Version tested: PlayStation 3
What do you think? Ready to go for another 2000 comments? Or is everyone still too tired from last time? It probably doesn't matter, since Metal Gear's optional online side dish doesn't quite come with the same burden of expectation and devotion as the main course. It is, however, very much a distinct and separate part of the package and thus worthy of its own moment in the spotlight. And, for the benefit of those on both sides, that's exactly how I'll be scoring it - as the first iteration of a standalone Metal Gear Online game that just happens to come bundled with Metal Gear Solid 4.
For those who took part in the beta, the first thing you'll notice is how little has changed. Turns out that the beta test wasn't a glimpse at what Metal Gear Online had to offer, but the chance to play with about 80 percent of the game. They've even retained that awful login system, which I had naively hoped might just have been a long-winded method of tracking beta usage. Sadly not. You still need two logins - a Konami ID and a Game ID - both of which must be registered using a poorly designed website and a very fussy data entry system, if you haven't already set one up during the beta. Names mustn't be the same as your PSN ID, one password must be at least eight alphanumeric characters, the other is more like a pin number...I swear, I have to jump through fewer security hoops to access my online banking.
It is, admittedly, a one-off inconvenience but one that comes at just about the worst time. We've already had to watch Snake blow smoke rings for twenty minutes while the main game installs, and then twiddle our thumbs while downloading another update for Metal Gear Online. After that, forcing players to fill out finicky forms before they can enjoy themselves feels downright perverse. In fact, at one point, having shuttled between my living room PS3 and office PC several times, checking for confirmation emails and digging out old passwords, I felt sure it must be one of Kojima's post-modern pranks and Psycho Mantis would pop up and laugh at me, but no - Konami really is just being awkward.
Itching to shoot people? Sorry, further annoyances await. Right before you create your character, the military avatar with which you will gaily skip through Metal Gear's networked carnage, the game casually informs you that only one such character is allowed per console. That's right - not one character per PSN account, one per console. If you want more, you'll need to head to Konami's proprietary in-game store and buy three more character slots for GBP 3.99 or EUR 5.00. While you're there you can also pick up the game's only other downloadable content at the moment; a pack of new voice clips. That'll be GBP 2.99 or EUR 3.79 to you, squire. It's not quite horse armour, but if Konami is serious about this just being a "starter pack", they'll need to offer some more tantalising expansions sooner rather than later.
So, you finally get into the game itself. Combat is fast, kills are quick and as for patching up your wounds? You'll be lucky. Everyone gets to choose their preferred weapon payload, with further options to change or upgrade your selections each time you respawn. Don't spend too long tinkering though - it's easy to get spawn-camped while debating their merits. The auto-aim feature is still a mixed blessing - handy for swinging your view towards incoming enemies, but useless when it comes time to dispatch them with a headshot. Melee fighting, or Close Quarters Combat, is also a skill best left to those who know what they're doing. The atmosphere is tense, while maps are designed to keep everyone close together, making sure that encounters happen quickly and often.
In addition to the modes already covered from the beta test - Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Base Capture, Sneaking Mission - we now also get Rescue Mission, which is Capture the Flag by any other name, and two maps that weren't seen in the beta. Ambush Alley is a Ronseal map - it offers exactly what you'd expect from the title. Lots of cover, lots of blind spots, lots of close quarters fighting. Urban Ultimatum is a more vertical level, with taller buildings to ascend and snipe from, while criss-crossing alleys provide cover for those below. Yet I'm afraid my beta misgivings haven't been assuaged.
Back when we reported on the beta, I expressed concern that the modes of play offered didn't exactly click with the established Metal Gear gameplay and controls. In amongst the expected deathmatch and "capture the base" modes, only Sneaking Mission stood out as something that really took advantage of Metal Gear's established strengths. I was really hoping that the full game - or full "starter pack", if you want to be pedantic - would boast more modes that could only be possible with Snake and pals, with the more generic modes simply there out of obligation. Not so, unfortunately. This is very much a shoot-'em-up in stealth clothing. The same vague sense of opportunities missed holds true of the maps. They're functional, but never particularly inspiring, and I was hoping to see some of the famous locations from past games reworked for online fun. The nuclear facility from Metal Gear Solid. The tanker from Sons of Liberty. That sort of thing. Maybe we'll still see that sort of historical connection in future downloads, but for now the link between Metal Gear Online and its single-player cousin is more technical than thematic.
To split my hairs even more finely, it's more an online game based on the Metal Gear engine than a specific online Metal Gear game. The game relies entirely on the traditional Metal Gear Solid control system, which was developed for single-player stealth, yet game modes like Deathmatch and Base Capture were developed for multiplayer run-and-gun action. As it stands, Metal Gear Online doesn't quite find a way to combine these two elements into anything truly distinctive. You crouch-run into action, but must rely on needlessly complex controls to react to living opponents in an open-plan battle, rather than the AI foes in a linear narrative they were designed for.
The cover system, so integral to the single-player experience, is all but useless here. With no patrolling guards to worry about, waste time creeping along walls and peering round corners here and some l33t player will shiv you from behind or snipe your face off in a heartbeat. Sometimes you can vault over a low wall, other times you can only crouch behind it. Characters are incapable of pulling themselves up onto surfaces that are only shoulder height. The scrolling weapon select system is a poor fit for the online arena, especially when the d-pad is begging for something useful to do, while having your HUD spread out all over the screen, with health at top-left and a tiny ammo gauge at bottom right, is the sort of thing that works in a slower-paced offline game but proves hazardous in a game where access to that information needs to be almost subliminal in nature. Buttons come mapped with multiple functions, all of which come together to form a barrier between you and the simple enjoyment of playing the game. You can see the fun, but it's not always easy to feel it.
The effect is jarring, particularly for new players. There's a clever tutorial feature, in which experienced players can mentor newbies in real-time training exercises, and a couple of dedicated beginners servers, but apart from those concessions this is a game that tips the balance strongly in favour of the better players. They get to modify their weapons, they get better abilities and access to more useful items. As with most online games, rounds are often dominated by a few alpha male players, but the effect seems more pronounced here. The same names accrue points at the top of the table, while the same names stay at the bottom until they drop out. Some will find this "survival of the fittest" approach refreshingly brutal, but I suspect that soon only the hardcore will remain, and I fear for the na´ve player who blunders into their first game six months from now.
The generous options mean that there are many ways you can tweak the controls to make them more immediate, but the fact that you have to do so manually suggests a game where they took Metal Gear in one hand, online multiplayer in the other, and simply squished them together. The trouble is, if you simplified the controls to better match online play, then most of what makes the game Metal Gear would vanish, leaving only familiar sound effects, porn mag traps and Snake's cameo appearances in Sneaking Missions as tangible reminders of the source material.
It'd be much easier to make the effort needed to get the most out of Metal Gear Online if it were offering something we'd never seen before in the realms of online play. It's never anything less than a solid online action game, but with a certified loon like Kojima involved it's not unreasonable to expect something out of the ordinary. Yet that's exactly what Metal Gear Online is. It's incredibly ordinary, offering little that the Warhawks or SOCOMs of this world haven't already, but with the distancing barrier of an inherited control scheme that doesn't really benefit the game. Remove the emotive Metal Gear branding that so often demands kneejerk defence or dismissal, and you're left with the bare bones of a decent multiplayer title, brimming with potential but far from fulfilling its promise.
As it comes tucked away for free in Metal Gear Solid 4, that's not such an obstacle right now. It's a robust freebie that will attract a devoted hardcore fanbase quite easily, and fans can feel free to add the score below to Oli's review and declare that Metal Gear Solid 4 is now worth 15/20. If, however, Konami plans to turn this into an ongoing spin-off with commercial potential then it needs serious work to either shape it into something outlandish that could only be done online with the Metal Gear series, or to better blend the Metal Gear elements into the established tropes of the multiplayer action genre. Right now it's neither one thing nor another, and that's a weird place to leave a series as distinctive as this.
7 / 10