The 30 minutes I spent playing Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the first day of the Tokyo Game Show left me with the best first impression I've ever had of a game on the PlayStation Portable.
I may have rolled my eyes when Konami's Hideo Kojima started telling the press this past summer that the 2010 PSP game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was going to be a significant enough Metal Gear game to be considered the successor to the PlayStation 3's Metal Gear Solid 4.
I will roll my eyes no longer.
From its visuals to its abundance of good ideas, Kojima Productions' Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker seems, based on initial impressions, that it could be worthy of a good amount of hype. The game feels important.
The demo I played — and which is being distributed to Tokyo Game Show attendees — begins with a tutorial set on a dark, rainy beach. The demo is all in Japanese, but game representatives present at Konami's Peace Walker meeting area to explain things to me and a trio of other reporters. On the beach, Snake stood shirtless as a drill sergeant barked orders at new recruits freshly entered into Snake's mercenary fighting force. The men called Snake "Boss" in this sequence, but it's a term our hero won't be comfortable with in this game, the Konami men told us. Our star is a young Snake, one a decade removed from his actions in the 1964-set Metal Gear Solid 3.
The beach scene, set on Colombia's Barranquilla coast, both wowed me with its graphics and introduced me to the game's smooth controls. Camera movement is mapped to the action buttons on the right of the PSP. The system's analog nub moves Snake. The R trigger is used for primary actions, like fighting moves. Tapping down on the d-pad makes Snake squat. Holding down makes him lie prone and — in a change for the series — prevents him from moving. Walking up to an enemy (or hapless beach recruit) and tapping R makes Snake punch and kick. Holding R causes him to grab and hold his opponent from behind. Running and holding R just as Snake reached his opponent triggers a grab and throw. Doing that in a crowd — and tapping the R trigger again as soon as the first guy gets tossed to the ground — causes Snake to swiftly throw the second guy — and then a third if you tap R again. Single throws can be aimed with the analog nub, letting you throw one opponent into another. Weapons are aimed with a press of the L trigger and fired with a press of R.
After dabbling with the controls, we watched a cut-scene. It was long, as would be expected of a Metal Gear game, and it was visually stylish, as you would also expect. The scenes are comprised of still images from Ashley Wood,the comics illustrator who did the cut-scenes for Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops and the Metal Gear digital graphic novel projects. In Peace Walker he uses starkly toned toned brushstroke art. His drawings are enlivened with comic book sound effects, camera pans and other visual tricks. After an in-game close-up of Snake's face morphed into a Snake portrait drawn by Wood, the story kicked in.
The story could be simplified slightly as follows: Snake was meeting with a man named Galvez, a supposed professor from Costa Rica who believed that the CIA was trying to overthrow his government. Costa Rica, like Japan, was not allowed to have its own army, so Galvez hoped Snake's fighting force could take care of the CIA forces instead. Snake was reluctant, not wanting to fight in just any old conflict. Galvez offered access to an off-shore base. Snake's comrade Miller was intrigued. Snake was not. Galvez tried something else and introduced Snake to a young woman named Paz who was dressed in a long red coat and seemed traumatized by war.
Time for a narrative interruption. As we watched the several-minute scene, we learned that the cut-scenes in Peace Walker are interactive. Later we'd be shown a scene featuring Snake wielding a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher against a flying drone. The player could manipulate the position of the RPG launcher in Wood's drawing in order to make Snake hit or miss his target.
A different kind of cut-scene interaction was emphasized in the scene that introduced Paz. The intent was to introduce the ability for players to pan and zoom in on these still drawings. The developers showing the demo said we could use this to see Paz's wounds. She had been held hostage by the forces Galvez wanted Snake to overthrow and scars had been left. So we zoomed it. Surprise. Zooming provided more than a glimpse at his wounds. We could see under her red coat to her regular clothes and then, closer in, to her underwear. Easter-egg leering is expected. This is a Metal Gear game.
Back to the story, briefly: Even Paz's presence couldn't convince Snake. Galvez, the supposed professor, then called Snake "Big Boss." That got Snake's attention. He signed on for the task.
Back in control, I briefly played a solo mission. My Snake wore jungle fatigues, could use a machine gun or stunning electrical stick against enemies. From the d-pad I could pick other weapons and gadgets. A digital display in the game's upper right corner indicated how exposed and unstealthy Snake was. When I made him run, the number went up. When he fired his gun, it peaked. Using the moves I learned from that beach tutorial I was able to have Snake prowl the jungle and take some enemy soldiers down.
The developers want you to pick a slower pace. One way of encouraging that is by preventing Snake from being able to pick up items if he runs over them. Snake must squat before he picks up whatever a downed soldier drops. But the developers don't want the slow pace to make the game itself slow. In fact ,they encourage a sense of perpetual movement. The game can't be paused unless the system is put in sleep mode, for example. Pressing start produces a map, but does not pause the action. And in a change from series tradition, audio codec sequences will play while Snake moves around rather than during action-interrupting dialogue screens.
By the time I had absorbed everything I just described, I was thinking that Peace Walker was one of the best-looking games on the PSP, one with stylish cut-scenes, an interesting story and solid controls.
Then I played co-op, and — always a sucker for an innovative idea — I was bowled over.
Peace Walker's missions can be played solo, but sneaking machines can also support a second player. Boss battles can support up to four. G4's Billy Berghammer and I tried a sneaking machine. We were each able to play as Snake, selecting one of four load-outs. I chose to play as the armored Battle Snake, forsaking quiet movement and speed for heavy weapons. He chose Naked Snake, getting heavy weapons as well, getting fast movement, but sacrificing defense. Other options were Jungle Fatigues Snake, a well-balanced character, and Sneaking Suit Snake, who was good at stealth and could wield a shield.
At the beginning of a level set near the jungle, Billy and I were asked to try Snake Formation. One of us would have Snake as the leader. The other got to be the gunner. As the gunner-to-be, I walked my Snake behind Billy's and was given a prompt to hold down the up button on the d-pad. Doing so linked us. My Snake put his hand on the other Snake's shoulder. Billy's Snake, in the lead, could move but not shoot without breaking the chain. In a four-player co-op mission, four players can make a Snake Formation chain.
To maintain a Snake Formation, the gunner player has to keep pressing up on the d-pad. Releasing it breaks the formation, but staying close still allows to two players to sync together. The syncing is displayed with a horizontal meter that appears in front of the characters and fills over the course of a few seconds. When players sync successfully, they received a brief bonus to their attributes. Their health regenerates more quickly and their camouflage index will increase.
Co-op players can access one another's inventory, wielding weapons not otherwise available to their Snake class. They can also perform special co-op moves like a boost over a chain-link fence. Those moves and the Snake Formation are only possible, though, if the two players are within range of one another's co-op circle, a ring that reached the extent of the visible playing field in the mission Billy and I tried. If the players get outside of each other's range, the PSPs treat the session as if the two Snakes just happen to be in the same single-player game level together. But if the two Snakes are within range, then all of the co-op actions I've described can be accessed.
We tried one other co-op action. This one was very Metal Gear. We hopped under a cardboard box together. The game labels a co-op box as a Love Pack and lets a second player scoot under it to join the one who initially equips it. Billy took the lead and made our box scamper around the screen. The producers told us that if we let the Snakes stay still then the box might start shaking in a frisky sort of way.
Levels may differ depending on the number of players who go into them, but the producers were unable to provide much detail about how the game might re-balance itself to accommodate that added firepower of multiple Snakes. In the demo being distributed at TGS, none of that tailoring is activated. It sounded to me like the extent to which levels will change is still being worked out.
We didn't get to do much fighting or sneaking in the co-op mode. Time only allowed us to learn the abilities, test them in a small space and imagine how they'd apply to a longer scenario. It was, nevertheless, an impressive demonstration of fresh thinking, consistent with the overall impression I got that Peace Walker is getting much more development thought, attention and budget than the average PSP game.
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker has a long way to go, but it already appears to have the potential to be both a very good game and an influential one. That first quality is always welcome on the PSP. The second, on Sony's portable, would be a rare achievement.
(Note: In Japan, where local multiplayer with PSPs is popular, the co-op of Peace Walker has the potential to be widely used. I neglected to ask whether the co-op in Peace Walker will be programmed to work over Wi-Fi, which might better suit many American gamers. If I can find out, I'll update this piece.)