It’s been a long year and, if you’re a fan of free games, quite a successful one. Since January, we’ve had a full 48 games delivered via the Games with Gold program. Some were old classics, like Burnout Paradise and Gears of War 2. Others were titles many had missed, like Sunset Overdrive and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. We even had five new releases from fan favorite Earthlock: Festival of Magic to Super Dungeon Bros and ZHEROS, which might have missed the mark a bit.
With all of these games clogging up your backlog, it can be hard to figure out what to play. To help, my fellow Newshound Sam Quirke created the foundation for a wonderful little table which lists all the games and their average community score. If you’ve no idea what to play first, and you like to eat dessert first, you should start at the top. If you prefer to eat vegetables, well it might be best to work from the bottom up.
I've also added some other information on genre and medium to get some interesting stats. Genre is based loosely on whatever the game is classified as here on TA, with some liberties taken to make the stats work. I know it could be more expansive - let's not worry about that! As for medium, we're talking about whether or not its base version was released at retail on its Xbox launch. Some games were released to retail later, and they do not count.
The StatsThe table gives quite a few interesting stats. The average rating for a GWG game this year was 3.69, which is fairly good overall. Obviously we've got a few negatives dragging us down. The average for the top 75% is 3.94. The average for the top 50% is 4.13. Finally, the average for the top 25% is 4.35, which is really quite high by this site's standards. Very few games score higher than that. If you read the comments on announcement articles, you'll find many people saying the games are never any good. With the top 25% being so high, I don't think we can say that.
What is fair to say, however, is that the new releases are generally quite bad. We had five this year. The highest-rated were Earthlock and The Banner Saga 2, both tied at 3.5. A fair score, and for fans of the genre they're definitely worth playing, but for many the releases weren't what they were hoping for. The average rating for all five games was a regrettable 2.72, which is frankly quite horrible. Three of the five sit firmly entrenched at the bottom of the table, with scores as low as 1.9.
The spread of genres was really quite good. As I noted earlier, I was a bit liberal with giving genres - I know it could be done in more detail and with more accuracy. Please forgive that, for it's done in the name of quality stats.
This year, it seems Microsoft has done an impressive job making sure every major genre is represented by multiple games on almost all occasions. While RPG did see the most, even those had a variety from JRPGs to Strategy RPGs to Action RPGs, which means fans from all walks can get into the game. By the way, if you noticed the percentages in the pie chart add up to more than 100%, that's because some games have multiple genres.
Another complaint we often see is that there are far too many digital indie games and far too few quality AAA releases. I don't believe this is the right place to debate a definition of indie so that we can make a proper comparison, so we'll leave that for another day. What we can look at is the amount of time we received full retail releases as opposed to digital releases many perceive to be of lower value.
We received full retail releases just under half the time. That's pretty good bang for your buck. One could even argue the number is in favor of retail since Beyond Good and Evil and Monkey Island were once retail releases. I counted them as digital.
But what about the quality? Things get a little shakier there. The average user score for a digital GWG title was 3.56. As many might have predicted, the average user score for a retail GWG title was higher, but surprisingly even to me, not by very much at 3.83. There were many high quality digital releases, and the difference is minimal at best, with the digital average being dragged down considerably by a few bad eggs. At the very least, perhaps it's best not to completely write off a month of digital releases simply by virtue of their digital release.
But enough with the stats. You came here for the Top Five, and you're going to get it. Let's begin!
Honorable MentionsI always do my Honorable Mentions as games that are worth mentioning - whether honorable or dishonorable. They’re not just numbers six through eight of the top five. These are games that truly said something, good or bad. Some are worth playing, some are not, but they’re all worth reading about. I’ve also given them unofficial awards because I can and because they deserve to be commemorated.
Not even his mother could love a face like that.
Award: The ZHEROS Award
It was just before Christmas of 2015. Presents were under the trees. Everyone was excited, playing the holiday’s biggest releases. Microsoft wanted to give us a gift, so on December 21st they announced that we’d be getting a brand new game in January completely free. ZHEROS. We were all excited.
“But how do you even pronounce that?” “They misspelled HEROES!” “I bet it scores zeroes!” The jokes really wrote themselves, but one of them in particular would turn out to ring oh so true. ZHEROS is a bad game. It is truly, honestly a terrible game. In his official site review, Mark gave it a crippling 1 star rating. Users are not much kinder, seating the game at 1.9 stars.
The reasons ZHEROS is a bad game are not quantifiable. Its story is non-existent. Its combat is brutally unfair. Platforming is frustrating and difficult due to poor design. Co-op play ramps up the difficulty to masochistic levels. Even the achievements are an exercise in suffering not even a GTASC team should demand of its players.
So ZHEROS gets the first ever ZHEROS Award. What does this award mean? It means this free Games with Gold game is so bad that it is not actually free. The time you spend downloading and playing it is time you could have spent doing literally anything else. I’m not here to put a value on your time. But I am here to tell you that ZHEROS is worth less than whatever value you you do put on your time by a significant margin.
Jade's adventure was truly one worth experiencing.
Award: The Better Than a Classic Award
Beyond Good and Evil is a game from an era when cover shooters were still an unknown. It was a time when everyone on the internet was making Top Ten Best Games Ever lists and The Ocarina of Time was in everyone’s top three. It had the perfect mix of puzzles, platforming, adventuring, combat, world-building and story that simply came together wonderfully. Every developer wanted to make the next Ocarina of Time. One developer did.
Beyond Good and Evil is the best Zelda game ever made. It has wonderful characters, fun presentation, and most importantly, fantastic dungeon design that rewards ingenuity and skill. While the game is fairly short, it’s a great ride all the way to the end and well worth playing if you haven’t already.
Well I can confirm he's not racing against anyone in multiplayer...
Award: The Shame Award
As achievement hunters, we look forward to new Games With Gold games in anticipation of whether we'll manage to pick up an easy completion or a high ratio. Sometimes we strike gold, but sometimes what we get is honestly not what we deserve. The Shame Award is given to the game which is an insult to achievement hunters everywhere and it's so named due to the shame Microsoft should feel for even providing us the game in the state we received it.
This year, the award almost went to Super Dungeon Bros. We already saw its 1.9 average user score - the very bottom of the list - so it's not like anyone should have expected much. I hope you didn't, because it had two unobtainable achievements. The game will never be completed. But MX vs ATV Reflex is even worse because it could be completed, you just had to have played it years ago. A victim of THQ's woeful finances before bankruptcy, the servers for the game had been shut down for over three years, leaving half the game and a full seven achievements discontinued. Was it shameful of Microsoft to make this one our Games With Gold title? Definitely.
The entire game is a joke played on the you. The goat is laughing at you as it chews some grass.
Award: The IDARB Award
Award: The Goat Award
Goat Simulator is a truly strange game. It was actually originally made as a joke by one of the developers of Sanctum 2. Full of so many bugs that they became the sole focus of the gameplay, the team at Coffee Stain Studios decided to release it on Steam to great success. The console ports followed shortly thereafter and everyone finally had access to a non-game about wandering around a city full of glitches with terrible physics as a goat.
There's one benefit to a game with no story, purpose, or gameplay - there's not much to make you achieve, which means an easy 1000 Gamerscore will be served right up. Named after the first truly absurdly easy Games With Gold completion, the IDARB Award is given to the game that is as easy as #IDARB to complete. Goat Simulator fits this perfectly, coming in under 4 hours or less.
That achievement list attracted quite a few gamers looking for quick and dirty score, including quite a few completionists. It even turned them to the other versions of the game on Xbox One and a sequel released separately as the Goat Simulator: Mmore Goatz Edition. These completionists apparently forgot that the game itself is nothing but a joke made by a goat, as just a few weeks after the game went free with Gold, the Mmore Goatz edition was released as DLC to the first game. Those completions quickly turned into 50% complete monstrosities with a $10 price tag.
For the cruel joke it played, the game earns a second award with its own name attached. The Goat Award is earned by the game which adds absurd DLC after becoming free - a cruel joke only a goat would laugh at.
This fine gentleman would like to welcome you to Mount Massive Asylum.
Award: The Best Game I Didn’t Play Award
I’ll admit it. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this game but I haven’t touched it. Personally, I hate horror games. The fact that this is a good one only serves to push me farther away. The things that make horror games great are the exact things that make me dislike them. But that just isn’t fair to the game, and luckily my fellow Newshound Mark is here to share his thoughts on why this is one of the top Games With Gold games this year:
Outlast isn't just one of the best freebies of 2016, it's one of the best horrors of the modern generation. Its use of lighting and darkness instills some truly fearful moments throughout the game's six hour story, which, is actually quite long when you play it, because it's so often too intense to bear. I first beat it on PS4 two years ago before I got my Xbox One and I actually haven't finished it on Xbox yet because it's so scary at times that I find excuses to delay playing it again. Saying that, however, I do genuinely love it. The setting of Mount Massive Asylum is oppressive and heinous and if you can calm your senses enough to follow the story, it's actually well worth the trip, too. Hopefully you smartly added the game to your library when it was free. If you don't mind some terror-induced insomnia make some time for Outlast before its sequel arrives in 2017.
This single image sets the tone of the game perfectly.
Award: The Best Super Hero Game Award
Once upon a time, Saints Row was a series about building a gang and finding riches where you could. That kind of seems like a myth at this point. Saints Row IV is so far away in premise from the first game it’s literally absurd. If you haven’t played it, let me give you a rundown. After SR3, you, the leader of the Saints, become President of the United States. Then aliens invade, capture you, and put you in a virtual simulation of Earth where you have super powers. Yes, it’s awesome.
And it’s also so much fun. This a game that really embraces mindless joy. You have super powers simply because you can, and the game is better for it. Everything you do touches on outrageous, but it’s always toward the singular cause of doing things simply because it’s a blast. Whether you’re blowing up cars, killing aliens with crazy weapons, or simply jumping across the city, everything you do is so far out there you can’t help but enjoy it.
I give it the Best Super Hero Game Award for good reason - that’s what you are. Maybe not in name, but you have powers any super hero would dream of having, and using them is as rewarding as you’d expect. The first time you leap to the top of a building and then leap off to crash into a group of aliens in a fiery explosion, you’ll be sold.
Award: The Open Borders Award
Ever since Project Gotham left us, I'd been looking for a simcade racer worthy of my time. That kind of gameplay - a fusion of hardcore simulation and accessibility - was rare to find in a game. Then came Forza Horizon.
While it takes the Forza name, it's certainly not about Motorsport. Horizon is set at a music festival and everything about the game is focused centrally on what you'd actually want to do if you were there - drive on the open road listening to great music and generally having fun. This is the core of what Forza Horizon is, and it's really wonderful. You'll cruise the open world participating in races and driving hundreds of cars just like you do in other Forza games, but instead of needing to worry about traction and perfect corners, you can play the game any way you want to. Taking your Ferrari offroad and into the air as your soar over a hill is a feeling no racing series replicates nowadays, and it's a feeling you should have. It's had two sequels since its release, but this is a fine game well worth your time if you think you might be interested in a racing game at all.
I'm giving it the Open Borders Award for a game that opens up a genre to new players. While it has some simulation elements, the ability to control the difficulty and its forgiving physics really opens up the game to many new people who normally wouldn't enjoy it. Forza Horizon is the gateway to racing, and it's beautiful.
Award: Best Xbox 360 Title
XCOM is a classic series that many of you had possibly never heard of. Enemy Unknown is actually a reboot of that series from Firaxis, the same developer that brought us PC gamers Civilization. Set during an alien invasion, XCOM is a tactical, sci-fi strategy game where you'll need to consider each and every move you make as you move toward your objective, whether it be saving civilians or infiltrating an alien base.
The game does nearly everything well. Progression in the game feels good. As you win battles and take home technology, you can research it and make it your own. Your base will expand and you'll really feel like you've progressed humanity's fight. Combat itself has depth, with each class having strengths and weaknesses and all of them being necessary for victory.
Perhaps most importantly of all, though, is the attachment you'll have with your soldiers. They start as recruits, and you'll raise them as your own through battles as they gain ranks and become warriors. You'll name them, customize them, and make your own stories about who they are, who they love, and why they fight. Then an alien will come upon them from behind and end their life with a critical hit. They'll be dead, gone. The sense of sorrow you'll hold is hard to describe. This soldier was your squadmate and you knew him. More importantly, you won't forget him.
That's what makes XCOM so special, and it's what makes it the best Xbox 360 Game With Gold this year.
How do you reload that?
Award: The True To Itself Award
Award: Best Xbox One Title
Award: Best Overall GWG Title
Sunset Overdrive is simply a marvelous game. I've given it the True To Itself Award, and I want to explain what that means. Sunset Overdrive is a game that knows exactly what it wants to be. It has an identity - it's about being fun, crazy, absurd and outrageous. You can see these attributes in literally every aspect of the game. The weapons are insane, character customization is far beyond normal social conventions, and the combat is a mass of fireworks. The people you'll meet along your journey have their own desires, none of them rational. Everything about anything in this game is focus on one key idea - fun.
Most games start with a premise and build the game around it. Sunset Overdrive is a lesson in what happens when you throw the premise away and build a game around the emotions you want the player to feel. In Sunset Overdrive, you have ridiculous weapons because it's fun to fire a fully-automatic roman candle or a TNT-teddy bear launcher. You can wall run and grind across the entire city at breakneck speed because it's fun. You slaughter robots and zombie-like creatures born of soda because it's fun. You dress your character in things you wouldn't be caught dead wearing because it's fun.
Everything, down to the very last detail is all about fun, and it truly works. Sunset Overdrive is one of the best games I've ever played, and I do not say that lightly. I bought it day one, and I was excited to see it released as a Games With Gold title simply so others could experience it too. It's that good. It's the best Xbox One title this year and it's also the best overall title released through Games With Gold this year. If you haven't played it yet, do it. You'll love it.
And with that, 2016 comes to an end. Some of our Games With Gold titles for January 2017 are already out, and we'll get many more over the coming 12 months. Will the stat trends remain the same? We'll find out soon enough. For now, let us know what you think in the comments below. We'd love to hear it!