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Digital Blend: Xbox Live turns 10 and Star Wars: The Old Republic goes free-to-play

Welcome back to Digital Blend, our weekly look at the world of downloadable video gaming that exists at the fringes of the mainstream. That means we look at the hottest new mobile game releases, downloadable content drops on consoles and PCs, indie darlings that deserve your love and attention, and the best gaming values under $20.

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Making headlines…

* Xbox Live turns 10 this week and Microsoft is celebrating with a nifty reward for some of its most committed longtime users. A select assortment of veteran subscribers is receiving custom-designed 250GB Xbox 360 consoles in the mail as a “thank you” for their years of loyalty. Microsoft isn’t laying out how it goes about deciding who gets an anniversary console, but the company at least confirms that the mailings are happening, and that they’re meant to reward loyal fans. Xbox Live launched in November 2002 during the era of the O.G. Xbox, a time when online gaming was almost entirely the domain of home computers. Things have obviously changed quite a bit since then, with home gaming consoles now including built-in WiFi receivers as a standard feature. Also, WiFi in general. Wireless Internet certainly wasn’t a big deal back in 2002.

StarCraft 2 fans, rejoice. Blizzard Entertainment is typically rather cagey when it comes to revealing release dates, but the first expansion for the developer’s space-based RTS, titled The Heart of the Swarm, is now officially dated for release. Fans will be able to expand their StarCraft 2 experience on March 12, 2013 with either a Standard Edition or Deluxe Edition, both purchasable from the Battle.net store. The $55 premium priced edition (compared to $40 for the standard) includes a bunch of StarCraft 2 bonus items, plus a few additional extras for fans of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and Diablo 3.

* BioWare officially unhitched its Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG from subscription requirements this week, re-launching the game as a free-to-play offering. Now, anyone can sign up and play through the full story for all eight character classes and work their created characters up to the level 50 cap. More optional elements, such as PvP and space battles, are walled off behind pay-as-you-go or subscription-based options. The free-to-play launch also brings with it some new content, marking the return of fan-favorite KOTOR character HK-51.

wii u 8gb* Nintendo’s Wii U console launches on Sunday, November 18, 2012, but now, just days before launch, the console maker has confirmed that a number of previously expected launch day features won’t actually be arriving until later this year. Support for TVii launches in December 2012, giving Wii U GamePad users full control over their cable box with enhanced guide features on the tablet screen (the GamePad doubles as a universal remote by default). Also delayed for release “in the coming weeks” is Video On Demand content, including Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube. The TVii feature links up with those services as well, so expect them all to come to Wii U at around the same time.

* Sony will at long last make good on its promise to bring PlayStation Plus features and promotions to its portable PlayStation Vita. PS Plus comes to the Vita on November 19, 2012 as part of firmware update v2.00. In addition to having the same discounts that Plus users on the PlayStation 3 enjoy, the Vita update will also introduce Instant Game Collection downloads that are specific to the handheld. The first crop of free-to-download titles are: Gravity RushWipeout 2048Uncharted: Golden AbyssJet Set Radio HDMutant Blobs Attack, and the PSP game Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions.

Top buys for the week…

I’m breaking format this week on account of the crazy-light offering of small-fry releases. Expect to see more of this as 2012 winds to a close. The only noteworthy Xbox Live Arcade offering is Warlods, an HD remake of the classic Atari 2600 console game (800 MS Points). NES gamers may be familiar with the very similar game Rampart. I haven’t actually tried this Warlords remake yet, but it’s essentially a multiplayer brick-breaking game with a medieval sort of theme. It received mediocre reviews when it was released for PlayStation Network in October, so my hopes aren’t particularly high for this Xbox 360 release. Maybe check out the demo before you take the plunge.

For PC and Mac gamers, the indie platformer Thomas Was Alone comes to Steam this week. The minimalist art style belies what amounts to a complicated puzzle game in which you must guide a series of switchable characters — rendered as colored blocks — to each level’s exit point. This isn’t a new release, but it’s new to Steam and well worth a look at $9.99 ($8.99 through 11/19). PC users should also give Star Wars: The Old Republic, what with it being free-to-play now and all. Each of the game’s eight characters offers a story that is roughly twice the length of BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic. And you can play all eight of them without ever paying a cent. Why are you still reading this?

Probably because you want to hear about what’s up this week on Apple’s iOS platform. Some solid offerings this week, but nothing on the level of Angry Birds Star Wars last week. Verticus is the first mobile game with Stan Lee’s name in front of it. You play as a free-falling superhero-type, avoiding obstacles and firing missiles when necessary. You’ll earn coins as you progress that can be spent on a variety of upgrades in the game’s store. Also new on iOS this week is Beatdown from Ravenous Games. The League of Evil dev tries its hand at a Double Dragon-style brawler, with charming results. The Stan Lee joint sells for $1.99 and the Ravenous release clocks in at $0.99.