As of this moment -- as I sit typing on my keyboard -- I'm 35 hours into Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and the game only has more to show me. I beat the story at the 17-hour mark or so, but with more than 100 Extra Ops serving as mini-games/challenges, my own Metal Gear to mold and customize, a platoon of 350 soldiers, dozens of hands-off Outer Ops missions to send troops out on and so much more, I don't know when I'll put this game down.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is probably the biggest game in the Metal Gear series, and it's only on Sony's smallest system.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker picks up the story of Naked Snake (AKA Big Boss) after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. It's 1974, and Snake's a bit disenchanted. After killing his "traitorous" mentor the Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3, Snake left the United States and founded Militaires Sans Frontieres, or soldiers without borders, a militia of sorts that takes on causes and missions for those who need their help. Soon, a professor and student show up begging for assistance. It seems that the CIA has invaded Costa Rica, and seeing as how the country doesn't have a military, the duo needs MSF to step in and set things right. Snake balks at the offer, but when the professor plays a tape that seemingly proves the Boss is alive, MSF takes the contract.
This conversation, which is pretty much one cutscene, sets up one of the Metal Gear franchise's best stories. One of the most common complaints about Metal Gear games is the convoluted stories. Who are the Patriots? Who's related to whom? What the hell is happening? Peace Walker doesn't go down that path. Snake takes this mission to find out if the Boss is alive. This is a man who is still visibly shaken over the events of Snake Eater. He loved this woman but had to kill her for his country. He's jaded, hurt and angry. He openly cries about what happened and needs to know what drove his mentor to work with the Soviets.
That's your motivation in this game. Sure, Snake wants to stop a Metal Gear from launching a nuke and killing millions, but he really wants to answer the questions that have plagued him since that epic battle in the field of lilies.
This plays out in traditional, third-person Metal Gear gameplay. You'll take Snake though jungles and riverbeds while popping bad guys with tranquilizer darts or bullets. You can crouch so that you can slowly and stealthily make your way through levels, hold up bad guys, choke opponents out, and so on. As always, this is a stealth game, so your goal is to complete the mission objective without being seen or heard. If the guards get wind of you, they'll go on alert, call in backup, and make your life miserable.
Of course, it's not entirely the same old – but awesome – thing here. Snake's still packing his close quarters combat moves, but I found them easier and more useful than ever in Peace Walker. When you can execute a CQC action, you just hold the right shoulder button and latch onto the opponent with a sleeper hold. From here, you can threaten him with a stun rod or use the new throw move to hurl him into walls (an instant knockout) or into other people. If there are others around, you can chain your CQC moves together with a timed button press for rad combination animations where Snake flips dudes and disarms them.
As I've already written about, this game is huge. You're building MSF in this game – creating the infamous stronghold known as Outer Heaven that Solid Snake will have to destroy in the original Metal Gear – so another tweak on gameplay this time around is having to capture enemies to fill out your squadron. In Portable Ops, you did this in a way – knock guys out, drag them to your truck, and they'd be available to play with – but here, it's streamlined. You knock the guy out, hook him up to a Folsom balloon, and a helicopter snatches him out of the sky while you continue on the mission. This is beyond addictive. Even when my squad was teeming with people, I'd go out of my way to capture everyone I could, which includes hidden POWs in every level.
What are you capturing all of these guys for? They're the lifeblood of the game. You'll snatch these men and women and then get to assign them to divisions of your army – combat, research and development, intel, and so on – based on the multitude of stats that each character has. Guys assigned to your combat unit can take Snake's place in missions or be dispatched in Outer Ops; and R&D folks develop new weapons, items and upgrades. Keep recruiting, keep getting better people into these divisions, and you'll keep getting cooler crap.
It's like crack. I can't tell you how many of my hours I've spent with this game just sorting troops by their ability to make food so that I can make sure I have the best mess hall so that my crew is happy. I pick up POWs and pray that they're the "S-rank" troops I've been looking for to really pull my R&D department together and get me the final upgrades I need.
Peace Walker puts an emphasis on shorter gameplay sessions, so each mission is its own task. You'll select the one you want to go out on, get a cutscene if it calls for it, go out on your mission, and get a stat screen grading you on the number of alerts before getting booted back to the menu. This is a nice change of pace for a number of reasons – first and foremost because it gives you control over your loadout for each scenario you're entering. Oddly, you can't save mid-mission, and that might be a drag as some battles go on for a while.
As you unlock and find different suits for Snake, you're going to want to wear them in specific situations. See, the suits are better/worse for certain areas when it comes to camouflage (jungle vs. urban), they allow you to carry different numbers of items and weapons, and some have unique abilities (in the sneaking suit, you can move as fast as you want and be completely silent). Because the missions are self-contained, you can use your weapon-limited sneak suit to get through an entire level, have the level end as you get your first glimpse of a boss, and then start the "new" mission where you fight the boss and have your battle suit armed along with its extra weapon and item slots. It's awesome, and key to dominating missions.
The missions being broken up is great for the PSP because Peace Walker is phenomenal at dangling carrots in front of your face. When these missions end, you return to Mother Base where you're inundated with information – what your research and development team has created in the way of weapons and items, how the troops you dispatched on missions fared, who has come to join your army, and so on.
The game is insanely deep.
Adding to all of this is the focus on co-op. Every mission in Peace Walker – whether it be a story mission or one of the 100-plus Extra Ops – is available for you and a buddy to conquer. Co-op is only available via ad-hoc, but it's still a nice option. If it's a boss battle (a tank, a helicopter or a Metal Gear), four players can set out to best the beast. Whatever you do as a team, you benefit from as a player. If you Folsom out seven players total, you each get those seven players for your squad. If one of you climbs inside an AI core and unlocks a bunch of memory boards to use in your personal Metal Gear, you all get those boards.
Co-op is great. I'm a single-player fan and didn't know if I'd dig playing with others, but marching around levels capturing bad guys and decimating bosses is a blast with friends.
However, co-op leads to one of my main complaints with Peace Walker – and I only have two. This co-op focus means that some of the game is a pain in the ass (if not entirely undoable) by yourself. I've seen a ton of other game critics – folks I know can play – struggle and scream over some of the boss battles in this game. For me, I thought they were crazy until I came to the second battle with the final boss – Peace Walker itself. On my third attempt, I played for 45 minutes before running out of ammo and having the mission called off.
The curse words I screamed would make Dennis Leary blush.
In the end, I couldn't beat Peace Walker without the help of another player who was way past that point. That shouldn't be an aspect of a game like this. It's perfectly fine to make the Extra Ops super-difficult – and trust me, the repeat battles with tanks and the Cocoon are – but a solo player should be able to get through the story by him or herself. Granted, you might be able to replay missions and upgrade your weapons so that certain bosses wouldn't give you much trouble, but I'm no rookie and I don't think that I should've been dealing with the trouble I was dealing with.
The second issue with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker? It's almost too deep for its own good. Don't get me wrong, the depth is one of this game's greatest assets – I won't stop playing until my army has conquered all of the Outer Ops – but there isn't much in the way of guidance. There are really, really general tutorials in the game, but they don't give you an adequate idea of how to make trades with other players, how to make your own Metal Gear songs, or how to make the most of the mechs you've acquired. To learn these tenets of the game, you have to either go through some trial and error or have a "Big Boss" on hand to walk you through the game.
Of course, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker doesn't stop there. On this UMD (or digital download for you cool kids) is a pimped out competitive multiplayer mode where you can go head to head with five other friends in games of deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture and base defense. The modes are fun, but they didn't do much for me – it's just Metal Gear Online, which is no small feat for a portable game. If you can get six Peace Walker fanatics together at one time, have at it, but the game is more about co-op in my eyes.