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.