Friday, 15 January 2016

Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid - Peace Walker (2010)

Welcome back to part eight of the Metal Gear retrospective. In this entry we're going to be covering Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the second canon installment on the PSP. With the franchise effectively wrapped up in Guns of the Patriots, would Peace Walker find a reasonable justification to keep the franchise alive? Read on to find out...

(Note, I will be reviewing this game based on the HD Edition re-release on PS3, and will consequently be directing quite a bit of commentary towards the work put into the port. That said, I played the PSP original as well back when the game was released, so I can give some comparisons on how the two different versions perform.)


DEVELOPMENT
Shortly after the completion of Guns of the Patriots, Kojima Productions went back to work on another Metal Gear game. Considering how definitively Guns of the Patriots wrapped up the series, there was some concern about whether another game would be able to justify itself as something other than a cash-in or that it might unravel the series' narrative once again. Peace Walker was announced alongside Metal Gear Solid: Rising (a Raiden-based spin-off which was going to tell the story of how Sunny was rescued from the Patriots), and it was stated that these two games would essentially be Metal Gear Solid 5, although Kojima publicly considered Peace Walker the true series successor. While Rising ended up languishing and was ultimately cancelled and then repurposed into Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance years later, Peace Walker proceeded much more smoothly, with Kojima at the helm once again.

Peace Walker was revealed to be another prequel game, focusing on Big Boss and the establishment of Outer Heaven. In fact, it sounds to me like Peace Walker and its immediate successors, Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain might have been the first Metal Gear games which were made with future installments in mind, as this quote of Kojima's original vision for Peace Walker's story suggests:
"Solid Snake's storyline has ended with Metal Gear Solid 4. But there's still a lot more when it comes to Big Boss' storyline. The Cold War was a time where people, neither good nor evil, were manipulated by various factors, and they became good or evil. The same goes for Liquid Snake, and we'll get to see just what happened to him."
Obviously if you have played Peace Walker, then you know that Liquid Snake does not feature at all, but this promise would be fulfilled 5 years later when The Phantom Pain was released, suggesting to me that Kojima had a very grand vision for the future of Metal Gear and for filling in the gaps between Snake Eater and Metal Gear.

Another interesting note about the game's development is that this is the first Metal Gear game to be specifically targeted towards younger gamers, which saw the game secure a Teen rating from the ESRB. This was an especially baffling distinction for me, because Portable Ops' content was no worse than Peace Walker's (and in fact, Peace Walker was a lot more frank and juvenile when it came to sexual/suggestive content). This makes me wonder if the split-second decapitations in one cutscene were enough for Portable Ops to get pushed over the edge, which would be rather ridiculous if it was the case. That said, there is an unspoken rule in the ESRB that subsequent games in a franchise will almost always get the same rating as the previous release, unless they intentionally go for something higher or lower. This doesn't really affect the game much either way, but it was a rather strange note in the game's development.


PLOT SUMMARY
Having left FOXHOUND and the USA behind him, Snake joined together with Kazuhira Miller to form a private mercenary force, Militaires Sans Frontières. Snake and Kaz are approached by a man named Gálvez purporting to be a professor at the Costa Rican University of Peace and his young pupil, Paz Ortega Andrade. They seek the services of MSF in repelling a CIA mercenary force which has entered the country and is experimenting with some high-tech weaponry. Paz, an idealistic girl obsessed with peace, reveals that she and a friend had been captured and tortured by these forces. Due to the Costa Rican government's constitutional abolition of an organized army, they are unable to deal with the interlopers and require MSF to get rid of them. As payment, Gálvez offers an offshore base of operations and any support that he can give. However, Snake and Miller both suspect that Gálvez is a member of the KGB, which he confirms when confronted with the accusation. However, Paz is left unaware of Gálvez's ruse, as he instructs her to play back a tape that her friend had recorded prior to her capture. Snake hears a voice on the tape which sounds exactly like The Boss, causing him to question whether his former mentor is still alive. Gálvez tempts Snake with the uncertainty, succeeding in coercing him to accept their offer for help.

After a short investigation of the CIA mercenaries' supply depot, Snake is alarmed to discover evidence that they are transporting nuclear weapons into Costa Rica. Snake seeks help from the Sandanistas, a revolutionary guerilla army from Nicaragua that had been forced to regroup within Costa Rica. When Snake arrives, he finds that the commandante of the Sandanistas has been killed by the CIA forces, but his daughter Amanda Valenciano Libre has reluctantly taken command of the remnants. Amanda informs Snake of a CIA base to the north when they are attacked by a gigantic, flying, unmanned vehicle. A flying drone captures Amanda's little brother, Chico, and they pursue them to try to get him back. A drone also tries to capture Amanda, but Snake destroys it before it can. However, Amanda's leg is badly broken in the fall and she has to be taken back to Mother Base to recover. She tells Snake of a base in the mountains where prisoners are taken and he promises to rescue Chico for her.

Making his way into an enemy base, Snake rescues Chico and reunites him with his sister. Chico then acts as a guide, providing Snake with the mercenary's shipping route. However, he warns that the route is guarded by "el basilisco", a giant monster. Snake heeds this warning with some skepticism and then heads north in pursuit of the nuke convoy. After losing sight of the shipment in a tunnel in the mountains, Snake catches up to the convoy in a garage within the mercenary's mountain base. By the time he arrives though, the nukes have been shipped out already.

In the infiltration, Snake overhears an argument between Huey Emmerich and Hot Coldman, the CIA station chief in Central America. Coldman outlines the basics of nuclear deterrence theory, where mutually assured destruction will prevent nuclear powers from ever actually using their weapons. The flaw in the theory though is that humans are left in charge of the decision to retaliate, which can lead to an exploitable weakness that doesn't discourage a first strike. Coldman seeks to have a computer controlled weapon, dubbed "Peace Walker", that can guarantee a retaliatory strike, thereby rendering first strikes as suicide. However, in order to prove his theory, Coldman needs to make a nuclear strike to prove Peace Walker's capabilities. Huey is outraged that Coldman is going to use his creation to launch a live nuclear weapon and tries to convince him to stop. Coldman dismisses Huey, forcing the wheelchair-bound scientist to fall down a flight of stairs.


Snake comes to Huey's aid, recruits him to MSF's cause and then hurries to catch up to Peace Walker. However, he is attacked by a Shagohod-like unmanned vehicle dubbed "Pupa". He destroys the Pupa, but not before Peace Walker is extracted via helicopter and taken to the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border for final launch preparations. Huey advises Snake to seek out the main AI researcher on the project, Dr. Strangelove. He also offers to help build a Metal Gear for MSF.

As per Huey's advice, Snake heads north to seek out Dr. Strangelove. On the way, he discovers an escaped prisoner named Cécile Cosima Caminades, a French ornithologist who was captured when she was seeking out Quetzals in the Costa Rican jungle. Snake soon realizes that she is the one who made Paz's tape of The Boss, but is surprised when it turns out that Paz and Cécile have never met. Snake sends Cécile back to Mother Base and then infiltrates Strangelove's lab. Inside he finds the Boss's horse and Strangelove. Strangelove confronts Snake, angry at him for assassinating the Boss 10 years earlier. She shows him her creation, an incomplete AI reconstruction of The Boss's personality known as the Mammal Pod. Strangelove goads Snake into trying to destroy it, but Snake finds himself unable to.

The Mammal Pod and Strangelove are from the lab as Snake is attacked by the Chrysalis, the flying AI weapon which had attacked Snake and the Sandanistas earlier. Snake shoots down the Chrysalis and destroys it before heading north to intercept Peace Walker. When questioned on his ability to complete the mission by Miller, Snake insists that he will be able to go through with it and destroy the Mammal Pod, although his insistence is not entirely convincing. After so many years of wrestling with the meaning of The Boss's defection, Snake wants answers.

Snake pursues Peace Walker to another CIA base, but is attacked by mercenaries and the massive Coocoon AI weapon. Snake overcomes these foes and then makes his way into the heart of the enemy base. Here, he sneaks his way to the Mammal Pod, but hesitates when he has the opportunity to destroy it. He tries to get the AI to tell him why The Boss betrayed her country, but it is unable to answer. Outraged that the AI can't give him the answers he needs, Snake finally tries to destroy it, but too late - Coldman, Strangelove and the CIA forces surround him and take him captive.


Snake is tortured by Strangelove for the truth about The Boss's final mission, about whether she was a traitor or a sacrificial lamb. She needs this key information to complete the Mammal Pod's personality programming. Snake refuses to talk, but Strangelove views his silence as answer in itself. Snake is sent back to his cell, where he escapes using a jigsaw that he had hidden inside a snake-shaped scar on his body. He hurries out to stop Peace Walker's activation, but is confronted by Coldman, who has taken Paz captive. Coldman announces that, thanks to the interrogation, Strangelove has completed The Boss's AI and that Peace Walker is ready to be activated. He reveals that the launch target will be Mother Base as Peace Walker moves to relocate to the launch site in Nicaragua. In desperation, Snake tries to stop Peace Walker from escaping, which puts the mech into self-defence mode. Snake causes quite a bit of damage to Peace Walker, but is unable to destroy it as it retreats across the Costa Rican jungle towards Nicaragua. Snake pursues on The Boss's horse, managing to reach the border before the horse loses its footing and is mortally wounded. Snake puts the horse out of its misery and is forced to end the pursuit as Peace Walker fords the Rio San Juan. Luckily, Amanda is able to gather intelligence from fellow Nicaraguan guerillas about the location the CIA base and passes this information on to Snake. He discovers that Coldman plans to coordinate his launch with the SALT II (strategic arms limitation treaty) talks occurring between the US and Soviet Union at the time, which would be occurring in two days' time.

Snake infiltrates the CIA base, but is shocked to discover that Soviet troops are occupying it. He continues onwards as MSF forces launch an attack on the base, hoping to provide Snake with support so that he can get to Coldman and stop Peace Walker. Snake makes his way to Coldman and his captive, Paz, but is surrounded by Soviet soldiers and CIA mercenaries. Coldman gloats that he has already input false launch data into Peace Walker and that it will strike Mother Base as soon as he inputs the confirmation code. Before he can do so, Gálvez arrives. He reveals that his real name is Vladimir Alexandrovich Zadornov and that he has been in league with Coldman all along... before ordering the Soviet soldiers to turn on Coldman. Coldman is incensed as Zadornov reveals that he wants Peace Walker to fire at Cuba in order to spread anti-American sentiment throughout Central and Southern America, bringing the Soviets closer to winning the Cold War. Zadornov then forces Paz to shoot Coldman twice, leaving the man slowly dying from the wounds, before ordering Strangelove to change Peace Walker's target to Cuba. He then mockingly congratulates Snake, stating that his actions have helped the communist revolution in Nicaragua, that his death at the hands of the "CIA" would make him a hero in the same vein as Che Guevara, and that his death would make him into a fraud like The Boss.

However, before he can complete his plan, Amanda leads the Sandanistas to attack the base and take Zadornov captive, stating that they won't be puppets of the KGB anymore. Amanda and the Sandanistas thank Snake for giving them the strength to return to their home nation. Having presumably prevailed, Snake gets an apologetic Strangelove to take him to Peace Walker so that he can finish off the Mammal Pod and end this crisis. Strangelove states that all she really wanted was to learn the truth of The Boss's final mission.

Hoping to prove himself right in the end, a captive Coldman secretly inputs the authorization code for Peace Walker before succumbing to his wounds. This causes Peace Walker to become active and begin launch preparations, while also relaying false-launch data to NORAD. Miller informs Snake that they are unable to stop the transmission and that if they do not hurry then the US government will have to decide whether to launch a nuclear "retaliation". The only way to stop the signal would be to destroy Peace Walker itself.


Snake moves to destroy Peace Walker to prevent nuclear holocaust. He is able to stop Peace Walker from launching its own payload at Cuba, but is unable to stop the false-launch transmission. Hacking into NORAD's communications, Huey discovers an extremely tense situation as the assembled heads of the US government are preparing to go to DEFCON 2 and launch a retaliatory strike at the Soviet Union. Realizing that Coldman's gamble was going to literally blow up in their face, Snake orders Huey to patch him through to the Pentagon where he uses his reputation to convince the Chairman that the launch data was false. However, the other officers aren't convinced and they overpower the Chairman, forcing the retaliation to go through.

With the situation becoming critical, the Mammal Pod opens on its own and Snake climbs inside to disable The Boss's AI. In spite of this, the signal continues to be relayed, and Strangelove theorizes that The Mammal Pod's functions must have been transferred to the mech's second AI unit, the Reptile Pod, which is responsible for Peace Walker's mechanical processes. In desperation, Snake tries to destroy Peace Walker once again, but the machine stands upright and begins to walk into the ocean. The Boss's voice begins to sing out as Peace Walker drowns itself and the false-launch transmission to NORAD is replaced with peace symbols, stopping the government heads from launching at the last possible second. Snake, Miller and Strangelove all watch on as Peace Walker destroys itself, proving that The Boss willingly went to her death. Snake salutes for his former mentor and then casts aside the bandana that he had taken from her ten years ago, stating that he believes that by putting down her gun ten years ago, The Boss betrayed him. As a result, Snake finally accepts his title of "Big Boss".

In the game's epilogue chapter, "Outer Heaven", MSF builds up its power in the aftermath of the incident. With Strangelove's help, Huey completes Metal Gear ZEKE for MSF. Miller recovers Peace Walker's nuclear missile and equips ZEKE with it in order to provide MSF with its own deterrent against world powers that might object to them. Zadornov also escapes from captivity seven times, prompting Snake and Miller to believe that there is someone on the inside aiding him. On the seventh escape, Snake encounters Zadornov hiding aboard Mother Base and then kills him in self defence. Immediately afterward, alarms go off in the base as somebody activates ZEKE.

Snake hurries up to the deck and finds that ZEKE has been hijacked by Paz, who reveals herself as a deep-cover agent of "Cipher". She declares that she will take ZEKE back to her "masters". She outlines Zero's basic philosophy of information control, which she insists is the only way to bring about worldwide peace. She offers Snake the ability to join with Cipher once again and be their deterrent against anyone who tries to stop the creation of this future. Snake refuses, which causes Paz to prepare a nuclear strike against the east coast of the US, which will frame MSF as a terrorist group and allow Cipher to seize control through fear, bringing about their plans either way.

Snake battles Paz and severely damages ZEKE in the battle. An explosion throws Paz from the mech's cockpit into the sea, and Snake presumes that she dies from this. Miller hesitantly reveals that he was aware of Cipher and of Paz's true loyalties, much to Snake's chagrin, but that he was using them as a means with which to grow MSF to where it now was. Thanks to Cipher, MSF has effectively pioneered a new kind of business venture. Snake warns that the world is going to fear them now and that enemies will be coming for them soon.


GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
Peace Walker plays very differently than any Metal Gear game released up until this point in the franchise. While its systems draw heavily from Portable Ops (recruitment, base management, menu-based mission structure), its gameplay it reminiscent of Guns of the Patriots with its modern third person shooter controls. However, Peace Walker iterates on both of these games by making sure that its gameplay is fun, first and foremost. By sheer virtue of having tight core gameplay, Peace Walker is instantly a hell of a lot funner than Portable Ops. Whereas Portable Ops took existing Metal Gear gameplay and then forced it into the PSP as much as it could, Peace Walker actually feels like it was built from the ground up to make the most of the hardware.

One of the most impressive aspects of Peace Walker is in how well it refines the recruiting and base management systems from Portable Ops. In Portable Ops, a significant amount of time was wasted in dragging enemy soldiers back to your truck to recruit them. This is solved in Peace Walker with the introduction of the fulton recovery system, which lets you capture enemies instantly and on location. This is significantly more satisfying and elegant a solution to recruiting than the dragging mechanic was in the previous game. Balloon supplies are distressingly limited though, so you might actually find yourself using up two precious item slots to bring the Analyzer gadget to maximize the efficiency of the soldiers that you're recruiting. Base management has also been expanded, with significantly more troops able to be recruited, more useful items available for development and missions that you can send your combat units on to earn supplies. All-in-all, the base development system has been expanded very well and managing it can be just as fun as going out on actual missions at times.

While Portable Ops had limited side missions and player freedom, Peace Walker really emphasizes activities which don't tie into the main story, particularly side ops and co-ops (I have never really been interested in the co-ops mode so I can't really comment on how it plays unfortunately). There's a surprisingly nice variety in these side-ops - some missions will require base defence, or extracting specific targets, blowing up a target, taking a picture of a target or clearing mines. There are also boss side-ops which are necessary to get ahold of some of the stronger mechanized units in the game. Then there's the joke side ops which can be surprisingly compelling and replayable. I had a good belly-laugh at the cartoonishly slapstick Pooyan Mission, found the ghost hunting missions surprisingly compelling and the two dating missions are equal parts hilarious, awkward and clever as you try to figure out the puzzle involved in doing well in them. There are also a few Monster Hunter-themed missions which sound like a lot of fun but which I have never had the patience to actually unlock. Add in the damage indicators that show up with each shot and the mission-ending score rankings and Peace Walker feels like more of a casual, arcade-y experience at times.

Guns of the Patriots' third person shooter control scheme has been translated to PSP fairly well, although having to use the face buttons in lieu of a second analog stick never really felt as precise as it needed to be. Luckily, there's a generous auto-aim in place and the enemies move slowly and have small vision cones, but this is still miles ahead of Portable Ops' frustrating shooting controls. Luckily, the HD edition's biggest improvement is the addition of a second analog stick which makes aiming feel far more precise and drops the basic learning curve significantly.

Some Metal Gear purists will lament how marginalized the Codec is in the game though. For one thing, it doesn't even have a dedicated button anymore - you have to specify that the Select button is to be used for it, because I believe it is set to co-ops communications by default. That said, assigning Codec to the Select button is probably going to be less useful than keeping the co-ops comms there by default, because it has been effectively rendered useless. The calls are always automated based on the mission you're currently undertaking, so there's a good chance you're not going to get any sort of useful information anyway. For example, I was looking for an item and figured I'd call the Codec for some hints. The resulting advice was useless: Miller telling me what my mission is, Paz telling me about the area and other characters just cheering me on. Keeping Select for co-ops comms is literally going to provide you with more help in this game, I promise you, even if you only ever use them for the Date With Paz/Kaz side-ops.


While the HD edition does improve the shooting significantly, it is unable to help with the small areas and frequent loading screens present in Peace Walker. This was always one of my biggest gripes with the game, as it adopts the area-based maps of Snake Eater or Guns of the Patriots, but in a far more enclosed space which means that you're going to be spending quite a bit of time just waiting for the next area to load (this only takes about a second or two, but it is still an annoyance when it happens all the time). Compounding this problem is the fact that there may only be a couple of guards per area, meaning that gameplay in these sections may come down to two really quick tranquilizer shots before moving on to the next loading screen.

The lack of checkpoints during missions can also be a source of frustration. Normally, thanks to the small maps and few enemies, checkpoints will probably not be necessary as you're only going to lose about 5 minutes worth of gameplay. However, there are a couple longer, combat-oriented missions which you can easily die in if you aren't paying attention and which have no checkpoints of any sort - if you die, you have to restart the whole mission. In such missions, you could easily lose 10 minutes or more of gameplay with no mercy for the sudden difficulty spike. The most egregious offender here is the last shootout before you face off with Peace Walker - this mission is around 3 time longer than normal and is just a gauntlet of enemies firing at you with all they have... and to top it all off, you have to fight a helicopter when you're all done with it. I got to the helicopter almost every time, but by then I'd be out of healing items so I wouldn't survive and then had to completely restart. It was quite frustrating to say the least.

This is probably as good a time as any to point out my biggest problem with the HD edition of the game: it's a pretty bare-bones port. By this I mean that it seems that all that Konami did was remap the controls to work with a Dualshock 3, upped the frame rate to 60FPS and then upscaled the graphics to fit an HD screen, throwing in some anti-aliasing in the process and calling it a day. For example, I noticed that the game's aiming controls still felt a little sluggish for my tastes, so I went into the options to increase the right analog stick sensitivity. However, I was unable to locate an option for this, and it occurred to me that this would probably be because the game was originally made with face button control in mind - there wouldn't have been a need for a sensitivity option. If this really is the case, then that really highlights how basic a port the HD edition is. Peace Walker still feels very much like a PSP game, making for a less-satisfying experience compared to other console-based Metal Gear games. The hardware isn't getting taxed at all and the small maps and really lacklustre graphics just don't stack up particularly well.

Probably the most obvious area where the HD edition was half-assed though is in the graphical department. Peace Walker's textures were clearly made with the 480x272 resolution of the PSP in mind, and on that hardware they looked sufficient. Even then, the textures actually looked worse than Portable Ops, but the more interesting environmental design (eg, not just straight edges and lots of boxes scattered about) and much better lighting/atmospherics masked the weaker graphics. However, in upscaling to HD, the textures don't seem to have been improved to compensate and it just makes the game look like utter crap - Sons of Liberty looks significantly better, and it was released 9 years earlier. Sure, they put in anti-aliasing to smooth out the edges, but this doesn't make up for the textures which were never supposed to be viewed at such high resolution (and in fact just reveals that they are far less detailed than they might appear on a smaller screen).


This issue also extends to Ashley Wood's digital-graphic-novel-style cutscenes. While the cutscenes have been improved since Portable Ops, featuring far more animation and more interactivity, the HD port handled them very poorly. Rather than rescanning and reanimating Ashley Woods' original art, the developers have half-assed it and simply straight-up reused the PSP's cutscenes. This results in art which is notably pixelated even in the default view, and which looks even worse when you use the game's zoom function during a cutscene. I know that they basically wanted to put together a quick and easy port to recoup costs since the PSP release's sales were underwhelming, but still, it's clear just how little work they actually wanted to put in towards making Peace Walker a proper console experience.

On the subject of the cutscenes though, Kojima seems to have decided to experiment with Peace Walker and made them far more interactive, occasionally integrating them with the gameplay. In practice, this means that we get some quick-time events, some basic shooting minigames and a couple button-mashing sequences. While this sounds like a rather interesting way to keep the player involved during the story sequences, in practice it ends up being more annoying than anything most of the time. As with the worst quicktime offenders, there is very little warning when a quicktime event is coming, meaning that you're probably going to die the first time it comes up and have to redo the scene. There are a few of these moments spread throughout the game and they end up being fairly annoying, even though I do appreciate what they were going for.

Worse though is the torture sequence, which is similar to Metal Gear Solid, but without the ability to skip it in any way. This sequence was the absolute worst moment in the entire game for me in both my PSP and PS3 playthroughs - I simply am incapable of mashing the triangle button fast enough to get through this sequence, so I end up being forced to redo it over and over again with absolutely no way of getting past it. The only reason I ever got past it was because I used the "Bic pen" trick on PSP and then got my brother to do it for me for this playthrough on PS3. If you don't have any of these options, then you're shit out of luck. I hate to think how many people probably quit the game at this point because the game offers absolutely no way to skip the sequence or make it easier.


The bosses are rather unusual in Peace Walker, since all of them are vehicle-based. The "mini-boss" encounters versus armoured vehicles are reasonably fun the first couple times you encounter them, but they basically play out the same way every time (shoot the weak points and/or neutralize their escorts until the commander shows up). Aside from the helicopter battles, the gameplay doesn't really change up either - facing off with a tank isn't much different than facing off against a BTR or an LAV for example, which will quickly made these encounters quite tedious. On the plus side, there are only a handful of these battles in the main game, with most being relegated to side-ops long before you grow tired of them, so if you get sick of them then you can easily ignore them. If you can get through though in a non-lethal fashion, these armoured vehicles can be farmed to provide your combat unit with huge power boosts that you need to beat some of the tougher enemy units out there.

The game's proper boss battles against the AI weapons are quite fun though. By firing at specific parts and weapons on these bosses, you can disable enemy weapon systems or completely prevent them from being able to perform certain attacks. This makes them rather fun to replay... which is good, because in order to complete Metal Gear ZEKE, you're going to have to attack each boss a few times to farm for AI motherboards. The game does a really horrible job of explaining the system for getting ahold of specific parts, which just seem to be inexplicably random - for example, I was trying to get Walk units in order to complete ZEKE and, despite firing at any associated parts of the boss as the game tells you to, I failed to get any corresponding Walk AI motherboards in the post-battle minigame. However, then when I got to the boss fight summary, the game said that I had received a Walk component, thereby allowing me to complete ZEKE. I was left baffled, and despite having played through Peace Walker twice now, I still don't understand this system at all (and in fact, I never even got the real ending of the game on the PSP version because I couldn't understand the randomness of these part drops).

The other problem with some of the bosses though is that they can be massive rocket sponges. In the final battle with Peace Walker, I must have fired 50 rockets before I finally whittled it down, which is just ridiculously frustrating. To make matters worse, Peace Walker has an attack which makes it immune to all rockets for a random length of time, meaning that if you didn't pack a machine gun then you're going to be stuck running around uselessly for upwards of a minute or two. If the battle was even half as lengthy and Peace Walker had a more reasonably-sized health bar then it would be a significantly funner fight, because I was actually rather enjoying the battle until it turned into a tedious grindfest. The game also has even harder versions of each battle in the side-ops, but I don't want to think about how long these fights would take without maxed-out anti-armour weapons...

I'll be honest though - I feel like I have been quite critical of Peace Walker's gameplay. However, most of my issues with the game are related to the effort that was put into the HD edition, the repetitive armoured vehicle battles and the bullet-sponge Peace Walker battle. Those gripes aside, the game really is quite fun. The hardware limitations are annoying, but I did find the game to be enjoyable and was having fun during my time with it.


STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
From its opening moments, the story of Peace Walker is significantly more compelling than Portable Ops, feeling like a fully-fledged Metal Gear narrative rather than a periphery gap-filler. This is in spite of the fact that Peace Walker really doesn't do much to fill in the remaining gaps in the Metal Gear timeline which had been left unanswered by Guns of the Patriots, instead choosing to tell a largely-original story which, in some ways, creates more questions than it answers. For example, if Big Boss was in a conflict with The Patriots in the 70s, why the heck would they allow him to come back to America and lead FOXHOUND? How would they not realize that he is the leader of Outer Heaven? And why would Big Boss knowingly send Solid Snake into Outer Heaven and put himself at risk of being defeated, rather than some incapable soldier? Snake Eater and Portable Ops' endings left a lot of room for inference, but by fleshing out the conflict more and introducing major new concepts, Peace Walker leaves some pretty big questions unanswered without even attempting to fill in the gaps. Some of these issues would be filled in with The Phantom Pain, but even then the answers can be rather dubious.

That said, Peace Walker's narrative is quite enjoyable on its own merits and is easily one of the more unique entries in the series' canon. In some ways, Kojima also restrains himself and puts out a far more streamlined narrative. For example, it's really nice to see Coldman explaining his entire agenda in his introduction rather than saving this for later as part of a big plot twist and exposition dump as Kojima usually does. This can also be applied to Zadornov's introduction, as Snake and Miller realize that he is a KGB agent within the first few minutes. Even this reasonable amount of restraint is enough to reduce some of the narrative fat which plagues Kojima's stories and makes Peace Walker quite a bit easier to follow.

The game's non-linear design does create some narrative issues though. Foremost amongst these is that we have no idea how long a time period the game takes place over. Based on the way that the main missions flow, it seems like it can't be more than a couple weeks for the main part of the game, with anywhere from a few months to a year passing in the epilogue chapter. This is obviously problematic once you realize it though, because that means that MSF expands to a vast size and builds a fully-featured offshore Mother Base in a matter of weeks. Then, they build their own Metal Gear from scratch in less than a year. The obvious intent here is for the player to miss this little chronological detail, but once you become aware of it, it is a rather nagging issue.

I must also say that the section of the game where Coldman activates Peace Walker has to rank amongst the most intense sequences in the entirety of the Metal Gear series. The tension just builds and builds as the situation grows increasingly more hopeless and Snake struggles to do absolutely everything in his power to prevent nuclear Armageddon. This is all capped off with a surprisingly impactful sequence where The Boss's spirit sacrifices herself once again in order to save the world.

That said, The Boss's AI is the point where the game's story strains believability. It doesn't make a lot of sense and the game doesn't do a good enough job to justify its existence. Somehow, Strangelove is able to piece together a nearly-perfect AI personality using old mission data about The Boss, and yet she isn't able to complete it without knowing whether The Boss sacrificed her life for her country? The fact that she needs Snake's confession to finish this last piece of The Boss's personality never really made a lot of sense to me, because Strangelove already assumed that she knew the answer. Could she not have just programmed her own suspicions into the AI just to test whether it would work (it also doesn't help that the process used to get this AI functioning is not expounded upon at all)? It also creates some strange issues about Peace Walker in the game's climax, when the game heavily implies that The Boss's soul possesses the Mammal Pod and sacrifices itself a second time (in fact, Huey says in a rather schmaltzy manner that Peace Walker is acting "with its heart" rather than its mind, which is just ridiculous). I can understand the reasoning for these decisions - it works on a symbolic level for the AI to be a representation of The Boss's soul, but on a narrative and logical level none of this makes any sense and it nearly derails the entire plot for me.

It is also quite interesting that the ending causes Snake to turn on The Boss and accept that he is her successor. The reason he gives is because he believes that by putting down her gun and allowing Snake to kill her, she gave up on her ideals as a soldier. While it isn't directly stated, I believe that this is confession is meant to show the flaws in Big Boss's interpretations of The Boss as an individual and The Boss as the symbol which he has been building up an ideology around for the past 10 years. As an individual, it seems that The Boss's will was a desire for a world without conflict. However, in Snake's mind, it seems that he has subscribed to The Boss's will as a world where soldiers are valued, can fight for a greater good and where they live for nothing beyond the mission they are given. Considering that divergences in interpretation of The Boss's will drive the conflict between Zero and Big Boss throughout the Metal Gear saga, this seems to me to be a hint that the "good guy" doesn't even have it right. Snake has thrown himself so far into a predefined worldview in the name of his former mentor that, when confronted with the reality of her ideals, he turns on the source his entire ideology.


Not surprisingly, Peace Walker's primary theme is an exploration of the nature of peace and deterrence theory. While it is not exactly subtle in its methods, this makes for some rather interesting discussions on human nature. Using deterrence as a major theme was particularly fascinating to me. I actually "developed" an understanding of deterrence as a child when I was around 10-13 years old. I was wondering why we haven't had an open conflict between major superpowers since the Second World War, when it occurred to me that the threat of nuclear attack made open war an unappealing prospect. As a result, I theorized that we wouldn't see another World War until a missile-defence system was developed which would render nuclear strikes worthless, thereby making conflict viable once more. While obviously this was an overly-simplified view of international politics, it does hold true to the basics of deterrence and I was able to appreciate the game's premise quite a bit.

Coldman's views on deterrence are quite interesting and his plan actually does make just enough sense that it might have worked if he had managed to complete his plans. Having a 100% guaranteed retaliation makes mutually-assured destruction more than a threat - by having the capability to strike, they end up rendering all of their nuclear weapons useless. However, Coldman also believes that humans are incapable of launching a retaliatory strike on their own volition, a notion which Kojima declares patently false in the game's climax as the US government nearly sets off the end of the world. The other big issue which the game seems to raise about deterrence is that everyone seems to equate it with peace. However, based on The Boss's idealized vision of world peace, this does not mesh with her desire for peace without borders - deterrence, after all, still requires two aggressively opposed nations who are just not particularly interested in launching into all-out conflict for fear of total annihilation.

One of the more interesting and subtle uses of peace in the game though is in regards to the Sandanistas. Shortly after being introduced to Paz, the physical embodiment of peace in the game, Snake comes across Amanda and Chico, who are fighting a revolutionary war to wrestle control of Nicaragua from the American-backed regime. This creates a rather complicated picture which suggests to me a questioning of when conflict is justified. The Sandanistas cause is suggested to be a righteous one in opposition to the Somoza regime, with Amanda and Chico fighting for a cause that they so deeply for that they are willing to lay down their own life to achieve it. The game also makes numerous references to Che Guevara for similar reasons, suggesting that while peace may be the desired (if unnatural) state for mankind to achieve, there are times where fighting is necessary and justified.


Also tying into the theme of peace, Peace Walker is unusual amongst Metal Gear games for being really on-the-nose with its characters' names. The most obvious examples of this are Paz and Kazuhira, both of whose names translate to "Peace". However, it is not exactly subtle that both of them end up betraying their namesakes - Paz turns out to be an illusion, whereas Kaz is a businessman whose ultimate goal is to spark the war economy. The fact that both characters with the name "peace" end up betraying their namesake seems to tie into this quote from Immanuel Kant which features in the game and is brought up by Paz at one point:
"Peace amongst men living alongside one another is not a natural state. On the contrary, the natural state of man is that of war. War manifested not only by open hostilities, but also by the constant threat of hostility. Peace, therefore, is a state that must be established by law."
Paz and Kaz aren't the only characters with meaningful names though. Amanda Libre's name is very apt (it basically translates to "lover of freedom"), while Chico is literally a character descriptor (it means "young boy"). Hot Coldman is also so obviously a symbolic "name" that they could have called him "Cold War Jackson" and had the same effect.

Strangelove's name is also pointing out, although for somewhat different reasons. First of all, it is incredibly obvious that her name is a reference to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, a film which, in itself, has a lot to do with the game's themes. Her name also foreshadows that she will become Hal "Otacon" Emmerich's mother, since his namesake comes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, both films of which were directed by Stanley Kubrick. However, as obvious as the film reference explanation for her name is, the game tries to go even deeper and pass it off as a reference to her sexuality. This is a really weird way to try to twist the name in my opinion and kind of underscores the series' weird approach to "queer" sexuality. Vamp is the closest parallel - he's obviously named Vamp because he's designed to be like a vampire, but then it is explained in-game that the name comes from him being bisexual (it's a slang term, you've probably heard it in Def Leppard's "Pour Some Sugar On Me"). I actually like Strangelove as a character and find her rather fascinating, but the handling of her sexuality is clumsy (she's a bit of a misandrist and sexually assaults most of the game's female cast) and trying to highlight it in her name doesn't help all that much (although that's just my take on things - there are more positive assessments of the sexualities of the series' characters which are worth checking out).

Peace Walker's treatment of women in general is about as juvenile as ever. Aside from the aforementioned clumsiness about Strangelove being a lesbian, the game also goes out of its way to make awkward jokes about Paz and Cecile. For example, in Paz's introduction you can zoom the camera in on her to give an x-ray vision of her in her underwear. There's no real justification for this other than for it to be "funny", but it's also really awkward considering that at this point in the game we're supposed to believe that Paz is a 16 year old girl. Paz also ends up in her underwear on a couple other occasions, like if you get an S-rank in the Date With Paz mission and when she steals ZEKE for some reason. Cecil, on the other hand, has basically no bearing on the game's plot, but exists to be little more than an inside joke and some eye candy (in her introduction, if you zoom in on her cleavage the game will make a cartoonish popping sound).

On a more positive note though, Amanda Libre is a pretty great female character. The camera actually seems to respect her and she has a pretty great character arc as she learns to take responsibility as commandante of the Sandanistas. She even saves Snake's ass in the end. Plus, while the game hints at there being some sexual tension between Snake and her, it is left as a mutual respect in the end and doesn't end up being the defining aspect of her character in the slightest. Amanda is a great example of how Kojima can write a strong, interesting female character without objectifying her in the process, which is something that he does on a distressingly infrequent basis.


While Peace Walker largely avoids the crappy kind of "George Lucas cameos" that afflicted Portable Ops*, it does have one extremely egregious offender: Huey Emmerich. It strains belief that both Big Boss and Solid Snake would coincidentally meet up with an Emmerich and become friends. This whole addition is clearly meant to be a big shout-out to the fans, but it just totally rubs me the wrong way and feels more like bad fan fiction than the actual narrative (although The Phantom Pain would do its absolute best to fix all the problems that this bit of indulgence created...).

I'm also not a big fan of the way that cassette tapes are used in this game. They are only accessible before missions, where you get a list of tapes from each character. However, the game doesn't let you know how long these tapes go on for - most briefing tapes are around a minute at most, but there are longer ones which can easily take 10 minutes or more per tape... and all of this is just keeping you from playing the mission you have been queuing up to play. As a result, if you're like me then you're going to quickly just ignore all of the briefing tapes, which is unfortunate because they do have some very informative background story info and some hilarious jokes. The tapes about the Box Tank and Snake believing in Santa both had me laughing out loud, and the tape which reveals that Cecile's name translates to "KOJIMA IS GOD" in Japanese had me in stitches. There are also tapes by EVA, Strangelove and Paz which are all extremely key to appreciating the game's narrative, but are hidden in the cassette tapes section and can easily get missed. EVA's tapes are perhaps the most important to the overall franchise, detailing a ton of information on The Boss, her fateful mission into space, The Philosophers and corruption in the CIA. Strangelove's fill in more info on The Boss and her mission to space, but they also are important for understanding her motivations and make her a significantly more sympathetic and tragic character. Paz's tapes are also important to understand the twist about her being a villain, and actually make her far more sympathetic in the end as well.

I'll be honest - when Peace Walkerfirst came out on the PSP, I didn't dig it all that much. I got sick of the armoured vehicle battles and the AI grinding and never actually saw the game's real ending (in part because I didn't realize that it had one). I even tried to play through the game once in the past when I bought the HD collection, but I ended up pouring all my time into Snake Eater instead. Having gone through Peace Walker again though and reached the real ending, I do have to say that my estimation of the game has improved considerably. The game has a pretty great story and its gameplay is fun for the most part, although it could have been improved with less frustrating boss encounters and more challenging regular troops. It's also too bad that they didn't use the HD collection as an opportunity to bring Peace Walker in line with Guns of the Patriots' gameplay.

8/10

*Kaz gets a free pass for being so essential to the narrative, for not really resembling his former portrayals and for ultimately making Kaz's fate in future games even more surprising and impactful.

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