What’s all the fuss about…UNTURNED?

Constantly hearing about a particular game, wondering what exactly the big deal is? In our regular series, we delve into the hottest community games and ask the important questions: Why do they generate such a devoted following? Is all this fuss warranted? And if so…are they worth your time?

This week, we look at Unturned. This free-to-play free-roaming survival game has just come out of Steam Early Access, where it managed to pull in some 25 million or so players.

What is it, exactly?

Since it first emerged in 2014, Unturned, the brainchild of developer and Canadian student Nelson Sexton (who was just 16 at the time) has quietly gained a huge and loyal following. And with good reason: this is no mere high school project.

Yes, it looks basic, with a visual style that blends Minecraft’s blocky sensibilities with an, even more, low-poly approach that will trigger nostalgia for those who remember when true 3D was a startlingly groundbreaking concept. But those simplistic visuals contrast starkly with the game’s sophisticated systems and a great deal of hidden depth.

How does it play?

After booting up the game and being faced with the plethora of gameplay options, I decided to skip the tutorial and jump right into a single player sandbox to get the hang of things at my own pace. Once I’d chosen one of the maps, (Germany, as it happens) and picked my character, I found myself standing on some grass, with a river at my right side, and a steep hill to my left.

With this instant, almost bewildering freedom, I weighed up my options and decided that the rooftop I could just about see at the top of the hill might be worth checking out. After slogging for a while, I worked out I could toggle a run and get there much faster. Running, I found, uses up stamina, which depletes one of the bars in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen. Also, there are indicators of (amongst others) my current hunger level, the air in my lungs, and of course, my overall health.

Once at the hill’s summit, I was rewarded twofold: there was a fantastic view of the surrounding valley, and also a farm, complete with main building, fields of possibly-but-not-definitely corn, and a large barn. The barn was closest, so I took a look inside.

Big mistake.

I was instantly set upon by a snarling, purple-faced zombie in a farmer’s hat. I punched him, which did little. I ran for my life…right into the path of another angry zombie.

And thus ended my first run. I’d been playing less than a minute.

After respawning at a different location, I decided to give Unturned the respect it obviously deserves. This wasn’t going to be the cakewalk the pleasantly childlike graphics spoke to.

I found myself alongside the river again, but this time a curious cluster of half-submerged buildings were visible, peeking above the water level, not far away. Surely one of these buildings would yield some of the loot I needed to survive this less-than hospitable land.

Rather than running headlong into another ambush, this time I took a much quieter approach, first creeping, then swimming up to the perimeter of what I could now clearly see was a flooded town. I quickly made on building my target: the police station. If I were to find some useful items anywhere, it would surely be in there. A weapon was, of course, my priority.

I could also see zombies. There were standing motionless in the shallow water by a few of the buildings. The weren’t moving, but they were growling menacingly. I had to be careful.

I took my time, tactfully giving them a wide birth, gradually circling my way to the police station. Mercifully, it was empty of threats but was nevertheless full of water. I had to swim my way into a back room and to an open safe. Inside…

A handgun. Yes!

I grabbed the gun and the accompanying ammo and instantly equipped it, but somehow in the excitement, I accidentally fired a shot.

My second mistake.

My position was instantly swarmed, my three hungry zombies. I shot one, but I could do nothing to fend off the others.

With nothing like the kind of confidence I probably needed, I decided to throw myself into a multiplayer server and found a world even more harsh than the one I’d previously experienced. Here, the dumb zombies are the least of your worries. Around every corner is a player, and every single one is infinitely more tooled up than you are. Don’t expect the kind of tense face-offs which punctuated DayZ’s early game. Here, it’s dog-eat-dog, and you’re very rarely the one doing the eating.

Is the fuss justified?

To label Unturned as Minecraft with zombies is far too simplistic (and not just because Minecraft is already Minecraft with zombies), There is a feeling of exciting potential in this vanilla but playful world that reminds me of the punishing, unforgiving nature of games of old.

Also, In case you didn’t get that from my description, Unturned is brutally tough and doesn’t suffer fools. But it’s rewarding, too. There’s a full crafting system, a plethora of vehicles to drive, and the ability to build and maintain anti-zombie defenses and complete bases.

With all this, though comes some trade-offs.

First, let’s talk about the payment model. The game is completely free to download and play, but dropping $4.99 gets you the Permanent Gold Upgrade, which, along with some snazzy gold pants and a few more bits of superficial nonsense, grants extra character slots, and, most importantly, access to the Gold servers.

So not the worst payment model. But the hardship comes as a side-effect the game’s free-to-play nature. You see, because this is a free-to-play game, its servers are mainly populated with younger gamers who have no desire to plumb the game’s potential for alliances and nuance. The primary multiplayer servers are hectic, to say the least, with every single player out to get you. All of which makes for an exhausting experience, unless you fork out for those premium Gold servers, which have a little less of that outright craziness.

I was surprised and delighted to find the game is mostly stable and bug-free, with decent performance even in a multiplayer map with a lot of action going on. This technical achievement is offset by a bit of clunkiness in the overall experience. Combat and traversal don't feel as tight as they should, and navigating the inventory and crafting menus is never better than a necessary chore. The sound design, too, is basic: it’s hard to pinpoint where zombies are from the noise they make, and they often sound like they’re nearer than they are. There's still plenty of room for refinement here, but luckily, judging by all the work already done to the game over its life, it’s likely we’ll get it.

Worth a look?

If you fancy a go at a survival game which has very few technical requirements, is easy to pick up, and costs exactly zero initially, then you can’t go far wrong giving Unturned a spin for an hour or so. And if you like what you experience and stump up the 5 dollars, you’re likely to have an even better time on those lovely premium servers. Unturned gives you much of what DayZ offers, but in a fun, colorful package. And that can’t be too bad, now, can it?

Andy is a freelance writer for Game With Your Brain. You can follow him on Twitter.