The best survival games on PC

What are the best survival games on PC? From PUBG and DayZ to Ark, here's our list of free and Steam games, plus some surprises

Survival games

The survival game genre has exploded over the past few years. The Steam charts are filled with all kinds of examples, including classic survival horror games and new hardcore survival sims. To help any bewildered adventurers, we’ve gathered together the best survival games to help you pick and choose which emergent stories and unexpected adventures to undertake.

There are a great many excellent survival titles out there, a huge percentage of which are unfinished Early Access projects – though there are also plenty of cheap-and-nasty cash-ins. Our guide will help you seek out only the best ones, like a survivor scanning abandoned cupboards for beans.

If you’ve got the grit to outlast the likes of the terrifying The Long Dark or the underwater wonder of Subnautica, our picks will help steer you towards the (not so) safe pastures of the best survival games on PC. Whether you like surviving the horrors of war or you’re into the new breed of hunger and disease management games, get ready to endure agony and plenty of pain in these scintillating survival adventures.

The best survival games are:

Scum

Like many of the survival games in this list, Scum is starting out life in Steam Early Access, which means two things: it’s still quite shonky, and there are heaps of features yet to be added to the game. But even early into its life there is plenty to enjoy about this detailed survival game set on a maximum security prison island.

What makes it stand out among its peers is an incredibly fastidious metabolism sim that fully tracks what you eat, drink, and excrete. Eat many more calories than you’re burning off and you’ll get fatter, eat less than what you’re burning off and you’ll have no energy and gradually lose weight. But it’s a lot more complicated than that: you’ll have to watch your vitamin levels, stomach, intestine, bladder, and colon volume, and ensure that you eat well in advance of needing energy as it takes time for your body to process anything you put into it. Scum puts the hunger and thirst mechanics of other survival games to shame. There are rewards for taking care of your body, too, as a fitter characters deal more melee damage, run faster, and possess better weapon handling than their emaciated or overweight counterparts.

The result is a survival game where surviving is more important than amassing an arsenal of military-grade gear. Although once you’ve figured out how to take care of your body you still have endgame goals such as exploring high security areas, improving your supply of guns, and dabbling with PvP.

ARK: Survival Evolved

Ark isn’t just the best dinosaur survival game you can buy, it’s arguably the greatest dino game ever made. After all, prehistoric beasties make everything better. Like bacon and Nutella, it’s a known fact that adding dinosaurs instantly improves everything by several hundred percent. This is exactly what Studio Wildcard did with Ark: Survival Evolved. At its core it’s a survival game that fills every edge of the template: punch trees to get wood, use wood to build shelter, kill animals to find food, inevitably die because you forgot to drink water. Yet Ark transcends the typical survival game pattern by including leathery leviathans that both want to hunt and eat you, but with some perseverance, you can also tame and ride.

Everything Ark does is rock-solid. The survival elements may be similar to what you’ve played before, but they’re the bedrock for the game’s more ambitious elements (and a strong Ark mods scene). Your character has RPG-like stats, and you can head into the world to hunt sci-fi secrets that offer a little more incentive to play rather than just ‘stay alive’.

It’s these various promises that make playing Ark worthwhile: other survival games rely on you being satisfied with making it through the night, whereas Studio Wildcard sets you long-term goals such as ‘tame and ride a T-Rex’. Having a true sense of progression and aims make your time in Ark feel valuable, and that’s something many other survival adventures struggle with.

DayZ

The one that kicked it all off. This shuffling undead treat remains the king of zombie survival games. By today’s standards, DayZ could even be considered one of the leanest virtual survivors, with barely any crafting to speak of, and no objectives beyond staying alive. Food and water are vitally important, and getting sick can quickly kill you should you fail to pay attention to your symptoms. Walking without shoes cuts and infects your feet, and blood transfusions of the wrong type will see you slip away for good.

If you’re content with fighting against disease, bodily functions, and zombies who occasionally phase through walls, you’ll get to DayZ’s best feature: exploration. The world of Chernarus is a Soviet wasteland, and Bohemia has captured that Eastern Bloc atmosphere with the towns and villages around the map. DayZ’s forests feel genuinely life-like rather than being man-made imitations, while there’s a true sense of isolation out in the wilderness.

It’s best played with a friend or two; a camping trip where things could go horribly wrong. And by ‘horribly wrong’, we mean being captured by a gang of bandits who will force feed you bleach and make off with your can-opener. So yeah, proceed with extreme caution.

Minecraft

If you’re after the best crafting survival game out there, look no further than Minecraft. At some point, it seems someone decided survival was all about gruelling punishment, sloth-like progression, and murdering anyone who isn’t you. But before the big survival blow-out on Steam we had Minecraft: a fun, colourful, creative survival sandbox. Sure, there are zombies that will eat your face, and spiders, skeletons and dragons, but with Minecraft skins, you at least always end up blocky and cute. No one minds a cartoon monster having you for breakfast.

More importantly, though, the way you survive in Minecraft is entirely up to you. You could build an elaborate fortress and play a defence-style game, fending off the creatures of the night. Or you could craft exciting weaponry and venture out into the most dangerous zones of the world, testing both your mettle and metal. The world is literally endless and filled with amazing natural wonders just begging to be explored. Just remember to eat something every now and again, and you’ll be fine.

We spend so much time focusing on the game’s creative side and Minecraft mods, and all the amazing possibilities out there, we sometimes forget that the vanilla Survival Mode is just as exciting in its own way. And if you really want to make an automated mining production line in Survival Mode, don’t let us stop you. Just make sure the creepers don’t put a spanner in your works.

Conan Exiles

With the huge success of games like DayZ, it was only a matter of time before a licensed IP decided to give the survival genre a try. Taking its cue from one of the best PC games you can play right now in Dark Souls 3, Conan Exiles shunts you into the Hyborian Age as everyone’s favourite barbarian looks to duff people up and avoid death.

The set up is largely familiar – grow crops, build settlements, club enemies to death – but Conan has a back-of-the-box-bullet point that none of the competition can claim: human sacrifice. Should you be able to wrestle someone to an altar and butcher them, you can invoke the favour of the gods and shift the balance of power your way. That unique concept sets Conan Exiles apart from the pack.

Rust

This grim tale of endurance has become infamous for its naked men – but it’s not the size of a man’s particulars that is impressive about Facepunch’s survival game (and we all know that doesn’t matter anyway… right?). No, it’s the forts that players are able to, ahem, erect. Rust’s strong point is construction: as you gather materials from its wilderness, you can begin to lay down a variety of items in a Sims-like manner, creating your perfect rural retreat by slotting together floors, walls, staircases, and windows.

While there are many servers where the traditional shoot-on-sight mentality exists, Rust has plenty of havens for those looking for a more civilised lifestyle. You can find player-created towns, complete with attempts at government, trading, and even prisons. It’s one of the nicest reminders that if people pull together and share their resources, fantastic achievements can be made.

Rust underwent a massive overhaul that saw most of the original game scrapped in favour of a slightly new approach and completely new base code. The change ripped out quite a lot of the game’s core features, such as zombies and rad towns, but over time they’ve gradually been reapplied alongside new ideas. Rust remains one of the most played games on Steam, and understandably so.

Don’t Starve

The most horrifying idea of actual survival is having to do it on your lonesome. That’s exactly what Don’t Starve makes you do, as it’s an entirely solo experience. The terror of having to fend for yourself in the wild is thankfully offset by the lovely Tim Burton-style 2D art, and the collection of utterly bizarre creatures that are lurking in this sepia-tone world. Werepigs, Beargers, Deerclopses, and many more absurd monsters roam the land looking to make things difficult for you.

Don’t Starve focuses heavily on crafting to make your way through life, and so much of your time is spent harvesting raw materials. But rather than crafting houses like in Rust and Minecraft, Don’t Starve is all about the tools and contraptions you can make. The Science Machine and Alchemy Engine will become your best friends, before making way for ancient wonders and the art of magic. Like Minecraft, Don’t Starve happily embraces the mad and the mystical, and is all the more enjoyable for it.

If all this sounds wonderful, but you don’t want to harvest twigs and dry grass on your own, Don’t Starve Together also lets you play with a friend, and it’s actually one of the best co-op games on PC.

Subnautica

With its dreamy underwater setting and compelling gameplay loop, Subnautica is one of the best exploration survival games on PC. Subnautica is much more hopeful than many survival adventures. Sure, you’re a lonely man lost at sea on an alien planet, but it’s a game all about terraforming your new environment and making unfamiliar ground your home.

The art direction helps push the idea of hope home, with bright and shiny technologies, beautifully blue oceans, and schools of tropical fish filling your vision at every turn. You explore the ocean depths in your submarine, searching for new materials in marine trenches and among coral reefs. And when you’ve found everything you need, you can begin to construct bases on the ocean floor.

The game’s survival elements include the food and water requirements that most games in the genre do, but there’s obviously a more pressing issue in Subnautica: oxygen. You can’t breathe sea water, so your oxygen levels and consumption have to be on your mind at all times. Seeing as you’re continually threatened with the prospect of drowning, you really should read our Subnautica guide to ensure you squeeze every last drop out of your diver’s life. Every survival game has the ominous shadow following you around, but here it’s simply good old O2.

The Long Dark

This chilly adventure is similar to most of the games mentioned above. Though unlike other titles on this list, The Long Dark has a fairly interesting story mode (called Wintermute) to sink your teeth into.

Set in the bitter cold of northern Canada, The Long Dark trades zombies for bears, and tropical islands for deadly snow drifts. Mother Nature is your true adversary here, and to combat her you’ll need to keep your calorie count up, your body hydrated, and a flame roaring whenever you curl up for the night.

The stylish aesthetic makes it quite an arty game, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is something that slows the pace and forces you to think long and hard about what you’ve done. The Long Dark is a true, challenging survival game with real bite.

This War of Mine

For all the stress that some survival games can press on you, nothing compares to the harrowing 2D adventure. As you’ll find out in our This War of Mine review, the game offers a very different breed of survival. It’s a depiction of a group of civilians’ struggling to stay alive in their war-ravaged country. Trapped in a besieged house, pinned down by snipers, and attacked by other survivors looking to take what you’ve found, it’s a game of traumatic decisions and life-or-death consequences.

Each of your randomly-generated survivors have backstories, providing them with abilities for survival. Ex-firemen are fitter and stronger, while those who used to cook professionally can now feed the starving. But heading out into the world to find the things you need – medicine, ingredients, scrap to make beds – could bring you face-to-face with those willing to kill. And turning a survivor into a murderer leads to misery, depression, and – if not treated well – suicide.

It’s a bleak existence, and making what seems to be the obvious right decision at one point in time can lead to disastrous conclusions. The end of the war constantly seems like a pipe-dream, and everyone will probably be dead before you get there. If you think you can live with yourself in such dire circumstances, though, this a must-play.

 

That’s it, you’ve survived! Whether battling a ruthless xeno aboard Alien: Isolation’s Sevastopol or outlasting 99 other players with the help of our PUBG tips, the above titles aren’t just deliciously tense – they’re some of the best PC games available. As you wait for 2018’s best upcoming PC games to hit Steam, why not get familiar with some of the survival sensations above. Just remember to keep a calm head and take regular deep breaths. Do that, and survival is assured.