Featured Game: Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
The Metal Gear Solid series ended with Metal Gear Solid 4, except that it didn’t. While Solid Snake’s story is over, there are plenty of gaps in Big Boss’ life to fill and this is exactly what Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker sets out to accomplish. After a dismal wreck of a previous game, Peace Walker is a revitalizing breath of fresh air. It continues Big Boss’ story and advances his character in a way that brings him closer to the antagonistic figure of Metal Gear.
Game Director Hideo Kojima first came up with idea for Peace Walker while working on Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops according to an interview with GameZine. From the beginning, Peace Walker was designed for the PSP with the console’s multiplayer capabilities in mind. Kojima’s intent was take a console experience such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and put it on the Playstation Portable.
According to an interview with IGN, the development team at Kojima Productions was busy working on a new game engine for Metal Gear Solid: Rising, while this happening the team agreed that it would be plausible to make a Metal Gear Solid game on the PSP. Kojima wanted to make a game that would feel like a continuation of the gameplay from Metal Gear Solid 4, in fact Kojima wanted to design a game that could be easily ported to the Xbox 360 and PS3, a wish that would be fulfilled one year after Peace Walker‘s release.
While Kojima had every intention to take a smaller role in development as Producer for the series after Metal Gear Solid 4, according to an interview with Japanese gaming magazine Dengeki: Playstation, he returned to work on Peace Walker as the Game Director because the South American setting and themes of deterrence would be unfamiliar to the younger generation of gamers.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was released for the Playstation Portable in North America on June 8, 2010. It was later ported to the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 as part of the Metal Gear Solid: HD Collection in 2011. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Ten years after Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and four years after Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Snake, who has refused the title of Big Boss, is tormented by the death of his mentor The Boss and is in denial about the truth behind her defection. Snake has left FOX and the United States to form a private military group called Militaires Sans Frontières (Soldiers Without Borders). MSF provides military services to anyone who needs it, regardless of the country or the ideology.
Snake is avoiding the CIA and managing MSF in Central America with his partner and fellow soldier Kazuhira Miller, the same Master Miller who will go on to support Solid Snake in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake and Metal Gear Solid. Miller and Snake are approached by a man named Ramon Galvez, a KGB spy posing as a teacher and his student, a teenage girl named Paz.
Galvez has discovered that an armed security group supposedly backed by the CIA has arrived in Costa Rica. He wants MSF to drive the security group out of the region by aiding a local group of rebels called the Sandinistas. This would secure Central America for the Soviet Union and give them a tactical advantage in the Cold War. Galvez’s true motive however, is that the security group is supposedly working on a secret project, he offers an abandoned plant off the shore of Costa Rica to serve as MSF’s home base in exchange for their services.
Snake initially refuses the offer, however when he hears The Boss’ voice on a cassette tape that was recorded by one of Paz’s associates, he changes his mind. Snake infiltrates a supply depot and discovers that the CIA are shipping nuclear weapons into the country.
He eventually learns that the CIA-backed group have developed a nuclear-equipped bipedal tank called Peace Walker. Leading the project is a former director of the CIA named Hot Coldman, who plans to launch a nuke to establish Peace Walker as the perfect deterrent and thus end the nuclear age. The race to save the world from nuclear armageddon is on as Snake must stop Coldman, destroy Peace Walker and confront the truth behind The Boss’ defection.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is split into four chapters and an extra epilogue chapter. The narrative builds on the events of Metal Gear Solid 3 and it feels like a direct sequel. The theme of deterrence, which was prominent in Metal Gear Solid 3 is the focal point of Peace Walker. The narrative questions the folly of world peace and the weaknesses of deterrence theory.
These themes are well-explored and thought-provoking. Peace Walker inhabits the grey area of nuclear weapons, emphasizing that there hasn’t been a world war since they were introduced. Best of all, the thought-provoking themes fit seamlessly into the narrative and unlike Metal Gear Solid 4, it does so without any heavy-handed exposition or sentimental garbage.
The 1970s setting is a perfect choice for Peace Walker. The conflicts in Central America at that time have been largely ignored by pop culture and in this way Peace Walker is almost an educational tool. I found myself visiting Wikipedia in between game sessions, looking up extra information on the Somoza regime and Che Guevara’s life. It’s a unique setting that I would love to see explored by other games. Like Metal Gear Solid 3, the retro aesthetic has an odd charm and is a welcome departure from a 21st century setting.
Snake has a support team of several characters all of whom are very well written. Along with Miller and Paz, Snake is aided by Amanda Valenciano Libre, leader of Sandinistas and her younger brother Chico. Snake also meets Huey Emmerich, a weapons scientist who helped design Peace Walker and the eventual father to Otacon from Metal Gear Solid. Snake’s relationship with these characters reflects a unique aspect of his personality. Miller sees Snake as soldier, Amanda sees him as a leader and Huey shares Snake’s hatred of being used as tool for the CIA.
There are plenty of great characters in Peace Walker but if you focus strictly on the narrative, you wouldn’t know anything about them when the credits roll. Oddly enough this is a good thing. Instead of forcing the player to listen to monologues and exposition, all the backstories, anecdotes and interesting conversations are done through optional briefing files. These are cassette tapes than can be played at any point in the game and they do a superb job of fleshing out the characters.
Snake’s character development in Peace Walker is more prominent than in previous games. The ethos of the character is fully fleshed out. Snake has never been more interesting, charismatic and philosophical as he is in this game. He’s a natural leader and the script compares him to Che Guevara, thankfully Snake lives up to this comparison. By the end of the game, Snake is a different person and takes his first steps on a long and dark road.
The story is smaller in scope however it’s more densely packed as a result. It’s refreshing to play a Metal Gear Solid game that gets straight to the point, at least in comparison to previous games. The only criticism I have of the story is that the epilogue chapter is unforgivably repetitive. The player has to repeat the same mission seven times, which eventually leads to a well-executed twist and final boss. Unfortunately, you’d be better off looking up the true ending to Peace Walker on Wikipedia or watching the final cutscene on YouTube.
Due to the PSP’s inability to render cinematic cutscenes, Peace Walker features comic book style cutscenes which use a muted colour palette and jagged lines to give the narrative an edgy, rebellious feel. It’s as if the panels were drawn on cheap paper normally reserved for pulp novels. Peace Walker features quick-time events and unfortunately, they aren’t well implemented. The button prompts always appear too quickly and I could have done without them.
The voicework in Peace Walker is exactly what one would expect from a Metal Gear Solid game with one exception. While David Hayter is a natural fit for Snake, his performance is far too growly. Only ten years have passed since Metal Gear Solid 3 yet Snake in Peace Walker sounds more like Old Snake from Metal Gear Solid 4. Big Boss is 39 years old in Peace Walker, he shouldn’t sound like he’s sounding like he’s pushing 50. Regardless of whether Hayter had any input in this, his performance as Snake, while good, isn’t as strong as in previous games.
The gameplay in Peace Walker is similar to Metal Gear Solid 4, with the same 3rd-person perspective and over-the-shoulder camera while aiming. Due to the restrictions of the system it was developed on, Peace Walker has more limitations than its predecessor. Snake can no longer move while crawling, can’t hide enemy bodies and can’t use a first-person perspective. Fortunately, Peace Walker is designed with these limitations in mind so you’ll hardly notice these omissions.
Like in previous games, Snake must navigate each area while avoiding enemy guards. If Snake is detected, the guards will attempt to radio for backup. Snake has a large arsenal of weapons to eliminate enemies but when all else fails, the player can rely on CQC. The controls have been simplified yet Snake has a few new tricks. Enemies can be thrown at each other and Snake can take down enemies close to another in rapid succession.
The biggest change in Peace Walker is the mission structure. Instead of one long mission, Peace Walker‘s story is split into 30 main missions and over 150 optional side missions. Keep in mind that this game was developed for the PSP, so the mission structure is suited to playing the game in short bursts.
Another significant addition is online cooperative play. While I’m unable to comment on whether Peace Walker is an enjoyable multiplayer experience, none of the story missions were specifically built around cooperative play so at the very least Peace Walker is well-balanced in terms of difficulty between playing alone and with friends.
The boss battles in Peace Walker are a mixed bag. Snake battles four AI controlled weapons and several manned vehicles over the course of four chapters. The AI weapons in particular are very difficult the first-time through. The weapons themselves are large vehicles with various weak points which can destroyed to make the battle easier.
There’s a satisfying feeling to chipping away at a giant health bar but there’s little buildup to these encounters. At certain points in the story, the game wills it that the player has to defeat a giant robot enemy. The boss battles exist on a separate plane of gameplay from the rest of the game. This is inconsistent game design and it completely eliminates the atmosphere. There’s no chance of the player becoming immersed because the jarring difference in gameplay constantly reminds them that they’re playing a game.
The first three AI weapons are a challenging but satisfying experience. The final boss battle in Chapter 4 however, takes half an hour to complete on your own and will have you screaming at your TV. It’s the most cruel and unnecessarily lengthy boss battle I’ve ever had the misfortune of playing. Thankfully, the rest of the missions are nowhere near as frustrating.
In between missions, the player can change Snake’s gear, items and camouflage. Snake can only carry a limited amount of weapons and items and can’t change equipment during a mission. This addresses the massive imbalance of weapon selection that was present in Metal Gear Solid 4. The customization allows the player to approach every mission however they wish and it adds depth to the gameplay.
During missions, Snake can recruit people for MSF by using the Fulton Recovery item to send soldiers to Mother Base. The staff members can be allocated in one of many areas from developing new weapons and items to providing intel before a mission. Soldiers have different skill sets and managing the staff at Mother Base evokes a feeling that’s similar to a Pokémon game. There’s an Outer Ops minigame that’s similar to a turn-based role playing game though it’s completely optional.
After completing each mission, the player’s performance is given a letter grade. Getting the highest ranking requires the player to complete the mission without being seen, without killing anyone and within a certain amount of time. This means that while Peace Walker allows for different playstyles, it encourages a stealth approach which is a welcome improvement from Metal Gear Solid 4.
There’s a quiet precision that’s unique to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. It’s a more focused effort but it lacks the intense drama and the cinematic pedigree of previous games. The narrative relies on Snake’s personality and his relationships with his comrades to make up for the smaller story. The gameplay is streamlined but effective and there’s a sense of progression by the end. The result is a game that successfully revitalizes the Metal Gear Solid series.
As the story progresses, Mother Base expands in size, serving as a barometer for the story but also Snake’s influence; it’s a fitting metaphor for Peace Walker. Snake’s dream of living outside of heaven grows throughout the game and by the end, it’s fully realized. Peace Walker bridges two very different chapters in Snake’s life and provides deeper insight into that eye-patch-wearing badass first seen in Metal Gear all those years ago. Snake’s story is far from over, we know how it ends but where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.