You know, with the controversies surrounding Hideo Kojima’s discharge from Konami and the so-so sales of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, the future of this beloved franchise and its legendary creator are uncertain, but it is certain that MGSV will likely be the franchise’s swan song while still in Konami’s hands.
On that bittersweet note, let’s take a look at what is, in my opinion, the last truly great game in the Metal Gear Franchise, with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
First, a little hitory on the Metal Gear franchise, as it stood on the Playstation Portable. See, prior to his multiplatform release for the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection and MGSV: Ground Zeroes (and the occaisonal odd release of earlier titles on the PC and Xbox), everyone’s favorite reptilian rogue was a Playstation/Sony exclusive brand. Naturally, when the PSP dropped in North America around March of 2005, people were clamoring for some tactical espionage action they could take with them on the go. Konami was more than willing to oblige, they were likely unsure if they could adapt this console title to a portable format, like they did for the Game Boy Color’s “Ghost Babel”, so they decided to get experimental with the new platform.
The first two games to see a release on the Sony handheld were Metal Gear Ac!d and Metal Gear Ac!d 2. which came out in 2004 and 2005 respectively. These games were, to the surprise of fans, turn-based tactics games with elements and mechanics of a collectible card game. These two games are not canon to the Metal Gear Universe, taking place in a wholly different continuity to the rest of the series. I’ve played both, and they’re actually decently fun, though I do remember getting stuck at points, so perhaps a revisit is in order.
Next, in 2006, there was Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel another franchise oddball, this is actually a motion-comic based on the IDW Comic adaptation of the first game which was drawn by Ashley Wood. I’ve never played this one, but given my love for motion comics and my love-hate relationship with IDW, I might give this one a fair shake, should I ever find a copy.
Ashley Wood’s artistic contributions continued onward that same year with Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, the very first full-fledged Metal Gear Solid game on the PSP. Taking place six years after the events of Operation Snake Eater (ie, the latter half of MGS3), this game came right before the release of MGS4, and follows Snake’s exploits after his old unit goes renegade and Snake is forced to clear his name alongside Roy Campbell. I haven’t played this game much, so not much comment on the story (though I hear it is rather heart-rending, considering it has one of my absolute favorite vocal songs in the franchise, Calling to the Night), but it should be noted that while certain elements of this game are canon (the Formation of FOXHOUND, Roy Campbell’s relationship with Snake, and so on), Hideo Kojima has stated in 20dedicated to providing medical assistance around the world). During a training exercise, Snake’s partner Kazuhira Miller shows up with two guests ostensibly from Costa Rica, the scholar Roman Galvez Mena and his student Paz Ortega Andrade, who want to enlist their help to stop a foreign military that’s invaded their country, hinting that the CIA may be involved, and that they may have brought nukes into the country.
Those of you who’ve played a Metal Gear game can probably sing the cadences already. Something something terrorists, something something nukes, something something World War 3, you get the gist.
On the gameplay side of things, there’s a lot to cover, so pull up a chair. In contrast to the console games being based in a single, continuous map which you traverse throughout the story, Peace Walker’s story and mission structure take heavy influence from Monster Hunter, having instanced areas where multiple individual missions take place. During actual missions, the controls by default take influence from Metal Gear Solid 4, with the face buttons (That is, X, Circle, Triangle, and Square) to aim the camera, and the D-pad for inventory and interacting with the environment, the triggers to aim and shoot, and the analog stick to do your sneaky sneaky floor shuffle. There’s also a lot of influences from Metal Gear Solid 4, in that not only are you able to do the crouch walk, but you’re also able to aim in a third-person, over-the-shoulder manner with most weapons, save things like sniper rifles, turret guns, and certain varieties of rocket launcher. As a particularly odd twist to movement, this is perhaps the first and only modern Metal Gear game wherein Snake is unable to crawl. Personally, I don’t mind the limitation, as I can only imagine the consternation that including three degrees of motion into the level design would cause. Further simplifications hit the CQC system, as while you can hold people up, toss them to the ground (which can be chained if there are multiple mooks around), interrogate them, and even chokehold them, you can’t cut their throats (more on that later), and you don’t have the advanced CQC System you could use in 4.
Two aspects which were greatly improved, however, are mission preparation and staff management. See, unlike most other Metal Gear games, where you’re a one-man army that gets all his best gear in the field and treks through military complexes with only his wits to protect him, this time around, Snake’s the boss of his own military organization. Operating out of an offshore plant in the Caribbean, you’ll start from a tiny plant with only a few people to a veritable island nation of battle-ready mercenaries. There’s no more stealing weapons off the backs of your enemies like a savage—though guerrilla tactics are discussed and even encouraged in-game. No, you’ll get guys on the field who know their way with guns and ammo to make that stuff. Need food? Set up the mess hall. Need intelligence? You get the idea.
Between missions, much of your time is going to be spent at Mother Base, which acts as the veritable epicenter of the game. From here, you’re able to do a number of things from setting up staff arrangements, checking up on R&D progress, seeing your overall player statistics, and later on being able to not only trade items with other players, but you can also send some of your lads on contracts while you’re doing field operations.
Mercenary recruitment is similar to, but significantly different from the manner used in Portable Ops. While you can incapacitate them as you normally would, you don’t have to drag soldiers by their feet towards a truck anymore. Instead, get them in a vulnerable position—which can range from them being KO’d to literally grasping them from the jaws of death in the middle of a heavy firefight to receive medical assistance. How? Three words: Fulton Recovery System. Yeah, that thing Snake mentioned way back at the start of MGS3’s Virtuous Mission. You get to use that now, and it’s f&$%ing awesome. Along with enemy troops, you can often find POWs scattered in the map whom, when rescued, often let out an amusing holler of joy as they rocket into the air. It’s also a running joke in the story mode, too, and it never ceases to make me crack up. In addition, as with Portable Ops, Wi-Fi Recruitment is also available, and might be worth using, if you happen to own the PSP or Vita versions. If you want a good tip, if you’re in need of female soldiers (don’t ask why; bit of a secret), try using the RECRUIT option and look for them at Wi-Fi points.
My absolute favorite aspect, however, comes right near the end of the game. For the first time in a Metal Gear game, you actually get to own and develop your very own Metal Gear. The game calls him ZEKE, and by the time you finally unlock him, he will be the most adorable little AI War Machine you could ever make him to be. Interestingly, this system actually had Vocaloid support, and when it was available on the PlayStation Network, you could upload phrases you wanted ZEKE to say (or yourself, if you wanted to use new commands for Co-Ops communication) in battle. Sadly, this feature is depreciated in the PSP version and absent from the HD Port.
Mission variety’s pretty good here. While as a Metal Gear game, you can expect a healthy diet of sneaking missions, there’s a nice mix of boss fights, with an astonishing lack of human opponents. That’s not hyperbole, either; none of the bosses, major or minor, are human or supernatural in any fashion, unless you count the Escorts during the Vehicle Battle missions. In another series first, you never once face anything human in the one-on-one duels of yore. If they aren’t a battle-hardened squad of badasses surrounding an armored vehicle, they’re intelligent weapons platforms or giant monsters.
In the tradition of Kojima often sneaking or integrating elements from franchises he loves especially well, Peace Walker also contains crossover content with both Assassin’s Creed and Monster Hunter. I won’t say how to get to them, but for those curious about the latter, the first step to getting to it lies in the Mission Files.
Mission Preparation in this game is another change from Portable Ops. Where in Portable Ops, the most you could do with your soldiers was set up who would be in your fire-team, this time around, you have a good deal of preparation to do. Returning from MGS3 is the Camo Index. While it is functional, by the time you pass a certain milestone, all those Jungle Fatigues become very nearly obsolete. The Jungle Fatigues are one of several outfits you can wear, with you unlocking a Sneaking Suit (which greatly improves your camo index and makes your footsteps silent.), a Battle Dress (Which allows you three primary weapons, at the cost of docking most of your items, a Tuxedo, and a few other outfits (including going “Naked”, if you’re so inclined) that you unlock through gameplay. Once you’ve dressed for the mission, you have a number of different items you can equip, from various different radars (starting with the Surround Indication from Portable Ops and eventually developing the Soliton Radar long-time fans may be more familiar with), health items, portable shields, cardboard boxes (which have been greatly expanded upon to accommodate the Co-Op adjustments to gameplay.), and even a Walkman! While you had an iPod in MGS4, I think the Walkman was much better handled, as you can use most of its functions without needing it actively equipped, so long as it’s in your inventory.
As for actual missions, in addition to stealth missions and boss fights, There’s a number of Extra Ops, which range from marksmanship challenges, rescue missions, item collection missions, and even more bizarre assignments like a playable adaptation of the Pooyan game, a sort of horde mode, and as previously mentioned, playable Monster Hunter quests, which let you face off against the Ratholos, Tigrex, and even a Kaiju version of Metal Gear REX. How cool is that?
One aspect of this game I’ve sadly not experienced (mostly due to a lack of people who own a PSP) is the actual Co-Ops mode, which is a shame, because so much of the games mechanics and level design are deliberately designed around it. Most missions allow for at least a second person, and when doing missions, you can not only share your weapons, ammo, and items, but even your health bar. One of the most interesting mechanics co-op adds is the Snake Formation, where players effectively move in a train formation like a snake, with one player leading the pack while the other act as spotters and defenders. If I ever get the chance to play one of the newer versions, I’ll probably do an update to comment on the multi-player and co-op.
Graphics and Sound are arguably one of the game’s strongest points. As many wise men have stated, it’s often better to stick with a style than to try to shoot for realism. While in-game graphics and in-engine cutscenes look pretty great for PSP standards, I think where the game really shines is in the Graphic Novel portions, where much of the exposition and plot takes place. Amanda Wood’s art style takes a grittier turn, with not a lot of smoothness to most of the cast and a lot of hand-drawn details. Color isn’t in abundance in these cutscenes, but when it’s there, it’s usually for symbolic purposes or to make something stand-out. There’s a real rough-around-the-edges style to them, and it’s something I actually rather liked, especially when the game decides to give you more control over the camera so you can look at some of the details hidden in the scene. It’s not exactly Sin City, but it’s still pretty appealing, especially when the game starts pulling QTEs. One notable one for me (aside from the remake of the famous duel between Snake and The Boss at the end of MGS3, which is a beautifully done scene), is a scene near the end of the campaign, where Snake’s riding on a horse to stop the eponymous automaton from getting ready to unleash nuclear devastation.
The sound design’s pretty top notch, with most of the guns haven’t a distinct sound to them, with the only real complaint being with some of the explosions. One sound this game stuck very deep in my subconscious is the sound of metal caving in that to my ear sounds more like a man crying out in pain. You know the one.
Difficulty-wise, this game starts off decently challenging, and if you aim to get A or S rank in this game, you’d best learn how to clear most every mission non-lethally and without being spotted. Full disclosure, I actually made a challenge of trying to clear as many missions as I possibly could with no kills or alerts. It’s a lot harder than you’d think, but it’s not impossible. You even get a pseudo-achievement for it, I of the Ranking system from previous games. The game does have it’s peaks and valleys, but most of my deaths were due to poor preparation, simple mistake, or simply not being quick enough to prevent death by rocket. The curve in story missions is nicely done, and by the end, I felt pretty damn excited, just for how much of a close call one of the penultimate missions was.
Lastly, since I feel it’s important to discuss in anything Hideo Kojima works on, I’d like to talk about the theming of this game. For those of you who aren’t diehard Metal Gear Fans, from Metal Gear Solid onwards, Kojima had a thing of being able to summarize the themes of his games in a single world, from MGS to Peace Walker, we’ve had GENE, MEME, SCNENE, SENSE, and PEACE.
Peace is an especially significant theme. Peace signs (both the Y-shaped theme we’re familiar with and the V-Sign) feature prominently in the game’s visuals, and many conversations are had about the nature of peace. Is peace attainable? If so, how? If not, why? What measures can be taken to ensure peace? What measures SHOULD be taken? Is nuclear deterrence a good way to guarantee peace? Is deterrence at all a good way to ensure peace? Is peace impossible? These questions and more are asked through the game by many characters, and by the end of the main campaign, there’s not a whole lot of answers and even more questions, leaving it up to the player to decide. It’s that kind of enigmatic brilliance that makes Kojima’s storytelling so ground-breaking and award-winning. The theme of peace carries well through the story as well, as much of it is based on Snake making peace with The Boss, and all the weight The Boss’ legacy has left on him. Snake himself takes much more peaceful approaches to many characters, even quoting Che Guevara when someone demands to him to shoot them. There’s a far more human side to Snake’s character, the kind that endears us more to him and makes it especially heartbreaking to see how he develops in the game, where he’s clearly not come to peace with the terrors of his past, and even by the end, he’s become significantly less peaceful as a person.
The story of this game is a lot more down-to-earth and grounded in reality, and a lot the topics it covers are all rather fascinating. There’s still vaguely supernatural elements and the intricate alternate history elements the series is famous for, but it narrows its scope ever so slightly and tells a tale that, while still fittingly grandiose and exciting, can be enjoyed at your own pace. Story missions are easily replayed, and you can review past cutscenes if you need a refresher. While some may argue it’s shorter than what most are accustomed to, but for what’s on offer, it’s a very refreshing and sobering story of Snake trying to pick up the pieces left behind from Snake Eater. Snake as a character starts far more soft-hearted and kind, which is reflected in the gameplay beautifully. The way he interacts with characters like Chico and Amanda really help to sell Snake as a proper father to his men, and by the end of the story, it leaves the kind of melancholy feeling in your heart makes you feel genuinely sorry for the Big Boss. While yeah, it’s a forgone conclusion, it’s still sad to see his start on the road to darkness.
Oh, I very nearly forgot. Remember how I mentioned that you couldn’t cut people’s throats like in MGS3? Well, that’s because of another first for this franchise; This is one of the few Metal Gear Solid games that does NOT have an M-Rating. While there’s certainly a lot of violence, it’s heavily toned down. There’s no blood or gore at all in this game. Instead, when you damage an enemy, lethally or otherwise, a little bubble appears to indicate damage. When enemies are near death, a red skull will appear over their heads that blinks ever more rapidly the closer they get to dying. Snake doesn’t even have a knife in this game. While knives are used, Snake carries a Stun Rod, essentially a taser that can be wielded like a knife. Perhaps the toned-down violence is meant to play into the game’s more peaceful tone? Who knows.
When you boil Peace Walker down to it’s core, it’s still a Metal Gear game; you still sneak around, you still deal with nuclear terrorism and mystifyingly intricate intrigue, and you still bear witness to some incredibly long cutscenes. The only differences are mechanical, and they were made to make full advantage of the PSP’s features. If this game isn’t a part of your PSP library, it’s a crying shame. If you don’t own it as part of the Vita HD Collection, it’s somewhat understandable. If you don’t own it for the PS3 or Xbox 360, it’s inexcusable. You can buy it in a triple pack with Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 for stupidly cheap. This is arguably one of the best games in the series, and it’s a perfect game for those who enjoy being able to enjoy games in quick bursts. If you’ve been holding out for a Metal Gear game for when you can’t bring your console with you (or don’t have a lot of time to play in general), this game is perfect for you. Though my advice: Get the PS3 version of the HD Collection. It has a feature that lets you seamlessly transfer your save file between the PSP and PS3 versions, meaning you can easily switch between the two if you’re the type who wants to pick up right where he left off.
The Metal Gear franchise has kept a consistent standard of quality for its over decades-long tour of duty. Even from its earliest beginnings, it’s broken huge ground in the gaming industry and has become one of the greatest landmarks in gaming history. Hideo Kojima remains one of the most celebrated developers of all time for taking the simple idea of a sneaking game and evolving it into one of precious few examples of games as art known to the medium. While Snake’s future after The Phantom Pain has past is not yet certain, in the end, no matter what happens, we’ll always have our Mother Base.
We’ll always have our Outer Heaven.