With the unhappy departure of Hideo Kojima and Konami’s long-running history of questionable practices, Metal Gear Survive has become an easy target for many fans. On paper, a spin-off with zombies looks like a lazy way to get sales out of a known property with very little work put in. What people forget, however, is that Kojima wasn’t the only one that made Metal Gear great. Many of his former co-workers are still here, and it shows.
Survive begins during the ending of Ground Zeroes, adding a scene where a number of mother base soldiers are sucked into a wormhole. You are given the same create-a-character tools as in The Phantom Pain, and will then begin a story largely detached from the main series. The story itself is fairly bare-bones, with the primary goal being to survive the harsh environment and make it home in one piece. The characters are undercooked, and there are a few instances of absolutely terrible line reads. On the plus side, there are some fun twists in the latter half of the game.
Despite some failings in the narrative, Survive actually justifies its title. You must progress through the story while managing your hunger and thirst, which drop constantly over time - even while you’re in your base and managing items. Animals and resources only respawn on a strict in-game timer, and I spent most of the early game with disoriented vision, along with lowered health and stamina. In addition, you can’t boil dirty water until you have progressed in the story, which means you’ll be rolling the dice every time you drink. Getting sick or injured can be cured relatively easily, but the items it takes to do so are rare. Initially, I found this system irksome, but over time I realized how well balanced the game is. I never actually died from starvation or dehydration. I always found a clean bottle of water or animals to hunt as I ventured out into dangerous territory. Instead of the game repeatedly killing me, it kept me on edge. Survive isn’t a faux-tagline that represents a tacked-on gameplay mechanic, it’s the core of the gameplay, and it’s done far better than in the majority of other games that claim to focus on survival.
Compounding this focus on survival is the Dust, a wall of, well, dust. While your base camp will always be in a clean air environment, the Dust covers most of the map and cannot be traversed without an oxygen tank. The oxygen depletes quickly, and you must use your most valuable resource, Kuban energy, to refill it. Not only does this environment pose yet another time limit on your survival, but you also lose access to your map and markers for any unexplored areas. To top it all off, the visibility is low. My first few explorations into the Dust were very difficult to navigate, and one instance had me seconds away from death before I made it out into fresh air. Over time, however, you will have explored enough of the environment that the Dust becomes less of a navigation issue, although it’s still a health hazard.
As is tradition, zombies can never be called zombies, and receive the name Wanderers in this game. Can you guess why? Unfortunately, the game actually bothers to explain this, as if we couldn’t figure it out. You have your standard humanoid zombies, but the other enemy types mix it up well. Bombers have bulbous heads and explode, but deny conventional wisdom by having heads that are extremely resistant to damage. Trackers function like the Skulls in The Phantom Pain, and have incredible mobility and strong melee attacks. Grabbers hide underground and can pin you in place, whereas the Mortars keep far away and launch explosive and machine gun-like attacks. There are also a few more minor enemies, like Watchers and the Armored.
Horribly bland naming conventions aside, these enemy types do a lot to spice things up. For example, a basic tactic for handling Wanderers is to put up fences and stab them with spears as they cling to it; however, Bombers can instantly knock down fences even without exploding, which encourages you to run out and meet them before they arrive at any of your obstacles. Mortars remain at a distance and fulfill a similar role by forcing you to leave the comfort of your defenses. Trackers can bypass anything simply by jumping over it. Although, hilariously, they don’t handle spiked barricades too well, and will sometimes misjudge the distance and get impaled.
In terms of combat, Survive offers a lot of variety. There are several classifications of melee weapons, such as machetes, axes, bats, spears and sledgehammers, and they all have distinct speeds and movesets. You can also level up your character to gain access to both unarmed and weapon-specific attacks that are surprisingly useful. Some of the heavier weapon types cross the line of being clunky rather than weighty, but special moves and running attacks do a lot to keep them useful. Outside of the melee weapons, the firearms cover the basics of handguns, assault rifles, shotguns, and snipers. The options are standard fare, but the firearms have a lot more punch thanks to the game’s focus on melee weapons. Even in the post-game, I’m hesitant to burn ammunition.
What I found most enjoyable about Survive’s gameplay was its focus on experimentation. Defenses can be arranged in different ways to force Wanderers into stationary traps and automated weapons, or used simply divert their attention. Outside of that, I found that a number of objects can be interacted with between players, and multiplayer provided a great opportunity to play grenade baseball – which sometimes went as badly as you’d expect.
Speaking of multiplayer, Survive has at time of writing one multiplayer mode with several maps - although additional modes have been announced. You and up to three other players can team up to protect a digger from attack in a horde mode/tower defense-style game. Multiplayer offers a few new features that allow you to use collected energy to speed up the digger and call in support, as well as side missions that take place throughout the rounds. All resources collected in multiplayer are lost after completion, so you’re encouraged to use whatever you have to assist the defense. At the end of the match, your team’s rank will determine the rarity of items you’ll receive, which includes resources, blueprints, armor and weapons. There's a small bonus for being the top player, but everyone on the team receives the same basic reward. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the team is encouraged simply to win and not focus on personal performance, but on the other, AFK players seek to benefit, as there is no option to kick people.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the microtransaction controversy. Yes, Survive has microtransactions, but there’s only one I take issue with. Boosts, additional character slots, and expedition slots are essentially worthless. I’ve never once been incentivized to purchase them, and quite frankly, I have no idea why anyone would. The problematic microtransaction involves your base digger. Much like in the multiplayer, you can activate the digger in your single-player base. There are several waves of enemies that you must outlast, but the issue is that each of them is tied to real-world time. So, if you want to complete a three-wave dig, you’re left waiting 24 hours in between each one. Alternatively, you can spend money to do another wave immediately. While I don’t believe any aspect of the game’s resources was limited to make you spend money on boosts or slots, this arbitrary time limit clearly exists to milk money from the playerbase.
Overall, Metal Gear Survive is a great game. No, really. I don’t blame anyone for taking issues with the company that produced it, but it’s clear that the developers really put in the time and effort to make something worthwhile. There are some obvious issues with the story and one blatant microtransaction cash grab, but Survive has a ton of genuinely enjoyable content for its budget price. If you’re looking for a Metal Gear fan service game with a tacked on survival mechanic, this isn’t for you. If you’re looking for a survival game with a Metal Gear paint job, it’s well worth looking into.