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.