Unturned is an open-world zombie survival game that has been around for years on the PC where it has a thriving community and a big modding scene. The story seems to be that it was made by a 16 year old Canadian kid using Unity assets (although there is a conspiracy theory that this was actually developed by a team but we don’t know, or really care, about any of that). Here in Console Land, the game is relatively unknown but it has now been released on PS4 (and Xbox One), albeit with very little fanfare.
On first appearances, the game seems to be a pretty straightforward take on Minecraft. The visuals are similar and the game’s mix of exploration, crafting and survival all ties in with that assessment. We were completely new to Unturned until we fired it up for review and so it’s easier to speak from that perspective and firing this game up for the first time is a little daunting. Your main menu gives you some customisation options and a choice of online and offline modes. Not wishing to get to jacked up by fellow humans, I went for the offline mode first.
The game does have problems which are apparent early on. The main one is something that many games struggle with which is to say that just because you’re clever enough to code a game, that doesn’t mean you’re good at designing gameplay. If this was put together by a 16 year old, that’s impressive but that’s presumably a kid who might have missed out on a lot of classic game experiences. Gameplay has been refined over the decades but there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from the classics and here everything feels off and clunky to some degree but not in a broken way.
Firstly, you spawn randomly on the level (of which there are ten or so choices). You have a map screen available to you but oddly most of the time the blue pointer that shows where you are just isn’t there (at least in single player, it is in multiplayer though). That’s annoying. So you walk (and run while your stamina allows) in a random direction hoping to find a building, be it in a town, farm, military base or other. Given that the open space outside of population areas are entirely empty, including not having any zombies, this means there is a lot of wasted space. Although there are trees which are used, as you’d expect, to get wood for crafting.
The in-game hints explain the basic controls (walking, running, jumping and crouching). Crouching (and going prone) is for stealth, which is fairly important early on. Anyway, eventually you’ll get to a town, or whatever, and you’ll see zombies. The zombies just stand there, waiting until they see or hear you at which point they’ll chase you with no more strategy that enemies did in the original Doom. The in-game hints tell you to crouch down and get behind one of them. This doesn’t do anything. The hint doesn’t go away, being behind a zombie doesn’t give you any stealth attacks or anything.
At that point the hints dried up for the most part apart from some stuff in the menus. I don’t need a game to tell me that I’m looking at a crafting menu but Unturned does that. What it doesn’t do is talk you through the crafting process. Games like Terraria and Minecraft get you to build a shelter immediately as this teaches you the basics while also having a practical application. Unturned just leaves you to it (which means you end up going onto YouTube for the answers).
The game warms up a bit when you are near zombies. Once one of them sees you, they are pretty damned hard to kill. However, we were able to score some cheap kills by jumping through a window. The AI just stood there while we attacked and it worked (it doesn’t always though). Eventually, you’ll find guns and melee weapons, improving your chances of survival further. Each kill gives you EXP too and this can be spent on upgrades such as improving your stamina, your combat abilities and many other aspects of your character. We found the difference between minimum melee power and maximum wasn’t all that great but it does help and eventually we were clearing out towns. That said, the combat is imprecise and clumsy and our deaths generally came from weapons not doing their job well enough. Sometimes you’ll hit a zombie twice and it’ll die, other times your attack button seems to do nothing. It’s frustrating, especially as death means losing most of your stats and all of your gear (not to mention being lost in the middle of nowhere again).
There’s a lot of loot to be found. Crafting stuff is very common as well as weapons but they all have weight and eventually you’ll hit your limit. Clothing can provide more space, as do backpacks if you can find them and actually the loot in the game is probably the best aspect of it. There’s something satisfying about finding a hoodie that adds a few more points to your weight limit or finding a compass (surprisingly useful). There’s a lot of weapons to try out too from pistols and clubs to miniguns and chainsaws.
Eventually though, you’ll max out a few skills, find a load of good loot and then you’re left wondering what the point is. The trophy list hints at quests but these don’t seem to be there in single player mode and we didn’t trigger any in all of our time playing solo. I did find them in online play though but they were just standard fetch quests. Eventually we got to the point where that next death would be the thing that stopped us playing for the day because, beyond the fairly grindy trophy list, there wasn’t much reason to continue aside from being able to now unlock a few skins and appearance items for your character. I now have a glowing bowtie. Great.
That’s the main issue with Unturned, it’s not guiding you to where the fun is. Being in an open-world is fine but there’s no real interest there. The zombies are dangerous when triggered but very easy to not trigger. The day/night cycle seems to take forever and without any electrical light immediately available (things can be crafted though), those long nights end up being very dull because it’s too risky to keep exploring most of the time. We did realise though that the torch actually makes a pretty good weapon and at one point we found a forehead lamp too but without light sources though you either wait it out or end up getting killed out of boredom.
The other big issue is that the interface is trash. This is the problem when a coder puts together a game by themselves. There’s an expertise to putting together good menu systems and it’s evident that they don’t have it. An example is when you find a new bit of clothing. Instead of just being able to equip it with one press, you have to press X to ‘equip’ it which only puts it in your hand (replacing your weapon). You then need to leave the menu altogether and press the attack/use button to then actually equip it. Then you need to find the button that will make you re-equip the weapon you had. Unfortunately, the bit of text that comes up when you equip a gun doesn’t show up when you equip a melee weapon. I died a couple of times because it was dark and I couldn’t tell if I was still armed or not.
The crafting aspects of the menu are pretty awful also. Aside from not really telling you anything, the text is ugly and the interface is shoddy. There’s no search option and everything is buried in lines of text. It’s just so weak especially when Minecraft and Terraria both have fairly intuitive interfaces to handle the mountains of crafting options they have. And with zombies basically being stationary, in single player you have no real reason to mess with the crafting aspects of the game.
This all leads us to multiplayer which this game is really designed for. Now we were hoping it’d be transformative and would give the game purpose but to be honest we hated it. As with solo play, you spawn in the middle of nowhere and have to find some buildings. Official servers are on a set difficulty (solo play and custom servers have lots of options to tweak settings) and so it’s quite difficult to get established but I eventually did, running around with a couple of weapons, some good clothes and a backpack. However, whenever you see anyone it seems there is a bit of a kill on sight policy. I often got killed during or just after a zombie encounter. Getting established again after that felt like a chore.
To be honest, other players add nothing but drama and death. On the most packed servers (where there are up to 24 players), there seemed to be no voice chat at all. The open to mute and unmute players but in all of the official servers I heard no talk, or even background noise, and no one responded to me. So it’s all just a bit soulless and frustrating. It’s more fun to play solo to be honest. Most of the non-official servers were pretty dead with just one or two players. Given how big the maps are, you could easily not see any other players. On PC, the game has bigger servers and they are packed because the game is free-to-play there. On PSN it is an eye-watering £25 and that will hurt it.
That all sounds pretty damning but it’s not all bad. When you do well in the game, it becomes more enjoyable. Levelling up and looting is always fun and addictive and that’s the case here. Sure, the combat isn’t great, the interface is terrible, the quests are near-meaningless and online play isn’t much fun but there’s a zen sense of calm to be had from exploring the land of the dead.
What Unturned does well is the little details. Zombies in restaurants are wearing chefs hats, in a police station you get zombie cops and even prisoners in orange suits. Zombie farmers, soldiers and construction workers are also found in certain places and it’s nice, it shows an attention to detail. Also, we loved how customisable the game is in terms of zombie toughness, loot drops and so on.
Visually, it’s all quite simple. The Minecraft style visuals do a job but even the PC players hate the style of the console graphics. That said, the sunsets and lighting generally can be quite nice. The interface looks cheap and nasty though with ugly text and very basic item graphics. Sound is pretty limited with footsteps, combat noises and the moan of zombies.
Overall, this is tricky one to judge. It initially seems too basic and frankly awful but it gets better. But does it ever get good? We can’t see it. The game benefits from all of the PC updates that have happened over the last few years but unlike games like Minecraft, Terraria and even No Man’s Sky, the fundamentals are weak here. The game has a lot of fans on the PC though (don’t @ us, guys) and if this version can get the community and the modding support, it might have potential. But while it offers some nice exploration and looting, ultimately it’s all a bit too pointless and empty to recommend.
+ Some nice touches and details
+ Leveling up is handled well
+ Supports 24 players per server
+ Pricier than it should be
+ Lighting is quite good
- Crafting is fiddly and not explained
- Games feels empty and pointless
- Online play is a bit too hostile