5. It Makes Stealth Fun
Along with Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham games (the less said about Origins, the better), Ground Zeroes genuinely succeeds at making stealth gameplay an immersive and rewarding experience. Unlike in the early Splinter Cell entries, getting spotted isn't a game-ending offense. And very unlike the previous MGS games, alerting the patrolling guards doesn't turn into what Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade has described as "an incredibly clumsy action game" and "a punishment." For the first time, MGS features shooter mechanics on par with what you would see in a modern military game, and introduces a neat slow-motion "reflex" mode for whenever an enemy catches sight of you.
Moreover, the whole thing feels pretty seamless. The switch from stealth to full-bore action doesn't feel like two separate modes of gameplay, one more poorly designed than the other. Both have their own share of difficulties - going loud in Ground Zeroes, while workable, is harder to pull off than in your standard action game - but overall it's a game that ensures no two playthroughs will be alike, and even encourages this. So when you sneak your way into the depths of the prison camp to rescue Paz without killing a single person, only to barrel out in a stolen truck, guns blazing, the designers are sitting off to the side, quietly applauding.
All of the above is fantastic, and helps make Ground Zeroes a major contender for not only the best game in the Metal Gear series but the best stealth game of all time. But it seems that the better it is, the more its flaws stick out...
3 Ways It Isn't
1. It's Tonally Inconsistent
Metal Gear is a bizarre franchise when you get right down to it. While Kojima has long used the series to discuss the control of information, the military industrial complex, nuclear proliferation and other similarly serious subjects, he has done so with characters such as Revolver Ocelot, a (secret) Russian operative who wears cowboy spurs and touts the superiority of the Colt Single Action Army hangun; or Vamp, a flamboyant assassin whose - spoiler - nanotechnology allows him to be a goddamn vampire. And Kojima has never been apprehensive about having fun with his characters: moments after speaking with Mei Ling for the first time, Solid Snake starts shamelessly flirting with her; rogue GRU Colonel Volgin summons lighting and grabs crotches left and right. And, hey, having fun is great, but excessive fun can come at the expense of the deathly, seriously important subjects you're trying to discuss.
As Ground Zeroes is completely devoid of humor - in fact, delivering some of the most traumatizing content in the entire series - it seems that it would be the better vehicle for Kojima to approach his favourite topics and themes. But on the contrary, the moments when an element of the overarching tone does falter make everything seem absurd by comparison. This might seem like a weird thing to get hung up over, but when you're making a game about the horrors of torture, extraordinary rendition and the use of sexual assault in degrading prisoners of war, naming your main villain "Skull Face" does more harm to your story's credibility than you might think. It's not enough to simply portray serious, problematic subjects; as we'll shortly see, the manner in which these subjects are portrayed can make all of the difference...
2. Everything Involving Paz
This next part deals with some truly disturbing content, so a trigger warning is necessary.
In Ground Zeroes, Boss is tasked with rescuing two people from a military black site: the first is Chico, a teenage soldier who volunteers in Boss' Militaires Sans Frontières organization; the second is Paz, a young woman who claimed to be an ally of MSF but turned out to be a double-agent working for a third party. When you find the latter, she has been tortured physically, mentally and - it's revealed in collectible audio tapes - sexually. Those who play the main game might not even have known about the last bit, were it not for the final scene in which Paz implies that her abductors planted a freaking bomb in her vagina. For a fair number of people, that last detail might be a bit jarring, if not a complete deal-breaker.
It's not that this topic can't be discussed in video games. In the very recent past, developers have tackled depression, as well as LGBT and racial issues. As the medium evolves and designers realize that they can explore more immersive, non-shoot-everything-in-sight mechanics, it's very likely we'll see more games depict sobering, real-world subjects such as rape and sexual torture. But Ground Zeroes isn't that game. It simultaneously reveals the issue through optional collectibles and a perplexing, last-minute plot twist, and the abhorrent acts are perpetrated by a man named Skull Face. Kojima has every right to work this element into his game, but in the future he needs to put more thought into the manner of its context and execution.
3. It Makes the Wait for The Phantom Pain Genuinely Painful
Ground Zeroes, while a rewarding little jaunt by itself, is nevertheless a filthy, filthy tease of the main event. As of this writing, The Phantom Pain still has no set release date - Amazon lists "December 31, 2014," which is a polite way of saying "Someday? Maybe? We dunno'."
Kojima Productions has been kind enough to supply players with a decent amount of side content so Ground Zeroes has more replayability than the average demo, but it's still the video game equivalent of having someone watch the opening gambit of GoldenEye and telling them they won't be able to see the rest of the movie for another year. But instead of Martin Campbell hitting the stop button just as the Tina Turner theme kicked into high gear, it's Hideo Kojima putting you in a sleeper hold from behind as the first notes of "Snake Eater" pour out of your surround sound system.
Georges Seguin Hideo Kojima: surprisingly stealthy
That being said, if the next patch includes an option to play the entirety of Ground Zeroes to "Snake Eater" on loop, then the wait will be a little bit easier. Get on it, Kojima.