Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes preview: Playtime with the prologue to Phantom Pain

When Konami showed a demo of Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain during E3 in June last year, there was little doubt that it would be a significant refresh of the entire franchise. For a start, Kiefer Sutherland takes on the role of Solid Snake - controversially so for some. But there are many other elements featured in the teaser that would also set it apart from the previous chapters.

Sadly though, it soon became apparent that The Phantom Pain was more than a few months away. Its open-world idea and expansive nature means that it won't surface in 2014. So up steps Ground Zeroes to fill a hole while Konami fine-tweaks the final game. And from our initial play, it's enough to fuel expectations even further.

Ground Zeroes is not meant to be a full game, more a shortened prologue that gives you an idea of the new control methods and adult themes Hideo Kojima, the game's director, is introducing for Snake's return. The fact that Snake is voiced by Sutherland isn't the only nod to incursion and covert espionage movies and shows, with comparisons to long-running TV series 24 inescapable during our brief preview play, but there does seem to be much more than that going on.

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We played Ground Zeroes on a PS4 and graphically it sings a merry tune. There are plenty of details, fantastic water and rain effects, and drawn distances so far that shooting a far flung enemy in the head from range doesn't even require a sniper rifle at times.

Of course, this is a Metal Gear Solid game, so blasting your way through it is frowned upon. You'll find your scores poorly affected if you do too. That didn't stop us trying though, and one of the first things we realised soon into a mission is that you can play pretty much any way you like. You are given mission goals, but how you achieve them is up to you, it seems.

Perhaps a combination of sneaking and taking out lone guards is the order of the day, but we'll have to determine that when we properly review the game before its release later this month.

We can say though that Ground Zeroes is instantly accessible. As soon as you pick up the action after a fairly lengthy intro sequence the controls come to you as second nature. And the motion is smooth and as unclunky as you will find in a "stealth" game. There's no "press this button to enter cover" nonsense here. It knows when you are behind an object and will adapt accordingly.

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This allows for free-flowing firefights or quick ducking to avoid enemy glances. And all other controls and Snake's abilities are as intuitive too.

Again, we will need to play the whole game to find out for sure, but we do know that because this is a prologue - and will be priced as such - you can't expect a wide-reaching story or campaign this time around. If fact, many have already complained that it will turn out to be a short gameplay experience. How short, we'll reveal in our review in a couple of weeks.

For now, be pleased that Snake is back. We certainly are.

Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is released on 20 March in the UK, 18 March in the US, for PS4, Xbox One, PS3 and Xbox 360.