Generally speaking, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck; it's probably a duck. Well, here's another one for you: If it looks like a Metal Gear game, sounds like a Metal Gear game and feels like a Metal Gear game; it could very well be the biggest departure from an established franchise the gaming world has ever seen. And yes, many fans weren't sure what to make of Metal Gear Acid when it was announced; to think that the first Metal Gear game on the PSP would be, gasp, a card game of all things. Well, history has told the tale and MGA turns out to be one of the best strategy games ever created.
It may be slightly off-putting at first simply because the games looks so much like the traditional Metal Gear we're used to; seeing Solid Snake in a room filled with Gnome Soldiers, you'd expect to take out your SOCOM and plug away. Now, you see the cards begin to line up at the bottom of the screen and realize this is going to be different. Yes, it's different, but as a big fan of Metal Gear games, it's surprisingly natural none-the-less once you make the simple concession that you're playing a strategy game and not a stealth-based action game. Yes, there's still a life gauge, stealth action, cameras to take out, grenades to lob around, but all in a very ordered and organized context.
You start out with a deck of cards of which 6 will be used as your playing cards. Each card is immediately recognizable to Metal Gear fans as lore from a previous game. Each card, depending on its action, also has a cost attached to it. A simple movement card has a relatively low cost in comparison to most weapon cards or those that allow you to generally wreak havoc on a level. The game is a turned-based affair where order of play is based on cost. During your turn, you will generally (as Snake) play 2 cards. The cost of these are added and compared to the other characters populating the level. As time passes, cost goes down and eventually, you will have the lowest cost again and be able to play. The game feels a little like a chess match where you not only have to manage (and account) for your actions, but the time interval until you'll be able to play again (and what can happen to you during that time).
Setting itself apart from any other card-based game out there, MGA is rendered in full three dimensional glory and looks exactly like Metal Gear Solid did on the console. You still have to sneak around taking out (or avoiding) guards and cameras, avoid the dreaded Alert/Evasion/Caution phase and make it to the goal of each stage. During the intermission between levels you'll also get to purchase new cards to build your deck with points earned based on your performance. This is incentive enough to play through each level again and again, trying to get a better time, lower detection score, etc. A better deck will not only benefit you in single player mode, but also in Ad Hoc multiplayer battles which are basic, but still a fun waste of time.
No Metal Gear game would be complete without a confusing, convoluted, yet all consuming plot to go along with it. It should be noted that the Acid universe seems to exist in parallel with the Solid universe and while certain familiarities are shared between the two, Snake is not exactly the same man that we've come to know. This time around, the story involves a highjacked airplane with a government hopeful aboard, psychic terrorists and also the obligatory Metal Gear, amnesia and mistaken identity. Needless to say, while the story has its fair share of eye rolling moments, been-there-done-that instances and cryptic plot devices, it still feels like a Metal Gear story and any fan will be more than pleased with it. The story is generally advanced through lengthy cutscenes involving static pictures with text over the in-game background. While a bit more animation or picture poses would have been nice, the story still remains engaging and full of surprises. While familiar faces return, we get to meet a few new ones like Alice, the psychic advisor and Teliko Friedman, the spunky HRT Special Forces Soldier who becomes playable alongside Snake. Teliko mostly uses equipped weapons and has the ability to play 3 cards per turn.
Graphically, fans already know what to expect; many shades of grey, blue and black. Snake still looks the same, as to the Gnome soldiers, and the environments are wonderfully detailed and rendered in full 3D. The game also loads quickly and once in a level, things progress without a hitch. The only downfall to MGA is its sometimes awkward camera which sometimes defaults to odd angles. Yes, the camera angles can be rotated 360 degrees and the free-camera allows you to pan around and the top-down view is really useful, but it's still possible to miss a guard or a trap from time to time because of odd angles. In the audio department, the same general rule applies; this feels and sounds like a typical MG game. Past themes come back and familiar sound clips are used to great effect. While there is no voice acting, it is hardly missed.
In the end, while Metal Gear Acid is an amazing title which strategy fans and hardcore MG addicts will appreciate and love, it cannot be recommended to everyone. This is a niche title that is perfectly suited for the handheld console, but which may be too slowly paced and strategic for most - add to that the initial learning curve of the card system. But those who give it a chance will see that it is a deep strategy game that gets better the more you play it. Few games, especially on handheld (where this should always be the case), have a much depth or lasting appeal. An amazing title.