The Best Early-Access Games | Digital Trends

Most of the time, playing an unfinished game is cause for outrage. There have been plenty of examples where games have shipped in what some gamers called an “unfinished” state. The best-case scenario is that the developers continue working on the game to improve it, but at that point, the damage is already done. On the other hand, if given the opportunity to willingly buy a game before it is finished, gamers are almost always excited to get their hands on it.

Early-access games are one of the most powerful new tools modern games can utilize. It allows smaller development teams to get funding for their games before launching them, accumulate useful player data and feedback, and learn to make changes on the fly. For players, they get to see some experimental new games that probably wouldn’t otherwise exist and be a part of the development in a small way. Some of the best games of all time have come from an early-access model, so we’ve gathered up some of the best games currently in early access that just might be, or already are, the next massive hit.

Further reading

Darkest Dungeon 2

One of the most brutal roguelike dungeon crawlers, both in terms of difficulty and themes, was the original Darkest Dungeon. When it came out way back in 2016, there was nothing quite like it. The rough, almost sharp gothic art style perfectly captured the difficulty of taking your team of heroes into the titular dungeons to face off against eldritch horrors. This game was not for the faint of heart, with death being more than likely, and even survival not coming without a cost most of the time.

Now the sequel, Darkest Dungeon II, promises to push players even closer to the edge of madness. But there is hope for those who are careful, plan out their moves, and are willing to persevere and learn from mistakes. Right now, players can experience the first act of the game, of which the final product will have five, and experiment with nine total classes. The same basic structure appears to be in tact, with your team of four delving into the deep, dispair-filled dungeons to fight monsters, earn gold and trinkets, form bonds, and, hopefully, not lose their minds.

GTFO

GTFO logo dripping.

Sometimes the name of a game says it all. GTFO means exactly what you think it does, but is so much more than that. This is a first-person cooperative shooter where you and your teammates need to escape various levels in an underground facility known as “The Complex.” Think Left 4 Dead but with a more sci-fi twist, survival horror elements, puzzles, and enemies that are way more dangerous. The game has been in the works since 2018 and hit early access at the end of 2019.

This is not a game for casual players. Communication, teamwork, and skill are all needed if you want even a chance at making it through a single floor alive. Each member of your team can bring in a select number of weapons and tools to help you complete objectives. This game is a more tactical, stealth-oriented co-op game. Running in guns blazing, or even just failing to communicate with your team, can trigger a hoard of zombie-like creatures that will rip you apart in moments. Managing to pull together and complete an expedition, however, is a thrilling experience that will leave your heart pounding.

Phasmophobia

Scanning a room with a thermometer.

If you follow and big Twitch or YouTube gamers, odds are you are at least aware of Phasmophobia. If not, well, prepare yourself for one of the most horrifying early-access titles to sweep the internet. You play one member of a team of paranormal investigators who enter into various locations trying to capture evidence of ghosts. If you’ve ever seen one of those bad ghost-hunting TV shows, think that … only the hauntings are real. What takes this game above other first-person horror games that rely on jump scares and loud noises are all the unique ways you can interact with the game.

For the bravest of the brave, strap on a VR headset and plunge yourself into the dark corners of these haunted houses where the ghosts have no problem getting right up in your face. Unlike any other horror game before it, Phasmophobia also has the terrifying feature of voice recognition. It isn’t perfect, but the way the game reacts to you speaking out to the horrors lurking in the dark works well enough to freak you out in ways no other game ever has.

30XX

A red robot jumping on yellow platforms.

For anyone who loves the Megan Man X series, this early-access title is one to add to your list of games to watch out for. 30XX is what you would get if you combined the slick, tight, and satisfying formula of the X series with the infinite possibilities of a roguelike. This is technically a sequel to this team’s first attempt at this formula, the original being 20XX, but already, this early access look shows that they’re really upping their game. The two main characters, Ace and Nina, each offer unique gameplay styles from the start, and then things only get more fun as you collect powers and explore the always-surprising levels.

This is almost a pure gameplay experience right now, with no story to speak of. Hopefully, that changes as they keep working on it, but for now, the act of just playing is more than enough to keep you hooked. It has all the classic roguelike elements you love, from the randomized enemies, levels, and items you find to currencies you keep to upgrade your characters between runs to make it further than you did before. What’s surprising is that 30XX also has a co-op mode, local and online, as well as a level editor to share your own stages.

Valheim

A big blue Valheim Troll.

The latest early-access game to smash any expectations is another entry in the crafting and survival genre. This time set in the Norse-inspired world of the same name, Valheim rocketed to the top of Steam charts in record time. On the surface, it isn’t doing anything especially new or unique — you are still gathering resources, building bases, and crafting tools and weapons — but it has enough plot and progression hooks to make it stand out. For one, the game actually has goals in the form of bosses for you to work toward taking down.

The Viking style and world are rife with possibilities for unique enemies and environments, especially as the game gets more content added down the road. The team made the deliberate choice to keep the models in the game low detail and stylized to mimic early 3D games, but with high-quality lighting effects to create a game that runs smooth and with a distinct visual identity. Play alone or with friends in shared worlds. Either way, your character’s progress will carry over so nothing is ever wasted. If you’re a survival game fan, this is absolutely one worth jumping in on early.

Satisfactory

Two astronaunts looking at a mining base.

If you got the most enjoyment out of creating complex machines using red stone in Minecraft, then Satisfactory is going to scratch that itch of creating a perfect system better than any other game out there. As a new arrival on a distant planet, you need to construct and design factories to most efficiently plump the planet of various resources for you to craft new tools and build additional structures to even more efficiently automate your base.

There’s more to the game than just building, though. You will also explore the world for new materials, build weapons to fight strange and dangerous creatures, and create vehicles like jetpacks to get around easier. This game can be a blast to play with friends, as long as you’re all on the same page, and has meaty updates every few months that add entire systems like liquid, pumps, and piping systems. If you get a kick out of min-maxing and seeing your plans come together in a beautiful web of conveyor belts, this game is far beyond just being Satisfactory.

Temtem

Temtems frolocking in a field.

The Pokémon franchise is the highest-grossing media franchise in the world. We’re not just talking about games here either, but all media including Star Wars and Mickey Mouse. So, why is it then that there are so few modern alternatives to the Pokémon formula? Well, Temtem has arrived to try and give fans a true evolution on the addictive monster-catching and battling formula. The main new feature this game offers is one we’ve been begging for for years, and that’s being an MMO. It may not have the volume of creatures to catch as the decades-old originator, and the designs aren’t all winners, but Temtem is pushing the genre forward in all the right ways.

Most of the mechanics are ripped almost directly out of Pokémon. You collect and battle with your monsters, each with strengths and weaknesses to other types, in a turn-based battle system. Rather than just being one-on-one affairs, most battles have you pairing up your monsters against another pair. This adds just an extra bit of strategy to forming your team to complement one another and exploit the enemy team’s weaknesses. We may never get the official Pokémon MMO, but Temtem is shaping up to be a promising replacement.

Escape from Tarkov

A soldier peaking around a corner.

Do you like realistic shooters, looting, and rogue-lite elements? If so, and you don’t mind a bit of janky controls, Escape from Tarkov is one of the few games that offer that experience. Every game, you pick to either load into one of several maps with your main character or one with random equipment in an attempt to get back out with more than you lose. Most often you’ll lose your life, because this game is absolutely brutal. Each bullet you take has real and major consequences for your character, and even if you win that firefight, you might still end up bleeding out if you don’t have the items to heal yourself or can find the evac zone fast enough.

If you can overcome the initial hump of the game’s difficulty, Escape from Tarkov also has a robust system of NPC vendors and quests you can attempt. As you earn money and collect valuables on your runs to sell, you can purchase new and better equipment to help survive your next run. Die on the field, however, and all that loot is lost. It may sound frustrating, and most of the time it is, but it is also undeniably addicting for FPS fans who like a bit of realism in their games.

Baldur’s Gate 3

A party looting a dead body.

It sounds strange to list the third installment of one of the most beloved RPGs of all time as an early access game, but here we are. Baldur’s Gate 3 is in the hands of a new developer for the series, Larian Studios, who previously launched the incredibly well-received Divinity Original Sin games. While we all have good reason to think they are the perfect team to take the reins on this classic series, being able to get our hands on it early is more than welcome.

One of the key differences in how this team is handling early access is the rollout. What you can get and play now is not a build of the entire game, but a beginning portion. As development goes on, and feedback is taken, more chapters in the story will be added until early-access players eventually have the complete game. In a way, it is almost an episodic release as well as early access. So far, fans have been very happy with how immersive and adaptive the game is to actually role-playing and making meaningful choices. This is going to be a massive game, and there’s no reason not to dive in early.

Townscaper

A red, white, and blue town in an ocean.

So far most of the games listed have been more on the hardcore side, but there are plenty of more chill early-access games. While Minecraft is the go-to option when most people think of building games, Townscaper offers a new way to just sit back and build a charming little town. Thanks to the way the system works, it is basically impossible to make something ugly, and the near lack of any restrictions on objectives or overly complicated mechanics make it a no-brainer to boot up after a long day. It is almost all mouse-controlled and very intuitive to get started within seconds.

This is a game with no overarching goals or objectives to meet except for the ones you set for yourself. It is better described as a toybox than a traditional game. Unlike a game like Minecraft, though, you don’t have to spend hours, or days, creating an idyllic little island town with multiple houses, towers, and fields. You can make it all in just a few minutes, or spend longer if you want to go a little deeper with it, but it is all up to you and your own imagination.

Dyson Sphere Program

A base being built on a red planet.

The newest game on this list is another wildly ambitious one. Any game that lists itself as a “sci-fi simulation game with space, adventure, exploration, and factory automation elements where you can build your own galactic industrial empire from scratch” certainly has a lot to live up to. Dyson Sphere Program, at least so far, has somehow managed to pull off just about everything it is setting out to do. Your objective in the game is to create the titular Dyson Spheres, theoretical structures that could be built around stars to gather their energy, in order to save humanity. Naturally, building something like that from scratch is going to take a lot of work.

Each game will set you loose in a procedurally generated universe full of planets and stars. You will quickly set up operations on multiple planets for their unique resources, creating supply chains and production lines across solar systems. There is a bit of exploration here as you scout planets and stars, but the main thrust of this game is all about designing the perfect interstellar factory. From a tiny five-person development team, this is absolutely looking like one of the best space-management games of the year.

Totally Accurate Battle Simulator

Mamoths attacking cavement.

If you ever wanted a game that replicated the days when you would pit your dinosaur toys up against your robot action figures, then you will have an absolute blast with Totally Accurate Battle Simulator. This is another perfect game to just sit back, chill, and laugh at the outrageous events you set up. There are currently 12 factions in the game that range across time periods and themes, such as Tribal, Medieval, Pirate, Western, and Spooky, and each has its own set of units you can watch battle it out. The game runs on a ragdoll physics engine that makes even the basic movement of units worth a chuckle, let alone the flailing chaos that occurs when they clash.

You can challenge yourself in the campaign mode where you are given a faction and a limited amount of cash you can spend on various units to try and beat increasingly difficult levels of set enemy squads. Or, if you just want to see how many painters it would take to overwhelm a Minotaur, jump into the sandbox mode. Here you are free to set up both sides of the battle with whatever units you want and watch them tear each other apart. It is a simple game, mechanically and visually, but perfect for bringing that experience of bashing your toys together to life.

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