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Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
Score: 95%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Stealth/ Online/ Third Person Shooter

Graphics & Sound:
I can remember the excitement I had booting up the first MGS game on PlayStation. I can honestly say that the series hasn't excited me as much since then. Subsequent games had lots of neat features and the same professional polish we'd come to expect from Kojima's production house. Even though the games delivered on their promises, they just didn't have a magic quality. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is a bridge back to that great game we saw the first time around and the excitement we felt then. Chalk it up to having real stealth gameplay on the PSP from Kojima or maybe the incredible depth of this title. However you've felt about the games in between, if you were a fan of the first MGS. you owe it to yourself to grab a copy of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops immediately.

Portable Ops is a visual feast. The images you'll see throughout the game are constantly shifting to represent interaction with different characters. Different parts of the game have similar but slightly different visual styles. Portable Ops starts to feel like an entire platform for gaming rather than a single game. The visual design is extraordinary. The music and sound go one step further to create an immersive experience. Movies and transitions are incredibly well done with good voice talent.

Sound also plays a role in the updated radar system. I always wondered how the location of each enemy could be accounted for with such accuracy in the old system... In Portable Ops, you only get warning when there are sounds nearby and you get a meter showing the amount of noise you are making. In certain areas, you know that an enemy is nearby even when you can't see them, thanks to this radar system. It actually adds more realism and suspense to the game. Radio chatter and idle conversation from enemy guards plays a big role in Portable Ops; this was always a highlight of sneaking around but it's now an integral piece of gameplay.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is billed as the missing chapter between the first game and MGS 3: Snake Eater. If you didn't play either one, don't worry about it... you should still pick this up. You can catch up later on the story, but you won't need to know anything about the earlier games to enjoy Portable Ops. Snake, or Big Boss, is a character that doesn't need much preamble. You know from the first few moments of the game that he's a cold killer. Snake finds himself stranded alone with no apparent support in a South American base where Russian troops and members of FOX are dug in and up to no good. Once Snake makes a friendly contact, he is on his way to uncovering and foiling the FOX plot.

The amazing thing about Portable Ops is how it manages to use stealth action as the starting point rather than the destination. In many ways, this is a game with all the depth of an RPG. Snake doesn't try to do it all by himself this time around. Because the soldiers posted on the peninsula don't have any love for FOX, they can be convinced to turn against their new masters. Everyone has a grudge of some kind and there's political intrigue involved; what would any Metal Gear game be without some level of political intrigue? It used to be good enough to stun or kill enemies and then hide their bodies. Hiding bodies is still important but you can also do a snatch-and-grab on the soldiers you leave alive. These soldiers start out as prisoners and can be converted to your cause over time. Once a soldier decides to join the fight on your side, the fun begins.

Tactical stealth action with Snake alone was fun but imagine deploying four-man squads into battle. Imagine managing a network of spies to gather information. Imagine a medical group to help heal up wounded soldiers returning from battle. Imagine a group of technicians solely responsible for cooking up cool new weapons and gear. It all comes true in Portable Ops, my friends. The neatest thing is how well balanced the game remains after it sheds its "one man army" persona. Each captured soldier has some type of specialty that may come in handy during battle. The most basic is being able to drag stunned soldiers more quickly to the truck after Snake knocks them out. When you deploy team members in infiltration missions, the other members will hide in preset spots and wait. A sort of relay can take place with Snake knocking out a guard, calling in a team member and cooling out while the other guy does the heavy labor. Snake may be the baddest soldier around, but the guards you recruit have one distinct edge when it comes to infiltration. By wearing the same uniforms that enemy guards are wearing, you can infiltrate without having to do nearly as much sneaking.

The single player game is really just a prelude to all the cool things you can do in multiplayer modes. After building up your ranks to as many as 100 soldiers (including Snake) you can do some amazing things in multiplayer. The most innovative mode - almost a game in itself - involves assigning a team of four soldiers to fight "on the network." You don't control the battles, but instead choose the team carefully and give them weapons that will provide maximum advantage. You deploy the team, go to work or school, and come back later to retrieve them from the server. The spoils of battle may be new recruits or at least bounty in the form of points. If rankings are all you care about, you'll get your bragging rights here. Other online modes are the expected ad-hoc battles or game sharing and even full fledged online multiplayer. Unlike some other games we've played for PSP, the online arena was already hopping the minute I logged in and selected a Deathmatch. You take teams that you've gathered offline and test them in the online challenges. Some challenges will actually result in forfeiting a character though, so be careful.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is a well balanced, but unforgiving game. The CPU definitely experiences more "stupid moments" when the difficulty is set low, but your human opponents will have no such handicaps. Especially in the online play where ambitious players have been chipping away at their recruiting to find the best weapons and characters, you'll be toasted before you can spell F-O-X. Mastering all the game has to offer is probably the single greatest challenge. It's the right kind of challenge and not one you'll find repetitive in the least. My problem with some so-called "deep" games is that they present the same kind of task over and over again in order to progress. As much as I love RPGs, they do lack variety when power-leveling is required. Portable Ops is the kind of game that you'll play through once and keep playing to unlock all the extras. I remember this about the first title as well... it was probably the first game I beat and then immediately turned around again to play through a second and third time.

Game Mechanics:
Everything about the control scheme is configurable. The default key scheme has the (O) button for selecting options and the (X) button to cancel. Since this goes against convention, you may have an adjustment period. Even the sensitivity of your movement in the game can be tweaked. The default felt good to me, but it depends on what you're used to and where you are in your learning curve. Each player can make different choices. The load of menus and sub-menus is confusing at first, but there is good documentation both in and out of the game. At least one thing hasn't been implemented yet from a hardware standpoint: One of several ways to recruit soldiers apart from capturing them in the game is to use a GPS unit for the PSP that hasn't been released yet in the US. You can also fire the game up near a wireless access point and "scan" to find new recruits. You can go low-tech and enter a password or - coolest yet - you can put the game in sleep mode after selecting soldiers to trade with other players. If someone else passes within transmission distance and also has their version of Portable Ops set up to trade while sleeping, the trade happens automagically.

Some of these features are obviously in the "cool technology demo" category while the GPS is straight vaporware from where I'm sitting. You may not fall in love with all of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. The genius of this game is that you'll surely fall in love with at least one of its many modes and features. The original stealth action that we heaped praise on back in the day is still one of the best things you can do in this game. Having so much else to do makes this a must-buy for anyone with a hankering to "get their Snake on" again and party like it's 1998.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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