Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops often gets short shrift compared to the rest of the Metal Gear Solid series. Most of this comes from the fact that, despite being written and touted as a canon part of the Metal Gear series for quite a while, the other PSP Metal Gear title Peace Walker lead to series director Hideo Kojima somewhat dismissing this title as a side story rather than part of the core canon. It is said that Portable Ops did occur in the Metal Gear universe, just that some parts of it might contradict other titles… something that has been true of essentially every Metal Gear title due to Kojima’s constant alterations to the timeline and history. The importance of Portable Ops’s story is an issue on its own, but the game its tied can still be enjoyable despite the woes of making it work in the main series. However, it wasn’t quite built from the same solid materials as the rest of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, so there are a few things holding it back from sharing space with the spectacular core series games.
One thing that definitely holds up in Portable Ops though is the story. Set in 1970, this game serves as an almost direct sequel to the events of the phenomenal Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and is better served as a game to play after that one due to how much it hinges on that game’s plot. Big Boss, also known by his older codename Snake, is captured by the rogue FOX unit he once was a member of and taken to a peninsula in South America. This peninsula houses an all but abandoned Russian missile silo that is being converted into a new military nation by FOX’s leader Gene who is using the threat of nuclear strikes against the major world nations to try and strengthen his claim. Snake is tasked with taking them down and preventing them from launching the nukes, but there are a few complications along the way, the main one being that Snake is just one man in enemy territory with no knowledge of the area or his enemy’s plans. With the help of a young Roy Campbell, Snake begins recruiting soldiers from the enemy forces to help him gain the edge in the battle against Gene and the rest of FOX. For Metal Gear Solid fans, you can expect many of the series’s standard plot elements to crop up here. FOX is composed of unusually gifted individuals that broach on the paranormal, and the plot itself ends up bringing up issues with how nations treat their military, with Snake’s opinion on the role of soldiers being tested throughout the game as he must recruit soldiers from an enemy nation to save his own.
Although shorter and full of less twists than the bigger Metal Gear Solid games, this portable excursion still manages to deliver on all the things you’d want from a story in this series, with unique and charismatic characters, explored political issues, and unexpected shifts in the story that recontextualize what you have seen up until then. It is a bit of a shame then that the game conveys most of its story in a questionable way. Most scenes of importance are presented with a line heavy art style reminiscent of sketchy comic book art, and while it can make some scenes look interesting from an artistic angle, it just as often makes them look strange or the abundance of pointless lines and absence of color makes it difficult to discern what is even happening in the scene. This likely stems from budget constraints working on the PSP system, because while the graphics work pretty well within the limitations, making cutscenes with the models might have been too costly. The game sometimes conveys information through calls on your radio or on the game’s mission select menu instead, but those are more functional moments of exposition rather than a means to progress the story.
So we’ve seen that Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops has a story worth embracing, but it saddens me to say that the gameplay doesn’t quite match up to it. Portable Ops takes on the form of various sneaking missions where the goals shift around but usually involve finding a certain item or getting to a certain area in enemy territory. For the most part, sneaking about works quite well, Snake having many tools to avoid detection such as slowly walking, peeking around corners, or taking routes through vents or alternate avenues. Even if you do get caught, your weapons and close quarters combat can get you out of most jams pretty easily either by incapacitating or killing the guards that found you, and if you’re quick enough, you can even disable a guard before they activate the alarm and overwhelm you. Snake can take enough damage to survive a failure or two now and again, but the game also gives you a restart option if you feel you’ve messed up too badly, and that plays into the game’s mission structure. Rather than being a persistent world you sneak through, each area of the game is segmented off into a mission zone that you can enter and leave from a map screen. For the most part, the game progresses you through areas so you rarely have to revisit the same place twice, but the mission structure also plays into one of the problems with the game’s sneaking. Areas all feel pretty boxed in and limited in the ways you can approach your missions, making the sneaking less exciting as you essentially have to do the same thing every time if you restart the mission or have to return to a level for some reason. They make for decent enough areas to move through, even if the camera controls can have a bit of an issue when you’re trying to spot guards from a hiding place, but the moment the level design really fails the game comes in what could have been the game’s most interesting mechanic: recruiting.
Besides sneaking about and taking down enemies, Snake can also decide to capture unconscious enemies and drag them back to Campbell’s truck so they can be converted to your side. This system does have a few interesting aspects to it. After a soldier is converted, you can place them in a variety of special units so they can help you out. They include a spy unit to scout out areas to find hidden items, optional missions, or unlock the next area of the game, two units that can work on making ammo and health kits, and a unit that can join you as back up in the actual levels of the game. While Snake is usually the best character to play as at all times, the soldiers who come on the mission with you can have special traits to make them better for certain situations, they can carry in extra items for you to use, and since Snake can’t actually die permanently, they serve as extra lives for if he goes down, although they will perish permanently if they fall. Their lower stats make them unfortunately bad at most tasks, but they also have unique mechanics like being able to blend in with enemy troops so you might not have to sneak through some portions.
If this was the extent of the recruitment mechanic, then you’d have something really fun and interesting to interact with, but the game bogs down every element with artificial limiters. Every character, even Snake, has a stamina bar in addition to their health meter, and taking certain actions will drain it gradually. If it empties completely, the character is forced to return to base, requiring you to switch to a different soldier, and this is essentially the only reason the stamina bar seems to exist. One thing that definitely exists just to force you to use your soldiers is the item limit on each character, with each one able to only carry four unique weapons or items at once, this including back-up ammo for your weapons. Having a character specialize in something should already make them preferable to use in certain situations, so trying to force you to switch reads as a failure of understanding what the recruiting mechanic should have been about. Instead of building up a crack team, it’s instead about being forced to drag in the back-ups because you had some limitation placed on you. All of this is further hampered by the recruitment process’s slowness. Dragging unconscious enemies back to the truck is unforgivably slow, and even though you can find soldiers who can drag potential recruits around twice as fast, the default speed removes any fun from the process. If the base speed was doubled then it would be more reasonable and enjoyable, but as it stands it is far too slow and rarely worth the effort outside of some levels designed to have easy recruits clustered near the start. Thankfully, if you don’t wish to engage the recruiting system, the game doesn’t force it on you too much outside of the early stages, but it feels like a lot of wasted potential as the benefits can be good when they aren’t buried beneath a bunch of rigamarole.
Thankfully, the game does improve with time as more interesting locations are thrown at you and you can find moments where it is enjoyable to use your soldiers as a squad rather than as Snake’s unfortunate substitutes. I did find the managing of the squad fun outside of the recruiting part that is literally a drag, but the game drops the ball in one other aspect that really holds it back. While the bosses are interesting characters with good backstories and voice acting, the fights themselves are so simple that they fail to match the gravitas the story gives them. Almost all of them can be taken down by walking circles around cover and shooting them when they come into view, even the so-called Perfect Soldier that is supposed to be able to block any bullet and slice men to ribbons with ease. You can choose to take them down non-lethally as well but still would probably slip into using the same tactics, meaning that these fights that should have been the most challenging in the game take less creativity to beat than encounters with basic soldiers. The boss fights aren’t truly boring despite the tactics you’ll be using, but they could have been so much more, a problem faced by most every other part of this game as well.
THE VERDICT: Despite how harsh my criticism has been at parts of this review, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops does not deserve to be jettisoned from the greater Metal Gear series. It’s exploration of Big Boss’s character, the interesting things it has to say about the role of a soldier, and the core components of its sneaking and gunplay all fit in quite well with the franchise, it just has an unfortunate stigma hanging over it due to Kojima’s comments and the poorly implemented recruiting mechanic. In fact, the recruiting mechanic almost lead to me thinking far less of this game, but once it grew out of the early stages, you were not forced to engage with it too much, with it being quite easy to immediately progress even when the game wanted you to have spies working in a certain area or technicians working on a certain development. When the recruiting system did work well though, it shined, it’s just a shame how rare that was and that the greater game had to hold itself back to make you want to use it.
And so, I give Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for the PSP…
A GOOD rating. Despite its limitations, both development wise and the ones imposed on you in game, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops still manages to have a great story and its gameplay works as well as ever. The action-stealth approach to things makes it fun to both sneak around and face down groups of enemies with risks inherent in both approaches that can encourage you to choose the other at any time. The flaws in the recruiting and army system are too big to ignore though, but you will begin to find the upsides of them as you play and you may even get attached to your soldiers, making their deaths on a mission sometimes sad but necessary. In that way Portable Ops plays into the messages of its story pretty well, but if it had just made dragging faster, stamina less of a hassle, and given you some way to manage your items a little better, it could have still had the impact of its soldier-focused story while also delivering a more enjoyable game experience that better matched the other titles in the franchise.
However, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is more of a side-story, and its gameplay is quite different from other action shooters. It serves more as a supplement to someone who has played other Metal Gear games rather than a jumping on point for new players even if it technically could work as its own story. I wasn’t emphasizing the series ties just for the sake of it after all, and your enjoyment of the game will likely be tied to how engaged you were in the core series. If you are a Metal Gear fan though, don’t be afraid to give Portable Ops a chance.