When the waves build, when the wind gathers, and the briny water sloshes over the deck of your precarious floating home, there is absolutely nothing like Raft. While the former Itch.io star shares inevitable comparisons with a few other aquatic survival sims - Stranded Deep, Subnautica, Salt - this dramatic overhaul that has recently arrived into Steam's early access is very much its own thing. And a joyful and splendid thing it is.
Raft begins deceptively simply. You are stranded in the middle of the ocean, standing on a 2x2 raft of wood and plastic floats, equipped only with a rudimentary hook on a rope. It's from these beginnings that you can, through the daft magic of survival gaming, eventually build yourself a multi-storey luxurious floating condominium of majestic opulence. Or get eaten by sharks trying.
It's hard to know if Raft is intended to be a commentary on the polluted nature of our oceans, but goodness me, there's a lot of flotsam on the waves. As you drift aimlessly through the infinite waters, you will encounter extraordinary volumes of plastic, wood, foliage and barrels, gathered by your trusty hook, and quickly used to expand and secure your little home. At first you'll be crafting wood and plastic to make extra tiles for your raft, then weaving ropes from palm fronds, constructing rudimentary cups, axes, fishing rods, water filtration systems, smelters, satellite navigation systems... Yes, it very quickly gets very silly. But what's so splendid is how it all stems from that one simple system: gathering the junk from the water.
All the while, you are plagued by your arch-nemeses: sharks. They're utter bastards, who at this point in the game's development never stop circling your raft, occasionally charging in to bite chunks of it to destruction. Fall in the water and you can bet your bum one will take a good chomp out of you, too.
The reason Raft works so well, despite not featuring the complexity of locations of rival sims, is its combination of a superbly dangled carrot, and the madcap nature of trying to manage everything at once in order to keep going. Your hunger and thirst are manageable, but never ignorable, meaning you'll always need to be keeping an eye on your water filtering, while ensuring there are stocks of fish to cook, potatoes and beetroots to bake, and (as things progress) you'll need to tend to an arboretum of watermelon plants and mango trees (and keep the gulls off it). At the same time you'll want to gather resources for the next item you've researched and desperately want to make. But also there's a shark trying to eat a bit of your raft that holds a storage box containing your most precious valuables, so you need to poke it with a pointy stick. And is that an island on the horizon? Quick, deploy the sail and aim for it!
There's a great deal of busy-ness here, but all of it feels important, rather than fiddly. At first you'll just be scratching to survive, trying to find a barrel to haul in that might contain a life-giving potato if you're lucky. Later you'll be throwing potatoes overboard because you've so many in storage and are subsisting quite happily on catfish, pineapples and shark meat (oh yeah, motherfucker, you paid).
Once you've built yourself a research table, you can start sacrificing precious finds to research and unlock a whole new, er, raft of items to craft, if you can scramble together the parts. Plus, there's always the urge to make time to aesthetically improve your home, with perhaps some extra floors, prettier tables, and best of all, mounting shark heads on the walls. The decorations have dramatically changed since Old-Raft, and now you can mix paints and add colours if you've found flowers on the also-new explorable islands.
Islands do rather starkly remind you, however, that this is a game in its first week in early access - at the moment they seem to exist as madly floating lumps of land, more often than not physically impossible to get onto, and stacked like mad cakes with tiers you cannot climb. Although, crikey, this really is the only major bug I've contended with over two joyous days of playing.
Rather than being buggy, and while there are definitely some glitches here and there this is a remarkably solid build, what Raft currently lacks is stuff. There's already loads in there, but there's also the strong sense that there could be so much more. Exploring underwater is another new conceit, and down there you can find copper and, um, "metal", which can then be smelted and used to construct even more elaborate items. There's also sand and clay to be found on the submerged parts of islands, which can make bricks. But what there isn't is sea life other than sharks. That you can catch fish but never see them swimming seems like an update to come.
Sharks can thankfully be distracted when you want to go for a swim, but I also really hope to see some more interesting ways of dealing with them. Right now it's poke them until they die, but another will immediately swim in to take its place. It'd be great to be able to create the means to give yourself a break from their incessant attacks, perhaps as a late-game feature once the thrill of their danger has long worn off.
They've also put in multiplayer, and I've not had a look at that yet, but it seems partly responsible for the game's current splendid success on Steam. I'm pleased to report, though, that it's still a deeply compelling single-player experience too. And the sea is just incredible, so exciting to be floating upon. Once it's filled with a few dozen more features, this'll be one of the best survival-me-dos out there.