The Metal Gear Solid series has always been synonymous with fresh technology. In addition to the hi-tech arsenal that has always been placed at your disposal within each game, the series has similarly racked-up some pretty formidable exemplars of what each consecutive piece of designated hardware was fully capable of. The first game shone with incomparable brightness on the original Playstation; approached the apex of what the Playstation 2 could do not once but twice; and Metal Gear Solid 4, despite being over two years old, can still (easily) stand proud alongside the very best that the Playstation 3 currently has to offer.
In addition to being the most expansive and visually stylish PSP game ever made, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker may also prove over time to be the finest episode in the series, full stop. It represents creator Hideo Kojima firing on all creative cylinders, and the development team working alongside him truly make the PSP do things that you weren’t even certain were possible. After Metal Gear Acid and its sequel unambitiously re-shaped the formula into a turn-based strategy entity that seemed superficially more fitting for the platform, 2007’s Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops did an excellent job of nurturing the progression of the series on handheld, as well as constructing the sturdy groundwork that Peace Walker has been built on.
Though that game was solidly entertaining, Kojima acted merely as a producer on the project, and his lack of presence (in a new chapter to a series that he had such a strong hand in creating) was very much missed. But if full-strength Metal Gear Solid is most vividly exemplified by the degree of Kojima’s idiosyncratic input, then Peace Walker is as distinctive an episode as Sons Of The Patriots was on the PS3. And whilst Portable Op’s plot made it feel like a bit of a frivolous-but-enjoyable offshoot created entirely by someone else, Peace Walker feels like a fully-fledged sequel, albeit one that takes place directly after Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
Set in 1974, the plot (as usual) is alternately po-faced and lightweight, but it is as shrewdly crafted as any other series entry. It centres on a covert military unit who make an aggressive stand in Costa Rica with some enjoyably far-fetched weaponry described as ‘peace sentinels’ at their disposal – a situation that the Costa Rican government are unable to directly deal with because of a flaw in their constitution – and Snake and his merry band of unkempt mercenaries are tasked with dealing with the situation quickly, and quietly.
Much of the dialogue this time actually turns out to be optional, as the bulk of it rests inside the pre-level radio conversations that can be skipped or ignored as you like. That aside, the plot (told via some very stylish comic-book visuals, some of which are interactive) is punchier and far less indulgent than you’ve come to expect from previous Kojima-led installments. It’s also a hell of a lot easier to follow, and though the plot twists don’t get as whacked-out as you’d perhaps like them to, you’re liable to finish the experience more satisfied with the storyline than you were with the superb gameplay. No mean feat.
The new control-set does appear unorthodox and fiddly at first, but the default scheme feels second nature after around five minutes and probably represents the ideal way to play it. If you don’t warm to the new set-up, you can modify your controls to share the layout options with schemes from Metal Gear Solid 4, Portable Ops or even the PSP iterations of Monster Hunter. And although you can’t perform some of Solid Snake’s most familiar techniques; like hide inside lockers or crawl around whilst prone – both casualties of bringing the series so eloquently to the format; the gameplay has been very thoughtfully structured with their absence in mind, and it’s a testament to how well this is done that you’ll never miss them.
The game’s missions are lopped into easily-digestible ten-to-fifteen minute long chunks, co-op is supported and comes very highly recommended (though sadly it’s local only and isn’t available over Wi-Fi) and the boss battles are customarily ingenious and deeply rewarding to beat. Some devotees may have always suspected that a properly rich Metal Gear Solid game wasn’t possible on anything other than an up-to-date home console, but Peace Walker proves all of them very wrong indeed, and stands not only as one of the year’s finest PSP games, but one of the finest on any platform.