Friday, March 7, 2014

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker - Tactical Espionage Operations

Note: The following review is based on both the PSP and PS3 versions of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the latter of which was played via Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection.

In about a year’s time, I’ve gone from knowing nothing about the Metal Gear franchise to knowing nearly everything about its story and characters. Since I first played Metal Gear Solid for PS1, I’ve become completely drawn in by the world the games have set up and have now been eagerly anticipating new installments, one of them being the recent Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. My attention has now been drawn to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, a game which I have been following coverage of since I became more aware of it. However, I realized that in order to understand its events, I’d have to play the previous chronological entry, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. To that end, I got the PSP version and began playing it, but then switched to the PS3 version partway and completed it there. I’ll explain how and why later, but the important thing is that I ended up liking Peace Walker, although I felt some of the gameplay tweaks and revamped mechanics needed a bit of getting used to.

In 1974, ten years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (MSG3), Naked Snake, now known as Big Boss, has created his own army, the Militaires San Frontières (MSF; translates to Soldiers Without Borders), composed of those who have abandoned all ties to their home country. On November 4, at Columbia’s Barranquilla Coast, MSF deputy commander Kazuhira Miller introduces Snake to two potential clients from Costa Rica, Paz Ortega Andrade and Ramón Gálvez Mena. Gálvez explains that since Costa Rica has no army, he was given authority by the Costa Rican government to hire MSF to protect them from an invading armed group. Kaz encourages Snake to send MSF as protection, but Snake is reluctant to do so. As persuasion, Gálvez takes out a SONY Walkman, which he gives to Snake, and plays a cassette tape containing a recent recording of The Boss’ voice. Surprised, Snake agrees to help out and is provided an offshore platform in the Caribbean as a base, which is dubbed Mother Base. Six days later, MSF leaps into action. During his mission, however, Snake learns information revealing that there’s a lot more going on than he initially thought.

Ramón Gálvez Mena as he appears before Snake.

Written by Hideo Kojima, the story of Peace Walker is pretty much a direct continuation of MGS3, since The Boss is an important element of the overall plot. She serves as the motivation for Big Boss’ actions and her past and ideals are frequently brought up and discussed. That said, the story is very well-written. Big Boss’ journey leads him to meeting new characters, all of whom are well-rounded, though we don’t always get a glimpse of their entire personality. Every single character is important to the plot and a couple, Huey Emmerich and Kazuhira Miller, are also important to the events of other games chronologically. The game’s theme of nuclear deterrence is also heavily discussed, with characters Huey Emmerich and Dr. Strangelove at the center of the issue via their creation of the eponymous Peace Walker AI weapon. I like how the search for Peace Walker is played with gradually increasing urgency across four lengthy chapters until it reaches a very emotional climax and ends in a way that caps off the major events of the story perfectly.

Peace Walker as it is first seen.

Of course, I feel I should mention at this point in time that while you do go through four chapters to get to the end, there is a fifth chapter that is only accessible after the credits have rolled. This chapter requires the player to go through certain motions or fulfill requirements to keep it going and it doesn’t take very much time to finish. That said, this chapter is also home to some very major plot twists, which I won’t spoil so that you find out for yourself. If chapter four is the emotional climax, then chapter five is more like an epilogue, which isn’t that bad considering the length. At the same time it hints at future adventures for Big Boss, which makes me all the more curious about the events of the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.

The gameplay in Peace Walker is different from the approach the other games have taken. Rather than simply play through one continuous story, the game is divided into chapters, further subdivided into individual Main Ops missions that take varying lengths of time to complete. As you play through each chapter, you are also encouraged by Kaz to knock out your enemies and use the Fulton Recovery System on them so they’ll end up in Mother Base and expand the MSF’s ranks. By replaying missions, you can not only capture more soldiers for Mother Base, but you can also repeat fights against vehicles to expand your arsenal or have a rematch against one of the AI weapons to obtain parts and AI boards for weapons of your own. Apart from the Main Ops, there are also Extra Ops where you complete different challenges, such as recovering POWs or obtaining classified documents, to gain rewards and further Mother Base’s potential. It gets easy to adapt to this mission setup, but there are a couple elements that will take longer to do so.

Mother Base after a good deal of expansion.

One of these elements is that not only do you have to make sure MSF has a good number of people in it, but you also have to manage Mother Base itself. You are responsible for putting different soldiers into different divisions, like R&D and Combat, with more divisions of Mother Base becoming available as you advance through the story. You can Auto Assign people to these different divisions, but eventually you’ll probably be forced to make some decisions manually and even end up firing those who contribute the least. Your R&D division also relies on GMP from Combat to determine what weapons and items they can develop, with some naturally taking longer than others (completing missions will move time forward). At first I found myself greatly understaffed, which caused me to have low division ranks (which also determine what R&D can do), but when I finished playing I was nearly at capacity, so I would suggest taking some time to figure out who you think really deserves to be at Mother Base to advance development and keep things running as smoothly as possible.

There's also a surprise special guest.

The other element that takes getting used to is the general control scheme. You can choose between three different layouts, with one being based on the earlier Portable Ops, one based on Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (MGS4) and another based on the Monster Hunter game series (which, if my research is accurate, inspired the Mother Base management element). I chose Shooter Type so it would feel more natural, down to adjusting the control scheme to mimic classic Metal Gear gameplay as closely as possible. This helped me get through the game better, but having played both the PSP and PS3 versions (I’ll explain how in a bit), I would suggest playing on PS3 due to the better camera and weapon/item selection controls. On that note, items and weapons can, on PS3, be accessed with L2 and R2, but requires you to still scroll left and right in real time on a menu that takes up a majority of the screen. I’m more used to the action pausing to let me switch, so I needed more time to adjust to this method. I also liked certain changes from MGS3, like not requiring the player to go through menu after menu to heal or change camouflage patterns, since you select one camo to use for the mission and “Ration = Health” is reintroduced, along with more cardboard box options and other healing items. The Psyche gauge makes an appearance from MGS4 in place of Stamina, which results overall in a pretty solid hybrid of MGS3 and MGS4 gameplay. I now wonder where future games will go with this idea.

Since I’ve mentioned Monster Hunter, I’d like to spend a little time on that. By completing certain requirements (listen to all of Chico’s briefing files about mythical creatures, then almost complete Extra Ops 029 but go to the ocean instead of the Fulton Recovery Point, then go to the end of the bridge and watch a cutscene), you can unlock missions where Snake fights different creatures from the Monster Hunter franchise. Having never played Monster Hunter, I still found this crossover idea interesting and actually felt my adrenaline going during combat. However, these missions can also be very difficult depending on your strategy, so I only got to beat the first one, Rathalos. These fights can also get majorly annoying, particularly when you mix persistent Velociprey creatures with relentless attacks from the boss creatures, especially Tigrex (who I died against every single time I challenged it). Still, this offers the game quite a bit of replay value and is a good treat for Monster Hunter fans.

Believe it or not, this is even more challenging than it looks.

Before I go into the technical aspects of the game, I’d like to point out one major continuity error. This has nothing to do with the number of minor retcons, like making it so it wasn’t Huey (Otacons’ dad) but rather his dad (Otacon’s grandfather) that was involved in the Manhattan project, as Metal Gear does it enough that you just have to roll with them for the story to still make sense. This is actually about something that one might overlook that goes through the entire game and some might say that I care too much to point out: Snake’s eye patch. In MGS3, the player gets to see the moment Naked Snake (not yet Big Boss) loses his right eye before gaining his iconic eye patch. This moment is so poignant and important to Naked Snake’s development that the game even alters the First-Person aiming so the player is only seeing out of his left eye, forcing one to try and adjust how they fire to make up for this. In Peace Walker however, no matter who Big Boss is fighting, regardless of it being a cutscene or manual aiming, he is always aiming out of his right eye, which means that he is somehow looking through the eye patch to fire off a weapon. After a while I stopped worrying about it, but I could never really let this little detail go because it goes against everything that should logically happen in a universe that is already very realistic (except for the giant robots and technological marvels of course). Hopefully this is just a one-time thing.

Seriously, how is he doing that? Is it nanomachines or something?

Since I mentioned it before, I’d like to explain how I was able to play both versions of the game for this review. When Metal Gear Solid HD Collection was in production, Kojima Productions developed a new technology that Hideo Kojima called “Transfarring” (a portmanteau of “transferring” and “sharing”). This technology allows someone to begin playing Peace Walker on the PS3 and then transfer their save to the PSP version so they can keep playing it on the go; this mindset also applies to the HD Collection in general since you can move your files to and from the Vita version. For veteran PlayStation users, you may recognize this as the Cross-Play technology introduced to PS3, PS4 and Vita, which is essentially a widespread adoption and integration of the Transfarring technology. In my case, I began on PSP before Transfarring to PS3 for the better control scheme. I may not have any Trophies for doing so, but at the very least I was able to more comfortably play and finish the game.

The Transfarring screen for Peace Walker.

Graphically, Peace Walker is actually pretty good. Of course, the character models on PSP look more akin to an average PS2 game, and the PS3 version, though in HD, is simultaneously better and kind of the same, but the backgrounds are amazing. I never got tired of looking at Costa Rica, with the amazing attention to detail on the flora and fauna of the area. I was reminded quite a bit of MGS3, especially in the background noises, but I can’t fault the game for trying to be as detailed as its brethren and, in some ways, succeeding. As usual, Yoji Shinkawa’s art style is really good in Peace Walker, as the new characters go in with the recurring cast perfectly; Paz in particular is actually pretty cute.

The high art quality actually carries over to the cutscenes, which were actually better than anticipated. Ashley Wood, from what I read, was heavily involved with the art for Portable Ops, but in Peace Walker he is actually credited as a guest artist; the art style used throughout is more akin to Yoji Shinkawa, who led a team of artists for the game. To me, this style suits the game better than Ashley Wood going solo, who I still say is best for horror comics, and I think the game is better off for it.

The general style of the cutscenes (Pictured: Paz).

Peace Walker also features very good voice acting. David Hayter returns as Naked Snake, although his voice sounds raspier than usual. Christopher Randolph also returns to voice Huey Emmerich, which makes sense given that Huey is Hal Emmerich’s father. While his performance is not completely unlike Otacon, there’s something a little different about it to set the two characters apart from each other. Tara Strong and Steve Blum, two of my favorite voice actors in general, also return to the series (having previously appeared in Portable Ops) to voice Paz and Ramón respectively. Both of them give strong performances that lend a lot of depth to their characters, which helps the vocal quality in general. Overall, everyone involved does such a good job and I hope this level of quality carries over to future games.

Lastly, the music is very good as well. There is a lot of range in the compositions with plenty of style changes throughout the course of the game. When there is a sense of urgency or triumph, the music perfectly reflects that, but the lack of music in certain situations is also good as it keeps you on your feet.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is an excellent addition to the Metal Gear franchise. The story directly continues from MGS3 in a brilliant way and nuclear deterrence is discussed in fascinating detail. The gameplay changes things up quite a bit and, while it takes some time to get used to it, it’s a very natural evolution and hybridization of MGS3 and MGS4’s gameplay styles. I would highly recommend existing fans to check it out, but I would also strongly suggest playing it on PS3 for the sake of a better control scheme. Newcomers to Metal Gear shouldn’t even try to start with this one, as they’ll likely become lost by the references to previously existing events. In that case, I’d suggest actually playing the rest of the games first, beginning with Metal Gear Solid and going forward by release order. Considering what’s on the horizon, this is an essential game in the franchise that there is really no excuse for fans to miss.

[Revised 3/27/16]

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