Unturned is currently one of the ten most played games on Steam. It peaks at more than 38,000 players, and has an average concurrent count of 28,000. Those figures put it higher on the most played list than Rocket League and Left 4 Dead 2. It eclipses DayZ, which is quite an important achievement, since Unturned is basically a shameless copy of Bohemia’s original zombie survival sim. Oh, it’s also drawn in Minecraft-vision graphics, so add another point to the ‘clone’ tally.
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Indeed, pretty much everything about Unturned has been stolen from bigger games, yet it manages to overshadow all but a select few titles on Steam. We supposedly live in a world where only the best quality games should thrive, but Unturned apparently disproves that entirely. So how did we make it into the Upside Down realm?
Firstly, and most importantly, Unturned is free to play, which means players can easily flock to it. But it takes a very special kind of free game to maintain a large audience. The only other no-charge titles pulling in more players on Steam are Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, both of which offer triple-A grade gameplay that many players wouldn’t object to paying for. Unturned, on the other hand, has a quality bar so low that it could never be anything but free-to-play, yet it still leaves great priceless examples like Path of Exile in the dust on Steam’s player charts.
So who’s playing Unturned? Well, after spending some time in the game, it turns out the answer is children. ‘Kids are the harshest critics’ is the old saying, but that doesn’t mean they have an eye for what’s good. Indeed, children will play with any old tat, as both the cardboard tubes inside toilet rolls and Unturned prove. But I also suspect that the fact it’s a free title that looks like both Minecraft and DayZ - popular games that would require a parent to crack open a wallet - does a lot for getting it onto hard drives.
And despite the Minecraft-that-discovered-soft-edges aesthetic, Unturned takes most of its influences from survival sims that would be rated ‘mature’. I can absolutely understand why a rebellious child would sneakily download and play Unturned, especially if their parents are less keen on games that allow you to turn heads into puddles of red sauce. It makes the horrendous menus, placeholder-like music, bland environment design, and floaty controls worth it.
The child-heavy population of Unturned’s servers first became apparent to me as I approached a house fenced off with Christmas light-adorned barbed wire. From its top window, the disarmingly young voice of a ten-year-old chanted “leave, leave, leave, leave” over and over again. The kid in question was eyeing me up with a rifle, which created a kind of weird incongruity.
Wandering into town, I was approached by a man outfitted in black army gear who demanded I “reach for the sky”. His pre-pubescent vocals betrayed his tough exterior, but I thought I’d play along. The sound of snapping cuffs sounded from behind me as my wrists were bound, and I was led naked (I’d yet to find clothes) through the streets to a bus, onto which I was bundled and told to stay still.
The child then proceeded to attach C4 charges to the bus and detonate them.
By sheer luck I managed to survive the explosion, so at gunpoint I was forced to indulge the kid’s next whim: climb a mountain. In a sunny patch overlooking the city the boy built a tiny prison cell for me, complete with a lockable door and three two-way mirrors, which was to become my new home.
Inside the cell, my captor insisted I did exercises for him, leaning left and right in quick succession while he aimed his very big gun at me. As I leaned from side to side he fired bullets past my ears, which I imagine is quite a frightening thing to happen when things don’t look they’re made from surplus CGI from a 1990s game show.
Mid-exercise-torture, a helicopter thundered over the cell, causing the boy to run outside and fire at the trespasser. Thankfully, because my captor was an idiot child and not a state-trained prison guard, he left the door to the cell wide open. I was a hundred meters into the forest before he noticed.
“Hey, stop! Get back!”
Of course, a naked running man is no match for a ten year old with an assault rifle, and so things ended with a lot of ketchup splattered across a hillside.
It was at about this time that I came to an interesting revelation. Despite being an ugly, messy, ultra-derivative game, Unturned is actually better at being DayZ than DayZ is. While the zombies are too fast and can mince up a new player before they’ve had chance to figure out which way is up, they at least don’t walk through walls. The vehicles handle like potatoes on Lego bricks and are oddly susceptible to zombies pushing on them, but importantly there are vehicles to use, whereas DayZ has none. You genuinely can murder the entire server population from the vantage point of a helicopter. There are even planes if you fancy travelling in style.
Aside from the obvious issues of looking and feeling as if it were made with a budget equal to my end-of-the-month bank account, Unturned does have some drawbacks in its design. For a survival game there’s a woeful lack of loot, which is essentially missing the point of the genre, as well as being a first-class ticket to starvation. You can’t pick up rocks or cut down trees to craft some basic items. This makes it incredibly difficult to get started, as you can’t find the gear required to defend yourself from the feral Lord of the Flies cast that inhabit the servers.
I doubt Unturned will ever feel ‘complete’, even if it ever does exit Early Access. (The Steam page claims the Early Access period will be “several months”. The game released two years ago.) But I do think that its experience feels more complete than DayZ. As such, I can see the appeal. And apparently that’s all it needs, combined with an army of schoolchildren, to dominate Steam. I’m not sure I could ever recommend it, but the Curious Case of Unturned isn’t such a mystery, after all.