Metal Gear Solid's hallmarks have never been represented better than in Ground Zeroes, the prologue chapter to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It combines tense stealth and best-in-class cutscene direction, and these aspects stand above any other game in the series, but naturally, the narrative ultimately concludes sooner than you'd like. It may only take you an hour or two to finish the main objective, but the game doesn't totally end there. In addition to filling in some of the gaps between Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and the Phantom Pain, Ground Zeroes introduces a new stealth system and an open-world format that's perfect for experimentation. Even though you're prepared for the next chapter, what's the rush? After the credits roll on the main mission and a handful of side activities unlock, the best part of Ground Zeroes is just getting started. With a wealth of secrets to find, and new challenges to master, chasing the endgame will keep you entertained for hours on end.
The story sequences in Ground Zeroes captivate with impressive cinematography, properly showcasing the exploits of the brutal yet heroic Big Boss; a battlefield prodigy who long ago disavowed his allegiance to the US Government and established his own military for hire. Metal Gear has always been recognized for having impressive cutscenes, but they're usually hindered by inconsistent animation and over-the-top voice acting. Thankfully, the opposite is true in Ground Zeroes. Characters move and speak with a natural grace, and even though it's jarring to hear the recognizable Kiefer Sutherland voice Big Boss in place of fan-favorite David Hayter, his delivery is far more realistic and believable. No matter the platform you play it on, you're treated to impressive lighting and masterfully crafted character and environment models that, along with the renewed cast, elevate Ground Zeroes' cutscenes above and beyond those from the past. They may not stick around for long, but they certainly leave a lasting impression.
Your mission begins in a typically dramatic fashion on a dark and stormy night at Camp Omega--a military black site on the coast of Cuba. You need to infiltrate the heavily guarded base to rescue a member of your entourage, and with only a shred of evidence to point you in the right direction, you have to use your powers of observation, eavesdropping, and some light interrogation to succeed.
With Ground Zeroes’ minimal HUD, a narrow third-person camera angle, and a sprawling base filled with potential threats , sneaking behind enemy lines has rarely felt so tense and immersive. Metal Gear famously stars characters with exceptional sneaking skills, but they also come equipped with fantastical gadgets that make their jobs easier by revealing enemy locations and alert states. Unlike in older games, there's no automated radar to track nearby enemies in Ground Zeroes; the only way to track enemies is to first spot them with your own eyes, and only then, after marking them with your binoculars, can you follow their movements. Knowing where any of the dozens of enemies are yields a small amount of confidence, but it's a minor consolation when every corner you turn may present unpredictable challenges.
Sticking to the shadows, crouch-walking behind objects, or crawling through the grass keeps you out of sight in most cases, but should an enemy catch a glimpse of Big Boss, you have a brief opportunity to redeem yourself when he enters reflex state. This bullet-time-like slow-motion effect gives you a few seconds to disable your spotter with short-range melee attacks or a well-placed shot to the head in order to avoid triggering a base-wide alert. Does it give you an unfair advantage over your enemies? Of course, but like the marking system, it also makes the transition into immersive, open-world stealth a little easier to swallow.
Unless you're a naturally gifted expert, it's a given that you'll eventually be spotted. Immediately, alarms blare, and enemies, sometimes in armored vehicles, flock to your last known location. You have two options: face them head-on or flee and wait for them to give up their search. It's not a binary system, however, and even though you may have lost your pursuers, they can remain on high alert for some time. In the past, a handy icon and a countdown timer would help you determine where your enemies were and how long you had to remain in hiding before they gave up. Those features have been removed, so you have to monitor live radio communications to gather the same intel.
The need to pay attention to your in-ear radio--which can sound off at any time--and the removal of automated radar systems set Ground Zeroes apart from the rest of the series. Nothing is simply handed to you, and Ground Zeroes is a far more tense and rewarding experience for it. Even though marking enemies and having reflex at your disposal are helpful, you have to work to use them to your advantage. If you want to immerse yourself in the game even further, you can disable marking and reflex altogether for the ultimate challenge.
After the credits roll and a handful of side missions unlock, the best part of Ground Zeroes is just getting started.
How well you manage to complete your objectives determines the ranking you earn at the end of a mission, and everything, from the number of times you're spotted to the number of casualties you cause along the way, has an effect on your score and the rewards you earn. Such rewards include weapon drops at the start of missions and in-mission trials that can significantly alter your trajectory during repeat playthroughs.
Rankings aside, you don't need to sneak in the shadows if you don't want to, and with an entire military base's worth of toys at your disposal, sometimes it's fun to stand tall and announce your presence. Armed with C4 and RPGs, you're fully prepared to blow up vehicles, destroy watchtowers, and charge in, guns blazing, when the mood strikes you. Though you're encouraged to play into the game's stealthy trappings by your co-commander, there are plenty of ways to actively disrupt Camp Omega, and some side missions are designed with this sentiment in mind. In one, you're challenged to assassinate notorious war criminals, and another sees you firing explosives out of a helicopter to protect the extraction of a comrade.
This dichotomy between stealth- and action-oriented gameplay lends itself to fear, tension, and excitement. One moment you can hear a pin drop, and the next, you're bolting across a chaotic military base with bullets whizzing by your head and desperation clouding your focus. If this were a more linear experience, perhaps the allure of this contrast would wear thin, but there are so many ways to tackle individual missions, be it the path you take or the weaponry you choose, that there's almost never a shortage of new tactics to explore. When your only playground is a military base, it's easy to find new ways to entertain yourself in Ground Zeroes.
Unfortunately, if you hope to be entertained by an equal helping of Metal Gear's typically perplexing and intriguing narrative, you'll most certainly be disappointed. There's some fat to savor here, hints of what's to come in the next chapter of Metal Gear Solid V, but once you've digested the cutscenes that bookend the main mission, it's a pure gameplay-driven experience from then on out. Though it's unusual for everything to take place in a single location, there's so much to do and see, and whether you take a stealthy or head-on approach, infiltrating Camp Omega is a thrilling experience that shouldn't be missed.