I had no idea what to think when that first arrow flew past my head. Here I was chasing a boar across a hillside with nothing more than a rock, desperately trying to gather enough meat to stay alive one more night. Who was this person trying to kill me? Why would they waste perfectly good arrows on someone so clearly lacking worthwhile items?
Then the second arrow came. Only this one didn't hit me, but rather the boar. I barely had time to process what just happened before a voice came crackling through my headphones. "What up! Hey, I'm gonna kill that boar for you." I turned back to see an archer standing atop a rocky cliff, decked out in the sort of high-level armor I could only dream of owning. He loosed another arrow and dropped the wounded boar in its tracks. "Go ahead and take that one," he said. "I don't need it."
And just like that, the archer was gone.
Moments like these are what make Rust such an intriguing game, and one that has me convinced the multiplayer survival genre--trendy as it may be--still has plenty of terrain left to explore. On the one hand, Rust is heavily inspired by DayZ. In both games you wander through an unforgiving landscape scavenging resources in an attempt to stave off hunger and hostile enemies. Sometimes those enemies take the form of shambling zombies, but more often they appear as other human beings: bandits, desperate survivors, and outright jerks. And just like in DayZ, death brings with it a clean slate. When you die, you begin anew.
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But it's here that the two games diverge, and the result is a pair of very different worlds and experiences. DayZ is great for myriad reasons, but most of those come back to just how grim and unforgiving its setting is. Chernarus feels bleak and postapocalyptic, with sprawling cities almost entirely void of life, save for the roaming undead and handfuls of brave players dashing through decrepit buildings in search of supplies. You feel like the end is just around the corner, and that rifle or can of soda you just found is the one thing that will help you delay the inevitable.
It's a setting that leads to incredibly tense player interactions, where a general sense of desperation is underscored by the fact that there are only so many supplies to go around. DayZ is a game of standoffs, uneasy alliances, and virtual kidnappings. If the best stories come from moments of adversity, then DayZ is the ultimate compendium of survival tales.
Rust mimics a lot of what makes DayZ great, but in a wholly different setting. Whereas Chernarus feels like a world in ruins, home to the dwindling vestiges of humanity, Rust is just the opposite--there's almost a prehistoric feel to it. Beginning the game with little more than a rock, you must hunt animals for meat and gather enough wood to build a crude shelter. As time goes on, you begin to craft tools, weapons, and larger, increasingly complex player-built homes. It's a game whose learning curve could easily double for a human evolution chart.
You eventually reach a point in Rust where you no longer feel like you're scraping by, but genuinely thriving. It's a sense of progress best seen in the homes and team bases that people have crafted across the game's various servers. In my travels throughout Rust, I've seen sturdy fortresses flanked by rows of spikes, seaside villas with sprawling balconies, and massive watchtowers looming above the landscape like the Eye of Sauron.
This is a world on the upswing, and that slow crawl toward civilization has a tendency to rub off on players. Rarely have I struggled to find players willing to trade items, team up to take on some of the bigger wild animals like bears, or just offer advice over voice chat when we're crossing paths. At one point, while on the verge of starvation, I wandered up to a fortified encampment and pleaded with its denizens to allow me in. They ushered me inside and gave me food on the condition that I do their dirty work--collecting wood and various resources--while they expanded their base. It was great. I was finally part of a crew. And then a zombie attacked me while I was chopping down a tree, and I never saw them again.
But there is a steady undercurrent of civility in Rust, the idea that this isn't a world on the decline but one on the rise. Sure, Rust has its fair share of jerks. My God, does it have its fair share of jerks. But that's precisely what makes the game so much fun. You have the good Samaritans, and you have the sociopaths, and that broad spectrum of interactions is what makes things so wonderfully unpredictable.
You eventually reach a point in Rust where you no longer feel like you're scraping by, but genuinely thriving.
Case in point: the man who once killed me for saving his life. I was strolling by a rather nice-looking house when I heard a voice crying out for help. It turns out this guy got locked inside his work-in-progress home when some random player came along and slapped a wooden door on a frame he had yet to fill in. Doors in Rust can be operated only by the player who places them, so this guy was trapped.
Normally you can just use a melee weapon like a hatchet to knock down a door, but all this guy had on him was a handgun. Perhaps he grew a little cocky after acquiring the gun, deciding he no longer needed any melee weapons. But who was I to judge? So I decided to help him out. After a few minutes of work, I managed to destroy the door. That's when he decided to shoot me. If there was ever a griefing version of the long con, this was it.
DayZ works because its harsh world drives good people to do terrible things. Rust works because its growing world encourages you to work together and build a civilization--right up until the point you decide you'd really rather not. And that, I think, is the beauty of the multiplayer survival genre: these are open worlds where the tone and makeup of the setting gently guide you in one direction, but what players actually choose to do is an entirely different matter.