Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, a portable addition to the celebrated stealth series, is a rich, fully fledged Metal Gear Solid game with top-notch production values and masses of content, packed onto the PSP. It combines a great-looking stealth-action campaign with a strong co-op offering and bite-sized challenge missions, framed with a neatly presented resource management system in which you establish a private army. The game's many sideshows, ranging from tech development paths to member recruitment and a versus mode, add further value and depth to a commendably well-rounded experience.
Solid Snake is so badass, even his bandanna wears a scowl. (Credit: Konami)
Peace Walker is set shortly after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, returning to the 1970s to tuck a characteristically twisty plot into the series' timeline. You play as Big Boss — Snake, to his friends — against the backdrop of the Cold War, with the CIA and KGB covertly meddling in Costa Rica. Snake and his mercenary startup, the Militaires Sans Frontieres, are enlisted to bring peace to the troubled country, which has no military of its own. Naturally, this demands that you sneak and shoot your way through various Central American environments, battling tanks and giant mechs at regular intervals. The plot, which veers between quirky comedy, conspiracy thriller and military melodrama, is never less than compelling — even poignant towards the end, as Snake ponders the fate of his former mentor, The Boss. It plays out in stylish, animated graphic-novel snippets. Though these artsy cutscenes aren't overly long, you can conveniently pause them or, with the exception of some interactive segments, skip them entirely.
The stealth action at the heart of Peace Walker is tense, challenging, and tightly executed. It requires patience and strategy, not gung-ho combat. Outside of forced combat sections and boss battles, you're encouraged to go methodically and stealthily, putting the growing collection of gadgets at your disposal to good use. These range from the sonar vision of the Sonic Eye, to the distracting power of a well-placed nudie magazine. The cover system lets you put your back to a wall with a press of the action button, but it's meant for peeping around corners and planning your next move, not for popping out and shooting enemies. Still, the shooting is satisfying, and a generous auto-aim toggled by the Select button is a particular mercy.
Using the default control scheme, you control the camera and manual aiming with the face buttons, move with the analog nub, and access the menu and perform context-sensitive actions with the directional buttons. These controls mostly succeed at being fluid and intuitive, though they can be slightly fiddly on occasion, as can the two other control set-ups on offer. When trying to scroll through your gadgets or weapons, for instance, by holding a face button and a directional button simultaneously, Snake is frozen in place while you rifle through your inventory, since the game doesn't pause. This vulnerability can be frustrating in the heat of a boss fight if you need to switch gadgets while out of cover.
At the end of missions, you gain experience points and — depending on your play style — either earn or lose heroism points. These reward you for favouring sneaking over killing and invite smarter, more strategic play rather than skin-of-your-teeth running and gunning. Peace Walker doesn't overly punish you for falling short of stealth perfection, but it never stops encouraging you to do your best.
The environments are handsome, though not hugely diverse. There are long spells in which you're mostly looking at green and brown jungle, but at least it is scattered with deft little visual twinkles: a hazy rainbow in a waterfall or a flitting butterfly. These are understated reminders of Peace Walker's significant graphical achievement. The real spectacle comes less often, though with added impact, during the key boss fights. These are dramatic and challenging — pattern-based, but never tedious. In one standout battle, staged among misty Mayan temple ruins, a huge hovering AI weapon drifts in and out of the fog, crooning electronically like it's singing in the shower. The sound design is intricate and superb, and the musical score is typically rousing. The game's melodramatic ballad theme, "Heavens Divide," takes a good gaming moment and makes it unforgettable, kicking in partway through a battle with an attack helicopter.
Bring your own hula-hoop. (Credit: Konami)
Snake also acquires an offshore facility, Mother Base, to house his burgeoning private army. As if liberating Costa Rica weren't work enough, the day-to-day running of Mother Base also falls to you. As you work your way through levels, rescued prisoners and downed enemies can be recruited and swiftly airlifted off the battlefield with a Fulton recovery balloon to be transported back to the base. Then, between levels, Mother Base is your home screen: an expanding array of menus through which you assign roles (combat, research, medical, mess hall, or intel) to your new recruits, plus dispatch combat squads to far-flung conflicts, send care packages to other players, and eventually start piecing together your own metal gear.
Though all this resource management takes place in lists, stats, symbols, and tech development paths, it is well presented and makes for an enjoyable break between the intense campaign missions. The elements are interconnected and, more importantly, feed into the core stealth action, away from the world of balancing stats and managing teams. Your research team's level, which increases with new and better recruits, feeds into the weapon technology available for development. The combat team earns the points you need to build the new guns and gadgets you covet. Meanwhile, the medical team operates the sick bay where your wounded are sent to recover over time, and the mess hall team keeps morale up so that staff don't turn hostile and need to spend time in the brig cooling off. It makes for a fun diversion rather than spreadsheet-like busywork, although if you're truly uninterested, you can instead delegate and have the game automatically assign roles to new recruits.