I am in love with survival games. The Long Dark, 7 Days to Die, Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead; they all manage to scratch that itch at the back of my head that is screaming for me to run out of my apartment, out of my city and go and live in the woods off of berries and bugs. I’m not alone in that slightly strange frame of mine either. Survival games (usually with some form of crafting element) dominated the industry not all that long ago. Rust and ARK: Survival Evolved are still chart-toppers at the time of writing. As a result, Subsistence might seem like just another early access survival game, trying to jump on the bandwagon and make some quick cash.
But the reality is that Subsistence is trying to do something a little different from other survival titles. First, there are no zombies. Second, AI poses more of a threat than other players. Third, it borrows RTS elements and resource management mechanics. Fourth, it’s made by a single developer. And last, despite it still being very much an alpha, there are already some advanced features that show some serious polish.
Make no mistake, this is still an uncut gem – but a possible diamond nonetheless. Come with me as we take a closer look at this first-person, survival-crafting, wilderness-bothering title from Cold Games studios.
Gameplay in Subsistence at this stage comes down to three things: base building, looting, and hunting. All of them are based around providing for your basic needs, including an advanced nutrition system and body heat. However, some of these mechanics are more developed than others, as I’ll discuss below. You’ll step into the game with some matches, an axe, some food and a head full of confusion. There’s no tutorial at this time, so you better be a fast learner if you want to survive – but when you do, it’s all the more satisfying for the challenge.
The base-building mechanics in Subsistence is relatively advanced. It’s similar in many ways to the system in ARK: Survival Evolved. You collect materials such as wood, nails, and metal, then throw up a holographic blueprint of where you want to place it. Click, and boom: your building appears. Foundations set the groundwork, while wood walls and roofs make your settlement a base rather than a campsite. It’s a similar story with workbenches and animal coops. Walls and floors snap together, and you can also adjust their shape to be rounded or have a window or doorframe, and so on. It’s a good system and makes building a base very easy – though you are hampered by the constant need to go out scavenging for supplies. More on that later.
It’s a good thing that the base mechanics are well-developed, as your settlement will play a vital role in your survival in Subsistence. Hunting can only take you so far, and you’ll need to be able to grow food and breed rabbits and chickens if you want to keep your character well-fed via the nutrition system. At the moment you can only breed a couple of different animals and grow only one plant, but your settlement will become part farmyard, part fortress if you want to succeed. Keep your base warm with a heater, because the cold nights will kill you, and install workbenches and generators to upgrade your weaponry.
Unlike other crafting games, your base has its own set of resources in the shape of mass and power. You can recycle player resources to add to your bases mass count, while generators will give you power. Each building needs a mixture of player resources (wood, metal, nails, etc) and base resources (mass and power) to build. This plays heavily on the RTS-inspired resource management system and definitely, puts the emphasis on base improvement rather than character improvement – though they are intrinsically tied together. Personally, I’ve never played a game that had a multi-modal resource mechanic, so it will be interesting to see how this balances in the long run.
Despite the emphasis on base building, you’ll still be spending most of your time just running around the map, collecting supply crates. The only way to get certain resources such as nails, seeds, and so on, is to collect them via these boxes. When you first start building your base, you’ll quickly find you run out of nails very quickly, and then have to spend 20 minutes running around the map, desperately avoiding hunters and animals (of which there are many) to try and find just the right kind of supply box that will hopefully have nails in it.
This is repetitive and boring, and an unfortunate clunk moment. However, it also feels desperately unfinished and unpolished, so there is definitely some hope that the repetitive nature will be addressed in further patches. As with all early access titles, I would advise not purchasing this unless you want to support the developers. The foundations of good risk/reward gameplay are definitely there, but it feels simplistic at the moment and really isn’t all that fun. Where the base-building is a highlight, the constant need to run, rest, loot, run, rest, loot until you barely have enough supplies to do anything interesting is definitely not.
Occasionally, your looting run will be interrupted by wolves or bears, leveled creatures that are more than happy to bite and/or claw your face off if given the chance. I found myself frequently running face first into one of these beasties – certainly my own fault for not paying attention – and promptly being murdered brutally by Smokey the Bear. Death is a difficult thing to come back from in Subsistence, and it has earned a reputation for being particularly unforgiving for new players.
Despite that, such encounters do give you the opportunity to try out the gunplay. At the moment, there are only three weapons – the pistol, which you start with, the shotgun and the rifle, which you must craft. No bows, arrows or other primitive weapons yet, but the developer has already addressed this need and is working on implementing them in the future. Grenades have also been recently added, which is an interesting addition – there’s nothing quite like grenade-hunting a bear.
Unfortunately, new players won’t get to use these weapons all that much, because the resources required to create them are scarce. Once again, the constant need for supply runs rears its repetitive head. It does force you to consider each and every bullet as precious, particularly when hunting, which is a boon for a survival game. I feel that it will feel a lot more like a survival game, however, when more primitive (and less costly) weapons are implemented. Shooting wolves in the face with a shotgun is fun, but even that can get repetitive.
Perhaps the most unique part of the game is the use of ‘hunters’ – NPCs that take umbridge at your existence on their lands. While many survival crafting games, such as 7 Days to Die, Rust, and ARK: Survival Evolved all rely on other players to provide the human element of danger, Subsistence goes one step further. In much the same way that a real-time strategy game AI constructs their base to counter your assaults, so too do the hunters in Subsistence construct their own wooden fortresses to one-up your efforts. The AI is basic at this stage – as you would expect in an early access game – but in an industry that is inundated with survival crafting games, this acts as a major point of difference for Subsistence.
It will pay to keep an eye on this particular trait as the development moves forward. If ColdGames can manage to instill a genuine sense of intelligence in these hunters and create the boots-on-the-ground RTS experience that the studio has said they are aiming for, then this could be an interesting, singleplayer alternative to other, similar concepts. For the time being, however, don’t expect too much of the hunters. They’ll shoot you and build their bases, no problem, but beyond that they are a static threat that is easily avoided. In the future, defending your base from NPC assaults could become a serious consideration for the game – but for now, it isn’t.
Graphics and Performance
The most obvious flaw in Subsistence so far is the constant crashing. Most of my sessions were prematurely ended by a sudden crash to desktop, seemingly completely random and utterly unexpected. While this was frustrating at times due to lost progress, the game does have a frequent autosave system, so you won’t be set too far back. Clearly, there are some stability issues at this point.
Graphics-wise, there’s nothing to really mention, good or bad. Some animations are great, such as the pistol racking, and others are not so great, such as the axe swing. Butchering animals is a treat, as your character will slam his axeblade into the creature and forcefully slice downwards, your arms getting covered in blood and gore as you do so. Blood and gore that actually lingers for a time on your body – a nice touch.
Other than that, the graphics serve their purpose. Green and browns and white of snow and gray of rock, nothing that will really make you stop and go “wow”. But it serves its purpose and doesn’t make you go “yuck” either.
It’s very early days to be able to tell whether Subsistence is going to succeed or be just another title to add to the survival failure pile. However, so far, it’s doing everything right: novel ideas, solid execution, and while there’s still some work to be done, it is progressing relatively quickly. If you’re looking for a survival game that doesn’t necessarily need other players in order to be fun or hard, then Subsistence is definitely one to put on your wish list.
Just make sure you don’t run into any bears.
A serial hobbyist, Jack loves everything from blacksmithing to brewing – and, of course, the occasional video game.