With so much hype over Snake's upcoming--and supposedly final--adventure in Metal Gear Solid 4, it's easy to overlook its sister title, Metal Gear Online. Developed with the same engine that will be featured in MGS4, MGO takes the spirit that has made Metal Gear Solid a best-selling franchise and places it in an online multiplayer experience.
Metal Gear Online is, simply, Metal Gear online. That's not a bad thing, though, because fans of the series will be able to duke it out against each other in the classic multiplayer formats you'd expect to see in other online shooters such as Rainbow Six Vegas, Gears of War, and Team Fortress 2. MGO is a third-person online shooter, but brings the best parts of the Metal Gear universe along for the ride.
When first playing MGO, you'll need to register a new character, a process that offers an impressive level of customisation. You can customise your face, headwear, torso, legs, leg attachment, head attachment (such as adding a headset, balaclava, or goggles), vest/jacket, and camouflage options (of which we saw beige, smoke blue, black, and green options).You'll then need to choose four specialties (skills) for your player, ranging from shotgun, sniper, submachine gun, and support specialties to others such as increasing your auto-aim accuracy (which, while playing a match, can be activated with a quick button press).
The game modes in MGO combine the usual deathmatch and team-deathmatch modes with three mission scenarios: base, rescue, and capture, with support for up to 16 players per lobby. Base missions involved the capture of three chokepoints, which we played on the Ambush Alley map, which appears to be inspired by MGS4. Once all three points are in your team's possession--achieved by maintaining control of each zone until a countdown has completed--it's time to celebrate back at the base with a cold brew.
One of the maps we saw looked great, with plenty of distressed buildings, debris to hide behind, and lots of different textures to help you blend in with the environment. One of the chokepoints was in a small depression covered by a camo net, which provided perfect cover. As we soon discovered, this was an ideal place to ambush other players or leave a few well-concealed claymore mines. In all of the matches we played, team play was vital to win, and in addition to yelling and hollering, team commands can be issued easily with the select button. There were options for attack, defensive, and general communication commands.
Rescue mission--essentially a capture-the-flag mode--was played on the Groznyj Grad map, this time inspired by Metal Gear Solid 3. Your old friend Ga-ko the duck is back from MGS3 and needs rescuing from the evil clutches of the opposing team. However, rather than go in guns blazing, we had to tread carefully in this mode because we had only one life per match. The match can be won in two ways: defending your base and therefore eliminating the opposition, or capturing the other team's Ga-ko and returning it to your base.
Control was the last mission mode we tried, and from what we could see, it was a variation of rescue. However, rather than just one target, there were two this time. Each team is required to rescue Ga-ko or his friend Kerotan the frog and get them back to base without being killed.
Graphically, MGO looks much like what we've seen of MGS4, which isn't surprising, seeing as how they share the same engine. Artistically, it looks much like previous MGS games with a next-generation polish, and the weapons, menus, characters, and overall feel isn't a departure from previous Metal Gear instalments. The in-match soundtrack has been borrowed from prior MGS games, and we were able to choose themes from MGS3, MGS2, and Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops before each match. Although some will prefer the raw sound of battle, we found that the music didn't distract and, if anything, heightened the tension of the matches.
We saw 16 weapons and accessories in the game, split between primary, secondary, and support items; you choose one of each before each round and before respawning. Primary weapons include the V2.83 submachine gun, AK102 and M4 custom assault rifles, SVD and Mosin Nagant sniper rifles, and M870 Custom shotgun. A ballistic shield can also be chosen as a primary weapon, which was great for deflecting fire but had to be swapped for a secondary weapon when we wanted to attack. Secondary weapons include the GSR and MK2 pistols, and the support category offers the usual MGS tricks of the trade with fragmentation, stun, smoke, and chaff grenades, claymore mines, and, strangely enough, a men's magazine.
At times you can also obtain extra items during matches. We found enhanced night-vision goggles up for grabs at one of the control points in the base mission, as well as other items familiar to the MGS universe such as cardboard boxes, which can prove useful in battle. We attempted to hide in a cardboard box on several occasions, and provided that you don't get caught, they can offer a good form of camouflage. The maps we saw often had numerous boxes littered about, so you can never know if someone is hiding in one.
Although the game's title clearly suggests that an Internet connection is required to play, we still hope to see offline play in the final version. Konami hasn't suggested if they'll reveal new features or offer the game at a lower price point, but it will certainly be competing against other fully featured shooters on the PlayStation 3 that have both online multiplayer and a full offline single-player campaign.
None of the characters we saw have appeared in previous MGS games, and Konami was tight-lipped about whether characters such as Solid Snake, Raiden, or Big Boss would be playable in the game. Though many fans would love to fill the shoes of Snake, Konami says that MGO is more of a "Foxhound training camp" for would-be operatives than a new game for existing characters.
One of the things MGS has never featured is a sprint function. It seems that with MGO's gameplay based on competition, it would certainly benefit from one now. When being shot at, the best you can muster is a brisk walk, which isn't particularly conducive to avoiding fire and can be downright futile when trying to beat the buzzer in the dying moments of a match. On the plus side, the extra time taken to reach objectives might let you come up with better tactics, especially considering that you'll have to wait a long time for another go if you die. It also makes the overall speed of the game much slower than some rivals with a faster pace. That wasn't a major gripe from our experience, but it would be nice to have a sprint option if you desire to use it.
Another thing worth mentioning is that you can't quickly equip or unequip items by tapping L2 or R2, like you could in previous Metal Gear outings. Instead, a quick tap cycles through weapons or accessories, and holding L2/R2 brings up the submenus. It makes a bit of a difference because you'll be quicker on the move when you don't have weapons equipped.
Metal Gear Online is shaping up nicely, and we felt that Metal Gear's usual emphasis on stealth has been swapped for outright action. We hope that Konami adds a greater range of gametypes in the final version, given that it may be a bit of a lighter experience than other upcoming PS3 shooters. We'll see how well it can measure up to those games, including Konami's own Metal Gear Solid 4, when it's released later in the year.