Nick Diamon

Xbox free-to-play games are actually free-to-play now

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Microsoft has dropped the requirement for a service subscription to access online features of free-to-play games today. You can now fire up Fortnite or Korgan (pictured above) on an Xbox and only spend money on cosmetics, XP boosters, episodes, or loot boxes the way the publishers intended, rather than wasting your hard-earned cash on the basic ability to get the Xbox console online in the first place. (You’ll still have to pay someone for home internet access unless you’re sneaking onto your neighbor’s Wi-Fi, but that’s on you.) The full list of truly free-to-play games is here.

The announcement was first made in January when the company reversed a decision to increase the price of an annual Xbox Live Gold membership. Since then, Microsoft has de-emphasized the Xbox Live Gold plan in favor of the Xbox Game Pass Ultimate service that includes access to premium games like Outriders and MLB The Show 21.

Age of Empires III ratifies the United States despite the proof that we’ve got a ways to go

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The United States is officially a real civilization in Age of Empire 3: Definitive Edition. Microsoft, Tantalus Media, and Forgotten Empires just added the new faction to the game. Unlike some fan mods that tried to bring the USA into the game as a playable faction, this DLC doesn’t just port the single player campaign version over. In fact, the United States works quite differently from the other factions. As you level up through the ages during a game, the United States adds federal states that bring unique cards to a player’s deck, instead of choosing politicians and generals with explicit supply or unit bonuses. For example, choosing Virginia when you progress to the Commerce Age adds these two cards to your deck:

– Virginia General Assembly: Ships 1 State Capitol Wagon and makes the next upgrade researched at the State Capitol FREE (excluding Spies and Blockade).

– Culpeper Minutemen: Arrives fast! All existing Town Centers spawn 6 Minutemen. Minutemen retain their hit points 75% longer.

Since each state addition adds two more cards to the deck, the Home City of Washington D.C. starts with a smaller initial deck than other factions.

It’s a decent stab at solving the meta-game progression issue a lot of folks felt the Definitive Edition version had at launch. Because the original game’s requirement of unlocking cards via XP felt unfair for new players, the DE revamp just unlocked all the cards and only left cosmetic Home City bits as XP rewards. Unfortunately, this made the Home City progression about as exciting as watching a C-SPAN broadcast. The United States faction moves the card unlocking mechanic into the main gameplay.

It’s war of the Warzones between Activision and Randy Ficker

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Did you know there’s a game called Warzone that’s not a Call of Duty battle royale mode? It’s a turn-based strategy game available on mobile platforms and PC browsers that was developed largely by one person and launched in 2017, years before Call of Duty took the name. It’s a bit like Risk and it’s Randy Ficker’s baby that he started in 2011 as WarLight.

Randy Ficker wants Activision to stop using his game’s name, or pay him, so he sent Activision a cease and desist notice in 2020. Activision’s counter-complaint points out a dozen other mobile games that came out after Call of Duty: Warzone launched that they feel cannot be confused with their non-mobile game. Ficker says in his GoFundMe appeal that his game was first to market and he’s the one that’s been saddled with confused Call of Duty players horning in on his business.

“People tell me all about how their Xbox can’t connect, or how their PS4 got hacked, how they wish they could carry teammates, etc. My game isn’t even on Xbox or PS4. I send the same reply to each of them: ‘Warzone and Call of Duty: Warzone are different games. You should contact Activision.'”

War never changes.

There’s a native 4K version of TimeSplitters 2, but you may never get to see it

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There’s an Easter Egg in Homefront: The Revolution that allows a player to access a couple from levels from TimeSplitters 2. It’s tucked away in an arcade cabinet on the top floor of a deserted apartment building in the semi-open world of Dambuster Studios’ 2016 game. (You can watch how to access it here.) What no one knew until a few days ago is that Homefront: The Revolution actually has the whole of TimeSplitters 2, including the multiplayer, buried in the code. Matt Phillips, who was senior programmer on Homefront: The Revolution, revealed the secret in a tweet reply to a call for game developers to discuss their proudest Easter Egg achievements.

“My proudest moment. Fully playable, native 4K port of TimeSplitters 2 hidden in this arcade machine in Homefront: The Revolution.”

PC Gamer verified that the tweet meant what it appears to mean. Phillips was talking about a full version of the game and not just the two levels accessible now. Unfortunately, they also found out that Phillips lost the cheat code to access the game-within-a-game, and the only other copy of the code was deleted on Discord. A tragedy! I imagine some eager hacker is already working on extracting the hidden game right now.

No Man’s Sky has seasons now, but not the kind you were expecting

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Hello Games has updated No Man’s Sky with seasonal reward tracks. The Expeditions update adds a few changes like a revamped scanning process for missions, improved AI on enemies, and Twitch drops, but the stars of the 3.3 patch are the expeditions themselves. They’re basically the equivalent of battle passes or seasonal challenges in other games. These time-limited community events start everyone off on the same point in the No Man’s Sky universe with an assortment of equipment and supplies. As players progress through milestones and phases, they can unlock in-game rewards.

Once an expedition ends, you can choose to continue with your games, but you won’t unlock any more goodies for that expedition. It will be time to move on to the next set of challenges and hoard resources to your heart’s content.

Baby mode is ready in Amnesia: Rebirth

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Frictional has released an update for Amnesia: Rebirth that turns it into a danger-free exploration game. Adventure Mode turns off monster aggression, turns up the lighting in dark rooms, removes the player character’s fear mechanic, and adds a few more puzzles to pad out the spelunking. Now, even grandma can play, and it probably makes reaction videos a lot less annoying since there’s nothing to scream at.

“With Adventure Mode we hope that new players, that have a hard time handling horror as a genre, will get to experience Tasi’s story.”

According to the developers, the Safe Mode they implemented in their previous game, SOMA, was quite popular. The new Adventure Mode for Amnesia: Rebirth goes quite a bit farther than just neutering monsters. Brightening environments and removing any fear reactions really changes the game from from one genre to another.

A new update for Serious Sam 2? Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahh!

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Croteam has released a new update for their 15-year-old Serious Sam 2, and it’s a beefy one. The 2.90 update adds a Beam Gun weapon, a flamethrower, rocket-jumping, sprinting, and all guns can be dual-wielded. The patch also gives players twelve new multiplayer arenas where they can old-school fight. It’s a bounty of additions to a game most thought would be static forevermore due to its age.

The update comes via Nathan Brown, a modder that became a Croteam developer in 2012. It’s part of the series’ 20th Anniversary Celebrations. It’s just the excuse I need to run backwards while headless monsters scream at me.

Xbox Live is dead. Long live Xbox network.

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Microsoft has rebranded their gaming network from Xbox Live to the more plain-sounding Xbox network. Microsoft confirmed the change to The Verge and explained that the move was made to distinguish the service from the subscription plan. It’s the end of an 18-year-old moniker.

In January, Microsoft had announced plans to increase the price of Xbox Live Gold, but the company was forced to backtrack after subscribers let their displeasure be known. In fact, Microsoft not only reversed the price hike, they promised to drop the need for Xbox Live Gold for players to access free-to-play multiplayer games.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s ending is certainly no Tenet

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There’s a whole cottage industry of explanation videos that recap and break down the deeper meaning behind movies, books, and games. Stuff like “The Ending of Tenet Explained” or “27 Hints You Missed in WandaVision” are dime-a-dozen on YouTube. Sometimes they have a nugget of wisdom, but usually they’re the most facile examinations possible. Watch a few Tenet videos and tell me what percentage actually bring enlightenment. If you got to the end of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s main campaign and thought, “Wait. What?” then this video from Ubisoft may be for you.

It’s a spoiler-filled hour-long interview with the game’s narrative director, Darby McDevitt, detailing the choices they made in developing Eivor’s path as a Viking. Fair warning. It really is chock full of spoilers, so if you’re going to play the game someday, or you’re still slogging through the main story now, you won’t want the appearance of Elvis or the dinosaur-cloning level spoiled for you.

Does McDevitt give a reason for the way the story just peters out or the unsatisfying epilogue? No, because the story in Valhalla is built around that open world and letting the player continue to explore and grind around England after the credits roll. The script, by necessity, has to take a backseat to the game’s framework. It’s too bad because with a little tweaking, the dinosaur level could’ve meant a lot more than being just a tie-in to Just Dance.

It took almost a decade to fix Grand Theft Auto Online’s loading times

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Grand Theft Auto Online’s loading times are notoriously slow. It’s been something of a running joke for nearly a decade that loading into Grand Theft Auto V’s multiplayer mode is excruciating. Even with an SSD in the PC version of the game, it can be multiple minutes of staring at the cloudy cityscape of Los Santos while the game slowly ambles along. Now, Rockstar says improvements are coming thanks to a diligent player.

At the end of February, a fan who goes by the handle “t0st” wrote that they had found a solution that cut GTA Online loading times by up to 70%. (The technical details and sample can be found here.) By eliminating a CPU bottleneck that was demanding calls to verify every single item available in the in-game shops, the game loaded significantly faster. So much faster, in fact, that Rockstar confirmed that they will be using t0st’s findings, which is good news for the company as there are still thousands of daily players that purchase Shark Cards to buy in-game stuff. The faster they can load in is that much faster to spend all their money and buy more in-game cash.

Dota 2’s tutorial is so bad, fans are willing to pay to make a new one

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In anticipation of an influx of new players from the upcoming Netflix anime, this already funded IndieGoGo campaign strives to have modders create a Dota 2 tutorial for newbies. There is an in-game tutorial in Dota 2. It’s bad. This is a fact that even the developers of the game acknowledge. It’s little more than a series of mini challenges to teach basic mechanics. Like many strategy games that have multiple instances of DLC, updates, and balance changes, the Dota 2 tutorial was an outdated joke within a few weeks. Even if you ignore that, the tutorial commits the sin of not actually teaching the game as it’s really played in the multiplayer wilds.

There’s usually two ways to handle an outdated tutorial. Either you ignore it, (the Paradox route) and let new players fend for themselves via YouTube or wikis, or you update the tutorial – an expensive proposition. Fans may have found a third option. Create their own via crowdfunding. There’s only one catch. The campaign’s goal will only create a static tutorial that applies to the current map and balance update. It too, will be doomed to obsolescence in mere weeks.

PlayStation 4 owners may have to commit to one Call of Duty

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It’s no secret that the file sizes for games have gotten pretty large. It’s not unusual if a game balloons over 150GB after updates and expansions. The more recent Call of Duty games being prime examples of this. In fact, Activision has issued a warning to base model PlayStation 4 owners. Due to the 500GB drive, and the way the system needs to copy files for patching, players are going to have to pick their poison with the latest update for Call of Duty Warzone. They will not be able to have Modern Warfare, Black Ops Cold War, and Warzone installed on the same PS4.

If you’re wondering why anyone would need both of the most recent Call of Duty games installed along with Warzone, the answer is that the progression tracks in the base games’ multiplayer feeds into the Battle Royale mode. Weapons from Modern Warfare and Black Ops Cold War are in Warzone. It’s generally easier to level up a rifle in the base game’s team deathmatch, then bring the gun over to Warzone for that mode’s use. It’s a system that has kept Modern Warfare multiplayer active, if only to give Warzone fans a quicker way to beef up their loadouts. Alas, with the latest content drop, original PS4 players will have to clear some space and overcome everyone else’s size advantage.

You can be anyone in Watch Dogs Legion except the guy being used by Player 2

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Cooperative online mode is coming to Watch Dogs Legion on March 9th. It’s been in development for some time, having originally been announced with the reveal of the game in 2019, but was delayed to a post-launch feature just before the game went live. The free addition to the game will offer missions and challenges set in the same drone plagued London as the base game, but your real-world buddies can help out. Ubisoft’s hope is that while you can “play as anyone” in Legion, you can’t play as multiple people at the same time, so your crew can chip in to overcome co-op obstacles.

“We designed it so that if you do bring in a parkour specialist, or someone that does gunkata, or a construction worker, or even a grandma, they all can join in.”

Having a posse of anonymous cargo drone riding construction workers get blown out of the sky by swarms of combat robots sounds like it could shore up some of the dullness of the vanilla game. The overview video is good for a laugh anyway.

River raids in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla would be better with dad jokes

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You’re probably playing that other Viking game now. Valheim is the game du jour. It’s $20 on Steam, looks great, and unlike many early access survival crafting games, it’s not a broken mess of potential. If you haven’t been wooed by the siren call of chopping wood and building huts in a pixelated procedurally generated Norse afterlife, you’re probably still hanging out in the largely static superhero action of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. Don’t be sad. Ubisoft is bringing a bounty of goodies to lonely Eivors in the 1.1.2 title update.

Prepare your Jomsviking crew for this new highly replayable mode that will take you to unexplored regions of England, which is full of raiding opportunities. New loot, rewards, and challenges await the Raven Clan!

River raids are coming, and with them, players can get new abilities and skills. The Assassin Slide lets you sprint into enemies and dive into their legs to knock them over. Power Stroke pushes your raiding crew to boost your ship’s speed. Berserker Trap fits a bag of rage-inducing powder to your arrow, which you can shoot into surfaces creating a drugged booby trap. If none of those are your style, there’s Shoulder Bash which does exactly what it sounds like. Why that needs to be a thing you unlock is a mystery for Odin.

Unfortunately, the patch notes don’t say a thing about adding more goofball stories to listen to while sailing down the byways of England. Imagine the possibilities for a Jungle Cruise style tour guide bit just before you crash into the dock of a monastery and set fire to the surrounding houses.

Twelve years later, Six Days in Fallujah is real

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In 2009, Konami announced a third-person military action shooter based on the Iraq War – specifically, the infamous Second Battle of Fallujah that featured house-to-house fighting against insurgents that resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths. Atomic Games was going to be the developer, but highly vocal criticism of the concept caused the project to be quietly shelved by Konami and Atomic shuttered in 2011 after releasing Breach. Surprisingly, Six Days in Fallujah is making a comeback. There’s a new trailer and Steam page for it already.

Six Days is now being published by Victura and developed by Highwire Games. Victura CEO Peter Tamte was the head of Atomic Games back when the game was first announced in 2009, so this is a personal project for him. Highwire Games was founded by Jaime Griesemer, a former designer for the Halo games. The studio boasts the talent of Marty O’Donnell, the former composer and audio director for the Halo franchise.

This time around, the developers hope to stave off the pre-launch criticism by presenting a more nuanced take on the incident. Six Days is being made with input from not only some of the American and British military soldiers that fought in the battle, it will also include input from some civilian survivors.