What exactly was Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes? Depending on who you ask, you’re likely to get a few different answers, and probably very few positive ones. Even now, a good year after The Phantom Pain has come and gone, it appears difficult to make sense of what Ground Zeroes was all about.
Truth be told, when I set out to pen a series of articles contemplating Metal Gear Solid V, I actually forgot about Ground Zeroes for a moment. I was ready to fire up The Phantom Pain and jump into the opening hospital level when I remembered the controversial prologue released in 2014.
Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes released on the 18th of March, 2014. At 12am on that day I stood in line at the GameStop in Forest Hills, New York—but not to purchase the new iteration of one of my favorite video game series of all time. No, in fact I was going back in time and purchasing a copy of the newly remastered version of Final Fantasy X and X-2. I actually never finished X (still haven’t…) and as a result, never bothered playing X-2 either (though I can’t say I’m necessarily excited about the prospect of playing it…perhaps this is why I may never finish X.) Digressions aside, I purchased a wholly different game that night largely because I wanted to save the new Metal Gear for when I finally owned a PlayStation 4—which I hadn’t at the time. The Fox Engine seemed wildly impressive, and so I thought it better to wait, and possibly finish off a game that I never completed in the 14 years it existed anyway.
Sending a picture of this GameStop to a friend that night, teasing that I was picking up Ground Zeroes, I received a text back saying that I was “ruining the gaming industry” by purchasing Ground Zeroes–something that seemed to him like a cheap cash grab, and not a true game. This, of course is not an isolated sentiment. It is impossible to talk about Ground Zeroes without talking about the industry on a higher level. Was Ground Zeroes just another in the trend toward shorter games, microtransactions, day-one DLC packages and other new and unwelcome changes to the landscape of gaming—changes that seem to be turning gaming into a medium more synonymous with pop music? To this day I’m not sure, and that’s largely because I still can’t make sense of Ground Zeroes. What was the point of this game?
Of course Ground Zeroes was the first anyone had ever seen of the new Metal Gear. In fact, most correctly assumed this was going to be the actual game when it was first revealed a couple of years earlier. When new information surfaced that The Phantom Pain was actually the main installment for Metal Gear Solid V, I assumed Ground Zeroes to be something similar to the first reveal of Halo 2: A level that while not in the complete game, demonstrated the overall direction and tone of the main installment. Perhaps, I had even wondered, if there was a sudden change in the direction of the game—something even similar to that of the change from Final Fantasy Versus XIII to Final Fantasy XV. Was Ground Zeroes part of an original idea that transformed during development? You never can really tell where a creative project will end up in the end, so I assumed this was possible. As it turns out, however, Ground Zeroes was neither of these. It seemed destined to be a proper prologue to the full game, sold as a standalone title.
Now it is well within the realm of possibility that Ground Zeroes may have been something similar to the examples I just mentioned, and there was pressure from Konami to release something to bring in more cash, or get a game on next-gen consoles as soon as possible. This is pure conjecture and it is entirely possible that game really was meant to just be a taste of the main installment, introducing some of the most drastic changes the series had ever seen. We’ll probably never get to the bottom of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes in terms of what it actually should be, or was meant to be. Endless hours of speculation can spawn from this topic, and it’s something I’ve discussed and thought about at great length.
And in case you were wondering: Yes, I did end up purchasing Ground Zeroes for the PlayStation 3—despite my initial intentions—after spotting it for a very reasonable used price at a GameStop in Manhattan. At the very least, I figured, if I regret my purchase, I can get my money back. I would later sell this copy back to GameStop about a year later, along with a surplus of other games in order to fund my PlayStation 4 purchase.
I’ve played through Ground Zeroes’ main story a few times since setting out to write this piece. I wanted to be thorough. I played it through once on my own, then ran through it an additional two times on Twitch—the last time going on a lethal run of the level. I played it a few more times to cover a few Side Ops, and to collect cassette tapes so I could form a proper opinion on the story. I have a number of perspectives on Ground Zeroes—especially after my fourth playthrough. By the end of all of this I’ve come up with a more informed opinion of the game—which I’ll explore in the paragraphs to follow. What I’ll say now, however, is that Ground Zeroes highlights a very significant change in the Metal Gear formula. Contrary to what you may think, it isn’t the open-world structure, a new weapon and item selection system, a new voice actor or even the reduction of cutscenes. The largest change to Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain starts at the joining of two separate-but-related worlds that always existed in Metal Gear: The narrative and the core game mechanics.
Back in the late ‘90s, when I first experienced the original Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation as a child, I practically had a religious experience. This game blew me the fuck away. The soundtrack, the characters, the story, the goddamn opening credits playing over the opening mission as you actually were infiltrating the island—it was unlike anything I had experienced before. I’m getting excited just writing about it. Even Final Fantasy VII, which I absolutely adored, didn’t bring me this experience. Being a child with no source of income, I resorted to begging my parents for a copy of the game.
Though they meant well, my parents fundamentally didn’t know anything about games, so set out to purchase something they thought I wanted. I knew the game came with two discs, so one could imagine how puzzled I was when I held a clearly single-disc game wrapped in bright, flashy paper. Maybe this was a different version? I had made the title explicitly clear, since it sounded a little confusing to anyone unfamiliar with it, and my parents seemed to understand. After tearing the wrapping paper off frantically, this wouldn’t be a story of another unkept promise that I would later occupy my therapist’s time with—no, for my parents actually tried their best to get me what I wanted: The cover art was green and had a picture of the cyborg ninja, Gray Fox, on the cover—along with the title Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions. It was a Metal Gear game, but not the one I anticipated—in fact I wasn’t even aware of this one’s existence.
For the next year or so, I would play this game endlessly. Despite it not being the cinematic experience I was craving, VR Missions supplied the core gameplay of the series, and it captivated me. Stocked with what seemed like endless challenges that tested sneaking skills, weapons training, quirky parts like the Mystery Mode—and lets not forget three missions allowing the player to go on a rampage as the Gray Fox himself, I sunk hours into this game. Not only that, but by the time I actually got a copy of the full Metal Gear Solid, I had practiced enough of the game’s mechanics that I could jump right in, already familiar with all the controls and as skilled as the legendary Solid Snake himself.
This became the two worlds I would know as Metal Gear Solid: The core narrative through the story campaigns, and the training-intensive VR missions. This tradition was kept in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty with the release of Substance—the game that everyone thought was finally going to give them what they wanted: The ability to play as Snake in the Plant Chapter of the game. Though it kind of went halfway on this, it did offer an entire suite of brand new VR missions, with all the traditional modes and some exciting new ones as well—such as a complete first-person mode. While I do have a few issues with the sequel to the game that stole my heart in the ‘90s, it remains a classic in my eyes—and a classic that was enhanced by Substance. I retain hope that wherever my original copy of this game vanished to—along with my first PlayStation 2 memory card—it will someday turn up. (No…it really won’t…)
This existence of these two worlds of Metal Gear—the story and the VR missions—wasn’t exactly kept in the strictest sense in Metal Gear Solid 3. Perhaps it was the fact that virtual reality wouldn’t make sense thematically with the third game taking place in the ‘60s, or maybe it was just the fact that Metal Gear Online assumed the mantle of providing players with a hardcore mechanical structure to the game in the way VR missions did prior, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence did not include any VR missions—and neither did Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots—though the fourth entry contained what was, in my opinion, the best iteration of the Metal Gear Online formula (until the servers were shut down, -_-).
It wasn’t until 2014, when I finally played Ground Zeroes, that I recognized the focus on core gameplay that was central in the VR mission entries. This is a theme I will keep coming back to as I explore Metal Gear Solid V, as I feel it’s essential in order to truly get to the bottom, to “Make Sense” of the fifth, and possibly final, entry to this series. In fact, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I think there’s a greater meta-narrative to be found over the entire series with just this topic. I also realize it has been eight paragraphs since I promised I would strictly focus on Ground Zeroes—and I have done the complete opposite. Since I’m not getting graded, and this is my fucking site, I’ll do as I please. To live up to the promise of this article, however, here we go with a full analysis of Ground Zeroes. And yes, I’m fully aware that reading this is probably longer than the entirety of the specific game I’m talking about here.
In many ways, Ground Zeroes isn’t so alien to the Metal Gear series overall. Where Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 had the Tanker Chapter and Virtuous Mission, respectively, Metal Gear Solid V has Ground Zeroes. On its own, it does set the stage for Phantom Pain well. Big Boss has been able to continue with his business of private military contracts and is now after something much more personal. For those who enjoyed Peace Walker (I really didn’t), saving Chico and Paz has more meaning (this is something I commented on in the live stream of the game.)
Chico, and Paz especially, represent something very important for Big Boss and all of Militaires San Frontières, since Paz nearly brought everything to a sudden halt in Peace Walker. Unfortunately, following the connections of many characters in Metal Gear Solid, the endless double and triple agent betrayals and how they all relate to each other kind of reminds me a bit too much of this bit from The Office:
Ultimately this sets Ground Zeroes as an excellent start for the story to be told in The Phantom Pain. Big Boss is faced with something he can’t ignore, something that will set all that is to come in the full game into motion. Snake cannot refuse this mission: Paz (and Chico) cannot be allowed to reveal that MSF actually has nuclear capabilities, and it appears her character might be a bit deeper than it seems—as is largely revealed by her diary entries. On top of all of this, Chico’s life is in jeopardy.
On the surface, there’s not much else to dive into when it comes to the story in Ground Zeroes—until the end which continues in the full game. The reason for this is largely due to the fact that the real grit of the story is told through some cryptic dialogue, as well as the tapes that can be recovered throughout the Ground Zeroes operation, as well as the other Side Ops. But more on that later. The presentation of the game marks a significant change from what we as gamers have come to expect from Metal Gear Solid, and this is largely the reason the story might appear so shallow from a single playthrough.
From the very beginning of Ground Zeroes, it is very clear that this is a new kind of Metal Gear—one even more far removed from the changes introduced in titles such as Subsistence, Guns of the Patriots and even Peace Walker. This isn’t just a change in the camera and a bunch of new abilities: It’s practically a reboot of almost everything this series has been known for. Play Metal Gear Solid 4 directly before playing even just Ground Zeroes, and the differences are impossible to ignore. Big Boss looking out over Omega Camp is not followed by a solid five to ten minute codec conversation, most likely carried on by Snake phrasing simple words into questions. This is one area where I feel the new format actually improves on the old. While I would’ve welcomed a more traditional codec call (or entire system for that matter), I’m glad the one-word questions are gone. I could hear it now, in David Hayter’s voice: “Black site?”
Though I criticized some of Kiefer Sutherland’s performance during the live stream, I think there are areas where he hits the mark well—even so much as providing Big Boss with something he needed all along: A different personality. Though it’s plausible that Big Boss and Solid Snake would have similar voices just based on their vocal chords being identical, it makes little sense for both of them to behave in such similar ways—especially since they’ve seen such radically different sides of the world. Though the jury is still out for me as to whether or not Sutherland really made this happen as best he could (something I no doubt will have more opinions on when I start digging into The Phantom Pain), at a minimum it gives Big Boss a fundamentally different way of interacting with the world through dialogue—one that often is more mature, realistic and even emotional at times.
After a cutscene of expected length in the opening, we’re thrown straight into gameplay—only stopping momentarily after rescuing Chico, and then practically straight to the end with the closing cutscene. Where as past Metal Gear titles often threw a new cutscene at players left and right, Ground Zeroes showcases this new approach immediately. The gameplay itself has also changed somewhat since Metal Gear Solid 4. I’ll compare the change more often to Guns of the Patriots than I will Peace Walker; while this might not be the most accurate thing to do, and I recognize that, I simply don’t have the years invested in Peace Walker that I do in all the other main installments of the series in order to really draw a solid comparison—and it’s not something I’m convinced I can make up for in any reasonable amount of time.
Ground Zeroes does keep the more solid shooting mechanics that were present in Guns of the Patriots. Here it seems to embrace the influence that games such as Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War have had on the gaming industry overall. Item and weapon selection has been moved to the D-pad, as almost every other shooter out there; this does make sense as it frees up the triggers of the controller for what they’ve been mostly designed for on modern consoles: Aiming and shooting. Unlike Guns of the Patriots, which I felt got too caught up in the shooting and action, Ground Zeroes brings stealth back into play. I should make it clear, however, that it’s my perception that Metal Gear Solid V (both the prologue and The Phantom Pain) are not games centered around stealth, but instead offer it as the wiser solution. The wide variety of guns that make obnoxious amounts of noise, combined with the ability to maintain control of an all out firefight, makes it very easy to ignore stealth—though nowhere near as easy as it was in Guns of the Patriots, which, it could be argued, only had one stealth-focused mission anyway.
Overall I found the stealth and gunplay in Ground Zeroes to be excellent. The game strikes a nice balance by giving you the tools necessary to understand the battlefield from both infiltration and combat scenarios. And though it leaves the old item and weapon selection system in the past for something more modern, it manages to make the game feel more realistic as a result. Snake can only carry so many weapons of each kind, and there’s a perfect amount of ammunition available: Just enough to provide you with the ability to defend yourself when the shit hits the fan, but no so much to encourage run-and-gun gameplay.
Though Ground Zeroes does take the best shooting elements of Guns of the Patriots and improves on them, it curiously leaves out a pretty important mechanic: The ability to hang over ledges to aim with your weapon. This is something I complained at great length about in the live stream, and I cannot immediately recall if this was added at all in The Phantom Pain. Regardless of whether or not it was, this is a critical loss and severely impacts the game. It also breaks the immersion as it really makes no damn sense as to why Big Boss can’t creep over a ledge and fire a shot—as opposed to standing up like an idiot and getting seen if the enemy is at an inconvenient angle. This, however, is not the only thing curiously missing from Ground Zeroes. On the stealth side, the ability to lay completely flat, something introduced in Guns of the Patriots is also absent.
Curiously—well no, bafflingly, the ability to knock on walls and hide in a cardboard box is completely gone in Ground Zeroes. Also, the ability to hide in dumpsters, introduced in Guns of the Patriots, is gone. This might not be as strange if it weren’t for the fact that dumpsters are to be found all over the Camp Omega. Hiding in lockers is also gone. Kojima has never been shy to talk about ways in which he’s wanted Metal Gear to mature, and there’s no denying that the series is filled with plenty of silliness: Running around in cardboard boxes, using men’s magazines to distract the enemy and many others. Metal Gear Solid V, overall, aims for a more realistic presentation of its world, so perhaps the exclusion of these aspects—the cardboard box in particular—was a way of testing the waters to see what gamers would respond to the most.
Another missing element is the codec. While technically a form of radio communication exists, it is not the one-on-one conversations that have been a staple of the series. While it made sense for it to be absent from Peace Walker due to it being a lower-production portable title, I see fundamentally no reason as to why it’s not in this game, nor The Phantom Pain—aside from the perspective that being able to freeze everything around you in order to engage in a lengthy discussion with someone else is just too unrealistic for this universe. When you consider the fact that this game also has hyper-advanced prosthesis, photosynthetic humans who can turn invisible and parasites that eat away at languages, I think the radio pausing everything in the game wouldn’t have been too much more to ask for—especially since it would’ve helped this feel more connected to the previous entries in the series.
To make matters worse, the radio that is present is nothing more than a button that, once pushed, just delivers a bite-sized line from one of your comrades. There is no back-and-forth discussion. It feels just as it did in Peace Walker—except for a portable game, it makes sense to take a feature which would’ve required a great deal of time and money to fully produce, and transform it into something smaller; this is similar to how most television science fiction shows tend to stick to indoor settings of space ships and stations, and have fewer massive space battles of the kind typically seen in big production films which have greater budgets and more time to produce. I feel even more offended by the fact that this button, on PlayStation at least, is L1—a button that, to me, could’ve been utilized to a far greater degree than a frail shadow of a feature once essential to the feel of the series. Every time I’ve pressed L1 in Ground Zeroes, I can’t help but feel like the button could’ve been utilized for something better, such as an additional CQC feature or an alternative fire button. The Phantom Pain does expand the holding of this button to bring up the Call Menu, so it isn’t as bad in the full game.
As I said about a number of issues I brought up in the live stream, none of these features, in my opinion, break the game. They don’t reduce its playability, and only appear to be missing in the first place because they were present, and often critical, to the composition of the previous games. It’s unfortunate, and if this were a typical Metal Gear title, this would’ve been a bigger issue. Since V is such a radical departure from many traditions of the series, it is a little bit easier to deal with.
What about the real meat of Ground Zeroes? The main story itself: How does it stack up to what we’ve come to know from the older Metal Gear titles? To start, I would argue that the main story is no longer the main event here. As I said earlier, one of the primary elements of Metal Gear Solid V is the joining of the game’s narrative universe with the core gameplay that was the focus of titles like VR Missions and the online multiplayer modes found in Subsistence and Guns of the Patriots, as a result, the Side Ops have to be talked about on an equal level as the main story mission.
Alongside the main storyline, Ground Zeroes features four Side Ops and two additional Extra Ops. The Side Ops maintain the realism and seriousness found in the main mission, and for the most part are pretty engaging levels. They also showcase the amazing capabilities of the Fox Engine to switch up weather and atmospheric effects to almost make Camp Omega feel like an entirely different map on a few missions. This effect, I feel, isn’t fully realized unless you play each mission, including the main one, at least two or three times. Rain feels like rain, and an afternoon setting sun paints the map in a gorgeous orange glow, with long shadows that make the game feel completely different. Additionally, AI reacts to these changes. You are easier to spot in daylight than you are in the middle of a rainstorm. This ties into what I was previously speaking to in regards to the focus on stealth. Though gunplay and shooting gets just as much attention, stealth is written into the game’s engine from the start—as it should be in any Metal Gear title.
None of the Side Ops technically happen in the game’s story; they are all prefaced with the “Pseudo-Historical Reenactment.” These missions, in a way, fit the virtual reality role I mentioned earlier. They give the player a chance to focus on core game mechanics. This time, however, the mechanics serve a purpose. As opposed to simply taking out two random targets, you are tasked with stopping war criminals who have gone into hiding, or interrogating someone who might have critical information about what is actually transpiring on this military black site. Of course in the greater narrative these didn’t actually happen on Camp Omega—as the setting’s only place in the canon is the rescue of Chico and Paz—but they add an extra element that brings some life and personality to missions, as opposed to them simply being tests of skill.
On top of all of this, these missions are most likely very similar to what Big Boss and MSF would actually be hired to do. In this way, it adds a bit more depth, and even ties into a theme present in previous entires. Think back to what Solid Snake’s ongoing criticism of the VR missions characters like Raiden were trained with: Simulated reality is, fundamentally, simulated. It doesn’t matter how real it may seem, there is an essence to actually being in the real world, on the battlefield in Snake’s case, and experiencing real pain, fighting real humans and doing things that actually matter in the world.
It makes sense, then, for the extra missions in Ground Zeroes to have you doing something with a bit more narrative and realism. You’re not fighting nameless representations of genome soldiers, you are meant to be taking down actual targets, and rescuing real people. This is largely because the game is set before VR missions exist in the universe, and ultimately matches with V’s overall goal to achieve a higher level of realism in its presentation. It is only in the Extra Ops that things are a bit more removed from reality. Playing a surreal simulation of the Shadow Moses operation, and stopping alien body snatchers are more in line with the sort of goofy nature found in previous titles. These two missions, if anything, really help to draw a connection to the series’ legacy. Their presence makes a real difference. It reminds us that this still is ultimately a Metal Gear Solid game.
A single playthrough of the Ground Zeroes operation is not enough to really understand what’s going on. It’s debatable, however, whether or not it should be. While previous games have rewarded players for digging deeper—usually through codec and radio conversations only achievable by calling at specific times, or by performing certain actions, the surface of these games was always filled with more than enough narrative. You could play through Metal Gear Solid 4 and, provided you follow the narrative and are familiar with characters and events from the game’s universe, can pretty much understand all that is going on just from what’s provided on the surface. This is wholly not the case in Ground Zeroes, which, on the surface, really only tells you that Big Boss learns about Chico being captured and Paz surviving, rescues them only to discover that Paz has had an explosive device planted inside of her, and the nuclear inspection underway back at Mother Base was ultimately a setup to take MSF down. The nuance of the characters is not present on the surface in anyway similar to the way it would’ve been in a previous Metal Gear game. You have to dig in to the cassette tapes to learn more.
The depth that many of us have come to expect of a Metal Gear title is in fact present within Ground Zeroes—but you have to work for it. Like it or not, to really understand the depth of this game, you must listen to all the cassette tapes. This, admittedly, is a little bothersome. You either have to listen to them while playing the game—which dampens the sound of everything around you—or just listen to them in the title menu. Few people play video games to sit at a screen and listen to voice actors play out a scene, so it’s understandable why some people may have missed out on this part of the presentation—and it’s something I’m kind of torn on. Overall I have to agree that it doesn’t feel balanced enough. It does feel like too much of the game’s narrative is tucked away inside these tapes.
Understanding Chico’s experience as he was captured, realizing that Paz was on the brink of redemption, and getting a greater feel for the suffering of Skull Face himself is all within these tapes. And there really is some great stuff here. Paz’s character is fully revealed by listening to all of her diary entries. It also sets her up as a character of true tragedy. Her experiences on Mother Base during Peace Walker began to transform her, but her loyalty to Cypher won out. Though she was not willing in the end, she eventually attempted to kill Big Boss, following her mission to what many assumed at the time was her death.
It doesn’t end here. So close to redemption, Skull Face reduces anything that was left of Paz’s character into what she was meant to do from the start by literally placing two explosives inside her and turning her into a weapon—a theme present throughout Metal Gear Solid in fact is the very question of whether soldiers are human any more. Are they merely reduced to weaponry by controlling forces? It’s almost as if Skull Face is sending a middle finger directly to Gray Fox in the future when he tells Snake that they are “not tools of the government.” He viciously takes control of Paz’s body, and the tapes suggest it to be in a way that is similar to rape—as the last explosive is placed in an area he claims no one will dare to look. He not only denies her humanity, but reduces it and any chance that she could regain it. In the end it doesn’t matter whether or not Paz could’ve found redemption. She becomes a weapon against her will and cannot turn back; interestingly enough it is that very control which Big Boss set out to rebel against entirely by establishing MSF and leaving his home country behind—but this time it is the literal weaponization of a human body, something not too dissimilar to what happened to Frank Jaeger and even Raiden in later games.
The sounds of torture fill almost all of Chico’s tapes, and they tell a dark tale—something more brutal than anything we have seen in previous Metal Gear titles. The methods—including Skull Face demanding Chico have sex with Paz against her will after she’s been brutally beaten—are meant to draw out information about Big Boss and MSF, and eventually they draw Big Boss himself out. Chico and Paz are stripped of their choice by Skull Face’s brutality. Chico must betray Snake against his will by revealing information about MSF, and Paz must become the tool of destruction to kill Big Boss by becoming a literal weapon. These characters do not chose such a path, but rather a man whose identity has been reduced to nothing more than a skull, strips them of their humanity, as he was once himself.
Again, a large portion of this can very easily be lost, and most likely was lost, on many gamers who simply played through the mission one time through, or never bothered to dig through all the tapes. While I’m not suggesting that Ground Zeroes is some kind of masterpiece that goes over the head of most, I am making the case that a more complete and satisfying experience awaits those who really want to dive in.
The tapes, despite containing content essential for getting the entire experience of Ground Zeroes, do present a barrier. This is not so much due to the tapes themselves, but due to just how many there are. There are seven of Chico’s tapes in total, all necessary to understanding Chico’s arrival on Cuba, as well as the entire interrogation he and Paz went through. There are a large number of additional tapes for Paz, as well as an additional interrogation tape that reveals some of Skull Face’s past. There’s enough material here to fill an audiobook, and it’s something that many gamers just don’t want to deal with—they’re playing a video game, after all.
I’ll fully admit that in order to fully experience and understand Ground Zeroes, I had to change the way I experienced a Metal Gear game. Whereas I used to be able to simply play the game and experience most of the story and character development, only digging deeper to find smaller—though still important—details such as who Ocelot’s mother was for example, now I had to dig deeper and experience the story through a different medium. Cutscenes weren’t just replaced by audio, they were also tucked away, tasking me to discover cassette tapes and listen to them in order to realize the bigger picture.
Again, I don’t necessarily have an issue with audio recordings or hidden secrets; the problem in Ground Zeroes is the fact that it’s ultimately lopsided: Too much of the story is hidden away—much of which I only really discovered and comprehended when I set out to do this series of articles. Not only that, but it robs the series of its theatrical identity for a greater emphasis on gameplay, it would seem.
In Metal Gear Solid, Gray Fox and Solid Snake share a scene together toward behind a large crate while Liquid Snake searches for them. There was nothing realistic about this: The room was mostly empty and a single shot of a rocket from Metal Gear Rex would’ve blown Snake and Gray Fox into nothing. But the point of the game wasn’t necessarily to give the player a hyper-realistic military action game, but also to present a moving story about real people facing overwhelming forces. That scene—which is punctuated by Gray Fox’s gruesome death—is theatre in gaming.
This is given to the player just by playing the game. It’s not a secret you must unlock, or something separate from the main experience. It is inherent to the gameplay, and there is very little—if anything—that matches this in Ground Zeroes. If there’s an ultimate failing of the prologue to The Phantom Pain, it isn’t to be found in the length of the story mission, but the lack of what has always made Metal Gear Solid an outstanding achievement in the medium of gaming. Only by digging deep into the cassette tapes do we get something that matches what we’ve come to love from the series, and that is what’s unfortunate. There could’ve been a better balance here.
And it’s for this reason that I find it so difficult to give a solid summary of Ground Zeroes. Like the game experience itself, my opinion is largely fractured. Technically everything I’ve loved about the series is inside the game—but it’s delivered in such a new, and frankly limited way that the experience is very alien. The pieces of Metal Gear’s greatness are all here, but the player must assemble them. How much this changes in The Phantom Pain is something I intend to analyze closely as I continue.
The closing moments of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater gave me chills. I had to put down the controller and stare off into space as I contemplated what I had just experienced. The screenshot of Big Boss saluting the grave of The Boss still moves me. It was emotive, it has practically shaped parts of my personality. But nothing in Ground Zeroes takes off like this. While I loved the intellectual stimulation from digging into the cassette tapes, there was nothing that made me get up off my couch and pace back and forth, likely drinking a cup of coffee, while I spoke aloud to myself like a crazy person about how amazing it was. For that reason alone, Ground Zeroes disappoints. Despite great gameplay, beautiful game design and some deep topics it doesn’t live up to the legacy of its former self. Only after a great deal of time invested does it reveal its genius, and I can’t help but feel that this was too little, too late.
This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Ground Zeroes—because I really did. Even going back and playing through it to properly write this was a lot of fun. In the end, digging through the cassette tapes was kind of enjoyable. It was like a puzzle I had to put together to see the bigger picture, and if anything my disappointment stems from expecting a different sort of experience from a Metal Gear game. If the point of Ground Zeroes was to introduce players to a new take on Metal Gear, than it certainly succeeded. Those who are willing to leave the past behind and embrace something new will likely experience Ground Zeroes differently than those who went into it craving the sensations previous games delivered. It is a polarizing game, fundamentally, and will probably remain that way for eternity.
The only way, in my head, that I’ve been able to properly view Ground Zeroes as a natural part of the Metal Gear world is to understand that the series truly did end at the close of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. If that is the true end, not just to the story, but to what we once knew of this series, then Ground Zeroes and all of Metal Gear Solid V can be seen as a fundamentally different perspective on the many themes that this series has explored. We must take what we know and embrace the change in order to accept it, otherwise this game feels utterly separated from its legacy. This perspective doesn’t excuse changes that might not have been necessary, but it’s critical to understand it.
If you made it this far, thanks for sticking through 6000+ words of opinion on Ground Zeroes! I’ll be continuing with a complete set of opinion pieces on the full game: The Phantom Pain in the weeks to come. So stick around!