As far as I can tell, the current incarnation of the survival video game genre can be traced back to the release of The Forest back in 2014. An argument could be made for 2004’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, but The Forest was the first game I can remember playing that combined crafting and survival in its very specific way.
The genre has come a long way since then. Some games have stood tall as new benchmarks, and others have come and gone with little fanfare. While others are playing Sons of the Forest, Valheim, and whatever the latest expansion of Subnautica is, I went back through the archives to take a look at a little-known, free-to-play survival/crafting game called Unturned. Is it worth another (or perhaps a first) look? Let’s find out in this review.
They Clean Up Nice
Unturned was developed and published by Smartly Dressed Games, a smaller indie studio based in Calgary. Upon looking into the studio, I found that Unturned is their only available project, and that Unturned II was in development but has been put on an indefinite pause.
The reasons why are unclear, but it does seem that Smartly Dressed Games is dedicated to Unturned. The game was released in 2017, and continues to be supported through patch updates. The most recent one at the time of this writing was July 13th. Of 2023. That’s six years after the game was made available on Steam. It’s also Hello Games levels of dedication, and that gives me hope for whatever they do next or what they turn Unturned into.
As for Unturned itself… it’s uhhh…
Creation and Community
Before I dig into Unturned’s faults (there are quite a few), let’s talk about the good. First of all, it’s free! That alone will make it worth trying for most people, especially those looking to play something with friends.
Why is that? It’s because Unturned has a huge focus on community, whether that means creating something for others to enjoy, playing with friends you already know, or even making new friends you find on various servers. In terms of communication, you can even use in-game two-way radios to chat with friends instead of starting a Discord call. Neat!
Unturned also features deep Steam Workshop integration, to the point that players can make and mod new things for just about any part of the game. Unturned’s Steam page even describes building custom maps, writing plugins, and even community-developed updates that can be submitted for official approval by the developers.
Overall, it’s very impressive, and the list of active servers I saw in my time with the game leads me to believe that Unturned has a very passionate, active community backing it up.
Explore, Build, Survive
As for the actual gameplay of Unturned, you’re looking at a combination of things. It has hardcore battle royale-style inventory management (it reminds me a lot of Tarkov or PUBG), resource management, crafting, and combat, but the greatest emphasis is put on exploration.
Also like a battle royale, once you drop into a map in Unturned you have to go from building to building, settlement to settlement to scrounge up supplies, weapons, ammo, and crafting resources. As it turns out, the overall gameplay works very well, and the gigantic areas you’re given to explore have plenty to see, even if it is all a little bland (more on that later).
I only played on a populated map for a short period compared to the rest of my playtime, and even then I never actually encountered another player in the digital flesh. These maps are just insanely big, and the best way to survive is to hunker down and build yourself a fortified safe house. Especially since melee weapons have durability, guns and ammo are relatively scarce, and the gunplay doesn’t generally feel very fun.
You know what else isn’t fun? Squares.
Fear of Flatness
So here’s the deal, Unturned’s visuals aren’t going to be for everyone.
Personally, I find them to be bland and overly simplistic, especially when there are other aspects of the game that are clearly well-thought-out and implemented. It feels strange to have such complex systems working in the background of something that looks like it could have been made by a tween, but perhaps that’s what the developer’s intent was.
At first blush, Unturned is clearly taking advantage of the blocky aesthetics of games like Minecraft and Roblox, just without the detail and texture that makes those games interesting to look at. Every surface, every NPC, and yes, every zombie is made up of squares and rectangles. Completely flat. Faces are drawn on in a way that could almost be endearing if it wasn’t so bland.
Similarly, the five official “worlds” or maps are completely massive and interesting to explore, but boil down to towns and points of interest that are actually lacking in interest. The first time I spawned in Unturned, I was dropped near a small town with some homes and buildings to loot. There was a botanist, a pizza store, and a food hall, but each one was flat, textureless, and empty aside from the occasional zombie or piece of furniture.
It just doesn’t do anything for me, unfortunately.
For what it is, Unturned is not a bad game. I can see it being an easy option for younger gamers to connect and hang out with their friends, but I just don’t see it offering much for people much older than 14, or those who have access to something more robust, like any of the crafting/survival games I mentioned at the top of this review.
However, if you can get past its unsightly aesthetics and occasionally frustrating combat, there is a fun little game somewhere in Unturned. You might have to dig for it, but the strong community support and ongoing developer support both bode well for a game that will be well-run for a very, very long time to come.