Review by DiscoStoo

"The Name Says It All"

Seriously, a quick glance at the title will probably tell you everything you need to know about this game, or at least enough to know whether or not you should buy it. It's Metal Gear Solid. It's on the PSP. Do you like MGS? Do you own a PSP? Do you like games that are fun? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please purchase the game immediately. If you answered no, well--read on and perhaps your mind will be changed.

Graphics:

The graphics in general are great. The character models in particular look brilliant, almost up to par with their PS2 counterparts, which is saying a lot. The environments look excellent as well, though I did notice a bit of tearing. Also, I've got to say: they seemed just a little sterile compared to what I'm used to in a MGS game. I think most of it has to do with limitations of the hardware, but I've grown so used to the thousands of little details that have made their way into the series (especially since MGS2 hit the scene). No little toys to play with, no posters of babes in lockers, no bottles to break, no birds or rats to shoot at, &c. Don't get me wrong--the game still looks better than most you'll play on the system, and it's more than enough. It's just that I've come to expect just that little extra “oomph” from a MGS title, and this one didn't quite have it.

This lack is made up for by the cutscenes however, which are done in a wonderfully unique graphic novel style that fits beautifully with the tone of the game. They're simple, yet far more stylistic and expressive than would be possible if they were done using the in-game engine as tradition dictates.

Sound/Music:

Spot on. Enough said (almost). The music is excellent, always fitting the mood, never distracting. There are a few over-the-top tracks toward the end of the game, but this IS Metal Gear Solid after all. If you're a veteran of the series, you should have a love of these songs beaten into you by now! If you're new to the series--shame on you. But you too will learn to love it.

The sound effects are just what you'd hope they'd be, and completely integral to the gameplay. I'd say headphones (or good speakers) are mandatory with this game, although I admittedly never ventured to play without them. You'll need to detect every single footstep, hear every breath the guards take, and in particular keep track of your own decibel output. The nifty radar-replacing sound meter in top of the screen will help to some extent, but trust me--without a grasp of the audio, you put yourself at a considerable handicap.

Controls:

This is where I've heard the most complaints regarding Portable Ops, and it's easy to understand why. For the first few missions I was floundering with the control scheme as well, confused and angry. After all, we Metal Gear Solid players are a fickle breed, having been trained to play the games a certain way, with a certain control setup (albeit subtly altered with each iteration of the series). And in a basic sense, MPO doesn't change things too drastically. The default scheme is as follows: the analog stick moves Snake, X makes him crouch (whether it's a toggle or needs to be held down is editable in the options), Triangle is the ever-present “action” button (as well as “sneak”), Square attacks (or taps walls, &c.). Holding Circle opens your inventory, which is limited to four items, including weapons (I know this seems sparse, but it'll make sense when the team aspect of the gameplay comes in). The R trigger goes into first person mode, and the L trigger targets the nearest enemy while doubling as the “strafe” command.

The major issue for most, I believe, is the camera. The D-Pad controls the camera, and it's extremely tricky to master at first. To begin with, having the camera control on the D-Pad means that you can't move Snake and change the camera at the same time, which is awkward for those of us used to a dual stick setup. This wouldn't be so bad if, say, the camera were a static overhead view as in the original MGS, but this unfortunately is not the case. The camera is almost entirely manually controlled, and if you don't make it go where it needs to go, it will stay put and cause alert after alert after alert…

The fix? The L trigger. As stated above, L locks on to enemies, BUT if there's nobody around, L simply centers the camera behind Snake. This does nothing to the vertical orientation of the camera, however, so it's still up to you to use the D-Pad to make sure you're not stuck looking at the sky or the ground. Overall, this scheme works, and once you learn to make liberal use of the L trigger to keep the camera in line you'll be well on your way to success. Just don't be surprised if your hand gets sore after playing for awhile.

Oh, and it should also be noted that this is just ONE of the provided control schemes, and as always, it's completely customizable. So if that doesn't work for you, change it. After a bit of adjustment, I found it satisfactory.

Gameplay:

Ah, the meat of the matter! Sure it looks great, sounds great, and controls okay, but how does it play? Luckily: great! MPO offers exactly the kind of excellent stealth gaming one expects from Konami these days, although it must be said that it was not directed by everyone's favorite Kojima-san. (He produced, and certainly had his say, no worries.) There are some definite departures from the normal MGS formula, but by no means should this scare anyone off. In fact, with a series as varied as Metal Gear, I think it's a mistake to think of any game as establishing a “normal” gameplay trend. In any case, here's the deal: the main character is Snake (aka Big Boss). No Raidens here. You are presented with a series of more or less linearly connected sneaking missions, with a variety of goals. More often than not it's simply to get to the “end” of the level, but often times there are things to blow up, documents to retrieve, people to interrogate, bosses to beat, &c.

The decision to separate the game into discrete levels is a good one, for the most part. Remember that this is portable game, meant to be played in short bursts while on the go. So there are lots of short-ish levels, instead of the one sprawling continuous game we're all used to with MGS. Think of it almost like VR Missions, but longer and with a story attached.

There is one flaw with this system however, and I consider it to be the biggest flaw in the game as a whole. Once you reach the goal of the level, it immediately ends, and you're transported back to the map screen. This happens regardless of how many guards are chasing you, what your status is, or anything other variants you might imagine. So what's the big deal? Basically, because most of the levels are fairly small, it's possible to just run from beginning to end (which is clearly marked on the map with an ‘X'), ignoring the alerted guards hauling ass after you, and to clear the mission with no effort, no problem. In the later levels you might need to strap on some body armor, but this strategy even works on the last and most difficult level. This is especially true since by the end of the game your medical unit will have produced a near infinite number of Med Kits and Rations. Of course this “strategy” more or less defeats the purpose of the game, and will wreak havoc on your final ranking, but it still exists as a loophole to actual gameplay. In the later and more frustrating levels every single alert becomes a temptation not to restart the level, or to find a hiding place and stick it out, but rather to simply tear through to the end of the level and brute force your way out. This is an option that has never been present before, by the very nature of previous MGS titles. I wish if nothing else they had included an option to prevent you from finishing the level in alert mode, or something. But in reality, this “feature” just serves to expose your character flaws as a gamer! You scum, you! So try to think of it that way.

The other major shift in gameplay from the previous MGS titles is the presence of your squad. Throughout the game you can “recruit” (which is to say knock out, kidnap, and coerce) almost any enemy you encounter. They can then be added to various units (Spy, Technical, Medical, &c.), or directly into the “Sneaking Unit,” where they will accompany you in actual gameplay. This means that in every level (after the first few introductory ones of course), you can have up to four team members under your control simultaneously, each with different strengths, weaknesses, items, weapons, skills, and so on. This also can be quite handy in another way: if you bring a guard over to your side, they still look like a guard. The upshot of this is that unless you do something abnormal (like frontflips or crawling), most enemies won't pay you any attention. Camouflage! It's just as fun as it sounds. Of course playing as Snake is required for certain boss battles or story sections, but overall the level of freedom is quite high.

The last element of gameplay I'll address is the one I have the least to say about: multiplayer. I actually have yet to take MPO online, so I don't really feel qualified to let that influence my review one way or the other. But from what I understand, online play is a blast, and only adds to the experience of the game. It's good enough that Konami recently released the multiplayer only pseudo-sequel, Portable Ops Plus, which is doing quite well. So don't worry! If online play is your bag, I'm sure you're in for a treat.

Story:

The story is an integral part of any MGS game, and MPO doesn't disappoint in this category. In fact, it's a direct sequel to MGS3: Snake Eater for the PS2. Not that it's entirely mandatory to play through Snake Eater first, but it certainly will give you a greater understanding of what's going on, and who these people are. The plot is fairly typical of a MGS game, with Snake pitted against a group of renegade FOX members who have taken control of everyone's favorite “nuclear-equipped walking battle tank.” Or one of its ancestors, anyway. There are murders, betrayals, unexpected sacrifices, and plot twists galore, all the way up to the now obligatory post-credit-sequence mysterious telephone call. It feels familiar, in other words, but in a good way. Like a comfortable pair of shoes. And the stylistic cutscenes make it a pleasure to watch the story unfold. I was pleased overall, and the ending left me wanting a real sequel, as opposed to a multiplayer only title. Alas…

Replay Value:

As with every previous installment, there is a tremendous amount of replay value. The second and third playthrough of a MGS game are typically better than the first, and MPO is no exception here. A huge number of secrets are unlocked upon finishing the game, with alternate missions, hidden characters, secret items, and so on. You'll want to play through it at least once more, and then probably again to sample the “extreme” difficulty level. And then again to go for a better rank. And let's not forget the multiplayer, which offers nearly infinite replay value!

Final Judgment:

So what does all this boil down to? What the hell does it all mean? Ultimately, it comes to this: Portable Ops is an excellent game, one of the best titles you'll find on the PSP, and entirely worthy of the Metal Gear Solid moniker. While a few of the quirks of the series are missing (whether due to Kojima-san's absence as director or hardware limitations), the brilliant gameplay remains intact. The overall package is top-notch, and certainly worth the twenty-something dollars it's selling for these days. Based on the above reasoning, I've given the game a 9/10. Like I said before: go get it.

~KNF


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 02/29/08

Game Release: Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (US, 12/05/06)


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