Google Play App Roundup: Microsoft Launcher, Stranger Things, and Modern Combat Versus

By Ryan Whitwam

Strange home screen combat.

It's time again for us to dive into the Google Play Store and see what treasures we can dredge up. The Google Play App Roundup brings you the best new and newly updated Android apps and games each week. Just click on the links to head right to the Play Store.

Microsoft Launcher

When gave up on keeping its software and services exclusive to Windows Phone some years ago. It even started an incubator called Microsoft Garage to come up with new apps for iOS and Android. One of the products that came out of the Garage was Arrow Launcher for Android. Now, this alternative home screen has graduated to being a full-fledged Microsoft product called Microsoft Launcher. It's not just a name change—the new update includes new features, a new look, and more.

It should come as no surprise, but Microsoft Launcher works best if you log in with a Microsoft account. That's technically optional, but many of the included widgets and features will be inert without that connection. There's also a folder of Microsoft apps on the home screen, even if you don't have them installed. In that case, they're links to download the apps.

Getting started with Microsoft Launcher is quick, and users of Arrow Launcher will notice many of the old features have remained in the new version. There's nothing particularly wacky about Microsoft's approach to the Android home screen. You can place apps and widgets on the home panels wherever you like, add new panels, and your apps are accessible in a vertically scrollable app drawer. There's a search bar at the top of the screen that, no surprise, goes to Bing. I also like the nifty swipe up system info bar at the bottom of the screen.

To the left of the main home screen panel is Microsoft's customizable feed. Several of the included widgets here won't do anything without a Microsoft account login, so feel free to remove them. If you do log in, you get things like weather and integration with news. The feed also has widgets for your calendar, recent contacts, recent apps, and recent actions (photos, app installs, and so on).

You do have to grant a lot of permissions for all these features to work, so that's up to you. However, using Microsoft's included widgets makes the themes look very nice. You can pick from several styles and accent colors to make the home screen and feed look just how you want.

Microsoft Launcher is free, and there are no in-app upgrades. It should come through as a regular update to Arrow Launcher, but you can install the new version directly by joining Microsoft's testing group in the Play Store.

Stranger Things

The Netflix series Stranger Things is not exactly new, but there's a new official mobile game. This title takes on the style of games in the 80s, which is when the series is set. If you're a fan of the show, this game will take you through many familiar settings and reintroduce you to the characters.

This game is done in point-and-click style, so all you have to do is tap where you want to walk. That's also how you interact and attack things. It's all top-down as well, meaning you have a good overview of each screen. Like many games from the 80s, you advance through Stranger Things one screen at a time, and you won't know what's on the next one until you move to the edge of your current one.

The most crucial game mechanics is character switching. You begin with the sheriff, then you slowly add on the entire main cast of the show. Each one has a particular attack that can be used to solve puzzles or defeat a certain kind of enemy. There's really as much puzzling as there is adventuring in Stranger Things.

Stranger Things is not a particularly hard game in the standard mode. If you lose all five of your hitpoints, you just go back a screen to try again. Additionally, you can solve most of the puzzles in just a few minutes of walking around. That's not necessarily bad, but don't go into this expecting a deep gaming experience. However, you can add some retro difficulty if you want, and play classic mode. That one is more roguelike.

This is an action-adventure game with a retro style. It's supposed to feel like a game from around 1984, but the graphics are somewhat better than that. It's more SNES than NES. The sprites are very well-designed—you can tell who the characters are from just a blob of pixels.

Stranger Things is basically a vehicle to promote the Netflix show, and as such, it's free. The only ad is a button on the main menu page that links to Netflix.

Modern Combat Versus

Gameloft has been making Modern Combat games for years, and they've mostly been story-driven shooters with a multiplayer experience added on. The stories were never great in the first place, so Gameloft is dispensing with the illusion of a single player campaign. Modern Combat Versus is a multiplayer game with the usual collection of in-app purchases. That said, it's good for a mobile shooter.

There's only so much you can do with a touchscreen, and Gameloft has simplified the controls in this title even more than in past Modern Combat titles. You two thumbsticks: the left one is more movement and the right aims. There's no attack button—just get the crosshairs on an enemy, and you'll fire automatically. This is not the best system, but the old tappable right thumbstick was a terrible experience. The new version is better but imperfect.

The gameplay in Modern Combat Versus is what you'd call "king of the hill" in most games. There's an active zone in the middle of the map, and you need to get inside with your team and eliminate all players from the other team. After capturing the zone, you advance toward 100% control whenever there's no one from the other team inside. Most of the action takes place in the active zone, but you can go elsewhere on the map to ambush the other team or take a breather and let your health regenerate.

Most matches will be over in a few minutes, which is fine for a mobile game. Although, I wish there were a little more variation. Moving the active zone around would be an excellent start, and I could do with some more game modes. What we have at launch is entertaining, though. You never feel completely outclassed by other players because the "skill ceiling" is rather low. There's only so much you can do with two virtual thumbsticks.

There are 12 different agents in the game, several of which are unlocked at the end of the (very long) tutorial process. This is a free-to-play game, so there are several currency types and upgrades to worry about. You'll earn plenty of the basic coins from playing the game, but those can't be used for everything. Equipment and XP is regularly doled out via crates, which take time to open. However, you can skip the wait with premium currency. I don't love this system, but it's totally par for a free-to-play game.

Visually, Modern Combat Versus is very impressive. It runs on the Havok engine, which has been used in PC and console games. The textures are high-resolution, and there's no visible aliasing while playing. The lighting effects are among the best I've seen in a mobile game. Animations are smooth as well. The only visual issue is that the HUD can get cluttered at times with alerts about contested zones and recent kills.

Modern Combat Versus is more interesting than other recent games in the series. The IAPs are annoying, but it seems to play fine without them.