Spoiler warning: this article hopes to ease new players into Ground Zeroes, and as such contains some spoilers for the Metal Gear series thus far.
Except for mediocre ports of the first two games, the Metal Gear Solid series hasn’t had much of a presence on PC. But that’s about to change with the arrival of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain on Steam next year. You don’t have to wait that long to get a taste of it, though. On Thursday Konami are releasing Ground Zeroes, a single-level prologue that showcases its open-world stealth, which is a first for the series.
If you’re a lapsed fan, or if you haven’t played it before, you’ll probably feel a bit overwhelmed. There dozens of games worth of dense, complex story preceding MGS V, and the mythology is famously complex. Even series creator Hideo Kojima has said he has trouble keeping track of it all, and he wrote the thing.
But don’t worry, because I’m here to turn that huge lump of information into something digestible. Here you’ll learn everything you need to know going into Ground Zeroes to understand what the hell is going on, as well as some important backstory.
What is Metal Gear Solid, and why should I care?
Metal Gear Solid is a series of stealth/action games designed by Hideo Kojima and his studio, Kojima Productions. They’re defined by their freeform, systems-driven stealth, imaginative boss battles, memorable characters, and how they marry melodramatic, philosophical storytelling with moments of surreal absurdity.
You should care because Metal Gear Solid is one of the most imaginative games around. Kojima is a master at second-guessing players, and you always feel like he’s one step ahead of you. He’s infamous for his long-winded cut-scenes, but he’s an incredibly smart game designer. To me, Metal Gear (particularly the third game, Snake Eater) is as satisfying a systems-based stealth experience as Deus Ex, minus the RPG bits.
These are games that reward creativity and give you the freedom to play how you want with a vast array of gadgets, weapons, and ways to interact with the environment. Everything else is just a bonus, and you’ll fall in love with Kojima’s daft, fourth wall-shattering sense of humour. One minute you’ll be listening to a sobering speech about the perils of nuclear proliferation, the next a man is firing bees at you.
And what is Ground Zeroes exactly?
Ground Zeroes is the prologue to the next game in the MGS series, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It features just one level—the Guantánamo Bay-inspired Camp Omega—and in it you play as Big Boss, a legendary soldier and the leader of nationless mercenary army Militaires Sans Frontières.
It sounds like a demo. Why are they charging for it?
While there’s only one level in Ground Zeroes, it’s a big one, and there are seven missions to complete. Getting through them all, plus two bonus missions, took me eight hours—and I’m still playing. The depth of the stealth makes it hugely replayable, and there are dozens of ways to approach and complete objectives. You can read my review of the PC version on Thursday at 2pm UK time. Spoilers: I really like it.
Who is Big Boss? Is he Solid Snake? They look similar...
You’ve probably heard of, or least seen a picture of, Solid Snake, the star of most of the main games in the series. He’s become something of a pop culture icon. But Big Boss is someone else entirely. Solid Snake is, in fact, his clone.
Early in his career, Big Boss was an operative for the CIA. But after being tricked into killing his mentor by the US government, he became disillusioned and created his own army of mercenaries.
Considered the greatest soldier who ever lived, the US secretly cloned him without his knowledge, to safeguard his genetic legacy. Many of these clones died prematurely, but three survived, one of which was Solid Snake.
In a cruel twist of fate, the first Metal Gear game (released for the MSX in 1987) saw Solid Snake, at the behest of the US government, tasked with taking down his ‘father’, who had created an independent nation of soldiers in the ‘80s called Outer Heaven and built a walking nuclear-equipped tank to protect it.
Wait, so Big Boss is the villain?
In the first two games, yes. But in sequels Snake Eater, Portable Ops, Peace Walker, and The Phantom Pain next year, he’s the protagonist. In these games we witness his betrayal at the hands of the US and subsequent tragic downfall.
A major theme in MGS V will be Big Boss succumbing to his demons and, eventually, becoming the seemingly evil figure Solid Snake fights in the 1987 game. Look at the screenshots and you’ll see some kind of shrapnel sticking out of his head, almost like a horn. This symbolises his transition from hero to villain.
We won’t know the full details of this change until the next game, but I’m sure Kojima has some trick up his sleeve. Big Boss has become as beloved as former series hero Solid Snake, and I expect he’ll give him a good reason for turning ‘bad’. It’ll probably have something to do with The Patriots, a sinister Illuminati-style group that secretly controls the United States.
Okay, got it. So why is Big Boss infiltrating Camp Omega?
Two prisoners, Paz and Chico, are being held there by a mysterious, disfigured character known only as Skull Face. Both hold information that could compromise Militaires Sans Frontières, and so Big Boss steps in personally to rescue them.
Hold up, who the hell are Paz and Chico?
Okay, this is where things get a bit more complicated.
Paz Ortega Andrade first approaches Big Boss to help her drive a mercenary army out of her peace-loving home country of Costa Rica. But it was all a ruse, and she was actually a double agent for an organisation called Cipher (actually The Patriots) who wanted to spy on the MSF: specifically their progress in building a nuclear tank, or metal gear.
She was apparently killed at the end of MGS: Peace Walker, but survived and was captured by Skull Face. So while she’s an enemy of Big Boss, the information she has about him, his army, and the metal gear project forces him to rescue her.
Ricardo Valenciano Libre, nicknamed Chico, was a child soldier and fighter for the Sandinistas, a group Big Boss allied with in Costa Rica. Hearing that Paz was still alive, he tried to rescue her from Camp Omega, but was captured and imprisoned himself.
And what about this ‘Skull Face’ dude?
Not much is known about Skull Face, who seems to be one of the antagonists in Metal Gear Solid V. He’s working for Cipher, and is in charge of Camp Omega. But his relationship with Cipher is really a way to locate its leader, Zero, for reasons that are unclear. Probably revenge. It always seems to be revenge in Metal Gear Solid.
In a recent Metal Gear Solid V trailer, we see Big Boss and Skull Face together, and it doesn’t look as if either of them are under duress. Perhaps the two team up to go after Cipher, although that’s just speculation at this point. Let’s not get distracted.
Skull Face is obviously a bad dude, but villains in Metal Gear are always products of some terrible abuse in their past, so there’s likely more complexity to his story yet to be uncovered. The real villain in this strand of the series is Zero, the leader of Cipher/The Patriots, and he’s undoubtedly pulling the strings in The Phantom Pain.
My head hurts.
Yeah, sorry. I know I said I’d make this digestible, but there are so many organisations and characters with conflicting motivations in Metal Gear that it always descends into a confusing morass of information.
But, honestly, I don’t think it will hamper your enjoyment of the game. Even fans like me will be screwing our faces up in confusion as we play. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, and it’ll all start to make sense eventually.
How do the events of Ground Zeroes lead into The Phantom Pain?
Stop here if you don't want to know how Ground Zeroes ends.
So Big Boss rescues Paz and Chico, but returns to Mother Base—his offshore HQ—to find the place under attack from Skull Face’s army. Unable to defend it, he’s forced to flee, but then his helicopter is hit with a rocket and he slips into a coma.
Nine years later, Big Boss wakes up in a hospital, and this is where The Phantom Pain begins. Thirsty for vengeance after the death of his MSF comrades, he forms a new army called Diamond Dogs. This is the beginning of his eventual downfall.
Okay, I think I get it now.