Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops Preview - How to Raise an Army

With the next chapter in the Metal Gear Solid saga just days away, we got an up-close look at the new missions, storyline, and gameplay, and how they all tie together.

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The PlayStation 3 and the Wii may have finally landed, but the year ain't over yet. One of the last major new releases slated to ship in 2006 is Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, a sequel to 2004's memorable Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Exclusive to the PlayStation Portable, this new MGS title is a direct continuation of Snake Eater's story, picking up six years after the events depicted in that game. You'll reprise the role of Snake, now known as Big Boss, as he musters a mercenary army to overthrow a plot that could result in mutually assured destruction between Russia and the United States. As a result, Portable Ops will be key to filling in some of the blanks of the Metal Gear series' elaborate yet increasingly cohesive storyline. But even if you're not so hardcore into MGS to care about these types of plot details, Portable Ops should still be an impressive game, featuring an open-ended mission system, remarkable visuals, an engaging story, and lots of lasting value. We recently got an exclusive look at a near-finished version of the game and are here with the details.

Two aspects of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops immediately stand out. One is that the in-game visuals look comparably as good as those of Snake Eater for the PS2, which was hailed as one of the best-looking PS2 games at the time. While you'll see a lot of familiar graphics and animations, some of the visuals are definitely new, such as Snake's updated sneaking suit (it's made of aromatic polyamide, observes Snake). The other is the cinematic cutscenes, which are presented as animated comic book panels, reminiscent of the work seen in Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel. In fact, Ashley Wood, the artist who worked on the Digital Graphic Novel, also supervised the cutscenes of Portable Ops. While his pen-and-ink artwork is starkly different from the relatively realistic look of the in-game 3D graphics, it's highly reminiscent of the original design work by Metal Gear Solid series illustrator Yoji Shinkawa. The comic book cutscenes in Portable Ops don't have quite the same big-budget feel as the incredible 3D cutscenes of Snake Eater, but they're impressive in their own right. Most importantly, though, the story in Portable Ops seems consistent with the tone and quality of its predecessor.

Snake's back, and this time he's raising a mercenary army in South America to prevent a nuclear strike in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.
Snake's back, and this time he's raising a mercenary army in South America to prevent a nuclear strike in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.

Please note that minor spoilers will follow, though it's nothing that publisher Konami wasn't prepared to divulge leading up to the game's release. Portable Ops takes place around 1970, and the story begins with Snake getting assaulted somewhere in South America. He's thrown in the slammer, and soon he comes face-to-face with one Lt. Cunningham, an ex-CIA interrogator who appears to have an electric cattle prod for a leg. He's bad news for sure, but Snake doesn't give in to Cunningham's first line of questioning about something called the Philosophers' Legacy--something that Metal Gear Solid 3 players will know a thing or two about. Cunningham promises he'll be back, and leaves Snake to rot. But it turns out Snake isn't all alone. A nearby cell mate is a resourceful young man who helps him break free; he recognizes Snake as the legendary Big Boss, a patriot and a hero. Snake, freed from his prison, is left to wonder what heavily armed members of the FOX Special Forces unit are doing in a Soviet base in Colombia. The answers may shed new light on the Cuban Missile Crisis of the '60s. Used to working alone, Snake reluctantly agrees to collaborate with his new friend to find some answers. His new friend is Roy Campbell.

Snake and Campbell discover a dangerous plan unfolding in this base, apparently perpetrated by a Russian expatriate named Gene. Viewed as a great leader by his comrades, Gene is seeking to retaliate against his former commanders in Russia for leaving him and his team for dead in that South American base. So it appears there's a complicated situation afoot, with tensions running very high between these Russian militants as well as the FOX unit that's ostensibly there to take them out. Snake and Campbell are the wild cards in all of this, and amid all the chaos, Snake finds a cause--something worth fighting for. And apparently the cause is inspiring enough to make others willing to join him.

Think punching people out and throwing them in the back of a truck isn't a great way to make new friends? Hey, don't knock it until you try it.
Think punching people out and throwing them in the back of a truck isn't a great way to make new friends? Hey, don't knock it until you try it.

It appears that much of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops will revolve around Snake recruiting new forces to his side. This means you won't be limited to playing as Snake in this game, but will in fact have dozens of unique characters at your disposal, so long as you're able to capture and recruit them. Each character, including Snake, is rated differently across more than 10 different attributes, which may naturally predispose them to certain types of tasks--for instance, sniping or close-quarters combat. Not all tasks are violent in nature, as you'll need to employ medics for healing the injuries of your wounded troops as well as spies for investigating different territories and retrieving valuable supplies. You recruit new forces literally by kidnapping and interrogating them, at least at first. You may knock enemies unconscious during your missions, then drag them back to your makeshift mobile command center, basically a truck outfitted with radio equipment. There, ostensibly Snake and Campbell give the would-be victim a good talking to and a coercive choice: Join or die.

We got a chance to see a great cutscene surrounding the first of these capture attempts. Snake kidnaps a soldier named Jonathan, a grunt in the service of Gene. It's here that we learn that Gene isn't just a villain--he's a freedom fighter as far as his comrades are concerned, and he's out for justice. Snake has another perspective; it's not a soldier's responsibility to decide what's just. It's a soldier's responsibility to be loyal to the mission. This is his past talking, and it's an affecting moment, thanks partly to an unmistakably familiar delivery by voice actor David Hayter, reprising his role as Snake. During the course of the discussion, somehow, Jonathan turns, realizing that Gene is in the wrong and must be stopped. Leave it to the Metal Gear Solid series to present such a conversation with all due complexity, resulting in a plausible change of tune coming from a man who seemed unshakable in his convictions.

Friends and Foes of Portable Ops

Jonathan is a plot-specific character, but you'll be able to recruit many, many others, including some familiar faces from Snake Eater. And in some cases, these characters will be better suited to a mission than Snake. For instance, Jonathan's status as one of the Russian militants occupying the base means he can blend in with the other troops in his unit without arousing suspicion...unless he does anything out of the ordinary. You can deploy several characters into a mission, but you'll control only one at a time. You're free to switch between them, even in midbattle; and should one of your soldiers fall in a firefight, you'll be able to switch to a reserve troop. This may be a contrivance, but it could be interesting from a gameplay standpoint, and could set up for some even more challenging battles that require multiple characters' specializations.

Once you've assembled your team in the single-player mode, you can take them online and see how you fare against other players around the nation.
Once you've assembled your team in the single-player mode, you can take them online and see how you fare against other players around the nation.

Speaking of which, fans of Metal Gear Solid's many memorable boss opponents may look forward to more potential greats from the cast of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. We never got a chance to see Gene, but Cunningham certainly seemed intimidating, and we met two other dangerous-looking men as well. One is Python, a FOX operative with whom Snake seems to have some history, based on the intervening six years since Snake Eater. Python, like a good Metal Gear villain, is way over the top; he seems cold as ice, literally, as in one scene, a Russian officer opens fire on him in a rage, and the bullets simply freeze on contact and clatter to the floor. "You monster!" exclaims the stupefied officer, to which Python ironically replies, "You try to kill a man, then call him a monster...?" His seething delivery is great thanks to the work of veteran actor Dwight Schultz, whom you might know as Capt. Murdock from the classic show The A-Team, or maybe for his memorable performance as the assassin Harman Smith in last year's mind-blowing action game, Killer7. We got a chance to see the actual battle against Python, which seemed to take place in some sort of gigantic freezer, but we didn't see how to beat him. We're guessing flammables might do the trick, but this guy's quick, varied moves seem as though they'll be tough to beat.

We also got to see the introduction of a character called Null, also known as the Perfect Soldier. You can briefly see him in action in our video preview, and from the looks of things, Null is the predecessor to Metal Gear Solid's cyborg ninja, aka Gray Fox. Armed with a katana and capable of deflecting bullets with it, this deadly warrior seems to have been brainwashed--or perhaps genetically engineered--only to fight. How he figures into the story and what, if any, connection he has to the rest of the Metal Gear Solid plotline remains to be seen.

Remember Sigint, MGS3's weapons specialist? Now you'll be able to find out just how good he really is with a gun.
Remember Sigint, MGS3's weapons specialist? Now you'll be able to find out just how good he really is with a gun.

Konami promises more than 20 hours of single-player gameplay in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, which features a new strategic gameplay layer that lets you undertake optional side missions as well as core story missions. The strategic layer lets you advance time, deciding when and where to strike, or letting the days heal the wounds of your injured mercenaries. We'll be interested to see how much mission variety there is, but we got to see some of the open-ended mission design and get our hands on it for a little while. One of the missions involved creating a diversion by staging several explosions throughout an enemy compound. It was clear that this mission could be accomplished by several different means, and that Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops places a greater emphasis on preparation and planning than its predecessors. A character like Snake could perhaps sneak through the compound during the cover of night, while Jonathan could walk among his former comrades in broad daylight, placing those charges.

You'll want literally dozens of recruits to your growing army, so that you can pad out all of the map's territories with spies and have a fully functional medical ward. Eventually you won't have to drag KO'd prospective recruits back to your truck, but will be able to radio for them to be picked up. You'll also be able to get new recruits through some unorthodox means, such as downloading them using the PSP's Wi-Fi connection and connecting to different Internet service providers. Players who have the PSP GPS unit, available only in Japan, can find new recruits that way, too. That may sound awfully strange, but in a sense, strange and unorthodox twists like this are to be expected from Kojima Productions, whose games have often gone out of their way to do things differently.

The underlying gameplay of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops of course shouldn't be a given, but the truth is, we haven't seen a ton of it yet. What we've seen looks unmistakably similar to Snake Eater, or rather, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence--the Snake Eater rerelease that introduced vastly superior camera controls. In Portable Ops, you can snap the camera behind your character easily to keep a bearing on things, and there's a new sound-based radar system that helps give you an impression of whether there are enemies in the vicinity, and how many. This seems to be the main new gameplay addition, though there are some other tweaks, such as how pressing and holding the X button will now take you from a prone stance up to a standing stance; previously you had to tap the button twice. These types of minor refinements may help make the gameplay easier to grasp, or better suited to the PSP's form factor.

We noticed a few other gameplay details, such as how Snake--at least initially--seems to be missing his knife. He can still use close-quarters combat moves to take down enemies, but we didn't see any gruesome Snake Eater-style throat cutting. Additionally, we observed that the right side of the screen doesn't get blacked out when aiming from a first-person view like in Metal Gear Solid 3, which happens in that game after Snake loses his eye. Maybe he just got used to the eyepatch thing after six years. Relatively minor details like this will nonetheless quickly stand out to fans of MGS3. Snake Eater's food system and curing system also weren't apparent from what we saw, and we wouldn't miss them if they were gone. The core sneaking and shooting is definitely there and felt comfortably familiar and as open-ended as ever. We also noticed what seemed to be a brand-new soundtrack, very much in the same key as Snake Eater's, featuring plenty of tense-sounding themes evocative of the military-espionage subject matter of the game.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with characters like Eva during the course of this new storyline.
It'll be interesting to see what happens with characters like Eva during the course of this new storyline.

As we learned at the Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this year, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops will boast full-on online play in addition to its single-player campaign. The characters you recruit in the single-player mode will also be the ones fighting for you in Metal Gear Online, which we didn't get to see this time, but experienced at E3 and as part of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. The online portion of the game will include both "real" and "virtual" combat scenarios, and the real scenarios will actually put your characters' lives on the line; if killed in action here, they can be gone forever, though you can wave a white flag to avoid this. The realistic option sounds like a compelling alternative to the typical consequence-free online gaming experience, and we'll be interested to see how many hardcore Metal Gear fans out there take to it.

It's looking as though Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops will be required playing material for the series' legions of dedicated fans. While the story will be told in an unusual fashion, the comic book style of its cutscenes really impressed us, and what we saw of the dialogue and plot sequences seemed consistent with Snake Eater's high standards for storytelling. The core gameplay itself seems to have been translated nicely to the PSP, while the new strategic layer on top of it all, plus the ability to recruit dozens of unique characters, adds a significant twist to the proceedings. Consider that, along with the online multiplayer mode, and you have what sounds like a very tempting deal. We naturally have high hopes for Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, and it won't be long before we find out if the game will truly live up to them. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops ships for the PSP on December 5. Stay tuned to GameSpot for a full review.

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