Xbox Live August Games with Gold

Sunset Overdrive Xbox BundleAugust is just a few days away, and that means a new set of “free” games coming to Xbox Live. This month’s set has a few really solid games available, especially on the 360 front. It’s also the last month before the big new games start coming out – which is the perfect time to pick up a couple of these games and go through them.

On the Xbox One, the two games are Warriors Orochi 3 and WWE 2K16. I think the WWE one might be the more fun pick, but that’s maybe because I like the WWE games. Since 2K has taken over the series, the mechanics have gotten a bit more stable and while the source material is still as goofy as ever, the games are pretty fun. The character creator suite is actually pretty solid – you can make some close recreations of older wrestlers, or just total abominations. The achievements aren’t particularly crazy, and there’s still people playing online to get those ones taken care of.

What I’m really excited by are the Xbox 360 options – Spelunky and Beyond Good and Evil HD. Spelunky is one of the earlier examples of  modern rouge-like dungeon crawlers. It’s one of those games that I remember seeing explode over the internet, but for whatever reason I just never picked up. Now that it’s free, it’s definitely on my radar again. The same applies to Beyond Good and Evil – I very clearly remember when it came out back in the day, but it just never appealed to me. However, I totally understand the reverence that the game has garnered over the years. There’s a reason that the sequel, which has been seemingly in development for ages, is so highly anticipated. Since we’re still waiting, now might be the best time to pick up the re-released HD version.

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E3 2016 – Microsoft Press Conference Thoughts

E3 LogoAs they’ve done the last couple years, Microsoft opened up the week proper on Monday with their press conference at E3. They’ve done a really good job of rebounding after the tepid response to the initial Xbox One launch and marketing, mainly by focusing a lot more on games during these big showcases. This year though, they took a bit of a chance by also talking hardware – which has worked against them in the past. I think ultimately it was a really solid show though – the new games they showed off hit all the major points, big exclusives, some good third party support, and a variety of genres and tones to play. Let’s talk a couple high points.

Before we get to the games, let’s get the more “boring” stuff out of the way. The hardware talk this year was a good mix of platform upgrades for Xbox Live and cross-network play, as well as actual hardware like the new custom controller shop and upgraded consoles. It’s easy to look at some of these announcements and not necessarily be excited, perhaps because of all the flash around the games this week; but I really think that some of what Microsoft is working on is a legitimate game changer. The new Play Anywhere idea in particular is a really cool idea – buy a game once on Xbox One, and you can play it on Windows 10 PC at no extra cause. Progress and achievements all carry over thanks to the Microsoft Cloud. With all of the big exclusives that Microsoft talked about Monday all being part of the program, I definitely see Play Anywhere the first step in gaming trying to really break down those platform/console walls. The Xbox Live upgrades are all welcome ones – I like the addition of clubs, it lets existing communities begin to group up and play together easier; I wonder how much of that is in response to PlayStation doing the same thing a couple months back. The addition of LFG right into the basic Xbox Live service is another really cool idea – no more random matching, you want a group to play the raid in Destiny, you put it up and go. The last addition – Arena – is a little trickier to me. I like seeing competitive gaming becoming easier to get into, and the more options there are to play in tournaments, even as an amateur is a really cool idea. I just wonder how smooth the implementation will go. The most exciting hardware news though is the Xbox One S and Project Scorpio, the two new versions of the Xbox One that Microsoft is releasing. Xbox One S should be a good way to try and get new players moving to the console – HDR gaming, 4K video and up to a 2TB internal hard drive is a great combo. Add in it’s a smaller footprint, and it’s a solid all around console. I don’t think that current Xbox One owners need to upgrade – not yet. But it’s a good way to get new people on board. Project Scorpio on the other hand does look like it could be a good upgrade point. All we really know is some specs for it – 6 terraflops of computing power, true 4K display and support for VR tech all sound like a pretty sizable upgrade. Pricing will be a big question – especially since you’ll pretty much need a 4K TV to really see the difference. But it’s still a year out – TV prices can change a lot in that time – and everything will be compatible, across Xbox One, Xbox One S and Scorpio. It really feels like Microsoft is trying to go from being one console, to a full console family. It’s a risky move for sure, especially knowing that PlayStation also has an upgraded PS4 coming.

Sea of Thieves

All of that is great, but what we really watch E3 for is the games. Microsoft has certainly lost a bit of third party support in the last couple years – Destiny and Call of Duty both are PlayStation first titles. But Microsoft has been, to me at least, showing a really good focus on trying out new IPs from their exclusive developers. We saw four games that are part of franchises – Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, State of Decay 2 and Halo Wars 2. Every other exclusive was a new IP – including some games that I could easily see being heavy hitters. Of those sequels, I think Forza is the one that I’m most interested in – I never really got deep into Gears, I never played State of Decay and I’m not a big fan of RTS games. Forza Horizon 3 though looks gorgeous, as Forza games always do, and having four player, cross platform co-op play is really cool. I like the setting of Australia – it’s different from just about any Forza yet. The new car classes also look to help break up the gameplay.

We Happy Few Logo

For me, the most exciting games I saw, exclusive-wise, were new ones. First, we saw We Happy Few, from the team behind BioShock. It looks dark, it looks heady, it looks frightening, but overall it looks incredible. It’s going to be in the Game Preview program starting July 26, so the wait isn’t long. The other game that really got me pumped up was Sea of Thieves – I was interested last year when Rare announced it, but seeing it in action solidified it. Persistent online world, with a huge emphasis on co-op group play, and you get to be a whole pirate crew? Count me in. I love how colorful it looks too – a lot of big name games are always so washed out and trying to be dramatic. Sea of Thieves though uses the bright color palette to make the whole world feel a lot more alive. Microsoft also has the ID@Xbox program, which is where We Happy Few comes from, as well as Inside, the new game from the creators of Limbo, which looks incredible as well. And of course Cuphead is on the way from that same program as well.

Third party games also got shown during the conference, and it was a pretty good mix I thought. Final Fantasy XV got a demo of a massive fight against Titan – that honestly was underwhelming. I think it was just because the actual fighting shown was sloppy, but I came away unimpressed. Battlefield 1 showed the same gameplay trailer as the day before, as well as announcing that EA Access members on Xbox One can play the game a week early on October 13. While Minecraft isn’t technically a third party game, I still think of it as one – and I really like the move they’re going with. They’re adding in cross-network play, right now focused on the mobile versions with PC, but console support is coming. That’s the one real feature that I think Minecraft really is tailor-made for. Tekken 7 was shown, with Akuma appearing, and it looked solid. Nothing crazy for a Tekken game. Scalebound, the new game from Platinum games got a co-op gameplay demo, and it continues to be a game that confuses me. The idea behind it is awesome – hack and slash Platinum goodness, with a giant dragon as back-up. But the tone of the game just keep catching me off guard – it’s got a lot of levity and almost some degree of self-awareness about it. I wonder how much of that is the Japanese influence in the development, but it’s not something that I think would keep me from buying it. I think the big surprise came from Capcom though, with a really slick trailer for Dead Rising 4. It looks a lot like a return to what got the franchise started – Frank West, and a mall full of zombies.

I know that a lot of media has been down on the Microsoft show – especially after the Sony show, which I missed. And maybe it’s because I’m primarily an Xbox guy first these days, but I don’t know how you come away from that show and not go, “Microsoft has some really cool stuff coming in the next year or so.” Maybe it’s because they took time to show hardware, which is always kind of boring to hear at big events. Maybe it’s because PlayStation 4 has just been doing everything right over the last few years, while Xbox One has had a couple hiccups along the way. Whatever the reason, I think it’s another bit of that kind of negativity and pessimism that surrounds gaming in general lately. Was Microsoft’s show flawless? Not at all. But I came away from it excited to be an Xbox One owner, and ready to see what the next year brings.

Xbox Games With Gold – Goat Simulator/Super Meat Boy Thoughts

A new month brings new “free” games with the Xbox Live Games with Gold program. I grabbed the two new ones available for the first half of June: Goat Simulator and Super Meat Boy, and thought we’d talk a little about them.

Super Meat Boy

Let’s start with the Xbox One title, Goat Simulator. If you aren’t familiar with the premise, you are a goat, placed in a world that is nothing really more than a physics playground. There’s no plot, there’s no real objective outside of maybe getting a good score. It’s just a pure silly, fun time killer. The achievements are quick and easy, outside of the time on the collectibles and the nightmare that is flappy goat. The humor in there is definitely not going to be for everyone. But since it’s a free game, and outside of the flurry of FPS launches last month, we’re in the slow period of summer. There really isn’t any reason to not grab it, mess around for a few hours, and then clear it out. That’s what I’ve done at least.

On the other hand, the Xbox 360 game available right now is a longer burning game. Super Meat Boy is one of the best examples of why the Xbox Live Arcade was such a big part of the 360. It’s a throwback to when games were hard – really hard. It’s a platformer, with some light puzzle elements, and demands your precision to beat it. I played through the Light World levels over the weekend, along with a couple Dark World levels and Warp Zones. If you don’t have much in the way of patience with games, skip this one. Super Meat Boy is hard – and while the downtime between failures is small, the frustration can ratchet up really quick, especially when you know exactly what to do and just can’t quite nail it. It’s a leaderboard chaser’s dream game too though, as you keep shaving milliseconds off your time on each level. I think this one is a pretty tough sell across the board – if you don’t have the patience, or the thumbskill to beat the levels, all that Super Meat Boy is going to do is frustrate the hell out of you. It is a phenomenal game though, bringing the retro feel and also pulling in some dark humor as well.

Ultimately, both games offer up very, very different experiences. One is possibly the most casual game I’ve played outside of Minecraft, while the other is one of the most intense games out there. They’re both great at what they do, and since we’re in a bit of a slow period right now, very much worth picking up to play for a week or two. With E3 right around the corner, it also might not be a bad idea to play them as a bit of a palette cleanser before the summer cleanup season that always rolls around.

Xbox Games with Gold – June 2016

Sunset Overdrive Xbox BundleLike they do every month, Microsoft announced the upcoming “free” games available to Xbox Live Gold subscribers. I say “free” because you do need to be paying for the Gold subscription, but the games themselves don’t cost anything extra. The Games with Gold program has been really hit and miss over the last few years that it’s been around. Some months, it’s got a couple really incredible games – in the past Dark Souls, Sunset Overdrive, and Halo 3 have all appeared as “free” titles. Sometimes though the games are maybe a little lower on the totem pole. What I have always really enjoyed about the program is that it has always put a lot of Arcade/Indie titles in the spotlight. I picked up Guacamelee along with a few other titles in the same kinda vein. And that’s certainly the style game I’m looking for with the June games.

The two Xbox One titles are on total opposite sides of the tone spectrum. On one hand, we’ve got Goat Simulator, a game that just has humor and character for days. It’s got no direct plot, just go be a goat and do all kinds of crazy stuff. I’m honestly really looking forward to playing it next month – as interesting a game as I think it is, I was more interested in spending my money on other games. The other side of the spectrum though we have The Crew, a much more serious racing game. This is one of those games that I was pretty excited about pre-launch, but after launch, the impressions I kept seeing seemed that it fell a bit short. I like the concept of being able to race all the way across the U.S. I like the idea of building up a car club – that’s something that we haven’t really seen in a racing game in a few years. Since it’s going to be free, there’s really no downside to picking it up and trying it out.

On the Xbox 360 front we have the usual set-up; a full game and an Arcade title. The full game, X-Com is one that has received tons critical acclaim since it, and recently the sequel, launched. It’s a pretty intense RPG/RTS, featuring permadeath for characters, meaning each mission has some pretty high stakes. I totally see the value in a game like that, but the RTS genre has never been a style game that I’ve liked, and X-Com, for all it’s strengths was never really a game that I was interested in. The Arcade title on the other hand is one that I’m kinda disappointed in myself for never actually picking up. It was a game that I wanted to get, ever since launch, and just never pulled the trigger. Now that Super Meat Boy is going to be free though, I can finally play one of the best pure platformers in recent memory. It’s as old-school as they come – demanding extreme precision and control to navigate the levels. At this point, you probably have at least heard of the game, and now it’s free to pick up.

The Games with Gold program is a really cool thing that Microsoft does – and I know Sony does the same thing. It ensures that no matter what, as long as you have a Gold subscription, you have access to at least four new games, every month. With games being as expensive as they are, having free games each month is a really nice thing. I do wish that maybe they could pick some newer titles sometimes, but that feels a little entitled to me.

Goodnight Sweet Prince – The Xbox 360 Bows Out

Xbox 360 LogoToday marks a pretty significant milestone for console gaming. Earlier today, Microsoft boss Phil Specter announced that Xbox will stop manufacturing new Xbox 360 consoles. The console marked its ten year anniversary in the fall of last year, which is an insane lifespan for technology. It’s a little sad to see it enter the final chapter, but it’s a good excuse to talk about some of the consoles highlights.

Before we talk games, there’s the console itself. Microsoft was in an interesting spot going into the console generation – despite being a company since the late 70’s, it was the new kid on the block with consoles. The original Xbox had shown that they could create a console that could appeal to the adult gaming audience as well as the overall crossover audience. But compared with the huge success of the PlayStation 2, it was definitely the little brother of the group. The 360 showed a tremendous amount of growth, even with a somewhat rocky launch. It showed that Microsoft was dedicated to creating a home console that belonged, not just a quick grab for money. From relatively consistent system upgrades – some that completely overhauled the dashboard we saw every day – to providing the best online service for consoles, the Xbox 360 gave the Xbox brand the identity it needed. Plus Achievements and Gamerscore started on the 360, and I’m a pretty damn big fan of them.

Skyrim

One of the complaints I really remember from the early days is one that would end up being the total opposite of how the 360 was. It’s one that I myself made in the early days – the launch window games were somewhat crap. A Call of Duty – the last Infinity Ward World War Two game in fact – and Kameo are really the only two that I can even remember. Which is a far cry from the last five or so years – Halo, Call of Duty, Fallout/Elder Scrolls, BioShock, Gears of War, Minecraft, the list just goes on and on. The Xbox One may be struggling to grab those third party exclusives – I’m looking at you Destiny and Call of Duty – but on the 360, it was the exact opposite case. DLC came out first for those big third party games on the 360, pretty much across the board. Combine that with the Xbox Live upgrades that really solidified it as an integral part of the Xbox brand, and it was pretty easy to see why that was the case. It’s hard to imagine, not just Xbox gaming, but console gaming in general without the rise of Xbox Live and Halo and Call of Duty during the 360.

Now that the console is entering the final phase of its life, it’s the perfect time to go back and revisit some truly classic games. With backwards compatible games coming to the Xbox One more and more frequently, there are plenty of ways to play them too. If you got rid of your console, but still have the discs, that’s totally fine. If you have a full collection of digital games, the Xbox One has you covered there too. While we’re starting to see a few games coming out now – Dark Souls, Battleborn, Overwatch, DOOM – it’s not quite as crazy as the fall, so while it’s a little slow maybe go back and play a favorite. It’s always a good idea.

Late to the Party: Warframe

WarframeAs I’ve done here a couple times, today I want to talk a bit about a game that came out a while ago, but one that I’ve only recently picked up: Warframe. I steered clear of it at first because I thought it was another free-to-play MOBA style game, which have never been my favorite games. But after I Datto talk a bunch about the game on his stream, and since it’s a free game, I figured I’d give it a shot. Now that I’ve played it for a few hours, I kinda wish I had picked it up earlier.

Warframe, while it is free-to-play, is definitely not a MOBA at all. It’s much more like a third person action game more than anything. You’ve got different Warframe options that act as different playable characters – which you need to pay real money to unlock – and tons of different weapons too to mess with, all of which are standard MOBA trappings. The gameplay though is pretty much straight forward action/shooter. You pick missions that aren’t super long – playable solo, in a private group or matchmade – and run and gun your way through the enemies, taking care of whatever that mission’s main objective is. For a free game, the action and gameplay both feel pretty good. The gunplay is solid, with a decent variety in weapon choices; the melee combat isn’t overly punishing should you go that way, and the movement feels good and smooth.

If I have any real hangups with Warframe, it’s definitely that it wears the free-to-play side of it on its sleeve. New Warframes are few and far between, unless you shell out real money on Platinum. Certain weapons are also gated behind Platinum prices. A lot of the Xbox Live Achievements are also really grindy. It’s a game that I want to really like because the gameplay is there, but I feel like it’s a game that you have to be playing as a main game. I got it as a secondary game – I’m still all-in with Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Destiny and The Division and this was a game to play when I’m a little burnt out on those three. It’s in the same spot on my playlist as Gunstar Heroes, Mega Man Legacy Collection, and this week’s Battleborn Beta. For a free game, the ROI is definitely there, and I certainly think that Warframe is a game that is worth picking up, especially with a fresh update that just went live for it.

Xbox One Backwards Compatibility Spotlight: Gunstar Heroes

A couple games got added to the list of titles that are backwards compatible on the Xbox One: Outland and Gunstar Heroes. I’m going to tell you why you have to pick up Gunstar Heroes today, because it’s far and away one of my favorite games of all time. Let’s begin shall we.

Gunstar Heroes

Gunstar Heroes isn’t a recent title being added to the backwards compatible list – it’s actually a game that first appeared on the Sega Genesis way back in 1993, developed by Treasure. It’s since shown up on the Wii’s Virtual Console, as well as the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade and the 3DS eShop over the last handful of years. That Xbox Live Arcade version is the one that, obviously, was just brought forward to the Xbox One. It was a game that I used to rent all the time when I was growing up for my Genesis, and have since bought the Wii version and Xbox one; as well as the Game Boy Advance pseudo-sequel/remake. So in that way, it’s a game that I have a pretty strong emotional connection with – it’s really hard for me to separate out the nostalgia on this game. It’s a lot like the NES Mega Man games in that way.

It’s also similar to the Mega Man games in that it’s a 2D shoot-em-up. You can also look at games like Contra for other comparisons. It’s hard, but not unfair. It demands you to have some precision in your platforming and shooting, while throwing huge numbers of enemies at you. Treasure knows that with those old school games like that, good boss fights are at the top of the list in terms of important factors in a game. And as such, Gunstar Heroes has some imaginative, challenging and fun boss fights – and lots of them. The four main bosses at the end of the first stages vary from a giant robot, a muscle bound grappler, a mech who uses dice to move and determine its attacks, and a rogue Gunstar using a mech with multiple different forms. Each fight has you using different tactics to beat them – Black and Pink are beatable just with standard run-and-gun moves, Green and Orange definitely require a bit more precision in how you handle them. Once those first stages are done, the game kicks up a couple notches, throwing everything you’ve seen so far all in one stage before you head to space for the final few stages. It all feels very much like an arcade game – it’s not a long game by any stretch. It almost feels like it’s trying to kill you to steal some quarters. That feeling really sets in during the last couple stages – boss rush screens, no weapon fights, a multi-stage penultimate boss followed right up by an incredibly tough final boss. Playing this game on hard is a legitimate challenge and beating it on hard is a real accomplishment.

Luckily, just because it’s a hard game, it isn’t unforgiving. You’ve got difficulty select, and while easy is easy for sure; the normal difficulty is just right. There’s co-op as well, which is seriously fun to play with a friend; especially in the same room on one console, how we used to do it. Where other hard games lose me usually is with the gameplay. Games like Dark Souls or Lords of the Fallen always have felt clunky or overly punishing to the player. I totally get that’s a subjective thing, and I get that it’s definitely just my personal preference with that. But that’s why I really have always liked Gunstar Heroes – it’s hard, and the gameplay feels just about perfect. The controls all feel super responsive, your mobility isn’t clunky, the gunplay is incredible and varied and repeat playthroughs just help you learn everything better and better. The action is exactly what this game needs to keep players coming back. Add in one of the best soundtracks on the Genesis, and I don’t think it’s hard to see why this is one of those classic old games people keep talking about.

Gunstar Heroes Green Battle

That action and gunplay I mentioned is a big part of why I really love this game. It takes the classic Contra/Mega Man sidescrolling gunplay, and adds a little twist to it. Instead of just having single weapon pickups to switch your gun out, you have two slots to fill. You pick one as you start the game, the other you fill pretty early on in the first mission. What makes it unique is that there are four options – Force, Laser, Fire, and Chaser – and each behaves quite differently. Then, when you fill that second slot, you combine the two into a new weapon. Double Force is a massive machine gun style weapon, while Force and Fire shoots out fireballs that explode on contact; take Laser and Fire and you’ve got a lightsaber, and Chaser and Laser is the “press shoot to kill everything” weapon. Add in to that the two different player choices – Free and Fixed Shot – and you see why the combat is surprisingly deep for a 23 year old game, as well as why I compared it to Mega Man.

I’m a big proponent of playing old classics, no matter how long ago they came out. We talk about old movies, music and TV with a sense of reverence and still consume that media. Why can’t we do the same with games? Part of that is technology that is obsolete or hard to find, the other part is that gaming has just changed so much in such a short time. So when these classic, touchstone games pop up on modern, current consoles, I think it’s important to point them out – especially to younger or new game players. Gunstar Heroes is a 23 year old game, but I think it absolutely still holds up to this day. If you’ve never played it, and you’ve got an Xbox One, go pick it up from the marketplace. You absolutely won’t be disappointed.