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Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops

Import review: Bite-size play, gluttonous depth - but the jury's out. For now.

MGS: Portable Ops and PSP share a common problem: no-one knows what they're about. Sony's handheld is sort of a media player, and kind of a games machine, offering just short of PS2 standard graphics, but with fiddly controls - and two years on, we're not really sure if we like it. MGS: Portable Ops is sort of a full blown single-player MGS epic, and kind of a multi-player-focused curiosity, offering just short of PS2 standard graphics, but with fiddly controls - and 20 hours in we're not so much sure if we like it, as unsure if we're playing it properly, or completely missing the point in the first place. Typical of a Kojima game, it defies any kind of neat categorisation and subverts tired clichés, but sadly for MGS: PO and PSP, it disproves the wrong adage - a problem shared, isn't a problem halved. But doubled.

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MGS is fiddly enough, but the PSP version requires arthritis-baiting dexterity. Given that we didn't like MGS3: Snake Eater for six hours until we mastered CQC, camouflage and fine camera control, it's really highly frustrating. With no second analogue stick to constantly adjust the camera - plus the addition of PSP's small screen makes proceedings cramped and claustrophobic. Before you even start, you need to constantly tap L1 to reset the camera behind you, lending the game a staccato feel, or - worse still - let go of the movement (on the analogue nub) entirely, so you can adjust the camera position on the D-pad.

Blind control
To be fair, you do adjust after a few hours, but it only achieves the level of fluidity you might associate with, say, a practised amputee, as opposed to a natural athlete. If you've never played an MGS game before, the controls are perversely intimidating - and that's not to mention the game's unique inner-logic, recruitment system and new hub-based play that'll unsettle even the most hardened stealth operatives.

Better news? It looks almost as good as MGS3 on PS2 - at least in the interior sections - with spot-on animation, a full 3D camera and incredible character models. The only downside is that levels tend to look similar, with a Lego-block scattering of sharp edges, inclines and boxy buildings. Levels are relatively big, with multiple floors and some sweeping panoramas, but the fuzzy textures and lack of ambient effects makes them sometimes feel like crudely painted VR missions.

Still, relative to the curious MGS: AC!D series, it's a major improvement, facilitating the core MGS stealth gameplay we cherish and abhor. You can do anything you can in MGS3 - well, certainly, MGS2 - including crawling, leaping and punching; plus complex stuff such as pop-out shots from behind cover (involving an octopus-handed number of buttons), CQC, taking guards prisoner and even tapping the walls to attract attention, before sneaking up and 'holding up' guards to steal their items.

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There's no camouflage system - though certain team members are 'invisible' to a point in certain situations, leading to critical selection choices - and you need to hold triangle to tip-toe and sneak past foes undetected. There's no radar (like MGS2), or sonar blip (like MGS3), but a new sound-based detection system that shows how much noise you and the enemy are making, plus its direction and intensity. With practise, it's a versatile tool, allowing you to make great use of cover to baffle foes, and sneak up from behind.

The big addition is team recruitment (See 'How To Recruit A Team'). Knock out a foe and you can drag them back to your van to be press-ganged into joining your squad. Different troops have different skills (some help stamina recovery, some help headshot accuracy, some help build weapons, etc), lending the game a tactical feel. You could rush through each level - yes, there are levels, and a hub - killing people at will, but you forfeit the chance to recruit them. A slower approach lets you build a varied team, and makes things easier. Don't be fooled - you don't order a squad around in real-time like Ghost Recon, but take it in turns (if you wish) to tackle levels while your pals hide in boxes.

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