In Metal Gear Survive, you must survive throughout an open-world environment amid hordes of flesh-eating zombies. The premise is so tired as to elicit groans, but this latest entry in the Metal Gear series—the first since the controversial parting of ways between director Hideo Kojima and Konami—does sustain a respectable level of tension, in that you must combat hunger and thirst as much as you do the undead. The game, though, wastes an inordinate amount of time on exposition and, more regrettably, includes a microtransaction system so as to reach deeper into players’ wallets.
In Metal Gear Survive, you’re trapped in an alternate dimension across which necessary resources are scattered and zombies are rampant. Throughout its campaign, the game features a fair bit of dialogue between tough officers and unassuming yet patronizing robots—exchanges that feel like interruptions to the action at hand and an obligatory nod to the garrulousness of the Metal Gear Solid series. And while it makes sense for a game with so many mechanics—the building of defenses, the treatment of illness, scavenging, and so on—to take a little time showing players what’s what, the 30-minute-or-so introduction focuses too much on a plot nobody will care about once they’re in the middle of a desperate hunt for food while bleeding out from a wound.
Still, the game refreshingly doesn’t bloviate about war like its recent predecessors. Once you start expanding your reach into the wastes of its open world, Metal Gear Survive often keeps you on your toes. For example, though hunting animals is very simple, you’re not showered with opportunities to kill prey as in faux-survival games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game also corrects the mistake that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain made by granting a super-charged running ability to its protagonist, which effectively drained that title’s stealth sections of any suspense (why be nervous or cautious when you can just high-tail it after being spotted by a threat?). Here, a stamina variable, which is tied to how much water you consume, can prevent you from escaping danger in a pinch.
However, sometimes Metal Gear Survive’s challenges disrupt the feeling that you’re in a desperate situation. You can cook food at the beginning, but for some weird reason you’re not allowed to boil water until you complete several missions, even if you have the requisite scavenged materials. Thus, unless you find clean water (which is somewhat rare), you must initially risk disease by drinking dirty water. Yet the game often gives you medicine that counteracts illness, calling into question the actual risk of not being able to boil.
The zombies, though, are legitimately dangerous, if mainly in terms of how much damage they can inflict. The game invites a variety of approaches to deal with these familiar bad guys, from taking high ground to pick off foes to erecting barricades to give yourself just a few more precious seconds before an energy blast annihilates a horde. Because you must also worry about hunger and thirst, formulating a strategy here matters in ways it never did in The Phantom Pain, which gave you enough equipment to take out a country and enough running speed to make Olympic sprinters look like jackasses.
Sadly, Metal Gear Survive aligns itself with too many corporate gaming shenanigans to register as unadulterated fun. Not only must you be connected to the Internet to experience even the game’s single-player mode (an affront to basic notions of accessibility), but some players will be tempted by microtransactions that speed up the upgrading process—which reveals that the silly online requirement probably exists to make financial exploitation a constant possibility. In a title that could have benefited from a more streamlined design, asking players to pay for faster results is insulting.