“Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” is an odd entry in the “Metal Gear” series, for a number of reasons. It was originally planned to be titled “Metal Gear Solid 5: Peace Walker”, as series director Hideo Kojima considered it a fully-fledged entry into the “main” series, but the title was later amended. Perhaps the re-titling was due to another odd thing about the nature of the game, the fact it was developed for the PSP portable gaming system rather than home consoles, the way all four previous main entries in the series were. In many ways – from gameplay, to format, to story – the game is more of a follow-up to the lacklustre “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops” rather than “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” or “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”.
The game’s gameplay is so different to the main entries in the series, that the subtitle of the series, ”Tactical Espionage Action”, was changed, to “Tactical Espionage Operations”. The game is an odd duck in many ways, but unmistakably a Kojima “Metal Gear” game, as it has a strong thematic focus in a literary way few games have. The game explores and questions the idea of peace, how it is best achieved, and whether it should be strived for.
[Note: This review has a clearly marked-off spoiler section for where the spoilers begin. Plenty of the review is in that section. The next few paragraphs are spoiler free, then there will be a clear marked-off space before the spoiler section begins.]
Unlike “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops”, Kojima himself directed and wrote this game, and brought along most of the primary development team (who last worked on “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”) along with him. While it lacks the “5” in the title that would mark it as a main entry into the series (although see below for an early development picture where that “5” was retained in the title), it’s very much akin to the four main games in having a similar thematic focus. Where the first four main games focused on GENE, MEME, SCENE, and SENSE, this game focuses on PEACE. “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops” had no such thematic focus, and its story is of dubious canonicity at best (the sole mention of it in this game is a rough, vague dismissal of its events in a single line). Nothing that happened in “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops” had truly notable effect on the story of the series, or development of any of its characters, beyond what could already be inferred, so “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” functions more as the “true” sequel to “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, following Big Boss in the twentieth century, rather than Solid Snake in the twenty-first, as with “Metal Gear Solid”, “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”, and “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”. It furthers his development from the likable “Naked Snake” character, to the monstrous Big Boss encountered in “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”, progresses and sets up other plot points appropriate for that point in the series’ timeline, and tells a fairly self-contained story about peace.
The gameplay of the game is so different from the main series games that I struggled with it at times. It inherits and refines a lot of the mechanics and features from “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops”. There’s a heavy focus on base building and resource management. I can see the appeal of growing Big Boss’ legendary army without borders, the “Militaires Sans Frontières” or “MSF”, through actual gameplay. However, a lot of the time, I felt more like I was playing a spreadsheet simulator rather than emulating Big Boss. Some people no doubt love that sort of gameplay, but I found it tedious, and when it became vital to unlocking certain story cutscenes late in the game, I found it excruciating. There’s definitely satisfaction in seeing your headquarters, “Mother Base”, grow over time as you develop it, but I found the gameplay mechanics simulating that development largely unenjoyable.
That said, I do like how Kojima embeds story ideas holistically through his games, so they’re reflected in gameplay as well as cutscenes and dialogue, so I appreciate that the game attempted to tell the story of “how Big Boss formed a big, loyal, ultra-committed private army” through its gameplay; giving players the mechanical framework so that they can create that story themselves rather than just be told about it. I just like the idea more than the execution.
On the bright side, the game also inherited my favourite aspect of “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops”, the style of the cutscenes. Because of engine and storage limitations of the PSP system, it would have been unfeasible to have cutscenes in the actual engine and graphics of the game itself, as was the case for the main series games. The vast majority of the cutscenes instead take the form of stylised, semi-animated drawings by artist Ashley Wood, with the same aesthetic of the “Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novels”, which I also really liked. Below is a comparison of in-engine cutscenes, as used in the main series games, and the stylised cutscenes “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” used instead. Both examples are from “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker”, but the former is much rarer than the latter, in the game.
Occasionally gameplay is integrated into these cutscenes, in the form of quick-time event prompts and small shooting and aiming sections. These felt more like “wake up and pay attention to the cutscene!”, like the addition of gameplay was a last minute idea, rather than anything really worthwhile or fundamentally vital for the scenes. I for one loved the long cutscenes in “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, but I understand there was considerable backlash to their length and frequency, so I can see why there would have been a push to make the cutscenes in the next game more interactive.
While the game was developed for the PSP, it was later ported to the PS3 and Xbox 360 in a HD remaster that added some additional controls and changed the way the camera functioned. I played the PS3 version, and it certainly handled better than “Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops”, or how I imagine the original PSP release of “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” would play. There remain some downsides to the way the game was developed though. It was originally intended to have multiplayer co-op functions. The boss battles in particular seem to have been built with this in mind, as the bosses have so much health and are so tedious to defeat that apparently they were more intended for co-op gameplay. Well, it’s been six years since the game released, and there are not many players of it these days, so I had to deal with the bosses alone. They were an enormous pain. Not in the creative way of the bosses of the earlier main series games, but in a bullet sponge-y way. I had to grind and grind my skills, immerse myself in the tedious Mother Base spreadsheets, and other kinds of unenjoyable pursuits to overcome the many bosses of the game. I even had to revisist some bosses several times in order to unlock the true, final ending of the game. It baffles me people could consider such tedium preferable to the long cutscenes of “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, presumably purely because it involves direct gameplay. I struggle to feel warmly about this game the way I do with the four preceding main series games, and a lot of that comes down to me resenting the hours of tedium I had to pour into the game.
Another new gameplay feature, also seemingly in response to the backlash over the length and frequency of cutscenes in the preceding game, is the addition of “cassette tapes”. These tapes essentially replace the codec calls of earlier games. Rather than be called by, or call up, characters during the course of the game, and have conversations that either have important character, thematic, or plot information, or are just diverting, amusing, or interesting, instead you have the option of listening to tapes of Big Boss and various characters talking. The more you play, the more tapes unlock, as you progress through points in the storyline where such conversations would have taken place. It’s kind of an awkward mechanic to get used to after the codec calls, but does make some sense – it’s optional, whereas many of the codec calls weren’t, and allows players to experience that kind of “secondary” information at their own pace. The codec was enormously vital to the story in “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”, and was a big part of the charm in “Metal Gear Solid” and “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, but even by “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”, it had become less prominent. The cassette tapes are change, but not necessarily a bad one, and I have no real qualms with their implementation.
In terms of theme, the game is focused on peace, where the main series numbered games were focused on gene (genetics), meme (memetics), scene (cultural context), and sense (an individual’s unique sense of the world) respectively. Whereas I found a fairly cohesive thesis statement in each of those four games, I struggled defining exactly what message “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” was stating. What the game is about is simple enough – the nature of peace, nuclear deterrence theory, human nature as it relates to war and peace -, but I found it harder to read a very defined and set thesis statement, like “genetics and family don’t shackle you down; you can be free of them and thrive in spite of them” from “Metal Gear Solid” and “don’t let memes subconsciously guide you into behavioural patterns against your best interest” in “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty”.
I’m tempted to say this is because the matter of peace is still “unresolved” in a way some of the other game’s themes aren’t. Kojima’s thoughts on cultural context and genetics seem quite set and solid, but he seems to have a more complicated and nuanced worldview when it comes to war and peace, which also form a broader focus for the whole series rather than just a single game. In Kojima’s own words, “The game’s concept is structured in a way that your impression of the packshot will change after completing the game. The impeding danger that looms behind Snake… The Mechs & armed force. They are menacing to MSF, but while playing the game, they can be made part of your unit. You are fighting for peace… but by the time you notice, you are knee deep in militarization. That is the Theme”, but that doesn’t really articulate the statement the game is making, in the way the final speech at the end of “Metal Gear Solid” did, making the distinction between the theme (genetics) and the thesis (genetics don’t shackle you) clear.
It does provide direction though. My earlier musings on the game had me wondering if reading the game as saying “there is indeed a choice between war and peace, it is not an inevitably, humans have the agency to choose to be peaceful or not” (reinforced through the many times the game discusses the actions of Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov in preventing nuclear war through their restraint and commitment to peace) as a thesis statement, or alternatively “peace in an illusion, and likely unachievable, but it’s worth striving for anyway”, yet neither of those readings really factor in Kojima’s own statement that increasing militarisation in the pursuit of peace “is the theme”. I ultimately settle on saying the game’s thesis statement is “the pursuit of peace is not enough, pursuing peace is not inherently peaceful in and of itself, peace is a fine ideal but the pursuit of it often leads to its very opposite”. I’ll expand on my thoughts as to that thesis in the spoilers section of this review/analysis, but before I do, I will say I ultimately give the game three AI pods, and a butterfly.
[There are a load of paragraph below to prevent anyone accidentally seeing the spoiler section of the review. Scroll down to see it!]
[Spoiler section of the review]
To reiterate, my reading of the game’s thesis statement, the message of the game, is basically “pursuing peace often leads to war, the pursuit of peace is not inherently peaceful, pursuing peace often leads to increased militarisation and war”. This is shown most directly in the antagonist Hot Coldman’s plan, which involve trying to bring about world peace by perfecting nuclear deterrence theory and the concept of mutually assured destruction by removing the human element (showcased in cases like Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov preventing nuclear strikes) and making mutually assured destruction a 100% guarantee through the deployment of a complicated AI-led metal gear system called “Peace Walker”. Coldman’s plan, of course, leads to much combat, warfare, and death, but the underlying idea of it – committing to hostility is the only way to achieve peace – helps sow the seeds for the twisted system of perpetual warfare Big Boss eventually implements in his “Outer Heaven” nation concept, shown in “Metal Gear” and “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”.
It isn’t the only articulation of the game’s message though. The player, in controlling Big Boss all game, also engage in vast amounts of combat, and steadily enact their Mother Base and MSF army becoming more and more militarised (to the extent that they end the game with a nuclear weapon), while in the vague pursuit of peace, and certainly in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament. As Kojima himself put it, “You [the player / Big Boss] are fighting for peace… but by the time you notice, you are knee deep in militarization. That is the theme”.
Another aspect of the game’s story backing up this interpretation of the game’s message is the actions of both Big Boss and Major Zero in their interpretations of the Boss’ will. Both cause enormous amounts of destruction, death, warfare, combat, tragedy, and so on, in their attempts to enact her will upon the world. It’s not until decades later that Big Boss finally realises, moments away from true final death himself, that the Boss wanted the world left alone in a sense, and that trying to enforce ideology was a great instigator of the very notions she found foolish and detrimental to the world.
Where I find the messages of the first four main series games to range from heartening to at least guides on how to live a more fulfilling and happy life, the message of “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” seems honestly quite depressing, in my view. It’s much more of a despairing statement. I think the kindest reading of it would be to interpret it more as a warning than a set statement – rather than “pursuing peace leads to increased militiarisation”, reading it as “be cautious that, in the pursuit of peace, you don’t violate it instead”. I don’t quite feel it is a warning in the way “Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty” was though; I personally feel like it’s more of a despairing comment. The game does not have a happy ending, as it reveals the twin betrayals of Paz and Kaz, and sees Big Boss continue on his development toward outright villainy. Certainly more of a grim ending than the cathartic ultimate ending of the series in “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”.
I found the parts of the story focused on the Boss confusing. For a time, Big Boss seems unaware of the revelations of EVA’s tape (that the Boss was not a traitor, she was a triple agent, and died as part of an American cover-up to preserve Soviet relations), which makes no sense, as the end of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” – both the literal image of Big Boss tearfully saluting the Boss’ grave, and the implication for that being how he started down the dark path that led him to become the monster he is in “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake” – hinges entirely on him having that knowledge.
In the Strangelove torture section, I figured he was just intentionally deceiving her by saying the Boss was indeed a traitor, as a way to stymie the completion of the Peace Walker Boss AI, and to preserve the secrecy of her sacrifice, which is what the entire American-Soviet relations regarding the Snake Eater incident depend on.
Yet there are more conversations later in the game, including Big Boss’ final speech before the first ending, that show Big Boss as having doubts and conflict over the Boss “betraying” him. It was all very confusing. That speech, where he talks of the Boss betraying him, frames it as a betrayal of their natures, her “putting down the gun” and implicit discouraging of war and combat going against the shared soldier nature he perceived them as having. It’s bizarre, for a game with still a comparatively large number of cutscenes compared to other video games, and a very large amount of dialogue on the cassette tapes, to leave this hugely important issue so rarely commented on. Clarification regarding Big Boss’ feelings regarding the Boss, and knowledge as to what she did, would have really helped articulate the story of the game, and his character development. I felt like I had to read between the lines to parse the though that “Big Boss has self-doubt and conflict over EVA’s revelations, even though he largely intellectually believes them, although the distance of ten years has eroded his faith in them somewhat”. Having to read between the lines in a series where the story is usually more akin to trying to drink from a fire hose is baffling and unpleasant to me.
The ultimate, true ending of the game somewhat works for me. I like the symbolism of Big Boss throwing away his bandana, simultaneously distancing himself from players associating him with Solid Snake, and also casting aside his character emulation of the Boss. She sought a unified world, but Big Boss eventually believes war is the solution to that end rather than peace, as seen in “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”, unlike Major Zero’s more globalist interpretation. Big Boss identifies as a soldier, a weapon, a gun, and resents the Boss ceasing to do so herself. But it’s a point so underdeveloped in the actual game, which is so frustrating when the game’s story goes to the lengths of semi-resurrecting the Boss, yet neglects to have any meaningful dialogues directly setting up this turn of Big Boss’ character. It’s a far cry from the ending of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, which worked so fantastically on all levels, and was easy to comprehend.
The use of the Boss character at all felt somewhat cheap to me. I felt the implications of Big Boss’ character development from the end of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” were strong enough, and shed a bright enough light on how he transformed from the more jovial Naked Snake figure to the monstrous Big Boss of “Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake”. His grappling with his thoughts over the Boss felt too external to me; his angst was clear enough, but the dialogue of the game didn’t articulate his actual issues in an understandable way. The game feels more like a rumination on peace than a development from heroic figure Naked Snake to villainous figure Big Boss, which is not inherently a bad thing at all, but adding elements like an AI Boss beg comparison to that direction not really taken.
The game is also curiously hesitant to expand on what Big Boss has been doing since “Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater”, which is baffling, since the events of the last game (”Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”) revolve heavily around the actions Big Boss, Major Zero, and the other renewed Patriots (Ocelot, EVA, etc.) undertook. Even a cassette tape or two would have been illuminating, but the game seems to go out of its way to not comment on any of those matters, until the final, second, “secret” ending, where some machinations of Zero are revealed. Even then, Big Boss comments vaguely and indirectly on Zero, which is crazy when the entire overarching storyline of the series revolves so heavily around their friendship turned to rivalry.
I think those years the game doesn’t touch on, when Big Boss, Major Zero, Revolver Ocelot, and the rest (so, an American identifying as an independent agent, a globalist Britishman, and a Russian spy, amongst others including EVA who identified as Chinese) were the closest the Patriots got to fulfilling the Boss’ vision, a unified world where borders were meaningless. It’s such an extraordinary shame the game didn’t touch on those years.
“Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater” managed to both be a strong self-contained story with its own themes and thesis that could stand alone, and also be a strong prequel setting up and recontextualising elements in the timeline of the series, in such a way that strengthened and developed the overall story and characters even more. “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker” barely attempts the latter, and does not do the former nearly as well as the other four main series games. It is far from a bad game, but it’s certainly a step down from those other four games, and in that sense, I’m glad it ended up not being titled “Metal Gear Solid 5: Peace Walker”.
I give it three AI pods, and a butterfly.