This month, Valheim has shone a light on the positives of Early Access and the reaction that a genuinely interesting, yet unfinished, game can generate. But, it’s not the only title in recent years to advocate and justify the use of the more open developmental approach allowed by Early Access.
When done properly, this more staggered release can be a huge help to smaller developers and benefit the games themselves with a more freeform, responsive development cycle. In the case of Valheim, they’ve seen massive success. There are some shining examples of titles in recent years that have gone through Early Access while meeting or exceeding their goals, such as the following seven, that are absolutely worth your time and money.
This Viking-themed survival game has taken Steam by storm over the last month. It’s sold over 4 million copies in a matter of days. For context, its publisher Coffee Stain recently passed two million copies sold with Deep Rock Galactic… which was first released three years ago, to “Rock Solid” reviews.
Its meteoritic rise on Steam and in the Early Access program is unmatched in recent times; so much so, that it’s already one of the most popular games on the platform, setting a new concurrent player record.
It’s a familiar format of mechanics for anyone who has played a survival game over the last decade. Chopping trees, crafting axes, exploring dungeons, building bases and being humbled by much, much stronger mobs… you know the drill. But, as well-executed as the survival mechanics are… the real charm and addictive nature of the game is tied into the story and therein the progression through the world.
The bosses you need to defeat all reside in different biomes and must be approached from a stable, self-sufficient base. This forces you (like real Vikings) to move constantly and invade neighbouring territories to get a foothold. Exploring these beautiful, thematically fascinating biomes is the most endearing quality of this ever-popular game… and where fans clearly get the most enjoyment. You owe it to yourself to try it.
Valheim is available on Steam Early Access now!
Looking back, Ludeon Studios has crafted something incredible in Rimworld. Throughout the game’s development in Early Access, it’s been abundantly clear that the developers are aiming for the stars. As a consequence (with help from feedback), the sheer number of unique gameplay opportunities keeps growing, and it means there’s almost always something new to see.
However, another one of its greatest strengths is that RimWorld creates some very interesting and organic stories. For example, one of my most loyal colonists ended a playthrough as a fully robotic, jack of all trades… largely as a result of gunshots, maulings and being a medical guinea pig. He truly had it rough. So, it was a real shame when he died of starvation out on a trading run to the next town over. These wacky tales are really what makes the game so uniquely charming.
The sheer volume of random, gruelling issues that your colonies can endure (or not) is surprising, and gradually changes the unassuming little pawns into fully fleshed out characters in the eyes of the player.
The game itself has a steep learning curve, but stick with it and the rewards will start falling at your feet. Whether in the emergent stories, gear or just that hydroponics farm you’ve always wanted. Just be expecting to lose it all, repeatedly, and you’ll be fine.
It’s easy to forget the humble beginnings of this now legendary powerhouse. It was developed by a single man, at the beginning of its Early Access journey, more than ten years ago. When it was still in its alpha phase of development it gained some crucial publicity from well-known YouTubers “The Yogscast“ … and it exploded.
It’s impossible to talk of Early Access and its impact on games without mentioning Minecraft. After all, “Early access (in the modern sense) started in 2009 with its release“. Ultimately, it served to highlight this new way to develop games and helped reiterate that passionate hobbyists, as opposed to just corporations, could also be successful on PC.
Today it’s progressed into a more complex, engaging and well-rounded experience than ever thanks to its progressive development; and its masterfully integrated gameplay updates. The appeal of its revolutionary survival/building mechanics has always stayed central to the experience though. It’ll always have you punching trees, killing dragons, collecting diamonds and building castles…or anything else you can think of for that matter. The only limit on the possibilities is your imagination.
When playing, you’ll be reminded of all the great survival games you’ve ever played since, without question, its core gameplay loop is often the starting blueprint or inspiration for hundreds of them. If you haven’t played it yet then you should. Otherwise you’re missing out on one of the most influential experiences in gaming history.
4. The Long Dark
Hinterland Studio has crafted a fully realised survival hellscape in The Long Dark. It’s unforgiving, punishing and even unfair at times, but that’s the point. By sticking to the brutal reality of surviving, in the frozen north, the game has nailed the feel of the struggle to survive.
It’s based in a beautiful, haunting and isolated landscape where the odds are stacked against you. However, it’ll introduce you to its mechanics in a sensible manner, thereby giving you the tools to survive, but just like in real life the best-laid plans will keep you going in the wild. The commitment to realism here is honestly staggering, and to keep it while maintaining a sense of fun, that never wanes, is doubly impressive.
The gameplay is a familiar blend of resource management, crafting, hunting and exploration that you’ll have seen in many other titles. However, the thing that sets The Long Dark apart is how well a grounded sense of risk versus reward is present in every decision you make, and you’ll either be rewarded gleefully or punished unapologetically.
The game has reached a stage today where it’s possibly the most realistic survival game of its generation. Never in its genre has there been a game where overcoming adversity, even for just a moment, feels so rewarding.
3. ARK: Survival Evolved
Any game that revolves around dinosaurs should be exciting, and yet there’s a lack of great games that manage to pull them off. ARK: Survival Evolved is the exception. Studio Wildcard have taken the inherently fun idea of taming dinosaurs and built one of the most enjoyable multiplayer survival experiences ever.
The dinosaurs are the main draw to the game. They’re appropriately intimidating, awe-inspiring, abundant, varied and of course, deadly. However, they wouldn’t work if the other mechanics weren’t just as solid and thankfully the survival/base building options are as well realised as any of the awesome reptiles. Each facet of gameplay is as well thought out as the next, so collectively this means that there’s never a dull moment when playing.
However, it’s worth pointing out that the worlds of ARK are best inhabited by friends. Exploring, fighting others, flying pterodactyls, racing T-rexes, building impregnable forts… it’s all near perfect with friends. As your group of survivors strive to progress through the world you’ll begin to realise the near-limitless possibilities for fun on the islands.
Looking back at the formation of what the game has become, it’s a relief that the experience of taming, racing, flying and fighting dinosaurs has finally been given the long shelf life it deserves. Letting players loose with the creatures, to just enjoy themselves, is a humble goal and it’s very hard to argue that it’s been anything other than a resounding success.
This criminally underappreciated construction/management simulator from Wube Software is like nothing else out there. It’s one of the most addictive games to ever grace the Steam marketplace and its complexity is dizzying. It’s one of those games that you start up, and before you know it the sun’s rising again outside.
Taking an active role in developing a simple coal mine into a bustling, well-optimized, largely autonomous, nuclear empire is absolutely amazing, and should be experienced as freshly as possible in my opinion.
It can seem like an intimidating prospect at first with the sheer amount of content and approaches available to the player. However, its tutorial and steady difficulty curve will ease new players in, and open their eyes to the possibilities. Also, when you add in a friend it only becomes more enjoyable, too. It truly aids the experience to have a helping hand in expanding your world-altering territories.
Seeing how far the mechanics, in-game, have come is one of the great pleasures of hindsight. It’s become proof of a truly unique concept and has paved the way for other great games like Satisfactory which keep innovating within the genre. Factorio is one of the most satisfying and addictive experiences available and should be played by everyone. But, additionally, it should be appreciated as a true innovator and example of how unique ideas can be steadily expanded on, over time, using Early Access.
With the ever increasing focus on multiplayer experiences in the gaming industry these days it’s always a treat when a studio goes against the grain, and produces a brilliant single player adventure. Unknown Worlds Entertainment has done exactly that with Subnautica. Its journey through Early Access saw it go from strength to strength because of its unique world and eye catching visuals.
It began development at a time when “Early Access” was almost a buzzword for broken; however, this underwater masterpiece justified its price ten times over. It’s easily one of the most accessible, exciting, impressive, unique blends of mechanics and world building ever achieved.
Few games have ever instilled the feeling of being an explorer, in its players, quite as well as this one. The fact that it constantly grabs your attention with unexpected sights/experiences which spur you on to explore every cave, island and death-trap you come across is incredible. But, the fantastical biomes, horrifying creatures, satisfying progression and excellent base building push it even further toward being the most polished and interesting survival game out there.
From start to finish Subnautica is a joy to play. It avoids the usual trappings of survival games completely because the development was so transparent and each aspect tweaked so carefully. Progressing, in game, from amateur diver to a wannabee “big daddy” holds your attention and curiosity better than any survival game before it. It really will blow your mind.
What do you think of this list? Any games you would recommend? Let me know in the comments below!