Version tested: PSP
When the PlayStation originally burst onto the games market in the mid-nineties, quite a few gamers and journalists alike became preoccupied with one rather odd question - who was to be the mascot for this new system? After a decade of Nintendo and SEGA's platforms being all but defined by Mario and Sonic respectively, it was tough to grasp the fact that Sony had no intention of allowing their console to be led out by a single character franchise - after all, the whole point of PlayStation was to reach an incredibly wide range of people by appealing to a broad swathe of gaming tastes. Undeterred by Sony's apathy on the matter, pundits tried to give PlayStation a third-party mascot - Crash Bandicoot and Lara Croft were both front-runners - but none of them ever really stuck.
None of them except, perhaps, for one - a character who couldn't be further away from the primary colours of Mario, a grizzled war veteran and stealth expert whose idea of a good time is sitting in a cold corner of a nuclear base inside the arctic circle having a radio conversation about the meaning of warfare and loyalty with a nerdy anime fan who's just pissed himself in a locker. He's a good-time kind of guy. Metal Gear Solid took the gaming world by storm when it was launched near the high point of the PlayStation's lifespan; Metal Gear Solid 2 sold countless thousands on the idea of "next-gen", back when next-gen meant the PlayStation 2. The rapturous response given to trailers for Metal Gear Solid 4 ahead of the launch of the PS3 cemented the deal; he may have dalliances with other platforms, but PlayStation does have a mascot character at last - and it's Solid Snake.
PlayStation Portable hasn't lacked for a little love from this enormous, sprawling franchise either - two turn-based games based on a trading card system, called Metal Gear Acid, have won critical acclaim and are seen by many gamers as an excellent compromise between Metal Gear's gameplay and the requirements of a handheld device. There's even a "digital graphic novel" title for the PSP, a Metal Gear story told using heavily stylised graphic novel artwork and distributed on UMD. What the platform lacks, though, is a solid instalment in the core Metal Gear story arc; a slice of genuine Tactical Espionage Action and a piece of the growing epic of the Snake operatives, the FOX units, Outer Heaven and the Patriots to call its own. Until now, that is.
MGS Portable Ops ("MPO" is the helpful acronym-of-an-acronym which Kojima suggests) fulfils both of those considerations, and is the game which fans of Metal Gear have been clamouring for since the launch of the PSP. It is a genuine Metal Gear Solid game, focused on sneaking and combat, albeit distilled to suit the portable format and evolved to include a wider strategic overview. It's also a core part of the developing story of the series, which follows on directly from the excellent Metal Gear Solid 3 and provides a lot of background to the games set later in the series chronology (MGS, MGS2 and MGS4), as well as developing the likeable central character of Naked Snake and introducing some characters who later become pivotal in the Metal Gear universe.
In a nod both to the creative prowess of the team behind the MGS digital graphic novel and to the handheld format itself, the game opts to eschew the traditional in-game engine cut-scenes which the Metal Gear Solid games have become known for, and tells its story through the use of graphic novel based cut-scenes - fully voiced sequences built up from a succession of dramatic still images. It's a visually stunning approach, although in what may be a concession to the size of the UMD discs, the fully voiced nature of the game doesn't carry through to radio conversations, which are presented in text only. The storyline, which is set in 1970 and sees Naked Snake (the hero of MGS3 and a forerunner to Solid Snake) being taken captive by a rogue military unit in South America before escaping and mounting an operation against the leaders of the unit, is full of the usual double-crossing and peculiar motivation which those familiar with Kojima's storytelling have come to expect - although it seems more restrained here than usual, reflecting the gradual maturing of Metal Gear's narrative since the frankly ludicrous high pantomime of MGS2.
At this point, people who were turned off by MGS2 and never came back to the series are probably rolling their eyes somewhat - and there can be no denying that Kojima's plots and dialogue, not to mention his incredibly heavy focus on cut-scenes, have turned many people off the series. However, this is actually the most accessible Metal Gear Solid game yet on that front; the balance of the game is much more heavily skewed towards actually sneaking around and playing this time out, rather than sitting through cut-scenes and codec sequences. Portable Ops surpasses even Metal Gear Solid 3 - itself a huge improvement - in this department, and in finishing the central single-player game, the vast majority of the 12 to 15 hours it'll take you will be spent actively playing, rather than being a passive observer.
Which, of course, leads us conveniently past the inevitable comment on the storyline and the balance of cut-scenes to gameplay, and on to talking about how the game actually works.
The answer to that question, as it happens, is "exactly how you remember it". Portable Ops is a clear progression from Metal Gear Solid 3, and the vast majority of Snake's moves still work in exactly the same way - everything from the classic flattening against walls to the basics of close quarters combat (CQC). The camera is lifted from MGS3: Subsistence, and is a user-controllable free camera setup - although the lack of a second analogue stick on the PSP means that you'll be spending quite a lot of time pressing the L shoulder button to realign the camera perspective, it still works relatively well and rarely actually frustrates you when playing the game, which is about as much as you can ask from the camera in a game of this sort. One gripe is that the view seems more zoomed-in than in previous MGS titles, which means that you can't see as much of the world around you as you'd like to; this is not only annoying in terms of being unable to see enemy soldiers at times, but can also make it tricky to get your bearings in some of the levels.
The major concession to the handheld format which Portable Ops makes is that each of Snake's missions are broken down into smaller chunks, which take place within an enclosed area with clearly defined goals. Mostly, that goal will simply be to reach a certain marker on the map - although the game does occasionally throw in different objectives or level structures when the plot calls for them, there's a feeling that a bit more variety in general wouldn't have gone amiss. As it is, the bite-sized nature of the sneaking missions is ideally suited to playing on the go, because it means that you can accomplish something significant in the game even on a relatively short train journey, or over a lunch break; however, it can also lead to the game feeling a bit more like one of the old MGS VR missions than a full-scale instalment in the series, and it means that the rogue military base you're infiltrating doesn't really feel like a coherent location - more like a series of sandboxed levels filled with automaton soldiers who don't have anything better to do than stand around and wait for Snake to roll into town. It's a trade-off that makes sense for the most part, admittedly, but it's a trade-off nonetheless. On the plus side, it does mean that the game has developed an overview map, which gradually grows as you explore more of the peninsula on which the base is located, and you can travel to any location on the map as you please. Those which will progress the story are highlighted, so you don't get lost, and there's no more tedious backtracking to advance through the game, which is nice.
If the new sandboxed level design is arguably a watering down of the Metal Gear Solid formula to make it fit on a handheld, though, the other headline feature of Portable Ops is a genuine evolution of the series into gameplay territory it hasn't previously explored. Early on in the game Snake - along with his newfound pal, an injured US Green Beret called Roy Campbell ("a HA!" say the hardcore MGS fans) - decide that they won't be able to take down the rogue military chaps all by themselves, and instead set about recruiting support from the disaffected Soviet soldiers who are now being commanded by the rogue element, having been abandoned in the base when the US and USSR signed a detente agreement. As such, a major part of the game is the bolstering of your own forces - which is accomplished by knocking out enemy troopers, dragging them to the back of your van, and convincing them that they're better of fighting for you than against you.
Once they agree to join your unit (they sit on your menu screen as "prisoners" for a while before becoming available as soldiers), your troops can be assigned to work as medical staff (healing other troops and producing medical items), technical staff (building gadgets) or as spies (who provide information, and also secure supplies such as ammo). The final option is to use them as soldiers, in which case you'll actually be bringing them into the field alongside Snake, and controlling them directly. Each soldier's ability in various categories is rated, so you can decide intelligently where he'll best be put to use - and soldiers also differ in that some of them have access to parts of the military base, so rather than having to sneak around, you can just walk right in amongst the enemy as long as you're careful.
The Grand Old Duke of York
The most interesting part of this new feature, of course, is the ability to bring your new recruits into the field with you. In this mode, you'll control up to four characters, but only one of them is active at any given time - the rest of them remain hidden under inconspicuous looking cardboard boxes (of course) until you switch over to them. Selecting your team for a mission will depend largely on their special abilities and their prowess in various fields, although once you're in the battlefield, you'll find that all the different units are controlled in broadly the same way. One interesting quirk which makes the whole game rather more tense is that the majority of your recruited units are very much mortal - if they die on a mission, they're gone for good. The exceptions to this rule are rare or plot-crucial characters, who end up in your hospital infirmary instead, but you'll still find yourself having to carefully weigh up the risks of a given situation when there's a chance of actually losing members of your unit entirely.
Being a Metal Gear Solid game, it's not surprising that the team at Kojima Productions have given plenty of thought to how to expand the whole concept of Snake's rebel unit past the confines of the basic single-player game - and they've come up with quite a few interesting ideas. Our personal favourite is the fact that you can "recruit" new soldiers for your unit by scanning the area around you for wireless networks - the game generates new soldiers based on the networks the PSP can see around it, and it's possible to find some extremely powerful allies in this way, although of course, it's not actually required that you do this to complete the game. You know you're hooked on Portable Ops when you find yourself going "ooh!" and whipping out your PSP in the middle of Soho, because you figure that area is bound to be full of interesting Wi-Fi networks (like much of Soho, the goods were certainly on display, but the actual stats were disappointing).
Arguably more interesting in gameplay terms is how your squad interacts with online play. When you take Portable Ops online, the battles work out in broadly the same way as they did in MGS3: Subsistence for the most part - there's also a single-UMD multiplayer option for local wireless play, which is a nice addition, although it's somewhat less fully featured than the proper multiplayer modes - but there's the option to fight a squad-based battle against someone. Soldiers that die, stay dead - and your rival has the ability to nab them and add them to his own collection. Of course, you can do the same to his goons, too. Another interesting - if somewhat non-interactive - option is the ability to send out your squad on "virtual missions", where they'll hop off to the Internet, find other squads to battle against, fight against them without your interaction (some kind of stat-based combat, presumably) and report back to you about how they're doing in terms of gaining rank or recruiting allies. It's a cool function, but not exactly the finest piece of gameplay ever implemented.
While we're on the topic of online play, it's worth mentioning that this is a highlight of Portable Ops - even though it's not radically different to MGS3 Subsistence, which we reviewed not so long ago. The primary difference, aside from the squad-based play options, is that Portable Ops runs over the PSP's fairly competent Wi-Fi online system, rather than over the PS2's flaky network adapter set up - so it's much easier to get up and running, and you're far more likely to actually find people to play against (or to be able to convince your mates to pop online for a game) as a result.
Graphically, Portable Ops certainly pushes the PSP; it doesn't look as good as its big brothers on the PS2, and blood effects have been removed for some reason (which makes it feel rather clinical after the gory kills of MGS3), but it's still a visual treat. The character models, in particular, are very detailed and well animated; the environments, however, can be a little disappointing, since they tend to involve a lot of concrete and crates. Beautifully rendered concrete and crates, mind. The audio, too, is worthy of praise - the music echoes Harry Gregson-Williams' score very well (although he wasn't involved directly in this game), and the voice acting is very slick and professional, with David Hayter reprising his role as Snake and a number of other talented actors lending their tones to a cast of extremely well realised villains. In fact, Portable Ops' villains are significantly better than MGS3's cast were, with far more time and attention being spent on making sure that the game isn't merely laden with cardboard cut-out bad guys - from a narrative point of view, Portable Ops is a real step forward for the series in that regard, and almost up to the standards of the original Metal Gear Solid.
MGS Portable Ops is exactly the kind of showcase which Sony has probably been hoping Hideo Kojima would make for the PSP all along; it pushes the graphics hardware, shows off how PS2 games can be adapted to fit better with handheld play, uses online intelligently and even does cunning things with the hardware, like the scanning of wireless access points to find new soldiers. It's by no means perfect - our gripes with the camera continued the whole way through to the bitter end of the game, unfortunately, while on several occasions we failed missions by managing to set off the alarm for reasons which were entirely obscure. The level of variety available in missions is also a concern, and a bit more attention in this area would have helped greatly to overcome the flaws of the sandboxed level approach.
However, the core gameplay is extremely well polished and considered, the storyline and presentation are fantastic, Kojima's addiction to cut-scenes appears to be on the mend, and the squad-based nature of the game adds a whole new dimension which no MGS game has tapped to date - all factors which contribute to make this into one of the finest games on the PSP. In considering the final score, it's worth bearing in mind that as a reviewer, I enjoy Metal Gear Solid's storyline and universe - but to the credit of Portable Ops, even if you find Kojima's storytelling dull, it probably doesn't knock more than a single mark off our verdict. This, at last, is a Metal Gear Solid more interested in being a game than being a movie - and it turns out to be bloody good at what it does.
9 / 10