Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: December 5, 2006
Before I start this review, I will give you an invaluable tip that Hideo Kojima quite possibly doesn't want you to know about. Ready?
At the title or pause screens, go to the Options menu. Scroll all the way down to "Control Scheme." Under "Crawling," change the setting from "Toggle Button to Crawl" to "Hold Button to Crawl."
That's it. Congratulations! You've just excised this game's single notable flaw, and made Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops one of the most fun games on the PSP.
I don't know what it is about that crawl toggle, but until I changed that setting, the game was all kinds of frustrating. Fumbling around with weaponry and first-person views and making frantic getaways is hard enough without your character suddenly shifting into a crouch or crawl because your finger happened to accidentally brush over the X button, either by instinct or by spaz reflex. It happens a lot more often than you think. Fortunately, once I changed this setting, the true fun factor of this new Metal Gear shines through like a crazy diamond.
Portable Ops is the welcome continuing story of Big Boss, which links the events of Snake Eater and the original Metal Gear. Finally, we get to see the major events that transformed Big Boss from tragic hero to leader of Outer Heaven. Without spoiling anything, I will say that it's classic Metal Gear storytelling fare, worthy of any of its console brethren… and therein lies the magic. It's a full-fledged Metal Gear, without any crazy "strategy" gimmicks… and yet it's still its own entity.
What makes Portable Ops so special is the fact that it's built, from the ground up, for the PSP. There are no artifacts that smell of any ported PS2 technology. Code is optimized, resulting in smooth framerates; the controls (outside of the aforementioned crawling) are smartly implemented and mapped; even the camera is on your side. In addition to this, as mentioned before, the spirit of the series is kept intact by way of story and gameplay mechanics. This means that, unlike other famous PS2 franchises that haven't made a gracious jump to portable (I'm looking at you, Grand Theft Auto, playing Portable Ops is like coming home.
Another thing Portable Ops gets oh, so right is the change-up in its principal gameplay concepts. In previous Metal Gear games, it was always made clear from the very start that you were trapped in a one-man sneaking mission, behind enemy lines. There would be no help, no way to survive except to run and hide should you be found out. Game Over screens would be frequent, and you would simply have to keep trying scenarios repeatedly until your skills helped you make it through. That's all well and good (this gamer has nothing against "practice makes perfect"), but it makes the changes made here no less refreshing. They keep the game from becoming "just another Metal Gear".
In Portable Ops, Big Boss and a young Roy Campbell realize that they are hopelessly outnumbered. However, they also know that morale amongst their soldiers is low, and thus decide to recruit those soldiers to their side. These soldiers will add special abilities to your squad, so it's imperative that you add them immediately, equip them well, and keep them alive. Once they're gone, they're gone forever. Fortunately, you've given the ability to restart the game's missions, which are in bite-sized form for portable play; another master design touch.
There are differing ways to recruit soldiers. The hard way is to choke them out using CQC, and then drag them back to a truck, or to a teammate hiding in a cardboard box somewhere on the field. The fun way is to use the PSP's built-in wireless or optional GPS capabilities, and download your own soldiers. Only one soldier can be obtained per connection, so the city (or town, village, what have you) has just become your own personal scavenger hunt. You're encouraged to seek out new wireless connections, for places to download new soldiers. The best part is you never know who you'll end up with next.
Outside of all of the great innovations, the game is the Metal Gear that you've come to know and love, with all of its sneaking gameplay intact. It's less forgiving than in the console versions, due in part to a "radar" that's pretty much a glorified sound detector than an actual radar. It still works wonders, but don't expect to know your surroundings like in Solid 1 and 2. (I miss all those high-tech benefits.) the other reason this is tougher than the older Metal Gears is that since the missions are smaller in this PSP iteration, the environments are as well. If you're found out, it's a matter of seconds until the backup soldiers are right on top of you, and you're running for your life. "No place to hide," indeed.
This is also unmistakably Metal Gear in terms of looks and sounds. The PSP disc has less space for media than a PS2 disc, so some compromises had to be made. There's less of that glorious David Hayter voice acting to go around this time, though it still shows up in the more pivotal story sequences. You'll definitely miss it during codec calls, though. Also, there's no full-motion video here; everything is done in the style of sparsely-animated storyboards a la the Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel. These scenes are much better done here than in the DGN, however, and convey action and emotion as well as they can.
Even without all of the crazy bells and whistles, the in-game graphics engine holds up well. It's somewhere in between Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2. There's no slowdown, a consistent framerate, and the camera is easy to manipulate. Said camera is now more like Subsistence's third-person setup than the traditional Metal Gear overhead. Purists will scoff (and even I do, at some points—I miss my wider field of vision), but on the whole it works well.
Like pretty much every Metal Gear since the original Solid, this one's a system-seller. There are many reasons to get a PSP—this is arguably the biggest. If you're a Metal Gear fan, then you have absolutely no choice in the matter. Just make sure you don't get into dangerous situations trying to find that perfect soldier download access point (and remember what I said about that crawling control option!) and you'll be just fine.
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