Casting Kiefer Sutherland as Big Boss is ironic, right? A man best known for enduring 24 hour action slogs heads up a game already infamous for its two-hour length. Two hours! That wouldn't even get Jack Bauer to breakfast (where he finds a time bomb in his Oat So Simple). Or are his very star credentials responsible for the limits on Ground Zeroes' playtime? Kojima can't afford 20 minute codec chats about geopolitics and Godzilla when he's paying A-lister rates.
Ground Zeroes is short. A mission set in a prison camp - get in, rescue two prisoners, get out - easily done in two hours. That doesn't include side missions but factors in sniffing out the targets, which you won't need to do on subsequent playthroughs, thus cutting the playtime in future attempts. Our general rule is: if credits last longer than 1% of the overall game length, we riot. That GZ's lengthy credits come after a brutal cliffhanger meant we were ready to riot hard.
Put down the pitchforks, however, and you'll see that what Kojima has build here is merely a container for new ideas. Camp Omega, the prison peninsula this episode is set in, is just big enough to nurture the free-roaming stealth ecosystem he envisages for Metal Gear's future, but small enough to guarantee a concentrated dose. In these tight confines, any five minutes of play can see silent slinking burst into run-and-gunning or vehicular carnage.
With no loading screens to magically reset parts of the play area, mistakes made on one side of the map haunt you all the way to other. Failing to hide a body at the base entrance may only cause problems when a patrolling truck finds it ten minutes later, turning your, until then, safe spot into a hotbed of itchy trigger fingers. As Snake's rivals - Sam Fisher, Agent 47, etc - slip into scripted 'cinematic stealth', Kojima responds with the most organic MGS yet.
It's accessible, too. Big Boss has regenerating health, automatically slides into cover near valid hiding spots and - in the biggest shake-up - is pretty nifty with a machine gun. Purists can choose to sulk at the latter, but they're never forced to use a gun and the strict end-of-level ranking punishes it. We're not sold on 'reflex' shots, though; the chance to shoot an alerted guard in slow-mo is cool, but feels gimmicky coming from this stripped-back Boss.
A versatile Boss makes for versatile action, as shown in supporting side ops. One helicopter assault begins on-the-rails - as MGS's blockbuster set pieces always tended to be - before dropping Big Boss in a ground battle against a tank to prove he can handle that, too. Another, an assassination task, plays like a Hitman level as you either go in loud or use knowledge of target behaviour to plot a sneakier takedown. When an Achievement is offered for extracting both targets alive, the insane depth of approach is fully revealed.
Replaying and perfecting the six missions pushes the playtime way beyond the four or so hours it takes to do them once. Kojima has always been very good at mining his games for content and so it is here. Higher difficulty tiers tighten the core game as online leaderboards create strange metagames, such as racing to tag soldiers with your binoculars. Improved performance in turn unlocks more toys to use in missions, creating new ways to raise your performance. Before you know it, the game has earned its £20.
Of course, this speaks to a suitably anal player mentality. The casual dabbler, them with one eye on the trade-in counter as the credits roll, is likely to feel short changed. It falls short as a piece of fan service, too. The several hours of audio logs and diaries is mostly used to retell Peace Walker's story. While the enigmatic Paz gets padded out - in more ways than one (you'll see!) - there's little of Kojima's unhinged lore.