Metal Gear Solid games are real marmite games – you either love them or you hate them. Its detractors will point to the melodramatic story, hammy over-acting and nonsensical plots spread out over multi-hour cut scenes. Its fans will point to the melodramatic story, hammy over-acting and nonsensical plots spread out over multi-hour cut scenes. The “sneaking mission” gameplay can be equal parts infuriating and inspired, often in the same sequence. Personally, I can’t get enough of the series. I love the crazy plots and the over-the-top acting, but I also love the sheer invention found within the games. I can’t think of another series that so happily introduces revolutionary gameplay mechanics for a single level, and then throws them away just as quickly. Things like the Sword Mechanic from MGS2 – brilliantly intuitive, yet used only for the final sequences. Or Psycho Mantis “reading your mind” in MGS1. Or dreaming of the return to Shadow Moses in MGS4. Simply Genius.

So it’s with huge excitement that I started MGS: Peace Walker – the latest opus from series creator Hideo Kojima. And the last one he’s going to be involve with, he says – but then so was MGS2. And MGS3. And MGS4. So really, who knows? Chronologically speaking, Peace Walker is set after MGS3 and the MGS: Portable Ops games but before MGS (or even the original Metal Gear game on the NES). The “Snake” character in this game is actually Big Boss (as per MGS3) also known as Naked Snake rather than Solid Snake – the player character of the other iterations. These two sentences alone probably tell you all you need to know about how convoluted the plot of MGS is getting. Remember, Sony and Konami felt they had to release a database application for the PS3 outlining the whole universe around the time of the release of MGS4, just so players could understand it! A lack of knowledge of the other games doesn’t hurt the gameplay of Peace Walker in any way, but it massively impacts the story’s key strengths – providing further explanation to key events from the “past”, while foreshadowing future (known) events.

Set in the mid-70s, Peace Walker finds Naked Snake in Latin America, slowly building the mercenary force he will later command as Big Boss. He is approached by a KGB agent posing as a school teacher to investigate an armed group which are setting up in Costa Rica – the KGB suspects CIA backing. Snake is reluctant to get involved until he hears a taped recording containing the voice of his old mentor The Boss – who supposedly died during the events of MGS3 (still with me?). Soon, Snake is in Costa Rica, sneaking or blasting his way through a plot of the usual double crosses, triple crosses, speeches on the importance of peace, speeches on the role of the soldier and gigantic walking robots that carry nuclear weapons. There’s nothing overly surprising in the story, and like all prequels, its somewhat hamstrung by the requirements of “earlier” events that are set chronologically later, but its entertaining enough. There’s nothing as good as the surprises of MGS1, or the emotion of MGS3 and 4, but on the positive side, there’s nothing of the lunacy of MGS2’s closing few hours.

The game is exclusive to PSP and herein lies most of its problems. The PSP is simply a bad system to control 3rd person action games. While the major consoles provide two analogue sticks for movement & camera, the PSP has one awful “nub” and the traditional 4 Sony buttons. It’s just too tricky to aim quickly while under pressure, resulting in a lot of spray ‘n’ pray gunfights once/if you’re discovered. Auto-aim is an optional setting, but enabling it removes any chance of head shots, or targeting individual areas on the larger vehicles. As long as you stay hidden, the gameplay is generally slow enough to compensate for the control system limitations, but it always threatens to be a problem. Other gripes are caused not by the actual PSP, but because the game hasn’t always been designed like a traditional hand-held game. Levels are sensibly split into small sub areas (memory limitations perhaps) but there’s no check-pointing in the areas, making any distraction (which is likely to happen while out and about using a hand held) more than enough to set off an alert or death, resulting in much retrying. Worse still, the unpauseable cut scenes that can each last 15 – 20 minutes. That’s just not acceptable on a portable device, especially when the game is so reliant on story; you don’t want and can’t afford to miss a beat. All the cut scenes have a cartoon format rather than using in-game assets, and are wonderfully stylised and as “well written” as ever. But they’re also plagued by the dreaded curse of quick time events. With no pre-warning that the game contained them, the first time it went into a loop of Snake being shot, I thought it had crashed!

The core story missions are supplemented by Extra-Ops. Like the virtual training missions in MGS 1, these are short side missions with set goals such as blowing up a supply crate or getting through an area without being seen. Another new feature is the option to play the Extra-Ops in Co-op across a wireless connection. I haven’t had the chance to try out what looks like an excellent feature, but it does mean some of the missions feel like they are too difficult for a single person. Either the difficulty scaling is a bit off, or I just suck at the game: though neither theory is impossible, I’d like to think one is more likely. However, unlike the MGS1 virtual training missions, these Extra-Ops have a direct impact on the core game. Big Boss is building a base of operations, so missions completed in Extra-Ops provide resources to build new weapons which can be used in any of the missions, including the core story ones. There’s a whole R&D system built in the background to allow the player to assign these resources, but it’s woefully under-explained, and never really feels like its adding much to the primary experience.

The key resource is manpower – i.e. Soldiers. In one of Kojima’s trademark crazy-but-brilliant solutions, Snake is equipped with a “Fulton Recovery System” – think of the CIA invention Batman uses to get out of Hong Kong in The Dark Knight. Any enemy solider, unconscious or nearly-but-not-quite dead can be attached to a balloon, and sent shooting up into the sky, to be picked up and sent back to base. These are then co-opted into Snake’s army and set to work via the R&D system. It never fails to raise a smile, especially when Snake uses it on unwitting allies during some of the cut scenes – ‘Have you ever wondered what a bird feels like?’ WOOSH!

Unfortunately, new ideas such as this are in fairly short supply. The ubiquitous Metal Gear that makes an appearance is a nice piece of design work, although an argument could be made that it’s far too advanced for the timeframe it’s based in, when compared to “later” Gears from the series. All other boss fights are against vehicles, removing the opportunity for the interesting and unique enemies that the previous games excelled in. Without these flights of fancy and with a somewhat limited story, you could make a case for Peace Walker being the worst game in the MGS series, though in my opinion that’s only because the others set such a high standard. Peace Walker is a solid game if taken in isolation, but then its story makes no sense if you haven’t played any of the earlier games. And herein lies the core problem for Kojima and Konami – the gradually diminishing audience. Playing the same sort of game again and again will always disappoint some of the core audience, but there’s really no way in for the new gamer, so how do you keep sales up? For me, the R&D extra isn’t an interesting enough extension to sell the game on, and I couldn’t take advantage of the multiplayer. Perhaps the next release: Metal Gear Rising, with its advertised “Zan-datsu (Cut & take)” mechanic (hopefully not straying too far from the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid 2’s sword fighting) will find a way to bring in fresh gamers. That’s going be tough however, as it’s already been stated that Rising will take place between MGS2 and 4, so could get caught up in the same prequel issues that Peace Walker does. At this rate, truly rejuvenating the series looks to be a bigger task than anything either Snake has so far overcome.