Camp Omega, the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base look-alike in which Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is set, is a fully realized location. Guard towers meticulously dot the perimeter, their swiveling searchlights stretching from the chain-link fences and mountainous exterior to the rows of mud-slicked tents that Naked Snake, a.k.a. Big Boss, will most likely crawl between as he infiltrates the base. Jeeps and covered trucks are logically found parked in well-guarded depots around the base, and the armories—the locations of which can be interrogated out of choke-held guards—are often under the sneaky surveillance of hidden cameras. Anti-aircraft guns fortify the various helipads (as do armored vehicles), and the outdoor cells are surrounded by checkpoints: a prison inside of a prison. There’s is some gating to your progress (only red doors can be opened, and barbed-wire fences ensure that all your thinking remains within the box), but for the most part, the only limit placed on scouring Camp Omega for XOF patches, cassette tapes, and prisoners begging to be freed is that of the player’s stealth, skill, and patience. (Speaking of which: Ground Zeroes, at least on the PS4, looks so good that sitting around and waiting for guards to change shifts or move further along their patrol routes is rarely a bother.)
And yet, the game itself is far from a fully realized one. Its main mission can be completed in an hour, tops, and the story does little more than bridge the gap between 2010’s Peace Walker and the upcoming The Phantom Pain. It’ll take you longer to read the backstory and to listen to the various briefings and diary recordings than to actually play through. The coolest sequence, in which Snake fends off attackers at Mother Base and rather gorily helps to surgically remove a bomb that’s been implanted in a prisoner’s gut, isn’t even controllable. Instead, Ground Zeroes aims to acclimate players to the improved mechanics. Binoculars allow you to tag and track enemies, a la Far Cry 3 or Splinter Cell: Blacklist; a slow-motion “reflex” mode helps to forgive some of the sloppier stealth sequences by allowing players to gun down their foes before they can radio in help; the UI is far more intuitive and built into the game itself (no more health bars or alert timers); and complicated camouflage patterns have been simplified down to simple environmental cover. Nodding to Phantom Pain’s promise of an open world that’s a hundred times larger, you can even call in an air support exfiltration at any time (for you or those you free), though you may have to fend off artillery if the landing zone is hot. Then again, hinting at features to come only emphasizes how cripplingly limited Ground Zeroes is.
Leaderboards and side missions help to prolong the experience, and to showcase the powerful engine, particularly for those missions that take place in the daytime. (Forgive the cliché, but this difference really does feel like night and day.) Whereas Ground Zeroes emphasizes stealth, one of the extra levels tasks you with picking two specific targets out of the camp and then assassinating them, while another places you overhead, strafing an escape route for an on-the-ground asset. But no matter how much C4 you pick up, players can’t escape the confines of Camp Omega, nor from Ground Zeroes itself, the most expensive demo ever built.