My co-op gaming group has logged a few hundred extra hours in Deep Rock Galactic since I wrote about it a year and a half ago, but we’re always looking for another game to fall in love with.
We’ve tried a bunch of things in the last year, guided by a combination of positive reviews and “whatever is on sale in Steam at the time.” We’ve logged time in Back 4 Blood, Payday 2, Warhammer: Vermintide 2, Sea of Thieves, Diablo III, Risk of Rain 2, and Borderlands 3, and each has had its charms. But the one that has stuck with me the most is called Raft, a game about building a raft.
Raft isn’t new—it went into Early Access in 2018—but its formal 1.0 release happened this past June. The pitch: You begin the game drifting across an endless ocean on a tiny wooden raft cobbled together from flotsam and jetsam. Armed with only a trusty throwable plastic hook, you must comb the ocean for planks, plastic, and other bits of scrap that you can use to expand your raft and stay alive. And once you’re no longer in constant danger of starving to death (and once you can steer your raft instead of just letting it drift), you can begin sailing to the world’s remaining islands to figure out what happened to everyone else.
The surest sign that you’ll like Raft is if you like Minecraft (or if you want to like Minecraft but find its general aimlessness frustrating instead of freeing). Building is all done on a grid system, you’re constantly combining and recombining materials to build and improve your tools, and the way the game gradually advances from an early survival-horror phase to a more free-form building-and-exploration phase is distinctly Minecraft-y. The game includes combat, and what is here feels fine (it flows a lot better than the clunky, boring combat in Sea of Thieves), but it’s all subordinate to building, exploring, and resource gathering.
Even once you get to the point that you’re not always in immediate danger of starving to death, the smartest thing about the game’s design is how it keeps you coming back to the raft. The game’s larger islands are where you’ll push the storyline forward and find rare materials, but eventually, the need to eat (and the fact that you can’t build anything on land) will always drive you back to the raft. And the need to keep your engine and cooking fires fed and gather basic materials will eventually drive you back into the ocean. It’s called Raft, not Island.
It’s also rewarding to watch your raft slowly grow from a tiny patch of trash into a cruise-liner-turned-houseboat. The game smartly balances things you need to have (something to cook food with, smelters for turning metal into ores, small plots of arable land) with purely cosmetic decorations, so you can gradually make your raft feel more like a home and less like a barracks.
If you just want to experience the building part of the game without dealing with the story or combat, it includes a few different modes to tune it to your group’s experience and comfort level. Easy difficulty makes the hunger and thirst meters drain more slowly and reduces enemy damage. Peaceful mode keeps the hunger and thirst meter and lets you play through the story but turns off enemy attacks. Hard mode is an extra challenge, with more aggressive hunger and thirst meters and more enemy damage. And Creative mode is a free-form sandbox where you’re given unlimited resources and health so you can experiment or build outlandish structures that would be impractical to build in the resource-limited story mode.
In the end, I don’t expect Raft to have quite the same staying power with our group as Deep Rock Galactic; the developer seems to be focused on a console release rather than adding new content to the PC version, and once we make our way through the game’s objective-driven story mode we’ll probably hang up our paddles for a while. But for however long it lasts, Raft is a unique take on the building-game genre with a fun gameplay hook and enough gameplay modes to keep your group busy for a while.