Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
Review by AegisKnight2000
"Scaling Down the MGS Experience into Portable Ops... Great Concept, Questionable Execution"
-Borrows heavily from one of the best Ps2 titles, MGS3: Snake Eater
-Faithfully reproduces the fun sneaking mechanic found in other MGS titles
-Legitimate and engaging storyline
-Diverse and inspiring soundtrack
-Fun (though basic) boss battles
-High replayability if the game-play engages you
-Questionable over-arching game-play design
-Storyline has pitfalls and too many slowdowns
-Game-play controls never felt comfortable
-Too many unmotivating game-play objectives and back-tracking missions
-Limited inventory puts unnecessary burden on item-carrying
-Team aspects involve too much micro-management
Upon learning that MGS was going to be ported to the PSP, and hearing all the positive reviews, I decided that I had to try MGS:PO while borrowing a PSP. I was initially impressed with what was accomplished, and the production values present, but over time I recognized that the game has some persistent flaws. The experience was enjoyable enough, and MGS: PO is probably worthwhile to add to your collection, but there are a couple disappointing aspects to this game worth noting.
Without question, much of the design in this game is faithful to MGS3: Snake Eater, particularly with regards to Snake's character design and weaponry. At first glance, watching Snake move around is pretty impressive, and clear radio transmissions images of character profiles are pleasing to look at. Moreover, the illustrated artwork animations that are used to advance storyline are, for the most part, pleasing to look at and accurate enough to what you would imagine. I still would have preferred to see the typical MGS cinematic style of exposition, but I understand they have limitations being on the PSP.
Therefore, the graphical strengths of the game are Snake's character and weapon design, quality artwork, and faithful representation of the source material. And these strengths are pretty significant... I was impressed with what they were able to achieve here.
There are substantial graphical weaknesses, though, leading to an 8/10 score. A classic gripe I've always had about MGS design is the painful homogeneity of enemy soldier design. Nothing has been done to rectify that weakness here, you've still got only your generic masked grunt and generic officer, with terribly little variation beyond that. Moreover, Snake's primary enemies don't seem to have that same dramatic flair as they have in the past. Even the current Metal Gear design (you can see it during game load) just looked bland.
Beyond that, backgrounds looked blurry and under-detailed, especially given the great detail that goes into Snake's design. The lack of continuity is a little jarring. That's not to say that backgrounds are awful, but it's worth noting that they aren't as high of quality as you would expect.
Also, while the artwork story sequences are generally well-received, the decision to insert words into the artwork to illustrate sounds (a la the Batman series from the 60s/70s, "Biff!" "Boom!") just cheapened the experience, reduced the maturity of the design, and disrupted the artwork. Moreover, the artwork, while good, seemed to distort what the characters actually look like in-game. Snake has a ton more facial hair in the artwork than what you see for his in-game representation, for instance. And Elisa looks barely human in the artwork.
I was very impressed with the diversity and range of music available in Portable Ops. The sounds for weaponry also ported very well to PSP, and sound as good and realistic as one could expect.
The music for Portable Ops is dramatic and very consistent with what I've come to expect from the Metal Gear series. The quality and desperation of the music increases as the missions progresses, so this was very appreciated. Most impressively, there seemed to be new ambient music available for each particular area that you can visit. There was also a great variety of "Alert state" themes for the variety of areas, which was both surprising and welcome.
Voice-acting for storyline sequences was also good. Though not quite of the caliber of the Ps2 MGS titles, the VAs were still good enough, and dialogue was delivered convincingly enough. Though you will notice a couple weak points among the VAs, it's not enough to really call attention to. What is worth calling attention to was that radio transmissions (or "Codec transmissions") featured no voice-acting whatsoever. This was a pretty big omission, especially for a series that has featured full voice-acting since 1997. I understand the limitations of creating a game for the PSP, but this was a pretty prominent omission, especially for this series, and long-time fans will undoubtedly notice, and probably be disappointed by this.
No voice-acting for the radio transmissions downgrades Sound from a 10/10 to a 9/10. Otherwise, everything about MGS:PO's sound is fantastic.
The content and depth of the story is laudable. If my story grade were based solely on the over-arching principle of the story, MGS:PO would probably get a 10/10 from me. However, the pacing and presentation of the story warrants some serious questioning. Moreover, the side-story for a couple of main characters felt rather "tacked-on" and under-developed. I particularly thought they could have done much more with Elisa and Roy Campbell. Roy Campbell is one of the most central characters in all of MGS history, yet they reduce him to a fairly one-dimensional character with little depth of development. Primary antagonists could also have used more development. For instance, Cunningham had a lot of promise, but is woefully invisible for much of the game progression.
They seemed to alter the pacing of story progression for this MGS. The story Arc is explored in small, bite-size chunks for the majority of the game, with only a few lengthy sequences of interaction. This is presumably done to accomodate for the portable platform that this game was made for. However, the management aspects of game-play are so involved (converse to story development) that it leaves me to wonder if that was really the case. As such, many of the short-term objectives you receive for missions have little if any significant story tie-in, leaving the gamer somewhat unmotivated to complete the objective.
All that said, once the story ties itself all together, it makes genuine sense and establishes itself as a genuine chapter in the MGS universe that any MGS advocate should experience at least once. Many sensitive areas of the MGS universe are touched upon and there is a surprising degree of inter-relation between this title, MGS1, and MGS2. You can begin to see some of the concepts and characters for those games in their infancy here. And of course, being somewhat of a direct sequel to MGS3, there is obviously a great deal of carry-over from that title, as well. Just be prepared for this game to hold out story on you until the final couple of hours.
At first glance, and for the first couple of hours, this game appears to be an impressive emulation of the achievements of MGS3. Unfortunately, as you proceed deeper into the game, it bogs itself down in a strategic micro-management system and persists in sending you on fetch quests, often times forcing you to backtrack locations. Many of the objectives boil down to arriving at 'X' location, at which point you get magically warped out back to your truck. It doesn't matter if the mission was alert-sensitive... just simply arrive at your objective, even at full alert, and it's all fine. Of course, sometimes you have to arrive at 'X' objective with a certain key item, which you have to allocate among Snake's limited inventory yourself, and could very easily forget. This was an unnecessary nuisance and the issue crops up several times.
The "racing through the stage" aspect could be tolerable, as some stealth games have this inconsistency present. You can usually rectify this by upping difficulty. However, I was more tempted to rush through stages, simply because the control scheme is very difficult to manage. Simply put, I could never find the right sensitivity or orientation for camera rotation and aiming. No orientation ever felt right, no matter what adjustment I made. Moreover, CQC, a rather essential element to certain missions, was difficult to implement. It never became a comfortable and intuitive mechanic like it did in MGS3.
The blame for these problems probably lies most directly with the tools provided by the PSP (ie. small screen, uncomfortable analog control, difficult D-pad/analog orientation), but the game doesn't seem to accommodate for the PSP's shortcomings well enough. Hence, aiming will have you squinting and re-adjusting via analog numerous times and camera-work while sneaking becomes a constant chore. They may have been better off providing some kind of fixed camera with limited rotation and adjustment options.
Still, some of the fun of sneaking is still faithfully re-created in this MGS, even if it is tempered by the aforementioned shortcomings. When the control scheme does work, nothing is more satisfying than stealthing by a hapless soldier, or tranquilizing an unsuspecting guard patroling 20 yards away. Moreover, boss fights, while mostly straight-forward, are still exciting and aesthetically pleasing. There's almost nothing novel about these fights, but they're still satisfying and motivating all the same. One interesting thing I did notice was that the boss battles seem to take place in the entire surrounding area, rather than being confined to one "boss room", so to speak. This was a welcome addition.
None of these concerns have touched on the over-arching game-play mechanic. Outside of sneaking missions, MGS:PO plays a lot like a strategy and personnel management game, whereby you recruit soldiers and place them in teams. You can place them in a medical unit to develop rations and medicine. You can place them in a tech unit for ammo development. Or you can have them sneak along with you, to add some extra abilities and flexibility to your sneaking operation.
These are actually good concepts in theory, and I think I see where the developers were going with this. In practice though, it became cumbersome. Switching characters and capturing soldiers for recruitment robbed the game-play of momentum. Fetch missions, required recruitment missions and waiting for Spy Units to generate reports so that you can advance the story stymied story progress. An absolute dealbreaker for me was when the game required me to kill time between mission assignments and suggested that I recruit soldiers while waiting for intel to be gathered. This really killed momentum, in my opinion, and was just a bad idea. This was made all the worse when waiting for a mission that was just another bland fetch quest that was inconsequential to the primary story development.
The summary for game-play is that it was good in concept, both for sneaking and strategic game-play, but required improvement in practice.
The most disappointing aspect of atmosphere was that the game did little to convince me of the environment I was in. The game is set in a Soviet base in Colombia, but little was done to emphasize the difference between MGS3's Grozny Grad and this particular setting. In short, the game doesn't distinguish itself properly. The soldiers wear short sleeves and they mention difficulties with Malaria (the source of several fetch quests and back-tracking) but that is about all. This is very unlike previous MGS games, which all had very distinct atmospheres. Also, very little is done to convince the gamer of the sense of urgency until the last couple hours of the game, but even then you theoretically "wait for days" between significant boss fights.
Also, MGS prides itself on being a game where one individual goes in alone and survives treacherous conditions to overcome all the odds and succeed. If you go into Portable Ops expecting to experience this phenomena, you'll be disappointed. A majority of missions don't even require you to use Snake. This unbalances things all the more when you get to a story sequence, which pretty much assumes Snake has done everything all along. Nothing is more jarring than completing a mission with the 3rd member of your Alpha team, only to have the story act like that member hasn't done anything.
The lack of voice-acting, constant back-tracking, limitations on inventory, and required micromanagement all combine to really take the gamer out of the sense of immersion. It's unfortunate because the framework of the environment is so interesting, and it felt like it had a lot of potential. Too many negatives frustrate the gamer though, and takes one out of that sense of connection with the game.
***End Aspect Summary***
MGS:PO is probably a must-play for any fan of the MGS series who happens to own a PSP. However, there are enough flaws and inconsistencies that hold this game back from being as good as it could have been. It's still pretty faithful to the MGS sneaking experience and exposition style, but too many other mediocre game aspects and an unforgiving control scheme get in the way of the action.
Reviewer's Score: 7/10 | Originally Posted: 01/02/07
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