(Originally published on MyIGN on April 12th, 2014)
(Reviewed on Xbox One)
I thought I’d tackle my first attempt at a games review with possibly one of the most controversial console releases in recent memory. The latest nugget of Metal Gear action from Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a standalone title, set to act as a prologue to the events and story in next year’s expected full release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Before I wade waist deep into the murky brackish waters of review territory, I thought I’d outline my thoughts and principles regarding the review process itself.
It is commonplace within games media reviewing to apply a figure or score to a review, such as the 10 scale rating system here on IGN, in order to quantify a game’s worth against the glut of competing games vying for your time, attention and money. This is perfectly logical and reasonable for most readers, and I appreciate and understand the need for such a scoring system. Choosing to ignore robust systems like this, I made, looking back with both bitterness and great amusement, a rather reckless and foolish day one purchase of (yes, you guessed it) Aliens: Colonial Marines for Xbox 360, without consulting the same day reviews (which came out once the last-minute embargos lifted, usually a bad sign indeed). Oh yeah. Not the worst game in the world, not by a long way, but certainly one of the greatest disappointments to fans, Aliens: Colonial Marines is quite possibly one of the most crushing bait and switches that the games industry has seen in recent times. The poorly executed and just generally sloppy game was written to be an actual canonical continuation of James Cameron’s seminal 1986 action movie classic Aliens – yes, Colonial Marines is now part of the cannon, like it or not. The game scored a 4.5 ‘bad’ rating on IGN, and 48/100 on Metacritic. I will have more to write about this wretched, mangled, fetid, septic pus-filled abortion of a game in more depth at a later date…oh yes…I haven’t forgotten Gearbox…sleep tight Randy…(maniacal laughter).
However, to leave that foul game and the disgusting adjectival phrases I’ve roughly stapled into its still-twitching corpse aside for now, I am personally of the opinion that by attaching a numerical figure to a review in order to place it alongside it’s peers in a critical manner can be quite problematic and not as neat a solution as it might first appear. A review, by its very definition, is not an objective view or evaluation of a product based solely on fact; a review will be a combined product of the reviewer’s own personal biases, their likes and dislikes, their leading opinions and everything else that informs their own unique opinion and makes it theirs. Even a well-written review by a professional editor or critic, which takes a critical stance towards all aspects of the product’s design, will still ultimately be as subjective as any other opinion on the product. It is a review – opinion, not fact. I find the detailed qualitative analysis that a reviewer goes into doesn’t mesh particularly well with the quantative numerical score given at the end. As a result, a great deal of discussion takes place about the value of the numerical score, and distracts from the content of the review itself.
I hope you’re ready for some more personal biases, as here’s a chunk of my own. I’ve often found that going into a game having read the review beforehand, racing down to the bottom of the page, ignoring the writer’s opinions to get to that vital and important, all-consuming number at the bottom of the page has more often than not, rather spoiled the experience of playing the game for me, whether it’s a generation-defining masterpiece of a game such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half Life 2, the original Metal Gear Solid or at that other end of the spectrum, Aliens: Colonial Marines (sorry that’s the last dig, I’m not bitter I swear). The most recent example I can think of would be playing through Halo 4 for the first time having had the IGN score revealed to me by a friend (9.8), meant that I was constantly evaluating my experience with the game according to this external, arbitrary number someone else had set. I did think the game was good, but I’d rather have just worked through the game without this number floating in and out of my consciousness as I battled through covenant and promethean troops.
Obviously, this rather cavalier (read: foolish) approach to avoiding the review’s numerical scoring system means that the risk of playing games at the lower end of the quality spectrum and feeling the cold, empty sting of disappointment more often is significantly higher. Trust me, I’ve felt that sting a hell of a lot over the years. In fact, when I was younger, I would often do exactly what you’re not meant to with books, and would very much judge my Megadrive purchases with but a glimpse at the front cover. Robot made out of interconnected green dots – sold. Big picture of bottle-nose dolphin with stars on its face – sold. Blue anthropomorphic hedgehog with running shoes, standing next to anthropomorphic fox with two tails, both characters under the glare of an angry disembodied representation of moustachioed villain – fuck yes, sold already. But, the flipside to this approach (of being an idiot) both then and now means that I’ve also enjoyed a lot of mediocre games that have received poor critical and player reviews a great deal more than I thought I would by playing them without having that final number at the end of the review etched onto my irises, something that I can’t un-see, and can’t un-know. I’m not saying don’t read reviews – I’m about to try and fumble my way through one in a couple of paragraph’s time, so please stay and read that…please! Its just that I think a good review really doesn’t need a numerical score – if it’s done well, the content of the review will tell you whether a game is worth buying, but leaving you enough to go on without scoring it. Scores just seem to be there to give people an arbitrary value system to argue about.
How do you evaluate a number’s worth? Is it in comparison to your own figures? What if I think a game is worth a six, meaning it’s average in my mind, but to you a six could mean it’s a colossal disaster? I don’t even know where to start when we get into decimal figures – Titanfall got an 8.9 from Ryan McCaffrey for example – what was the 0.1 mark deduction from 9 for? Is there really such a detectable difference involved that makes it instantly distinguishable from fellow games with a score of 9? Is that something that can be quickly rectified with patches? Or is it a tactical means of withholding it from being ‘excellent’ and just ‘good’? There’s too many factors to bear in mind here that it just becomes an unnecessary obstacle to determining the game’s worth. I’m an Xbox guy mainly, so I missed the furore surrounding Greg Miller famously giving Uncharted 3 a 10. But does it really matter that he thinks it’s a 10? People seem to like to criticize his numerical score, but don’t have much complaint with the bulk of his review. Maybe I’m just being finicky and fussy, and I’ll move onto the promised review next, but just thought I’d see what you guys think – does a game’s score matter to you? I would be genuinely interested to find out what the general consensus is, and I feel I’m likely to be in the minority on this one (slowly backs into a corner, awaiting angry rebuttals, complaints, and of course, the ol’ angry mob classics of flaming torches and pitchforks).
I thought I’d tackle Ground Zeroes as a starting point for a first review, as, even though this came out nearly a month ago, I imagine that there are probably quite a lot of people still on the fence on this one, wanting to play the game and get another desperately sought after Metal Gear fix, but are currently baulking at the price and the game’s short length. My plan was to originally pick this game up at the same time as whenever the main game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain releases in 2015, in an inevitable nice shiny collector’s edition. However, seeing it at £19.99 – £10 cheaper than the digital copy and same price as the last-gen 360 version of the game, I had to go for it. I’ve only just got round to playing it recently myself so I thought I’d give you my own 2 cents on it (as those American’s say…or so I’ve been told) in an untimely, but hopefully useful review.
To tie in nicely with the beginning of this piece and to totally lay clear my biases to the reader, I really liked Ground Zeroes. It’s a fantastic nugget of what next-gen Metal Gear is going to be – but I use the word ‘nugget’ very deliberately here, as it’s crucial to this review, or any other review of this game for that matter.
The events in Ground Zeroes follow on directly after the events in Peace Walker. Big Boss, aka. Naked Snake, is sent on a rescue mission to a Cuban prison camp, Camp Omega (itself a horrifying depiction of Guantanamo Bay) to rescue Chico and Paz, two young children who are hidden somewhere on the camp. The opening extended cutscene features some fantastically-realised graphics courtesy of Kojima’s FOX engine (I played on Xbox One, and from what I gather, they are even better on the PS4), which features some outstanding water and lighting effects, detailed sound design, it gives an introduction to the new game’s first major villain, perfectly capturing Kojima’s cinematic sense of grandeur and theatricality, it just welcomes in a fantastic sense of awe. As an opening scene, it’s one of the best I’ve seen on a console graphically and cinematically, with artistic shots and creative transitions from scene to scene, leaving you with some potent mysteries to ponder about long after the game is over. The facial mo-cap by actor and new voice of Snake, Kiefer Sutherland, is impressive, and the returning voice cast of the supporting Mother Base staff feels like you’re returning to play alongside long-time friends and comrades. Kiefer’s voice acting is solid, however, as a big fan of David Hayter, the original voice actor who has played Snake in all the major English versions of the game, and bestowed the character with his now trademark blend of gruff attitude and roguish charisma we know and love, I couldn’t help but feel his absence from this game. Snake looks and sounds great with Kiefer in the role, but it just feels like you’re playing as Jack Bauer with a mullet, not the Snake we know and love (he even has a couple of lines that could be taken direct from 24, which I can’t tell if it was deliberate choice or just a happy coincidence).
You’re quickly dropped into the action seamlessly from this cutscene, and from here marks the first major change to the Metal Gear formula, the open world format. You’re free to explore the camp in whatever way you see fit, which albeit there’s only two major objectives in the main mission, the game still gets across the scope of choice you have in dealing with these objectives. Do you head to the prison and spotlights to the east first? Do you mark off the guards in your binoculars, tracking them down and interrogating them for information about the prisoner’s whereabouts? Or do you just unsling your assault rife from its holster, take an almighty breath before roaring aloud to the dark rainy night, “LEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOY JEHHHHHHHHHHNKIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINS!” as the Rambo-like badass you are and proceed to shoot your way in? These are all viable choices, even the last one, which is a marked difference for the franchise, and you’re largely free to decide how to tackle things.
As a series well known for championing the stealth genre, one of the first things you will notice if you’ve played any of the other Metal Gears is the guards’ much more realistic lines of sight and awareness. Guards sweep the areas with floodlights, make frequent foot and vehicle patrols of their routes, and will deviate from their standard routes to investigate if they catch the slightest glimpse or sound of anything suspicious. This all makes for some lively and invigorating gameplay. Gone are the camouflage mechanics from Snake Eater and Peace Walker, and there’s still no soliton radar from the later games in the series to get visual representation of your enemies’ fields of vision. In their place is the ability to tag enemy soldiers, vehicles and other structures of note such as anti-aircraft guns and cameras, allowing you to keep track of them through walls, in a similar fashion to The Last Of Us. To balance this, guards now take much longer searching for you when discovered, conduct the most thorough searches I’ve seen so far in the series and appear to remain on heightened alert for a significantly longer period as well. My initial attempts to infiltrate the camp resulted in some incredibly tense sequences where four or five guards came rushing to my last known location mere seconds after I’d dashed into cover in the roadside bushes, and would often find me with little trouble, prompting another dash to cover.
Tranquilized and knocked out guards now no longer stay out of action for the full duration of a mission, and can sometimes revive just mere minutes later, giving the game a suitable risk/reward mechanism to players opting to use non-lethal methods, and generating a real palatable sense of urgency to conduct your operations as quickly and quietly as possible. Several times I stealthily approached a guard, knocked him out and then tried to rescue a P.O.W. nearby, only to have the guard quickly regain consciousness and signal to his fellow soldiers that he was under attack!
When a guard catches a glimpse of you out in the open, this ominous low atonal rumbling tone starts, reminiscent of survival horror games, which still manages to get my heart racing as I replay the game now. There’s now a reactive last second recovery mode, whereupon being seen by a guard triggers the classic series-staple exclamation mark noise and slows the game to a slow-motion crawl, giving you just enough time to attempt to squeeze off a shot, or grab them if you’re close enough before they alert the others and bring hell down on you. This feature can at times feel a bit too easy, particularly on replays where once you’re familiar with the guards’ general modus operandi and rough patrol areas, you can calmly waltz out in front of a single guard and then taking a nice leisurely headshot to take him down. This feature however be can be turned off in the settings, to a get a more old-school Metal Gear experience, and is automatically off when playing the missions on hard mode. Usually though, it’s too late, or you can’t land a decent shot (the tranquilizer darts need a headshot to stun immediately), and the game switches from one of stealth to one of survival.
Like Peace Walker before it, Ground Zeroes allows for lethal playthroughs, allowing you to shoot your way out of danger, or go in gung-ho from the off. Stealth is of course encouraged through the end of level rating system, but nevertheless violence is a suitable alternative. Just don’t expect it to be easy. Even on normal, and with regenerating health, the guards quickly rain lead down on you hard and fast, bringing out all of their major toys; armoured APCs, ant-aircraft gun emplacements, grenades, and their sheer number of replacements. My own first playthrough was a fantastic experience. Without going into spoilers, I approached one of my objectives entirely stealthily, evading cameras, regular guard patrols and navigating through some difficult areas with minimal fuss. I located my P.O.W. to rescue, and was in the process of heading back to a safe rendezvous point to call in the helicopter (this replaces the ridiculous but fantastic balloon extraction system for P.O.W.s and soldiers in Peace Walker and is a tad more on the realistic side) when disaster struck. I failed to notice that the guard’s shift patterns had changed, and this new patrol had stumbled across my P.O.W.’s empty cage. All of a sudden, alarms were ringing, reinforcements were scrambling around trying to find me and the missing P.O.W., and it was time to get out – fast. Trying to shoot my way out of the base was a desperate yet exhilarating experience one would easily find in a blockbuster action film, and it made the stakes of the mission feel much more important and real. I’ve always loved the slow-build in previous Metal Gear games, the gradual crescendo to their action-packed conclusions, but the way Ground Zeroes can switch instantly between infiltration and desperate escape felt electrifyingly brilliant.
So – what’s the catch? The necessary comparison to make here with this system of releasing a small ‘playable demo’ type of experience, prior to the main course if you will, is the release of Dead Rising 2: Case Zero prior to the release of Dead Rising 2. Case Zero was a small £5 piece of prologue dlc to the main game, which introduced players to new protagonist Chuck Greene and his daughter Katey, after their escape from a Las Vegas zombie outbreak (for anyone interested, the Dead Rising: Road to Fortune comic is well worth a read, and gives a tad more gruesome look to the series). The dlc basically gave you a decent couple of hours of gameplay in which to try out the new weapon combo system, rescue some survivors and gain experience that would carry over into Dead Rising 2, and of course kill a whole fuck-tonne of zombies. The key thing here was the pricing; by the time the credits rolled and you’d sent Chuck and Katey on their way to Fortune City, you didn’t feel disappointed, you felt excited and keen to get your hands on the main game.
Ground Zeroes to be fair, accomplishes this same feat. It makes you very, very excited to play The Phantom Pain. However, unlike the short release window between Case Zero and Dead Rising 2, there’s probably the best part of a year to wait for The Phantom Pain, and that’s not to mention if the game is delayed or pushed back to tweak and polish it up. In addition, also unlike the very low cost of £5 for Case Zero, Ground Zeroes is currently a £29.99 digital release, and bizarrely, as low as £19.99 I’ve found for the physical copy. Although not going for £40-£50 like a typical full release, the game was originally going to be £40 over here in the UK and $40 I believe in the US, before fan outcry after the game’s length caused Konami to reconsider and drop it to £30/$30 instead. That’s still quite a lot of money to drop for a game which is just a couple of hours long, when there are excellent indie titles available for less than that which have much longer hours of gameplay and replayability to offer.
Once I got to the mission complete screen, I did have a massive pang of “Oh? It’s over already” even though I was well aware of the game’s very short length beforehand. The cliff-hanger sets up things to go straight into the next game, and from what we’ve seen so far of the teaser trailers of the nightmarish hospital scenes with ghosts/apparitions/whatever the hell they are of Psycho mantis and Col. Volgin lookalikes, it’s a game that can’t come fast enough for me. There may not be much total content on offer in Ground Zeroes, but the limited bang you do get for your buck is pretty spectacular stuff.
My own completion time on my first run through the first main (and only canonical) story mission was roughly 1 hour and 40 minutes. However, akin to many of the reviews I’ve read, including IGN’s Lucy O’Brien’s take on the game, I instantly wanted to start again and try and perfect another run through. It may have just lasted one hour and forty minutes, but seriously, that one hour and forty minutes was packed to the brim with some of the most tense, electrifying, exciting and sheer nerve-wracking seat of your pants moments I’ve had in a game for a fair while, not the sort of experience I was expecting to get in such a small pared-down game in a series famous for it’s stealth gameplay.
One of the things I found beneficial about the game’s short length was it became much more palatable to try and attempt a ghost playthrough – playing through the levels attempting to be totally undetected, never seen, heard or even suspected of being there by the enemy even once. Normally in Metal Gear games, I’m so bad at the stealth that there comes a point where I just become reckless and desperate to advance the story. I always start off each one thinking I’m a total ninja, loving sneaking and crawling through the series’ compounds and jungles. But after a while, I’ll make a mistake, a guard will get suspicious, a CCTV camera will just get a glimpse of me making a single dash to cover slightly too far away to make without being seen, and it’s over. I’m no longer Snake, but a fraud, a clumsy panicking stupid fraud, running for my life, blood pumping loudly in my ears, crashing through doors and thundering down corridors, desperate to find a vent, a corner, hell, even one of the series’ famous cardboard boxes to get out of sight. “It’s all over and it’s all my fault” I weep to myself, trying to get Snake to crawl under a parked vehicle, fit into a vent or just cower pathetically in a corner like Otacon in the first game, with a slowly darkening patch of urine seeping down my legs.
Ah…sorry there, I let my emotions get the better of me. Where was I? Ah yes, ghost playthroughs, the staple challenge of all Metal Gear games and stealth games as a whole. Well worth a go if you’ve never attempted one before. Trying to stealth an entire Metal Gear game even on the easiest difficulties would normally be well out of my league as a player, so even though the main mission does feel abruptly short, the opportunity to mix up my normal playstyle on a smaller game map provided quite an enjoyable experiment. I’m not saying here that it’s a better game because it’s smaller – it’s not, but opportunities like this to really get to grips with the core game mechanics was a small plus in spite of the mission length.
To give you some idea of how replayable this game is, I’ve currently spent nine hours playing Ground Zeroes so far. These nine hours have been mainly spent just replaying the very first ‘ground zeroes’ mission, just going for a variety of achievements, unlocks and separate trials that unlock after beating each mission, such as fastest time to mark all the guards, or fastest time to execute all the guards. I’ve still not completed all the side missions and cleared the achievements and challenges. So I’ll be expecting to get somewhere between another 8-10 hours out of Ground Zeroes before I’ve had enough – most likely due to the fact that I’m not good at stealth games, and it’ll probably take me that long just to complete the other missions!
The game’s collectibles come in the form of XOF patches (reversed foxhound patches tied to antagonist character ‘Skull Face’) and cassette tapes, which, aside from some rather uncomfortable ‘listening’ in some cases – see Lucy O’Brien’s follow up piece about the ending here, but beware, spoiler alert (http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/03/25/whats-wrong-with-metal-gear-solid-5-ground-zeroes-ending) – they do a good job of catching up brand new players to the main events of the series lore so far, and a nice refresher course for returning old school Metal Gear fans, some of which are hidden in particularly devious and mischievous ways, thanks Kojima’s usual machiavellian sense of humour and game design.
My closing thoughts on Ground Zeroes go like this. If you are a Metal Gear fan who’s also a completionist gamer, who likes to take their time and replay the small number of missions to perfection, scavenge all the collectibles, audio diaries, blueprints, weapon mods, and all the other jazz that developers love to stuff into every hidden nook and cranny of their game (I should know, I’ve had the completionist bug, with a hefty dollop of achievement-itus for as long as I can remember), then I thoroughly recommend Ground Zeroes, as you’ll be able to find plenty of things to busy yourself with, and not only that, you’ll likely have such a good time playing the missions and going after all the records and collectibles that it won’t feel like a chore, you’ll actively want to do it. If you’re just after the next bit of story, you really don’t get too much in the roughly 2 hours you’ll likely spend on the main mission, and I’d suggest watching the main cutscenes and gameplay sections on YouTube to tide you over until the release of next year’s The Phantom Pain. I’m sure they’ll bundle Ground Zeroes in with The Phantom Pain, so you can enjoy the entire package as one.
Have you played Ground Zeroes? Let me know what scor- no wait, just tell me what you think instead!
(Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is out now for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4 and PS3)