"Abandoning the idea of a Digital Graphic Novel, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops finds Konami attempting a true Metal Gear adventure for the PSP. The first familiar sign: a heavy reliance on third-person stealth. There’s also plenty of CQC, stylish philosophical discussion and a narrative that boasts almost as many twists and outlandish villains as Snake Eater."
Abandoning the idea of a Digital Graphic Novel, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops finds Konami attempting a true Metal Gear adventure for the PSP. The first familiar sign: a heavy reliance on third-person stealth. There’s also plenty of CQC, stylish philosophical discussion and a narrative that boasts almost as many twists and outlandish villains as Snake Eater.
Portable Ops is aware of the limitations imposed by the hand-held format, however. It adopts a system that has you “recruit” spies and soldiers by capturing prisoners from its levels. These stages are self-contained arenas -- you can visit one and accomplish your mission or recruit some willing (well, usually unwilling) volunteers. From here you build your own army, something that’s alien to stealth games. In Portable Ops one man doesn’t save the day, or rather he does, but only with the support of others. The men and women you persuade to rise against the enemy can carry out reconnaissance, heal fallen soldiers and work on new equipment.
They can also help you drag more bodies/recruits back to the truck!
I thought this sounded pretty tedious when I realised that unconscious enemies needed to be dragged all the way back to the insertion point. Then I realised that this wasn’t the case at all! At specific points on the map, Snake, or whoever is the active spy, can hide in a cardboard box (what else?!). Control will then change to one of three inactive allies, who can then advance through the levels. Once you incapacitate a guard, you can drag him to Snake, who will carry him to the truck. This allows for some strategy as you single out soldiers and then disappear their bodies before their colleagues discover you.
It’s a format that suits the PSP, removing the usual epic, linear approach of Metal Gear Solid by making it easy to play in short bursts. Instead of facing a daunting map with hours until the next save-point, you can spend half-an-hour sneaking round one environment. The spy unit feeds you intel (providing you have recruits to place in the spy unit), and pursuing these leads or simply recruiting more men provides compulsive entertainment, especially for those who have short attention spans when it comes to hand-held gaming (i.e. me).
Executing missions with your team is a blast: scout out the area with a supposed enemy troop, then have him hide in a box while Snake crawls in and CQCs everyone! If you want to be even cleverer you could have another soldier on hand who is skilled at dragging prisoners. Each man you recruit has his own unique statistics and therefore his own strengths or weaknesses. This goes from obvious differences such as a white lab coat (note: place on the medical team) and technical ability (good for the technical unit). However, for the sneak unit the strengths are subtle. Better health and proficiency with different types of weapon are things you’ll be watching out for as you create your super-army!
The concept of recruiting comrades distances Portable Ops from the console versions, making it more than Metal Gear Solid Lite. Obviously it can’t hope to match the control and camera options of the PS2 with the PSP face-buttons. However, its prominent team-work element combines well with the simple stealth moves at your disposal.
You hold a button to sneak, and this also allows you to lean against a wall so you can look round a corner. The camera can also be centred and a first-person view enables you to identify enemies far ahead. In addition, a radar and map provide all the clues you need as to where the threats are (known enemy positions are marked by BIG RED DOTS!). Sneaking through stages is not that hard, both due to the simple, effective moves at your disposal, the fact that your recruits still look like the enemy and the slight easiness of the game. 100% stealth is a demanding challenge, but these arenas are rarely packed with enemies.
This could be seen as a compromise, but in streamlining the gameplay of Snake Eater, Portable Ops makes the series accessible and enjoyable for a hand-held. This is no mean feat, but the game achieves It by removing some of the focus from the core story-line. You can play for a while just to build up stats and search out more effective soldiers for your team without even advancing the plot. The arenas you’re sent to are open environments that conceal enough extra secrets, yet they also make stealth with the PSP nub easier thanks to their design. There are lots of right-angles, which help you to maintain a feeling of security!
Despite all the recruiting, plot is still as important as ever. These men and women are being hired for a reason, after all! Even when it comes to story-telling, Portable Ops is concise, though. It picks up where Metal Gear Solid 3 left off, with Big Boss stuck in jail and the Philosophers’ Legacy missing. This gives the adventure a foundation to work from so you don’t need to sit through hours of background cinematics while hunched over your PSP. The story is presented in the style of a graphic novel style that sketches out key moments and relies on the script to fill in the rest. It maintains the oppressive, downcast atmosphere of the maps, with the rough portraits giving the characters edge and menace.
The dialogue never grows too tiresome, either. When told by the sister of Ursula, one of the game’s bosses, that the next time he sees her he should kill her without remorse, the response is wonderfully acerbic.
SNAKE: “Alright… next time let’s try for a more upbeat prophecy.”
Portable Ops has something that Metal Gear Solid often lacks: restraint. It’s not as ambitious as it could have been, but it’s a great game in its own right. Recruiting soldiers becomes addictive, especially when you spot an intimidating soldier armed with a machine-gun or a senior medical assistant. You can even convince the bosses to switch allegiance! Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops reigns in the excesses of the series and presents a novel take on the franchise without losing its spirit.
Staff review by Freelance Writer (January 01, 2007)
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