Metal Gear Survive is demanding, oppressive, obtuse, and not what most people would traditionally think of as “fun.” I’ve played for hours and haven’t achieved anything meaningful. My most dependable method of defeating the zombie-like Wanderers littered around its barren world is still poking at them with a sharp stick from the other side of a chain link fence. And I spend the majority of my time throwing up because I drank dirty water and contracted a horrible stomach bug.
And yet, I keep coming back to it. Not just because I’m obligated to soldier on and review the game, but because on the other side of the desperation and stress is a small nugget of satisfaction; the sweet release of endorphins that comes with completing an objective. I’m the rat pushing a button for a food pellet, and by god I can’t stop.
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This manipulation of human psychology as game design has always been a tenet of role-playing games, but it has become a pervasive part of most genres of late. Metal Gear Survive pushes it to its most ruthless, demanding extremes to make good on its classification as an action game focused on survival.
The game is set shortly after the attack on Mother Base in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. During this siege, a wormhole into a parallel world appears, sucking in a chunk of Mother Base, along with the members of Snake’s Diamond Dogs and the attacking XOF forces. Your character is seemingly killed or rendered unconscious while defending Mother Base, but is brought back by an enigmatic UN scientist and constantly frowning Laurence Fishburne look-alike named Goodluck.
Upon waking up, you’re told you’ve been infected by a parasite that has overrun Dite, the world on the other side of the aforementioned wormhole. Your mission is to travel there to seek out a cure for yourself, and also find out what has become of your comrades, including a close friend. In typical Metal Gear Solid fashion, there’s more to Goodluck than meets the eye, and since the parasite that transforms people into Wanderers first showed up during the Vietnam War, there’s some questions around its true nature too. Dite also happens to have a special crystalised resource called Kuban, which can be extracted from Wanderers and harvested from the environment.
From the moment you land in Dite, you’re on the back foot. Survive wants you to know that success in this hellscape will come through struggling and pushing forward in the face of overwhelming adversity, and to that end the game tracks hunger, thirst, and oxygen on-screen. These ever-visible bars are constantly depleting, counting down to death if not kept topped up. The food and water needed to replenish them are scarce, and even the act of seeking them out expends resources in a way that will make you pause and really think about if it’s all worth it. It’s a grueling grind where the material rewards offer just a fleeting respite.
But all this also serves to intensify that rush of satisfaction you get when you manage to complete a mission or successfully take a trip to gather edible herbs, meat, or dirty water that has a good chance of making you sick. By stacking the odds so heavily against you, these successes–big or small–feel like an act of defiance.
By stacking the odds so heavily against you, successes–big or small–feel like an act of defiance
The narrative is advanced by taking on main missions that send you into a distant, poisonous cloud of dust that envelops your home base. There you’re tasked with recovering data that can restore Vergil, the AI that ran previous missions into Dite, to full functionality and, hopefully, help track down a cure and return everyone home. These operations usually send the player into Wanderer-infested territory, where Survive’s rudimentary combat comes into play. The Phantom Pain felt like the meeting of slick, refined combat mechanics and enemy behaviour that was dynamic, reactive, and very often surprising, Survive–in its opening hours–feels restrictive and lethargic, and its enemies do little to challenge you outside of attacking in large groups.
Since you’re burning resources, be it recovery items, stamina, or weapon durability, engaging them is usually a fruitless endeavour. The Kuban energy that can be harvested from Wanderers is the only reason to actually take them on, and since Kuban is used to craft items as well as level up the character and unlock perks that improve stats or add combat moves, it’s a good one. But the smarter player will isolate straggling Wanderers and bring them down by either approaching from behind to deliver a one-hit kill, jabbing them in the big crystal weak points located where their heads should be, or firing an arrow at them from a distance. It’s not very exciting.
Of course, I’m still early in the game, so there’s plenty of room for it to develop into something more, especially as additional enemy types are introduced and I gain access to advanced weaponry. The game certainly is motioning towards this, as I recently encountered the larger Bomber enemy type, which has a less opportune weak point and a giant pustule on its head that would probably have exploded had I stuck around to find out.
The set-piece moments thus far have been when I’ve tried to activate wormhole transporters, which enable Survive’s equivalent of fast travel. Doing this summons a wave of Wanderers to your location, and at this point the game becomes about building fortifications and holding off advancements long enough for the machine to power up and release a wave of energy that wipes them out. To its credit, these moments are tense, high-octane bouts of action that involve running between locations, managing enemy numbers, setting up barriers, and maintaining your own health and stamina.
Given that Metal Gear Survive only became playable to press on its launch day, I haven’t played enough to deliver a more comprehensive review. There are other aspects to its gameplay that haven’t had the time to properly develop: the base building, crafting, and online multiplayer for example. And there are also characters who are slowly appearing that need the chance to grow before I can make a judgment on them.
I’m still playing Metal Gear Survive and formulating my thoughts, but, from the outset, there’s something strangely compelling about it, despite the fact it’s designed to treat players so harshly. Fundamentally, the loop of exploring, scavenging, and marginally improving your existence in Dite is satisfying. That, in essence, is the core of all survival games and what has drawn people to titles like Don’t Starve, Subnautica, Terraria, and even Stardew Valley. In that respect, Survive succeeds in what it sets out to achieve–it’s perhaps one of the most hardcore survival games available. But there’s also room for it to grow into something more and put its unique stamp on the genre.
Metal Gear Survive’s high-profile baggage, and the fact that it is created from the building blocks of a much different experience, provide more to consider and analyse. I’m going to stick with it and in the coming days will deliver a finalised review. For now though, if the idea of a brutal game where you scavenge and fight for survival sounds like the way you want to spend your gaming hours, it’s worth considering.