In checking up on the affecting and devastatingly difficult The Long Dark, and the underwhelming Stranded Deep, I ran into the same issue. After many months, I returned to these early access survival sims to find the same silly, easily fixed issues persisted, despite enormous great chunks of new game being added in. Not so with The Forest [official site]. This is a game that, each time I go back, seems to have leapt leagues forward. Although, to be fair, it's somehow been over a year since I last delved into this part-serene, part-terrifying world. Gosh, it's good.
The Forest was there first with its plane crash opening, before Stranded Deep did something almost exactly the same. Except in The Forest, after an effective and dramatic unscheduled descent, you watch what is presumably your son get taken away by a strange, pallid-skinned tribesman. Once on your feet, there's a fire axe to grab, the remains of the plane to pick through, and a forest to explore. But you're not alone.
A year ago (how can it possibly be last August that I was last playing it - can someone please stop spinning the clock hands forward so quickly?) this meant a game in which your every moment was spent in constant terror of sudden attack from these strange locals. You could be merrily getting on with the business of building yourself an unlikely log cabin, when suddenly screaming naked lunatics clobber you from behind. It worked - it created a sense of dread. But it also never felt quite right considering the efforts that were going into letting you otherwise focus on survival.
There's still danger. Those odd folks are very much still around. There are more of them, if anything, walking in groups, hanging around creepily, and worst of all, standing in a semi-circle around your camp, just staring. But their desire to attack seems much reduced. In fact, on the couple of occasions where one has let loose a blood-curdling cry (really, it makes me squirm and panic, leaning in closer to the screen as I search around for them, frantically looking for routes toward my fire), when I've found them they've been crouched down, trembling, making a peculiar gurgling noise. They didn't hit me, so I haven't hit them. I'm sure they're building up to something, but for now we're leaving each other alone.
Which affords me time to build a medicine cabinet! There are some rather pleasingly silly inclusions in The Forest's magic book of crafting templates. Because you'll quickly fill your inventory with sticks, rocks, pill bottles and cans of pop, it's nice to have somewhere to put a few down. Although quite why the enormous medicine storage can only cope with five pill bottles I'm not entirely sure. My shelves of snacks manage a slightly better twelve spaces. In fact, the area around my campfire is beginning to look a bit like an open-air corner shop.
The customisable building options have greatly expanded, letting me build treehouses, rope bridges, even a gazebo! I've deforested the surrounding area and have a completely useless gazebo! You can also build a houseboat, apparently, which seems like another ambition to keep in mind. And right now I'm working on my treehouse. The other form of crafting, taking place by experimentally combining items in your inventory, has also become more elaborate, letting you create a range of weapons, tools and equipment.
But wait, what? I'm stranded in the forest and I've got so many pill bottles that I'm complaining about shelf storage? Yes indeed, the strangest bug of The Forest still persists, with the endlessly spawning suitcases by the crashed plane. Return after a bit and all the ones you'd previously opened are gone, and a brand new collection of brightly coloured cases will have apparently fallen out the sky. As bugs go, it's a very useful one, assuring you have plentiful meds, drinks and choccy bars, but still, odd that it's still there.
The other wonderful bug that remains, and thank goodness or I'd be distraught, is the one that causes some objects to fly up into the air when you approach them. Cardboard boxes, especially, will bounce around merrily on the beach, providing me much entertainment. Don't fix this one, Endnight, please!
Oh, and there is so much more wildlife. Birds land on my shelter (well, almost, they're currently a bit floaty), while raccoons and squirrels gambol around me, and deer tentatively trot between the trees. There are still the lizards, rabbits and turtles, although all seem to have been dramatically improved, looking damned real. In fact, the graphics generally seem to have taken a huge step forward, with the game looking almost photo-realistic at moments. It's a phenomenal achievement using Unity, and you can really see the visual effects skills the team brought with them from the film industry.
And it remains the best tree cutting game in all of history. Last week's update promised big improvements here, and gosh, they deliver. When it works, there's such a real sense of your swing deciding the position of the cut, and the trunk chips away very satisfyingly. That the tree SPROINGS into individual logs once it hits the ground does end the illusion rather abruptly, but is awfully convenient.
I've not looked at the multiplayer mode, because screw having someone else spoil my forest, but it appears from the patch notes that huge steps have been taken here since the initial launch last November. Including great lines like:
"(multiplayer) Fixed mutant babies disappearing for clients when they die"
While there is obviously concern over the way some early access games are handled with regards to updates, no such issues arise with Endnight. The team are releasing significant updates every fortnight, each coming with both new content like buildings, crafting items, and animals, as well as deeply detailed bug fixes and tweaks. With over one and half million copies sold, there's a huge audience out there, and they seem to be working their butts off improving the game for them/us. What's more, they seem to have perfected the food/water need timing, making it feel necessary and of concern, without going down ridiculously fast, or being such an incessant nagging priority that you don't ever get to play the game.
The Forest has become something really stunning. While there's still no story to speak of, there's a good deal to build, customisable buildings meaning you can create your own vast forts, and of course the deeply creepy mysteries of the strange folk, their mutant babies, and being imprisoned in their hideous caves. This is early access done superbly, and the resulting game is rather special.