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September 8, 2014

ShootStravaganza!! MGS5: Ground Zeroes

Cripes.  How do you even talk about this game?

The only way you can is the obvious way -- by bringing up the fact that it’s a forty dollar demo.  And it IS a forty dollar demo, without question.  That’s literally the only reason it exists, even if it’s got a spiffy title independent of the upcoming The Phantom Pain.  And it’s not a justified existence by any means, believe you me.  Remember, I’m the guy who raised a stink over The Last of Us and its DLC -- fifteen dollars for maybe an hour and a half of cutscenes, and maybe thirty minutes of gameplay.  So I can’t in good faith recommend Ground Zeroes to anyone.

And jeez, does this set one hell of a bad precedent.  Konami and crew likely only did it because they needed to restock the war chest, and they figured with the MGS name attached, they could get away with it.  And they did.  Even if some people raised complaints, others -- and plenty of them, by the sound of it -- spoke with the one thing that mattered: their wallets.  So I guess this is the new standard now.  I take issues with games like Destiny offering access to its beta demo solely by preordering the game (and “subtly” pushing a thought-free purchase under the idea that “eh, I already preordered it, so I might as well keep it”), but that’s a saintly practice compared to Ground Zeroes

Now.  Let’s talk about the actual game.


…Is what I would like to say, but no.  I’m not done yet.

Konami and crew didn’t have to put out Ground Zeroes.  They didn’t.  I can tell you right now that there’s not enough of a story in it to justify lobbing off a piece of the canon.  And while there is more game here than you’d expect from a forty dollar demo, it’s still insubstantial.  Not enough.  Hollow.  But here’s the thing that really gets to me: Any given gamer could just wait a little longer for The Phantom Pain and get the same effect.  An even better effect, no doubt -- but I’ll explain why later.

Whatever the case, it’s not as if The Phantom Pain has suddenly stopped existing.  It’s not a far-off treasure drifting away on the ocean, and sucked into the clutches of Scylla and Charybdis.  It’s going to get here, even if it’s going to take some more time.  And presumably, it’s going to be a full game, like the Metal Gear installments before it.  It’s going to come, and it’s going to make a crapload of money…because it’s Metal Gear.  And because it’s coming out on systems starved for quality titles.  “Because we wanted more money” might be a good excuse for the companies, but this is blatant disregard for the consumer -- forcing them to accept it just ‘cause.  And I know I’m not the type focus on the product itself rather than the business behind it, but I can’t do that here because A) it’s an issue that affects the product in question, and B) IT’S A GODDAMN FORTY DOLLAR DEMO.

…HOVER.   

  
I haven’t even started talking about the game, and I’m already pissed.  Great.

So let’s talk about the game.  Because at a base level, it’s actually pretty good.

By no means am I an expert at sneaking missions, but that hasn’t stopped me from having deep respect -- if not outright admiration -- for the Metal Gear franchise.  It’s a series that’s at once strange, serious, and silly, with no shortage of memorable characters and quirks.  And setting aside the sheer madness of the story (try explaining Fat Man or The End to anyone who’s never gotten in deep with the canon), the gameplay is really something special.  It’s got the tactical espionage action tag for a reason, and given GZ, I can only assume that it’ll hold true for the full game -- with all the evolutions you’d expect in place.

Whatever the case, playing GZ reminded me of a simple fact: there’s a reason the franchise has endured for as long as it has.  Rather than leap straight into the gameplay, I decided to do the smart thing and take time out to read the backstory included in the main menu (seeing as how I never even touched games like Peace Walker).  And just reading a multi-paragraph summary made me think “Wow, this is actually pretty interesting!  It’s a shame my PSP decided to melt!”  It probably has something to do with the presence of Snake/Big Boss; they may be gruff super-soldiers, but that doesn’t stop them from having personality, flair, and an actual presence in their stories.  It’s hard to believe that so many others could get the formula wrong, given the precedent.


The thrust of GZ is that Big Boss -- fresh off the heels of Peace Walker, and in the midst of creating his own soldier haven -- happens to discover that Paz, a major player from Peace Walker for any number of reasons (her being a spy well among them) is still alive and in enemy hands.  In an effort to get her back, and protect Team Boss’ valuable secrets/score some intel, Big Boss heads in to mount a rescue operation.  Not only to save Paz, mind; Chico’s been captured as well, and so the original gangsta Snake has to pull double-duty or risk having his plans jeopardized. 

Yeah.  Reading that backstory is pretty much essential if you haven’t played some of the other games -- because otherwise, you get pretty much nothing in terms of context.


Well, you can’t accuse GZ of loading up on hour-long cutscenes, at least.  Or minutes-long codec conversations.  Or any indication as to who, exactly, Skull Face is and why he matters.  Or who Kaz is supposed to be if you don’t know the canon.  Or what Big Boss is actually trying to do.  Or…anything, really, besides the mission and the cutscene that follows once it’s completed.  I can (just barely) forgive the continuity lockout, because I’m under the impression that this new story will fill gaps in the canon we didn’t even know existed; that is, it’s its own self-contained story. 

But if GZ is supposed to be some sort of prologue chapter, then shouldn’t it…I don’t know…connect to something?  Or lead into something?  Yeah, sure, you can go all in medias res and jump straight to the pertinent action bits, but that’s the key word.  PertinentGZ doesn’t add much to TPP’s story besides the most basic details.  As far as I can tell, characters don’t develop.  Overarching struggles are only touched on.  MGS can get a little heavy with the ideologies and commentary, but that’s MIA here.  Snake rescues Paz and Chico.  The base gets ransacked.  Paz dies because there were two bombs inside her -- one they practically hacked out of her to show off those next-gen graphics and another in her…well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.  Snake gets caught in the blast and gets put into a coma.  Cue TPP.  Somehow. 

So basically, I’m getting the sense that despite its “good intentions”, you could experience GZ just as thoroughly by reading a summary -- much like the one included in the game demo.


So if you’re looking for an actual story or meaningful advancement of the canon…yeah.  I pretty much gave it to you.  I was under the impression that the primary justification of the game would be to get players hyped for the full game -- to get them hooked with some tantalizing bait.  And while it’s true that things end on a cliffhanger, it doesn’t carry the amount of weight it should.  The story of how a legendary soldier goes into a coma for nine years shouldn’t be something you can describe in the span of a sentence.  But here we are, with nothing to show for it.  So as a product designed to increase interest in TPP, GZ ultimately falters -- and triumphantly -- in terms of its story.

It’s a good thing that the gameplay doesn’t.

At this stage in the eighth generation, it seems as if the measure of a game’s quality is believed to be its ability to create an open world.  That’s probably not the best litmus test (and there have already been at least two stumbles on that front), but GZ and presumably TPP step up to take the conventions to the Metal Gear universe.  And it’s actually a change to the formula that works.  MGS has, to my knowledge, been a game about maneuvering effectively in tight, controlled environments.  So you’d think that plopping Snake in a wide-open space would tear the entire concept apart.  It doesn’t.  It’s an unusual combination, but the gameplay tweaks are obvious and appreciable.


A lot of the awkwardness in the controls -- not all, but most -- has been dealt away with.  So in a sense, you can think of GZ as meeting (and matching) the gameplay standards and mechanics of the day.  You won’t have to fumble with the triggers and extra menus to equip the weapons and gadgets you want; nor will you be bumbling around trying to remember which twelve-button input will let you interrogate a captured enemy.  The controls are streamlined so that you can do what needs to be done quickly.  Strangely, crouching and crawling are still something of a hassle, especially in the heat of battle.  You don’t know how easy it is to belly flop onto the ground at the worst possible moments.

I’ve always thought that MGS purposely made the shooting/aiming elements esoteric to take emphasis away from running and gunning.  It’s a franchise about stealth, after all, so you’d think that something would be taken away by making the shooting a viable option when the heat is on.  Remarkably, that’s not the case -- and it really is a surprise how well they managed to keep the balance.  I can’t confirm anything yet, but I suspect there’s a reason why the game makes shooting easier: because you’re going to need it.  Even if I’m wrong, it’s a natural extension of the open-world mechanic; you’re given a free range of motion, so you’re also given a free range of options.  You can decide how each skirmish plays out, be it a no-hassle stealth run, a guns-blazing assault, or something in between.

Which brings me to what may be the secret brilliance of MGS as a whole, and something preserved even in GZ: you’re invited to fuck up.


It’s very true that a lot of the skill in the game demo -- and in the franchise as a whole -- comes from the basic modes of expression.  “How fast can you clear the mission?”  “Can you complete a no-kill run?”  “Do you have what it takes to beat it without getting spotted once?”  They’re all viable challenges; still, those are things that aren’t required by the game (thank God for that).  You’ll get rewards for them, sure, but the only thing the game technically asks of you is to “complete the mission”. 

Everything that happens from its start to its end is up to you.  As it should be.  The REAL skill comes from your ability to express yourself and your plan -- to execute your strategy, and more importantly to adapt as needed.    It’s not just a matter of how good you are at scoring headshots, or how good your reflexes are.  “Tactical” is in there for a reason, people.


In that sense, GZ takes on a devious bent.  As usual, I opted for the stealthy approach -- and as usual, I ended up botching it horrifically.  Props to me for actually getting spotted within minutes of starting the game; a jeep with enemy forces rolled by, and seeing as how I hadn’t gotten a handle on how to hide, they opened fire.  I had no idea that enemies in jeeps were even a possibility, but there they were. 

And the same goes for enemies in outposts.  Same goes for enemies patrolling around tents.  It’s true that you have a marking mechanic (straight outta Far Cry 3) so you can track enemy movements, but it doesn’t give you an automatic win.  The reason for that is because you’ll never have your “exactly as planned” moment -- at least not a guaranteed one.  Something is bound to go wrong, and you have to figure out how to get the upper hand.

So in a way, GZ -- and again, MGS as a whole -- is a lot like a fighting game.


If you’re playing as you should, you’ll likely have the insight needed to counter your opponent’s moves and strategies.  And of course, no matter who you play, you should have just the suite of tools to at least come close to putting the pressure on.  Even so, no one can truly predict every second of every match; Daigo may be famous for EVO Moment 37, but let’s not forget that Justin Wong put him in a very bad position. 

And that’s the essence of MGS; unless you’re some sort of tactical genius, at some point you’re going to fuck up.  It changes the entire nature of the game; it doesn’t fail you immediately, but it merely presses you for an answer.  “You fucked up, so now what are you going to do?”  And it’ll gladly take any answer, as long as your skills and wit are up for it.  If they’re not -- or if you can’t provide one -- then you fail.   


If nothing else, GZ is trying to reinforce that ideology so that TPP won’t come as quite a shock.  To keep up the fighting game analogy, going from, say, MGS4 to GZ is something like the jump from Street Fighter 4 to Ultra Street Fighter 4.  Old mechanics get refined, new mechanics get introduced, new tools are offered, and -- most importantly -- the old tools are tweaked to the point where they can be completely different. 

So there’s no reason to think of GZ’s re-emphasis on gunplay as anything harmful; it’s just giving the player a stronger tool so he/she can better resolve a situation.  Speaking as a Dee Jay player, there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing an anti-air opportunity coming, but blowing it and losing a match because his underlying data wasn’t good enough.  But with GZ, the gunplay buffs make for viable options. 

Dee Jay would be proud.


So how does all of this come together?  Well, let me explain by going through some of my experiences with the game demo.  Apparently I’m such a clod at MGS that I can’t even follow a map (or remember I had one in the first place).  So basically, I ended up going in the complete opposite direction of Chico and Paz, and spent a huge swath of time bumbling around an enemy base.  That didn’t stop me from doing my best to make it in the big bad world, though; I snuck and shot my way back to Chico’s cage, even if I had to endure my fair share of bullets to the face.  How did I do it?  Using the options available to me -- be it from stealth, shooting, or just plain using the surroundings.  Here’s a quick rundown:

--Getting on top of buildings is a viable option (and easier than MGS games past, I’d say).  So it’s more than possible to lay on a roof and scope out an area -- and score some pot shots if you’re bold enough.
--As always, you can hide under buildings and vehicles to escape the heat or mount your offense.
--One interesting wrinkle is that there are explosive barrels lying around (as if there’s any other kind).  So if you shoot one and make it explode, you can create a much-needed diversion.
--You can’t ignore the vertical element in this game, because soldiers can and will spot you from their guard towers.  On the other hand, you can do the same, up to and including using their spotlights. 
--Or you could just ruin it for everyone by just knocking the tower over like a bully.


--The thrust of the game is a rescue mission, so you have the ability to call in a chopper to complete an extraction.  Even so, there are anti-air guns littered about the enemy base, so you have to use a little common sense to prevent a complete disaster.
--That in mind, there is absolutely nothing stopping you from using the AA guns against soldiers.  It only takes a couple of seconds in one of those to make them regret leaving their toys lying around.
--Big Boss is decidedly mobile thanks to his ability to dash (again, like most modern games -- odd, given that his adventure is WAY earlier in the canon).

--It’s worth mentioning that you can customize elements of the game to raise or lower the challenge as needed.  One of those elements is the ability to go into a bullet time mode when you get spotted; shoot out the guy who spotted you, and you’ll avoid going into an Alert state.  It’s there if you need it (I sure did), but you can turn it off at your leisure.  I’d think that purists would opt to turn it off, especially since playing without it -- IIRC -- nets you some rewards.


--Going back to mobility, you can steal whatever vehicles you find along the way.  It makes getting around the enemy base a lot easier, but I’d think that it puts you at greater risk of being detected -- unless there’s some ability to hide while driving…but then again, that probably makes driving a thousand times more difficult.
--I only bring up the vehicle bit because, as it turns out, you can steal a tank.  I know I’m the type to try and go for stealth, but that goes right out the window when there’s a chance for me to drive a tank.
--TANK!  TANK!  TAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANKYEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
--I just wish I learned how to fire from the main cannon.  And also, that I didn’t drive it into a ditch.
--I think my IQ gets temporarily cut in half whenever I play a Metal Gear game.


There are likely more gameplay elements that I could mention, and more things that I like, but by now I hope you get the gist of it.  If TPP is even remotely similar to GZ, then the PS4 and Xbone may finally, finally, finally get a game that justifies the new consoles’ existence.  I’m wary of how the story will play out, because there’s always the possibility that it could go off the rails.  It wouldn’t be the first franchise to lose its shit, and it won’t be the last.

Independent of the 2edgy4me implications that Paz was sexually assaulted and had a bomb crammed inside her no-no bits, I’ve been under the impression that Hideo Kojima is constantly being dragged back into this franchise despite his desperate attempts to escape, and likely being burnt out on the canon (he turned Snake into an old man for a reason).  But based on gameplay alone, I have every reason to believe that TPP will be top-tier work.

It’s just a shame that GZ is scraping the bottom.


I made it to Chico, one bumble at a time, and got ready for the next stage of the mission: to take him somewhere safe for extraction, and shortly after resume the mission to find Paz.  But I didn’t.  As soon as the game demo finished autosaving, I turned it off and went to get something to eat.  And I haven’t played it since.  Why?  Because I’d seen enough.  I had my fill, and saw what I needed to see -- if only so I could get my brother and buddy to stop badgering me to play it.  But I walked away from the game with the same state of mind I had going into it -- and it’s the same state that you NEVER want to have when playing a game.

I had no desire to dive in.  None.

I didn’t see the point in continuing the mission.  What did I have to look forward to?  Saving Chico, a character I barely knew, and then doing the same thing for Paz in a slightly different location?  No.  Not good enough.  It’s true that the game demo offered up some thrills, but there was just no removing the stigma around it: for all its pretenses, GZ doesn’t have the meat on its bones to justify its presence.  It’s a bunch of diversions -- bits of cotton candy wrapped around a stick.  And believe it or not, it goes beyond there not being enough story, or not enough progression, or whatever.  I say this for two reasons -- the first of which being that refusing to acknowledge otherwise would make me a massive hypocrite.

The second is because of Grand Theft Auto.


As it stands, I haven’t treated GTAV -- or IV, or San Andreas, or III -- as anything more than the ultimate screw-around simulators.  Across those four games, I’ve done maybe ten missions altogether.  Maybe.  The rest of my time (and I assure you, I’ve put in my time) has been spent goofing off as triumphantly as possible.  Jumping off buildings while riding a motorcycle.  Trying to drive a car on top of a moving train.  Biking furiously to escape mountain lions.  Flying a plane mere feet above a city street. 

I’m free to do whatever I want.  On top of that, I’m not engaging in the expected “kill a bunch of prostitutes” violence you’d expect; I’m inflicting self-harm, sure, but more often than not I’m exploring and engaging with the virtual world on my terms.  A guy like Carl Johnson may not have much in the way of special skills, but he doesn’t need them.  Part of the fun comes from having those limits -- and then doing your best to succeed despite them.

GTA games may not be perfect, but they are substantive.  That’s all independent of their story campaigns, however long they may last; rather than venture into the world of crime, cynicism, and corruption that, say, GTAV may offer, I’ve treated it more like a wild frontier.  Going where I can go.  Seeing what I can see.  And I’ve been rewarded, again, and again, and again, and again, and again.  I feel a sense of accomplishment even when I’m doing absolutely nothing.  Go here and discover a thing!  Now go here and discover something else!  But don’t forget to go here and discover that this is something you can do!


In some ways, that’s also a part of GZ (and likely TPP, eventually).  But it’s not nearly as highlighted.  In a GTA game, you’re interacting with the world as you see fit -- according to your whims and moment-to-moment desires.  In GZ (at least), you’re interacting with the world…but only for the sake of completing a mission.  The franchise has never been so open, but it’s still inherently structured; your chief interaction comes from the interplay of Snake, enemy soldiers, and the environment -- more specifically, how you can use the environment to your advantage. 

That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it reduces the effect.  I’m not climbing onto rooftops because I think it’ll be cool; I’m doing it because I don’t want to get shot.  And I’m not knocking out guys because I’m trying out some silly-ass diving tackle; I’m doing it because I have to incapacitate -- if not outright kill -- anyone that threatens me.  There’s a push toward combat and conflict that’s inherent to the game, and the genre -- hell, most genres -- as a whole.  Again, that’s not a bad thing.  But just think about it: a GTA game, the supposed murder-pushing franchise of choice, offers more chances to take a path of nonviolence, exploration, and discovery than a lot of other modern games.  And it’s stronger because of it.


It’s true that in GZ, you can do extra missions and snag collectibles and find Easter eggs and challenge yourself with special stipulations.  And yeah, there is the capacity to just screw around with the game and do whatever.  But it’s still decidedly limited.  I’m not saying Snake needs to be able to do yoga or go golfing, but barely a year ago, we got a glimpse at what sort of worlds could be made -- and on consoles that are now “inferior”, no less. 

It’s hard to look at GZ favorably in comparison, specifically because it can’t compete.  You can explore a military base, and the cliffs around it.  That’s the gist of the world.  You can drive stuff, but that’s probably not the best idea unless you clear out everyone.  Your most meaningful interactions come from avoiding (or outright killing) others.  Exploring the environment is geared towards survival -- engaging with it because you have to, not because you want to.  It’s a subtle difference, but it’s a difference that matters.


It’s true that you can’t hate GZ for sticking to a more structured format; that would be something like hating fighting games for pitting you against one opponent.  But here’s the thing: GZ -- like Watch Dogs before it -- doesn’t make a compelling argument as to why I should screw around in it instead of GTAV, especially given that by this point, you could buy a used copy of the latter for the same price (probably less).  But setting aside money matters, there’s still the inescapable stigma.  With GTA, it feels like I can go anywhere and do anything, even if that’s not the case. 

With GZ, it feels like I can do a mission…and that’s its case.  I’m attached to the concept of freedom, and exploring it at my leisure.  I’m not attached to saving two characters I barely even know, with a character I barely even know, in a world I can’t really know because the game demo won’t let me.  And while GZ’s got some good mechanics, they aren’t revolutionary enough to justify prioritization.  It doesn’t prove to me why it’s more than just a diversion -- let alone a cash grab.

It doesn’t fill me with a burning desire to press onward.  It’s just…there.


I don’t want to backpedal and say that TPP is going to be a worse game, or even a bad one just because of my distaste with GZ.  It’s my understanding -- or at least hope -- that the full game is going to be substantive.  It’s going to make a case for itself with its quality.  It’s designed to do that in a way that GZ isn’t -- because it’s a complete, standalone product.  Still, now I can’t shake the feeling that thanks to this demo, TPP might not be everything we gamers are hoping for.  Can it balance the structure with the freedom?  Can it balance the brutality with the beauty?  Can it offer something more to players besides a story or a chance to play Army Man?  Time will tell.  I’m hoping for the best, but this whole experience has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Still, I suppose that ultimately comes down to my opinion.  It’s not as if what I’ve said here is law -- and even then, none of it is an inherent deal-breaker.  But this is the eighth generation of games.  By this point, I’ve seen more, and I know that games can be more.  I know that they can have good stories full of soul and meaning.  I know they can be a set of mechanics and elements that can utterly shake a player to the core.  I’ve played enough to know the potential, and to know that the best is yet to come.  There are times when I find myself waiting longer than I should for the next great title, but I’m invested in this hobby for a reason. 

I know it can be better.  Much better.


…Welp.  Time to stamp out that optimistic sentiment by revealing what’s next on the list.



Uh…huh.

*throws laptop out of window*

2 comments:

  1. MGS ended for me at 4. I saw no reason to go back in time and continue stories of Big Boss. It's over. I have no questions that need answers and nothing created will change anything. So, what is the point? Kojima needs to move on and start something new. Like how about bringing Snatcher back? Make an HD Remix or remake all together. Or make a new one. MGS is done.

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  2. I've actually had the same discussion with some friends. I was under the impression that MGS4 would be the last game, PERIOD -- but here we are, crawling back to the canon. A buddy argued that A) Kojima and crew just won't give up The Magnificent Tale of Snake, and B) even if Kojima himself says "this is the last one!" it doesn't mean anything. Especially not now.


    I think it's still possible to get some kind of good story out of the franchise, even if it is wholly unnecessary. (And it is unnecessary; I thought that the entire point of Snake Eater was to show the origin of the man who became Big Boss!) But even if that's true, the mix of fan clamoring, Kojima's "creative vision", and the call for DA MONIEZ by Konami means that MGS will keep on coming. For better or worse.


    So yeah. I guess Snake is Konami's version of Sonic now.

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