Friday, March 21, 2014

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes - Kept You Waiting, Huh?

The Japanese box art also features Kazuhira Miller.

I’ve only been a Metal Gear fan for a little over a year, but in that time I have become very familiar with the deep story and characters to the point that I am now eagerly anticipating the eventual release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (side note: I got into Metal Gear after the stealth announcement of Metal Gear Solid V at the 2012 Spike VGAs). Before getting there, however, I knew that I would need to play Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. I somewhat followed news of its release and knew about all of the controversial elements that Ground Zeroes would introduce to the franchise, but nevertheless I pre-ordered my copy of the game and waited for it to arrive in the mail on release day. Since I’ve finally had the opportunity to play Ground Zeroes, after heavily anticipating its release for a long time, I think that it’s a very good game with a great taste of what’s to come, but it could have used a little more meat on its bones.

In the year 1975, sometime after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Big Boss works with the Militaires Sans Frontières (MSF) to infiltrate an American black site on Cuban soil called Camp Omega. His mission is to locate and extract two prisoners in the camp, Chico and Paz, who were both involved in the Peace Walker incident. Inside the camp, the leader of an organization called XOF, named Skull Face, informs Chico that Paz is dead and hands him a tape recorder before leaving the camp with the rest of his forces, who all discard their XOF patches while onboard the helicopter. At this point, Big Boss arrives on the scene to begin his mission while Kaz and Huey prepare for a UN inspection on Mother Base, which was scheduled in response to suspicions of the base housing a nuclear weapon obtained during the Peace Walker incident. Unfortunately, no one has any idea of what’s really going on behind the scenes.

Skull Face, leader of the mysterious XOF.

The story for the game is very short, clocking in at less than 90 minutes on my first playthrough, but also very powerful. Camp Omega is presented as a rather unsubtle metaphor for Guantanamo Bay and though it doesn’t really discuss anything relating to it apart from references in a post-credits timeline, it does present the conditions as deplorable and can incite conversation in real life about the prison. After the extraction of Chico however, things easily take a turn for the worse in one of the most climactic and shocking endings in the entire franchise. Really, I was in total awe with my jaw dropped and I couldn’t really react until the credits rolled. I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending, but in any case it will be very interesting to see how The Phantom Pain expands on the idea of Big Boss falling into a nine-year coma after Ground Zeroes.

The gameplay is largely the same as other Metal Gear games, but with some big changes. First off, this is the first open world Metal Gear title, meaning that within the space of Camp Omega you are free to approach the missions however you please, be it running and gunning, total stealth, or somewhere in between. Ground Zeroes does not feature the ability to Fulton Recover enemies, though Kojima himself did explain it away by stating that it wouldn’t make sense for a chopper to keep circling Camp Omega if there was risk of it being shot down. For the most part though, there’s more of a DIY approach to certain things. For instance, you have to manually pinpoint where you want/need to go and manually take prisoners or enemies to a helicopter for extraction. Whereas in previous games you could not pick up an enemy gun and use it, you now can, as well as automatically collect ammo for guns you already have equipped. On that note, the number of weapons you can have on you is restricted even further, with only one or two big or small weapons, plus a few throwables, on you at a time. I have no idea if this change only applies to Ground Zeroes or if it will be carried over to The Phantom Pain, but in some ways I’m not entirely sure I like it; I suppose it just takes some getting used to though. Instead of a combat roll, Big Boss now does a dive move, which actually works pretty effectively in getting away from or even knocking over enemies.

The most notable change though would be the iDroid interface. By pressing the Start button, with Select now serving as the pause button, you can bring up the iDroid, which can supply you with information regarding your mission, a map of Camp Omega and the ability to summon a helicopter to any pre-designated landing point. This interface takes some getting used to, partly because usage of the iDroid is performed in real time, so you have to make sure you won’t be killed if you need to do something with it. Other changes include the ability to Sprint as well as increased CQC commands and regenerating health. That last one is a bit controversial, though it should be noted that you can still be shredded by gunfire if you’re too reckless.

This shot may be from an Xbox version, but it still shows off the iDroid.

Enemy AI is also a bit smarter this time around. The guards at Camp Omega will respond to both sight and sound, now with more objects that generate sound, and can easily catch you if you’re not careful. When you are spotted, you go into reflex mode, which is essentially the fight-or-flight response turned into a game mechanic; you can either shoot the enemy to neutralize them before they alert others to your presence or you can run/dive out of sight. No matter what you do, don’t think that you’re entirely safe. If you incapacitate a guard, you’ll need to hide the body and if you run you’ll need to find a safe hiding spot; in either case, the guards are pretty good at sweeping the area where they last saw you, though it’s possible for you to be far, far away from everyone if you’re good enough. It probably sounds like I’m reiterating what was already important in previous games, but I feel like I need to explain how this applies to the open world setting. Also, when alert mode is triggered, you will be alerted in the bottom right corner by the iDroid, which feels like a natural extension of Peace Walker’s status system.

Graphically, this is easily the best looking Metal Gear game, or just plain game for that matter, that I have seen in years. The Fox Engine is a real technical marvel, showing off a lot of dynamic lighting and hair and cloth physics even on seventh generation hardware (I played the PS3 version). Both night and daytime are something incredible to look at and it’s easy to want to replay a mission just to look at how the Fox Engine enhances the feel of the game. The character models also look very realistic to the point that they blur the line between fiction and reality, all without dipping into the uncanny valley; this seems to show off just how good Yoji Shinkawa’s art style is. The fact that we’ve even reached this point in graphics capability is impressive at all, but it’s even more impressive to know that it’s coupled with good and responsive gameplay. As an interesting touch, the entirety of the Ground Zeroes mission in Camp Omega is also one continuous unbroken shot.

The Fox Engine at work.

Of course, I’ll now need to address the most controversial aspect of the game (before a supposed internet leak of stuff from the finished product): Kiefer Sutherland, best known as Jack Bauer in the series 24, replacing longtime voice actor David Hayter as the English voice of Big Boss. I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of this at first, since I never really paid attention to Kiefer Sutherland, but after seeing and hearing his performance in this game (Sutherland also performed facial capture for Big Boss), I think they made the right choice. It still takes some getting used to Hayter not voicing a Snake protagonist, but Sutherland’s delivery captures the emotional journey Big Boss has gone through after Peace Walker and all through his experiences at Camp Omega and the cinematic ending. I’m now looking forward to seeing how he will perform during The Phantom Pain.

James Horan, known to Transformers fans as Wheeljack in Transformers: Prime and to others as the cowboy in those 5-hour Energy commercials, is also a new voice actor to the series, voicing the villain and XOF leader Skull Face. At first people weren’t sure what to think after the extended Ground Zeroes trailer was released, showing off the first cinematic in the game. However, like with Sutherland after the leak, people began to warm up to him. Personally, I think Horan did an impressive job as Skull Face. At times he sounds genuinely terrifying and his lines are delivered with such conviction that you can’t help but be in awe by his performance. It will certainly be interesting to see how he continues the role in The Phantom Pain.

Returning voice actors from Peace Walker also have some good delivery despite not having as many lines, for the most part, compared to Sutherland; we have Robin Atkin Downes as Kazuhira Miller, Christopher Randolph as Huey Emmerich, Antony Del Rio as Chico and Tara Strong as Paz. They, for the most part, have the same delivery as in Peace Walker, but the range of emotions brought on by the dark events at Camp Omega, as well as the ending, cement just how good everyone is at voicing these characters. As I’ve said with Sutherland and Horan, I want to see how they do in The Phantom Pain.

Like in previous titles, the music is composed very well, this time by returning composer Harry Gregson-Williams. I’ve always been impressed by his Metal Gear work and this is no exception, especially during the console-exclusive Déjà Vu mission where he remixes classic music from Metal Gear Solid. Also noteworthy is the use of the song “Here’s To You” by Joan Baez and Ennio Morricone from the film Sacco e Vanzetti. The significance of its usage is actually brought up at one point and every single time it’s used the tone of Ground Zeroes manages to put the whole song in a much darker context. The song by itself is actually pretty good, but it’s interesting how its usage here is all too appropriate.

Before I end my review, I feel I should address the most polarizing aspect of the game, that being the amount of content. For $30, the game comes with one Main Op (Ground Zeroes), four Side Ops and one console-exclusive Extra Op unlockable by collecting all nine XOF patches during the Main Op; on PS3 and PS4 you get Déjà Vu and on 360 and Xbox One you get Jamais Vu. Since I bought the PS3 version, I got the Déjà Vu mission, which has Big Boss going around Camp Omega and recreating specific scenes from Metal Gear Solid. It’s a fun mission and definitely one worth repeating, though be aware that you don’t get any tranquilizers (because MGS1 didn’t have them) and dialogue repeated from MGS1 is also re-enacted by Kaz and Big Boss. Apart from that mission, the content shared across all versions admittedly doesn’t amount to very much. It’s true that completing Ground Zeroes only gets you a 10% completion ratio, you can unlock a Hard Mode for each mission you beat and there are a lot of incentives to replay every mission, especially since whatever you get will transfer to The Phantom Pain, but I still wish there could have been more content to satisfy my Metal Gear itch. I still like what I got to play, but being able to play more would be the biggest improvement of all; that said, I’ll probably return to each mission a few more times in the future so I can transfer more stuff down the line.

When you see this, the investment suddenly feels entirely worth it.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is an interesting game. Is there enough content? Not entirely. Are there improvements all around? Yes, for the most part. Is Kiefer Sutherland capable of taking on the mantle of Big Boss? He most certainly is. There may not be enough to satisfy everyone, but I felt that the investment was worth it overall. With tons of replay value and a great taste of what’s to come next, I think existing Metal Gear fans will enjoy it, although those who are more hesitant can wait for a price drop. Newcomers should not begin here, unless they listen to every cassette tape available before playing and have a friend with them who is willing to explain everything as it comes up. Instead, I would encourage them to begin with Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Now I really can’t wait to see what Kojima has planned for the future.

To Be Continued in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

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