|Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker | for PlayStation Portable | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Kojima Productions | Published by Konami|
For a couple of hours, I was enjoying the latest iteration of the long-running Metal Gear Solid
series, which is called Peace Walker
. Unlike the massive, bloated, self-important Metal Gear Solid 4
, this portable installment felt lean and mean. Emphasizing the unadorned stealth mechanics that had made the series great, Hideo Kojima and his team seemed to have recommitted to fundamentals and gotten away from the languid storytelling that had metastasized in the series. Sure, Peace Walker
has its share of talky bullshit, but at least the cutscenes are presented in a crisp graphic-novel format and not the over-caffeinated style of Michael Bay.
But if you're going to play a Kojima game, you have to forgive him some excess. Besides, his indulgence is often matched only by his inspiration. After all these years, his casual dismissal of the fourth wall remains thrilling, almost illicitly so. His sense of humor shows in unexpected ways as well. One feature of Peace Walker is the Fulton Recovery System, a balloon-like item that Snake can attach to unconscious friends and foes, whereupon it whisks them into the sky for pick-up by helicopter. As a sight gag, it never fails.
The game also seems, initially, to make the right concessions to the portable format. Missions take about 15 minutes to complete the first time, less if you're replaying them for experience. Better still is what happens between missions, when Peace Walker offers up a bite-sized strategy game that's perfectly suited to handheld play.
Throughout, you recruit (or kidnap) soldiers to work at your base. Each has special abilities that can be upgraded through side missions, and each must be put to work in order to keep things running smoothly. Not only does the team back at the base build new weapons and items for Snake to use on the battlefield, but managing the base requires some top-level thought: you have to assign workers to the appropriate tasks while keeping everybody healthy and fed.
But it doesn't take long for problems to pop up. Peace Walker has absolutely bizarre controls, and though it does offer three different button layouts, each one sacrifices playability in a different way. I tried to stick with the default set-up, in which the PSP's analog nub controls Snake and the face buttons control the game camera. Forget that using digital input for precise movements such as aiming your weapon feels like stepping backward 15 years in time — using that waffle-textured nub for even a few minutes feels as if you were ripping the skin off your thumb.
And though they're adequate for the sneaking portions of the game, the controls really hurt during action sequences. Running and aiming is impossible with the default set-up. An included auto-aim function should help, but auto-aim in this context seems to mean that Snake simply disregards player input. When auto-aim is on, Snake will spin away from a foe standing directly in front of him in order to take aim at thin air.
So here's the real problem with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. By trying to translate the robustness of a console game to the handheld format, it eliminates the virtues of the former without fully taking advantage of the latter. It doesn't matter how deep the game systems are if the physical play is awkward. And the much-touted online co-op isn't much use if you play on the go, in a car or train away from wi-fi connectivity. You may be able to take this game anywhere, but you have to leave much of it behind. No big loss.