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.