It took a while, but Metal Gear fans with PSPs finally have the game they've been clamoring for. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, a direct sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, ditches collectible cards and strategy in favor of straight-up stealth action. But while sneaking around and shooting guards has a familiar feel to it, Portable Ops isn't quite the epic you might be expecting.
Portable Ops feels like what you'd get if you took the Metal Gear Online game from MGS3: Subsistence, simplified it for the PSP and then built a single-player adventure around it. The game is mission-based and nonlinear, the missions themselves are short and to the point, the camera is fully controllable and the action is less complicated and faster-paced. Oh, and there's a huge emphasis on multiplayer deathmatches.
That might sound a little disappointing to series fans, but rest assured that Portable Ops is anything but shallow. It delivers all the story, character development and tense action fans have come to expect from Metal Gear. And as an experience tailored to the PSP, it works beautifully, packing in more features than perhaps any other handheld game to date.
Portable Ops opens in the mid-1970s, years after the events of Snake Eater. Pulled forcibly out of retirement - this time by the bad guys - Naked Snake (aka Big Boss) finds himself stuck on a remote Colombian peninsula controlled by a madman named Gene. Gene has big ideas, and he's plotting to hold the planet hostage with a walking, nuke-equipped tank called - you guessed it - Metal Gear.
Snake escapes Gene's clutches with the help of a wounded Green Beret named Roy Campbell, but two men aren't enough to stop the army of American and Soviet turncoats Gene controls. So instead of focusing on things like complicated puzzles, traps or gadgets, Portable Ops tasks you with building and managing your own army, one soldier at a time.
So forget about the simple joys of snapping necks. To recruit an army, you'll need to use a little restraint - along with Snake's tranquilizer pistol, his patented Close-Quarters Combat skills and Roy's waiting truck - and kidnap your enemies instead of killing them. The good news is that you can recruit hundreds of troops this way, and everyone you see - from grunts and officers to politicians and doctors - is fair game. Even the game's formidable bosses will join you, provided you defeat them non-lethally, and you'll even get an alternate cutscene for your trouble.
You'll need their diverse talents, too, as your troops will be used to assemble four "sneaking" squads (which you'll actually take into missions), as well as a medical team and a tech team to produce medicines and new gadgets. You'll also be able to send your converts into mission areas as spies, at which point they'll steal ammo, feed you information or otherwise sabotage the enemy.
Each soldier's skills also come into play during missions. Some might be really good at hand-to-hand takedowns, while others will be able to drag unconscious enemies back to the truck faster. And if you send in guys who are wearing the right uniform, they can usually run around unnoticed, which makes things much easier, so long as they act normal.
Camouflage aside, you'll have a much easier time sending Snake into battle with three soldiers to watch his back. You can switch between these guys on the fly, with the inactive characters safely hidden in strategically placed cardboard boxes. Because each character can only carry four items at once, there's a strategic element to it, and you'll get more out of your troops if you equip them with different weapons and gadgets that play to their strengths.
If your recruits aren't good enough for you, well, here's where Portable Ops starts to go all Pokemon. Using an ad-hoc or infrastructure connection, you can hook up with other players and trade your comrades for theirs, pit them against each other in deathmatches or even scan wireless networks to create random characters. You can even send a squad out to roam the Internet and capture soldiers who've been sent out to do the same.
As for the multiplayer itself, up to six players can compete in deathmatches, Capture matches (won by the player who holds onto a croaking frog the longest) or team-based versions of either. You can use any of the characters, weapons and gadgets you've collected, but be forewarned - if you choose the Real Battle option, you'll lose them for good once they're killed. Of course, if you win, you'll recruit your opponents' "dead" troops, so it can be worth the risk.
Aside from being a cool new entry in the Metal Gear saga, Portable Ops is one of the only games that's really tailored to all of the PSP's unique strengths. The controls work surprisingly well, the action doesn't feel like a pared-down console game and even the loading goes quickly. Add familiar characters, sweet visuals, some excellent voice acting and animated cutscenes by comic artist Ashley Wood, and this should keep fans happy until MGS4 hits.