is a compact sandbox with more depth than some full-size game. By Andy Kelly (PCGAMER)

At the southern tip of Cuba, besides a rocky, wind coast, located Camp Omega. Here, prisoners are beaten, punished and brutally interrogated in the interest of the USA. Despite its obvious fetishism for weapons and the military, the Metal Gear Solid series has always been anti-war, and this is writer/director Hideo Koiima’s most provocative statement yet.

Prisoners in orange jumpsuits, black bags over their heads, cower in cages. Spotlights shine from towers through pounding rain. It’s a bleak, evocative setting, and the centerpiece of this one-level prologue to the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.

You are Big Boss, a legendary soldier and former CIA operative, and after being betrayed by the US government, made his own mercenary army. Two prisoners are being held captive in Camp Omega, and you need them alive. Like previous entries in the series, this is a stealth game: ideally you’ll want to sneak into the base, evacuate the prisoners and escape without alerting anybody. But that’s one of many ways to complete the mission and it’s a freedom that makes Ground Zeroes worth spending money on-despite the fact that, it seems to be little more than a demo.

Guantanamo yay

While MGS games are typically story-heavy, the focus here is squarely on stealth. It’s a remarkably detailed, interactive world, filled with clever, creative ways to evade, distract or subdue enemies. The small army of marines who guard the base all feel like people, not automated drones. They’re impressively reactive, and respond to suspicious noises or malfunctioning security cameras with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation. If the alarm sounds, they’ll work together and pin you down. They also follow set routines, but sometimes they’ll surprise you by suddenly looking over their shoulder or sneezing, delivering you a split second to dash safely through their line of sight.

How you reach the prisoners and carry them to safety is left to you. A deep ranking system rates your performance based on how quickly, quietly and efficiently you did it, and you earn extra points for things like not killing anyone or never triggering any alarms. You can dumbly charge through the majority of the game with guns blazing, but the fun (and challenge) lies in learning the map, exploiting the systems, and outsmarting the AI to get the best possible score.

Camp Omega is big, and a testing ground for The Phantom Pain’s open- world stealth, which is a first for the Metal Gear Solid series. But it’s still small enough that after a few hours you’ll have a fairly accurate map in your head. It’s a brilliantly designed space, and 15 hours in, I’m still finding new ways to navigate. There are vents to crawl through, move ways to sneak across towers to climb and roaming trucks to hide in the back of.

By confining you to this single locale, the game can really push the limits of the stealth and AI. Ground Zeroes is a proof of concept for a newer, more modern take on the prisoners, later escape without alerting anyone. But it’s just one of many ways to complete the mission and it’s this freedom that makes Ground Zeroes worth spending money on-despite the fact that it seems to be little more than a demo.

You’ll see the credits roll and you’ll think, is that it really? But then you go back to the main menu and notice that you’re at 8% completion. Playing the main mission unlocks four more missions that alter the camp’s layout, enemy patrol patterns, weather and time of day, creating an entirely new set of challenges. In one mission you have to identify and assassinate two war criminals. Another has you series’ established stealth. It retains that distinct MGS feel, but with tighter, more responsive controls. Anyone who played the old games will recall the pain of wrestling with the clumsy three-step stand/crouch/prone button. Mercifully, this has gone, and you can now transition seamlessly into a crawl or crouch from a run or walk. Push up against a vertical surface and you’ll lean into it, and you can hop over fences. It’s the first Metal Gear game where movement actually feels intuitive.

The controls are still slightly idiosyncratic in places. You have to play Twister with your fingers to simultaneously hold a guard up and interrogate him. But this is part of the deal in a Kojima game. The mouse and keyboard controls are fine, but as with all third-person games, you’ll benefit from using a pad. Nudge the analog stick and you almost tiptoe, which is essential for creeping up on guards without alerting them. You can achieve the same effect holding Ctrl, but it feels more intuitive using the stick.

The rain-slicked cliffs that line the edges of the camp are a perfect vantage point for scouting before you begin your infiltration. Using zoomable binoculars you can tag enemies Far Cry-style, and a directional microphone lets you listen-in on their conversations, gaining clues about where the prisoners might be being held. It pays to be methodical, as tagged guards are permanently marked by a HUD icon, and the large, open nature of the map makes keeping tabs on every guard in the base almost impossible otherwise.


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