Early access has been around for some time now, and it's become such a commonplace way for developers to bring their games to market that we've even seen versions of it creep into the console space with the semi-recent launch of Microsoft's Game Preview program on Xbox One. Lots of games do it, from the big MMOs that take forever to get to version 1.0 through to the plucky indie roguelikes that get iterated on over years before their meticulous creators consider them content complete.
It was in early access on Steam that the battle royale genre was born, in the sense that PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds got its start there. Indeed, most of these last-player-standing games seem to land nearly-finished and still in development, and the latest combatant to enter the arena, Fear the Wolves, is another case in point. Early access is clearly a natural fit for these kinds of experiences, although it's also fair to say that since the likes of PUBG and Fortnite basically took over the gaming world, the stakes have been raised somewhat, and as this brand of open house development continues to mature there's a growing demand from players to get polished experiences, even if they're work-in-progress.
That puts Fear the Wolves into a somewhat tricky position because while it's undoubtedly a promising open-world battle royale first-person shooter with some really interesting mechanics, it has landed in early access in the kind of state that has us worried about its long-term prospects. Maybe had it launched two years ago back before PUBG and Fortnite happened, we may well be singing a different tune, but after spending a few hours in its company following the Early Access launch in late August we can see that there's a long road ahead for Vostok's shooter.
First, though, let's tell you all about the good stuff, as there are plenty of positives. For starters, there's the game's setting and the way that it feeds into the gameplay mechanics. We're big fans of games that draw us into the theme with clever mechanics and in Fear the Wolves the players are dropped into an irradiated Chernobyl filled with packs of howling wolves and aggressive players. Instead of being chased down by a wave sent after you by the gods, here the radiation becomes more powerful in certain areas of the map, and if you stick around in these areas for too long you'll eventually start getting ill. There's no shrinking circle to contend with here, as instead the radiation spreads across tiles on the map, with huge chunks of the world becoming increasingly deadly over time.
The variable radiation levels provoke exploration, however, we found that as we ventured further into the world we encountered regular dropped frames and plenty of texture pop-in. Not only that, but many of assets used to decorate the playspace are overused, and we noted several identical environmental objects placed too close together on the map, something which certainly made them feel less exciting to explore. The scenery is just a backdrop though, and you'll spend more time looking for the pockets of radiation sprinkled all over the map, retreating from them when the ominous click of your Geiger counter starts to speed up.
Of course you can circumvent the worst effects of that pesky radiation by wearing a hazmat suit, which you'll find in pieces left in rooms all around the world, and like all battle royale games, the stuff's just laying around, strewn all over the place with no real method to the item placement madness. Given the added importance of finding this gear in Fear the Wolves, the formulaic approach they've opted for feels like a missed opportunity and we'd have loved more naturalistic scavenging, whether that be searching areas where that kind of equipment might be realistically found, or from picking items off of dead bodies found in the world. Sounds grizzly, but it would've been thematic and, as we mentioned earlier, we like that kinda stuff.