After a recent Los Angeles trip that involved playing a metric butt-ton of The Phantom Pain, I returned home and immediately went on a Metal Gear rampage.
After playing up to the first boss in Raiden's section of Sons of Liberty, and making more progress than ever before in the original MSX Metal Gear, I loaded up my long-abandoned save of Peace Walker. Seeing as I already logged 80 hours with the game—mostly via the PSP version—I figured I'd poke around for a bit, scrape out the remaining content, and call it a day.
It's been a little over a month since then, and my game clock now reads 120 hours as I neglect new games for a last-gen port of a 2010 PSP release. But before you call the Relevance Police to have me arrested and fired immediately, allow me to explain just how this meaty little Metal Gear remains my favorite in the series. (At least, until The Phantom Pain supplants Peace Walker as its rightful heir.)
If you've never played Peace Walker, I'm sure you're skeptical. After all, Metal Gear Solid 3 boasts the best story in the series, so how could anything possibly top that? Truth be told, Konami more than earned the healthy skepticism people felt towards PSP Metal Gears, because it essentially took them five tries to get things right. When the developer assumed the PSP couldn't handle something as ambitious as a legit Hideo Kojima game, Metal Gear Acid was born; while it managed to apply the mechanics of Metal Gear to a card/board game, it certainly wasn't what fans of the series expected.
Soon after, Portable Ops (and Portable Ops Plus) made a serious attempt to translate standard Metal Gear into a handheld format, but many viewed its portable-friendly approach as an adulteration of Solid Snake's standard formula. In retrospect, Portable Ops did an impressive job of capturing that Metal Gear magic, but the multiple refinements of Peace Walker only serve to magnify its flaws. It's pretty tough to go back to individually dragging every soldier to a truck when Peace Walker lets you deliver potential recruits to HQ in an instant.
So, what is it about Peace Walker that had me invest just as much time as I would with, say, Fallout 3? Well, it's the first mainline game in the series—ignore the lack of a number; this really should be called Metal Gear Solid V—to throw story by the wayside for the sake of pure gameplay. That's not to say the story is completely absent, but this element largely sticks to the sidelines, and often places itself in cassette tapes you can listen to at your leisure... or not at all. As I'm sure I've pointed out before, Metal Gear may be known best for its outlandish and often preposterous plot twists, but long after we've forgotten just what the hell was up with Revolver Ocelot's Liquid Snake arm, it's the highly creative and reactive play that sticks with us. And Peace Walker has this in spades.
Basically, Peace Walker breaks down its content into nugget-style chunklets, which score you on your efficiency at the end of each and every one—this is a Japanese video game, after all. Of course, you have your standard Metal Gear story to weave through, full of intrigue, plot twists, and creative bosses. The real attraction, though, comes in the form of 120-plus "Extra Ops," which creatively rearrange elements of the main game for the sake of more content. So yeah, you have your standard shooting galleries and boss revisitations thrown in, but the best Extra Ops feature Metal Gear at its silliest. Snake can reenact the classic Konami arcade game Pooyan, steal items from fallen enemies while avoiding their vengeful ghosts, and photograph soldiers busy goofing off instead of patrolling. Peace Walker also offers a handful of Monster Hunter bosses to fight in one of the most inspired video game crossovers to date—if Metal Gear lacked anything up to this point, it's actual dinosaurs.
So, why bother doing any of this stuff outside of the in-the-moment fun of playing Metal Gear? Well, the truly addictive nature of Peace Walker can be found in the Mother Base system, an underlying framework that grows in wonderful new ways with your every action. Essentially, mostly everything you find within missions—from enemy soldiers to vehicles to the AI chips ripped from the brains of robot bosses—can be used to generate more stuff. Find tech-savvy soldiers to drop into your R&D department, and your arsenal of weapons and items will only grow. Capture a fleet of powerful vehicles, then send them on automated away missions to bring back valuable rewards. Hell, you can even spend time searching for the Ultimate Playable Character, since protagonist Snake doesn't necessarily have to take part in missions—my standby, "Guar," is a female soldier who even puts the hero's abilities to shame. (Seriously, she can bodyslam dudes so hard that all the stuff flies out of their pockets.)
Peace Walker also contains a surprising amount of depth, to the point where I'm still discovering new mechanics 100+ hours in. I normally take a pacifist approach, since the game incentivizes this; living soldiers make the better recruits than corpses, after all. That meant I only used my lethal weapons on the robot bosses, since you pretty much have to. I took to experimenting with my arsenal recently, and only just noticed that there's a window of time you can recruit wounded soldiers, so long as you didn't incapacitate them by firing at their heads. It's something that wouldn't have affected my approach all that much, but I've definitely been using more of my weapons now that I know I can still do the whole "pacifist" thing using firearms designed to turn internal organs into pudding.
Really, any minute you play of Peace Walker is a minute where you're contributing to something—and that's the main reason I can't put it down. I know that if I dip into a few more missions, some great new item will gradually reveal itself—and hey, did I go back and see if any of those Extra Ops held hidden blueprints? Ultimately, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is an endless buffet of what I'll call "Content Sliders:" delicious, bite-size morsels that only take a few minutes to consume. What strikes me as particularly impressive about Peace Walker, though, is that I've never played the game as intended; in accordance with its Monster Hunter inspiration, it's really meant to be played with other people.
Since the PSP version only featured local multiplayer, I had no choice but to go it alone; and by the time the fantastic Metal Gear Solid HD Collection released, I assumed my time with Peace Walker was long over. The fact that the game still works so well under less-than-ideal conditions definitely stands as one of its most impressive feats. (Coincidentally, if anyone out there wants to do some multiplayer via the PS3's HD collection, let me know. I'd love to try it before the servers go kaput... if they haven't gone kaput already.)
If anything, jumping back into Peace Walker is only getting me more excited for the upcoming Phantom Pain. When I saw the demo at last year's E3, I sure thought it was nice that Konami made a Metal Gear game just for me, and playing 15 hours of it only confirmed how desperately the developer wants to tap into the Bob Mackey demographic. I'm not sure if this is necessarily good for their bottom line, but after experiencing a bigger, beefier version of Peace Walker with The Phantom Pain, there's nothing I want to do more than mine it for every mission, secret, and easter egg. And if you missed it in the past—as many undoubtedly did—jumping into Peace Walker will definitely give you a preview of one of 2015's biggest games. Something tells me I may just end up hitting 150 hours before the fateful date of September 1st rolls around.