Your first playthrough of Ground Zeroes will only take a couple of hours. If you aren't the sneaking type it will significantly shorter. This sounds like a poor value proposition at thirty dollars, but when the credits roll on the Ground Zeroes mission the real game begins - and there's a whole lot more to it.
Ground Zeroes is a pretty different beast to your usual Metal Gear game. For a long time the main appeal of MGS has been the story, some of the games played excellently (some of them you put up with) but the narrative was the drive. Ground Zeroes is not like this, if you are here for Kojima's special brand of crazy storytelling then there isn't much for you. The story of Ground Zeroes is pretty simple, in fact there isn't much of one to begin with. The events follow on from Peace Walker and you play as Big Boss on another sneaking mission. The mission takes place in a US military base (where things probably aren't quite as they seem) and you have to extract two prisoners: Paz and Chico.
Once you have extracted the pair the mission is over, you get a score and a final cutscene. The final cutscene is where most of the exposition happens, there's some very shocking content, but the scene itself is rather impressive. The end revelations are interesting, though the content on offer is rather slight and pretty detached from the actual mission. It's what has been going on while you were away rather than directly related to what you were doing. Ultimately it's a tease for Phantom Pain (the next full MGS, which is coming out sometime in the next couple of years), but it's a good watch even if it's just setting up to where that begins.
In spite of this, Ground Zeroes is still a great game. The reason being that the appeal is the gameplay not the story, narrative content is thin on the ground but there's a lot of gameplay potential. The main mission is short, but it's heavily replayable. The game does a good job of actively incentivizing repeat playthroughs with challenges, open-ended design and a comprehensive ranking system. There's enough here to make every playthrough feel different and enough to make you want to keep playing the game differently. The gameplay is strong enough that it is its own reward and there are enough external hooks in place to keep you coming back.
Outside of the main mission there are a number of side ops. Each of these takes place in the same base, but each has a different objective. These ops show off the games impressive level design. Kojima Productions have made a very effective sandbox, one that supports different styles of play very well. The systems in play are really strong and allow for a lot of different things to happen. This, combined with the changing weather and lighting effects in missions, makes content feel fresh rather than recycled.
Ground Zeroes is really just a vehicle to show off the new way to play Metal Gear - the gameplay that will feature in The Phantom Pain. This makes it sound like a demo for sale, but it fits more in line with Dead Rising: Case Zero, a nice little appetizer which ends up as a great game in its own right. It sounds like a quick cash grab, but it's actually a great package that gives you a decent amount of content for your money. The missions are great and it's full of unlockables and great little easter eggs.
The appeal is the gameplay though and it's the best the series has seen so far. It's the most forgiving game in the series (and fans may dislike this) but this allows it to have very fluid stealth mechanics. The controls just feel great; with moving, aiming and shooting working exactly as you would expect. These are further complimented by good stealth systems. You can now mark enemies with your binoculars, or by aiming at them, and this will make them always appear on-screen. They will show up as silhouettes through buildings, meaning you can always keep a track on them. This is overtly gamey, but it works very well. It adds an element of planning and allows you to make educated decisions rather than rash movements. The game also does a good job of letting you know when you are in sight and handles line of sight very well. There's also a second chance mechanic; when an enemy properly spots you the game slows down. If you can dispatch the enemy in the few seconds before time goes back to normal the enemy can't set off the alarm.
These systems are bound to be controversial, but the game is built well around them. It's not built for hardcore stealth, it's built like a sandbox. Elements mix together well and there are tangible rewards to playing in specific ways. Subduing and interrogating enemies will lead them to giving you information on where things are on the map, and in general the mechanics tie together quite nicely. The design feels very tight and the gameplay suits the world perfectly. It's light enough to be adaptable, but there's enough to make stealth satisfying. You can also drive vehicles, which opens up a whole new style of play.
Ground Zeroes is a well executed stealth playground. The area is well-built and supports a number of varied approaches, and the gameplay that underpins it is hugely enjoyable. It's a nice little palette cleanser that doesn't have a huge amount of substance to it. The main mission could be stronger, but it's a good enough framework to encourage fun improvisation. There isn't a lot to Ground Zeroes on paper, and this stops it from excelling, but what is there is a lot of fun. It's a game you will want to play a lot of, playing the main mission multiple times and completing all the side ops. Story content is light on the ground, but the production values are excellent. It's an amazing looking game and it plays excellently. It's a sign of what's to come, but it's also a sign that the developer knows how to build a great game around its mechanics.