Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker feels like a lost and undiscovered MGS title that was just excavated from the height of the PlayStation 2 era, and ported to the PSP. There's a lot of immersive gameplay, and some nice innovations, but gamers are going to have to jump the hurdle of the controls to really enjoy it.
- Feels like a lost PS2 MGS game
- Deep, immersive tactics
- Fulton Recovery System = Awesome
- Multiplayer earns you shared spoils in every step
- Extra tough boss battles nearly force you to play co-op
- Yet again, PSP hardware stifles ideal controls
- Cutscenes shorter than MGS4, but still rather long-winded
With five games in five years of the PSP, the Metal Gear Solid series is no stranger to the platform. But Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is special. It’s only the second title that’s in continuity with the official MGS canon -- the other is 2006’s Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops -- and the first directed by Hideo Kojima himself. The game is set just after Portable Ops and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, both of which take place before the events of Metal Gear Solid.
It's 1974 and a frustrated Snake has left the United States and joined Militaires Sans Frontiers (Soldiers Without Borders). They're like the A-Team, and usually work for the morally right, but woefully poor underdogs. There's a CIA presence in Costa Rica, and Snake gets hired to find out what's up. It doesn't take long before he discovers that there are nukes involved, and that things aren’t quite what they seem as his past returns to haunt him.
Without spoiling too much, the game manages to beautifully fold everything back to the original Metal Gear Solid, and it does it in a way that makes perfect sense with the story. And naturally, there's a Metal Gear in this game.
As Janet Jackson Would Say, This Is A Story About Control
Games live or die by their controls. I don't care if you've crafted the most visually gorgeous story in the world, it's not going to mean anything if I want to gouge my eyes out after trying to steer a character around fruitlessly for 20 minutes. Sometimes a game is good enough to make your swallow your pride and do everything you can to learn something new, and Peace Walker is one of those titles.
If you’ve played the downloadable demo, then you know all about Peace Walker’s controls and can skip to the next step. But for those of you who are starting fresh, it takes more than a little effort to get these down. The game offers you three different schemes: Action (think Portable Ops), Hunter (obviously based on Monster Hunter), and Shooter layout (not unlike Resistance Retribution or Syphon Filter: Logan’s Shadow) that is new to Peace Walker. Out of the three layouts, Shooter seemed like it would be the easiest to learn, but even after 30 minutes I was struggling with it. After a good hour of gameplay, it starts to feel natural, and as long as you leave the annoying auto-aim turned off you shouldn't have many problems. Other than fumbling around the first few times to pull your rifle out while enemy soldiers are perforating you with lead.
Enough About The Controls! How Does It Play?
With most games that have a steep learning curve, there's a natural instinct to abandon things after a while. But PW is so intriguing that you force yourself to get better at it. Even when you're clumsily leading Snake down the beach in the first mission, it feels more like an authentic Metal Gear title than the other PSP games. The look, the sounds, the jokes (the game highlights a new technical innovation from Sony, the Walkman!), and the feel of it all scream old-school MGS, with some new tweaks.
There’s still an emphasis on stealth action as you wind your way through missions, but PW gives an incentive to incapacitate, rather than kill: the Fulton Recovery System. The Fulton is a balloon on a wire that you attach to an unconscious enemy or rescued P.O.W. and they’re immediately get jerked skyward and taken up to a plane, not unlike the famous scene from “The Dark Knight.” It's extremely addictive, not just because it's fun to watch them fly, but because they get taken to your Mother Base for more strategic use.
Mother Base is your base of operations (think Outer Heaven) from where you'll stage missions, train personnel, and form your Research and Development team. It's a massive offshore installation -- Soldiers Without Borders must make a fortune -- which gets built up and added on to as the game progresses. When you use the Fulton (eventually, “Fultoning” will become part of your gaming vocabulary) to capture an enemy soldier or POW, they'll become part of Mother Base. You can choose where to stick them, ranging from the R&D Lab to the Mess Hall, and every soldier has different strengths and abilities that enhance everything from your tech and weapons to your rations. It feels like micromanagement at first, but once you’ve set up some heavy hitters in each department, Mother Base starts maintaining itself. That’s the biggest incentive to knock out, rather than kill, enemy soldiers.
But back to the stealth action. Despite the huge range of weapons in the game (multiple types of grenades, rifles, shotguns, rockets and much more), you'll find that the tranquilizer gun and those lovely Fulton balloons are enough. Sneaking around is similar to previous games, although you can't change your camo on the fly and have to rely on hiding places. It’s a little annoying that enemy soldiers can be fairly quiet, and it's easy to accidentally bump into one of them. They also don't seem to notice their comrades getting pulled into the sky when they're just a few feet away. Quiet and stupid is no way to go through an operation.
Kojima Productions makes highly efficient use of icons and other visual information to convey the complexities of your strategy while providing maximum screen real estate. The HUD is designed to say a great deal with minimal clutter, from a simple stealth meter to many repurposed elements from MGS4. Like the controls, it will take you a few rounds to feel like you really know the interface, but once you do, it feels intuitive. It sets a new standard for HUD design in heavily action-driven handheld games. There's not a lot of room for error when you're running around and trying to avoid getting nailed by an enemy tank.
It's All In The Story: Snake On A PSP
What Kojima Productions has really nailed with this title is its storytelling through cutscenes. People familiar with MGS know that it's famous for its lengthy cutscenes and dialogue. What Metal Gear fan hasn’t invested countless hours listening to long-winded CODEC calls? PW is no different, and its first substantial cutscene clocks in at nearly 10 minutes long. You can skip them and the CODEC calls, but you'll quickly discover that you don't want to, From Ashley Wood’s iconic charcoal-sketch animations (first seen in Digital Graphic Novel) to the impressive voiceover work -- no MGS game is complete without David Hayter’s trademark growl -- these are a real treat to watch. You can even return to Mother Base to re-watch the cutscenes if you feel nostalgic.
The cutscenes are also interactive, and at times you might have to fire a rocket at a drone, pan around an image, or bust heads during interrogations. It's a clever way to keep you engaged in the unfolding story, and more importantly, you won’t skip anything. With a game that takes nearly 15 hours just to clear the base missions, PW feels much bigger than previous PSP outings. With the tons of extra missions thrown in, you're looking at a game that will take you well over 40 hours to fully explore, and that's not counting the endless hours of promised multiplayer, that is, if you can find friends to play with.
Multiplayer Frustrations Abound
Maddeningly, Kojima Productions has only included the ability to play multiplayer via an ad-hoc network, and there's no built-in option to connect online. This is pretty unforgivable, especially since we live in the day and age of Wi-Fi nearly everywhere, and where online gaming has become the de facto mode for so many players. Konami obviously understands this to some degree, since they made multiplayer such a large part of this title … but to make it ad-hoc only? That hamstrings the game right out of the package.
It’s unfortunate, because you’re going to have to hunt down buddies to play the co-op or Versus Ops modes with you in person. Versus Ops are fairly standard with simple deathmatch modes and so on, but the ability to co-op is where it’s at. There’s a nice dynamic here: you can share weapons and even your life gauge with your nearby partner as long as you're inside their immediate radius. Lose them in a hail of gunfire? You can pound their chest with CPR and bring them back.
You can also sync up with your fellow co-op player , who always looks like a generic soldier since everyone plays as Snake on their own screen, for linked gameplay where your teammate is locked on to you and follows you closely behind. It’s very handy for sneaking, and one player can lead while the other tranquilizes guards. You can even share a cardboard box for two, cheekily entitled the “Love Pack.” More importantly, you and your partner gain shared XP, share Fulton balloons, and even enemy soldier and prisoner of war captures with every successfully completed mission, which really swells the ranks back at Mother Base.
PW, like the Monster Hunter games, is clearly designed to be played with a friend. This means that the game balance can be frustrating to the point of hair-pulling in solo missions with boss battles that feel nearly impossible to complete on your own. You’ll be rewarded far more richly for playing with others than going it alone.
You're Going To Want This In Your PSP, Pronto
There are few PSP games that capture the essential console experience on handheld. Arguably, it’s been over two years since the last one -- God of War: Chains of Olympus. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker feels bigger than its platform, and it's hard to imagine that all this gameplay can fit on a tiny little UMD. Although the controls are stifled by the nature of the device and the emphasis on multiplayer hurts PSP owners who don’t have gaming partners or a hard-wired PS3, it’s not enough to suppress this level of enjoyment and content. Kojima Productions has clearly done something right. While Peace Walker isn’t always perfect, it’s easily the best Metal Gear Solid game -- if not one of the best games, period -- on PSP.