What to expect from Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear Solid 5's experimental prelude

Here's something I never thought I'd get to write about in PC Gamer. Metal Gear Solid 5 is coming to PC. First, prelude/enhanced demo Ground Zeroes will arrive on Steam, followed in 2015, hopefully simultaneously with the console releases, by the full game with the striking subtitle of The Phantom Pain.

Both are open-world stealth entries in a series that has traditionally been heavy on narrative. While there's no easy way for a newcomer to get up-to-date on the mythos without pushing a lot of more useful information out of their brain, MGS5 is handily something of a soft reset for the series. It's as good a place as any on PC to start your discovery of why Kojima's systems-driven sneaking series has such a huge following on PlayStation platforms.

I won't get into the huge backstory that led to The Phantom Pain—suffice to say, it ends up with the game's gruff protagonist Big Boss being cloned three times, one clone of which becomes president of the United States, there's an illuminati AI and oh God I need to lie in the wiki recovery position—but the premise here is you're Snake (also referred to as Big Boss), a military veteran who's just seen his home and fortress, Mother Base, wiped out by an organisation called XOF. A lot of his comrades are dead. XOF is run by a disfigured enemy known as Skull Face, who has declared war on Snake.

Ground Zeroes is the setup of that premise, The Phantom Pain is what comes next. It could be some time before we get the latter, but Zeroes was released on consoles earlier this year as a kind of teaser for how stealth will work in MGSV's open world locations. It's all set in one military base, where Snake has to rescue two characters from custody. Experimentation is encouraged, while allowing the series' traditional option to kill or not kill enemies. You can tranq-dart foes, knock them out, slit throats, headshot with suppressed weapons, snipe from afar and even run people over with hijacked military vehicles. And that's just in Ground Zeroes—The Phantom Pain's open world is 200 times the size, with wildlife, air vehicles and pooping steeds to factor in.

When I first came across a guard in Ground Zeroes, perched in a rainy tower with a moving searchlight, I put the frighteners on him by shooting out the bulb before quickly switching to a dart gun and landing one straight on the head to send him to sleep. With the coast clear, I climbed up the tower, picked him up then brutally threw his sleeping body off the tower and onto the ground below. The soldier woke up and screamed just before he hit the dirt and died. This admittedly horrible scenario was followed up by the entire base coming after me after sniping went awry. Much like Deus Ex but with that same notion interpreted in an entirely different way, freedom of approach is the lifeblood of Metal Gear.

Hopefully Ground Zeroes will arrive on Steam with a £15 / $20 price tag, because that's pretty much what it's worth on PS4—you can beat it in about an hour, although it took me three, as I went scouting in towers around the base looking for secret weapons and putting anti-aircraft guns to work against patrolling vehicles. Extra missions let you see what the same base is like in daytime, when the AI has different routines and a better chance of spotting Snake.

This carries across to The Phantom Pain, where the day and night cycle will also affect your chances of being spotted. You can make time skip ahead by having Snake smoke a cigar (his addiction to smoking is one of the series' more conventional running jokes) and approach a mission with less visibility. While the missions are at fixed locations within the 6km2 open world, the idea again is that your strategy can be unique. You can take out the power in locations to dim the lights, for example, or distract guards with pictures of sexy women (probably the only part of Metal Gear Solid I still feel the need to apologise for). Not everything in The Phantom Pain is new to Metal Gear Solid, but the scale of environment certainly is. I can't wait to see what this looks like on PC, since it's already running at 1080p, 60fps on PS4.

Ground Zeroes is an enticing proposition and fun introduction to MGSV's world—not unwelcome on a platform where the series has had an unfortunately quiet history—but The Phantom Pain will be the main event. I've got lots more to say about Ground Zeroes' troubling story that I'll save for another time. But hell: what a great way for Metal Gear Solid to restart life on PC.

Samuel Roberts
Former PC Gamer EIC Samuel has been writing about games since he was 18. He's a generalist, because life is surely about playing as many games as possible before you're put in the cold ground.