Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: September 5, 2006
Gears of War, Call of Duty 3, F.E.A.R., Splinter Cell: DA – recent releases for the Xbox 360 are making a case for the console as a credible purchase with breathtaking visuals, innovative gameplay, and engaging multiplayer modes, among other features. However, there's more to the next-gen of gaming than blockbuster titles. Nestled neatly away within the X360's interface is one of the brightest gems of the system – and you don't even have to leave the couch to find it.
Xbox Live Arcade offers a range of retro and original releases available for download, supplementing the 360's library with more compact content that's easy to pick up and play. Though most 360 owners are hooked up to the internet, if you're still stuck in 1990 but like the idea of more contained, disposable experiences on your 360, Microsoft Game Studios has served up six arcade games into a retail release.
Xbox Live Arcade Unplugged Volume 1 bundles together Bejeweled 2, Wik: Fable of Souls, Texas Hold 'Em Poker, Outpost Kaloki X, Hardwood Backgammon, and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved onto a single $40 disc. Though some outshine others, the collection represents a bright assortment of puzzle, shooter, strategy, parlor, and puzzle-platformer games. Before we delve into them individually, let's ponder an important question: Why would you buy these games in a package when you could download them over Xbox Live Arcade?
Yes, yes ... as mentioned, maybe you're still stuck in the stone-age of dial-up internet, or were one of the folks who opted for a Core 360 system. Maybe the idea of getting six games at a slight discount fits your budget (downloaded individually, they'd run you $50 over Live). Maybe you're absolutely bananas for Bejeweled, but playing it on your cell phone just doesn't bake your cake. Maybe you're a Texas Hold 'Em fiend, but you don't own a pack of cards or have any friends ... or friends with money.
Whatever your excuse, ask yourself honestly before you run out to buy Unplugged Volume 1: "Do I really want each of these games equally?"
Because the collection (along with more than 25 other games) is already available over Live Arcade anyway, unless you planned on purchasing all six, your money would likely be better spent on specific arcade titles from the service that appeal to you. Yes, the retail release includes a free month of Xbox Live Gold, which is comforting, but pointless if you're not online anyway. Likewise, as we'll cover in a moment, because two of the titles are so enhanced by online play, if you're playing Unplugged ... unplugged, the overall value of the package falters a bit.
That's not to say that these games don't deserve a gander, though. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, the most popular of the set, is a marriage of Atari's classic Asteroids and your least favorite math subject. Players control a small vessel in a square space, gripping each analog stick for dear life to defend against a never-ending assault of shapes. Multi-colored diamonds, squares, black holes, and electro-snakes crawl the playing surface, spawning in schools as the gameplay goes on. Geometry Wars' well-balanced, challenging play fits in well to kill an hour or two (with many deaths in between), and its neon-lit particle effects make each play-through a stunning spectacle.
A combination puzzle-platformer, Wik: Fable of Souls slings players through a bouncy, fast-paced romp. Our forest-bound friend is tasked to feed his companion (Slotham, a slow-moving beast that treads across the bottom of the screen) green grubs that appear throughout each stage. Assaulting insects descend from above to snatch away the glowing grubs, bungling up your food chain and stealing Slotham's meal. The concept sounds unappetizing, but does well by changing things up each level and giving us different situations with which to deal. What stands out most about the title is its fluidity – players hop from platform to platform, using Wik's extendable tongue to swing between tree branches and other objects. Sucking and spitting out grubs, or acorns as ammo against enemies is a snap, and the responsiveness of these actions is super-fast.
Texas Hold 'Em Poker tours players through tournament, customizable, and scenario-based modes. The game deals out a smooth interface and promotes a laid-back style of play that some gamers are sure to appreciate as a break between rounds of Halo 2. Progressive tournament difficulties are a nice touch, but ultimately, how much satisfaction can you get from beating a less-than-stellar AI over and over again? If you can't play against other people over Xbox Live, Hold 'Em's replay value folds after a few rounds.
Outpost Kaloki X can be seen as a casual take on SimCity, relocated into orbit. From the centralized hub of their outpost, players expand outward from building nodes to earn cash and resources: lemonade stands, chemical labs, solar generators to gather power, and trading posts help you bring in the space-dough. Like most construction-oriented games, Kaloki starts off simple and progresses to become more complex, tasking the player to juggle, manage, and balance their station's needs. Although its interface helps attenuate the difficulty along the way, the game feels slightly out of place on the Xbox 360 – the play isn't quite conducive to a controller and would be more at home on the PC. It's still a worthwhile strategy experience with decent depth, but we wouldn't call it stellar, either.
If you haven't played it in its various incarnations, Popcap's Bejeweled 2 is a simple matching game that calls upon forward-thinking to create combos for more points. It's set up similar like a massive game of "Connect Four," with colored gems scattered about the board, waiting to be linked. There are additional modes for solving specific puzzles and beating the clock, but at the end of the day, Bejeweled feels like a throw-in alongside the otherwise well-developed six-pack of games. The same could be said of Hardwood Backgammon, which rounds out the sextuplet of titles. Hardwood is about what you'd expect from a 'gammon game: dice-rollin', disc-movin' goodness that's improved with online play, like Hold 'Em ... but is probably only worthwhile if you're already an avid backgammoner.
So overall, a slightly mixed bag. Seeing a well-known coin-op classic like Smash TV or Street Fighter II would've sealed the deal and added to the collection's multiplayer value, but ultimately, there are just better ways to spend $40 on building your Xbox 360 library. The collection itself represents a good group of games (not great), but some of the quality gets cancelled out if your system is sans online play. Though you're technically getting six games at a discount, it's unlikely that they'd all appeal to one person – Outpost Kaloki X and Geometry Wars might strike your fancy, but Bejeweled doesn't, for example. For these reasons, Volume One of Xbox Live Arcade Unplugged can be passed up in favor of nabbing the titles you like over digital distribution. A free month of Xbox Live Gold seems to sweeten the deal, but it will only leave you wishing you'd invested in the service with the money you just spent on six games you sort of want. In Unplugged, we see a respectable set of content, but how it's packaged and the deal you're getting resigns it to being a questionable buy.