Shocking, underwhelming, and confusing at the same time, where does one begin to discuss Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes? I’m not sure, so I’ve decided to divide my commentary into a few different aspects. This part deals with core thematic gameplay.
< This article contains no spoilers >
A history of eccentricity
Let’s face it, the Metal Gear series has never been known for having “good controls”. Talk to typical action game fans and they’ll tell you things can get pretty awkward, pretty fast. Trying to see south of your location is a pain in the butt in MGS1 and 2, since the camera always points northward, which means you’ll have to strategically lean against corners in order to make the camera flip 180 degrees — for as long as you hold down the direction. That, or disorient yourself with temporary first person view instead. Or more likely yet, just stare at the little radar in the corner and ignore the main part of the screen altogether — not exactly intuitive.
No, what really keeps Metal Gear gameplay “fun” is how much you can do once you figure out the tricky systems; the level of interaction with the world is great. The mystery of how to run and shoot at the same time in MGS1 drove some people crazy, and holding down all four trigger buttons while trying to peek above the flower field during the fight with The Boss in MGS3 was agonizing. And pretty much anything in the old MSX games feels arcane, although I can’t judge how they might have felt at the time. The point is, the series has required players to put up with a lot of oddity over the years, but it was okay because it still had so much to offer in return. Metal Gear never felt like it was trying to be a modern combat simulator, but rather glimpses into the mind of a movie buff who wants us to play the main character in his bizarre spy films. He’s the Director, giving us a couple of crazy props, setting up a stage, and then telling us to improvise through the scenes. You just play along with the madness, and you don’t expect a lean, focused system at its core.
Ground Zeroes is the first time I’ve felt like that’s all changed.
I’ve always respected Kojima’s refusal to conform to modern gameplay trends in the face of overwhelming (and highly vocal) pressures. Because while most publishers and developers chased the latest trends in order to be perceived as the dominant shooter franchise, Kojima kept his old top-down view and introduced gameplay you’d never expect instead. Wearing a crocodile head to fool enemies while partially submerged, or stabbing and eating glowing mushrooms to recharge the batteries of your equipment, is part of the appeal, not something that needed to be fixed. If you want lean, pure action, go play SOCOM: US Navy Seals or a Tom Clancy game, or ARMA II. Metal Gear gameplay feels like it was designed by a genius who’s totally high, and Ground Zeroes feels like that person suddenly went cold turkey. So for me the question is not whether the new engine/controls/gameplay is merely a good value proposition for the dollars you spend, but can the open-world simulation manage to outshine a twenty-five year legacy of signature quirkiness?
Old dog, new tricks
Ground Zeroes is the most user-friendly Metal Gear we’ve seen in terms of gameplay. It feels like an aggressive attempt to prove it can do everything the other guys can, but better. It’s tired of being “behind in the times” by anyone’s standards, or a freak anomaly. It wants to be an industry leader. This is why the game was marketed the way it was. Hyped as cutting-edge open-world design, with carjacking and everything! It’s got a dedicated sprint button for zipping across the map, along with diving and shooting that’s as seamless as a Max Payne game. It’s got destructible towers for your blowing-up needs, and ramping off things to escape the level! It’s got climbing ledges that are above you, and jumping off platforms to cross gaps. Big Boss hasn’t even this agile since… well… ever. Add the big blotches on screen any time you get hurt instead of a life bar, regenerating health when you stay still, and limited use backup emergency healing spray, you really feel like things will never be the same again.
Thankfully, it hasn’t settled for copying the competition; some big new features help Ground Zeroes stand out from the crowd. The old “radar” mechanics have been stripped out and replaced with zooming in on enemies (whether through gun sights, binoculars, or generic zoom function) to magically highlight (or “tag”) them so you can see them a hundred feet away, through several layers of walls. Tagging enemies will become a habit for strategic players, and serves as proof that Kojima is determined to evolve the series, not simply conform to what a AAA action games have become. Being distracted by the little radar in the corner was an issue from the very first Metal Gear, and even though there’s no logic behind how tagging works, it’s a wonderfully elegant system in terms of usability. Hand-in-hand with tagging comes the new “lens flare” system, which indicates the direction of enemies who are noticing you. Past games have struggled to let players know where threats are coming from, and the lens flare with an iconic high-pitched sound effect does a good job pulling players’ attention in the right direction. If you find cover quickly, you’re safe. If you stay in sight for too long, the game will jump into “Reflex Mode”, which slows everything to a crawl and give you have a few precious moments to deal with the threat. Fail that too and you’re stuck with a base-wide alert phase.
These new stealth features are intuitive and focus our attention on the main screen itself, which feels like a major evolution. And if you decide to care about them, these things alone can hold the experimental “open-world espionage” experience together. If you decide to care. If you don’t — because you certainly don’t need to — your experience could boil down to painstakingly sniping enemies from across the entire map, hijacking vehicles and slamming into new areas and abusing checkpoints, or simply sprinting up to everybody and using Reflex Mode to kill them before an alarm sounds. These all work just as well, if not better, and that’s a bit disappointing.
Some things never change
Speaking of disappointment: despite rehauling the gameplay systems and a streamlining the action, one thing that hasn’t gone away is awkward button layout. Some things are perfectly fine, such as changing your stance and interacting with the environment, but for every thoughtful idea, there seems to be a bizarre one. The Square button, for example, is dedicated to diving to the ground, and nothing else; which suggests that it’s a very important action that should be usable in many situations, but it’s just not. Something as important as sprinting is relegated to a click of the left joystick, while something as situational as diving has prime real estate all for itself. I’m much more likely to sprint than dive, and there’s no reason they couldn’t share the same button (hold the Square button to start sprinting, and tap it to dive). Besides, clicking a joystick is never a good idea for something important. It’s awkward because it can trigger accidentally when moving the joystick forcefully, and interferes with smoothly controlling your direction of movement when you want to click it. Another weird button configuration choice is the nearly useless radio, which is assigned to the L1 button — whereas reloading, picking up bodies, and switching your weapon for a different one on the ground are all squeezed into the Circle button. Picking up a dead man’s gun, which is laying next to the dead man, is an embarrassing possibility thanks to this; but at least you can always hear Miller badly guess at what you’d like to know by a quick tap of L1.
None of this is as embarrassing as slipping out from behind cover accidentally and then trying to scramble back before you get spotted, though. Yes, hiding behind corners, which is one of the biggest cornerstones of Metal Gear gameplay, isn’t fun anymore thanks to slippery controls. There is zero sense of “locking” to a wall and being safe to move and look around, but rather a ridiculously delicate threshold you’ll have to stay behind. How hard is it to add a wall-hugging button, so that you stay where you want and use the joysticks to slide back and forth and look around without worrying? Winback proved how well this works back in 1999, just one year after the original Metal Gear Solid was released.
It’s not like these quirks break the gameplay, they’re just quirks. Metal Gear games have always had quirks. They don’t prevent skillful playing even, they’re just not as smart and sleek as Kojima Productions seems to think. Like with all previous games, the question is how much reward you’ll get from mastering them.
I can’t tell how you’re “supposed” to play Ground Zeroes exactly, but the most satisfying way to play I’ve found was scouting ahead, tagging everything, and seeing how little impact I can make on my way to the objective. If I shy away from the enemy suspicion lens flares, spin around to take out patrols who are unlucky enough to spot me, and hide bodies in tall grass when I make them, I start to feel like a professional. As long as I was disciplined enough to keep myself objective-oriented, there was a great balance of tension and relief. And, when I forbade myself from abusing checkpoints and pretended to not have silenced gun that could put every threat to sleep from a hundred paces away, I actually started to feel pretty badass. Let me repeat that: if I purposely restrict myself enough, things become fun. Another way of saying it might be that Ground Zeroes accommodates many playstyles, which is arguably a hallmark of the series. And, I guess if players can create their own fun — like I did — it’s a pass. Right?
But there’s a lot that can deflate the tension of a stealth action game, and I hope we can agree that tension is the key to fun in a game like this. When things become too easy, too predictable, too monotonous, or too austere, the tension deflates. Kojima knew this, which is why previous Metal Gear games injected humor and variety at every turn, determined to make the intense parts feel more intense by contrast — but Ground Zeroes’ missions are equal parts stoic and straightforward. You have so much freedom that unless you do something stupid like call your helicopter into the middle of the base for a pickup, there will be no climaxes, no “do or die” epic moments, and no special memories to take back to Mother Base. You might screw up, die, or get stuck in a tough situation, but you’ll probably just hit “Restart From Checkpoint” and ignore your failures. This is why I complained about the metagame being so lenient, so heavily geared towards speedruns and “rank-oriented” play, and so easy to abuse. Tension is everything.
But don’t get me wrong: if the metagame provided reasons to commit to tense situations, there would be plenty of danger to get excited about. Enemies are designed to match Big Boss’ speed, sprinting and sliding around the map with urgency, reinforced by armed vehicles and rocket-launcher goons who make it exceedingly difficult to muscle through the opposition. Even with powerful grappling techniques, quick movement speed, and breezy gun controls, you have touch choices to make. Running and hiding is sometimes the best recourse, even. Then again, it’s pretty silly that enemies immediately shout “Hostile!” and the every guard in Camp Omega is immediately on full alert. What’s up with that? Ever since MGS2 guards have had to use their radios to call for backup, which gives you the chance to eliminate them before they do. There was a variety of techniques for preventing this, shooting the radio or throwing chaff grenades, which jammed the radio signals even back in the 1960’s when Big Boss was in Soviet Russia! There are no chaff grenades in Ground Zeroes, however, and no radios to use against electronic equipment. Just “Reflex Mode” and full base alert.
Chances are that even when things start to go wrong, however, you’ll fix it with a couple of well-placed tranquilizers to people’s faces, creating plenty of room to breathe. In fact, this strategy is so dominant that it falls into the “too easy, too predictable, too monotonous” categories, and deflates tension. Aiming is a skill, yes, but enemies don’t have evasive reflexes when they see you aiming at them, and “bullet drop” only becomes a serious factor at sniping distances. So let me take this criticism one step further: if it wasn’t for bullet drop affecting tranquilizer darts, the game would have no challenge. What does that say about it’s balance and design? We know that The Phantom Pain is going to introduce helmets and heavier armor for the guards, but that doesn’t help Ground Zeroes.
Another broken mechanic is tall grass, which apparently makes Big Boss invisible in this game despite not wearing camoflauge. More than once when a guard notices me, I’ve walked into the grass fully in view, laid down, and watched him walk up and stand next to me like an idiot. In general it seems the AI isn’t designed to search for you intelligently, which deflates tension too. Considering how effective grass is, you’ll spend a lot of time wondering why it doesn’t bend or even make a rustling noise when you’re inside it either, despite having these properties back on the PlayStation 2!
Big Boss should feel powerful and versatile, but the only way to make a character really feel powerful is to make the challenges he overcomes even bigger. I still can’t believe that dogs — which are very prominently featured in the opening cutscene — were not included in the game to help increase the challenge. They would be a perfect addition to the gameplay, as they should be able to smell somebody suspicious, investigate, chase you down, and alert guards while being much more difficult targets. To tease us with this cool feature right from the start is a baffling letdown that only reminds us how much better Camp Omega should be, according to Kojima Productions’ own opening cinematic.
And while I’m complaining, why weren’t we given coastline? Why not take the time to make water so that Big Boss can swim? We’re sneaking around on an island, but all the ledges are silly death drops to the water below. Twice in Snake Eater we’ve seen him fall a much higher distance, into much shallower water, and survive. We know that he’s an incredible swimmer, a fearless rock climber, and generally tougher than hell, so that’s not a reason. It’s just laziness, and it makes me worried that The Phantom Pain might not have any swimming either.