Your introduction to Ground Zeroes’ Camp Omega is veiled in a rain-slicked gloom, opening on an outdoor prison encompassed in spartan chainlink where hooded POWs clad in grimy yellow stand in waiting for god-knows-what form of colorful torture. Through the steady night rain a sign reading MAXIMUM SECURITY is lit in rigid fluorescent blue as a group of weatherproofed US marines escort an elite special operations unit – including their outfit’s disfigured CO – into the exposed space.

Hideo Kojima’s direction floats with Cuaron-esque flourish, tracking the unit as the as-of-yet unnamed commander moves towards one prisoner’s boxlike cage as the Fox Engine shows off reflective lighting, framerate and other technical feats highlighting the location’s squalid conditions. If you're just joining the bizarre, complex and self-aware stealth-espionage saga that is Metal Gear with no prior knowledge, you're probably beyond lost. Those who aren't are transfixed.

Kazuhira Miller, Snake’s right-hand man in charge of the proto-Outer Heaven Mother Base first introduced in Peace Walker, refers to this area of Ground Zeroes’ Vietnam-era Guantanamo stand-in as “the old prison,” and for the duration of this MGSV prelude it’s largely where your narrative focus lies. Of course, this is Metal Gear. In game’s opening moments you’ll certainly be captivated by Fox’s stunning performance, but if you’re a fan of Kojima’s creatively unhinged storytelling you’ll likely not be paying attention to the shaders driving the engine’s graphical prowess as much as you are the mere morsel of precursor plot Ground Zeroes teases players with in advance of next year’s gargantuan MGSV Actual, The Phantom Pain.

When Kojima announced in February that Ground Zeroes’ single-mission campaign would probably take two hours to finish, fans cried foul over Konami charging $40 for a boxed next-gen copy of what the director himself basically said was something of a tutorial designed to ease players into the series' newly-open world design. It’s a deliberate choice that you unlock the Peace Walker-type extra ops included only after finishing the bite-sized titular mission – the self-proclaimed “70 percent movies” Kojima is nothing if not a storyteller first and foremost. And though the geography and layout of Camp Omega does offer a number a number of avenues and approaches to use in Ground Zeroes’ unfolding narrative segment, even if you comb every square inch of this Cuban black site you probably won’t really “see” most of what’s actually on offer here for some hours to come.

It’s a fresh direction for the auteur, if one slightly compromised since this final treatment of Ground Zeroes was never originally intended for individual release. Likely split to help offset the remaining Phantom Pain development costs – an engine as powerful as Fox can’t be cheap to work with – fans’ first glimpse at MGSV is in many ways an inverse of Kojima’s ridiculously labyrinthine sensibilities.

There’s a distinct absence of Metal Gear’s hours of scene-chewing exposition and what’s here isn’t always handled with the most grace, as evidenced by a somewhat awkwardly-paced-if-harrowing scene during the main mission’s ending. Instead the grist is more immediately the open-ended gameplay. That much is obvious. Kojima has been playing up MGSV’s open structure since it was formally announced.

“Yeah yeah,” you, the fan, respond, already having a set idea of what Metal Gear is and what it isn’t. But discovering Ground Zeroes’ key revelation, how new this outing feels once you get through that first mission, takes time. Whether you want to engage with Kojima’s vision on his terms (all freedoms aside, this is very much still his dog-and-pony show) depends on the kind of fan you are.

This is in spite of the relatively scant sandbox size and the blatant design language of the freeform Camp Omega – hours will likely pass testing this trial and that stratagem before you can grasp at broader versatility. MGS4’s open courtyard stages were split into chunks between loading screens – here your actions follow you everywhere, teasing an actual no-place-to-hide reality in Phantom Pain that outclasses what was possible in 2008.

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More importantly, Kojima’s defense of Ground Zeroes is right: Metal Gear’s long established mode places the narrative path arguably before all else, assumed innovations in sneaking notwithstanding. For once, the illumination from the provided story is dim, involving a single mission that has Snake undertaking a night rescue of two allies from a largely mysterious enemy. Only after the hostages are en route back to Mother Base can you give your undivided attention to the tactical options and experimental replays the director hopes players will focus on next year. The sopping darkness of the opening mission is an appropriate shroud.

The psychological progression between storytelling expectation and straight gameplay feels intentional even if it isn’t, particularly since beyond the opener the additional side ops take place in remixed pseudo-historical recreations of Omega (each with varying insertion times and VR mission-style variable parameters). Driving players to get the most out of their $20-30 purchase (after the initial next-gen pricing uproar Konami leveled the physical PS4 and Xbox One versions to be in line with their last-gen counterparts) just also happens to be a forced education in digging deep into the game’s myriad nuances. That Kojima’s hand can continue to shrewdly guide you to these depths is because of Omega’s limited scope.

It’s easy to point out quirks and secrets when looking for ways to extend Ground Zeroes’ lifeblood. Collecting XOF unit patches scattered around the dirt-splattered base (necessary to unlock the final extra op – try to do it without looking at a walkthrough), leaderboard-friendly competitions to, say, complete the fastest no-kill stealth run of a mission or visually tag every enemy in the base through binoculars and just scouring the base for extra weapons and equipment to mess with are just a handful of low-hanging-yet-fair-game examples.

Dig a bit further and Omega opens up in countless minute details that, much like any Metal Gear, give it a distinct personality. A guard posted near a supply shed might not hear you pushing open the swinging metal door depending on how forceful your actions are. Forcibly throw a tranq’d guard instead of laying him down and he’ll probably wake up faster. Snake can get on his back in a defensive position or do an odd and seemingly pointless half-squat. You can use first-person mode inside vehicles for extra challenging cockpit POV driving.

None of this is telegraphed much via straight tutorial, with Kaz only giving you basic info or offering contextual analysis of viewed objects through Codec. You probably won’t discover many of these “hidden” elements unless you decide to screw around. Some of them you might not even think to try unless you remembered tricks from past games. It’s Kojima’s way of encouraging you to embrace and explore the sandbox. Another aspect is Keifer Sutherland’s Snake himself, who takes over the gruff characterization from longtime actor David Hayter but takes a backseat with the rest of the plot regardless in favor of the possibilities around you.

You can go through a laundry list of other systems to tinker with. Interrogations and AI have been subtly rebalanced, for example. Learning how to use these – not to mention your iDroid and the open environment around you – to your advantage is key to uncovering a significant amount of what’s considered hidden. Unlike a traditional action game, there’s a lot less fulfillment to be had by just getting from points A to B.

Then there are extras like collecting cassette tapes, another set of of bread crumbs Kojima makes you work for to further flesh out Ground Zeroes’ typically weird and torture-heavy backstory. Similarly, there are paths of least resistance, tricks and and added environmental effects all over Camp Omega. Really exploring everything takes several playthroughs.

Of course you’ll want to test the limits of the Fox Engine itself, too, for better or worse. The game’s framerate and resolution on the PS4 is flawless and snappy, but you probably still have questions. What happens when you drive a heavy truck through a muddy area? How much of the base can you blow up in an armored vehicle? How much do enemies work together in a firefight compared to previous Metal Gears? What happens to the prisoners you extract via chopper? Or when you shoot at a truck’s tires?

There are some limitations to Fox in its current publicly released form, making one speculate whether Ground Zeroes is more of an earlylish proof-of-concept than a close-to-exact replica of what we’ll be seeing in Phantom Pain. Since MGSV is cross-platform, it’s unknown how much will be able to change, or whether or not KojiPro will implement next-gen additions on PS4 and Xbox One like making environments totally destructible.

On the flipside, that might just detract from what Kojima’s open world is there to do: give you the option to Rainbow Six your way through any given operation any way you see fit. That said, MGSV’s engine doesn’t always feel that far removed from a very late seventh-gen game when you scrutinize effects like relatively weightless explosions and a lack of much environmental play between pooling water and field props.

Still, Fox is a beast of an engine, and if Kojima’s claim that the Ground Zeroes running on 60 FPS in 1080p on the PS4 doesn’t even tax the hardware, it wouldn’t be surprising to find Phantom Pain upping the ante that much further when it’s released. That’s half the fun of Metal Gear anyway, whether you’re contemplating design span or Kojima’s own metatextual games he plays with fans – the PlayStation-exclusive extra mission “Déjà Vu” (and to a lesser degree "Jamis Vu," the Raiden-centric Xbox-only mission), among a few other surprises, is chock full of hilarious moments designed around doing just that.

And let’s not overlook the serious political overtones that have become a KojiPro trademark, either. Joan Baez’s original 1971 recording of Ennio Morricone’s “Here’s To You” figures prominently into the thematic workings of what little there is of Ground Zeroes’ narrative, mostly used as black irony against the backdrop of some brutal audio recordings of Geneva-exempt interrogation practices.

Kojima previously used the track during MGS4’s closing credits, but the tone of Baez’s original seems to better mirror the thematic concerns of the era Kojima appears to be conveying. How might this relate to Phantom Pain’s racial themes? Like much of Ground Zeroes, it’s not entirely clear.

From the Director’s Cut trailer that debuted at last year’s E3, you can glean that a good chunk of Phantom Pain probably takes place in Africa, with Kojima returning to child soldiers, torture and the ethical ambiguities of war – some shots of waterboarding tie back into Ground Zeroes’ human rights issues, for one, and from the original 1987 release of Metal Gear we know that a villainous Big Boss eventually establishes Outer Heaven in Zanzibar. But if Kojima is a master at anything, it’s genuine shock. For now, like shining a guardtower spotlight over Omega’s sodden, grim terrain, MGSV’s prologue leaves much to ponder.