Things can go wrong at any moment in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Its open world is packed with surprise situations and absurd possibilities, stemming from enemy AI and nature alike. And despite being separate from the single player campaign, Metal Gear Online maintains that spirit of emergent gameplay.
There's a dizzying array of approaches you can choose from in MGO. It's the newest version of Kojima's take on multiplayer, the last being bundled with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. But since those servers shut down in 2012, multiplayer in the Metal Gear universe has only existed on fan-directed servers.
But at Tokyo Game Show, GameSpot's Edmond Tran got hands-on time with Metal Gear Online. Even more recently, I got the chance to do so as well. And over the course of six hours, three character classes, three game modes, five maps, and an extensive progression tree, I barely scratched its surface.
The multiplayer component begins, first and foremost, with customization. As with the single player campaign of The Phantom Pain, Metal Gear Online offers extensive inventory options, from character perks to new weapons, cosmetic gear to stealth items. I opted for Stealth Camouflage first, and a new sight for my submachine gun.
Metal Gear Online gives you three separate characters, each with their own gear -- and loadouts -- for different scenarios. And there are three classes to choose from, each with their different perks and weapon possibilities. My Scout, who excels at marking enemies and providing support from a distance, works best with a variable-zoom sniper rifle scope. My Enforcer can access armor and ammo perks, so adding a riot shield to the equation created a walking tank. And my Infiltrator, complete with balaclava and extended camouflage capabilities, is the best option behind enemy lines.
The three game modes span a wide range of gameplay conceits, and they each imbue their own Metal Gear quality to proceedings. Take Bounty Hunter, for instance. The objective is simple -- kill enemy players to drain their ticket pool to zero. Each kill depletes the pool by one, and the last team standing wins.
But by killing enemy players, I increased the titular bounty on my head. After 11 kills, I became a target. The enemy team could then extract me with the Fulton Recovery balloon system, and this added the equivalent of my bounty to their respawn pool. In this case, they regained 11 tickets. Inexperienced teams will focus on kills only, but seasoned veterans can turn the tide with well coordinated Fulton extractions.
This all sounds straightforward, but the possibilities available for action and reaction, attack and defense, all coalesce to create dynamic battles from one game to the next. There are precious few seconds during a Fulton recovery when you can pop the balloon from afar, giving your teammates a chance to retaliate. Marking enemies through binoculars reveals them for your comrades. Sandstorms even roll in, providing cover and concealment for a team on the offensive. One particular squall protected me before I extracted an enemy with an 18 bounty on her head. (Unlike in The Phantom Pain, Fulton recovery is possible during Metal Gear Online storms).
This is only one of three gameplay modes that make up Metal Gear Online. Another option, Comm Control, plays out like a normal zone-based game: the attacking team depletes the defenders' grasp of the map by capturing certain points.
But then there's Cloak and Dagger. And after six hours with Metal Gear Online, this is my favorite way to play.
On the surface, it's a traditional attack and defend mode. But in this scenario, the attacking team can only use non-lethal weapons in close-quarters combat. To achieve victory, they need to extract one of two data discs to one of two extraction points without dying. This is a one-life-only situation. And when the defending team has access to lethal weapons, stealth is key.
I can think of no better microcosm of Metal Gear Online's teamwork, depth, and absurdity than the last Cloak and Dagger match I played. I was the last of two people on my team. The defenders were closing in on my teammate. And by stunning enemies with his tranquilizer darts, he kept the enemy distracted, leaving the back route through a forest ravine devoid of guards. I stole the data disc, crept back out through the same route, and headed for the evac zone.
But the enemy knew I had the disc, so they turned their attention to finding me. I dove into the prone position among a nearby clump of bushes, and coupled with my active camouflage, the foliage disguised me from a nearby player. A headshot with my own tranq gun would be easy. But that would also reveal my general position. Across the map, I saw my teammate's icon flicker as the defenders eliminated him with what sounded like a D-Walker. So I continued onward, alone and hidden in plain sight.
The evac zone was only 50M away, just past a low fence and a thicket of trees. They would offer concealment, but little cover if shooting broke out. I decided to run for it: 40 meters away. 30 meters away. Then 20.
And just when I thought I was free, I stumbled onto something: a D-Dog plushie. My character squatted down, stunned by the stuffed dog's adorable grin, leaving me open for a few crucial seconds. Somewhere behind me, an enemy rounded a corner. It might have been the guy that planted the iconic dog in my path. It might have been someone else. Regardless, my opponent emptied a magazine into my back. The defenders won.
Cloak and Dagger is the mode I'm most looking forward to playing when MGO launches. It's the tense stealth of The Phantom Pain's single player experience, meshed with the tactics of human-against-human scenarios. And the Metal Gear's trademark absurdity shone through in numerous places throughout my demo. The D-Dog plushie was just one of them.
Metal Gear Online releases as a patch to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain on Tuesday, October 6 on consoles. And it'll be out in January for PC owners. It's a dynamic, fine-tuned experience I didn't expect from a property so focused on single player. The character progression is appealing, and the maps are well designed. But the most attractive thing about Metal Gear Online is the wealth of ridiculous situations, and absurd results, ready to be used against an unwitting attacker.
Next time, I'm bringing my own plushie.