2011 was an amazing year for indie games. Huge releases seemingly every week, discounts all over the place, bundles, addons, expansions and general greatness upon greatness. However, gears were set in motion in the final months of last year ensuring that the first few months of this one might well bring us some of the best games of 2012. Here’s a few personal picks to keep an eye on in 2012, many of them available as public alpha builds at the moment.
Airmech – I previewed the latest alpha build of this one a few months ago – finding a whole lot to like – and it has only gotten better since then. A modern update of the classic Tecnosoft arcade-action/RTS hybrid Herzog Zwei, it’s primarily a competitive multiplayer (or Vs bots) game where you control a Macross-esque transforming jet/mech capable of fighting on the frontlines, or airlifting your factory-produced drone armies in the the field to capture bases and advance your way across the map.
While the core gameplay is almost unchanged from Herzog Zwei, everything else has been expanded on, with a variety of Advance Wars-esque characters to play as, a good variety of mechs to pilot, and your personal selection of units is entirely up to you, with new vehicles, soldiers and robots unlocking over time, and becoming available to buy with points you earn in your battles with other players. They’re currently planning a League Of Legends style free-to-play business model, too, which should lead to a lot of casual interest in the game.
Project Zomboid – We’re all sick to death of zombies. They’ve been one of the most overplayed elements of the past two years, so a zombie game is going to have to do something absolutely spectacular in order for me to feature it in my most-wanted list here. Project Zomboid might just manage it. PZ is aiming to be something different – it’s a proper survival-horror RPG following all the rules of classic zombie films. Death can come quickly and violently, survivors will screw each other over, and there’s no hope of ‘winning’ – only prolonging the inevitable.
It’s grim stuff – you try to secure houses against the undead horde, scavenge for food and resources when you can, and avoid rather than confront your enemies. When even the alpha build opens with ‘This is the story of how you died’, you get the feeling you’re looking at something special. You can preorder it for cheap over at Desura, and while the current build is a little bare-bones in terms of content, the next major build looks amazing, giving NPCs a level of freedom and agency that I’ve seldom – if ever – seen.
T-17 Tanky – Not heard much about this one since I wrote a preview earlier in the year, and the alphafunding effort for it fell short by three quarters of the hopeful $1000 it sought to raise. Fingers crossed that this project is still continuing, because I had a ton of fun with the alpha preview build. It’s a realistic tank sim for the rest of us. All the physics, shell deflection, 5km engagement ranges and quirks of realistic armored warfare but with none of the slog to get to the fun part.
It’s also very silly, telling the story of a nation of small nation of cute cartoon birds, armed with a handfull of advanced US-inspired tanks on loan, fighting against a seemingly numberless horde of watermelon-stealing rats in their cheap Russian knockoff tanks. Later plans for the game include a Mount & Blade-esque persistent campaign mode. Something I’m greatly looking forward to – those rats will rue the day they ogled my melons!
Starfarer – Possibly the game I’m most looking forward to over the next few months. Despite still being early in development – the current build still being Alpha – I’ve put more time into this than a lot of $50 blockbusters. A sci-fi action/strategy blend with a very solid heavyweight combat engine more than a little reminiscent of the Freespace games. Hull plates are visibly burnt off by laser fire, reactor breaches result in screen-filling blinding explosions and cannons make satisfying thumpy noises.
Like several other games, this plans to include a persistent galaxy-roaming campaign mode, but is just a series of standalone missions at this point. Very fun missions, though. It’s the AI that really steals the show in this one. While you control your flagship directly with simple shooter-style controls, you only have indirect control of your fleet. You’re an admiral, passing orders down to your captains, rather than micromanaging every maneuver.
Tell your fleet that you need two enemy ships sunk, and they’ll split into two intelligent combat groups and engage the enemy with a great degree of care and survival instinct – it’s almost unheard of, but you can really trust in your AI friends to behave competently and intelligently in this one. Apparently captain personalities (cautious, defensive, psycho, etc) are going to be a major RPG-esque element in the campaign mode, too. One to watch. You can preorder and get alpha access for $10 now.
Stardrive – We looked at this one earlier this month. A similar setup to Starfarer in a lot of ways – direct flagship control, light shooter gameplay, customizable fleets – but instead applies these elements to a realtime 4X strategy game, with you using your flagship to support the efforts of your entire civilization in their quest to conquer the galaxy.
You design your ships (albeit using pre-defined hull shapes), customize your own species, colonize planets and fight the remnants of some ancient civilization that buggered off into space, but forgot to clean up after themselves, leaving automated defenses in a great many star systems. The current alpha build is pretty lightweight and contains quite a few amusing placeholder items (the current alien races are entertainingly copyright-infringing… I hope we can mod them back in at launch), but it shows a lot of potential.
Xenonauts – The great white hope for X-Com fans, a group largely furious over a planned re-imagining of their favorite turn-based strategy series as a 1950s first-person shooter. This is a back-to-basics spiritual sequel, expanding in some ways on the template set by the Gollop Bros’ classic back in 1994, but largely sticking to it’s guns. Despite a move from 90s comicbook excess in the aesthetic to a more late 80s/early 90s ‘tail-end of the cold war’ style, this looks like it retains most of the elements that defined the originals.
Putting you in the shoes of the commander-in-chief of a covert military force trying to defeat a seemingly unbeatable alien invasion in a very asymmetrical war, you choose where to build bases around the world, what cities to defend, and which of your unlucky grunts to send storming out of the transport planes and into the line of fire first. It looks like a remarkably faithful update so far. My main concern at this point is whether it can do enough to really differentiate it from the original, which is still being supported by fans to this day.
Legend of Grimlock – Purest, darkest, most delicious nostalgia in concentrated form. If you grew up playing dungeon crawls like Dungeon Master, Eye of The Beholder, Lands of Lore or others, you’ll know what I mean after seeing that trailer above. A truly old-school first-person dungeon crawl updated to modern spec, but remaining deeply true to the original design awaits sometime early this year. I can’t wait to get my hands on a review copy.
It’s resolutely old-school. Movement is square-based, your entire party are unseen aside from portraits and inventory screens, and combat is a matter of realtime maneuvering and timing attacks and spells when enemies get within striking distance. It’s a nearly-forgotten kind of gameplay, and seeing it updated with deliciously detailed modern graphics and an already-hummable soundtrack seems like a solid direction to go. You can’t preorder this one yet, but the developers are shooting for a Steam release soon.
Survivors of Ragnarok – Still too early to really judge on this one, but it has enormous potential. While this strategy/city-building game claims to primary be inspired by Minecraft and Dwarf Fortress, it personally reminds me more of Diggers. Really charming sprite art and a solid design have me quite excited for how this one can develop. Command your happy little dwarves to dig, mine, harvest, build, fortify and stab goblins. It’s all familiar stuff, but cute and accessible.
Interestingly, the closest rival this one might have is also available for preorder on Desura – Towns – another game taking the Dwarf Fortress concept and simplifying it for easy access. I must say, though, the aesthetic-led design of Survivors has gotten my attention. Those sprites are just so darn cute! It also wins my early-2012 award for ‘Game with a title that sounds most like a metal album’.
Dragon Commander – At the very upper tiers of what could be considered indie (they still describe themselves as such, though), small-ish Belgian studio Larian are most notable for the Divinity series of RPGs which peaked in 2010 with the release of Divinity 2: Dragon Knight Saga, one of my favourite games of that year. Dragon Commander is part prequel, part spinoff. Set long before the events of Divinity 2, it’s a part RPG, part shooter, part strategy blend that puts you in the shoes (occasionally) of a Dragon Knight – a powerful warlord with a flying fortress who can lead from the front lines by transforming into a giant dragon with a jetpack.
From what I’ve seen and heard of this one, it could well be one of the surprise hits of this year. The RPG and grand strategy elements play out in turn-based fashion, ala the Total War series, while combat happens as an action-RTS, with you directing your fleets around while you jet around, strafing enemies with fireballs. It also looks to share the same wickedly anarchic sense of humor that Divinity 2 was praised for in quite a few reviews. It also looks beautiful, and you play as a giant fire-breathing dragon with a jetpack. What’s not to like?
While not nearly everything I’m looking forward to in 2012, this is a rather impressive tip of the iceberg, and a good sign that we’re looking at a very impressive year of gaming, indie or otherwise. So, what are your most anticipated releases this year? Spill your brains in the comments box below.