Unturned: inside the popular free survival sim


In survivor series we drop in on some of PC gaming's most interesting survival games. Today, Holly Nielsen investigates the popular free zombie survival game, Unturned.

Unturned is a sandbox zombie survival sim. Looking at it scrolling through Steam, it seems like any other Minecraft clone. What makes Unturned interesting is its popularity. With over 219,000 reviews on Steam, 92% of which are positive, and a huge player base it’s become an odd sensation. 

What you can’t help but notice first is the way it looks. A bit like Minecraft drawn on Microsoft Paint; it’s not going to win any awards for graphical prowess. Every now and again I saw a moment and got a glimpse of an odd kind of beauty in its chunky primary colours. For the most part however, you have to ignore the strange cuboid potatoes and basic houses.

The controls are equally clumsy. I found myself pressing buttons multiple times to get the desired result, and fiddling with sliders and switches on the menus that seemed to do nothing. The UI and inventory system are not intuitive. You’ll need great eyesight to make out the tiny writing informing you about equipment you collect. It felt unnecessarily cluttered which led to confusion as to where things were meant to go and how stuff was equipped. It’s like the game is trying to make up for the simple graphics with a complex menu, which does not work.

The survival elements of the game are the same as a dozen of its predecessors. There’s nothing truly original here, it has borrowed big parts from games like DayZ. However, although not original, it is all still serviceable. There are a number of things you need to keep an eye on—health, stamina, hunger, thirst etc. You eat what you can salvage or grow, you drink what water you can find (preferably not dirty) and you try not to be mauled too severely by zombies. The maps are littered with settlements that hide the best loot, however, zombies tend to congregate there. 

There are four main maps in single player with varying sizes and difficulties based on the environment. PEI, best for beginners; zombie-heavy Washington; the freezing Yukon—best for experienced players; and the recently-added huge and varied Russia. Although the differences in environment are mainly found in the colouring, little touches such as a zombie in a restaurant dressed as a chef or a lumberjack zombie in Yukon made me smile. The ability to craft items and build shelter enable you to create a stable home-base, but you have to be prepared to defend your lowly homestead.

Sneaking up on a zombie can lead to deadly attacks.

While many people unfamiliar with survival games may be put off with the pressure and hours of sneaking about before you get a weapon or dog food to eat, Unturned is far more accessible than the likes of DayZ. After an hour in single player you’ll probably have a decent weapon, a backpack full of supplies and maybe even a vehicle to zoom about in. Unturned isn’t as stressful as other survival games with loot being more readily available and zombies easy to sneak past. It is refreshing to head off into an unknown map safe in the knowledge that you have a rucksack filled to the brim with canned food and an axe.    This isn’t to say that Unturned is boringly easy. In large quantities the zombies quickly become a formidable force. The weather also plays a part in your survival as maps like the Yukon with their snowy terrain require you to shelter or build a fire so you don’t freeze to death. None of this is revolutionary. The real popularity of the game doesn’t lie in the survival mechanics, or the aesthetic. Unturned has amassed a following for two main reasons- the multiplayer and the price.

While single player is a decent way to while away a few hours most people seem to sink the most time into playing online. Unturned features both PvP and cooperative play. To new players PvP is baffling. I started in a house with a bunch of strangers, some of them were naked and I was also naked—it was like a house party everyone wants to forget. After a bit you’re warped to a small map and you will probably be mowed down pretty quickly. Although a large engaged community is a great boon, it also means to a newcomer entering this world on your own it’s impenetrable. After being destroyed in PvP I decided to see if I would fare better in a more supportive environment. If you had a bunch of friends all playing together, this is where Unturned really shines.

The availability of Unturned is the crux of its popularity. It will run on most PCs and it’s free to play, making it a great one that all your friends can pop in for a bit of co-op. The freedom that Unturned allows the online players means that a complex world has been created. Gangs are formed, intricate structures built and planned attacks take place. When I turned up none of this was available to me as a lone player wandering the map. I didn’t even see another player let alone build a castle. However, this is hardly surprising, and more the fault of my lack of friends than the game itself.

Stranger Things Season 2 has had a budget cut.

Unturned is free to play, with an option to pay £3.99 for a “permanent gold upgrade” that gives you more customisation options, access to “gold servers” and an array of skins. I can imagine playing without ever spending a penny, which is impressive. But if you’re hooked, the paid version of the game would be very tempting.

There is nothing original about the mechanics of Unturned and the low production values can be off-putting. However, it is impossible to deny its appeal. At first the overwhelmingly positive responses can seem inexplicable, but the combination of a passable game with an open multiplayer that costs nothing was bound to equal a hit.