The Best Early Access Strategy Games

By Anna Blackwell 04 Apr 2019 0

Steam Early Access often gets a bad rap for the dire mire it can sometimes be, and it still hasn't comfortably addressed the issue of offering unfinished products as something people can buy. Just today we were discussing DayZ, that game that launched a thousand early-access survival titles, and how that STILL hasn't released despite all this time.

Still, we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't keep finger on the pulse of strategy games available currently in pre-release form - despite its image problem, there are some real gems going through an 'Early Access Beta' before gearing up for the full launch, and we've rounded up the best of them for your consideration.

Released

Nothing stays in Early Access forever (unless you're DayZ, I guess) so we'll keep track of anything that goes on this list that then gets released into Version 1.0.

Flamberge (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: HYDEZEKE  

Flamberge

I’m fascinated with Flamberge. Plotting out the actions of the squad and having them act out in real time feels like a new brand of strategy to me. RTS requires quick thinking, turn based requires planning ahead, this requires a more involved understanding of how abilities are going to affect other units. If you aim an archer at a soldier then have your guy charge them, then the shot goes wide as they’re knocked aside.

Flamberge puts me in mind of the UFO series with its timeline planning and I’m really excited to see how well it plays out in full release. And that’s not even mentioning the genuinely attractive art.

Technically an RPG, Flamberge currently has 3 out of 6 chapters complete and will be launching a multiplayer beta which will be interesting to see.

Ymir (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Thibaud Michaud

A complex socio-economic simulation wrapped up in a multiplayer 4X city builder, Ymir shrugs off the tropes of the genre for a more challenging approach. As you take your society of pigmen, building your city and settling new tiles with their own resources, animals, and geography, you will have to balance everything. Producing too much of a resource can have as much an impact as having too little.

Ymir

Ymir is closer to Caesar and Pharaoh than any city builder I’ve seen this side of the century as you have no direct control over your citizens beyond what you build and buy. Your resource purchases puts money directly into the pockets of merchants, increasing their spending power. You have no control over your army except choosing what to send out on invasions which can be a bit frustrating but means every battle is even as you don’t need to be on 24/7 to defend your city.

While it is possible to play Ymir alone, it is by design a multiplayer game with two different modes. A real time mode intended for groups of friends all playing at the same time and an MMO mode where things take longer but the persistent world keeps going even when you’re logged off.

Overland (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Finji

This one is technically not available to buy yet, but we know it's launching into Early Access this year, and soon. A squad-based turn-based strategy that puts you in charge of a group of people (and dogs) as they try to survive in a post-cataclysm Earth. Burrowing monsters infest the planet and you are tasked with collecting fuel, choosing whether to help or rob other survivors, and when to abandon your friends to survive (y’know, sort of like post-Brexit Britain).

Overland2

With the focus on scarcity, Overland makes even seemingly simple pit-stops into tense affairs as you struggle to find and collect resources as you travel into the heart of the cataclysm that changed the world. The small snapshot maps create a claustrophobic environment where your escape can be easily reached and easily cut-off, forcing you to constantly weigh the odds.

Overland hits a lot of the same notes as Death Road to Canada or FTL and as a huge fan of those games (even though I’ve never completed them), this is a no-brainer.

Shellshock Live (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: kChamp Games

Shellshock Live is a testament to the idea that old game concepts still matter. Scorched Earth was played by all in whatever form -- the base game, Gorillas, even Worms -- and Shellshock Live shamelessly copies it beat for beat. Or shell for shell. But that's fine. Upwards of two players, heaving artillery at each other, is still as fresh and enjoyable as it ever was.

ShellshockLive

Shellshock Live, however, adds its own wrinkles with an arsenal of weaponry that runs into the hundreds. Sure, some overlap and there are redundancies here and there, but this neon tank crusher roulettes the smorgasbord of ordnance through each game, making it potluck without the Worms-like pickups. There are also black holes, wormholes and laser fences that appear for a turn, then shift or disappear, adding to the chaos of the round. All of this is nested into a huge player progression tree, where there's all sorts of customisation.

Despite being in Early Access, you could pick up Shellshock Live and be excused for thinking it was the final release. However, it gets frequent updates and love from the developer, so I suppose there's no harm in it sitting comfortably in Early Access. This is the Neon Nerds version of self-styled Mother of All Games, without the risk of diabetes.

Rise to Ruins (Steam Page

Publisher/Developer: SixtyGigGames/Raymond Doerr

Rise to Ruins

A god game/village builder/tower defence, Rise to Ruins is an eclectic mix that somehow works exceedingly well. Much like Rimworld or Civilisation, a single session can easily turn from 5 more minutes into bleary-eyed guilt at the rising sun. Like most city builders, you build structures and staff them with workers, like most god games you can use magical powers to influence the world, and like most tower defence you will build various towers to fend off the nightly hordes. Couple all of that with a global map that allows you to spread resources and bonuses between zones and Rise to Ruins has the capacity to take up your year.

The store page cites such inspirations as Banished, Gnomoria, Towns, and RTS combat inspired by Settlers and other 90s classics. While the roguelike nature and constantly increasing waves might not be everyone’s cup of ambrosia, it has a charm to it that will draw the right person back again and again and again.

Cogmind (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Gridsage Games

Roguelikes -- like, the real McCoy roguelikes -- enjoy a peripheral existence in gaming, despite being a large part of its modern thematic and mechanical baseline. So when it comes time for gamers to trade the lite for like, there's really only one answer. The snap, crackle and pop of Cogmind.

cogmind 2
Cogmind trades fantasy for a cybernetic dungeon run, where the player must salvage parts inside a dungeon and escape. The austere visuals work marvellously to sell the idea that you're a junky clutch of circuits and waldos, parsing your way around a network of tunnels and subterranean factories amid a seething tide of ambivalent worker drones and easily-tripped and unrelenting security bots.

Your machine can equip and use all sorts of material, interface with networks, hack for data, as well as a suitable kinetic combat system. The latter is certainly one to comfort the roguelike-shy or tip the scales for the roguelike-curious. This is not some mild blippy-bloppy bump-fest. Cogmind's combat is electrifying, with all sorts of crunchy synthetic sound design to bolster exploding ordnance and destruction of enemies. Cogmind features the depth of the genre, with a sense of impact is often missing in action. And in this state, it feels incredibly feature-complete. Johnny Five-stars.

Empires of the Undergrowth (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Slug Disco Studios

empiresofundergrowth2

It should not have taken this long to get a game like Empires of the Undergrowth happening. SimAnt fans are a patient breed. Indeed, the social and biological traits of ants could not be a tighter fit for the RTS genre, and this game is a perfect example of inspiration dovetailing mechanics.

Players channel an entomological Dungeon Keeper of sorts in carving out a colony for their Formidecaean force, resource-gathering and defending their turf as one would expect. Bands of insectoid opponents can invade the homebase or cause havoc on the surface as troops march for food and campaigns of expansion. It's a delightful game to see in action, a microcosmic display of busyness and battling. If you're chasing something very different in theme to your usual Command & Conquering, go small.

Void Destroyer 2 (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Iteration 11

The original Void Destroyer was a fine little blend of Homeworld meets Freespace, gently spritzed with light Independence War-style newtonian physics and a twist of Borderlands comic shading. But now is Void Destroyer 2's time. Bigger and bolder.

Void D 2
The game deployed in Early Access in 2016, and having enjoyed active and indefatigable updates until now, is set to go gold sometime before the end of the year. A one-man vision, the premise of the original Void Destroyer is ratcheted up to 11 in this sequel. An open-world action-strategy, where players start small and aim big, the aim is to command and control an ever-growing fleet to capture and expand territory in a sprawling galaxy.

Play it like an RTS, delegating positions and targets, then switch to direct-control to tear it up across any of the classes and vessels in the player fleet. There's a lot to learn, and it is very much a PC gamer's game, with all sorts of systems and subsystems at the player's disposal. With an even more striking, almost Model 2 arcade board aesthetic and palette, Void Destroyer 2 is deep, dense and delicious.

Freeman: Guerrilla Warfare (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: KK Game Studio

If you're chasing a sort of Balkans blend of Mount & Blade, a masterful collision itself of kingdom management and boots-on-the-ground combat, Freeman: Guerrilla Warfare should be the first port of call. For one, that theme is few and far between, but also because Freeman is dutifully supported and highly engaging piece of strategy-action.

Freedman 2
Players build a small ragtag band of weekend warriors into a sprawling army of highly-trained, heavily-armed veterans via roaming fractured fictional lands. The flavour is as mentioned, a sort of pastiche of the former Yugoslavia. Bands of armed brigands and the forces of powerful factions vie for control over any number of settlements, forming the targets and prizes of enterprising raiders.

Each settlement can be developed to increase revenue, bolster the defence, increase trading options and harbour defence squads. Once there's a contact, either in the field or at a settlement, the game switches to a very robust, very tactical first-person shooter. Players assume command and, while getting their hands dirty via Freeman's impactful gunplay, can command as many friendly AI troops as their current stats support. It's thrilling stuff, standing toe-to-toe with the likes of ArmA.  

Freeman is an easy recommendation, even for the Early Access-shy. Despite already being feature-rich, it receives a consistent barrage of updates from its tireless developers. One of the best and most ambitious tactical strategies in the mix.

They Are Billions (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Numantian Games/Numantian Games

Billions 2

Uncle Joe had a pithy quote about quantity, and it rings true in colony sim-meets-tower defence opus They Are Billions. A wave-based onslaught has players fending off literally billions of shamblers, walling out and wailing on the infected in a bid to keep the last pocket of off-world survivors alive. It's a simple concept, and immediately accessible in its intent.

With a gorgeous caramel steampunk aesthetic, the game sings in high definition and remains a sight to see when the hordes are breaking down the walls to consume the remnants of the human colony. The colony development and management module has just enough difficulty in its economic game to keep the entire experience taut between waves. And when the waves hit, and player defences are pushed to breaking point, few games can make you sweat in quite the same way.

Driftland: The Magic Revival (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Star Drifters

Driftland 2

A collision between Netstorm and Majesty, Driftland is a spirited strategy of tectonic tactics. Players manipulate, explore and settle stratospheric landmasses in a bid to restore a fractured world via magic and conquest. Cribbing from Netstorm's emphasis on bridging for expansion and Majesty's goal-oriented delegation, Driftland deftly captures that sort of hands-off delegation that many other games trivialise with direct control. Here, it's about force autonomy backed up by a player's magic, and the cocktail is already very compelling.

With more factions to come and a spit-shining of systems before being sent skyward to full release, Driftland is already riding a strong recommendation for folks who want the RTS experience without the fiddliness, and an empire-builder without the cruft.

Parkasaurus (Steam Page)

Publisher/Developer: Washbear

Parkasaurus

We’ve all dreamed of running our own dinosaur zoo and this year we got two! While Jurassic World: Evolution caters to the hardcore dinosaur nerd with realistic (well, more realistic) dinosaurs, Parkasaurus brings the experience to the more fantastical dino fan. With pastel sauropods and dancing scientists, herbivore hats and portals to the past, Parkasaurus revels in the ridiculous premise. The art choice seems a bit strange at first but quickly grows on you and gives the world a tonne of charm. With ragdoll physics and googly eyes, the world has that same satirical silliness that made Theme Park World and Two Point Hospital so appealing.

Already packed with content and with more functionality being added with each updated (including mod support), Parkasaurus scratches the itch that hasn’t been scratched since Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis way back in 2003.

Let us know if you spot any other cool early access projects you feel deserve a shout-out - we can add them in a future update!

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