I’ve been playing a few Early Access games on Steam that I’m excited about. I thought I’d report in on them.

Killing Floor 2

  • Developer: Tripwire Interactive
  • Entered Early Access: April 21, 2015
  • Most Recent Update: February 25, 2016
  • What’s There: The core gameplay, two bosses, 7 perks

I employ no hyperbole when I tell you that Tripwire Interactive’s Killing Floor 2 is the most satisfying first person shooter I’ve ever played. I credit its detailed, 200 frames-per-second gun animations and wonderful hit feedback. Killing Floor 2 feels slick and polished. Even when the game launched in Early Access, its creators seemed to have a clear plan about how they wanted the game to feel.

Killing Floor 2 is a horde shooter. Players explore a single map, fighting off waves of enemies. For every kill and every wave survived, players earn cash with which to buy upgrades. That brings a sense of progression to every match. You might start with a little shotgun, but, by the end of things, you’ve got an automatic-firing death machine capable of dishing out brutal punishment to anything that might look your way.

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This is one of those games that relies heavily on the strength of its core mechanics, which Tripwire has nailed. Most of the monsters have fairly low levels of health, making them easy fodder to kill. Guns tear up monsters, sending gibs flying. Every shot that connects feels like it has weight as the monsters twitch and spasm under your fire.

The enemy design is great. While you won’t find anything as smart as Halo’s enemies in Killing Floor 2, you will encounter some terrifying moments when a scrake or fleshpound—two of the game’s biggest enemies—enters the map. They enter with roars that shake the entire map. The Patriarch is a great boss, first mercilessly attacking the players, then running off to heal when players do enough damage to him. When he runs away, the tables are turned and the players start hunting him, leading to some of the most tense “oh crap” moments I’ve ever had in a game.

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Unfortunately, Tripwire has been slow to update the game, sometimes going months before releasing new content. The last major update—The Return of the Patriarch—released in December. In a world where many Early Access games are releasing updates, even minor ones, weekly, Killing Floor 2’s development seems excruciatingly slow. When the updates do hit, they’re often substantial. I took a break from the game and came back to new character classes and maps, both of which were polished to a brilliant sheen and felt like they were release quality material.

It’s great to have a game with a clear vision, especially when that vision is as beautifully polished as Killing Floor 2, but one of the great strengths of Early Access is the way a developer can interact with their community. I would love to see more frequent updates, missions more like the ones encountered in games like Payday 2, tweaks to ensure faster leveling, and more interesting skills, but will Tripwire listen to or implement those requests? I’m not so sure.

If you don’t have Killing Floor 2, you should pick it up and play it with friends. There’s nothing like the casual conversation that goes on as you shoot a bunch of bloodthirsty monsters in the face. Don’t expect fast updates, but do expect a great time.

Epsilon

  • Developer: Serellan LLC
  • Entered Early Access: October 1, 2015
  • Most Recent Update: February 19, 2016
  • What’s There: Two maps, two game modes

We need more tactical shooters. Sure, I love running around shooting aliens and monsters as much as the next guy, but sometimes it’s nice to get quiet and cerebral. The other day, I booted up Serellan’s Epsilon, an Early Access single-player tactical shooter and it’s the kind of tactical shooter I’m looking for.

Epsilon is rough, but in a good way. The graphics are mostly there. The game is gorgeous, especially for such a small indie studio. Their work reminds me a lot of the first Mirror’s Edge. But a lot of the mechanics aren’t quite there. The shooting isn’t satisfying yet and the user interface is unfinished. But that’s okay, because this is an Early Access game.

Before you start missions, you can view the security cameras that appear throughout a level. This allows you to plan your approach, which can lead to some interesting situations. I’ve been having a lot of fun just checking through each camera, thinking about how I’m going to bring my squad to bear.

During a recent play session, I had an idea about camera functionality that I thought might improve the game. I tweeted the game’s lead creator, Christian Allen, and not only did he reply right away, but he got back to me within a day or two to let me know he’d implemented the feature. How many devs are that responsive?

Because Epsilon is far from finished, it’s a challenge to talk about. There’s a lot of promise here, but at the same time, it’s only 30% done according to the Early Access page. Being able to communicate effortlessly with the developers is awesome, though, and the game looks fantastic for an indie title. At $8, Epsilon is a great way to check out a game early in development. Though rough, I wouldn’t be surprised if Epsilon eventually grows into the perfect single-player Rainbow Six experience I’ve been craving for years.

Subnautica

  • Developer: Unknown Worlds Entertainment
  • Entered Early Access: December 16, 2014
  • Most Recent Update: February 25, 2016
  • What’s there: A massive amount of content, including multiple biomes, alien life forms, and stuff to build.

I’m not too fond of the survival sim formula, but developer Unknown Worlds’ Subnautica does it right, because it deviates from the mold. Most importantly, you don’t have to do the whole “constantly draining water and food” thing if you don’t want to. That gets old in too many games too quickly, and it stops being fun. Subnautica offers it if you want it, but also lets you play without if that’s your boat. This is a game content to play at your pace.

As you might have guessed, Subnautica takes place underwater. Your spaceship has crashed on a distant alien world. You’re apparently the only survivor. The planet appears to be entirely ocean, which means you’re going to have to do an awful lot of swimming if you want to survive. Because Subnautica is set in an alien ocean, it deviates from the standard survival game pattern in two key ways: first, you’re engaging with the space in a much more detail-oriented way, and, second, the creatures you encounter are different from your standard survival fauna.

In a typical survival game, you’re more or less looking at the ground to find what you need, whether that’s trees or berry bushes or rocks or what have you. It restricts a lot of your hunting to a two dimensional plane, which can quickly get boring. Subnautica puts you underwater, which means that now you’re having to look up and down and all around you. Sometimes, you’ve got to swim down hundreds of feet, but when you do, your water supply starts to run low. It might get too dark to see or you might encounter a dangerous alien fish.

There are, in other words, a lot more considerations to be given to the environment. Getting used to thinking about the water and how it works takes time and demands more of your attention than a typical survival sim, but the end result is a more engaging, interesting experience.

The alien nature of the planet improves gameplay even more. A traditional game would have trouble supplying the player with a means of freshwater for drinking, but Subnautica can simply create an alien fish that filters water. Hunt down that particular fish, take it back to survival pod, and voila, you have a good supply of drinking water. The developers at Unknown Worlds create creatures that support the survival mechanics and encourage interesting gameplay, rather than having to stick to real-world behaviors.

Subnautica is perhaps the most zen survival game I’ve ever played. Swimming through the world is serene. I actually gasped the first time I came upon a giant field of red sea grass, because it was so strange and surprising.

One of the best things about Subnautica, though? The developers are transparent. They have a Trello board that they use to track progress and goals, and it’s completely visible to the public.

According to Unknown Worlds: “We want to share this with you, because we like being open with you. You guys have supported us so well on early access, we want to show you what you’ve bought into so you know we’re working on good stuff. Hopefully the right stuff.”

If you want to play a relaxed, but deeply fascinating survival game, then Subnautica is the game for you. It’s my favorite pure survival game out of everything I’ve tried on Early Access so far, and the developers are constantly updating it. They seem to be responsive to their community, and their openness is unmatched. Subnautica is so great that it actually made me want to give the genre another shot.

Early Access is double-edged. Sometimes, you get games like Towns or Spacebase DF-9, which are abandoned, half-complete ghost towns. Other times, you get to see great games made before your eyes. From Darkest Dungeon to Invisible Inc to Divinity: Original Sin to Wasteland 2, Early Access has plenty of fantastic success stories. The best games seem to be the ones with the clearest visions and the best community interaction.

It’s not just a chance to play a game you want to try early, but a way to actually collaborate with developers on improving their projects. It’s a way to learn about how games are developed and what separates a good game from a bad one. Some games feel a bit too distant and pre-planned, like Killing Floor 2, and others feel far from being finished, like Epsilon, but so many of them are wonderful experiences that might even exist if it weren’t for the Early Access program.

GB Burford is a freelance journalist and indie game developer who just can’t get enough of exploring why games work. You can reach him on Twitter at @ForgetAmnesia or on his blog. You can support him and even suggest games to write about over at his Patreon.