The Best Early Access Strategy Games

By Alex Connolly 26 Jun 2018 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.

Early Access isn't for everyone, and there's plenty of cool projects coming in 2018. Check out our round-up of the best!

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'lve rounded up the best of them for your consideration.

Shellshock Live

Publisher/Developer: kChamp Games
Steam Page

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 pot luck 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.

Rimworld (Mods Guide)

Publisher/Developer: Ludeon Studios
Steam Page

The new Dwarf Fortress? At least, in the offworld colonies, it's a chance to begin again, in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. Or, alternatively, play social engineer and craft a complex ant farm on the final frontier.

Rimworld

Surviving a catastrophic starship crash are three colonists, and with that resilient triumvirate, players are left to begin constructing the absolute kitchen sink of colonies. Rimworld's simulation accommodates -- to quote the Steam page -- psychology, ecology, gunplay, melee combat, climate, biomes, diplomacy, interpersonal relationships, art, medicine, trade and more. That's a lot more than your average rags-to-riches frontier camping manager.

It's a game that, even shy of full release, is brimming with features that scream water-cooler story generator. The AI director throws all sorts of curveballs and spanners into the machinery of manifest destiny, so every game is totally different. With that sort of generator underpinning a limitless toybox of dreams and desires on the periphery, Rimworld receives an emphatic nod to punching that purchase button.

Cogmind

Publisher/Developer: Gridsage Games
Steam Page

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

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 materiel, 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

Publisher/Developer: Slug Disco Studios
Steam Page

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.

EmpiresOfTheUndergrowth

Players channel a zoological 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

Publisher/Developer: Iteration 11
Steam Page

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.

VoidDestroyer2

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 (Preview)

Publisher/Developer: KK Game Studio/KK Game Studio
Steam Page

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.

FreemanGuerrillaWarfare

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 defense, increase trading options and harbour defense 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. 

Maelstrom

Publisher/Developer: Gunpowder Games, LLC/Gunpowder Games, LLC
Steam Page

Argh, thar be a naval take on them Battle Royale games. Indeed, Maelstrom trades grubby firefights around barns for rolling waves and dangerous channels. Retaining the ever-contracting pressure-cooker concept of the current multiplayer zeitgeist, this fantasy fight to the depths has players sail about and cannonade their opponents for loot and score. It's solid, beautiful and a damn good time.

Maelstrom

The nitty-gritty has players choose from the current crop of three factions, and therein, three classes of customisable ships. Crew unlocks and assignments offer interesting upgrades, as well as accrued loot able to cover costs of basic ship overhauls. At the moment, it's relatively simple and doesn't offer much choice or divergence, but factional and class differences alleviate ennui.

And that Battle Royale zone contraction? Stay out of the inky swell that rolls in from the horizon. There be monsters. Seriously. In all, a delightful and competitive take on a rightfully popular formula.

They Are Billions (Preview)

Publisher/Developer: Numantian Games/Numantian Games
Steam Page

Uncle Joe had a pithy quote about quantity, and it rings true in colony sim-meets-tower defense 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 offworld survivors alive. It's a simple concept, and immediately accessible in its intent.

TheyAreBillions

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 defenses are pushed to breaking point, few games can make you sweat in quite the same way. 

Driftland: The Magic Revival (Preview)

Publisher/Developer: Star Drifters/Star Drifters
Steam Page

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.

Driftlands

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.

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

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