Metal Gear Solid 4 was to be Hideo Kojima’s final entry in the MGS series. Then again, he said the same thing about Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, so it’s no surprise to see him come back for one more last hurrah. Enter Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker for Sony’s PlayStation Portable, the second MGS game for the PSP and title first true Kojima title on the system. Unlike the previous PSP entry, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Peace Walker was helmed by Kojima himself and meant as a true sequel as opposed to a side story like Portable Ops. In fact, during development, the original title for the game was Metal Gear Solid 5: Peace Walker. Now, I’m sure that statement is a bit confusing. After all, given that the last main MGS title was for the PlayStation 3, developing a full sequel to the series on a portable system seems a little…odd. However, despite the small package, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker does in fact feel like a full-on Metal Gear sequel.
Metal Gear Solid has always been a very story heavy series and Peace Walker is no different. Taking place in 1974, 10 years after the end of MGS3, Big Boss, who still prefers to go by the name Snake, finds himself pulled into another conflict, this time in Costa Rica. Right from the start, the game offers up a 10 minute-long introductory cut scene before allowing you to tackle the game proper. To say this is standard for the series, however, would not be overstatement. Thankfully, while there are some long story sequences in the game, none of them are as long winded as those found in MGS4. In fact, the story is a major improvement over the previous installment in the series. While not exactly bad, MGS4 had a tendency to hit the player with lengthy info dumps that were, to be honest, a bit mind-numbing at times. Thankfully, while a bit weird, as is Kojima’s style, Peace Walker’s story is more to the point than its predecessor, avoiding a lot of the storytelling mistakes made in MGS4.
Like MGS: Portable Ops, the story is told mostly through hand-drawn comic book-style cut scenes, courtesy of artist Ashley Wood, who previously worked on IDW’s Metal Gear Solid comic series, as well as the MGS Digital Comic and the aforementioned Portable Ops. There are also a few cut scenes rendered using the in-game engine, but aside from introducing bosses, they are used very rarely during the actual story scenes. In addition to the cut scenes, there are optional audio briefing files that can be selected after choosing a mission. While some of the files detail your current mission, objectives, and location, there are also files detailing character backgrounds and motivations. While they are not necessary to understand the bulk of the story, they do help provide insight into the characters without forcing them down players’ throats during mandatory cut scenes.
As this is a Kojima game, the story does get a little weird at times. Then again, he isn’t exactly known for his realism to begin with. In the grand scheme of things, the game tells the tale of a pivotal moment in the life of Big Boss, weaving in story elements introduced in MGS4 and keeping with Kojima’s standard themes of betrayal, nuclear weapons, and the control of information. The story flows really well, never taking the player out of the game for too long for the sake of telling the story, which, for some critics of the series, should be a welcome change.
If you’ve ever played a Metal Gear Solid game before, you know the routine. It’s a stealth action game centered on sneaking as opposed to direct combat. As such, the player is usually rewarded for avoiding being spotted and taking out enemies in a non-lethal fashion, such as taking them out with a tranquilizer gun or knocking them unconscious. Peace Walker takes things one step beyond in an attempt to encourage players to avoid killing enemies. Building on Portable Ops‘ soldier recruitment mechanic, capturing enemy soldiers really works to your advantage. The system for capturing soldiers has been refined. Unlike Portable Ops, in which players had to knock out enemies and carry them to a supply truck, capturing knocked out enemies is as simple as attaching a Fulton Recovery Balloon to their bodies and launching them into the sky where they are recovered by Snake’s ally, Kazuhira Miller. No, that isn’t a joke. That’s really how enemies are captured in the game. The number of balloons the player can carry is limited, however, which limits how many enemies can be captured during a mission.
Enemies captured get sent back to Mother Base, home of Big Boss’ Militaires Sans Frontieres, the Soldiers Without Borders and a precursor to Outer Heaven. At Mother Base, captured enemies are recruited almost immediately, though some enemies will need to be tossed in the brig for a bit before they decide to join. Recruits can be assigned to different parts of Mother Base, such as the Combat Unit, Research & Development, and the Mess Hall based on their talents. Leveling up different units by adding recruits affects the way the base will grow, as well as which weapons and equipment will be available for the player to develop. Weapons and equipment can also be improved during the course of the game, again dependant on how well the player maintains Mother Base. To say that maintaining Mother Base is as big a part of the game as the actual stealth action would not be an overstatement. While the game can be played without really paying attention to the base management aspect, it will affect the actual campaign in terms of weapons and equipment, especially when facing off against enemies that require some of the heavier weapons in order to take them down.
In terms of actual gameplay, Peace Walker is divided into a series of missions as opposed to the one mission structure of the console titles. However, this approach works well for the game, especially considering the platform. As the main goal of the game is stealth, the camouflage index from MGS3 and 4 makes a comeback. However, as is the case for selecting weapons and equipment as well, camouflage can only be changed in between missions. In addition to camouflage, selecting the proper weapons and equipment for a mission is also an important factor. While there is a heavy emphasis on stealth, unavoidable battles, i.e. most boss fights in the game, require a bit more firepower. Boss battles are divided up between vehicle squad battles, where the player must take on an enemy vehicle and a squad of soldiers protecting it and stand-alone AI weapon battles, where the player is confronted by an AI controlled mech. Both boss types come with rewards that can be obtained, such as capturing the enemy vehicle or collecting parts from the AI weapon for use in building your own AI weapon.
Aside from the main story campaign, Peace Walker also offers several new additions, such as Extra Ops, which range from target practice to full blown missions, as well as showdowns with tougher vehicle squads and AI weapons faced during the main story campaign. In addition, there are also Outer Ops, missions where the player can send out recruited squad members and vehicles on their own missions and see how they fare against enemy squads. Completing Extra and Outer Ops missions also yields rewards, such as extra items, new recruits, and even specifications for new weapons and equipment that can be used in the main story campaign.
While multiplayer in MGS isn’t particularly a new thing, one of the biggest features Peace Walker has to offer is the inclusion of a co-op mode, a first for the series. Cooperative Operations, or CO-OPS for short, allows players to bring their friends along on missions, which includes most main story missions. In CO-OPS, each player has a CO-OP ring around them, which, when in the vicinity of another player, will allow players to sync up and share items and ammo. Snake Formation, another CO-OPS feature, allows one player to lead the other, with one player acting as a guide and the other acting as gunner. Tagging enemies on screen is also an interesting tactic, allowing one player with a visual on a target or enemy to provide that information on screen to a player that might not have a clear visual. Although most of the missions allow for only two players in CO-OPS, Vehicle and AI Weapon battles allow for up to four player CO-OPS. In addition to CO-OPS, there are also Versus Ops, where up to six players can join in. For those that have played any iteration of Metal Gear Online, it is essentially the same thing.
However, despite how fun the multiplayer is, there is one glaring flaw when it comes to Peace Walker’s multiplayer: the lack of an infrastructure mode. Unlike Portable Ops, which allowed for multiplayer over wi-fi, Peace Walker only allows for local multiplayer, meaning players have to track down friends who have the game in order to play co-op. For a game that was essentially designed around the ability to play co-op, the omission of an infrastructure mode for online play seems like a major oversight on the developers’ part. While one can understand the logic in wanting players to work together and communicate with each other in the same room to coordinate a battle plan, it’s still a major flaw in the game itself. There are workarounds to this however, such as Sony’s Ad Hoc Party application for the PlayStation 3, a program specifically designed to allow users to play local ad hoc-only PSP games over the internet. However, such workarounds require extra hardware, such as Ad Hoc Party’s case, which requires an actual PS3 to work, which for players who lack the means to do such things means that they’re out of luck when it comes to multiplayer.
And, while we’re still on the multiplayer, as the game was designed to encourage multiplayer cooperation, some of the bosses can be a real pain to face on your own. They’re still doable, but playing solo does make the difficulty curve jump up just a little bit. Aside from its multiplayer issues, the gameplay has a lot to offer and can probably be considered one of the longest, if not the longest game in the entire series, keeping players occupied for hours with the added challenges and base management mechanics. For those that hate Quick Time Events, there are a few of those in the game. However, failing them will not warrant a game over; instead, it’ll reduce the player’s ranking at the end of a mission.
Despite how well a game is designed, bad controls can ruin even the best game ever devised. The PSP’s lack of a second analog stick is often cited as one of its shortcomings, especially when it comes to first and third-person shooters. While not horrible, Portable Ops’ control scheme wasn’t exactly PSP friendly. The biggest problem was the fact that the analog stick was in charge of moving while the d-pad controlled the camera. Given the PSP’s set up, that’s not exactly the best control scheme. Thankfully, Peace Walker compensates for the lack of a second analog stick by giving control of the camera to the PSP’s face buttons. The analog stick still directs movement and the d-pad takes over face button functions such as equipping weapons, crouching, and interacting with the environment. That leaves the L and R buttons free for aiming and attacking. As a result of the new controls, first-person aiming has been removed entirely, replaced by Gears of War, over-the-shoulder third-person camera for aiming and shooting. It works well, though the overall controls take a bit of getting used to at first. The lack of a first-person perspective may seem odd at first, but in the long run, you won’t even notice it’s gone.
The PSP continues to show how impressive it is when it comes to graphics. While you definitely won’t get MGS4 caliber visuals in Peace Walker, it’s not a stretch to say that the game could be mistaken for a PlayStation 2 title in terms of graphics. The character models, the few that aren’t generic grunts, look great and the environments themselves are pretty well designed. The art style for the cut scenes are great as well, a bit more in line with designer Yoji Shinkawa’s character designs than Portable Ops was.
The voice work and dialogue for Peace Walker is easily some of the best in the series. The game has its fair share of cheesy dialogue, as does any MGS title, but most of it sounds really well and the characters sound rather believable. David Hayter’s portrayal of Snake this time around does seem a bit forced, but given that Peace Walker takes place 10 years after MGS3, not to mention the fact that Snake loves his cigars, it’s possible the rougher sounding voice was intentional.
The game’s music is equally good, with several great tracks, including the theme song, Heaven’s Divide by Donna Burke. Oddly, the game also contains a rather catchy J-Pop song called Koi No Yokushiryoku that doesn’t really seem to fit in with the tone of the game…at first glance. Though that’s all I’ll say about that. Snake can also use a Sony Walkman (clever…first an iPod in MGS4 and now a Sony brand walkman) to listen to different music during a mission.
Finally, there’s also another audio feature in Peace Walker that deserves mention. Different AI bosses can call out their attacks using VOCALOID, a Japanese music synthesizing program based on real human voice samples. A stripped down version of VOCALOID eventually becomes available to the player for use in their own AI weapon. It’s not a big thing, gameplay-wise, but it’s an interesting addition.
Despite the small size of the Sony PSP, don’t be fooled. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a true MGS game in every sense of the word. It plays like a console title, even with the limitations of the PSP system, which is an impressive feat in its own right. Kojima and his team have created something capable of standing side by side with previous games in the series. It’s not a perfect game but, despite its shortcomings, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker can be considered one of the best games in the series. Fans of Metal Gear Solid shouldn’t miss out, though people looking at the series for the first time might want to tread carefully. It’s not your standard action game.
This game was reviewed using a copy of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker for the PlayStation Portable, courtesy of Konami Digital Entertainment.