One of the biggest, most important franchises in videogames today, Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series commands the loyalty of a legion of fans and continues to set the standard in many ways for developers across the world. Squeezing all the trademark elements players expect onto a much smaller scale, Portable Ops manages to come close to the modern-style espionage action associated with gruff supersoldier Snake—but not without serious modifications to the formula.
Although I thought both Metal Gear Acid 1 and 2 on the PSP were successful in their own right, Portable Ops leaves behind their card-based, turn-based mechanics and brings the sort of real-time third-person action that has previously been seen on standard home consoles. It's a testament to Kojima Productions' ingenuity that they were able to re-create the flavor last sampled in the successful MGS: Snake Eater, but the traditional sneaking, variety of high-tech gadgets and close-quarters combat are unavoidably hampered by the PSP's technical limitations.
It comes as no surprise that camera problems abound, and the enduring curse of the Sony R&D team's decision to include only one analog stick lives on. Not being able to effectively scan Snake's surroundings is a constant irritation and seriously curtails the feeling of being a lethally proficient operative. That said, once I came to terms with this admittedly significant issue, I was surprised by how faithful the action is.
That's not to say that Portable Ops is strictly an action outing. In addition to hiding around corners and knocking out guards with a tranquilizer gun, a major part of the game requires spending time managing captured troops who are then enlisted in Snake's service...think of them as abducted human resources.
By incapacitating an enemy and then dragging him (or her) back to a magically ubiquitous transport truck, Snake can take advantage of the qualities possessed by each conscript. For example, some excel in medicine and can be used to increase the quality and frequency of acquired life-ups. People with cartography skills can enhance the detail on the maps Snake has of each level, and most importantly, soldiers can be used as the perfect camouflage.
At any time, the player can let Snake take five and directly control any of the captured troops. By actually being one of the enemy soldiers, nearly universal free reign is granted to walk straight into hostile territory and do what needs to be done without much fear of being spotted or setting off alarms. Snake may have had some nifty camouflage in his last adventure, but there's no better disguise than actually being someone else.
I give big points for creativity in this aspect. Management and use of these troops is something that Snake has never had before, and it absolutely lends the game its own unique flavor. The downside to this new twist is a practical one—it's utterly tedious to drag enemies back to the truck. Players who want to take full advantage of this system will likely want to spend some time replaying levels in order to headhunt the right skills, but regardless of the benefit, it should have been quicker and easier to accomplish. As it is, the pace is slowed immensely over the course of capturing dozens and dozens of people.
Since no Metal Gear review would be complete without touching on the story, I do give top marks for the hand-drawn cutscenes rendered by the phenomenal Ashley Wood. Thoroughly emotive, his electronically-enhanced illustrations are a perfect fit for Kojima's tone. (For more of Wood's work, the Metal Gear Digital Graphic Novel UMD comes highly recommended.)
Artistic value aside, I found the plot to be a little formulaic with the usual cast of super-powered oddballs and multiple double-crosses. Less energetic than I expected, Portable Ops stumbles on its dramatic legs and only manages to come together in the final acts. With so much resource management of the soldiers going on, it's too easy for the dynamic cutscenes to be nullified by shuffling menus.
However, devoted Gearheads who've been following the clandestine plot threads interwoven by Kojima's mad genius will definitely get more out of the experience than the average player. In an unusual move, Portable Ops is a direct sequel to Snake Eater despite the shift in formula as well as platform. There are a number of extremely juicy factual bits revealed about the Patriots, the formation of Outer Heaven, and the motivation behind Big Boss's shift from national hero to international terrorist. Although actually playing the game left me nonplussed at times, these nuggets were satisfying to chew on.
Despite being something of a mixed bag from any perspective, there's no doubting the fact that even a middling Metal Gear game easily outclasses most of its competition. This is doubly true for the PSP and its anemic library, and regardless of its flaws, I'd say that Portable Ops is probably one of the safest purchases for PSP gamers, easily trouncing most of the junk in the PSP section. Snake is definitely one of the most compelling characters in videogames today, and I'd take a slightly flawed adventure with him over another carbon-copy racing game or generic puzzler any day.