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Gaming can be an expensive hobby, whatever your system of choice may be. The games are cheaper on PC, but keeping your rig up to speed in order to play the latest titles can burn through cash quickly. With consoles you have to buy the system, and then pay $60 a pop for each new game. If only there was a way of playing games for free.
OK, so there already are a number of methods open to you, but they’re usually of dubious legal status, or the games are either old (read classic) or substandard knock-offs of the original titles. What we need is a big-name, mainstream publisher to offer games playable for free in the humble Web browser. Step forward Square Enix, for which all is forgiven. Yes, even Final Fantasy XIII.
Core Online is a gaming service from Square Enix that offers anyone the chance to play selected titles completely for free using nothing more than a Web browser; Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer are all supported. The games are presented in high definition, and can be played either in a boxed mode with the instructions viewable below, or in fullscreen mode with all distractions removed.
Square Enix has managed to keep Core Online free by the clever use of video adverts. The more ads you watch, the more game time you receive. It’s actually a rather generous ratio, with 1 minute of ad viewing resulting in 20 minutes of game playing. You can accumulate a maximum of 60 minutes of game time at any point. Those who would rather play without ads are given the option of purchasing full games or individual levels for a set fee.
Core Online is currently in open beta, meaning anyone can use the service but bugs and errors are to be expected. I haven’t encountered any problems thus far. You can register for a Core Online account, but doing so is completely optional. Registering has its advantages: game time is carried over between sessions, game saves are recorded, and achievements are opened up.
There are currently only two titles available to play: Mini Ninjas and Hitman: Blood Money. Both play just fine on my run-of-the-mill laptop which meets the minimum specs but not the recommended specs. Playing in Firefox or Internet Explorer requires the installation of the Square Enix Secure Launcher plug-in (SESL), while Chrome users should find the games run natively.
Mini Ninjas is a cartoonish action adventure that was originally released in 2009 on a range of different platforms. The player controls one of six characters – the titular Mini Ninjas – from a third-person perspective, which can be switched between at any time depending on the skills and weapons that are needed. Mini Ninjas has a compelling storyline, a lengthy campaign, and fun gameplay.
Playing Mini Ninjas using Core Online is great, even for someone who is more used to playing on a console rather than a PC. The controls are fairly balanced and easy to learn, with only the faster-paced action requiring me to pause the game occasionally to figure out a better strategy.
Mini Ninjas features 22 levels, each of which can be played individually at any time. This takes away some of the challenge, as if you get stuck on a particular section of game you can merely exit and move on effortlessly. There is also a demo available to play, though that would seem a little surplus to requirements given that the full game is free to play anyway.
Hitman: Blood Money
Hitman: Blood Money is a rather serious stealth killing game that was originally released in 2006 on a range of different platforms. At the time it was notorious for its violent content. The player controls a professional hitman called Agent 47 as he completes missions carrying out hits on individuals. Hitman: Blood Money features a rather convoluted story, a mind-numbing set of controls, and morbidly appealing gameplay.
Playing Hitman: Blood Money using Core Online is a little challenging, but I suspect PC gaming veterans will take to it a lot quicker. The controls take some mastering, as the different killing methods require different button combinations. Thankfully the gameplay is relatively slow-paced for the most part.
Hitman: Blood Money features 13 separate missions, each of which can be tackled individually at any time. Doing so means you’ll inevitably miss whole sections of the ongoing storyline, which is somewhat integral to the gameplay. Still, it’s a useful tool to have at your disposal because this isn’t an easy game, even when played on the Rookie level for n00bs.
Two titles clearly won’t be enough to sustain interest in this service, but thankfully there are more on the way. Lara Croft and The Guardian Of Light, Tomb Raider: Underworld, and Gyromancer are all listed as “Coming Soon.” Assuming the advertising business model proves to be successful I suspect newer titles may also start appearing on Core Online in the near future.
There is obviously one rather large omission from the line-up at present… the Final Fantasy series. Core Online would seem to be an obvious home for the older Final Fantasy games, even though many are already finding new homes and new audiences on the likes of iOS, Android, Xbox Live, and PSN. If Final Fantasy VII ever makes its way to Core Online then that will be all my spare time gone in an instant.
I can see myself using Core Online a lot, especially if and when the range and quality of games available to play on the service improve over the coming months. Hopefully the number and frequency of adverts won’t increase to compensate Square Enix for any lost sales. People are more than willing to put up with ads as long as they’re rewarded fairly for doing so.
Have you tried Core Online yet? If so, what did you think? Are there any Square Enix games you would love to see added to the browser-based service? Would you like to see other publishers following this example? If so, which? Do you think this, along with cloud gaming, offers an alternative to the current treadmill of console generations? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.