Metal Gear Solid and handheld consoles generally don't mix very well. Portable Ops was a brave attempt at bringing the series to a smaller screen, but for many, the last successful miniature Metal Gear adventure came in the form of Ghost Babel on the GameBoy Colour. That was a little over ten years ago. With Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Hideo Kojima has not only managed to surpass its predecessor, but also create a game that is more than capable of standing proudly beside its older console brothers. There's no need to worry, this little UMD is packed full of goodness.
Anyone who has played through a Metal Gear game will know that the story always plays a key role, so it's not surprising to see that Kojima has written something that will boggle your mind. If you're familiar with the chronology of Metal Gear Solid then you won't have much to worry about, but it's certainly not a recommended starting point for newcomers. Peace Walker is set in 1974, just after the events of Portable Ops. But unlike the last title, we now have a genuinely good story to engage us. Naked Snake/Big Boss (voiced in full by the iconic David Hayter) sneaks around Costa Rica and is set to become a key player in the Cold War. Without giving away too many spoilers, it goes without saying that Kojima once again delves into the realm of military propaganda and the usual strained relationship between governments in the East and West. While it never reaches the same calibre as Solid Snake's story, it's still an engrossing narrative that keeps you interested throughout the lengthy campaign.
Unlike console versions, Peace Walker's story is told through cutscenes in the form of a graphic novel. Veterans will recognise the contributions of famed Australian artist, and long-time Metal Gear contributor, Ashley Wood. It's a pretty reasonable compromise considering how well Peace Walker succeeds in other areas. However, watching through these scenes doesn't mean that itâ€™s relaxation time. There are certain instances where you'll need to interact, one example being a section where you take control of a rocket launcher in order to eliminate some aerial enemies. In a lot of cases this method of telling a story can create a sense of removal from the game world (Mirror's Edge anyone?), but we're dealing with a master craftsman in Hideo Kojima. The artistic vision fits in perfectly with the overall context of the Metal Gear Solid series and nothing ever seems out of place.
Outside of the comic book world, everything to do with Peace Walker looks absolutely stunning. The lush jungle environments are akin to the setting of Snake Eater, and there's a good chance that you'll forget this is running on Sony's smallest system. Whether you're moving through a dense forest or a dirty swamp, or even a militarised village; you'll find that every area is littered with detail. Textures continue to impress with each new location so the game constantly feels fresh. Peace Walker is much more colourful than it's predecessor, the oft mentioned grey is accompanied by a palette of tropical greens. Seemingly insignificant moments like a floating yellow butterfly against the backdrop of a run-down building prove that Kojima hasn't held back with this game. The level of dedication here is astounding; a true visual feast for all PSP owners.
In terms of structure, Peace Walker is unlike any other game in the series. Shortly after the game begins, you'll be introduced to the 'Mother Base'. From here you can upgrade weapons, edit your inventory, select missions, take part in some training exercises and set up squads for your recruited soldiers. Once again, a large element of Peace Walker involves taking soldiers from out in the field, and converting them to your side. Portable Ops tried the same thing but failed miserably due to the fact that every single soldier needed to be dragged back to a truck at the original insertion point. Kojima has fixed this by introducing the 'Fulton Recovery System'. As soon as a soldier is knocked out, simply hover over him and press up on the d-pad. A parachute will pop out of the emptiness and he will then fly into the air and be picked up via helicopter. Yes, it sounds absolutely outrageous, but it makes for a far less tedious experience.
When you finish a mission, the captured soldiers can be instantly assigned to specific groups ranging from combatants to cooks. The idea is to keep Mother Base running as smoothly as possible. Naturally, people require food and medicine so you'll need to establish a mess hall and a sick bay. By scanning through the attributes of each individual, you can determine what area they're best suited to. From here you'll also need to upgrade and develop a wide array of new weapons. Of course this won't appeal to every Metal Gear fan so there's an option to auto-assign your new recruits and focus on the action. As soon as your base is in order, you can tackle the core missions of the story. Thankfully, the menu system here is very streamlined and user-friendly so before you know it, Mother Base will be occupied with hundreds of new recruits.
Peace Walker's main missions are split up into individual locations, each offering a number of small areas (usually jungle or urban). There will always be an objective pointing you towards a specific area which you can access through the helpful mini-map. After you've completed the first objective, the mission will end so that you can access the 'Mother Base' and continue the recruitment process. This little break is also important for changing your weapons before one of the many boss battles. You'll generally be given the task of eliminating a large vehicle or the soldiers surrounding it. How you tackle this rests entirely upon your style of gameplay. As Peace Walker progresses the bosses get larger and naturally, more difficult. Even though these encounters are quite a lot of fun, they are pale in comparison to the bosses featured in previous games.
Kojima is known to be inventive when it comes to creating unique boss battles. Psycho Mantis, Raven, The End, The Fury and countless others; they're all memorable in their own way. With Peace Walker, the scenarios lack any real character. The encounters aren't a failure by any means, in fact, the scale of these enemies is an impressive feat for portable games. You'll certainly get a kick out of seeing rockets and grenades fly over your head, but some human boss battles would have been appreciated. In between all of these segments, parts of the story will be fed to you with codec calls. There's a lot of dialogue to get through and every character is voiced distinctively as opposed to the mute characters in Portable Ops. Even though some of the script is downright ludicrous, it stays true to the Kojima style that we know and love. In fact, there's so much here that you'll be asked to install part of your game to the memory stick if you want to get the full audio tracks.
One element of the gameplay that most of you will be worrying about is the control scheme. Portable Ops was nothing short of diabolical when it came to controlling the camera. This time around we control it with the face buttons, which will never be a proper alternative to a second analog stick, but it's still a massive improvement. Peace Walker generally moves quite slow so there's no need for razor sharp reflexes or high sensitivity, you simply need to take your time and place your shots carefully. Your inventory is controlled through the directional pad, so too is the ability to change stance. Fortunately you'll be able to crouch and move at the same time, just like you did in Metal Gear Solid 4. Lying prone is also an option but you won't be able to crawl which is disappointing. Gone are the days where you can sneak through rat infested vents or hide under trucks. This doesn't hamper the overall experience whatsoever, but it's still a sacrifice of some classic gameplay.
One of the most important new additions to the gameplay is a functional close quarters combat system, also known as CQC. Ever since the release of Snake Eater in 2005, Kojima has continued to refine this physical approach to stealth action. In Peace Walker, he has finally perfected the system. The basics remain unchanged but they're now much easier to carry out with a simple press of the right shoulder button. More importantly, there's now an ability to string melee strikes together when surrounded by multiple opponents. If you eliminate the first soldier, a prompt will appear on the screen telling you to hit the right shoulder button again. It's a fairly simple affair but allows for some really fast combat sequences. Another option would be to grab hold of an enemy and throw him towards his friend, in effect, killing two birds with one stone. It's this variety in gameplay that shows off just how well designed Peace Walker is. Simplicity is sometimes a good a thing, and when it comes to a portable Metal Gear experience, it's a great thing.
Once you've completed the single player story which can take you anywhere up to twenty hours, there's still a lot more content to play with. Two more game modes called 'Outer Ops' and 'Extra Ops' will provide you with even more challenges to hone your skills. Many of these sections present you with a cooperative option which makes a hugely enjoyable game even better. But that's not all, as you'll still have more work to do. For the first time ever, players are able to create their very own Metal Gear monstrosity. Hideo Kojima has answered the prayers of many a fan. Make no mistake, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a behemoth that will keep you occupied for a very long time.
This is a landmark moment in handheld gaming, and undoubtedly the best portable Metal Gear experience ever created. Previously, the PSP hadn't offered a true representation of Kojima's vision. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, through refinement and technical brilliance, offers you a portable experience like no other. It may have taken a while, but the PSP finally has a game that can compete with the big boys.