Whether he’s destroying all-comers in a warzone or sneaking around in a cardboard box, Metal Gear Solid series frontman Snake (in Solid or Naked guise) seems to occupy a half-hidden plane, disappearing as quickly as he comes into view.
While some of Snake’s vulnerability has been exposed over the years, he remains an enigma, and a powerfully alluring one at that. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that a skilful refinement of the series such as Peace Walker finds itself on a platform with the lowest installed userbase. If it wants to hide from gamers, it's in the right place.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a breathtaking experience, one which manages to not only confidently redefine the series, but also expectations for handheld gaming. Whilst many of the series’ bugbears remain, Snake isn’t so arrogant that he hasn’t been paying attention to what’s happening around him.
Snake in the grass
Taking up the story after the events of console effort, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (and, of course, previous PSP outing, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops), the game charts some more of Snake’s journey to old age in the PS3's Guns of the Patriots.
Set in 1974, our disenchanted and betrayed protagonist finds himself at the helm of Militaires Sans Frontieres (Soldiers Without Borders), an organisation which offers its services to those with a great enough need. When approached about the recent CIA invasion of Costa Rica, Snake initially rejects the request out of hand. That is until he is shown a video that proves the Boss is still alive.
This is usually the point in a Metal Gear review that I would say something along the lines of, “If this means nothing to you, or leaves you cold, then you’re unlikely to find anything in Peace Walker to convert you.”
But that is simply not the case this time around. While all the single-player tropes remain in place - meaning you will be sneaking around in third-person, avoiding the dreaded red exclamation marks when spotted by enemies, snapping necks, and lining up carefully considered shots - Peace Walker expands so far beyond the main campaign that it’s dizzying.
That the exceptional story segment of the game (linked by beautiful sketched cut-scenes, none of which overstays its welcome, and some of which even include interactive sections) is dwarfed by everything else here is an impressive achievement indeed.
Konami has clearly been charting Monster Hunter’s success, and has flagrantly duplicated that game’s alchemy for use in the Metal Gear world.
As such, in CO-OPS you and three friends can face off against various mechanical threats (from tanks to the eponymous Metal Gears), taking them down as a team. And any of the campaign missions can be tackled with a friend in tow, too, along with over 100 Extra Ops missions.
Any items or bonuses gained are applied to every player’s total, and many of the missions will all but require an extra gun in order to successfully complete. Brilliantly, pressing the action button near another player instigates Snake Formation, in which the lead player moves, and the second automatically follows – effectively driver and turret, but implemented with style.
Less neighbourly individuals can instead duke it out in deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture, and base defense with up to five friends. While this is a welcome addition to the diverse package, it doesn’t feel quite as sharp as the other components.
But it doesn’t end there. In addition to the all of this, there are also numerous meta games, seamlessly worked into the fabric of play.
As in Portable Ops, you are also tasked with constructing an off-shore base (Mother Base, precursor to Outer Heaven). This base is staffed by the soldiers you kidnap, discovered POWs, and volunteers who approach as your reputation grows. Thankfully, the kidnapping mechanic has been streamlined since the last time, and the Fulton Balloon (essentially a sky hook) means extractions are painless and instant.
Your staff contingent can then be jigged, re-jigged, and jigged in triplicate to your heart's content, their assignments directly contributing to your progress. Ensuring the right skills are deployed in each division will net you better weapons and items, alternative player characters, or even just improved team morale.
This formed army can also be sent into battle in a variety of non-playable missions, adding a dash of RTS play to the mix. And you can even build your own Metal Gear as you progress through the game.
Eating its own tail
Is this the perfect game then? Well no, not quite. The lack of the usual line up of deranged, introspective human bosses is a shame – especially given the flamboyance demonstrated elsewhere.
And whilst the default controls work well after a period of adjustment, the three available schemes all feel awkward for a time – and never really become comfortable in combat situations. This is likely the unavoidable result of squeezing so much flexibility onto such a limited layout.
It would be nice, too, if there were an option to play co-operatively over a network, rather than being limited to ad-hoc sessions. Whilst this works fine in a country like Japan, in the west the PSP isn’t quite so ubiquitous.
Finally, despite being well made for portable gaming (the Extra Ops missions last only minutes, and you are given complete control over your progress through the game), you aren’t able to save mid-mission in the single-player campaign. Not a huge issue, but it does limit this section of the game to longer sessions.
If all this sounds like nit picking, it’s because it is. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker does so much right that it’s impossible to hold its only occasional mis-steps against it.
If ever there was a system seller, this is it. Let’s just hope it doesn’t sneak under the radar of western players.