Welcome to the early access report , a regular round-up looking at the most interesting early access games of the moment. Here we try new alphas and revisit old ones to separate the promising gems from the bug-ravaged time wasters.
Steam's so big that it's possible for games to be forgotten, like lost civilisations cut off from the rest of the world, but a recent-ish update enables games that have been patched space on the coveted front-page. Anything can land there, as long as it's received a major update, and it works well for Early Access because they're always being updated. That's how I remembered Contraption Maker existed, and that's how a friend ended up playing Broforce and demanding I join him. I also ended up playing Centration so you don't have to.
Contraption Maker is the successor to Incredible Machine, a series that existed back in the dark ages of DOS that enabled gamers to create overly complex machines to do simple things. Think Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg: 2D physics sandboxes where you could use a football and a magnifying glass to somehow launch a rocket. Contraption Maker is from the makers of that genre-defining classic, and it's already a recognisable heir to the throne.
The idea is you have to reverse engineer each level and fill in the missing bits. Each puzzle has a a meaningless but ridiculous story to guide you to the goal. The pile of objects to the side also prod you toward the solution, though some might just be trying to confuse you. In one, there's a crocodile in the corner, a lighter on a ledge, and a cannonball, and all are linked by various pulleys, engines and treadmills. You have some bellows and a kettle. In this case you set the kettle up above the candle so steam comes out and pushes a ball onto the bellows and blows out the candle. Why? Because it was someone's birthday and you were helping to blow out the flame.
It's great fun fiddling with the physics, but my favourite thing to do is to not play it at all. In the 'Community' tab is a 'Contraptions' section, where Steam users have been building puzzles. The contraptions here don't challenge you to do anything, but you can watch as a self-solving puzzle whirrs away. Like N's Don't Do Anything levels, you get to see an amazing work of human ingenuity play out, but in this case it usually involves cats and zepplins. It has crashed more than once, but with hundreds of objects, plenty of official and user-created puzzles, and an editor, there's a lot here that's worth supporting. It's already worth your time and money.
Lurching in tone, but keeping firmly in two dimensions, brings me to Broforce . I'd skimmed over it on Early Access, but a friendly nudge from a fellow writer put it back on my radar. Why the transformation? Because Broforce though looks like a typical shooter, with a cast of cut-price heroes who closely resemble the stars of violent movies, it's actually a beautifully crafted love letter to '80s action movies. Everything explodes and there's a 'high-five' button. You start off with a fake Rambo, and as you rescue other heroes through the levels, you add to your hero pool. With each hero rescued, you take on their form. So you could start as Rambo, rescue "Bro Hard" and be blasting with a machine gun for the next ten seconds, and end up as a sword-slashing "Brade". The quick swap over means no run-through is ever the same, though it does occasionally make me lament the loss of a fun character.
It might look like an old-school shooter, but those aesthetics don't hold it back. Everything is destructible. Hmm. I need to emphasise that more. EVERYTHING collapses, crumbles, and clutters. There are, of course, piles of barrels and explosives facilitating chain reactions, occasionally firing off in a straight line and wiping everything out. It can be so busy that you might not even know what you did to set off a chain reaction that tears up half the level, but it didn't stop me from whooping. Nothing survives under concentrated fire, meaning you can burrow through the ground with bullets, and blast into rooms of enemies. I've died more times doing that, having the ground above me collapse, than I have from enemy fire, which is a bit of a problem because even though the foot soldiers are plentiful, they're not very challenging.
There's still some subtlety. I love that you climb walls by jamming knives into them, and my favourite tactic is to use the McGuyver Bro and toss his sticks of TNT onto people, using their panicked sprinting to take out other enemies. Keeping an eye out on the terrain will give you little boosts as well—there's a beehive that you can shoot that causes a swarm of the stingy buggers to set the enemies off in a panicked sprint.
There's tonnes of multiplayer challenges and co-op modes, and there's even a level editor. People are already sharing their own versions of the classic games and movies: you can already play a 2D Die Hard. It's totally worth the money.
Centration popped up last week, and I didn't need anyone to tell me it was there. I've been waiting for it for a good while. It's a first-person space station simulator, in the vein of the obsessively detailed SS13, where people on a server will "manage everything from lunch-time menus to the state of the fusion engines". It's a job sim on a space station where anything can go wrong. It'd be exciting except the economy seems to have tanked the virtual world as well as the real one: there are no jobs! There is currently no game at all. It's a tech demo of the air-flow system, and allows you to walk around flicking lights and operating doors. It has plans. Grand plans that I will get behind the day they're realised, but right now you'll get nothing back for your money.
Worth buying right now?
Contraption Maker: Yes.