The War Epilogue is a series focussing on the Metal Gear Solid Series, from 1, through to 4, in release date order. I’ll analyze where the series used to be, all the way up to where it went, and the themes that lay behind the games. Metal Gear Solid, much like it’s creator, is a larger than life series with layers of complexities that flood the veins of gaming culture, even to this day. With the controversial final entry The Phantom Pain firmly lodged in my mind, I will journal my experiences with these groundbreaking, genre-defining titles having never played a single one. This time, I’m looking at Peace Walker.
Heres a cunning preposition for you: why aren’t there more people trying to copy Monster Hunter? As a huge success in Japan its blend of light RPG stats with co op based boss fights is a landslide hit on asian shores and a subtle cult darling here in the west. Aside from Koei Tecmos excellent Toukiden series there hasn’t really been a solid and successful attempt at a Monster Hunter game that has taken off in a big way. That being said, though, And as fine a game as Monster Hunter is I never thought that Metal Gear Solid would be among the first, and sadly the most bland attempt at copying the formula. Peace Walker is an adaptation of the Monster Hunter style game awkwardly hammered and shoe horned into the sneaky metal gear universe, bringing with it a boat load of fresh ideas, some of which work, and others that just don’t… It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but it does just enough damage to leave you limping away in the aftermath.
Returning to the cold war setting once again, we fill the shoes of Naked Snake, whom still wounded by the death of The Boss puts The Boss’s theory to task by starting an army without borders, militaires sans frontieres. In peace walker big boss must navigate the emotional minefield of the death of his mentor and the challenges of running a private army in the wake of a brand new threat of world war in south America. The south American setting is a great breath of fresh air for the series and is an oft under-explored area of interest in general, so sulking through the dark green jungles and murky jungle military bases was a great change I didn’t know I wanted. And although The cold war is sometimes an overused motif for the series it’s approach here is admirable. With the heart stopping fear of the Cuban missile crisis still fresh in the world’s mind, we get to roam the forest and riverbanks of several south American countries in the name of the MSF, and, apparently, peace. the definition of which is constantly stretched to breaking point through out the game.
Peace Walker isn’t like other metal gear games. In fact it rather admirably takes a drastic change in pace for the first time ever, but it’s built on the solid metal gear foundations we’ve become used to. Gravel voiced snake moves with clinical ease, dipping and diving around between cover as you’ve come to expect, with enemies popping an exclamation mark when you’re seen and sending the stage into alert. Alert status’s last across multiple maps, and you really should clear those pesky alarms before moving on or you could risk being hunted forever. Boxes are of course back, as well as the huge wealth of traps and gadgets at your disposal, and clever use of these tools to abuse the open ended ai can still lead to some excellent experimentation. Trial and error, as always, is the name of the game. Levels are also divided up into tiny boxed in areas, and snake can traverse multiple areas to complete objectives as per previous titles. So far so snake, right? Well, so far. But Peace Walker introduces some pretty significant new features that help elevate the series just above its 3rd person stealth foundations.
Now that snake has gone all indie, he’s going to need a new army and a base for all the killing he’ll be doing. The MSF. Militaires sans frontieres. Solders without borders. At the early moments of Peace Walker we see Snake cut a deal with a shadey revolutionary who provides him with a base for his newly formed band of flagless mercenaries. Aside from story implications for the entire series, this introduces a soft management layer across everything you do in the game. You hire and fire soldiers. You research new technologies to be used in the field. You send your troops out into the world to earn you cash. You can even establish an Intel team to aid you mid-mission. Now, this is all greatly expanded upon to masterful affect in The Phantom Pain, and seeing this in its early form in peace walker is primitive, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. The joy of mother base is that it’s constantly providing little background challenges and pushing you to think ahead, not just in terms of your personal missions but at what’s best for your army. If you were to be extremely critical, you could reasonably argue that mother base is nothing more than a gimicky upgrade menu dressed up in management sim clothes and yeah, that’s essentially what it is, but the fact that it actually influences your route through the game and the way in which you can filter your money through upgrading mother base proves it’s much more than upgrade gimmicks.
The other obviously huge inclusion is co operative play. Now, I’m in an awkward situation. In 2017 where the co op side of things isn’t exactly hot property, and I could count on my hands the amount of times I was actually able to get it to work, but the game supports friendly fun times quite well. The levels are built around providing extra routes and tactical advantages for more than one player, allowing you to boost your pal up to a ledge for an advantagous snipet spot, or developing huge “love boxes” that fit two players so you can both hide in them, which actually develop later on into “tank boxes” which are insane moments of slapstick co operative drive ‘n’ shoots that not only make you and your buddy giggle but give you more options during play. There’s also monster hunter style call outs that can be customised during play, too, to help you keep in touch with what your buddies are doing. There are also huge boss fights where you can damage certain parts of the huge metal gear prototypes so as to take their innards with you back to mother base to start crafting your very own deadly metal gear. At this point it starts to feel very monster hunter as you team up with co op pals to take down a metal gear, and some of them are actually so tough that you kind of need a second player to even remotely have a chance, but its a great use of the monster hunter formula. The great thing about this is it only lightly borrows from monster hunter – it leaves the MGS base largely in tact and pushes your progress from these co op encounters to mother base. Considering this was all originally done on the PSP/Vita, this is fantastic work, and despite the fun this brings to the regular Metal Gear proceedings, on ps3 it’s a little basic in a way, and it’s really weird how some of this isn’t upgraded to match the form factor of a console, but by and large the co op stuff is great buddy orientated fun, and it’s nice to see Metal Gear take itself less seriously with high fiving and back-slapping friendly online fun.
There are other, slightly stranger additions and changes like the removal of crawling, I’m not sure why this was done, especially as you can still lie flat on your stomach, but you just can’t move. A weird choice, sure, but not exactly game breaking. Though something that does do quite a lot towards breaking the game is the immensely limiting level design which sadly seems to stunt all the positive growth outlined above.
The tiny areas that constitute many of Peace Walkers environments are insultingly small, with Snake able to traverse the length of a level in a matter of seconds. This is probably more to do with the games portable origins than its current form factor but almost all of the areas that make up peace walker are a laughably small arena where snake merely has to roll a few feet to get to the goal and be able to move on to the next area. You might argue that because multiple areas are linked together this creates a tapestry of various areas that allude to a wider world, much like in previous installments but in reality, it just creates constant, needless breaks in the action that does a lot to kill immersion. Even in levels with wider, more open designs, they are all too brief and end far too quickly before being ushered from one closet to the next. This was a minor complaint I had about Snake Eater, that its tiny, gated areas were starting to grate a little, but here it’s exploited to almost breaking point. Items are still scattered in darker corners of each area, which promotes thorough investigation of each little area, but with so little to see and do it always feels like wasted time. It gives the game a horrendous drip feed flow and you never feel settled into a particular gameplay loop. This isnt Sons of Liberty where constant disturbance and pulling players away from the experience plug right back into the themes of the narrative: it just outright disturbs flow of play, and the game is crying out for wider environments to roam in, something that The Phantom Pain proved it was crying out for. Later in the game the difficulty increases and you need to be a lot more careful with where you tread in the end game, meaning you spend much more time in small areas and ensuring that the game does something interesting with its obviously limited level design, but it shouldn’t take the entire game to get there. As it stands, a large part of the game unfolds in tiny Forrested corridors that you tend to just rush through rather than spend time exploring the space.
And it isn’t just the constant loading screens and transitions, either, that hurt the experience. The problematic flow of play is further exasperated when you hit areas clearly designed for co op play, despite there being options for single player gaming. Several bosses in the game are only possible on your own after hours of irritating grinding for better gear, which in 2017 means you’ll almost certainly have to do because there is no real online community for Peace Walker anymore. I would regularly be waiting 20 minutes tops for a partner to leak into my lobby. Forget about more than one guy. You’re lucky to get one, and you better hope you both nail it in one shot or you’ll have to repeat that wait all over again.
So it’s not exactly smooth sailing. Kojimas forray into handheld gaming is certainly bold and in a large number of ways it truly punches well above its weight class, including more features than you’d see in most triple a console games. But its presence on a greater form factor outlines its flaws more than its successes. The mother base elsements, though, regardless of form factor really do a huge amount in saving this game from total frustration, And in reality playing a metal gear game on any handheld device is an instant bonus. But the small, cramped environments and constant breaks in gameplay (for once. Not caused by cut scenes and dialogue!) Are unwelcome irritations on what could have been something totally unforgettable.