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Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker
Score: 95%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Kojima Productions
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 6; 2 - 6 (Ad Hoc)
Genre: Action/ Stealth/ Online

Graphics & Sound:
The Metal Gear Solid franchise has been key in my development as a gamer. It's the first franchise I loved and loved so much I was willing to pre-order months in advance just for the reassurance that there was a copy that was mine. It is still hard for me to make a top-ten list of my favorite games of all time without making half of them Metal Gear. So I might be a little biased in the assertion of the next statement, but Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is easily one of the best PSP games on the market and is also the best effort from Hideo Kojima himself since Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.

Peace Walker returns to a much more central narrative for Snake last seen in MGS3. Where MGS4 was tied down by needing to explain away every plot thread and back story for every character in the entire franchise's universe within its enormously ambitious set pieces; Peace Walker is significantly smaller in scope choosing to focus instead on Snake and his motivations and relationship with his former mentor, The Boss.

The smaller scope means the development team can get away with smaller environments for Snake to explore. This goes back to MGS3 again with a series of small, interconnected maps to navigate throughout the game. These smaller maps also mean the game looks absolutely incredible. There were moments where I legitimately forgot I was playing a PSP game. The in-game graphics engine is on par with PlayStation 2 standards and the production values are top-notch across the board. You would be hard-pressed to find another portable game that has this much love and attention in every corner of the package.

From the stellar in-game graphics and cut-scenes to the slick animated graphic novel presentation of many of the story elements, Peace Walker presents itself as if it were competing with the big boys on the PS3 and to be honest, it could hold its own. All of the trademark voice acting is present as well. David Hayter reprises his role as Snake with gravely tones intact and each of the new characters already feel like they belong in the franchise as soon as you meet them.

I want to take a special moment to commend the team for an excellent soundtrack. The score is suitably epic and moving, but the special remixes and reproductions of classic songs from the entire franchise are a nice touch. At one point in the story, you are allowed to bring a Walkman with you during missions. The Walkman is loaded with songs that fans will recognize, but also serves as a suitable mood setter for many of the locations and environments along the way.

The story of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a bridge between the events that took place during Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation. Actually, more specifically, this is explaining what happens to Big Boss that causes the Zanzibarland incident during Metal Gear for the MSX home computer console in Japan, which was also included on the bonus disc for MGS3: Subsistence. I know it already sounds like this is too much of a barrier to entry if you aren't familiar with the series, but I assure you that Peace Walker is still very enjoyable on its own. These are all new characters and a totally new chapter in the Metal Gear saga so newcomers should feel welcomed, while fans should be excited!

Big Boss, aka Snake, is seeking a more meaningful life in Costa Rica by creating his own army called "Militaires Sans Frontieres" ("Soldiers Without Borders") when he is approached by a Soviet nationalist with some startling information. It seems the CIA is building nuclear facilities all over Costa Rica and a strange audio tape has been found which contains the voice of Snake's mentor, The Boss. Confused and intrigued, Big Boss seeks to stop the threat of nuclear war and find out what happened to The Boss, whom he believed he had killed 10 years earlier. The Costa Rican government was gracious enough to gift Big Boss on off-shore drilling platform to act as his center of operations during his mission.

Like I said earlier, this experience is much more closely focused on Snake's emotional rollercoaster over his feelings toward The Boss. He is tormented by guilt for killing the only person he was ever truly compassionate towards while also struggling with resentment and betrayal issues over her defection to the Soviets during the Cold War incident. This story is beautifully poetic while also maintaining the same intense action and espionage for which the series is known. And while the story may be grappling with a complicated premise, the game design philosophy is not; this is Monster Hunter with guns.

With the game set up into four separate categories: Main Ops (story missions), Extra Ops, CO-OPS, and Versus; it is clear that the Monster Hunter inspiration is well executed. This is the best way for any gamer to get what they want out of a PSP game. Story lovers get what they need out of Main Ops and Extra Ops for a bit of item collection, while online devotees can still play CO-OP through some very challenging missions or Versus if they feel like shooting each other instead of the bad guys. The level design uses a series of small detailed maps, which open out into an empty arena for boss encounters just like the enormously popular monster game in Japan.

The entire package of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is crammed with content. Outside of the already mentioned gameplay types, there are also strategy and RPG ideas woven in as well. Snake can recruit soldiers he finds during his mission for use at MSF which contributes to his research abilities which creates more items and equipment to use in the field. Managing each soldier's role becomes addictive in its own right, although it is still a streamlined version of the system found in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. There is even an Advanced Wars style battle mission mini-game where you can send teams of soldiers to capture or eliminate enemies across hundreds of micro-missions to capture new vehicles like tanks and helicopters. The biggest, and most important, distraction is the inclusion of a mech customization feature. At one point in the story, a Metal Gear is being built and you have the control over what features to include in its production which should have fans giddy with excitement. There is always something to improve or distract yourself with in Peace Walker which goes to show that when Kojima said there are "over 100 hours of gameplay," he meant it.

It is worth pointing out that the Monster Hunter design goes one step too far and I am not even counting the inclusion of several Monster Hunter crossover Extra-Ops missions. The series is largely known for having some of the best boss fights in the industry. Creative and over-the-top characters are the linchpins that hold the games together, but for Peace Walker, every single boss fight is against an enormous mechanized weapon like tanks, helicopters, and of course Metal Gears which are stand-ins for dragons and basilisks from Monster Hunter and it all just seems a tad uninspired given the franchise history. This doesn't ruin the game by any means, the design of the fights are meant to be taken down with friends, but it does lose a bit of luster for solo players that want more elaborate boss encounters.

This is generally an easy experience for any seasoned Metal Gear veteran. Sneaking around the jungle is still just as much fun as it always has been and the trip to PSP development has made some compromises to the enemy A.I. Enemies usually can't see you if you are more than ten feet away, but the design overcomes that flaw by having intense sneaking missions through warehouse environments or crowded rain forests. Properly equipping the right gear prior to missions is also key to succeeding in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, although once you unlock the versatile Sneaking Suit, you don't need anything else.

The two most difficult aspects about Peace Walker are easy to identify: the boss fights and the controls. One is deliberate; the other is unfortunate. The four-player approach to most of the boss fights may work well with a full team, but tackling a 60-foot death machine is not a cake-walk by yourself. All of the fights are definitely manageable, but the endurance will get to you before the difficulty will. Particularly during the final chapters, some boss fights took me upwards of 25 minutes to take down solo only because I had to resupply my equipment and wait for the bosses to get into a better position for me to attack.

The meat of the single-player game is quite long. You can expect to finish the adventure at about 22 hours give or take a few, depending on much you get sidetracked with item management and weapon building. Honestly, I have never sank this much time into a PSP game before, and I am still not done. Hundreds of extra missions, a hidden ending, and plenty of easter eggs still have me hooked until I see it all.

Game Mechanics:
It is telling about the nature of the game design when the control scheme is available in three different varieties: Shooter Type, Action Type, and Hunter Type. Shooter Type is the default setup, also the recommended setup, and it uses the control scheme most similar to MGS4 - (L1) aims, and (R1) shoots; with all the camera controls on the face buttons. It takes a while to acclimate yourself to the new style, but it is worth it in the end. The other control schemes are basically identical, with camera control on the D-pad and action commands on the face buttons. The Action Type uses the shoulder buttons to aim, while (Square) fires the weapon, whereas the Hunter Type incorporates a persistent aiming activated by pressing (Triangle).

The Shooter Type control scheme is the best improvement for a PSP Metal Gear thus far, but it is still simply inferior to a proper controller with two Analog Sticks. The instinctual tendencies to use the face buttons during intense firefights are cumbersome because it always swings the camera around to unusable angles or causes you to change your direction if you are running away. This is the biggest problem with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Inventory management is fine. Shooting feels fine. Even the pre-set message system between CO-OPs works well with a team of players, but the problems with the camera will always hinder the series as long it stays on Sony's handheld.

The best thing I can say about Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is that after finishing it, I have no problem comparing it to its major console cousins, which is something I cannot say for Metal Gear Ac!d and Portable Ops. This is a serious entry into the Metal Gear Solid franchise and the end result is well worth the effort. The merging of two gameplay ideas: Metal Gear meets Monster Hunter is undeniably addictive and fun, and the inclusion of a dramatic and satisfying story that explores more meaningful areas of Snake's past make Peace Walker not only the best Metal Gear on handhelds, but also the best PSP game release to date.

-HanChi, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Hanchey

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