Forgive the prosaic X+Y headline but, y'know, it is. Savage Lands (released on Steam Early Access back in March, but suddenly doing rather well for itself in the charts) is built entirely from other game's ideas, but in a such a way that I can't help but think, "Yeah, of course that would be popular, and why didn't anyone do it sooner?"
It's also part of that ongoing trend of, "DayZ but with [dinosaurs/naked dudes etc]," which is either going to be a bounteous source of high concept, multiplayer open worlds which reliably top the Steam charts, or will prove to the subscription MMO of this decade and burn out any month now.
I increasingly approach these things with some cynicism, but Savage Lands has quite a lot going for it even in its initial early access state. It's set in a low-tech, vaguely medieval land which might just have a touch of the Nordic to it. It definitely comes across a little like Skyrim without any NPCs, including regular snowfall and a bloody great dragon sat on a tower somewhere near the middle of its sizeable island. I somehow had missed that there were dragons in it until that point, so it was a lovely surprise, right up until the point I decided I should probably run away and hide.
As in Minecraft and a gazillion other survival titles, the heart of the game is tree-punching. Punch those trees! Leave no tree unpunched. That's the key. Punch a few rocks while you're at it. Punch enough trees and rocks and, in time, you'll be suitably well-equipped to punch wild boars, wolves, angry skeletons and far worse. You know how it goes.
Many key resources are improbably scarce, however. It's not as simple as see thing, punch thing, get thing, but instead requires active scouring of the environment for a cotton bush, a frost fern or a mineral-rich rock. All the while you're losing heat and growing hungry, and often enough you'll be ambushed by wolves or boars and left bleeding as a result. This is a game that's trying damned hard to kill you at almost any given second.
There's a critical hurdle to be jumped early on too, which is the acquisition of hide with which to make, well, everything. Armour, anything like a decent weapon, and most of all bows with which you can hunt deer. If you don't have a bow, hunting deer is a difficult and slow process. You can sneak up on one, clobber it with a hatchet once, at which point it sprints off and you've got to hurtle after it until such time as it slows down, at which point you resume sneaking. You'll need to do this several times just to get one piece of leather, and there's every chance you'll run right into something that's all teeth and attitude in the process. It's hard work, basically. And that's Savage Lands all over. If your goal is to take on that bloody great dragon, resign yourself to a whole lot of graft first.
Fire management is key, too. You'll freeze to death out there in the snowy wilds. and while carrying a DIY torch will keep the elements at bay to some degree, it'll also reveal your whereabouts to prey and predators alike. So, at least in the early game, before you've built hardier clothes, a great deal of time is spent hanging around campfires waiting for your body temperature to recover after an outing. In a multiplayer game, these fires can become social hubs. Tired, wounded men (only male avatars so far, I'm afraid) hanging out, swapping tips, swearing about wolves or simply staring into the flames and waiting to be strong again. It reminds me a little of STALKER, and those roving bands of weary mercs who'd sometimes settle around a fire, sigh and play folk songs. Strangers in a strange place, and silent companionship makes it just a little easier.
All this is presuming you're on a friendly server, at least. I haven't braved the open PvP ones yet, but I imagine I'll get the Trotsky treatment any time I try to rest. Given the general focus is survival rather than conquest there's no pressing need to murder other players, but technically the same is true of DayZ, and we all know how that goes, don't we? The game also drops small inducements to hunt your fellow man, such as a type of club which requires a human skull to craft. And no, you can't use a skull harvested from the corpse of one of your earlier, failed attempts.
On friendly servers though, there's a rare and pleasant air of companionship. The map has a derelict village players gravitate towards, where they hang out, swap knowledge and spare items and co-operate to restore the buildings. There's no freeform construction, but fixed plots can be restored and used as storage and shelter, and more importantly lend you the sense that you're not simply waiting for death in this lethal place.
Much of Savage Lands is deeply familiar, from the rush to reclaim gear from your corpse after a death to the way the crafting works and, of course, all that tree-punching (tree-hatcheting, to be specific). This is primarily applying a different theme to a now tried-and-tested survival structure, rather than meaningfully altering the experience. But it does have a wildness to it that many other such games lack; it isn't really a game about fear and it isn't even remotely wacky. It's about surviving the elements, most especially the cold. The random animal and skeleton attacks definitely make it pay more than lip service to Skyrim's wilderness, although it's restricted to basic clobbering and arrow-shooting rather than crazy magic. For now, at least.
Part of me looks up the tech tree and sees nothing but ultimately meaningless work, but a bigger part of me takes enormous pride in simply making it through another night. Despite the dragon and despite the skeletons, in the main Savage Lands doesn't feel at all fantastical. I can't even hope to find canned goods: there is nothing but that which I make with my own hands. It's difficult and unforgiving; death is frequent and requires constant resource management to avoid. Go into it because you want to give yourself fully to a survival fantasy, not because you want a playground to romp around in. That dragon's more of a totem than a promise, I think.
As for early access aspects, after six months or so of development there's quite a bit there and it's been perfectly stable in my experience. I thought the interface was clunky and ugly, and I did have to turn off ambient occlusion cos it was killing my framerate, but otherwise all good. Multiplayer servers currently support up to eight people, but you can also play solo, Minecraft-style, and it completely works that way. Almost more so, in fact: that sense of being washed up somewhere unknown, alone and without any hope of help is critical to the fantasy Savage Lands is trying to evoke. The community I've encountered so far has been surprisingly pleasant, however. That won't last, naturally, so if you're curious you should probably explore Savage Lands sooner rather than later.