Review by Evil Dave

"Boy, does the PSP need a game like this."

PSP owners are a hardy bunch. They know how to find uses for their $250 portable PlayStation systems when it isn't being used for games. Of course, they wouldn't have to find such alternative functions if the system were regularly receiving quality game releases; unfortunately, though, the sad reality is that good games on the PSP have been few and far between.

Meanwhile, although two oddball turn-based strategy games have been released under the Metal Gear franchise name since the PSP's debut, Metal Gear fans have been clamoring for a true MGS game for their portable console. Konami, likely sensing the piles of money to be made with a sequel in one of the biggest franchises in all of gaming, approved development on just such a game last year, to be released before the holidays this year.

Now, in early December, we finally see the release of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. Though it may seem a gargantuan task to adapt such an expansive game world into a portable format, the developers at Kojima Productions have done just that, and the results are quite impressive.

Visuals:

The PSP is a marvelous piece of hardware, and game developers are just beginning to tap into its full potential in regards to graphical performance. Portable Ops is one of the first games on the system that looks flat-out awesome in motion, and the game benefits greatly from it.

By far the greatest aspect of the game's visuals is the character models. Every single one, from Snake to the lowly grunts he faces, look as though they were ripped straight from the console Metal Gear Solid games, and they animate equally as well. Excellent background effects are plentiful in many levels, such as a rolling fog during some outdoor missions at nighttime. Explosions look particularly nice as well, illuminating their surroundings flickeringly as they occur.

Unfortunately, all of this strong animation comes at the expense of the game's environments, which are quite sparse when compared to those of the console Metal Gear Solids, although they are about the same size. There is also no blood whatsoever in Portable Ops, despite the game's M rating. The game's camera, which is a carbon copy of that of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, works very well within the framework of the gameplay, although it isn't by any means perfect. These are small complaints, though, and the rest of the game looks so good that you likely won't even care about them.

Another key difference in the visuals here from those of the console games is the lack of traditional cinematic cutscenes. The console Metal Gear games utilized some very stylish and eye-catching 3D video sequences to advance the plot. These were as much a part of the series' mystique as the stealth gameplay, and are quite memorable to those who have experienced them. Thankfully, these are not gone entirely. No, there are still videos in Portable Ops – they have just taken the radical step from game graphics to comic book-style animations. The change could potentially alienate some fans of the previous titles, but it works well, and looks great, with the UMD format; in fact, the videos are much shorter than those in the console games, which seems like a deliberate decision on the part of the developers to fit the ‘portable' goal of the package.

Despite some minor complaints, Portable Ops is by and large the best-looking game on the PSP to date, and the gameplay unquestionably profits from such quality.

Score: 9/10

Sound:

Much like the visuals, the sound performance in Portable Ops compares solidly to its console brethren, although on an expectedly smaller scale. In every area, the game genuinely captures the feel of the previous games in the series.

Most of the sound effects are recycled from MGS3, and they sound right at home here. Each of the game's weapons and items sounds just right in use, and the environmental noises are just as good. You may notice during gameplay that the game makes use of a rudimentary surround sound; while not an amazing technical feat, the fact that you can occasionally pick out where an enemy is by the sound of their footsteps is nonetheless remarkable.

The remaining cast members of MGS3 make return appearances in Portable Ops, and their performances are as excellent here as they were on the PS2. Actually, the voice acting is so good, that it is somewhat disappointing that it appears almost exclusively during the video sequences. While this was likely done due to memory constraints of the UMD format, the lack of voiceovers during even the game's ubiquitous Codec conversations serves as a jarring reminder of the PSP platform's limitations.

Of course, no Metal Gear would be complete without a rousing, cinematic score, and Portable Ops delivers here as well. While Harry Gregson-Williams did not have a hand in the music here, the compositions that are in the game equal the tone and tempo of the music he created for MGS3. Naturally, the music does a good job keeping pace with the action as well.

From every angle, Portable Ops is on par with its console predecessors in its acoustics – indeed, the game's audio presentation is excellent enough to leave you wanting more than you've been given.

Score: 10/10

Gameplay:

The gameplay in the console Metal Gear Solid titles was based around a linear progression through a series of interconnected areas of operation. While this worked well on a home console, it required the kind of playing time commitments that portable games just can't command from users. Thankfully, the developers have redesigned the gameplay significantly in Portable Ops, and in the process have created a uniquely appealing game.

Before you start fretting over those changes, you need to understand that, at its core, the game is still about the same solo sneaking missions that the series has always been known for. Taken on a microcosmic level, Portable Ops plays very similarly to MGS3; truth be told, it's the circumstances of those encounters that have changed. Changed for the better, in this case.

The primary difference here is that the game does not progress nearly as linearly as its forerunners. Instead of following set paths to get to your next objective, you are presented with a handful of areas to operate in, and given the freedom to choose where to go. You'll always have an idea where you need to go next, and once you choose to head to those areas you'll begin the next specific mission that advances the plot, but you're given the option of re-visiting previous districts of the game's setting at any time.

Re-visiting places you've already been becomes a very important aspect of the game once you gain the ability to recruit enemies to your side. Comrade recruitment, which is the other major difference from the console Metal Gears, is not only vital to the gameplay, but also an intriguing pursuit in and of itself.

A few minutes into the storyline, you are given the ability to recruit any enemy you can knock out and drag to your truck, which serves as your base of operations. These enemy characters are mostly all alike, but they also randomly possess a special talent (or talents) that set them apart from their peers. Once you've captured a new soldier (and convinced them to join your side), you can assign them to either your medical, technical, or spy team, or to your sneaking unit, which actually deploys on missions with Snake.

Essentially, what this all ends up feeling like is a personnel collection and management mini-game in the middle of the greater Metal Gear Solid gameplay. While it admittedly doesn't sound like a lot of fun, it can be very interesting – as well as helpful – to go around and try to fill your squad with the most helpful bunch for soldiers you can find. At the very least, if it's not your cup of tea, you're never really forced to spend too much time with it, so it should give you as much enjoyment or irritation as you take from it.

Once you deploy on the actual missions, the game starts to feel a lot more like a traditional Metal Gear Solid game. You control Snake (or whoever) from a third-person perspective, but you can still shoot in the first person for more accurate shots. You can crawl, roll, use a scaled-back form of CQC, and even follow a new type of radar that portrays enemy movement based on the sounds they emit. The controls are about as good as you can expect on the PSP, and they will take a bit of getting used to, even for MGS vets.

Your entire sneaking unit of up to four players deploys into your chosen level at once, although you can only control one at a time (while the others hide in – wait for it – cardboard boxes). While your characters may seem to be quite different from each other, they all play the same, with the exception that some former enemy soldiers can run through levels unimpeded. This gives the character system an unfinished feel, although it also encourages you to use the few soldiers who do have useful special abilities.

The missions themselves are very short, and usually involve a simple objective, such as getting to a specific point in the level or finding a specific object. You'll get there by using your typical Metal Gear bag of tricks, although it will often be just as easy to put everyone in the level to sleep with your silenced tranquilizer gun (or just murder them if you're lazy), since there are only six or seven non-teammates per level at maximum. You can also restart your mission, or abort it and return to your truck, at any time, which renders dying a bit more trivial than it perhaps should be.

Portable Ops wouldn't be a true Metal Gear game without a slew of imposing boss fights, and the game delivers here as well. The fights are more often than not just shootouts between your character and the enemy, rather than the memorable confrontations seen in the previous games, but each fight is challenging in its own right. If nothing else, the atmosphere for each is spot-on, and works well.

It may not be a full Metal Gear Solid game, but the inspiration Portable Ops takes from its ancestors melds nicely with its new innovations to create a solid, highly playable mix. Series vets may be a bit turned off by the new hybrid, but it's still good enough overall to satisfy most fans.

Score: 8/10

Story:

In the official Metal Gear canon, there is a big gap in time between the end of Metal Gear Solid 3 and the beginning of Metal Gear. Portable Ops closes that gap considerably, and offer franchise fans a good chunk of nostalgia.

You, as Snake/Big Boss, begin the game in a jail cell, with no idea where you are, or why you're there. You're awoken by another prisoner, the future Foxhound commander Roy Campbell, who helps you to escape and get your bearings, before you both make yourselves at home in a personnel truck and plot to stop the events that are unfolding around you. You'll obviously encounter some faces from Big Boss's past, and you'll run across the disparate personalities of the enemies you're facing as you progress as well.

The recruitment ability features prominently in the story, and as you proceed through the game you'll see how your comrades gradually come to see Big Boss as the important leader he is when Metal Gear rolls around. As usual, the plot is filled with the heavy-handed monologues that the series is known for, as well as a healthy dose of double-crossing and hidden enemies. The game is very well translated, and the storyline comes across as clearly as you could hope for.

The plot in Portable Ops stays on course all the way through to its finale, and gives fans everything they could hope for in a proper sequel.

Score: 9/10

Features/Modes:

Portable Ops offers a tremendous amount of replay value for series fans and new players alike. The game manages this partly by making excellent use of the PSP's WLAN capabilities to open up new dimensions in the gameplay.

There are three difficulty levels available in Portable Ops: Easy, Normal, and the unlockable Extreme. Your collected team of characters carries over between games, so you'll be plenty prepared to face the tougher difficulties once you've finished the storyline campaign once.

Your collected characters also serve as your team for multiplayer matchups over infrastructure mode, which is available after you've completed a small portion of the single-player game. You can capture your human opponent's comrades by winning in this mode, so it can serve as an excellent recruiting pipeline for your storyline experience.

There are also several other non-gameplay methods of building your ranks. You can send a team of your guys out into an infrastructure mode called ‘cyber-survival,' which is a simulated encounter between two opposing squads. If your team wins (which seems to be dependent on luck as much as skillful team management), you earn some of the other player's characters. You can also scan for wireless access points, for each of which that your PSP can connect to you'll receive one new recruit, and utilize the currently Japan-only GPS attachment for your PSP to grab more teammates. All of these options are somewhat weird, but that's par for the course in the Metal Gear series nowadays, so fans should appreciate the effort.

The game offers offline, ad-hoc multiplayer matches, as well as game-sharing for gamers whose friends are too cheap to buy the game themselves. You may also trade your soldiers with other players wirelessly over ad-hoc, if you're so inclined.

All in all, Portable Ops offer an extraordinary amount of replay value, although much of it is tied up in the game's quirky recruitment feature.

Score: 9/10

Online Play:

Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence added a new multiplayer mode to the Metal Gear series, and Portable Ops adopts and adapts that same gameplay for its own use. Unfortunately, the multiplayer seems mostly designed for hardcore players, and so it's not the type of endeavor that casual fans are likely to get into.

The infrastructure multiplayer gameplay mode is buried in the menu of the single-player game (a sound decision, since it ensures that you must at least encounter how the game works before you can play), and once you can access it, you're able to take your recruited group of comrades up against other players over the internet. The game modes available are similar to those from MGS3: Subsistence, although you're only able to play deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag here.

The interesting quirk in the infrastructure play is that you're given the opportunity to play a digital equivalent of ‘winner-takes-all' games, in which any of your teammates who are killed during the game are captured by your opponent. You can turn this option off, and even surrender during the game to avoid losing your guys, but the ability to go online and capture someone else's prized recruits is a fascinating one.

Beyond that, though, the gameplay is moderately paced, and can be exciting if you know what you're doing. Since you're able to utilize your recruited comrades from the single-player game, it helps to know which character types are the most useful during play, although if you're good (or your opponent is bad) you can win by skill. The game runs fine, although if the host is on a weak connection, you'll run into some lag here and there.

Infrastructure multiplayer play in Portable Ops can offer some nice thrills for an on-the-go PSP owner, but it can also be frustrating if you're trying to get into the game for the first time.

Score: 7/10

Total Score:

A must-have title has been a long time coming for PSP owners. They've stuck with their machine through software droughts, multiple security patches that eliminate user-created content, and a decline in the use of the UMD format for movie releases, and are hungry to see their systems relevant again. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is not the best game ever created, and it is not going to change the videogame world; what it is, though, is an excellent game for the PSP – and that's enough to separate it head and shoulders above the herd of holiday releases.

If you own a PSP, and have been dying for something fun to play on it, then you should go right out and find a copy of Portable Ops to try out. If you are a fan of the Metal Gear series, and you do not own a PSP, it may be time to head out and buy one, so that you can play this game. Finally, if you're a fan of stealth games in general, and are looking for one to take around with you, then you likely won't go wrong with this game.

Score: 9/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 12/19/06


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