Metal Gear is a name that comes with baggage. Think of Metal Gear, and you think of Solid Snake, of Revolver Ocelot, Big Boss, Raiden, Otacon and a host of other improbably named characters down through the past ten years. You think of the excitement around Metal Gear Solid, the hype around MGS2, perhaps the satisfaction of MGS3's return to form. You think of Hideo Kojima's complex, philosophy-laden storylines and self-indulgent cut-scenes, and his constant claims that the next MGS will be his last - and the next, and the next. Metal Gear's baggage has piled up to the point where this is a videogaming institution, upon which many gamers have strong views. Whether it's a love of the series' great characters, a hatred for the dodgy pacing and interminable codec dialogue sequences, or a simple case of old-fashioned platform fanboyism, it's not hard to find those who profess either to love or to hate Metal Gear.
What's often forgotten - buried, to stretch this metaphor a little further on our creaking introductory rack, under the weight of all this baggage - is that Metal Gear boasts fundamental, solid game mechanics. Sure, sometimes it forgets to let you play for a bit too long, but ten years of development have honed MGS' basic elements of sneaking, shooting and hand-to-hand combat.
Snake Free Zone
That's what Metal Gear Online is, then. It's Metal Gear Solid stripped down to its bare essentials, shorn of its characters, its cut-scenes and its cinematic ambitions. Divested of the storytelling elements that have provoked so much love and so much hate from gamers, Metal Gear Online instead offers up stealth and combat in their purest form - no cut-scenes, no missions, just 16 players waging online battles. Admittedly, this isn't the first time that Metal Gear Solid has sported an online component. MGS3's second incarnation, Subsistence, and the PSP's first proper MGS title, Portable Ops, both allowed players to take the game online, and both implemented it pretty well. However, neither console is noted for its online play, and it's fair to argue that Metal Gear Online on the PS3 represents the first really high-profile effort to bring the series online.
Although it's being described as a standalone title, we're not actually sure how MGO is going to end up in our hands. An announcement at TGS last year revealed a plan to bundle a "starter pack" for the game with MGS4, with players then expanding it through content packs purchased on the PlayStation Store. There's some suggestion that the "starter" game will also be available as a download, putting this into the same league as the likes of Warhawk at the forefront of Sony's ambitious digital distribution plans.
However it arrives in the end, Metal Gear Online is shaping up to be a high profile part of the whole MGS4 circus when it finally rolls into town. Taking its cues from the game's own tale of near-future warfare and battling private military companies (PMCs), it's a great looking multiplayer shooter with realistic weapons and equipment - not to mention the weight of ten years of evolution, polish, grit and humour behind it.
It's a third-person shooter, with up to 16 players filling out maps that range in size from about the scale of three or four decent-sized (albeit bombed-out) houses up to the expanse of a large abandoned factory and warehouse complex. Each character is customised, both visually (clothes, accessories and facial appearance) and in terms of abilities, which are set by the player as Skills and subsequently enhanced by an experience system as you play.
That customisation will be a key draw. Each time you create a character, you select four skills for that character from a lengthy list - ranging from weapon proficiencies for each weapon class through to improved CQC abilities, better lock-on, more effective use of distracting items and so on. Each character retains all-round skills, so even if you don't select Sniper Rifle Mastery as a skill, you'll still be able to use sniper rifles, albeit not terribly well. These fixed skills level up as your character progresses, eventually turning him into a fairly distinctive specialist - and there's a wide range of possible skill-sets to create, so players will have a lot of latitude to hone their characters to suit their play styles.
Clothing and accessories, too, are unlocked as you progress. They're not actually relevant to the gameplay, just a way to deck out your character as you see fit - with the implication from Konami being that you'll be able to unlock or download new clothing and accessories as you progress through the game. Weapons, in-game items and equipment, by contrast, are available to all players through the load-out screen (displayed at the start of matches, or when you're waiting to respawn), and we assume that any additions to that screen will come in the form of downloaded content packs.
No Place To Hide
Once you've built your character and dived into a game, first impressions of Metal Gear Online are that it's slick and polished - even with code that's presumably months away from launch. The third-person view slips down into a much closer over-shoulder view when you press L1 to aim your weapon, and for sniping and long range firing you can tap Triangle to go into a first-person mode (although you can't move while in this mode, reflecting the game's emphasis on third-person rather than first-person play).
Where that third-person emphasis becomes important is in your ability to interact with the scenery around you - always a strong point of Metal Gear Solid's game systems. Here, it's simplified into a single button, the Triangle button, which is essentially a context-sensitive action button. Push against a wall and press Triangle, and you'll flatten yourself against it; run up to a lower wall and the same button press will send you diving over it. It's a system that'll be instantly familiar to players of Gears of War, albeit slightly more flexible here - with more context-sensitive actions to be used, and a focus that's shared between stealth and cover in equal portions.
In common with the MGS single-player game, MGO also offers an auto-aim system, which targets foes once they're visible and within a certain radius of you. At first glance, this looks like a strange idea in an online shooter. However, we quickly realised that leaving auto-aiming turned on is actually a total liability. The camera swings around when an enemy comes into range, leaving you entirely disoriented, and your shooting is reduced to spraying bullets in the direction of your foe, rather than being able to target individual body parts or do anything more subtle than firing from the hip.
It's telling that the toggle for auto-aim is right there on the face buttons - Square, to be precise. We suspect that the idea isn't that players will use it constantly, since doing so will turn you into a sitting duck for anyone with a more long-range weapon - even a decent pistol. Instead, it's a rather clever way of allowing players to swing around very quickly to face an oncoming threat; tap auto-aim, target your foe, then tap auto-aim again to turn it off and resume play. It'll also be handy to keep tabs on enemies in CQC encounters, of course.
Looking beyond the auto-aim, MGO's weapons and items feel solid and entertaining. Each weapon class is heavily specialised - shotguns for close-up work, assault rifles at longer range, sniper rifles purely for the patient camper - and each one is equally deadly in the right context. There are no poor-man's weapons classes here, and while weapon damage isn't quite one-shot-kill realistic, it's close enough to be very satisfying. Especially satisfying are the tranquilliser weapons, surprisingly. These don't harm an enemy's health, but send them to sleep on the spot for a short time - allowing you or a team-mate to move in for the kill. Combined with a good forward team, an efficient sniper with a tranquiliser gun could be devastating.
Equipment, too, is well considered and implemented. One interesting feature is that explosives, while not as powerful as in some other games (you'll rarely see one-shot-kills from grenades and claymores, as in something like COD4), have realistic physics attached to them. Set off a claymore, and it may not kill you outright - but the shockwave from the blast could knock you off a ledge or a ladder, or simply throw you backwards out of cover. The usual MGS assortment of special grenades are here too - from smoke through to chaff that disrupts the enemy's overhead maps.
There are even a few of MGS' more humorous items that have made the transition through to Online. Players have a Cardboard Box in their inventory, which initially seems silly - until you realise that many levels are littered with the things, making them into a surprisingly good disguise that can sometimes see enemies walking right past you without noticing. The adult magazine, too, makes a return - throwing it on the ground can force other players' characters to glance in that direction, distracting them from what you're doing. They're clever, light-hearted touches that give the game a unique flavour, as well as a few new tactics to exploit.
The game's menus give the strong impression that Kojima Productions isn't skimping on Metal Gear Online's functionality outside the game, either. Game-types range from flag-style missions (where you actually end up competing over a small, floating, cheerful-looking rubber duck, which bobs above the head of the player carrying it) such as CTF and flag defence, through to "base missions" (where you capture and hold locations on the map, either to earn points towards victory or to win outright as the first team to hold all the locations) and simple, straightforward deathmatch. The server browser is pretty comprehensive, offering plenty of information about the games you're joining (or setting up), and we especially like the ability to give a server a rating out of five stars when you leave. Those games by control-freak or kick-happy players should quickly get booted to the bottom of the lists as a result.
A quick survey of the rest of the menus reveals further tantalising options. Photographs taken in-game can be stored on the PS3 hard drive (shades of Halo 3 here, perhaps?), while there are menu options hinting at proper support for Clans, an in-game email-style messaging system, proper support for friends lists, and of course, the MGO shop - although this sadly wasn't working, so we couldn't go in for a sneaky peek around.
Whether Metal Gear Online can succeed at being seen as anything other than the online mode of MGS4 remains to be seen - but the promise of ongoing downloadable content releases and perhaps even full online distribution for the game is very promising, assuming Konami can get the price point right. Either way, we had a huge amount of fun with an afternoon spent playing Metal Gear Online - which, after being spoiled by the likes of Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4's magnificent online modes in recent months, strikes us as extremely promising. Whatever they think of Kojima's storytelling, every fan of online shooters should be keeping a close eye on MGO.