Weird as it sounds, one of the greatest things about playing a really good Early Access game is not playing it. More accurately, it's about coming back to the game after a period of prolonged absence and seeing all the stuff that's changed while you were away - all the stuff that's new. My return to Vlambeer's Nuclear Throne this Christmas really felt like Christmas, and under the tree - what's this? - a Toxic Launcher, a beautiful new gun that fires the radioactive equivalent of sticky grenades. And holding it, Horror, a beautiful new hero who looks a bit like a sticky grenade himself.
Best of all, though, is yet another new hero who I'm still getting my head around. I have no idea at what point last year she was added, since Nuclear Throne is updated more regularly and more rigorously than most games. No matter: Rogue, I'm glad you're here. At least, I think I'm glad anyway.
The reason Rogue has won my heart is that she takes one of the speediest action roguelikes around, and she just cranks everything up even more. Nuclear Throne's a bit like Spelunky and a bit like Robotron: 2084. Levels are destructible and procedurally generated, but this is also a twin-stick shooter at heart: you're dropped into the middle of an irradiated wasteland filled with slobbering nasties that can't wait to eat you. Your only way through is by blasting everyone you see as they swarm and multiply - while hoping that you don't get caught in any of the explosions you may accidentally set off as you go.
That's the framework, anyway, but the twist is that the characters you play as change everything. If you're starting out, for example, I'd choose Crystal, as Crystal comes with extra health and can pull off a shield move when the density of projectiles gets a bit too oppressive. Or maybe Steroids, who can dual-wield and who, well, just looks very dependable.
Rogue lies at the absolute opposite end of the Nuclear Throne spectrum. She's a rush character who comes with a dazzling portal-strike special and armour that does explosive damage to anyone who touches her. Sounds good? Well, all that stuff's balanced out with heat.
Heat, I quickly discovered, refers to the fact that Rogue is wanted by the IDPD, a bunch of ultra-violent coppers who traditionally start to spawn in the later levels of Nuclear Throne, forcing you to immediately rethink any cautious strategies you might have been employing up until their arrival. With Rogue, though, they begin to spawn on the very first level, and the whole game receives an added jolt of adrenalin as the sirens wail and the baddies combat-roll onto the playing field.
Rogue encourages a no-blinking, straight-ahead approach from the game's first moments, in other words. You can no longer expect even the briefest of respites from carnage. Nuclear Throne's never been a particularly slow beast - although the constant ammo scarcity does make it surprisingly tactical - but with Rogue it's pretty much a blur.
And the blur never lets up. It feels like a staggeringly bold direction to take a character class in, and I suspect it's partly down to the true Early Access mentality of Nuclear Throne's designers that allows Rogue to work as well as she does. This is a game that's being made right out in the open, with developer sessions streamed on Twitch and lots of nutty ideas zinging back and forth in the comments. If anything was going to give you the courage to try out a character who threatens to change the entire pace of the experience, who promises to mess with vital aspects of balancing, it's probably this kind of creative environment.
It's easy to applaud Vlambeer for the sheer enthusiasm and work ethic with which the team has approached Early Access - really, though, it's the risks they've taken along the way that counts.