Games with Gold Round-up, April 2016

Greetings, loyal readers. We’re trying out a new idea at SSM, now that we’ve got a bigger team. Starting now, every month (hopefully) we’ll bring you a quick round-up of the games featured in the Xbox Games with Gold line up and the PlayStation Plus line up–or at least, a round-up of the games we’ve played already, just to ensure that they’re still free (in Xbox’s case) by the time we can publish the article.

There are four games on offer during April as part of the Xbox Games with Gold program, two for the Xbox One and two for the Xbox 360, and, whaddya know, we’ve already played all of em. But should you bother? Read on and see if anything tickles your fancy.

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Horror fans are a weird bunch, and I’m not really one of them, but there’s definitely a small number of games in the genre that I enjoy. Dead Space, however, is a weird one. I reviewed the latest instalment, Dead Space 3, back when it came out, and it didn’t impress me at all–it seemed to leave behind the horror that made the series so loved and embrace a new, action-oriented style of gameplay. It wasn’t just me that this didn’t sit well with–Dead Space 3 performed far below expectations, was met with lukewarm critical reception, and signalled the end of the Dead Space franchise, so far, at least.

But there’s a reason that Dead Space had so many fans in the first place. Dead Space (herein referring to the first game in the series) came out almost ten years ago and proved to the world that survival horror was still very much on the cards for AAA publishers, despite long-lasting franchises falling by the wayside. It was a unique blend of survival horror and science fiction in which you play as Isaac Clarke, an everyday engineer who finds himself on an abandoned mineship infested by a ludicrous number of horrifying monsters. The ship’s crew have all been slaughtered and their corpses reanimated into “Necromorphs”, Silent Hill-esque deformed, mutated creatures with limbs where they shouldn’t be, strongly reminiscent of body horror films by directors such as David Cronenberg and Frank Henenlotter.

The main theme in Dead Space, apart from the science-fiction setting, is isolation. There’s nothing like isolation to scare the willies off me in a video game. I can play something like The Last of Us no problem because of the almost perpetual presents of Ellie. Left 4 Dead is child’s play, unless I’m the last survivor remaining. But Dead Space was a struggle for me to get through–just to play more than ten minutes at a time, I’d have to play at daylight hours with the lights on. Maybe not the optimal experience, sure, but it’s better that than not playing it at all.

The major gripe that a lot of people have here is the wonky control system, but I was quite appreciative of that. It’s sort of a lazy way of ramping up the tension and paranoia, yet it works. Isaac Clarke is an engineer, not a soldier, and not for a second in Dead Space will you ever feel like a soldier. The whole “cut off their limbs” idea is unique and messes with decades worth of muscle memory to go for headshots, exacerbated in high stress scenarios, which often have no effect here.

It’s easy to get a bit disenchanted by horror games, particularly AAA ones, as most horror fans were in the late 00s before the resurgence in the genre spearheaded by Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Even if Dead Space 3 left a bitter taste in many mouths for the entire series, the first game is an absolute gem in modern survival horror. It can be slow at times, and has been called a bit repetitive, but if survival horror is your thing and you’re a fan of Alien or The Brood, please play it. It’s one hell of a memorable experience. Very few games before or after Dead Space have created such a terrifying atmosphere. And remember: cut off their limbs.

Dead Space is available from April 1st through 15th, for Xbox 360

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Based on comic book series Fables, The Wolf Among Us is a contemporary adaptation of popular fairy tales, where characters from these narratives are displaced from their own lands and into Fabletown, a hidden sector of New York City. The reform and conform to human society, bringing with them their own magical powers and politics. In this point-and-click adventure game, players control protagonist and sheriff of Fabletown Bigby Wolf as he attempts to unravel a grisly murder mystery.

While each character is based in established folklore, these tales are not required reading to enjoy the story. In my experience, the inspiration for some characters such as Bigby Wolf, the reformed Big Bad Wolf, The Huntsman, and Snow White were obvious, while I also had no idea who Ichabod Crane or Mr. Toad were. While familiarity with relevant folklore may give players extra insight into the characters, I would not exclusively recommend this game to fans of fairy tales. This game is recommended for anyone who enjoys both the delivery of Telltale’s The Walking Dead – I know there’s a lot of you – and unsettling, violent drama along the lines of True Detective.

Taking note of Telltale’s careful choice of words, much like in TWD, the gaming experience is tailored by how you play. The player’s decisions do not offer vastly different gameplay situations, but do tailor the experience, creating an endgame where you have behaved more or less aggressively, established a stronger relationship with this or that person, or permitted, in some capacity, death. These situations have shallow consequences which feel much more fundamentally game changing than they really are. This is a symptom of all of Telltale’s games though, and while The Wolf Among Us suffers from it, it does so as brilliantly and convincingly as its widely celebrated precursor, TWD.

Unfortunately for Telltale, TWAU was first released in the same year as The Last of Us and Grand Theft Auto V, so of course, it received no GOTY.

The Wolf Among Us is available for the entire month of April, for Xbox One

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If there was a game I could wipe my memory of, it would be Sunset Overdrive. Not because it was bad–far from it. It is, by far, the best Xbox One exclusive game. I would wipe my memory of it just so I get a chance to play it for the first time again. It is a funny, colourful, fourth wall breaking, pop culture referencing, chaotic game. A game in which it is completely normal to wear a cape, skate around on power lines and shoot exploding teddy bears at zombies (called OD).

Along the road, you meet several people who will help you out – but of course, only if you help them first. From collecting comic books from ODs who didn’t return them before turning, to killing large amounts of pigeons and strangely enough, LARPing–Sunset Overdrive takes you on a tumultuous ride through the OD-overrun city, in a quest to escape the city and expose the evils of energy drink company Fizzco. With weapons customisable with amps–special functions that do anything from spawn a Grim Reaper to help you out, to sprouting flowers, spawning money, or creating small nuclear explosions–the combinations for your arsenal are almost endless.

Colourful, insane and hilarious, Sunset Overdrive embraces the idea of video games being just fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and lets you play how you want. With no sprint button, you traverse the city by bouncing on cars, umbrellas and fountains, or by grinding along railings or power lines. With cut scenes ending with “By the time you get control of your character again, I will have mysteriously disappeared” to quest instructions coming through to a “Hang on, how are we talking right now?”, Sunset Overdrive will have you laughing just as much as it will have you saying “What the fuck?” If you only play one Games with Gold game this month – make it this one.

Sunset Overdrive is available from April 16th through May 15th, for Xbox One

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Before I played any of the Saints Row games, I was absolutely convinced that I was going to hate everything about them. I (like Nick, back when he reviewed the game at its time of release back in 2013) assumed them to be GTA clones with some extra profanity and ludicrously over-the-top weapons thrown in there just for the shock factor. Boy, was I glad to be proven wrong so spectacularly (so was Nick and you can read that review here). Saints Row IV surprised a lot of people by being more overblown, more implausible and more incoherent than its predecessors, but also by being a whole lot of damn good fun. 

Yes, the plot is ridiculous, but that’s what makes it great. You were the leader of a gang, then you became the President of the United States, and now you and said gang are trying to save the planet from an alien invasion – and that’s just the beginning. Not only do you have an insane arsenal of weapons at your disposal for this task, but you also have superpowers that allow you to move fluidly around the world and attack enemies in new and (if you can believe it) even more creative ways. Nothing is realistic, and that’s the point. The surrealism and self-awareness of the game are what make it so much fun, so funny, and so fundamentally messed up but ultimately memorable. Even though the game feels like a giant joke, everything runs so fluidly that just exploring the open world holds your attention and smacks of a game that was made with genuine care.

Even if you don’t think the Saints Row series is your thing, I’d urge you to try out Saints Row IV (and its expansion, Gat Out of Hell, which will go down as one of my favourite expansions of all time). You might be surprised.  It’s lewd, it’s crude, and it gives you the option of creating a female character who is voiced by Nolan North which is just weird, but it’s definitely unlike anything else. When anyone asks me which game I’ve had the most fun with in the last few years, I tell them it was this one, without hesitation. It’s like all the good bits of GTA without the horrible attitudes towards women and with added superpowers – what’s not to love?

Saints Row IV is available from April 16th through 30th, for Xbox 360

 

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