The year 1989 marked the release of Nintendo’s first handheld gaming console to feature changeable cartridges: the Game Boy. It quickly became synonymous with the flourishing handheld industry, and although competing systems sought to capture at least some of the Game Boy’s market share such as the Atari Lynx, the Sega Game Gear, and the Neo Geo Pocket, every single one of them faded away, becoming a little more than curious footnotes in the medium’s history. In 1994, Sony entered the world of console gaming with their first PlayStation console. As it offered superior hardware to any of the 16-bit cartridge systems, strong third-party support, and a significantly less draconian censorship policy than that of Nintendo of America at the time, the PlayStation became a hit, ultimately becoming the first console to sell more than 100 million units.
By the 2000s, Sony put an end to Nintendo’s dominance in the console market, succeeding where Sega had failed years before. This is a trend that continued into the next gaming generation with the PlayStation 2, which is often considered to be one of the greatest 3D consoles of all time due to its impressive library. Despite this, Nintendo still had a market that even their fiercest competitors couldn’t touch: the very one carved by the Game Boy. Following the success of the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo released the DS, revolutionizing handheld gaming once more with its dual screen format, one of which famously functions as a touch pad.
Electing to compete with Nintendo on both fronts, Sony released the PlayStation Portable (PSP). Though it didn’t move as many units as the DS, the PSP became the first handheld console to hold its own against Nintendo’s. Several franchises that saw their debut or spike in popularity on the PlayStation and its two successors had an entry on this new system – one of which was Metal Gear. The first Metal Gear game to see its debut on the PSP was Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, a sequel to the immensely popular Snake Eater. Reception to this 2006 title was positive, though some fans expressed disappointment that it was not directed by series creator, Hideo Kojima. Two years later, the main series continued on the PlayStation 3 with Metal Gear Solid 4. It was touted as the series’ definite conclusion, and it systematically provided closure to the entire cast. Naturally, owing to the series’ popularity, this didn’t last, and during the E3 conference of 2009, Mr. Kojima announced that a new Metal Gear game was in development: Peace Walker. To the surprise of some fans, not only was the game to be released on the PSP, but Mr. Kojima, who had previously expressed disillusionment with his famous franchise while developing Metal Gear Solid 4, was going to direct, write, and design it himself. He assured skeptics that this would be a canonical installment and not a spinoff or side story, and even boast hundreds of hours of content. The game was completed and subsequently released in 2010, continuing Mr. Kojima’s winning streak by receiving rave reviews. It’s certainly an impressive feat, but does it really prove itself a worthy chapter in the Metal Gear saga despite a downgrade in visuals?
Playing the Game
The Metal Gear series had become progressively more action-focused with each installment. Metal Gear Solid 4 marked the completion of this transformation, as it could be considered a third-person shooter that encourages you to pick your battles wisely instead of a pure stealth title. Peace Walker follows in the footsteps of its direct predecessor in that you can choose to brute force your way through the game or accomplish your mission without alerting any hostile forces. Console versions of this game even feature a dual analog control scheme where the left stick controls movement while the right adjusts the camera.
There are two different gauges to measure your character’s status. The first is a traditional health meter while the second is a psyche gauge. The latter was first implemented in Metal Gear Solid 4, and exists in this installment in a much more simplified format. Usually, the only way it will decrease is if the soldier you’re controlling is hit with a non-fatal attack such as flashbangs, tranquilizer rounds, or shockwaves. When it runs out, your character is incapacitated, and susceptible to enemy gunfire. If this happens, you must refill the meter by wiggling the control stick. Only when it is completely filled will they regain consciousness.
As another indication of the series’ evolution, the first three entries each focused on a single mission that encompassed the entire experience. Metal Gear Solid 2 and its direct sequel changed the formula slightly by beginning the game with a much shorter mission that served as a prologue to the rest of the game. Metal Gear Solid 4 marked a major shift by dividing the game into five separate chapters. Peace Walker takes the direction the series was headed in a step further; the game is composed of several short missions. While in previous entries, one was allowed to record their progress upon reaching a new screen, Peace Walker requires players to complete the entire mission without any checkpoints or opportunities to save, which is fortunately not an issue, for most of them can be resolved in less than twenty minutes.
There are two kinds of missions available to choose from: main ops and extra ops. Main ops are the levels one must complete in order to advance the plot while extra ops function as sidequests. As such, it is not necessary to finish all of the extra ops in order to complete the game, but doing so often unlocks new content. Although the main ops become available to you in a linear order, you can revisit them whenever you like. Once a mission is finished, you are assigned a rating based on a number of factors. Better grades are awarded to those who can finish the task in an expedient manner, keep casualties to a minimum, and without alerting enemy forces to their presence.
When a mission is selected, the player is then taken to a sortie prep screen. From here, the player is allowed to outfit the main character with weapons and gadgets. One is even allowed to choose the character’s uniform. At the beginning of the game, the player can opt for light clothing or jungle fatigues. Light clothing will worsen the character’s defense, make them easier to spot from afar, and reduce the amount of items they’re allowed to carry in exchange for greater mobility. Wearing jungle fatigues is the most balanced option, providing decent mobility and permitting players to select a good array of weapons and items. The camouflage mechanic first introduced in Metal Gear Solid 3 makes a return, but it cannot be changed during a mission, so based on contextual clues and level layout, it’s up to the player to determine which set works the best for the current situation.
Later on in the game, sneaking suits and battle dresses become available. Sneaking suits nullify the character’s footsteps and decreases the character’s visibly while moving. As a tradeoff, the character becomes less capable in a fight due to the inability to carry as much ammunition. Lastly, the battle dress significantly increases the selected character’s defense while allowing them to carry a greater amount of weapons than is possible with any other uniform. To balance this out, soldiers who wear the battle dress are easily spotted from long distances.
Even the acquisition of weapons and items is radically different than it was in previous installments. Traditionally, everything a Metal Gear protagonist required to succeed in their mission was procured on location – the justification being that those in charge of the operation wished to leave no evidence of their involvement. In Peace Walker, the protagonist is the leader of a PMC whose members are separated into five different teams. First and foremost is the combat team. Soldiers in this unit can be partake in side missions (some of which can’t be accepted by the main character) and the player has the option to deploy them into warzones across the world, working as hired guns. Successful missions will reward the protagonist’s private army with GMP (gross military product). This in turn functions as a currency system, allowing the R&D team to manufacture weapons and other military equipment. Which projects can be pursued depends on several factors such as the competence of the team and having developed other products first. For example, a level three tranquilizer pistol can’t be developed until the level two variant has been made.
It is said that an army marches on its stomach. The protagonist’s advisor certainly believes this to be true, for he eventually decides to establish a mess hall team. Their role is a simple one: they are to provide rations to the rest of the PMC, thus keeping morale high. Soldiers with high morale can perform beyond their natural capabilities. During the course of the game, soldiers may sustain a serious injury, fall ill, or be left traumatized by their ordeals. This is where the medical team comes in; they are a group of highly skilled surgeons, physicians, and counselors dedicated to their comrades’ well-being. Last but not least, there’s the intel team. Their purpose is to provide the rest of the unit with information about the enemy and aid the R&D team in the development of certain equipment.
The primary method of recruiting soldiers involves extensive use of a Fulton air-to-surface recovery system. Upon incapacitating an enemy soldier, you can attach a harness and self-inflating balloon to them whereupon they will be picked up by a friendly helicopter. You don’t have to worry about ceilings either; the system is completely functional indoors. Occasionally, the soldiers you capture will be hostile about their predicament and initially refuse to join. These people will be thrown in the brig until they can be convinced to switch sides.
Each soldier has a set of parameters which determines how effective they would be as a member of each team. Some may excel on the battlefield, yet make poor cooks while others could be engineering geniuses who prove to be of little worth as a physician. You have the ability to allocate personnel to each of these teams to suit your needs. Every team has a level that increases as more people join and allows new projects to be started. Therefore, it may be worth putting extra people on the R&D team to meet the requirements for that coveted weapon upgrade, but then again, one mustn’t neglect the company’s food supply. Moreover, some members have special abilities – most of which can only be used when that person is assigned to a specific team. For example, counselors assigned to the medical team hasten PTSD recovery for their comrades in sickbay, so it may be worth keeping them over someone who has a bit more raw talent. These are the kinds of decisions players may find themselves making when examining their roster. In order to save Fulton uses, you can examine enemy soldiers with a scope that will tell you their stats. Patrolling soldiers tend to be of more worth than the reinforcements called during alert mode.
Though the idea of building and maintaining an army originated in Portable Ops, Peace Walker was the first canonical entry in the Metal Gear saga to feature such a mechanic. Consequently, for many gaming fans such as myself, this title was their first exposure to it. Although I can imagine some fans taking issue with the R&D system, as it adds steps to what was a simple matter of finding new weapons on the ground, I found it to be one of the most engrossing aspects about the game because it successfully adds a whole new dimension to an already intriguing series. It plays like an action-RPG, but the main character himself does not gain levels, nor does he get stronger as the game progresses. Instead, the vaguely RPG elements help him in a more roundabout way by granting him better equipment and an army capable of providing support to his missions.
I also enjoyed the level design of Peace Walker. With a majority of the experience set outdoors in exotic, tropical locales, it could be thought of as a throwback to Metal Gear Solid 3. Considering that title’s popularity, especially with longtime fans, the developers could have been content to go through the motions and create a functionally identical environment to appeal to them. Thankfully, Mr. Kojima, not the one to settle for creating token sequels, deftly avoids this issue. Though some similarities could become apparent when playing those two games back-to-back, the scenario is different enough that they’re easy to overlook.
Finally, there’s the gameplay itself. To start with, the CQC system is vastly improved, and it makes knocking out multiple enemies in succession far easier than it was in Metal Gear Solid 4. As mentioned before, this game plays like a third-person shooter, yet outside of unavoidable alert phases and boss fights, you’re not required to engage the enemy. This is a feat much more easily accomplished in this game than in its contemporaries due to featuring fluent controls, non-lethal weaponry, and enemies who usually don’t start out with the intent of getting in a prolonged gunfight with the protagonist. One trait I’ve always enjoyed about the Metal Gear series is how despite being linear experiences, there are so many equally valid options available to the player to get through them. You can sneak up behind soldiers and order them to lie down on the ground, knock them out with an unarmed attack, or simply settle for shooting them in the head. Despite becoming more action-oriented, Peace Walker is a true Metal Gear installment through and through.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following summary will contain unmarked spoilers for the ending of Metal Gear Solid 3.
In 1964, the United States learned of a superweapon being developed in the Soviet Union named the Shagohod. In response, the CIA sent Naked Snake, a soldier who previously fought in the Korean War to learn more about its capabilities. During the operation, his mentor, a legendary soldier from World War II known as The Boss, revealed herself to be a traitor to their motherland when she supplied a GRU colonel, Yevgeny Borisovitch Volgin, with two portable Davy Crocketts. He then used one of the launchers to fire a nuclear warhead upon a Soviet research facility with the goal of sparking an international incident. Snake was then forced to acquit both himself and his country by accepting a new mission: Operation Snake Eater. Tragically, in order to complete his mission, Snake was forced to kill The Boss. For his saving the world from the threat of a Third World War, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded the agent with the title of Big Boss and a Distinguished Service Cross.
Despondent over the loss of his mentor and after learning about her true motivations, Big Boss left his military career in the United States behind and founded a private military company, stationing his troops on the Barranquilla Coast in Colombia. They provide military support to anyone who needs them regardless of nations or ideologies, calling themselves Militaires Sans Frontières (MSF).
It is now the year 1974. During a combat training session, Big Boss and his subcommander, Kazuhira Miller, have been approached by two visitors: a distinguished Costa Rican scholar named Ramón Gálvez Mena and his student Paz Ortega Andrade. Their native homeland has been invaded by an unknown army. The local authorities claim they are a multinational security firm, but taking note of their advanced weaponry, Gálvez believes it’s a ruse, hinting that the CIA may be involved. Paz was captured by this mysterious force while searching for a lost friend, and was subsequently tortured by them. She managed to escape, and her daunting experience left her with a strong hatred of war and an overwhelming desire for peace. Gálvez offers MSF a base in the Caribbean Sea and a support chopper as an advance payment. Although Miller expressed that accepting the offer would be a prime opportunity to expand MSF operations and put down some roots, Big Boss was hesitant to accept the job, believing that they were not simply “dogs of war.”
Furthermore, both he and Miller suspect that Gálvez is actually working for the KGB, and by accepting this offer, they would be making an enemy out of the United States. Confronted by this, Gálvez relents and confesses that the Soviet Union wishes to establish a socialist stronghold in Central America. To this end, he had been ordered to hire MSF to investigate the CIA and force them out of Costa Rica. He then presents a tape recorder, and Big Boss is shocked to hear the voice of his deceased mentor, confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt using voiceprint analysis. The mercenary leader relents and accepts this mission, claiming that he would be doing it to make Paz’s dreams of peace into reality.
Though Metal Gear Solid 4 received many accolades when it was released in 2008, it hasn’t fared as well in hindsight. Fans who have played it have varying opinions regarding certain plot developments, but most of them will agree that the duration of time spent with no interaction whatsoever was unacceptable – irrespective what they may have thought about the gameplay. It became especially ridiculous when the final boss was defeated, and players were treated to several cutscenes strung together in a marathon lasting nearly seventy minutes. In some ways, it was the logical extreme of the series’ progression; each installment became more story-driven than the last. Metal Gear featured a typical eighties video game plot, albeit one with an innovative plot twist for its time, while the ending of Metal Gear Solid 4 alone utterly eclipsed the length of many theatrical releases.
I have little doubt that many longtime fans were shocked when they first played Peace Walker, as the plot is surprisingly straightforward. This isn’t to say that the work is completely devoid of clever twists, but for the most part, Peace Walker has a simple, yet effective story about the exploits of Big Boss after Operation Snake Eater (the events of Portable Ops are only alluded to with a single throwaway line early in the game). By the 2010s, Metal Gear Solid 3 was declared the greatest game in the series, and many people, including myself, found Big Boss a more interesting protagonist than Solid Snake, the character who defined the series up until that point. The most intriguing aspect about his character was, upon discovering his true identity, the foreknowledge that he would become the primary antagonist of the original MSX installments.
In Metal Gear Solid 3, Big Boss’s intentions were unambiguously heroic, simply wishing to prevent a Third World War. Ten years have passed since then, and he has left his country to start a mercenary company not officially recognized by any country. The game’s premise effectively demonstrates just how much his character has changed, and his ambition to create a world where soldiers are always needed truly manifested in this chapter after having been alluded to in previous ones set chronologically later. Despite his decidedly heroic actions, it’s enough to make the average player hesitate to call him good anymore. He and his army operate well outside of the law’s confines, and their willingness to take on any job along with their propensity of abducting soldiers to increase their ranks casts them in a dubious light. By that same token, they accomplish many great deeds by the time the credits roll, so declaring them evil is just as inaccurate. The moral ambiguity which permeates the experience is one of my favorite things about it. I find it’s a bit difficult to pull off in a video game because if you make the protagonist too unlikable, the player isn’t motivated to help them succeed.
While its predecessor focused on the climate of the Cold War and the impact it had on the protagonist, the narrative of this game discusses the subject of mutual assured destruction. It makes a statement about how peace obtained through such means is quite fragile, especially when the powers that be have a vested interest whether it’s for a misplaced sense of nationalism or an unhealthy desire to see the enemy eradicated. Civilians who lived through the Cold War always had to contend with the idea of the world ending at any moment, and there were many close calls such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Soviet nuclear false alarm incident of 1983 which only served to vindicate their fears. Personally, I think this game succeeds in capturing the trepidation those people felt, especially when Big Boss learns more about the titular superweapon. |This culminates in one of the most exciting boss battles in the series’ history where you not only have to destroy the machine, but also prevent it from launching a nuclear missile that will ignite the flames of war if you fail to stop it.|
This isn’t to say the story is without its flaws, however. The animated graphic novel presentation takes some time getting used to, and the last chapter is a rather weak finish due to it forcing the player to revisit earlier stages |in search of “Gálvez” who mysteriously keeps escaping from the brig. In addition, accessing the final boss involves the extremely unintuitive action of entering the targeting range – something most players wouldn’t think to do so late in game|. Luckily, the actual ending more than makes up for the game’s slight drop in quality in the final chapter, and I think it helped bridge the 31-year gap between Metal Gear Solid 3 and the original 1987 title.
Drawing a Conclusion
Though opinions may vary regarding the quality of Mr. Kojima’s writing, I feel he has a rightful claim as one of the medium’s best designers. A large part of this has do with his ability to learn from his mistakes – even if it means dropping the approach that led him to success in the past. This was a case where such thinking ultimately paid off because Peace Walker stands not only as one of the strongest entries in the Metal Gear series, but also one of the best games of the 2010s. It’s arguably the most gameplay-heavy installment since Metal Gear 2, and although the story doesn’t quite have the same level of unbridled ambition Mr. Kojima and his staff displayed once the series broke into the sixth console generation, it’s interesting enough to keep the player guessing while being cohesive enough to never run the risk of losing them.
If you enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 3, you will assuredly enjoy Peace Walker as well because it too hits all of the right notes. Since the game’s original release, an HD version was created for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles, meaning people who don’t have a PSP can experience it as well. This version comes packed with enhanced ports of Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3, making it one of the best compilation of games one can buy. I myself bought the HD Collection despite having copies of the other two games for the sole purpose of playing Peace Walker. After completing it, I can safely say my investment was a wise one.
Final Score: 9/10