Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker may be the year's biggest PSP game, but when I finally got my hands on a demo, its dated close-quarters combat tutorial felt like a relic of some bygone era of gaming, the early ‘00s.
Having orders barked at me by a ski-masked in-game drill sergeant — in order to teach me the basics of the game — felt more than a little stale at a time when most tutorials ease you in by letting you play the early parts of the core game as you learn.
At Konami's recent Gamer's Night in San Francisco, I picked up a PSP expecting an opportunity to sneak up on some guys, subdue them and skulk around. Instead, I was thrown into a CQC 101 lecture, where a professor who took his fashion cues from Subcommandante Marcos encouraged me to whale on his oddly masochistic students
The demo, which appears to have been the same one available on the PlayStation Network, opened on a Colombian beach in 1974. Before there was any combat, I got a crash course in the game's basic controls from the world's most helpful drill instructor. Although the ski-masked gentleman on the beach barked out orders like a real drill instructor, the disconnect between his gruff tone and the words that were coming out of his mouth was too much to bear. I had to stifle a chuckle as Subcommandante Marcos hollered out such harsh hints as, "You should be familiar with the up and down camera buttons now! Press the action button if you're ready to move on!"
Once Snake had mastered the demanding art of looking around, Marcos helpfully yet angrily reminded me, "You can change the controls any time in Options! Go with the method that works best for you!" His tone of voice suggested he'd conclude each sentence with, "you bootlicking maggot," but he never did.
After more jarring gameplay/audio juxtapositions related how to crouch, lie down, move, roll and fight, it was time for Big Boss, aka Naked Snake, to square off against some dudes. Like the drill instructor, these sycophants were more than a little amusing, with eager exhortations like, "Please, boss," after Subcommandante Marcos finished explaining how they were going to be beaten into a pulp.
When I first found out Snake was going to get a chance to try out his moves on real live humans, my hopes were raised. But when those humans turned out to be moving practice dummies, they were dashed once more.
Haven't we gotten to the point in gaming where developers simply make an easy first level, with silent on-screen prompts that teach us the controls as we play? If gaming hasn't moved beyond a time when demos and tutorials consist of a grown man telling another grown man how to walk and look around, it should have. Contrasted with the openings of more recent titles like Bayonetta, Mass Effect 2 or Fallout 3, Peace Walker's felt more than a bit stale. Having a feature like Peace Walker's tutorial be the first thing most gamers will see isn't exactly Metal Gear creators Hideo Kojima and Co.'s putting their best foot forward.
Once the close-quarters-combat tutorial ended, the real game began. Somewhat frustrated with the dated tutorial, lengthy opening cinematic and the less than ideal conditions in which I demoed the title, I opted to save the real gameplay for another day, when I wasn't battling loud music, passers-by and equipment laden camera men trying to operate within roughly the same space.
Does Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker's mediocre first impression mean I'm less excited to play the game when it comes out next month? Not at all. I still expect the game, along with ModNation Racers, will be what finally gets me to buy Sony's handheld, after PSPgo-related indecision delayed my purchase late last year. It's just that a demo is supposed to leave players more excited to buy a game. My extremely brief Peace Walker hands-on just left me scratching my head.
Eric Wittmershaus writes a weekly column and occasionally blogs about video games for The Press Democrat, a New York Times regional newspaper in Santa Rosa, California. You can reach him at eric [dot] wittmershaus [at] pressdemocrat [dot] com and follow him on Twitter as @gamewit.