Review by JavaKid

"At last, a *TRUE* Metal Gear game on the PSP !"

Just when you thought the Metal Gear timeline couldn't get any more convoluted, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops rears its head on the PSP to offer up yet another chapter of prequel action.

The original Metal Gear games stretch back to 1985, and were released on various formats during the latter part of the Eighties, but Metal Gear only came to worldwide attention after a decade long absence, when the third game in the series (Metal Gear Solid) was released on the Playstation to much acclaim. It's blend of action, sophisticated storytelling and stealth tactics was a refreshing change to the heavy body count of most weapons-based titles. The idea that the player would be rewarded for sneaking past opponents rather than charging in all-guns-blazing appealed to many players looking for fresh gameplay ideas.

The success of MGS spawned an array of follow-up titles, notably the high-tech Metal Gear Solid 2, and the low-tech prequel Metal Gear Solid 3 (set in the 1960s Cold War era.) The final chapter in the series is scheduled for release on PS3 in 2008. The game is no stranger to the PSP either, with two "Metal Gear Acid" games already released. But the Acid series was unrelated to the traditional Metal Gear gameplay, offering instead a themed turn-based card strategy game.

And so, at last, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops arrives on the PSP.

Set a few years after the events of MGS3, but a decade or more before the events of the main Snake/Solid Snake timeline, MGS:PO sees Big Boss, aka Naked Snake, caught up in a political conspiracy involving the Fox Hound unit. Escaping from his interogators, and determined to clear his name, Big Boss ("call me Snake") and fellow escapee Roy Campbell set about a series of dangerous stealth based missions to uncover the truth. Along the way they capture and 'turn' members of the enemy force, who are all too willing to serve under the legendary soldier, Big Boss, once the true Machavellian nature of events is revealed to them.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops takes the basic Metal Gear Solid 3 gameplay and breaks it up into bite-sized morsels, adds an element of teamwork, and serves it up with the usual side salad of twisting plots sprinkled with conspiracy theories. But in essence it's the same game we all know and love: run around, hide in lockers, avoid patrols, sneak past sentries, hand-to-hand combat, collect weapons, tap on walls to distract guards, "freeze" hold ups, ZZzzzz, etc. All the major elements are intact, except now you have up to four players to control in the field at any one time.

The game uses a finite number of locations: a prison, a supply depot, a research lab, etc. Snake can assemble a team and drop in on any of these maps, either during daylight or at night, to do his usual sneak antics. Only one team member can be controlled at a time. To change between characters the current character must find a suitable place to hide (typically a corner where they can climb inside the handy cardboard box each team mate keeps available for just such a eventuality.) Stealth is important in this game -- an alarmed guard will radio for backup, and before long the area will be swarming with gun-totting bad guys. If a team member is killed the player is forced to select a another character and the game carries on without the lost man (or woman!)

Enemy soldiers can be captured by drugging them, knocking them out in a fight, or sneaking up behind and choking them. Once unconscious they can be hidden in lockers, or (new to this game) taken captive and 'turned' to become part of Snake's team on future missions. Different enemies have different skills, depending upon they type -- soldier, nurse, scientist, etc. -- and the location they were captured in. As these skills come in handy as the game progresses, it is important to maintain a good balance of skills and ability types in Snake's squad. Weapons and other items can also be stolen, and handed out to team members for use on a mission.

Not all captured members will become part of the 'sneak unit' teams which perform missions. Some can be assigned to spy on particular locations, some can be assigned to a medical unit which helps team members recover between missions, while others can be assigned to develop new technologies like infra-red goggles or more sophisticated weapons. Intel from the spy units can alert the player to side-mission which can be undertaken to steal special weapons or items. Some missions are necessary to progress the game storyline, although players are free to assemble a mission to any location at any time, perhaps to increase their squad skill mix or collect items.

Although in-game speech is limited to subtitles only. full voice audio (using the usual cast) is featured on cut sequences, which now take the form of limited animation cartoons. The cartoons work surprisingly well, despite their primitive nature, and help to convey the story with a quirky atmosphere which is actually sometimes better than the cut-sequences used in the full sized console games.

The game also features some impressive network functionality, with team members capable of being traded with friends via wireless links, and various multi-player head-to-head gameplay options also available.

All in all MGS:PO offers a refreshing and enjoyable variation on the traditional MGS gameplay. The bite-sized portions of action are just right for mobile play, and the location maps are just about large enough to make the game interesting, without demanding continual battery-draining access to the disk.

As with all games nothing is perfect, and MGS:PO does have a few areas which could be improved...

Firstly, the camera foregoes the traditional MGS plan view angle, in favour of the new dynamic player-controlled system experimented with in the re-release of MSG3. I'm not sure it works all that well. During CQC (close quarter combat) it is particularly hard to see where your opponent is, for example. I for one would have welcomed the option of a traditional plan-view MSG camera.

Secondly, many of the missions ultimately amount to getting to a given point on a map, or collecting a given item. A little more variety would have been nice.

And finally, when the enemy spots your player there is often little one can do but hide and wait a few minutes for the alert status to be dropped and the extra patrol guards to return to their quarters. During MSG3 this was often an opportunity to nip to the toilet or fetch another can from the fridge -- but for the PSP version a 'fast forward' option would have been nice, so players didn't have to waste valuable battery time waiting for each alert to end.

Grumbles aside, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is a valient attempt to bring the Metal Gear franchise to a portable system. Hardened fans may not like its fragmented 'episodic' storytelling, or may find the squad management aspects tiresome, but personally I think the new elements are well suited to the PSP -- helping, as they do, to expand the play time and enjoyability while being sympathetic to the restricted nature of the medium.

Well worth a look, for die-hard fans and newcomers alike.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 12/25/07

Game Release: Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (EU, 05/25/07)

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