What is peace? Is it a feeling of great contentment with the world, coming and going as politics change? Or is it a resolution on our part to make do with what we have? What, pray tell, would someone be willing to do to preserve their vision of peace for all time?
These are questions Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker asks its hero, Naked Snake, but it also poses the questions to the player. It dares the average and not-so-average gamer to think deeper about the ramifications of such a series of events, to consider the possibility that our culture is built on settlements and conflict revolving in an endless cycle. It puts forward the notion that perhaps, in an age defined by proxy wars and power struggles, perhaps Big Boss’ actions were forgivable (if not justified) in the end.
After all, what is he but a product of the times in which he lived? Ten years after his final battle with his mentor, a day which he would later claim marked his own emotional death, Naked Snake has taken a few steps forward in the world… and a few steps back. He’s cut all ties with the United States government, having lost faith in the time since Operation Snake Eater. However, using funds gained from battles past, Snake has formed an elite private military corporation known as the Militaires Sans Frontieres, or MSF – not to be confused with the real-life Medecins Sans Frontieres, as the pre-game disclaimer sees fit to point out.
Snake is, for all intents and purposes, a recluse, training his army-for-hire in secret while keeping a watchful eye for potential customers (and for agents of his former homeland). This approach turns out useful, as he is soon approached by a well-reasoned professor of peace and a young Costa Rican girl pleading for the MSF’s help. The CIA is bringing unknown materials into Costa Rica? Possibly nuclear in nature? Snake, being a seasoned veteran, knows when to back down from a fight for his own good… until, that is, the professor presents one compelling argument: the possibility that Snake’s mentor, the famed Boss, could still be alive in Costa Rica.
Common sense be damned, Snake and company make their way to the beleaguered Central American state. Thus, Snake begins on a quest to liberate a tiny nation facing grave danger, only to face greater threats, personalities, technologies and changes that can only lead to his ultimate transformation: becoming the international hero of all soldiers, and the commander of a true army without borders.
It’s fitting, then, that the gameplay has been designed with army building in mind. Throughout the game’s multitude of missions, soldiers can be kidnapped via a nifty little balloon recovery system that can be attached to their backs. The player straps one to a captive (call him Bob), then the person flies off into the air having been picked up by a passing helicopter. After the mission, Bob is dropped off at the MSF’s headquarters and becomes a new recruit, one who can be assigned to any of MSF’s five divisions – he could serve as a playable character in the Combat Unit, for instance, or work in the Mess Hall as a cook.
Any soldiers put in these divisions don’t simply sit around waiting to help, either. Each section provides certain bonuses or enhancements to the game – pouring soldiers into Research and Development, for example, speeds up the development of new weapons and equipment for the Combat Unit. There’s always a sense of progression and improvement, adding to the Pokemon-esque vibe that collecting, training and arranging soldiers in one’s private military will eventually evoke.
Let’s come back to those missions for a moment – those glorious and numerous missions. The levels essentially divide up into two categories: Main Ops for the story-oriented missions, and Extra Ops for all of the time-wasting, addiction-causing bonus levels. What’s more, the two categories are very distinct in the way their content are organized. Main Ops missions tend to focus on the Metal Gear franchise’s tenets of intense sneaking segments and increasingly large battles, whereas Extra Ops levels go for the kitchen sink approach and throw virtually every possible genre into its depths – standouts include having to hold up enemies with a banana instead of a gun, going on a “date” with a teenage girl, and fighting dinosaurs. Yes, dinosaurs in a Metal Gear game.
It’s in those Main Ops levels, though, that the heart of the game shines. Snake, as portrayed by veteran actor/writer David Hayter, proves to be in a constant state of flux, his determination to stand up against the odds and the changing times slowly wearing down as he comes closer to finding the truth about the Boss’ “return”. He’s suffered physically and emotionally, both here and in games past, and he’s begun to question his existence in a world that looks down on him. He needs peace more than anyone else, a sense that he can live the life he chooses without regret or fear.
That sense of desperation, of a world beginning to close around Snake and oppress all that he stands for, comes full force during the set-piece battles and boss fights of Peace Walker. Metal Gear faithfuls will recall the boss battles in other games have been the stuff of legends, due in part to the fact that they come straight out of high-grade science-fiction merging with high-octane Hollywood action sequences. The adrenaline that surges when the player guides Snake to dodge bullets and rockets, the feeling of dread as they realize they’re facing hundred-foot tall heavily-armed machines, mechs and other military hardware – these are the things that define great action, and Peace Walker knows it.
Moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t exactly bush-league, either. Snake (or any soldier assigned to Combat duty) is controlled by the player via typical third-person shooter controls – controls which, I might add, are better suited to a proper console’s two-stick controller than Peace Walker‘s original PSP set-up. It’s all about the player’s ability to move their point of view while controlling Snake’s movement, in that having a second control stick makes more sense than mapping camera functions to any of the PSP’s other buttons.
But, I digress, the presence of another control stick will not matter in the long run. Snake is tasked on most missions to reach a specified area – as displayed on a map that appears when moving from location to location – or complete a specified objective, with the goal being to avoid the patrolling guards posted in each separate area as much as possible. Peace Walker, having been developed on a handheld console, didn’t originally have the processing power to run massive free-roaming areas similar to those in the reverent Metal Gear Solid 3. Thus, to avoid the pitfall of a game running more like a choppy slideshow, the areas have been reduced in size, visual detail and level of interactivity, but this allows for a greater number of these sections to run smoothly.
As part of a long-running stealth game franchise, Peace Walker is somewhat of an oddball. The classic camouflage system from Metal Gear Solid 3 returns in a manner, having been stripped down to just uniforms that are picked pre-mission and which cannot be changed mid-mission. When simply traversing each area, Snake certainly handles as he has in previous Metal Gear Solid games – a compliment to the sturdy controls – and the camera point-of-view remains behind him. Yet the developer also threw in a new focused aim mechanic that is more akin to a modern third-person shooter, showing us a weapon’s cross-hairs from a viewpoint just behind Snake’s shoulder.
This balance of action and stealth comes into play throughout the game, as many missions exist in both modes where one approach or the other are of great tactical importance. It’s also emphasized through the weapon variety, which takes a page from Metal Gear Solid 4‘s book by allowing the player to select from dozens of different firearms, rifles, shotguns, launchers, explosives and other equipment. In Peace Walker, though, there’s no mid-mission swapping out for different weapons, and you’ll always have to keep your R&D team up-to-date to keep upgrading and updating your supply of weaponry, so plan accordingly.
The bigger, and actually more fundamental issue is with the game’s pacing. Some missions in the Main Ops campaign feel like time-wasters or padding, as though the developer felt unsure that the story would be an appropriate length and wanted to be safe rather than sorry. This is particularly evident in Peace Walker‘s fifth and final act, where six “find the person” missions involving recovering the same individual again and again and again are dumped into the game for no rational reason.
At least until Peace Walker ends proper. In both of its conclusions, there’s a sense of finality and understanding, but only at the end of the fourth act do the game’s emotional stakes feel their most intense. Snake’s at his most desperate and gruff, his comrade Kazuhira Miller at his most unnerved and commanding, the rest of the supporting cast and side characters witnessing or waiting out one of Metal Gear‘s most epic-feeling action sequences that is punctuated by Peace Walker’s well-conducted main theme.
The game, as a whole, feels like it wants to be many things, but it only successfully achieves so much. Snake’s interactions with each new character, for instance, gives players insight into the kind of good-natured but world-weary personality it would take to be a man like Snake – as well as showing us how terrible the man is at deception. However, there’s something to be said for presentation when a developer such as Hideo Kojima would choose to use either static talking-head segments or comic book-style animations for the cutscenes, instead of the strongly-suited in-game graphics engine which – while not groundbreaking – is certainly capable of showing off characters, action and other visual details.
At any rate, in spite of the loft claims to fame Peace Walker makes, it remains a more-than-solid addition to its franchise. Frankly, if more games had such quantity of content at such a high level of quality, there’d be more anti-gaming critics out of jobs. Its flaws lie in the details – in the design choices, in the usage of its visuals, in its underdeveloped characters, and so forth. Thus, it remains neither the series’ worst nor its best, but certainly a notable accomplishment that brings Snake’s journey full circle.
Recommendation: Buy It