Early Access games are such a double-edged sword, right?
Conceptually, they are pretty brilliant. Games are risky projects that typically only give you a chance at profits years after development. With Early Access, you can release whatever you have handy – “Minimum Viable Product” in the gaming parlance – and gain money while you finish building out the rest of the game. Plus, sometimes you might actually get a piece of actionable feedback from the customers that changes the direction of the game. Win-win for the developer.
For me personally, Early Access games are Lose-Win at best.
I do not typically replay games. Between Humble Bundles and Epic Store giveaways and being a periodic MMO player, I have accumulated a largely insurmountable stockpile of games that makes it difficult to “justify” playing even ones I like a second time. So when I do buckle down and play an Early Access title, whatever stage of development it is in is typically the only version I experience. Which can sometimes be fine – not every game makes it out of Early Access. But many times I recognize that things are not fine, as I end up experiencing a worse version of an incomplete game that would have been a lot more fun had I waited.
There are a few exceptions to the rule. Well, one and a half: roguelikes and survival titles. Roguelikes, by their very nature, are “replayed” many times. I started playing Slay the Spire back when there were just two characters, for example, and continue(d) to play it now that there are four. Oxygen Not Included, RimWorld, and 7 Days to Die are in similar boats… that encourage or at least don’t punish re-boating.
Some survival games land further away from the roguelike spectrum and otherwise do not necessarily lend themselves towards repeated play. I have zero desire to play Valheim again, for example, until it is much closer to final release. Is there much of a practical difference between Valheim and 7 Days to Die? It’s hard to articulate, but the latter is more viscerally entertaining and a more varied experience. Both have procedurally-generated maps and such, but how many different bases are you going to create in Valheim really?
I bring all this up because a really, really want to play My Time at Sandrock. Which, you guessed it, just hit Early Access last week. A sequel of sorts to the original My Time at Portia, it has everything I want: basically being a sequel to a game I already put 108 hours into. Everything except… not being done.
What is the current state of the Early Access version?
“Early Access will begin with the single-player story model: players will be able to play some of the first act of the game’s story and have access to romance and friendship missions as we implement them.”
I can’t do it. Even if I imagined that I would pick one of the townsfolk to romance that had already been implemented, the “risk” is too great. “Risk” being uncharitably defined as making a choice that could result in a less satisfy gaming experience in the likely-only opportunity to play the game. Which is neurotic, I know, considering developers add choices to games to allow the opportunity for more people to enjoy themselves. But this brain meat is what I’m working with, so… yeah.
Incidentally, the other reason I’m bringing up this topic is because I was clued into a pre-Early Access game called Life Not Supported that’s basically Raft in space. As in, floating around and picking up space trash to build a space boat. Which reminded me that I spent 8 hours in Raft and enjoyed it and got the itch to play some more only to find that it is still in Early Access itself. And there’s a dev blog from January saying that Chapter 3 is delayed and they’ll be retooling the whole game once it comes out and I’d be better off not playing it until that occurs. At least, that’s the implication. Sigh.
I’m done with Valheim for now.
Where we last left off, I had already committed 4-5 real, prime-time, father of a 2-year old, I-should-be-sleeping hours finding and “exploring” mountain ranges bereft of silver. I had contemplated either uncovering the map with cheat codes or using an online tool to explore my world seed – somehow the latter seemed less morally questionable – but then decided against it. When you’re already this far up shit creek, you may as well keep paddling and see how much further it goes.
The answer is: seven. I explored seven mountain ranges before finding one that spawned any silver.
If we want to get technical, the first two mountain ranges were on my starting continent, and even I figured they had a low likelihood of having silver. From there, the modus operandi was to set sail towards any landmass that appeared to have a mountain on it. Luckily, you can tell from quite a distance whether there is a mountain – much farther than the tree-spawning distance, which otherwise tells you whether you’re heading for a swamp, plains, or forest. Unfortunately, all mountains have a similar skybox at range, and thus you do not know whether it’s going to be the size of those open meadow areas, or something more substantial. In my experience though (n=7), if you do not immediately see any drakes flying around, you are wasting your time at that location.
In any case, I finally hit pay-silver on mountain #7. And just like with the swamp, there were at least three separate silver nodes within about a 40m distance from one another. And one of those towers and give you the location of the boss. I had heard those were an extra layer of RNG I could potentially enjoy, but my tower had the location stone. Neat. I set up shop in the tower, moved my smelting infrastructure via portaling, and began getting my dwarf on.
Then… I was done.
The final nail were Stone Golems. As enemies, they’re fine. I had heard they took extra damage from the pickaxe, but honestly it’s way easier to just bash them with a mace and use your shield to almost negate all their attacks. The problem is that they drop Crystals. And Crystals have zero use in the game. Not “limited use” or “decorative item that grants no bonus,” I mean this is an item the devs put into their Early Access game but didn’t bother attaching to any recipe. It was a stark reminder that whatever the game is now is unfinished. Any of the frustrations I have experienced up to this point may not have been intended. The devs might have just not gotten around to it.
Suspension of disbelief: collapsed.
So now I’m off playing other, more finished games. Steam shows 46.6 hours played with Valheim, which is worlds more than I spend on 90% of the games I do end up playing. Other bloggers have already defeated the remaining bosses and still others appear ready to continue onwards past the edge of the page. Which is fine. But if there is any hope that I will feel motivated to play Valheim 6-12 months from now when it will (presumably) be more feature-complete, I had to call it. Should have called it after the swamp fiasco, honestly. But there it is.
I am still playing Valheim, off and on. I haven’t felt the need to write about it though, considering how many other bloggers are filling space with their survival narratives. How many times do you need someone to talk about taking down the 2nd boss and (initially) struggling in the Swamp biome? For a minute there, even I started to wonder whether we all entered some kind of writing prompt class and had to elaborate on the same Youtube video of someone else playing Valheim.
What I have come to understand though is that all of us playing the same game and making progress in roughly the same timeframe really puts a mirror to us as gamers. Blog posts by their very nature do this all the time, of course, but when the base experience is so austere, we can’t hide in the minutia.
In examining my own narrative though, I keep coming back to… annoyance.
The above is a map of my adventures, starting from the 2nd boss who was like two major islands away. Which is fine. Having them so far away serves as an enforcement mechanism to engage with better boats and creating portals. Which highlights how you can’t take ore with you through portals, and oh you still need to explore the Black Forest to sweep dungeons for the necessary cores. And since you drop everything on death, you have to really be on point when exploring or else you’ll have to build a new boat and sail all over again, so make sure to stop and drop a portal every so often.
The real non-fun happened after killing the 2nd boss though.
The Swamp biome is fine. It’s oppressive and dark and tough to navigate and does a real good job of highlighting how much you do not belong there. The prep work necessary before venturing in (Poison Resist, etc) is precisely the sort of things that make survival games so addicting. If you never bothered to learn what the Wet debuff means on a practical level before, you sure as hell are paying attention now. The desperate struggle to flee while both Wet and Cold, spending what precious Stamina you have left zigging and zagging to avoid Draugr arrows in your back, all while you watch with dread as Poison ticks your remaining HP away is something that I think all of us experienced in our bones.
The non-fun for me was how it took more than 5 hours of “exploration” to find a Swamp biome that even had a Sunken Crypt in the first place. I found Swamps, yes. But Sunken Crypts with their Scrap Iron is the only real reason to ever set foot in one. What I found instead were crypt-less Swamps and a world seed that is apparently 90% Plains, which is a biome two ahead of where I should be. And so I sailed and sailed and slapped portals as far apart as I dared, knowing that dying too far out would likely put an end to my playing Valheim at all.
Then this happened:
With portal “Swamp 5” I finally located a Swamp biome that actually had Sunken Crypts. Three of them. All within sight of one another. And within one such Crypt I got a read that the 3rd boss was… right next door. Next to another 3-4 Crypts.
Now, perhaps it would be too much to ask that every Swamp has a Sunken Crypt. Too formulaic. On the other hand… come the fuck on. Legitimate Swamps 1-4 were not legitimate enough, eh? I keep thinking how much my perception of the game would be different had I discovered a Sunken Crypt in the first Swamp biome I went to. Then again, maybe not, considering how I’ve clocked another 3-4 hours of “gameplay” finding and exploring Mountains that contain no Silver.
“Okay, you just don’t like exploration.” I mean… maybe? I can agonize for hours and hours in 7 Days to Die or ARK where is the ideal place to create a base. Because that sort of thing actually matters in those games. Valheim is about creating shanty towns next to resources and then portaling everywhere or white-knuckle sailing back to “home base” with a hold filled with ore. Really reminds me of Starbound and No Man’s Sky in that way – “home” is all but an abstraction, a loading screen at the end of an ever-expanding portal chain. The only real anchor in Valheim are carrots, beets, and beer, as those take a few game days produce. But, again, those be located at the ass-end of the world for all it matters.
In any case, I do not consider Valheim’s present state to be a particularly compelling argument for “exploration.” Am I literally “traveling in or through an unfamiliar area in order to learn about it?” Yes. But if procedurally-generated emptiness is what floats your boat, allow me to introduce you to No Man’s Sky, (vanilla) Starbound, and another small indie title called Minecraft.
There doesn’t have to be a treasure chest behind every waterfall, but if there are never any chests or my progress through your game is dependent upon a 10% chance of a randomly-generated waterfall spawning a chest 5% of the time, well, fuck you.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. I talked about ARK a lot before, but I sure as hell wasn’t using standard settings that would require 10 real-world hours of unconscious dino-sitting. So perhaps I uncover the Valheim map a bit via cheats (or view my world seed map) and at least note the next 5 mountain ranges of adequate size so I stop spinning my oars in the wrong direction. Because I have no problem collecting 500 whatever to do the next thing. But I have a huge problem spending the time going to the place where the whatever is supposed to be, and finding that the princess is in another castle, in a different game, and have fun playing through it all over again.
Like the rest of the world, I too succumbed to the call of Odin and bought Valheim.
But unlike the rest of the world, here’s my hot take: Valheim ain’t special.
This isn’t to say it’s bad. Valheim is indeed clever in many ways… assuming that it’s austere design is intentional, and not a result of it being an Early Access game built by two dudes. Part of that cleverness is the fact that Valheim put a tutorial inside an otherwise open-world survival game. Just think about all the other survival games out there, and how they all proudly lean into their cold opens and lack of direction. I have spawned into ARK with a level 1 character on what was supposed to be a safe(ish) beach and was immediately eaten by a raptor. That may be par for the course for survival games, but it doesn’t have to be. And so it’s no wonder that Valheim with its exclamation mark raven has hooked millions of people into an experience they don’t quite realize is about to get very survivalish.
By which I mean the tedium of resource gathering.
After killing the first boss, the player unlocks the ability to craft a pickaxe with hard, deer god antlers and otherwise move on to the Bronze Age. Which requires the exploration of the Black Forest biome to find Copper and Tin deposits, which can be smelted into Bronze that can then be crafted into better armor and weapons. It is at this stage that I realized I could have been playing ARK, Conan, No Man’s Sky, Subnautica, The Long Dark, The Forest, 7 Days to Die, State of Decay, or Fallout 76. And probably should have instead, because Valheim is incredibly basic at this level. Whereas I could tame dinosaurs to speed up resource gathering in ARK, I’m stuck sloooooooooowly collecting 20 Copper Ore at a time, bringing it back to the Smelter, and eventually turning it into Bronze. Meanwhile, you get attacked by Greydwarves every minute and a half, punctuating the tedium with a different kind of tedium. Oh, and make sure you scour every hillside on your gathering missions so you can find instanced crypts and collect enough red cubes to create your Smelter and stuff.
Seriously though, I’m reading these other bloggers and then looking at my game and wondering if they have never played a survival game before. And maybe they really haven’t. There is nothing particularly approachable about ARK (etc), especially in comparison to Valheim. But thus far, it appears all the really interesting genre innovation died with Eikthyr.
For example, a lot of hay has been made regarding how Valheim is a survival game in which you don’t actually die to starvation/thirst. Supreme innovation! But what really happens is that you trade off ignoring food at the front end to becoming obsessed with it for the rest of the game, when the opposite is true in every other survival experience. In Valheim, both your HP and Stamina meters are dictated by what food you eat, and you must eat three different varieties to keep them topped off. You can get by with just cooked meat from boars and deer in the beginning, but later generic enemies can almost one-shot you if you aren’t eating cooked meat, neck tails, and then something else like Honey or Mushrooms. That is a lot more varied farming for food than I would need in ARK or 7 Days to Die once I’m past initial hump.
I will continue on playing for a bit and see if anything fundamentally changes after defeating the second boss. Based on writings of people who have already logged 60+ hours though, it sounds like it will be more of the same with a slightly new resource. Which is literally the formula for survival games, I know. Thing is, other survival games typically have an X factor that sets them apart from one another.
As of yet, I don’t see what that is with Valheim.