[This article contains story spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, specifically in points 4, 14 and 17. Otherwise in general, it details aspects of the game such as its mechanics, tone and feel. If you want to enter the game completely fresh, I'd warn against reading onwards.]
First off, let me be clear how much of Ground Zeroes I’ve played since it’s quite possible that some of what follows could be wrong. At the time of writing I have 26% of the game completed. I know that because there’s a big percentage counter on the main title screen which is good albeit cheeky design. But even though there’s a good three-quarters left to complete, I feel I’m at a stage where I have a decent enough handle of the game where I can jot down my thoughts of it, at least as a first impression. I’ve gotten used to how it plays, I’ve finished every mission bar one, some missions twice, some missions about five times. I’ve collected some of the tapes and discovered some of the secrets. I can’t yet speak with the authority I’d prefer, though, so just bear that in mind.
It cost around €20 and I finished the main ‘Ground Zeroes’ campaign in 200 minutes, a sizeable number but I think longer than it took most other players. You then unlock a bunch of other missions which might take you anywhere between 20 minutes to a couple of hours a pop, depending on how you want to play it – I’ve put 11 hours into the game in total. I’m labouring over this point because I want to stress this: even though I’ve reservations about a lot of the game, it’s good value for money.
As a Metal Gear Solid game, Ground Zeroes was disappointing. I only just said it’s good value and I’m not really supporting that by throwing my hands up like this, but look, my feelings are complicated.
I’ve been a big fan of MGS since the first game on the PlayStation, it’s the one series that has tethered my love of videogames from my childhood to my adulthood. If you had asked me a year ago what game I was most looking forward to, the words “Metal Gear Solid Five” would be have been out of my lips in a heartbeat. But if this is a promise of the direction the series will be taking, I may still play the games and enjoy them, but that love I’ve carried for years will wither and die.
Ground Zeroes is serious, very serious. It’s what I imagine an episode of 24 to be like, with bullets whizzing through the air in slow motion and someone shouting about The Bomb or Protecting the President’s Daughter. (I’ve never seen the show.) Not in an Escape From New York way, which is very 80’s and camp and fun, but in a serious way, in a non-performative way where these are action moments we are expected to care about for the simple reason that it’s A Bomb! and the President’s Daughter!
MGS of old was filled with buffoonery, this is a large part of what endeared it to me. You had roller-skating boss characters and electric soviets and telekinetics and a guy who shoots bees out of his mouth and ghosts, actual ghosts who torment you and forgive you and then kind of hang around for the craic. It made the gameworld magical. It made it bonkers and unpredictable. Beyond all the politico-babble and ponderous philosophising, it made it seem like even though these games were obsessed with war and battle as their setting, even war and battle are part of a larger scheme of existence, where its participants are still nerds and weirdos and psychic magicians despite spending 90% of their lives in combat. They inject their weirdness into their combat uniforms or their battle tactics in celebration of who they are, which creates a wondrous life-affirming philosophy underlying the plodding, pondering march of Snake. In this cosmology the world is bigger than just war, people are more than just combatants. There is so much to the world and to life that we have yet to see and we love it, we love it all.
Moreover, its buffoonery made it credible, if you can believe that. Because once you have your robotic-octopus-suit and haunted-amputated-arm, once you get the player to say “ok” and accept the fact of it, all the political intrigue and quadruple-crossing and silly plot points suddenly seem a lot more feasible. Of course the tank can spring legs and walk up a cliff, sure don’t they have a bloody ghost on their team. Of course FOXDIE would kick in at just the right moment. Without that pervading sense of silliness, the plot can’t actually stand up. It doesn’t have the credibility of realism. Without the joie de vivre, what is anybody fighting for? Who gives a toss about Cipher’s and Big Boss’ rivalry if it’s just a power struggle bereft of passion and of love for that something they’re fighting for. It’s still a battle of ideologies but they’re lifeless, laughless, grey and stoic. You can tell me what any given character stands for but why should I care?
The closest it gets to being silly is having a few bad lines of dialogue and Kojima showing up as a VIP in a mission and giving you lip.
Ground Zeroes thinks I should care because bullets flying around is cool, and The Bomb! is an action-packed moment, and the villain is such a villain, and sometimes they play that ‘braugh’ noise that has become the sound of action movies. It is 100% more swish and 200% more action movie and 300% more serious to the point of vapidity. There are already a lot of games out there resembling The Bourne Identity. Metal Gear Solid was one of the few The Happiness of the Katakuris‘. That’s what interested me in it, that’s what I loved about it. Now it looks to be gone.
Ground Zeroes is the prologue to The Phantom Pain, and I’ve seen the trailer enough times to keep a spark of hope alive. I expected more from GZ, which is to say I expected it to satisfy the standards and tone set by the series’ reputation. I hope to god it exists as a critical lense for us to view The Phantom Pain, as Big Boss’ dark night of the soul, and not as a prophesy.
Time will tell.
The first time I played the campaign, I played it with all the enemy tagging and reflex mode and the sixth sense that relates when an enemy is nearby – all that nonsense ‘on’ by default. It was a bad stealth game.
Then I replayed it with all three turned off, and I found it to be a vastly more enjoyable experience.
In case you’ve not played it yet, I’ll explain each of these. Enemy tagging is like detective mode from Batman: Arkham Asylum, except you have to look at the enemy for a second before they start pulsing a vivid blue. Reflex mode means whenever a baddie sees you, time slows and you have a couple of seconds to react, to nip the alert mode in the bud. Everything goes whoosh and it’s supposed to feel cool. The sixth sense thing is just an unmistakable grey icon shows up on-screen pointing to the direction of a nearby guard, like a Spidey Sense.
These three design features contributed massively to my initial disappointment. They are dreadful, dreadful things that hinder and distract and obfuscate the narrative of play. Not long ago I wrote about my qualms with detective mode and the exact same applies to enemy tagging. Miller says it provides you with ‘situational awareness’ but the exact opposite is true: when enemies glow on-screen, even through walls, you don’t need to maintain awareness of the situation because all the information you need is packaged up and manifested externally. It is a representation of Big Boss’ situational awareness, perhaps, but it does not lead the player to situational awareness. It gives a sense of security and of leisure. It empowers you to coast along without needing to worry about the potential direction of a guard’s patrol. Reflex mode and the big grey sixth sense icon follow the same pattern: they automate play experiences so you don’t need to live through them. You don’t need to be spatially aware of a guard ten feet behind you as you stalk towards another because the game converts spatial data into a neat label on the GUI.
It’s important to note that these are specific design choices that were implemented with care and intent (or came about carelessly or accidentally), so we can see what they might have been going for or how they can be altered or fixed. The sixth sense could conceivably have a parent in the ring radar of MGS4 – a wiggly line encircling Snake that wibbled and wobbled to represent environmental sounds in their relative direction to him. The rumbling engine of a stationary tank is a tremendous distortion in the line. An approaching soldier is a beat of waves steadily growing in size. If the player is attentive towards the ring radar they can combine its visual information of direction with the sounds coming through their TV to construct a useful mental image. But this is all about providing the faculty of a sense without accidentally making you omniscient – the sense must be deficient in some way so that you’ve got to corroborate it with the information from another sense, and through this process you have the player building situational awareness.
Ground Zeroes makes me long for the days when MGS games had an array of gadgets and gizmos enabling you to progress through an area. Aside from the above three, GZ gives you binoculars, thermal/night vision goggles and an aerial radar (‘the iDroid’). You also have guns to shoot folk and throwable empty magazines to distract and lure enemies. This is the bulk of your sneaking arsenal. Compared to previous games, GZ has taken away a substantial number of tools that operated in interesting or fun ways, so it comes across feeling like there’s nary but a barebones set of options available to you. There’s no Mark III robot for scouting ahead. There’s no AP vest that vibrates when an enemy nears. No erotic magazines to stall or lure a guard. No fake death pill. No motion sensor. No active sonar. No empty oil drum or cardboard box to hide in.
It’s not so much that more gadgets instantly equals a great game, but that stripped down to the essentials with no opportunity for expansion makes the gameplay feel thinner than the series’ previous titles. I’m 26% of the way through the game and I’m worried I’ve exhausted the depths of my stealthing options because there’s little room for me to get creative with my resources, to try something new. This ties back into the previous point of how each of these tools were sufficiently limited but diverse enough to suffice in all sorts of interesting combinations.
That’s not to say the few gadgets I have left are bad or badly designed. I adore how the binoculars function in this game. For years I’ve been wanting a MGS game where the binoculars are actually put to great use and GZ finally scratches that itch. I love that they’re accessible to a convenient button per the default controller layout. They’re quick to use and wonderfully useful in boosting your visual range, since that’s very important now that the level is one giant, cogent map. Most of all, they’re tied into enemy tagging and the radar, and even when that glowing function is turned off you still need them to tag guards into the iDroid. I like how the iDroid can only be used in a clumsy first-person perspective, so you have to sacrifice your defence capability in order to monitor the radar. I like how it’s accessible through a single button, and how the start menu does not pause the game, even when you want to browse mission data and intel. I like how the iDroid has a neat user interface so you don’t need to fumble far to bring up your radar.
I just wish I had a cardboard box too.
The MGS games have always been fantastic for tracing Snake’s bodily existence in that a lot of your stealth options relate to moving and positioning him with precision. That’s always lent well to granting a sense of his existence in the gameworld, as a person living inside a body covered with skin, as a person with sense perceptions extending beyond that physical limit. As a person with self-made opportunities, by virtue of training and natural talent and common ingenuity. In terms of how a game plays, this takes the form of the natural way a character operates within a world before you start to throw in things like weapons and radars.
In the first MGS you have the example of a top-down camera allowing you an awareness of any enemy closing in on Snake, the ability to switch to a first person view but at the cost of doing anything else, and the ability to peek around a corner to manipulate the camera to give you a wider field of view. When the games switched to a player-controlled third-person perspective, there was some loss in this regard and some gain, since now you can do different things to take in the world around Snake but the way that data is taken in is flavoured differently. If I remember correctly, MGS3 allowed you to switch between a third-person view and an aerial view by clicking in R3, which is such a divine compromise between the camera perspectives. MGS4‘s ring radar is also a good example of representing sensual data in a way contiguous to Snake’s existence in the world, which is part of why I think GZ‘s sixth sense visual alert might have been improved if it appeared centric to Big Boss rather than on the GUI.
GZ improves on some aspects of conveying a sense of your character’s bodily existence and stumbles in other regards. The character animations are much smoother in general, so when you shift from a run into a crawl there’s this lovely sense of flow in the movement, downwards and spreading outwards as you go prone. That feels wonderful, since there’s not this jarring break between crouching and crawling as in some previous games, now it feels more like I’m/Big Boss is in control of my/his movements. It conveys a sense of artistry in movement and positioning that’s slightly poetic. At other times I found myself battling with the animation to get Big Boss to face just so in case I need to suddenly spring up – I suppose such tensions are the cost of character contiguity.
Related is the cover mechanic: you go close enough to a piece of cover and you gently glue onto it. Or sometimes you have to press ‘Up’ to actually ‘Get into cover.’ It was sometimes a problem. But it never quite felt like Big Boss was in cover, because there was always a decent measure of distance between him and the thing he’s supposed to be behind. It feels like you’re entering into a gamestate rather than spatially relating to a piece of terrain. The fact that you can’t knock on terrain contributes to this empty feeling, which itself is a needlessly loss of a gem mechanic. You can still hurl magazines to lure enemies away but it’s not the same thing. Hurling magazines was a form of projection, knocking on a wall was a form of injection. It was a thing Snake could do that lent to his bodily presence. Without it, Big Boss feels just a little bit more like an avatar moving through an environment, rather than a person living in a world.
O Lord, return unto us rations and the health bar. I know Snake has had rechargeable health for at least two games now but there’s a big difference between “I’ll lie low for five minutes while my health picks back up” and “No need to stop, I heal on the go.” There was a measure of consideration and deliberation with health items that is just gone. For a stealth game to give an air of dislike for feelings of consideration and deliberation strikes me as awfully wrong-headed.
The business of pressing ‘Triangle’ to make Big Boss heal a serious wound might work well if ‘serious wounds’ had any effect on anything or actually meant something. And if it didn’t have a terrible animation and camera zoom accompaniment. It seemed a take on MGS3‘s survival viewer for the modern world except A) I don’t need to care about Big Boss’ health, stamina, hunger or status beyond sometimes having to press ‘Triangle’ and B) I would rather care about all those things than have them automated to sometimes pressing ‘Triangle.’
Being able to drive vehicles and call in a chopper are pretty cool additions. GZ doesn’t do much with them as options but it’s got promising potential.
Otherwise, it is a very satisfying stealth game to have played. I have a lot of gripes because there’s a ton of detail that’s been changed or lost or just a tiny bit gained, but it is still recognisable as a MGS game fundamentally. It is by far the best stealth game in recent years. But it is a worse stealth game than MGS4 and MGS3.
This is the first game in a long time where I wished there was an online multiplayer component. I loved the hell out of Metal Gear Online back in the day, and I can easily see the fun to be had with Camp Omega as a playing field.
I’ve talked about tone and mechanics but I’ve not talked about plot and story because I don’t think there’s much I can say since there’s very little presented. ‘Not much happens’ in terms of GZ‘s story, although the importance of what happens or the truth of what happens might in fact be very big and far-reaching. Ultimately we already know how the story turns out between Big Boss and Zero, so we’re not playing to see what happens in the end, we’re playing for the drama and the soul of these events and the characters’ relationships. (That is not to say “go spoil MGSV for everyone”. If you spoil MGSV for anyone without their consent, you are probably evil and inconsiderate.) In many stories, vastly important events take root in innocuous circumstances. I suspect GZ will serve as a pivotal moment in the story’s timeline, as the name suggests, and little more than this.
I like that time and effort has been dedicated towards it in this regard. GZ is in actuality a demo of the FOX engine for prospective buyers, but still.
Sadly, partly because ‘not much happens’, I didn’t come away with good thoughts towards Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal of Big Boss. I think he might have had ten lines the entire game. And even though he only had a few lines, I could barely make out what he was saying, which is a bad sign. His voice acting did nothing for me.
Most of the game’s dialogue, by which I mean most of its verbal expression, comes from Miller, a bit from Skull Face, and what looks like a ton from Paz in her diaries. Comparatively, Big Boss feels like a non-entity. When you combine that with the shift in tone to utter seriousness and how Big Boss’ dialogue is only brief and serious, and his physical expressions (in the form of the game’s mechanics and the tools he uses) is curt and serious, there’s not much here to recommend him.
Let me return to labouring over the fact of the game’s seriousness and the loss it inflicts on the mythos. Previously we saw Big Boss in MGS3, wherein he was quite similar in character to Solid Snake – cynical and world-weary, although more idealistic than Snake ever was. Like Snake, his cynicism was remarkable in that here is a man fighting ghosts and human bee hives and all sorts of weird or supernatural buffoonery and still managing to retain his cynicism. I think that has always been a fantastic trait of Big Boss and Snake as it transforms their cynicism into acceptance and tolerance of the world and patience with themselves and with their own limitations, rather than just being tired pessimism. It makes them seem stubborn but hopeful, unresenting, brotherly. Take away all the buffoonery and what’s left? A cynical soldier fighting a war. Gruff, no-nonsense man. Loveless. Ordinary, in the context of videogames about war.
Naked Snake was a man who always asked “So how’s it taste?” He was a simple man for whom glowing mushrooms would recharge his batteries. He’d chew the fat about cinema and movies. He was a man who would wear a big hat that looked like a crocodile. He was scared of vampires.
GZ‘s Big Boss is nothing.
GZ endeared me more to Miller than Peace Walker did, or maybe it built on that foundation so that I’m now more aware of him. In this short space of time, I got a feel of what kind of a person he might be and why he might end up butting heads with an idealistic, sentimental Big Boss (assuming the latter rematerializes). From how much I heard of Miller and the presence he conveyed, it kind of seems he’s the protagonist of GZ and not Big Boss. Seeing him now while knowing how he will eventually meet his end in the first Metal Gear Solid makes him a bit of a tragic figure in my eyes.
Skull Face doesn’t leave me with any strong impression. We’re given his backstory; it’s not interesting. I don’t know. Normally I’m attracted to characters with mystique but he just didn’t do anything for me.
I don’t really care about Chico or Paz. I haven’t gone through her tapes.
The rape. Or rather, the bomb and the rape. I don’t think I’ve come across the tape where the sexual assault is rumoured to be audible, or if I have I couldn’t distinguish it from physical assault other than through the implication of some chilling dialogue.
My reservations have been vindicated. MGS games have always featured torture. They have also always featured sexism. GZ ups the dramatic/action movie ante by exacerbating sexist values that were already present, by introducing or elaborating on sexist narrative techniques. It’s not that rape within fiction is taboo or always sexist, it’s that GZ uses the above two narrative components needlessly, to make it more edgy, more gritty. It’s competing with itself and with a market of edgy gritty action games, whereas, it doesn’t really have to.
So. Why was it that when Volgin beat the life out of Naked Snake in MGS3, I was ready to murder him? Why was it that when Solid Snake crawled through the microwave corridor in MGS4, my heart was in my throat? It was because these felt like natural agents and circumstances colliding together, so I was enrapt in the narrative. MGS has used the brutalization of beloved characters to fantastic effect in years past. In the here and now, Paz’ torment in GZ feels like the hand of Kojima moving pieces around a board to be edgy and, in a twisted way, cool. It left me a little frightened, but mostly cold and distant.
That spells the soul of GZ: it wants to be an edgy action movie more than it wants to be a good MGS game. They think this is the direction the audience wants to see. In at least one case, they’re mistaken.
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