Top Ten: Things to Expect from the Rust Alpha

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I don’t know how keen my readers are on buying incomplete versions of games, but I, like 750,000 other people, have recently delved into the Rust alpha on Steam Early Access, and I love it. For a game that’s, at first glance, just another survival game, or a Day Z mod (on top of the original Arma II Mod), Rust might stand as an obvious example of how games can naturally evolve into their next innovation.

And you can experience that evolution as well, assuming you can put up with the game’s soul-shattering cruelty.

 

1: Cruelty through fairness

Even in early alpha, Rust is doing a lot right. In Rust, the player can take resources from the environment and build technology and houses as per the usual Minecraft-but-not-Minecraft style of survival games. But the biggest difference between Rust and Minecraft is the new layer of PVP. Every player can kill every other player and loot the bodies for everything they’re carrying at any moment. Happen to find someone’s house with an open window? You can take everything he’s got. When you’re on the receiving end of a mugging and lose everything, it’s a feeling of complete loss that only games like Dark Souls have ever been able to properly capture. Death carries weight. Hours of progress can disappear if you’re not careful, but for the looter, it’s Christmas. And that’s what makes it fair: you can be the bad guy just as much as you can be the good guy. Nothing says you have to be the victim. One well-placed arrow later and you can be on the fast track to easy gains at the cost of human lives, but then you’ll be on your own.

 

2: Organically good, naturally evil

Survival games have always had a problem with late game content. In a world of infinite creativity, developers don’t want to pigeonhole players. So instead, Rust presents problems and asks the players to solve them. For me, my biggest problem was that people kept murder-robbing me, so my goal was to take the complete opposite gameplay approach to the roving bands of jerks that were reversing hours of my life.

I formed a town. It took hours. I had to meet a half-dozen other players who were similarly fed up with being killed. We talked, we shared food, and before long we were building our houses next to each other’s for protection. We were a town, killing only other player killers and doing our best to fortify our little sanctuary. The best part of the whole experience was that it was organic. There is no “build a town” button, no boundaries to construct groups of buildings. Everything we built was within the incomplete construction system. People just started working together and ended up creating something bigger than themselves, naturally. No good and evil skill trees, no special abilities. Just the power of people united in survival and a hatred of people looking for easy loot.

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 17.30.37*Jaws theme

 

3: You’re going to be frustrated anyway

And then we died.

Exploiting inexperience is the bandit’s code. Our little town was robbed and everyone in it killed all because of an open window and too much time outside of the server. Rust carries a sullen message in it’s gameplay: nothing is forever. Even when you’re the most technologically advanced monster in the server, you’re always a gunshot wound away from passing that power on to the next guy. Even the environments, the destroyed buildings, the irradiated towns, the zombies, speak to the idea that permanence is an illusion. You’re living in a world where the survivors of some disaster have been reduced to hitting trees with rocks, and every time you die, that’s exactly where you end up.

345At last, a door. Now no one can get in.

4: Then you’ll die, again

Rust is not an especially difficult game, per se, but it’s on a steep learning curve. There’s no tutorial or instructions, so if you pop into the world and, say, you’re hungry, you’re going to die. A few shouts into the server chat will teach you how to cook, others will teach to build a stone axe, still others will teach you that you need to kill animals and eat them. As you try all of these things, you will be killed by bears.

What I’m trying to say is that the first hour or so of gameplay is a frustrating mess.

jpg“Hey… buddy…”

 

5: Coping with mistakes

Rust is an excellent game for learning patience. A player’s greatest skill will not be in how he PVP’s but in how quickly he can recover from his inevitable demise. No matter who has the most power on the server, Rust always manages to be about playing the long game, and whether you’re in it to find all of the technology, make friends, or have inappropriate conversations in the server chat because a girl logged on, you have to do it with a calm head.

Should you fail to do so, that is when Rust is at its most punishing. Angry players miss resources, run through dangerous areas, and try to find shortcuts to get back the power they’d lost. The shortest shortcut? Player killing.

 

6: Dungeons with rewards

Survival games have had dungeons before, but without the added threat of PvP. Going through a cave or the nether world might have rendered some rare resources or a useful item, but they didn’t make the player feel powerful, they just made the player feel the convenience of killing something or mining something with less clicks.

In Rust, the irradiated towns riddled with zombies act as dungeons. Each one is filled with unique items from before whatever apocalypse occurred. With the added layer of PVP, controlling a gun in a world where people must hit things with rocks makes you feel powerful. For the next couple of minutes, maybe hours, you feel like you can actually make a difference on the server. You have muscle, and now you can control resources against less-equipped players, either to the benefit of yourself or any “friends” you haven’t betrayal-murdered.

23-610x343Zombies can be identified by their unusual love of bright red vests.

 

7: Deception is a viable strategy

Working together is key in Rust, even if you’re working with a group just so you’ll have more manpower for looting other players. Roving bandit hordes, killing indiscriminately like a Mad Max scenario, tend to just happen, and one excellent way to exploit players is to gain their trust, then kill them and take everything they’ve got. I struggle to think of the last time that was possible in a game, apart from un-allying teammates in Starcraft II.

The best part is, those betrayals just become part of your larger story. Maybe your bandit group changed goals in order to get revenge against TotallyCoolGuy13. Maybe your remaining members jump to a new server and become a tight-knit group who won’t let in any new members and kills anyone who gets too close. Again, Rust allows these developments to happen organically, and astute players will realize that they’re injecting their own goals and meaning into a game that only has one rule: “Here’s a rock, let’s see what happens.”

survival-mmo-games-rust-alpha-screenshot-19“Guys, just be cool. There’s still five of you left.”

 

8: Time is real

One of the greatest aspects of Rust is the use of time. Servers have their own clocks, so even when you’re not playing everyone else surely is. The world grows quickly, and between log-ons over a couple of hours there can be entirely new player settlements to explore.

It is also equally difficult to maintain anything permanent. With other players running around, it’s more likely that your house has been raided after a few hours. The reality is that Rust implants a deep need to check in on your progress, even when you don’t have the time to play it, because you can just as easily log in to find yourself dead in the middle of nowhere as you can find yourself happily were you left off.

Rust Alpha-N2G-1“I distinctly remember owning a house…”

 

9: The slippery slope into obsession

My first night with Rust, I played until sunrise and called out of work the next morning (which enabled me to continue playing). I played through the day, ensuring that my items were secured and my town unplundered. Currently, I have to actively avoid playing Rust because I’m trying to start a blossoming career in online video game journalism and I don’t have time to check on my progress every couple of hours, especially because it means I’ll be playing for much longer than is responsible. Although, I should give credit where it’s due and say that few games have ever generated this kind of drive. Not to mention, players with the proper time and manpower to patrol their belongings could create some pretty special things.

RUSTGame2Which one of you guys put a house on my house?

 

10: Actual friends

So where did my adventure leave me? Currently, my server has been reset. The town is gone. A chest full of shotguns is deleted. All of the work of myself, some strangers, and my co-host on a no-budget Youtube show is gone like so many bits in a trash can.

But I gained a half-dozen new entries of like-minded gamers on my friends list.

Rust is shaping up to be something that goes beyond simply being a game. The server may be a simulated zomb-pocalypse, but the player interactions are closer to the level of thought experiment. Players spend as much time in the chat determining who is trustworthy as they do bashing pigs to death and learning how fires work. In a lot of ways, what happens in the game doesn’t stay in the game.

 survival-mmo-games-rust-alpha-screenshot-30“I’m putting in a slide.”

“Tom, Greg is dead.”

Rust is still missing most of its content, but its ideas stand out. Just like Minecraft, Rust is worth looking into even in early development. Already it feels like more than an alpha version and this reviewer is excited to see what happens whenever the full release comes along.