Xbox free-to-play games are actually free-to-play now

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Microsoft has dropped the requirement for a service subscription to access online features of free-to-play games today. You can now fire up Fortnite or Korgan (pictured above) on an Xbox and only spend money on cosmetics, XP boosters, episodes, or loot boxes the way the publishers intended, rather than wasting your hard-earned cash on the basic ability to get the Xbox console online in the first place. (You’ll still have to pay someone for home internet access unless you’re sneaking onto your neighbor’s Wi-Fi, but that’s on you.) The full list of truly free-to-play games is here.

The announcement was first made in January when the company reversed a decision to increase the price of an annual Xbox Live Gold membership. Since then, Microsoft has de-emphasized the Xbox Live Gold plan in favor of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service that includes access to premium games like Outriders and MLB The Show 21.

Age of Empires III ratifies the United States despite the proof that we’ve got a ways to go

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The United States is officially a real civilization in Age of Empire 3: Definitive Edition. Microsoft, Tantalus Media, and Forgotten Empires just added the new faction to the game. Unlike some fan mods that tried to bring the USA into the game as a playable faction, this DLC doesn’t just port the single player campaign version over. In fact, the United States works quite differently from the other factions. As you level up through the ages during a game, the United States adds federal states that bring unique cards to a player’s deck, instead of choosing politicians and generals with explicit supply or unit bonuses. For example, choosing Virginia when you progress to the Commerce Age adds these two cards to your deck:

– Virginia General Assembly: Ships 1 State Capitol Wagon and makes the next upgrade researched at the State Capitol FREE (excluding Spies and Blockade).

– Culpeper Minutemen: Arrives fast! All existing Town Centers spawn 6 Minutemen. Minutemen retain their hit points 75% longer.

Since each state addition adds two more cards to the deck, the Home City of Washington D.C. starts with a smaller initial deck than other factions.

It’s a decent stab at solving the meta-game progression issue a lot of folks felt the Definitive Edition version had at launch. Because the original game’s requirement of unlocking cards via XP felt unfair for new players, the DE revamp just unlocked all the cards and only left cosmetic Home City bits as XP rewards. Unfortunately, this made the Home City progression about as exciting as watching a C-SPAN broadcast. The United States faction moves the card unlocking mechanic into the main gameplay.

It’s war of the Warzones between Activision and Randy Ficker

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Did you know there’s a game called Warzone that’s not a Call of Duty battle royale mode? It’s a turn-based strategy game available on mobile platforms and PC browsers that was developed largely by one person and launched in 2017, years before Call of Duty took the name. It’s a bit like Risk and it’s Randy Ficker’s baby that he started in 2011 as WarLight.

Randy Ficker wants Activision to stop using his game’s name, or pay him, so he sent Activision a cease and desist notice in 2020. Activision’s counter-complaint points out a dozen other mobile games that came out after Call of Duty: Warzone launched that they feel cannot be confused with their non-mobile game. Ficker says in his GoFundMe appeal that his game was first to market and he’s the one that’s been saddled with confused Call of Duty players horning in on his business.

“People tell me all about how their Xbox can’t connect, or how their PS4 got hacked, how they wish they could carry teammates, etc. My game isn’t even on Xbox or PS4. I send the same reply to each of them: ‘Warzone and Call of Duty: Warzone are different games. You should contact Activision.'”

War never changes.

There’s a native 4K version of TimeSplitters 2, but you may never get to see it

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There’s an Easter Egg in Homefront: The Revolution that allows a player to access a couple from levels from TimeSplitters 2. It’s tucked away in an arcade cabinet on the top floor of a deserted apartment building in the semi-open world of Dambuster Studios’ 2016 game. (You can watch how to access it here.) What no one knew until a few days ago is that Homefront: The Revolution actually has the whole of TimeSplitters 2, including the multiplayer, buried in the code. Matt Phillips, who was senior programmer on Homefront: The Revolution, revealed the secret in a tweet reply to a call for game developers to discuss their proudest Easter Egg achievements.

“My proudest moment. Fully playable, native 4K port of TimeSplitters 2 hidden in this arcade machine in Homefront: The Revolution.”

PC Gamer verified that the tweet meant what it appears to mean. Phillips was talking about a full version of the game and not just the two levels accessible now. Unfortunately, they also found out that Phillips lost the cheat code to access the game-within-a-game, and the only other copy of the code was deleted on Discord. A tragedy! I imagine some eager hacker is already working on extracting the hidden game right now.

The absolute dumbest thing you’ll see all week: Godzilla vs. Kong

, | Movie reviews

I don’t mean to belittle dumb movies.  Some of my favorite movies are dumb.  But Godzilla vs. Kong is steeped in a special kind of concentrated studio inanity.  It stinks of dumb.  It is the most profoundly stupid “vs.” movie since Batman vs. Superman.  It’s not even worthy of Syfy’s Animal X vs. Animal Y movies, which can at least pretend they’re being deliberately campy.  Godzilla vs. Kong is so profoundly dumb that it doesn’t even know it’s dumb.

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No Man’s Sky has seasons now, but not the kind you were expecting

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Hello Games has updated No Man’s Sky with seasonal reward tracks. The Expeditions update adds a few changes like a revamped scanning process for missions, improved AI on enemies, and Twitch drops, but the stars of the 3.3 patch are the expeditions themselves. They’re basically the equivalent of battle passes or seasonal challenges in other games. These time-limited community events start everyone off on the same point in the No Man’s Sky universe with an assortment of equipment and supplies. As players progress through milestones and phases, they can unlock in-game rewards.

Once an expedition ends, you can choose to continue with your games, but you won’t unlock any more goodies for that expedition. It will be time to move on to the next set of challenges and hoard resources to your heart’s content.

Baby mode is ready in Amnesia: Rebirth

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Frictional has released an update for Amnesia: Rebirth that turns it into a danger-free exploration game. Adventure Mode turns off monster aggression, turns up the lighting in dark rooms, removes the player character’s fear mechanic, and adds a few more puzzles to pad out the spelunking. Now, even grandma can play, and it probably makes reaction videos a lot less annoying since there’s nothing to scream at.

“With Adventure Mode we hope that new players, that have a hard time handling horror as a genre, will get to experience Tasi’s story.”

According to the developers, the Safe Mode they implemented in their previous game, SOMA, was quite popular. The new Adventure Mode for Amnesia: Rebirth goes quite a bit farther than just neutering monsters. Brightening environments and removing any fear reactions really changes the game from from one genre to another.

Planetfall: the death of trust

, | Game diaries

After forty turns of searching for the Psi-Fish I’m supposed to defeat, and whose dwellings are supposed to be abundant, and with whom I’m supposed to be at war, I have found no Psi-Fish.  I have explored enough of the map to discover three NPC factions and their dwellings.  A map this size should have three NPC factions, and I’ve found Therians, Forgotten, and Paragon.  If there are Psi-Fish here, they’re a fourth faction tucked into tiny pockets of unexplored territory.  It seems unlikely.  

But just to verify that something is broken, I looked up how to unfog the map using a cheat code.  The situation is that dire.  I have resorted to cheat codes!  Sure enough, there are no Psi-Fish on this map.  It is Psi-Fish-less.  My mission to capture two Psi-Fish dwellings is literally impossible.

Cue the Lalo Schifrin!

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Planetfall: going fishing, losing touch with reality, and watching sports

, | Game diaries

Psi-Fish owned sectors are Abundant!  Psi-Fish make more Demands! Psi-Fish start at War with you!

So said the intel briefing for Angelus, a planet supposedly lousy with psionic extradimensional fish.  These fish have breached our dimension, bringing with them Void storms and deposits of cosmite.  Our empire’s Penumbra faction wants us to wipe out two Psi-Fish dwellings.  At which point, I’ve confirmed that we can declare “mission accomplished” and pack it in.  This isn’t going to be like the hopperhound fiasco on Virginia, where I ended up having to burn the whole planet because I misinterpreted my orders.  Which happens.  You can’t make an empire without burning a few planets.  But now we’re here to do a job and then call it a day, which will secure the Void Lure for our empire, which will let us recruit Psi-Fish during later missions.  “Capable Pets,” the Psynumbra told us when they named the mission.

So where are all the Psi-Fish at?

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