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The first 30 minutes of Metal Gear Survive are a bizarre mashup of years-old cutscenes, static security camera footage, and drawn out tutorials. Control is given to the player so infrequently that it almost makes learning how to push the left stick forward to move a thrill. Following flashbacks, firefights, and the briefest taste of stealth gameplay, the game’s title flashes on screen. And players are likely to be even more confused than when they started.
It’s not that Survive’s plot is packed with overwhelming nonsense, it’s that it misunderstands what makes the nonsense of Metal Gear appealing in the first place. For example, the character called Goodluck is introduced in the first 10 minutes as a shadowy operator who can seemingly revive the dead and send them to an alternate dimension. His confounding abilities and personality are quickly swept away in service of setting up the game’s alternate dimension and place in the Metal Gear canon.
This lack of confidence is the ultimate undoing of Survive’s story. For every unique idea the game presents, it almost immediately backpedals into a generic, played-out conceit.
After revisiting the ending of Ground Zeroes where Snake’s oceanic base and private army are destroyed, Survive explores the idea of a group of those soldiers traveling through a wormhole to an alternate dimension. Dite, this hellish environment, is a desert wasteland occupied by crystal-headed zombies known as Wanderers. While there is a traditional Metal Gear narrative buried deep within the setup, the political intrigue and espionage are eschewed in favor of systems-heavy survival gameplay that, thankfully, finds a way to feel compelling.
Because it was built in the same engine as The Phantom Pain, Survive retains some of the finest open-world exploration mechanics in the genre’s history. Even though Dite is meant to be an alternate dimension, it does closely resemble MGSV’s Afghanistan. Between running through the desert, vaulting over walls, or crawling on your belly, controlling your character’s movement is fluid. Searching for your new objective will often require a long trek over open spaces. This starts to become an issue when taking the new hunger and thirst systems into account. Monitoring these meters becomes cumbersome, as you often can’t run for very long at all without becoming winded and needing to rest or eat. In between missions, you should fill up on clean water and supplies. While this is a proven mechanic in survival games, it is employed oppressively here.
Playing as an average soldier rather than a war hero could have made for an interesting take on Metal Gear’s gameplay. Without nanomachines, endless resources, and advanced tech, tactical espionage action is naturally more stressful. But Survive goes too far towards realism, capitalizing on the weakness of your character rather than their lack of superpowers. So much playtime is wasted hunting sheep and filling bottles so that you can go out and move the story forward. Otherwise, your health slowly chips away and the screen becomes blurred, making for an even more frustrating experience.
Difficulty isn’t the major problem, it’s that so much of the gameplay loop is hindered by menus and resource management. The opening hours are a slog filled with tutorials given by uncharismatic AI companions. Once the game opens up, the appeal of scouring the wasteland, avoiding enemies, and building out your base becomes more engaging. But story missions are often derailed by the need to monitor hunger more than any other objective. There are some tense moments attributed to harsh conditions that require you to bring enough oxygen tanks, but they stand out as remarkable set pieces, not a hallmark of the game’s overall design.
While Metal Gear Survive was initially pitched as a co-op experience, that side of the final product is disappointing. Only certain missions can be completed with other players, and accessing them requires jumping through even more ridiculous menus. With pervasive server issues (at the time of writing) and bad instancing, even getting into a squad of four ready players is tough. The actual content of these missions puts you up against high-level enemies with high health and scarce ammo, indicating this mode is meant for people who have completed the single-player campaign.
It’s easy to see where Metal Gear Survive could have been a better game. The co-op focused betas that took place earlier this year teased a multiplayer experience built around team coordination, building, and taking down zombies. Looking especially at the success of games like Fortnite Battle Royale, this experience feels like it could have flourished as a free-to-play expansion built on top of The Phantom Pain. There are intimations of an interesting story in Metal Gear Survive, as well as a handful of creative moments within the FOX Engine. But overall, the game feels incredibly average, and seeing it through to the end quickly becomes a chore.
Metal Gear Survive is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
Disclosure: This review was based on a PS4 copy of the game provided by the publisher.
AJ Moser is a Brooklyn-based reporter who focuses on video games, movies, and internet culture. His work has appeared in Paste Magazine, Game Informer, and Big Spaceship.