Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops

Everyone likes a return to form. Just witness the global delight in Daniel Craig's turn as Bond – the best since Connery, fictional espionage fans say, whilst presumably weeping with joy.

Imagine our salty gushings, then, at the realisation the authentic Metal Gear Solid has finally infiltrated the PSP in the guise of the claustrophobic hands-on stealth action of Portable Ops (previous Ac!d games were MGS titles by name, not spirit).

From the off, Portable Ops does a great job of squeezing all the creeping-up-behind-men-and-throttling-them content down to the smaller screen. The game engine from PlayStation 2 sibling MGS3: Snake Eater has been brilliantly reworked for the handheld – it looks and sounds great, an almost identical experience to that available on consoles.

True, those already familiar with the series will recognise some changes to the controls, with a free-moving camera added to the mix and some of Snake's moveset pared down a little. None of these are to the game's detriment, though – more a fine-tuning for portable use.

Of course, it wouldn't be Metal Gear without one of the series' notorious narrative twists. Here you play Solid Snake's clone-father from the '60s, a rogue super spy tracking down nuclear warheads and growing a team of loyal comrades.

The story is the standard sci-fi/military conspiracy nonsense, but answers enough MGS fans' questions to justify a roster of odd genetic mutant villains and outlandish set-piece battles.

We all sneak together

For Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops the action has shifted from solo espionage to building teams of operatives; the plot is as much about revealing how super-spy Snake eventually amassed a squad of faithful followers as it is about tracking down nuke-launching robots. And the assembly of that team is left to you: potential allies are found in the field by abducting them during sneaking missions.

It's a unique and brilliant idea. Once you've snuck into an area, captured a foe (from a typical soldier through to scientists and high ranking officials) and recruited them (by leaving them in your prison for a few days), you can set them to work on researching new weapons or equipment, or joining your sneaking team.

For example, some recruits are marines tougher in battle than even Snake, while others can walk more freely around secure locations, thanks to their uniforms.

This squad-recruitment dynamic marries with the game's traditional action elements to make for a thrilling, smart adventure, as stealth is incorporated with strategy both on and off the battlefield.

When you aren't sneaking into locations, you manage the squad via a world map interface that encourages you to dispatch allies to spy on other locations. Your chaps subsequently send back info confirming the location of other potential decent recruits, rare items, or plot-forwarding intel.

Crucially, as recruits can potentially die in battle and be lost forever, you become attached to the team you build; if you carefully and quickly assemble a set of medics everyone heals quicker, but when even that doesn't save them you genuinely feel personally responsible for the failure of Snake's squad. Conversely, when you succeed and grow the ranks, it feels like you've really contributed to the overarching Metal Gear story. The drama here lies not in the long cut-scenes but in your actions during the gameplay itself.

Appropriately enough for a handheld game, the recruitment element also breaks down the action a little, meaning no matter the length of your journey to or from work or school there's something to do, be it a lengthy mission or a shorter quest to find new blood for the gang.

Leader of the pack

All of the above action would be blissful enough satisfaction. However there's even more to be found via the PSP's Wi-Fi functions, where you can swap recruits with your mates or go head-to-head with them both locally and over the web.

Versus encounters are standard solo and team deathmatch or capture the flag fare, but the use of the Metal Gear characters spices the action up immeasurably, since you can only take a squad you've recruited in the singleplayer game (and any weapons you've found or made for them) with you.

Online matches become as much about bravado and bragging as sniping and sneaking. Seeing some guy from the other side of the planet take you down with a rare recruit he's found elicits both jealousy and a desire to keep playing the singleplayer portion to locate that same hard-to-find character.

The game even cleverly encourages you to go back online by enabling you to get new recruits when using a Wi-Fi access point (or even the PSP GPS peripheral – where available).

In total, it makes for a brilliantly managed package, and has to be one of the first times a game's singleplayer and multiplayer halves are so well-balanced but also keenly connected.

As is typical with MGS games, there are elements some players may find alienating. Stealth veterans might find the sneaking a bit old hat, while newcomers may see the cut-scenes (which are actually animated comic frames) as pulpy, overwrought military-cum-pseudo-psychology nonsense that would make even Jack Bauer's psychiatrist blush.

These problems can be identified in all Metal Gear titles, though, so to criticise Portable Ops for its legacy rather than the bountiful hours of enjoyment it offers would be wrong.

Niggles are far outweighed by great new gameplay additions and, overall, given the superb online/offline balance, this is one of the most brilliantly designed PSP games to date.

Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops

A supreme stealth action game that isn't just true to the MGS canon but offers exciting new elements for both single-player sneakers and multiplayer junkies