When Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain was announced, along with a controversial teaser trailer debuting Kiefer Sutherland as the new voice of protagonist Solid Snake, we doubt there would have been a single true gamer not excited. Admittedly, they might not have run around with their coats on their heads, whooping and cheering like children at a wedding, but there must have at least been some feeling of intrigue as to how Konami was to modernise the franchise.
Now we know, not because the full game itself is available - it's still threatening to be more than a year away from release - but because the series creator Hideo Kojima has furnished us with a prequel. A taste of what is to come via Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes.
But let's be honest, Ground Zeroes is not a deep, engrossing game that will have you slavishly attached to your console for days on end. In fact, on our first play through the entire story mode took us - are you sitting down? - just 78 minutes to complete. And we know that for a fact because the final score screen told us. Is it too short to warrant your hard earned cash, or a great example of what we can anticipate next year?
Despite our quick dispatch of the game we've seen it take others a bit longer, up to two-and-a-half hours depending on their gameplay style. But if you take it at face value you might feel like you've paid-for and played a demo, and be slightly miffed. It's shorter than a trip to the cinema, but just as pricey.
But bar the headlines, there's actually a lot more to MGS5:GZ than this teaser. And we feel that Konami justifies the money the "game" costs - we'll get to that in a short while.
First, the main mission mode asks you - as Sutherland-rasping Snake - to infiltrate a Guantanamo-Bay-style internment camp in Cuba in order to rescue two of your teammates from the on-site prison. Plot and twists abound and we're not in the habit of revealing spoilers here on the 'Lint. Needless to say, it's pretty engrossing stuff while it lasts.
The new open world nature to the game owes more to old school Metal Gear Solid than some of the more recent titles in the series. There's a fair amount of sneaking about and stealth action to be had - if that's your bag. There's also a stack of firefighting if you fancy, which is also handy as that's probably our best suit. You can even get into vehicles and drive them GTA-style.
That's the first, most underlying theme and feeling throughout MGS5. You can play through it in whatever style you fancy. Yeah, it tells you objectives along the way, and initially advises a stealth approach, but we played the beginning twice, once with sufficient creeping, one all guns blazing, and found that both were sufficiently successful in their own right.
The combat is nicely put together and feels intuitive and flowing. It's mainly cover-based as you won't last long unless you're ducked behind something, but unlike many cover-centric games you don't have to work out the mechanics or which button to press and when to snap to a wall or behind a vehicle, just go near one and Snake will automatically do what's most natural in the circumstance.
Weaponry is fun to fire, with a fair selection available if you look in the right places, and taking down enemies is satisfying.
Stealth is also simplified from former Metal Gear games. You no longer have to worry about the joypad, just the in-game surroundings. The main story mission is set at night, so use of the shadows is advised if you want to take your time through the mode. You can creep up behind guards and take them out - either in execution-fashion or simply putting them to sleep. And although they often use the staple gaming rail paths, you get the idea they are more human than in other successful stealth games.
Because the gameplay arena is large and not chopped into segments, fun can also be had by tripping alarms through being seen by guards or security cameras and trying to leg it away from the action. The chaos dies down eventually, so you'll be able to get away if you don't run into some more heavily fortified sentry posts. And it actually made us giggle at times, reminding us of the Month Python and the Holy Grail scene with the French soldiers: "Run away!"
A prelude of what is to come
Although short, the story mode is satisfying and sets things up superbly for the events of The Phantom Pain. And there is replay value in going back to the game to both try to beat your overall score and try the whole escapade with a different gameplay style.
Konami could have left it at that and, if you read the reports of outrage that followed the admission of the campaign size you would think it had, but more gameplay modes are unlocked once you complete the mission for the first time. And in some cases they are even more fun that the main thread itself.
Although they feature on the same map - the Guantanamo-themed camp - each unlocked mode has a different set task, with different goals and methods to complete them. Some are also based in daylight, almost negating the need for a stealth-based approach.
One, our particular favourite, puts you in an on-rails shooter where you have to take out enemies on the ground from the bay door of a swooping helicopter. Another tasks you with destroying targets throughout the base with heavy duty explosives. So you can expect a fair amount of attention and action to ensue.
Again, we felt the urge to play these bonus missions a couple of times to improve our scores. And as there are global leaderboards and trophies on offer (for PS4; achievements for Xbox One) we suspect others will too.
A graphical gem
The PlayStation 4 version of Ground Zeroes is supposedly the most graphic rich and we certainly saw some fantastic ambience throughout our playtime. The rain is especially crisp and features interesting lighting effects, for example. It's immersive.
Sound is equally important, especially when you are trying to play the game as stealthily as possible and therefore need to hear where enemies are coming from, and Kojima's studio has never disappointed in this area. It's as good as it's ever been on this front.
It would be unfair to say that Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes is a game in its own right. It is really just an appetiser to The Phantom Pain due at some point next year. However, it does offer a decent slice of action for a cut down price.
We'd be more comfortable if it were a downloadable game priced around the £15 mark, instead of a boxed title that seemingly masquerades as a new Solid Snake chapter for between £20-£25, but fans will be happy to pay that to get a glimpse of the future. A highly playable one to boot.
And let's not forget that a new 3D Blu-ray is not much cheaper, and just how much replay value will you get from that once your 90-minutes are up? Not as much as Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, we'd wager.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is available 21 March on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One
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