By Lee Curtis
In July 2013, Microsoft launched its answer to Sony’s popular and successful PlayStation Plus: Games with Gold, the loyalty scheme that rewards Xbox Live Gold subscribers with two free games a month. It was originally intended as a limited-time offer that would run until the release of the Xbox One, but the ten titles that were made free-to-keep during that period (which included Fable III, Assassin’s Creed 2 and Halo 3) garnered such an overwhelming response that the scheme was continued into the eighth generation of consoles. It’s been expanded to cover Xbox One titles. Two years later, it has remained a permanent fixture of Xbox Live Gold.
People have complained that PlayStation Plus offers superior rewards to its subscribers. You could accuse Instant Game Collection of being a glorified rental service or condemn Microsoft’s inferior catalogue, but when you consider that both services are giving away games for free, I’d rather just enjoy them.
It’s a fair complaint that while Xbox 360 users are regularly treated to some of the biggest and most enjoyable games of recent years (Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite and Gears of War 3, to name some from the past few months) those who’ve invested in the new generation have only gotten Xbox One arcade titles so far. On the flipside, though, Microsoft has stumbled upon a great use for the Games with Gold programme: providing a platform for some fantastic, lesser-known games to gain an audience. In the time since it was launched, Games with Gold has unearthed some hidden treasures on both platforms. Here are five standouts from the past two years.
Tequila Works’ debut game is a 2D side-scrolling survival-horror platformer where you play as a lonely survivor searching for his family during a zombie apocalypse. The Madrid-based indie studio isn’t treading much new-narrative ground with Deadlight and at two hours long, it’s a short game. But it makes up for its brevity with panic-inducing action, a stunning visual style and clever twist on the right-to-left side-scrolling format (you often do the reverse).
With a contrasting light-and-dark aesthetic and fast-paced side-scrolling gameplay it falls somewhere between Limbo and Shadow Complex. Though it may not last very long, Tequila Works has created a thoroughly entertaining game here, whether you’re fleeing zombie hordes, exploring abandoned buildings or crawling through sewers.
Gotham City Imposters
Gotham City Impostors is a typical first-person shooter in costume. Aside from a brief tutorial and non-compulsory challenge modes, it’s one of the few online-only offerings from Games with Gold. Armed with a DC licence, Monolith Productions pokes fun at the Batman universe with an absurd multiplayer action game.
Its basic Deathmatch mechanic makes it straightforward enough for anyone to pick up and play, but also has some originality in the form of weapon varieties and character perks to ensure FPS veterans have something of interest. It’s crazy, hectic and often overwhelming, but a distinct personality, great sense of humour, endless customisation and frantic pace makes Gotham City Impostors a lot of fun.
Child of Light
Turn-based, JRPG-style adventure game Child of Light is definitely a departure for Ubisoft Montreal, which usually makes things like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. You play as Aurora, a young girl trapped in a fantasy world on the wrong side of a magic mirror, and must join forces with various weird and wonderful creatures to return the Sun, the Moon and the stars to their rightful place.
It’s a fairytale with Studio Ghibli-esque surrealism and a gorgeous hand-painted art style, and the result is one of the most beautiful games of all time. As an RPG, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly a breath of fresh air.
Defense Grid: The Awakening
From Plants vs Zombies to independent Flash games, the world is hardly lacking in tower defence. But Hidden Path Entertainments’ first original game sets itself apart from the thousands of others with an inventive twist on the format. Defense Grid: The Awakening strikes a perfect balance between being a quick way to kill fifteen minutes, and an addictive time-guzzler.
The innate repetitiveness of your typical tower defence game is stifled with unique maps, terrific, visuals and an interactive soundtrack ensuring that no matter how many hours pass by, you’re tempted to stick around for one more game.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
The unique split-control scheme, where each brother is controlled with one of the analogue sticks and respective trigger, instantly sets Starbreeze Studios’ third-person platformer apart as one of the most original puzzle games of the past few years; it’s the storytelling that really packs a punch, though.
At first controlling the brothers feels like patting your head while rubbing your stomach (unless you share a controller with someone), but over time it becomes natural. Following two brothers on a journey through a vibrant fantasy world to find a magical cure for their dying father may seem heartening, but this deeply affecting, interactive story is anything but. It’s a touching exploration of brotherhood, death and other rather profound themes that never feels hackneyed. It’s a quintessential thematic marriage of gameplay and narrative.
Here’s hoping Games with Gold keeps trying to rival Sony’s Instant Games Collection with a bigger range of games, big and small. Happy birthday, Games with Gold. Here’s to many more.