Since I obtained a PS Vita in the past year (and having never owned its predecessor, the PSP), I’ve had the opportunity catch up on a few PSP games that had previously been inaccessible to me. One of my most-desired PSP games had always been Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. I’m surely not alone in this, but Metal Gear has always had special hold over me that started with PSOne’s Metal Gear Solid. Knowing that I couldn’t play a main-line game in the Metal Gear catalog was a sore spot I was eager to soothe.
This series has always had such a unique take on presenting a story in our interactive medium that juxtaposed beautifully against wonderfully methodical stealth gameplay. These dovetailing hooks have kept me coming back for more of creator Hideo Kojima’s strange and fantastic world time and again. After downloading my copy of Peace Walker, I was eager and ready for another masterpiece.
And then I started playing it.
It’s hard to understate how different Peace Walker is from other games in the series: the story is told through motion comics (despite having great-looking character models), the iconic CODEC is largely irrelevant during missions (replaced by tiresome in-between-mission audio logs), and the game features a heavy focus on cooperative multiplayer that nearly breaks the single player experience (the bosses are simply feel like they’d be more at home in a brutal NES game of yore).
Some game critics, like IGN’s Greg Miller absolutely love the game for all of these reasons. I, however, am worried that I’ll never finish the game because of them.
Dramatic cuts, lengthy monologues, and amazing in-engine cinematics—they’re all staples of Metal Gear’s often-confusing adventures. It would be easy to assume that Peace Walker uses motion comics because the PSP hardware wasn’t able to support very good looking character models. That is simply not the case, though, as Big Boss looks as detailed here as ever. There are, in fact, some cutscenes that are done in-engine, but they often quickly cut into the graphic novel look.
Don’t get me wrong: the graphic novel style is executed quite well and looks reminiscent of the supporting artwork for previous MGS games. It just doesn’t feel like Metal Gear to me. I don’t get immersed in these cutscenes the way I do when playing any of the other games.
VOICES INSIDE MY HEAD
It’s worth noting that the voice acting, usually an aural treat, ended up feeling really disconnected from the on-screen action for me. I was as disappointed as most fans to hear that David Hayter was being replaced in Metal Gear Solid V by Kiefer Sutherland for a more “realistic” take on the character. However, playing Peace Walker, I feel like this disconnect may have been part of the reason Kojima wanted to make the switch.
Something about Hayter’s performance doesn’t line up for me against the comic-style presentation. It’s like watching a voice actor go into character on a late night talk show: the audio and video feel disconnected. To be clear, I am still not in favor of changing Snake/Big Boss’ voice actor. Rather, I think the decision to use the motion comics in Peace Walker may have caused Kojima to hear Hayter’s take on the character in a new light, causing the unfortunate recasting.
To Peace Walker’s credit, the story is slightly more sensible than, say, Metal Gear Solid IV, what with its hairless monkeys, fried egg obsessions, and inexplicably bathroom-challenged character. I do enjoy being able to make sense of the overall action; I just wish it could look a little more like the Metal Gear I know and love.
CODEC ME LATER
Of course, the other half of the story in all Metal Gear games from the CODEC, the handy walkie-talkie system that allows Snake/Big Boss to keep in constant contact with his support team. It was always a bastion of strange conversations about pop culture, contextual mission details, world history, and really old movies. In a way, the CODEC was a peek inside Hideo Kojima’s mind, revealing his interests, quirks and thought processes, and it's marginalized presence here is felt in a big way.
The CODEC is still used in Peace Walker, but it’s reduced to one-liners and obvious hints. In fact, it’s not even mapped to a button by default and requires you to either remap the controls or dig through menus to trigger.
All is not lost, though, because there are “Mission Briefing” tapes for us to listen to prior to each outing that attempt to accomplish largely the same goal, in theory. In practice, though, despite similar content, their delivery completely loses the Metal Gear vibe for me for two key reasons:
First, they are presented as lists of topics to discuss instead of letting the audience suspend disbelief that these might actually be organic conversations. As a list of essentially read/unread messages, I can’t shake the feeling of trying to clear out a cluttered inbox to get to the mission. Of course, you don’t need to listen to all of these, but the list-style view will likely nag anyone with a hint of OCD into clearing out all of the conversation. And, again, I want this content, but I end up feeling it’s a chore to get through instead of a hidden treat.
Second, there are some serious pacing issues that are derived from the way these conversations are front-loaded. Instead of getting to a great hiding spot in a tense level and calling one of Snake’s colleagues to break up the action for a while, I routinely end up sitting idly through many minutes of dialogue before I even take a step through the level. There’s no balance—no sense of tension and relief that the CODEC in previous games offered.
But, okay, so I wish some of the story elements were presented differently. Granted, this is a portable game, so I can appreciate that changes were made to accommodate the on-the-go cinematic experience. What about actually playing the game?
Well, there’s good news and bad news: on one hand, the actual controls and sneaking missions are impressively fun to play and easy to control; on the other hand, the boss levels are an absolute nightmare.
SNAKE, THIS IS A SNEAKING MISSION
Let’s focus on the “regular” levels and general feel of the controls and combat first.
Especially playing this game on a Vita, which allows you to map the d-pad to the right analog stick, the controls feel close to the console experience in terms of camera control. Additionally, the revamped Close Quarters Combat (CQC) system is pretty awesome, as it allows you to easily chain enemy takedowns via on-screen prompts. This is fun, empowering, and lets you focus on fighting the enemy soldiers instead of the controls.
Weirdly, Big Boss can’t crawl in this game, which makes sneaking through some areas harder than it might have been in a game like Metal Gear Solid III: Snake Eater (both this game and Peace Walker take place largely in jungles that feature high grass).
That aside, though, this is well-refined “tactical espionage action.” My only complaint with most of the levels is that they are a little short (likely to be more portable-friendly) and have a few more loading screen divisions than other MGS games (likely due to the PSP’s hardware limitations). Neither are deal-breakers.
THE BIG BOSSES
The boss levels, however, are where this game really falls apart for me. See, one of Peace Walker’s “features” is cooperative multiplayer. To that end, most of the levels (and definitely the boss levels) are designed for multiple players. This is a disappointment to me because Metal Gear games have always been a very personal and decidedly solo experience.
While most of the levels seem well-suited for a single player to tackle without too much frustration, the boss battles were quite clearly designed to be bested by more than one player. What’s worse is that there is no apparent difficulty scaling based on number of players. I feel like I’m being punished every time I come across a new boss because I'm playing the game alone; I fully expect to waste countless attempts on each encounter before I get lucky enough to move forward with the story I want so much to experience.
I don’t know anyone else with a PSP or PS Vita, let alone anyone else with this game. The game doesn’t natively support cooperative play online, although there is a way to use your PS3 to play online via a feature called “ad-hoc party,” but that’s asking for a bit more effort than I’m looking to exert.
Ultimately, though, I just don’t want to seek out other players to join my Metal Gear experience. I’m here because I want to experience Snake/Big Boss as a lone wolf succeeding against all the odds, not for Monster Hunter: Solid Snake Edition.
So where does this leave me? I know that Peace Walker’s story ties directly into Metal Gear Solid V, so I don’t want to just skip it. Looking up cutscenes on YouTube is no fun. And, really, I want to keep playing the game; just not the bosses.
It’s tough to admit that one of your favorite game designers might simply have made a game that isn’t for you. It’s especially tough when that game is completely connected to the next entry in the series, which looks so. freaking. good.
I’m left stuck, quite literally, as I cannot seem to beat one of the helicopter bosses. But I’m also stuck wondering how many more sessions of my time I will give to this game before I cut my losses and move on, hoping that Snake’s next outing will hit a little closer to home.