There was always something that turned me off about the Metal Gear series. Whether this was thanks to the franchise's inability to know whether it was a straight-laced espionage thriller or a confused tangle of popcorn insanity (I suppose the truth lies somewhere in the middle), I could never quite bring myself to become lost in its labyrinthine story. Whenever I tried I'd always be yanked backward out of Snake's world after the gruff super-spy navigated high security bases beneath a cardboard box, or I caught wind of plotlines detailing a hand apparently capable of possession. Then we arrive on the doorstep of that magical cloud of hornets, seemingly endless clones and - overshadowing everything else - the team's cringingly ridiculous naming habits. The only moniker I can treat with a higher level of scorn is the ever prosperous 'Master Chief'. In the case of the latter, it feels like we've accidentally fallen through a trapdoor and into the realm of 90s Saturday cartoons.
Despite my scepticism for the IP, nevertheless, I've always found stories concerning Snake's Cold-War era counterpart Big Boss compelling in a way the other Metal Gear instalments simply weren't. His escapades usually feel a touch more grounded (if only a touch), and I suppose this is largely because they're shot through with what would appear to be a sturdier emotional core. Whilst series creator Hideo Kojima revealed that Solid Snake was intentionally crafted as something of a blank slate for the player to inhabit (revealed via IGN's coverage of PAX), I've always been frustrated at the thought of returning to the character for this particular reason. He felt a little too bland for my tastes. Coupled with the series' penchant for bizarre twists, I've consequently been disinclined to dip a toe into his world.
Big Boss has proven to be a different kettle of fish, though. I would always argue that the original Snake's steady but inevitable fall from grace is a far more intriguing angle to pursue; there's something deeply captivating about a doomed hero, and the intense focus on character-development this kind of plot demands can provide genuinely interesting possibilities for the writing team to get their teeth into. If nothing else, seeing your protagonist morph into the villain you'll later come to oppose weaves a great deal of extra meaning into those later encounters.
For this reason, I dearly hope that the recently announced Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes sees a return to Big Boss's story. I'll admit that my experience with the rest of the series is limited - I never even tried Metal Gear Solid 4, for instance, and I gave up quickly on earlier outings thanks to a bonkers script - but that's rather the point. My time with him on Peace Walker had me persuaded. Where Metal Gear Solid baffled my teenage self and scenes of Raidan from the PS3 exclusive resulted in multiple instances of palm-to-forehead, this was a tale I actually wanted to hear. With equally murky hints of grey emerging from Zeroes' demo last week, I'm left in a similar situation.
The in-game footage shown via Zeroes' PAX outing was undeniably stirring regardless of who was beneath the eye-patch, however. An open world providing the opportunity to tackle missions in any way you wish is exactly the sort of stealth game I never realised I wanted. But I do. Badly. Rather than being faced with pre-defined flashpoints, this brand of freedom could lead to some wonderfully organic water-cooler moments. The chance to steal vehicles is equally liberating, handing you the keys to go about things however you damn well please. Such a wealth of choice ties you into the experience that much tighter, certainly; I find it to be a greater hook than Blacklist's relatively linear corridor at the very least.
The ability to kit out your escape-chopper with music of your choice is admittedly ludicrous (the thought of louder tunes revealing the location of an already noisy helicopter bedecked in light is absurd), but I can't deny that the demo's stunning production values are pulling my resulting cynicism back down to earth all the same. It's hard to believe that this is running on current-generation specs - even when noting The Last of Us or Beyond: Two Souls - and on first pass I almost mistook it for a CG out-of-engine trailer. The lashing rain trickling over coats and rocks, the near photo-realistic lighting, the uncanny flapping of material caught in the wind... the fact that this happens to come courtesy of the Fox engine is undeniably impressive, leading me to wonder yet again how much of a step up the next generation could possibly take.
Because of this, I'll happily admit that I'm onboard for Ground Zeroes. It's even made me toy with the possibility of stepping back into prior instalments. You could label me a convert, I suppose; for a franchise that's incited little but exasperation from me in the past, that's something I never thought I'd say.