In this week’s Early Access checkup, I’ll be taking a look at Medieval Engineers, a sandbox building and physics simulation game first released for Early Access in February 2015. The game has two main focuses: using stone blocks to build castles, or using handful of mechanical pieces to assemble siege engines and knock those castles down. It’s playable in both creative and survival modes, the former allowing free-form building while the latter adds resource gathering and crafting elements.

In creative mode, the player can fly anywhere, detach and control the camera, and has tools to modify the terrain. While the potential for creativity here is huge, it faces a rather large stumbling block in the form of the in-game tools the player has available to do their construction. In either the first and third person camera, I found both selecting existing blocks or accurately placing new ones challenging. There is a grid-snap that can be enabled or deactivated, but when it’s on the pieces often refuse to place at all, while turned off it becomes very hard to line things up.

The problems are even more obvious with the siege engines. Unlike the normal stone blocks that can be set up more or less any way that gravity will support (assuming you turn it on), the special mechanical pieces work in very particular ways. I spent about an hour struggling with getting the right pieces to fit together in the right way to build a basic catapult before giving up and importing one of the pre-made ones and using it to chuck some rocks at some likewise pre-made structures. Even then, the result was underwhelming. The catapult needed to be at point blank range to hit anything, making me wonder about the underlying physics simulation.

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Then there’s the survival mode. In this, the player gets to run around and chop wood or mine stone to build the various blocks and pieces needed to build all of the above structures. There’s also some basic weaponry, health, animals and food. The idea is to build defenses against either AI barbarians that occasionally spawn or to hold off player run sieges.

But the whole thing is extremely primitive and more than a bit disjointed, and I imagine the building itself is far too slow and awkward to happen in real-time during a competitive multiplayer game (especially if someone is going to run up and whack you with a club while you’re trying to line up a block). Unfortunately, I couldn’t test this because none of the servers had anyone online, a bad sign for the game.

During its time in Early Access, Medieval Engineers has enjoyed a fairly typical patch schedule, with several revisions a month between major patches and bug fixes. The content updates have largely focused on adding new construction pieces (including all the special parts necessary for siege engines) or on the survival mechanics.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much focus on interface improvement, the area of the game I found the most unpolished. There are a number of patches related to physics, but most of these seem to address specific glitches and obvious bugs, and ignore the fact that the catapult only shoots twenty or thirty feet. I’m not sure how an issue as central as this can go unaddressed.

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Medieval Engineers faces a challenge common to nearly all 3D games with building elements. It takes the extremely involved process of video game level design, one normally done in professional CAD software, and tries to make a game of it with much simpler controls. For comparison, Fallout 4 drew ire for essentially the same problem with its Settlement construction interface, and that system is far less complex.

On the other hand, for those willing to tolerate the interface, the results are undeniably impressive. The Steam Workshop is proof of what players willing to wrestle with it can build, full of impressive recreations of historical castles and absurdly complex siege engines. The biggest problem is that the number of players who are going to invest that much time in it may be limited.

The game’s other issue is its strange and somewhat tacked on survival mode. While the premise of building vs siege is an appealing one, it doesn’t seem like Medieval Engineers is entirely sure what kind of game it wants to be. Making people manually chop wood and kill deer for food is probably extraneous to a game ultimately about building trebuchets to demolish castles.

Strategic resource management could be interesting, but suggests a different genre entirely, where the besieged castle might have to stock food to feed troops. Basically, Medieval Engineers feels like it’s trying to blend Mount & Blade and Minecraft in a way that doesn’t totally work. Without finding a clear direction and focusing on improving its gameplay to support it, the game’s appeal may remain restrictively niche.

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