I am an A rank Metal Gear Solid player. I’m generally unseen, armed with a tranquilizer and some kung fu moves. But sometimes I do get spotted. Or I run out of tranquilizer darts and, regretfully, I have to bust out my machine gun. Sorry bud, out of ammo. Hence why I am not an S rank player, who would never be seen, even while dismantling a helicopter, who’d rather die or restart than lethally end some unsuspecting grunt.
Anyway, I was almost not a Metal Gear Solid player anymore at all, as I completely forgot about the series for years. You see, there are two major plotlines in the MGS universe, which is especially convoluted and dense. The first, which includes games 1, 2, and 4 are about Solid Snake, who is a clone of a man born some time in the first half of the 20th century. They’re thematically anti-war stealth games with an emphasis on sci-fi near future tech, mercenaries and private military organizations, and endless monologues/cutscene sequences. These ones are OK — I mean, there’s psychic boss who knew your every move in the first one, who could only be defeated by plugging your control in the second player port. That’s creative. And they were freakin’ weird… partially due to the singular vision of their director — Hideo Kojima. Video games rarely are subject to a single all-encompassing mind like films or novels often are.
It’s the second major plot line that really grabbed me. MGS3, Peace Walker, and now 5 are about that man Snake was cloned from, Big Boss, who also happens to be the villain of the old 8 bit NES Metal Gear games. Indeed the story of Big Boss is that of US soldier who is betrayed by his own government and later turns to terrorism for various ideological reasons (sound familiar?). The plot of 3 specifically: Weird shit is happening in the Cold War Russian jungle, including a mad astronaut with a flamethrower and a man who throws grenades made of bees. I loved it. Many years later, it still remains vivid in memory. The sucker punch ending succeeded in its goal of making me hopeless and ineffectually angry at the US government.
And then Konami greenlit a sequel! …on the PSP, Sony’s handheld system that I never had a reason to own. I completely forgot about it. For years. It wasn’t until the prologue of part 5 became free on Xbox live last month that I remembered, and also found out that the PSP game, Peace Walker had been released on last gen consoles at some point. Which brings us to this review!
Peace Walker is a smaller scale game compared to its predecessors, to match its initial smaller medium. Basically: In the 70’s, Costa Rica’s commitment to peace led them to abolish their military. This was amidst America and Russia being kingmaker assholes all around Latin America. Following the events of MGS3 (complete disillusionment with the US government) Big Boss split and created his own for-hire military group: Militeries Sans Frontieres. MSF agrees to hire themselves out to some shadowy Costa Rican fellas to investigate the sudden CIA presence in Costa Rica. Boss rapidly discovers that not only is the US stashing nukes nearby, but actually giant robots carrying nukes. Yikes.
The CIA villain, a man by the dubious name of ‘Hot Coldman’ has determined that the Cold War strategy of nuclear deterrence simply will not work. The reason? Humans are weak and no single human would have the will to destroy the entire planet, even if a nuke was heading in their direction*. His solution? Build a giant robot that will launch the retaliatory nukes instead. This is the eponymous Peace Walker and most of the narrative of the game involves chasing it down and eventually blowing it up.
It’s fine. The fact of the matter is that giant robots! nukes! just does not have much thematic weight. Moreover, Kojima continuously draws our attention to great anti-war, anti-deterrence films and novels, going so far as to name a character ‘Strangelove’, but his narrative not only cannot compare, it’s also like 40 years too late. MGS used the Cold War to illustrate problems that still persist to this day. Peace Walker is more like: Man, the CIA/KGB really did suck in the 70s, didn’t they? Good thing they they didn’t have giant robots, huh?
The gameplay itself is bite size. Each level is a few small areas tied together and generally completed in 2-8 minutes. The AI is really terrible — you have to be standing on their toes to be seen, but it works out since the levels are so short it’s more like trying to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible and not so much a ‘true’ stealth experience, which the demo of MGS5 showcases instead. It’s the perfect pacing for a handheld game, like it was designed to be. It’s still fun enough as a console game. In between levels, you can actually build up MSF — assign people to R&D to create new weapons, put them in the mess hall to feed everyone else, gather intel, send squads out on missions. It’s a little simplistic since in the intervening years so many RPGs have embraced this concept, but it’s a good setup for the more robust version promised in MGS5.
The biggest gameplay complaints I have are thus: The series is known for its creative and exhilarating boss fights but the ones here are pretty lame. There’s three different vehicles that show up repeatedly — a tank, a helicopter, an APC — that play out exactly the same. Kill/tranq a group soldiers and shoot up the vehicle until its captain pops out. There’s fights with giant robots too, but other than maybe the fortress on treads that you literally have to ascend to defeat, they’re not very good and sitting there holding down the machine gun trigger doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the game. Indeed, repetitiveness is major issue. The game boasts a ton of extra missions (ExOps) that go beyond the main story but they’re like constant variations of 3-4 core concepts.
I was rereading this review, ready to post, and oh my gosh, how could I forget one of the most stand out features of this game? The Fulton Recovery System. So, to recruit soldiers for MSF, Boss and co. have an inventive idea: Knock them out and tie a balloon to their ass. Literally. You recruit soldiers by knocking them unconscious and then tying a mini-hot air balloon to them; They’re whisked into the sky for an unseen helicopter to take them back to base, to either initiate them in Boss’s private army or stick them in the brig until they capitulate and do the same. Yeah. Weird game.
*I found this idea pretty nonsensical. OK, most humans would not press the button for mutually assured destruction, but all of them? No way. Someone would. It was gratifying towards the end of the game when it turns out Coldman is wrong, and men will press the damn button. But it also kind of undermined the whole plot, so ehh.