The Early Access report: DayZ, Rust and 7 Days to Die

Welcome to the early access report, a new regular round-up looking at the most interesting early access games of the moment. Here we try new alphas and revisit old ones to separate the promising gems from the bug-ravaged time wasters. This week Craig goes full Bear Grylls, and throws himself into three different sandbox survival games, DayZ, Rust and 7 Days to Die.

DayZ 's arrival on Steam Early Access was the most prominent and most talked about of the people-vs-people-vs-environment releases, but it wasn't the first. Just a week before it came out, Facepunch (of Garry's Mod fame and fortune) released Rust, a DayZish game focusing on crafting yourself up from a sort of pre-industrial spawnee to a land-camping hermit. And just a few days before that, 7 Days To Die landed, bringing with it all the technical panache of an animated gif of a PS1 game. I've spent lots of time scrounging for survival in all three, but are any worth supporting on Early Access?

The nature of these games means there's a lot that can go wrong. At least Bohemia was clear about what they released, with this warning displayed prominently on the store section usually reserved for game info fluff: "WARNING: THIS GAME IS EARLY ACCESS ALPHA. PLEASE DO NOT PURCHASE IT UNLESS YOU WANT TO ACTIVELY SUPPORT DEVELOPMENT OF THE GAME AND ARE PREPARED TO HANDLE WITH SERIOUS ISSUES AND POSSIBLE INTERRUPTIONS OF GAME FUNCTIONING."

It's not as typographically terrifying as they made out. I've lost a few characters: at least two have vanished in the dark hours when I wasn't playing the game, one died after a small fall from a short ladder, and I had to leave one to starve to death in a sort of limbo when I fell through a floor and couldn't get out. There are other issues: zombies will pursue you through walls, fences, and doors, which wrecks an otherwise carefully cultured sense of immersion. But thanks to the all-caps, I was prepared for this. Overly prepared, actually: those were just moments in almost 20 hours of zombie dodging. It hasn't crashed at all, it mostly runs smoothly (on an 580GTX, i7, 8BG RAM system), and my latest character has been alive for over a week. The internet is rife with tales the dirty sandbox, though my own tales are of a man watching the horror from behind a bush and backing away. It's capable of remarkable things, and in this stage I've already had more than £20's worth of fun from it.

I can similarly recommend Rust . Rust was a DayZ combo-breaker for me: until I tried it on a whim, I'd spend my evenings yomping across Chernarus Plus. Now I flow between the two. It's a surprising survival game from the Garry's Mod developer, set in a world where you start off with a rock, a torch, and a medkit. Through endeavour and/or murder, you gain better tech. It's thematically similar to DayZ: a multiplayer sandbox where you're up against people and the environment (zombies, radiation, animals, falling down a ladder), but the details matter here. You can make a proper impact in Rust's world through the crafting system, which allows you to build tools, clothes and, most importantly, buildings.

Your first night will be spent scavenging the land, hitting trees with a rock to carve out wood, and hitting stones to grab the makings of a hatchet. With that, you have the ability to gather things more speedily, which should allow you to build a shelter and a door. The world is strewn with little huts, built to house new spawns spat into the cruel world. With a hatchet to hand, and a generous pile of crafting recipes, it's possible to have a little single-room hut all of your own in a short span of time. They're dotted about the land, monuments to the people that came before, often abandoned. I've wandered the strange map (it's huge, but only has one road), climbed a mountain range, strolled across lonely plains, and everywhere I go has at least one abandoned shack clinging to a rock face like a lost goat. They're the base-level of the game's base-building: there are mazes, towers, even entire villages to discover, outposts of the people who play.

Rust is a bit more cartoony than DayZ, but the players are no less barbarous. It is a survival game after all, which means you could go to the trouble of gathering the material to craft a bow and its arrows and hunt the wildlife for meat and cloth, or you could just find someone who's done it and beat them to death. I've been killed on sight many times, and I have stories of people luring friends into buildings and locking them in, tossing scraps of food in and taunting them. It might be awful, but it allows for people to be creatively vile. It's also remarkably well put together for a game supposedly released early, though like DayZ it suffers from the attention of hackers. In fact, that's the biggest technical trouble it currently faces, with wall-hackers able to wander into your locked buildings and loot your wooden palace. It does feel like an early access game, with obvious placeholders, missing text, and moments of immersive fumbling (chicken breasts being looted from dead pigs and bears, for example). Still, I find it hard to be angry when the sunsets are so lovely, and the dead of night comes alive with torchlit human endeavour.

That's more than I can say for 7 Days To Die . It's way more expensive than both DayZ and Rust, and though it's craft-supported open world zombie survival sim, it's just not very impressive. If the idea of Early Access is to show off something that people might want to be part of and support, it just made me want to flee.

It's an ugly game, and not in the artistic way the apocalypse can be. It has bad textures stretched over bustable world blocks (a la Minecraft), terrible animation, and incredibly awkward action that feels like it's running twice as fast as it needs to. But I think the sound is the most off-putting part of the experience: a soundtrack that attempts to evoke the dread of being surrounded by the undead, but with all the restraint of a hungry zombie. Everything makes a weary zombie sound, and it can feel like things are near you even if you're alone. Worse still are the reactions from a zombie when you assault them: one punch elicits a groan; further strikes - and it takes many to put one down - will create the effect of hitting the button on a soundboard over and over, piling zombie squelches up. It has almost no immersion or sense of dread, and the world is full of oddly placed objects to loot. Why am I looting birds nest and air conditioning units?

If there's one thing it has going for it, it's that it leans heavily on crafting. The loot is everywhere, and your inventory enables you to combine objects to craft helpful items. It mostly makes sense, so if you place a pile of sticks in a line they become a club, or a fill out the sleeping bag template with cloth gives you something to place as a spawn point. In addition, every building can be barricaded by breaking down internal walls and filling doors and windows with those blocks. A multiplayer game I played at least had a little bit of ebb-and-flow to it as we tried to survive a zombie assaults by plugging the windows with broken down bits of the house. But after the tedious, flappy fighting against the witless AI, all I wanted to do was wall myself in.

So two out of three aren't bad, and in fact both show a huge amount of promise. It's impressive that DayZ and Rust are capable of offering different things within the same space: DayZ is more of a survivalist game, whereas Rust's messy timeline invokes hunter-gathering. DayZ is about the fall of civilisation; Rust, if it has a goal other than to survive, is about the creation of one. Both are strong foundations for the developers to build on, and both are good games right now. That's more than can be said for our third contender. Like one of its infected antagonists, 7 Days To Die shambles, groaning, at the back of the pack.

Is it worth playing right now?

DayZ: Yes

Rust: Yes, check out our Rust alpha review for more.

7 Days to Die : Nope, not yet.

Have you played this week's alphas? What do you think? Are there any alphas you'd like Craig to try out? Let us know in the comments!