It's 3AM server time. I'm playing Facepunch Studios' Rust on an official server with about 90 other people, none of which are particularly friendly. I feel like I'm William Cage from Edge of Tomorrow. I spawn, naked and alone, wake up, die, wake-up, and repeat. Every time. Even if I'm trying to chat or look up controls while sleeping as a fresh spawn. Maybe they think I have something, or they're harvesting me for supplies, or they think it's fun, but it's always the same: Live, die, repeat. However, there's no time travel. No insight gained. No benefits from respawning. No pants (warning: some images are NSFW). However, I knew this coming in.
I was playing Rust around this time last year. It's actually my first multiplayer survival game. I'd seen other survival games and the constant alpha stage they seem to be in, but against my better judgment, I tried it. For those who haven't jumped into one yet, the premise is generally the same: you spawn, naked and defenseless, half starved, with no map and no compass, in a hostile environment with no friends (unless you're lucky enough to spawn next to your friend, if you brought any). Your goal is to, well, survive. You need to find food. Often, you need water and shelter too. You might have to worry about diseases, possibly zombies, but more often than not, like in AMC's The Walking Dead, your fellow humans are the scariest thing you have to put up with.
Crafting is generally simple, like using 20 pieces of cloth for a pair of pants, but other recipes usually have to be discovered, either through experimenting or blue prints. Once you make those pants, though, everyone is going to want to rip up your corpse for them. Because they can.
Survival games are generally, to be blunt, terrible communities. I say this as a PvP lover who sucks at killing people and generally has fun watching over his should for bad guys, picking flowers, and then running like a scared rabbit when discovered, luring my assailants home to my friends who will usually kill my stalker as I hopelessly shoot arrows around everyone.
While an MMO is persistent and player names stick ensure you have a reputation or force you to reroll to change it, most survival games have small servers that seem to be born and die nearly constantly. Voice chat is practically forced onto you, with many players turning off text chat in general, if not at least ignoring it. You may literally be forced to sing to save your life. Logging out might not be safe either, since, as with Rust, your character is still in the world, just sleeping, and can be killed while you're at your 9-5. Combined with being in alpha stages and constantly changing or being wiped clean if not totally shutting down, the genre as a whole is not for the feint of heart, and Rust is certainly one of the games that defines the multiplayer survival genre.
And yet, when I saw that MMOGames didn't have a Rust review, I knew I had to take charge. I updated the game and jumped in, not as a fresh victim, but as a former inmate revisiting a prison after having been rehabilitated back into society. Although I haven't played the game in awhile, I have been watching from the sidelines for a reason.
The Pull of Rust
Although the game I played last year was a bit different from the (at the time) more well known DayZ, there were and still are some differences. For one, Rust doesn't have zombies (any more). Instead, Rust takes place in a world recovering from nuclear war. You're mostly hunting/fighting wildlife, sometimes versions of them that have mutated. It's a peaceful, natural world for the most part, with most signs of humanity coming from player built structures.
I actually rather enjoy a more realistic setting like this, since the moments of terror feel more real when they happen. A growl or gunshot in the distance, trying to get home before darkness over takes you; quickly lighting a torch so you can see the landmarks that point towards home but forcing yourself to put it out so you don't attract attention; mashing the "E" key as you bumble in the darkness for the door; slamming it shut and searching for your campfire; fighting to keep warm so you won't lose health; peeking outside of the cracks in your house to see what's making nose outside as you clutch your trusty axe, knowing full well that the wall can be easily taken out by an explosive if the wrong person followed you home. This is the terror of survival. Not World of Warcraft "I'll have to respawn" survival, not "They'll dry loot me" Darkfall survival, but "They will loot me, take my keys, rob me blind, and burn the house down till the sleeping bag is ash so I will almost never be able to get back and search through the rubble" survival most people in first world countries pay to experience. Hey, some people enjoy the rush they get from falling from a plane, some people enjoy the idea of possibly losing it all to angry bears or teenagers. Don't judge me (though please note I prefer dealing with the bears than the teens).
Rust has a natural setting, and a not-so-far-fetched, end-of-the-world one at that. It has serviceable home building (don't expect Rift dimensions, but you get a lot more customization and utility than any garrison from Blizzard). You can get sick, get cold, thirst, wet... it has a healthy dose of survival mechanics that make the genre interesting and functional. It doesn't have all the torture devices you can have in DayZ, and the tech is lower. There's no vehicles yet, aside from NPC planes dropping supplies sometimes. You can interact with so much of the world, from picking up rocks to setting up barriers people and animals can impail themselves on. Snowy terrain makes you colder which can lead to health loss, and while a fire can cheer you up, it's not enough to heal you. It feels like an ideal starting point for the genre as a whole.
However, Rust has also started adding a new kind of realism that I think most gamers also don't experience in their everyday life: race, body, and soon, gender issues. While the world is changing, there's still this image that gamers are young white males, and there are some angry gamers who want to keep it that way. Facepunch, however, decided that players will randomly have their race and other physical features randomly assigned. You are essentially digitally born, and including penis sizes randomization makes men deal with body image in a way most guys really don't want to discuss or be subjected to, but females in geek/gaming circles deal constantly. I'm sure the gender randomization will make things even more, ah, "interesting.".
Maybe this sounds like nothing to some people, but it's a social experiment at the very least. People have been very vocal about not having a choice over their avatar, but they've also done certain things with it, none of them new. People worry about racism in games (which is a valid concern), but I remember watching a fellow gamer play Asheron's Call back when we were kids. He was playing on the PvP server, Darktide. The game had three races which were basically white, Asian, and (what felt like) African Arabs. A high level player found Striker and his friend and threatened to kill them if the friend, who was playing an Asian, wouldn't swear allegiance to Striker, the African Arab. According to this player, African Arabs were the chosen race, and African Arab who spent time associating with other "lesser" races was defective. This was back in 1999.
Sixteen years later, I'm now naked, in the snow, freezing and starving. I'm being told to stop or I'll be shot. The guy with the gun, white, takes one look at me and says, "I'm going to let you go because you're Asian and have a small penis. Have a nice day." It's Darktide all over again,or so I think at the time.
It's a bit weird to be called Asian (though being mixed and living in Japan, it's not entirely uncommon), but humiliating to be killed due to the size of my character's package. "Fucking Asians" is something I'd heard a few times in past games, but never had it directed at me, and hearing about being "small" never hurt much until my character had evidence of it for all to see. I've never had a desire to play a female in any MMO since I know all about sexual harassment online and didn't feel particularly excited to experience that (even though a feminine looking character of mine got a healthy dose of it). In game, I'm used to being fantasy races with nearly perfect bodies. To suddenly be judged by a randomly generated character I have no control over is not something the general public would imagine games to tackle.
However, I'm a bit more sensitive to social issues I think. I grew up thinking my white mother was a minority since everyone who lived near us was Hispanic. Most of my friends growing up were women, and I actually had gay classmates standing up for me before any of us really understood what it meant to be gay. I can see how the randomly assigned characters simulate real life, and many players who are "lucky" enough to have a character they identify with can judge others without seeing the fault in their logic.
And that's the problem. As I mentioned before, the game's community is mostly awful. When you think of the things that make gamers look bad- homophobia, racism, sexism, small vocabularies and too much free time- and then put them in a situation where they can take so much away from their fellow players, things get ugly. When these players suddenly have to deal with a simulation of very real social problems, a lot of them move on or quit. Those who stay may not learn anything because they randomly got their correct gender/race and good proportions. They learn little to nothing and make the game awful for other people who are playing. While we do need the bad in the world, we need good to balance things out. Although people complain a lot about PvP servers, one thing that I usually felt was there were some people really looking to make connections with other people. At no time in Rust did anyone do anything more than simply allow me to live; no invitations to cities, no food supplies, not even a pair of pants to hide my shame.
While the social experiment is interesting, it would be nothing if the game as a whole were awful. Rust's certainly not a masterpiece. It does have some interesting features, but there are some issues, especially since the game is in alpha. Hackers are a big one, as I hinted at before. Players can host their own servers, which might be good if you know the admin, but if you don't, the hackers can invade and ruin things. You and your friends may also find an "empty" server, build up a bit, and then be around when the admin logs in and decided he doesn't want anyone stronger than him on the server, so he destroys your buildings.
Anonymity is another issue. While it's nice that the game names your character after your Steam handle and uses your current image, the fact of the matter is that it's so easy to change and that there are so many servers, knowing someone's name really won't help you. They can disappear into the wider internet and torture some other hapless victim quite easily.
Then there's players as resources. I'm not just talking about killing crafters and taking their supplies. Humans can be harvested for bone, fat, and... meat. Yes, you can eat people. There's a small chance of food poisoning, and it's not as nutritious as other meat, but it's an option, and on a crowded server where animals and edible vegetation are hard to find, it's often easier to stave off starvation by killing a new player and eating their leg. When I played PvP games that allowed me to communicate with others, I looked at new players mostly as potential recruits at best or potential enemies at worst. Turning them into a food/crafting resource is unique but also problematic.
While some people are certainly shaking their heads muttering, "Pfft, PvP," I have some bad news. PvE doesn't fix anything. PvE servers exist, in a sense. You can attack other players and buildings, but damage is done to you too. Putting barricades on "sleepers" won't kill them (barricades still deal damage to players though, including yourself). If you kill someone, you die as well. The other issue is that you've got naked people everywhere. You can loot them without punishment, just not kill or take equipped items. It truly breaks the game's immersion because you will literally climb mountains to see seas of sleeping naked people spread out before you. Even if you can ignore that, the game (at least in my opinion) feels hollow without the risk of death. Since animals are resources and needed pretty badly, any decently populated server is nearly dry of them. Empty ones, you realize that nothing is coming to get you and you grow lazy and, in my situation, bored. Maybe smarter AI could fix this, but as it is, PvE Rust is not a game I need to play.
Rust is one of the definitive survival games. Like most in the genre, it's still in alpha, so it's hard to rate this as a finished product, especially when it largely feels like a half-baked social experiment. There's a lot of potential, and the survival idea is tremendously fun at first (both alone or when other people show up), but constant wipes, anonymity, players as actual resources, hacking, and the fact that there are several other survival games out in similarly unfinished conditions leads me to feel like this game, like others in the genre, deserves to be either in an internal testing phase or unpaid beta. Rust is a game that I wish I could recommend highly based on its ideas, but current execution and community prevent that.