Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes' narrative serves as little more than a tantalizing lead-in to the forthcoming and much bigger The Phantom Pain, but its endearing open-concept stealth gameplay stands all on its own. The game hands you a decently-sized militaristic sandbox with a ton of things to poke and prod at, and it gives you the tight controls and a lot of convincing reactivity to make things fun to tinker with for a good while. A focus on play over narrative may not feel right for every fan, but I came away convinced from this engaging proof of concept.
Ground Zeroes' core mission serves as a connective tissue between the ending of Peace Walker for the PSP and Metal Gear Solid V proper. The impressively staged and gorgeous cutscenes chronicle Big Boss' continuing efforts to maintain his military-for-hire on the evening he departs to rescue two of his top freedom fighters held hostage at Camp Omega, a military black site in Cuba. Those who have kept up with Metal Gear's recent portable exploits will get the most out of the story beats, but it's certainly no requisite to enjoying the exciting and tense drama. It's a little crazy to hear Big Boss voiced by Kiefer Sutherland at first, but he soon alleviates all fears with a subdued and believable performance that better suits the more serious and graphic tone of the story.
The main mission took me around 90 minutes to clear, and while the bits and pieces of story you get are stunning to behold, there's not much plot development to speak of within that brief time. The gameplay in this main mission isn't the most exciting on its own either; you sneak into two structures to reach the VIPs, and then use your discretion to decide where an extraction chopper should land in the camp. Protect the chopper and extract the VIPs and it's over. Its main motive is to picque your interest for ThePhantom Pain, and while it does that admirably it's a bit of a bummer that just about everything is left hanging after an intense and chaotic cliffhanger. Some internal resolution here in the prologue could have made the narrative end of Ground Zeroes seem more complete.
Once you finish up the story, the game unlocks several more missions for you to take on. They lack much of the incredible cinematography and story sequences present in the main mission, and they all also take place within Camp Omega, but the free-form mission design is given much more opportunity to breathe and grow during these side ops. Omega is a reasonably large, open space for you to roam in. The camp is divided by several areas and key structures, and guards convincingly comb the premeses. There are no obvious circular paths they follow, and they won't often forget about a mysterious figure they caught a flash of just seconds earlier. Nor can you scrape by on memorization alone; sentry movements are always changing. It doesn't take long to realize you should scope out enemies ahead of time, marking them with your binoculars to maintain situational awareness and avoid detection. Boss can chokehold guards and bully them for info, leading you to different possible approaches to move a mission forward. You can also press a radio button at any time to get advice or extra info on whatever you're looking at. Ground Zeroes leaves information gathering largely up to you, and the feeling of infiltrating an installation and sourcing your own intel is awesome. I've seldom felt so in control of my destiny in a stealth game - for success or failure - than I did here.
And it's more than likely you will be caught eventually. While it can be tricky to give Omega's guards the slip, holding your own in a firefight feels better than it ever has in a Metal Gear game. There's a fairly standard third-person shooter control scheme at work here that easily let you pick off sentries while sprinting, rolling and diving into prone position. The CQC take-downs - especially when you can slam multiple foes rapid-fire into the ground - were a personal favorite. Grabbing enemies pops up a clean tray of icons that quickly tell you what you need to know to interrogate, grip or kill them. This series' control scheme has been steadily improving over the years, and now you needn't fight it at all. Taking an explosive, head-on approach feels viable.
The more you get into Ground Zeroes' sandbox mentality, the further you can run with it. The game grades your performance on each mission, and getting better grades leaves you more and more unlockable gear to use on your next run. After clearing an op with a B grade, for example, I unlocked a machine gun and rocket launcher to mess with next time. I used way more vehicles than I did during the story as well, slipping past patrols in trucks and using Jeeps as brutal battering rams in equal measure. Because playing around with all of your equipment and seeing what kinds of stunts you can pull off within the kind of tame mission objectives is so much fun, it quickly becomes its own reward. The main mission also follows these parameters, and I had more fun the second time using my unlocks. Should you spot them, there are also some cassette tapes stashed around the base that shed some light on - and in turn lay a darker shadow over - the events of the main story.
Thankfully, there's some room for some Metal Gear hijinx in the side ops that serve as a respite from all the gloom. One has an unexpected and hilarious cameo I won't spoil here, but it had me laughing out loud at my screen in all the right ways. And if you manage to track down all of the hidden XOF patches around Camp Omega on a Sony platform, the throwback mission that makes use of PS1-styled character models is a pretty great gag. It's too bad its more destructive tendencies are mostly punished by the game's grading system, but pushing the boundaries was so enjoyable that I mostly didn't mind.
It took me a further four or so hours to clear all the missions while messing around a little along the way, but I still want to keep experimenting with the game's enticing ecosystem. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is a fairly brief but exceptionally well-crafted stealth experience that's well worth the time of any fan - or anybody looking for a great action game, for that matter.