Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes proves that there’s still vitality and innovation in the stealth game genre.
|All images copyright Konami, Fair use|
I Hate(d) Stealth Games Like Ground Zeroes
If you had asked my opinion on the genre some time back, I would have said, “I hate stealth games”.
I had tried out one or two in my time, including one Metal Gear Solid game (I forget which one) and some of the Splinter Cell series.
But I never really had enough patience for them.
I found the controls weren’t always the best.
There were often odd layouts, or strange button combinations required for seemingly basic functions.
The propensity of some of these games to penalise you, or flat-out restart a level, just for getting spotted, meant they soon went back to the store.
Lest stealth fans recoil in terror, you may be pleased to hear that I have changed, albeit slowly.
Don’t get me wrong: I always liked the idea of this type of game and they always involve cool gadgets.
It’s just that I couldn’t quite get into them.
Admittedly, they would probably not be held up as the best examples of the genre.
However, a decent amount of gameplay is spent in “stealth mode” – without terrible consequences, if it all goes wrong.
|Hold your breath…|
As a result, I found myself slowly warming to the idea.
Now I have played Ground Zeroes, I feel I have at last, arrived.
Many have commented on this game’s length, some going as far as to call it a “tech demo”.
But this game, more than any other, has finally made stealth “click” for me.
Read on to find out why.
The map is relatively small, but it still takes a while to get to know your way around it.
There are plenty of secrets to discover, including optional objectives, alternate routes, and unusual ways of neutralising enemy eyes.
I must confess I used a FAQ site to find out a better way into one building I had been struggling with.
This is very unusual for me, as I generally prefer to enjoy the challenge of working through gameplay frustrations.
However, even when I did so, the game reacted to my choice in an intelligent way, so it wasn’t a simple “hack” to gain victory.
The menus are your standard fayre, but they are useful and functional.
They operate in real time, which normally annoys me, but here serves to heighten the tension.
As well as options to check your objectives, there are two map screens.
One, labelled “Map” shows the entire base, allows you to select way-points and check where you can extract, via helicopter.
The other, called “Navigation”, will display an active overlay map on your screen.
I admit, I struggled to see the usefulness of this.
Although it is translucent, it takes up most of your view as you are moving around.
By the time I had discovered what it was used for, I had already played enough that I already knew my way around the base.
So far, all of this is good, but hardly revolutionary.
Introduce a second screen, via the free iOS (or Android) app however, and the stakes are higher.
|Map in iPad App, showing tagged enemies (red triangles)|
Navigation with the map displayed on my iPad is a whole lot easier and somehow, more atmospheric.
It feels like I have a genuine, real-life gadget at my disposal, just like a true spy (well, at least the fictional ones).
The maps will also show you the location of enemies you have tagged, in realtime.
That’s an important point, to which I will return.
MGS V: Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain (the full game, for which GZ is the prequel/taster) are touted as the first games to utilise open world stealth.
While previews of Phantom Pain look amazing, I can’t really call Ground Zeroes open world; it is clearly too small to deserve that title.
It’s more like “open map” in this case, but I have to say that it really does deliver on the word “open”.
You can go anywhere you like within the marine base, which is a direct riff on Guantanamo Bay.
This adds more atmosphere to proceedings and if you aren’t feeling slightly uncomfortable at some of the goings on in this place, then you probably aren’t human.
The island location lends itself readily to gameplay walls that don’t feel overly artificial.
Guards patrol around and some vehicles move about, depending on the scenario you’re playing.
The AI works well too and soldiers will investigate, if they spot something suspicious – either you, or someone you incapacitated earlier and were careless hiding.
Patrol patterns also change when you reach specific checkpoints in the mission.
Sometimes a shift change happens and fresh guards enter the scene, or a new vehicle may show up.
This means that you are constantly checking your surroundings and over your shoulder, before moving on.
However, there’s something else about this game that in my opinion, revolutionises stealth.
It is based around a really simple idea: reconnaissance.
For almost any new game, there is always a feature that gets marketed above all the others and for Ground Zeroes, it was no different.
|Eliminate the threat before you are seen|
In this case, it was the concept of tagging enemies.
It’s not that we haven’t seen similar systems before, but here it’s tied into a piece of equipment that, for me, makes the whole thing more realistic.
I’m talking about the humble binoculars.
Yes, they’ve appeared before in numerous games and yes, they’re not exactly the sexiest gadget out there.
However, they’ve won me over and here’s why.
From any point in the game, you can press a button (R1 on PS4) to bring up your binoculars and get a zoomed in view of whatever you want.
If you spot a guard, vehicle, or anti-air gun, you just keep them in the centre of your view for a couple of seconds and they are tagged.
Once tagged, a red triangle appears above their head, and on the map, and thereafter follows them about, wherever they go.
You can even see tagged enemies through walls, so you’ve got real intelligence to guide your steps.
On the other hand, the enemies you can tag are limited by your viewpoint and line of sight, so you can’t assume that you have spotted them all.
You can also use weapon sights to do the same job, but they don’t have the same reach or zoom levels, as the binoculars do.
Being able to see through walls may seem artificial, but in practice, it feels entirely natural.
What’s more, it becomes the first time a game has made reconnaissance truly worthwhile.
If you want, you can ignore the system and go in “blind”, but it makes less sense of the game and actually turns out to be less believable, as a result.
Since patrol patterns are different, depending on the mission (I haven’t attempted hard mode yet), I have made every effort to find high ground in multiple places, in order to make use of this, the only real advantage I have over the enemy.
I feel like a super spy.
The control layout is, in general, easy to get to grips with (pun intended).
|Running for the extraction point|
Left stick moves your hero and right stick moves the camera.
A click on the left stick lets you run, but if you’re playing it properly, there won’t be much call for that.
Basic movement is a joy, with a single button to change stance from walking to crouching, to crawling.
Thankfully, this is a toggle button, so my hands appreciate the smooth transitions from one to the other.
This is in contrast to Shadow of Mordor, where the stealth button must be held down constantly and becomes tiresome after some time.
If you’re about to get caught, then a last ditch press of the Square button will see Snake hit the dust, in whatever direction you choose.
If you’ve been spotted, then you get a few seconds of slow motion time to neutralise your assailant, before he cries for help.
Weaponry and items are easily selected via the D-pad on the left.
These are located in a logical structure:
If multiple weapons of a similar type are held, then just hit the appropriate button twice.
Bizarrely, your starting primary weapon is always the assault rifle, an odd choice in a game where you are trying to be silent.
It took me a while to understand that I should immediately switch to the tranquilliser gun.
It was even longer to realise that holding down the Up D-pad button would allow me to silence the assault rifle and switch off the associated flashlight.
Close quarters combat is a bit complicated at first, but is easier in practice than the in-game manual makes it look!
You’ll soon be ducking behind walls or crawling in hedges to avoid patrols, then sneaking past guard towers, without being seen.
Alternatively, you could allow a patrol to catch a glimpse of you in order to get them to investigate.
Then you can sneak right around and tranquillise the lot, or hold one of them up, right under their noses.
It’s in these moment to moment decisions, that you get to learn the game’s systems and where the true openness of the levels comes to life.
No two attempts at the same mission will likely be the same and this is where the replay value lies.
You will be asked to try missions again to improve your score and you are always rewarded for being silent or unseen and for taking out guards non-lethally.
When you finally get an ‘A’ or even the elite ‘S’ rank, there is a definite sense of achievement.
On my first time through the campaign’s single story mission, I was learning my way around the map.
I was also learning things like how far away the guards could see me, when crouched or crawling.
I set the alarm off, I don’t know how many times and killed quite a few soldiers, in the process.
All of which, earned me a lousy ‘D’ rank.
On subsequent runs, I was much more careful and managed to improve a little bit, each time.
Transferring the same skills to other missions was a challenge, because most of them take place in daylight, so you have to be even more cagey about being spotted.
It’s surprising how much difference a change in objectives and patrol patterns makes and there’s enough variety to keep things going for a while.
If it all goes horribly wrong, as it will do, from time to time, then there’s always the option of going loud.
I had one mission where I had done ok up to a point, but then made some silly mistakes and the base went on alert.
At that point, I could have quit out to the menu to start again, but then something inside snapped…
It can be remarkably cathartic mowing down the opposition, even though you know you’re not “supposed” to.
There’s even one mission which abandons the whole stealth idea completely and you go in all guns blazing.
I sometimes fire that one up, just for a short set-to, while I wait for my patience levels to recharge.
There was much ire in the gaming community about the price of Ground Zeroes, on its release.
In my opinion, the anger was probably justified.
I could not call this a full AAA game (although the quality is up there) and certainly wouldn’t pay full price for it.
However, now it is available for £15 or less, it is a much more attractive proposition.
As a standalone stealth game, there is plenty to get your teeth into, but as a prequel to The Phantom Pain is where it truly shines.
A few pointers are therefore required:
So, if you’re going to get any mileage out of it, then you will need to try and try again.
Whether or not you are happy doing that, will dictate whether buying or renting the game will be worthwhile for you.
But as I play it through, I find myself dreaming of a much larger world to play around in.
One where I can build my own base and take on missions, as I see fit.
I realise that the stealth genre has come of age, and I can at last partake in it, in new, meaningful ways.
Roll on The Phantom Pain.
I'm Tim Bader, founder of ErgonomicToolbox.com and the Ergonomic Toolbox training course. I am a writer, author, blogger and church leader, and I help people to overcome RSI and live comfortably with technology. When I'm not writing, helping or training people, I live at home with my wife, two teenage kids and Playstation.
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