Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops Review (PSP)

metalgearsolidportops pspboxboxart 160wPublished by: Konami
Developed by: Kojima Productions
Genre: Stealth Action
Players: 1-6 Online
Rated: M (Mature)
Release Date: December 5, 2006
Written By: Daniel Sims
Screenshots: Link
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December 6, 2006 – Since the Playstation Portable launched in April 2005, thing that users have anticipated most from it has been a handheld adaptation of Konami’s Metal Gear Solid games. After over a year and two spin-off games featuring gameplay totally different from what fans expected, Kojima Productions seems to have finally delivered on what fans have been waiting for.

Despite the hardware differences between the Portable Playstation and its console brethren, Kojima Productions has adapted the stealth formula for playing on the go quite successfully. But in the process they’ve also introduced something that brings unexpected new dynamics to the way Metal Gear is played.

Probably the first thing to be noticed after booting up Portable Ops is that the interface and menus have been altered considerably from Snake Eater The menu system looks very clean yet also stylish and the in-game HUD has been nicely adapted to a portable screen with large icons for equipment and vertically aligned bars and text to save screen space. All of it looks very cool.

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The classic stealth element of Metal Gear has been just about fully maintained in the switch to the PSP and is at times only minutely compromised by the system’s interface. The controls are a sort of adaptation of the scheme from Subsistence complete with the free camera introduced in that game. With new functions like first person strafing and the simplification of existing functions, people who’ve played the previous games will probably find Portable Ops’ controls to be a slight improvement over those of MGS3, although some awkward quirks like the crouching controls and the needless delicacy required for CQC still remain. The only thing that’s really affected by the PSP interface is aiming. The PSP’s analog nub isn’t quite as sensitive as the Dual Shock’s stick and a second analog input could have made the new first person strafing function a much more valuable asset to the game.

In order to adjust to the very nature of handheld gaming, progression through Portable Ops has been altered from being one giant mission like in console Metal Gear titles to being a series of bite-sized operations. This works excellently in that the average mission in Portable Ops can be as short as a single minute, yet can still have the sense of strategy and tension that’s always been associated with tactical espionage action.

The missions in Portable Ops are also much less linear than in typical Metal Gear titles. There is an overarching main string of missions that you’ll be following most of the time, but you’re also free to go off on side missions to find special equipment or run other errands. This plus the amount of extras that can be attained after initial completion of the main game makes for a Metal Gear that encourages replay probably more than any other.

For the missions themselves, Naked Snake has been taken out of big open jungles of Metal Gear Solid 3 and put into the corridors that Solid Snake snuck through in MGS1 and 2 while some of the gameplay dynamics introduced in MGS3 (like stamina and CQC) have remained. Although the levels are quick-hit and can definitely be seen as a step down from the last console game in terms of complexity, they’re still designed well enough to possess all the basic elements that make the Metal Gear games so fun and challenging. Although this alone could have legitimated Portable Ops as a worthy Metal Gear title, Kojima Productions decided to an entirely new dynamic in to this game that completely sets it apart from all other stealth games: Team-based gameplay and micromanagement.

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Towards the beginning of the game, it becomes obvious that Snake cannot complete his mission alone, and must seek out help from others in order to progress through the game. The solution: for players to capture soldiers from the enemy and recruit them to their own side, eventually forming a small army of soldiers that can be managed and split into different units and teams for different jobs. What you end up getting here is something like Metal Gear Solid meets Final Fantasy Tactics, and it works brilliantly.

By incapacitating (but not killing) an enemy soldier and dragging them back to a truck (Snake’s HQ) or to another operative on-site, players can capture and eventually recruit them as allies, each one having different stats and different kinds of special abilities which give them certain advantages over others.

The biggest advantage of recruiting enemy soldiers is that because they look like the enemy, players can use them to carry out missions in disguise, making many of them much easier but still challenging due to the presence of other kinds of soldiers who can see through your disguise and the requirement of not doing anything suspicious (anything other than standing and running normally) in order to maintain your disguise. While this isn’t nearly as elaborate as the disguise sections in Metal Gear Solids 2 and 3, it still works and gives good reason to partner up different kinds of soldiers, even if occasional glitches can keep it from working flawlessly.

Each soldier is also rated between A (or S) and C in a letter grade system in different stats like accuracy with certain kinds of weapons and other areas like HP, stamina, tech, and medical abilities. These stats are often guides as to where to most effectively place recruits. People with a high rating in medical abilities for instance should most likely be put in the medical unit so as to help heal wounds faster. People with high ratings in technical abilities should probably be placed in the tech unit where they can help develop new equipment. Unique abilities for each soldier can also have certain special effects when placed in certain units.

The result is a Metal Gear that is played not through the conventional “one man versus an army” line of thought, but with more of a team mentality. Planning and executing a mission can involve choosing which soldiers to team up (up to four can be in a team) based on their abilities and their disguises, and what to equip them with based on the nature of the objective and whatever obstacles may appear. The whole process feels almost feels like commanding a party in an RPG.

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There’s tons of ways to get new units too. The primary method is of course finding and capturing them in missions, but one of the cooler methods is Access Point Scan Recruitment. If your PSP is near a wireless access point, the game can use its signal to generate a random soldier. Different soldiers can be generated from different access points which makes it kinda fun going around searching for soldiers if you happen to be near a lot of Wi-Fi activity. Probably the most interesting method of gaining new soldiers though is through the online multiplayer mode.

Metal Gear Solid Portable Ops features an online multiplayer mode that runs under the same basic engine as the one introduced in MGS3 Subsistence, but whereas the multiplayer mode in Subsistence was focused toward simple deathmatch action, all of wireless play in Portable Ops is made to bring something of a Pokémon angle to the game. Here, online mode is basically a place to pit your recruited soldiers against those of other players.

Each person goes into a match with whatever soldiers they have on a chosen team and rotates through them as each one is defeated. There are also no items dropped in the multiplayer mode, so players must use whatever they’ve brought with them from the single player mode as sort of a showoff of the equipment they have. If one chooses to play real combat online (as opposed to virtual), then when a soldier is defeated, they can be captured by the one who defeated them or killed permanently. On top of this, soldiers can also be traded with friends wirelessly.

All in all, the core stealth engine of Portable Ops could have made for a solid classic MGS experience on the PSP, but this whole new system of recruiting soldiers and trafficking them wirelessly makes the whole thing seem like a monster collector game meets strategy RPG all played under the Metal Gear engine. Nevertheless, Portable Ops also has its purpose to serve in the grand scheme of Metal Gear’s presentation.

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Portable Ops’ narrative is supposed to at least begin to bridge the gap between Big Boss’s “origin story” in Metal Gear Solid 3 and the events of the rest of the series. The game is supposed to shed some light on mysteries like how the FOX unit became FOXHOUND, how Outer Heaven was formed, the mysteries behind the Philosophers and the Le-Li-Lu-Le-Lo, and the whole story behind the origins of Big Boss’ children. Portable Ops at least starts to do this for some of them, but really just leaves a big gaping hole open for most of them, most likely prompting a sequel.

The actual telling of Portable Ops’ narrative though makes the whole thing seem really, well… normal. Most Metal Gear games are typically associated with plotlines that while placed in settings that feel impressively real, are also filled with characters and other things that are considered by most players to be just plain crazy. After playing through three main MGS games however, encountering stuff like psychics, ninjas, “perfect” soldiers, Sub-Zero/Hellraiser look-alikes, and another Metal Gear just seems like common ground now.

Although I will say that Portable Ops has one of the best acted scripts in all of Metal Gear, there isn’t as much of it here as in previous games. Not only because of how “not-outrageous” the storyline is, but also because the smaller amount of cutscenes due to this being a handheld game. Even the codec conversations are now little more than simple mission statements.

The cutscenes that are here though are made in the same fashion as the Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel that was based off of artist Ashley Wood’s comic book rendition of the original MGS’s narrative, taking Wood’s slight caricaturing of Yoji Shinkawa’s original designs and adding a sort of 3D pop-out effect to them with some pretty cool panel sliding. The way it all flows with a sort of 3D transformation of 2D art nicely supplements the style of the game, making it almost feel like watching something between a manga and an anime, even if the cutscenes become a little too long and too frequent for a portable game towards the end of the story.

Outside of this I will also say that Portable Ops has in my opinion one of the best soundtracks in any Metal Gear game, providing a nice variety of themes for different missions and cutscenes that more often than not feel just right, as well as an (expectedly) excellently vocalized ending theme.

Bottom Line
The last time a true Metal Gear title was made on a handheld platform was 2000’s non-canonized Ghost Babel for the Game Boy Color a great example of how classic Metal Gear can be handled on a simple platform and probably one of the best Game Boy games ever made. With its solid controls and adequate handheld rendition of the classic Metal Gear formula, Portable Ops could probably have been a pretty decent, enjoyable game next to Ghost Babel, but what Kojima Productions has done has taken the game in a new direction that lets players enjoy Metal Gear in a totally new way. Kinda brings new meaning to the words “Tactical Espionage Action”.


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