We finally have some clarity on how we're going to get our hands on this cut-down prologue to Metal Gear Solid 5, and - not entirely surprisingly - it'll cost money. The silver lining is that it's not going to cost as much as a full-price game: when it comes out on 20 March you'll be able to get it for £30 in shops or £20 as a download for Xbox 360; on Xbox One it'll set you back £40 and £30 respectively, presumably to cover the cost of all those extra pixel shaders.
For this, you'll get a cut-down prologue that should ease you into Metal Gear Solid 5 proper. "It's similar to those first 15 minutes of a film that grab your interest and pull you in before the opening title appears," says game director Hideo Kojima. "In game terms, it's a sort of tutorial that will help players get accustomed to many of the changes we're introducing to the system."
Thirty quid for a tutorial sounds a bit much, but the switch from the previous games' corridor creeping to a new open setting means you get a lot of game for your money. The bit we see is set in a big US naval facility in Cuba, which shows off hero Snake's various stealth abilities. The approach is similar to Far Cry 3's outpost takeovers, with the option to hang back and tag everybody before sneaking past them all, or charging in and blowing them away. This camp's much bigger than Far Cry 3's bijou nutter enclaves, though, and Snake's not limited to tools made out of bits of dead pig. Military-industrial tech means you can use binoculars to eavesdrop on guards as well as tag them, which allows you to discover new mission criteria on the fly.
"My vision for MGS5 does differ from what most people may assume when they think of the 'open-world' genre," says Kojima. "A more accurate way to describe it would be a 'stealth simulator' in an open world environment. The open world elements exist to remove the rails from the stealth experience, allowing players to plan their own routes and experiment with their own unique infiltration strategies. But at its heart, gameplay is all about stealth and we don't intend to shift the focus away from that."
You can now operate enemy vehicles, which is another way to get past foes - as long as you don't drive too erratically or park it anywhere that guards would deem suspicious. If it's a covered vehicle, you can use it to blow past checkpoints, too. Once on foot, knocking people out can be done by tranq dart or sneaking up behind them, and once grabbed, you can use them to tempt friends over while holding them as a human shield. Once you've tracked down a human target, you've got to specify a location for a rescue helicopter and deliver them without the guards catching on - if they do, you'll have to mount a defence as you make good your escape.
t's not clear how much of the game this represents. Konami has said that Ground Zeroes will incorporate several 'side ops' side missions to unlock, which could easily be different objectives within the same camp setting. But it sounds like there'll be a few more locations included as well, with you choosing the order in which you play and shaping the story in the process. Each mission comes with two difficulty settings, where playing on Hard gets you enemies with better eyesight and the ability to split up and flank you, so there should be plenty for room for value-adding replay.
The experience brings to mind the better Hitman levels as well as Jason Brody's island adventures, with the camp offering myriad options and potential for experimentation, rather than a series of smaller settings glued together with ponderous, lore-filled cutscenes. Anybody put off previous instalments by the latter will be pleased to hear that Kojima's apparently kicked the habit: the game's switch to open world means there'll be fewer put-the-kettle-on 20-minute conversations. "Naturally, there's still a good amount of story to be told, but I'm trying to express it in a new way," he says. "There will be cutscenes, but they'll come together piece-by-piece based on each player's individual progress through the game."
The other good news is that Xbox One gets an exclusive version of Camp Omega in which the guards have been replaced by body-snatchers, who you can defeat as the cyborg Raiden - last seen giving the Slap Chop treatment to hapless foes in Metal Gear Rising (cheeringly, he's introduced with a goon standing next to him holding a watermelon, which looks like it'll be an in-game collectible). This gives still another way to play: leaping around the place like you're in Saints Row 4, and presumably being a lot less concerned with stealth. A decent amount of stuff for the money, then, and a pleasingly close release date too: it'll be here in March, just in time to draw comparisons with Watch Dogs. From the glimpse we've seen, Ground Zeroes should come off rather well.