PSP owners often have a rough go of things, waiting months or sometimes even years for a worthwhile game to come over to the handheld. When a title like Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker shows up, providing a glimpse of greatness on Sony's device, many begin getting worked up and calling such titles a revolution in gaming. Is Peace Walker really the magnum opus PSP gamers have been waiting for, or is it just a so-so action game with a famous pedigree? The answer to that question depends on how you play and how invested you are willing to get in Peace Walker's rich and rewarding extra content.
Those wondering about how this game fits into the Metal Gear timeline should know that Peace Walker picks up after the conclusion of Metal Gear Solid 3 and Portable Ops. This sequel-that's-really-a-prequel finds Naked Snake, now known as Big Boss, heading down to Costa Rica to investigate a standoff between the CIA and KGB. The Soviets want to overthrow the government and install a Communist regime so they can eventually seize control of Central America and isolate the U.S. from the South American nations; the Americans are smuggling nukes into the tropical country for reasons no one fully understands. What hooks Snake into investigating the conflict is a recording of what sounds like the Boss, his mentor and life's one true love, chatting with someone else. The only problem is that those familiar with the series will remember that the Boss is supposed to be dead, killed by Snake's own hand at the end of MGS 3. While most Metal Gear Solid titles feature complicated and convoluted story lines, this one is refreshingly straightforward, and thankfully it doesn't drag on like so many other entries in the series.
The presentation of the story is a real high point in the game, as most of the major cut scenes play out through a series of pencil-shaded graphic novel panels. With their exaggerated lines and speech bubbles, these movies feel like they fell right out of "Sin City," and they work amazingly well for the franchise. Some of these scenes are even interactive, allowing players to move the camera or zoom in, and sometimes there are even timed button pressing segments to create an added sense of immersion. When it comes to the cool factor, this title is firing on all cylinders.
Another major aspect of Peace Walker's plot is the fact that players finally have the opportunity to build Outer Heaven, the mercenary fortress that played such a huge role in the franchise's early games. Rather than being a terrorist haven, Outer Heaven is presented as a place where soldiers can get away from the politics of war and simply fight for the sake of resolving conflicts. Throughout the game, players will staff Outer Heaven, recruiting soldiers as well as cooks, doctors, scientists, spies and more in order to create the ultimate mercenary base.
It can actually be argued that this base construction is the main focus of Peace Walker, and the missions where Snake must sneak behind enemy lines and take down bosses to advance the plot are really glorified minigames that serve as the means to recruit new warriors. Since Peace Walker returns to the franchise's sneaking roots, Snake is encouraged to either avoid combat entirely or take out guards through silent, non-lethal means. What makes non-lethality so rewarding is the fact that any enemy soldier who is knocked out rather than killed can be airlifted back to Outer Heaven and assigned to work at one of the base's many divisions. Assigning soldiers to the research staff will allow access to bigger and better weapons, while staffing the mess hall will make sure everyone has a full belly, thus keeping morale and productivity high. On top of all this are Outer Ops, where Outer Heaven soldiers can be dispatched to foreign conflicts in order to gain more resources for the base, as well as a garage where players can create their very own Metal Gear.
All these side projects are great additions, as the main game isn't all that impressive. As mentioned before, Peace Walker puts a heavy emphasis on stealth and remaining hidden; players who are spotted during a mission are often better off simply restarting rather than trying to fight their way out of danger. That's largely due to the fact that the game's control scheme is not conducive to frantic action, thanks in large part to the PSP's lack of a second analog nub. The default controls map the camera (and thus the aiming) to the PSP's face buttons, which makes for difficult twitch aiming or adjusting to enemy movement. While the control scheme isn't an issue when lining up a sniper rifle shot on a stationary enemy across the map, it becomes a major headache when three or four enemies are advancing on Snake with fully automatic weapons drawn and firing. Couple that with the fact that players must hold one button while pressing another to switch weapons while the action continues uninterrupted in the background, and any sort of combat beyond sniping hapless enemies quickly becomes a frustrating affair.
One major gameplay improvement that helps in surviving enemy encounters is a massive overhaul of Snake's close-quarters combat (CQC) attacks. Players can now execute a series of CQC strikes by simply tapping the right shoulder button, or they can hold the button to grab enemies and hold them in a hostage position. From this spot, Snake can then interrogate his captive, throw him into a wall or other enemies or simply choke him unconscious. Even better, when multiple enemies attack, Snake can string together CQC throws to take out the whole group with relative ease. It's a much more fluid system than what was found in MGS 3, and many players may find themselves rushing headlong at enemies who have spotted them in the hopes of taking them down with CQC rather than fussing with aiming controls.
Peace Walker's other major gameplay inclusion can be viewed as either a blessing or a curse, depending on how you choose to utilize it. The game features ad-hoc co-op for every story mission, with two players being allowed to attempt the sneaking levels and up to four players to chip in during boss fights. It's a cool idea in theory, but the game doesn't scale difficulty based on how many people are playing, so some missions are impossible with a single player while certain bosses are absolute pushovers with four protagonists. It's a terribly unbalanced system that can be borderline game-breaking in spots, so players are advised to get together a reliable group of friends who are willing to tackle the game's challenges together. Those flying solo are likely in for a lot of frustration and a whole lot of time, grinding to level up weapons to the point where they may actually be effective.
In spite of the story mode never quite syncing up properly, everything else included in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker more than makes up for it. The construction and maintenance of Outer Heaven is exceptionally addictive, and the myriad bonus missions and extra content it opens up are a lot of fun. This may not be the greatest PSP game ever created, but it's one that's definitely worth picking up considering the handheld's very thin lineup. At the very least, Peace Walker is the sort of title that will keep players coming back for a long, long time.
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