Since moving to the PSP, Metal Gear has experienced a bit of an overhaul. With Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the most notable change is the inclusion of up to four player co-op. The story takes you through parts of Central America that have been secretly overrun by KGB, CIA, and militant forces that wish to store and use Nukes where they don't belong. Can Big Boss and his team of mercenaries co-op to save the world, or are we left a permanent state of Cold War tension?
As a part of the Metal Gear Solid series (10 years after the struggle in Russia), you don the role of Big Boss, aka Snake, aka Naked Snake. After Snake looses his mentor in the fight from Metal Gear Solid 3, he is a man without a country. Snake gives up everything to go into a sort of seclusion with a handful of other soldiers who have no place else to go. They take up residence on an island near Cuba, training and keeping their skills honed until a stranger shows up asking for their help.
Before we address the co-op specific aspects, let's take a look at a few of the all-around game mechanics that have changed. The first one that shows up on the screen is the additional controller layouts. A dual-stick control scheme is present to give players a sense of Metal Gear Solid 4, but the option to play like the Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops is also available. Both schemes have their advantages and disadvantages, but the option to change it as you see fit really adds to the games playability. The one thing removed from the game is the ability to crawl. You can lay flat on the ground to "hide" in the bushes, but you can't crawl under trucks or other things to escape or hide out.
Like Portable Ops, Snake has a handful of buddies with various skills to choose from. As payment for intervening in the KGB plot to infiltrate and use the Central American isles as a Nuclear storage place, Snake and his Soldiers without a country are offered a large, independent place to stay. This place is called "Outer Heaven." Soldiers that have been collected on the battlefield and convinced to join Snake's cause will be assigned to mess hall duties, technology research, medical duties, and even be put in the brig if they act up in the base.
The new gameplay mechanic for collecting soldiers is called the Fulton Extraction system. This system works by giving you a handful of balloons that are picked up by helicopter (like the Skyhook from the Dark Knight movie), so you knock out a foe, or tag a prisoner that needs to be extracted and they're carried off instantly. Fulton is a quick and painless way to collect new soldiers for your new base, as well as a humorous way to "save" prisoners as they don't seem to like being hoisted off by a helicopter and balloon combination. You're often scolded for such a brash action, but thanked for the rescue immediately after the verbal assault via codec.
Those familiar with the Metal Gear series should expect quite a lot of dialog and cut-scene action during their play time. Adding comic book artist Ashley Wood to the mix really gives the PSP cutscenes a style that is all their own. Peace Walker takes it one step further and adds quick time events to the otherwise enjoyable cut scenes. I for one loathe quick time events, but this is where the co-op gets its introduction. As a co-op pair, only one person needs to complete the on-screen prompt to complete the cut scene, so the other player can relax and enjoy the show.
I was fortunate in having a co-op buddy that not only seemed to enjoy interacting with the cutscenes, but was actually good at hitting the button prompts that flashed in red on the screen. I just sat back and enjoyed the story, where we met a few survivors of the rebel group called the "Sandanistas." Rescuing Amanda and Chico, the son and daughter of the Central American Sandanista commander (an ally of sorts), will give you valuable information on the layout, history, as well as intel on the land as you need it. You can call on many of the characters for help, as well as a solid history of how the Metal Gear project is progressing, and personal histories of familiar names like Emmerich. I won't give any more of that story away, because it's just loaded with interesting spoilers.
Playing co-op was a lot more interesting than expected, and worked very, very well. Most of the missions allow for 2 player co-op, though a few will make you go it solo, and the boss battles will allow up to 4 players. There is an icon on the mission select screen that lets you know how many players are allowed to play a mission, and either player can play as Snake, or select from your other combat ready buddies. I have to admit that having more than one Snake on screen was amusing, and makes sense because Snake has the best health and stamina stats of any of the characters I kidnapped using the Fulton system.
Once you fire up a mission in co-op, you have a few options with your buddy. Players can exchange items between one-another, including rations for health and ammo for - er, bullets. Then, you have something called Snake Formation. Say you are tired of splitting up, or have a hard time following your co-op buddy so you go on the same route, you can hit the action button next to your buddy to "link up" with them. This works with the cover of a box (yes, 2 Snakes in one box), or just sneaking around a base. Of course, splitting up is beneficial as well if you want to flank enemies or cover more ground while searching for mission items.
The game even gives you the option to take a separate path in some cases. If there's a fork in the road so to speak, you can each branch off and cover a different route - of course, most routes will reconnect before the climax, and both players need to be present to access key areas in the story. Flanking enemies also helped the co-op team in general, distracting and scoping out enemies from a different vantage point worked great. Some areas are just too well guarded to access without raising an alarm. Having a buddy scope out, neutralize, or even as a simple spotter really made these areas in the game a lot easier.
With co-op it's often expected that you receive whatever you personally collect i.e. equipment, and soldiers that you tag with Fulton extraction should belong to whoever tags them. With Peace Walker you get one better. Everyone tagged on the field is received by both co-op players. In other words, if I tag 4 guys, and my co-op buddy tags 6 guys, we both get 10 guys in our individual bases. It seemed like items like rations and ammo were divvied up as well, but that one was harder to confirm since we didn't count the boxes we picked up. This added a lot to collecting enemies, and made it beneficial for us to momentarily split up and collect soldiers in other areas of the map.
My favorite feature in the co-op is the ability to revive fallen comrades. Say I get a little careless, walk into a tank and lose that battle. My buddy can approach my fallen body, and perform CPR. Sure that doesn't work in the real world - CPR on tank wounds, but it works perfectly in the Metal Gear world as long as you press the action button. The faster you press it, the faster I stand up again. It also added a lot to our gameplay, since we didn't have to restart the whole level every time that happened. Co-op resurrecting has become a bit of a requirement to make co-op games less frustrating, especially when playing with an overzealous partner.
In Peace Walker, the co-op felt really nice. It worked well, though coordinating a place and time to play with buddies was a bit of a hassle. Online co-op also worked, though with a bit more of a communication challenge, through the Playstation 3's AdHoc Party capabilities. I was impressed with the different elements that contributed to co-op, especially the revive and Snake Formation to keep the team together. I wish the entire story had been 4 player co-op, though the maps seemed a bit small - splitting up a 4 player team, or even the two player team when the co-op was not allowed in certain missions was a bit disheartening.
I recommend this game based on the incredible surprise (after expecting a tacked-on co-op mode), and enjoyable shared experience through the co-op. The story in Peace Walker gives a bit of a hint as to where the Metal Gear saga is headed in the future, tying up loose ends around the origins of Solid Snake and his clone-twin Liquid Snake, as well as how other characters play into the later stories. As a prequel this game gets a thumbs-up in the story as well, but can also be played as a stand-alone game if you don't have backstory.