This week's selection of Xbox Live Indie games is headlined by an unexpected winner: a fan project designed under the auspices of one of gaming's most reviled companies. It's cause for celebration as major publishers are starting to recognise the service for the unique selling point and opportunity it provides... and hopefully Microsoft will acknowledge this themselves soon enough.
Again, if you're a fan of indie games, I'd absolutely urge you to bookmark this page. It will grant you immediate access to the most recently-released Xbox Live Indie titles on the browser marketplace, and means that you won't have to jump through the Metro dashboard's labyrinthine hoops.
Dark Reign Redux
Wow. This is a turn-up for the books.
Activision are infamous for aggressively shutting down most fan projects with draconian abandon (with free King's Quest: The Silver Lining as a single exception), but in this case, they've actually collaborated with a small developer to bring an ancient title back to life. Magnetar Games have enjoyed full access to the Dark Reign license and Activision's QA testers, and have successfully recreated the classic RTS on the Xbox 360 with Bobby Kotick's blessing.
Dark Reign's solid singleplayer campaign, varied units and strong storyline have all been lovingly replicated, along with all the content of the original game. Slick controller optimisation allows players to select units and designate waypoints with ease - and though a gamepad is no substitute for a mouse and keyboard, it works surprisingly well. Pleasingly, the resolution has been increased and the level of detail improved so that it looks reasonable on larger televisions while retaining the retro charm of its predecessor.
In fact, the strengths of the original game are what makes Dark Reign Redux a worthwhile purchase in the 21st century. Unit variety and balance adds impressive tactical depth to the proceedings, with some able to blend into the surroundings to avoid detection or minic enemy troops for devastating surprise attacks. You can also assign specific behaviours to the AI (for example, making them less likely to pursue enemies or seek healing), thus increasing the potential for complex strategies and satisfying micromanagement. Some of these options are a little tricky to access on the Xbox 360 controller, but practice makes perfect. I can't help but feel that a stronger tutorial would have been appropriate, mind.
Skirmish modes and a fully-featured multiplayer suite round out the package, providing a significant amount of value and thoroughly justifying the price tag.
There's just once catch. Magnetar will soon be launching a PC browser version that feels much more natural thanks to the tried-and-tested mouse functionality. A mobile app is also planned that will benefit from touchscreen controls. 400 Microsoft Points isn't a big ask, but it's enough to suggest that you try the free browser demo out first. Prices haven't been determined yet, so we'll keep an eye out.
Dark Reign Redux is a blast from the past that's well worth a second look.
Space Fighter 4000 Training
- Developer: Fednet Software
- Get Trial/Buy: 240 Microsoft Points
The Xbox Live Indie channel has its fair share of arcade flight sims, and upon first inspection, Space Fighter 4000 appears to be more spartan than most. Primitive 3D visuals, a simplistic GUI and simple level geometry mean that it certainly isn't easy on the eyes.
But like the Fednet Software that gave us Star Fighter 3000 on the Acorn (I have no idea whether it's the same company, but the reference is definitely there), this solid flier packs substance over style. Flight mechanics and bombing runs feel responsive yet handle with an authentic degree of weight and inertia - bringing the combat home with satisfying destruction mechanics once you land a projectile on target.
We'd love to see the same engine applied to a full game with customisation options, more missions and a storyline to tie it all together... and considering that this first outing is just the "training," we reckon that this could happen sooner rather than later.
Gold Digger: The Comic
Developer: Fred Perry
Get Trial/Buy: 80 Microsoft Points
Yep. This is a comic, not a game.
Seven issues of Fred Perry's cult Gold Digger series, to be more accurate.
It's great to see the Xbox Live Indie service being used to deliver new kinds of content, and this long-running series is charming, well-drawn, funny and sexy. The trial version will give you enough to know whether Gold Digger's Indiana Jones-esque vibe will appeal to you - and 80 Microsoft Points is a steal for seven issues. Until Microsoft delivers a proper home for comics and graphic novels (something they're almost certainly looking into for Windows 8 phones and tablets), this is a great little offering that shows a new way for other, smaller artists to get their work into the public domain.