We've been quite vociferous in recent weeks when it comes to N-Gage, calling for some Grade A titles that make the most of the N-Gage platform's unique capabilities. So far, only Reset Generation has really stamped its mark as a distinctive experience that you can only find on Nokia's mobile gaming service.
Of the titles in contention to emulate RedLynx's classic as a system seller, Metal Gear Solid Mobile was undoubtedly at the head of the pack. Now it's out in time for Christmas – is it worth making a late petition to your loved ones for an N96 to play it on? The answer is a resounding 'yes'.
In case you've had your head buried in the sand over the past ten years, the Metal Gear Solid series has been hugely influential on the video gaming landscape. Since the first game's release in 1998, a whole raft of me-too stealthy action games have found their way to market. Indeed, few action-adventure games released since have failed to include sections where sneaking around is preferable to going in all guns blazing.
So what makes up your typical Metal Gear Solid game? As touched upon, there's the tense, sneaky gameplay that rewards a patient approach. Protagonist Solid Snake is a slippery customer, as his name suggests, peering around corners, hiding in lockers and silently downing armed guards with his bare hands.
Another defining element of the series is its fondness for dramatic storylines, which abound with conspiracies and double crosses. There are more about-turns and clever twists in each MGS than in your average episode of Heroes.
Metal Gear Solid Mobile has almost everything you'd expect from the series. Tense gameplay, a gripping story and a decent assortment of gimmicks and gadgets. In fact, the only thing it's missing is the bombastic cinematics of its predecessors, which will probably please as many people as it disappoints.
More immediately, though, it looks absolutely stunning. Although the top secret base Snake infiltrates is a decidedly grey environment, filled with store rooms and crates, it's very much in keeping with the series. The quality the 3D characters is the best yet seen on N-Gage, and it's matched by the silkiest of game engines. Though it's viewed from a zoomed-out perspective, sidle up to a corner and the camera will seamlessly pan in to show you Snake and the view over his shoulder.
The way in which you control Snake is similarly slick. The directional pad takes care of moving you around, while 'A' acts as a context-sensitive action command. Walk up to a bad guy from behind and it will act as a 'Grab' command, from the front a more rudimentary attack. The same button allows you to crawl, jump and interact with terminals depending on the situation.
While not flawless (the lack of a 'Walk' button means that sneaking up on guards is a bit hit and miss) the best thing I can say for it is that I soon forgot I was playing it on a phone – I was simply playing it.
The 'B' button puts you into a first-person perspective, which is useful for scoping rooms out and for aiming your weapons. It's essential for precision aiming (such as the section where you have to shoot out security measures) and it's here that the game first reveals its major trick.
Metal Gear Solid Mobile's main innovation is its use of your handset's camera. Agree to its use at the start, and when you hit 'B' you'll control your view by physically tilting the camera. It's a novel and initially fun use of your phone's technology, but it only seems to work adequately in well lit areas. I played through it in my dingy living room, and as the afternoon wore on and the light faded, so did my enthusiasm for camera-controlled aiming.
Fortunately you can turn it off in favour of the directional pad, which works just fine. The camera's put to better use when it comes to camouflage – equip the stealthy device in your inventory and hit 'A' and you can use the camera to scan the colour from any real-life object. Your outfit will then change to that very colour, allowing you to blend into the background.
So if you want to blend in with the grey walls you could, say, pull out a grey sock from your washing pile and scan it into the game – hey presto, instant grey camouflage. It can be tricky getting exactly the right tone, but that's all part of the fun. As with the camera viewpoint control, the game wisely provides a reliable back-up, allowing you to snap an in-game texture instead. This removes much of the challenge and a lot of the fun, but it's a welcome option for when you just want to get on.
And you will want to get on, because the story is thoroughly enjoyable. There's nothing particularly new for MGS fans – it's the usual mix of military bases, walking tanks and murky motives – but it's a proven mix that's still as potent as ever.
In fact, your drive to see what's around the next corner and the richness of the environment will inevitably lead to prolonged sessions on the game, which exposes Metal Gear Solid Mobile's key flaw: it's all over way too quickly. I took my time playing through the game, resetting on a number of occasions when I set off the alarm (I'm a bit of a klutz) and I still finished the game within a single short afternoon's play. My actual game time came in at well under two hours.
When you take into consideration the fact that it's quite possible to finish the game in less than 45 minutes (there's a Point Pickup award for the feat) it's easy to feel a little short changed.
There are additional one-off VR Training missions, which are good fun, but they're too few in number and curiously lacking any kind of scoring system. If there were at least twice as many, with the facility to upload your best times to an online leader board, we could have forgiven the meagre running time of the main story.
As it stands, you can post your score at the end of a single-player campaign, and there are plenty of Point Pickups to chase in subsequent play-throughs.
Regardless of its brevity, though, Metal Gear Solid Mobile is one of the best titles to grace the N-Gage platform. Its stunning presentation, innovative gameplay and gripping story make it one of the portable experiences of 2008 – which is no mean feat considering how late in the year it arrived.
It looks like N-Gage has its second killer app.
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