The Metal Gear Solid series is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially popular video game franchises of the last twenty years. Even though there have been four games bearing the Metal Gear name on the PlayStation Portable, none of them have actually been overseen by Hideo Kojima, and are thus considered non-canon. Originally called Metal Gear Solid 5, Peace Walker marks the first PSP entry that actually counts in the franchise’s storied history. Instead of continuing the story from the conclusion of the PlayStation 3’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, Peace Walker is a prequel following the exploits of the original Snake, the man many have come to know as Big Boss. Combining the series’ stealth-action gameplay with new RPG twists, along with a stunning visual and audio presentation, Peace Walker establishes itself as the front-runner for the best PSP title of all time, as well as being the deepest, most difficult Metal Gear to date.
Peace Walker takes place ten years after Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, as we’re reintroduced to Naked Snake/Boss. Since the conclusion of MGS3 he’s become disillusioned with the government, and is organizing his own private military corporation, Militaires Sans Frontieres. While in Costa Rica, Snake is contacted by the local rebellion, who wish to enlist MSF’s help to fight back against a military force equipped with mobile nuclear attack mechs, most notably the Peace Walker. During his quest to take down these precursors to metal gears, Snake will encounter some strange new people like Hot Coldman (yes, that’s really his name) and Dr. Strangelove, as well as a few new but familiar faces like Huey Emmerich (Otacon’s dad) and Kaz “Master” Miller. As complicated and convoluted as Kojima’s stories can often get, Peace Walker is actually pretty tame. Sure, there are tons of twists and turns, and the science is quite a few years ahead of its time, but for the most part, Peace Walker has the most clear and concise story seen in a Metal Gear Solid game to date. Those of you turned off by the excessively talky cut scenes that have become a hallmark of the franchise will be delighted to know that many of the over explanatory moments in the game are completely optional. Each character you come across that sides with you in this conflict will have a series of audio recordings you can listen to between missions. Many of the tapes are mission specific, but others will give you hints, background information on characters, and history lessons. I listened to nearly every single recording offered to me, but can appreciate how someone not as into the Metal Gear mythos might not necessarily be interested in them.
The standard sneaking and shooting return, albeit slightly modified to conform to the PSP’s single analog nub, and lack of additional shoulder buttons. It takes a little while to get used to controlling the camera and inventory with the face buttons and d-pad respectively, but after a few missions the control scheme becomes second nature. There’s also a separate setting that maps the controls in the Portable Ops style for those of you who’ve played those games before. The only sneaking element removed completely from the game is crawling. You can still lay down flat on the ground, but you’ll no longer be able to move while doing so. It’s a bit odd, and it seems like a gameplay element that could have been left in, but the game’s levels are built with this in mind, so you will hardly notice the feature is missing after a few hours. Close quarters combat also returns, and offers nearly every move the console versions do from holding enemies up to hip-tosses. Taking on multiple opponents at once in Metal Gear is usually a poor tactic, but CQC moves can even be chained together in a quick-time event-like sequence to make the fight a bit easier.
While stealth-action does make up a large percentage of Peace Walker’s game, you’ll also spend a solid chunk of time recruiting new soldiers for MSF, as well as researching new weapons and equipment, and taking on more than 100 optional side missions. Building up the MSF is almost a game in and of itself, and you can lose yourself for hours just trying to raise soldier morale and experience, as well as upgrading your arsenal. There are a few ways you can get new recruits, but the easiest and most used method is the new Fulton recovery system. During any regular or side mission, any enemies subdued, as well as POWs found, can be extracted with the Fulton. They’re whisked away to an oil rig that MSF has reacquisitioned, and turned in to their mother base, Outer Heaven. Once there, the soldiers are placed in the waiting room, the brig, or sickbay, depending on how you happened by their services.
All the new troops are rated in five categories (combat, research and development, intelligence, medicine, and mess hall), and it’s up to you to decide where their efforts will be best used. In addition to participating in side missions instead of Snake, soldiers with a high combat rating can be used in Outer Ops, a non-playable combat simulator that pits the MSF against insurgencies around the globe. Both options raise their experience and the recognition of the MSF, as well as earning MSF more of the game’s credits. Credits are used in research and development to create new weapons and items. The more credits you have, and the better R&D team you have, the stronger an arsenal you’re able to create. The medicine and mess hall teams keep your soldiers healthy and happy, and the intelligence team provides limited scouting of missions, including whether or not there are any prisoners to be rescued. This added mode is a great addition to the regular game, and helps make an already incredible game that much more impressive.
The biggest feature in the game, though, has to be the addition of co-operative play throughout the campaign. Peace Walker was built from the ground up for multiplayer, and it’s both a good and bad thing. The good thing about the game’s co-op is that it allows you to strategize a plan of attack much differently than you would were you playing the game solo. Metal Gear has always been about one man against all odds, but now that you’re given the chance to see what it’s like for two, three, or even four different men to take on the same challenges, many missions feel effortless. What’s more, any of the soldiers extracted are shared. If one person extracts five soldiers, everyone gets all five. It’s especially helpful considering each mission has a limited amount of Fulton recoveries you’re allowed to use. Of course, for every incredibly easy mission, there are a few that will have you pulling out your hair. Metal Gear rates each mission’s difficulty with skulls. The more skulls, the more tasking the mission will be on your gaming mettle. This is where the bad part of co-op comes in. Boss battles are nearly impossible to win on your own, unless of course you spend time grinding, recruiting, and developing. Oh, you’ll still be able to beat the game’s bosses eventually, but there was never a single boss encounter that I beat by myself on the first try… or the second. There’s almost too much of an emphasis on the co-op at points, and since you basically have to be in the same room as the other person you’re playing with (the co-op and versus modes are ad-hoc only), unless you have a bunch of diehard fans willing to get together to play MGS, you’re going to be out of luck. That said, you could still beat the game by yourself. It’s just really, really, really difficult to do so.
Konami’s Metal Gear Solid games have continually pushed the envelope of what gamers can expect in graphics and sound, and Peace Walker is no different. There has never been a handheld game that looks as good as this one does. There is no argument. Peace Walker pushes the PSP to the limit bringing incredible environments, astonishing lighting, and expertly rendered character models into your hands like you’ve never seen before. There aren’t any CGI cut scenes, but the game’s story is told through a motion comic drawn by the impeccable Ashley Wood. You may remember his work on the Metal Gear Solid graphic novel adaptations. Well it’s even more brilliant in motion, and the highly stylized cinematics give this game even more personality. The voice acting, as per usual in an MGS game, is top notch. David Hayter’s Snake remains one of the best voice-acted characters in gaming, and the returning voices of Christopher Randolph (Huey) and Robin Atkin Downes (Kaz Miller) help round out an impressive cast. Audiophiles will be pleased to know that the action-fueled score is equally up to par with the rest of the franchise.
Despite its difficulty at points, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is as close to brilliance as you can get on the PSP. It’s hard enough to find a package as complete and deep as this in a console game, but the fact that Peace Walker is a handheld title makes it that much more impressive. Even though I wish there was some way to have played this game with friends online instead of through a local connection, the game was still a blast to play. Newcomers may be turned off by the inconsistent challenge the game offers, but there’s so much done right with this title, it’s a little bit easier to overlook the difficulty issues. There aren’t very many “must buy” games on the PSP these days, but Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker more than earns that title. It isn’t just a great PSP game; it’s now the clear leader for best portable game of 2010.