Survival games in Early Alpha on Steam are a long-running gag, thanks to the notoriously lengthy development of Ark: Survival Evolved and perennial alpha-updater 7 Days To Die, so when newest survival darling Valheim broke out last month on Steam Early Access, you might be tempted to think it's more of the same.
You'd be very, very wrong though. With a 95% positive rating out of just over 150,000 reviews, more than five million copies sold, and more than 15,000 years of playing time logged in just over a month, Valheim seems to have caught fire in ways that few other survival games really have, and for good reason.
Having tried my hand at everything from Minecraft to Ark to Rust, and having put in just over 600 hours into 7 Days To Die, I can say that there is something fundamentally different about Valheim.
I've personally put in close to 100 hours into the game and I haven't even made it to the third boss yet. I honestly haven't felt this compelled to play a game in a long time, so much so that I've barely touched my brand new PS5 since I downloaded Valheim. In a lot of ways, this game has no right being as good as it is, but the five-person team at Iron Gate Studio has put out a real banger with this one - and they're just getting started.
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The level of polish on Valheim is way higher than its pricetag suggest
For just $20 / £15 / AU$ 29, Valheim is still in Early Access, meaning it technically isn't a complete game. There are features that have yet to be implemented, and Early Access titles are the kinds of games where you can be walking along and suddenly fall through the world map for no reason or find your save files corrupted and not know why.
In my entire time playing Valheim, I have yet to come across a single, easily identifiable bug. Sure, there are things that don't seem to have a purpose yet - your chests are going to fill up with "trophies" from the various biome enemies pretty quick since they largely don't have much purpose, save for one or two specific examples.
But the overall level of stability of the game is the kind of thing normally reserved for full retail releases, not early access. There are likely to be issues that pop up as the development progresses, but so far, we aren't seeing the kinds of chronic connection or game engine problems that we've been dealing with in Ark or 7 Days, largely because those problems are rooted deep into the elementals of the games themselves and so become incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to fix.
The enemy AI can be a bit wonky at times and your campfire might go out and you don't really know why, but the overwhelming consensus from the community is that the foundation of Valheim is extremely solid, which bodes very well for the game's development going forward.
The lore and world design are phenomenal
I was about 60 hours into the game, hauling some core wood in a cart through a thunderstorm while fending off a gang of greydwarves when I first caught the Allfather being his creepy, all-seeing self on a nearby hill.
Donned in a hooded robe and carrying a tall walking stick, the dark, mysterious figure has been scaring the crap out of Valheim players for a few weeks now. There's no official word on who this shadowy, disappearing-as-soon-as-you-approach figure actually is, but it has to be Odin, known in Norse mythology for donning a robe and going on long, solitary journeys through the realms in pursuit of wisdom or mischief.
Experiencing such an encounter in-game genuinely made me sympathetic to actual ancient Norse and Germanic peoples who probably saw all kinds of shadowy things moving about in the nearby forests out of the corner of their eye and got freaked out thinking that their chief pagan deity was watching them and they had no idea why.
This mix of menace and mysticism through the shadowy, disappearing Odin is a small touch, but it's incredibly effective and immerses you in the game's world and lore in brilliant fashion. It's also just one of several, so as the game develops, I'm looking forward to many more similar encounters to further draw me into the 10th world.
Valheim's modding community has already hit the ground running
Getting mods to work with Valheim takes a little bit of work, especially finding the right version of BepInEx that Valheim will properly load, but once you get it working, installing mods is as simple as copying a DLL file into BepInEx's plugin directory.
Nexus Mods already has dozens of mods that implement new gameplay features, tweak settings, add prefabbed buildings like castles to your game, and even implements first-person perspective. Nearly all of the mods create easy to edit configuration files after they're run for the first time, which adds considerable customizability to your modded game experience.
Some of the mods are more useful than others and some are downright game-breaking in their effects, but with all that the base game has to offer already, the ease with which modders can extend the gameplay in different ways means that the game's community is set up to evolve in all kinds of exciting and dynamic ways, thanks to the game's underlying stability. Even while running three dozen mods, I didn't experience a single Crash-To-Desktop, a familiar ordeal for anyone who has experience playing around with mods for games like Skyrim, Fallout 4, and others.
With so much to do already with a game so fresh out of the game development kiln, it's enough to make me love the survival genre all over again and keep coming back to the world of Valheim for many more months to come.
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John (He/Him) is the Components Editor here at TechRadar and he is also a programmer, gamer, activist, and Brooklyn College alum currently living in Brooklyn, NY.
Named by the CTA as a CES 2020 Media Trailblazer for his science and technology reporting, John specializes in all areas of computer science, including industry news, hardware reviews, PC gaming, as well as general science writing and the social impact of the tech industry.
You can find him online on Threads @johnloeffler.
Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 (just like everyone else).