Something smells rank
Thanks to the disconnected, pointless nature of Ground Zeroes missions, your motivation to keep playing these little adventures over and over won’t come from the urge to make “progress” in any traditional sense. There are no memorable scenes to relive again like in past Metal Gear games, and it’s clear that gathering recruits and supplies is also useless without a Mother Base. The only thing that really nags us to play again is the feeling of inadequacy when we see our “rank” at the end of the mission.
Scores and rankings are the oldest, most trusty metagame tool. They don’t affect the gameplay, and yet they become the “point” of the game — if you pay attention to that sort of thing. Ever since the first generation of videogames, obtaining a high score has driven people to try harder and play longer, and there’s nothing wrong with that because it’s a non-intrusive way for players to compete against themselves and each other. But from the developer point of view it’s also helpful for conditioning player behavior without having to explain too much (or create extra content). When you get penalized for a specific thing you did, your brain automatically makes a mental note and tells you to avoid that in the future. The arcade scene exploded across America thanks to High Score screens and their power over the obsessive and ego-driven players who spent their youths there…
Nowadays people obsess over their “Gamer Score” and Platinum Trophies instead, but the vainglory of a high number next to your name will probably never change. And of course, rankings aren’t new to the Metal Gear series either.
The original MSX Metal Gear had a five-star rating scale which, interestingly, actually affected whether a certain character would help you or not. Later games introduced more advanced FOXHOUND codenames that you could earn. In a series as eccentric as Metal Gear, studying your Rank was one of the best ways to find out what the “best” way to play was. (Many players were surprised to find that extreme patience and waiting was not ideal when they got the “Sloth” rank.) These doubled as a humorous insights into the naming conventions of the elite fictional unit. Being labelled “Elephant” because you ate so many rations during the mission is still hilarious to me. Peace Walker took the rank idea in a new direction by allowing Big Boss to earn “Heroism” for doing a great job on every small mission, which affected the reputation of MSF, and in turn affected the quality and number of recruits who would join. This made thematic sense, as Big Boss’ reputation and charisma around the world was the key to expanding MSF in the first place. In Ground Zeroes, there is no MSF to speak of…
You can unlock bonus weapons such as the bazooka and sniper rifle by getting a good Rank, which is something. Peace Walker also allowed you to unlock new stuff by completing missions with a high rank, so this shouldn’t feel too weird, but it does. There’s a big difference between a numbered, high-definition console experience and a PSP title that didn’t earn that honor; design needs to fit the format.
When you do unlock these weapons by getting a good rank, they’re scattered haphazardly in the starting area the next time you play that mission, which means you might just walk past them without noticing. There’s no fanfare around it — no customization screen for picking your weapons of choice, no descriptions or weapon stats like in Peace Walker, nor the ability to rotate the 3D model. It feels last-minute, unpolished, and bland. There’s no particular logic to which weapon gets unlocked, or how it fits into the level design either. It’s fun to unlock stuff, but this is literally like tossing it at our feet like trash.
Hindsight is 1/10
When you do embrace the idea that mastering each mission is the prime source of entertainment in Ground Zeroes, you may wish that your objectives, support advice, and the ranking system lined up logically. What you’re told to do and what you end up being measured by are different, which is just bad design.
Radio support is comically useless, when it could be a treasure trove of insight, humor, and information with some more effort from Kojima Prodcutions: information like what gets you a good Rank. The fact that the iDroid is our compensation makes sense in a way, but its interface is sloppy and it’s just not fun to use, and it also doesn’t tell you the best way to play. Considering that game is all about getting a good Rank, I don’t get why you should have to find out on the Rank screen that — whoops! — you could have gotten a bunch more points for capturing some extra POW’s while you were out there. The tools exist to teach us this along the way, not after the fact.
I want to pick on this point a little more, because it’s indicative of why Ground Zeroes has a weak metagame design. Why would it be intuitive to bring anyone back to base unless it’s a primary mission objective? Without a Mother Base to visit, or the ability to manage your army like in Peace Walker, you don’t feel any payoff for rescuing these people. Sure, Kojima has said your save file will transfer to The Phantom Pain and all the people you abduct will become useful in that game, but what good does that do us in the $30 dollar game we purchased and are playing now? Not to mention the vast majority of players who have no idea about the save transfer.
You also get a bonus for disabling Reflex Mode, even though the whole game was balanced around it. Does this make sense? It was a controversial feature when it was first shown, but they kept it for a reason. Are we supposed to take this as a hint that Reflex Mode is for unskilled “bad” players? Or is it a half-assed way of appeasing “hardcore” players? It’s a mixed message. If it’s a bad feature, take it out. If it’s a good feature, don’t penalize people for using it.
Time is the biggest factor of all, although it seems the most arbitrary too. Completing a mission quickly is more important than being stealthy, by far. I’ve gotten an “A Rank” after getting caught multiple times, dying, and restarting from a checkpoint, just because I was trying to do a blitz run. It was gross and unsatisfying. The game started to condition me to care less about the tension of espionage, and more about the invisible clock that is measuring my supposed skill. And for a game that obviously feels insecure about its longevity (remember the Completion Ratio?) it’s kind of stupid to entice players to sprint through it as quickly as possible instead of enjoying a pure stealth run.
Whether you agree with the metric being enforced or not, a part of your brain will be nagging you to do things “the way you’re supposed to”, so you can prove you’re good enough. The metagame hijacks your natural priorities and keeps your focus on the things the developer wants you to do. That can be good, or bad. In a game like Ground Zeroes, there are some mixed tradeoffs:
– GOOD: It can conditions players to have thematically-correct priorities (supposedly, at least)
– GOOD: It keeps players focused on completing objectives instead of wandering around, which keeps the pacing tight, preventing boredom
– BAD: It can easily convert hours of carefree fun into a negative feeling after the fact
– BAD: It’s not organic or intuitive
I know Ground Zeroes is essentially a tutorial section for The Phantom Pain, and that tutorials are supposed to teach you how to play games “correctly”, but that doesn’t change the fact that good game design always teaches you organically and intuitively, when the tools exist to do so. Analyzing a score screen after you’ve finished a mission is pretty much the lamest way to find out what you did “wrong”. Previous Metal Gear games had a radio support team you could call for advice when you felt worried, teaching you both story and gameplay tips if you wanted them, but here you’re lucky if Miller says anything relevant.