The previous Metal Gear Solid games for the PSP required some turn-based gameplay that I always found it difficult to get into. So when I found out that MGS: Portable Ops would be returning to the stealth-and-shoot gameplay traditionally seen in the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 editions, I was relieved. At the same time, I was concerned about how this style of gameplay would translate into portable gaming. Fortunately enough, MGS: Portable Ops comes through as a remarkably enjoyable title and offers up a new experience on the PSP.
The story takes place a little while after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3. Snake has left Foxhound, but apparently his past has caught up with him. Beaten and taken prisoner, he quickly escapes (because no jail can hold Snake), and has to clear his name in global events, filling in the events between MGS3 and the original Metal Gear in the process. The rest of the story is, as typical with a MGS game, filled with subplots, betrayals, hidden agendas and military backstabbing.
Most of the story takes a bit of a backseat to the gameplay this time around, however. The majority of the game plays like other MGS games: you sneak around, trying to stay quiet and eliminate your enemies without being seen. The game's controls feel really awkward, unfortunately. There're a few options in terms of what buttons control the camera, your movement, and your actions, but they all feel unwieldy. The most notable problem is the analog nub, which makes the movement clunky (the control pad is even worse). The camera can often be a problem as well, as controlling it is hard to do at the same time as moving. It can also become very problematic in close quarters, and contributes heavily to being caught and shot at.
The game is divided into various levels around the peninsula where Snake has been captured. After you complete the objective for a particular level, you're brought back to the mission screen, where you're given the option to return to any level you've completed previously, to complete extra objectives or find new allies. This time around, Snake doesn't work alone. Instead, after a brief introduction to the game, you'll be given the option to recruit your enemies by knocking them out and dragging them back to the truck that you entered the level in. These new recruits come with a variety of statistics detailing how good they are with a various weapons, and some come with special abilities, like the ability to drag bodies quicker or sneak faster.
The way that the game is divided into separate levels has its pros and cons. For one, it makes the game a lot more suited to a portable system, since you can spend a few minutes just running into a level to recruit a soldier or two. You can restart or abort levels at any time, which makes things a lot easier - a little too easy, perhaps. When you can avoid getting shot at just by restarting the stage, things feel a little too simple for an MGS game. Still, the restarts are recorded, so at the end of the game, if you do it too often, you'll be looking at a rating of 'Rabbit'. So it's really up to you.
With your new recruits, you're able to add them either to the sneaking unit, where you can control them directly (though one at a time), or add them to a few other units in your squad: the medic unit's skill level determines how much health and stamina is recovered between each mission, the tech unit develops new weapons and tools, and the spy unit reveals items and assigns new missions for the various levels. There's some tactic in where you place your units, since you want to fill the ranks of each unit with the soldiers that do the job best.
The graphics are a mixed bag. On one hand, the level of detail for the characters and enemies is excellent, allowing you to see every scar on Snake's face or see the eyes of your victims through a sniper scope. On the other hand, the detail for the rest of the level - buildings, walls, ground, and so forth - is extremely lacking in color and detail. In fact, the levels themselves are fairly dull, consisting mostly of just square buildings and angles, with brown and gray as the major palette.
One of the most striking things about the way the game is presented is the art in the cutscenes. The conversations and action are represented in a gritty comic-book style that's unique to the series. These cutscenes are backed up with excellent voice acting, though that's the only place you'll hear it, since voice acting is no where else to be found in the game.
Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is definitely a solid addition to the MGS series. The new twist on having allies to play as introduces a fair amount of replay value into the game (as there are secret characters to find), and the ability to obtain missions for each of the levels means you'll be able to return to them again and again if you want to, though it's possible just to move forward in the story. While the controls suffer due to the hardware (aiming in first-person mode, for example), the rest of the game still delivers an enjoyable experience. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is definitely worth a look.