In the pinnacle moment of Metal Gear Solid 3, your character, Naked Snake, crouches next to his fallen mentor in a garden of white Star-of-Bethlehem flowers. Though she has judo flipped you over rope bridges and across the jungle all game, you have finally vanquished your superior, and as the score swells she gives her final command: to take her life. At this moment in the cinematic, Snake stands, towering over her with a carbine rifle pointed at her head. When the pause lasts a little too long, you the player realize the scene won’t conclude until you push the button yourself. Suddenly you are inundated with feelings of confusion and regret. Even if you’ve played the entire game without taking a life, you have no choice but to pull the trigger now.
This is the quintessential Metal Gear experience: a confrontation between the author and audience so direct that the player feels summoned to the killing fields with the press of a button. It is an experience that transcends a Metacritic score. A rare moment that cannot be quantified, where the player must confront their own inner violence and consider what it means to follow orders. It’s why the series has achieved a status nearly as legendary as its heroes.
So then how do you score a Metal Gear game that doesn’t aspire to reach any of those peaks? Instead of hiring a voice actor like Lori Alan, for example, who delivers one of the most complex performances in video game history, what if Konami just skimped on the budget and hired someone who sort of sounds like Lori Alan. What if instead of envisioning a dense setting with a living environment, this new game just recycles levels from Metal Gear Solid V? Instead of pushing current hardware to the limits to deliver a groundbreaking visual graphic experience, what if Konami made a game where the characters look like a Last Gen remaster of Half Life 2? And what if all of this was blatantly obvious, like something ridiculous where most of the characters you meet wear helmets and masks so their faces don’t have to be animated? How do you score a game that aims that low? Is that a 6 score? That is a 6 right?
I ask because Konami decided to make that game and it is called Metal Gear Survive. I’m sure you’ve heard the premise in the past year-and-a-half since its controversial announcement: a beloved stealth franchise that’s had a canonical storyline since 1987 about the horrors of war suddenly sees the release of a tower-defense game with zombies. Taking into account the controversial departure from series creator Hideo Kojima, fans understandably hate-posted all over the internet about their disapproval. But then something strange started to happen: reputable publications started saying, “hey y’all, let’s wait longer to declare that this is bad.” For example, an article in Forbes urged gamers not to trust reviews until a few weeks after Metal Gear Survive’s shoddy release, as if immediate observations of the game’s laziness will somehow change when we get some new online maps. It’s been a subtle sort of gaslighting, where I’ve felt guilty about being disappointed about Metal Gear Survive’s production design, writing, gameplay, and musical score, in a way that has left me on the floor clutching my controller, whispering to myself am I a troll? Am I just a troll if I think the zombies make no sense?
So to all bizarroworld stakeholders out there who’ve urged the planet to give the Metal Gear-with-zombies game a chance, I ask you: can I release my negative review of Metal Gear Survive yet and be taken seriously? Because here is my best attempt to review this game soberly: Metal Gear Survive is an apocryphal pseudo-sequel that takes place between the Ground Zeroes and Phantom Pain chapters of Metal Gear Solid V. However, instead of continuing a complex story about nuclear deterrence and the war economy, a “wormhole” transports a group of soldiers into an alternate dimension where zombies run rampant, toxic fog is everywhere, and you’re hungry all the time. Most of the gameplay revolves around scavenging for items, crafting supplies, building up the defenses of your base, and fending off hordes of uninteresting looking zombies who are absolute bullet sponges.
After that I am not even sure what I can say to analyze this game in terms typically found in a review. For better or worse, I have been waiting over a year to write this article, but ripping on the game doesn’t even feel satisfying. There have been zany, even misguided directions in the Metal Gear franchise before that have been fun to debate and pick apart, but every part of Metal Gear Survive feels uninspired. I spent hours playing a zombie game asking myself, “Where are the brains?” It’s even more complicated because a notable swath of Metal Gear fans have already written off Metal Gear Solid V, and even Metal Gear Solid 4, claiming there could be no lower point for the franchise. Well, here we are.
And yet, Metal Gear Survive seems to accomplish what it sets out to be. It is a nonsensical, cheap game that does have some fun moments. Though I could say the same thing about Flappy Bird, another bad game that some people like. Is Flappy Bird a 6 score too? I’ve played Metal Gear’s PSP game Portable Ops, which is definitely a 6. But I am starting to see that the 6ness of Portable Ops is far different than the 6ness of Metal Gear Survive. The hard part is so many reviewers have urged players not to judge Metal Gear Survive alongside Hideo Kojima’s masterful entries in the series. But in an industry where the standard is to compare every game we play to monumental achievements like Ocarina of Time and Shadow of the Colossus, am I really supposed to not consider how Metal Gear Survive compares to its previous iterations?
Metal Gear Survive uses the same Fox Engine and similar gameplay design to Metal Gear Solid V, but the button layout is more confusing and the controls are more sluggish. It has the heavy tone of Metal Gear Solid 2, which also had a confusing story, except this time the narrative is just boring. There is a hunger-and-thirst management system, like in Metal Gear Solid 3, although this time the intensity is turned up to the point it seems like a chore. At a certain point, comparing titles just seems like a sad exercise. When I think about the title screen of Ground Zeroes, a helicopter flying overhead as Big Boss stands at the front of Guantanamo Bay-inspired Camp Omega, I get all fidgety in my feet. The title screen of Metal Gear Survive looks like it was done with the budget of an iPad.
Even worse is that the game doesn’t improve upon the worst parts of the Metal Gear franchise. Whereas Metal Gear Solid V had evolved to the point of using no “text-based” Codec missions, the cost-cutting storytelling method is back in full force in Metal Gear Survive, and somehow they are even more mundane and drawn out — and this is coming from a guy who listened to every conversation in Metal Gear Rising. The thing about Metal Gear Survive that makes the least sense is why the creators spend so much time telling us a story they want us to toss out the window. Why do I have to watch a cut scene this long when it is filled with cheap-animation shortcuts and uninspired writing and voice-acting? The critical themes in dialogue are predictably missing as well: I learned so much about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the Metal Gear Solid series that I wrote a peer-reviewed article about it. But as I played Metal Gear Survive and watched muddy characters talk nonsense about Kuban Crystals and alternate dimensions, I can’t help but wonder why Konami would go so out of their way to dismiss their fans who want something grounded in what we need to confront in society.
And the most eye-opening thing to me is I’ve learned that some American gamers can look past all the things I’ve mentioned in a game as long as it has a gameplay score of a 6. It doesn’t matter if the gameplay is crafting items and grinding in an uninspired zombie tower defense game with Walker Gears. If it’s a 6, and they can play with a buddy, they’ll buy it even if Konami charges them $10 for every extra save slot. Those fans may like the mindlessness and repetitive experience of Metal Gear Survive, and I think I say that with no shade.
The saddest part is there are obvious ways Metal Gear Survive could have been made that would have made everyone happy. It would have been so fun to play as Commander Miller, fending off hordes of soldiers attacking Mother Base. Or if Konami wanted to play with the survival and crafting mechanics, I can’t understand how no one in the pitch room said: “Oh. Our last game had a notable missing scene where Liquid Snake absconded with an army of child soldiers and a friggin’ Metal Gear. Let’s do something fun that fans will love like let them play as Liquid who can scavenge for food and build a bold Lord-of-the-Flies-inspired Sahelanthropus armament.”
But no. The pitch was wormhole generators and zombies. Then Konami ran with it. And we now have a Metal Gear game no one asked for. And we didn’t even get a decent soundtrack out of it.