Well, perhaps I wouldn’t go that far. But nonetheless, taking the plunge on a new game at such an early stage in its development is a wholly unprecedented step for me. I’ve always been staunch in my refusal to throw down money for a game that is not yet ‘done’, but the tripartite combination of an intriguing concept, a plethora of positive Steam reviews, and the fact that I had a friend already playing was enough – at least on this occasion – to change that.
More or less since its Steam inception back in 2013, the concept of Early Access is one that I have looked on with a fair amount of derision. Broadly speaking, I have always taken umbrage at the idea of paying for an unfinished product often lacking a clear indication of when (if ever) it will make the jump from ‘work in progress’ to ‘finished product’. Starbound, to name just one example, took two and a half years to get there, a development cycle long enough for my interest to be piqued and then fade completely as I waited, waited, and waited for the real thing to arrive.
Consideration must also be given to the very real risk of less scrupulous developers gradually taking their feet off the pedals as development wears on: after all, if they already have your money, what genuine imperative is there to even continue working? This is a phenomenon for which there already exists a significant body of evidence, and one need only look at the brilliant (read: completely abhorrent) minds behind city sim Towns to see it in action. The three-man team were all too happy to collect somewhere in the region of $3,000,000 from eager backers, before bowing out and handing the reins to a third party in 2014. Three months later, the project was abandoned completely.
That said, however, I’m not going to sit here and claim that the Early Access model is one completely without merit. When done properly, with a dev team that treats it as a serious opportunity to shape their work based on input from a motivated player base, then the end result is better for everybody involved. Oftentimes, games will launch on Early Access at a lower price point, rewarding those willing to tolerate flaws and provide constructive feedback by easing the strain on their wallets. And there are, of course, plenty of success stories to look at: Kerbal Space Program, Don’t Starve, and Prison Architect are just three of the myriad titles to have made it through the gauntlet and come out better for it.
On, then, to Tower Unite. The game is a standalone sequel to a popular Garry’s Mod game mode from back in the day, although having never played that I prefer to think of it as Habbo Hotel on the Unreal Engine. You join a central hangout built around an enormous tower block, and you can partake in a number of activities with everyone else on the server. There are a number of official servers (capped at 64 players at the time of writing), with the tools for hosting your own dedicated server available for free on the Steam store. The current build, retailing at £10.99 (a price that is apparently fixed whether you buy during EA or not) is version 0.1.9.1, with the devs aiming to launch for real around the end of the year.
Having put in just over seven hours, my broad conclusion is that this is absolutely an Early Access game and, as such, there isn’t a great deal to say. Substantive content is pretty thin on the ground, with most things cordoned off as ‘coming soon’. Visually speaking, the dev team has done a great job of showing what Unreal 4 is capable of, but we’re currently operating at Just Cause 3 levels of optimisation as technical issues and a general lack of polish abound. Beyond that, the tools for decorating your condo are unnecessarily fiddly and required some button remapping before being properly usable.
These are all legitimate qualms, but make no mistake: I knew coming in that this wouldn’t be perfect, and looking at how the game has changed since its April 2016 launch is enough for me to have faith that the developers will get this stuff ironed out. On top of that, the small parts of TU that are closer to being ‘complete’ show a lot of promise. There’s a simple yet highly enjoyable trivia game that really scratches the old X360 1vs100 itch, and it’s powered by a dynamic question database that players can add to. The casino area is always densely populated with players enjoying a number of different gambling-themed minigames, and the bowling – despite being a little rough around the edges – is definitely good for a laugh.
Where TU really shines in its present state, however, is a mini-golf game that, barring the occasional frustrating camera glitch, is seriously good fun. There are six full 18-hole courses that look absolutely fantastic and offer a great deal of variety in both theming and difficulty level; playing a full game with five or six other players can be a fiercely competitive and wholly enjoyable experience. If, over the remainder of the year, the team at PixelTail can iron out the rough patches and get the rest of the game to the same level of polish, then I have no doubt that they’ll end up with a finished product that draws its fair share of praise.
Tower Unite might currently be just about as Early Access as Early Access can be, but the foundations are there. The developers look to be working pretty hard to deliver on a pretty extensive list of promises, and the Steam reviews suggest that they’re honouring the legacy of the GMod original. I’m not going to be making a habit out of buying Early Access, but on this occasion I certainly don’t regret giving them my £11.