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PlayStation Plus’ free games for 2020: An IOU worth buying

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The PlayStation Plus collection was the biggest story, even if most fans can’t get their hands on it yet

Nathan jumps from a car to a plane wheel in Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection’s remaster of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Nathan tries out a new no-frills airline in the remaster of Uncharted 3, part of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection.
Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment

In 1977, Kenner was flat ambushed by the demand for Star Wars toys. They had no product in the pipeline for the first Star Wars Christmas. So the toymaker did the next best thing it could do: Kenner sold, literally, an IOU. And that sold like crazy, too.

Well, almost 45 years later, isn’t that where Sony kind of finds itself, too? Analysts, pundits, and upset fans can argue over what type of consumer demand the company should have been able to anticipate — or meet, during a pandemic — for the PlayStation 5. None would dispute the console is the holidays’ it-toy. So in September, the company announced an IOU of sorts for anyone committed to buying one: The PlayStation Plus Collection.

Twenty games in all, 10 from Sony’s Worldwide Studios, 10 from its biggest friends in AAA gaming. Ten have been offered under the PlayStation Plus Instant Games Collection before, and 10 have not. But you need that PS5 to get these PS4 games, even if you’ve been a PlayStation Plus subscriber since day one and have every intention of continuing that onto Sony’s new hardware.

It really does highlight how Sony sees PlayStation Plus, and why that program doesn’t face the kind of existential crisis that Xbox Live’s Games With Gold seems to go through every other month. Of course, a big part of this is simply because Sony does not bundle PS Plus and PlayStation Now, its games-on-demand service, the way Microsoft is aggressively pushing Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Game Pass together.

President and CEO of Sony Jack Tretton a
Jack Tretton at E3 2010, at which PlayStation Plus and its offer of free games to continual subscribers was announced.
Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

It’s also that Xbox Live Gold started (in 2005) by selling you something you need — online multiplayer. With multiplayer free on the PlayStation 3 in 2010, PlayStation Plus had to begin as something you would want. And then, Sony made sure you wanted to keep it.

The PlayStation Plus Collection makes a dramatic change, by removing the monthly time-limitation for claiming the games. Once you buy a PlayStation 5, the 20 games are yours to download and install, whenever, as long as you’re a PS Plus subscriber. That’s good, obviously. But it fairly raises the question if Sony might consider doing this going forward, or for select titles. It’s nice to catch up if you missed, say Bloodborne in March 2018. But do we really need all the FOMO of checking and adding to our libraries every month?

It’s impossible to say if Sony would remove this lone button press, confirming you want a free thing. It’s barely a month after the console’s launch, after all, and Bugsnax (likewise redeemable on an IOU until Jan. 4) is just the first PS5 game on the service. And, of course, there are a lot of people who still want their consoles with their 20 free games to fill it up.

But PS Plus still faces an expectation to change as a new piece of hardware makes use of it. Absent The PS Plus Collection, 2020’s roster of free games was still a solid two dozen titles, big on name recognition and long gameplay value. But they were often paired off with big names that reviewed poorly, or didn’t age well. It surprised me to see the group come in at the same average Metascore as Xbox Live’s offerings, partly why we’re mentioning but deemphasizing that score now.

The other thing limiting PlayStation Plus’ value in 2020 is the appearance that it recycled content from the PlayStation Now subscription service. In 2020, seven PlayStation Plus titles were available in PlayStation Now’s library (at the time of this publication), with another two removed from PS Now just prior to their listing on PS Plus. For those buying both services separately, it’s grating to see games in your library flagged PS Now when you’re sure you own them on PS Plus.

The PlayStation Plus Collection for sure feels like a home run to those who have a PS5. For the rest of us, it’s more like a ground-rule double. Solid power, but we’re waiting for the runner to come home from second before we celebrate.

2020 in Review

In all, there were 28 games in the PlayStation Plus Instant Games Collection for 2020 (not counting The PlayStation Plus Collection for PS5 owners), with an average Metacritic score of 74.8 and a combined retail price of $789.72 (taken from the PlayStation Store at publication time of this analysis).

The Metacritic average is down 2.9 points from 2019, and the combined MSRP is $104.96 less. (Last year offered 32 games, and for several years before, the PS Plus average Metacritic score was hurt by legacy titles on PS Vita and PS3, which the service stopped supporting in 2019.)

We’ll start breaking down, month-by-month, the offerings. All games are playable on PlayStation 4 except one, Bugsnax. One game, Firewall: Zero Hour, is PlayStation VR-only. They’re all listed with their Metacritic score, and age (at the time of availability).

January

  • Goat Simulator (58, 4.4 years)
  • Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection (86, 4.25 years)

It only seems like we’ve seen these games before. All three in The Nathan Drake Collection have been on PS Plus individually, and for the PlayStation 3. Here they’re all in one place, remastered for the PlayStation 4.

February

  • BioShock: The Collection (84, 3.4 years)
  • Firewall: Zero Hour (79, 1.4 years)
  • The Sims 4 (66, 2.2 years)

With BioShock: The Collection following The Nathan Drake Collection, technically we’ve started 2020 with nine games — which is one more than Games With Gold offered through February.

March

  • Shadow of the Colossus (91, 2.1 years)
  • Sonic Forces (57, 2.3 years)

Another month, another remaster. By this point, everyone should have three copies of Shadow of the Colossus, right?

April

  • Dirt Rally 2.0 (84, 1.1 years)
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (93, 3.9 years)

With so much first-party firepower leading off Sony’s year, Dirt Rally 2.0 shows PS Plus also has solid third-party ties and can get them to supply their freshest games, too.

May

  • Cities: Skylines (91, 2.1 years)
  • Farming Simulator 19 (64, 1.46 years)

Who knows if they planned it this way, but Sony giving out the means of doing ordinary activities we took for granted, as the reality of the pandemic was really hitting home, was a nice touch.

June

  • Call of Duty: WWII (79, 2.6 years)
  • Star Wars Battlefront 2 (68, 2.5 years)

DICE ended support for Battlefront 2 about a month before this, and there’s no question it was a much more different game — and a much bigger value to the player — than when it launched in 2017.

July

  • NBA 2K20 (78, 8 months)
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider (88, 3.7 years)
  • Erica (69, day-and-date)

NBA 2K20 is another game whose rating suffered for its microtransaction practices and community weariness of them. It’s still a basketball game capable of disappearing months of your time, and shows up right as the league was returning to play following the COVID-19 shutdown.

August

  • Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 Campaign Remastered (71, 3.75 years)
  • Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (81, day-and-date launch)

It felt like 2015 all over again, when Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout launched on PS Plus and took over the summer, just like Rocket League did. A game like Fall Guys needs a huge audience from day one to become a phenomenon, so you can credit PlayStation Plus with a huge assist on its game-of-the-year success.

September

  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (72, 1.75 years)
  • Street Fighter 5 (77, 4.5 years)

PUBG was added to PlayStation Now in December 2019 and Street Fighter 5 in July 2020. Who knows how large the overlap is between the PS Now and PS Plus populations is, but this was definitely noticed.

October

  • Need for Speed Payback (61, 2.9 years)
  • Vampyr (70, 2.3 years)

Vampyr was a timely Halloween selection — and boy, considering the October GwG had, you know they would have loved to have it back. It left Xbox Game Pass back in March.

November

  • Bugsnax (PS5, 79, day-and-date launch)
  • Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition (85, 2.1 years)
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of War (80, 3.1 years)

Thanks for the free PlayStation 5 game, Sony! Now we just need something to play it with ... Middle-earth: Shadow of War is yet another 60-to-80 hour open world game worth getting lost in.

The PlayStation Plus Collection

  • Batman: Arkham Knight (87, 5.39 years old at time of offering)
  • Battlefield 1 (89, 4.06 years)
  • Bloodborne (92, 5.64 years)
  • Call of Duty Black Ops 3 — Zombies Chronicles (78, 5.02 years)
  • Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy (80, 3.37 years)
  • Days Gone (71, 1.55 years)
  • Detroit: Become Human (78, 2.47 years)
  • Fallout 4 (87, 5 years)
  • Final Fantasy XV (81, 3.95)
  • God of War (94, 2.57 years)
  • inFamous: Second Son (80, 6.65 years)
  • Monster Hunter: World (90, 2.80 years)
  • Mortal Kombat X (83, 5.58 years)
  • Persona 5 (93, 3.61 years)
  • Ratchet & Clank (85, 4.59 years)
  • Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (86, 3.80 years)
  • The Last Guardian (82, 3.93 years)
  • The Last of Us Remastered (95, 6.29 years)
  • Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (93, 4.51 years)
  • Until Dawn (79, 5.22 years)

We know MSRP can be fungible when valuing this stuff, but still, as listed on the PlayStation Store today, it’d cost you $474.80 to replace this bundle. Yes, these are PS4 games meant for the PS5, but even if you take Metacritic as just a thumbnail measure of the general esteem of a game, it’s still 10 points higher than the rest of 2020’s no-slouch catalog,

December

  • Just Cause 4 (65, 1.9 years)
  • Rocket Arena (68, 5 months)
  • Worms Rumble (70, day-and-date launch)

I gotta say, it was interesting watching Microsoft and Sony pass around Just Cause 4. Xbox Game Pass picked it up in March 2019. It left the service on Feb. 29, 2020. A month later, it joined PlayStation Now. Then it finished the year as a PS Plus freebie. It did three out of the four for 2020, coming just shy of Games With Gold for the grand slam, I guess.

By the Numbers

(This excludes the PS Plus Collection because it is limited to PlayStation 5 ownership.)

Average score: 74.8

Average MSRP: $28.20

Average age: 2 years, 4 months

Published by Sony Interactive Entertainment: Four titles (Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, Firewall: Zero Hour, Shadow of the Colossus, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End). Another three — all of them day-and-date launches on PS4 — were console exclusives (Bugsnax, Worms Rumble, and Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout).

Publisher with the most titles: Other than SIE, Electronic Arts, with four (The Sims 4, Star Wars Battlefront 2, Need for Speed Payback, and Rocket Arena) all of which were available on EA Play at the time they were offered.

Appeared on Games With Gold or PlayStation Plus earlier: Just one title was offered on Xbox Live Games With Gold earlier: Goat Simulator, in 2016. None of PS Plus 2020 titles appeared in the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection before, although there have been games from the Uncharted and BioShock series offered for PS3, and Shadow of the Colossus’ PS3 remaster was offered in October 2013. The game here is the 2018 remake.

Appearing on Xbox Game Pass: Five were in the library at publication time: Middle-earth: Shadow of War, Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Cities: Skylines and Goat Simulator. Another five were on Game Pass, three removed before being offered on PS Plus (Vampyr, Just Cause 4, and Rise of the Tomb Raider) and two afterward (Dirt Rally 2.0, NBA 2K20).

Appearing on PlayStation Now: Seven titles were listed in PlayStation Now’s library at the time of publication: Cities: Skylines, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Vampyr, Hollow Knight: Voidheart Edition, Shadow of the Colossus, Farming Simulator 19, Just Cause 4, and Street Fighter 5. Two were removed from PS Now prior to their appearance on PS Plus: Middle-earth: Shadow of War and Uncharted: A Thief’s End.

Total value: $789.72 (MSRP taken from PlayStation Store at publication time)