Midnight Protocol hacks into the sweet spot between storytelling and strategy

, | Game reviews

One of my fondest early videogame memories is playing the 1988 adaptation of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. It was just a point-and-click adventure game, but it had a cyberspace to hack into. Once you got in, you could subvert and solve stuff in the point-and-click parts of the game. This interplay between cyberspace and meatspace was my introduction to hacking. Real hacking, not that stuff in Matthew Broderick movies. Here was a way to sneak around guards, get through locked doors, activate switches, and generally get away with stuff I wasn’t supposed to do. Here was stealth gameplay that didn’t mean standing in the dark parts of the level design, memorizing patrol routes, and reloading the game when I got spotted. This was stealth for guys like me fascinated by systems within systems within systems. If I could handle the MFDs in an F-19, by golly, I could upgrade my deck to slip past some ICE!

It’s been an interesting stretch for hacking games, but hacking too often means “doing some minigames”. 

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Top ten games of 2021

, | Features

In 2021, I finally came to appreciate the Hitman games, although part of appreciating them is realizing how little they’ve progressed since their latest model. Hitman III is great, to be sure. But it’s also just more levels for Hitman I, so this would easily make my list of top ten games of 2016. When it came to roguelikes, I enjoyed Returnal’s dark sci-fi/horror aesthetic despite my inability to get past Housemarque’s trademark “get good” barrier. Imagine Earth was a smartly focused planetary development game based on head to head competition with other players. It was a realtime boardgame, really. Although unlike a boardgame, it’s hard to read, and not just because the developers thought it would be cute to make you spin a 3D globe instead of look at a map. Remember, developers, 3D globes are never a good idea. 

The goofy excesses of Outriders and Necromunda: Hired Gun were my gunplay of choice in 2021. Halo Infinite was a welcome change, focusing on what it does best in a sandbox instead of in corridors (at least until the end), with easily skippable cutscenes and multiplayer I can ignore because if Halo players are mad at it, I’m sure not going to want to play it. Speaking of, I have no intention of buying whatever iPad alternatives Microsoft is pushing, so I wish they would stop saddling games with godawful tablet interfaces in an attempt to get me to buy some dumb hardware. Jamming big square panels onto Age of Empires IV, Forza Horizon 5, and Halo: Infinite just reminds me that these games are published by the same people who thought the Kinect was a good idea. 

I was disappointed with Deathloop, a massive step backwards from the Mooncrash DLC for Prey that inspired it. Other notable disappointments include Riftbreaker for being a thrilling wide-open resource-management action-RPG…that had nowhere to go. SGS’ Halls of Montezuma and especially Heia Safari explored fascinating historical crannies wargames rarely visit, but they were undone by the usual wargaming bugbears of bad AIs and worse interfaces. Red Solstice 2: Survivors took the first games’ promising action RPG and turned it into an unsupported multiplayer boondoggle. Guardians of the Galaxy was all the splashly dialogue, the splashier color, and the gameplay of your favorite Marvel movie. 
Those are some titles that didn’t make the top ten, despite me spending a fair amount of time with them. Which leads us to the games that did make the list…

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Most disappointing adaptation you’ll see all week: Nightmare Alley

, | Movie reviews

The wrong way to watch Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation of the 1946 novel Nightmare Alley is by reading the book first. Because then you’ll be one of those tedious “the book was better…!” people. Instead, just watch it as the elaborate period piece it is, none the wiser as to the missed opportunities and pulled punches. In fact, you should probably stop reading here, because I made the mistake of reading the book so this is a review by one of those tedious “the book was better…!” people. 

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You bought horse armor. You bought loot crates. You’ll buy in-game NFTs.

, | News

The gold rush for gaming Non-fungible Tokens (NFT) is on! Ubisoft is the first big-name publisher dipping into the “investment” fad by introducing Ubisoft Quartz. Think of it as a way to make your digital in-game doodads, (now called “Digits” because everything needs a brand name) artificially scarce by adding unique serial numbers to them. Ghost Recon Breakpoint will be the first to get them and players can get the first three for free by logging into their Ubisoft Connect accounts and connecting a compatible Crypto Wallet now.

The announcement video is light on details, but the point that Ubisoft is pushing as the upside to this glorious future is the ability to resell your Digits to other players, as long as you’re willing to share the chain of ownership.

“Each Digit will also be tied to the player names of all its previous and current owners… bringing you fame for years to come!”

I look forward to the day when others can buy my in-game Rabbids underwear for their Assassin’s Creed character and forever know that I wore it before them.

If The Washington Post says Halo Infinite’s progression is bad, you know it’s bad

, | News

Halo Infinite’s free-to-play multiplayer released as a “surprise” early beta drop on November 15th, and in the days since almost everyone agrees that the shooting and movement is great, but the title’s progression system is awful. Like many other free-to-play multiplayer games, Halo Infinite features a battle pass with both free and paid tracks that unlock cosmetic doodads like armor bits and gun skins. Unlike most other games, the only way to progress in the tracks is by fulfilling a rotating set of challenges like “win two capture-the-flag matches” or “get five melee kills without dying in one match.” The kills themselves or advancing objectives do not contribute to your progression unless they happen to be part of an active challenge. As The Washington Post notes, this leads to some frustrating play.

Many of these challenges distract from the objective of winning matches, like when players are asked to use certain weapons or vehicles to get a kill. And since the current playlist system means you can’t choose what game type you’ll play, oftentimes you’ll see people running around using less-than-viable guns instead of, say, capturing the flag in a game of Capture the Flag.

To add to that frustration, the current game only allows a Quick Play option with no way to choose a match type. If you have a challenge tasking you to win three rounds of Oddball, it is extremely annoying to get placed into a second slayer deathmatch in a row.

Despite 343 Industries’ repeated assurances that they’re listening to feedback and their pre-Thanksgiving attempts to adjust some of the system, the addition of a special time-limited Fracture: Tenrai event featuring another confusing and frustrating progression layer inspired some heated discussion online. It’s a situation that’s now onerous enough to garner attention from The Washington Post, of all outlets. What’s next? Master Chief subpoenaed to appear before Congress?

Nazis, please stay away from Warhammer

, | News

Games Workshop has published a warning that real-world hate groups are not welcome. It’s been a thorny issue for decades. Racists, xenophobes, and extremists have always been attracted to the fictional racism, xenophobia, and extremism in the Warhammer universe. Like real organizations founded on hate, the Warhammer 40,000 Imperium of Man apes the symbols and vocabulary of ancient Rome. Then it coats it all with authoritarian nihilism and some thin sci-fi trappings. In the fiction of the game universe, the Imperium is a home for cowards, opportunists, and the insane. Even the vaunted Space Marines are genetically manipulated freak warriors that are little more than brainwashed tools of the insane emperor. It’s a brutal and merciless future, and according to Games Workshop, it’s not meant to be aspirational. Please take your swastikas and go away.

The Imperium of Man stands as a cautionary tale of what could happen should the very worst of Humanity’s lust for power and extreme, unyielding xenophobia set in. Like so many aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man is satirical.

In fact, Games Workshop is making their stance quite clear. If you come onto a Games Workshop property, like one of their retail stores, or show up to one of their gaming events while espousing or wearing the symbols of a real-world hate group, they’ll ask you to leave. They just don’t want you around if you’re one of those jerks.

We won’t let you participate. We don’t want your money. We don’t want you in the Warhammer community.

Maybe find another hobby? Something a little less on-the-nose for Nazism. How about vegetarian cooking? There was a certain Nazi leader that was big into being a vegetarian, after all.

The best Fast and Furious you’ll see all week: Titane

, | Movie reviews

When David Cronenberg adapted James Ballard’s car crash fetish novel, Crash, he made a movie about a bunch of weirdos I couldn’t possibly understand. Mainly because they seemed like nonsense ideas rather than actual people. Do actual people bond over recreations of famous car crash fatalities? Is there really a shadowy underground network that stages these things and then they all have sex with each other after they’ve evaded the cops? Are Rosanna Arquette’s leg braces supposed to somehow make her more or less hot? And do Canadians really say “penis” and “semen” when they’re doing dirty talk? Watching Crash was like accidentally stumbling into a Reddit group for some fetish that I never knew existed.  

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Skyrim Anniversary Edition adds fishing and probably a ton of new bugs

, | News

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Anniversary Edition is coming. That probably brings the different versions of Skyrim up to infinity plus one when you factor in all the platforms it’s on. It’s ten years old, so it may as well be on everything since its influence has been felt in almost every open-world game since it came out.

The most important thing you need to know is that there will be a free update to Skyrim Special Edition that will add fishing to the game. Some people will be jazzed about the free new survival mode, or the new armors, weapons, or crafting bits, or the addition of a new quest storyline that’s supposed to be a big deal, but they’re nuts. It’s all about the fishing with 20 unique new fish to catch, cook, display as trophies, or keep as pets in aquariums!

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Anniversary Edition, which will also be available as a paid upgrade bundle, will add all previous Creator’s Club content to the game. Additional new Creator’s Club DLC will also be available as separate purchases.

Not even your ears are safe from Call of Duty: Vanguard

, | News

Jack White, former lead of the White Stripes, has published his first solo track in four years. Taking Me Back has that familiar Jack White distortion and heavy drums, but this time he’s partnered with Call of Duty’s developers to give it a video drenched in explosions, tracer fire, and “ooh-rah” attitude, which is an odd choice for a song about someone regretting a breakup. Or maybe it isn’t, considering the performance of the last World War II Call of Duty? At least it’s not some garbage acoustic rendition of Gangsta’s Paradise.

After you’ve done the fun stuff in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, you can do the mundane

, | News

Ubisoft has updated Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and added the Discovery Tour. The mode adds the peaceful “edutainment” tour of the game’s time period. Like previous entries in the series, you’ll travel around the game map learning about the land and some behind-the-scenes decisions that developers used to bring the world to life in virtual form.

This time around, Ubisoft has added a series of quests and unlockables that can be used in the main game. Players will inhabit Viking and Anglo-Saxon characters like a merchant and take on mundane challenges like mending a ship or fixing a wagon. It’s Assassin’s Creed without all the assassinating.

Epic Games achievements unlocked

, | News

Epic Games is launching the initial version of its achievements next week. Since the Epic Games Store launched in December of 2018, one of the oft-cited criticisms of the platform is how it lacks features that other PC store applications have had for years. Key among those missing features is achievements, those little odes to Skinner box reinforcement that completionists love. They’re the oil that keeps operant conditioning operating.

You may ask, didn’t Epic have achievements since mid-2019? They sure did, but no one uses them. Per Epic, they were “developer achievements” that didn’t equal the functionality that you you’d find elsewhere. For example, Epic’s current achievement system (only working in a handful of games) do not display outside of the client if the game isn’t running, which makes sharing progress and bragging difficult. The new iteration of achievements will hopefully correct that oversight.

Ominously, Epic Games’ announcement ends with a warning to watch for “new social features and player rewards later this year.” Shudder.

Are you ready to binge some Driver?

, | News

Ubisoft is working on a new entertainment product based on its Driver property. Ubisoft Film & Television, most recently responsible for Werewolves Within, is developing a Driver live-action series featuring secret agent John Tanner’s car-based stunts as he takes down a crime syndicate. Fans of the underrated Driver: San Francisco may have expected more from Ubisoft’s property, but at least it’s not another bad mobile game like Driver: Speedboat Paradise.

The show will be hosted on the upcoming streaming service Binge in 2022. What’s Binge? It’s the streaming service for people that really want to see shows and movies based on video games. If you’re concerned with Driver not having enough game elements, the streaming service has that covered too.

Earn useful Bytz rewards for bingeing exclusive shows, premium channels, and original live-action series where your favorite games come to life.

Bytz, (terrible name) are funny-money tokens, that do something or other. Best to let the company describe it.

BYTZ is an open-source decentralized peer-to-peer currency featuring a Delegated Proof of Stake algorithm designed to empower content creators through transparent media analytics and blockchain tokenization.

I take it back. The Driver: Speedboat Paradise mobile game doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Forty years late, you may finally finish Arctic Adventure

, | News

Harry McCracken, an editor at Fast Company, used to write games for the Radio Shack TRS-80 when he was a teen. Back then, the games were sold as text code in a magazine or book that users would have to type into their home machines, essentially manually copying the game into their systems. Arctic Adventure, published in “The Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures” was Harry’s first paid published game, but it was a bittersweet victory because, according to the publisher, the game was “unwinnable” and 16-year-old Harry never got a copy of the book. After that, the game fell into obscurity, not even garnering enough attention to attract the notice of preservationists that recreated many of these TRS-80 gems on the internet.

“I know of only a couple of contemporary mentions of it on the internet, and no evidence that anyone has played it since the first Reagan administration. It seems fair to call it a lost game. Or at least I lost it myself until recently.”

Now, 40 years later, Mr. McCracken has fixed the bugs in his game that made it “unwinnable” and has posted it to the net in a playable browser form for all to try. Remember to “GET SHOVEL” and enjoy the adventure.

Firaxis unveils the Nico vs. Chthon showdown Marvel fans have been waiting for!

, | News

If you’d asked me 20 years ago to name a bunch of Marvel superheroes, I would have done well enough. But if you ask me today? Now that Marvel is as culturally relevant as even the most famous Disney princess, I can probably name dozens. Literally. I bet I could manage the names of at least 24 superheroes without even having to boot up my copy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 to remember there are superheroes named Crystal and Elsie Bloodstone.

But with today’s announcement of Firaxis’ Marvel game, Midnight Suns, I can raise that number to at least 29:

Through a twisted marriage of magic and science, the nefarious force known as Hydra has revived Lilith, Mother of Demons, after centuries of slumber. Lilith will stop at nothing to complete an ancient prophecy and summon her evil master, Chthon. Pushed to the brink, the Avengers desperately look to fight fire with Hellfire by enlisting the help of the Midnight Suns – Nico Minoru, Blade, Magik, and Ghost Rider – young heroes with powers deeply rooted in the supernatural, formed to prevent the very prophecy Lilith aims to fulfill. Together, they resurrect an ancient warrior – the Hunter, Lilith’s forsaken child and the only hero known to have ever defeated her.

On one hand, I’m glad to see Disney exploring the, uh, overlooked elements of their shiny new IP. But on the other hand, they couldn’t spare something a little more mainstream for the folks at Firaxis who brought us XCOM? I have heard of exactly two of the characters in that premise, one famous because he was played by Nicolas Cage, and the other famous for an aphorism about obstreperous individuals unwilling to accept the gravitational dynamics of ice skating.

Firaxis will be showing off Midnight Suns gameplay next week. Until then, I’m imagining the superhero X-com we’ve all been dreaming about since Simtex’s Guardians: Agents of Justice was canceled.