I must admit, I feel kind of bad for Konami. I’m no less disappointed than anyone else by the series’ jarring shift away from the relentlessly original, narrative-driven, stealth-action of the past towards the hackneyed zombie survival genre. And I’m certainly not condoning Konami’s allegedly appalling treatment of its former employees.
For all their mistakes and putative misdemeanors, however, it’s still somewhat tragic to witness a developer that’s provided countless gamers with so many happy memories over the years, fall so far from grace in the eyes of its fans and struggle to escape from the mire of controversy in which it finds itself; all while it attempts to move on from the acrimonious departure of auteur Hideo Kojima and take the series forward.
Having played a fair few hours of the recent Metal Gear Survive open beta, however, I have to say, my sympathy is waning.
Much as I enjoyed the beta’s albeit meager offering of ‘salvage missions’ to begin with (once I’d got my head around the game’s bewildering array of systems and menu screens, that is), it wasn’t long before that initial excitement wore off and the experience became a tedious slog.
Taking place between Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, Metal Gear Survive follows a group of Militaires Sans Frontières soldiers who, after being sucked into a wormhole during the evacuation of Mother Base at the climax of Ground Zeroes, are thrust into a desperate fight for survival in an alternate dimension that, it just so happens, is inhabited by hordes of weird, crystalline zombies. Their goal, to mine enough ‘Iris Energy’ to reopen the inter-dimensional portal and return home to the perfectly-normal-by-comparison reality in which the rest of the MGS universe is set.
The plot is as bat-shit crazy as it sounds. Not that Metal Gear has ever shied away from the incredible, of course – there was an honest to goodness vampire in Sons of Liberty, for crying out loud; not to mention a scene in Guns of The Patriots in which a technologically enhanced Raiden holds back a speeding, 50,000-ton battleship, almost literally, single-handedly. The difference is, these moments, as close to jumping the shark as they sometimes came, possessed an originality and kind of charming absurdity that Survive seems to lack in its seemingly by-the-numbers approach to survival action. Moreover, these moments actually tied into the wider MGS universe one way or another. The more outlandish features of Metal Gear Survive, by comparison, come across as derivative; the product of focus testing and market research, not the frenzied mind of a creative individual like Kojima.
Indeed, though Survive certainly looks and even sounds like a Metal Gear game – the UI and graphical style in general will be intimately familiar to anyone who played The Phantom Pain, while a handful of traditional sound effects, the alert noise, for example, are preserved too – there’re few conceptual similarities between it and Kojima’s original conception; something he himself identified shortly after the initial reveal. In other words, rather than creating an entirely new IP for its first foray into the online-focused, survival genre, Konami decided to cash in on the Metal Gear brand instead, though it meant provoking the animosity of fans. The theory being, presumably, that this would ultimately be the more profitable option of the two; the Konami execs realizing that a group of die hard fans will undoubtedly buy anything Metal Gear related on day-one, regardless of quality, and that this approach would enable the developers to re-use assets from previous titles in the series.
However, it’s important not to extrapolate too heavily at this stage regarding the thematic and metaphorical aspects of Metal Gear Survive, at least. The beta itself was severely lacking in context, after all; and content, for that matter.
After having created their avatar in the game’s actually quite comprehensive character creator, and coming to grips with the various features of the unnervingly clinical hub area –which, out of interest, bore more than a passing resemblance to a hospital operating theater/serial killer’s clean room – the player is able to choose between one of three ‘salvage missions’.
The aim of these missions is to defend an automated mining device located at the centre of the map from three increasingly large and aggressive waves of the above-mentioned zombiecorns, while it extracts ‘Iris Energy’ from the alien environment; the substance needed to allow the stranded soldiers to re-open the wormhole that sent them here in the first place and return home. Mercifully, given the sheer number of threats surrounding them, the player can call on up to three friends (or random strangers online via matchmaking) to aid them in their onerous quest to escape this benighted land, along with a prodigious arsenal of weapons, traps, and barricades. There’s one rather serious caveat, however: the soldiers have to make the ammunition, traps, and defensive fortifications they need themselves from scratch, meaning the player must spend a certain amount of time during each mission scouring the landscape in search of the requisite raw materials, and/or completing randomly generated ‘side-missions’ in the hopes of being rewarded with a new weapon blueprint or a nice big cache of rare resources.
This reliance on crafting and, because the player can only carry a certain amount of gear before they become over-encumbered, inventory management, is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s certainly effective at ramping up the tension, making the player dig deeper into their vast bag of tricks during missions, and communicating the importance of strategy (thinking carefully about which items to use at any given time and when is key to success on the higher difficulty levels). But it also means the player is more often than not reliant on melee combat to dispatch the encroaching hordes, which is a bit of a problem when the hand-to-hand combat is as imprecise as Survive‘s.
There are bigger issues to consider, however, the most intrusive of which I’ve already mentioned. You see, while the crafting system is pleasingly deep and the process of gunning down scores of hostile zombies or eviscerating a 20-strong mob with a single, well-placed trap hugely is satisfying at first, it’s far too repetitive to retain the player’s interest for long. And, crucially, I’m not sure this is simply a consequence of the beta’s frugality.
In my experience, I found the salvage mission’s core feedback loop inherently dull: repel zombie assault, harvest resources, strengthen defenses ahead of next wave, finish mission, replenish supplies using recently acquired resources, repeat. There just doesn’t appear to be any real spontaneity or diversity to proceedings.
Now, because the single and multiplayer portions of the game are connected (hence the always online requirements addressed by Goomba Stomp’s Andrew Vandersteen in a recent article), it’s more than likely the main purpose of these salvage missions is to give players another opportunity to resupply outside of the main campaign; intentionally designed to be short and relatively straightforward so as not to get in the way of more pressing matters. Nevertheless, I worry the laborious, repetitive nature of these missions is A. off-putting as a meta game and B. an insidious, subtler way of enticing the player into spending money on microtransactions. Not necessarily to gain an advantage over other players you understand – if Konami is to be believed, loot boxes aren’t part of the Metal Gear Survive experience – but to ease the otherwise infernal grind.
And, though it’s perhaps not as problematic as the issues just raised, I have to say, I’m also a little concerned the game will be too action-orientated.
Unlike State of Decay or The Long Dark, for example, the majority of each salvage mission I undertook was spent slaughtering mindless zombies, rather than fortifying a defensive position, fighting against a host of potentially fatal factors to keep the player avatar’s body in good working order, or sneaking around a group of high-level enemies in an effort to snatch a juicy bag of goodies. No doubt these systems and mechanics will feature more heavily in the single player campaign, if nowhere else, but even then, I can’t escape the feeling the survival elements will be executed in a somewhat slap-dash manner and thus that the overall experience of playing Metal Gear Survive will be far less diverse, rewarding, and enjoyable in the long run.
To return to the title of this article, as far as I’m concerned, the beta did little to assuage the nagging doubts I have about Metal Gear Survive.
The salvage missions I played, while certainly enjoyable in small bursts, are far too simplistic and repetitive to provide lasting entertainment; which, I agree, wouldn’t pose much of a problem if they served as an optional distraction from the main story. However, as the single and multiplayer content is interlinked, I fear players will be forced to undertake salvage missions with exasperating frequency in order to top up their resources, weapons, gear etc.
That being said, when you consider the dearth of content available in the beta, it could rightly be argued that it’s unfair to infer too much or pass final judgement until the finished game releases next month.
While I agree with that statement in principal, I would counter that by saying I was just as concerned by the things I didn’t play during the trial period as the largely underwhelming things I did. For instance, although Konami has confirmed there will be a 15-20 hour single player campaign to sink our teeth into, we don’t really know if there’s a deeper narrative hiding out of sight. Nor has it been explained how the always-online internet connection and drop-in, drop-out co-op will affect the story.
Naturally, developers aren’t going to showcase absolutely everything they’ve been working on in an open beta. Especially if the game in question is under such scrutiny as Survive. But let’s not forget, the likes of Overwatch and Ghost Recon: Wildlands, to name but two, managed to give players a far better indication of what to expect during their trial periods, generating excitement and interest in their titles, without giving everything away prior to launch.
Because of that, I can’t help but wonder if this was Konami’s plan all along with the Metal Gear Survive beta. To entice both the doubters and more opened-minded fans alike with a couple of undoubtedly entertaining if ultimately flawed secondary missions, convincing them that the game is worth the gamble after all, despite the initially vociferous response; concealing any narrative, mechanical, or environmental weaknesses until after the game has released and they’ve made their money.