Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is the fifth entry in the storied Metal Gear Solid franchise (and the umpteenth entry in the entire Metal Gear franchise). Whereas the previous entry Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots featured series protagonist Solid Snake as an aging war veteran grappling with his purpose as a soldier in a near future world overrun by private military contractors, MGS: Peace Walker goes back to the past. If you'll recall, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater took place against the backdrop of the 1960s Cold War between the USA and USSR. In an ambitious piece of storytelling MGS3 told the story not of Solid Snake, but of his father, Naked Snake. MGS3 used the backdrop of the Cold War to tell the story of how Naked Snake would become the series antagonist Big Boss, in a move somewhat similar to how the Star Wars prequels told the story (however poorly) of Anakin becoming Darth Vader. It's just that MGS3 did it much, much better and is widely considered the best entry in the series.
Taking place in 1974, Peace Walker details how Big Boss and his band of mercenaries set out to create their perfect little haven from the world, known in later games as "Outer Heaven". The location for this outing is a unique one in videogames, taking place in the jungles of Costa Rica. Series director and mastermind Hideo Kojima uses this setting as a place to further elaborate on the machinations of the Cold War powers, with the Soviets and Americans vying for control of the Central America region in a bid for geographic supremacy.
The use of Costa Rica isn't just window dressing either. There's a certain character in the game who will go into exhaustive detail of the history of the country, its geography, its inhabitants, its flora and fauna, even why its coffee tastes so good. It's all rather excessive and rather unnecessary, and it doesn't help that the character relating all this info is rather precocious. It's really just another sign of Kojima's typical penchant for excessive detail.
What's also on display here is Kojima's usual blending of the hyper real with the hyper absurd. A perfect example: during the mission briefings a character will go into great detail on the grim implications of Cold War strategies and maneuvers, but while the mission is underway the enemy's state of mind is conveyed using Looney Tunes like "zzz's" hovering over a soldier's head to indicate that he's sleepy. This is such a well known aspect of the MGS series that the "!" mark appearing over an alerted soldier's head and the accompanying sound effect are absolutely iconic among gamers.
This leads to Kojima's unabashedness for breaking the fourth wall. Many modern games try to keep hidden that they are actually games that you're playing, often with tutorial sections given in-game reasons for existing (such as the tutorial stage being a boot camp where the player is being trained). Kojima dispenses with this notion - he wants to remind you that what you are playing is a game. This is quite noticeable in the often diegetic way that characters talk about functions in the game. A character might say something like "Remember Snake, hit the X button to reload your weapon!", with no attempt made to hide this mechanic behind some in-game veil.
Speaking of absurd, this character's name is 'Hot Coldman'
The game structure of Peace Walker is noticeably different than previous franchise entries. The game uses a mission structure where the player can choose which mission to undertake and the order in which to undertake them. I found this to be a refreshing approach to the standard MGS game, and I enjoyed that many of the missions were much shorter than in previous games. The player can even repeat the same mission again and again. This gives the game a stripped down approach, with many of the more advanced tactics of previous entries having been removed. This change in game structure is most likely due to the fact that Peace Walker was initially released as a game for the Playstation Portable, Sony's answer to Nintendo's Game Boy. Peace Walker was made available in the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection on the Playstation 3, where the first three entries in the series, along with Peace Walker, were given the high definition treatment to bring them up to modern graphical standards (this was the version I played).
Overall I greatly enjoyed Peace Walker. The stripped down approach to the gameplay and mission structure kept things feeling fresh, and the plot moved Big Boss's story forward in a big way. The game also makes great use of a comic book-like art style. This was initially seen very briefly back in Metal Gear Solid 2 when pictures of the Illuminati-like "Patriots" were shown in a hand drawn sketch style. In Peace Walker it's been expanded so that nearly all of the cutscenes are done in this style. It looks great.
Hideo Kojima has pretty abandoned the notion that MGS 4 would be the last entry in the franchise, having recently released MGS: Ground Zeroes as a sort of prequel to the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, which looks to continue the story of Big Boss and how he ultimately becomes a symbol of evil (watch the trailer here). In a bit of a controversial move, Kojima dumped long time Snake voice actor David Hayter for... Keifer Sutherland. From the previews I've watched, it's just plain weird to hear Sutherland's voice coming out the mouth of Snake, even if both actors share a similarly gravelly voice. Well, I suppose I better start playing Ground Zeroes, until next time.