While E3 2009 was certainly kind to Metal Gear fans of all console persuasions, it's arguable that PSP owners have gotten the best end of the deal. From the get go Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker has looked incredibly impressive, and this year's TGS expo has brought with it a downloadable demo of the game. While gamers not versed in Japanese -- such as yours truly -- might have their enjoyment a tad limited by the language barrier, the demo is still pretty straightforward and really gives a nice feel of what to expect from the game when it hits in 2010. In case you're wondering, you can expect good things.
Peacewalker isn't the first attempt at a Metal Gear game on the PSP. The Metal Gear Ac!d games brought the franchise to the portable in the form of a card centric turn based strategy game, while Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was a more traditional Metal Gear game based around 3D stealth action. To its credit, Portable Ops was actually a strong effort, tailored well to the handheld format and featuring some nicely developed multiplayer modes. That said, the game suffered from some issues that hampered the overall experience, namely the controls. Like many of the frabchuse's entries, Portable Ops often required awkward button combinations and while it was certainly playable many basic actions were rendered harder then they had to be.
Some blamed the shortcomings of the PSP's controls for this, but if Peacewalker is any indicator Sony's handheld can't be held completely responsible. It isn't a flawless experience, and some of its control success comes at the concession of franchise staples, but the way it simplifies the often complicated gameplay mechanics of the Metal Gear franchise is to be commended. The way the game approaches gun play is especially inspired. Taking cues from Metal Gear Solid 4, Peacewalker seems to have completely ditched the awkward first person shooting that Portable Ops relied on. Rather, holding the left shoulder button with a gun equipped has you shooting over the shoulder. The face buttons are then used to aim with the right shoulder button being the trigger. You can even move around while aiming this way using the analog nub, which is just a wonderful addition. It isn't a flawless system, the face buttons often aren't responsive or accurate enough for on the fly shooting, but for sniping and the like it is about as perfect as you can probably expect from the PSP.
Recognizing this potential shortcoming however, Peacewalker also employs an auto-aim feature that can be toggled on and off with the select button. While being able to aim yourself can be useful for precision shots, if you find yourself in a firefight it's nice to be able to switch on auto-aim, point Snake in the right direction and let the bullets fly. The way it works doesn't feel cheap either. The enemies are still challenging enough that your computer guided lead doesn't seem like a cheat.
The controls do stumble in a few odd places, though. The game includes a button for hugging walls, but for some reason Snake can't slide across said surfaces. Potentially worse, holding the down on the directional pad will make Snake lie flat on the ground, but no amount of coercion it seems will make him crawl. We can only hope these aren't permanent design decision because neither makes much sense. Are suddenly supposed to believe that Snake can lay on the ground but somehow lacks the mental capacity to crawl?
CQC has also been dumbed down a bit. Where in Portable Ops, one could do a number of things while using CQC, -slit throats, hold an enemy hostage, interrogation- Peacwalker's incarnation is basically a choke hold. You can toss a foes to the ground if you want, but otherwise it's removed a lot of options. One could argue this was done for the sake of keeping the game more simple but some of the changes are really inconvenient. For instance, if you grab someone with CQC you can't drag them to a more secluded spot like in other games. In levels like the tank battle included in the demo this can be a hinderance because your foes on foot spend most of their time out on the open where you're exposed. We can understand not wanting to clutter up a control scheme, but previous games have had more complicated CQC without it being inconvenient and there's no reason Peacewalker couldn't do the same.
It is worth mentioning that Peacewalker looks great. It isn't visually the best game on the PSP, but it's right up there. It also seems to be continuing some of Portable Ops visuals trends, namely using hand drawn animations during cut scenes rather then the in game graphics. This is smart move; the in game graphics look good, but they still aren't quite up to full PS2 muster. The illustrations on the other had are gorgeous and do a good job of veiling any graphical shortcomings.
Kojima wasn't lying either when he said that he intends to make this into a full fledged Metal Gear Solid game. The opening cut scene lasted for a good five to ten minutes before you really got to start playing. We couldn't understand a lick of it thanks to the language barrier, but it looks as though the developers are intent on endowing the game with the same sort of long winded, convoluted narrative that gamers have come to know and love/hate.
Overall, Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker seems to be coming along quite well. There are some things missing that we certainly hope will make it to the final version, but even as it is now the game looks like it will turn out to be one of the best titles on the PSP and one of the finest portable offerings so far in this generation.