Unlike the previous Metal Gear games I’ve played – Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid (and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, to an extent), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – this game, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, was not directed and written by Hideo Kojima. While he’s stated he had some involvement, it’s unclear how much of that is marketing talk. Unfortunately, it seems Kojima (and whoever else normally works on the series, but didn’t on this title) is the key to success for this series, as I found this particular game quite the dud.
[Note: This review has no spoilers.]
If I wanted to, I could try and shoehorn in a theme for this one, in the way all the Metal Gear Solid games have primary themes (gene, meme, scene, etc.). I could pick something like “cause”, which even fits the convention of being one-syllable and ending in “e”. I could try and argue that the game has an inspired story revolving around this theme. But it just wouldn’t work. It would be contrived. There was no bold thematic vision behind this game. There’s no creative and innovate storytelling. The best the game ever gets is “fine”, and the most charming moments coast off goodwill we have towards characters built up in other games.
There is one thing I love about the game, and that’s the cutscenes. They’re one of the few innovative aspects of the game. They are stylised drawings by artist Ashley Wood, with the same aesthetic as the Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novels, which I really liked. They were apparently born of engine limitations, as the PSP platform didn’t really have the memory or capability of supporting multiple, in-engine cutscenes like the main games. Below is a comparison of similar shots between Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and this, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops.
The game has around two hours worth of cutscenes, a lot less than the main games, but enough to tell a compelling story. Shame they didn’t manage that. The story is a convoluted mess of dubious canonicity. Even if it wasn’t, the lack of a singular unifying theme makes conventions of the series stand out in a bad way. The zaniness of the main games is tempered by their intellectual ambitions. Not so here.
David Hayter’s performance as Big Boss in this is fine, not as good as his regular performances, but not bad or anything. The performance of his main partner in the game is terrible and extremely unfitting of the character. The rest of the voice cast ranges from fine to very bad.
The gameplay mechanics may be enjoyable for some, but I found them horribly tedious. Most of the gameplay time is spent on micromanaging a private army. Even the first two Metal Gear games were consistent with the Metal Gear Solid games in being about stealthful infiltrations and zany boss battles. While those are still in this game, they don’t feel like the main focus, the way the painful recruitment and management of chiefly bland operatives is. The default control scheme for the game is also absolutely horrible, and I had to do some creative remapping to get the game in a semi-comfortable playing state.
The storytelling is clunky and, according to Kojima, only of partial canon status (I imagine the very broad strokes of Big Boss’ actions are canon, but the awkward specifics of the game’s story are not). It’s inconsequential enough not to matter particularly much either way. The gameplay is largely tedious, and even when it isn’t, it’s only acceptable, never great, let alone transcendent the way other games in the series have been.
Overall, it’s a slight, inconsequential, low-quality game with not enough bright spots to become worthwhile. I give it one and a half alpha squads, and a green beret.