Metal Gear Survive was a game sent wandering into a minefield. It could’ve been anywhere from horrendous to wonderful and still been received as a vile perversion either way. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I won’t argue that Konami doesn’t deserve to be vilified as they have been, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still have talented staff capable of developing great video games – they do. Kojima’s gone, and yes, that leaves an unmistakable void, but that doesn’t mean everyone responsible for the Metal Gear series is out of the picture, and it doesn’t mean Survive could only be a blasphemous reanimation of another man’s work. In actuality, Metal Gear Survive uses The Phantom Pain’s assets and engine as a kicking off point to deliver something wholly distinct and separate from MGSV, without undermining or contradicting what came before it. It isn’t a Kojima game, and it isn’t a Metal Gear Solid game – it doesn’t claim to be either.
A significant point of contention here is the narrative – telling a story in Kojima’s world. A wormhole (the likes of which appear multiple times in MGSV) sends the player character – a Mother Base soldier – into a hellish landscape called Dite. Dite is something of a deserted wasteland inhabited by Wanderers; people infected by unknown means with crystallised residue extruding from where their heads should be. The objective is to acquire enough Kuban Energy – harvested from Wanderers – to create a wormhole back home. As things unfold, the story has some fun twists and turns in its own right, while also tying into some of Phantom Pain’s less explained elements without ever feeling intrusive. Much like Metal Gear Rising, it functions as an offshoot of Metal Gear lore without inserting itself into existing history. The characters are all fairly flat, suggesting they should be cared about more than trying to provide a reason, but the big picture of the story is fun. As a big Metal Gear fan, there are story elements I thought were pretty cool.
Survive’s focus isn’t stealth, but survival. Hunger and thirst gauges lower with activity, necessitating a safe supply of foods and drinks, and you’ll drain an oxygen tank as you venture into The Dust. This dust covers much of the land surrounding your home base and is responsible for many of Survive’s most defining qualities. Not only does exploring cost oxygen, the limited visibility and map use from within suggest thoughtful and well-planned expeditions. If you explore an area and make it back to base, the ground you covered will be added to your map. From discovered areas, you can place and follow map markers, but they’ll disappear if you head into uncharted territory. Fail to scout out an area and wander in the wrong direction and you could find yourself far from home and running out of oxygen. Brightly lit towers help to guide you through to some safer spots, though, so things never feel hopeless, only dangerous.
This is all to collect resources to expand your base camp while crafting gadgets, weapons and gear. The economy of resources and consistent sense of growth is what drives Survive, as the game evolves with the player’s progression. Early on, for instance, regularly hunting animals and collecting water is absolutely imperative for survival, while they become largely redundant once you’ve built some farms and water tanks back home. As you outgrow certain systems, though, Survive introduces new ones. You’re not doing less and less as you advance, but simply tackling larger tasks. These new elements don’t slow down, either, with significantly different and elaborate elements coming into play even after completing the story.
Wanderers are essentially zombies, so sneaking past a bunch of them isn’t too challenging, while still being threatening, especially in larger groups. Their interesting design makes them clearly and immediately visible in Survive’s dusty setting though, as well as providing a satisfying smash for a headshot or sneak attack. Just like fultoning back recruits in The Phantom Pain, killing Wanderers doesn’t tire quickly, which is important for something you’ll be killing hundreds of. Weapons ranging from bows to spears to axes to hammers help validate a bunch of different approaches to different scenarios and swapping loadouts does mean having to play differently. Some weapons feel more consistently viable than others, and the restrictions on what combinations you can carry at once are a nuisance at times, but the variance is appreciated. Accenting this are the different abilities that can be earned while levelling up, adding some flashy moves to an originally plain set of skills.
Attacking Wanderers is only half the task here, though, with most encounters revolving around defence. This means building fences and barricades, placing turrets and traps, and shifting focus between different groups of approaching threats. All of these defences cost materials to craft, so scavenging and planning astutely are greatly rewarded. The same situation could be infuriatingly difficult or empoweringly easy depending on your preparation. It’s hugely helpful and satisfying that placeable objects always fit neatly where you want them to without the environments feeling like they’ve been forced onto a grid – just thoughtfully laid out.
The multiplayer component of Survive consists solely of these defence situations, in a couple of variants. Co-op games are begun from a Staging Area totally separate to the single-player environments. This is a convenient space to craft and gear up, with everything you might need to access before a mission immediately accessible. It’s a super handy and cozy lobby system, and somehow the act of joining a friend or inviting them to your game is more straightforward, immediate and reliable than any game I’ve ever played. While the servers have been down for maintenance disappointingly regularly for a game that can only be played while connected, the online components function to a praise-worthy degree. It’s a shame the single-player and multiplayer pieces don’t fit together a little more nicely – none of the story can be played with an ally – but the segregation is handled cleanly, and the narrative plays genuinely because of it.
In-game purchases, namely the potential to purchase an extra save slot have weathered heavy criticism here, but there is truly nothing intrusive or manipulative at play here. You can redesign your custom character at any time and edit any changes to your base, so they’re not holding anything back to trap you. Where it feels a little more annoying is in the management of exploration teams. If you want to assemble more than one team to send out and collect resources, that’ll cost you SV Coins, the purchasable currency. With log-in bonuses, daily and weekly challenges and such, SV Coins aren’t as ridiculously illusive as many comparable in-game currencies though. It never felt like I’d have a significant edge if I spent more money because the game gives out SV Coins more than generously enough for me to spend them whenever I’ve been inclined, without investing any actual additional money.
Visually it looks just like MGSV, though a lot of the character faces and expressions are decidedly less convincing. Conversations play out in text boxes more akin to a traditional Metal Gear Codec than the cinematic direction of MGSV, but it doesn’t feel like anything is lost because of it – it serves Survive well. That’s not to say there’s nothing new to see here though, with plenty of disgusting and intimidating original creature designs standing out. Though a lot of the environment is also lifted from Phantom Pain, there’s reasonable narrative justification for it, and they handle familiar places in compelling ways. Things might be just different enough that you have to take the opposite approach to what you would in MGSV, for instance. Revisiting some of these camps and structures – as someone who put the time into earning 100% in The Phantom Pain, mind you – didn’t feel boring or repetitive, but exciting and nostalgic given the varying levels of evolution through which they’ve gone. There’s a great new original score, too, playing off a lot of traditional MGS melodies and styles, but leaving a mark in its own right. Otherwise, collectible cassettes contain tunes from a wealth of Konami titles, if you’d rather have some Castlevania tracks blasting in your base.
Metal Gear Survive builds off of an excellent game to create something fundamentally different. Journeying through the dust and uncovering more of the map piece by piece is a rewardingly dangerous progression system, not unlike the save room style of Symphony of The Night or Resident Evil. Earning stronger and cooler gear while fitting out your base with bigger and better defences and resources is equally engaging, with new challenges consistently arising to replace those you’ve outgrown. It’s not a Kojima game, and it’s not a Metal Gear Solid game, but it’s a lot of fun and never fails to reward the time you put into it.