Metal Gear Survive is emotionally and mentally exhausting. It stacks stiff, repetitive gameplay atop survival systems that are unforgiving and unrelenting, making the overall experience feel like trying to break out of a chokehold with one arm tied behind your back. The core loop of venturing out into the unknown in search of resources to make your existence just a little bit more bearable is gratifying, but it always feels like a desperate gasp of air before the fingers tighten again. Every once in a while its disparate ideas synergise for a thrilling set-piece where you’re battling waves of enemies while frantically placing and maintaining defenses, but these only serve to highlight what Survive could have been, were it not so consistently choking the life out of you.
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 Militaires Sans Frontières and the attacking XOF forces. Your character is sent by a U.N. scientist named Goodluck through the wormhole to Dite, a barren, drab-looking parallel world that’s made up of recycled Metal Gear Solid V locales. There you’re tasked with finding the cure to a parasite that has infected you, and also seek out what has become of your comrades. Survive’s story is mostly uninteresting and plays out through text and voiceovers on static screens, similar to the iconic codec conversations of its forebears, minus any of the charm. Although it tries to bring in some of the political machinations and pseudoscience the series is famed for, each narrative beat is a thinly veiled excuse to repeatedly send the player out to retrieve memory boards for an AI companion, rescue survivors, or activate machinery. Despite some small hooks into the greater Metal Gear canon, the narrative is largely forgettable and keeps out of the way of the gameplay.
The urgency of Metal Gear Survive’s exploration and resource gathering routine is dictated by health, hunger, and thirst. While the first of those can easily be managed by avoiding damage from enemies, the other two are an ever present doomsday clock, constantly counting down to your demise. They are the proverbial gun to your head and, unfortunately, they diminish every other gameplay opportunity Survive offers.
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. The food and water so key to staying alive are scarce, and even the act of seeking them out expends resources in a way that will make you pause and really think about whether it’s all worth it. It’s a grueling grind where the material rewards offer just a fleeting respite.
And therein lies the problem: hunger and thirst deplete at such a rapid rate that micromanaging them becomes an all consuming task, particularly during the tedious first few hours of tutorials and story exposition. Their corrupting influence is pervasive, and because the economy of intake versus expenditure is weighted so heavily against you, the best course of action is often to limit engagement with the game’s systems, be it exploration or combat.
Take material gathering, for example. This is done by running around Dite in search of dilapidated buildings to pillage materials used for crafting and general upkeep. However, movement is constrained by the thirst meter and the knock on effect it has. Sprinting consumes stamina and, as you become more thirsty, the maximum amount of time you can sprint for lowers. It can be topped up by drinking water, but that’s in short supply. In the end, jogging, while considerably slower, doesn’t drain the stamina meter and thus won’t need you to drink water as frequently.
The result is that running around and exploring Dite is an arduous chore where you languidly run back and forth between your home base and an area of the map where you suspect there may be something useful. Movement is joyless, and it’s compounded when you venture into Dust, an area of the map enveloped in a thick poisonous miasma.
The greatest rewards can be found scattered around Dust, but simply being there adds more demands. While in Dust, an oxygen meter appears and begins counting down, effectively limiting how long you can be out there before needing to return to a safe zone. Although the game’s in-game currency, Kuban, can be converted into oxygen from within Dust, you can only do this a few times before it becomes prohibitively expensive. Each time the cost increases, so at a certain point you’re losing more Kuban than you’re gaining from harvesting enemies or the naturally growing Kuban in Dust. Visibility is also significantly reduced and the map becomes inoperational for large stretches of time. Although there’s always a distant light in the sky to serve a beacon to safe ground, uneven terrain and rocky outcroppings also obscure vision, so it’s easy to get disorientated and lose track of your objective. Because of all this, your time in Dust becomes brief and your spoils often feel paltry, hardly worth burning precious resources for.
In your travels you’ll inevitably encounter Wanderers, the game’s main enemy force. These braindead creatures can’t see very well but have a keen sense of hearing, so they’ll investigate noises and attack if they sense you or any other source of sound nearby. But it’s easy to find straggling Wanderers and pick them off by simply running behind them and using an instakill attack. Their movements are slow, their attacks telegraphed, and each one behaves exactly the same. If isolated, Wanderers provide no challenge and require no strategy to kill. Late in the game new enemy types are introduced, some which move quicker and pounce on you, others that will lob bombs from a distance, but they’re more annoying than challenging.
Metal Gear Survive’s combat is lacking in dynamism. On a basic level, it’s functional. The act of raising and swinging a weapon, be it a spear, axe, or sledgehammer, is slow and deliberate, inviting you to think about how long it takes to execute an attack and time it so it hits the enemy without leaving you open. Connect, and you’re met with the satisfying thud of thick steel meeting hard muscle, or a sharp tip piercing the flesh or the protruding crystallized weak point of a Wanderer. Ranged weapons provide a little more speed and freedom of movement, while allowing you to pick off enemies from a relatively safe distance. Unlocking abilities can add new attacks for different melee weapons, but they don’t significantly change the way you play. As a whole, combat is also the victim of Survive’s underpinning systems. This time, however, it’s the game’s protracted crafting and upgrade systems.
Both of these are reliant on Kuban energy, most readily sourced from Wanderers. A dead one will provide a small amount, while a downed one can be sucked through a mini wormhole and sent back to base for more, much like Metal Gear Solid V’s Fulton Recovery mechanic. In order to actually craft new weapons and equipment, you also need to find the recipe for them, and these are usually in containers hidden around Dust. There isn’t a way of locating containers outside of randomly stumbling upon them while exploring, and when you find them it’s a crapshoot as to what you’ll get. A light on the containers cuts through the thick fog in Dust, so you can spot one in the distance but this is also more likely to happen by chance. Were it possible to actually spend a decent amount of time exploring Dust, perhaps it’d be a little easier to stumble upon containers, but the thirst, hunger, and oxygen limitations prevent that from happening.
If by some miracle you find the recipe for a new weapon, you’ll need to have the relevant materials to craft them. Basic equipment such as spears, bows and arrows, and machetes can be crafted using wood, iron, copper, and other materials that are more readily available. The exciting stuff, however, is limited to rarer materials, which like everything else in the game, is hard to come by. If you really want, or need an item, your only option is to keep going back to Dust for short stints, aimlessly wandering around in hopes of finding what you need.
Survive does make exploration a little easier using Wormhole Transporters, which serve as fast travel points in and out of Dust, as well as between each other. However, powering these up for the first time draws large groups of Wanderers to your location, at which point you must erect fortifications and fight off waves of enemies as they attempt to destroy your defenses and the teleporter. These moments are when Metal Gear Survive actually feels thrilling to play and, surprisingly, it’s because of the limitations of the game’s systems that they are.
Setting up before the ambush, you’re acutely aware of how little you have to work with and the fact that if you fail, you’ll also lose the resources collected and progress made since your last trip to base camp. This means being diligent about setting up fences, barbed wire barricades, and sandbags in choke points so you can control the flow of Wanderers. It requires you to spend the time beforehand ensuring you have enough arrows, bullets, molotov cocktails, and whatever else you can bring to fight, as well as the food, water, and healing items needed to sustain you through the onslaught. Once you activate the transporter and the Wanderers swarm, moving between choke points taking out enemies is tense, partly because of how inelegant movement and attacking feel. You need to be measured and precise; to put yourself in the best spot and make each swing count, all the while keeping an eye on your vitals, ammunition, and the state of your weapons. It’s a delicate balancing act in which the stress comes from knowing how much you’re committing to the battle, and the tension of how much you stand to lose.
Admittedly, there’s an element of finding the good in something bad there, not to mention a fair bit of psychological manipulation. Perhaps it’s Stockholm Syndrome at work, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there is fulfillment to be gained from Metal Gear Survive’s grind. Whether it’s managing to hold off waves of Wanderers for main missions or collecting edible herbs, hunting animals for meat, or sourcing some dirty water to briefly stave off the thirst, each one provides a small nugget of satisfaction; the sweet release of endorphins that comes with completing an objective. And by stacking the odds so heavily against you, these successes–big or small–feel like an act of defiance. I’m the rat pushing a button for a food pellet, and sometimes that’s the best you can ask for.
Base building is also a big part of Metal Gear Survive’s gameplay, and there’s enjoyment in spending time and resources transforming your ramshackle base into one outfitted with water tanks, areas to grow vegetables and rear livestock, cooking stations, and crafting benches. Over time you’ll rescue people stranded in Dust and bring them home, where they’ll potter around doing tasks assigned to them such as tending to crops. Growing your base is perhaps the most rewarding part of Metal Gear Survive, but the game doesn’t make it easy. It barely explains mechanics such as resource sharing and creating exploration teams, and aspects such as crafting and building involve navigating a litany of menus. The game lays it on thick with information, and doesn’t make an effort to show you what’s relevant and why. Still though, it can all be intuited with a little bit of experimentation, and once you’ve done that it’s easy to fall into a comfortable routine of returning home, upgrading your character, running maintenance on your defenses, and collecting produce. If there’s any comfort to be found in Metal Gear Survive, it’s here.
You can also play Survive in online multiplayer, during which you team up with friends in wave based survival missions. Since equipment and items are shared between campaign and multiplayer, playing online alleviates Survive’s more overbearing stressers, as this mode is considerably more generous about doling out material rewards and bypasses the need to find recipes by giving you weapons to repair and use. Multiplayer is a salve for Metal Gear Survive’s more egregious problems, but relying on a separate mode to make the campaign feel manageable feels like an obvious sign that the single-player experience isn’t balanced properly. Since Survive is always connected, chances are most people will be in a position to play online, but for some people it’s not their preference. Unfortunately, however, playing multiplayer to accrue resource and weapons to take back into campaign feels like the only real way to get some breathing room.
For the most part, Metal Gear Survive feels oppressive, demanding, and obtuse, and needlessly so. It’s a shame because there’s actually a good survival game in there, but the pressures it places on you make uncovering and enjoying that unappealing. Over time the ability to manage thirst and hunger becomes slightly more manageable, especially if you play the multiplayer, but the lead up to that is debilitating. There’s some satisfaction to be had if you persevere and savor the small victories, but you’ll quickly find yourself thinking about if your time would be better spent playing something else.