PETER HOSKIN video game review: Life on the raft is a blast

All aboard! Life on the raft is a blast: PETER HOSKIN reviews the latest video games

Strange beginnings. 2021 has certainly had one, to put it mildly. And so, too, do many video games.

I’m thinking of the world of ‘early access’. These are games that are released to the playing (and paying) public before they are actually finished — in some cases, years before — and they are often as buggy as the underside of a damp log. 

The idea is that players will act as quality control, spotting problems so they can be fixed.

As an ‘early-access’ video game, Raft has spent a lot of time near the top of PC gaming platform Steam’s early-access charts since its (sort of) release in 2018

This is a boon for smaller games developers, helping to make them money from sales — early-access games tend to be priced cheaper than traditional releases — while saving them money on internal testing.

But it’s a torment for critics. Some of the most popular games are dress rehearsals in digital form. Star ratings can be only provisional. Next month’s version might be substantially different.

A good example of all this is Raft (PC, £14.99), which has spent a lot of time near the top of PC gaming platform Steam’s early-access charts since its (sort of) release in 2018.

At first, it was as pared back as its conceit: survive the open ocean, and the attentions of a cruelly insistent shark, by reeling in flotsam and using it to make an ever more elaborate vessel. 

At first, it was as pared back as its conceit: survive the open ocean, and the attentions of a cruelly insistent shark, by reeling in flotsam and using it to make an ever more elaborate vessel

Now, after the release of a ‘second chapter’ at the end of last year, it is packed with story, incident and elegant gameplay options.

In fact, Raft is reaching the point where it’s hard to distinguish it from a full release. 

It’s a blast, particularly when played with friends and with voice-chat switched on. 

You can gather on the same raft and together, turn it into a community.

Another of the biggest early-access games, Phasmophobia (PC, £10.99), is also a communal affair — and not just because it involves communing with violent spirits. 

You and up to three others are ghost hunters, tasked with tiptoeing around dark locations and dying, one by one, in service of your trade. 

It’s quite a creepy ride, particularly when it’s experienced, as it can be, through a virtual reality headset. 

Now, after the release of a ‘second chapter’ at the end of last year, it is packed with story, incident and elegant gameplay options. It’s a blast, particularly when played with friends and with voice-chat switched on. You can gather on the same raft and together, turn it into a community

And yet, at the start of this year, it’s also weirdly comforting: social distancing doesn’t apply in these haunted spaces with your mates.

For those who prefer gaming solo, there’s always Baldur’s Gate III (PC, £49.99), which shows just how prevalent early access has become. 

This is a long-awaited sequel to two beloved fantasy games. It’s set in a realm of Dungeons & Dragons, and comes from the people who made one of the finest games of the past decade, Divinity: Original Sin II. Yet it was released, unfinished, in October.

But what does unfinished even mean? Many games get full (and full-priced) releases and still contain thousands of errors that need downloadable fixes over time. 

Against that, these early access titles are admirably honest. 

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