Riot turns on ability to turn off kernel-level anti-cheat tool

Riot Games announced last night that a new update to the Vanguard anti-cheat system used in Valorant will let users disable and/or easily uninstall the kernel-level security driver via a system tray icon.

That doesn’t mean cheaters can just turn off the anti-cheat tool and do whatever they want, though—Vanguard still needs to be installed and running to actually play Valorant. If you shut off the service from the system tray, you’ll have to restart your entire system before loading up Valorant. And if you uninstall Vanguard altogether, it will automatically be re-installed when you launch the game, requiring another restart.

The system tray tool will also notify users when Vanguard blocks certain third-party apps from running on your system. Users can disable Vanguard at that point and run the suspect app normally.

While Riot says “most players will never run into such a scenario,” the vast majority of such app-blocking behaviors deal with “software [that] has a known vulnerability or is being exploited in the wild.” That includes apps found in CVE databases that could let a cheater load unsigned code into the system kernel.

“Ultimately, you get to choose what software you run on your computer,” Riot writes. “You can uninstall or stop Vanguard to allow your software to work, but that will have the side effect of not allowing Valorant to work until you reboot.”

While Riot acknowledges that there are already working cheats out in the wild for Valorant, the company maintains that Vanguard “make[s] it difficult for all but the most determined to cheat, while also giving us the best chance to detect the cheats that do work.” Cheaters that do get through the Vanguard system can still be “remove[d]… from our ecosystem by leveraging other game systems,” Riot writes.

The changes come as Riot continues to try to quell concerns about Vanguard’s use of a startup-loaded kernel-level driver, which it says is necessary to monitor system integrity and user-level hacks from outside of Valorant. The company says the driver “isn’t giving us any surveillance capability we didn’t already have” and that Vanguard “does not collect or send any information about your computer,” in any case.

But the driver itself could potentially be exploited for serious kernel-level attacks on Windows systems, a setup that independent security researcher Saleem Rashid told Ars “introduces a large attack surface for little benefit.” Riot has expanded its bug bounty program to encourage hackers to report any unknown driver exploits, and Riot anti-cheat lead Paul Chamberlain tells Ars the company would “likely be able to respond within hours” to disable the driver if such a vulnerability were found.

Listing image by Riot Games

Riot addresses “kernel-level driver” concerns with expanded bug bounties

Artist's conception of hackers lining up for these new bug bounties.

Enlarge / Artist’s conception of hackers lining up for these new bug bounties.

Last week, we took a look at the new Vanguard anti-cheat system being used in Riot’s Valorant and the potential security risks of the kernel-level driver it utilizes. Now, in an effort to allow “players to continue to play our games with peace of mind,” Riot says it is “putting our money where our mouth is” with an expanded bug bounty program, offering more money for the discovery of Vanguard vulnerabilities.

Bug bounties aren’t new to the gaming industry or even to Riot Games, which says it has paid out nearly $2 million in such rewards since launching its bounty program in 2016. But Riot is now offering “even higher bounties” of up to $100,000 specifically for the discovery of “high quality reports that demonstrate practical exploits leveraging the Vanguard kernel driver.”

The largest bounties in Riot’s newly expanded program are available to attacks that are able to exploit the Vanguard driver to run unauthorized code at the kernel level—something of a nightmare scenario that could give an attacker full, low-level access to a machine—but exploits that merely provide “unauthorized access to sensitive data” will also be rewarded. The bounties apply to network-based attacks that need no user interaction, vulnerabilities that require user action (like clicking on a malicious link), and exploits that require “guest user” access to the system itself, in declining order of potential reward.

Offering bug bounties is an attempt to skew the incentive structure for potential Vanguard attackers, making it more lucrative to report flaws than to exploit them for use by cheating programs or hacking tools. Riot anti-cheat lead Paul Chamberlain said a similar issue of incentives was behind Riot’s decision to use a kernel-level driver for Vanguard in the first place.

Beating a kernel-level driver “requires a different (more strenuous) approach from cheat developers to attack,” Chamberlain told Ars. “For cheat developers operating at the kernel level, they need to work around the restrictions Microsoft places on kernel level software. This extra work reduces the incentives for cheat developers because their cheats become harder to make, less convenient for players to install, and just overall less profitable to sell.

“We don’t expect that any protection will remain unbreached forever, but Vanguard’s protections are strong, and as cheat developers’ tactics evolve, so will ours.”

Earning player trust

In announcing the new bug bounties, a group of high-level Riot security employees wrote that they “understand the decision to run the driver component in kernel-mode can raise concerns.” That said, they also want to reassure players that “we would never let Riot ship anything if we weren’t confident it treated player privacy and security with the extreme seriousness they deserve.”

The statement reiterates that while the signed kernel-level driver runs at start-up “to prevent loading cheats prior to the client initialization,” a user-level client “handles all of the anti-cheat detections while a game is running.” At that point, the user-level client uses the driver “to validate memory and system state and to make sure the client has not been tampered with.” The driver itself “does not collect or send any information about your computer back to us,” they wrote.

“We’d never let Riot ship something we couldn’t stand behind from a player-trust perspective (not that we think Riot would ever try),” Riot’s security representatives wrote. “Players have every right to question and challenge us, but let’s be clear—we wouldn’t work here if we didn’t deeply care about player trust and privacy and believe that Riot feels the same way. We’re players just like you, and we wouldn’t install programs on our computer that we didn’t have the utmost confidence in.”

In February, Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest is the next “game devs on TV” show

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The trailer for Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.

Yesterday, Apple solidified its most high-profile 2020 original series debut so far: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is a half-hour comedy from the team behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and all nine episodes of the show’s first season will be available to subscribers of the new streaming service on February 7, 2020.

For fans of modern TV comedy, the cast and crew involved might be particularly exciting. Sunny alums Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day are executive producers, and McElhenney and Megan Ganz (Sunny, Community, Modern Family) co-created the series. On camera, McElhenney stars as the fictional game company’s creative director, Ian Grimm, and the rest of the cast is equally delightful: Danny Pudi (Abed on Community) and F. Murray Abraham (Dar Adal on Homeland) headline an ensemble with Imani Hakim (Everybody Hates Chris), Charlotte Nicdao (Thor: Ragnarok), David Hornsby (Cricket on Sunny), Ashly Burch (an actual video game actor in Life Is Strange), and Jessie Ennis (Better Call Saul). The series is a collaborative production between Lionsgate, 3 Arts Entertainment… and Ubisoft, which debuted a teaser back at E3 2019.

The basic premise sets up Mythic Quest as a massively popular medieval-styled MMORPG on the brink of pushing out its first major expansion. (Hmmm, MQ kinda-sorta sounds familiar.) We see Ian Grimm (McElhenney) and his team watching a trailer for this release that puts the game in totally appropriate cultural context. “When we think of cultural touchstones, we think of ET, Star Wars, Avatar, and yet our industry drawers the entertainment business,” Grimm says, moments before appearing shirtless in what appears to be a gladiator-type arena. “When we think about legends, why not think about Mythic Quest?”

Sunny has always been a particular brand of humor, so maybe “your mileage may vary” should be the expectations for Mythic Quest once it launches early next year. But either way, it’s yet another example in what’s been a growing, recent string of game developer portrayals in the second half of the decade. AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire (2014) might be the pinnacle of these, with Kotaku UK even calling it the only show that even got games right (likely not a goal for Mythic Quest). But HBO’s Silicon Valley had a few recurring game development characters, the lead in Netflix’s Russian Doll is a game developer, and in the last two years NBC debuted then cancelled a series called I Feel Bad that used a game development company as its setting for office-place humor. Wherever Mythic Quest falls in that spectrum, we’re at least safely assuming these developers won’t end up in a time loop where all roads lead to destruction (ala Netflix’s also game-developer-centric, Bandersnatch).

Listing image by Apple TV+

Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker spoiler-free review: Kylo, Rey save the film

Promotional image for Star Wars Episode IX.

Enlarge / The best new-trilogy actors awaken in Rise of Skywalker.
Ars Technica takes spoilers seriously in film reviews. After this article’s opening section, minor plot details are revealed to explain certain opinions, but we otherwise do not include any “major” spoilers. Deeper spoilers will likely appear in the comments section upon the film’s launch, usually posted with spoiler tags.

The best thing about Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker is that it concludes the latest trilogy much in the same way it began. This new trilogy has all the trappings you’d expect in a Star Wars film wishlist: droids, Wookiees, blasters, lightsabers, epic space battles, wacky new characters, and on and on.

But the beating heart of this film, and the biggest reason I recommend it, is the evolving and intriguing relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rise of Skywalker is often a turbulent ride, usually to its detriment, but the storytelling conclusion for these eternally linked rivals (and the performances that carry these characters to their most powerful moments in the Star Wars series) eke this film across the “good enough for fans” line.

Without that quality (an admittedly large percentage of the film), Rise of Skywalker might otherwise serve as proof that director/co-writer J.J. Abrams was the wrong person to finish the latest trilogy. The film rushes between plot points, overuses certain characters, and wastes others. And whether you loved, tolerated, or hated 2017’s The Last Jedi, it’s easy to conclude that the previous film’s most intriguing developments and concepts were abandoned—and without any convincing proof that Abrams had better ideas in store.

“I’ll go without your blessing”

From here on out, the review is more specific about Rise of Skywalker‘s successes and failings, so while it is mindful of spoilers, you’ve been warned.

Let’s begin with the biggest failing of the film by far: how the character of Princess Leia awkwardly fits into the plot.

Shortly after the tragic passing of actor, writer, and activist Carrie Fisher, Lucasfilm announced that she would appear in Rise of Skywalker as Leia and that the film would use her real-life footage, as opposed to a CGI-ified Fisher. The resulting footage is perhaps the worst-case scenario Star Wars fans could have imagined: cookie-cutter dialogue against a green screen that could conceivably be slapped into any plot, devoid of the heart or humor that consistently marked Fisher’s work in the role of Leia.

One example of her toothless dialogue, transcribed verbatim from the film: “This mission is everything. We cannot fail.” Notice how spoiler-free that sentence is? Sure, that sounds like something Leia might say while serving as a general on a Resistance outpost. She offers slightly more specific dialogue in one interaction in the film, to set a major plot point into motion, but even that sequence has a jarring disconnect between herself and the character in question—and fails to sew together her character picking up a baton that was dropped at the end of Last Jedi. Everything about Leia’s appearance in Rise of Skywalker is rough, and it forces at least one other character to awkwardly produce the exclamation point that she was clearly set up to do herself.

In late 2017, I suggested recasting the role of Leia. I really wish someone at Lucasfilm could have either done that or jettisoned certain plot threads.

Instead, in order to make Leia’s limited appearance work, the film begins with a blur of fetch-quest activity. A pair of early sequences include striking visuals as heroes whiz through a variety of worlds, but these differ from the slowly unfolding opening sequences that have marked the best Star Wars films. Abrams frames every major player on their own separate journey, instead of letting us take our time to see each hero’s progress since the last film and how their individual progress has affected the others. We see a brief in-fighting outburst that hints to this sort of dynamic, but it’s quickly interrupted by a forced Leia-nization of the plot.

This “essential piece of computing history” just sold for $43,750

This Jacquard-driven loom, circa 1850, is considered an early predecessor of the first computers.

Enlarge / This Jacquard-driven loom, circa 1850, is considered an early predecessor of the first computers.

Charles Babbage is widely recognized as a pioneer of the programable computer due to his ingenious designs for steam-driven calculating machines in the 19th century. But Babbage drew inspiration from a number of earlier inventions, including a device invented in 1804 by French weaver and merchant Joseph Marie Jacquard. The device attached to a weaving loom and used printed punch cards to “program” intricate patterns in the woven fabric. One of these devices, circa 1850, just sold for $43,750 at Sotheby’s annual History of Science and Technology auction.

“Technically, the term ‘Jacquard loom’ is a misnomer,” said Cassandra Hatton, a senior specialist with Sotheby’s. “There’s no such thing as a Jacquard loom—there’s a Jacquard mechanism that hooks onto a loom.” It’s sometimes called a Jacquard-driven loom for that reason.

There were a handful of earlier attempts to automate the weaving process, most notably Basile Bouchon’s 1725 invention of a loom attachment using a broad strip of punched paper and a row of hooks to manipulate the threads. Jacquard brought his own innovations to the concept.

Per Sotheby’s auction website:

Jacquard… conceived of developing a semi-automatic tone-selection device, which would be integrated onto the loom, resulting in quicker production and more intricate patterns. Jacquard’s punch-card system worked much in the same way as a fax machine: each punch in the card directed a black or a white thread into the headstock of the loom, pinpointing the desired thread into place.

The invention was not popular with loom operators, many of whom lost their jobs and took to smashing Jacquard looms in protest.

The mechanism just sold at auction belonged to one of Hatton’s former clients, now deceased. The collector had been trying to establish a museum on the history of computing, grounding his vision in the early attempts to mechanize computation by Jacquard, Babbage, and others. The loom “was his pride and joy,” said Hatton. “He bought the original mechanism and then commissioned somebody to make the loom and a second [mechanism] so he could use it. So the loom is fully operational.”

The piece comes with a large box of accessories, including the original 19th-century punch cards—everything one would need to operate the machine.

Jacquard’s machine was capable of programming patterns with such precision, it was even used in 1886 to create a prayer book woven entirely in silk, using black and gray thread. Only around 50 copies were made. The Sotheby’s auction didn’t offer any rare prayer books this year, but there was a portrait of Jacquard—woven in silk on a Jacquard loom—with a mini-loom and punch card on his desk, as well as another woven silk portrait showing several men in front of a loom holding the aforementioned portrait (so very meta). Those portraits sold for $10,625 and $11,875, respectively.

Video: To make 1997’s Blade Runner, Westwood first had to create the universe

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Shot by Sean Dacanay and edited by Justin Wolfson. VFX by John Cappello. Click here for transcript. And if you want a close-up peek at the awesome Ladd-style logo Aurich cooked up for this video, you can get that right here.

Welcome back to “War Stories,” an ongoing video series where we get game designers to open up about development challenges that almost—but not quite—derailed their games. In this edition, we focus on a genre particularly near and dear to my dead, black Gen-X heart: the adventure game.

And not just any adventure game—we were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Louis Castle, co-founder of legendary game developer Westwood Studios. Castle’s hands were on some of the most famous titles of the 1990s, including Dune II, the Legend of Kyrandia series, and, most famously, the Command & Conquer franchise. But as wonderful as those games are—and as many hours as I spent lost in the woods of Kyrandia as a teenager—none of those mean as much to me as Westwood’s 1997 cinematic adventure game, Blade Runner.

You know the score, pal

Adventure games were one of the two ur-genres of true computer games (with the other being the arcade-style shooter), and as a child of the ’80s, adventure games were what got me into gaming. The genre reached its peak in the early to mid 1990s, with some of the best-remembered LucasArts and Sierra titles making their appearance thereabouts. But by the end of the decade the wheels had come off the cart, and it was clear that the genre was being eclipsed by the rise of the first-person shooter.

With the economic realities of the adventure game market in the mid-’90s becoming apparent, Castle’s pitch to create an adventure game set in the Blade Runner universe that would look and feel almost indistinguishable from the film itself might have seemed a little barmy. Worse, in order for the game to justify the amount of time and money required to meet that level of fidelity, the title wouldn’t just need to sell well—it would need to become one of the best-selling adventure games of all time (a difficult thing to do when your target genre has clearly aged past its prime).

Flipping the tortoise

Castle’s team faced a considerable number of challenges in bringing the cinematic world of Blade Runner to life using the technologies of the day, most of which stemmed from having to invent, from whole cloth, a way to seamlessly mesh their pre-rendered world with animated voxel characters (it turned out to be vastly more complicated than simply sticking a sprite in front of the background). Tackling this issue introduced an entire interconnected tapestry of difficult problems to solve, very few of which are faced by modern developers who can pick from ready-made game engines to license and use.

Fortunately for all of us, Westwood stuck with the challenge, even though finishing the game required more money than originally planned. The company built a title that isn’t just an homage or reflection of the original Blade Runner—it’s a legitimate companion to the movie, fleshing out the world in complementary ways and answering some key questions about the fictional 2019 described in the film. Although it’s somewhat difficult to play on modern PCs and suffers from an unfortunate lack of legitimate buying options, it remains a game worth finding and playing—the branching story makes for a high degree of replayability (something absent from a lot of adventure games), and it still looks and plays pretty darn good.

And that budgetary goal of needing to be the best-selling adventure game to date in order to make a profit? Blade Runner managed that, too.

I’ll tell you about my mother

This isn’t the only thing we were able to film with Castle, either—he was also kind enough to spend some additional hours with us talking about Command & Conquer, which had its own surprising number of challenges (like figuring out how to do hundreds of units’ worth of pathfinding on a minimum-spec machine). Castle was happy to go pretty deep into the weeds on the technical issues faced, and we were happy to let him. Stay tuned for that video in a week or two!

Reminder: Donate to win swag in our annual Charity Drive sweepstakes

Just some of the prizes you could win by entering our Charity Drive sweepstakes.

Enlarge / Just some of the prizes you could win by entering our Charity Drive sweepstakes.

Here in the season of giving, hundreds of Ars readers have already given nearly $15,000 to the EFF and/or Child’s Play in this year’s Ars Technica Charity Drive Sweepstakes.

That doesn’t quite match the more than $20,000 we raised last year, but there’s still plenty of time for our readers to dig deep and set a new giving record for the site. That also means you still have time to get an entry in for a chance to win a piece of our massive pile o’ swag, which we can’t keep anyway (no purchase necessary for entry).

If you haven’t had a chance to give yet, follow the instructions below to get your donation counted and your entry logged for the sweepstakes. If you have given already, our deepest thanks from everyone here at Ars.

How it works

Donating is easy. Simply donate to Child’s Play using PayPal or donate to the EFF using PayPal, credit card, or Bitcoin. You can also support Child’s Play directly by picking an item from the Amazon wish list of a specific hospital on its donation page. Donate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with—every little bit helps.

Once that’s done, it’s time to register your entry in our sweepstakes. Just grab a digital copy of your receipt (a forwarded email, a screenshot, or simply a cut-and-paste of the text) and send it to [email protected] with your name, postal address, daytime telephone number, and email address by 11:59pm ET Monday, January 6, 2020. (One entry per person, and each person can only win up to one prize. US residents only. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. See official rules for more information, including how to enter without making a donation. Also refer to the Ars Technica privacy policy.)

We’ll then contact the winners and have them choose their prize by January 31 (choosing takes place in the order the winners are drawn).

Remember to check out the sweepstakes launch post for a list of all the potential prizes, and thanks in advance for your donation!

New Top Gun: Maverick trailer shows that other old star—the F-14

Do you remember where you were when the first official trailer for Top Gun: Maverick showed up on the Internet in July? I do. I was on a plane, about to take off, and while I had a lot of feelings about it I valiantly swallowed them as Tech Culture Editor Sam Machkovech had all the fun. Well, Slack tells me that Sam is still asleep, and there’s a new trailer out for the return of Top Gun, so this time he can be my wingman.

This summer’s trailer raised plenty of questions. Why was Pete “Maverick” Mitchell still in the Navy, decades after we saw him in the first movie? And what was that weird pressure suit he was wearing at one point? And can an entire movie about naval aviation still be cool if all the planes are F/A-18 Super Hornets with their goofy looking (and drag-inducing) canted pylons?

This new trailer clears up some of those questions, and obviously there will be spoilers to a degree, so stop reading now if that’s something you want to avoid before you see the film next year.

An admiral, played by Charles Parnell, has the answer to the first question: “they’re called orders, Maverick.” That weird pressure suit goes with a weird-looking stealth plane that Maverick gets to fly for reasons that remain unexplained. The final one was a trick question, because there are at least two F-14 Tomcats (albeit one is a gate guard) and a P-51 Mustang that get air time alongside the US Navy’s current workhorse.

There’s some new stuff to see—air-to-ground counts as diversity compared to the first movie, but we also get to see women fly fighter jets and also play beach volleyball. But as has become the way with Hollywood and its inability to deviate from what worked the first time around, there is plenty of fan service on display. Maverick riding his bike as the sun sets. Maverick and a special lady friend riding his bike as the sun sets. Dudes playing ball sports on the beach. Air combat maneuver training in the desert. It’s all there and looks predictably gorgeous.

There’s also a character who at first glance looks like a CGI’d Anthony Edwards, but it’s not Goose, it’s his son Brad Bradshaw, played by Miles Teller. Upon hearing the news this morning, “his daddy bequeathed his mustache to his son before he died” was all Senior Technology Editor Lee Hutchinson had to say.

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Listing image by Paramount/Skydance

Watchmen, not Game of Thrones, proved to be HBO’s show of the decade

Do you recognize this mask?

Enlarge / Do you recognize this mask?
HBO
Warning: This story references events in the HBO series Watchmen and Game of Thrones, including their final episodes.

“Just do it. We don’t want to hear your little speech. Fucking do it. “

“Do what?” Lady Trieu asks her assembled audience of white supremacists.

“You’re gonna kill us, right?”

“Oh yeah, of course I am.”

And with that, the best show of 2019 went out with a literal atomic bang. Watchmen capped off its nine-episode run in striking fashion last night, simultaneously tying up several loose ends (How does Veidt fit in to all of this? What’s Lady Trieu’s plan? Can anyone stop the Kalvary?), delivering deep sentiment, and forcing a superhero/villain who killed millions to actually deal with an arrest. This show killed it.

Yet I watched the show alone from my couch, and only a few coworkers and a neighbor seemed ready and excited to chat about it today. There were no red-carpet screenings, impromptu community watch parties, or nearby bars advertising a highly anticipated viewing like some other HBO season finales this year.

That’s a shame, because one of these series is perhaps the network’s finest work of the decade—and the other is Game of Thrones.

Game of Shade

Both Thrones and Watchmen benefited from a new TV era. Execs were not just open to but thirsty for genre, and they sought the kind of material that may only attract a small niche of fans—but it’d be a rabid, passionate, subscribed-yesterday-and-forever type of fan. Both shows started out with a bit of a bang, a little high-profile misdirection casting, and unexpected character exits. And, perhaps most importantly and most obviously, both series were borne out of existing (and paper-based) IP.

The differences begin from there. Thrones by and large stuck to its source material until it literally couldn’t. And even the most supportive fans could agree that the show lost something when George RR Martin’s road map reached its (maybe-still-in-progress?) conclusion. Suddenly the riveting female characters the show had become known for were taking actions more stereotypical characters would, contemplating if love was the number one motivator above all (see Brienne and Jamie) or acting out of rage-filled hysteria even if it contradicted prior character traits (goodbye to the merciful and justice-championing Queen of Dragons, Freer of Slaves). The show still delivered spectacle like nothing else, but it seemed to lack storytelling. Its “anything can happen” feeling suddenly left, allowing for things like keeping Jamie alive despite coming under heavy enemy (dragon) fire or for the hugely successful conqueror Daenerys to suddenly make puzzling decision after puzzling decision with her scaly, strategic advantages.

But perhaps even more frustrating than its story line slip ups, Thrones also seemed to lose its ability to conjure up deeper questions and thought without Martin’s source material. This was a show that had interesting things to say about gender in society and politics, the weight of history and family, and the ability to make decisions in spite of destiny. Heck, even The Night King might have represented something much deeper (the inevitability of mortality?) than a zombie bogeyman. Did Thrones’ final two seasons complicate those questions or move the ideas forward in any significant way? In Ars’ eyes, at least, the show pivoted to more of a saccharine delivery system. Does the show Annalee Newitz wrote about in her review of Game of Thrones S7 feel like a monumental piece of art?

Watching Game of Thrones now feels like mainlining a bunch of CW shows like Arrow or Vampire Diaries—or even, sometimes, Jane the Virgin. The pacing is so fast that there are multiple reversals of fortune in one episode, and people go from “hey so we are kind of friends” to “we are totally boinking” in 40 minutes. I should say that I love a lot of CW shows, and I’m definitely not opposed to fast pacing. But part of Game of Thrones‘ appeal was a stately, complex layering of circumstances that gave us a sense of the tragic loss so many characters have suffered. So this season’s choices felt like stylistic whiplash.

Ridiculous in the right way: Unmatched: Battle of Legends

Ridiculous in the right way: Unmatched: Battle of Legends

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

The full name of this game is Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One. That last bit is important because there is more Unmatched coming. This first set allows us to answer important questions like: who would win in a fight between King Arthur and Sinbad? What if Alice ventured out of Wonderland to carve up Medusa? The matchups in this absurdist fight club are bonkers, and we’re only getting started.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Restoration Games is the noteworthy publisher that has brought us new editions of classic games like Fireball Island and Stop Thief! Those designs were given a few nips and tucks, a couple of injections of Botox, and a new wardrobe. They’re fresh, but they’re also grounded in the past, and they know how to put nostalgia to good use.

Unmatched is something a little different. It’s a re-working of 2002’s Star Wars: Epic Duels, sans license. Without the power of such a massive intellectual property behind the game, Restoration had to be bold, and it partnered with Mondo Games to create a zany melting pot of fictional matchups. The result should put a smile on the faces of even the dourest of curmudgeons. Just try to frown while playing an epic battle between the first expansion characters of Robin Hood and Big Foot in Sherwood Forest. It’s too ridiculous and too enjoyable.

But Unmatched isn’t Epic Duels. It uses the same concept of a primary fighter accompanied by a sidekick (as we see with wonderful duos like Alice paired with the Jabberwock, or Arthur with Merlin), but Unmatched has a completely different feel with its own unique tempo and mechanisms. The asymmetric decks powering each hero are more tightly designed, creating a breakneck pace for each 20-minute showdown.

While the game supports three and four player bouts, it clearly is optimized as a two-player affair that’s lean and vibrant— in stark contrast to the six-player slug-fests that dominated my Epic Duel outings.

This streamlining editorial hand can be felt in all facets of play. The new battlefield, while small, feels dynamic due to a constant push for movement. The clever restriction of drawing cards only by performing a move action—as well as linking several character abilities to maneuvering—really pushes the design into creative places. For a two-player game where you throw down attack and defense cards against a single opponent, Unmatched never feels like a mere grind to whittle away at their health.

Finding your main

I had many concerns before playing Unmatched. I already love several strong entries in this genre, and I wondered if Unmatched could find a place alongside contemporary titles such as Warhammer Underworlds or Mythic Battles: Pantheon.

Answer: I think it can. Unmatched is a unique offering that manages to pair a straightforward ruleset with legitimate depth. It’s simple enough that you can play with your 10-year old but engrossing enough to capture your gaming group’s extended interest.

There’s no deck construction here, and since each character’s abilities and cards are preset, the typical card game path of creation to competition is short-circuited. For instance, much of Warhammer Underworlds’ play occurs before the match even begins. Experimenting with new cards and combos is at the heart of the design. But Unmatched allows you to explore your small deck in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Rick and Morty. By your second play with Sinbad, you should fully understand how to harness his unique Voyage mechanism and pull off electric combos.

The asymmetry here is also gripping. Each fighter has personality and some character-specific mechanisms. Alice changes size, Medusa can turn foes to stone, Sinbad grows in strength as more voyage cards hit the discard pile, and King Arthur utilizes the Lady of the Lake and Excalibur to great effect. Each character offers much to explore with an economical rules weight.

Unlike its peers, this feels more like a fighting game. While other designs try to create a stripped-down version of a larger miniatures battle, Unmatched wants to give you the feel of Street Fighter or Marvel vs. Capcom. You pick a “main” and perfect your timing. All of those twists and tricks you hope to find in your deck actually materialize because you’re not tearing down your creation and rebuilding a new one after nearly every game.

This fighting-game format, however, is also  responsible for Unmatched’s weakest spots. There’s a strong focus on timing and counter-play here. Instead of deck creation, controlling the tempo and drawing out your opponent’s strongest moves at their least advantageous time is at the very heart of this design. This is captured succinctly with the “feint” card, which is quite the mixture of brilliant and awful. It works because it’s an elegant weapon to clash over tempo but it also stumbles because it can nullify some of the strongest moments in the game.

Imagine this: you just spent the past 10 minutes carefully nurturing your hand, building up a set of power moves that includes the shining Excalibur. You’ve baited your opponent into playing one of their own feints earlier; now is the time to strike. You place Excalibur face down on the table alongside a second card from your hand to boost the damage. Then you and your opponent both flip your cards—and the corners of your mouth drop.

The problem is that every deck has three feints. Their power to undo the most dramatic of plays is frustrating, and it feels like a net negative to the game’s momentum. It works, and the game still ultimately succeeds, but a more judicious use of feint cards might have injected more vigor into the experience.

The pre-constructed nature of the decks also provides an occasional feeling that the game is actually playing you. Card draw is incredibly important, and the lack of a proper mulligan rule is a bit shocking. The abbreviated play time obscures this weakness somewhat, though.

Some players will also take issue with the sidekicks, which are presented as round plastic discs instead of full-blown miniatures. I threw side-eye at this concept initially, but it didn’t take me long at all to embrace the idea. The hero is mechanically divided from the sidekick, and this difference in presentation focuses the spotlight appropriately.

Watch out, Medusa! King Arthur's right behind you...

Enlarge / Watch out, Medusa! King Arthur’s right behind you…

The entire package is visually stunning, with some of the most effective artwork ever placed on cardboard. Even the abstracted spaces that obscure most of the board fit the overall aesthetic. (Of course, they also perfectly convey line of sight, as they’re lifted straight from Fantasy Flight’s now defunct Tannhauser miniatures board game.)

Unmatched may not have the extended life of the malleable Warhammer Underworlds or the explosive drama of Mythic Battles, but it’s a smooth game that should have wide appeal. It’s not overly random yet it’s still dramatic. It’s simple yet it doesn’t sacrifice all personality.

If you give this game a shot, you may find yourself blinking at how quickly the first match is over. So you play again, and soon “just one more” becomes your maxim. Later you will blink once more as you look at your watch and wonder where the night went in such a hurry.

Ars Technica’s ultimate board game gift guide, 2019 edition

Ars Technica’s ultimate board game gift guide, 2019 edition

It’s that time of year again—time to buy more board games than you possibly have time to play.

To aid you in your quest, we’ve once again updated our massive board game buyer’s guide for the year by adding new entries, pruning some old ones, and bringing things in line with our current thoughts. This isn’t necessarily a list of our favorite games of all time; it’s just a big list of games we’re recommending in 2019. The list is divided into sections that cater to different audiences, and we think there’s something here for just about everyone.

Whether you’re looking to pick up your next cardboard obsession or need a gift idea for your weird cousin who’s always going on about “efficient resource trade routes,” you’re in the right place.

Table of Contents

For fun, here’s a giant gallery of the box art for every game in this guide:

Note: Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.

Jumanji: The Next Level is less fresh this time around but still lots of fun

Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, and Karen Gillan star in <em>Jumanji: The Next Level</em>.

Enlarge / Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson, and Karen Gillan star in Jumanji: The Next Level.
Sony Pictures

The intrepid gang of teens who played their way out of a video game two years ago is back and facing a new in-game adventure in Jumanji: The Next Level, the latest installment in the popular franchise that originated with the 1995 film Jumanji. It’s a solid sequel, following the same winning formula that made its predecessor such a big success.

(Spoilers for 1995’s Jumanji and 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle; mild spoilers for Jumanji: The Next Level.)

The franchise has its roots in a 1981 fantasy children’s book by Chris van Allsburg, about two children who discover a jungle adventure board game with the ominous warning, “Do not begin unless you intend to finish.” The original 1995 film adaption followed the basic premise pretty closely, although it added several characters, most notably Robin Williams as a grown Alan Parrish and his childhood friend Sarah Whittle (Bonnie Hunt). As a young boy in 1969, Alan finds a supernatural board game called Jumanji and begins to play with Sarah.

The game unleashes actual jungle hazards into the real world, and the only way to make it go away is to face down your fear and finish the game. Of course, this proves complicated: Alan gets sucked into the game and a panicked Sarah stops playing, leaving him stranded for the next 26 years. It falls to two young orphans in 1995 (another departure: in the book, their parents are still alive), Peter and Judy Shepherd (Bradley Pierce and a young Kirsten Dunst), to finish the game he and Sarah started.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) updated the concept for the 21st century, turning the board game into a video game. (It is sometimes cited as the third installment in the franchise, since 2005’s Zathura: A Space Adventure takes place in the same universe and is based on another of van Allsburg’s books.)

In 1996, a disaffected teen named Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione) is given the board game by his father, who found it on a beach. He’s not into old school board games, so the game transforms into a video game cartridge. Alex, like Alan before him, also gets sucked into the game, until four high school students discover the game 20 years later while serving detention. It was a clever twist, with the teens taking on avatars—a source of much of the film’s humor—to tackle the various levels of the game, hoping to finish before losing all their allotted three lives.

Choose your avatar wisely

Uber-nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff) becomes Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), an archaeologist/explorer with a “smoldering intensity” and no in-game weaknesses. The shy, brainy Martha (Morgan Turner) finds herself playing the babelicious Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), whose skills include “dance fighting.” Narcissistic popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) chooses Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black), the team cartographer. Jock Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blain) gets to play zoologist Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart). Eventually they run into Alex, whose avatar is pilot Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas). Their mission: return a magic jewel to a rock sculpture known as the Jaguar’s Eye, before evil archeologist Russell van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) can steal it back.

Spoiler alert: The teens succeed in mastering the game—learning some valuable lessons about identity and friendship in the process—and Fridge smashes it to make sure nobody ever gets trapped in Jumanji again. Welcome to the Jungle was a genuinely fun (and funny) film, with clever twists on the original film and plenty of sly nods to common tropes of video gameplay. The film opened with an initial weak showing at the box office; it was playing opposite an obscure art house film called Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But positive word of mouth soon boosted attendance, and the film went on to gross $962 million globally. When studios see those kinds of returns, they naturally start thinking about a sequel.

The trailer for Jumanji: The Next Level dropped this summer, promising another fun romp through the game world. A despondent Spencer, now a student at New York University, comes home for Christmas and digs out the pieces of the video game in the basement. He repairs it and once again gets sucked into the game. Seriously, did Spencer learn nothing from the prior film?

When Fridge, Martha, and Bethany come to the house to visit, they find the game running and quickly realize what happened. They resolve to go back into the game to rescue their friend—except this time they don’t have time to choose their avatars. Spencer’s crotchety grandfather, Eddie (Danny DeVito), and his elderly pal Milo (Danny Glover), get sucked into the game, too. Wacky hijinks ensue, starting with who gets what avatar.

Grandpa Eddie finds himself in Dr. Smolder Bravestone, while Milo ends up with the Finbar avatar. Martha is still Ruby Roundhouse, Fridge is now Sheldon, and when they find Spencer, he’s playing a new avatar: a master thief named Ming Fleetfoot (Awkwafina). Bethany inexplicably gets left behind, eventually enlisting the help of an adult Alex (Colin Hanks). They, too, end up in the game, Alex once again playing the pilot, and Bethany a beautiful black stallion named Cyclone. This time, the quest involves recovering another magic jewel (the Falcon’s Heart) from ruthless warlord Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann, aka the Hound from Game of Thrones), who killed Bravestone’s parents, per the in-game backstory.

Dwayne Johnson once again proves he has serious comedic chops.

The cast delivers strong performances, especially those playing the avatars, who must channel both their characters and the individual tics of whoever is playing those avatars. Dwayne Johnson once again proves he has serious comedic chops, deftly mimicking Danny DeVito’s vocal inflections, accent, facial expressions, and mannerisms. Sure, the life lessons each character learns are a bit too Movie of the Week—the same was true of Welcome to the Jungle—but it’s nice to see the rather bitter Eddie gradually come to terms with getting old. (“Aging is a gift. I forget that sometimes.”)

If anything, The Next Level is too similar to the 2017 film, despite bringing fresh faces and a few surprising twists into the mix. That’s partly due to the inherent predictability of video game design: there’s only so much you can do with the premise, and you know going in that the outcome will be much the same as the last time. What was an innovative reinvention in Welcome to the Jungle is now familiar, and hence less surprising. But it’s still a lot of fun, and it’s the kind of entertaining film that tends to do well in the holiday season. A post-credits scene hints at the possibility of yet another sequel. If so, let’s hope it finds a way to reinvent the basic formula one more time.

Jumanji: The Next Level opens this weekend in theaters.

The next Xbox has a name and a new design: Behold, 2020’s Xbox Series X

The next Xbox console, slated to launch in holiday 2020, finally has a name: Xbox Series X. The system that was formerly dubbed Project Scarlett also has a bold, vertical design and a slightly modified controller, as seen in the above gallery.

Xbox chief Phil Spencer took the stage at Thursday night’s The Game Awards to reveal the new monolith-shaped console, which Gamespot reports is roughly as wide as an Xbox One controller and roughly three times as tall. Its appearance came at the end of a trailer full of apparent Xbox Series X “real-time” rendering, which included Halo’s Master Chief, a red sports car (potentially from the Xbox-exclusive racing series Forza), and a soccer match.

Important details were confirmed by a few angles of the new Xbox console: an apparent disc drive; a vent-covered top with either painted or backlit green coloring; and a slightly modified update to the Xbox One gamepad. This new controller looks largely like the current generation’s default controller, but it has a new circle base to its d-pad and a new button in the controller’s middle that resembles an “upload” icon from Windows. Spencer has confirmed that this will function as a “share” button (much like a similar button on PlayStation 4’s DualShock 4) and that the new Series X controller will be compatible with existing Xbox One systems, not just the new Xbox Series X.

In a press release issued shortly after the Game Awards reveal, Microsoft confirmed good news for anybody with tightly organized shelves near their gaming TV of choice: the Xbox Series X “supports both vertical and horizontal orientation.”

Spencer spoke at The Game Awards to offer a few sales pitches about the console, though most of these were repeats of statements from this year’s E3 reveal. He told players to expect to be “instantly absorbed in your games,” presumably hinting to the console’s reliance on SSD architecture for faster game loads. He emphasized three bullet points: “performance, speed, and compatibility.” And he announced that “our 15 Xbox game studios” are all working on games for the new console before revealing the first game built with Xbox Series X in mind: Hellblade II: Senua’s Saga, made by Ninja Theory (a studio Microsoft formally acquired in 2018).

[embedded content]
Xbox Series X reveal.

Listing image by Xbox

Review: Castle Rock’s signature slow burn pays off in tight, twisty finale

[embedded content]
Lizzy Caplan portrays Annie Wilkes, one of Stephen King’s most memorable characters—from the novel Misery—in the second season of Hulu’s anthology series, Castle Rock.

A nurse on the run with her teenaged daughter ends up stranded in a small Maine town where something evil lurks in the second season of Castle Rock, Hulu’s psychological horror anthology series that draws inspiration from the works of Stephen King. The series was a surprising breakout hit last summer, and this new season doesn’t disappoint, bringing the same slow burn and unexpected twists leading to a riveting finale.

(Mild spoilers for season one and season two below.)

The fictional town of Castle Rock features in so many of King’s novels that co-creators Sam Shaw and Dustin Thomason thought they could use it as an organizing principle for their storytelling. The series is less a direct adaptation of King’s works and more new stories set in the fictional town that occasionally bump up against various books. The biggest King influences for season one were The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile—in other words, a prison-centric setting with themes of crime and punishment. Shawshank tells the story of a prisoner’s disappearance, while Castle Rock‘s focus is the mysterious appearance of a prisoner nobody knew about.

Season one opened with the suicide of the local prison warden, Dale Lacy (Terry O’Quinn) and the discovery that he secretly kept a mysterious young man—known only as the Kid (Bill Skarsgård)—captive for decades. Not only did the Kid not age, violent outbreaks seemed to follow in his wake. The show remained cagey about who the Kid was, whether he was a monster or a victim, even in the finale, with its distinctively King-like denouement.

The season highlight was the heartbreaking seventh episode, “The Queen,” told entirely from the point of view of Ruth (Sissy Spacek), whose age-related dementia is rapidly worsening and affecting her ability to distinguish between the present and the past. (At several points, she walks out of a conversation in the present and into a different conversation in 1991.)  The episode has deep personal resonance for Shaw, whose own mother suffered from dementia and died unexpectedly a few days after he started writing the series. I called it “the most beautifully constructed, superbly acted hour of television you’re likely to see this year.”

Castle Rock‘s second season doesn’t have a single standalone episode of quite the same caliber, but it still packs a punch. The source material this time around is King’s award-winning 1987 novel Misery, featuring one of his most memorable characters, Annie Wilkes, a psychotic (and murderous) former nurse.

In the novel, a middle-aged Annie rescues her favorite novelist, Paul Sheldon, after a car accident in which he breaks both legs. Paul’s last novel killed off the central heroine of his Victorian romance series, Misery Chastain, as he had grown tired of the character and wanted to write crime novels. But his “Number One fan,” as Annie calls herself, refuses to accept Misery’s demise and holds Paul captive, forcing him to resurrect Misery in a new novel—or else. The 1990 film starred Kathy Bates as Annie, who won an Oscar for her performance, which included an infamous scene in which Annie hobbles Paul’s feet with a sledgehammer to ensure he can’t escape.

In King’s novel, it’s clear that Annie suffers from schizophrenia and/or bipolar disorder. Paul Sheldon discovers a scrapbook of newspaper clippings hinting that Annie was accused and acquitted of killing infants at a hospital maternity ward in Colorado and may have murdered as many as 30 people. Castle Rock‘s storyline focuses on a youthful Annie (Lizzy Caplan) on the run from an unspecified past with her teenaged daughter Joy (Elsie Fisher). Annie takes stints as a nurse in various hospitals and stays just long enough to steal the medication she needs to keep her mental illness in check before hitting the road in search of a utopian vision she calls the “laughing place.”

Naturally, the pair ends up in Castle Rock, and Annie takes a job with the hospital in nearby Jerusalem’s Lot—the second of King’s trinity of fictional Maine towns, the third being Derry (the setting for IT). When Annie’s killer instincts get the better of her, she tries to dispose of a body at a local construction site and uncovers a hidden burial site linked via a tunnel to the abandoned Marsten House. (King fans may recall the Marsten House was home to the vampires in the 1975 novel ‘Salem’s Lot.) And she inadvertently awakens something evil that has been lying in wait for four centuries.

Caplan gives a fantastic performance as Annie, capturing the character’s trademark awkward earnestness, lack of direct eye contact, stiff gait, and odd speech patterns and phrasing (“dirty bird,” “cockadoodie,” and the like). It’s a very human (and humane) depiction of someone struggling to control her mental illness. Annie may be a little crazy, particularly when her meds run out, but she’s driven primarily by her love for Joy and proves to be a formidable opponent to anything that would threaten her daughter.

Season two also stars Tim Robbins as a veteran named Reginald “Pop” Merrill. Despite his late-stage cancer, he wields a tight hold on local commerce with the help of his two nephews, Ace (Paul Sparks) and Chris (Matthew Alan). Pop also adopted two Somali refugees as teenagers, now grown: Abdi (Barkhad Abdi), who is building a mall in Jerusalem’s Lot, and his sister, Nadia (Yusra Warsama), the medical director at the hospital where Annie works. The family gets sucked into the supernatural threat facing the town(s), too. Over the course of ten episodes, tensions flare, secrets are revealed, and we learn the true nature of what Annie awakened.

As always with a Shaw-created show, the writing is strong and emotionally evocative. It’s intricately plotted, with strong character development. Granted, for the first several episodes of the season, the two narrative threads—Annie and Joy’s relationship and Annie’s secret past, and whatever the hell is going on at the Marsten House—almost don’t feel like they are part of the same series. The Annie storyline feels far more compelling—especially the flashback episode, “The Laughing Place,” which acquaints us with Annie’s childhood.

But gradually the two threads converge as we learn more about the town’s history—including an unexpected twist that provides a link between season two with season one. Here’s hoping Castle Rock gets a third season so we can learn more about this common element loosely tying the anthology’s storylines together.

Listing image by Hulu

Why new consoles probably won’t be enough to save GameStop

How long will this be a common sight in malls across America?

Enlarge / How long will this be a common sight in malls across America?

Things continue to look rough for struggling brick-and-mortar game retailer GameStop. This week, the company announced comparable store sales were down 23.2 percent year over year for the third quarter of 2019. It’s a decrease led by a whopping 45.8 percent decline in hardware sales and a 32.6 percent fall in software sales.

Those are hard numbers to spin, especially when they’re leading to corporate layoffs and hundreds of store shutdowns (including the newly announced shuttering of all GameStop stores in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden by the end of 2020). But GameStop CEO George Sherman attempted to put a good face on the results in an earnings call this week. There, he argued GameStop’s current troubles are a predictable result of the end of the current console generation—and consumer anticipation of upcoming consoles from Sony and Microsoft—as much as anything else.

“With ‘generation nine’ consoles on the horizon set to bring excitement and significant innovation to the video game space, those anticipated releases in late 2020 are putting pressure on the current generation of consoles and related games, as consumers wait for new technology and publishers address their software delivery plans,” Sherman said.

GameStop CFO Jim Bell echoed the sentiment during the call, predicting that “the cyclicality of the console business” will continue to hurt GameStop’s sales performance for the next few quarters.” After that, though, the company “expect[s] robust sales increases in late 2020 led by the generation nine hardware and software slate.”

There’s some merit to the argument that GameStop is just the victim of a temporary end-of-cycle downturn at the moment. As Sherman notes, NPD reported “significant double-digit industry declines in new hardware [sales] for September and October” across the US game industry, suggesting gamers might be largely holding off on new consoles until new hardware arrives late next year. And while hardware sales are a pretty low-margin business for GameStop, new consoles get people in the door and can renew interest in buying high-margin software and accessories for their fancy new purchases.

But there are signs that the end-of-generation doldrums are hurting GameStop’s core business more than other parts of the video game market. As NPD noted in its own third-quarter report on the overall US game market, spending on “digital console content” was up, while spending on “physical console content” was down. That’s just a single quarter, but it reflects long-standing trends in the US game market since 2010, as consumers have moved away from physical discs and cartridges and toward purely digital gaming.

Win part of a $4,500 prize pool in the 2019 Ars Technica Charity Drive

Just some of the prizes you could win by entering our Charity Drive sweepstakes.

Enlarge / Just some of the prizes you could win by entering our Charity Drive sweepstakes.

It’s once again that special time of year when we give you a chance to do well by doing good. That’s right—it’s time for the 2019 edition of our annual Charity Drive.

Every year since 2007, we’ve been actively encouraging readers to give to Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity, which provides toys and games to kids being treated in hospitals around the world. In recent years, we’ve added the Electronic Frontier Foundation to our annual charity push, aiding in their efforts to defend Internet freedom. This year, as always, we’re providing some extra incentive for those donations by offering donors a chance to win pieces of our big pile of vendor-provided swag. We can’t keep it (ethically), and we don’t want it clogging up our offices anyway. So, it’s now yours to win.

This year’s swag pile is full of high-value geek goodies. We have over 50 prizes amounting to over $4,500 in value, including game consoles, computer accessories, collectibles, smartwatches, and more. In 2018, Ars readers raised over $20,000 for charity, contributing to a total haul of more than $300,000 since 2007. We want to raise even more this year, and we can do it if readers really dig deep.

How it works

Donating is easy. Simply donate to Child’s Play using PayPal or donate to the EFF using PayPal, credit card, or Bitcoin. You can also support Child’s Play directly by picking an item from the Amazon wish list of a specific hospital on its donation page. Donate as much or as little as you feel comfortable with—every little bit helps.

Once that’s done, it’s time to register your entry in our sweepstakes. Just grab a digital copy of your receipt (a forwarded email, a screenshot, or simply a cut-and-paste of the text) and send it to [email protected] with your name, postal address, daytime telephone number, and email address by 11:59pm ET Monday, January 6, 2020. (One entry per person, and each person can only win up to one prize. US residents only. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. See official rules for more information, including how to enter without making a donation. Also refer to the Ars Technica privacy policy.)

We’ll then contact the winners and have them choose their prize by January 31 (choosing takes place in the order the winners are drawn).

The prizes

Here are quick descriptions of some of the biggest, most desirable prizes in this year’s contest. See page two for a complete list of available prizes.

Gears 5 Xbox One X bundle

Get in on 4K gaming with this console bundle. It includes a black 1TB Xbox One X, a downloadable copy of Gears 5, two controllers, a controller charging dock, an art book, Gears 5 novelization, a Marcus Fenix toy, a branded Rockstar energy drink can, and more.

GAEMS G170 Sentinel Personal Gaming Environment

Take your HD gaming on the go with this combination console carrying case and 17.3″ IPS FHD display. It features improved sound quality and viewing angles over previous GAEMS carrying cases, and it comes with a power supply, accessory bag, cables, and a remote control.

Logitech G Powerplay wireless charge gaming mouse set

Enjoy the freedom of a wireless gaming mouse without the hassle of having to stop the action to plug in or replace the batteries, thanks to the wireless induction charging in the G Powerplay charging mat. This includes the charging mat (with hard and soft surfaces), G703 and G903 series mice, accessories, and cables for wired gaming options.

Sega Genesis Mini and “Tower of Power” accessories

The Genesis Mini is one of the finest “plug and play” retro consoles out there. But it becomes even cooler with the cosmetic “Tower of Power” set, which adds a miniature replica Sega CD, 32X, and a Sonic the Hedgehog cartridge to the mix. While the “Tower of Power” bundle is on sale in Japan, this US edition was provided exclusively to press.

Nothing grabbing your eye yet? The next page has dozens more prizes you can win by entering. Have a look!

Boneworks review: An absolute VR mess—yet somehow momentous

It's not <em>Half-Life</em>, they keep saying. But maybe <em>Boneworks</em> shouldn't have leaned so freaking heavily into the obvious visual similarities, considering how this week's new VR game doesn't quite hold up compared to its Valve inspirations. Still, it's a remarkable VR achievement.

It’s not Half-Life, they keep saying. But maybe Boneworks shouldn’t have leaned so freaking heavily into the obvious visual similarities, considering how this week’s new VR game doesn’t quite hold up compared to its Valve inspirations. Still, it’s a remarkable VR achievement.

For years, an ambitious game called Boneworks has hovered in the periphery of the VR enthusiast community, inspiring equal parts drool and confusion. It’s made by a scrappy-yet-experienced VR team (makers of quality fare like Hover Junkers and Duck Season). It revolves around realistic guns and a complicated physics system—thus immediately looking more ambitious than other “VR gun adventure” games in the wild.

And it so strongly resembled Half-Life in its preview teases, both in aesthetics and in physics-filled puzzles, that fans wondered if this was the oft-rumored Half-Life VR game after all. (It’s not.)

Now that Boneworks has launched for all PC-VR platforms, does the gaming world finally have an adventure game worthy of an “only in VR” designation? The answer to that question is a resounding “yes”—but that’s not the same as saying it’s a good video game.

The trouble with “git gud” in VR

At its worst, Boneworks had me bellowing in agony. The game, which has you escaping and battling your way out of a mysterious research facility, revolves around a philosophy of “realistic” physics interactions. Everything you see can be touched, pushed, lifted, and manipulated by your hands and body according to their real-life size and weight.

But the results can be an utter mess of virtual body parts glitching through or getting stuck on top of stuff in the game. Since your real arms and legs are not so constricted, the disconnect of game and reality is some of the most severe I’ve ever seen in VR software.

To break this down, I’ll start by addressing a brief, “experts-only” notice which must be clicked through upon every boot of the game. Now that I’ve played the game, I would’ve rewritten the notice to be more specific:

WARNING: Boneworks operates with the assumption that you’re comfortable with VR experiences that push the limits of comfort and nausea. You must walk using a joystick, as the game doesn’t offer any “teleportation” options for comfort’s sake. You must press a button to virtually “jump,” and your virtual perspective will fling and fall great distances throughout the game. And you must press against firm virtual objects, which will thus “push” your apparent grounding point in VR while you remain still in real life. If you’ve never played a VR game before, this should not be your first VR rodeo. Maybe not even your second.

The above issues are no accident. Boneworks‘ battles and puzzles revolve around intentional movement and the position of your body and hands. If the developers at Stress Level Zero had their way, they would’ve built a massive, real-life amusement park to emphasize gunplay, melee, running, jumping, and climbing—in ways that can’t be replicated in a flat-screen video game.

But this means you’re doing things like looking down and jumping between platforms—a first-person traversal system that sucks enough in traditional games, let alone VR ones that yank your virtual perspective wildly. You’ll also occasionally use your hands to push through massive objects or climb and clamber over complicated geometry by lifting yourself with your hands. Both of these can result in some bizarre glitching, especially since the game renders your virtual arms and legs at all times, which can get caught in the game’s risers, ladders, and other geometry for no good reason. And sometimes, these glitches mean you’ll fall a great height, which is both uncomfortable from a VR perspective and annoying from a gameplay one. The game forces you to walk, climb, and jump at a real-life pace through large zones and puzzles, and a single fall can drag your progress down enormously.

E3 without the lines: System Shock, other games to get 48-hour Steam demos

E3 without the lines: System Shock, other games to get 48-hour Steam demos

The Game Awards

In an era when traditional game-preview expos like E3 are languishing, a new contender has emerged with an idea we’ve been privately requesting from game publishers for years: a game expo that any fan and enthusiast can download and enjoy on their home computer.

Simply titled The Game Festival, this 48-hour event will launch exclusively on Steam tomorrow, Thursday, December 12, as part of the run-up to that evening’s broadcast of The Game Awards. Starting at 1pm ET (10am PT) on Thursday, log in to Steam on a Windows PC to access “over a dozen” time-restricted game demos, and these will be available for play for approximately 48 hours. Users will download complete game clients, as opposed to streaming the games from the cloud, and like other time-restricted Steam games, these will require that players remain connected to the Internet to play them during their availability window.

The biggest news, as of press time, is that this slate of demos includes a world-premiere opportunity to play System Shock, the repeatedly delayed “faithful reboot” of the ’90s classic. (It’s not to be confused with System Shock 3, an entirely new entry in the series still in production and helmed by co-creator Warren Spector.) The full list of announced Game Festival demos is below:

  • System Shock (Nightdive Studios)
  • Eastward (Pixpil/Chucklefish)
  • Spiritfarer (Thunder Lotus)
  • Moving Out (SMG Studio/Devm Games/Team17)
  • Röki (Polygon Treehouse/United Label)
  • Chicory (Greg Lobanov)
  • Wooden Nickel (Brain&Brain)
  • Haven (The Game Bakers)
  • Heavenly Bodies (2pt Interactive)
  • Acid Knife (Powerhoof)
  • The Drifter (Powerhoof)
  • Carrion (Phobia/Devolver)
  • SkateBIRD (Glass Bottom Games)

Curiously, that list is described by Game Awards representatives as “some of the games” involved in the promotion—which hints at more demos potentially landing in players’ free-to-try queue. Game Awards host Geoff Keighley has bragged about the show’s range of brand-new game announcements (and that they’ve somehow still not been leaked to forums or news sites), but Game Awards representatives didn’t answer questions about whether any surprise announcements will wind up in the demo list after the show airs on Thursday evening.

Ars Technica staffers have been fortunate enough to sample a few games on this list at press events, particularly the bloody-and-fast horror romp of Carrion and the Earthbound-meets-MS-Paint whimsy of Chicory. And now, instead of waiting in lines and huddling up to expo-hall kiosks to sample promising games ahead of their launch, you’ll be able to just download their pre-release EXEs and play them comfortably on your schedule (within that 48-hour window, anyway).

The perfect time to strike?

We cannot recall another event offering such a limited-time shot at unreleased games via downloads, which may make The Game Festival the first of its kind. And as game-streaming services tiptoe toward wider availability and improved performance, we see this week’s unveil of a time-limited, download-then-demo event as a stepping stone to an eventual future of streaming-exclusive festivals. How long before Microsoft offers paying Xbox Game Pass subscribers a limited-time chance to stream and sample a tantalizing new game via Project xCloud that had just blown up via a YouTube trailer? Might Google Stadia ever do the same for its paying Stadia Pro tier?

Such streaming-tease events would allow game publishers and promoters the chance to fully control player access to software—a key restriction that game makers want when exposing unfinished preview code (and a big reason that a lot of demos at events like E3 happen “behind closed doors”). But they’d also cut out the bulky middleman of an expo-management group like the Entertainment Software Association, an organization that is already reportedly struggling with organizational woes (not to mention leaks of attendees’ sensitive data). If The Game Festival succeeds by any measure, this could be the beginning of a sea change for how public game-preview events operate.

12 years later, players somehow keep Team Fortress 2 alive on the PS3

<em>Team Fortress 2</em> on PS3 is the only way to play the "classic" version of the team shooter, without the new guns and features that changed the game drastically.

Enlarge / Team Fortress 2 on PS3 is the only way to play the “classic” version of the team shooter, without the new guns and features that changed the game drastically.

Team Fortress 2 was Lars Nilsen’s favorite game. He’s spent hundreds of hours running between rooftops as the scout in 2Fort and dominating points on Dustbowl as a demoman since he picked up the quirky team shooter in 2011.

After playing consistently for five years, Nilsen took a break in 2016 to focus on other things. Still, the class-based charm and powerful combo of the heavy/medic uber-charge eventually convinced him to come back. He booted up the game in April of 2019, hoping to get into the habit of erecting dispensers once again.

There was just one problem, though. He couldn’t join a match.

That’s because Nilsen had been playing the PS3 version of Team Fortress 2, a game that has been long neglected by Valve and server host EA since its 2007 launch. While the PC version receives updates from Valve to this day, the PS3 version of the game hasn’t received any official updates, patches, or new content since it first came out. In April, Nilsen found he could still connect to the server and mess with his settings, but he couldn’t actually play.

Unlike its Xbox 360 cousin, the PS3 version of TF2 seemed practically dead on arrival in 2007, let alone 12 years later. But this version of the game wasn’t dead, as Nilsen would soon find out after joining the Discord server linked in the lobby of the server menu. There, he joined a fledgling community of Team Fortress 2 players who preferred the vanilla PS3 version of the game over all other versions, despite its many shortcomings.

“The [server] menu was modded [via hacked PS3 save files] so I found the [Team Fortress 2 PS3 community] Discord through that,” Nilsen told me over Discord. “I met some guys through that and I think me and [Adrian Francis] got really pumped up trying to fix this problem [of the dead servers].”

While the game’s PS3 servers had gone down sporadically over the years, they had always come back up. In April, though, Nilsen and others in the Discord thought the PS3 game might not be coming back. “I just had a random thought to boot the game up around Easter, I expected it to be shut down,” he said. “But was surprised that I was wrong. Since it was technically online still, just not in an optimal state, I knew all hope wasn’t lost.”

From that sliver of hope, Nilsen, Francis, and other members of the PS3 TF2 community embarked on a quest to get someone to listen to their pleas.

Searching for Scooter

In late April, Francis and Nilsen started “reaching out to every Valve and EA employee, every customer service department we could, since we didn’t know exactly who was running the servers,” Nilsen told me. “Even though most clues pointed towards EA, we weren’t sure since they would never confirm it.”

Both Nilsen and Francis had been talking with EA customer service representatives through a long Twitter direct message thread. The customer service reps, who always sent them in circles, signed their names as a conversation got started. “Sue” and “Bob” said they couldn’t help the small community because the servers were Valve’s responsibility. Then “Scooter” came into the picture, and he saw things differently.

“[Nilsen] and I tried for ages with EA but they always denied they had anything to do with it,” Francis, a UK-based player, told me via Discord. “But [Nilsen] got lucky one day and managed to talk to Scooter from EA.”

“After wasting hours on outsourced customer service chats to India, I tried to message the EA_Help Twitter account and forgot about it,” Nilsen said. “I later checked my Twitter, and this guy Scooter from EA confirmed to me he sent a request forward and also confirmed that they were running the servers.”

Only a few days later, on May 1, the servers were up and running again. Nilsen, Francis, and others could join a match and enjoy all the sticky bomb fragging and spy backstabs they wanted to. “It was just plain luck that I got in contact with him,” Nilsen said. “Adrian tried just as hard. And also, if we tried to ask other employees over there, they always say, ‘That’s not EA who handles this, it’s Valve’ even though this other employee confirmed it. So now, it’s always ‘Cut the crap, give us Scooter!’”

Players on PS3 sometimes spend more time talking and problem-solving than actually playing.

Enlarge / Players on PS3 sometimes spend more time talking and problem-solving than actually playing.

Since May, Scooter has had to intervene five or six times to get the servers up and running after brief outages. But with that internal support, the community continues to grow and thrive on the outdated console.

Francis, Nilsen, and others have started a subreddit and Twitter page for the PS3 TF2 community. They’re trying to expand by reaching out with a server invitation to other players who mentioned the PS3 version of the game on Twitter or uploaded videos of themselves playing on YouTube.

They’ll do whatever they can to keep their favorite team shooter going, at least as long as their PS3 hardware lasts. Nilsen and Ramie Villar, another member, even talked about buying the servers from EA.

After I suggested that the servers would eventually come down for good, Villar replied, “That’s what I’ve heard for over a decade, though. I’m amazed they’re still up, but people have thought they’d get taken down years ago.”

Mourning the end of the video game rental era

Amateur photograph of a Redbox rental station.

Enlarge / This image, like game rentals as a whole, is now a relic of a bygone era.

On Monday, Redbox confirmed to The Verge that it was “permanently transitioning out of the games business.” That means Redbox would remove the option to rent physical game discs from its thousands of self-serve kiosks (Redbox game sales will still be available through the end of the year).

For many in the United States, Redbox kiosks had been the only convenient way to rent games ever since rental mega-chain Blockbuster went belly up over the course of a decade (along with most of its smaller brick-and-mortar competition). GameFly still offers a rent-by-mail service, but that service’s monthly subscriptions and long postal wait times mean those loans are not much like just going down the street and paying a few bucks to sample a game for a few days.

Redbox’s decision to exit the game-rental market, just as the 2010s come to a close, marks a poetic and somewhat anticlimactic end to a practice that has been in a steep decline for well over a decade now. Like using a slide rule or blowing into a Nintendo cartridge, renting physical games is a practice we’ll harbor nostalgia for even though it’s not necessary anymore (assuming you have good-enough Internet access, that is).

A brief history of video game rentals

Video game rentals can trace their lineage back to the late ’80s, when stores that loaned out a flood of new VHS movies started adding NES software to their shelves as well. But while a movie studio could control when a theatrical release would hit the home video-rental market, video games could appear on rental-store shelves the very same day they were available for sale.

In David Sheff’s seminal history book Game Over, Nintendo of America’s then-chairman Howard Lincoln called this state of affairs “nothing less than commercial rape” for the video game industry.

I can spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars creating a game. I expect, therefore, to be compensated every time the thing sells. All of a sudden, out of the blue, comes a system that distributes my game to thousands of people and I get no royalty. The video-rental companies exploit the thing—renting it out over and over again, hundreds and even thousands of times—and I get nothing. The guy who developed the game and Nintendo get screwed. What does the guy who’s renting the cartridge contribute? What does he pay in terms of a royalty for the commercial exploitation of copyrighted work? Zip.

While a Japanese copyright law allowed Nintendo to prohibit the rental of its games in that country, the first-sale doctrine allowed such rentals to flourish in the United States. In 1990, the Computer Software Rental Amendments Act cemented the right to rent out console video games while also barring the rental of computer software (which is more easily copied).

Lincoln pushed for a compromise bill that barred console game rentals for a year after their release, but it died in legislative committee. Nintendo also tried to sue Blockbuster for copyright infringement over its use of photocopied game manuals in game rental boxes, but the case was settled out of court, and Blockbuster just started writing its own instructional copy for games instead.

Blockbuster's game-rental business got so big that exclusive versions of games like <em>Donkey Kong Country</em> were produced just for in-store rentals and competitions.

Enlarge / Blockbuster’s game-rental business got so big that exclusive versions of games like Donkey Kong Country were produced just for in-store rentals and competitions.

Mini 4WD is an electrifying race series for makers and tinkerers

[embedded content]
Video shot by Justin Wolfson and John Cappello, edited by Aulistar Mark. Click here for transcript.

We’re going to try something a little different this morning. Partially in response to several requests for more maker-focused videos and partially because my executive producer is head-over-heels in love with Pocket Circuit racing in Yakuza 0, we’re bringing you the first in what we hope to make into a series called “Mini Motors,” and it’s all about tiny cars going really fast.

RC racing in all its various forms has always been a maker-y kind of hobby, and Mini 4WD serves as an excellent genre example to start with. You take a 1:30-scale battery-powered car, spend days carefully and patiently tuning the crap out of it, and then you set it loose on a curving track as fast as its little wheels can make it go—up to 40 miles per hour (about 65km/h). The Mini 4WD that wins does so by a mixture of careful planning, careful engineering, and a big heaping of pure luck.

Must go faster

For this video, we spent time talking Mini 4WD with Randy Holt, owner of the HobbyTown store in Toms River, New Jersey. The biggest factor that sets Mini 4WD apart from other RC cars is that Mini 4WD cars are hands-off during the race—once the green flag waves, the cars are on their own. They zip around the track, steered by the cars’ built-in bumpers and rollers pushing against the track walls. Though the track appears to have multiple lanes in parallel, it’s actually a single lane that spirals around the circuit, connected by a jump-over. This ensures that all the Mini 4WDs on the track are all racing the same total distance (because otherwise the inner lanes would be shorter than the outer lanes).

Holt gives us a nice overview of Mini 4WD cars, the different race classes, and a bit of a primer on tuning and engineering. The big takeaway is that the sport is friendly to newcomers and easy to get into—you can spend $15 or so on the Tamiya Yaris shown in the video, which can be assembled and ready to race in about 45 minutes. It’s also a hobby that grows with you, and at the extreme end—if your interest runs that deep—you might find yourself adding carbon fiber parts and tweaking rollers and brakes by the millimeter to eke out faster lap times. Mini 4WD has something for all levels of racer, from casual to crazy.

A whole new world

This video has also been my introduction to 4WD Mini—and it’s a vast world with a long history, stretching back to the ’90s. Video editor Aulistar Mark is a veritable fountain of 4WD Mini trivia, and he passed this tidbit to me in email as the edit was being locked:

Mini 4WD is an interesting international phenomenon. One aspect we didn’t get into, is the 90s Anime Bakusō Kyōdai Let’s & Go!! which is bound to come up in the comments. Bakusō Kyōdai Let’s & Go!!, was localized in the US as the Saturday morning cartoon “Let’s & Go!!”. The series also had several licensed games for multiple platforms in the 90s, with a couple remasters released for mobile. This would be a precursor to the Yakuza series Mini 4WD mini-game. It’s great stuff for nostalgia, since the 90s cartoons were very much made like Bandai/Hasbro cartoons designed to sell toys.

If you guys like this pilot and like the series concept, we’d love to hear some ideas in the comments for additional racing circuit types to check out—please let us know!