I never learned how to play Metal Gear despite finishing several titles from the series. Peace Walker teaches you how to play Metal Gear properly, and it feels good to finally be on even terms with the series.
It’s quite simple, really: all the missions are split into short segments and you can choose to replay past missions. You’re being graded for your performance, the main criteria being speed and secondary how few alarms you’ve raised, how few kills you’ve made and how few enemies you’ve left dying (as opposed to hauling them away to your base for care). Acting violently decreases your heroism score, which affects how many new recruits you get, but it’s usually the easy way out to just shoot your way out of trouble.
But the thing is, you know killing is not the right way to do it, and while you can progress in the story by clearing a path with bullets, you’ll be back to perfect your scores. In past games triggering an alarm was frustrating, because the enemies would just keep coming. This time you’ll kill a few and that’s it. It’s also usually a viable option to just leg it, hide yourself and wait for things to calm down. The enemy is quite good at flushing you out, but playing smart it’s entirely possible to evade capture.
The outcome is that you learn how to sneak aggressively, taking out enemies on your way without killing them and always remaining unseen. And it’s voluntary – the game does not force it on you, rather, it rewards it.
This structure alone would make me consider Peace Walker an important title in the series, but it’s got a lot more going for it, as well. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was an interesting title with lots of problems, the main ones being that the soldier collection mechanic was tedious to use – you had to physically carry every knocked out soldier to the exit – and the controls were more or less broken.
Peace Walker fixes both of these issues with instant evacuation (via a balloon) and shifting the camera controls to the face buttons, in addition to a host of usability improvements. The inventory is now large enough, for instance. It works really very well, I’ve only cursed the controls a bit in up close and personal combat – which always means you’ve messed up anyway – and during some of the boss fights.
The soldier collection is actually a key part of the game. You’re assembling an army, building a base and researching technology. Set in the 1960s in South America, you’re playing as Big Boss (as in Portable Ops) and very quickly it turns out you’ll be putting together Outer Heaven, the legendary mercenary state featured in pretty much all of the previous Metal Gear titles, being the setting of the original game (Metal Gear, 1987) which Solid Snake is infiltrating (to take out Big Boss). If you’re a Metal Gear fan at all, this is very exciting stuff! The Metal Gear universe had got so convoluted by the time of Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008) that I wasn’t really keeping up any more despite being a fan, and it’s great to reconnect with the series this way. It feels like you’re re-enacting history, if you’ve spent a lot of time with the series.
The oft-ridiculed Metal Gear gameplay to exposition ratio is better than at any time before in the series. Generally, you get a cutscene every few missions and while some of them are a bit lengthy, they don’t get tedious. Some are interactive. The comic book style used is gorgeous throughout. Missions generally are never interrupted by plot. When you’re playing, you’re playing, and for once the Konami designers have allowed the gameplay to shine on its own. There’s plenty of variety on offer. While the levels are relatively straightforward, you usually have at least two routes through them, exploration is rewarded, and you always have options on how to handle enemies on your way, depending on positions, time available and what equipment you kitted out with when embarking on the mission.
The Southern America setting and the 60s vibe with Ashley Wood’s lively, animated comic book cutscenes contribute in a major way to the strong mood.
As we’re just past the halfway mark, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a strong contender for game of the year.