Launched almost five years ago, not long after the Xbox One itself, Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program has proven to be a big success for the company and has gone some way to improving its reputation with indie developers.
At a recent event, ID@Xbox's European chief Agostino Simonetta told TechRadar that almost 800 titles have launched across Xbox and Window 10 from 477 developers across the globe and that games released through the program have now garnered more than $1 billion in revenue.
That’s a lot of games and a lot of money earned but by far one of the best additions to the program in recent years has been Game Preview, somewhat similar to Steam Early Access. This program has allowed developers to start communicating with players during the development of their titles to help them make considered and successful changes to their work.
As a result, we’re starting to see developers beginning to bring their Steam Early Access titles over to Xbox Game Preview in order to break into consoles and hopefully reach a wider audience.
This year there are some exciting indie titles coming to both Game Preview and the Xbox Store through the ID program. We’ve recently had the chance to go hands-on with some of them (a few of which we’re sure you’ll have heard of) and we’ve picked out those we think you should keep an eye on for later this year.
Below from Capybara Games is a title we’ve been watching keenly for a few years now. After an indefinite delay was announced in 2016, with the developer stating it wanted to get the game up to the right standards, we’ve recently been hands-on with it and we think it could very well prove worth the wait.
The aim is to release the roguelike this year (yes, this year!) and on launch it’ll support 60fps at 4K, which should do the visuals justice. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Below is a top-down roguelike which puts you in control of a young explorer on a mysterious island.
You must explore a network of underground dungeons where you’ll engage in melee combat, improve your gear and try to survive. The survival elements encompass the usual - watch your thirst and hunger and don’t let your wounds remain open for too long.
The story in the game isn’t immediately obvious - instead you’ll have to uncover the history of the island through studying environmental details and small events. The narrative jigsaw puzzle is, however, a big appeal of the game.
We think the extra time taken could be good for Below - from what we played this game is beautiful and atmospheric; it almost feels like running around a painting.
Don’t let the stunning visuals fool you, though, because it’s stubbornly difficult - Below will not hold your hand in any way and the addition of perma-death makes it feel like a cross between Dark Souls and Don't Starve. But every time you die you’ll have learned something that will take you just that little bit further the next time and you’ll undoubtedly keep returning to the game as determined as ever.
DayZ is another game that we’ve been watching for a few years now. It's been in Steam Early Access since 2013 but this year it seems that the intention is to reboot it with a new engine on PC and launch it on Xbox Game Preview. DayZ is a zombie apocalypse survival simulator from Bohemia Interactive and we really do mean simulator – this game is like an unedited version of the Walking Dead.
Having been hands-on we can say we’re intrigued by DayZ but intimidated. Its visuals are reminiscent of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds but it takes the detail and depth of that game and doubles it.
This is no run and gun zombie blaster, everything in DayZ feels deliberate and slow. There’s no sense in heading into a town on your own to try and gun down all the zombies - you’ll be overpowered almost immediately when they’re all drawn by the sound of your first gunshot.
Instead you have to use stealth and tactics - attack when it’s sensible. As well as being aware of the zombie situation, you have to keep an eye out for other players in this online world. And your hunger and thirst. And your injuries and blood level. And your stamina. And your resources. And your stomach health (don’t eat too many carbs and drink a lot of water - if you start running you may well be sick).
At nights you’ll have to collect kindling and light fires for yourself to stay warm; if you’re worried about being shot in the back you can genuinely fill a backpack with rocks to stop the bullets (it’ll slow you down though); if you’re injured your movements will be slow and limping until you can hide yourself away to heal. You get where we’re going with this - there’s a lot here.
If we’re honest, often it felt like DayZ was asking us to consider and pay attention to too many things to be fun. But we have a feeling this is the kind of game a large number of people could very well have been waiting for (outside of all those Early Access players who are aging rapidly in the wait for the beta).
This is a game where you could really sink yourself in and spend hours gathering resources, meeting friends and tactically taking down zombies. Will painfully realistic survival be the next battle royale? Let’s wait and see.
Warhammer: Vermintide 2
We’d be very surprised if you hadn’t heard about Warhammer: Vermintide 2 from Fatshark; the original game was a huge critical and sales success and this sequel is already outselling that release on PC. But the game is also coming to Xbox through the ID program and we recently had the chance to go hands-on with the console version.
Vermintide 2 is a first-person action coop set in the Warhammer universe. Players can choose from five characters and up to 15 career paths and join teams of up to four players to try and save the Empire from the combined forces of the Chaos army and the Skaven horde.
The game is visually excellent and there’s a real sense of atmosphere. That atmosphere is often dark, disturbing and quite frightening but that's still atmosphere. The portion of the game that we tried was punishing with an almost relentless stream of enemies but the pacing was just right - you get just enough time between rushes to gather yourself together and steel yourself for the next one.
Visceral is an understatement for Vermintide 2, but the combat is satisfyingly slick and...crunchy. Plus, you really do have to rely on those around you; there’s no ‘I’ in coop.
Of course, if you don’t have a team to play with like we did in this closed event, you can always recruit an AI team to join you - they work hard and there is an 'I' in AI.
It’s been a while since we’ve played a good old fashioned sports game but Descenders from RageSquid reminded us why we enjoy them - the unashamed high octane fun. This is a downhill mountain biking game
Descenders is definitely a joy to look at - the four procedurally generated worlds range from the Scottish Highlands (look out for the Harry Potter train on the Glenfinnan Viaduct), to lush forests, to desert canyons and snowy peaks. Each track is randomized, with slopes, turns and stunt opportunities changing on each run.
This keeps things fresh and maintains that heart-in-your-throat fear of the unknown you get at the start of a game level. But it also means you can’t learn each track to succeed, instead you need to learn how to control your bike in certain situations better.
Fortunately the joystick controls are tight and balanced so you never feel like a a wipeout is anything other than your own fault. And we wiped out a lot.
Descenders is about more than going fast - you have to patient, sharp and willing to accept that sometimes it’s better to hold back than speed ahead. Our cowardice really helped here. That physics engine is pretty punishing.
In each single-player world you must complete a certain number of runs without dying more than four times in order to get to a final boss run with a mega stunt jump opportunity at the end. It's worth noting that a fall isn't immediately a death - you have health which depletes depending on the severity of the fall and you can build it back up by completing tricks.
The aim of the game is to build reputation by successfully completing runs, stunts, and tasks individual to each track. You’ll be able to join one of three in-team games and represent them on a global leaderboard. We had the chance to play the main single-player progression section of the game, as well as see the free-ride portion which will allow players to access individual tracks if they have the correct seed code. The aim is that players will be able to share these seed codes with one another.
Multiplayer elements are apparently being considered and worked on and we think their inclusion will be important to keeping player attention - though Descenders is good fun, we wonder if there’s enough there at the moment to really hold us for an extended period.
Descenders is already available on Steam Early Access but it’s coming to Xbox Game Preview in the summer.
If Minecraft and Stardew Valley had a baby in space which was then adopted and raised by Terraria, you’d probably get something kind of close to Starbound. From developer Chucklefish, Starbound has been available on Steam for a long time now but it’s making its console debut on Xbox One through the ID program, hopefully later this year.
Starbound is the kind of game where there isn’t really a wrong way to play, it’s a sandbox game where exploring, crafting, and fighting are all completely viable and equal. You start off on your home planet, heading off to your graduation and, as you’d expect, everything goes wrong very quickly and destruction ensues.
After this, it’s up to you. You can follow the main story and stop the being that destroyed your home, or you can fly through the procedurally generated universe, landing on uncharted planets and colonizing them to grow and manage a brand new community that will maybe replace the one you lost.
Collect resources, build homes, decorate them, be a good or bad landlord to the tenants who move in, recruit enemy creatures to your side, get involved in the online community. It’s really up to you. The game's developer told us he and his team are continually amazed when they see what the community is capable of creating.
The visuals of Starbound are reminiscent of Stardew Valley while the block building reminded us of Minecraft. But this is a game that will forge its own identity in your memory. The space backdrops behind the surface of each planet are stunning and there are survival elements thrown in. It’s up to you how much you engage in these survival mechanics, however, thanks to the option to select a difficulty level. If you have no wish to be disturbed by hunger and thirst, you don’t have to be.
Controls were surprisingly comfortable given it’s a game that’s been so at home on PC. You can of course simply stand in front of the things you want to interact with, but for a little more precision you can move the right joystick to bring out a cursor.
These are by no means the only exciting games coming from ID@Xbox this year but they are the ones we’ve recently had the chance to try out. There are many other titles coming this year which we advise you to keep an eye out for, from Ooblets, to Harold Halibut, to City of Brass.