The first few hours of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker are a little muted — you're being eased into the experience and you're playing it on the PSP so, naturally, control issues are a concern. But slowly, the problems fade away. The plot picks up pace, the controls sink in, and the sheer ambition of the title grabs you by the throat and sucks you into the handheld's trademark screen.
Taking place sometime after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Peace Walker is set in the heart of the cold war. After defeating his mentor, "Boss", in Metal Gear Solid 3, Naked Snake (or Big Boss) forms Militaires Sans Frontieres, a militia taking on causes for those who require help. At the start of the game, a professor and student show up at the Militaires headquarters, begging for assistance. The CIA has invaded a defenceless Costa Rica, and seek Snake's help. It's a Kojima game so it's naturally convoluted, but it doesn't quite tread the same paths as previous Metal Gear titles. This is a more focused story, but Kojima's tightened leash allows him to develop the characters and plot with more freedom: it also allows us, the players, to understand it better without an online summary.
Despite a more controlled story, it’s worth saying right away that Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker will take approximately 20 hours to complete, with over 100 "Extra Ops" missions to keep you playing and building your stats. Also available is co-op and versus play via ad-hoc wireless connection (or online with the PS3's ad-hoc Party).
Despite some very early niggles with the control set-up, of which there are three variations available, this feels like a game designed for a portable system. This is not a PlayStation 2 title shoe-horned into a compact space — it's a PlayStation Portable release. This is immediately noticeable from the set-up — Peace Walker is not in one huge location, it’s instead broken down into a series of instanced environments. These segments almost play out like puzzles; your objective rarely changes — move into the next segment. Here's where your traditional Metal Gear Solid gameplay comes into action. Like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, you can choose whether to simply kill everyone in your path, or take the traditional stealth path. While shooting felt like the more enjoyable route in Metal Gear Solid 4, we actually found stealth to be the most enjoyable method of play in Peace Walker.
Whichever way you choose to play it though, you'll be rewarded by levelling up your weapons and building up your stats. Instead of taking a typical route in its RPG elements, Peace Walker employs a more sense-based approach. Throughout the game you're recruiting staff members who'll form the basis of your headquarters known as Mother Base. Sleeping or injured soldiers can be sent to base using the Fulton Recovery system — a small parachute like device that removes enemies from the stage, and ships them back to base. These recruits can then be placed in different departments at Mother Base, ranging from R&D to the Medical Unit. R&D helps you to research and develop new weapons which can be used in battle, while departments such as the Food Hall ensure morale is high throughout the base. It's fairly simple to manage these departments, but it offers a nice change of pace to the traditional Metal Gear missions. What's key to this title’s portable experience, however, is the fact that missions last approximately 15 minutes and no more. Some missions may last under a minute. Therefore, it's really easy to dive into the game and enjoy it on a bus or train journey, because it feels so concise. It's pivotal to the title’s success.
Aside from the main-line missions in Peace Walker, there are over a hundred Extra Ops side missions. These range from shooting galleries, to collect-a-thons, to rescue missions, to stealth practice. These are playable in co-op and provide a great change of pace to the traditional Metal Gear Solid formula: here you have a pre-conceived goal in a very compact environment. The missions take no more than 2-5 minutes to complete, but you'll want to earn the best time and highest score in each one. What's nice is that these extra missions enable you to increase your stats, collect new recruits for your Mother Base headquarters, and generally faff about in co-op. They're fun and they're easy to digest. But if you're just enjoying these missions on a short-bus ride into town, you still feel like you're achieving something.
Within these modes Peace Walker is packed to the rim with content. As your R&D department improves you'll be given the ability to develop new weapons. These range from shot-guns, to silenced pistols, to rocket launchers, to — you get the idea. Additionally, you'll also be able to research new items such as health upgrades and sensors. If that's not enough depth for you, individual weapons can be upgraded through use, with XP earned to progress three levels.
It’s not all plain sailing, however, and perhaps the most infuriating parts are the bosses. Good grief the bosses. For a game so well thought out, so well considered, and so well designed, the bosses really defy belief. At first, they're fine: difficult but not unacceptably so. But as you approach the end of the game you realise more and more that these encounters were designed for four players. They're tremendous fun in co-op, but given Peace Walker's ad-hoc focus, that's obviously not always possible. So you're left grinding the heck out of your weapons until you can get them up to scratch to win alone. Even then there's simply no guarantee you'll beat the outrageously tough enemies. A simple scaling of enemy difficulty during these encounters would have fixed one of our biggest grievances: sadly, it remains a massive oversight on Kojima Production’s part. It's not game breaking, Peace Walker is so good you'll want to grind, but it's a bit of a pity.
Visually, this title gives God of War: Chains of Olympus a real run for its money in the beauty stakes. Part of the reason the game looks so pretty is down to the sheer detail of the locales and character models. Snake looks rich, colourful and detailed, an early close-up revealing just how much care's been put into his character model. He's also wonderfully animated as he sneaks around the heavily detailed tropical locales. Peace Walker's also got bags of style too, cut-scenes are presented in snappy hand-drawn comic-book sequences which are both stylish and engaging. It gives the plot a pace which Metal Gear Solid 4 didn't have, and it also allows for some really cool interactive segments.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is huge, ambitious, pompous and utterly brilliant. One of the stand-out PSP titles of all time.