Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
Hideo Kojima spent years polishing his vision of the Metal Gear series for the PlayStation 3, so it still comes as a bit of a surprise to see the spec-gobbling developer opt for the PSP with his cherished series' next iteration. It's very serious business: Peace Walker has often been touted as the spiritual Metal Gear Solid 5. Unless it doesn't sell very well, that is, and in that case Konami will do its best to forget it ever happened.
Kojima can't seem to let go of the series despite his frequent proclamations otherwise - make no mistake, he'll be producing Metal Gear games long past the point people stop caring. Our latest jaunt, pressed up against the walls and shrubbery of Costa Rica, is because the venerated director, alongside the whole of Japan, has gone a little crazy for Monster Hunter. Which means 4-player co-op is in (for some of the game) and there's plenty of references to Capcom's gaming giant during the lengthy cutscenes. The game doesn't strut around with the po-faced priggishness of MGS4, either, so if you grind enough hours into the game (how many I'm not certain - let's just say lots) you can even play some Monster Hunter themed levels.
It's still a convoluted medley of world politics between America and Russia, with Kojima's preachy message about advocating nuclear disarmament occasionally blurred by his desire to express how chuffing awesome it would be to have a fleet of bipedal robots that could shoot nukes. Later into the game, for instance, Snake and his apolitical mercenary band acquire a Metal Gear for themselves with the belief that the only way to deter countries from meddling with their affairs is to acquire their own cache of nuclear missiles.
The story is told with stylish animated cutscenes penned by Yoji Shinkawa and Ashley Wood, and the messy art style and bold colour choices work well to convey events without having to resort to the ever-familiar codec screen. There are sporadic bits of interactivity, too, split right down the middle between action-based QTE sequences and perving on the game's female characters. In one scene you can peer through the garments of a female character that's just had both her legs broken, and there's another notable moment where you can zoom straight through a 16-year old girl's clothes to have a good look at her in bra and panties. It's a little bit weird.
Setting the game in the throes of the Cold War is an inspired choice, at least, and the end result feels a lot more cohesive than a magical future land of nanobots and Johnny Poopants. It's actually one of the more grounded and nuanced MGS plots of late, and while it has an eventual twist zanier than an episode of The Mighty Boosh - just read the Metal Gear wiki entry for jailbait Paz Ortega Andrade to see how ridiculously nutty it all gets - it does manage to stay fairly coherent for the main campaign. Provided you excuse the bonus Monster Hunter levels, that is.
It's still a bit hard to take Peace Walker's political sensibilities seriously, though the end of the game drops enough histrionic cutscenes that seriousness surely must have been part of the design document. Kojima tends to imbue his scripts with attempts at humour, but the heavy-handed political message is undermined when a primary antagonist is called Hot Coldman and you recruit enemy combatants to your mercenary gaggle by hooking their unconscious bodies to a helium filled balloon and flinging them into the sky.
Followers of the main series will immediately recognise the game's similarities to Metal Gear Solid 3, with its outdoors environments, overcast skies and Solid Snake's clone-daddy/nemesis Big Boss/Naked Snake all doing the rounds. What they might not be so immediately familiar with is the squad recruitment mechanic that's been lifted from the slightly duff Portable Ops, albeit with a hugely improved method for bullying your foes into becoming prized assets.
Instead of dragging unconscious foes into the back of Campbell's truck, you now fling them into the sky with the aforementioned helium balloons - no, the game doesn't mind if you're indoors when you do it. It also has the side effect of getting rid of the body so other patrolling guards won't stumble upon it at the worst possible moment, which combines with Snake's newfound inability to drag bodies to dramatically change the way you play.
Recruitment bleeds into the Mother Base metagame, where you spend time outside of missions assigning your new comrades to various duties around your mercenary enclave. Your R&D squad develops technology, for instance, whereas your combat squad brings home the in-game currency you'll spend on buying new kit. You also have to staff your own mess hall, infirmary and intelligence division, as well as send your units on their own missions with results that play out on the screen like a stylised 2D Final Fantasy battle. Winning these missions boosts the stats of your units, allowing you to repeat the whole cycle for even fancier loot.
The trouble with these sequences is they don't hold much value. While they have an odd habit of being an easy way to burn through half your afternoon, it's hard to escape the fact they're just grinding for grinding's sake. The game does a poor job of incentivising players to plough onwards: the spirit of Monster Hunter is plain to see, but the game doesn't come close to matching its soul.
There's also a confused and roughly implemented co-op system. Despite Kojima's initial boast it's only the boss levels which support 4 players, the regular campaign supporting just 2, so if you do ever manage to find a willing group (and that's much easier said than done when it comes to finding ad-hoc PSP players in the UK) your party will be fractured for the most part.
The leftover two could always spend their downtime trading recruits with other players, as if they were Pokmon, but swapping around ambiguous piles of stats doesn't compare to trading away your cherished Pikachu. Still, an A-ranked R&D specialist always comes in handy.
Conversely, the game also punishes you for playing by yourself with some stark difficulty spikes and boss encounters that feel like tedious wars of attrition. The boss roster is decidedly lacking in the series' usual imaginative variety, too, and the mandatory helicopter fight mid-way through the game does little more than expose the downsides of having to use the face buttons to control your aim. What happened to the wild imagination of the team that brought us Psycho Mantis, Sloth and Sorrow?
Peace Walker is far more successful in its portrayal of the traditional Metal Gear moments: it's graduated top of the class in running, sneaking, lying down in some bushy foliage and quietly popping guys in the head with silenced weaponry. It's plain to see Kojima Productions is far more relaxed and comfortable in these familiar areas, with this content routinely on par with the Metal Gear Solid series at its finest.
Examples of clever design are scattered everywhere. Levels are punctuated into bite-sized segments, for instance, which rarely take more than fifteen minutes to complete. The whole game is set-up to be quick and accessible, and things like boss encounters always exist as their own stage so you don't have to faff about with ten minutes of running if you're just looking to grind your stats.
A slightly routine opening chapter also leads into far more exciting later levels. The enemies mix themselves up a bit as you plod onwards, some opting to don bonnets (that make a comedy ping noise when shot off), which forces you to eat through your silencer twice as fast and, a bit further on, some lying in wait for you in the jungle. The latter can make for some especially tough moments, forcing you to repeat the same level until you know where your opponents are hiding. As my lexically dextrous co-op partner so eruditely put it the other day, "those bits can f*** right off." He has a point, but I don't think I'd want it any other way.
There's a lot of game to be had, too, with the main campaign clocking in at just over 20 hours and enough endgame content (if you can stomach it) to last you well over 60. While the grinding feels ultimately pointless, it's all tied together with startling competence and is perfect proof, if it were ever needed, that Kojima Productions knows how to present their vision with genuine coherence. At the same time, and because it feels like the studio is still finding its feet with things like co-op and RPG elements, that vision doesn't have enough zest to dethrone its competition when it comes to the desirable co-op timesink genre.
Treat it as a regular single-player Metal Gear game, though, and you're unlikely to be disappointed: those lofty claims about Peace Walker being Metal Gear Solid 5 certainly weren't far off in that regard. The problem comes when you factor in the strong focus on the pleasant but unrewarding co-op mode, and start realising how the game never really makes up its mind on whether it's a traditional single-player adventure or a serious contender for the next Monster Hunter. Kojima Productions is trying to have their cake and eat it, and in doing so end up just dropping the cake.