This was always going to be a tough sell. Metal Gear Survive is Konami’s first big console game outside of PES since its infamous split with Hideo Kojima, and as if that wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, it has the temerity to carry on the lineage of Kojima’s most famous creation, too. Survive? Given the spittle-flecked rage the mere mention of Konami is often accompanied by these days, you’d be surprised if any new Metal Gear game post-Kojima could.
All of which is enough to obscure the fact that this isn’t the first Metal Gear without Kojima at the helm. Some of those spin-offs – think the brilliant Ghost Babel on Game Boy, the eccentric Acid on PSP or PlatinumGames’ Rising, a game so good it threatens to eclipse some of the mainline Metal Gears – have even turned out okay. Survive, despite the acrimony and apathy surrounding it, can be racked up as another spin-off that’s half-decent.
Like Acid and Rising, Survive veers away from the series’ staple stealth action, instead offering its own spin on the likes of Rust and Ark that have proved so popular in recent years. Start with a blunt stick and an empty belly, then struggle to stay alive until you’ve gathered enough resources and recipes so that stick might become something more powerful, and you’ve crafted a cooker and a farm so that you might never go hungry again.
There’s more than a hint of opportunism in how Metal Gear Survive apes a genre that was, until PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite came along, a surefire way to success on Steam, but that’s not to say the execution isn’t deft and, in parts, imaginative too. It helps that it inherits so much from the series’ past – the survival aspect isn’t exactly new to Metal Gear, having featured so prominently in Snake Eater, and Survive takes the same fastidious approach to physical caretaking. What makes it, though, is how Survive is built upon the skeleton of the brilliant Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain.
That faint shadow of familiarity can be a little disconcerting at first in what’s clearly a relatively low-budget outing for the series. It’s as if Konami got together on the abandoned backlot of the MGS5 set and banged this out in a weekend – and whether you find that cynical or charming depends very much on your own point of view. Personally, I thrill in the Roger Corman-level cost-cutting that’s on show here; the story unfurls predominantly via static codec conversations, and there’s some agreeably ludicrous retconning for a story that deals in wormholes and alternate dimensions, all while keeping a perfectly straight face.
There’s more to it than mere frugality, though, and Metal Gear Survive has moments of genuine brilliance. Its story is hokum – following the events of Ground Zeroes, you’re a nondescript soldier whisked away via a wormhole to a strange, abandoned place – but isn’t that always the way with Metal Gear? True to series’ tradition it then weaves together conspiracy theories (the USS Eldridge at the centre of the Philadelphia Experiment plays its part), far-fetched sci-fi and mealy-mouthed exposition, and while it doesn’t have the same spark of Kojima-era Metal Gear, it does have at least one outstanding twist.
The story’s true purpose, though, is excusing a very different type of Metal Gear – one steeped in horror and isolation, both of which complement the survival mechanics well. You start, abandoned and alone at the heart of the sizeable open-world map, with a thick fog enshrouding entire areas. Venturing into that fog eats away at your oxygen supply, and while in its midst your visibility is dramatically reduced; often, you’ll navigate your way via distant lights, hoping that they’ll offer shelter or escape once you reach them.
Survive, then, is a game about suspenseful exploration more than it is about stealth, and the brand of horror Konami strives for leans on some pretty fine sources. There’s something of Stephen King’s The Mist – and Frank Darabont’s wonderful film adaptation of it – out there in the thick of the fog, and something deeply unnerving about the Lovecraftian horrors you stumble across in that dense blanket of grey. And Konami’s got previous here, of course – Survive’s debt to Silent Hill is more than acknowledged, it’s fully embellished with Masahiro Ito, the artist synonymous with that series’ own grotesques, providing the designs here.
When its elements combine, Metal Gear Survive can be a fine horror game. Find a new waypoint out in the shrouded wilds and you’ll then have to protect it as it comes under siege, crafting barricades and layers of defence before waves of enemies come shuffling in. It’s an effective match-up of function and form (built upon smartly in online co-op which, contrary to early impressions of Survive upon its reveal, seems much more of a sideshow than the main event that is the 30-hour campaign – which makes Metal Gear Survive’s always online requirement all the more baffling).
Beyond those moments of horror there’s the base-building which, while fine, isn’t quite as effective. Metal Gear Survive inherits The Phantom Pain’s underpinnings – moment to moment while out on the field, this really is a dream to play thanks to the thoroughbred Fox Engine – but it also takes on some of its wider failings too, and sometimes seems to stumble in its handling of the basics. Resource management is undone by a dizzyingly fiddly front-end, and just as often as those survival elements come together for something sublime, they can feel hastily tacked on – the attrition rate for some of those all-important meters you’re managing can seem a little rapid given the scarcity of resources, especially in Survive’s opening hours.
Still, as a knowingly cheap spin-off, Survive has more than its fair share of brilliant moments. It’s enough, really, to make you wonder whether all that bile aimed towards Konami is misplaced – but then, good god does Konami do a wonderful job of playing the pantomime villain, especially with Survive’s handling of microtransactions. They can be ignored completely, of course, but having them tied into XP boosters feels like a tacit admission that the progression is plain broken – while having an additional character slot unlock only for real-world cash would be comical if it wasn’t so offensive.
A shame, as such moves soil what’s an enjoyable game. This eccentric offshoot still proves that, for all the misgivings around the series and Konami since Kojima’s departure, there’s every chance that Metal Gear can indeed survive. And with this, a game that’s equal parts brilliant, baffling and, in some of its wider choices, bungled, there’s solace to be found in the fact that, with Metal Gear, some things never change.