April was a huge month for me when it came to playing games. Despite spending a week in Toronto visiting friends and without much access to games, the rest of the month was chalk full. There was a new Hearthstone expansion, the addition of FIFA 16 to the EA Access Vault, and the Battleborn and Gears of War 4 Betas.

 Highlights of the Month

Gears of War 4 Beta

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If there’s one series that is meaningful to me on the Xbox, it’s the Gears of War series. I’m far from the type of gamer that would play every release that had Gears of War in the title. I skipped Judgement and even Gears of War 3 until just recently. Despite this, I have a strong emotional connection to it and many memories associated with the COG logo.

The original Gears of War was the first game that I purchased on the Xbox 360, and the one that inspired me to purchase an Xbox 360 to begin with. The visuals were unlike anything I had seen previously and the I still remember vividly getting up early on Boxing Day 2006 to head down to the now defunct Futureshop to purchase the GRAW, Arcade Unplugged, and Gears of War bundle for $399.99. I spent that whole break from school playing online multiplayer, blasting Coheed and Cambria’s anthemic Welcome Home and TV on the Radio’s rhythm heavy Return to Cookie Mountain. I can’t hear either without thinking about a rolling shotgun on Subway or a fight for the Torque Bow on Canals.

Gears of War multiplayer, and Xbox Live in general, was where I spent most of my social time during high school. While it didn’t help that my busboy job took over prime social hours on the weekends, my social circle were almost exclusively gamers. It was routine for us to start a party chat just after school and have it last well into the night, headset on, discussing games, girls, and the drama that high school is full of. It was where we knew we could find each other, where we could escape to, and where we were kings.

The shotgun is your online lord and saviour

The shotgun is your online lord and saviour

Gears of War 4 brought back so many of those memories. In an online environment where I don’t find many people with headsets, talking in a public match anymore, it was exciting to find what I thought was long gone from the Xbox Live culture. It made me want to go out and purchase a headset even if I didn’t have a single person on my friends list I could chat with. For me, one of the major things that Xbox Live had over PSN in Gen 7 was that every Xbox 360 owner had a headset and that most people were using them. It made the experience so much better, even if there was the inevitable string of homophobic and racist epithets present. You could reliably communicate with your teammates and develop camaraderie that you couldn’t if you were a group of mutes running around as individuals with the same goal.

I enjoyed my experience with the Gears of War 4 beta so much that I’ve reached out to friends that I had long lost contact with to share my experience with it, trying to prod them into making a commitment to give another go in October at what was once so important to us. If I were to bet I would say that there are likely many people that had an experience and emotional connection to Gears that I did, and that the marketing of it should capitalize on it. I can’t wait to see how it develops.

FIFA 16

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My climb to division one online as Juve in FIFA is pilgrimage I make each year. Unlike other EA Sports games, I find the FIFA games continue to make great steps forward with each release and are more than just roster and club updates. It might be because I understand Soccer more than I understand Football or Hockey, but it’s definitely not something I would be able to know for sure.

I’ve never quite gotten into the FIFA Ultimate Team that seems to dominate the Twitch streams of FIFA. I’ve never enjoyed playing with random teams or players that I don’t have an emotional connection with that I feel you must if you’re to play Ultimate Team. I only ever play as Juve online and the ever terrible Drogheda United FC against friends, so drafting a past legend like Beckenbauer or a living legend like Messi into my team seems like cheating.

Regardless, I know the Ultimate Team is a huge part of the FIFA franchises’ success today, both in terms of players and revenue so I’ll take a shot at it and report back.

Hearthstone – Whispers of the Old Gods (Mac)

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I really do love Hearthstone. This month brought the introduction of the Standard and Wild modes, along with the new Whispers of the Old Gods expansion. I’ve enjoyed the meta changes and the unpredictability of what decks you can expect to face on the ladder. Some of the new cards are really fun and change up the game in a huge way. Without Healbot and some of the consistent early drops now in play, it’s opened up a field of really aggro decks. Thankfully I squeezed out my second golden hero portrait with Druid before the change because I don’t think I would be able to now, despite having some incredibly overpowered class specific cards in this expansion.

Clash Royale (Android)

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I had never played Clash of Clans or Boom Beach. To be frank, I had always looked down on them and games similar. Now, however, I’m a convert. These games are incredibly well made and deeper than I could have imagined. What I like about Clash Royale is that it combines light RTS elements with a Magic/Hearthstone influence. It’s so easy to jump into and I’m always finding more and more people that I know playing it that I wouldn’t have expected. There are even Twitch streams of it. Let’s see if my enthusiasm holds up the next few months.

Honourable Mention

Battleborn Beta

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I thought Battleborn was lost in development hell because I had heard so little about it until I saw the beta available. I assume that the Overwatch press has sucked a lot of the air out of the discussion around Battleborn, and that had a lot to do with why I had heard so little. I enjoyed Borderlands tremendously and its influences are clear in Battleborn, but I can’t quite say I enjoyed my time with Battleborn. The tradeoffs with the different classes as clear to me as they are in TF2 or Overwatch, my closest two reference points, and I wasn’t especially good at any of the classes I tried. Combining my lackluster competitive performance with a hugely confusing loot, equipment, and perk system made me feel overwhelmed and incompetent. After a good five to ten hours of trying to make sense of it, I realized I just wasn’t having fun. I like some of the cooperative story missions, but I felt a lot of the problems I had still applied. I hope it does well because I like Gearbox, but I don’t think I’ll be spending any more time with this game. I think we’re about to be hit with many like it and they have more of my attention.