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.
Where the beta does show promise is in the setup options before the action. As well as allowing you to customise pretty much every facet of the game, including different sensitivity settings for each viewpoint, there's a robust and detailed upgrade system to encourage successful play. Each character you create can be allocated four skills, ranging from expertise in different weapon types to faster movement or the ability to track enemies after they've left your field of vision. This information can then be shared with your team by synchronising with squad members via a salute when in close proximity. The more you play, the more these skills creep closer to the next level, and the more levels you add to each skill the more things you can do. Bloodthirsty types may grumble at being made to level up before they can sneak up on people and slit their throat, but over time it gives you a compelling incentive to customise not only yourself but also your clan, creating an eclectic team with complementary abilities.
There are less in-depth tweaks to be found as well. Deathmatch games can make use of Drebin Points, a temporary in-game currency which dictates how much ordnance you can take into the field. These are earned through successful play, so by dominating one round you'll be able to enter the next with even better weapons. That doesn't do much for balancing the game, clearly, since it means the best players get additional advantages over the noobs, but the game is generous with the points so most players will get to tinker with some of the cool toys provided you're not completely inept.
Perhaps the most important variable in judging this bite-sized preview is the game modes themselves, and it's here that my initial reaction was most muted. A the start of the beta test, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture and Base missions were all that was on offer, and all four could have been taken from pretty much any online shooter in recent memory. It's not just that there's little in the way of variation to make these versions stand out, it's that none of them really seem to play to the strengths of the Metal Gear world. This is a series built on stealth and guile, on the promise of "Tactical Espionage Action", yet by cribbing the standard multiplayer modes it risks feeling like any other online fragfest. Compounding this is the fact that the Metal Gear style isn't particularly well-suited to a deathmatch environment. The cover system is clumsy when compared to Gears of War (that'll be an extra 200 comments already) while the maps do seem designed more for run-and-gun action than the stealth tactics that are the series strongest features.
It's not completely mindless blasting, of course. You can use the old cardboard box to lie in wait - a tactic I found quite useful in Base missions since you can capture a base, then find a dark corner, snuggle down in your box and wait for enemies to come and take it back. But it's only a matter of time before such tactics become pointless, since boxes can be kicked apart simply by walking into them and already players are wising up putting a bullet in every box they see, just in case. You can also leave mucky mags to distract enemies while you move in for the kill. In the solo game, this feels funny. When you're the one being killed because the game wrests control away from you against your will at a critical point in a competitive game, such elements can feel like annoying in-jokes rather than flexible tactical options.
So my main concern as I jogged around was finding a way to reconcile this rather predictable fragfest with its pretentiously ambitious parent franchise. I couldn't help but think of the online modes in Splinter Cell, where stealth was essential rather than optional and in which the missions you were set specifically played to the strengths of the game engine. Metal Gear Online has been crying out for that sort of component, something to explicitly tie it in with the adventures of Snake and company.
Thankfully, it seems that element hasn't been overlooked. A new game mode, Sneaking Mission, added to the beta on 28th April, goes a long way to alleviating these concerns. It also comes with a new map, Midtown Maelstrom, taken from the Middle-Eastern town where the bulk of MGS4 takes place. With criss-crossing streets, buildings with multi-storey interiors and hundreds of hiding places that feel natural rather than designed, it actually feels like a real place and it's an absolute thrill to explore. Even better, these additions have magically appeared on the server end rather than via another interminable download.
As for the rather prosaically named Sneaking Missions, one player is randomly chosen to play as Snake and must creep up on a set number of other players and take their dog tags. The remaining players are split into red and blue teams and must not only battle each other, but also find Snake and kill him a set number of times. When there are a lot of players, an additional player can assist Snake to balance things out a little. The difference between this three-way stalk-'em-up and the rather lumpy Deathmatch and Capture modes is enormous. By playing to Metal Gear's strength, the result is a vast improvement and immediately more gripping. Playing as Snake is as tense as always, with the added frisson of knowing that you're hunting - and being hunted by - live opponents.
Snake has a limited weapon-set, but the weapons he does have are levelled up to include a stun knife and a powerful sniper rifle. He also has his OctoCamo camouflage ability, which automatically kicks in when you remain prone. Find a shady spot and lie still, and you're wonderfully invisible to all but the most eagle-eyed enemy. On my very first game in this mode, I managed to lie unseen in the middle of a shootout between the red and blue teams, emerging like the Predator to claim the victor. Hell, yes. That's exactly the sort of awesome war story you want to be taking away from an online Metal Gear game.
It's not just because Snake is involved, but this is a mode that finally feels like Metal Gear. It's scary and paranoid and, yes, tactical. You need cunning to survive as Snake, and balls of steel to emerge from hiding to bring someone down. And while you'd think that only the person lucky enough to play as Snake would relish this mode, it's just as much fun to be on one of the teams. Simply by making you aware that Snake could grab you at any moment, it offers a nice twist on the usual Metal Gear experience and might make you feel a little empathy for the hapless guards whose necks you so casually snap in the solo game.
By concentrating on stealth, mastery of the Metal Gear control system is a huge help rather than the hindrance it often becomes in the more traditional online modes. The full set of moves is suddenly vital, and the advantages to using cover and practising silent kills is self evident. There are some peculiar wrinkles, though, mostly connected to the way scores are divvied up. Playing as Snake, I settled down into a camouflaged spot and sniped enemies as they approached up the street. It didn't take them long to suss out what I was doing and flank me, and I soon lost my three lives. However, because I'd clocked up enough kills - but without collecting any dogtags - I still ranked first for the match. I won and lost at the same time. Weird, but nothing to fret about too much.
Given just how exciting and specific to the Metal Gear experience Sneaking Mission is, I'm left wondering why Konami launched the beta with the most generic modes possible. In fact, I'm not even sure why they're included at all. Certainly people will always want to just run around and shoot at each other, but there are dozens of online games that let them do that already. In Sneaking Mission, Metal Gear Online has its secret weapon - a game mode that goes far beyond the basic online offerings of Metal Gear Solid 3 and Portable Ops. In doing so it promises to live up to the promise of multiplayer action in Solid Snake's universe. Here's hoping that Konami continue to develop more play options in this direction and leave the run-and-gun fragfests to the other franchises.