Microsoft buys Activision Blizzard

Well that certainly came out of nowhere! Microsoft has opened its wallet once again, this time buying up massive video games publisher Activision Blizzard for a whopping $69 billion. Nice.

After receiving criticism during the previous console generation for the lack of exclusive games on its Xbox One system, Microsoft has stepped up in a big way in the last few years. Early moves brought on board companies like Obsidian and Rare, and then last year came another shock announcement: the acquisition of ZeniMax – the parent company of Bethesda. All of those laid the groundwork for something big, and Microsoft has now added Activision Blizzard to its lineup, bringing on board hugely popular games and franchises like Call of Duty, Overwatch, World of Warcraft, and even popular mobile game Candy Crush.

Microsoft will soon own Candy Crush!

At almost ten times the price of its Bethesda purchase, Microsoft clearly has big plans for Activision Blizzard and its games. Even by the standards of other corporate takeovers, $69 billion is a lot of money – an almost unfathomable amount. As Microsoft looks to expand its Xbox and PC gaming platforms, though, it makes a lot of sense to bring on board a company like Activision Blizzard.

Keep in mind that Microsoft is currently pushing hard to take gaming as a whole in a new direction, pioneering a subscription model based on the likes of Netflix – indeed, Game Pass was originally pitched as the video game equivalent of Netflix. Though on the surface the company seems to be taking a two-pronged approach, with its Xbox home console family and PC gaming being separate, in many ways that isn’t really the case any more. Microsoft’s goal is to bring these two platforms as close together as possible, offering most games to players regardless of their chosen platform. One need only look to two of the biggest releases of the past year as an example: both Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5 came to both Xbox and PC, despite originally being franchises that were exclusive to consoles.

Forza Horizon 5 was a massive title for both Xbox and PC – and came to Game Pass on release day.

Let’s step back for a moment. My initial reaction to this news was disbelief! But after double-checking my sources and confirming that this was, in fact, not some kind of elaborate prank, my next thoughts were of the Activision Blizzard scandal, and how from Microsoft’s point of view this may not have been the best time to announce this acquisition.

There’s no denying that Activision Blizzard is a tainted brand in the eyes of many players, with the severity of the sexual abuse scandal cutting through to make the news in mainstream outlets when it broke last year. Perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, the scandal is part of the reason why Microsoft may have felt that the timing was right – Activision Blizzard shares had lost basically a third of their value over the last few months (down from almost $100 per share to below $65 prior to the acquisition announcement). Microsoft arguably made a savvy deal in some respects.

Activision Blizzard is a company embroiled in scandal right now.

There also seems to be a sense from at least some quarters of the gaming press and gaming community that Microsoft is “swooping in” to save Activision Blizzard from the scandal, perhaps even preserving the jobs of some employees or protecting games and franchises from cancellation. I didn’t really expect this reaction, and while it’s safe to say there’s been plenty of criticism to balance out some of the positivity, overall the mood of players seems to be more in favour of this acquisition than opposed to it.

We should talk about exclusivity before we go any further. Despite the hopeful – almost desperate – claims being made in some quarters, Microsoft isn’t going to publish Activision Blizzard titles on PlayStation forever. Once the deal has gone through and existing contracts have been fulfilled, expect to see all of Activision Blizzard’s new titles and big franchises become Xbox, PC, and Game Pass exclusives.

Starfield is a highly-anticipated Bethesda title – and it will be an Xbox and PC exclusive following Microsoft’s acquisition of Bethesda.

This is exactly what happened with Bethesda. Some players clung to the argument that Microsoft somehow wouldn’t want to limit the sales of some of these games to Xbox and PC players only, with some even going so far as to claim that we were witnessing the “death of console exclusives.” That hasn’t happened (to put it mildly) and we’re now expecting massive games like Starfield to become Xbox, PC, and Game Pass exclusives.

When Microsoft first jumped into the home console market in 2001 with the original Xbox, a lot of games industry critics and commentators argued that the company would open its wallet and spend, spend, spend in order to compete with the likes of Sega, Nintendo, and Sony. Microsoft certainly made some sound investments in games early on, but it’s really taken almost twenty years for some of those concerns to be borne out – and by now, the gaming landscape has so thoroughly shifted that it doesn’t feel like a bad thing any more.

It’s been more than two decades since Microsoft jumped into the home console market.

When Microsoft announced the acquisitions of the likes of Oblivion, Rare, and even Bethesda, there was still a sense that the games industry was pursuing its longstanding business model: develop games, release them, sell them, turn a profit, repeat. But now I believe we’re actually in the midst of a major realignment in the way the entire games industry operates – a realignment that’s shaping up to be as disruptive as Netflix’s emergence as a streaming powerhouse in the early 2010s.

Microsoft isn’t making all of these big purchases just to make games and sell them individually. That approach will remain for the foreseeable future, of course, but it isn’t the company’s primary objective. In my view, this is all about Game Pass – Microsoft’s subscription service. Microsoft has seen how successful the subscription model has been for the likes of Netflix – but more importantly for the likes of Disney with Disney+.

Disney+ is both an inspiration and a warning for Microsoft and Game Pass.

As streaming has become bigger and bigger in the film and television sphere, more companies have tried to set up their own competing platforms. In doing so, they pulled their titles from Netflix – something we saw very recently with Star Trek: Discovery, for example, which will now be exclusively available on Paramount+. Microsoft is not content to simply license titles from other companies – like Activision Blizzard – because they fear that a day is coming soon when other companies try to become direct competitors with their own platforms – muscling in on what Microsoft sees as its turf. If Sony gets its act together and finally manages to launch a Game Pass competitor on its PlayStation consoles, Microsoft will be in an out-and-out scrap, and pre-empting that fight is what acquisitions like this one are all about.

If Netflix had had the foresight to use a portion of the money it had been making in the early 2010s to buy up film studios or television production companies, it would have lost far fewer titles over the last few years, and wouldn’t have needed to pivot so heavily into creating its own content from scratch. I think that the Activision Blizzard deal is one way for Microsoft to shore up its own subscription service ahead of a potential repeat of the “streaming wars” in the video game realm.

The official announcement image.

So it isn’t just about “more games for Game Pass” – this deal is about Microsoft’s vision for the future of gaming as a medium, and also their concerns about other companies trying to elbow their way in and become serious competitors. Spending $69 billion may be a huge financial hit up front, but if it pays off it will mean that Game Pass will remain competitive and profitable for years – or even decades – to come. That’s the attitude that I see through this move.

And I don’t believe for a moment that Microsoft is done. Activision Blizzard may be the company’s biggest acquisition to date, but it won’t be the last. When the deal is done and has officially gone through – something that most likely won’t happen for at least twelve months – expect to see Microsoft lining up its next big purchase, and it could be yet another games industry heavyweight. There have been rumours in the past that Microsoft had considered making a move for Electronic Arts, for example… so watch this space!

Could another big purchase be on the cards in the next couple of years?

As a player, these are exciting times – but also turbulent times. I increasingly feel that it’s hardly worth purchasing brand-new games, because several massive titles that I’ve spent money on have ended up coming to Game Pass. In the last few days the Hitman trilogy has arrived on the platform, Doom Eternal landed on Game Pass last year, and even Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is now on the platform less than a year after its release. What’s the point in buying any new games any more? Let’s just wait and it seems Microsoft will eventually bring them to Game Pass!

This is, of course, an attitude Microsoft wants to foster. If Game Pass is an appealing prospect, players will stop buying games. Once they’re “locked in” to the Game Pass ecosystem, Microsoft thinks it’s got them for the long haul. This is how Netflix, Disney+, and other streaming platforms view their audiences, too: once someone has been hooked in, they tend to stay hooked in. That’s why they put the majority of their time and energy into recruiting new subscribers rather than ensuring current subscribers stay signed up.

This is all about Game Pass.

So it’s an interesting moment in gaming, and one that has the potential to herald an entirely new chapter in the medium’s history. People who decry the death of buying individual titles increasingly feel like they’re on the losing side; relics of an era that’s rapidly drawing to a close. Subscriptions have basically become the norm in film and television, with sales of DVDs, Blu-rays, and the like in what seems to be terminal decline. Television viewership, along with cable and satellite subscriptions, are likewise declining.

And who really feels that the death of broadcast television is something to mourn? Subscription platforms offered viewers a better deal – so they snapped it up. If Game Pass can do the same for gaming, more and more players will jump on board.

The Call of Duty series will soon join Game Pass.

Speaking for myself, I’ve been a subscriber to the PC version of Game Pass for almost a year-and-a-half. In that time, my subscription has cost me £8 per month ($10 in the US, I think). Call it eighteen months, and that’s £144 – or roughly the same amount of money as three brand-new full-price video games. In that time I’ve played more than three games, meaning Game Pass feels like a pretty good deal. If Microsoft continues to splash its cash on the likes of Activision Blizzard, bringing even more titles to the platform without asking me to pay substantially more for my subscription, then as a consumer I gotta say it’s worth it.

One corporate acquisition on its own does not irreversibly shift the gaming landscape. But we’re on a trajectory now that I believe will see gaming move away from the old way of doing business into a new era where subscriptions will be a dominant force. There will be advantages and disadvantages to this, but I don’t see it slowing down. As the likes of Sony and even Nintendo try to compete with Game Pass, if anything we’re likely to see this trend speed up.

Watch this space – because this certainly won’t be Microsoft’s last big move.

All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Some promotional screenshots courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Forza Horizon 5 – video game review

Forza Horizon 5 was released in November for Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and PC. It took a little while, but after spending quite a bit of time with the game over the past few weeks I’m finally ready to put pen to paper and share my thoughts!

Forza Horizon 5 is a big game. There are different kinds of races and events to participate in, ranging from multi-race championships all the way to smaller challenges and mini-events. The game’s open world is huge and offers varied terrains and scenery. And perhaps most importantly for a racing game, Forza Horizon 5 offers a veritable smorgasbord of cars to choose from.

What Forza Horizon 5 is not, though, is massively different from its predecessor. If you’ve played Forza Horizon 4 at all, you know the formula. This time around there’s more: the game world is bigger, there are more roads to drive on, more races and events to take part in, and so on. But it isn’t a fundamentally different experience – aside from the scenery changing from the quaint English countryside to the deserts, jungles, and beaches of Mexico, it’s basically an iterative instalment of the series. I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem for Forza Horizon 5; it’s a riff on the same concept, expanding it in some significant areas but without really breaking new ground. However, when the formula works, why shake it up too much? As the saying goes: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

The Horizon spin-off series has always taken a more casual approach than mainline games in the Forza Motorsport series, and that trend continues here. There’s a party atmosphere that runs through the entire game, with a handful of named characters who all take a very laid-back approach to running the titular Horizon festival. That feeling extends to gameplay, too. Races are organised seemingly haphazardly, and there’s a lot of fun to be had simply by exploring the open world, making your own fun, and driving some fancy cars at high speed!

Forza Horizon 5 is perhaps the most accessible racing game I’ve played – except, maybe, for Mario Kart 8. The game is geared up for fans of arcade racing, with a “pick-up-and-play” attitude that feels perfectly aligned with the aforementioned casual, laid-back approach taken by characters within the game itself. That isn’t to say that Forza Horizon 5 presents no challenge – not at all. But this is a game that allows players to tailor the kind of challenge or fun that they want to the way that they like to play. There are options to tweak practically every aspect of single-player gameplay, meaning Forza Horizon 5 would be a great introduction to racing games for a complete newbie – but a game that experienced racing fans can enjoy as well.

As a gamer with disabilities, I always appreciate games that go out of their way to be accommodating. In Forza Horizon 5, it’s possible to slow down single-player gameplay to give players more time to react or make moves. It’s possible to see a guide line on the ground or along racetracks pointing players in the right direction. And there are different levels of assistance; cars can be set up to brake automatically, for example, as well as change gears. Forza Horizon 5 also recommends specific cars for specific races, ensuring that players who aren’t familiar with cars or racing games won’t find themselves in an unwinnable situation.

None of these things have to be used, and they can all be turned off for players who want a more realistic or challenging racing experience. The game has pre-set difficulty options, but within those pre-sets it’s possible to tweak many different individual characteristics so players can get the kind of experience that they want. This really does open up the game to many different skill levels, and Forza Horizon 5 would be a great game for someone brand-new, a kid seeking a more realistic racer than the likes of Mario Kart, and everyone else all the way up to racing simulation fanatics.

Forza Horizon 5 also brings a lot of customisation options to the table. Every car (at least, every car that I’ve unlocked so far) can be customised. Cars can be repainted in every colour of the rainbow, and can have custom liveries applied – including advertising logos for famous brands. There’s already a bustling customisation scene, with players from all over the world sharing their custom creations for others to download and use in-game. I love a game with strong customisation elements, and Forza Horizon 5 absolutely delivers in that regard!

As I was getting started with Forza Horizon 5, I actually found myself getting a little emotional. As you may know, I’m non-binary – meaning that my gender identity falls in between male and female, and I prefer to use they/them pronouns. When setting up my Forza Horizon 5 character, the option to use they/them was present alongside male and female pronouns – something that was amazing for me, and for other non-binary players as well I hope. It’s still quite rare to see games offer this option, so it was an incredibly welcome surprise.

I’m not the world’s biggest car enthusiast. My knowledge of cars mostly comes courtesy of Jeremy Clarkson and the rest of the crew of Top Gear! But for people who know more about cars than I do, I reckon Forza Horizon 5 has a lot to offer. Although the game goes out of its way to be accessible and to have cars ready-to-race from the moment of being unlocked or purchased, there are still plenty of tuning options to fiddle about with. At the game’s uppermost echelons, where elite players are duking it out and races are won or lost by the millisecond, perhaps some of these things will make a difference. I’m not at that level – but some folks are, and there are tuning and customisation guides already for many of the game’s vehicles.

Although Forza Horizon 5 includes a lot of ultra-expensive supercars from manufacturers like Bugatti, Koenigsegg, and Lamborghini, I think it’s great that the game offers classic cars, “normal” street cars, and even some novelty vehicles or cult favourites as well. For example, the game includes a classic Land Rover (a personal favourite of mine), as well as every nerd’s favourite car: the DeLorean! There’s a VW Camper available, a classic Mini, a Morris Minor, as well as a Hummer, and even a car taken straight from Hot Wheels! In short, there’s fun to be had with some of these vehicles, and while some may not be suitable for winning every race or clocking the fastest time, for having fun driving around the game’s open world I think some of these additions are absolutely fantastic!

Some racing games offer light-hearted fun, and for me, Forza Horizon 5 is absolutely that kind of game. I can pick it up for even just a few minutes at a time, hop into a race or two, and then put it down knowing I can do the same thing again later on. It absolutely can be more than that; players with the inclination can take it more seriously, spend more time on their vehicles, and really push hard to get the best lap times and reach the top of the various leaderboards. That’s not the way I personally play – but the fact that Forza Horizon 5 has plenty to offer to all kinds of players is a huge mark in its favour in my book!

I’m a subscriber to the PC version of Xbox Game Pass, so for me Forza Horizon 5 was available on release day to download and play at no extra cost. On that basis, I’m thrilled with the game. That being said, for folks who don’t like the idea of a subscription or who like owning games outright, I can absolutely recommend Forza Horizon 5 as a purchase. Game Pass is a great service, but I recognise that it isn’t for everyone. When I looked at Halo Infinite a few weeks ago I said that paying £55 for just the campaign felt a bit much, so getting the game on Game Pass made a lot of sense. But there’s a heck of a lot of value in Forza Horizon 5 for players of varying skill levels and with varying levels of interest in cars – so it feels like a solid buy.

I think that’s all I have to say about this one! I’m thoroughly enjoying my time with Forza Horizon 5 and I’m looking forward to jumping back in and getting into my next race. See you on the track!

Forza Horizon 5 is out now for Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, and PC. Forza Horizon 5 is the copyright of Playground Games, Turn 10 Studios, Xbox Game Studios, and/or Microsoft. Promotional images and artwork courtesy of Xbox and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Halo Infinite: first impressions

Spoiler Warning: There are minor spoilers ahead for Halo Infinite, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and other iterations of the Halo franchise.

After the longest gap in between games since the franchise began, Halo Infinite was finally released last week. I haven’t yet completed the campaign, but I’ve spent a couple of hours with the game so far – enough time to give you my first impressions and initial thoughts about Halo Infinite.

First up, make sure you choose the right version when you go to download it! I have Game Pass for PC, and on the homepage of the Xbox app there was a big Halo Infinite icon, so I clicked it and it began to download – taking hours on my painfully slow internet connection. When it was done I booted up the game… only to find I couldn’t play the campaign, just the multiplayer! The campaign is a separate download, so I had to wait another few hours for that. Not the best start – and this should really be made clearer on the Xbox app.

Promo art for Halo Infinite.

When I was able to load the campaign, I immediately encountered an issue with the audio. I usually play games with headphones on, but although my headphones were plugged in there was no audio. After some investigating, the only way I could find to fix it came from someone else who’d had a similar problem and shared their solution on a forum – I had to go into my PC’s sound settings and change my headphone settings. Something uncomplicated but stupidly obscure; how this person figured it out I’ve no idea! It worked fine after that – but again, Halo Infinite made a poor first impression as a result.

The game opens with a cut-scene showing the Master Chief being thrown into space by an alien monster – the leader of a villainous faction called the Banished. This villain, and a couple of other Banished leaders who we’re also introduced to in cut-scenes across the game’s opening act, all feel quite generic. The vocal performances were hammy and over-the-top, and I don’t really get the impression that the leaders of the Banished are anything other than “evil for the sake of it” kind of villains. By default this makes the game less compelling and less interesting!

The game opens with Master Chief getting beaten up by this guy.

I haven’t played Halo 5; it wasn’t included as part of The Master Chief Collection when that was released on PC a couple of years ago, and it hasn’t been released as a standalone title. But the pre-release marketing and chatter about Halo Infinite seemed to indicate that the game was some kind of soft renewal of the franchise and would be a good jumping-on point for players unfamiliar with the world and lore of the Halo series – a series which, lest we forget, has recently passed its twentieth anniversary. Based on my first couple of hours with the game, I have to disagree with that.

Halo Infinite feels like an unapologetic sequel. We don’t find out why the Master Chief happened to be aboard that starship, and pretty quickly as he retrieves not-Cortana from a nearby Halo ring the game seems to reference events that took place in Halo 5 – something about Cortana going rogue and needing to be deleted. At this point I feel pretty lost with the story, with Master Chief blindly shooting his way through waves of enemies without any readily apparent goal or purpose.

I didn’t play Halo 5 so I feel a bit lost with the story.

I took a decade off from the Halo games after Reach, and it was only when I got The Master Chief Collection on PC that I played the fourth game in the series and the ODST spin-off. So I’m not the world’s biggest Halo fan by any stretch, and maybe big fans of the franchise are having a whale of a time – if so, that’s fantastic. I don’t want to detract from anyone’s enjoyment by being an old sourpuss! But Halo Infinite’s story appears to rely heavily on what came before, so for new fans or for folks who’ve been out of the loop, maybe The Master Chief Collection would be a better way to get started.

I found a couple of very odd graphical bugs during my relatively short time with the game, too. During the second mission, when Master Chief has arrived at the Halo installation, doorways appeared to glitch out: they’d appear to be solid even after “opening” and it was possible to just clip through what looked like a solid, graphically buggy door. Then shortly after, every alien of a particular kind (I think the Elites) were also completely bugged, and they ended up looking all stretched out and just broken. It’s hard to put into words, so see the screenshots below (click or tap the images for a larger version):

All of this kind of added up to mean that the game left a weaker-than-expected first impression. I’d been excited for Halo Infinite; the prospect of a franchise I remember with fondness from the days of the original Xbox getting a soft renewal and a new coat of paint was something I found genuinely appealing. I want to like Halo Infinite – but the somewhat dense backstory, a villain who feels silly at best, and a handful of bugs and glitches that should really have been fixed before launch have definitely got in the way of that.

So that’s the bad stuff out of the way. But my experience with Halo Infinite so far hasn’t been entirely negative by any stretch. There is definitely a good game at its core, one with some truly exciting and fun sci-fi shooting. The guns that I’ve used so far have been varied, ranging from standard rifles and pistols to Halo staples like the Needler. Halo Infinite’s gunplay is fluid, the environments so far have been well-designed, and were it not for those few bugs and issues that I’ve encountered I’d be giving it a ten out of ten for its gameplay.

Halo Infinite has great gunplay.

As a multiplayer player-versus-player online shooter, which is what many folks come to Halo for, I think that bodes well. I can absolutely see it being a game that keeps players hooked well into 2022 and perhaps even beyond that, as there seem to be teases of a lot more multiplayer content to come. And that’s great… for people who like that kind of game. As someone who came to Halo Infinite for its campaign, I feel underwhelmed more than anything else. Halo Infinite’s campaign isn’t exactly bad, it just isn’t as good or well-written as I’d hoped it would be.

So far, in addition to the Master Chief I’ve met two major characters: a pilot and not-Cortana – an AI named “the Weapon.” Both characters seem interesting, and I’m definitely curious to see how their stories progress as the game goes on. The voice and motion-capture performances for both characters have been great so far, with some of the Weapon’s facial expressions in particular being extraordinarily well-animated. The Halo games have come a long way from their 2001 origins in that respect. Were it not for those graphical bugs I encountered, I’d say Halo Infinite makes the franchise look better than ever.

Not-Cortana… a.k.a. the Weapon.

So I guess I need to read a synopsis of Halo 5 or something… get myself caught up with all of the story that I missed (and all the other story that I’ve forgotten about!) Maybe then I’ll have a better time as I progress through the campaign. Halo Infinite has potential, but I guess what I’d say is that I’m glad I picked it up as part of Game Pass; I’d feel far less charitable about its flaws and shortcomings had I paid £55 for it.

If you’re only interested in multiplayer, I think Halo Infinite will be a fine shooter going through 2022. Of this year’s big first-person shooter releases, there’s surely no question that Halo Infinite is the best choice by far. Battlefield 2042 and Call of Duty: Vanguard can’t compete, not by a long-shot. If you’re interested in the campaign, though, I think Halo Infinite isn’t as much of a soft reboot or fresh start as I was expecting – so make sure you’re caught up on what happened in previous games before you jump in.

Promo screenshot.

The bugs are disappointing, but so far they haven’t been so overwhelming that I felt the need to quit the game. Hopefully these issues can be patched out in the days ahead. There don’t seem to be as many reports of similar issues affecting the Xbox One or Xbox Series S/X version of the game, which is positive news for those of you using those platforms.

So that’s it, I guess. An unspectacular start, but not a terrible one. Halo Infinite could certainly do a lot worse, and in a first-person shooter market that increasingly only caters to the multiplayer crowd, it’s nice to see that Microsoft and Xbox are sticking with single-player campaigns. It’s also great that Halo Infinite got a simultaneous release on PC, and a day-one launch on Game Pass. Microsoft has become quite a player-friendly company in that regard, and I have to respect that.

If you already have Game Pass, it’s hard not to recommend Halo Infinite – you might as well give it a shot, at least. And its multiplayer mode is currently free-to-play for everyone, Game Pass subscriber or not. For £55/$60 though, the campaign alone might not be worth it. You’re probably better off signing up for Game Pass just for a month, beating the campaign, and then cancelling your subscription!

Halo Infinite is out now for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Halo Infinite is also available via Xbox Game Pass and Xbox Game Pass for PC. The Halo series – including Halo Infinite – is the copyright of 343 Industries, Xbox Game Studios, and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Forza Motorsport 7 – the first big mistake for Game Pass?

The Forza Motorsport series – and its Forza Horizon companion – is Microsoft and Xbox’s answer to PlayStation’s long-running Gran Turismo, and also competes well against other racing sims like Project CARS, Assetto Corsa, and many more. The games are Xbox and PC exclusives, which makes perfect sense because their developers, Playground Games and Turn 10 Studios, are wholly-owned subsidiaries of Microsoft, and the games are published under the Xbox Game Studios brand. So why, then, is Forza Motorsport 7 about to be removed from Xbox Game Pass and pulled from sale altogether?

Forza Motorsport 7 is less than four years old, having been released in October 2017. Yet for some reason the game will soon be unavailable to purchase or to play via Game Pass, effectively killing the game and reducing it to a single-player experience for those who purchased it ahead of its imminent withdrawal date. I only spotted this a couple of days ago on the Xbox Game Pass for PC app, but I felt compelled to comment.

How has Microsoft managed to lose Forza Motorsport 7 (far right) from Game Pass?

To say that all of this struck me as odd would be an understatement. Xbox Game Pass does periodically lose games, and to be fair to Microsoft and Xbox these are always announced ahead of time as has been the case with Forza Motorsport 7. But the games that tend to disappear from the service have thus far been third-party titles, and usually unimportant, smaller, older, or indie games rather than major titles. This is the first time I’ve seen a major Microsoft-published title by a Microsoft-owned studio disappear, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted to figure out why this has happened.

The reason, according to Turn 10 Studios, has to do with licensing. Specifically the licenses they hold for certain vehicles and racetracks are set to expire, and when they do the game will no longer be able to be sold. Rather than pay more money to update or extend their license agreements, evidently the decision has been taken to shut down the game, remove it from Game Pass, and pull it from sale altogether.

Forza Motorsport 7 features a number of different real-world cars and racetracks – the licenses for which are apparently due to expire.

This technical, legalistic reason makes perfect sense – but it shows how ill-prepared Turn 10 Studios and Xbox Game Studios have been. This should never have happened; they should never have been caught out with such short-term licenses in the first place. There have been other occasions where games have had licensing issues – the remake of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, for example. But in every other case that I can recall, the licenses involved were musical tracks and songs featured on the game’s soundtrack, not something as integral to the game as the vehicles and racetracks themselves.

Many other racing games remain available despite being far older than Forza Motorsport 7. The aforementioned Project CARS (2015) and Assetto Corsa (2014), along with titles like F1 2014 (2014), Dirt Rally (2015), NASCAR Heat Evolution (2015), and even titles like Euro Truck Simulator 2 (2012) all use real-world vehicles and racetracks, and are still on sale at time of writing despite being older than Forza Motorsport 7. Is Microsoft skimping out on paying for longer licenses for cars and racetracks compared with other companies? That seems to be the obvious conclusion.

Older racing titles, like F1 2014, are still on sale.

In some ways, this is a reflection of gaming as a whole moving away from the “buy it and own it” model to a subscription-based model. Just like Netflix periodically loses films or television series from its service, so too will Game Pass. That’s kind of priced into the scheme when we sign up; we know that any title could be removed at any time pending license agreements on the service’s side, and that’s generally okay. Most folks are still happy with the content Netflix or Game Pass can provide, so the price is worth it.

But Game Pass losing Forza Motorsport 7 – one of Microsoft’s own titles developed and published by its own subsidiaries – is akin to Netflix losing The Witcher or Paramount+ losing ten of the eleven Star Trek films that it had… oh wait, that one already happened because ViacomCBS is pathetic at managing its own brands. But you see my point, right? The one sure thing that subscribers have when they pay for a subscription is that a company’s own titles will be available, and Microsoft has violated what feels like the only “golden rule” of these kinds of subscription services.

I hope you’ve played Forza Motorsport 7 if you wanted to, because it’ll be gone in a matter of days…

Are there mitigating circumstances? Sure. Does that excuse the loss of Forza Motorsport 7 from Game Pass? Absolutely not. If vehicle and/or racetrack licensing agreements are the issue, Microsoft should’ve done better at negotiating those licenses in the first place, or at the very least made sure that they had licensing agreements in place for longer than three-and-a-bit years. There are newer racing sims to play, for sure, but Forza Motorsport 7 simply isn’t that old. To see it removed from sale altogether after having had such a short shelf life just feels wrong.

Though Forza Horizon 5 is coming up before the end of the year, the Horizon series is a fundamentally different one; arcade-style racing to Motorsport’s simulation-oriented approach. Without Forza Motorsport 7 Game Pass won’t have a racing sim at all. It’s got F1 2019 and MotoGP 2020, but those are both much more specialised titles with limited appeal. With no new Motorsport game coming imminently, fans of this kind of racing sim will be missing out if they play on Xbox or PC, and the Game Pass service will be noticeably worse for its absence.

Xbox Game Pass will be worse for this decision.

The pace of game development has definitely slowed over the last decade, with big AAA games taking longer to make than ever before. That’s certainly a factor here; a decade ago or more we’d almost certainly have expected to see a new racing sim ready to take Forza Motorsport 7′s place. But as we enter an era of subscription services, companies need to be on the ball when it comes to these things, and ensure that they have longer licenses to make certain their games last as long as possible.

Game Pass is still good value, in my opinion, considering the sheer number of titles available. For players on a limited budget it still feels like a service that has a lot to offer. But slip-ups like this will end up costing Microsoft in the long run if they aren’t careful. Losing a third-party title might be forgiven, even if a game was popular. But losing one of their own games for a totally avoidable reason and with no like-for-like replacement is poor, and it diminishes Game Pass and the service’s reputation. Hopefully Microsoft will learn the lesson here and ensure that Forza Motorsport 8 doesn’t suffer the same ignominious fate a few years down the line.

The Forza series – including Forza Motorsport 7 and all titles mentioned above – is the copyright of Turn 10 Studios, Playground Games, and Xbox Game Studios. Other titles copyright of their respective developers, owners, and/or publishers. Some promotional screenshots used above courtesy of IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Bethesda teases more information about Starfield

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Starfield.

The in-engine teaser trailer for upcoming space-themed role-playing game Starfield was a bit of a let-down at E3 back in June. There’d been a lot of hype and rumours before the event that something big was coming from Bethesda and that we’d get our first major look at the game, so to only see a highly stylised teaser that might as well have been totally “fake” wasn’t the best. But the company has recently put out three new mini-trailers showing off three of the locations in Starfield, as well as dropping some more tidbits of information about the game, so I thought we could take a look at what’s been revealed and start to get excited!

Remember, though, that too much hype can be a bad thing! Just look at the disastrous Cyberpunk 2077 as a case in point. As fun as some of these bits of Starfield news may seem, it’s worth keeping in mind that we haven’t yet had a real look at the game itself. And as much as I hate to be too negative, Bethesda doesn’t exactly have a good track record in recent years when it comes to big releases. Their overreliance on a massively out-of-date game engine is also a concern. But Starfield is still over a year away, so hopefully there’s enough time to iron out all of the issues!

With that caveat out of the way, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about Starfield since E3 – with a healthy pinch of speculation and guesswork thrown in for good measure!

Promotional artwork for Starfield.

The United Colonies is described as “the most powerful established military and political faction in the game.” Their capital city – or capital planet, not sure how best to describe it! – looks like a futuristic Dubai or New York City; a wealthy, clean megacity. This is the city of New Atlantis, and it’s described as being a “melting pot” of different peoples.

The “melting pot” reference is clearly meant to give the city and the faction an American vibe; the United States often likes to see itself as a mixture of cultures. But it could also mean that the United Colonies is akin to something like Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets – semi-independent cultures and worlds co-existing, perhaps under some looser federal form of government.

Concept art of New Atlantis (with a starship in the foreground).

I could be way off base with this, but it seems like the United Colonies isn’t going to be an evil or villainous faction. I didn’t get the sense that this was something like Star Wars’ Empire or First Order, but the fact that it’s described as being powerful – and with a strong military to boot – could mean that the player character is operating outside of the law, or that large parts of the game take place in areas beyond the United Colonies’ jurisdiction.

There were trees on New Atlantis, so the United Colonies clearly have some respect for greenery and the environment – even if just for aesthetic reasons. This is also something I think we can assume to be positive, as at least New Atlantis doesn’t have that overly industrialised, dystopian feel of some sci-fi megacities.

Concept art of New Atlantis showing a couple of trees!

If I were to hazard a guess I’d say that only parts of New Atlantis will be able to be explored and visited. The teaser image depicted a huge building complex with more buildings and lights in the distance, but it seems like making all of that part of the map might be too difficult to pull off; the last thing any of us want is a bland, mostly empty map that’s superficially large but has nothing going on or no one to interact with (looking at you, Fallout 76). New Atlantis was specifically mentioned in the context of a spaceport, so perhaps the spaceport and surrounding area will be able to be visited.

Going all the way back to 1994’s Arena, Bethesda has created contiguous open worlds – that is, game worlds that are one large, single space. There have been examples where smaller areas branched off from the larger game world – such as Morrowind’s expansion pack Tribunal, for example. But by and large we’re talking about single open worlds. Starfield, with different planets to visit and a spaceship being used to travel between them, seems like it will be a game where the game world is broken into smaller chunks. Some of these planets may be quite large, but the concept represents a change from the way Bethesda has worked in the past.

Large open worlds have been a Bethesda hallmark since 1994’s Arena.

Moving away from the United Colonies brings us to Neon, a watery planet with a facility run by the Xenofresh Corporation. This floating city resembles a large oil rig, and although the upper levels look well-lit and probably quite wealthy, I wonder if the lower levels of the platform might be home to the kind of sci-fi dystopia that didn’t seem to be present on New Atlantis!

The backstory of Neon was interesting – and perhaps the closest we’ve got so far to any “lore” of Starfield. The Xenofresh Corporation established Neon as a fishing platform, but soon stumbled upon a drug called “aurora” that they used to turn Neon into a pleasure city. Neon clearly operates outside of the jurisdiction of the United Colonies, and is the only place where this drug is legal.

Concept art of the floating city of Neon.

Previous Bethesda games allowed players to take drugs and drink alcohol, complete with screen-wobbling consequences! I can’t imagine that the developers would mention this aurora drug at this stage if players weren’t going to be able to try it for themselves in-game, so I think we can be pretty confident that aurora will play some role in the game’s story. Perhaps smuggling it from Neon to planets where it’s illegal will be an option for players to make some extra cash! Neon also gave me vibes of Star Trek: Picard’s Freecloud – a similarly independent, pleasure-centric world.

The final location shown off was Akila. The Freestar Collective, of which Akila is the capital, is described as “a loose confederation of three distinct star systems.” Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but singling out the word “confederation” could indicate that this faction is villainous or adversarial. The Confederacy or Confederate States was the official name for the pro-slavery southern states that seceded in 1860-61, instigating the American Civil War. We’ve also seen the name “Confederacy” used in Star Wars, where the Confederacy of Independent Systems was the antagonist faction in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

Concept art of Akila, a city in the mountains.

Perhaps I have recent news reports on the brain, but something about the concept art for Akila reminded me of Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. The mountainous terrain, smaller buildings, and hooded or cloaked figures all gave me the impression of that kind of settlement. Perhaps a better analogy, though, would be a Wild West frontier town, and this is reinforced by the narrator saying that all of the people in the Freestar Collective place a strong emphasis on personal freedom and liberty. The whole faction seems very libertarian, then!

Akila was definitely the most Star Wars-seeming settlement, and there are several locales from the Star Wars franchise that Bethesda may have used for inspiration here. It was on this planet that we learned about the first confirmed alien enemy – the ashta, described as being a mix between “a wolf and a velociraptor.” Yikes! As above, there’s no way this critter would be mentioned at this stage if it wasn’t going to be something players could interact with, and like other iconic Bethesda open-world monsters like Fallout’s deathclaw or The Elder Scrolls’ slaughterfish, I think this is something we’re going to do battle with!

A closer look at some of the people and buildings in Akila.

So we know of three locations, each of which is controlled by a different faction. Presumably the Freestar Collective has at least two other planets under its control, as the narration specifically mentioned that the faction controls three star systems. Whether all three will be able to be visited or not is not clear, so I guess watch this space!

The Xenofresh Corporation could easily be in control of more worlds or settlements; I got the impression that it was the kind of mega-corporation that we often see in sci-fi, and thus it seems plausible that it controls holdings on other planets as well as its settlement of Neon.

The United Colonies would seem to be the most widespread and populous faction, but if players are potentially operating outside of its jurisdiction we may not get to visit all of the worlds that make up the United Colonies.

Is the United Colonies going to be similar to Star Trek’s Federation?

Then there’s the player’s faction or group – the organisation called Constellation, described as “the last group of space explorers.” The ship shown in the E3 teaser appears to belong to this group, so it’s assumed that the player will have some kind of relationship with them as well. If this faction is interested in exploration, they may not have a large settlement or permanent colony – but that’s pure speculation!

So that’s it for now. Starfield is still on course for a November ’22 release, but it goes without saying that that’s subject to change at any point between now and then. I’m tentatively looking forward to it, and nothing we’ve seen or heard so far has been offputting. If anything, these little teases are intriguing and make me want to learn more about the game, its backstory, and its factions and locales. I’m a little surprised that Bethesda didn’t include some of these details at E3; it would’ve been more impressive to give players a bit more information about the game rather than just sharing that stylised teaser trailer, and none of what’s recently been revealed seems like it couldn’t have been included a couple of months ago. This is all just backstory and concept art – things Bethesda certainly had at the time. But regardless, we’ve got another little tease of Starfield to pore over!

Starfield will be released on the 11th of November 2022 for PC and Xbox Series S/X. Starfield is the copyright of Bethesda Game Studios and Microsoft. Concept art featured above courtesy of Bethesda Game Studios and Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

EA Play joins Game Pass

EA Play is bringing a huge library of new games to Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service! Because it’s been overshadowed by Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Bethesda, and the arrival of those games to Game Pass in recent weeks, this news seems to have flown under the radar. I almost missed this altogether, and it was only when I saw it on Twitter (of all places) that I realised what a monumental win this is for Microsoft, Game Pass, and quite frankly for subscribers as well.

I initially signed up for Game Pass for PC last year in order to play Forza Horizon 4, and it was well worth it! I’ve since played a few other games on there, and it’s easily value for money at £7.99 ($9.99 in the US) per month, in my opinion. One thing is clear, though, and that’s the fact that Microsoft has continued to invest heavily in the service. The addition of Bethesda’s lineup of titles brought the likes of Fallout 4, Skyrim, and Doom Eternal to Game Pass. And now EA Play has brought games like FIFA 21, Titanfall 2, The Sims 4, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and many others to the service, too. It seems all but certain that the upcoming Mass Effect: Legendary Edition will be available there as well – so maybe I’ll play it after all!

EA Play and Game Pass have struck a deal.

Game Pass has expanded rapidly, and continues to go from strength to strength. Right now, there’s no question that it’s the best way to get into current-gen gaming, and picking up a preowned Xbox One or – when availability improves – an Xbox Series S will mean that a huge library of games is available to even players on a limited budget. For less than the price of a Netflix subscription there are more games than I could play in an entire year, including some absolutely fabulous ones!

The only pang of regret I feel is because I’d bought a few of these games over on Steam! Of course if you’re worried about permanence it’s better to buy than subscribe, because it’s possible that EA Play and/or any of its games will be removed from the service in future. But just like we’ve seen happen with television and films thanks to the rise of streaming, many people are quite okay with that concept. Sure, losing access to a title is disappointing, and when Netflix removes a big name there’s often a minor backlash. But people have generally come to accept the impermanence of films and television shows on streaming platforms – so I daresay that will happen with games as well.

A few of the titles now available.

In the worst case, if a game you adore is removed from Game Pass, you can always buy it elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be the huge drawback that some folks insist it is. We increasingly live in a society of renting: we rent our homes, vehicles, and sometimes even our furnishings. We rent our films, television shows, and music via services like Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, and Spotify. And now, Microsoft is pushing hard to convince people to rent their game libraries too.

Having built up a Steam library over the better part of a decade I’m not willing to part with it, and I still don’t see Game Pass as a full-time substitute for buying games in a general sense. But you know what? I could be in the minority on that very soon. As mentioned, Game Pass now offers a colossal library of titles, and not only Xbox-exclusive games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection and Sea of Thieves. The FIFA series of football (soccer) games are literally the most popular titles around the world, and now the most recent entries are on Game Pass, with this year’s entry almost certain to follow. And huge multiplayer titles like Apex Legends are as well. Heck, you can even play Anthem… though goodness only knows why you’d want to.

Very specific there, EA.

For a player on a limited budget, Game Pass is now my number one recommendation. Whether it’s on PC or console, I honestly can’t recommend anything else. There’s simply no alternative that offers such a variety of major titles for the cost, and even speaking as someone who doesn’t use it as often as I could, it’s 100% worth it. This new addition of EA titles has taken what was already an enticing offer and made it even better.

There are still some issues with the Xbox app on Windows 10, and it doesn’t always work perfectly. But the games it launches do, and whether you’re interested in a strategy title like Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition or a racer like Forza Horizon 4, there are so many games now that it’s worth a try for almost anyone interested in gaming.

The Xbox Series S with a Game Pass subscription is the most affordable route into this generation – or at least it will be when availability improves!

Microsoft took a risk with Game Pass, banking on players turning away from the model of buying and owning individual titles to rent them via a Netflix-style subscription. As the service continues to grow and expand, both in terms of its library and its playerbase, I think it’s fair to say that the risk is paying off.

So what am I going to play first? That’s a good question! I was tempted by the Mass Effect trilogy, which I otherwise only own on Xbox 360. But with Legendary Edition coming soon I think I’ll wait to see if it comes to Game Pass, which hopefully it will. Titanfall 2 is calling out to me, and despite being a big fan of fantasy I’ve never played the Dragon Age games, so maybe I’ll finally give those a shot. Or maybe I’ll go back and replay Sim City 2000 – there’s nothing like a hit of nostalgia, after all. I feel spoilt for choice!

I might sit down to play some Titanfall 2.

This move makes a lot of sense for both companies. EA’s Origin platform and EA Play have both struggled to bring in huge numbers of players since they launched, and with EA diversifying and bringing many of its titles to Steam, joining in with Game Pass feels like a no-brainer. And from Microsoft’s point of view, anything they can do to increase the appeal of Game Pass shores up the service, and that can only have the effect of bringing in new subscribers as well as convincing existing ones to stick around.

When taken alongside the recent Bethesda acquisition and the launch of the weaker but cheaper Xbox Series S, I have to say that Microsoft is off to a very strong start in this new console generation – far better than I had expected even six months ago.

Xbox Game Pass is available now for PC, Xbox One, and Xbox Series S/X. Prices were correct at time of writing (March 2021). This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Why is everybody so surprised that future Bethesda titles will be Xbox/PC exclusive?

A few months ago I briefly touched on the Microsoft buyout of ZeniMax – parent company to Skyrim developer Bethesda. The deal, which was announced back in September last year, has finally gone through after months of behind-the-scenes legal wrangling, meaning that Microsoft now officially owns Bethesda Softworks, its subsidiaries, and all of the games they’ve developed and produced. This is a significant acquisition for Microsoft, and looks sure to shake up the games market – at least the single-player games market! It will also certainly provide a big boost for Xbox Game Pass, which has already been touting the arrival of Bethesda’s back catalogue to the service.

Almost all Bethesda titles for at least a decade have been multiplatform, with releases on Sony’s PlayStation consoles and some select releases on Nintendo hardware too, and those games aren’t going to be taken away. Microsoft has also pledged to honour existing contracts for upcoming titles, meaning that both Deathloop and Ghostwire: Tokyo will still have timed exclusivity on PlayStation 5. After that, however, we can expect to see future titles arrive exclusively on Xbox Series S/X and PC.

Ghostwire: Tokyo will still be a timed PlayStation 5 exclusive.

Some games industry commentators seem taken aback at this notion, asking with mouths agape if Microsoft will seriously make upcoming Bethesda projects like Starfield and The Elder Scrolls VI Xbox/PC exclusive. To those folks I ask a simple question: really? This seems like a surprise to you?

Microsoft paid $7.5 billion for Bethesda, and for that huge investment they’re going to want a lot more than a few new titles in the Game Pass library. Exclusive games sell systems, and in 2021 exclusive games drive subscriptions too. Microsoft fell way behind in the last generation as the Xbox One was massively outsold by the PlayStation 4, and a lack of decent exclusive games was a huge factor in explaining why that was the case. Microsoft has tried to rectify the situation by acquiring Obsidian Entertainment, Compulsion Games, Playground Games, Ninja Theory, and other studios, and guess what? Those studios now make games for PC and Xbox only. Some of these investments will take time to pay off, but as the new console generation rolls into its second and third years, I think we’ll see a big push from Microsoft with some of these new exclusive games.

Expect to see future Bethesda titles be Xbox/PC exclusive.

Titles from Microsoft-owned franchises like Halo, Gears of War, State of Decay, and standalone games like Sea of Thieves aren’t going to be released on PlayStation (or Nintendo) so I’m afraid that people are getting their hopes up if they expect to see future Bethesda titles on any other platform. Microsoft wouldn’t have spent such a huge sum of money not to capitalise on their acquisition, and while in the immediate term nothing is going to change, give it a couple of years when Starfield is ready, The Elder Scrolls VI is preparing for launch, and Bethesda are working on new entries in the Fallout or Doom series and you can guarantee they will be Xbox/PC exclusive.

Sometimes I sit down to read through opinion and commentary by other games industry writers – including some pretty big names – and I’m surprised how they can get it so wrong. It seems naïve in the extreme to be banking on any future Bethesda title – including huge ones like The Elder Scrolls VI and a potential future Fallout title – to be anything other than exclusive to Microsoft’s platforms. That’s how these things work, and it’s why Microsoft was willing to get out their wallet in the first place.

I wouldn’t bet on being able to play Starfield on your PlayStation 5.

Though it may seem “unfair” to lock games to a single platform (or pair of platforms, in this case) it’s how the industry has operated since day one. Nobody got upset about Marvel’s Spider-Man being a PlayStation 4 exclusive, even though that game wasn’t made by Sony, but rather one of their subsidiaries. It was just expected – Insomniac Games make PlayStation titles, just like 343 Industries make Xbox titles. Bethesda’s acquisition means they join Team Xbox. It may not be great fun for PlayStation gamers who had been looking forward to a future Bethesda title, but that’s the reality of the industry.

Be very careful if you hear an analyst or commentator saying that they believe Bethesda titles will still come to PlayStation. Rather than getting your hopes up or setting up false expectations, it may be better to plan ahead. If Starfield or The Elder Scrolls VI are games you’re dead set on playing, consider investing in Xbox. The Xbox Series S is a relatively affordable machine at £249/$299, and if you only need it for a couple of exclusives that you can’t get elsewhere it could be a solid investment – certainly a lot cheaper than a gaming PC.

The Xbox Series S might be worth picking up.

Despite all of this, I still feel Sony has the upper hand in the exclusives department, at least for now. It will be a couple of years or more before Microsoft can fully take advantage of their new acquisition, and other titles from developers like Obsidian – who are working on a game that looks superficially similar to The Elder Scrolls series – are also several years away. Sony, on the other hand, has games out now like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and the Demon’s Souls remake, as well as upcoming titles like God of War: Ragnarok and Returnal to draw players in. Microsoft is still pursuing a frankly bizarre policy of making all Xbox Series S/X games available on Xbox One for the next year or so, so for exclusive next-gen gaming in the short term, Sony is still the way to go.

I remember when Microsoft entered the home console market for the first time in 2001. A lot of commentators at the time were suggesting that Microsoft were buying their way in, that they would throw their wallet around and other companies would find it hard to compete. It never really happened, though, at least not to the extent some folks feared. The acquisition of Bethesda is a big deal, but Bethesda and all its subsidiaries have published only around 20 games in the whole of the last decade, so in terms of the wider gaming market, and considering how many games there will be on PC, Xbox Series S/X, and PlayStation 5 in the next few years, it’s a drop in the ocean.

That doesn’t mean it won’t sting for PlayStation fans who want to play Starfield or The Elder Scrolls VI, though. Better start saving up for an Xbox!

All titles listed above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition – First Impressions

Earlier in the year I wrote an article looking at Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and my experience getting back into it after it was remastered. I had a lot of fun with that game, and I’ve even gone back and played a few matches here and there over the summer. I played the first two Age of Empires titles to death in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but when Age of Empires III was released in 2005 I was less than impressed. While the core gameplay was similar, the addition of features like “home cities” and “cards” complicated things and, in my opinion at the time, detracted from the real-time strategy experience that I hoped to have. This also coincided with a period where I was particularly busy with my professional and personal life, and as such there were a number of factors involved in me putting down the game and not picking it up again.

Until now, that is! Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition was released a few days ago and follows on from last year’s Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and 2018’s Age of Empires: Definitive Edition, completing the trilogy. The remastering process has brought all three titles in line with one another, at least from a visual standpoint, and were it not for differences in building and unit styles, it would be hard to tell them apart. Age of Empires III, being a more recent title, was visually better than the first two titles to begin with, and in that sense perhaps the upgrade doesn’t feel quite so dramatic. However, the game looks great and a lot of work has been put into that side of things.

A promotional screenshot depicting a naval battle.

I wouldn’t have necessarily rushed out to buy Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition, especially not this close to its release. But as you may recall, I recently became a subscriber to Microsoft’s Game Pass for PC service, and in line with the company’s policy of bringing every new first-party release straight to Game Pass, it was available to me. So I downloaded it! Game Pass for PC is still not a seamless experience, and frustratingly logs me out every time I so much as minimise the Xbox app. Also, for some reason the download progress bar wasn’t working right; although the title did download, it told me it was stuck at having downloaded 14 megabytes the whole time. These are pretty basic things that Microsoft will need to work on if they want Game Pass for PC to be taken seriously, and now that the service is about to exit its “beta” phase, I hope to see such problems fixed. However, this isn’t meant to be another review of Game Pass!

The first thing players see upon booting up Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is a note from the developers explaining that some changes have been made to the game compared to its 2005 iteration. While there are gameplay changes (quite a lot of them, though many are minor) this message focuses on the way Age of Empires III treated indigenous peoples. The names of the game’s two Native American tribes have been changed – in the 2005 version of the game they were called the Sioux and the Iroquois; in 2020 they use the more accurate native names of Lakota and Haudenosaunee respectively. There have also been some changes to the way Native Americans are portrayed within the game, and Microsoft worked with Native American advisors in order to help shape the remaster.

The developers’ note in full.

This speaks to a much broader point, one which a single article can’t sufficiently cover. How can developers make history-based games that accurately depict the vast range of cultures and civilisations that existed? And how can a game like Age of Empires III possibly be made “fair” to all players when there are major differences between cultures and their levels of technology? This is an issue present in a lot of strategy games in particular, and the way developers have tended to handle it has been to “westernise” non-western civilisations, giving them technologies and resources they didn’t historically have in order to keep them competitive from a gameplay perspective. Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition does this too, and we see it prominently in other games, such as Civilization VI.

I don’t have a good answer when it comes to depicting history in media. On the one hand there will be people who say “it’s just a game,” as if to shut down the argument and just focus on whether or not the gameplay itself is good. And there will be others who practically want a boycott of titles that even try to deal with colonialism and the like. In a title like Age of Empires III, the entire aim of the game is to build and maintain a colony. Colonialism is the absolute core of the game, and that can’t be removed without fundamentally changing it into an altogether different experience. However, I like to think that we’re getting better with the way we treat history and different cultures in 2020, and the way that Native Americans are depicted in the game is not particularly historically accurate, despite attempts to make it better.

History, and the legacy of colonialism, can be a complicated subject for entertainment media of all types.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition brings in several changes to the original experience in order to make the game more accessible to new players. One change that I particularly appreciated was to the user interface; there are now options to either retain the original 2005 UI, to use a new UI developed for the remaster, or to use a UI that’s almost identical to the one seen in the first two games. This definitely helps move much more smoothly from one game to the next, and when remastering a title there’s no excuse for things like radically different UI or controls. One thing that I found extremely annoying in the 2018 re-release of Shenmue I & II was that on PC, the main action button (used to interact with the environment) changed from one game to the next. That’s the kind of annoyance that should be fixed in any remaster, and Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition has certainly made changes with players in mind.

As someone who isn’t all that familiar with the original version of Age of Empires III I’m not well-qualified to speak on gameplay changes between the two editions. That said, there are some that seem quite major, such as a big expansion of the “revolution” system, the changing of resource gathering rates, changes to resources on certain map types, and many more besides. For players used to the original version of the game who may have well-established ways to play, it’s worth reading through the entire list of changes on the Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition website. Even having done so, however, it will no doubt take time to get used to the new way everything works!

The beginning of a deathmatch game, showing the revamped user interface.

There are two new civilisations in the game – the Inca and Sweden – bringing the total number of civilisations to 16. Compared to the 35 playable civilisations in Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition this may seem paltry, but unlike in the other two games, each civilisation has more unique features. For example, in Age of Empires II each civilisation would use one of a handful of architectural styles, meaning no civilisation looked unique. In Age of Empires III, each civilisation has its own distinct look.

The addition of home cities (which also look unique for each civilisation) which I disliked back in 2005 also adds further distinctiveness to each civilisation, as do the cards which are used to set up each game. In a way I stand by what I would have said about the game fifteen years ago – these factors complicate gameplay. But at the same time that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, and after getting used to the way the game works and figuring out each of the systems, their value to gameplay cannot be understated.

Promotional screenshot showing the Swedish civilisation.

Overall, Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition lives up to its name, at least based on the short amount of time I’ve spent with it so far. It is undeniably the definitive version of the game, having not only been given a visual overhaul, but with the development team having worked hard to rebalance the game to address player feedback. After fifteen years of a dedicated playerbase enjoying the original version, the developers had plenty of information to go on! It has been pointed out by those who know more about the game than I do that many of the changes made for Definitive Edition reflect changes and rebalances in some of the original version’s most popular fan-made mods. That says a lot – the developers have listened and tried to make the game as fair and fun as possible while still retaining some of its original quirks.

For me, as a Game Pass subscriber, getting Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition was a no-brainer. On Steam it sells for £15/$20, and for that price I think you’re getting a good strategy game with visuals comparable to any of today’s better games, and gameplay that has been improved based on fifteen years’ worth of player data and feedback. That seems like a pretty good deal, and for that matter all three of the remastered Age of Empires titles have been good value. Though I have heard from others that there are bugs and even crashes, I didn’t experience any of that during my time with the game. I would also add that if there are issues of that nature, they will almost certainly be patched out soon as the team behind Age of Empires are continuously working on updates. Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition has received regular updates since it was released last year, and I see no reason why the same won’t happen here. That said, I found nothing game-breaking in my time playing.

Some of the changes made will be controversial with fans of the original version of the game, but that’s to be expected with any major overhaul. In the case of the first two titles in the Age of Empires series, the remastered versions are widely acclaimed and even considered superior in many ways to the original versions by fans. Whether that will be the case here is uncertain, and some of the more contentious issues – like those surrounding the nature of colonialism itself – will take time to settle down. However, for my two cents I think Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is fun, and gives me a second chance with a game I mostly overlooked first time around.

Age of Empires III: Definitive Edition is out now for PC. The game is the copyright of Microsoft, Xbox Game Studios, Tantalus Media, and Forgotten Empires. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.