I bailed on the Metal Gear Solid series fairly early on in MGS2, as I found its frenzy of cutscenes both patience-testing and risible. Safe in my PC ivory tower of sneering youth, I was happy to dismiss anything that followed as bunkum, swaddled in unfiltered narrative excess that seemed to be its own fanservice. Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, who knows? Part of me wouldn't mind seeing how I felt about it all now these old eyes are less snobby than they used to be, but time, oh time. One thing I certainly lost sight of is that, somewhere underneath all the melodrama, MGS is supposed to be a stealth series. I've been hankering for a bit of 'pure' stealth lately, so when I heard the phrase 'open world stealth game' applied to last month's Metal Gear Solid V prequel Ground Zeroes, I paid unexpected attention. Those are four extremely appealing words.
Deep breath. Embrace that which you believe you hate, Meer. So I did. And I'm very glad I did.
1) It's exciting. And the biggest contributor to that is exfiltration. Sneaking around a large military base, avoiding or taking out guards and trying to find a way to the cells is one thing, but trying to head back out with a rescued prisoner slung over your shoulder is another thing entirely. You move slower, you can't see as well, you can only wield a pistol, you have to put your charge down to knock out unsuspecting guards, and most of all if you do get spotted the first thing the enemy shoots is the person you're trying to save. Getting from A to B is stressful and high stakes, and that's what stealth is about. The pay-off is great too: standing on the shore, waiting for the rescue chopper you've called in to arrive, seeing its lights eventually appear in the far-off fog, then seeing the dark shape attached to those lights, that shape become whirling noise all around you, then there it is: your saviour. You haul those you've freed into it, and it all seems to take so long and be so precarious, and it feels like a rescue.
2) It tells me almost nothing, which is perfect. I have to figure it all out, what gets me spotted and what doesn't, what's safe to use where and what isn't, how to get out of trouble and how to get deeper into it, what I can get in, on or under and what I can't, and even how to locate my objectives (in one case by listening to audio cues) myself. This approach could have been highly irritating, but the systems are precise and the logic logical - it all flows, it's all tight, and working it out felt good rather than that I'd been thrown into the deep end as an act of cruelty.
3) I'm more brutal than I'd like to think. There's this neat mechanic where, when you successfully sneak up on someone and grab 'em, you can kill 'em, interrogate them, make them call their mates over or knock 'em out. I always interrogate, which usually means they'll tell me where bonus weapons or other enemies are, and then I murder them in cold blood. Usually in stealth games, I'm determined to be non-lethal - nobody thinks about the friends and family of a henchman and all that - but something about this game stops me from feeling that way. Maybe it's the prison camp setting. Maybe it's the Vengeful Retired Rock Band Bassist look of the protagonist. Maybe it's just the amount of time I have to stay in this place - the risk of someone waking up and raising hell at a critical moment is too high. So I always kill. No survivors. Can't take any chances.
4) Vehicles can be stealthy. One of the things I like I about Ground Zeroes is that the enemy doesn't immediately ping into high alert, shoot everything mode if they spot you, at least presuming you haven't brazenly walked straight into their eyeline. If they see movement from a distance, or catch a glimpse of something poking out from behind a wall, they'll become suspicious and slowly wander over to investigate. The time this affords you is an invitation to ingenuity. You could you take advantage of their focus on the point they last saw something to sneak off to the side then come up behind them, you could climb high or drop low and hide under a shipping crate, you could headshot them with a tranq dart, or if you're in the right place you can jump into a truck or jeep and simply drive away. At first this seemed ludicrous - a motor vehicle on a quiet interment camp is basically the opposite of stealth - but then it seemed only sensible. I needed to get away before the dude found me and raised the alarm. The fastest, most efficient way to do that was driving. Beats hiding in a bush for ten minutes.
5) It's still bunkum. I don't know the MGS story and Ground Zeroes didn't do a lot to change that, despite an optional text-based 'previously on...' summary. It was a storm of gibberish and ridiculous names with no clear reason why a series newcomer would care. Fortunately, in the game proper the essential objective of 'rescue these people from a horrible place' did all it needed to on that front, and there were no major interruptions to my skulking about once it began. Unfortunately, after doing this there's this big long cutscene full of terrible dialogue and terrible acting, with something like half a dozen false endings. I'm sure it matters a whole lot more to people who've spent good time with the series to date, but a motivator for a relative newbie to get involved it was not. Bunkum, I say! But bunkum attached to a really good stealth game.
6) I want to play it again. Specifically, I want to play the 'side missions' unlocked when you beat the 3-ish hour main game, which take the same setting and mechanics and remix it with different objectives. I've done a section of one so far, which immediately changes things hugely simply by being set in daylight rather than on a rainy evening. I feel so exposed! Any venture into the open becomes such a huge risk, and even if some element of that is purely psychological on my part - you can't hide in sunlight - it's still highly effective. The mission objective has also changed from rescuing prisoners into finding and killing specific targets, which is a straightforward but worthwhile tweak. No more simply avoiding spots that look too well-guarded - I need to go right into the lion's den then shed blood without being caught. It's not quite Hitman, but it's certainly leaning in that direction.
In short: Ground Zeroes may be a short prequel game to the fifth title in a long-running series that's drowning in its own plot, but it made me stop regarding Metal Gear Solid with derisive suspicion, and treat it as something important. This is fine, fine stealth. If full game the Phantom Pain gives me more of this I'm in. Though I'll be skipping all the cutscenes I can.