What if you knew that the 30-buck game you were thinking about picking up was "merely" a brief gaming appetizer to the main gameplay meal that was slated to be served months later? Would you still buy that pricey button-punching sampler plate?
That's the question the crew at Konami seem to be asking with the latest addition to the long running Metal Gear Solid franchise. Because Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is only an opening round for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But since early sales numbers for this truncated third-person actioner have already topped a half-million units as of this writing, the answer to the above question seems to be a pretty solid affirmative.
There's a Snake in Your Boots
The history of Metal Gear Solid is dense and twistingly complicated, laid out over the course of 20 years' worth of games. And Ground Zeroes jumps right into the action with both feet, expecting you to know the characters referenced and recognize the action at hand. The game does include an 11-page synopsis explaining the series for newbies, but that will still leave many people perplexed.
You're not going to get a full rundown of the franchise history in this review either. If 11 pages isn't enough, after all, a few paragraphs certainly won't do the trick. So let me just say that this is a sweeping five-decade melodrama of war and the private military companies that perpetuate it, featuring stealth combat, cloned warriors and exotic high-tech gadgetry galore.
Here you lace up the well-worn combat boots of a guy named Snake, one of Metal Gear's most legendary supersoldiers. This guy created a soldiers-for-hire group called Militaires Sans Frontières, which is generally hired by small countries and companies to toss a little large-caliber weight around. In this case that translates to Snake making his way to an American military base called Camp Omega—a Guantánamo Bay-like internment facility. His job is to infiltrate that busy "torture factory" and set a pair of abused captives free.
If you're getting a sense that the game's creators might have a political ax to grind, well, you'll hear that perspective supported throughout the narrative. The game's well-respected writer/director, Hideo Kojima, has always had a lot to say about the horrible price and oppressive nature of war. And much of his ill will is generally tossed at the feet of the U.S., with all its military superpower clout providing the chaffing.
Killing Those Evil Americans
Most of the gameplay boils down to finding a way into the buzzing base while raising little or no alarm. The camp is an open sandbox that gives you the opportunity to experiment with a variety of routes and develop your own style of interaction—tumbling from scrub grass to shrub or crawling under vehicles and through drainage channels for cover.
After finishing that first main extraction mission—which entails about two hours of sneak-kill-rescue play—the game unlocks a handful of Side Ops you can slip into. These missions all take place in the island-set Camp Omega and entail things like assassinating a pair of officers, finding and destroying some fixed antiaircraft guns, capturing a target for its intel and, even, covering a character on the ground by swooping in via helicopter and taking numerous soldiers out with an aircraft-mounted minigun.
Figuring out the environment and plotting a stealthy approach is an important element in most of these missions. And the flexibility of those strategic choices represents a big part of the game's appeal. You can take the hard route and try to accomplish some of the objectives with as little blood as possible, but the truth is, this is a game that just won't let you avoid killing Americans—again and again.
Are We Always Supposed to Clean Our Plates?
Using a silenced pistol to deliver a deadly headshot, with its squishy, brain-splattering results, is a regular necessity. And you also use knives, rifles and rocket launchers to do your dirty deeds, executing and obliterating the many U.S. Marines in your sights.
There are also several grim movie-like cutscenes that make the game all the more blanch-worthy. In one segment we hear a woman prisoner being sexually abused by her American tormentors. Snake listens to an audio recording that features whip lashes and the sounds of torn clothing and tortured cries.
Later it's revealed that that same woman had a bomb sewn into her lower abdomen, and the camera watches closely as a medic gruesomely tears open her stiches, separates her abdomen wall and paws through her intestines in an agonizing search for the dangerous device. Layer that (and worse) with dialogue that contains sporadic uses of f- and s-words and exclamations of "b‑‑tards," "a‑‑" and "b‑‑ch," and you've got a stomach-turning stew.
There's ample M-rated seasoning in this hors d'oeuvre to fill players in on all they need to know about this and later courses on the Metal Gear Solid menu. After all, even hungry gamers need to think about what they're swallowing.