Imagine existing in a kind of hell where gerbils run free, sheep and wolves co-exist, zombies have glowing rocks poking out of their head and you’re constantly thirsty. Well, this is the world of Metal Gear Survive, the first Metal Gear from Konami since its falling out with Kojima. It’s a game mainly pitched as a co-op multiplayer experience, where you and up to three friends work together to build a base, collect weapons, and fight off horde mode-esque waves of Wanderers. But what I get to play is a hearty chunk of its single-player mode, which is far more like Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater than I expected.
Set just after the events of Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear Survive starts with a wormhole sucking up the remains of the besieged Mother Base and whatever was left of the Militaires Sans Frontières soldiers. Turns out this wormhole has yanked them into a hellish alternate dimension, where zombie-type things called Wanderers want to eat you up for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all the snacks in between. But they’re odd zombies, because they’ve got things called Kuban crystals for heads that you can harvest and use to upgrade your character.
That’s something you’re definitely going to want to do, as starting out in Metal Gear Survive is a slow, slow process that might make you want to leave it altogether. There are two things you’ve got to watch out for in Metal Gear Survive and it’ll totally hinder the way you play the game - hunger and thirst. Your hunger levels limit your stamina, and your thirst levels will affect your vision, and low levels of both puts a cap on your health. Keep both above 80% and you’re solid, but in the early stages where resources are scarce, rationing what little provisions you have is like trying to eat just one Pringle and leave the rest in the tube. It weighs on your mind like nothing I’ve experienced in a survival game, and I’ve spent far too long playing games like Don’t Starve, The Long Dark and other such treasures to know that.
It’s partly because the game explains so little in its version of hell - both on my side of the screen and the other. My incredibly thirsty character and I go scavenging for some water, filling up bottles with dirty pond stuff that seems like the only option at this stage. But drinking it has a risk of giving you a rather nasty infection, which limits your maximum thirst and makes you vomit at regular intervals - which is incredibly problematic when you’re trying to fight the Wanderers and have to stop to puke. The only way to cleanse the water is to upgrade your campfire at Mother Base, but in order to do that you have to find the necessary blueprint, which is lurking somewhere in The Dust, along with the blueprints to all the useful things you’ll need to survive, like weapons other than a long pointy stick you’re gifted at the start of the game.
You do get access to some useful items just by playing through the campaign, such as fences that you can build and erect to protect yourself from Wanderers. The ‘normal’ mesh ones are particularly useful as you can poke the Wanderers to death through the holes with your stick, Walking Dead style. For most of the best stuff though, you have to head into The Dust once you’ve built yourself an Oxygen tank - yes that’s another stat you’ll have to keep an eye on along with thirst and hunger. Entering The Dust limits your vision and strips you of your waypoints until you’re literally right on top of them, leaving you to use a compass, the visible Mother Base lights and a bit of luck to get you from point A to point B. It’s an usual tactic, but works well with the Survive part of this game’s title.
But that’s the problem. Aside from some sound effects, a few cardboard boxes and some other subtle nods to previous games, this is very much not a Metal Gear game. In a series of games about espionage and politics, it feels very at odds to suddenly be fighting zombies and searching for clean water. It’s clear that this is a spin-off, but it feels like it’s been slapped with a Metal Gear sticker to up its appeal rather than built as a Metal Gear game proper.
There are other things too, that makes me feel like Survive is just trying to imitate Metal Gear without understanding what makes the series so smart. There’s some seriously questionable dialogue about women for example, with a recording you find very early on from a communication officer called Enrique saying: “You’d be surprised at how many cute little honeys there are on the engineering team. There’s this one girl named Chloe. She’s a little older than I like ‘em, but out here, I’ll take what I can get, if you know what I mean.” Yes, Metal Gear has a complicated relationship with women in the past - just look at Quiet’s outfit in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain - but if there’s a time to move away from dialogue like this, it feels like now is the time.
Perhaps this is the time to move away from Metal Gear entirely. It feels like Metal Gear Survive could be a game that stood on its own two feet as a brilliant tactical survival game, with a heavy focus on stealth tactics, but the fact it’s Metal Gear branded seems nothing more than a marketing ploy. This survival game sits firmly in the cold shadow of The Phantom Pain, and while the whole wormhole thing and the crystal monsters isn’t the strangest thing to happen in Metal Gear canon, it is perhaps a little too bizarre here.