There have been a great many grand statements about the first Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation. It is without doubt a serious contender for best PS1 game ever, and is one of the finest examples of the craft of game design from any platform. It left in its wake a hunger for stealth from a public wowed by its subtleties, and the industry responded with a genre's worth of inferior sneak-'em-ups.
It was a techno-noir masterpiece of plot, tension and style, and its creator Hideo Kojima has never bettered it, despite numerous worthy sequels and spin-off games. Who could forget its touches of genius, like switching the memory card from slot to slot to beat a psychic boss, or gleaming a clue by having an adversary demonstrate his might by making your controller hover across the floor?
However, Metal Gear Solid was also extremely slow, fairly fiddly, and had one of gaming's most complex, convoluted plots ever. It was also disturbingly odd at times, unnecessarily perverse at moments and a touch unsettling throughout.
Finally, a fully-fledged Metal Gear has come to the PSP, and while it may not better Kojima's career best, it is certainly one of the finest MGS releases in recent years. The core gameplay mechanic is a traditional one for the game's brooding hero Snake. Again the emphasis is on undetected sneaking and thoughtful progression. Brilliantly, Portable Ops marks a return to the inspired dynamic that made the first Metal Gear Solid so heart-pounding and involving; at all times, you tread a hair-thin line between an absolute sense of who and what is around you, and having no idea of what every pixel hides.
At every stage of the game, however well you take advantage of your radar, vision and map, there is a continual looming sensation that you are about to get spotted, or jumped by an enemy you didn't see, even with the help of the MGS3-style player controlled camera. Portable Ops is the kind of game that makes you want to turn your mobile phone off while you play, as it is so engrossing and highly strung that a simple text message alert can cause you to leap from your skin and need a nice long lay down in the grass to recover.
There is little point delving too deeply into the plot here, as for one it would take pages and pages to detail, but also because the few MGS fans who actually keep up with the wandering storyline will not want the surprise spoilt. In short, the game picks up where MGS3 left of in 1970, making it a chronological prequel to MGS, MGS2 and MGS4, with Snake's former allies Fox having rebelled and involved themselves in a diplomatic crisis that is best described as a fictional sequel to the Cuban missile crisis. Expect terrorist cells, eccentric villains, plans of world domination, double crosses, old faces, political wrangling and enough twists and turns to put a Tarantino film to shame.
As well as narrative devices, all the classic gameplay elements are present and correct, such as the ability to knock on walls or distribute girly mags to distract the fickle guards that constantly block your path. The codec radio conversations make a welcome return, and are as longwinded, rambling and lively as ever, and the nerve-wracking process of evading the enemy and hiding while alert levels simmer down is again thrilling to behold. A modified version of the radar appears this time, using indications of nearby sound to help you tip-toe through the game. A pseudo-sandbox approach to the order you choose to tackle levels has also been implemented, though it does somehow take away the impact of the cinematic feel of previous Kojima games.
There is also something else new here that does a great deal to completely rebuild the concept of what Metal Gear is about. Team-based play has come to Snake's world, but not in a way that you might expect. This time the gravel-voiced antihero has been thrown into a mission he cannot hope to complete alone, meaning he will have to recruit some allies to aid him. Sounds simple, but when your pool of potential acquaintances is limited to the dedicated enemies that have sworn to end your life, things are bound to be a little tricky.
The first stage of procuring an ally is to grab a guard from behind, strangle him unconscious and drag him off to dump in the back of your van. Not a typical way of making friends, but poor Snake has never been blessed with social skills. After that the converted grunt is yours to use as you wish, and can be placed in one of several teams.
If he joins you in the sneaking team he, and potentially two other sympathisers, will come on missions with you. You can take direct control over them to take advantage of the lack of suspicion their uniforms will arouse, or simply give them orders to carry out the more mundane tasks, such as dragging additional recruits back to a drop-off point. You can even battle online with your team, and there's a mode that allows your guys to head off and battle other teams in virtual missions, gaining rank as they do so.
Each new member of your personal army also has specific talents. Some, such as the ability to move items back to your truck without the painstaking walk, are useful to have with you in the field. Other skills, like medical training, mean that they are best placed in a non-playable team, such as the Spy, Technical and Medical units, who stay back at base camp gathering information, developing weapons and treating injured comrades. This entire strategy mechanic is incredibly well implemented, and brings a great depth to Portable Ops that only improves on the main sneaking sections.
Visually the game is fantastic. In-game the graphics are among the best on the PSP, and alongside the occasional, highly polished traditional cut-scenes, there are a wealth of comic book style semi-animated cut-scenes that are presented with panache, and in some way explain the creatively inspired Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel, as a kind of precursor to Portable Ops' styling. Even the menus are designed with obvious care and attention, and a funked up soundtrack puts Snake's escapades nicely in theme with the year that is the game's setting.
Put simply, in a back-of-the-box kind of way, Portable Ops is one of the best Metal Gear games yet. The PSP is worth owning again, especially if you have a soft spot for one of gaming's most applauded series.