Crispy Gamer

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops + (PSP)

Don?t call it a comeback; Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops + is really just a budget-rate expansion pack that builds on the excellent previous version. For a $20 price tag, this stand-alone expansion (the ?non-plus? version isn?t required), gives players an intense stealth-action game, a lot of (tedious) replay value and the some of the best graphics and visuals the PSP has to offer.

Portable Ops + may not require the original version, but it helps. The gameplay basically hinges on your success in single-player. Characters need to be recruited: The goal is to build teams, and characters also need to be leveled; some characters (like the new cybernetic Raiden) need to be unlocked -- and all of this takes time. It pays off in multiplayer, but much of the game is a tedious grind. If you have the original version and have already put a lot of effort into it, you?ll delight in finding that you can use all of your painstakingly leveled characters in the new game.

Portable Ops + is a squad-based game, and recruiting is an important component. It?s a little different this time out. You build your team in the game by capturing enemy soldiers: You can either grab them in Infinity Mode and let your team talk them into it, trade in sleep mode, or seek Wi-Fi Access Points (in the real world). If you find one, hit the circle button and you?ll get -- lottery style -- a new recruit. These can range anywhere from a simple weakling soldier to someone more skilled like a Medic. It?s frustrating that they?ve now given these computer-controlled soldiers the ability to turn you down flat, because they never tell you why they don?t want to join your squad, leaving you to tweak your team hoping to attract the character later -- though it works better to find another access point (not easy to do in some suburbs and rural areas). Also, they?ve upped the army limit to 200 (from 100). The system works, but it was better in the last version.

Portable Ops + completely lacks a single-player campaign, which is odd given that the series is well-known for its convoluted storyline. Offered instead is a single-player mode (the aforementioned Infinity Mission mode) and, of course, multiplayer. Infinity Mission generates a random level and populates it with generic artificial-intelligence-controlled enemies you can then combat or grab and try to recruit (reminiscent of the old Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions for the old-school PlayStation). The nature of the game does let players experiment and play a lot of very different kinds of characters, and Infinity Mode does let gamers practice using the tactical options for multiplayer.

Infinity Mission mode does let players keep what they catch. It?s basically a series of levels where the enemies get more difficult and their patrols change their pattern. You get to keep whatever equipment you find and the soldiers you catch and recruit (by literally grabbing them and taking them to a van). There?s risk too, as after each mission players can quit or let it ride. If they quit, they must start over. If they keep going, the rewards are greater. At first this feels innovative and fun -- Who needs a story? -- but it does get dull, and after a few hours you?ll hate it. Then there?s the micromanagement. It pays dividends and you must do it if you want to be competitive online, but the tactical portion of the game (aside from the stealth) mainly consists of how well you micromanage up to 200 soldiers. Moving through them, checking their stats, and matching them into balanced and hopefully effective squads is?a lot of work -- rewarding work if you like that sort of thing, but if not, it?s a form of torture.

Multiplayer is what the game is all about, and it?s exactly the same as the earlier version -- which means it?s very good. Players are limited to ad hoc but finding a game isn?t hard, especially after school hours and on weekends. If you?ve planned ahead and nurtured your team into high-level superheroes, you?ll be competitive and stomp all comers; the game simply favors players who have more time to grind, level and recruit. That?s understandable, but for a game that only really offers multiplayer, it?s rather brutal that it punishes gamers by making death permanent. (Yep, you can spend a lot of time building up a character, only to lose to a teenager constantly glued to his PSP.) It is fun when you do find an evenly matched game: Whereas the AI will give up and stop looking for you, online players will not!

Also available in multiplayer is the Shooting Range (self-explanatory), Free Versus, Real Combat, Virtual Battle and both Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch. Real Combat is interesting in that the enemy gets to keep any of your squad that they kill, which is kind of like racing for pink slips. In Virtual Battle and Free Versus, though, you won?t lose your hard-earned squadmates. Boss Battle is a lot of fun, but without the single-player mode, you won?t know who these guys are and why you?re fighting them without having played the previous game.

Portable Ops + uses a free camera, rather than the traditional fixed camera used in the main series. It?s controllable, but it?s also an additional enemy with which players have to contend. It swings into a blocked or awkward position at will, and that can make the difference in a pitched battle. Also, it is possible that the graphics engine is too sophisticated, because it?s prone to minor tearing, visible seams, jaggies and blurriness at times. At least the action is smooth and the animations are excellent.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops + is a strange expansion, really. The multiplayer isn?t much improved from the earlier game; it takes away the storyline, meaning anyone new to the game will be a bit lost; and it throws in some frustration while offering only a few new maps, new characters and a few new features for previous owners looking to upgrade. Sure it?s an expansion, and therefore isn?t intended to reinvent the wheel, but aside from some minor changes, players are better off sticking to the original. Sometimes a bargain price isn?t a bargain at all.

This review was based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.