Welcome back for part six of the Metal Gear retrospective. In this entry, we’re going to be covering Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. As the first canonical entry in the series on a portable system, would this rather ambitious game carry the signature Metal Gear gameplay over the PSP successfully? Read on to find out…
(Note, I did own a copy of this game for PSP and actually beat it 3 or 4 times on that system, but I have since sold my PSP and copy of the game. As a result, I would have bought the game for PS Vita, but Konami refuses to make it available for that system for some reason… likely due to some licensing agreement. Consequently, I was basically forced to use an emulator in order to play the game again, although this didn’t impact the review negatively. That said, if you can play this game on PSP or PS Vita, I would recommend it. The game is meant to be a mobile experience, and I found the emulator I used did not handle the game particularly well – the game seized up during a couple boss battles, almost to the point where I had to throw in the towel, and using the thermal goggles rendered the game unplayable.)
Prior to Portable Ops‘ release, Konami had already released two Metal Gear Ac!d games on the PSP which, while rather fun, played far differently than any main series game and were explicitly non-canon (in addition to the Metal Gear Solid Digital Graphic Novel which was released on the PSP as well). This all changed though with the announcement of Portable Ops, a game which promised to carry over the gameplay of the Subsistence re-release of Snake Eater, while also bridging the narrative gaps to make way for Guns of the Patriots. In fact, the game was largely sold on the idea that, in order to fully understand the plot of Guns of the Patriots, players would have to complete Portable Ops first. In interviews, many of the people involved in the game were quoted saying that Portable Ops‘ story would complete Snake Eater and lay the groundwork for the creation of Outer Heaven.
Portable Ops‘ development is also notable for being the first time that a canonical game in the franchise was directed by someone other than Hideo Kojima. The game was directed by Masahiro Yamamoto and written by Gakuto Mikumo, with Kojima serving as producer on the project. Kojima had wanted to have this sort of hands-off relationship with the Metal Gear series since the release of Metal Gear Solid, so I imagine that he found it refreshing to finally hand the reins to someone else for once while he focused his attention on Guns of the Patriots. In addition to being touted as a major piece of the franchise’s story, the game also saw the introduction of a number of new systems which would go on to become staples in the latter games in the series, while also borrowing heavily from Subsistence‘s multiplayer component, Metal Gear Online.
Disillusioned after the events of Operation Snake Eater, Big Boss retires from the FOX Unit to do some soul searching and to understand why The Boss sacrificed herself in shame. However, shortly after, the rest of the FOX Unit goes rogue. They capture a secret Soviet Missile Base in the San Hieronymo Peninsula, Columbia, and then transport a captive Big Boss there. A FOX officer named Cunningham tortures Snake, revealing that only half of the Philosopher’s Legacy was secured during Operation Snake Eater. He suspects that Snake is in possession of the other half. However, Snake has no idea where it is, and is left in a prison cell next to Roy Campbell, a Green Beret who was the sole survivor of a team sent to investigate the base. The pair manage to escape and try to contact Major Zero to find out what’s going on. However, SIGINT and Para-Medic inform them that Zero has been arrested, that Big Boss is suspected of instigating the rebellion in the first place and that the government believe that he stole a prototype weapon. In order to clear his, and Zero’s, names, Snake must find and defeat the leader of the rebellion, a mysterious, charismatic figure known as Gene.
Snake and Campbell begin recruiting disillusioned soldiers on the peninsula into a resistance force. Soon after though, it is discovered that Roy Campbell has contracted malaria, and that it has probably been passed on to other soldiers in their fledgling army. They begin searching for drugs to treat the infection, and in their search discover the leader of the rebellion, Gene, who has supernatural charisma. He is also accompanied by a young and powerful psychic named Ursula. In his search for the malaria treatment, Snake encounters Ursula’s twin sister, Elisa, in a research lab. She is overseeing a culture tank containing a comatose figure, who she refers to as “the Perfect Soldier”, code-named Null. She gives him the malaria treatment and then tells him to head towards the harbour to find the weapon that Gene plans on using to launch nuclear missiles at Russia. When he arrives in the harbour, Snake discovers spare parts for some sort of armoured vehicle. He is contacted by a mysterious informer calling himself “Ghost”, who reveals that the prototype weapon is a nuclear tank capable of launching multiple nuclear missiles. Realizing how severe the situation is, Snake and Campbell decide to discover the whereabouts of this Metal Gear before Gene can complete it.
Campbell decides that, rather than destroying Metal Gear, they might be better off just keeping Gene from being able to equip it with any nukes. They discern the location of the Soviet warhead storage facility and attempt to destroy the elevator which transports nukes to the main floor. However, Snake is stopped by a FOX Unit soldier named Python. Snake and Python had been friends during the Vietnam War, but Snake had thought Python was killed in the conflict. In truth, he had been severely wounded, losing his ability to regulate his body temperature and had to be outfitted with a liquid nitrogen suit to keep his body from killing itself. He reveals that the CIA kept him alive to use him as an anti-Snake – if they ever decided that Big Boss was too much of a threat, Python would be deployed to slay Snake himself. After all the evil he has been forced to commit, Python hopes that killing Snake will finally bring him redemption. After an intense battle, Snake overcomes Python, who cautions Snake that soldiers can only find redemption in serving a hero for whom they will gladly risk their lives. He also reveals that they were too late, and that the nukes have already been transported out of the base, leaving them with no option but to destroy Metal Gear itself to prevent the launch. Snake is able to determine the location of the warhead silo, but is attacked by Null. The pair fight, with Null commenting with shock that Snake has survived far longer than any other target he has been assigned to kill. Before they can complete the fight though, they are interrupted by Cunningham, who forces Null to stand down involuntarily and captures Snake.
After losing contact with Snake, Campbell rallies their forces and begins a search for the whereabouts of their captured commander. They discover that he is being held prisoner at a guest house. Gene speaks with Snake privately, revealing that the CIA has orchestrated the whole rebellion and capture of Metal Gear. With the Soviet Union’s economy in shambles and losing its military superiority, the United States would soon have dominance and the CIA’s role would be diminished. In order to shift back the balance of power, the CIA would give the Soviet Union Metal Gear to keep the threat of nuclear destruction intact. However, he makes it clear that he does not intend to honour the CIA’s intent and will use their patronage to create his own nation of soldiers. Gene continues, stating that he was modelled after The Boss, designed to be the ultimate leader to command the perfect soldier, Null. However, despite having his memories reset, Null cannot forget his encounter with Snake and demands to be allowed to complete his mission and kill him.
Some time later, Elisa confronts Snake in his cell. She warns Snake that Gene is undergoing the final preparations to launch Metal Gear. She tells him where Metal Gear is located and confesses that she has seen a vision of him destroying Metal Gear… although Ursula has also warned that she has seen him plunging the world into chaos. Soon after, Snake is freed by his men, but they are confronted by Cunningham. He demands the location of the legacy, telling him that the Pentagon told him that Snake had it. After shooting two of Snake’s men, Elisa arrives in a truck and rescues Snake and his comrades. When Snake asks why she would betray Gene, she says that she cannot support someone who would use nuclear weapons. Her parents were killed in a nuclear accident in Kyshtym, and she and Ursula gained their psychic powers in the aftermath, but had been rendered infertile. Snake admits that he is infertile as well, having been exposed to radiation at Bikini Atoll.
Elisa leads Snake to the plant where Metal Gear is being held. They sneak in and are about to destroy it before Gene confronts them. Gene reveals his “trump card” and tells Ursula to awaken. Elisa begins to convulse and Gene explains that Ursula and Elisa are two split personalities. Snake is unable to stop her in time, and Ursula takes control of Metal Gear RAXA. By taking advantage of its weak legs and exposed missile launch pods, Snake manages to take Metal Gear RAXA down, distraught that Elisa is seemingly killed in the blast. However, Ghost reveals that RAXA was not the true nuclear-equipped Metal Gear, but merely a proof-of-concept. Ghost reveals himself to be Sokolov, who was contracted by the CIA to create Metal Gear, but who had a change of heart when he realized that Gene would fire it at the Soviet Union. Snake sees the real Metal Gear being flown away by helicopter and tries to kill Gene. However, Gene uses his charismatic powers to fill his men with extreme paranoia, causing them to begin firing at one another wildly. Snake tries to stop them, but it is in vain. Snake is nearly killed, but is saved by the sacrifice of one of his soldiers – Jonathan, the first soldier who he recruited. Snake cries out in anguish as he is surrounded by the bodies of his dead comrades.
Realizing that time is short, Snake moves out to stop the real Metal Gear from be deployed. In the process, he is confronted by Null again, who Snake recognizes as a young child soldier who he rescued four years ago in Mozambique named Frank Jaeger. After defeating Null a second time, it is revealed that The Philosophers had taken him and forced him into the Perfect Soldier project. Jaeger submits to Snake and joins his forces, having once again asserted control over himself.
Snake then enters the launch silo, where he is confronted by Cunningham. Cunningham reveals that he is not working for Gene, but rather The Department of Defence, who have been feuding with the CIA for years for dominance. Snake’s interference would force Gene to launch a nuke at Russia, at which point Cunningham would fire a Davy Crocket missile at the missile base, wiping out all evidence of the US’s involvement in the insurrection and ultimately forcing the US to bulk up their military rather than intelligence gathering. He offers Snake a chance to join with him, but Snake refuses, stating that he won’t live his life the way that The Boss did. Cunningham tries to stop him, but Snake kills him and continues on to Gene.
In the bowels of the missile launch silo, Snake confronts Gene. Gene reveals that he was aware of all the treachery between the CIA and the Pentagon, and that he was playing them along as well. Gene’s own plan was to launch the nukes at the CIA HQ in Langley and at the Pentagon in order to wipe out the remaining Philosophers and to supplant them with his own shadow organization, “Army’s Heaven”. As Gene attempts to launch Metal Gear, they are interrupted by Ursula, who survived the destruction of Metal Gear RAXA. She warns Gene that nuclear weapons are a force of evil which should never be utilized, but he stabs her in a flash of movement. She lies dying in Snake’s arms and states that one of Snake’s children would try to destroy the world while the other would save it. Snake and Gene then fight, with Snake coming out as the victor. A dying Gene gives Snake a microfilm containing the funding and data for his Army’s Heaven – he knows that Snake and he have similar ideas and that one day Snake will want to create a nation of his own.
With Gene dead, Snake moves to stop the launch of the rocket containing Metal Gear. He is unable to stop the countdown, but Sokolov reveals that they can only prevent disaster if they disable Metal Gear itself before it launches. Snake fires at Metal Gear, but fails to destroy it. However, the Soviet army and Snake’s own men begin firing at the Metal Gear with their own weapons. The rocket launches, but their combined fire damages the weapon in orbit, causing it to malfunction and cancelling the strike.
However, the Director of Central Intelligence, and secret member of the American Philosophers, hears about the launch and moves to go into hiding. Before he can do so, he is encountered by Ocelot, who kills him to gain information on the Philosophers’ members and the locations of the remaining funds from the Legacy. Ocelot states that he will eliminate the last vestiges of the Philosophers and they will create a new order to fulfill the Boss’s will.
In the aftermath, the incident is covered up. The official story is changed to claim that Snake had infiltrated the peninsula and destroyed the base himself, with no news of Metal Gear or the launch being revealed. Snake and his army are then brought together to officially create the FOXHOUND unit.
GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
Despite attempting to be a handheld version of the classic Metal Gear gameplay, Portable Ops differs greatly from its predecessors in a number of ways. For one thing, the game’s engine is built on a modified version of the one used for Metal Gear Online in Subsistence. With the game’s open arena-based maps, variety of playable characters, squad-based gameplay and online mode integration, the game actually feels like it has more in common with MGO than it does with a traditional Metal Gear experience at times.
Despite feeling quite different than previous Metal Gear games, Portable Ops would go on to provide a blueprint for future games in the franchise, as it introduces a number of key systems. Foremost amongst these is the recruitment and base management metagame which provides one of the key play objectives throughout the entire run time of the game. Players are given the ability to capture enemy soldiers, recruit them to their force and then assign them to specialties or send them out on missions. While this system is just as addictive as in its successors, it suffers in retrospect by being the unrefined progenitor of the concept. In order to recruit in Portable Ops, the player has to drag unconscious soldiers back to a truck in the far corner of the map, or they had to find a squadmate in a cardboard box and get them to do the rest of the work. Add in the fact that unspecialized soldiers drag enemies painfully slowly and that every step you take lowers your stamina bar, and you can see how this way of handling recruitment swiftly becomes tedious, time-consuming busywork. After having played through far more refined versions of this system, the way that Portable Ops handles recruitment is more painful than it was at release, but it always was an inconvenient necessity, considering the rewards that recruitment brings about. Plus, for those who don’t want to mess around with dragging soldiers around, players were also given the chance to use the PSP’s wi-fi capabilities to detect unique access points to get new soldiers. I remember it being quite exciting to go on road trips into the city with my family and then furiously tapping the O button whenever an access point would flash by, earning myself a potentially unique and skilled soldier in the process.
While recruitment and base management is the key system that Portable Ops introduces, the game also features a few other aspects that later games would adopt. One of these is the menu-based mission structure, where the player picks missions from an interface. All previous Metal Gear games had played out on a linear map, where the player is always funneled from point A to point B to progress (often with plenty of backtracking to go along with it). This allows for more player freedom in choosing where to go next. While there are always required missions to advance the story, players are able to revisit any unlocked maps in order to recruit soldiers and acquire items. The game also includes R&D-based weapon and item development via the base management metagame, allowing for players with strong bases to avoid having to procure all of their supplies through on-site hunting. The game also has a very rudimentary day-night cycle similar to Metal Gear Solid V, although in this game it does not seem to have any actual in-game effect, aside from allowing your soldiers to recuperate after missions.
One really interesting idea that I really like in this game is that you can use specialized soldiers to infiltrate enemy bases, potentially incognito if you play in an inconspicuous manner. While Portable Ops‘ successors would allow the player to play as characters other than Snake if they wished, I never really found that there was much of an incentive to do so. In Portable Ops, playing as other soldiers is both mandatory and beneficial in many instances – Snake deploys into a mission with 3 other squadmates who can be swapped with at almost any point while undetected. If you select your squad with even a modicum of tactical thought, these squadmates will have special abilities which make them capable of actions which Snake is unable to complete (although Snake is always going to be your best all-round character). For example, “rescuers” are essential for retrieving downed enemies and reducing the tedium of recruitment, whereas “delivery men” are super useful since they can send items back to your base.
Also, if a soldier’s character model is identical to the type of enemies patrolling the map, then they will be able to walk among enemy forces undetected. On the one hand, it fits rather well in the game’s recruitment and infiltration systems and helps to incentivise the use of squadmates. On the other hand though, this can kind of break the game and make things ridiculously easy if you abuse this system. The conditions to remain inconspicuous are incredibly arbitrary though. Bump into someone? That’s an alert. Walking slowly? That’s an alert. Climbing a ladder? You better believe that’s an alert (and you will immediately get shot at and have them radio in backup to take you down, you ladder-climbing terror you!). However, you can run around with your gun out and no one’s going to bat an eye at you. Hell, it’s even really strange that different soldier types will somehow realize that you’re an intruder, while enemies identical to you won’t realize that you’re not supposed to be there. I’m pretty sure that these harsh, arbitrary penalties were put in there just to keep the incognito system from being broken, but this is just lazy design in my opinion. Something more akin to a Hitman‘s disguises would probably have been preferable, since having enemies immediately open fire on you for the most innocent of offenses is just ridiculous.
One other new addition that I really want to give a shout out to though is the surround indicator. This element of the game’s interface provides an abstraction of all the sounds being made in Snake’s vicinity, showing those made by him and those by others in the environment, while also pointing out their directions and their intensities. The indicator is incredibly simple, basically being little more than two concentric circles, but it is incredibly intuitive and, I would argue, the best designed radar system in the entire franchise. It doesn’t give you too much information like the earlier Metal Gear games arguably did, and it isn’t useless like the radars in Snake Eater. Rather, it is a fantastic tool to get a good bearing on immediate dangers and provides a rough indicator of when it’s time to start sneaking to avoid making too much noise.
The surround indicator is more than just good design though, it is basically a necessity due to the hardware of the PSP… which brings us to the beginning of the problems with Portable Ops. The decision was made early on in the game to carry over the 3D camera from Subsistence to Portable Ops, but I think this was probably a mistake. Due to the hardware’s lack of a second analog stick, control of the camera is mapped to the system’s D-pad by default, which is on the same side as the thumb stick. As a result, adjusting the camera is only really feasible when Snake is stationary, making playing the game a series of stops-and-starts as Snake tries to take in his surroundings, which obviously slows down the gameplay. The game seems to compensate for this by giving enemies ridiculously small vision cones, requiring you to be around 15-25m away before they’ll even notice you running around right in front of them. Portable Ops might have been better served with the series’ traditional isometric camera and with gameplay a little more similar to the original Metal Gear Solid, although I wonder if the PSP’s limited screen size would have made this viewpoint too zoomed out to adequately discern Snake and enemies from the background. In any case, the game’s camera system is just the first of the game’s failings to properly adapt to the hardware.*
Even worse though are the game’s first person aiming controls, which are incredibly imprecise. Like Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, headshots are king in Portable Ops. However, lining them up is extremely difficult, mainly due to the limited range available with the PSP’s thumb stick. In order to pull off a headshot, you’re probably going to need to fiddle with your aim, compensating and overcompensating as you struggle to line up their head… and this is if they are stationary. If they’re moving, then good freaking luck hitting them in the head. Eventually, you learn to compensate by locking onto targets at a distance and then lining up the shot vertically, but again, if the enemy moves during this then your odds of hitting drop significantly. This also has the knock-on effect of making sniper rifles practically worthless since they can only be aimed and fired in first person mode, so you can’t even attempt the lock on. Third person aim is significantly better due to the game’s dependable lock-on auto-aim system, but even then it is somewhat crippled by insanely high bullet deviation when you fire automatic weapons, necessitating tap fire to even have a chance of dropping someone quickly. As a result, shotguns ended up being my weapon of choice against infantry since they one-shot most enemies and will send their bodies flying into anyone else in the area. The shooting controls were definitely my #1 frustration in playing the game, although admittedly you do get a little bit better with them as time goes on. I ended up relying on CQC whenever possible, as it is a far more reliable system to take down enemies.
The hardware also limits the game in other areas. Live action cutscenes are almost completely eliminated in favour of animated ones, with Ashley Wood contracted to use the same art style as the Digital Graphic Novel. These scenes are well done and competently voice acted, which puts them miles above what few live action cutscenes are in the game. These scenes basically consist of static camera angles of motionless character models while text scrolls by. The game lacks voice acting outside of the animated cutscenes, with the exception of a few grunts and radio calls. As a result of these hardware limitations, the game feels significantly less cinematic than the other Metal Gear Solid titles.
Also worth noting are the game’s graphics. The game actually looks fairly impressive, especially its character models. Being based on the Metal Gear Online engine, it seems that the development team reused quite a few assets from Snake Eater, as the characters look almost identical to their PS2 counterparts. However, the environmental textures are far worse in comparison – most environments feature low-detail textures mapped onto flat polygons which resemble graphics somewhere between PS1 and PS2-levels of quality. This isn’t a major issue by any means, especially in comparison to the hardware limitations I have already listed, but it is interesting to note now that we’re almost a decade removed from this game’s release.
In spite of these issues, it is nice to see that the Metal Gear emphasis on stealth gameplay is preserved. The awkward controls kind of necessitate this, as does the recruiting metagame, but there are some other in-game reasons to avoid full-on shootouts. For one thing, recruited squadmates can die permanently, making confrontations extremely ill-advised. Also, if enemies radio in for backup, then the tide of enemies can be just plain relentless unless you run and hide. I’ve hidden inside a building and then fought off seemingly endless waves of respawning enemies who kept checking the last point of contact, stopping me from lazily waiting out the alert phase from my not-so-secure hiding spot. However, some of the stealth gameplay is undermined by the baffling decision to allow you to achieve mission objectives if you’re under full combat alert. The objectives don’t exactly help this matter, as almost every single mission revolves around getting from Point A to Point B without dying. Being able to just run for the goal, even if it is literally surrounded by enemies, really doesn’t fit in the with the otherwise stealth-oriented design ethos, and the limited mission variety doesn’t help either.
Moving onto the boss battles, it’s actually rather surprising how many boss battles Portable Ops provides, although they are all rather simplistic and a bit of a mixed bag. The main problem is that each boss encounter boils down to a very easy, exploitable pattern which gets looped throughout the whole fight, so once you figure out the pattern then you can beat them with relative ease. The battles against Python, Metal Gear RAXA and Cunningham are all quite fun and similar to traditional Metal Gear bosses, with some sort of twist and/or exploitable weak point to keep the battles reasonably interesting. However, Null and Gene are both rather poor fights, which is especially egregious since they’re hyped up as the primary antagonists (and you have to fight Null twice).
Null is simultaneously extremely easy and frustrating at the same time: basically all you have to do is hide and let him walk towards you while firing his SMG three times until he reloads, at which point you have about one second to pop out, lock onto him and then shoot. If you miss this one second, then too bad because he blocks every incoming shot and is immune to CQC (in fact if you try to initiate CQC, he’ll stab you and do quite a bit of damage in the process). You can’t even try to get a height advantage on him because he’ll do a super jump to get to the same height as you, so basically all you can do is run in a circle from cover to cover. Oh and he takes around 10 shots to bring down, making this fight drag longer than it needed to. It’s not a particularly testing fight, nor is it fun.
Oh, and it bears a special mention that the voice actor for Null puts in an extremely bad performance, arguably the worst in the entire franchise. His actor sounds extremely monotone whenever he speaks, making all of his lines sound like awkward PS1 Resident Evil-era levels of hilarity. When you start damaging him during the battle he’s supposed to react with surprise that someone is actually breaking his defences, but the voice actor responds with a half-hearted “…what?” You could argue that this might have been intentional, that they want to emphasize Null as a blank slate, but I’m not really buying it. There are ways to play an inhuman figure and make it clear that that is your intention without sounding like you accidentally wandered into the recording booth when all you really wanted was a Big Mac and a side of fries with a Coke, please.
Gene on the other hand is just underwhelming. He’s immune to most attacks so you end up just having to wait for his openings and then damage him. He has a really annoying super voice attack though which drains your stamina at an alarming rate, with no way of avoiding it. Your only hope here is to get into CQC range of Gene and then hit him to stop the attack, but by then he will likely have drained your stamina significantly. You’re likely only going to survive 1 or 2 hits from this attack, so it makes the fight much more difficult than it actually should be – I was getting through the fight with ease and managing my health well, but suddenly would end up getting stamina-drained and have to restart. I suppose you can counter this by bringing rations, in which case the fight is going to be laughably easy.
STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
Despite Konami’s insistence that Portable Ops is a key part of the Metal Gear saga, by the end it becomes pretty clear that it is largely inconsequential. In fact, its canon status is rather murky, and it might only be considered “canon, except when it isn’t”. The game has a very standard, familiar Metal Gear story set-up: an elite special forces unit goes rogue, steals a classified, high-tech weapon from the US military and plans on using this as leverage to establish their own military nation. This is basically the exact plot outline of every Metal Gear game up until this point, although it is also the last one which fits so easily into that description.
More than any other Metal Gear game, Portable Ops really leans on the rest of the franchise to justify its importance within the story. At its core, Portable Ops boils down to an explanation for the origins of various characters and ideas which will become consequential later in the franchise, and also picks up a couple loose threads from Snake Eater. As you can probably imagine, this makes Portable Ops‘ story feel very much like filler rather than a self-contained narrative arc. One of the big problems that this creates is what I would like to dub the “George Lucas cameos”, where a number of characters from previous games in the franchise are given their “introduction” in Portable Ops just for the sake of putting in familiar faces. Now an “origin story” of sorts isn’t an inherently bad idea, but the way that the game handles these characters is hamfisted at best. First of these is Roy Campbell, who is introduced within the first few minutes of the game as Snake’s second in command. Having Campbell here doesn’t really serve any real greater purpose other than for the game’s writers to wink and nudge at us and say “hey, remember him?” over and over again. Of all the cameos, this is probably the least problematic, but it is clearly forced and just makes the game’s universe feel that much smaller.
The introduction for Frank Jaeger/Gray Fox/Null is considerably worse though, as it messes with the established canon in quite a few ways. Most egregiously, in establishing Null as “the Perfect Soldier”, they’re effectively making it so that Jaeger was always a super-soldier, even before he was transformed into a cyborg ninja. Again, this feels a lot like a wink and nudge at the audience as they reference a fan favourite character. This cheapens Gray Fox in my eyes and is clearly writing backwards from where Jaeger is going to end up, rather than writing him as a regular character who tragic things will one day befall. Isn’t it more impactful for him to be psychological broken down by Dr. Clark’s experimentation in Metal Gear Solid, rather than just have this as his default state? Now if they had introduced Frank Jaeger as a child soldier and had Big Boss interact with him in that kind of setting, without having it become super intrusive to the story, I could get behind that kind of introduction. In fact, I was waiting for Peace Walker or The Phantom Pain to go in this direction to show Big Boss’s relationships with soldiers such as Sniper Wolf or Running Man, but this was an unfortunately missed opportunity in the Metal Gear prequels.
Oh and the game also reintroduces Sokolov. If that sentence felt really shoehorned and poorly set-up then congratulations, you now know how the Sokolov twist is handled in Portable Ops. There are a couple calls from “Ghost” in the story, but Sokolov shows up in the middle of a deluge of plot twists and then is immediately forgotten. I mean, having him “die” off-screen in Snake Eater was always ripe for a twist, but Portable Ops fails to mine the shock that this revelation could have. One second, Sokolov reappears in the flesh, reveals that he was forced to build Metal Gear, and then is completely gone from the plot. While I imagine that they could have actually factored him into the plot fairly well, his appearance ends up amounting to little more than a George Lucas cameo where he pops in and says “hello, I’m still alive!” and then buzzes off to be placed in your R&D team for the rest of the game.
Portable Ops doesn’t just callback to previous characters in the franchise haphazardly, it also tries to provide the origins for a number of concepts and narrative elements from later games. Admittedly, it achieves these goals with more success than it does in integrating previous characters though. The first of these elements is explaining what happened to the missing half of the Philosopher’s Legacy, one of the big plot twists at the end of Snake Eater. While it isn’t the game’s central mystery, it does play a very important role in the plot and the players are reminded fairly regularly by Cunningham, for whom solving this issue is his primary motivation.
This game is also meant to serve as the origin of the FOXHOUND unit, as the ending heavily implies that Big Boss’s guerrilla army is reorganized and integrated as a part of the US special forces. In my opinion though, this isn’t a really satisfying explanation for the unit’s origins. I can’t really see the military taking in a private guerrilla army and maintaining its organization while absorbing it into their forces… not to mention that this will mean that the FOXHOUND unit is built up of Soviet soldiers and individuals from the treasonous FOX unit.
Gene’s plans are also really obviously meant to parallel/retroactively-foreshadow Big Boss’s own future. Gene’s whole plan revolves around establishing an independent nation for soldiers, while using information control to ultimately take control of the world. This plot point is an extremely transparent callback to the first two Metal Gear games, although at the time Gene’s plans would have provided Snake with enough inspiration to one day follow in his footsteps… if only the Metal Gear series ended with Guns of the Patriots, that is. Considering that Peace Walker and The Phantom Pain both explored Big Boss’s journey to creating his own military nation in far more detail and in more interesting ways, Portable Ops‘ story ends up feeling even more peripheral and well-trodden in retrospect.
Arguably the most important plot filler that Portable Ops provides though comes at the game’s very ending and is only tangentially related to the main story. As Gene attempts to launch Metal Gear at the Pentagon and CIA headquarters, a major coup occurs as the head of the Philosophers tries to go into hiding. However, he is ambushed by Ocelot as part of a plan spearheaded by Major Zero. As a result, Ocelot and Zero get ahold of the Philosopher’s Legacy, thereby dissolving the Philosophers and providing themselves with the funding necessary to establish the Patriots. I have heard quite a few complaints regarding the “twist” about the identity of the Patriots in Guns of the Patriots, and while the ending of Portable Ops doesn’t really go the whole way to showing how Donald Anderson, Para-Medic and Major Zero became such morally questionable people, it does help to establish this plot point (and is likely the exact “key piece” of the franchise story which Kojima had been referring to in the pre-release hype).
As a direct sequel to Snake Eater, Portable Ops carries over a lot of thematic elements from that game as Snake continues to wrestle with the aftermath of that game’s events. Foremost amongst these is the central struggle about why a soldier fights and where his loyalties lie. While this is definitely runs the risk of retreading Snake Eater all over again, Portable Ops gets away with it by having Snake be forced confront his own feelings on The Boss’s words, while forming his own views on this idea. At the beginning of Snake Eater, Snake believed that soldiers’ loyalty was meant to lie with their nation and nothing more. However, by the time that he is forced to assassinate The Boss, he has clearly begun to have second thoughts about the morality of such an outlook. This is further explored in Portable Ops as the entire incident is sparked by petty internal politics between the CIA and the Pentagon, with both organizations putting acting amorally and using soldiers as disposable pawns in order to maintain their relevancy.
There is a really big moment near the end of the game when Cunningham confronts Snake for the final time. Cunningham insists that Snake doesn’t need to stop Gene because The Pentagon wants him to launch a nuke at Russia in order to stoke the fear of war and increase defence spending. Snake refuses the offer and insists that he must stop Gene and Cunningham if need be because it is the moral action. He states that he refuses to live his life the way that The Boss did, selflessly in service of the mission. What this ultimately signifies is a major character development, as Snake had previously venerated The Boss’s teachings. Faced with the corruption of government bodies, Snake has come to the realization that if his nation commits evil, then he will act against their interests in advancement of the moral good. As a result, Snake fights for what he believes in and his loyalties lie with himself and his comrades. This is also made especially clear in the game’s theme song, “Calling to the Night”, which I would argue might be the absolute best theme in the entire franchise.
Perhaps the most impressive use of this theme is the fact that it is actually central to the gameplay thanks to Portable Ops‘ recruiting system. All of the soldiers that you recruit in the game are effectively nationless already and are looking for something greater than themselves to fight for.** As a result, it is the leadership methods of Gene and Big Boss are pitted against each other in the narrative on a number of occasions. One of the biggest moments in the game sees is when Snake faces Metal Gear RAXA. Gene forces Snake to face Ursula/Elisa and believes that she is killed in the blast. Distraught, he attempts to take Gene into custody, but Gene reveals that Ursula was just a pawn that he was using to distract Snake long enough for him to secure the real Metal Gear. As if willingly sacrificing his closest servant wasn’t enough, Gene then uses the power of his voice to trick his own men into firing at one another wildly as a distraction in order to escape, while Snake desperately tries to stop them.
This also shows the other side of this theme as Snake’s soldier Jonathan throws himself in front of a bullet heading towards Snake and is killed. While Snake fights for himself and the greater good, this causes his men to want to fight and die for him. This is also demonstrated in the section of the game where Big Boss is captured and you have to play as some of these recruited troops in order to rescue him. While Gene touts himself as the ultimate battlefield commander, Big Boss’s natural leadership qualities and sense of morality allow him to come out victorious in the end. The game’s ending sequence sees Big Boss attempting to take down Metal Gear, but not having the firepower necessary to keep it from launching. However, his demonstrated selflessness inspires his and Gene’s soldiers to join with him, and their weight of fire is eventually enough to take down Metal Gear. Ultimately, Big Boss is able to prevail because he values the lives of his soldiers, whereas Gene views them all as little more than pawns to bring about his ultimate vision, making him more like the corrupt government institutions which Snake turns his back upon by the game’s end.
Moving on to some final notes, I’d like to touch on some of the game’s characters briefly. While their battles might not be much to write home about, the game’s bosses generally have quite interesting backstories and personalities. Python would fit right at home in pretty much any Metal Gear game with his very sympathetic history and tragic relationship with Snake. He also happens to look just like Pinhead from Hellraiser, which is just a bonus. I also really liked Cunningham – he doesn’t have much depth to him and he’s a huge asshole, but in such a way that you really look forward to the day when you’re going to introduce his face to a rocket launcher. As far as thug enemies go, I really liked Cunningham’s inclusion. Gene isn’t really one of the more memorable antagonists in the franchise, but he does get a few moments where he reveals himself to be deliciously sinister.
Of all the new characters though, Elisa/Ursula is probably the best. As per Metal Gear tradition, she has a really tragic backstory which ties into anti-nuclear sentiment: her parents were killed in a nuclear power plant accident, and the resulting aftermath caused her to gain her psychic powers and led to her split personalities. The radiation also caused her to become infertile, which leads to a rather touching scene with Snake where he admits that the atomic testing at Bikini Atoll has left him sterile as well. Elisa is just an extremely likeable, helpful and sympathetic character throughout the game’s narrative. Due to the ways that the game ties Elisa and Snakes’ relationship together in the narrative, Elisa actually ends up feeling like a consequential figure in the franchise’s overarching story, despite the fact that she only really appears in this one game (and is certainly far more consequential here than Campbell or Sokolov ended up being). The only awkward aspect of her portrayal is that there are quite a few sex jokes directed at her (particularly in regards to her being underage). However, they really aren’t too bad and she doesn’t seem to mind all that much (in fact, she kind of participates in it by making a soldier think she is going to rape a captive Snake, and then using the opening to deliver him a message).
I also have to say that Portable Ops‘ story is arguably the worst sort of Metal Gear-convoluted. What I mean by this is that there are Metal Gear games where the game becomes convoluted over time as the story builds up (such as Snake Eater), and then there are others where the game becomes convoluted as plot elements are introduced and then immediately refuted (such as Sons of Liberty). Portable Ops is closer to the second category, as there are two huge plot twist dumps near the end of the game which nail the player with revelation after revelation. Probably the most egregious offender is when Gene reveals that the CIA has orchestrated the entire uprising, then Cunningham reveals that he works for the Pentagon and is betraying Gene and then Gene reveals that he knew that Cunningham was a traitor all along and that he’s going to launch a nuke at the CIA and Pentagon instead of Russia. Not only that, but there’s also a lot of boring busywork (such as the first 5 or 6 missions being based entirely on finding malaria drugs, or the multiple missions to blow up enemy vehicles). Possibly due to Kojima’s hands-off involvement, the plot just tends to be less intriguing compared to other Metal Gear games and, as you might be able to see in my analyses, is conceptually stupid in some ways (eg, the US government allowing Soviet soldiers and men who have committed treason to form the basis of FOXHOUND).
All-in-all, Portable Ops hasn’t aged particularly well. The shooting controls are incredibly frustrating, the missions are incredibly simplistic and the hardware in general just makes it a difficult game to acclimatize to. However, it is still pretty fun, ambitious, has a ton of maps to play within and some very fun core systems – even if they have been refined to a sheen in subsequent releases. That’s really the main problem, it doesn’t stack up very well in comparison to its successors, unlike other games in the franchise such as Snake Eater which are still masterpieces to this day. As a result, the game is a bit of a mixed bag to go back to and isn’t even all that consequential to the overall canon.
*This is in reference to the original PSP release only though. If you can get the game on PS Vita or on an emulator, then these are probably better ways to experience the game. Being able to map the camera controls onto a second analog stick make moving and controlling the camera a significantly more reasonable proposition, although the system is still quite clunky. Since the game was clearly not built to feature movement and free camera control, you’re going to be constantly fighting an auto-recentering camera.
**In this way, the recruiting system in Portable Ops has always made way more sense to me than it ever did in Peace Walker or The Phantom Pain. While it was more refined in those games, the narrative justification just wasn’t there.
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