Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
The latest portable entry in Kojima’s famed tactical espionage series sadly evades perfection by requiring co-op for many of its boss battles. It’s worth a look for seasoned stealth fans, but frustration often trumps fun if you go at it alone.
Konami’s super spy Snake sneaks onto Sony’s portable with a cardboard box full of content, the franchise’s most coherent narrative to date, sharp visuals, intuitive controls, and some of the most thumb-blistering boss battles your digits will ever experience. It also cashes in on the co-op craze, delivering some cool features, but the multiplayer-friendly nature also yields some disappointing moments for lone-wolf types who prefer to go solo.
If you count the Metal Gear Solid Digital comic, Peace Walker marks the series’ fifth entry on the PSP after the two MGS: AC!D titles and MGS: Portable Ops. Despite this hand-held history, Peace Walker really only borrows from Portable Ops’ third-person play design. Its other influences have clearly come from the last two console versions, Guns of the Patriots and Snake Eater. From the former, Peace Walker takes its refined, shooter-focused controls, and from the latter, its lush jungle environments and use of camouflage. For the most part, though, combining elements from some of Snake’s best outings results in an impressive entry on the portable. Visually, it’s easily the slickest PSP game my retinas have ever been treated to; from the foliage-filled environments to detail-drenched character animations, this one could teach some console titles a thing or two. Even the graphics novel-styled cutscenes, which tell a surprisingly straightforward story in Kojima’s often convoluted world, push the visual boundaries of the PSP.
Peace Walker also plays really well, especially if you utilize the default “shooter” control scheme. While using the face buttons to move the camera isn’t ideal, it will ultimately have you forgetting Portable Ops’ frustrating mechanics. You can’t crawl this time out — a bit disappointing in a stealth title — but other features generally make up for this omission. For one, it’s super satisfying to perform close quarter combat moves that can take out single enemies; they can also be effortlessly chained to introduce a whole crew of baddies to the dirt. Shooting controls also get the job done, at least if you don’t take a run-and-gun approach; the action can get a bit too frantic at times, but as any MGS fan knows, this series is more about breaking necks than shooting bullets.
Playing Peace Walker as a third-person stealth/action game will get you through much of its 20 hour campaign, but that only represents the beginning of this brimming package. Don’t let the little UMD fool you — this game is enormous. In addition to the campaign, gamers can play hundreds of side missions, construct their very own Metal Gear, and build a 350-man army. This latter meta-game, taking place at a home base between critical missions, is an RPG-flavored, highly addictive addition that I actually found more compelling than the campaign. Similar to Portable Ops’ recruiting mini-game, players capture and rescue soldiers in critical missions — a handy weather balloon-like transport picks them up — then assign them tasks in a mid-mission menu. You can have them research and construct new weapons and gadgets, gather mission-driving intel, cook health-boosting grub, and even take your place on the battlefield. The interface for this game-within-a-game isn’t as intuitive as it should be, but if you can get passed the clutter, you’ll discover Peace Walker’s most rewarding feature.
As good as its core gameplay, side activities, and can’t-put-it-down army-building is, Peace Walker falls hard in some key areas. Despite its refreshingly uncomplicated narrative, which puts you in the role of Naked Snake following the events of Snake Eater and Portable Ops, the story lacks the inspired boss characters the series has become synonymous with. One of the reasons I play MGS is for the bat-sh*t crazy bosses that spout ridiculous exposition right before trying to blow me to pieces. Peace Walker replaces the franchise’s famed bizarre bosses with metallic military beasts; trying to compete with the likes of Psycho Mantis or Revolver Ocelot with tanks and mechs just doesn’t cut it.
What’s worse, these personality-starved foes are near-impossible to beat on your own; they’re all bullet-sponges, clearly created for the title’s co-op play. Other frustrating games have tempted me to crack my PSP in two, but this one took that temptation to all-new hair-pulling levels. I wanted to complete Peace Walker on my own but wasn’t able to. I had to recruit a PSP-owning buddy for some ad-hoc assistance, and that’s just not cool. If it was marketed as a co-op game like, say, Left 4 Dead, I’d accept the it-takes-two difficulty, but that’s simply not the case. In fact, everything else about Peace Walker complements a solo experience, so it’s a real kick to the cajones when you realize you can’t tackle the bosses by yourself.
There’s a lot to love about Peace Walker. Its visuals, non-critical quests and activities, the addictive-as-crack base management, controls, and even co-op options (if that’s your thing), offer a level of polish and craft rarely seen in a portable title. Unfortunately, its boring, hard-as-hell boss encounters keep it a couple of notches below a perfect score. MGS fans are unconditionally faithful, so they’ll want to check this one out regardless of its shortcomings. They should, however, prepare to be brought to tears when those chapter-capping big bads begin unleashing the hot metal. Trust me, the game won’t be the only thing screaming “Snaaake!”
PROS: Highly produced and expertly polished in almost every way; tons of engaging content for MGS fans of all stripes; makes most PSP games look last-gen.
CONS: Boss battles lack the inspired style the series is famous for; Worse than that, though, most are impossible to complete unless you recruit a co-op Snake.