Cold blooded, but we think it's hot.
The arrangements were made. The flowers were ordered, black shirts and black ties were ironed and a little tiny hole was dug in the GR back lot for our starving friend, the Sony PSP. We were all ready to bury the little guy, with lots of crying and stiff mixed drinks, when Solid Snake crawled out of one of the giant sized GR air ducts and performed a Christmas miracle – he healed our PSP, and thanks to his jungle yuletide voodoo, the little guy is better than new.
We still had our cocktails, of course. But instead of pouring one out for our little buddy who didn’t make it, we drank to the PSP’s newfound health and its cure, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
. A direct sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
, Portable Ops
isn’t just the Metal Gear we always wanted for our PSPs (a port of Metal Gear Solid
), it’s a brand new, fully operational super tank of a video game, complete with an addictive single player campaign, excellent online, ad-hoc and game sharing features, and a sweet collection system that ties everything together. This snake is truly solid.
The story picks up a few years after Snake Eater
. When the Big Boss (aka Snake) leaves Foxhound, some bad psychic types overrun a Colombian military compound with the idea of building a Metal Gear to, of course, take over the world. They wind up kidnapping Snake, ostensibly to extract information, but with the help of Roy Campbell (!!!), our hero slithers through a crack and escapes.
But instead of crawling back to his hole, Snake rescues Campbell and together they devise a plan to sabotage Foxhound’s scary new leader and save the world from a nuclear holocaust. Their scheme involves kidnapping enemy soldiers and brainwashing them via Snake’s confusing rants about “Being loyal to loyalty.”
That’s right, during any mission you can knock out enemies and drag them back to Campbell’s truck, which is always parked in an out of the way corner of your current stage. At that point they are considered ‘Captured.’ Run a couple more missions, and your prisoners will inevitably join the cause.
From here you have lots of options, which make up the tactical half of the game. When you aren’t running a mission, you’re taken to your command menu. It’s a little bit abstract, so think of it as a tactical map. Here, you can see every area in the military compound you’ve accessed, and every soldier you’ve converted. By sending your spies (converted soldiers) to each area of the map, they’ll blend in with the regular soldiers and do cool stuff like steal weapons and ammo, which is automatically added to a sort of guns and ammo bank, as well as write reports about vulnerabilities and super weapons they think might be hidden on the premises. This is all completely passive. You don’t control spies, you just plant them in areas and they do nice things for you.
Of course, not every enemy you capture is meant to be a spy. If you convert doctors and plant them in levels, your health bar will replenish faster in that particular level. If you capture someone who happens to be a technician, you can put them in a think tank, and they will passively start inventing stuff, like cardboard boxes
(this takes them a surprisingly long time).
On top of those normal units, there is a whole host of special characters you can either capture and convert, or unlock, including Eva and Ocelot. Not only can you send any captured unit to an area for passive benefits, you can also put them in Snake’s team, and actually use them to run missions.
Here’s how it works: From the tactical screen, you put up to three captured people on Snake’s team, then you attempt a mission. Go figure. Once inside, you can switch from Snake to any of the three other units. If the unit you switch to is a soldier, you’ll be able to freely run around most levels without causing alarm, as long as you don’t do anything that looks too suspicious.
In practice, this system is outstanding. Not only are the captured units useable in the game’s online modes, they also give you the feeling that you really are running some kind of rebellion. For example, at one point you have to dynamite several targets in an attempt to cause a diversion. In other Metal Gear
games, you would sneak around, break necks and bomb the targets. Here, you can switch to a soldier, walk right up to your target, plant some TNT when no one is looking, get clear and detonate. It’s awesome, you feel like Tyler Durden
in Fight Club, destroying a society from the inside.
Most soldiers have skills that make them useful in some way or another. The delivery man skill, for instance, lets a soldier instantly teleport any item he picks up straight to your bank. There are tons of these skills and advantages, and each makes acquiring new soldiers a little bit like Christmas. Once you assign your new recruits to spying, researching or Snake’s team, you’re ready to go on another mission.
In most cases there will be one mission to specifically advance the plot, although you can go to any area at any time to do stuff like search for weapons and kidnap soldiers. The controls are essentially the same as every other Metal Gear Solid. You crawl, sneak, lean against walls, and choke enemies just like always. The camera follows Snake from a third person perspective, and can be manipulated with the D pad. This isn’t as good as two analog sticks, but it works, especially since a tap of the L button will re-center your view.
The missions may be bite sized, but the campaign itself is not. It should take at least ten hours to play through the first time, and is easily worth playing again to capture special units. You’ll want to do this, because you can take your captured units and weapons into battle online.
The online versus content is similar to what we saw in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence
. The big difference is that you can play matches with your captured units on the line. If you kill someone’s medic, he’s yours. If a player kills your nifty ninja guy, you just lost him. It’s a neat reward system, although you usually just wind up losing and gaining generic soldiers.
You can also play ad-hoc versus matches, or game share for a simple death match with only one copy of the game. On top of that, you’ll occasionally unlock secret characters by searching for wireless hotspots.
So let’s recap: We have a fully fleshed out single player campaign with a fascinating new rebellion system, awesome characters, and great gameplay, plus robust online versus content, ad hoc versus and game sharing, plus you can trade captured units with your friends wirelessly. This is the best PSP game yet.
But it still isn’t perfect. For instance, as much as we love managing our rebellion, actually being able to see a map of the base would make much more sense than working entirely through menus. It’s also weird that, when you’re playing a soldier, enemy troops won’t look twice if they see you running. But if they hear you run, they’ll freak out. You can walk to keep them from hearing you run, but if they see you walking, they’ll also freak out. It’s kind of a Catch-22, and leads to some unnecessary alert timers. The rest of the issues are old Metal Gear problems like getting stuck while crawling, or the terrible melee combat system.
There’s nothing wrong, though, with Portable Ops’
visuals. The cut scenes are told in the slick graphical novel style of Konami’s recent PSP comics, and the game itself looks fine, while benefiting from some occasional visual flourishes. These are usually saved for big explosions and boss fights (which are, of course, awesome and hard), giving the game visual spice where it counts.
The music and sound effects are the same ones you’ve been hearing in Metal Gear games for years, and the voice acting during the game’s many cut scenes is superb. So it’s too bad that most of the normal dialog during radio transmissions must be read as text. The writing is still fine, but the voice acting is so good, you’ll wish it covered the whole game.
Speaking of which, I haven’t even begun to cover everything, though I suspect this is already too much information. But know this: Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is a must have, and the latest in a strong 2006 lineup for the PSP. If you see this snake in the wild, by all means, pick it up.