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 complements 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.
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.
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.
Besides receiving recruits plucked off the battlefield with the Fulton balloon, your base gains new members via volunteers who arrive between missions, attracted by your rising heroism score. You can also trade staff with other players and undertake an "entrance exam" time trial mission in which you must knock out prospective recruits in hand-to-hand combat.
The multiplayer features local competitive and cooperative play and lets you trade gear and soldiers with other players. Versus play options, which support up to six players, include the requisite team deathmatch and base defence modes, which are fun if not remarkable additions. This is a game primarily built on stealthily outsmarting AI characters, and it doesn't shine to its fullest extent in player-on-player combat. There are fully customisable rule sets and loadouts, though, and a good number of environments to do battle in.
Cooperative play, on the other hand, is a great addition for friends working through Peace Walker together. The number that can play together varies; only two players are permitted in main missions, while four players can team up for boss battles, although bringing in two more players in the middle of a session might be a tricky proposition. But there are plenty of novel kicks with two-player stealth, not least among them an automatically synchronised sneaking mode and two-man cardboard box "tanks" to hide beneath and shuffle around in. Cooperative play changes the whole experience, because having two players opens up new stealth strategies, and some levels are designed with areas accessible by one player giving the other a leg up. Peace Walker also has no difficulty settings and doesn't make enemies any more challenging when additional players join in, so the extra firepower provided by teaming up is helpful in boss battles.
In addition to the main missions, there are Extra Ops: short, repeatable side missions playable as Snake or any of your combat staff and good for picking up extra points to put into your gadget and weapon tech. If you can't arrange a team of players to take down the tougher bosses, you may need to replay some of these in order to level your heavy weapons--but, thankfully, this progression is quick and the missions are short. Since each is just a few minutes long, Extra Ops is the part of the game best suited for short bursts of play on the move, along with the entrance-exam recruitment minigame. The longer, campaign levels, many of which connect four or five discrete areas with no checkpointing, aren't so well suited to a bite-sized, portable experience and are best reserved for longer, stationary sessions. But with the wide variety of modes and activities, you'll always find something to suit the time you have available to play.
Peace Walker offers value in spades. Even for an adept player, completing the main storyline is no weekend job, taking easily upwards of 20 hours, and the whole experience, trimmings and all, demands replay. The way the game's multiple modes fit together and feed into each other will entice even a reluctant completionist to keep chipping away. Once you've completed the story, the moreish gameplay and steady rewards of new unlocked goodies mean you want to fully staff your base and level up your combat teams, not to mention go after the next weapon or gadget upgrade, as well as codenames and insignia awarded for completing achievement-like challenges and trying out different play styles.
With stellar presentation, great looks and sound, and deep, diverse gameplay, Peace Walker is an essential experience that raises the bar for portable games. It combines the ambition and gloss of a full-sized console title with plenty of novelties and conveniences to make it a superb portable experience.