As we prep for the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain this coming fall, let's stop to take a quick look at the entry that immediately precedes it in the franchise's chronology, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
It would be understandable why many were quick to overlook this entry upon its release. For one thing, it hit the market shortly after Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots did, and many fans were still confused about where the series would be going. Is it over? Is there more? I thought Snake and his story were done and over with. What good can a mobile follow-up do to the franchise's legacy?
Sounds a lot like today, doesn't it?
Another reason for overlooking it is that Peace Walker is a portable game, and it is one following on the heels of three other attempts at making the popular series mobile. Those who played it enjoyed its handheld predecessor, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, but the PSP's lack of a dual-analog didn't exactly do its controls any favors. Neither did the fact that the PSP already had one foot in the grave by 2010.
Well, regardless, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker launched two years after Metal Gear Solid 4 supposedly wrapped the series up, and it was met with wide praise. Hideo Kojima's name and branding were slapped all over the credits, and he indeed had every bit to do with this entry as he did the main entries before it.
Some opinions I really respect even showered it with higher praise than Metal Gear Solid 4. All that was holding me back at the time was not owning a PSP. Thanks to the superiority and dual-analog sticks of its successor, the PlayStation Vita, I finally had a chance to go back and explore why this handheld subentry, not even worthy of a number, should be considered on equal ground with the best that the legendary series has ever produced.
Metal Gear Pocket
I suppose that the best description of Peace Walker would be "a perfect handheld distillation of everything that makes the series great and none of the baggage that comes with the larger console games." Peace Walker succeeds on providing brief bursts of fun in ways that only Metal Gear Solid can provide, and it does so from a mobile gaming console.
Remember when you used to just goof off and look for fun in the halls of Shadow Moses or in Metal Gear Solid 2's opening frigate stage? Manipulating the environment, creating hellish situations for enemy soldiers, pestering and tormenting them to no end with distractions, C4, and sleeping darts. That's what makes a Metal Gear Solid game so much more special than its other stealth brethren. In between its convoluted plot and stealth action, there is plenty of room for experimentation and goofing off.
This is what Peace Walker capitalizes on. Rather than one long mission, Peace Walker is broken down into many smaller ones. Jump into a mission, rough up some enemy soldiers, find secrets tucked away in the back corners, rescue prisoners, and find the goal, boom, you're done. The average mission lasts about five minutes with only a few in the middle of the game taking longer due to excessive backtracking.
It's microbursts of Metal Gear Solid, created for those riding the train to work or trying to get away from the family for five minutes. This is a handheld game through and through, and by design, it is best enjoyed when played on the move.
But what is the point of quick bursts of Metal Gear Solid? Stealthing and shooting are a lot of fun, especially Metal Gear Solid's brand of it, but third-person shooters on the PSP are not unheard of. If this is Hideo Kojima's successful formula boiled down into a handheld experience, some form of additional incentive must exist to make this seem like a bare-bones shooter
Well, much like another PSP third-person shooter, The 3rd Birthday, this is what I would call a "full package" game, one with enough additional content to make the make campaign seem like just a part of the larger offering.
Building an army without borders
To compliment the speedy "drop-in, dropout" missions, Peace Walker adds a whole new layer for this game to play out on regarding what goes on behind the scenes. Base management is half the fun of Peace Walker, a satisfying activity to partake in in between runnin' and gunnin'.
At the beginning of his campaign, Snake succeeds in setting up a mercenary group and acquiring a base, but development of this base and the construction of Snake's troops from there is entirely left up to the player.
He's going to need weapons, equipment, support, not to mention a lot of helping hands. Where is he going to find that? Well, he's battling against mercenaries as well! Everything he needs is right there in the battlefield, all ready for the taking.
To build an army, Snake must knock out enemies and kidnap them with the hilarious Fulton Extraction System, best described as "an anti-parachute which propels its passengers up to a certain altitude." From there, helicopters will seize the helpless soldier and bring him into Snake's military group.
Each soldier will specialize in an ability, sometimes two, and Snake determines where to put them to work: in combat, in the R & D section, in the medical center, in the mess hall (gotta feed your soldiers, yeah?), and in intel.
These recruits also have ranks in each area. For example, a man has a C in R & D and a B in food, he's best utilized serving grub. Likewise, a soldier with a B in combat and an E in everything else will be useless to Snake in all regards except bringing the pain on the battlefield.
Scattering these soldiers throughout base departments opens up a world of other options. The more R & D workers the player has hired, the more weapons can be developed and the faster kidnapped tanks and helicopters can be repaired. The more intel specialists that work under Snake, the more information can be made available before a mission. Combat units have a higher success rate at dispatch jobs, and medic workers can fix up those who falls in battle.
Combat units can also undertake separate "training" missions as well, boosting statistics, uncovering trinkets, and adding to the larger picture as well. Plus, they can be used in multiplayer, but I never bothered with that.
Peace Walker isn't just about the mission. It's about building an "army without borders," and every operation in real life as well must work on several fronts. Soldiers just don't blindly fight on their own. They have support back at base and those who support them when they are not fighting.
Kojima's smart design finds a perfect balance between the action and base-management, and thankfully these menus and options can all be accessed with extreme fluidity. The base-simulation portion never becomes too cumbersome or gets in the way of the actual game, and the missions feel like they have much more meaning thanks to how experimenting and digging through them only leads to bigger, better toys of destruction.
Rewards come in small doses in Peace Walker, but every little bit helps. A constant sense of progression, no matter the size of the activity. Handheld design at its best. Need a quick burst for a five minute train ride? Run a few training missions, develop that weapon for an upcoming boss battle, and recruit that level B medic you need. The main story can wait for when you have more time.
Plenty of mobile free-to-play games adopt this train of thinking as well, but you know … Peace Walker lets you unlock it, not force you to pay for it.
Metal Gear Solid with five minute cutscenes?
Fortunately, this design choice also forced Hideo Kojima into a corner when it comes to actually writing a story for this thing. A man infamous for 45 minute codec conversations and cutscenes that run for an embarrassing length of time has no purpose to develop a game that must be played on the fly. I mean, Metal Gear Solid 4 has cutscenes that would suck up my entire commute to work, and I wouldn't even get to play!
Restraint was needed on Hideo Kojima's part to make Peace Walker a success in this regard, and again, he succeeds with flying colors and unconscious mercenaries.
Much like the gameplay, Peace Walker's story gets the gist of a true Metal Gear Solid game without the baggage, and it just might be the best told story of the bunch. Not that it has the best story, the PlayStation original and Snake Eater still take that title, but the brevity of the cutscenes just make its delivery much more tolerable.
Snake gets hired by a young girl named Paz and her professor to investigate military activity in Costa Rica, a country that is not supposed to have a military. The further he pushes into the Costa Rican jungle, the more Snake comes to realize the full gravity of the situation: the CIA is sneaking nuclear weapons into a Latin American country, and all-out war is inevitable if word leaks out. Snake is forced to once again choose between his ideals and his country.
Peace Walker's story is, again, told as briefly as a Metal Gear Solid story possibly could be. All of Hideo Kojima's self-righteous politics find their way into the script but do so without the grandiose convolution the franchise is known for. Snake finds nukes during the Cold War, a villain and a scientist share opposing feelings on the real world "nuclear deterrence" theory, giant robots attack Snake, Cold War politics play out, and it all comes together in a stunning climax and deliberately goofy ending that only Kojima could pull off.
It's all here, and it's a nice, crisp, clean-cut story, but it doesn't totally ignore continuity. Peace Walker dives into the emotional anchor of the story as well with Snake still reeling from how he assassinated his mentor, the Boss, ten years earlier in the events of Snake Eater. He must come to terms with her decision to defect to the Soviet Union and betray her country if he wants to make it through this mission alive.
His emotional moments are genuinely powerful, captured perfectly in Peace Walker's unique comic book style cutscenes, and this game actually makes him as the most frequently recurring star of the series. Yes, this Snake, the one which will become Big Boss, evolves into the hero of the franchise over the course of this game, leaving Solid Snake feeling more like a supporting member.
If I had one complaint about the story, it's that it does away with the sense of urgency that the other games have. Every main Metal Gear Solid game feels like a "soldier behind enemy lines" story, one where there is no escape and no friendly contact until the mission is over. Snake is alone in these games, just him and the game world. No menu screens. No RPG mechanics or grinding. No relief. Just the mission.
That feeling of isolation evaporates in an instant in Peace Walker when Snake goes from chasing down a nuclear missile on horseback to grinding away on pointless throwaway missions to power up for the final fight.
Dropping in and out of base at will, hanging out with the troops, going on recruiting drives, assigning rosters. All of these actions disrupt the idea that Snake is on a dangerous mission deep in enemy territory. Metal Gear Solid's iconic "one man mission" immersion is done in by the very gameplay mechanics that set Peace Walker apart from the rest of the generic shooters out there. It's a decent trade-off, but Snake doesn't exude the same desperation he shows off in the other games.
Aside from that, Metal Gear Solid is second to none when it comes to war commentary and perfectly capturing the geopolitical system our world has in place. It's even more impressive that this franchise spans roughly 60 years, looking into our past, our future, and how a human's viewpoint of war and peace evolve over time.
Peace Walker does this just as well as any other entry in the franchise, just with a whole lot of brevity that the other games could have benefited from.
Your summer reading assignment
I had tried to play Peace Walker before when it came out in the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for the PlayStation 3, but I found it really hard to get into. It can be enjoyed by some when played on a television set, but I found it too shallow to bother with.
On a handheld though, when taken on a train or even lying back on a couch, it is one of the best experiences you can have on the PlayStation Vita. Play it here, play it there, play it for five minutes, play it for two hours! Play it anyway and anywhere you like. Just be sure to play it!
Peace Walker is essential to understand Snake's role in the world heading into The Phantom Pain, Metal Gear Solid's seeming grand finale. The Cold War, Afghanistan, private militaries, terrorists, nuclear weapons, pretty much every controversial global region and decision over the last 60 years of human existence is going to be coming to a peak in this game, and you'll want to be up to date on everything so as to appreciate it better.
The summer is nigh, the big releases are thinning out. You have your assignment. Play Peace Walker in any shape or fashion before Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain comes out on Sept. 1. You'll not only feel prepared for the next and final entry in the series, you'll experience a wonderful handheld game that definitely should have deserved a number after its title.