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As Microsoft-Activision merger nears, a classic FPS license reappears—for free

This week, the classic RPG-FPS series <em>Heretic</em> and <em>Hexen</em> series are back in a curious way.
Enlarge / This week, the classic RPG-FPS series Heretic and Hexen series are back in a curious way.

While we at Ars Technica don’t necessarily cheer the moments when giant gaming conglomerates swallow up other giant gaming conglomerates, we also have a faction that champions efforts to preserve and re-release classic video games. These two philosophies collided this week, leaving us feeling a bit dizzy.

The bottom-line good news: Four underappreciated classics from the id Software universe are closer to a broader re-release and are currently free to download. This appears to be related to Microsoft’s planned $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard’s vast catalog of game publishing and development properties.

A Thursday announcement from Microsoft’s Xbox division confirmed that five “Bethesda” video games were now available on modern Windows PCs via the Microsoft Store, albeit through an unusual path. These games, including the two earliest Elder Scrolls adventures and three fantasy-tinged shooters from the combined Heretic and Hexen series, would need to be accessed through the Xbox Insider Hub on Windows 10 and Windows 11 PCs, as they were “previews” meant to solicit “feedback.” Joining the Xbox Insider Hub on Windows PCs is free and does not require a Game Pass subscription, which means these games are now free to download for participating members (at least until MS revokes their availability on the Insider Hub).

A welcome return to the Dome of D’Sparil

It only takes a moment to see why these games would receive such a soft, Insider Hub-tied launch, as they currently operate via DOSBox emulation—a clunky system that re-creates the old-school feeling of booting your favorite old games on a text-only command prompt. For anyone who expects Windows Store game launches to “just work,” the results are inelegant, especially in letting players adjust visual options or remap controls. Still, they get the job done—and they’re highly recommended as freebies.

But that’s not why we’re here; after all, the same antiquated builds had been for sale at storefronts like GOG and Steam for years. And they remain highly recommended FPS classics wherever you purchase and play them, as they injected the kinds of fantasy and RPG-related perks that the genre desperately needed during their ’90s heyday. (The original Quake was poised to deliver similar systems before its developers discarded such aspirations in the face of developmental pressure and crunch.)

Rather, the Heretic and Hexen games are notable due to residing in publishing-related limbo for years. When Microsoft acquired Bethesda and its subsidiary publishers and developers in late 2020, the resulting addition of Bethesda-tied games on Xbox Game Pass, a seeming flex of newly owned licenses, wasn’t complete. This was arguably due to the service’s focus on consoles, which would preclude ancient PC-only games, but over the following months, the PC-specific Game Pass tier never got a taste of specific games. Which made us wonder: Was it a matter of crossed licensing wires?

This is where things get confusing. If you look up this week’s Heretic and Hexen games at digital storefronts, they list id Software as a publisher—and once Microsoft owned id as part of the Bethesda acquisition, you’d think that’s where this topic starts and ends. However, Activision acquired those games’ developers at Raven Software in 1997, and as part of the deal, Activision took over all ownership rights for the combined Heretic and Hexen series. Adding to the confusion, id Software is listed on digital storefronts as the publisher of 1998’s Hexen II, but that’s technically incorrect—even though, at one point, that game was on sale on the now-defunct Bethesda Launcher. Thus, we can’t say that Steam’s credit of id as a publisher of older Heretic and Hexen games is accurate, either. (At any rate, we’ve yet to see hints of Hexen II land on the Xbox Insider Hub.)

A way to taste beef Strogg-anoff once more

It’s unclear whether Microsoft, Activision, and Bethesda have cleared up a few small licensing quibbles ahead of the corporate triad’s acquisition closure before opening the bigger floodgates to series like Call of Duty. That is only an educated guess at this time, as reps for Bethesda did not answer Ars’ questions ahead of publication.

This week’s emergence of Activision-tied software on Microsoft’s platforms follows a late June launch of Quake IV‘s PC version on the same Xbox Insider Hub interface. (This version, too, is entirely free to access, no Game Pass subscription required.) This 2005 shooter was also made without id Software’s involvement, helmed at the time by Raven Software and Activision. But it does have a clearer, Activision-free path to joining Xbox Game Pass, as Bethesda jumped through proper hoops to publish the game’s formal re-release in 2012. Yet this game’s absence from the aforementioned 2020 Game Pass dump has us wondering whether there were still some lingering Activision license issues to resolve.

We’ve yet to see Quake IV‘s Xbox 360 version land on modern hardware like Xbox Series X, and Microsoft has previously indicated that it has concluded adding more classic games to its backward-compatible console library. Still, we hope that this Insider Hub access on PC could mean the series gets a second lease on console life—and it appears to tease that Xbox Game Pass subscribers, at least on PC, will soon get to sample a fuller historical record of id Software shooters.

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