In an act of true betrayal, I have turned my back on Playstation, towards the seductive allure of the Xbox Series S. I’ve long believed that the weapon for future generations is no longer individual exclusivity, but a veritable feast of games available to download and play instantly – and now, Xbox game pass is a powerful tool in Microsoft’s belt. There are classic collections like the Gears and Halo series, in addition to a wide variety of library titles, but there was one game I’ve been dying to play since it was announced, and that game was from Obsidian. grounded.
I’m a huge fan of survival games – I grew up with Minecraft (who wouldn’t?) and The Forest from Endnight Games is undoubtedly one of my favorites from the last generation. What at first looks like a simple survival game quickly unravels into this complex web of intelligent AI, Lovecraftian storytelling and environmental mystery. And for a long time I hadn’t found another game that kept me glued to my couch until the early hours. Until now.
Like The Forest, Grounded’s first opening leads you to believe you understand the environment you find yourself in, before pulling back the rug to reveal a sprawling plethora of mysteries, questions, and challenges. The garden is a gargantuan landscape and it takes hours to even reach its outer edges, demonstrating the processing power that shows next-gen can deliver on the lofty ambitions of survival games better than ever. Even after three months I’m still discovering new dungeons to loot and areas to dig out, which surprises me considering how many hours I’ve already sunk into the game.
One problem I’ve found with a lot of survival games like Rust, DayZ, Ark: Survival Evolved is that they have a limited time frame of fun before you reach the peak of your potential in the game, and you have nowhere to go but down. Their mission is simple: “Build, Survive, Dominate.” That is a successful and lucrative model for some, given Rust’s immense community, but for many others it leads to stagnation.
In addition, Grounded feels more innovative. The mantra for the player is reflected in its own core story: ‘Discover, investigate, analyze’. Your investigation into the disappearance of scientist Dr. Tully leads you and your friends to become scientists themselves – chop down odd pieces of wood, harvest flowers, bring them back to your research station for analysis; you are naturally immersed in the world of Grounded from this active desire to understand rather than conquer.
It perfects a formula established by Subnautica and Subnautica: Below Zero – albeit in a more suburban, macro environment. Some of your biggest and longest expeditions aren’t even to make armor or weapons, but to find that last crow’s feather on the edge of the map so you can finally make those cool beds. It’s player-led, emergent gameplay at its best.
Initially, Grounded’s battles are difficult. Actually it is real difficult. You can’t just slash-slash-slash and overwhelm your enemy until he drops. Every element of Obsidian’s game design is carefully tied back to the core concept; that dynamic between humans and nature that has become reversed, with the insects on top and you firmly on the bottom. You could craft the most powerful weapon in the game, but even a ladybug will still kick your ass if you don’t know how to tango with it. You can’t just run into flaming ashes – believe me, I’ve tried.
Instead, Obsidian forces you to learn the combat tactics and movement pattern of every enemy, from the tiniest of mites to the behemoths like Wolf Spiders and Black Widows. It’s all about encouraging a deeper appreciation of the complexity of each Bug’s AI, figuring out how they interact, and understanding how Grounded’s combat system and mechanics can lead to some hugely rewarding moments. I remember the adrenaline rush of soloing my first spin after training my blocks and my parries on smaller fry. Even just sitting back and watching a horde of ants fight a wolf spider can be fascinating. It’s a field experiment, and you’re scribbling down mental notes, extrapolating who’s going to win the fight, and why.
While it’s far from a perfect game, Obsidian’s continued support for the Grounded community has been impressive. Perhaps the biggest sign that the developer is listening to fan feedback comes in the form of its consideration of Arachnophobes: the studio implemented a sliding scale of Spider-ness, which allowed them to be reduced to blocky sprites rather than blood-curdling, eight-eyed monstrosities .
However, it’s Obsidian’s most recent winter update that proved the studio is taking its players’ concerns and implementing their suggestions. In addition to the typical holiday decorations such as funky Christmas lights and other wintry attire, several small quality-of-life tweaks, such as the ability to go up zip lines, have completely changed the way players can traverse this labyrinth of grass and dirt.
We often gravitate towards survival games because they are ambitious. Whether it’s the scope of their environments or the appealing allure of epic base building, you feel something that draws you in and entices you to try them out. But their combination of so many mechanisms can often lead to countless bugs, glitches, and errors that can take a long time to fix.
That’s why Grounded feels like a new benchmark for survival games. The multi-layered design feels carefully thought out and fed back to the narrative core – creating this virtual ecosystem where everything works together, not just to inform, but to encourage players flourish.
It takes that unbridled creativity that Mojang captured with Minecraft and crushes it along with the environmental mystery and complex AI mechanics of The Forest to deliver something worthy of its new-gen status. You feel encouraged to try to interact with whatever you discover, challenged by the subversion of typical survival mechanisms and goals. Grounded creates an adventure that will make you want to stay up way too late to see how your next mission goes. And there’s a very special kind of magic in games that pull that off.