Xbox Game Pass, Gold Freebies: Lotsa Sci-Fi For the New Year

By on January 15, 2022

Well, we’ve entered into the year 2022, and Microsoft continues to maintain both their Game Pass Ultimate and Games With Gold programs, available separately or the more common priced-reduced bundled service. One remains an outstanding value, and the games introduced into the Game Pass library this month only strengthen those impressions, making available both heavy-hitters and indie darlings alike. The other … ? Well, the benefits of Games With Gold continue to center on access to sales and being able to play online with friends, though that’s rumored to be on the chopping block in the near future to make online gaming free for both paid and free-to-play titles. The free titles are a footnote upon a footnote, and continue to become more discouraging with each passing month.

The baseline subscription fee for both Game Pass + Gold is still worthwhile, however, and should be considered the ideal way to be a member of Team Xbox, whereas Microsoft’s making it harder and harder to justify being purely a Games With Gold subscriber. Let’s take a closer look at what’s on offer from both sides, but before doing so, be sure to head over and Grab a 3-Month Subscription to Game Pass Ultimate Card at Amazon so save a few space bucks.  

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate – New and Upcoming Titles

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

This year will mark a decade since the original Mass Effect trilogy concluded in spectacular, albeit polarizing fashion. Despite the nature of its ending, the series has maintained a loyal, passionate fanbase who — whether through the good old passage of time, the assistance of end-game mods, or understanding that it wasn’t so bad after all — has come to accept what’s there and clamored for a remastering of the emotive space opera RPG. Years passed without a peep, and then rumors emerged about a new “legendary edition” that would be bringing the games to the new generation of console gaming. Would it just be a simple pass-through remaster to get the visuals up to proper HD strength, or would they be overhauling the gameplay and tinkering with a few things, such as the disparity between the first clunky, RP-centric Mass Effect and the more fluidly engineered third-person shooting of ME2 and ME3. And up until release, this kind of remained a mystery.

The answer, as seen in the Legendary Edition remastered bundle of all three Mass Effect games with every ounce of story DLC included, is something in between. ME2 and ME3 have seen subtle, but noticeable improvements in graphical prowess, environment layouts, character cohesiveness, the morality system’s levels and other aspects, but by and large remain “the same”. Mass Effect 1, however, has been dramatically altered in terms of both impressive visuals and gameplay, yet in such a way that doesn’t stray from the original game’s intentions; weapon access, using cover, squad control and general AI, gunplay accuracy, and enemy vulnerability have all been overhauled. Those looking for a remake with additional content will be disappointed; those looking for a vastly superior upgrade in how they enjoy the Mass Effect universe should absolutely suit up to turn some virtual asses into actual dust.

Gears (of War) 5

While Mass Effect often showed up on short lists for one of those “must play” games for the Xbox 360, it was almost always guaranteed that the original Gears of War would be near the top of ‘em all. Other games did it well enough before, but the sci-fi shooter mastered the art of designing levels and gameplay intensity around cover-based action. Cap that off with an undeniably cheesy ‘80s-movie amount of bravado from the heroes and their thirst for bloody violence, and you’ve got the recipe for a franchise that runs strong for an entire trilogy … and then carries over into less iconic, yet still enjoyable spinoffs and additional games.  Thing is, with both the games outside the original trilogy, it became obvious that both the narrative and the third-person shooter gameplay were starting to show some rust. The excitement’s still there, along with the fanbase, but the series just needed something fresh.

Gears of War 5 makes it clear that they’re getting things up to new standards by dropping the “of War” from the title that so often gets left off anyway in casual conversation, delivering just Gears 5. On top of developing the younger, newer characters from the previous games, game-makers The Coalition also get their hands dirty with semi open-world gameplay concepts and very light RPG aspects for variety and breadth. When adding these things, The Coalition makes sure to preserve – and, in a way, recapture – the bravado of the earlier titles from Epic Games, showcasing a devotion not just to getting back to the series’ roots, but also to spruce them up and make them feel relevant in the new generation.  Both critics and players agree that the craftsmanship was largely a success, praising the campaign and the open-world implementation, even though some feel it retreads old storytelling elements.

Outer Wilds

What started out as a college thesis project made by someone who wasn’t really interested in crafting full video games at the time, soon developed into a fleshed-out, commercial sci-fi exploration experience that shows up on numerous “best of year” lists and even a few “best of all time” lists as well. Outer Wilds – not to be confused with Obsidian’s Outer Worlds, which shares a few similar gameplay and atmospheric elements – takes the player on an adventure through a solar system caught in a time loop.  Every 22 minutes, a star goes supernova and effectively resets the clock, sending our stalwart alien astronaut character back to square one in his search for an answer.  With some help from alien technology, he’s able to remember anything he’s learned in the previous loops, so his objective becomes to explore the galaxy and gather as much info as possible to discover a solution to the supernova.

Outer Wilds relies entirely on the immersion of its exploration, a combination of the general atmospheric intentions and objective-based adventuring of the likes of No Man’s Sky, Mass Effect, and Outer Worlds. The activity isn’t about engaging enemies, though, instead about discovering answers, solving puzzles, and unearthing knowledge at the various points of the solar system to fix the problem. This pieces together into more of an interactive experience than a traditional game, though survival is a concern and death can reset the clock if not monitored carefully.  Both critics and players have heaps of wonderful things to say about Outer Wilds, from the direction and destination of the narrative to the  execution of exploration and atmosphere.

Xbox Games With Gold

The strategy behind the games selected for Xbox’s Games With Gold doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at this stage, unless one applies a simple, pessimistic line of thought to it: they’ve stopped being concerned with keeping their subscriber base satisfied or interested. For the Xbox One, they’ve selected a retro twinstick shooter indie called NeuroVoider (January 1-30) that blends pixel graphics with robotics, as well as a 8-bit sidescrolling building/resource sim called Aground (January 16 – February 15) that shows some clear similarities to Minecraft. Both seem well-crafted and potentially engaging, yet neither have pulled enough attention from critics or players to have much of a reputation, certainly not on the level of the bounty of high-profile titles that Microsoft could theoretically include with the program. This signals de-prioritization.  

The legacy titles are about of the same caliber, though a bit more significant than the Xbox One offerings as of late.  Radiant Silvergun (January 1-15) is a polished “restored” version of a popular late-‘90s arcade shoot-‘em-up featuring futuristic fighter pilots versus alien forces, and is viewed as the precursor to the classic Ikaruga. Space Invaders: Infinite Gene (January 16 – January 31) takes the classic arcade title and spit-shines it for the semi-modern era, capturing a similar tone and excitement to the updated iteration of Tetris or Geometry Wars. These will at least ignite a spark of nostalgia.

About Thomas Spurlin

Film, home-media, and videogame scribe who digs green tea and walking his dogs.

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