Rewind to a week ago, and my first impression of the long-awaited Metal Gear Online beta test probably wouldn't have been suitable for public consumption, dominated as it was by thoughts such as "f**king slow updates", "s**t c**k dropped connections" and "which s****k w****ler designed this g**k m***ing sign-up process?"
Suffice to say that although entering the beta may have proved even harder than sneaking into a FOXHOUND-controlled facility dressed as a clown, we won't be dwelling on the arduous task of finally getting to play the bloody thing. What we will be dwelling on is the reality of what Kojima and his crew have rustled up for the online arena, and whether all the delays and palaver have been worth the hassle.
The beta started with four gameplay modes and two maps, with another one of each added today. The original maps are fairly compact, but this is entirely appropriate since the game keeps things cosy, catering for up to twelve players at a time.
Bloodbath is the smallest, a claustrophobic tangle of shattered concrete bunkers with a central tower and a network of underground tunnels. Gronznyj Grad is more spread out with both indoor and outdoor areas, lots of sniping spots and elevated rooftops and walkways. They're not bad maps, but nor are they particularly inspiring. Gronznyj is the better of the two, offering more varied gameplay options and the hilarious man-catapult, but I was never blown away by the design of either. Fans of beige and grey will be happy with the aesthetics, but the detail level isn't particularly high. Anyone who's been hoping that the game will boast hitherto unimagined heights of hi-def realism will probably be disappointed with these largely functional and non-interactive environments.
Gameplay follows the third-person shooter rulebook to the letter, while the controls will be familiar to everyone who ever played the previous MGS titles. The X button handles your stance - press while standing still and you crouch, hold it down and you go prone, tap it while running and you'll roll. Triangle handles specific actions - pressing against walls for cover, climbing ladders, and rolling onto your back while prone. L2 calls up the scrolling inventory menu, while a quick tap cycles through the items one by one. R2 does the same for your weapons, which consist of SMG, rifle or shotgun plus a handgun, knife and grenade or mine. L1 puts you into aiming mode, where the square button switches the often-useless auto-aim on and off and triangle puts you into first-person view. R1, predictably enough, makes you shoot.
As a control system for a single-player stealth game, it's a proven formula. As a control system for a multiplayer game, it's less successful. The inability to shoot from the hip takes a lot of getting used to, as R1 simply activates a melee attack without the L1 aiming modifier. Your first instinct upon seeing an enemy running ahead of you is to simply point your camera at them and open fire. By inserting the additional button press before this can happen, the game loses a lot of immediacy for no apparent benefit. Such mechanisms work fine when you're stalking AI guards as Solid Snake, but for the looser, more chaotic environment of a multiplayer game you need a system that reacts on the fly and having to aim, then aim again, then fire never really feels natural.
The weapons and items menus feel similarly clumsy. You don't always have time to stop and scroll to the weapon you want, and while you can switch the slots around to put weapons in your desired order it's often no more intuitive to flip through them in sequence. Simply mapping each weapon-type to a direction on the d-pad would suit the needs of multiplayer much better, but the d-pad is instead used for selecting the rather pointless pre-recorded voice commands. Presumably Konami noticed that headset play is still a rare luxury for PS3 players (most matches I played had maybe four out twelve players using voice comms) but I'm still unsold on the tactical value of being able to make your avatar yell "Let's go!" to anyone within earshot.