‘Tis the season for year-end lists, and when I sat down to think of my favorite games of 2014, I realized that several of the really great experiences I had this year were with games that aren’t technically out yet. The early access/buy-in beta trend that got going in earnest with Minecraft way back in 2009 became an even bigger force in gaming this year, as Steam’s early access program was inundated with titles-in-progress.
This has produced, well, mixed results. There are plenty of examples of unscrupulous developers cashing in on trends by posting half-baked games and then abandoning development once they’ve made off with players’ money. But there are some real gems, too – here are five of my favorite early access games of 2014.
Developer Indie Stone hasn’t had the best of luck developing Project Zomboid – early in development, laptops with much of their source code were stolen. But that hasn’t stopped the small team from creating one of the few zombie survival games that remains interesting. Zomboid puts players into the shambling apocalypse as a survivor in West Point, Kentucky, and the goal is simply to survive as long as possible. The fairly colorful, isometric graphics belie the tension the game is capable of generating as you venture from your chosen home base to find supplies – weapons that come in the form of anything from frying pans to firearms, boards and sheets to black out windows with, food, medicine, and clothing to stave off the coming winter.
Even after almost four years in alpha, Indie Stone is still making significant regular updates to the game, and incorporating mods created by the player community – one of these simulates the effects of erosion and weather on the permanent structures in the game world. With multiplayer now fairly functional, Project Zomboid is the closest I’ve gotten to a George A. Romero experience on the PC.
Dwarf Fortress deserves an entry all its own, but I’ve been consistently impressed with Robotronic Games’ Gnomoria, a game that’s much smaller in scope but borrows liberally from Dwarf Fortress’ village management elements. Your job here is to manage a small troupe of gnomish settlers as they establish themselves in the wilderness by directing them to carve out a kingdom. This is very different from the Sim City model: as in Dwarf Fortress, you have no direct control over your tiny citizens; instead, you create task queues and priorities that the little AI gnomes follow. They’ll create workshops and farms, store their wares in stockpiles to use or sell to traveling merchants, and train a militia to fight off invading goblin forces all under your watchful eye. While still a bit arcane in its control scheme, Gnomoria makes Dwarf Fortress a lot more approachable with adorable graphics and a mouse-driven interface.
Free Lives’ questionably-titled Broforce is a love letter to action films of the ‘80s and ‘90s, dissolving the best bits of all of them into a chaotic platformer that’s just a hoot to play. Terrorists have taken over something or other, and it’s up to you and your team of every action movie hero ever to show them it’s wrong, mostly by setting them on fire or blowing them into little red pixelly chunks. Run around the fully-destructible levels as “Rambro,” “Brobocop,” “Indiana Brones,” or “Ellen Ripbro” (the developers feel that “bro” is a non-gender-exclusionary title, and more a state of mind), rescuing compatriots – each of whom has a unique special ability. Things get crazier still with the inclusion of local and online co-op play, which might be the greatest opportunity for trolling friends I’ve yet experienced. The game refuses to take itself or its source material with any kind of seriousness, and the over-the-top patriotism is presented with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
Getting picked up by publisher Devolver Digital has been great news for Broforce, as has the team’s tie-in game The Expendabros, which was made available for free to help promote The Expendables 3. Free Lives continues to update Broforce and lately has been actively engaging the player base in level creation contests.
It’s hard to pin down exactly when the current “roguelike” craze started off, but it’s fair to say that procedural generation has positively flooded PC gaming over the last couple years. So it’s nice to see something like Brace Yourself Games’ Crypt of the Necrodancer doing something positively original with the idea: a roguelike game mixed with… Dance Dance Revolution?!
The most amazing thing about this idea is how well it works. You control your character as she hops around dungeons by tapping the arrow keys in time with the beat of some genuinely terrific Danny Baranowsky tracks, fighting monsters, finding treasure, and delving deeper into the dungeon per the roguelike formula. The rhythm mechanic completely changes the way the game feels and the strategies needed to succeed – you have to figure your need to hop on every beat into your approach to rooms full of monsters and bosses that include a giant gorilla leading a conga line. And if for some bizarre reason you’re not stuck on Baranowsky’s music, you can import your own songs into the game and necrodance your heart out to them. I can’t wait to watch a YouTube Let’s Play of some crazy person beating Crypt of the Necrodancer to the tune of Rush’s YYZ.
I’ve had Nuclear Throne on my hard drive for about a year now, and it’s been amazing to watch this game grow both in scope and popularity over that time. Formerly titled Wasteland Kings, Dutch developer Vlambeer’s (the creators of this year’s fantastic Luftrausers) Nuclear Throne is a bullet-hell top-down shooter starring an adorably quirky band of mutants struggling to reach the eponymous throne. Nuclear Throne is another game to feature procedurally-generated levels and permadeath, making every quick run a white-knuckle affair of dodging attacks and snapping up increasingly ridiculous weapons.
Nuclear Throne is also an experiment in “open” game design, in that Vlambeer lets players watch as they make the game via livestreams on Twitch.tv. They push out updates every week, adding new characters, environments, weapons, and game features largely in response to community suggestions. They’re looking to expand that player base substantially, too: Last week, Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail announced that everyone who has purchased a copy of Nuclear Throne will receive a free copy of the game to give to a friend on January 1.
Nuclear Throne may still be in development, but it’s already one of my favorite games of the last couple years.
So what about you? Spending many a sleepless night in an unfinished game? Let me know what I’ve missed.