Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Review

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Playing through the Metal Gear games in release order has been quite the journey so far. I’m primarily sticking to the games that are canon. However, I did play through The Twin Snakes which is not considered canon even though it’s a remake of a canon game. Then there’s Portable Ops. I almost didn’t play it. It released after Metal Gear Solid 3 and I was initially under the impression that it’s not canon. Plus, I’ve already been frustrated with the controls of the previous games and I could only imagine how they would be on PSP. A friend of mine suggested I skip it and jump right into Metal Gear Solid 4. And I almost did but I wanted to be sure it wasn’t canon first. So to confirm, I did some research and the results initially left me confused. It’s placement in the series canon is still often debated. Portable Ops was not written or directed by series creator Hideo Kojima who was leading the development of Metal Gear Solid 4 at the time. In the end, my research led me to the discovery that apparently only parts of Portable Ops are canon. Some parts are canon and other parts are not. I’ve never heard of such a thing before but that seems to be the case and that’s what cemented my decision to play it.

Developed by Kojima Productions and published by Konami, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was released for PlayStation Portable in December, 2006. Portable Ops does deviate from the typical series formula and includes some new stuff including recruiting soldiers and squad management. From what I understand, despite lacking Hideo Kojima’s direction, he did come up with the recruitment idea. In 2007, a standalone expansion was released called Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Plus. It expands some of the mechanics, includes some new content, and allows the player to transfer their squad from the base game. However, it lacks a campaign but does include an Infinity Mission mode which consists of randomly generated stages. Due to the lack of a campaign in Portable Ops Plus, this review will only focus on the base game. I played Portable Ops using the PPSSPP emulator which allowed me to play with a Series X controller and map the camera controls to a second stick. Thank fuck for that.

Set in 1970, six years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 3, the FOX unit went rogue after a member named Gene became the unit’s new squad commander. This results in Major Zero being arrested and Snake being accused of treason. Snake is eventually captured and imprisoned on a Peninsula in Colombia. After he escapes with fellow prisoner Roy Campbell, he sets out on a mission to apprehend Gene, the leader of the rogue unit, who plans to establish a new nation called “Army’s Heaven” and launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. And to make things more complicated, he’s convinced Soviet soldiers stationed at the Peninsula to join his side. Since Gene won’t be so easy to apprehend, Snake must persuade soldiers to join his ranks and cripple Gene’s operation

Overall, I thought the story was pretty good but I don’t think it’s presented as well as the previous tales. The cut scenes are presented in comic style artwork and lack the cinematic touch and direction of series creator Hideo Kojima. Voice acting is present in cut scenes but other interactions are presented in text form only. Despite lacking the cinematic charm the series is known for, Portable Ops is still a story-driven experience and the story does come with its share of exposition dumps and some cheesy dialogue here and there in typical Metal Gear fashion.

Portable Ops does come with its share of problems but in the end, I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I found the new mechanics introduced here to be very cool despite some glaring issues but before I dig into the nitty gritty, I’ll quickly go over some of these issues. The controls are still cumbersome and more so if you play on the actual hardware, many locations are bland and uninteresting, the gameplay can get repetitive, and some of the mechanics are tedious.

If you’ve played the previous games, you should be able to jump into this pretty easily as the series core mechanics are relatively unchanged. The controls should be familiar which also means cumbersome, at least to me, but Portable Ops does include the better camera introduced in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence which is great. However, the PSP’s lack of a second stick or nub means you’ll have to rely on other ways to control the camera like the d-pad or face buttons for example. And this is the primary reason why I played the game via an emulator. As I mentioned before, I played with a Series X controller and was able to map the camera controls to the second stick. Portable Ops does include a sound indicator on the HUD which basically tells you what direction enemies are located and how close to you they are and I found that it does prove to be quite helpful.

The biggest new thing in Portable Ops is the squad stuff. You can recruit soldiers to join your squad or what I’ll call army, assign them to different units and manage their equipment. Standard soldiers recruited from one of the many locations in the game can die permanently but unique characters cannot and these are characters you can recruit after meeting certain requirements or by entering passwords. Portable Ops does come with an online component which I did not get to try but from what I understand, your performance online can have an affect on single player and vice versa.

The stealth and alert systems basically work like they did before but now you go on missions with a unit consisting of multiple soldiers and that means you can play as and switch between any soldier or member of the unit. When you switch members, your current member will hide in a box somewhere in the environment and you must be near a “hiding place” to do this. Since your sneaking unit will consist of recruited soldiers, they can usually blend in and freely navigate around the environments without drawing negative attention which is nice. However, any enemies that are a different character model than your character can easily detect that you’re a threat which I found to be annoying after a while, and in some cases it just doesn’t make sense.

Recruiting soldiers is tedious. The dragging, specifically. You must knock an enemy out and either drag them to the truck to capture them or drag them to a box hiding another member of your unit and then use the radio to capture them. Once a soldier is captured, they are imprisoned until they can be convinced to join which may take multiple days and you can wait or skip up to three days in between missions which also gives soldiers time to rest and heal. Soldiers can come with different “careers” and classes or in other words special abilities, one of which is the ability to drag soldiers faster. But it’s still a tedious task. It appears dragging them to boxes is supposed to be the faster and more convenient way to do it but that means you will have to hide members in different parts of the environment since they’re all hidden near the truck at the start of a mission.

Stamina returns and drains way too fast in my opinion. Soldiers do come with different amounts of stamina and if you spend too much time moving around or doing anything, really, you’ll drain through a lot of stamina. The survival mechanics introduced in Metal Gear Solid 3 do not return but you can eat things like rations to replenish stamina. Stamina also replenishes over the course of days so you may find yourself swapping out soldiers often until you can build up a Medical unit which can improve stamina recovery significantly. As mentioned before, many soldiers come with careers and abilities. You can place soldiers in different units and the level of certain units will determine what items they can develop. Sneaking units are the soldiers you bring with you on missions. Soldiers in the Spy units are deployed to locations and will procure things like ammo and report back with intel. The Medical unit will develop medical equipment and certain soldiers placed in this unit can increase your stamina recovery. The Tech unit will develop new battlefield equipment and certain soldiers placed in this unit can increase your ammo capacity.

Despite the tedious recruitment dragging thing, I really enjoy the concept of essentially building up an army and having soldiers accomplish tasks behind-the-scenes. I enjoyed collecting soldiers and managing them to an extent. You can swap out what weapons and items they carry and the intel you receive from your Spy units will often include the locations of new weapons that you can collect. Unfortunately, each soldier can only carry four items which is somewhat annoying but I guess it’s supposed to add a strategic element to the game. This means if you come across a new item, you may have to drop something to retrieve it. Some soldiers are “deliverymen” which means they can instantly transfer items they find in the environment to the truck but I honestly feel this should be a standard feature.

Before starting a mission, it’s wise to think about what soldiers you want to bring with you and what they’re carrying. So having a variety of different soldiers in your sneaking units is usually ideal. However, you won’t always know what to expect on your first visit to a location which often makes it difficult to plan accordingly. Should I bring certain weapons? Do I need to bring medical supplies or rations? Am I going to fight a boss? What enemy character models are here? Unless the game outright told me what I would need, these are the kinds of questions I would often ask myself. Ultimately, I think there are a lot of odd or tedious or slightly annoying things in this game that stack up but I do think the recruitment and squad stuff is refreshing and I feel it’s the game’s saving grace. It’s what kept me going.

I would argue that Portable Ops is the easiest game in the series up to this point. And I think if some of my issues with the game like the rapidly draining stamina and limited inventory space were alleviated, it would be even easier. So I guess some of the design choices were implemented to balance things. Although, I still say the “recruit by dragging” method is terrible. From what I hear, this is improved in Peace Walker so I am looking forward to that. Besides simply evading enemies or gunning everyone down, you can simply recruit every enemy on the battlefield, giving you free reign to explore the location at your own leisure. You will engage some bosses as you progress through the story and some can be recruited. I can’t say any were super challenging and the battles seem to lack the creativity of some of the bosses in the prior entries.

After a while, I realized I enjoyed the freedom of the game more than progressing through the story. You can visit any already unlocked locations to do whatever you want and the intel you receive essentially unlocks side objectives which are usually tasks to find and retrieve items or rescue people among some other things. The game does encourage you to revisit locations and, yes, the gameplay does get repetitive. It also doesn’t help that the environments are small and mostly uninteresting. But despite that, I enjoyed being able to ignore the plot to travel to different locations whether it was to recruit more soldiers or retrieve items or complete a side objective without the narrative being shoved in my face. Just like most side objectives, story objectives are typically simple and straightforward and several start and end with cut scenes and expositions. The side objectives offer a break (if you will) from the narrative. They allowed me to enjoy my favorite aspects of game, the squad stuff, without narrative interference which I found refreshing. I enjoyed building up my squad and trying out different soldiers, equipment and approaches, even if revisiting the same locations over and over again got repetitive.

Portable Ops features many different locations. You’ll get to navigate around a prison, supply depot, patrol base, town, harbor, and airport among many others. Unfortunately, the locations are not just small but many of them look bland and often contain simple looking rooms and areas with little to admire, hence why I feel they’re uninteresting. On a positive note, they are all open-ended to an extent, kind of like small stealth sandboxes, and they do encourage exploration. You will revisit locations numerous times whether by choice or because an objective calls for it and that does often expose the game’s repetitive nature. An objective or mission may dictate small changes during a visit to a previously explored location like certain paths are blocked off or different enemies appear but these changes rarely make a noticeable difference in terms of challenge or how you tackle a situation. As I mentioned before, many objectives are simple. You’ll have to go from point A to B, destroy things, or retrieve items.

Portable Ops’ presentation is okay at best. One reason why I think the environments are uninteresting is because they simply look bland, visually. From the layouts to the texture work, I just feel the game isn’t the greatest looker. It’s not the worst looking PSP game by any means but it’s not super impressive, either. However, I do think the character models look good and enjoyed some of the visual effects. What really looks cheap is the character portraits during radio interactions. They look like simple cut outs and it just doesn’t look good in my opinion. On the audio side, the sound work is pretty good but the soundtrack isn’t on the same level as the main titles. That’s not to say it’s bad but I just don’t think it’s as good or as memorable. On the technical side, when I first fired up the game, the frame rate seemed choppy as hell so I initially thought the emulation was fucked and that I needed to tweak some settings only to learn the game is actually capped at twenty frames per second. I got used to it and I did notice the frame rate dip from time to time but other than that, I did not encounter any major issues.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is a clunky game that doesn’t come anywhere near the heights of some of the prior games. However, I do think it’s somewhat impressive for the hardware it was designed for and I love the new ideas and concepts it introduces. The narrative does feel different than those of the games written and directed by Hideo Kojima and the gameplay gets repetitive but I thought the squad stuff was a lot of fun and made for nice breaks from the typical story-driven action. To be clear, I think Portable Ops is the weakest entry in the series up to this point. The returning mechanics feel clunkier, some of the new mechanics could use some polishing and the squad stuff is what really elevates the game to at least the “above average” status. It really was the primary thing that kept me going. I enjoyed sneaking around the small and somewhat open-ended locations, exploring, finding items, and recruiting soldiers and managing my squad. Those are the best parts of the game for me. Everything else felt like an average or mediocre Metal Gear experience.

I would recommend Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops just for the squad stuff alone. The game introduces some cool ideas and concepts that I only hope are polished up and fleshed out more in future titles. Portable Ops may lack the cinematic quality the series is known for and the gameplay may be clunky but it does retain some of the series charm and I think it makes for a nice break from the typical linear story-driven Metal Gear experience. Despite its issues, there’s definitely fun to be had here.

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