Ghost in the Machine
HIGH The excellent expanded characterization of The Boss.
LOW Watching a tank slowly circle an area for 30 minutes while attempting to non-lethally disable its entourage.
WTF The ending after the ending. Pacifica Ocean?
A mistake in the present can eclipse years of past harmony; thoughtless words or neglected invitations can cause irreversible damage to a relationship. Between Hideo Kojima and the gaming public, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was that kind of mistake.
Emphasizing all of the unpopular aspects of the series—interminable cuts-cenes, melodramatic philosophizing, and a mumbo-jumbo storyline—it seemed to mark the point at which Kojima had finally fallen victim to his own excesses. However, these sorts of errors are frequently one-off missteps rather than ominous omens of an unhappy future, and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker exemplifies this fact.
While similar to the previous portable Metal Gear Solid titles, this is actually the first of them to be directly helmed by the series's creator. Peace Walker sees Kojima at his most Kojima-esque, pairing a truly ridiculous central plot with excellent characterization.
Set in the '70s, the story revolves around a CIA scheme to create a fully-functional AI in the jungles of Costa Rica. Impressively, Kojima uses this silly scenario as a backdrop for some of the best characterization he's ever written. Of particular note is the handling of The Boss. First introduced in Metal Gear Solid 3 as a living legend, The Boss undergoes a postmortem revisitation that thoroughly humanizes her. Through this process, Kojima positions her as one of the most fascinating characters in the entire series.
Peace Walker also finally demonstrates that Kojima's strengths exist independently of his weaknesses. Cut-scene frequency has been pared down from the bloated cinematics that have been the series's albatross, and while I have a soft spot for the overwrought melodrama of the series, even I concede that there's little place for hour-long cut-scenes on a portable console. Cut-scenes still exist—in a slick, comic-styled format—but they are much shorter and much less frequent.
The concessions for portability go beyond a decreased emphasis on exposition. Like its console brethren, Peace Walker still revolves around sneaking—or shooting, if things get too dicey—through enemy formations, but changes have been made to facilitate its portable nature. I won't mince words, Peace Walker is pretty easy. The player's arsenal is more lethal, guards are dumber than usual, and their weapons are weaker than ever.
Far from hurting the experience, these concessions are smart and necessary. Hunching over the tiny PSP screen is hardly an ideal arrangement for methodical reconnaissance, and in more mobile locations—a noisy bus for example—it's just not happening at all. What's more, a bevy of functions have been crammed down onto the PSP's few buttons, and while they work for the most part, it's never as effortless as it would be with a console controller. It's undoubtedly tricky to balance game difficulty with the limitations imposed on players by the hardware itself, but Kojima Productions has managed to hit the sweet spot right where those two opposing forces meet.
Rather than just settling for a miniaturization of the action found in the console titles and calling it good, Peace Walker also includes an army building component unique to Metal Gear Solid's portable iterations. Players can rescue POWs or capture enemy forces, who will then enlist into the player's stateless army: Militaires Sans Frontieres. While these new recruits can be used in place of main character Big Boss himself on many missions, their real value lies in their non-combat talents.
Between missions soldiers can be assigned to different teams, such as R&D, Intel, or even the Mess Hall, and their combined aptitudes will unlock new weapons and items for development. The roster isn't unlimited, so decisions need to be made about the most appropriate assignment for each soldier, and occasionally when to dismiss one who doesn't measure up. The interface for this process is simple and easily managed, and often I would set aside a chunk of time to put in a quick mission only to spend all of it tooling around at Mother Base.
Another feature of Peace Walker that distinguishes it from the numbered installments is the multiplayer, but this is also the one aspect that drags the experience down.
The entire game was built from the ground up as a co-op experience, so I found it odd that Kojima Productions chose not to include wifi compatibility. While the majority of the game did a good job of making solo play seem acceptable, the boss fights felt like they were missing something. Taking out enemy tanks and helicopters was slow going for my lonely soldier. Their giant life bars ensured a prolonged battle, and trying to neutralize them indirectly was similarly drawn out. The giant AI battles were more dynamic, but they were still clearly intended for group play that I simply could not access.
Aside from the inaccessible multiplayer component, Peace Walker is a great addition to the series. Given its strengths, it's interesting that what sticks with me most after finishing Peace Walker is the time I spent listening to the datalogs. There are literally hours of audiologged conversations between Big Boss and the MSF team, and I enthusiastically listened to all of them. Despite being set in the 70s, Peace Walker's datalogs cover a broad range of topics relevant to the modern day, from the diminishing returns of nuclear deterrence to the complex role of for-profit militaries. One of Kojima's more unfortunate habits is to use his games as vehicles for pat philosophical truths, but the moralities contained in these conversations are conflicted, and often contradictory. Peace Walker is filled with relatable human hypocrisies, which is something gaming needs more of before it's accepted as a legitimate artform.
I expected Kojima to bounce back from Metal Gear Solid 4, but I didn't expect it to be quite like this. Peace Walker's gameplay was of predictably high quality, but I was shocked to witness Kojima undergo such creative maturation, in a portable title of all places. From the top-notch characterizations to the ethical indecision of its cast, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a significant step forward for the series's maestro. There's a great game here, to be sure, but there's also a real humanity to be found on this UMD, and that might just be more important.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PSP. Approximately 35 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 time) and 0 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, drug reference, language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco and violence. While that's quite a list of descriptors, Peace Walker is surprisingly harmless for Metal Gear Solid title. The blood is limited to a bit here and there in cut-scenes, and the rest is present in similarly small doses. I wouldn't hand this to a five-year-old, but anyone able to handle broadcast TV can handle this game.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: There are no significant audio cues and even incidental dialogue, such as between guards on patrol, is subtitled.