Xbox Games With Gold gave us few options to consider in 2020

If you pay Microsoft to play online multiplayer with Xbox Live Gold, but you’re not paying them $5 extra for Xbox Game Pass, then you probably don’t care about the free games, anyway. The Games With Gold offerings in 2020 continue to reflect that.

These monthlyGames With Gold announcements have morphed from an occasional side-eye in 2017, or groaner of a slow month in 2019, to the solid expectation you can skip the next trip to the buffet, too. Not coincidentally, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, has emerged as Microsoft’s pot-sweetener to get players to accept paying for multiplayer.

In fact, one might argue Microsoft is using the acceptance of online multiplayer as a premium, no-longer-hidden cost (all three consoles have it now) to get customers to accept paying for “free” games.

In either case, Games With Gold is being pushed out because the two missions it could fulfill are obsolete: The program either answers a controversy now two console generations old (paying for multiplayer), or its ability to expose fans to games they’d never thought to try is massively undercut by the depth and quality of Game Pass’ curated offerings. And Games With Gold’s only remaining selling point, really — you keep the game as long as you’re subscribed to Gold, whereas with Game Pass, it could leave any time — is an obstacle to using Games With Gold as a preview or slice of currently available Game Pass content.

Yet somehow Games With Gold soldiers on. We openly doubted its viability into 2021 when we did this analysis last year, and yet, here it is, despite 48 titles that don’t exactly scream for an encore. It seems we’ve reached a limbo. Assuming it isn’t a multiplatform household, Games With Gold’s quality isn’t a reason to let an Xbox Live Gold subscription lapse, yet its quantity is just enough to keep more folks from tacking on the extra $5 a month to get Xbox Game Pass Ultimate.

None of this is to suggest that Microsoft is seeing declining numbers in Xbox Live or disappointing growth in Game Pass subscriptions. Microsoft in April claimed 90 million monthly active Xbox Live users. It also boasted 10 million Game Pass subscribers, a number Microsoft said soared to 15 million in September — 50 percent growth. But it’s hard to tell for sure. Missing, as always, are numbers like how many of those Xbox Live users are free accounts, or what portion of Game Pass subscribers are Ultimate — which gets Xbox Live Gold — versus standard or PC, which get access to those libraries only.

Going forward

Absent that kind of visibility, there’s not much upside to guessing what keeps Games With Gold going. We’ll instead offer a couple ideas for what could keep it going, based on what we saw this year, and an Xbox Game Pass service that somehow got Electronic Arts to hand over the keys to everything on EA Play come the new year.

Xbox Games With Gold could cut the number of games it offers to two per month. Counter-intuitively, this might help Games with Gold’s obvious volume problem and sustainability. Yeah, it’ll be bad news; no one will like hearing it. But these games could use some breathing space and a better chance at standing out. Plus, given some of these lineups, I picture the Games with Gold program managers running themselves ragged trying to find viable candidates more than two months out.

This year, Microsoft gave four, new-to-2020 indie games and smaller-scale launches stage time on Games with Gold. That’s remarkable, considering its [email protected] program promoting indies is effectively a fast track to an Xbox Game Pass listing. As to that:

Xbox Games With Gold could offer a current Xbox Game Pass game every now and then. This could be tricky. Of Sony’s 24 PlayStation Plus titles this year, seven are on PlayStation Now, with another two removed in January and February. That drew some justifiable grumbles from their fans about recycling content. Microsoft would face the same complaints, no doubt.

Xbox Games With Gold and Game Pass shared only one game in 2020: Fable Anniversary. Maybe with Microsoft’s acquisition of so many studios and publishers the last two years, it has solved its first party-problem enough to make this a viable space-filler. Otherwise, we are out of ideas.

And with that look ahead at Games With Gold, we begin our look back at its catalog in 2020.

2020 in review

In all, there were 48 games in Xbox Live Games With Gold for 2020, with an average Metacritic score of 75 and a combined retail price (at the time of the offer) of $1,083.02 The Metacritic average is exactly the same as last year and the combined MSRP is $113.51 less.

We’ll start breaking down, month-by-month, the offerings. All games are playable on Xbox One. Xbox 360 subscribers only have access to titles for that platform. They’re listed by platform, where applicable, then Metacritic score, and age (at the time of availability).

January

  • Styx: Shards of Darkness (72, 2.8 years)
  • Tekken 6 (Xbox 360, 80, 10.2 years)
  • Batman: The Telltale Series (67, 3.5 years)
  • Lego Star Wars 2: The Original Trilogy (81, 13.3 years)

Tekken 6 sort of sticks out here because … it’s more than a decade old and Tekken 7 launched on Xbox One in 2017. What’s the present-day relevance of this fighting game, or therefore its 80 metascore? It and Lego Star Wars 2: The Original Trilogy start a trend of 80-rated games, a decade or more old, doing most of the reputational lifting for that month’s Xbox Live Games With Gold.

FEBRUARY

  • Fable Heroes (Xbox 360, 55, 7.7 years)
  • TT Isle of Man (68, 1.9 years)
  • Call of Cthulhu (66, 1.3 years)
  • Star Wars Battlefront (Xbox, 80, 15.4 years)

Battlefront’s 80 raises this month’s Metacritic average to 67.3. The Xbox One offerings are niche appeals to motorcycle racing enthusiasts and tabletop gaming fans. Fable Heroes? I double-taked the box art for this month’s announcement because I thought they were offering some kind of avatar game from XBLIG.

MARCH

  • Castlevania 2: Lords of Shadow 2 (Xbox 360, 70, 6 years)
  • Batman: The Enemy Within — The Complete Season (74, 2.5 years)
  • Sonic Generations (Xbox 360, 77, 8.4 years)
  • Shantae: Half-Genie Hero (80, 3.2 years)

LCG Entertainment acquired the rights to much of Telltale’s original catalog in August 2019, including the Batman episodic narratives. Sonic Generations was a solid retrospective that I feel like has aged well. Otherwise, this is the fourth Castlevania title over the preceding eight months of Xbox Live Games With Gold.

APRIL

  • Fable Anniversary (Xbox 360, 68, 6 years)
  • Project Cars 2 (84, 2.5 years)
  • Toybox Turbos (Xbox 360, 78, 5.4 years)
  • Knights of Pen and Paper (80, 1.3 years)

Microsoft, admirably, doesn’t cannibalize what it’s selling on Xbox Game Pass. But it could stand to loosen up. Fable Anniversary is the only Games With Gold title of 2020 that was also available on Game Pass at any point during that year.

MAY

  • Sensible World of Soccer (Xbox 360, 81, 12.4 years)
  • V-Rally 4 (67, 1.6 years)
  • Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor — Martyr (71, 1.73 years)
  • Overlord 2 (Xbox 360, 75, 10.9 years)

Your top-rated game is a sports management simulation published in 2007. It’s a port of a game published in 1994.

JUNE

  • Destroy All Humans! (Xbox, 76, 14.9 years)
  • Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse (79, 4.2 years)
  • Sine Mora (Xbox 360, 83, 8.2 years)
  • Coffee Talk (75, six months)

Coffee Talk was a nice departure from Games With Gold’s pattern of digging out full-price motorsports titles and rummaging through Konami’s mothballs. It’s a hell of a flex for them to just up and drop a visual novel/conversation sim involving dwarves, elves, and other fantasy races. Admittedly, that might not be your … (/shows self out). This is the first of four new-to-2020 titles Microsoft offered on Games With Gold, suggesting that they might be able to give tryouts here for things they’re not sure about for Game Pass.

JULY

  • Saints Row 2 (Xbox 360, 81, 11.7 years)
  • WRC 8 (76, 9 months)
  • Dunk Lords (75, day-and-date launch)
  • Juju (Xbox 360, 75, six months)

WRC 8 was the fourth and last motorsports title to come to Games With Gold with a declared value of $49.99 or more. That kind of blows the curve if you’re using MSRP as a measure of quality, especially if it’s Microsoft telling you the price. This is why we’ve de-emphasized money as a measure of value here.

AUGUST

  • MX Unleashed (Xbox, 81, 16.5 years)
  • Portal Knights (77, 3.2 years)
  • Red Faction 2 (Xbox, 74, 17.38 years)
  • Override: Mech City Brawl (64, 1.7 years)

It is really hard for me not to say something snarky about MX Unleashed being old enough to drive and Red Faction 2 being old enough to vote. And look, they’re original Xbox games, rightly enjoyable in their time, so they deserve some slack here. But it feels like this is the month when everyone just ran out of ideas.

SEPTEMBER

  • de Blob 2 (Xbox 360, 77, 9.5 years)
  • Tom Clancy’s The Division (80, 4.5 years)
  • The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 (79, 5 years)
  • Armed and Dangerous (Xbox, 79, 16.8 years)

If Tekken 6 is a weird, obsolete choice, then what about the original The Division? Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 was offered at deep discounts several times in 2020. In September, it got a big title update that brought in a new horde-style mode, so I imagine the multiplayer lobbies for The Division were kind of sparse by then, too. The Division was on Game Pass from E3 2018 until January 2019, just before The Division 2’s launch.

OCTOBER

  • Slayaway Camp: Butcher’s Cut (77, 2.9 years)
  • Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy (Xbox, 79, 16.9 years)
  • Costume Quest (74, 10 years)
  • Maid of Sker (63, 2 months)

The good news about Microsoft buying Double Fine productions in the summer of 2019 means they can stick Costume Quest on October to hold down this year’s Halloween offerings. They already gave out Costume Quest 2 in May 2016.

NOVEMBER

  • Aragami: Shadow Edition (81, 4.1 years)
  • Full Spectrum Warrior (Xbox, 84, 16.4 years)
  • Lego Indiana Jones (Xbox 360, 77, 12.4 years)
  • Swimsanity! (70, 4 months)

It sure seems like Microsoft wanted all attention on the Xbox Series X this month. Mission accomplished with this grouping. The only real theme I can see here is, all of these games are compatible with it. Otherwise, for those who picked up the new console, with Game Pass Ultimate, these four titles show how superfluous Games With Gold now is to an ecosystem that added more than 100 Electronic Arts titles.

DECEMBER

  • Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell (Xbox 360, 65, 5.8 years)
  • The Raven Remastered (70, 2.7 years years)
  • Bleed 2 (78, 8 years)
  • Stacking (Xbox 360, 84, 9.8 years)

If these free games services are a Taco Bell serving the same four ingredients, then Saints Row is the ground meat. Saints Row 2, The Third, 4, and Gat out of Hell have all been served on Games With Gold, and all but Saints Row 4 were on PS Plus by 2016. With The Third Remastered launching in May, I suppose we’ll see that sometime in 2021.

BY THE NUMBERS

Average score: 75 (note, in cases where there were not enough reviews for a certified Metascore, we averaged the available reviews).

Average MSRP: $22.56

Average age: 6 years, 10 months

Published by Xbox Game Studios: Five titles (Fable Heroes, Fable Anniversary, Sensible World of Soccer and Dunk Lords). Additionally, Costume Quest and Stacking are owned by Double Fine Productions, which is owned by Microsoft.

Publisher with the most titles: THQ (legacy) with five: Saints Row 2, Red Faction 2, Destroy All Humans!, MX Unleashed, and Full Spectrum Warrior. THQ Nordic is the publisher for The Book of Unwritten Tales 2, de Blob 2, Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy, and The Raven Remastered.

Appeared on Games With Gold or PlayStation Plus earlier: None were offered on Games With Gold before. Stacking (January 2011), Costume Quest (October 2011), Saints Row 2 (June 2012), Tekken 6 (March 2013), Sine Mora (November 2013), Saints Row: Gat out of Hell (July 2016), Batman: The Telltale Series (January 2018), The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 (January 2018), and Portal Knights (January 2019) were all on PS Plus earlier.

Appearing on Xbox Game Pass: Fable Anniversary. Five others — Lego Indiana Jones, Shantae: Half-Genie Hero, Portal Knights, Saints Row: Gat out of Hell and Tom Clancy’s The Division were all in the library before, removed between September 2018 and September 2019.

Appearing on PlayStation Now: Seventeen of 48 titles are also currently available on PlayStation’s streaming/downloading service.

Total value: $1,083.02 (MSRP declared by Microsoft at the time they were offered)

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