Hideo Kojima is one of the most talented and respected developers of all time. The patriarch of the Metal Gear franchise has led us on one Hell of a crazy ride over the course of the last year or so, that saw just as many twists, turns, and red herrings as the plots of the very games that he’s famous for. The end result of this masterclass in deception was the announcement of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and its prologue Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. However, now that the agonising wait for more tactical espionage action is over, is there enough in the developer’s pricey preamble to satisfy hardcore fans – or should you give the bite-sized adventure a miss?

Following immediately on from the events of PlayStation Portable exclusive – and recent HD Collection participant – Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, our eye-patch wearing, terrorist killing, enemy base infiltrating special operative Big Boss is forced to enter a US military black site to extract familiar faces Chico and Paz. The repercussions of this jolly onto Cuban soil are huge, and set off a chain reaction of events that set up proceedings for the forthcoming full-blooded sequel.

Perhaps what’s most striking about this instalment is its presentation. Kicking off with the same cutscene that introduced the title last year, the game looks incredible. The wait between Kojima titles seems to get more unbearable with each entry, but one of the main reasons for the property’s recent absence on consoles is immediately obvious here, with the FOX Engine really shining on the PlayStation 4. The weather effects are particularly noteworthy: rain batters guards, structures, and objects – each reacting appropriately, with water running down coats and tarpaulin tied crates flapping wildly in the gale-force storm.

The new engine has also allowed for some of the most comprehensive patrolling guard intelligence ever. The security forces will still walk their respective routes, of course, as well as scouting out their surroundings with search lights – but occasionally they’ll stop and chat with their colleagues, and should they hear a noise or catch a glimpse of you, they’ll wander over inquisitively, taking out a torch and gingerly peering in the direction of the disturbance until their curiosity is satisfied.

If, for whatever reason, they remain unconvinced by the silence and the (without doubt) amazing sneaking skills on show, they’ll radio or shout to a nearby compatriot to remain vigilant, and their ability to spot you will be intensified. Assuming that you’re not the type of player that finds stealth especially entertaining, and you’re spotted, the trademark exclamation mark and noise will be displayed, and everything will go into slow motion, providing you with a couple of seconds to “silence” whoever it was that saw you. A tranquiliser dart to the head will instantly render a foe unconscious, but, especially when you’re outside and can be spotted from afar, it’s not always an easy shot to pull off.

At this point, proceedings can become a full-on slugfest if you allow them to, because when that alarm sounds, all of the guards will know where you are, and they’ll begin to flood out of buildings to come and take you down. Upon approaching cover, Snake will automatically lean against it a la The Last of Us, and if you’re feeling it, you can bring the fight to your pursuers. Weapons have both a standard third-person and iron sights aiming option depending on the distance of your enemy, with the latter allowing for far more accurate shooting at far away targets. You can also pick up a fallen foe’s ordnance should you wish, meaning that if you run out of elite, silenced weapon ammo, you can quickly swap it out for a louder, fully loaded model.

Big Boss comes equipped with all sorts of goodies in this level that you shouldn’t have to find yourself utilising, but by the time that you’ve reached the point of no return, flash bangs and grenades will go some way to help thin the crowd a little. But, of course, this is just one of two options: if you’re spotted, the game doesn’t dictate that you enter a high-octane shootout, as you can just as happily adopt a ‘hightail and hide’ strategy until all of the chaos blows over.

The Phantom Pain promises to be the first Metal Gear game to feature a more laissez-faire approach to matters, leaving you to tackle objectives and missions from more angles than ever before. While the relatively small map found here is hardly comparable to the open world Kojima appears to be alluding to in the sequel, there are already glimpses of what we can expect.

Indeed, your starting point or setting may never change here, but your approach to completing the objectives on offer can differ greatly. Crawling under buildings and through pipes, traversing up search towers, hugging the perimeter fence, and even hitching a ride in the back of a truck are all sound strategies, but it’s your unfamiliar first run that will be the most memorable, as you’re forced to adapt your plan on the fly.

Our first attempt saw several nail-biting occasions where we were lying prone, praying that the particularly inquisitive guard that had caught a glimpse of Snake’s skin-tight morph suit would leave satisfied that there was no one there. It’s the kind of moment that can only be created in a game with more freedom, and one of many that’s perfectly tailored to the PS4’s share button.

Luckily, though, you aren’t going in completely blind. Using your binoculars not only allows you to marvel at how gorgeous everything looks, but also serves as a means to scout out the area ahead, temporarily marking the location of any guards that you spot on your screen. You can also radio your confidant Kaz should you require assistance, as he’ll feed you useful information on whatever it is that you’re looking at.

Snake also comes equipped with the iDroid – a small, handheld device that projects information into the air surrounding it from a small lens. A local map and mission details are two of its features, but perhaps the most engrossing element is that the not-iPod is used in real time, with the game continuing around you as menus are navigated and information perused. This not only leads to a further sense of immersion, but also a feeling of danger, as someone could attack you at any moment while your guard’s down.

Perhaps the biggest change implemented in Ground Zeroes is the departure of series mainstay David Hayter as the voice of Snake, and the introduction of Kiefer Sutherland – a man with an equally imposing and gravelly set of lungs. This may prove to be an unpopular opinion, but we actually found that the protagonist’s newfound diction proved to work in his favour, at least from an acting stand point. At the very least, he seemed to be more capable of expressing emotions other than the oft comedic barking that Hayter’s Snake was partial to, providing some much-needed seriousness to affairs that was occasionally missing before.

However, as outstanding as the gameplay and engine may be, we have to scrutinise whether or not the paltry prologue is worth your money. It took us some 68 minutes to complete the single mission that comprises the title’s narrative, leading us to gawk in surprise as the credits began to roll, and we were disappointed to discover that, as with the introductory cinematic, most of the final cutscene has also already been published as promotional material, meaning there were only a couple of short videos included that we hadn’t seen before.

Fortunately there is incentive to continue playing, as you can unlock higher difficulties, audio tapes, and a handful of bonus missions that take place outside of the main narrative. These additional operations are still set in the base, but are far more varied in scope, and range from having you ride shotgun in a chopper and provide overwatch for an ally to planting C4 on all of the base’s anti-aircraft guns while remaining undetected.

The additional content is a nice touch, but along with the menus full of Peace Walker’s audio tapes, an explanation of the plot so far, and other assorted tidbits, everything feels like an afterthought – a justification of the price tag attached to the package. Don’t get us wrong, our hopes for The Phantom Pain are sky-high after experiencing a taste of what it’ll have to offer, but Ground Zeroes is just that: a taste.

Conclusion

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes would undoubtedly make a powerful introductory mission to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, so it seems a little insidious of Konami to hold it to ransom. That being said, we really can’t fault what little we played – as far as the mechanics and design are concerned – but although the additional content does go some way towards sweetening the pot, we find it difficult to recommend this on those merits alone. Although long-time fans of the series are likely to pick it up regardless, we believe that this single mission should never have been released on its own.