When the much-trumpeted New Xbox Experience finally arrived, it didn't just bring us those oh-so-adorable Avatars and the welcome option to install games to the hard drive. No, tucked way rather unceremoniously in the Games Marketplace was the long-promised Community Games section, bearing the fruits of Microsoft's lengthy flirtation with the world of amateur, indie and homebrew coding.
We got a sneaky taste of what these games might entail back in February, when seven of them were given a brief preview on the boring old Xbox dashboard, but strangely none of these appear in the line-up of the full Community Games channel. Still, that doesn't mean the service has been slack. In the first week alone, over fifty new games have been added.
There are a lot of block-dropping puzzlers, and plenty of uninspired shooters. Some are fairly slick, others rough as a badger, and some showcase quirky design unrestrained by commercial concerns. In The Pit, for example, is a game with no graphics whatsoever, in which you have to hunt down hapless victims through audio and vibration alone. Then there's Audiball, which uses Guitar Hero and Rock Band peripherals for a fast-paced puzzle game. If anything, browsing through the constantly expanding list recalls teenage hours spent painstakingly scanning the budget shelves, wondering which two-quid masterpiece to gamble on.
You have no such worries however. Not only is Eurogamer on hand to guide you through the homebrew jungle, but you can list the games in order of popularity and also download a trial version of each. These demos are time-limited, however, which means that some barely get a chance to show what they can do before you're crudely booted out. And, despite their amateur roots, there's no such thing as freeware on Xbox Live. Prices range from 200 Microsoft Points up to 800, which places the top-level Community Games side by side with the average Live Arcade offering. Clearly, they're going to need to prove their worth.
This, then, is our guide to the Community Games that have caught our eye so far.
- Price: 400 MS Points
With its distinctive cel-shaded appearance, this bouncy Q-Bert style puzzler immediately stands out. The goal is to change the colour of all the tiles by bouncing on them, but bouncing on them twice changes them back. Some tiles need to be hit on several times before they'll change, and you must touch another tile between each bounce. From this simple set-up, developer Oscar K has produced an often ingenious game, something that requires a lot more thought than you'd think. It takes a while to get used to the slightly floaty jumping, but apart from that it's precisely the sort of solid homebrew you'd hope to see on this sort of download channel.
- Price: 800 MS Points
This two-stick shooter doesn't even bother to hide its debt to Geometry Wars, doffing its cap respectfully in the direction of the Bizarre Creations classic in both title and gameplay. The Community Games channel is already awash with clunky shooters, so it's refreshing to find one that is this slick, with fast and fluid control, and loads of power-ups. It also offers co-op play, as well as online and offline modes. The only major problem is that it costs twice as much as the original Geometry Wars, and the same as its masterful sequel. It'd also be nice to see such a clearly talented developer working on something a little less derivative.
- Price: 200 MS Points
Screenshots don't really do Bloc justice, since it really isn't a game driven by visuals. You've got a disc, divided into four colours a bit like the old electronic Simon game. Blocks of corresponding colours begin to enter the arena from above, below, left and right. You've got to rotate your disc to shoot the correct colour at the encroaching squares. Trouble is, to fire bullets of the right colour, you need to press the same coloured button on the joypad. So the A button shoots green bullets. Unless you have very flexible wrists, chances are your joypad won't be rotating to match the disc, so getting your head around which direction to face and which buttons to press is a real challenge. It's simple, but remarkably effective, and at just 200 Points it offers a very addictive little distraction.