Welcome back to our Game In Progress review of Metal Gear Survive. This week, we’re wrapping up with thoughts on the game’s story, how it fits into the Metal Gear canon, and what kind of meta-commentary it might be hiding. Specific plot details follow.
Metal Gear Survive starts off promisingly, at least in terms of following the tropes of a Metal Gear game. After a retread of some early cut scenes from Metal Gear Solid V, during which that game’s hero is knocked into a coma when his mercenary army’s headquarters, Mother Base, is attacked, Survive diverts from the established canon with a massive wormhole that opens above the base and starts sucking everything into a parallel reality called Dite. A man named Goodluck—a perfect Metal Gear name and the only memorable character trait in all of Survive—then arrives and tasks you with entering Dite to find out what happened to a previous team of researchers and soldiers. In total, the various cut scenes that set up this premise take about an hour to play out.
That expository indulgence is pretty typical for the Metal Gear series, of which Survive is a non-canonical spin-off, but the storytelling mostly stops there until a late-game twist that doesn’t change everything so much as it just finally allows everything to make a bit of sense. When you first arrive in Dite, you’re greeted with the engagingly spooky sight of Mother Base’s looming wreckage, towering over your survival camp and acting as a rare landmark in a desert full of zombies and a thick fog called The Dust. But sharp-eyed Metal Gear fans will immediately notice a distracting incongruity: The Mother Base wreckage bears a logo from Metal Gear Solid V, meaning there’s no way it could’ve been from the initial attack, as the story implies.
As it turns out, there’s a reason for that. You eventually discover that Dite isn’t actually a parallel reality but the distant future of the actual reality. A giant monster, called the Lord Of Dust and resembling a Human Centipede made of rocks, has been opening up wormholes so it can travel back into the past and devour everything in existence until it has enough energy to travel back in time and do it again. That’s why the wrong Mother Base is sitting in Survive’s desert, and that’s why when you find out the only thing that can kill the Lord Of Dust is MGS5’s super mech Sahelanthropus (a Metal Gear), you can find the nuke-equipped super-weapon sitting in a forgotten creek.
The future twist isn’t particularly impactful, but it is at least a clever way to avoid actually disrupting any of the events of the main Metal Gear series, and it gives Survive a chance to play off of a plot device that became comedically crucial to the games set later in the series’ timeline, like Metal Gear Solid 4 and Metal Gear Rising: nanomachines, son. The Dust isn’t actually some malevolent organism or alien bacteria; it’s an endless swarm of medical nanomachines that were designed to heal people but became corrupted over time and now just turn people into zombies. It’s not a huge deal in the story, but it’s a smart nod that shows an appreciation for the Metal Gear series that is lacking in Survive’s more disappointing moments.
Speaking of, the nanomachines and Sahelanthropus don’t really end up taking the game anywhere satisfying. You don’t get to pilot Sahelanthropus or even watch it battle the Lord Of Dust in some kind of Pacific Rim-esque final throw-down. The end of the game is just about you fighting a ton of zombies and hitting a button to fire the Metal Gear’s big cannon, after which you and your fellow survivors just decide to stay in Dite and patiently wait for someone to think of a way to save you. That allows you to continue suffering through Survive’s frustrating mechanics for eternity, enticing you to, say, pay real money to unlock new characters or earn high-level gear for the online mode. In the end, the plot is a largely dull excuse to ease you into the ongoing multiplayer component, which Konami is most likely hoping you’ll continue to play forever.
Stepping back from the literal plot, the Metal Gear series has often lent itself to somewhat high-minded interpretations or weirdly prescient political discussions over the last three decades, like how a pair of glasses in MGS5 seem to be a metaphor for the development troubles the game had behind the scenes or how these games about shooting enemy soldiers have always had underlying pacifist leanings. Even Metal Gear Rising, a non-canonical spin-off itself, features an evil politician who literally says, “Make America great again,” years before a real-life evil man made it his catchphrase. It should be fair, then, to take a similarly close look at Survive and see if it might have anything to say beyond “kill the zombies and don’t starve to death.”
It’s only natural to interpret the looming wreckage of Mother Base as representative of the series’ history, as it’s directly pulled from what will most likely be the final installment of the main Metal Gear Solid line now that original creator Hideo Kojima has left Konami and taken an unknown number of former Metal Gear developers with him. The nanomachines that make up The Dust, then, symbolize the unknown fate of the series. They’re the plot device that came to drive much of the action in Solid 4 and Rising but in Survive have become corrupted and dangerous, as if to serve as a warning about Metal Gear itself becoming twisted and misused in the future.
Putting it all together, it’s almost like Survive, a game developed by a team that may or may not have included some of the same people who created past Metal Gear games, is telling a story about a group of survivors who get left behind and must defend a physical representation of Metal Gear’s past from an evil entity that wants to use that past to create endlessly replaceable Metal Gear zombies in the future. This speaks to a fear that a lot of fans shared when Survive was announced, specifically the concern that this series would be diluted by the loss of its original director and the rumored institution of Konami’s new creativity-crushing corporate policies. Survive isn’t proof that those fears are unfounded, unfortunately, but it could be seen as a game at least acknowledging them.
The main question that hangs over Survive is whether it deserves to be called a Metal Gear game. On one hand, it would be absurd to put anything else on the front of the box; the game lifts so many assets from Metal Gear Solid V that not acknowledging the connection would be disingenuous. But on the other, Survive doesn’t possess the impeccable design and confidence that made the best Metal Gear games so special. Perhaps Survive is aware that it lacks this loftiness and isn’t trying to honor the legacy of this 30-year-old series, but that doesn’t excuse faults like its overly oppressive mechanics or bland story. If this truly is the future of Metal Gear, maybe it doesn’t need to survive.