Editorial: Xbox Live Arcade – putting the AAA titles to shame

Just a quick one from me this week. T’is Easter Weekend, and I have resurrected rabbits that secrete chocolate when nailed to a hot cross bun to worship. I wanted to draw your attention, however, just in case you were unaware, to two outstanding-looking games that are due to be released in the next couple of weeks. My pieces for this site – and, who am I trying to kid, practically everything I say to anyone, ever, about anything – can sometimes appear negative. I tend to focus on things that I can’t do, things that the industry mucks up, and even when I am sort of positive (as here), I manage to frame it in a nostalgic way that presumes that things used to be so much better. So this week I intend instead to talk about two games that seemingly prove that new ideas and gameplay in its purest sense are still out there.

Fez – Xbox Live Arcade (released April 13th)

Those that have heard of this game will realise that I write this knowing full well that the game may very well not come out on April 13th. Polyton first announced Fez nearly five years, and it has suffered interminable delays ever since. It was supposed to be released in early 2010, but was put back for a further two years. Surprisingly, it looks like it may prove worth waiting for. Both premise and gameplay are reassuringly simple.  Your task is collect cubes which have been scattered everywhere, in order to save the world.

It is, at heart, an old school platformer. But it is a platformer, quite literally (sort of) with a twist. In order to reach hitherto unseen or unreachable points of the game, you are able to alter your perspective. Each time you do, platforms become accessible, new rooms appear, and there is an extremely clever blurring of 2 and 3D which leaves the game looking like an amalgamation of every great platform game, while retaining a genuine uniqueness. It is sweet, colourful and altogether damn lovable. Oh, and it costs just 800 Microsoft points. Oh how I wish they’d just charge you money. Sorry, sorry, I almost let the mask of positivity slip.

Trials – Xbox Live Arcade (released April 18th)

Trials Evolution is the sequel to the much-loved 2009 game, which was produced by Finnish developer RedLynx. Trials had many similarities with Fez. It is in many ways an unashamedly retro game, which harks back to the days where racing games had a limited number of tracks, and would lead to incessant, repetitive attempts to shave the smallest of percentages from your best time. Also like Fez is the manner in which the game uses modern technology to forge a game that is comforting in its familiarity yet feels simultaneously innovative. With Fez it is achieved with the use of a 3D world, and the ease with which contemporary consoles are able to rotate large areas.

Trials, however, was all about modern physics engines. Somehow, even though the gameplay was deliberately outlandish – exploding barrels catapulting you across unfeasibly large gaps, allowing you to do ridiculous amounts of tricks while airborne. Yet, somehow, the physics were so perfectly realised that it somehow felt like you were actually on the bike. The slower, trickier segments, which were all about balance, felt genuinely precarious. Too much throttle up a steep hill and you would end up lifting the front end too far, twatting (and oh how this game likes a good twat of the body parts – it’s pretty much a wince-fest from start to finish as you crash – repeatedly – into tracks, cliffs, walls, barrels and more) your head as you roll down the hill. Too little throttle and you just roll down the hill, undoubtedly twatting something into something at some point.

Although each stage had checkpoints, they were few and far between. Besides,the genius of the game was that the player did not just want to get through the game; they wanted to ace it. For the first time in an age, I was a perfectionist at a game. For ¬†turning me back into an over-competitive child again, it remains one of my favourite games of this generation. Its sequel, as can be gathered from its title, does not seek to reinvent the wheel. It is still based around its physics engine, and the majority of the gameplay sees you attempting to complete courses in the quickest and least accident-prone manner. The additions are perhaps predictable: both local and online multiplayer feature prominently, for example. It also has a comprehensive track editor, which looks to be huge amounts of fun. Basically, for all the AAA titles that will be released before the end of the year, for all the impending news of next-generation consoles, it is a simple Xbox Live Arcade game that has turned me into an over-excitable child again. It’s not cheap, at 1400 Microsoft points. Not only is this expensive, but it is about the most awkward amount of points you can have, given that you can buy 2100 points, leaving you just short of being able to buy both Fez and Trials Evolution. Anyone would think that this is the reason for Microsoft using the points system rather than the sensible way of just charging you money for the games. Not me though, Microsoft have never done anything as a company to make me think they are anything but an altruistic bunch.

Gripes regarding Microsoft’s thieving ways aside, these are two relatively inexpensive games (you can buy both for about half of a Modern Warfare 3) that prove that innovation and classic gameplay are still present, and that a game doesn’t need to have cinematic cut-scenes and out of work Hollywood voice-actors to surprise you or make you remember why you love video games; as the old saying goes, sometimes scattered cubes, the ability to change perspectives, magic motorbikes and a shit-load of exploding barrels is enough.