Poor old Metal Gear Survive. The first post-Kojima entry in the Metal Gear series was always on something of a hiding to nothing but, even then, this got an absolute kicking from both critics and players. Whatever else there is to be said about Kojima's run on Metal Gear, there's no denying he and his team produced consistently high-quality games that were unlike anything else - and of course, Kojima's drive to embed himself within the games means that, over time, he had begun to seem inseparable from it.
There are plenty of good summaries of what happened near the end of development for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The general reaction seemed to interpret the situation as a betrayal of Kojima by Konami, encapsulated by the phrase 'FucKonami' which became a hashtag and almost a meme. One of my favourite Kotaku UK articles is a crazy but very fun analysis of how the MGSV soundtrack relates to the split.
My own perspective has always been that the information known by outsiders is limited and that, over a 30-year career, Konami benefited hugely from Kojima's work but also backed him to an enormous extent that few publishers are capable of. When the breakup came, whatever the unknown rights and wrongs, it is inarguable that Kojima had a media-focused strategy for his exit — leaks giving his side of the story, basically — whereas Konami did the very Japanese thing of staying quiet.
I'm not saying that Konami was actually the victim here. I don't know. But I do think Kojima managed to portray himself as the victim, when in reality he was leaving mother base to set up on his own and shortly had the financial backing of Sony. I love Kojima's work, and it's impossible to miss that one of his major themes is information control, events that create a story for the world — this is the point of the Boss's sacrifice in MGS3: Snake Eater — and feel that he tried to manage how an acrimonious departure would be perceived. I wonder if even he is surprised at how effective it has been, and regrets the collateral damage he's caused to the colleagues he left behind.
The subtext to the above is simple: Kojima's shadow looms large and, even though he wasn't involved in MG Survive, everyone can't stop looking for him there. It's an interesting one because it ties into yet another aspect of his control over the series. Hideo Kojima's name was everywhere. But what of the hundreds of others who helped make these games?
Kotaku's review of Metal Gear Survive does an excellent job of identifying the game's themes, and one of the biggies is absence — specifically the loss of a leader. The plot macguffin involves Mother Base soldiers, abandoned by Big Boss, being sucked through a wormhole into a hellish alternate dimension. Survive is all about your character being forced to step up into a leadership role, and trying to help others to find their place here too — all the while surrounded by the wreckage of what has come before, and scavenging what you can from it.
I disagree with the interpretation of these themes as being a call for help from Konami's developers, who by this theory are apparently still pining for their boss years later. This sees Survive as reflecting a dispirited development team, reduced to rummaging around old scraps and devoid of any creative agency. I ended up seeing Survive's arc as more positive simply because it is creative: this is the story of footsoldiers losing their guiding light and, amid the ruins of what was, forging out a new and very different existence. But in doing so it is original, unbound and irreverent — a new kind of Metal Gear that, appropriately enough, bears little relation to what has gone before.
The first shock is how old-school in approach Survive can be. It may have the modern touch of regenerating health but it's a game where enemies can take you down incredibly quickly, and certain situations are almost inescapable. This is a game with huge and often negative consequences for poorly-considered play: if you take an encounter lightly, Survive is happy to send you back to a checkpoint from 10 or 20 minutes ago. In 2018 it almost feels like an affront. Some might just think 'well screw that for a game of toy soldiers', and fair enough.
I found it forced me to approach Metal Gear Survive in a new way, because at the start I was in the MGSV mindset. Dying is annoying, for sure, but the fact was that I tended to die when overreaching. Thinking I could manage to activate a wormhole transporter and somehow muddle through the waves of walkers, only to see the transporter destroyed by a mass of bodies and find myself stuck in a corner with no way out.
An early experience came when I pressed on into the dust, hostile parts of the map with an unbreathable atmosphere, when my oxygen level was low. Survive has an involved crafting system, meaning that you're always on the lookout for resource stashes, and a neat feature with the oxygen side is that you can use Kuban energy (the in-game currency) to 'buy' more air, with each purchase degrading the mask (which can be repaired at base) and costing more money. The trade-off is usually worth it.
But in this situation I didn't have an objective and, more troublingly, wasn't sure where I was. One of the dust's features is that it obscures vision, so what at a distance looked like a camp turned out to be a few rocks and a shed. I pressed up an incline, finding only a few oblivious wanderers for my troubles. Dropping down I found a large expanse I didn't recognise, and heard the 'beep' your oxygen tank makes at 20% left. I bought some more and pressed on. Nothing. I bought more, and found some shacks containing little of use. I got distracted by a wanderer I didn't see and walked on, costing valuable seconds as the meter ticked down further. I bought more oxygen and kept walking.
I was desperate now. I'd bought oxygen so many times I could afford maybe one more hit. I was looking for lights: when you're in the dust there are landmarks, which you'll gradually learn, but if all else fails then look for a set of lights in the distance, marking either Mother Base or a transporter. I scanned the horizon every few seconds but no. I climbed a hill as the 20% beep played for what felt like the tenth time. Last batch of air. I couldn't see any hope. I just chose a direction and walked. I walked as the air meter ticked down, plodding along an empty road and seeing nothing but stone. I had so much loot and I knew it was all screwed now. The meter hit 1%, then 0%, and my health bar quickly dropped. I died, asphyxiated and alone. It was desolate.
It took a long time to hit the restart button.
I don't think I've died to oxygen loss ever since. Maybe I had to do it once, just to learn the limits. But that's Survive in a microcosm. Everything about this world is initially forbidding and opaque. The first few hours are designed to make you have to scrabble for food, of which there's never enough, and drink dirty water rather than die of thirst (risking disease). So the first time you grow a potato, or distil clean water, or punch and kidnap a goat to produce milk, it feels that much more tangible. You don't know how good a roasted onion looks until you've been starving for days.
It's a strange rhythm for sure, and the opposite of certain modern games which frontload the most spectacular feelgood moments in order to get players on-board with that particular fantasy. Survive on the other hand feels positively hostile and uncaring. Like it's going off in its own direction, something shown in the unusual selection of weaponry and especially the enemies.
Though there's more variety later, the basic wanderers are pretty much all you'll see for the first ten hours. But they're a genuinely great realisation of zombies, in an industry that has plenty of volume but few standouts. These things are slow and in small numbers more of an annoyance than anything, but if one gets within grabbing distance you're in serious serious trouble. If there's more than one around and you get grabbed, you're probably dead. Survive is quite happy for one to grab you and then the rest to pile in while you can't move. After all, it's your fault for underestimating them.
This knife-edge is a constant aspect of Survive, and what I came to find most thrilling about it. It is pretty hard to die in a lot of singleplayer campaigns. Games generally don't want you to die and, if you do, they get you back in straightaway with minimal consequences. Which is great! But Survive gives you every tool possible to stack the odds in your favour, and then leaves you to it. There's no mercy when you get cornered. If you set off a wave and haven't prepared, it will brutalise you. And if you're clearing out an old building and get cocky, one unseen wanderer in the corner will kill you in a second. Sometimes it happens so fast that you're still processing what happened as the game reloads.
Over its length, Survive expands by introducing a new map, more multiplayer modes, and much more in the way of tools for you to use. The nature of the experience changes also. The early brutality is now a fond memory, because I've got a great base pumping out all the stuff I need, and my focus has moved from simple survival towards the larger goals. In a weird way it feels like I've earned an existence, and done the same for others.
Metal Gear Survive has taught me the struggle and value of hunting one's own food. pic.twitter.com/qzayWVPusz
— Richard Stanton (@RichStanton) March 21, 2018
There is, I think, an element of Stockholm Syndrome to my enjoyment. I adore Metal Gear games, I have that certain nostalgia which all gamers acquire for the trappings of their youth, and it's been a while since a mainstream title manhandled me so. Some might find the checkpoints unbearable, the slog of re-doing stuff because you misjudged a single engagement, and that's fair enough. I wouldn't pretend my opinion is somehow more valid than any other, only that I'm surprised this game received the extent of negative reaction it did. It feels like Survive was seen as part of something bigger, caught in the crossfire. You want to talk about review bombing, look at a user score of 1.2 on metacritic for a game like this.
Anyway, what's done is done, and now all that's left is the game itself. An outlier to the series, a spinoff really, but in some sense a new start too. A game full of incidental details (and yes, what seems to be a straightforward tribute to Kojima Productions) and new characters, a different style of stealth and a fresh atmosphere. As you patch together the remnants of M.S.F. and the Diamond Dogs, something else emerges.
I don't think Survive is as good a game as MGSV. But I also think the whole point of it is not to compete with what has gone before. The cynics have from day one called this game a cash grab, but the easiest thing for Konami to do was probably re-making the first Metal Gear, or Metal Gear Solid or MGS3. Instead it allowed the Metal Gear development staff that remained to build something else. They created an alternate history where everything looks bleak but, over time, you can build a foundation. A game where the triumph is in simply establishing yourself.
"I want to become more useful like you, Captain."
The NPCs call you captain. There are a lot of them and, as you rescue individuals from the dust and gradually make things better back home, you become their example. The one who won't just sit around pining for days gone by. Metal Gear Survive, if you see it like this, is a tribute to the human quality of endurance. Not just that pure drive for survival, either, but our need for some sort of quality of life: companionship, working together, making things better for everyone. Big Boss is not 'in' Metal Gear Survive except for some re-used cutscenes and, rather brilliantly, as the character model of the decoy gadgets you use. But that doesn't mean the game spends its time lamenting his absence; the phantom pain here is felt, if at all, by players alone.
I haven't finished Metal Gear Survive's campaign. I'm right at the end, and 40 hours along now, but I almost don't want to finish things. I like my latest Mother Base. I like this crew. And I like how, in the over-saturated and often unimaginative survival genre, this experience isn't quite like anything else out there. I don't think Survive is for everyone, but it's a lot better than the reception suggests.
The Metal Gear series has to leave Kojima behind, and whatever else you can say about Survive it managed that. Perhaps a few more of Big Boss's loyal followers could stand to do the same.