Multiplayer Archive: Week Eight

Multiplayer: The Life Of A Bad Guy

Our reporter takes time to relax thanks to 'Portable Ops' bad guys.

01.12.07

Throughout the week I've written about some of the odd parts of the PSP's "Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops" that make the game a standout on Sony's system. There's one element that I think sets it apart from other games on any system: You can play most of the game as the bad guys.

As mentioned in this week's other entries, "Portable Ops" allows you to recruit enemy soldiers to aid game hero Snake's mission in a South American military base. Captured soldiers sit idle on your PSP for a few turns and then become eligible to play as controllable characters. While preparing this weeklong series on "Metal Gear," I called a friend who had strongly encouraged me to play weeks ago. I asked him how his recruiting was going. Pretty well, he said. He'd collected about 80 characters to fight on his side. How did he like controlling those various characters? He couldn't say. He'd been playing the game as Snake.

Maybe my friend feels some great loyalty to the grizzled hero of the "Metal Gear" world. Maybe I don't. Since I started recruiting soldiers in "Portable Ops," I've barely played as Snake. I've been playing as the recruits — the newly reformed bad guys. At first I just wanted to see what the other characters could do. One character could tiptoe faster (this is important in a stealth game, mind you). Another could drag unconscious bodies double-time. Some recruited soldiers had special weapons such as shotguns and freeze grenades.

Better than any of that, though, is the fact that most of the remaining enemies in the game won't mess with my recruited bad guys. If you enter a mission full of soldiers dressed in the same uniform as the soldier you choose to control, then you might as well be walking a mailman through a neighborhood with no dogs. No one will bother you. You can't change clothes in the game, so there can still be problems if a lab-coat-wearing technician eyeballs your gruff commando, but these encounters prove to be an exception to the rule — at least in the first half of the game that I've played through.

This system radically distinguishes this "Metal Gear" from the many that have gone before. You don't need to play this game in the shadows, avoiding tripwires, fleeing alarms, and wrestling with or shooting every enemy in arm's or rifle's reach. You can walk in the daylight right next to characters who'd normally try to take you out.

That's not just a radical concept for "Metal Gear." Since the day I first played "Pac-Man" I had to accept a fundamental gaming law: Being a hero brings trouble. I couldn't leave Pac-Man idle, since the ghosts would wipe him out. I couldn't run Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom without getting attacked by Goombas and Koopas. These days I can't swing a vine, explore a temple or walk through a space station without attracting an attack.

And now "Portable Ops" has made me realize how good the bad guys have it. I know what it's like to be one of them now. I guess if you're a Goomba you don't need to worry about other Goombas. They never did attack each other, did they? If you're a "Tomb Raider" jungle cat, your life was fine, except when Ms. Croft showed up. Some game worlds didn't work that way. Playing both sides of the conflict in "Halo 2," for example, confirmed that life as Allied or Covenant in Master Chief's war was a harried existence.

But generally, life as a video game bad guy is good. Those bad guys who mistake me for a friend only to have me knock them out would probably protest. So maybe it's not perfect. But "Portable Ops" presents a rare gaming experience: terrain not fraught with peril. Played the way I'm playing, it's an adventure in which danger finally isn't lurking around every corner, when wits need not constantly be at an end, when it's OK to take your finger off the trigger. Disguised as a bad guy, I still can't afford to act strange. I don't want my soldier getting spotted breaking into locked rooms or stealing secret documents.

My friend who is playing as Snake may be fighting his way through the game one step at a time. But I'm taking it easy. And now I'm eager for something similar: "Goomba: The Game"? There would only be one real enemy in that game. And he can't be everywhere, jumping on all of our heads at once.

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Recruiting Soldiers From Thin Air

Using Wi-Fi, our gamer enlists Ant, Sea Anemone and Megamouth Shark for his 'Portable Ops' squad.

01.11.07

On the side of a short building in the middle of New York's Times Square, there's an American flag illuminated in a wall of lights. It's a military recruiting station. On Thursday (January 11), I went there and tried to recruit a virtual soldier.

As I've described over the past couple of Multiplayer entries, the PSP's "Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops" allows players to recruit enemy soldiers to fight alongside the game's hero, Solid Snake. The player can recruit the soldiers by kidnapping them in the actual game, but the PSP's Wi-Fi abilities have been harnessed so gamers can also snatch soldiers out of the real thin air. All you have to do is turn the game on, select "recruit," pick the "access point scan" option, and Sony's little gaming machine will scan for nearby Wi-Fi signals.

Those signals broadcast unique sets of numbers from which the PSP conjures unique, multifaceted "Metal Gear" soldiers. Thanks to the wonders of smart programming, you don't need to be able to log on to a Wi-Fi signal; you just have to be near one. And in most crowded places — and even, as I recently discovered on the streets of suburban Georgia.

I turned the feature on in the MTV News offices last week and wound up pulling down a sergeant named Snail. (For some reason, all of the soldiers I captured except Jonathan have been named after animals for some reason. I've recruited Gorilla. A man named Jaguar fights for me. So do Ant, Sea Anemone and Megamouth Shark.)

The character creation and recruitment is all processed by the PSP. Players need not worry about the numbers the system is crunching. Nevertheless, the "Metal Gear" designers have made a minor game out of the whole affair by requiring the player to repeatedly tap the circle button to "boost" a recruitment beacon while the Wi-Fi data is being reconfigured. Sometimes you get someone. Sometimes all the tapping in the world won't do the trick and the recruitment fails.

When I was outside the Times Square recruitment station, the beacon signal was faint. I tapped furiously. There are security cameras all around that station, which is within pitching distance from the tower where the New Year's ball drops. I trust my behavior was filmed and will be categorized as suspicious. Worse, I was having trouble recruiting anyone. I walked north, and a half-block up from the station I snagged Armadillo. According to his in-game dossier, he's an arms dealer and a gambler.

Recruiting characters with the "Metal Gear" Wi-Fi system has become a minor hobby, to be honest. Between Christmas and New Year's, I traveled to Georgia to visit my girlfriend's family. I managed to make that trip even more useful: I recruited soldiers. In the Atlanta airport, I obtained Deer, an arms dealer and politician. My girlfriend was driving us — slowly — away from her father's house, and from the car I recruited Tasmanian Devil, a physician of exceptional skill.

Back home in New York, I got an elite engineer named Bison. Waiting in the lobby of "Grand Theft Auto" maker Rockstar Games, I landed a captain and spy named Seagull who is defined as a spy and a deliveryman.

I can't say the soldiers I've recruited have been helpful in combat, because I haven't actually used them yet. I haven't played the action part of "Metal Gear" in over a week. I've just been too busy. But I'll keep on recruiting. It's an easy way to play even when I'm not playing, and another compelling example of how "Portable Ops" plays to the PSP's strengths.

Now who can I recruit over by Sway's office?

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: Remembering Team Charlie

Can four dead video-game soldiers make a player feel real loss?

01.10.07

Four virtual men fought for me. I dubbed them Team Charlie. They did well. And then they were wiped out, and I can't even remember their names. I feel guilty. Credit the PSP's new "Metal Gear" game.

One of the key features advertised for "Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops" is the ability for the player to recruit enemy soldiers. In most games, the player just shoots the enemy or knocks them out — or in a particularly popular, vicious series of games, has a fat plumber jump on their heads and crush them.

But in "Portable Ops" you can win people to your side. Naturally, this is not done through reasoned debate but with a chokehold delivered by game hero Solid Snake to unsuspecting grunts. Then you drag them back to Snake's truck. According to the game's instruction manual, they are then held as "enemy combatants," a provocative term that the game hasn't done anything with (not in the 14 hours of it that I've played so far). After you play a few more missions and about a half hour has passed, captured soldiers become available to fight on your side.

That's how I captured enough soldiers to assemble Team Charlie. Once you capture soldiers, you assign them tasks like developing new weapons or assembling into squads of four ready for combat. Snake's team is Team Alpha. I put some other guys in teams Alpha and Bravo and then created a quartet I called Team Charlie.

A few days after Christmas, I was browsing through the options list in "Portable Ops" and found a mode called Cyber Survival. I entered it and found my PSP flicking on its WiFi to bring the system online. I discovered I could bring any four guys in my squad with me. I chose Team Charlie. Cyber Survival turned out to be an unusual online combat mode. It didn't involve actually playing anything. According to the rules, I could upload Charlie to a real-life server and my four guys — each characterized by a series of stats specifying strength, stamina, etc. — would battle foursomes uploaded to the server by other players. I couldn't control the battles. I couldn't see them. All I could do was send my team, establish a condition for retreat and then hope for the best.

On Saturday, December 30, I dispatched Team Charlie into Cyber Survival action. I sent them out in the morning, asking them to retreat only if other teams got the better of them three times. In the evening I logged back on to see how they had done. They had not retreated. So I called them back for a report. They had won two battles and captured a trio of enemy soldiers. Mind you, the three captured weren't imaginary characters. They were characters other PSP owners had sent into battle. This was a landmark moment. My game had played itself without me and made progress. The last time that happened is when I left the original "Sim City" on overnight so I could earn enough taxes to build some skyscrapers in the morning.

Proud of Charlie, I sent them online again. I called them back on New Year's Day. They had won five more times and lost just one battle. I was beaming. Now, maybe a smart general would have let them rest. Not I. They were back on the field in no time. Two days later I checked back in. They hadn't retreated. I tried calling them back. That's when I got the report: Team Charlie hadn't retreated, because Team Charlie had been entirely wiped out.

The report of Team Charlie's defeat didn't include their names. I don't remember them myself, and, yes, that bothered me. Sound silly? It's not like I wept. But usually video games don't even hint at the impact of death. Players aren't expected to mourn the enemies they blast. And their own heroes are usually only dead until you select "restart." Only Nintendo's "Fire Emblem" games, which make it nearly impossible to revive fallen allies, have challenged that convention in any way similar to "Portable Ops." I felt responsible for my guys. And I'm the one who should have known better.

The fact that smart use of the PSP's WiFi made four video-game characters feel just a little more like independent actors to me — and therefore more alive — is an achievement. The fact that that made their deaths actually matter to me is a breakthrough. "Portable Ops" did good, even if, as a general, I did not.

— Stephen Totilo

Multiplayer: How The PSP Copes With One Less Stick

Many gamers take issue with hand-held device's controls; here's why they don't matter.

01.09.07

When I told a friend that I played several hours of "Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops" on the PSP, he was surprised. "You could deal with those controls?" he asked.

The latest military spy game starring hero Solid Snake has earned stellar reviews. But some people knocked the controls. The problem has been that the PSP's lack of a second analog stick prevents gamers from moving the game's lead character with a left thumb and keeping the camera view of the action behind Snake with the right. That's how the last "Metal Gear Solid" game on the PS2 worked when controlled with a conventional system controller. That's how most action-adventure games worked on that console. But the PSP doesn't have a second stick to compete.

And therein lies the kind of concern the PSP has been knocked with for the better part of a year: Its games don't — can't — do things that its PS2 forebears did. That's been an issue with games brought from console to hand-held. If it's going to look like a PS2 game, shouldn't it play like one? Or if it plays like one, shouldn't it look like one?

Sony just sent me an early copy of the new "Ratchet and Clank: Size Matters" for the PSP. There's a lot to like in that game. It plays and looks like a PS2 version of "Ratchet." But at every turn, I can't help but compare it to what it might look like on the PS2. Wouldn't a PS2 version of this game have more stuff in this spot? Would a PS2 version have this many enemies? Wouldn't the PS2 version play smoother because I could use a second controller analog stick to look?

Here's how I answered my friend: "The controls don't matter." I agreed that the controls for "Metal Gear" on PSP wouldn't work too well in a PS2 game like, say, "Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence." That game had the player sneaking through jungles and swamps, marching forward while looking around for hidden attackers with a constant swivel. But on Monday I cited Sony gaming chief Phil Harrison's promise that more PSP games, "Metal Gear" among them, will play to the system's strengths. And part of that means not playing to a machine's weaknesses.

In "Portable Ops" you don't need that second stick, because if you play it the way I did, you don't need to look over your shoulder. And why's that? Because in the half-dozen "Metal Gear" games before this PSP one, the gamer had to cautiously sneak around, hiding in the shadows. In the PSP game, the gamer can play as any character they meet (and knock unconscious) in the game and stroll around as them without raising the alarm of any other enemy troops. In the PSP game, the player is essentially hiding in plain sight. There's no reason to look around.

That's just one way "Portable Ops" seems tailored to the PSP. And it's subtle. Maybe that wasn't even why the designers chose to let players control enemy characters. But if they stumbled onto it, they made a good fall. It prevents a traditional PSP hang-up from spoiling the game.

The PSP game also tweaks the PS2 "Metal Gear" formula in other smart ways. It doles out its adventure into missions that last just a few minutes, short enough for a quick bus ride or the delay before a movie begins. And then there's how it uses the PSP's portability and Wi-Fi settings. In fact, these bright design ideas sent me driving through the streets of suburban Atlanta last weekend and prowling through New York's Times Square. They made me newly excited every time I stepped in a new state, city or even new room with my PSP in hand. Sound strange? I'll explain this most novel of PSP gaming features on Wednesday.

— Stephen Totilo

Will This Game Save The PSP?

Welcome to PlayStation Portable 'Metal Gear' Misadventures.

01.08.06

Not too long ago, the PlayStation Portable was the hot handheld gaming machine and the Nintendo DS was the one people weren't too sure about. Sometime last year, that line flipped. The Nintendo DS Lite outsold the PSP by the millions in Japan in 2006 and spent the last half of the year beating Sony's portable gaming machine in the U.S. as well.

So last month, when I interviewed Phil Harrison, the head of Worldwide Studios in Sony's PlayStation division, I asked him what was going on with the machine (see "PlayStation Exec Talks Shaky '06, Reveals Plans For New Gaming Feature").

Specifically, I wanted him to address the belief that the kind of portable-gaming experience people want has done a 180 in the last couple of years — or maybe a full 360, which seemed to be Sony's problem. Handheld gaming back in the Game Boy era, during the 1990s and early 2000s, primarily involved quick, short, graphically simple games. The PSP showed up in 2004, offering richer, deeper PlayStation and PlayStation 2 affairs — fleshed-out "Madden" games and eventually a pair of "Grand Theft Auto"s almost as grand as those on the consoles. But then finishing the circle were the DS's bite-size "Nintendogs," "Brain Age" and the first Super Mario game in more than a decade to not even be in 3-D.

Sony pushed 3-D and epic. Nintendo brought back short, flat and simple.

Had Sony built the wrong machine? Did people not really want a portable PlayStation?

Now some people — that would be gaming bloggers, message-board posters and the like — charge Harrison and the rest of the PlayStation executive team with arrogance. Maybe it's because Harrison speaks with a British accent and is taller than just about anyone else in gaming. Also, he and the other team members often talk with exceeding confidence, noting how they've been beating their console competitors for about a decade straight. I've talked to Harrison a few times, and though I am not that tall, I've found him charming and perfectly willing to admit weaknesses where weaknesses exist. So sure, he mentioned that "the business of PSP is very healthy indeed" and said it had plenty to offer (and a better games-to-hardware sales ratio than the DS). But can you call a man arrogant who — despite the existence of two portable "GTA"s and about a dozen Sony-made PSP games like the critically acclaimed "LocoRoco" and "Daxter" made under his watch — replied with the following?

"Our achievement has been to deliver console-quality gaming in the palm of your hand. But that could also be considered a missed opportunity — that we have yet to really deliver PSP games that speak with their own voice and stand for what the machine can do on its own. There are, however, some great indications of that coming through. Have you seen the latest 'Metal Gear Solid' game?"

Thankfully, I was recording my conversation with Harrison, because I couldn't believe he said that. And it sounded so ... humble. That said, my answer to his question was, "Not yet." I'd heard good things about how "Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops" utilized the PSP in new and unusual ways but had yet to try it. Harrison's comments were the nudge. I plunged into "Portable Ops" later last month.

To what extent it proved Harrison right and to what extent it hints that handheld gaming may yet pull a 540 will be the topic of Multiplayer all week. Consider this entry the kickoff to my "Metal Gear" Misadventures on the PSP.

— Stephen Totilo

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About this column: The average gamer doesn't have the time or cash to experience one-tenth of the games that come out every week. Collectively, the MTV News team does — and then some. With games streaming into the office each day, we see a lot, we play a lot and we remember a lot. We want to tell you what we're playing and what's worth caring about it, and we'll do it every day at MTV News: Multiplayer. To follow the column daily, bookmark multiplayer.mtv.com.