It’s hard not to have your interest piqued by Rust. Few other games strive to make you feel as helpless, vulnerable, and lost as its startling opening and outwardly confusing mechanics do. Rust wants you to think it’s about survival, but it never uses the tools at its disposal to realize that. Instead it becomes a playground limited not by your understanding of its inner workings, but instead by how much time you want to spend slogging away at its tedium.
Starting stark naked on a beach with nothing more than a rock and torch on your person, Rust doesn’t waste time letting you know that you’re in danger. Health, hydration, and hunger bars make it immediately clear that your time on its massive island is borrowed. Without food and water (and later shelter, light, and warmth), you can slowly watch your life seep away with every passing minute. Rust attempts to guide new players with an often less-than-helpful tutorial to keep you alive longer than a handful of minutes, but it does nothing to prepare you for the real dangers its world holds.
Rust’s facade is its survival mechanics, and its menagerie of crafting options and resources for you to gather up keep the illusion alive at first. You can use your otherwise useless rock to chop down trees or hammer away at different types of ore, and eventually you might gather enough to make a hatchet or pickaxe to increase your bountiful gains and speed up the process. This process quickly ramps up into more meaningful items, with the allure of modern weapons and robust armor only at the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
It’s a nightmare of menus and item wheels that really slow things down to a halt. Rust might be out of Early Access, but it has so many elements that indicate otherwise. You can easily search for a building foundation in one menu, watch its building timer somewhere else on the screen, and then have it pop into your inventory, which is an entirely different menu at this point. Equip it and you have a relatively flat surface in front of you (Rust absolutely doesn’t like any gradient variations and refuses to allow you to place items on them), and you’re good to go. But what about moving it? You’ll need an entirely separate tool for that, as well as another trip into a separate equipment wheel with options to rotate, move or otherwise dismantle one of your creations.
The cycle of gathering, crafting, and building up something to be proud of never feels rewarding. Rust doesn’t have the tools you need to be creative, nor does it care about practicality when it comes to redesigning a small dwelling you might have crafted for that first chilly night out in the wilderness. Teases meant to entice you to brave Rust’s other dangers fall flat fast, giving you few reasons to stick around for the tedious slog of dismantling greater weapons and gear to hopefully have the means to build them down the line.
You don’t know these items exist because you see them on a list, but rather because they’re probably what’s being used to endlessly kill you. The island in Rust is inhabited by many other players, capping out at 250 per server. And despite only being alive for a few minutes and having nothing really of worth on your person, they will (often) waste no time in showing you how far down the food chain you really are.
In this way, Rust’s true enemy shows its face: its other players. That’s somewhat fascinating to ponder on for a moment. Rust has been the subject of many a think piece during its long time in Early Access, often centering around discussions of human nature and the tendencies towards violence when other options clearly present themselves. But while that makes for a neat article to read or interesting mechanic to discuss, it detracts from another vital part of the game: what it feels like to play.