Despite what you might have heard elsewhere, this ain’t Metal Gear Solid 5. Realistically, how the hell could it ever follow PS3’s Guns of the Patriots? After all, Peace Walker runs on a bit of portable plastic that’s less powerful than a PS2.
Thankfully, though, it does beat seven shades of stealthy shit out of it’s two PSP predecessors, namely the turn-based car crash of Acid and mega fiddly Portable Ops. Put simply, this is a proper, hugely ambitious Metal Gear game… just one that can’t quite match its console cousins.
If you’ve never snuck into Snake’s skin tight sneaking suit before we should probably explain what you do in Peace Walker. Basically, you play hide-and-seek with baddies, you judo throw said baddies into walls if they spot you and you watch long-ass cutscenes.
Above: Peace Walker hospitalises Acid and Portable Ops
While the game has a traditional story-driven stealth adventure at its heart (which can be played with up to four players all controlling Snake clones via wi-fi), there’s also a pretty robust resource management sim (whoa, control yourself) in there, too. But we’ll get back to this a bit later.
Above: Two Snakes are better than... it's no good. We can't type it
Some like it plot
For those who think La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo is a designer Swedish sofa, we better give you a quick rundown on where the game’s plot fits into the series mythology. Set ten years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Big Boss (that’s Solid Snake’s one-eyed old man, who confusingly also gets called Snake) is on a rescue mission in Costa Rica to save a smoking hot French girl who's been kidnapped. Along the way he discovers a sinister plot to build a walking nuclear tank (that’s Peace Walker), and hilarity ensues. Well, not so much hilarity as loads of shooting giant robots in their metal mugs.
Above: This guy's called the Chrysalis and he's a bitch to beat
So it’s not exactly the Grapes of Wrath, then. Hell, it’s not even as interesting as MGS4’s ridiculous globe-trotting yarn. Most of the characters Big Boss meets are introduced in lengthy cut-scenes, then are pretty much never heard of again. But while it doesn’t involve you emotionally <sniff> like Snake Eater, the plot is at least told in hellavu purdy style.
It mainly unfolds through animated 2D cut-scenes, with the occasional QTE to make sure you don’t slip into a coma amidst all the 10 minute plus conversations. Essentially, it’s like a graphic novel. And the striking visual style partially makes up for the curious lack of homicidally unhinged characters that usually populate every Metal Gear (there’s not a single baddy to touch Snake Eater’s electricity-spouting Colonel Volgin or undead Latin Lothario Vamp).
Above: Yes, Tex Avery Wolf. We love the cut-scenes, too
While the way Peace Walker tells its story differs from the console versions, the actual sneaking about works in almost exactly the same way. Alright, a few features are cut away here and there (most annoyingly the ability to crawl), but the basic gameplay is a smart combination of most of MGSIII and IV’s mechanics. More specifically, a simple take on Snake Eater’s camouflage system, coupled with Peace Walker’s streamlined controls and over-the-shoulder aiming.
Lost in translation
Kojima Productions has mostly done a bang up job translating Metal Gear’s complex controls onto a handheld with limited buttons. The analogue nub moves Big Boss, while the face buttons control the camera, as well as your aim when you fire any of his exhaustive array of guns that include tranquiliser pistols, missile launchers and… eh, a gun shaped like a banana. For basic movement and camera control, it does the job admirably. But when you’ve got to get your murder on, the lack of precision the face buttons offer makes aiming feel as arthritic and slow as a 93 year-old woman stuck in a tar pit.
Above: Aiming, especially with distant targets, is a bit of a pain
We don’t know if it was a conscious design decision to compensate for the stripped down controls and cumbersome guns, but enemies are now incredibly short sighted and thick like Porky Pig’s excrement. Seriously, they can’t spot you if you’re further than 20 feet from them. And even when they think they might have seen you, they rarely investigate. It means the series’ stealth has never been more straightforward, but it’s also less satisfying as a result.
It’s not just the enemies that have gone backwards, but also the quality of the set-pieces. Peace Walker’s bite-sized 10-20 minute story missions are more one-note than what’s come before. It’s all solid, sleek stuff, of course. But there’s nothing hugely memorable. No moment to match the imagination of switching pads to best Psycho Mantis. No amazing atmospheric touches like when you climb that huge ladder after beating The End in Snake Eater. Nothing to touch the emotional power of going back to a decaying Shadow Moses in MGS4.
Manage Gear Solid
While the main sneaking missions are a bit bland, it’s clear that loads more thought has gone into all the management stuff we talked about earlier. As you play through the game, you can capture enemy soldiers and send them back to your headquarters via balloon (no, really). Once you’ve done this, you can manage your troops in Mother Base, which acts as the main menu hub.
Above: Trust us, it's better than it looks
From here, you can split your soldiers into different teams, depending on their stats. These teams include a combat unit, research and development, a medical staff, a department that looks after food and one that handles intel. If Johnny Reformed Terrorist has high shooting stats you stick him in the combat unit. Likewise if he’s a good researcher, you plonk him down in R&D.
Above: Put a soldier in the wrong team and he'll soon start complaining
When you collect enough troops you can start to develop new items and weapons. It’s a superbly thought out system, which the game presents in a streamlined, intuitive style that’s easy for folk who’re terrified of RPG-style stats (like us) to understand. Even if you can’t be assed developing new ammo for that rocket launcher, the payoff of capturing soldiers just to see them fly into the air in an over-sized balloon is full of that sauce we like to refer to as awesome.
Above: This literally never gets old
Big, broken boss
Sadly, there’s no hint of that sauce in the game’s boss fights, which are all uniformly awful. Joyless war of attritions, each one can last over 20 minutes because of their stupidly long health bars. While the spectacle of a duel against a killer robot the size of King Kong is amazing for PSP, there’s none of the brilliant invention seen in past Metal Gear battles, like the Sorrow or Psycho Mantis. Worse, the actual fights are just plain broken. Well, at least if you play on your own.
If you play on your lonesome there’s a good chance you’ll run out of ammo before you can beat each massive A.I. unit. Despite the fact the game gives you supply drops to replenish your guns, these are limited. And it’s easy to find yourself in a situation where you run out of ammo, meaning there’s simply no way to finish these artificial assholes off. And to top off the pain with a rotten cherry on top, the bloody things also sing.
Above: Yeah, each boss hums while you fight. Urge to kill, rising
The trouble is, each encounter is meant for co-op. With four players all firing rocket launchers simultaneously, the metal leviathans that seem so invincible on your own suddenly become as threatening as a faulty George Foreman grill. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game was exclusively co-op, but so much of Peace Walker’s story mode is a resolutely single-player experience.
Lets be honest, who’s going to sit through twenty minute cut-scenes while playing co-op with a mate? The core of the Metal Gear series has always been single-player, narrative experiences first and foremost. And that’s how we’re going to judge Peace Walker.
Above: Despite co-op, Peace Walker is a single-player game at heart
In simple terms, there are certain parts of the game that just don’t work when played on your own. It means Big Boss’ quest suffers somewhat of an identity crisis. So much of the experience is geared toward single-player, but the small sections that almost demand extra players means the game’s difficulty spikes and pacing jar.
Hey, good lookin'
It’s a relief, then that even during the sections you scream at the screen in frustration, it’s nothing short of a technical marvel. Easily the prettiest game on PSP, Peace Walker’s world is sharp, detailed and vibrant. The variety of locations also never fails to impress. OK, so some of the Costa Rican jungles are similar to those seen in Snake Eater, but there are also barren shanty towns, eerie swamps and fog-filled valleys filled with Aztec architecture.
Above: Shanty towns are so back in season
Hideo Kojima’s latest title is arguably his most ambitious and technically accomplished yet. Throw together all the side missions outside of the main story (which includes a not so secret Monster Hunter mode) and Peace Walker could last you upwards of 30 hours.
Above: Not exactly Monster Hunter Tri, but it's a decent substitute
Even though it falls short of the invention, epic set-pieces and brilliant boss battles seen in Snake’s console titles, this is still comfortably the best handheld Metal Gear out there. And for what it manages to squeeze out of Sony’s ageing PSP, it deserves your attention. Just don’t expect Metal Gear 5.
Is it better than...
Metal Gear Sold: Portable Ops? Yes. Peace Walker's controls are far better suited for PSP. The concept of recruiting soldiers has also been greatly expanded and refined from Portable Ops, where you previously had to drag guards half way across levels just to evacuate them at predetermined points. That said, Portable Ops bosses are less frustrating and the story's arguably more interesting.
Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow? Yup. Gabe Logan's mega generic story isn't a patch on Big Boss' mad Costa Rican adventure. Peace Walker is also a far prettier, more vibrant game. If you put us under Jack Bauer-style interrogation, though, we'd have to say we prefer Filter's aiming system.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots? Hell no. Don't listen to anyone who says otherwise. MGS4 is still the daddy of the genre. Beautiful, wonderfully inventive and with incredible set-pieces, it remains one of our favourite games of the generation. While Peace Walker is a fine achievement for PSP, its stripped down stealth can't hope to match Solid Snake's PS3 swansong.
Just for you, Metacritic
Metal gear Solid: Peace Walker is huge, diverse and beautiful. Sadly, some awful boss fights and simplified stealth means it’s not quite essential.