Metal Gear Survive‘s open beta closed yesterday. The full experience releases in a month on February 20, but the scant few days with this paltry offering has left me wanting to play more. Not necessarily because it has grabbed my interest or proved it can even be interesting but because it’s just so weird. More than anything, I need to know what it is.
In broad terms, the title says it all: it’s a survival game set in the Metal Gear universe. Set between Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, Mother Base is sucked into a wormhole and dropped into an alternate reality full of crystalline zombies. You (and others, if you’re playing cooperatively) must collect resources to find a way back.
Aside from the Fox Engine and the name, it might as well not even be a Metal Gear game. There are brief moments where the game might encourage you to sneak around these creatures and tickle your Snake-flavored memories with a trademark ding when you’re spotted, but there’s no sequences of tactical espionage, no quirky characters, and definitely no protracted pontificating on the meaning of existence. In other words, no Hideo Kojima. (Despite this very weird, almost Dead Rising-esque trailer.)
And to some extent, it works. Stacking atop an engine and set of core mechanics that we already know works, the game plays fantastically. Melee combat looks a bit cartoonish but feels exceptionally good as you intuit the grip these weapons have as they pierce and slash enemies. And, if you ever get up to it, guns continue to shoot remarkably well. They snap and punch with the vigor and ferocity you’d expect.
Even the newer bits like the expansive amount of crafting available to you is satisfying. It’s not particularly complicated (thankfully) as all you need are the requisite materials and then you just hold a button down either at a workbench or in the field and you get the thing you want. It makes crafting defenses in the moment a reliable tactic, one that works in concert with the inability to pause the game rather than against it.
There are satisfying layers to it all, too. Build a chain link fence, for instance, and you’ll be able to use the holes to shoot or stab enemies through, but they will overrun it rather easily in truly horrifying/somewhat funny World War Z fashion. And the streamlined status meters (your hunger is your maximum health and your thirst is your maximum stamina) removes some of the common frustrations I have with survival games.
But it doesn’t ever quite come together. The co-op mode is pretty much a horde mode, but it also makes a strange decision to pull you in and out of a Matrix-y whitespace between rounds, as if they couldn’t figure out any other time to let you manage your skill tree and inventory. And the moment-to-moment gameplay where you evade and fight these zombies is hilariously detached from the survival aspects, where getting trampled to death as a consequence of drinking dirty water isn’t as thrilling as it is infuriating.
It feels as if it is uninterested in its own ambitions. Enemy types come straight out of Left 4 Dead, a school of thought long since shuttered as combat design moved on. And with no other individuality to speak of, it’s a question of why. Why would anyone be interested in playing this unknown quantity of extremely known, cliché quantities?
Metal Gear Survive comes across a bit as if you were taking pennies on the Kojima. It has some good ideas and even some great execution, but it’s missing something that ties it all together. Maybe a more robust narrative thread, maybe a greater intrigue of the unknown, or maybe a nice rug. And for better or worse, that curiosity will surely have me coming back to it in a month.