The Metal Gear series is one of the cornerstone franchises in video gaming, with central characters Solid Snake and his "father" Big Boss being two of the most celebrated in the entire medium. Snake made his way into a Smash Bros. game, for God's sake. Since the first game came out on the MSX2 in 1987, lead designer, writer and director Hideo Kojima has made the stealth franchise very much his own, peppering it with esoteric pop-culture references and his love of anime and huge mechs, not to mention a plethora of insane conspiracy theories...and deep philosophical questions, like whether love truly can bloom on the battlefield.
While Ground Zeroes is technically Metal Gear Solid V, it's merely the first act of a much larger campaign, known as The Phantom Pain, which is set to release at some unspecified time. It also takes some of the biggest risks in the series thus far. Depending on how thorough the player is, it can be completed in one to two hours (Konami wisely decided not to charge full price for this entry). It also has an entirely new, open-world style of gameplay. But for the most part, Ground Zeroes' risks pay off in a huge way, and it's arguably the best entry in the franchise yet.
Don't believe it? Then you should consider...
1. It Doesn't Hold Your Hand
For a long time, Hideo Kojima seemed extremely concerned with having players go through his games exactly how he wanted them to. Items like cigarettes and the guided Nikita missile launcher were included solely to get Snake through specific areas of the game. Linearity was stressed. Until recently, much of the series' design could be described as the child of a control freak who didn't like anyone else playing with his Lego. The style was unmistakeably Kojima's, but after a while that wasn't necessarily a good thing.
Though small in scope, however, Ground Zeroes is very much an open-world game. The designers give you the necessary tools and, like supportive but negligent parents, drop you into the heavily-guarded military base to proceed how you please. For the developmental psychology nerds in the audience, this style of design is more like authoritative than authoritarian parenting, and it's perhaps the biggest breath of fresh air Metal Gear has gotten in a while. Granted, its head was previously being forced underwater, so that might not be saying much.
2. You Aren't Constantly Being Interrupted
Konami Computer Entertainment Japan
The first Metal Gear Solid started a pretty grating trend in the series as a whole, wherein, at least during the opening portions of the game, any progress the player makes is frequently interrupted by cutscenes or the ubiquitous Codec conversations. Any time you had to make use of a new move or tool, you couldn't just learn this through an on-screen prompt. No, the designers would take you out of the action for minutes at a time to explain a concept that most games would relay non-intrusively. And the cutscenes - the godforsaken cut scenes. Do you know how many cut scenes are in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots? Over eight freaking hours.
But that isn't how Ground Zeroes rolls. It begins and ends with lengthy, in-engine cinematics (the first of which is pretty much a work of art), and "Master" Kaz Miller is oh so kind to relay the necessary information and instructions via radio, allowing you to walk and talk. In this way, it plays out like, well, a modern video game. Why it took Kojima a decade and a half to figure this out is anyone's guess.
3. Kiefer Sutherland Makes a Better Snake (for This Game)
Okay, this isn't to crap on everything David Hayter has contributed to the Metal Gear franchise and gaming at large. Make no mistake, his voice work helped elevate Solid Snake to one of the greatest characters in video gaming history (he also wrote the original story for the first X-Men movie, so he deserves even more props). But as key as he is to this franchise's success, David Hayter would not have worked in this game.
Listen to Snake's (or Big Boss') voice in the previous games. Try to appreciate it in and of itself. When you get right down to it, Snake has always sounded like a character you'd hear in a dubbed anime, and in the past, when Metal Gear had its tongue planted firmly in cheek and pretty much every other character sounded similarly exaggerated, that was fine. But now that Metal Gear has delved into the world of intricate, motion-captured facial mapping, realistic animations and all of the latest advancements the new generation of consoles has to offer, any contribution Hayter might have made would have stuck out like a sore thumb. Sutherland might not have sounded his absolute best - sounding like a gruffer/drunker version of Jack Bauer - but his contributions don't distract the gamer from their gameplay experience nearly as much as Hayter would have.
4. Its Story Is Mostly Free of Bullshit
Good news for anyone tired of Metal Gear's convoluted exposition, overarching conspiracies and triple/quadruple-agents: there is close to none of that in Ground Zeroes. At no point in the game proper are the words "Philosophers" or "Patriots" spoken. In having to put a smaller product to market - more a glorified demo than anything - Kojima and his fellow writers were forced to separate most of the chaff from their wheat and as a result it's the most direct and to-the-point Metal Gear game since, perhaps, the first.
Except...this isn't entirely true: Ground Zeroes still has all of the complicated and mind-boggling backstory and tangents of its predecessors, but with this latest game Kojima Productions has wisely decided to excise it from the primary gameplay experience and relegate it to a bunch of optional read- and listen-only exposition in the extras menu. If Peter Jackson had approached The Hobbit in the same fashion, there would be only one movie, with all of the added stuff from the appendices and Unfinished Tales hidden away on the Blu-ray... which actually sounds a hell of a lot more watchable. This is perhaps the most insane sentence ever written, but perhaps Peter Jackson should take a couple of cues from Hideo Kojima.