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.