Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was a nice bone to throw to the PSP fanbase, but it never felt like more than a side story. Now Kojima is putting his full might behind the newest portable title, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, which continues the story of the elder Snake post-MGS3. Is it really the critical next piece of the Metal Gear saga or should you let it walk on by?
Taking place 10 years after Snake Eater, Peace Walker finds Snake in 1974 Costa Rica starting his own military force, Militaires Sans Frontières. He’s approached by a professor and a girl named Paz who recently escaped from a private military compound. They ask him to uncover the group’s plans and force them out of the region, offering an offshore base of operations in return. Snake quickly ferrets out the professor’s KGB connections, but agrees to the mission after hearing a familiar voice on a tape the girl escaped with.
Like most Metal Gear titles, Peace Walker’s story often delves into philosophies regarding war, peace, and nuclear weapons, with this chapter focused largely on the concepts of nuclear deterrence and guerrilla warfare. Theories of artificial intelligence also play a major role, with the technology present in the game clearly in the realm of science fiction.
There are references aplenty to tie in with the overall Metal Gear narrative. Naturally, most refer to events in Snake Eater, but Otacon’s father Huey is introduced as one of the lead characters, with the same looks and same voice as his son, but much less whining. Much of the dialogue is reserved for optional radio conversations before missions, and when they’re first introduced, each main character has literally half an hour or more of dialogue available, ranging from important intel to dissertations on Costa Rican coffee. Characters have their own obsessions and can get silly at times, and there’s no lack of blatant praise for the omnipotent director.
Kojima veers between heady and ridiculous subject matter, but as always, it’s Snake’s dialogue that anchors you in as he searches for closure and offers a voice of hope. This time around, the story doesn’t get too convoluted to follow and the fat is kept completely optional, but missing are the crazy Metal Gear villains. We were hoping to take on Dancing Hippopotamus. Coldman just doesn’t have the same ring.
Peace Walker’s missions are broken into separate bite-size chunks, roughly 15 to 20 minutes long, and boss fights are always presented as separate missions. This not only suits the PSP better, but also makes it easier to bring in other players and retry missions for better scores. Before each mission, you have to decide what weapons, gear, and camo to bring, and later on, new outfits like the sneaking suit save different loadouts to reduce inventory management.
In addition to the 26 story missions, there are numerous extra ops. Often timed, these include score attacks on target ranges, finding and retrieving classified documents, and extra boss fights. Most reuse areas from the main game, but provide quick pick-up-and-play goals. Conditions for unlocking new operations aren’t entirely clear, but mission numbers suggest there could be more than 100 available.
The MSF’s new offshore base isn’t just for show; you’ll actually manage it between missions. As new soldiers come in from the field, you’ll check their stats and assign them to specific teams, including combat, R&D, medical, and so on. As your base grows, the strength of your teams determines the weapons and gear you can develop, and you’ll eventually be able to send your combat team on missions in a light strategy mini-game. Base management will keep you coming back after each mission, and there’s plenty left to do at base even after you’ve finished the story. Metal Gear fans will have their eyes on one project in particular that barely gets off the ground before the end of the game.
There’s no online play in Peace Walker, but nearly any mission can be played in local co-op. Most stealth missions are limited to two, while up to four can join up for boss battles. Players can borrow weapons and items from co-op partners, or march in snake formation, where one player controls movement while the other watches the flanks. Cardboard boxes, jokingly called love boxes, are now designed for two, and teams can boost each other over walls. The real trick is finding a friend to be sneaky with, but it’s fun to replay missions and toy with the enemy too.
Versus play won’t hold your interest nearly as long. The run-of-the-mill modes include deathmatch, capture-the-quetzal, and base capture. Up to six can play, but the small maps, auto-aim function, and exploitable stun attacks just don’t make for thrilling competitive play. Peace Walker does, however, include some other nifty connection features, which let you trade staff and items with friends or recruit extra soldiers by searching for wireless access points.
The basics of MGS gameplay haven’t changed in this portable iteration. On the minute-to-minute level, it’s still all about sneaking past guards without being spotted. Some sacrifices have been made to fit the PSP control scheme. For instance, you can’t crawl, move bodies, or hide in lockers. The analog nub is also a sore spot as you try to inch quietly around corners, making it easy to break into an unexpected run at the worst of times. Like other PSP shooters, directing the camera and aiming with the face buttons is awkward and difficult. You can get better at it with practice, but we’d pick up a PS3 port in an instant just for the smooth controls.
Many of Snake’s tools and tactics have made it over to the PSP. Since you can’t move bodies, drawing guards out of the way by placing magazines and knocking on walls is more important than ever, and there also pop-up decoys that you can use to the same effect. You can silently decommission guards with tranquilizers or close quarters choke holds. You can also sneak up on a guard and do a hold-up or grab and interrogate him, but most guards don’t have anything interesting to say. In addition to night vision goggles, radars, and a wide range of cardboard boxes, your tool kit also includes beacons to call in air strikes and supply drops from base, which are a huge help in boss fights.
Among the new gadgets, the Fulton Recovery System sees the most use. It’s basically a self-inflating balloon that you attach to POWs or incapacitated guards, which launches them into the air for pickup by helicopter. You gain most of the recruits for your base this way, and while the act of kidnapping and converting enemy soldiers is somewhat absurd, this crazy balloon system actually has a basis in fact. However, its believability isn’t helped by its frequent indoor use, with passengers flying through the ceiling.
Without the roster of disturbed villains, boss battles feel a bit more generic at first as you take on standard tanks and APCs. While you may be tempted to prove your prowess by taking out a tank single-handedly, the better strategy involves targeting surrounding troops. Once they’re dealt with, the commander will pop out, allowing you to attack him directly and nab the vehicle for your troops. Robotic adversaries later on are clearly built with co-op in mind, as they’re absolutely massive and defeating them can take a solo player 10 minutes or more with multiple supply drops. Like the earlier battles, there’s a trick to dealing with the AI vehicles as you can salvage parts, weapons, and AI functions for your own top-secret weapon, encouraging you to alter your attack strategy based on what you want.
While it may be tempting to put down the PSP when a cut-scene starts up, the ones in Peace Walker have a fair share of interactive moments. Some simply let you zoom in and examine a scene in more detail, but there are some quick-time events sprinkled in, including some where you actually aim and shoot.
Graphically, the Peace Walker shares Snake Eater’s aesthetic, replete with tropical jungles and rusty mine shacks. The game looks good in general, but where it truly impresses is with its gargantuan bosses, the biggest of which are the size of several buildings. Cut-scenes are presented as animated comics in the traditional hand-painted style that often graces MGS box art. It looks slick for what it is, but it’s hard not to feel like Snake is missing out on a few dramatic stunt scenes.
It would be an absolute disservice to play Peace Walker without headphones, as the audio drives much of the atmosphere. The childlike singing of the AI vehicles is unsettling, and the signature anthemic soundtrack is excellent as always. With most of the cast returning from previous MGS titles, the voice acting is the star of the show once again, even when characters break out into full animal mimicry. One important note is that radio calls during gameplay are only enabled if you install the game to the memory stick, so be sure you have at least 400 megs available before you start up.
While we miss the crazy bad guys and refined controls, Peace Walker definitely lives up to the Metal Gear name. Base management adds a deeper sense of growth to the experience and there’s plenty to come back to after you finish the story. If you’re a Metal Gear fan, borrow a PSP if you have to, but don’t pass up Peace Walker.