IGN Review of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
Good things come to those who wait, and for Metal Gear Solid fans eager for an action version of the franchise, it couldn't have come soon enough. While the PSP has seen two Metal Gear games thanks to the good Acid series, the turn based card game didn't necessarily appeal to people looking for stealth action. Now, a year and a half after the PSP launched, Kojima Productions is releasing Portable Ops, a true successor to the gameplay from the console games. But this isn't a generic copy brought over to Sony's handheld; Portable Ops literally stretches the system to its limits, perhaps farther than any other game to date, making this title a must have for PSP owners.
Launching A Legend
Portable Ops is set at the beginning of November 1970, a full six years after the events of Operation Snake Eater. Naked Snake, who's received the title of Big Boss, has walked away from command of FOX, an elite special forces unit. At the start of the game, Snake has been kidnapped, drugged and thrown into a South American jail cell. After a torture session by a former CIA agent and FOX member, Snake is left alone to try to recall the location of a vital secret that's gone missing: The Philosopher's Legacy from Snake Eater is now highly sought after, and Snake is the last known person to have any information about it.
Of course, the situation is far more complicated, as Snake is informed by a fellow detainee by the name of Roy Campbell (who should be familiar to Metal Gear fans). The South American jail is actually part of a forgotten Soviet nuclear missile base designed for first strike attacks on America. Due to d?tente between the two Cold War countries, the troops and the base have been abandoned to slowly die out on the San Hieronymo Peninsula, which has fostered a large amount of resentment amongst the soldiers. A rogue commander named Gene has decided to hold both Russia and the U.S. hostage by creating a new nation made by and for soldiers, thanks to some highly advanced stolen nuclear technology. Even worse, the FOX unit seems to be involved in Gene's plans, and they question whether or not Snake had a hand in them as well. Essentially, Snake is the most alone that he's ever been on a mission, with no support from the U.S., Russia or even his former unit.
Obviously, this raises tons of questions, not only for Snake, but for the player as they maneuver their way through Portable Ops. In standard Metal Gear Solid format, there are a number of twists and turns that take place within the game that forces Snake to question his dedication to his mission, his loyalty to his beliefs and his country, and his reason for fighting. For fans of the series, the story also creates the initial framework for historical items from the franchise, such as the establishment of Outer Heaven, the founding of FOXHOUND and the transition of Snake from hero to terrorist. Not all of these items are delved into in significant depth; for instance, with the exception of the loading screen, FOXHOUND isn't even spoken about at all in the entire game. But in a Lucas-like Star Wars fashion, Kojima and his team have provided more than enough exposition over the course of the game, as well as the ending, for at least one or two sequels.
Uncle Snake Wants You
Portable Ops takes some significant departures from other titles in the franchise thanks to its gameplay. For one, there are both primary plot based missions to take on, as well as secondary missions that you can use to make the story driven exercises much easier to undertake. For instance, you may be asked to blow up key buildings for the enemy or create diversions. Regardless of what you choose to engage in, all of the missions are designed around quick rounds of play. It's possible to fully complete an objective in five minutes if you have careful planning and execute the stage perfectly. While this is perfect for portable gaming, there's a certain downside to sprinting through a level. Doing so limits the amount of new equipment you acquire as well as makes you pass up the opportunity to recruit new troops to help you on your mission.
That's right, instead of infiltrating installations and facing off against guards and their commanding officers by yourself, you'll recruit and convert enemy soldiers to your side. This is perhaps the deepest and most important feature of Portable Ops, as it will affect the strategy of how you play the game. Some recruits are better suited for stealth missions, while others are naturally born spies and others are skilled at manufacturing equipment. By effectively managing your squads, you can determine which missions you'll undertake, how successful you are at hampering enemy troops, and the strength of your army, amongst other things. What's more, continually recruiting stronger soldiers will prepare you for many of the challenges that lie ahead in later stages of the game. The focus on recruits affects how you wind up going through each mission as well. While you can play with a total run and gun approach to the game, you're not going to want to do that all the time because you might wind up killing someone that could be useful to your team.
Now, we've gone over the six ways that players can
recruit new troops in
previous features, including brute force and trading team members with friends. Not only does the game support the forthcoming GPS peripheral, but it uses pre-existing features of the PSP in new ways. The standout method has to be the AP Scan, which utilizes the PSP's ability to search for WiFi connections to generate new soldiers. Players even have the opportunity to boost this search with an included "mini-game" to augment the signal that the PSP is receiving at the time. While these new characters are generated randomly based on the location and the handheld itself, it's also possible to pick up soldiers by "war driving" around, grabbing signals from places like fast food restaurants, bridge toll plazas and other locations that use wireless signals. In some cases, tracking down these obscure signals may result in some of the strongest characters that you'll have in your team, and it's possible to spend hours simply searching for new troops to add to your forces. One quick hint though: if you're going to look for signals, get a friend to drive you. It can be hard as hell to drive a car and successfully track down new soldiers (and I speak from personal experience during rush hour...)
Recruiting troops also plays into the new camouflage system for the single player game. Instead of relying on different kinds of outfits for one person, you'll deploy specific soldiers into areas where they'll fit in (or ostensibly have access to), which allows them an opportunity to infiltrate enemy positions without calling attention to themselves, as long as they're not doing something out of the ordinary or spotted by someone who can see through the disguise. For the most part, it's a new twist on the system, although it can fail spectacularly at times for no reason. It's possible to navigate a level without doing anything strange, and yet still find that you've set off alarm bells because some random soldier thinks you don't belong there. This is extremely frustrating, especially if you do your best to fit in, only to have some arbitrary thing blow your cover.
Triggering alarms can be extremely problematic thanks to the new limit on gear during missions. Instead of taking a large number of equipment and weapons into a stage to get you ready for any situation you might encounter, you're limited to four equipment slots for your soldiers. These slots cover both equipment and weaponry, so you'll definitely need to choose whether you need a secondary weapon or a healing item during a sortie or if you're better off winging it during a stage. While you'll probably be fine during some levels, this can help complicate boss fights when you run out of ammunition and have no medical kits with you because you weren't prepared. However, there's a little bit of a positive trade off with this new limit: players will find that they may have to elevate their skill level to be successful with their play. That means making more head shots, conserving your ammunition, and focusing much more on CQC to knock out enemies rather than engage forces. What's more, once you finish the game and unlock the harder difficulty level, you'll find that even your old tactics will need to change. Stunning attacks and tranquilizers, for example, are less effective, and many more cameras are scattered around levels, forcing you to rethink your steps.
The other reason why your skill level might need to be raised is the high stakes nature of the game itself. If a character dies during a mission, they're typically eliminated from the roster of your army as well (unless they happen to be a special or rare character to the game, in which case they're placed in your team's hospital). Considering that the game runs on a single game save, it's possible to poorly engage the enemy during a mission and lose an entire squad due to poor choices, bad aim, or other issues. This can suck, particularly because you might not be able to solve this issue with a simple reload.
It can also be tricky if you decide to take on other players in the multiplayer arena. You can engage other players via Ad Hoc or Infrastructure play, as well as a new Cyber-Survival mode, and play either real or mock battles. If you play a mock battle, your troops will live to fight another day, but if you enter a real battle and die, your troops are erased from your memory card and your opponents have the opportunity to take the defeated troops for their own. While you're not obligated to enter the multiplayer space and risk your hard earned soldiers, the real combat mode feeds on the nature of the game: recruiting allies to deploy in either the single or multiplayer game, with the possibility to gain or lose troops for your army.
One of the impressive facets of Portable Ops is the visual translation from the console game over to the portable arena. The MGS3: Subsistence engine has been brought over to the PSP, and it looks excellent. Characters are large and detailed, animations are exactly the same as they are on the PS2, and many of the features that fans would be accustomed to on the console apply to the PSP game. Of course, there isn't a second analog stick, and so you'll need to get used to constantly pulling the L button to focus the camera behind you. However, sometimes this won't work the way you'll want it to, and you'll need to rely on a camera that might not show you the angle that you really want to see. It's not the horrendous camera from Snake Eater, but it can be a bit unresponsive or too close to be useful. While the game includes a useful sound radar to help make up for the lack of the second analog stick, the camera can still make you stumble onto guards that you never knew were there.
Now, while the translation of the Subsistence engine to the PSP is an impressive feat, there are still some visual issues that crop up every now and then. For one, you'll notice a lot of textural tearing that will pop up during some pans of the camera or transitional elements, which are extremely noticeable on the PSP's small screen. For another, you'll pick up on slowdown that will crop up here and there during furious battle sequences or massive explosions. It's not enough to cripple the game, but it's a tangible drop in game speed. Fortunately, the game has the visually striking cutscenes by Ashley Wood, who helped create the Digital Graphic Novel, to balance out any flaws from the Subsistence engine.
Portable Ops also has great voice acting, headed by none other than Snake himself, David Hayter. While you wouldn't expect a lot of voice acting due to the technical limitations of the UMD, there's a lot of dialogue included to pair up with the Ashley Wood cutscenes, which is an excellent touch. You'll also discover that while Harry Gregson-Williams hasn't been engaged for the soundtrack, the music from Norihiko Hibino and Akihiro Honda capture the flavor of his songs along with some mellow beats and higher tempo tracks. This is a solid musical offering for the Portable Ops title, and helps with the overall ambience of the game.
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