Version tested: PSP
"We love you, Snake. Don't come back," I wrote at the end of my review of 2008's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. I felt that the mad, glorious indulgence of that so-called finale had left the series and its quixotic creator spent. Not all of you agreed.
Well, lucky for you, Hideo Kojima and his Konami paymasters have found a loophole. Snake's not back - not that Snake, Solid Snake. Peace Walker, the PSP game that Hideo Kojima wants you to think of as Metal Gear Solid 5, stars his clone-daddy and sometime nemesis Big Boss, a.k.a. Naked Snake, in another Cold War adventure.
Its story, set in 1974, follows in the footsteps of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and PSP forebear Portable Ops, shading in the background detail on Kojima's secret world of walking nukes and superspy soap opera. Those are the two games in the series Peace Walker shares the most with, too; the Central American jungle setting echoes Snake Eater's moody, outdoorsy tone, and there's a squad-recruitment system like Portable Ops' - albeit completely changed, vastly refined and improved, and offering what must be the most absorbing framework for a Metal Gear game to date.
You also get competitive multiplayer, co-op for two or four players across the full-length campaign (all playable locally or online), a trading system and an extensive suite of bite-sized bonus side missions, all presented with Kojima Productions' customary verve and immaculate sheen. It's an astonishing package that in terms of raw features sets a new standard for the PSP platform, and arguably for the Metal Gear series too.
Directing himself, Kojima has channelled the MGS4 development team's energies from hi-def hyperbole on the PS3 to polyglot completism on Sony's handheld - a wise move, well-informed by the success of portable classics like Monster Hunter Freedom and Pokemon. Another masterpiece of production values from the house of Hideo, Peace Walker is a Rolls Royce of a videogame, something the PSP sorely needs.
But is it what Metal Gear fans need? And does it do anything to convince the rest of the world that it still needs Metal Gear?
As ever with this love/hate series, the answer - a cop-out, but an inevitable and honest one - is largely "yes and no". Expansive and inspired in some ways, stubborn and reactionary in others, compromised by its platform even as it pushes it further than anyone else has, Peace Walker is the same old maddening, lovable Metal Gear.
You've never needed to look far for contradictions in these games, especially when it comes to Kojima's curious blend of sentimental, preachy pacifism with a drooling fetishism for the real and imagined machinery of war. As in Snake Eater, though, the paralysed conflict of the Cold War makes for a highly appropriate setting for his slightly muddled musings, not to mention a less anachronistic one for his pervasive nuclear paranoia.
Peace Walker sees Big Boss making a home for his Militaires Sans Frontières mercenary enclave in Costa Rica, where he's recruited by a local, peace-loving academic - actually a KGB agent - to investigate the doings of a well-armed, CIA-funded militia in the country. Misgivings melted by a pretty, innocent student called Paz, this exceptionally grizzled and world-weary Snake grumblingly agrees to sneak around and shoot men in balaclavas one more time in the name of peace, or war, one of the two.