After the epic, five-star slog that was Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, an MGS follow up on the PSP seems like a strange move.
With massive cuts in the power, space and control available to Kojima Productions, surely Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker could only be an incredibly stripped down next step in a series that kept growing and growing?
The key is not to think of Peace Walker as the next step in the PlayStation console series - but as an evolution for the PSP series. Set against something like Portable Ops, Peace Walker is looking like a real achievement and, finally, a real asset for a handheld console that underwhelmed for too long.
Visually speaking, Peace Walker is probably the best thing on the PSP so far. At the beginning of the game, after a short CQC tutorial, you're placed on a palm-treed shore line to get acquainted with your gun and take on some basic target practice.
It's a great setting because it makes for an early chance to show off amazing details in the game's scenery and real depth of field as you aim to shoot drums and buoys out at sea. The richness of detail remains constant throughout, even if some levels have a fairly basic layout design.
As with Portable Ops, instead of cinematic live action scenes, Kojima tells the story with a kind of partially animated comic book - except this time it's sharper and looks more like the Metal Gear Solid digital animation rather than some scraggy drawings.
The black and white cells are stylish, spacious and detailed - and flick and slide on and off the screen with splashes of colour as the Kojima saturated dialogue drives the story forward.
It makes sense from a practical point of view but also adds a rich visual element, which replaces the impressive cinematics we usually see in the MGS series with some equally satisfying illustrations.
That doesn't mean they're any shorter, however. You can be playing Peace Walker for a good half an hour before you really get started - but sections requiring players input with rhythm-based button pushes to defend a sudden attack in the cut-scenes will keep you engaged.
NOWHERE TO HIDE
In-game there's a feeling that the scales have been tipped ever so slightly away from stealth and towards third-person shooting. That's not to say this doesn't feel like classic slithery espionage, it's just that some of the levels lend themselves more to picking off enemies with a shot, rather than getting in up close and personal. Sometimes the opposite extreme is true - as you walk past guards without any real caution. This is especially true for the early forest areas that have a Snake Eater kind of feel to them.
One thing that diminishes Snake's stealth is the inability to move when crouched behind cover or hiding with your back to a wall. These positions are hallmarks of the MGS series and anyone who's been through Creeping 101 at Stealth School will spend more time crouching than they will walking. But this time the only available action when hiding is to tap on the wall to attract attention.
To take out a guard from behind a wall you have to just crouch behind it, stand up, fire and crouch down again. You start playing Peace Walker like you would an FPS without a properly integrated cover system; your nose to the wall while you wait for the right moment.
This can look and feel a little bit awkward and, again, pushes Peace Walker a bit more towards shooting than stealthing in comparison to Snake's console outings.