Kept you waiting, huh?
The howling wind and the driving rain greet me as I manoeuvre Snake (Big Boss), the one-eyed hero of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, into position across a ridge-line lit by a solitary ever-sweeping Sauron-like pale white searchlight. I am immediately struck by the fluidity of the controls, so much better than any previous iteration of Metal Gear and so more immediate for it. The ease of which Snake controls now, with either Traditional Controls or Shooter Controls (mapping the buttons differently) is highly apparent and I'm grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Ground Zeroes is a prequel to Phantom Pain (the big main Metal Gear event) and it's designed to ease players (old and new) into the new systems in play for the 5th Metal Gear (due eventually). It's a sandbox black-site, a prison camp where the main plotline (convoluted as it is) takes place, seeing our hero attempting to rescue two of his soldiers - Chico and Paz.
The first mission takes place at night, in the middle of an impressive storm and the wind/weather really changes the dynamic of the huge map and mission zone. Guards aren't as aware as they can be during the day, they wear all-weather ponchos and vary their patrols due to the inclement weather. These little touches paint the whole of Ground Zeroes extensive paid demo and showcase the Fox Engine's new tricks perfectly. Yeah, it's a paid demo really, but it's worth the price of admission to be honest and when you complete the main story (roughly takes around 2 hours) you'll be able to unlock several Side Ops, each one taking you back into the main camp for varied objectives that range from assassination to destruction of property (anti-air guns).
Going back to that ridge line, I am now looking at a single guard, ripe for some traditional stealth approach, keeping his eyes on that searchlight. Two other guards by a gate discuss what's going on in Camp Omega and I pay them only a scant bit of attention, I am really focused on that light's pattern. Snake moves with each twitch of the Xbox One's left stick, slowly, ever-so-slowly and carefully. I keep him into the shadow, out of the light and find a sneaky way up on the right. A quick tap of the A button sees him clamber nicely up onto a small mountain path.
That path brings me right around to the back of the watchtower and to my target. Snake's in a murderous mood (I decide) so the hapless Marine isn't going to know what hits him. Snake climbs the ladder, grabs the guy and I'm presented with a few options. I can interrogate him, getting useful info or locations of stuff that might help me later on, knock him out, he'll wake up again later. Or kill him and ensure he never wakes up to see the light of day, to return to his job. One dead guard later, one realigned searchlight, problem solved.
During this whole segment of play I'm struck by the way the game controls, the way it looks and the way it responds to my interactions with the guard. The guy begs me not to kill him, but Snake's in no mood to take prisoners and if he was, he'd throw them off the cliff into the water. Shades of the Tanker mission from MGS 2 right there. It's the animations that really get my attention, and this only gets better and better the further I move into Camp Omega.
Ground Zeroes is a fine looking game, and I could witter on about graphics this, graphics that and light/shadow as I've done in the past, but the point of the whole thing you can take away from this review is: through the whole game I haven't seen a framerate hitch, drop or messed up texture and I've put a lot of hours into it across all the missions. It looks fantastic and the controls are beautifully done, with lots of nice systems to turn Snake from a stealth god into an action hero with no fiddly selections to be made.
The next port of call is getting past the big fence, into the camp and trying to make my way to the prison zone a little further in. There's a bunch of guards, they're all patrolling in various ways and sometimes they stop to have a little chat then move on. I think I have their patrol pegged as I look through my scope, marking each target in a very Splinter Cell manner (love this) and now I can see them through walls too as long as I'm in range (yes!).
I was wrong, I missed one guy and as I break from prone cover to cross the darkness between road and tents he rounds the corner. He goes into alert and time slows down, this is known as Reflex, and it's Snake's heightened reaction time that gives the player a chance to turn a potential cockup like this into a badass victory. Do you shoot him in the head, or get close enough to beat him down. Well, I was a few paces from the guy so I chose the CQC route.
What a joy that was, perfect CQC and with a tap of the left trigger as I hammered the right, I stole the hapless goon's gun and turned it on him. Snake forced him to surrender, interrogated him and then forced him to 'get down' using the simple and effective interaction menu that pops up. The guard was out of the picture, non-lethally and he would not get back up unless roused by a friend or I somehow managed to alert the whole base.
When it comes to CQC, Snake's options are certainly not limited. He can perform a combo martial arts attack that sends a foe into KO land. He can reach in, grab them, hold them and then interact with them using the menu. He can also throw them at their friends if there's more than one enemy around. Talking of more than one enemy though, Snake can also do multiple takedowns as long as you hit the right button prompts when you see them. Usually means, mashing the right trigger a few times to chain the hit from one guy to the next.
The only way to describe these animated slices of action hero joy is: badass. It's truly liberating to feel that you're 100% in control of a combat situation even if things did get out of hand. Snake's arsenal of non-lethal attacks in these cases really shine and the animations are spot on, full of excellent context sensitive motions, especially if the guy is near a wall. Ow.
A point to remember when it comes to this fist-fury KO'ing of guards, they will wake up. They go down for longer when you pummel them, but they rouse themselves later on wondering what the heck happened.
What happens if you don't want to go all Jet Li on the guys? Well, if you can move in closely with your gun drawn you can perform a Hold Up, just like in MGS 2. From a Hold Up you can do a variety of actions with that menu, and of course you can force a guard to 'Get Down' taking him out of the equation completely.
It's this sandbox approach to player choice that I really love, this is proper gaming and whilst it's not as madcap as Just Cause 2 was, the concept of freedom rings true in every way in Ground Zeroes. The mission objectives are laid out to you, you're given an idea of where to go, what you do however and how to infiltrate each zone is up to you.
You can use Snake's full arsenal of motion tactics, crawling, rolling and sprinting to cover ground in the camp. You can interact with jeeps and trucks if you want, just remember that a covered vehicle gives you a better chance of not being spotted as long as you keep your distance and don't drive like a lunatic. You can turn the lights on/off, as well as change from third to first person.
What happens if you are spotted, well, this is the bit I really want to talk about - because this is what drives the whole experience and makes it a lot of fun when things do go wrong. Ground Zero's AI is actually really good.
It responds to all kinds of stimuli, from sight and sound to changes in its environment. If you get vaguely spotted, well, there's a chance the guard will become suspicious and want to take a look. If you get spotted but not ID'd, the guard will call into his Marine CP and inform them he's seen someone suspicious and he's off to check it. If you take him down and he can't report in, expect Marine CP to get worried and change the alert status of the base.
Open a door near a guard, or change his environment in some way (throwing an empty gun mag to distract him) and you'll get a reaction. He might go and see, he might turn on his light and call a friend to help, or he might just decide that it's not worth his time. If you do get spotted and things escalate, you can either fight the guys who show up or you can cut and run.
If you cut and run, go into hiding and then sneak around, the guards enter a search pattern and it's really great to watch them actually work in teams coordinating each other. This is the kind of AI we want these days, a fun and intelligent challenge that forces us to adapt our tactics on the fly.
Snake isn't just the prey in this situation though, he's got a full arsenal of weapons from cool suppressed rifles (warning: suppressors have a limited use and will run out), heavy hitting shotguns and pistols, to rocket launchers and sniper rifles. The only suppressed weapons are his Wu Pistol, the default rifle and an SMG. The rest are loud and they'll give away your position if you use them too much. But still, the option is there to go gung ho and hold your own. If you feel like it, you can even use the right bumper to pop into first person iron-sights/scope mode on the current weapon and shoot that way.
Again the AI won't automatically know where you are if you shoot with a non-suppressed weapon, they'll investigate a potential zone area and narrow that down the more you open fire. Snipe and relocate helps to keep them off balance for example.
Your iDroid (a 1970's high tech hologram projecting mission gadget) can let you keep an eye on a map, gain intel, pick a landing sight for helicopter extractions. The chopper alone is incredible, probably because you can change the music to Ride of the Valkyries and when it arrives you get the downforce of the aircraft actually changing the way you move under it.
Snake's prequel mission is a lot of fun, there are lots of different options for you to try out and whilst it's 2 hours or so on the main mission, replay and various unlocks (a special operation for Raiden on the Xbox One can be unlocked by finding army patches in the main mission) including weapons, logs, Side Ops and cassette tapes. I've spent 20 hours with it and I'm not bored yet. It looks great on the Xbox One, it has superb sound and the music is Harry Gregson Williams at some of his finest yet.
The only one thing I've found hard so far, with the limited dialogue he has, is accepting Snake's voice without hearing Jack Bauer. Good old Keifer Sutherland does his best though and I am pretty sure come Phantom Pain I'll be able to accept him just as I did Garrett's new VA.