Places to remember
Ground Zeroes uses a checkpoint system to save progress during missions. Although you can’t see where these checkpoints are, you may notice the little loading icon when you pass by them. They’re all over the place in relatively safe spots, allowing you to spawn in peace when you quit, die, or decide you don’t like your odds of success at the moment. Simply choose “Restart from Checkpoint” in the Pause menu. It’ll restore your ammunition, items, and objective status, as well as some other strange things like the vehicle you were sitting in, which will spawn nearby. Checkpoints are pressure valves, letting out all the pent up anxiety you’ve been accumulating as you sneak around. This can be great if you’re a casual player that can’t handle continuous threat of failure and starting over, but for serious sneaking fans it serves to undermine the “stealth simulation” vibe, with “natural” tension and relief.
A checkpoint system in an open world is a metagame quandry, and I wonder whether it’s a good idea at all. Most sneaking games (including Metal Gear games) are linear, chopped into a sequence of puzzles. It makes sense for these games to save your progress after each puzzle you solve. But in Ground Zeroes, almost nothing is tightly planned because it’s supposed to be a realistic simulation. Which means checkpoints need to have some kind of logic to them. There are countless options for how to handle something like this, and I feel like the current solution is very lazy.
Imagine if saving were tied to a clever system, like the old typewriter ribbons in Resident Evil games. (I’m not saying there should be typewriters in Ground Zeroes, but maybe a radio tower, or any room with a lock on the doors to represent a safe spot, or something else that is restrictive.) In Resident Evil you collect ribbons, which you spend to save your progress when you find a typewriter, which is rare. By limiting number of saves you can have, while also limiting the places where you can save, it makes for much more tension followed by much more relief when you finally find a typewriter. In Dark Souls, your game is constantly saving your current state, so you’re forced to resume (more or less) exactly where you left off, for better or worse, even if you suddenly quit: this is a very “fair” solution, which therefore takes emphasis away from saving and loading strategically. You can’t exploit it, which means the game doesn’t become “about” exploiting it. But this solution doesn’t address the problem of death, or respawning. So instead, respawn points are handled by bonfires, which become your new spawn location; they also refill your health, with the twist that all the enemies you just killed are respawned too. This is just one facet of the game’s ingenius metagame design, which accounts for many of the cheap little strategies players come up with, and puts the emphasis back on skill and “correct” playing. Ground Zeroes seems like it’s trying to avoid having to deal with exploitation, and as a result it becomes easily exploited.
Once you realize how easily abused Ground Zeroes is, you’ll be sprinting from checkpoint to checkpoint without a care in the world, knowing that the worst thing that can happen is a short trip back to a guaranteed safe zone. I’ve actually zoomed across Camp Omega in a truck with the base on high alert, crashed it into a wall, exploded, and then restarted right where I died, except without alerts or guards nearby, and my truck sitting idly next to me. What kind of message does that send to me as a player? I gained an advantage for being extremely foolish and not caring about what happened. I must have passed through a checkpoint during my suicidal driving spree, which meant I ended up making much better time than if I had patiently tried sneaking. And yes, this did mean I got a better Rank at the end!
Thanks to checkpoints I’ve also been transported to areas that I didn’t quite reach yet. I can’t explain how it happened, but I when it did I simultaneously felt lucky and cheated at the same time. I wanted to get there, but I wanted to earn it myself, not randomly spawn there after I died.
It can be hard to see why this is a big deal until you really understand how much more interesting and solid it could all be. Players tend to accept whatever the rules of a game are, and focus more on the active challenges given to them. But for myself, I worry that The Phantom Pain will have the same scattered checkpoints across its massive landscape, which will result in even more bizarre outcomes and exploitation. People will treat the game like a joke, showing off how they can hit “Restart From Checkpoint” from Point A and somehow teleport to Point B, etc. This is a tricky question of game design balance, and it’s one Kojima needs to get right. I’m not confident he will.
After 50 minutes of intense sneaking without detection in Camp Omega, you’ll be on the edge of your seat with anticipation. Every risk you take starts to feel bigger and bigger, and being so deep into enemy territory without having the guarantee of a save spot would be a truly epic experience. Would be. Should be. Is not. Instead, you’ll be looking at the next upcoming risk without a care in the world, and probably just choose to restart from the Pause menu as soon as the shit hits the fan. I realize many players would be outraged if they were forced to do an entire run without checkpoints – as evidenced by watching Rocco from Mega64 ignorantly complain about the inability to instantly restart from checkpoint during a “Let’s Play” video – but there are better solutions. The original Hitman had a difficulty mode that limited the number of saves, forcing you to pick your save spots carefully because you only had so many. Gound Zeroes should have stolen this metagame design, or came up with something equivalent. (Also, the fact that casual players won’t figure out that the Select button is the Pause menu where you can do things like restart from a checkpoint is a game design joke.)
At the very least I think it should be imposible to gain an “A Rank” or “S Rank” if you’ve restarted from a checkpoint using the Pause menu or died, in order to punish players for trying to exploit the weak metagame and emphasize “perfect stealth” over “blitz”.
Conclusion (to part 2b)
No matter how good the core gameplay of Ground Zeroes is, it is framed by a piss-poor metagame that emphasizes bad behavior and hamstrings the potential of the game. That is, if we can even call it a game. We’re supposed to call it a “prologue” so that it gets held to the “prologue” standard, not a full Metal Gear standard. I’ve heard some people refer to it as an “arcade” experience, designed to let you play over and over for the fun of it, not because there’s any bigger progress or meaning. The fact that it has “episodes” means we don’t expect missions to have any impact on the rest of the game, because credits automatically means it’s isolated from anything else. And the fact that it’s “new direction” means we can’t possibly handle a real day/night cycle, customization options, or a large area around Camp Omega to explore and give us freedom. We need baby steps!
All of this is manipulative for the sake of laziness. Your missions, with the exception of the main one, are unimportant to the point of being hypothetical; nothing you do creates a positive feedback loop. The game doesn’t even need a Mother Base to give us that strategic layer, it just needs something more engaging than a Completion Ratio on the main screen. Camp Omega is surrounded by ridiculous invisible boundaries that shatter immersion and betray the open-world promise. Your only real motivation is to get a good rank, which is doubly shameful for how illogical and easy to abuse that system is. You don’t get to pick your entry point, weapon loadout, equipment, sneaking outfit, or time of day. Much like the convoluted marketing campaign and cynical main menu screen, the metagame proves that Ground Zeroes is an ill-conceived problem child, driven by the presumption that fans and critics would either be too hyped to notice problems, or too late to do anything about it after they’ve paid.