Games of the Decade: Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes and the art of restraint
To mark the end of the 2010s, we're celebrating 30 games that defined the last 10 years. You can find all the articles as they're published in the Games of the Decade archive, and read about the thinking behind it in an editor's blog.
Making triple-A games, it turns out, is expensive, and the past decade has often been about big publishers coming up with new ways to make the numbers add up. Some have been more palatable than others, and a few too many have been downright detestable, but one novel approach did something we've all been screaming for for years: it put the reins on Hideo Kojima, finally giving him limitations in which to exercise his beautiful nonsense.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes was a curious release, essentially a paid-for demo for the full-fat Metal Gear Solid 5 - which, for those who could remember as far back as when you used to get a free Zone of the Enders game bundled in with your Metal Gear Solid demo, didn't go down too well. It promised a peek at perhaps the biggest change the series had seen since it gained the Solid suffix, though, transposing Kojima's stealth action to an open world.
But whereas Metal Gear Solid 2's demo only offered a glimpse of the final, glorious - if divisive - thing, Ground Zeroes, I'd argue, ended up better than its full-fledged follow-up. The story behind Metal Gear Solid 5's development remains something of a mystery, though we know how it ended: in acrimony, with Kojima splitting from Konami while the poor party in the middle, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, suffered as a result.
It's not a terrible game, by any means. Rich with systems and an absolute joy to play, it's a small shame its final act is undone by... Well, by being clearly unfinished, all of which led to a sense of disappointment and anticlimax come the end. Ground Zeroes, though...
It's a short, punchy thing that lays out the foundations of Metal Gear Solid 5 - and, indeed, Death Stranding, which unsurprisingly shares so much with Kojima's other work this decade - and gives you a small, fully formed playground in which to let rip. You could, it soon became famously apparent, complete Ground Zeroes in under ten minutes. Or you could, if you're like me, spend a dozen hours toying with one of the most satisfying digital avatars to control, with Metal Gear Solid 5's Snake a masterpiece of movement, animation and, ultimately, possibility on the playing field.
And you know what? I love the idea of a blockbuster that can be wrapped up in an evening (if it's reasonably priced, of course). In particular, I love the idea of a Hideo Kojima blockbuster that has been trimmed of some of the histrionics. They're still there, of course - and one scene in particular is all the very worst of Kojima wrapped up in one stupendously distasteful moment - but after the excesses of Metal Gear Solid 4, Ground Zeroes felt like Kojima Productions had finally gone back to making games.
Death Stranding has undoubtedly earned more headlines over the past ten years, and it has all the excesses that Kojima is both loved and hated for. It's a fascinating, frequently jaw-dropping game that we're still a little too close to to fully comprehend where it sits in the director's canon, though in many ways it's the antithesis of what was achieved in our first play of Metal Gear Solid 5. Ground Zeroes has the one thing that Kojima Productions' games can lack a little too often: restraint.