out all the guards silently, sneak into the armory and come out ready for a full-frontal assault, or just ghost your way through the camp. Unlike most games that say this, in Ground Zeroes it really is entirely up to you how you accomplish your goals.

Really, it feels like one massive Far Cry outpost liberation, and that's one of the biggest compliments I can pay. You even have a pair of binoculars with which you can tag guards as they patrol the camp, helping you take them out later or simply avoid their routes. Imagine a third-person Far Cry outpost designed with more care towards stealth mechanics, and you've got Ground Zeroes.

Great! Fantastic!

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Now back to the length thing. See, when the credits roll on the "Ground Zeroes" mission after ninety minutes, that's basically it. There are four side missions (Side Ops) that give you alternate objectives, of the "Take out the anti-air guns" variety, but they take place on the same map and add very little to the story, and they're accessed separately from the main menu. You don't just stumble onto them in the course of playing the main mission.

Are you here playing Ground Zeroes because you just want to play around with the stealth mechanics in a big ol' stealth sandbox? There are certainly some of you who will take that stance, and that's fantastic. They're good stealth mechanics. Satisfying stealth mechanics. I haven't been as happy with a stealth game since Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

But if you're here because of the writing, ninety minutes is basically all you get. That's the problem with Ground Zeroes. It's all first act. It's all set-up and no payoff. There are some indie titles where I've paid similar prices for two or three hours worth of content, but at least when it was done I felt I'd gotten a full experience.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Ground Zeroes is like paying for the first episode of Lost. Sure, you could sit down and watch the first episode of Lost (or insert your favorite serial television show) and get something out of it. "Beautiful setting," you'd say, or, "I like that Jack dude."

It's not satisfying on its own though, and it's clearly meant to be part of something bigger. Which would also be fine if it weren't twenty damn dollars to be held hostage by a demo.

It's interesting because when Ground Zeroes initially released for consoles last spring there was nothing to compare it to. But with the PC release there is something to compare it to, and ironically it's another Kojima title also published by Konami—the PS4-exclusive P.T., which came out last summer and was an elaborate teaser for a new Silent Hill game.

Like Ground Zeroes, P.T. is a relatively-replayable, short demo for an upcoming game. The difference? P.T. was free. Ground Zeroes is not.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Is Ground Zeroes worth playing? Undoubtedly, if you're a Metal Gear Solid fan. And to be honest, I'm not much of a Metal Gear Solid fan. Not really at all. Ground Zeroes has me hooked though—it seems like MGSV will be the incarnation that will polish the controls and the mechanics enough to get me into the series.

For once, however, I'm going to recommend you wait for a sale. That's exceedingly rare for me. I hate including purchase recommendations in reviews because it feels tacky. Money is different for everyone. Twenty dollars for me is likely different than twenty dollars for you is likely different than twenty dollars is to a billionaire is likely different than it is for a fifteen-year-old kid who gets one or two games per year and treats them like treasures.

But by the economics of our current market I cannot say that Ground Zeroes is twenty dollars worth of game or twenty dollars worth of "experience." If you want to argue games should be more expensive, well, that's a different argument for a different time. I'm simply doing a comparison to similar episodic products e.g. Telltale's and, for that matter, Kojima's own damn game. Really, P.T.'s zero-dollar price tag is the nail in the coffin for me when it comes to Ground Zeroes retailing for twenty bucks.

Bottom line

In conclusion, I'm not assigning a score because there's nothing to score here. I hate tacking a score onto episodic games and have stopped doing it in the past year, and Ground Zeroes is essentially an episode of Metal Gear Solid V. It's a brilliant episode, too! The writing is strong, and the stealth sandbox foundation is perfectly executed.

But it's a demo, boxed up and sold as a stand-alone game. You'll have to decide what that's worth to you.

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