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Indie games for players worn out on AAA titles – TechCrunch

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2018 has been a big year for big games, and with new titles from the Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises all competing… it’s enough to make a gamer want to just quit and play something a little more low-key. Here are some of the smaller, independent games we liked from this year and who they might appeal to.

Bonus: Many of these can be gotten for less than $30, making them super solid/easy gifts. They aren’t for any particular platform or in any particular order, except that I’ve been playing the heck out of Ashen for the last couple of days, so it’s first.

Ashen – for “Souls” lovers

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

(To be fair, this is less of an “indie” than the others on this list, some of which were made by one person, but it’s just off the beaten path enough to qualify.)

If you’ve ever heard your loved one talk about “builds,” really hard bosses or which helmet completes their outfit best, they probably play games of the Dark Souls type. Ashen is a new action-adventure-RPG in the same vein but with a few notable twists. It has a lovely art style, a streamlined (but still byzantine) progression system and an interesting multiplayer style where other players drop into your game, and you drop into theirs, with no real warning or interaction. It works better than you’d think, and I’ve already had some great experiences with it.

Yoku’s Island Express – for people who like both pinball and Metroidvanias

Available on: Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Windows

Don’t be fooled by the cuteness of Yoku’s Island Express. This game is both unique and well-crafted, a fusion of (believe it or not) pinball mechanics and gradual exploration of an enormous map. It’s definitely weird, but it immediately clicks in a way you wouldn’t expect. It’s a great break from the grim environments of… well, lots of the games on this list.

Dead Cells – for action fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, Linux, macOS

The “roguelike” genre has you traversing procedurally generated variations on a series of levels and progressing farther by improving your own skills — and sometimes getting a couple shiny new weapons or abilities. Dead Cells takes this genre and combines it with incredibly tight side-scrolling action and platforming that never gets, old even when you’re going through the sewers for the 20th time. The developers were very responsive during Early Access; the game was great when I bought it early in the year, and now it’s even better.

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Below – for atmosphere fans who won’t mind “roguelike” repetition

Available on: Xbox One, Windows

In some ways, Below is the opposite of Dead Cells, though they share a bit of DNA. This game, the long-awaited follow-up to Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP by Capy, is a slow, dark, tense descent into a mysterious cave; it’s almost totally wordless and shown with a pulled-back perspective that makes things feel both twee and terrifying. The less said about the particulars of the game, the better (the gamer should discover on their own), but it may be fairly noted that this is a title that requires some patience and experimentation — and yes, you’re going to die on a spike trap.

Cultist Simulator – for the curious

Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux

It’s very hard to explain Cultist Simulator. It’s an interactive story, different every time, told through cards that you draw and play, and which interact with each other in strange and wonderful ways. One card might be a place, another an action, another a person, all of which can be used, investigated or sacrificed to other cards: ideas, drives, gods… it’s really quite amazing, even if you rarely have any idea what’s happening. But the curious and driven will derive great satisfaction from learning the way this strange, beautifully made machine works.

Return of the Obra Dinn – for the observant (and dedicated)

Available on: macOS, Windows

This game absorbed me completely for a few days earlier this year. Like the above, it’s a bit hard to explain: you’re given the task of determining the identities and fates of the entire crew of the titular ghost ship by using a magic watch to witness their last words and the moment of their death. That task, and the story it reveals as you accomplish it, grows increasingly disturbing and complex. The beautiful 1-bit art, great music and voice acting, and extremely clever construction make this game — essentially made by one person, Lucas Pope — one of my favorites of the year. But it’s only for people who don’t mind banging their head against things a bit.

Dusk – for connoisseurs of old-school shooters

Available on: Windows, Switch

If your loved one ever talks about the good-old days of Quake, Half-Life, Unreal and other classic shooters, Dusk will be right up their alley. The chunky graphics are straight out of the ’90s, but the game brings a level of self-awareness and fun, not to mention some gameplay improvements, that make it a joy to play.

CrossCode – for anyone who spent more time playing SNES Classic than AAA games this year

Available on: Windows, Linux, macOS

This crowd-funded RPG was long in the making, and it shows. It’s huge! A fusion of SNES and PSX-era pixel art, smooth but furious top-down action à la Secret of Mana, and a whole lot of skills and equipment. I’ve played nearly 20 hours so far and I’m only now starting to fill out the second branch of four skill trees; the overarching story is still just getting rolling. I told you it was huge! But it’s also fabulous.

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Celeste – for the dexterous and those not inclined to anger

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, macOS, Windows, Linux

Celeste is one of those games they call “Nintendo Hard,” that elusive combination of difficulty and control that cause you to be more disappointed in yourself than the game when you die. And you will die in Celeste — over and over. Hundreds of times. It gleefully tracks the number of deaths on each set of stages, and you should expect well into three figures. The platforming is that hard — but the game is also that good. Not only is its pixel art style cute and the environments lovingly and carefully crafted, but it tells a touching story and the dialog is actually pretty fun.

Overcooked! 2 –  for friendships strong enough to survive it

Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Windows, macOS

Much like the first Overcooked, the sequel has you and your friends attempting to navigate chaotic kitchens, hazards, and each other as you try to put together simple dishes like salads and hamburgers for never-sated patrons. The simple controls belie the emergent complexity of the gameplay, and while it can be frustrating at first, it’s immensely satisfying when you get into the zone and blast through a target number of dishes. But only do it with friends you think you can tolerate screaming and bossing each other around.

Into the Breach – for the tactically minded

Available on: Switch, Windows, macOS, Linux

The follow-up to the addictive starship simulator roguelike Faster Than Light (FTL), Into the Breach is a game of tactics taking place on tiny boards loaded with monsters and mechs — but don’t let the small size fool you. The solutions to these little tableaux require serious thinking as you position, attack, and (hopefully) repel the alien invaders. Matt says it’s “perfect for Switch.”

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Report: FTC “likely” to file suit to block Microsoft/Activision merger

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Enlarge / Just a few of the Activision franchises that will become Microsoft properties if and when the acquisition is finalized.

Microsoft / Activision

The Federal Trade Commission will “likely” move to file an antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft and Activision Blizzard to block the companies’ planned $69 billion merger deal. That’s according to a new Politico report citing “three [unnamed] people with knowledge of the matter.”

While Politico writes that a lawsuit is still “not guaranteed,” it adds that FTC staffers “are skeptical of the companies’ arguments” that the deal will not be anticompetitive. The sources also confirmed that “much of the heavy lifting is complete” in the commission’s investigation, and that a suit could be filed as early as next month.

Sony, the main opponent of Microsoft’s proposed purchase, has argued publicly that an existing contractual three-year guarantee to keep Activision’s best-selling Call of Duty franchise on PlayStation is “inadequate on many levels.” In response, Microsoft Head of Xbox Phil Spencer has publicly promised to continue shipping Call of Duty games on PlayStation “as long as there’s a PlayStation out there to ship to.” It’s not clear if the companies have memorialized that offer as a legal agreement, though; The New York Times reported this week that Microsoft had offered a “10-year deal to keep Call of Duty on PlayStation.”

Numerous statements from Microsoft executives, including Spencer, have suggested the company is less interested in bolstering its position in the “console wars” and more interested in boosting its mobile, cloud gaming, and Game Pass subscription offerings. Beyond Call of Duty, Politico reports that the FTC is concerned over how Microsoft “could leverage future, unannounced titles to boost its gaming business.”

Microsoft “is prepared to address the concerns of regulators, including the FTC, and Sony to ensure the deal closes with confidence,” spokesperson David Cuddy told Politico. “We’ll still trail Sony and Tencent in the market after the deal closes, and together Activision and Xbox will benefit gamers and developers and make the industry more competitive.”

Plenty of speed bumps remain

The reports of a potential FTC lawsuit add to a growing list of troubling signals about the proposed purchase from various international governments. Earlier this month, the European Commission said it was moving on to an “in-depth investigation” of the deal. In the UK, a similar “Phase 2” investigation by the country’s Competition and Markets Authority has scheduled hearing for next month.

Those international investigations are expected to wrap up in March, ensuring the proposed deal won’t close before then and giving the FTC some time before it would have to file suit. Any such lawsuit would need to be approved by a majority of the four current FTC commissioners and would likely start in the FTC’s administrative court. And whatever the outcome, legal maneuvering in the case could easily delay the planned merger past a July 2023 contractual deadline, at which point both companies would have to renegotiate or abandon the deal.

An FTC lawsuit in this matter would also be a the strongest sign yet of a robust antitrust enforcement regime under FTC chair Lina Kahn, a big tech skeptic who was named to the post in June. Back in July, Kahn announced an antitrust lawsuit against Meta (formerly Facebook) and its proposed $400 million purchase of Within, makers of VR fitness app Supernatural.

Three months after Microsoft’s proposed purchase was announced in January, a group of four US Senators wrote an open letter strongly urging the FTC to take a close look at the deal. Last month, merger news site Dealreporter said FTC staff had expressed “significant concerns” about the deal. And this week, the New York Times cited “two people” in reporting that the FTC had reached out to other companies for sworn statements laying out their concerns about the deal, a possible sign of lawsuit preparations.

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Crypto and NFTs aren’t welcome in Grand Theft Auto Online

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Enlarge / Cold hard (virtual) cash only in GTA Online, please.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs have been formally disallowed from Grand Theft Auto Online‘s popular role-playing (RP) servers. That’s according to a new set of guidelines posted on Rockstar’s support site last Friday.

In the note, the game’s publisher says its new RP server rules are aligned with Rockstar’s existing rules for single-player mods. Both sets of rules prohibit content that uses third-party intellectual property, interferes with official multiplayer services, or makes new “games, stories, missions or maps” for the game. This means RP servers based on re-creating Super Mario Kart in the Grand Theft Auto world, for instance, could face “priority in enforcement actions” from Rockstar.

But the new RP guidelines surpass the existing single-player mod guidelines in barring “commercial exploitation.” That’s a wide-ranging term that Rockstar says specifically includes selling loot boxes, virtual currencies, corporate sponsorships, or any integrations of cryptocurrencies of “crypto assets (e.g. ‘NFTs’).”

It’s all been done before

The new guidelines seem to directly respond to “The Trenches,” a role-playing community launched in September by OTF Gaming and rapper Lil Durk. That server advertised integration with both “endemic and non-endemics brands in the gaming space” and a “Trenches Pass” NFT drop to access specific on-server content.

“We’ve been asked to cease all operations of Trenches,” OTF Gaming said in a statement on social media. “We have no choice but to comply with their demands, as we intend to do right by Take-Two and Rockstar. We will be working with them to find an amicable solution to this matter.”

If this situation sounds familiar, it might be because developer Mojang similarly barred NFT integration from its online servers in July. At the time, Minecraft-based crypto project NFT Worlds said it was hoping to work with Mojang to “find an alternative outcome that’s beneficial to the Minecraft player base.”

Days later, though, NFT Worlds said it gave up on that and began work on a new game that will be “based on many of the core mechanics of Minecraft” but which will be “completely untethered from the policy enforcement Microsoft and Mojang have over Minecraft.”

In Minecraft‘s case, Mojang said that the “scarcity and exclusion” inherent to NFTs “does not align with Minecraft values of creative inclusion and playing together.” That reasoning applies less to GTA Online, though, a game that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually by selling in-game currency and exclusive items for use by players.

If anything, things like NFTs and loot boxes could be seen as competition for GTA Online‘s official monetization efforts. With that competition cut off, though, Rockstar sounds eager to allow RP servers to continue to operate within reason.

“Rockstar Games has always believed in reasonable fan creativity and wants creators to showcase their passion for our games,” the company writes. “Third-party ‘Roleplay’ servers are an extension of the rich array of community-created experiences within Grand Theft Auto that we hope will continue to thrive in a safe and friendly way for many years to come.”

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Ubisoft comes crawling back to Steam after years on Epic Games Store

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Enlarge / Artist’s conception of Valve watching the return of Ubisoft games to its Steam platform.

Since early 2019, Ubisoft has made a point of moving its PC releases away from Steam and toward the Epic Games Store and its own Ubisoft connect platform. That years-long experiment now seems to be ending, as Ubisoft has confirmed at least three recent PC releases will be getting Steam versions in the near future.

A page for 2020’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was officially added to Steam Monday, listing a December 6 launch date on the platform. Ubisoft has also told Eurogamer that 2019’s Anno 1800 and Roller Champions will be coming to Steam, confirming earlier rumors to that effect.

The coming Steam versions are Ubisoft’s first non-DLC releases on the platform since 2019, when Trials Rising and Starlink: Battle for Atlas launched on Steam. Since then, releases from Far Cry 6 and Watch Dogs Legion to Immortals: Fenyx Rising and Ghost Recon: Breakpoint have all been unavailable on Valve’s industry-dominating PC storefront.

“We’re constantly evaluating how to bring our games to different audiences wherever they are, while providing a consistent player ecosystem through Ubisoft Connect,” a Ubisoft spokesperson said in a statement provided to the press.

That statement is a major reversal from 2019, though, when Ubisoft Vice President for Partnerships and Revenue Chris Early told The New York Times that Steam’s business model—and its 30 percent commissions—were “unrealistic” and didn’t “reflect where the world is today in terms of game distribution.”

Steam’s prodigal publishers

Ubisoft’s return to Steam comes after Activision Blizzard ended a similar years-long Steam absence for the ultra-popular Call of Duty franchise. This year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the first series game to appear on Steam since 2017’s Call of Duty WW2, with intervening releases available only on Activision Blizzard’s Battle.net launcher.

In 2019, EA also ended a years-long effort to avoid Steam releases in favor of its own Origin storefront. That’s when Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order became the publisher’s first Steam release since 2012.

While Ubisoft eschewed Steam releases voluntarily, Epic continues to pay huge amounts of money for specific high-profile games to launch as timed exclusives on the Epic Games Store. That includes a $146 million up-front payment against royalties on Borderlands 3, whose exclusive launch on the Epic Games Store in 2019 attracted 750,000 new users to Epic’s platform, according to company documents revealed during the Epic vs. Apple trial. When Borderlands 3 came to Steam months later, though, Take Two CEO Strauss Zelnick said sales on Valve’s platform “exceeded our expectations.”

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