It wasn’t long ago that industry analysts were lauding the PSP as the forthcoming savior of portable media – and since then, in the wake of poor titles and marketing snafus, Sony has let their golden boy lose footing to the mighty specter of the Nintendo DS, looming ever presently over the gaming landscape, destroying all who attempt to scale its ivory tower. But somewhere, Hideo Kojima was plotting a game that could expose the brilliant side of the PSP, one that might give a kick in the butt to the little black system that could.
The primary criticism of the PSP in recent months has been the direction in which Sony had been steering the platform, namely, directly into the proverbial iceberg of multimedia functionality. While they were busy turning the PSP into the multi-threat, focusing on extraneous functionalities and attracting the audience that focuses on nanobits and jiggapixels, Nintendo was busy cranking out great games that had refreshing innovation to boot. The PSP could slice your bread to any thickness you desire; the DS would bake you a cake. So it came as a shock when Hideo Kojima – the very developer de jour that took free roaming camera from his other games due to personal bouts of motion sickness – delivered one of the more innovative portable experiences to date, eclipsing even some of the most unique titles on Nintendo’s dual screened handheld. That game was MGS: Portable Ops.
The gist of the Metal Gear Solid games has been pretty reliable for most of the series iterations – sneaking, close quarters combat, bouts of first person gunplay, and a dash of plot, with a sprinkling of grade-A What-The-F*** thrown in for good measure. If you’re new to the series, you’ll find plenty to like in the formula, and if you’re a vet, you’ll like the way that the portable version of the beloved franchise has stayed true to its roots.
For those of you who need a refresher, it’s a stealth game at heart, so good ol’ fashioned sneakery is par for the course; however, Snake is not your daddy’s Sam Fisher. The game takes place just after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3, as Snake builds a personal army while uncovering the malicious doings of the mysterious soldier Gene as he increases his vice-like grip on the San Heironymo Peninsula, attempting to build a soldier nation. And, of course, something is going down with the mobile nuke launcher we all know and love so much, Metal Gear. And, being the wild and crazy 70s, you can forego the drugs and disco for pure firepower – this is one stealth game where, if you play your cards right, you can plow through the enemy just by slinging more hot lead than is being slung back at you. Auto Aim works well enough if you just want to let loose with the peacemakers, but for precision shots, you want to slip into first person mode. However, a shooter this is not – if all you want to do is blow crap to kingdom come, best invest in Syphon Filter. The cleanest, most efficient way to get things done is Snake’s forte – stealth. Plus, it makes you feel like a total badass when you get some poor schmuck in a chokehold.
While slinking through levels, as in other Metal Gear games, the goal is not to be detected so as not to attract more attention than you can handle – you still need to make use of cover, hiding spots, and the ubiquitous cardboard box. But what separates this game from other Metal Gear games is the squad system.
Yes, ye of little faith, a stealth game actually managed to pull off squad-based gameplay with pinpoint precision. As Snake, you will be building an army of soldiers to assist you in your fight across the peninsula – what this entails is kidnapping soldiers from different stages. This means knocking them out and escorting them by whatever means back to your truck for transport, and in a few days, they become allies. From here, you can assign them to a number of tasks – each soldier has an individual bar of stats, showing their proficiency in a number of areas, such as automatic weapons, sniping, medicine, etc. Soldiers with good med rankings would do well in your med unit, where they can boost in-game health and stamina recovery or develop medical equipment. Soldiers with high tech ranking would do well in the R&D sector, where they can help develop new weapons and gadgets. Some soldiers even have special titles, such as Elite Engineer or Nutritionist, which may boost their abilities, such as increasing weapons development, or allowing them to show you an entire level map when placed in your Spy unit, along with procuring valuable information they overhear in the area you’ve placed them, giving you access to new missions and info. Of course, you can also put them in your sneaking unit, so you can actually use them to sneak through the levels and subdue/kidnap enemies. Soldiers who look like your character will let him pass by unnoticed, so a level with a lot of commandos, with a commando as your playable character, would be as simple as walking from point A to point B (though your cover may be blown if a different style soldier sees you, or you are seen sneaking or aiming your gun). Plus, it’s pretty funny to see a wiry doctor in a lab coat knock out a burly mercenary with an assault rifle.
Of course, if you have any sense of consequence or passion for game characters, this may throw you for a loop. For the record, I happen to be the most OCD gamer to ever play a stealth game – so, just like my emotional guilt stemming from my brief flirt with Nintendogs, I really felt the weight of killing a soldier in a level. The game really goes out of its way to portray the soldiers you fight as humans beings, with backgrounds and lives of their own – so, in the emotional sense, you may feel bad for plugging a potential comrade in the head with a 9mm, and worse yet, if you play like me, you may begin to wonder if maybe, just maybe, that soldier you just killed happened to be the engineer or medic that you need to round out your squad, or maybe he was carrying a rare item. Dammit, I just couldn’t bring myself to kill the little fellas – most of the time, I ended up kidnapping an entire level’s worth of soldiers for several areas in a row. Though it is more of a personal preference, beware of the subtle tricks your mind can play. Friends of mine who played the game killed most of the soldier they encountered – on my first play-through, I didn’t execute a single soldier.
The squad tactics come into play when you have a number of people in your squad – you can have several squads assembled at once, each with four people, though the squad with Snake is the one you deploy within the game. Once you are in the level, you are free to switch between your members at a whim – if there is a hiding spot nearby, your current character will don a cardboard box to avoid detection, and you can switch to a different member. This makes for some interesting tactics, mostly involving leapfrogging characters across the stages using hiding spots, and setting characters up for kidnappings, as you have the option of dragging a captive over to a hidden comrade and calling the rescue frequency on your codec instead of lugging him all the way back to the truck. You can also use the character swap system for assault – for instance, one character can snipe a soldier with a tranq, and you can then switch to a nearby soldier with a 2x dragging speed bonus to transfer the body.
But, of course, what would Metal Gear Solid be if it didn’t lavish the player with fan service? Kojima sure as hell didn’t skimp on the essentials – pretty much anyone who survived the last game is playable. Yes, that includes Eva, Sokolov, Ocelot, Sigint, and what the hell, let’s throw in some Raikov for good measure. There’s a decent selection of new characters, too – you can even play as the villains if you play your cards right. All you need to do is fulfill certain objectives – some obvious, some that took the MGS community a good brain-wrack to unlock.
But enough with the standard stuff – what really makes the game shine is Kojima’s innovation, one that cannot be understated in terms of pure brilliance. You can use the PSP at any hotspot, whether or not you have the access key, to spawn a soldier unique to that particular address – it just puts it through an algorithm and spits out a soldier. This opens up an entirely new chapter in portable gaming – it may compel you to go on walking tours of your neighborhood, stopping at houses to leech soldiers off their wireless networks. But you have to work for it – you can use the circle button to boost a bar up to the point where you can successfully nab the unique soldier, and the bar gets stronger as the network signal increases. It’s kind of like ghost hunting, except with more mercenaries and fewer spooky children singing nursery rhymes to compensate for overacting starlets. You may whip out the PSP when you go for a morning coffee, or even while at the workplace – hotspots are practically everywhere nowadays, from ad-hoc networks to full-blown infrastructures, so no matter where you are, you’re bound to find something cool. Think of it as a more accessible form of geocaching that adds several layers of fun to the experience, especially when you get to compare soldiers and spots with friends, or even go out soldier-hunting together. No matter where you are, as long as there happened to be a series of tubes for you to siphon from, you have something new to do.
The GPS download feature is usable only with the PSP GPS receiver, which happens to be unavailable in North America right now, so we’ll have to wait and see about that.
The controls actually translated fantastically to the PSP – then again, the series operated for the longest time with a restrictive camera setup. Thankfully, the camera is fully movable, controlled via the d-pad, though you can always use the L trigger to center the camera and use auto-aim. Past that, the controls are relatively simple – the analog nub makes you run, the R trigger puts you into first person mode for more accurate gunplay, and the triangle button allows you to either hug walls or sneak up on enemies. The circle button equips/changes weapons, and the square button is used for attacks and gunplay. The only problem is with the X button – lying down and kneeling are both controlled by it, and getting up from a prone position takes more time than it should. CQC, though, is as fun as ever. Just go in bare knuckle and hold square to grapple, and from there, you can execute a number of maneuvers. Choke an enemy from behind, interrogate them for info, throw them to the ground, or even let them down gently and hold them at gunpoint. Just master the maneuvers, and you can do anything.
What do you expect from MGS? Better than Syphon Filter, on par with Monster Hunter, these graphics are gorgeous. Only a discerning eye can spot the occasional jaggy or muddy texture – these look almost as good as the console games. The real crowning achievement, of course, is during the inevitable Metal Gear boss fight, the point in which every MGS game stuns, but the overall impression is fantastic.
Cutscenes, instead of the full 3D we saw in previous games, are now told in the 2D comic style by Ashley Wood that we saw in the Digital Graphic Novel. Believe it or not, it can be preferable to the 3D. The artistry and talent put into each and every panel is readily apparent, and the style, including the comic book sound effects, compliments the story and scenes rather nicely. If I had the choice, I would probably stick with the new 2D style, if only for the originality.
What would MGS be without cheesy voice acting? Everyone from Snake Eater reprises his or her role, meaning top-notch/laughable voice acting with crisp quality to boot. SFX are the standard fare – nothing special, nothing bad. The music, as expected, is just as good as the console games, moody enough for the scene, but evocative enough for the emotion.
Multiplayer in PO is relatively similar to that of Subsistence. You can jump online for the standard deathmatch, and online performance trickles over into your game. Winning means capturing characters, so if you lose an online match, be prepared to kiss a character goodbye. Of course, if you’d rather keep your characters, you can go online with all story-relevant characters, but the online community frowns upon this. You can also trade characters, and even deploy a team online to fight on their own. Just wait the standard two to three business days, and when you retrieve your squad, they will likely have found another squad while roaming the Internet. Based on the battle report, you might come back short a character, or your squad might have captured a player. It’s a great way to get some multiplayer in for the gamer who doesn’t have time for extended online sessions. Not as rewarding as, say, Monster Hunter, nor as robust as Syphon Filter, but still a ton of fun if you have a wireless network.
It’s Metal Gear on the PSP. What more do I need to say? Go get it, you won’t be disappointed.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
As good as the best of ‘em, this game is graphically superior to almost every other portable game.
Great quality and trademark voice acting, but some themes can get monotonous after a while.
The same kind of stealth game payoff you want, plus some great combat to boot.
Try not to get caught up in the WiFi recruitment. I dare you.