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Apple Arcade Review: A Power-Up for Mobile Gaming, But Not Nearly Enough to Topple the Console Bosses

September 19, 2019, 9:53 PM UTC

Apple has always flirted coyly with the video game industry, casting a shadow, but never having a real presence. With Apple Arcade, however, the company is making its intentions clear: Apple isn’t playing around any more.

The new service, which launched Sept. 19, elevates the level of quality among mobile games, which have largely fallen into one of a five buckets: Match-three titles; ad-supported games that inundate the player with commercials and interstitial ads between levels; battle royale shooters; location-based hunt-and-seeks; and quick-play arcade-style titles. There are exceptions, of course, but if you’re looking for a deeper, more immersive game, it’s slim pickings.

Apple Arcade changes that, giving gamers a panoply of quality games from top tier developers at a very fair, $4.99 per month price. Better still, you won’t have your game interrupted with nudges to buy booster packs or ads for other apps. You subscribe. You download what you want. You play—as long as you want.

The service, which had 75 games available as of Thursday morning (and should top 100 before the weekend) is an embarrassment of riches. There are so many games to choose from, it can be paralyzing. That’s not a bad problem to have, though. And it’s one that any Netflix user has learned to adapt to.

The price is certainly right. $5 per month is a bargain for the number of quality games included in the membership. The family sharing option makes it an even better deal. And (like Apple TV Plus will be), the first month is free, which will certainly lure plenty of lookers.

The catalog is a mix of known video game franchises (Lego, Sonic, Frogger) and smaller, independent games, such as usTwo Games’ Assemble With Care and RAC7 Games’ Sneaky Sasquatch. Some are exclusive to Apple Arcade, while others, like Finji’s Overland, are available on other platforms. (That particular game, though, will cost you $25 on the Nintendo Switch.)

Onscreen controls for the games Fortune tested (and, no, we didn’t test all 75 yet) are a hit and miss affair. Some titles (like Dead End Job) just don’t work as well when you’re using virtual touchscreen joysticks. Fortunately, Apple has pre-empted complaints about this by allowing console controllers to now pair with iOS devices. While there’s something surreal about using a PlayStation 4 controller on an iPad, it certainly makes for a terrific play experience.

But for all Apple Arcade has going for it, the subscription video game service also faces a few hurdles.

First among those is its player base. Apple Arcade isn’t the first time developers have attempted longer form games on Apple’s platform. But players gradually flocked to titles like Candy Crush because they can be played in short bursts, in between other activities. It’s not clear that casual, mobile gamers are willing to transition to a new sort of game (and pay a monthly fee to so do, even if it’s a small one).

Console and PC gamers, meanwhile, already have lots of platforms vying for their time. With its low monthly rate and large catalog, Apple makes a good value proposition, but core gamers like to own their games. When you cancel your Apple Arcade membership, you’re no longer able to access the titles you’ve downloaded. Also—so far, at least—no Apple Arcade title holds the same widespread appeal as console games like Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us, Super Mario Bros. or Halo.

Meanwhile, Apple Arcade already has a new competitor waiting in the wings. Google’s Stadia will let players play console and high-end PC quality games on mobile devices, instantly. And while Google, for now, isn’t offering an all-you-can-play model like Apple, its partner Ubisoft is. UPlay+ (currently available on Windows and coming to Stadia next year) gives players access to over 100 Ubisoft titles, including its latest console releases and a bevy of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and Rainbows Six titles, for $15 per month. Electronic Arts and Microsoft also have similar models, and other publishers are considering them as well.

Granted, $15 is a bigger ask than $5, but being able to play a plethora of $60 games AAA games might be more appealing to some players. But for now, Apple Arcade has a head start on its competitors—and a huge user base to draw from.

Apple’s video game service is also launching with some great titles. If you sign up and feel overwhelmed, here are some games that are absolutely worth your time.

Five must-have Apple Arcade games

Assemble With Care – A game about fixing sentimental objects might sound odd on paper, but this title (from the creator of Monument Valley) is loving and sentimental and folds in a fascinating story about loss. A Zen-like game that sucks players in quickly, Assemble requires players to think, but is never so difficult that you get frustrated.

Overland – A challenging turn-based strategy game, the object in Overland is to survive—and that’s not easy. You’ll scavenge for supplies, avoid the creepy crawly monsters, and interact with fellow survivors as you make your way across the country. It’s one of those titles where you always want to play one more turn.

Sayonara Wild Hearts – This music-based arcade game is fast and stylish and playable in bite-sized chunks. It’s a title that would be at home in the regular App Store, but it’s so much more enjoyable without ads or in-app purchase prompts disrupting the gameplay.

Operator 41 – As a spy, you’ll avoid cameras, guards and lighted areas as you attempt to reach your goal. Like Sayonara Wild Hearts, it’s a stylish, bite-sized play experience that could lure app store regulars to consider becoming Arcade subscribers.

Sneaky Sasquatch – Think Bigfoot meets Yogi Bear. In this unique, charming title, you have to steal food from campers picnic baskets, while avoiding the Park Ranger. To do so, you’ll don disguises, drive cars, and even ski.

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