Surprisingly playable, surprisingly indigestible
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker Review
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Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is the first portable story-focused entry into the iconic Metal Gear Solid Series.
And while this is a spin-off title, the story is a direct continuation of the widely celebrated main-series entry MGS3: Snake Eater.
After completing a top-secret US government mission, Snake a.k.a. Big Boss, starts a private military company with a man named Kazuhira Miller. Shortly after, they are presented with an audio recording of Snake’s believed-to-be dead mentor: the Boss. They follow the trail to Costa Rica, but instead of finding her, they discover a covert CIA nuclear arms programme that, if successful, would entirely change the nature of the ongoing East-West conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The portable format for this game came with a myriad of challenges. The PlayStation Portable is computationally much weaker than the PlayStation 2 on which MGS3 was released. Additionally, the portability allows for playing the game in totally different environments that are prone to interruption. Unlike home consoles, a typical game session might vary from a few minutes to a few hours. This poses quite the challenge for a game series like MGS that has a knack for the cinematic. As a result, Peace Walker is unlike any other game in the main series.
Tactical espionage action?
The first thing you would expect to take a hit in a portable Metal Gear Solid game is the stealth gameplay.
But, surprisingly, stealth remains a huge part of the game and feels decent to play.
However, the overall game structure has been heavily revised for portability.
There is no greater contiguous world to explore. Instead, each mission you play is its own small level.
And after each mission, you return to make preparations for the next.
I should note that this isn’t entirely new. There was another MGS game for PSP before Peace Walker: Portable Ops. So beyond Peace Walker’s greater focus on story, how does it compare to Portable Ops gameplay-wise?
Firstly, the game features some nice and simple improvements over its predecessor. In both games, you raise a small army by recruiting enemy soldiers from the battlefield. Previously you had to slowly drag incapacitated soldiers to a pickup point which was quite the pain. Now, in Peace Walker, recruiting is a breeze with a surface-to-air extraction device which sends the people it’s attached to skywards, and your team handles the rest. Another minor change is that levels leading up to a boss fight and the actual boss fight are split into two levels. This allows the game to turn boss fights into more momentous occasions and generally fits better with the portable format.
The boss fights themselves mostly fall on the plump side, however. Almost every time a fight is some vehicle or huge machine, best defeated by unloading your explosive arsenal until its health bar is depleted. It’s simplistic and not rewarding at all. Some fights have an alternative, non-lethal path, as is tradition, but the game does not adequately reward such efforts, making the explosive route the only one worth taking. Towards the end of the game, some boss fights start utilising the level environment in interesting ways, but essentially you just get a glimpse of how much better the game’s boss fights could have been shortly before it is over. Boss fights usually have much character in this series and are fun to figure out. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case in Peace Walker.
The game does feature a coop mode—another unique element to this game within the series. Potentially, with some buddies, the boss fights would be less tedious. But then again, everything is more fun if done with friends.
Portable Metal Gear Solid
The portability and weaker hardware of the PSP affect the game in all its facets. Gameplay-wise, Peace Walker is surprisingly playable. However, the control scheme takes some time to get used to. Since the PSP only has one analogue nub for directional input, the devs had to pick if it should be used for character or camera movement. They decided on the former. This leaves the PlayStation face buttons for camera controls. As a result, its movement is invariable in terms of speed. Double that with the fact that these same controls are used for aiming, playing at lowered camera speed is the only feasible option. Once you figure that out, it’s pretty smooth sailing from thereon.
But the portable format does not exclusively come with limitations.
For some aspects of the game, Kojima Productions utilised the unique setting very effectively.
One such feature is the game’s audio logs. They take up a surprising amount of the game.
Previous games had so-called codec calls, where you could call the many characters of the game for a conversation. Depending on where you were in the game and story, the response would differ. But since you had to initiate the call, most of this content probably wasn’t heard by most players.
In Peace Walker, these conversations still happen, but they are recordings that one can listen to whenever one wants. This turns the PSP into a kind of MP3 player that capitalises on how people were already listening to music on the go.
Now that you can’t miss a call, it allows for major changes to the format. For one, some of these recordings are quite long, but that’s okay since you can only listen to them when not deployed on the battlefield. If a conversation is too long for you in Peace Walker, you can stop and move on without feeling like you are missing out because you can return any time you want.
Secondly, since you have all conversations nicely listed now, they can build on each other. Not unoften does a conversation branch off into others. It allows Peace Walker to explore some topics in a depth other MGS games simply couldn’t. I like how this is implemented and how it uses the nature of the portable format for itself.
One thing I dislike, however, is that you can’t meaningfully fast-forward a conversation. You can skip individual lines and read what comes after in the dialogue, but it stops the voice acting. And once stopped it cannot be resumed. This is unfortunate since acting is the key selling point of these conversations. A few times, I accidentally pressed the skip button and then would have to relisten to everything up until that point to hear how it ends. But overall, it works well, especially considering how much time of the game these recordings take up.
Another iconic thing for Metal Gear Solid that was changed to better suit the portable environment is the cutscenes. Usually, for the series, those are presented in the same visual style as the rest of the game. Peace Walker has them in comic book style−with speech bubbles and all. Most likely, this is because of the PSP’s hardware limitations, but it’s a nice fresh change regardless. The game further tries to do things differently by adding interactive elements to the cutscenes. So when Snake does some shooting in a cutscene, it is you who has to take aim and pull the trigger. But, unfortunately, the utilisation of this novel concept remains limited and sometimes very questionable, as I’ll explore later on.
Militaires Sans Frontières - subtle
Peace Walker starts with a generic disclaimer that the private military company that Snake and Miller operate in this game, called Militaires Sans Frontières (Soldiers Without Borders), has absolutely nothing to do with the organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Like with any such disclaimer, it is, of course, a complete lie. The game does not make explicitly clear what it is trying to say by naming its fictional for-profit private army after an actually existing non-profit that does disaster relief, oftentimes in war zones. Most likely, this contrast is meant to invite the player to compare the two, as MSF (the real one) is well known. As the game’s narrative gradually shifts in its portrayal of MSF (the fictional one) from positive to negative, the contrast with the org it is named after grows greater and greater.
Soldiers without Borders is a pseudo-libertarian project. A private army selling its military services on the market. It steps into the thematic footsteps of private military contractors that were explored in Metal Gear Solid 4, except decades earlier with the East-West conflict at its height. Suffice it to say, you are kind of playing the bad guy.
MSF nominally is an army that represents no state, no country and no ideology. But this is wholly contradicted by the actions of the organisation. Beyond the previously mentioned pseudo-libertarianism of the whole enterprise, MSF is effectively a state itself. Their base is located on clearly defined territory, and due to the nature of their undertaking, they get the army to defend their land claim for free.
The moment when the game fully puts its cards on the table is at the end when Snake rejects the teachings of his mentor and arms MSF with nuclear weapons. In the predecessor, the Boss was portrayed as the ideal soldier who pretended to betray her country and consequently paid the ultimate price to prevent nuclear war. Just before the game tells you directly that armies should be abolished, you have the game protagonist explicitly reject her philosophy of peace.
Just like nation-states are everywhere, the armies backing their territorial claims are also. The existence of either is rarely structurally challenged in media. Previous MGS games took them for granted in their narratives all the same. So I want to commend this game for its refreshingly radical messaging on this front. It easily constitutes the most compelling thematic element of Peace Walker. Unfortunately, things rapidly go downhill from here.
Women as dolls
Having gone over this game’s highs in the story, let me move on to the lowest lows. Misogyny in MGS games is an unfortunate constant that those that want to play through these games will have to deal with. However, going into this game with expectations regarding misogyny based on previous games in the series, you will not be ready for the experience awaiting you.
The game starts with Snake following the trail of a recording. Despite having been killed by his hand in MGS3, the tape suggests that the Boss is still alive. The Boss was hardly untouched by the series’ overall misogyny, but she was definitely one of the better female characters in the series. She was portrayed as a highly competent soldier, clearly deserving of her title and your respect. And despite her cold demeanour, she clearly had a complex inner life. Her death might have been cliché, but overall it was well executed. Peace Walker takes her death and uses it as a cheap plot device to kick-start the narrative. The struggle that Snake has throughout the game with his memory of her sets up the conclusion to the game where he rejects her philosophy. But these moments serve as an excuse for Snake to openly display vulnerability more than anything else. This is cliché as well, but this time, terribly done on top of that. On its own, this doesn’t sound too bad relative to the rest of MGS. But this is only the start.
Metal Gear Solid has always been creepily objectifying about its female characters.
It started with Meryl in MGS1, who you identified among the soldiers on Shadow Moses Island by looking at how she swings her hips.
Anything like that that happened in other MGS titles is trumped by Peace Walker.
It’s much worse.
Remember the interactive elements during cutscenes? In the initial cutscenes, Miller and Snake are introduced to Paz. She is sixteen years old, they are told. During this conversation, as the camera focuses on her, the interactive elements you are left with allow you to go through the layers of clothing she is wearing until you can see her in her underwear. This is an unbelievable tone-setter for the game that follows. Unsurprisingly this won’t be the only time you will see Paz like that. But it’s not just Paz. When Amanda, a commander for the Sandinistas, breaks her leg, the game lets you do the whole X-ray zoom-in trick again.
This isn’t where the creepiness ends, though. For some major characters at MSF, you can look at their 3D models in detail. You can rotate and zoom in on those models however you like. And all the characters for whom you can do this are female.
This is by far the most sexist objectifying entry into the whole MGS series. Not even MGSV managed to be this awful. No thinly veiled attempt at justifying any of the above is made. This is just what this game is. And I could go on, but I don’t want to.
Women as women
The misogyny in Peace Walker is especially awful because, based on previous releases, we know Kojima Productions is capable of writing and presenting better female characters. And in a way that feels almost insulting, we have one decently written female character in the game: Dr. Strangelove. She is a top researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. She has a complex inner life, where she is driven by her research, but, at the same time, continues working for the guys that sent the Boss—her former lover—on suicide missions. Now that she is dead, Strangelove wants to find out how it happened from Snake by any means. It’s almost inconceivable that this character shares a game with a bunch of others that the game disregardingly objectifies.
Strangelove’s romantic relationship with the Boss is a nice detail. Its extent is made clear in a set of long recordings that are unlocked after beating the game. It’s a detailed and warmly human report from a woman you otherwise only get to know as a secluded researcher. And while the detail is good, it is also very unfortunate that this genuinely great element of the game is relegated to the sidelines like that.
The two other themes
Besides MSF and their inability to live up to their purported ideals, two other themes dominate Peace Walker’s story. The first one is nuclear deterrence.
The Peace Walker project this game is named after seeks to create an autonomous nuclear weapon that could retaliate in the advent of a nuclear first strike.
The theory goes that if retaliation is guaranteed, no one would ever initiate nuclear conflict.
This game highlights this idea of constant alertness for war to ensure peace and argues against it.
While humans are the weakest link in nuclear deterrence since they are not fully rational, the game says machines cannot solve this problem either because they can be manipulated.
The final fight of the game doubles as an exploration of this critique through a thought experiment.
All this philosophising is heavily seasoned with many references to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
And while Peace Walker does bring new ideas to the material it is referencing, on the whole, it is very little.
When watching the cutscenes that lead to the finale, I mostly wished I was watching the better movie it took great inspiration from.
But I don’t want to be unfair. Some of the ideas posed in this game are genuinely interesting. The ones that stand out the most are the characters Strangelove and Huey. While Strangelove seems initially more connected with the Nazi scientist that advised the US president in the film because they share a name, Huey and Strangelove seem equally inspired by the character. They are both AI scientists, and Huey seems visually inspired by the Nazi character, as he also relies on a wheelchair and smokes an e-cigarette of his own design.
Nazi Strangelove in the film reminds us how German scientists, taken in by the US to compete in the space race with the USSR, enabled the nuclear arms race.
And at the end, when nuclear annihilation is imminent, he is energetic, enthralled, and manages to walk on his own two legs.
The world that nuclear weapons create is not so different from how the Nazis envisioned it. A world where the strong nations lord over the weak and where conflict is a fundamental struggle over life and death.
What Peace Walker adds is a kind of objection to that portrayal. While the Nazi scientist was a very effective metaphor, it also obscures the origin and ongoing development of nuclear weapons. Huey and Strangelove are not German then but are US-American and British. And on top of that, Huey’s father worked directly on the Manhattan Project. It’s a great point and explores the subject from a uniquely Japanese perspective. I just wished more like that was in the game.
The second theme of the game is revolution.
This word broadly has a positive connotation.
The game makes it clear that it doesn’t necessarily see things that way.
It does not mince words with the USSR, for example.
While the union is the product of the communist October Revolution, the representative KGB agent of the game is painted as a cold and calculating bureaucrat, little better than the CIA.
But the game isn’t fully negative on revolution either.
In the Sandinistas, it finds an alternative communism it is willing to root for.
Snake and MSF even outright ally with them in their goal of kicking the CIA out of Costa Rica.
And Peace Walker isn’t done with its praise for communist revolutionaries. In several audio recordings, you can hear Snake, Miller and a few other characters gushing over Che Guevara—his actions and legacy. Characters liken Snake to Che several times, noting their similar appearance. And Miller even directly notes how MSF and the Cuban revolutionary movement are similar. This is a curious development in the story when, throughout the game, MSF is increasingly painted as the bad guy. In a way, the game likens MSF to the USSR, which similarly failed to live up to its purported ideals. Finally, we are to understand that Amanda, the Sandinista commander, is the true “Che” of the story.
So overall, we have three major themes: private armies, nuclear deterrence, and revolution.
If you abstractly described an MGS game with these themes to me, I would say it sounds awesome.
So then, why do I feel like this story is lacklustre compared to other entries in the series?
Metal Gear Solid games, especially with MGS2 and onwards, live from taking many ideas and blending them into one big cohesive whole. It’s a unique and interesting way of telling a story where ideas bleed into each other and interact in completely unexpected ways. Understanding this shows us why Peace Walker feels so lacking in comparison. The game has three broad themes but hardly anything else beyond that. While the three themes interact with each other, they are too little to make the traditional style of MGS story-telling possible.
If this style is employed correctly, you get a beautifully complicated web of ideas, and if you pull on an idea it unearths the strands that tightly connect it to many others. In this game, they largely remain clearly identifiable in their thematic block of the story, and if you similarly pull on it, it all comes apart. It lays bare just how much the game stays at the surface when exploring its themes. Many are made up of loosely connected factoids. Rarely does the game penetrate the surface.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a game that defies expectations. Usually, for mobile adaptations, the gameplay of established series is butchered through simplification. But here, a surprisingly fun core of MGS’ stealth gameplay remains. Then again, the bosses mostly do suck.
Also, unexpectedly, the story falls flat for an MGS game.
The themes do not provide a compelling enough blend of ideas that usually makes MGS games work.
On top of that comes the deep misogyny that overshadows the whole game. We know that Kojima Productions can do better, and there are even hints of that within the game. In the entire MGS franchise, including the games that come after, I would say this is the most problematic entry regarding this issue, and that’s a field with stiff competition.