By PistonHyundai 7 Comments
Super Mario Maker 2 is a week and change away, and the wait has been excruciating. To kill the time before its release—and the consequent moment where the police break into my home and discover me, rendered little more than a clothed skeleton clutching a Pro Controller on some J-Nug shit—I've been playing whatever games I can get my hands on, and luckily for me, Phil Spencer can't run the Xbox division of Microsoft to save his god damn life.
No, really. For the past year or so I've been using Game Pass to play stuff like Forza Horizon 4 and Gears of War 4 without paying so much as a dime thanks to their Microsoft Rewards promotion (which has you spending like two minutes each day Binging shit for free money), and now they have this Game Pass Ultimate deal that bundles their new PC-oriented subscription with the Xbox equivalent and Xbox LIVE Gold, too. It's supposed to be 15 dollars a month, but right now they're running a sale where you can purchase a month for a dollar, and any of your other subscriptions are rolled into that, with up to three years of it applying. This means that I was able to use Microsoft Rewards points (those sweet, delicious Bing Bucks) to get two years of Gold and then purchase that month of Ultimate, giving me 25 months of games for a dollar. A dollar! How do you make money off this shit? Why, they're practically giving it away!!!
Anyway, with the beta launch of Game Pass for PC last week, I've been going to town on its offering of games, so I figured I'd give people an idea on what to check out or avoid with a rundown on what I've played so far, starting with Microsoft's first-party offerings that were already on the service before moving onto indies and more recent additions. I'll even give them a rating out of five for the impatient types out there.
It's hard to think of many studios that have had a more fruitful generation than Insomniac Games. Whether it's the blockbuster success of Marvel's Spider-Man or the excellent Ratchet & Clank remake, it's safe to say that they've recovered from the soul-sucking focus tests that led to the disappointing Fuse with gusto. They've found the most commercial success with Sony, but their first Microsoft release, Sunset Overdrive [*****], is their crowning achievement and one of the best games of the generation. It's the culmination of everything Insomniac is known for in their games: engaging platforming and creative weaponry at its finest, wrapped in a colorful, offbeat style. The sense of humor can whiff pretty frequently, but the gameplay is buttery smooth, featuring wild free-running and grinding that handles beautifully, and the game's art style is fantastic. Not much else this generation can match the feeling of grinding circles around a bunch of pissant mutants while a punk cover of the Pepto-Bismol theme plays. I've been a huge fan of the game since release, but last year's PC port is even better, upping the framerate and resolution, and including both DLC expansions for free. The game's anti-aliasing solutions are a little lackluster—making distant objects appear more jagged than they should be, even at higher resolutions—but everything here is still better here than ever. Whether you have an Xbox or a PC, do not sleep on this game.
You can tell that a lot of racing games are made by people who are just obsessed with cars. The attention to detail in games like Gran Turismo and the outright fetishism on display during press conferences make me shudder to think what the developers' garages look like under a blacklight, but where Forza Motorspot feels like a love letter to cars and the act of racing, Forza Horizon 4 [*****] feels like a love letter to racing games. It's a fun-first game that lets you drive what you want, do what you want, and create what you want. The deep vehicle customization, craft, and polish of Forza Motorsport is on full display—this has to be one of the best looking games I've ever played—but the actual driving is focused more on the kind of things you could only get away with in a video game. Stone barriers and pylons are made for smashing through, and reckless driving is rewarded with skill points instead of penalties. The open world and live seasonal challenges make it an incredible podcast game, and I've spent much of the past year listening to podcasts as I send my 40s Jeep careening off mountains, blaring the Windows XP shutdown noise as my horn all the while. I also have to applaud whoever decided to include a series of challenges inspired by various other racing games, taking the reverent, historical approach the series often treats its automobiles with and giving it to classic racing and driving games, going as far as to call them out by name. This is a game that loves racing games so much, that it straight up tells you to stop playing it and check out Out Run if you've never played it before. You see not-so-clever homages and parodies in games all the time, but when was the last time you heard of a game shouting out separate games from other companies on such a literal level?
I feel bad for ReCore [****]. It's a surprisingly good action game in its own right, featuring great platforming, upgradeable robot companions with variable abilities and stats, and a large hub world to explore that's interspersed with dungeons, combat arenas, and excellent platforming challenges. It feels like a true heir to the kind of Japanese action-adventure games you'd see on the PS2 or GameCube (and draws many parallels to developer Keiji Inafune's previous work on the Mega Man franchise: combat dependent on managing enemy weaknesses, a protagonist with a robotic dog buddy and scientist father figure, those god damn disappearing platforms...), but it was blatantly rushed out the door, leaving it in a sorry state that left one of its vital mechanics on the cutting room floor. About half-way through the game, you reach the Shifting Sands, a huge desert that takes far too long to traverse. Without a faster means of travel, the game becomes a total slog filled with backtracking and grinding, but once you start playing the new content in the Definitive Edition—a free update that, in addition to cutting down on the amount of items you need to progress, adds new areas to explore—it becomes clear just how unfinished the game was. The very first thing you come across is a dungeon that, when completed, unlocks the T8-NK frame for your robot, and this completely changes the complexion of the game's second half. The T8-NK frame is, as the name implies, a wee little tank that you can ride on top of, cutting traversal time considerably. Its dash boost is one of the most versatile mechanics in the game, acting as a charge that damages enemies and as a makeshift triple jump. Hopping off of the tank doesn't count as one of your double jumps, so you can boost off of a ledge, jump off the tank in mid-air, and still have two air dashes and jumps at your disposal, which opens the doors for a ton of sequence breaking and platforming finesse. It's easily the most fun frame to use, and makes short work of the desert that was once ruinous. It's a damn shame that the game didn't ship this way, because it's become pretty great in the time since release. Don't let the reviews scare you off from trying this one.
Halo's had a hard time regaining its faded glory since the shift from Bungie to 343. Say what you will about the quality of Halo 4 and 5, but the series hasn't quite had the impact it did in the 2000s, so I was a little worried going into Gears of War 4 [****], which experienced a similar change in dev teams. I'm not gonna lie, it's definitely in the "just not the same" territory that I was worried about, but it's still pretty good. Horde Mode is as fun as it's ever been (despite some nonsense with card drop-based upgrades for player classes), and the competitive modes still have that tension I crave from the series, even if the game trends more towards modes with respawns instead of the elimination gameplay I prefer. My main problem with the game is the campaign, which features an utterly forgettable story set a generation after 3's finale. You join memorable characters like Marcus' Kid, Marcus' Kid's Friend, and Woman with Mysterious Past as they drop groan-worthy quips that a Marvel movie would be embarrassed to spout and deal with a barely-new race of monsters that look a little too much like the Locust from prior games. There's some decent setpieces along the way (including some welcome cameos by Horde Mode mechanics), but for the most part, it's stuff you've done plenty of in past games, and the cast, combined with the lack of four-player coop, draws unfavorable comparisons to the last game. Still, the multiplayer is great stuff, and it doesn't quite reach the depths of Gears of War 2's campaign.
Crackdown 3 [***] is alright. It's more Crackdown, which is cool because Crackdown is fantastic, but I really would've hoped they'd take things further than they have here. Like in the original game, you're targeting leaders of various factions (this time, divisions of an evil megacorp), and killing underbosses makes it easier to reach said leaders. In 3, however, there's a final boss you need to take out, and killing the bigger targets then removes hazards and lightens forces at the final boss' hideout, perched at the top of a tower in the center of the map. You can take on the boss whenever you want, meaning you can choose just how difficult you want the tower raid to be, and even take a maxed out agent into new game plus to beat the game in under five minutes. It's a good start on fleshing out the formula (something Crackdown 2 seemed afraid to do), but it's sadly the only interesting thing they do with it. Still, mindlessly tearing a city up and leveling your agent up is a fine enough way to kill a weekend if you're not paying money for it.
You broke my heart, The Messenger [***]. I really wanted to like it, and while it started off kind of slow as a too-easy version of Ninja Gaiden, I kept with it. As you gain new abilities and the stages begin to push those abilities more and more, it really comes into its own, plateauing with a jump from its initial 8-bit style to a gorgeous 16-bit one (although it could also be mistaken for a PlayStation or Saturn game). From there, you get a good two levels of challenging action with some excellent music (which takes the less obvious route and opts for dope Genesis-style FM synth instead of the expected SNES instrumentation) before it takes a turn for the worse. After the second 16-bit level, you return to previous levels and shift between generations to search for collectibles that eventually lead to the final boss fight. Now, I must admit that I'm already biased as someone who prefers linearity in my platformers, but the game morphing into a metroidvania just doesn't work out. I'd be alright with it if the gameplay was anywhere near as entertaining as the first half's, but it just becomes a meandering haze of backtracking (through levels you've already explored once before, no less) and solving riddles to progress, which is far from the game's strong suit. At the very least, the game's exceptional first half is worth a look.
ClusterTruck [*****] kicks ass. You'd think a gimmick like "platforming across a gang of roving tractor trailers" would wear thin, but I wound up playing through the whole game in one sitting and felt a little sad that there wasn't more of it to play (there technically is, but more on that later). The game's full of diverse obstacle courses with dastardly traps and the movement feels great, but the purchasable skills and utilities really push it over the edge. If anything, they're almost too good, since you could very well purchase one of each and find yourself making it through the game just with those, only to discover that some of the other tools are even better once you check them out. Going back to earlier levels to see how you can outright break them with the air dash, bullet time, or the grappling hook (!) is sometimes more fun than playing the game "properly" in a lot of stages. It's exhilarating to watch and to play, but there's one caveat (if we don't include the near-draconian final stage). The version that comes with Game Pass for PC is a UWP release that's behind even the Xbox One port in features, being the only version of the game without Halloween and Christmas themed bonus levels. Even if you opt for the Xbox release, you'd be missing out on user-made levels, courtesy of the Steam Workshop.
Speaking of gimmick-driven games, SUPERHOT [****] made a very good first impression, but kind of tapered off by the end. It seems way more interested in its story than it should be, ripping you away from gameplay a little too frequently for how standard its "JACK INTO THE SYSTEM AND BECOME ONE WITH THE MACHINE" plot is, coming off more as padding than something the creators were particularly invested in. Like ClusterTruck, however, its central time-bending mechanic is pretty god damn cool, leading to absolutely ridiculous shootouts which are then played out for you in real time should you complete the level. You can knock this one out in a sitting or two, so it's well worth checking out.
It's been a while since I've experienced a gulf between how I feel about a game and other people's reactions to it quite to the degree that I have with Void Bastards [***]. It's influenced by System Shock 2 and developed by some key figures of the Bioshock development team, claiming to be a roguelike FPS with immersive sim elements. It sounds promising, but the execution is a little half-baked. Guided by a suffocatingly British AI (voiced by the Stanley Parable's narrator, underscoring just how derivative the whole motif is), you traipse about spaceships that barely have any verticality (combined with the 2D enemy sprites, it even reminded me a bit of Wolfenstein 3D at times), killing or avoiding stereotypically British enemies and collecting crafting materials to aid you in your ultimate goal of collecting other, more important crafting materials that will win you the game. There's plenty to consider before you go into each ship, such as your current ammo count, money, oxygen supply, as well as the enemy composition and materials present in each ship, but once you're onboard, the moment-to-moment gameplay doesn't live up to the strategy present beforehand. The guns are satisfying to use, but the depth seen in immersive sims like System Shock 2 and Deus Ex is largely absent in combat, save for the occasional environmental kill or turret override. It's a solid podcast game (and has an incredible comic book aesthetic), but given the pedigree behind it, it really should've been more than just a mindless time killer.
I'm still working my way through it, but the unique gameplay mashup of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden has blown me away so far, so I can't help but recommend it. The mix of XCOM combat with stealth and wasteland scavenging in-between is brilliant, and the game has a pretty clever interpretation of the overdone wasteland setting, leading to some great dialogue delivered by endearing characters. I don't think I've played another post-apocalyptic game that feels quite as brutal as this: everything is truly finite (even health only fully regenerates on the easiest difficulty), meaning you can't run a loop through respawning enemies for supplies like a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Fallout game permits. Instead, you have to actually ration your items out, and rely on smart usage of each mutant's abilities to get you through combat. It feels like those harrowing early moments of an XCOM game, but without ever reaching that far-too-common threshold where you have plenty of strong units and powerful equipment, letting you run on autopilot. Barring it falling apart in the later moments, this is one of the best games on Game Pass.
Considering the dearth of recent ports of the original game, Hydro Thunder Hurricane is a welcome addition to the service, but it's just a little flat compared to its source material. On paper, it's totally Hydro Thunder and passes the gameplay test, but it's just missing that panache Midway was known for, feeling like a halfhearted cover of the original's all-caps arcade action. It's fine in a pinch, but I can't help but consider hooking my Dreamcast up as I play it.
Supermarket Shriek came out earlier this month, and it seems like a fun little thing from the half that I've played. It's like an isometric racing game in the vein of RC Pro-Am or Micro Machines, mixed with the hazards and the perfect-run-pursuit aspect of the Trials series. A hapless dope and a goat (you see, because they're good at yelling) take their shopping cart and scream their way across a bunch of different stores, taking part in obstacle course challenges, races against other vehicles, and of course, Supermarket Sweep style grocery runs. It's got a surprising amount of variety for how simple its two-button gameplay is. Not only are the various different objectives divvied out at a rate that keeps things fresh, but many of the levels have unique themes ranging from arcades and electronics stores to butcher shops and gyms. There's even a handful of secret levels that go the extra mile to pay tribute to others games. It's had some pretty bad saving issues at launch that have kept me from going too far with it—no doubt a victim of the "beta" aspect of Game Pass' current PC form—but it's seemingly been patched up, so I'm looking forward to seeing what's next from it.
Finally, here's a quick list of other stuff that's either worth a look or something I've been meaning to get to. Hell, I'll even throw in some Xbox recommendations while I'm at it:
Other PC Recommendations
- Hotline Miami [*****]
- Gears of War: Ultimate Edition [*****]
- Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus [***]
- ACA NEOGEO METAL SLUG X [****]
PC Games On My Radar, So They Might Be Good Too, Who Really Knows
- Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition
- Metro Exodus (this one might show up in another blog eventually)
- Snake Pass
- West of Loathing
Xbox Game Pass Recommendations
- Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts [****]
- BattleBlock Theater [****]
- Dead Island Definitive Edition [***]
- Dead Rising 2 [****]
- DOOM [*****]
- Fallout 3 [***]
- Gears of War [*****]
- Gears of War 3 [*****]
- Hitman [*****]
- Human Fall Flat [***]
- Metro 2033 Redux [*****]
- Metro: Last Light Redux [****]
- N+ [****]
- Rare Replay [****]
- Saints Row: The Third [****]
- Shadow Warrior 2 [****]
- Spelunky [*****]
- Wolfenstein: The New Order [*****]
Hopefully this'll give some of you new Game Pass subscribers an idea of what to check out in the fleeting moments leading up to Super Mario Maker 2's release, after which you'll never have to play another video game ever again. Anyone reading this wondering if I'm still planning on more blogs in my current series can rest easy, because I'm working on another entry. It could take some time, though. Because, uh, you know.