‘MGS: Ground Zeroes’ tweaks stealth formula to varying success

By Stephanie Roman / Staff Writer

“Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes”

Grade: B-

Developer: Kojima Productions

Enter Big Boss: an American super soldier and former CIA agent tricked into killing his mentor, The Boss, by the government he faithfully served. The United States denounced The Boss, but it was all part of their ploy to prevent nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Disillusioned, Big Boss left the United States to establish Militaires Sans Frontieres, a private army incorruptible by a national agenda. More than 10 years after he killed The Boss, Big Boss returns to the field on a rescue mission.

Making up one-half of the “Metal Gear Solid V” package, “Ground Zeroes” is available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One and is the prequel to the full title “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” which is in development with a predicted 2015 release date. 

Considerably different from previous entries, “Ground Zeroes” implements so many new game mechanics that it takes an already superb game — which set genre-defining standards for voice acting, musical score and stealth action — and puts it in a bigger, more exciting world. Sadly, there are no Metal Gears in this version, though the threat of the mobile nuclear tanks lingers through the subtext.

Nonlinear, confusing, absurd and repetitive plotlines characterize the series as much as tactics, espionage and action do, but together the two miraculously meld into one of the most beloved game franchises in PlayStation history. “Metal Gear Solid” imbues nukes, technology, surveillance and war with enough magic and mysticism to create some really insane plotlines and characters — such as the unforgettable Psycho Mantis, who could actually read the PlayStation’s memory card and comment if you’ve played too much “Castlevania” (or other Konami games). Still, the absurdity is not without headaches. There are now six different characters codenamed “Snake,” and three of them happen to be clones of Big Boss. 

Set in 1975, “Ground Zeroes” has only two objectives: rescue Chico and rescue Paz, two characters from the lesser-known PlayStation Portable installment, “Peace Walker.” They’re held at Camp Omega, a prison facility on the southern tip of Cuba.

In “Peace Walker,” Paz, who impersonated a Costa Rican schoolgirl, turned out to be a double agent. Both Paz and Chico have been captured by the United States and have relocated to a small spot of unconstitutional soil on Cuba. Big Boss needs to rescue Chico from wrongful imprisonment, and he must reclaim Paz because she’s a liability who could reveal his secrets — namely that his private military has been developing a nuclear weapon, Metal Gear ZEKE.

In order to proceed through the rescue and extraction mission, stealth remains the primary tactical focus. Camp Omega offers the first instance of an open world in the series, which historically confined levels to narrow corridors and a fixed camera angle. “Ground Zeroes” inserts players into an arena where they can go anywhere — but as tempting as that sounds, be wary. An open world doesn’t mean you can do anything: Sneaking serves as the only viable strategy. Particularly adept guards notice unconscious or dead bodies, security cameras scan every corner of the base, and there are watchtowers all around. Movement remains relatively limited until all enemies are eliminated.

Even when forced to sneak, numerous modes of transit leave the player in control. The game sets up recommended paths, so the story objectives can be completed fairly easily, but long detours lead to collectibles such as patches and cassette tapes in addition to exciting things such as armories with rocket launchers and new handguns. It pays off to collect all nine patches because that opens up a bonus mission after the game.

Despite the novelty of a brand new open world, “Ground Zeroes” only takes a short while to complete. Perform the tasks exactly as they are outlined, and you can be done in just a few hours — but don’t be discouraged by its brevity. After finishing the main mission, five extras unlock, each with multiple pathways through.

Discovering all the nuances is just what creator Hideo Kojima wants players to do. A two-hour story can turn into a 10- or 15-hour experience — and Kojima promises some kind of reward in “The Phantom Pain” for those who unearth “Ground Zeroes.”

“Ground Zeroes” delivers reflexive stealth-based gameplay and unfathomable story sequences, and it serves as a powerful prelude to its sequel. Big Boss’ opening line might induce a chuckle as he breaks the fourth wall, “Kept you waiting, huh?”

Even Big Boss casually reminds gamers that “The Phantom Pain” is on its way. So wait we shall. 

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