It's a pleasure being lost in the universe of Metal Gear. With every game, and with every return of director Hideo Kojima, the fascinating stealth series redraws the boundaries of its dense military fiction, pushing them back to include more and more characters and conspiracies. We feel like time-travelers in Metal Gear's byzantine blend of fact and fiction, leaping back and forth between the future and past of a legendary soldier named Snake. Now we enter 1975 in Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, and bless its prequel heart – there's a spot in the statistics screen reserved for time paradoxes.
Kojima's fiction may be impenetrable to the newcomer, but one man's convoluted is another man's complex, and it's your job to infiltrate the latter. Ground Zeroes effectively acts as the cold open for the upcoming and separately released Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, sending Snake through a massive rain-drenched encampment in Cuba. It's not quite the glorified demo your cynical self might suggest, but this tantalizing prelude does show how Metal Gear Solid will change its crouching silhouette yet again.
The mission to rescue Chico and the duplicitous Paz, two important figures from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, is just the first step in a new, freely explorable environment. It feels daunting at first, but clear goals keep you pointed in the right direction. Ground Zeroes is a confident game for the confident player – the one who sees the playground hiding beneath Metal Gear's tankers and army bases. This one's just a whole lot bigger.
Ground Zeroes also marks a dour turn for Metal Gear, but it feels close to the ground, dirty and dangerous. Kojima has brought the camera down, severing us from the radar screen and the days of steering Snake like Pac-Man dodging guards instead of ghosts. He sprints, walks, crouches and crawls in one smooth motion, rolls behind cover and peers over the edge ever so slightly. You feel rooted in the world alongside Snake. You clench your teeth as he picks a lock (no minigame!) and slips out of view just in time. You notice the cutscenes don't really cut away anymore.
The game is bookmarked by unflinching, continuous shots that track important subjects like they're in a documentary. These aren't interactive, but they share the same camera that eventually pulls back, just seamlessly, to float above and behind Snake. It's like being a nosy observer spinning around the scene, and sometimes this means you don't get spared from grotesque violence.
As much as I've grown to love David Hayter's cartoon gruffness, Kiefer Sutherland's realistic portrayal of Snake better matches the darkness on display in this chapter. Just don't think Kojima's gone all soft and subtle on us – the villain is still called SKULLFACE, after all.
The remarkable fidelity of the lighting and animation in Metal Gear Solid 5 is immediately apparent, and with time you realize just how much can be learned from simple observation. You can trigger brief descriptions over codec from Snake's partner, Kazuhira Miller, by pointing your binoculars at certain objects and vehicles, but you'll learn more relevant facts from the guards who man spotlights, chat with one another and telegraph their patrols in their turns. When they point a glaring flashlight your way – the new 'Huh?!' – it feels like you're under attack already.
Once again and more appreciated than ever, Metal Gear Solid offers a route for the pacifist stealth player. It's important to have some input in Snake's morality, and ideal to have it expressed in gameplay rather than a trivial on-screen choice. Sneaking closer lets you stick a pistol in someone's back, at which point you can command them to lie down in the rain, divulge the location of secret ammo caches, or call reinforcements. Why? Because you've recently turned this part of the base into a minefield. Okay, so maybe the peace-loving man with a tranquilizer gun has a day off now and then.
The longer you stay with Ground Zeroes and its shooter-style control scheme (for real, this time), the more you diverge from your old style of play, even if your intent is to be more of a ghost than a ghost-making machine. On one end of the Metal Gear spectrum, you drag a squirming guard behind a building and choke him into mandatory silence. On the other end, you commandeer a giant emplaced machine gun – let's call it the "on-site procurement" that's been encouraged since MGS1 – and blow everyone away. Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes rewards stealth purists with a better score, but trigger-happy improvisers get a satisfying body count.
The playful, experimental nature of Metal Gear's stealth has always been the star. This is a game where you tip-toe beneath a spotlight, climb into an outpost and give the guard a hug he'll never forget, only to realize that some C4 at the tower's base would have destroyed it. You can find the vent that peeks into the enemy's fortress, or lie down in the back of a supply truck that gets a free pass through the main gate. Metal Gear is happy to say yes to many a crazy scheme, and it's a more dynamic stealth game for it.
As for that enemy fortress: My departure from such a guarded HQ could not have been less graceful. I stole the truck that got me there, crashed it through the gate and nearly hurled it off a cliff in my reckless rescue. But I got my subject out and sat crouched in the rain and wind, shooting at my pursuers while the evacuation helicopter descended on a jagged outcrop – a last stretch of land for my final stand. This is a new partnership in the making: I write my own story, one with many possible twists and endings, and Hideo Kojima directs the whole thing.
I'd describe more of what might happen as you direct an outcome in Ground Zeroes, but Konami's marketing has already shown too much. The publisher has also reminded fans and critics that this prelude is longer than the main mission's 90 minutes: A few more can be mined from the side missions, which take you back to the same area with different mission objectives, challenges, times of day, and one uncanny bit of fan service.
These twists and reruns feel slim, however, because they're tied to just one location - big but bland when the weather calms down. Much of Metal Gear's locomotion is in the story, as it always has been, and that concludes quickly in Ground Zeroes, teasing more than it satisfies. Yes, it's another chance for speedruns, no-alert missions, goofs and the sadistic torture of hapless guards ... but it's also 30 bucks for one hell of a cliffhanger. Is that the inflation-adjusted price of Metal Gear Solid 2's tanker demo?
The undoubtable quality of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes feels carved from a bigger, better game, and perhaps that makes it a better showcase for players who don't know their Snakes from their Otacons. Too good to be a cash-in, too calculated to be satisfying and too intriguing to spurn, Ground Zeroes is a fiscal test of patience. If you can't wait for the next stage of Metal Gear Solid, I'm afraid you'll leave this about the same as you went in.
This review is based on the PlayStation 4 version of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, played at a review event hosted by Konami in San Francisco. Check here for a performance comparison video. Images: Konami.
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