Clumsy brawls with dumb zombies make Metal Gear Survive hard to get into

After Konami's uncomfortable separation with series creator Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Survive's first impression is one of cheap fanfiction. But after playing the first three hours, I'm both relieved and troubled to say that Survive is only a Metal Gear game in name. You're dumped through a wormhole into a hazy, zombie-infested world, all the Snake bros and long cutscenes and cognizant clone hands locked away in another dimension. It's fitting, really—besides some cylindrical tutorial robots with long-winded, patronizing explanations for everything, Survive's world is a simple one. It's just a damn survival game.

The genre brings its usual problems with it, chief among them that any time a game has hunger and thirst meters, I clam up. It also has resource collection and convoluted menu systems for managing them. (Double-clammed.) There are also zombies. (I can't begin to describe how hard I am clamming.) But in the first few hours, the genre cliches marred by countless poor implementations in Early Access survival games jive just fine with the open world structure and limber character controls of Metal Gear Solid 5, our 2015 Game of the Year. My problem is that they also distract from the best parts of MGS5: creative stealth play and elastic AI. 

Brains and brawn 

The zombies—called wanderers in Survive—are way less interesting to sneak around and toy with than MGS5's soldiers. This is likely due to their sheer numbers and hivelike mentality. During an operation in which I had to retrieve some data from a two-story building surrounded by the things, I managed to sneak into the building using cover from storage crates flanking its sides. But when I stepped outside, a zombie spotted me from my second floor position and alerted the dozen or so wandering the lot to my presence within seconds. They huddled on the ground level, scurrying around and screaming at me. I tossed a few crystal chunks (they're distracted by the stuff they're made of) and sprinted to safety. 

Anytime one sees you, they alert another wanderer nearby, making it difficult to repair bad situations before they get out of hand. And when they get out of hand, Survive's melee combat and simple building systems aren't a fun way to clean things up. You need to 'aim' to equip weapons, which restricts movement. Against hordes of quick, erratic enemies, waving a machete in the general direction of eight wanderers never feels very effective or worth opening yourself up to the risk. 

Moments in the trailer and a quick look at the skill tree hints at bigger combos and much better weapons, but I'm not convinced that slowly progressing into a melee machine is what I want from a game built in the shell of a stealth sandbox masterpiece. It's also possible to lay down obstacles like chain link fences to slow zombie assaults, but fussing around with the item menus before struggling to place an object in a space that the game allows for isn't nearly as fun as outsmarting them would be. (I will admit that poking zombies in the head through a fence with a sharp stick is pretty satisfying though.)

A dangerous (and very foggy) world 

If you don't cook your meat or clean your water, you can get some nasty debuffs.

The moment-to-moment exploration between awkward combat encounters is a different story. Every activity orbits your base, which begins as a patch of debris in the shadow of a Mother Base replica, torn to bits and half submerged in the dunes and rock of the arid alternate dimension. Here you can construct weapons, gadgets, and building materials at a few work benches, or if you're hungry (and you will be) there's a fire for meal prep. If you don't cook your meat or clean your water, you can get some nasty debuffs.

Nearly every object in the world can either be collected or broken down into resource components—iron and wood mostly—which can then be stored at your base for use in building anything from bows to sandbags. Over time you can build up your bases defenses, which will be necessary once the wanderer hordes start showing up. Otherwise, with the right plans and resources, you can build anything from a small garden to a water purifier. You'll also find survivors out in the world that speed up operations, though I had no such luck. 

With so little time to dedicate to tinkering with the base-building system, I still don't really know if it's all that interesting. A top down grid-based building UI means we'll all get to put our personal spin on them, but I get the impression everything you build is meant to simplify or alleviate the stresses of exploration. We'll all be making the same place with a different face.

That's OK though, because exploration is the real heart of Metal Gear Survive, and it begins with the eating and drinking system (I am trying hard not to clam). A constantly depleting hunger meter acts as a hard cap for how much health you automatically regenerate, and the same relationship applies to thirst and stamina. Sprinting and crawling deplete stamina too, making each sneaky maneuver or quick exit a major risk. 

Venturing out is dangerous enough to begin with. You need to gauge how far you can go with your current hunger and thirst levels, along with how much food and water you're carrying. I found plenty of errant goats to punch to death and dirty ponds to drink from, but I worry about how tired I might get of seeking the stuff out. Hopefully the base-building system takes the pressure off just enough to keep things tense without making them too trivial or repetitive. 

Your best bet is to seek out watering holes and then, using the map's stamp system, mark them with a juicy teardrop. Nothing is marked for you besides the general location of mission objectives, so careful curation of points of interest are key to staying oriented. I love map stamps in games. More methods for documenting your journey through the world in a way that gives more personal meaning to landmarks and encourages a closer connection with your surroundings are exactly what the genre needs. (Bless you, Breath of the Wild.) 

A valid survival tactic in Metal Gear Survive is to willingly enter the looming cloud of poison. 

But even stamps don't mean a thing beyond The Dust (at first). A couple hundred yards beyond the borders of your base a thick wall of fog reaches into the sky, and to explore anything within it, you'll need an oxygen mask which, you guessed it, means monitoring another meter. With hunger and thirst always ticking down, the oxygen meter is an artificial way to kick you back home after enough time. You can always refill it with Kadan crystals, found in wanderer corpses and naturally occuring clusters, but food and water are enough to worry about. I'm not a fan.

More troubling is that it's hard to see very far within The Dust and your map goes offline while you're out there. The only way to navigate is via familiar landmarks and the distant blinking lights of you base. I built some flags with smaller, dimmer blinking lights to help out, but even with those I couldn't stray too far before I lost sight of them completely. However, if you're resourceful enough to make it back to base in one piece, everywhere you explored within The Dust will get revealed and uploaded to your map.  

I love how tense and dreadful this makes every inch of The Dust feel, but I miss planning my exploration around distant landmarks. With everything shrouded in fog, Survive's world feels a bit one-note, limited to the small visible space surrounding your character. I really hope there's a way to make it disappear for good, at least in chunks.

Whether or not Metal Gear Survive will be worth playing depends on how it steers its survival game systems towards the much more playful sandbox of Metal Gear Solid 5. Maybe the zombie AI is more complex than I know, and stealth plays a much bigger role in the long term. Maybe the melee combat feels better with a few new combos and weapons unlocked. Maybe The Dust is hiding some fascinating secrets beneath all that fog. I hope so, because right now Metal Gear Survive is just a functional survival game built in the shell of one of our favorite stealth games ever. I'm not expecting a sexy vampire villain to show up or any 45-minute monologues on the ethics of private military corporations. I just hope I can destroy the minds of my enemies with more than a blunt object