Metal Gear Solid as a series is the most perfect satire of the videogame that has ever been made, and I'm still not absolutely sure it's intentional. The consistency would suggest that its juxtaposition of super-serious military posturing and absolute unadulterated nonsense is the product of considered genius, but then it could just be the inspired direct-feed of a brilliantly deluded mind. MGS is one of the only series' left in the word that's largely the product of a single creator's vision rather than the filtrate of layers of ideas panels, concept meetings and corporate approval. Whatever you think of them as actual videogames, they're certainly "important".
Peace Walker, meanwhile, is gorgeous. It's far and away the best-looking PSP game in existence; like Monster Hunter Freedom Unite, it looks and feels more like something you'd expect from a home console, with a wealth of mission content, four-person multiplayer, lush, open environments and, above and beyond, a striking, superbly varied artistic style. Cut-scenes are a mixture of the usual 3D rendered action and animated comic-style storyboard sequences, delineated in watercolour streaks and onomatopoeic letter explosions. The game's opening scenes are stunning, depicting a typically sultry Big Boss in a rain-sodden Cambodia; as a flash of lightning strikes, his stern expression melts suddenly into the inky lines that have traditionally defined him in concept artwork.
The tutorial is neatly framed in a combat demonstration for Boss's recruits to his mercenary army. Shirtless, moody and rain-spattered, he runs his soldiers through a drill on a sodden beach that takes us through all of the basic movement and combat. By default, the game maps movement to the analogue stick and camera control to the face buttons, but there's an alternative setup for the millions of Japanese players and 18 Western ones who've developed the trademark Monster Hunter claw that lets you control the camera with the d-pad instead.
The game uses the R button for all shooting and hand-to-hand combat. It's context-sensitive, naturally, though you have to tap right on the d-pad to put your gun away if you have one equipped before engaging in close-quarters combat. Tapping R whilst running in a direction sends Big Boss into a dive roll. Holding R whilst holding a direction gets him to throw the nearest enemy in that direction. Pressing R without touching the analogue controls punches and kicks, and holding it grabs an enemy in a chokehold. In situations where you're outnumbered you can throw enemies into each other, or send them flying one after the other in a neat little combo system. Once you've successfully chucked one guard off a cliff, a simple tap of the R button does the same to the next nearest enemy if you're surrounded.
For a context-sensitive system, it only rarely gets confused. Later on, during the actual missions, I often find myself diving headlong into an enemy rather than grabbing and throwing. The controls aren't locked down, though - every aspect of the configuration can be changed on the fly in persistent menus if something doesn't feel right. When you have a gun equipped, you aim with L and shoot with R, and moving, guiding the camera, aiming and shooting all at once isn't half as difficult as it probably should be on the PSP once you get used to the camera sensitivity. Lining up headshots will never be as easy as it is on a console with two analogue sticks, but the game compensates with a gentle auto-aim. That, too, can be adjusted as and when you grow in proficiency.
More context-sensitive actions like opening things, taking cover and searching bodies are performed by pressing up on the d-pad; changing stance to crouching or belly-crawling is done by tapping down. Holding left or right takes you into the item and weapons menus. All of the in-game menus are overlaid onto the action - opening up a menu never pauses the game - but all of the detailed options that you need from configuration menus are present and correct. In co-op you can have access to all of your nearby friends' weapons and items, too, all accessed from the same menus. Once you get used to holding different button combinations it's fluid and accessible.
Peace Walker is a game designed around co-op, though it's completable solo as well. Different paths through levels open up when you have two to four minds at work, and you can team up to overcome high ledges and other such environmental obstacles. Every player in co-op has their own personal space circle - stay within a certain radius of each other and you can team up to share items and weapons, or one player can hold up on the d-pad to sneak around in the shadow of the other without having to control their own movement. As the gamescom trailer famously revealed, you can even share camouflage boxes. Watching a four-legged box sneak around in the jungle is somehow even funnier.
Setting up and playing a co-op game is painless; the host chooses a channel, and all the other players need to do to join is tune in to the same channel. You can select one of four Snake archetypes to play as: Jungle Camo Snake, a balanced, all-round build; Sneak Suit Snake, who has a shield for protection but is otherwise a bit useless; Heavy Combat Snake; or Naked Snake. Each loads out with different weapons and equipment. There's no lag and no friction, and it's clear that the game has been envisioned in multiplayer from the very beginning. All of the missions - over a hundred of them - are replayable, too, so you can go back with friends and/or better weapons and open up new paths.
It's the level of detail that cements Peace Walker's status as a full MGS release that just happens to be on a portable console. There's environmental damage - you can shoot coconuts off trees - and context-sensitive injury; you can zoom and pan around in the cut-scenes, like in MGS4, and find hidden extras. The cut-scenes themselves are incredibly detailed and beautiful, and even interactive. One comic-style cut-scene that introduces a new character allows you to zoom and pan around to get a good look at her, changing her costume or, er, stripping her down to her underwear "so you can see her scars". Another cut-scene that Kojima Productions teases us with makes the player take part in the action, getting them to move a rocket-aiming reticule over a helicopter before rewarding them with the beautifully animated explosion.
MGS: Peace Walker is already among the best PSP games I've ever played, and I've only had an hour and a half with it. Besides occasional niggles with the controls, which all the customisation options should do a lot to ease, it's an absolute pleasure to play and to watch. The production values are clearly ridiculous, it's impossibly good-looking, and it's going to give Monster Hunter a run for its money as a four-player co-operative experience. Equally importantly, its four-legged boxes and already convoluted plot hint at the same gentle lunacy that kindled such a fondness in me for the previous games in the series. I can't see how it can go wrong.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is due out for PSP in 2010.