EA SCOUT the last line of defense for buying on Steam's Early Access
by Sergio Brinkhuis
previewed on PC
Some games seem to spend an awful lot of time in Early Access. There are a few that have been there for an eternity and should simply be referred to the Vapourware bin *cough*DayZ *cough* so that we don’t have to cross paths with them again. Seriously, someone put that game out of its misery.
Clockwork Empires hurled itself onto Steam almost two years ago to the day. I left it to percolate for a good six months before I jumped on the bandwagon. When I did, I found a charming, tongue-in-cheek survival game that didn’t take itself too seriously. Its premise was simple: found a colony in an unknown land wrought with danger and make your colonists thrive against the odds. Complete with a non-traditional Victorian setting and off-beat aesthetical style, Clockwork Empires promised to take everything its peers did and turn it upside down.
Two years down the line, the game is still an odd ducky. That may sound like a complaint, but it is the very reason why it has stayed on my radar for all this time. The recent Beta 53 (count ‘m) update triggered another look at the game.
Where we’re at
The devs have not been twiddling their thumbs these past two years, but they’ve also not made the progress that you would have expected to be made over such an extended period. The game performs a little better – though I suspect it will never be a particularly smooth ride - and I am glad to report that the frequent crashes have disappeared.
The UI has been improved several times over the course of the game’s development. Many objects now come with a description that gives you some clue as to what is needed to create them but manufacturing of some of the more complicated items can still be confusing. The fiddly graphical style of the menus and objects doesn’t help – a lot of it is “over designed”, with too much detail being added into too small a space. It adds confusion to an already very crowded and potentially overwhelming menu system. Often, design is chosen over function, creating a bit of a barrier for getting to know what is what.
Most of the old bugs have been squashed but new ones have arrived to plague both the player and colonists. Objects on the map aren’t always being picked up by workers – raw bird meat being a repeat offender – and ordered objects occasionally remain under permanent construction phase, waiting for materials that you can see you have in stock. A much-requested tutorial was added some time ago but I got stuck in it at some point despite having fulfilled the requirements. A rather shocking one involves the new upkeep feature which was added in this latest build. Beds, ovens, workbenches, everything needs maintenance, which requires a steady stream of repair trunks that are created by your carpenters. It is one more thing to worry about, but more worryingly it doesn’t always work. My cooking crew saw their kitchen go up in flames because no one came to do maintenance. They’d rather look at the trunks sitting in the storage area than pick them up and take them to the kitchen.
A better colony
So far, the improvements have been a mixed bag, but there are some that are outright great. Events pop up on a regular basis. These mini-quests often give you a hand in how they should be handled. When your colonists start turning into Fish People, for instance, you can investigate and then decide whether to take action or not to dabble in things you do not fully understand. I’ll not divulge the various outcomes, but the impact of your choices are felt.
Some of the more puzzling mechanics have been fixed. For example, the latest update makes immigration easy to understand: build houses and workers will come. Build better houses and overseers will come. Luckily, building them and filling them with furniture is also a lot less frustrating undertaking than it was 18 months ago. And Fish People aren’t all bad – there is a reasonable chance you can coexist for a period of time – a very welcome change.
Clockwork Empires is close to becoming a complete and playable game but it’s not there yet. It feels as if the developers are on a very iterative path, adding new features to see how they work out and removing others after deciding they didn’t. I feel a lack of focus, perhaps almost a fear to complete the game. As long as you add and remove, you can hide behind the game being incomplete.
On the positive side, the developers are active in the community, they’re listening and they’re releasing updates with great regularity. Things are moving forward, just not as fast as you would expect. And in that I am a little disappointed. With no end to development in sight, I have to maintain my original ”Watch” recommendation.
The game has potential, but we're not ready to jump in with both feet. If the game interests you, look, but don't touch - yet.