By dankempster 2 Comments
May may have ended a couple of weeks ago, but one thing that's soldiered on undeterred is my Metal Gear Madness challenge. Formerly dubbed Metal Gear May Madness, the original aim was to beat all eight canonical stealth games in the Metal Gear series within the month of May. I didn't succeed, only managing to make it through the first five games, but I decided that time constraints be damned, I'd come too far through the franchise to put it down now. A quick name change and a renewed sense of purpose later, and here we are, pressing on through the remaining three games in the series.
If you want more details about how the challenge came about and which games it encompasses, then check out the inaugural entry, which should answer any questions you may have. If you've missed a specific game in the series, I've laid them out in a handy-dandy table below:
|The Episode Roster|
|Episode .01 - Metal Gear||Episode .02 - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake|
|Episode .03 - Metal Gear Solid||Episode .04 - Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty|
|Episode .05 - Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater|
All caught up? Good stuff. Now let's press on, shall we? Roll hastily-doctored title card!
Episode .06 - Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops
It took me a while to get around to playing Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops after wrapping up Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater at the end of May. Admittedly, that was partly because I had problems locating my oft-neglected PSP's mains charger, but it was also because I felt like I was starting to get burned out on the series. After about a week of procrastinating and making excuses, I plunged into Portable Ops proper, and the result was a largely pleasant one. It's a solid stealth game that tells a pretty interesting story sandwiched between Snake Eater and Peace Walker. It does some new things with the series' gameplay, debuts some cool unit management subsystems that serve as the foundation for the Mother Base stuff in Peace Walker, and successfully migrates it all to an episodic format that's conducive to short bursts of play.
Let's start with the new stuff, shall we? The first obvious change is that rather than presenting one continuous mission, Portable Ops is broken up into smaller bite-sized missions. There's still an over-arching story tying all these missions together, but it's presented in something much closer to an episodic fashion this time around. This small change does wonders for making the Metal Gear formula work on a handheld platform because it makes it much easier to drop in and out of play on the move. It also adds a bit of variety to proceedings, with several different kinds of missions available including gathering intel, rescuing captive soldiers, sabotaging enemy strongholds and hunting down useful items.
The other big change is in the game's focus on soldier recruitment and unit management. It's possible for Naked Snake to recruit any enemy soldiers he encounters on missions, and once these recruits have been talked round to your way of thinking, you can take them out on missions with you or station them in a number of dedicated off-field units. Recruits with high senses make great spies, while those with strong tech and medic skills flourish in your R&D and Medical units respectively. Building strong units has positive ramifications on gameplay - the Medical unit will create medical supplies, the R&D unit will develop new gadgets and weapons, and effective Spy units will report back with info on side-quests and provide more detailed maps for the game's many environments. Each recruit also has their own proficiency with different kinds of weapons, as well as unique traits that make them suited to specific jobs such as dragging recruits back to the truck, or returning items back to base. It may not sound much like Metal Gear on the surface, and it's not as easy to lose hours in the menus as it is in the subsequent Peace Walker, but it's a cool system with a surprising amount of depth and reward.
Portable Ops's biggest strength, though, is without a doubt how successfully it manages to migrate the gameplay mechanics and depth of the last couple of Metal Gear Solid games onto a handheld system. The gameplay is fundamentally identical to that of Metal Gear Solids 2 and 3, which means most of the nuances from those games are present here. Crawling, sneaking, wall-pressing, dragging bodies out of sight, popping out of cover to shoot, CQC... In short - if you could do it in Sons of Liberty or Snake Eater, you can probably do it here, too. Considering the limitations of the PSP, I think the fact they've squeezed so much depth into playing Portable Ops is seriously impressive. The fact they subsequently managed to go even deeper with Peace Walker verges on mind-blowing.
Unfortunately, that level of depth comes with a trade-off, and it's in the control department that Portable Ops's most telling sacrifices have been made. The PSP's reduced button count and single analog nub means that most of the functionality feels a bit shoe-horned in, with a lot of buttons serving more than one purpose. The control system also doesn't really account for one important thing in a stealth game - finesse. These two frustrations combine to cause my personal biggest frustration with Portable Ops - namely, the fact that it's far too easy to make clumsy (but costly) mistakes, and often through no fault of one's own. This is amplified by the game's dependence on soldier recruitment, which means you'll often have to get close to a soldier and use CQC to incapacitate them before they see you and raise the alarm - not an easy task with such a fiddly control scheme.
There's also no denying the constant feeling that Portable Ops wants to be something bigger than it actually is. Its seemingly throw-away title belies a fairly important and well-developed canonical story that serves to bridge a few gaps between Operation Snake Eater and the remainder of the series. People refer to Peace Walker as the bona-fide missing link, but the story of Portable Ops explicitly sows the seeds of Outer Heaven in its own right. Without wanting to spoil too much, I particularly appreciated the stuff they did with the Null character, even if it was playing pretty fast-and-loose with the already-established canon. It's a shame that this bridging of the gap happened exclusively on PSP, under a moniker giving no indication of its relevance, and in a game that Kojima himself seems reluctant to acknowledge (the game's absence from any of the HD collections is telling). As it stands, it just feels like an episodic, squad-based Metal Gear spin-off with delusions of grandeur.
As has become customary for this series, I've taken a photo of my final game ranking to share with you on this blog. It certainly makes for less pretty reading than the one for Snake Eater, which I'm still fiercely proud of. It took me quite a while to get through the game, although I'll put that down to my commitment to exploring all the various spy reports that came in. The number of alert phases triggered in particular is just plain embarrassing, especially after I made it through the previous game with just two. Take a look for yourself below. Just try not to laugh too much, okay?
With Portable Ops out of the way, the challenge is now three-quarters through. Just two games remain - Metal Gear Solid 4, and Peace Walker. I actually double-dipped on Peace Walker earlier in the challenge and picked up the downloadable PS3 version from the PlayStation Store, so that's where I suspect I shall be playing it. Hopefully that will eliminate some of the fiddly control issues I encountered with Portable Ops. If I decide I'd rather experience it on a handheld further down the line, I guess I could always partake in a little Transfarring. Right now I'm ploughing through Metal Gear Solid 4, and am currently a fair way into Act Three. If all goes to plan, you can expect the seventh instalment of Metal Gear Madness before this week is out. Thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.
Currently playing - Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)