Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: 12/5/06
I’m something of an off-and-on fan of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. MGS was, to me, one of the best games released on the PS1, but MGS2 felt like less of a continuation of that, and more of a tech demo to show off the capabilities of the PS2. I loved MGS: Ghost Babel for the GB, and thought it mimicked the feel of the old school franchise while maintaining a solid presence in more modern adventures, but thought MGS3 would have drastically benefited from a better camera perspective. And I still don’t quite understand how Hideo Kojima can say he doesn’t think games are art, since they’re all about marketing to a consumer, when he’s the lord and savior of not giving fans what they want (to actually PLAY as Snake), relatively speaking.
But I was really looking forward to MGS: PO. Sure, it chronicles the adventures of Big Boss (he still isn’t Snake, I don’t care what you call him), but I had been hearing good things for months prior to release. New camera angle? Open-ended gameplay? A free PSP shell for pre-ordering? Sign me up, jack! I was all about hoping the game was a substantial improvement over past releases, and I had faith that, as I’d liked the previous MGS handheld attempt, I would like this one as well. So, is it a worthy successor to the MGS name? Let’s take a look.
You once again take on the role of Big Boss, AKA Snake, as he’s thrust kicking and screaming into a web of lies and deceit. Seems that Big Boss has been abducted by members of his own former unit, FOX (is it just me, or should the government consider dissolving the FOX unit? It seems like everyone who joins it turns evil at some point), who want to know what happened to the information Big Boss acquired at the end of MGS3. He’s tortured and imprisoned, only to be rescued by a familiar face, whereupon it is decided that the two soldiers must figure out what the hell is going on in the Soviet base they’ve found themselves in.
The narrative is strong enough to carry the game, as in previous efforts, which is positive, but many of the things that helped that along in prior games aren’t present in MGS: PO, which we’ll address later. The game maintains its own style of narrative in a lot of respects, so those who are used to the standard MGS narrative styles might be let down a bit. The game is less concerned with explaining everything and more concerned with fleshing out its characters, which is good, because I doubt most people who are playing the game even know what SALT is, for instance. The characters, Big Boss especially, are largely interesting, well written, and well developed, and as the story tends to be more of a character driven affair, the game ends up profiting for it. MGS: PO, overall, is strong on story, and while it’s still a lot of the same overwrought “war is bad, mmkay”Â narrative we’ve come to expect from the franchise, the storytelling is solid and the characters are strong, which should keep you interested, even if you’re tired of the anti-war sentiments the franchise tends to feature.
Story Rating: 7/10
The visuals in MGS: PO are largely good for a portable effort, though they’re not as strong as one might expect. Characters get the best treatment here; from Big Boss to the most basic grunt, all of the various characters look good and animate well, which is good. The various menus one is asked to navigate also do their job nicely, and offer plenty of appropriate information without being bland or overpopulated. The game environments, on the other hand, don’t look quite so good; while they’re largely very convincing in size and scope, you’ll see some muddy, blocky textures in most of them. Also, the cinematics are presented in a comic book style of sorts, and while they look distinctive, if you’re used to the 3D rendered real-time cinemas from previous MGS titles, this might leave you disappointed. Still, for a handheld title, the visuals are suitably impressive, and few 3D games on the system look quite as good as MGS: PO.
Graphics Rating: 8/10
The game music is as one would expect: appropriately strong and powerful orchestrated tracks, as one would expect. It’s largely all very solid and well done, and works well within the game. Voice acting, though in substantially less volume than in the console versions of the title, is still very strong here, with Mr. David Hayter reprising his awesome portrayal of Big Boss, and other voice acting alumni such as Steven Blum, Quinton Flynn, and Josh Keaton either reprising roles or bringing life to even the most mundane voices. And the sound effects are about as spot-on as one would expect; gunfire is powerful when expected, hand to hand combat sounds appropriate, and so on. The aural presentation of MGS: PO is about as strong as we’ve come to expect from the franchise, and contributes well to the experience, all told.
Sound Rating: 8/10
For those that have played a MGS title, the gameplay will require little explanation (and if you played Subsistence, you pretty much know what’s going on up-front), but for the rest of you, you’ll probably need a small explanation. MGS: PO is designed as a third-person action/shooter, but if one were to jump into the game guns-a-blazin’ one would get his or her shortbread sliced up in seconds. MGS: PO is, at its core, a stealth experience; sneaky tactics, hiding, and evasion are more valuable to survival than an itchy trigger finger and lots of bullets. The stealthier your movements, the better off you are. You can crawl and sneak around, press up against walls, hide behind and under various environmental items, and so on to keep yourself hidden from enemies, then pop out at the right time to dispatch them or sneak past them, but you need to be careful: if they see or hear you, they’ll trigger the alarm, which means you’ll have a real heavy fight on your hands.
In other words, it’s your typical MGS title. Sort of.
MGS: PO does a lot to distinguish itself from its console brethren, and by and large, it’s successful. First off, instead of being placed in one large complex of attached locales, MGS: PO instead features smaller battlegrounds that are separate from one another. What this essentially means is that each locale is self-contained, as are the various missions that occur within them. Get in, do what needs doing, and get out is the order of the day, and in most cases, one can either simply complete the objectives laid out to them or choose to abort from the game menu to get back to the location selection map. If one is so inclined, this can also make it fairly simple to clear out a location; either kill or capture everyone in the location, and avoid alarms or run down the reinforcement pool, and you’re free to do what you wish. This makes a lot more sense than being subjected to endless supplies of guards, though it does make being detected less of a problem than it used to be.
Another unique touch is the whole troop management dynamic. MGS: PO allows you, instead of simply knocking out, avoiding, or killing anyone you meet, to capture enemies and convert them to your cause if you wish. Essentially, you can run up on a foe, bop them over the head, and carry them off to your transport truck/other hidden troops, then convince them that yours is the good fight, whereupon they will join you. Aside from being rather amusing the first few times you do it, this is also a good way to build a strong group of able-bodied soldiers to join the resistance against FOX. Once drafted, troops can be placed into one of six categories: Sneaking (field units), Spies (troops who steal stuff for you and float you information), Tech researchers (who research new weapons, ammo, and tools), Medical staff (who research new medical items and heal troops between missions), Off-duty (if you have nothing for them to do), and Rookies (for those who are unassigned and have just been converted). Making the decision as to where to place recruits is either accomplished by looking over their stats (which also influence what you might want to equip them with, if you’re sending them into battle) or their inherent extra skills. Various troops come equipped with special skills that will make them able to, for instance, heal more HP per turn when in a Medical unit, research better stuff in Tech, do damage as Spies, carry unconscious foes faster when in a Sneaking unit, and so on. Where you ultimately place your troops is up to you, but building the best possible squads are what’s most important, obviously. There’s a lot of variety to the various troops and combinations of stats and skills, which make squad customization that much more involved and interesting.
A good portion of MGS: PO resides in tactical elements, in fact. Aside from the troop management, you’re also offered a tactical map of sorts, which acts as your “base”Â between missions. From here, you can choose locales to visit, manage troops and their various inventories, look over various items and documentation, and jump into multiplayer combat. This is also where you save, instead of calling a specific number on the codec. You can also fast-forward time if you feel the need; not only does this advance the day-night cycle (for ideal conditions in the field), but it also allows things to be accomplished (convincing troops to join up, item manufacturing, healing, etc), though you can only do it so many times before engaging in a mission. Time is also kept track of in the game; accomplishing your mission in a certain amount of time influences whether or not you receive certain unlockable items, so speed is of benefit. The map itself is easy to navigate, as are the various menus that branch off of it, and many of the button functions are displayed on-screen, in case you get confused (remember, in MGS, Circle gets the square… er, confirms stuff, while X cancels, like most Japanese games). Ultimately, the tactical map adds another interesting layer to the proceedings.
And as you’ve no doubt figured out by now, yes, you can play as other characters besides Big Boss. You can bring up to four characters into battle, three of which will hide in (what else) cardboard boxes while you play as the fourth. You can switch characters at any time, so long as there’s somewhere for your present character to hide, so if you need someone who can carry unconscious foes fast, or who has the machine gun instead of the tranq gun, or who can send items back to the truck instead of carry them (a necessity, since characters can only carry four items at a time in MGS: PO), you can switch up as needed. You can also drag captives to the closest cardboard box instead of to the truck and have your hidden ally do the backbreaking work, if desired. This simplifies things a bit, as you’ll always be certain to have the best tools for the job with a little planning, making missions equal parts troop management, stealth, and ass-kicking. All told, it’s a pretty complete package.
Multiplayer is also very solid, as well. You can jump online or play with local friends in three types of shoot-out oriented game modes: deathmatch, team deathmatch, and CTF. If you’ve played MGS3: Subsistence, this is all pretty much as you’d expect, but for those that haven’t, it plays similar to most third person shooters, only in a portable. You can also use download play in case your friends don’t own MGS: PO, but want to screw around with the online play, which is neat. You can also choose whether or not your characters participate in matches virtually (no risk) or for real (death equals death, for reals, yo), which adds a level of risk to the proceedings (and lets the victor recruit defeated soldiers). There’s also Cyber Survival, which is more of a multiplayer RPG kind of thing: you outfit squads, then send them out to do battle with other squads, and dependent upon their skills and equipment, the game rolls successes in battle and such. You can also recruit characters this way. And, to top it all off, there’s a GPS mode of sorts in the game that seems to serve no real purpose. Supposedly, you can use this in tune with the Japanese-only PSP GPS device, but as that’s yet to see a stateside release, I’ve honestly no idea how this is supposed to work. Aside from that, though, the multiplayer works as well as you’d expect, and offers something else to do with the game.
It’s not QUITE perfect, unfortunately. The four item limit characters have imposed upon them makes inventory management important, but the fact that you have no way of dropping off items, save for using characters with the ability to send items back to the truck, makes inventory management difficult in the heat of a mission. All of the characters play more or less identically, right down to using identical CQC animations, which really reduces the perceived variety somewhat. The stealth mechanics themselves are also more or less the same as they’ve always been, and while this means the game generally plays well and will be a good fit to fans, those who’ve tired of the concept will find nothing special in the core gameplay to draw them in, save the third-person perspective.
That all aside, the good in MGS: PO outweighs the bad by quite a bit. The more tactical elements of the game are both interesting and well implemented, and serve to add quite a bit to a franchise that needed a shot in the arm. Having multiple characters available to accomplish missions also makes the game more interesting, even if they do play identically. The core gameplay is the same as ever, but for most, this won’t be a problem. The gameplay is fresh and different enough, and implemented well enough, to make the overall product feel strong, and as a result, MGS: PO ends up being more than the sum of its parts, gameplay-wise.
Control/Gameplay Rating: 7/10
Aside from multiple levels of difficulty, there are a lot of extra tidbits to bring you back to MGS: PO. Multiple unlockable characters spanning several MG titles (though no Ninja or old-school Snake, dammit), as well as all sorts of on-and-offline multiplayer options, the ability to trade troops, and the ability to play the game in small doses thanks to its portable-friendly design make MGS: PO worth playing for a while. The gameplay doesn’t really change much from one game to the next, even with the various unlockable items in play (well, maybe with Stealth Camo…), but it’s largely fun and interesting enough to keep you playing for a while regardless.
Replayability Rating: 8/10
You’re offered three difficulty modes to play around with (two to start, and one which can be unlocked), so even the more hardcore players should be able to find a suitable challenge. Also, if characters who aren’t Big Boss kick the bucket, they may not be back for another round, so the game offers appropriate punishment for reckless play. MGS: PO tends to lend itself to a more “pick up and play quick”Â portable experience, however, and as a result, many times the game feels less challenging than its console brethren; it seems easier to hide and escape from pursuit, aborting a mission gets you out of tight spots, and so on. The game still offers a suitable challenge, but it’s less of one than one might expect, unfortunately. Spies can go about their business without fear of capture, random base camp raids aren’t an issue, and troops generally are with you for life once converted, which makes the game feel like less of a challenge than it ought. Casual players should be alright with it, mostly, but those who are masters of MGS speed runs or what have you will most likely tear through MGS: PO without much effort.
Balance Rating: 6/10
The collection elements, combined with the comic book exposition style, make MGS: PO feel a lot more original than it really is. MGS more or less pioneered the modern stealth game design element, so that’s hardly something new, and while the third person behind the back camera is a nice addition, MGS3 Subsistence did it first. Most of the originality comes from collecting and organizing your troops, which is admittedly pretty cool. The various party members one can collect and use, with their own individual benefits/flaws, also help to keep the game fresh and interesting, originality-wise. It’s still the same MGS experience, deep down, but it does enough to keep it different and exciting, even if you’re a veteran of the franchise.
Originality Rating: 6/10
The reasonably quick pacing combined with the interesting strategy elements make MGS: PO a surprisingly addictive game, even if you’re a veteran of the franchise. You can take on the game in small doses, whether you only have five minutes or five hours to play, and the rapid pacing keeps the game feeling fresh even as you get further into it. The strategy elements keep things interesting as well; capturing troops to add to your roster, managing your spies, medical and technical researchers, and building the best possible assault forces keeps things going even when interest in the game itself begins to wane. And whether you play online or just with friends, the multiplayer deathmatches are generally fast-paced and tense, which should keep you going even more. MGS: PO is one of the more addictive games on the PSP, and you could literally lose hours to “just one more mission”Â syndrome. If that doesn’t say it all, nothing will.
Addictiveness Rating: 8/10
9. APPEAL FACTOR
Oh, come on. It’s Metal Gear Solid. If game sales were rated like album sales, the individual games would all be multi-platinum. Most every title in the franchise has hit some sort of “Greatest Hits”Â marker or another, and the series practically sells itself. Unless you’re a die-hard MGS hater, you’re most likely on-board with MGS: PO in some form or fashion, and even non-PSP owners are probably looking to play this, okay? You don’t GET much more appealing than that, folks.
Appeal Rating: 9/10
It’s somewhat interesting that each time a Metal Gear game comes out, the formula seems to change from game to game. You wouldn’t think it would be easy to re-write the book on the genre, but Kojima and company seem to be able to handle time and again without much trouble. From debuting the genre in MGS to the complete change of character and the addition of first-person perspective and destructible environmental elements in MGS2 to the camouflage and “eat everything”Â elements of MGS3, the franchise is constantly evolving. And that’s not even including the perceived “nowhere to hide”Â implications of MGS4 and Metal Gear Acid as a franchise. In MGS: PO, the evolution has hit upon a change that really works well, and deserves to be spotlighted in future installments. As a PSP game, it’s an awesome piece of software that any fan of the franchise should check out. As an MGS title, it’s wholly deserving of the branding, and manages to deliver the sort of experience one would expect while presenting its own unique sense of style and concept. In short, it’s a worthy bearer of the standard, and here’s hoping we see something like this pop up again.
Miscellaneous Rating: 8/10
Overall Score: 7.5/10
Final Score: 7.5 (GOOD).
Short Attention Span Summary
Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is one of the best Metal Gear games of the lot, and one of the more entertaining PSP titles released this year. It’s not without its flaws, and it is ultimately another Metal Gear Solid title, which may turn some people off. Still, the game is designed fully with the portable platform in mind, and introduces enough new and interesting elements to interest both casual and serious MGS fans, as well as new fans. It’s not quite as fleshed out as it could be, but it is quite good, and well worth checking out.