...But Perhaps Not Your Money Yet
Steam Early Access and alpha funding is revolutionising the way we consume our videogames; granting us unprecedented grassroots insight into the way games are developed over months and years, all while supporting our favourite projects financially. Any number of intriguing games are currently available to play and pre-order in alpha and beta, many of which we're extensively covering with barely-constrained excitement in previews and videos. From insane destruction to infinite exploration, Early Access takes all comers.
But parting with your hard-earned cash for Early Access is another matter entirely, and the jury's still out on whether it's actually a double-edged sword in terms of expectations. To this end, here are eleven titles that have cemented their place in our 2014 release radar, explaining both why we're excited and whether it's worth shelling out to take the plunge. Alongside handy links to our videos and previews, natch.
This is just scratching the surface, since there's no way we can cover all of the most promising Early Access games in a single article. Be sure to let us know about any Early Access games you've been playing (yes, we know that Kerbal Space Program is awesome), and if you'd like us to make this a more regular feature!
Why we're excited: Starbound offers us an infinite procedural universe to explore, dominate, settle and craft; taking cues from Terraria and Minecraft but launching the concept to radical new heights. Whether we're delving into dungeons, pimping out starships or taming wild planets into playgrounds, it's an absolute blast even in beta, and easily one of the hottest PC gaming properties of 2014. Major video coverage is incoming - stay tuned for our next Game Night!
Should you take the plunge? Yes. If you like the idea, there's plenty to keep you occupied... but beware an impending server wipe!
Mercenary Kings (£11.99)
Why we're excited: From the team behind Scott Pilgrim comes a superb blend of Metal Slug and Monster Hunter; an enormous bombastic old-school SHMUP underpinned by persistent gun crafting that gives you access to a bewildering array of ludicrous weaponry. Presented in glorious retro sprite art and boasting an exquisite soundtrack, Mercenary Kings is already excellent and can only get better. Read our early access preview for more details.
Should you take the plunge? Definitely. Mercenary Kings already offers a truly staggering amount of supremely enjoyable action, especially when played with friends.
Planetary Annihilation (£39.99)
Why we're excited: Planetary Annihilation is more ambitious, ridiculous, OTT and frankly insane than any RTS we've ever played. It's Total Annihilation-style carnage on an immense scale, letting players battle for control of entire simulated solar systems with hundreds of mechs, outrageous orbital weaponry and even the ability to smash planets into each other with enormous celestial engines. It's hectic, overwhelming and fantastic fun - just what you'd expect from many of the minds behind Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. Our extensive hands-on preview has all the juicy intel you need.
Should you take the plunge? Probably not, unless you're a massive fan of Total Annihilation and Supreme Commander. The framework is present and frantic fun, but numerous much-needed improvements and features make the inflated price tag a big ask at present. Wait for updates.
Dungeon Of The Endless (£7.49)
Why we're excited: "Dungeon Of The Endless - which I'm not going to abbreviate to DotE to avoid any confusion - strands players on a mysterious planet, controlling survivors of a crashed prison ship. We have to lead our troops through randomly-generated dungeons in a blend of RTS and exploration gameplay, all while securing resources and territory to defend with turrets and fortifications. It's an unpredictable balance of offence, exploration, defence, Roguelike and strategy that constantly hits you where you least expect it... followed by a mad dash at the end of each level as hellacious enemy legions close in for the kill."
"Just in case that wasn't enough, it also happens to look utterly ravishing." - Dungeon Of The Endless hands-on preview
Should you take the plunge? Almost certainly. This is one of the most gorgeous and enjoyable alpha builds I've experienced in many a long month - and you'll get a 25% discount!
Why we're excited: When it comes to 4X space games, taking inspiration from Masters Of Orion 2 can't be a bad thing. Though rough around the edges in terms of pacing, visuals and AI, Horizon promises turn-based fleet combat, massively versatile build queues, numerous races and customisable galaxies to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate. The story is also worthy of note, channelling Babylon 5 in all the right ways.
Should you take the plunge? No... because Horizon is due to fully release next month. Wait for our review.
Next Car Game (£18.99)
Why we're excited: It's early days and early doors for Bugbear Entertainment's next racing game, but it's clear that the veteran studio are working on a single major goal for their upcoming racer. Destruction. Unbridled, unabashed, silly and deliciously irresponsible car-nage. The Early Access build shows off the truly ridiculous technology powering what promises to be one of the most fun-packed racing games in ages.
Should you take the plunge? Not yet. The current build only features a handful of cars and tracks, so arguably wait for more content to get some bang for your buck.
Project Zomboid (£9.99)
Why we're excited: Project Zomboid has been in development for what feels like forever, offering a hellaciously tough yet rewarding zombie sandbox that pushes players to survive against the odds. I could say more, but you'd be better off watching Carl's 'This Is How I Died' Project Zomboid mini-series. Definitely one to watch, especially if you thrive on overcoming tough challenges.
Should you take the plunge? Try the free (stable) demo first.
Secrets of Raetikon (£6.99)
Why we're excited: We've never seen anything remotely like this gorgeous free-flying adventure.
"Secrets of Raetikon is a little bit special. With its vivid colour palette, vector-based art style, and exploratory nature, Broken Rules have created a game designed for you to sink into and muck about. Like the best games, Raetikon encourages you to meet it halfway, indeed the centreal underlying gameplay feature here is curiosity, and we rather like that. It's a game of ancient machinery, natural habitats and ecosystem, and the serenity of flight as you take on the mantle of a very handsome looking bird." - Secrets Of Raetikon video preview.
Should you take the plunge? Possibly. It's in early alpha, but a cheap price tag and weekly updates could well make this a new obsession. Beware spoiling the experience for yourself though - perhaps it's better to wait and enjoy the full game rather than exploring it piecemeal and ruining some of the surprise.
Why we're excited: This addictive SRPG provides a grim take on the traditional fantasy setting, portraying its shady characters and complex storyline from a more mature perspective. Blackguards' combat system is the star of the show, though, providing over 40 hours of tense turn-based combat and versatile character skills. Be sure to watch our video preview for more details.
Should you take the plunge? Probably, if you're into turn-based RPG action. The project is already polished and immense in size - though the full release isn't far away. If in doubt, wait for our review.
Wasteland 2 (included in £34.99 pre-order)
Why we're excited: "Though it bears the less familiar Wasteland name, there's a sense that actually Wasteland 2 is the sequel to Fallout 2 that we might have gotten had things turned out differently. Stepping into inXile's Unity-crafted landscape is like stepping back in time, which isn't surprising given that Brian Fargo has wanted to make this game for a quarter of a century. That works both for and against Wasteland 2 here in 2014. It rides the nostalgia card well and though you can certainly enjoy the game without ever having played the original, there are a large number of throwbacks and references for series stalwarts." - Wasteland 2 Early Access Impressions
Should you take the plunge? Not unless you want to pre-order the digital deluxe edition. Personally I feel that Early Access is a poor fit for story-driven games - either you'll end up torturing yourself at best or underwhelmed at worst. We can't wait to see how this turns out, mind. [Seconded. I'd wait until you can get your hands on the full thing -- Matt]
DayZ Standalone (£19.99)
Why we're excited: It's DayZ. Standalone.
Should you take the plunge? Erm. As a bare-bones alpha, DayZ is currently broken and many months from beta, despite frequent updates. Limit your expectations if you do decide to get involved.