This dynamic approach is even more visible in the gameplay. Your traditional MGS game is actually fairly linear; its sneak-em-up action structured in fairly lengthy chapters with multiple objectives divided by often remarkable boss battles. It’s not that Portable Ops has rejected this approach entirely, but it has made some big changes. The only one you could call a compromise is the decision to divide the game world into a selection of fairly small, distinct areas accessed from an overall world map. In general, they’re not particularly exciting in terms of design or visual appeal, and the fact that most missions centre on a single, basic objective does give the game a slightly bitty quality. On the upside, this works well for mobile play, where you might not have two hours to dig into a big chunk of game. In fact, Kojima’s crew have cleverly made this a key part of the way the game plays.
Were Portable Ops a simple sneak-em-up, it probably wouldn’t be a very satisfying one. Snake doesn’t have all of the moves that you’re used to, the game is low on the set-piece sequences that made MGS2 so satisfying, and it can’t match the combination of camouflage and varmint scoffing that made MGS3 so interesting. Luckily, Portable Ops has another card up its sleeve: strategy. Early on in the game, Snake realises that he can’t go it alone this time. First he releases another US captive – our old chum Roy – then the two of them take off in a truck to begin recruiting additional comrades. The whole peninsula is crawling with Soviet troops, scientists and medics, not all of whom have been happily co-opted into the current MGS villainous scheme (the creation of a new military super-nation). By knocking them unconscious and dragging them to the truck, Snake or an existing recruit can bring them over to the side of good and put them to work.
Some simply go into support activities, helping produce new weapons or increasing ammunition stocks. Others can be put back into enemy bases, from where they send reports outlining interesting new developments, potential recruits or cool stuff that’s available to nick. The best, however, can be recruited into a sneaking squad. Send Snake out into the field and – at particular points on each map – he can hide and call out a replacement. Now, Snake is a pretty handy guy. He can fight, he can shoot, and he can sneak, but there are other people who are faster at dragging unconscious new recruits back to the truck, there are soldiers who are more effective in hand-to-hand combat, and there are troop types who blend in with the soldiers already patrolling each area, meaning they can wander around with a little more impunity.
If you’re used to existing Metal Gear games, not to mention Splinter Cell, Syphon Filter or other titles in the espionage action genre, all of this is going to take some getting used to. At first, it feels like all the recruiting, spying and switching simply gets in the way of the exciting stuff, or even merely covers a lack of exciting stuff to do. Give it time, however, and everything falls into place. With stamina as well as health an issue, it becomes important to look after your men, and you start growing attached to your earliest recruits. If one goes down in battle, he won’t be coming back. The game also makes spying an integral part, as objectives that advance the overall storyline won’t be in place until you have sent men in to scout them out. You start going out on additional recruiting missions just because you realise that you don’t have enough medics or techies to keep your current forces supplied. You stop caring that you seem to be infiltrating the same base that you’ve infiltrated several times already. Before you know it, you’re embroiled in the plot, caught up in the gameplay, and determined that you just gotta catch ‘em all.
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