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Players control Snake through the game map and complete missions while avoiding being spotted by the enemy. The threat detection system is revamped, with the removal of the onscreen meter or gauge to indicate the player that they are in the 'alert/evasion/caution' state as in previous games, which have instead been replaced by visual representations. Snake’s binoculars have also been revamped; instead of selecting the binoculars as an item, the binoculars are hot keyed to a button. The player is able to mark enemies and be aware of their locations in the iDroid’s holographic display. There are directional cues to help players when an enemy sees them from a distance and gets closer to them. A new “Reflex Mode” is activated when an enemy finds Snake and the player only has a short window of time (in slow motion) to take out the enemy before he fully sounds the alarm (a hissing audio cue can be heard if the player is detected by searchlight). Lights can be shot out to further aid the player’s stealth efforts.
Ground Zeroes features seven missions in total,910 locked at individual levels. After completing the main mission the player will unlock four subsequent missions (referred to as “Side Ops”) set at different points in the day, all set in Camp Omega. These missions involve specific tasks, such as eliminating certain targets or obtaining classified information. After achieving a certain objective in the main mission, the player may unlock two additional “Extra Op” missions.
As the game is introductory in nature, being a prologue, the core story mission can be completed in a very short time frame.However, the game has many additional challenges, missions and alternative methods of play.
A special iDroid app has been made to help players access the in-game map and iDroid functions on their iOS or Android gadgets. Series creator Hideo Kojima said using the gadgets eliminates the danger of being killed while using the iDroid in-game (which does not pause the game) The Mother Base is only a part of the plot and does not feature in gameplay. Kojima states that the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game have social community features to allow a player to look at other players' performance in the game, even showing where they were killed on the map.
Atmospheric weather and lighting in Ground Zeroes is mission-proprietary, meaning that the setting of the game depends on the individual mission being played. A real-time day and night cycle was originally planned for the game, but left out in favor of fully utilizing it in The Phantom Pain.
Kojima has spoken about the restrictive nature of previous Metal Gear titles, saying that they “set [the player] on one rail to get from point A to point B, with a certain amount of freedom between”. In contrast, Kojima’s team will instead offer the player new ways of traversal and sneaking methods, such as taking a jeep, a car, or a helicopter around the mission area. This is in order for Kojima to accomplish a “true open world experience” with Ground Zeroes.