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.