Resident Evil 3 remake headlines a handful of PS4 announcements

Capcom will be bringing an HD remake of 1999’s Resident Evil 3 to the PS4, Xbox One, and PC on April 3.

The “completely reimagined” take on the game, revealed during Sony’s “State of Play” livestream this morning, presents a similar presentational overhaul to the Resident Evil 2 remake that Capcom released earlier this year. That title shipped 3 million copies in its first week and 4 million in a little over a month, pretty much guaranteeing a followup would be in the cards. A short trailer for the remake features franchise regular Jill Valentine running through cramped hallways and struggling with the implications of the now-rampant zombie outbreak.

RE3 purchasers will also get access to “Resident Evil: Resistance,” a 4-on-1 online multiplayer battle mode previously known as Project Resistance. Preorders, starting today, will come with a “classic costume pack” for the game’s main characters.

Other announcements made during Sony’s last video presentation of the year:

  • Platinum Games is working on a new hack-and-slash game called Babylon’s Fall, which looks like it combines the action of a Devil May Cry game with the crumbling medieval setting of a Dark Souls. More information is promised for “next summer,” suggesting this one is pretty far from an actual release.
  • A new trailer for Paper Beasts, the PSVR title from Out of This World creator Eric Chahi, highlighted a sandbox mode where you can alter terrain and interact with the titular animals traipsing around it. The game is promised for Q1 2020.
  • Switch indie hit Untitled Goose Game will be coming to the PS4 next week.
  • Size-manipulation first-person puzzle game Superliminal will be coming to PS4 next year following an Epic Games Store PC release last month.
  • Spellbreak, a magic-themed, role-playing, high-flying online battler, will enter closed beta on PS4 in spring 2020. The game is already available on Windows via a closed beta test.
  • Media Molecule’s online world-building toolkit Dreams will finally come out of a long beta test to full release on February 14, 2020.
  • Kingdom Hearts 3 will get an expansion called “ReMind” on January 23. The story-filled trailer seems utterly incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been immersed in the series for over a decade (and may well be to those people, too).
  • Long-planned feudal samurai game Ghost of Tsushima got a short new teaser trailer, with more footage promised for The Game Awards later this week.
  • Asymmetrical multiplayer title Predator: Hunting Grounds, based on the popular movie franchise, is due April 24, 2020.
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How MechWarrior’s return took me back to the early ‘90s mall in my mind

Screenshot from latest MechWarrior video game.

Enlarge / 17 years later, the first-person bombast of MechWarrior returns to PC in campaign form. What better way to pilot a King Crab than with a robust HOTAS rig?

Today marks the launch of MechWarrior 5: Mercenaries on Windows PC, which is a pretty big deal for any gamer who likes blasting massive robots to bits. This is one of many video games based on the biggest Western mech-combat franchise out there, BattleTech, but most of the recent games have landed in tactical, top-down territory.

That befits a series that began life as a tabletop strategy game, but any hardcore PC gamer who came up in the ’90s remembers when the series’ bombastic, first-person offshoot, MechWarrior, debuted as a drool-worthy highlight of the 3D-gaming revolution. And it’s been a while since we’ve seen a traditional MechWarrior campaign game: 17 years.

As such, you can’t take a single mecha-stomp through MechWarrior 5‘s gameplay without trampling some fields of nostalgia. For some players, that rewind may go back to 2002’s MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries. For others, it’s a brief rewind to 2013’s MechWarrior Online, an MMO that’s still in operation and resembles MW5:M.

My personal rewind goes further. I’m not a BattleTech or MechWarrior expert by any stretch; far from it. (And I never played MechWarrior Online.) But my early ’90s exposure to the franchise by way of a mall entertainment center was enough to have me suiting up, quite elaborately, to test MechWarrior 5 ahead of its launch today—and to offer my altogether positive impressions.

Pod people

A major reason I’m writing this is because I came into custody of a Thrustmaster T.16000M FCS kit in preparation for another game launch: the 2020 version of Microsoft Flight Simulator (which I tested in preview form in September). Its closed tech alpha test will soon begin, smothered with non-disclosure agreements, and that’ll likely benefit from controls other than keyboard and mouse. To that aim, Thrustmaster kindly sent a loaner kit for the aforementioned HOTAS (“Hands-On Throttle And Stick”) rig, which includes a button-smothered pair of joystick and throttle, along with a robust foot-controlled rudder.

When the kit arrived, I didn’t yet have MSFS access in my inbox. Instead, I noticed an email about MechWarrior 5, whose pre-release version landed at my home office while I was on a Thanksgiving vacation. There had been an internal update, the email read, to get the game up to snuff for owners of HOTAS equipment. That included a “plug-and-play” patch for the T.16000M FCS.

I connected the joystick and throttle (without the rudder, MSRP $160, but can be found for less), positioned them on my desk, and booted the game. And my head started spinning. I’ve done this before, I thought.

Sony announces plan to publish PlayStation games on non-PS consoles [updated]

Today's announcement could really use some console logos, because we have no idea which consoles to expect <em>MLB The Show</em> on starting in 2021. But it won't just be PlayStation-branded ones.

Enlarge / Today’s announcement could really use some console logos, because we have no idea which consoles to expect MLB The Show on starting in 2021. But it won’t just be PlayStation-branded ones.
MLB / Sony

A Monday night announcement about Sony’s long-running baseball sim series MLB The Show included a clause we have yet to see attached to a PlayStation series announcement: plans to launch on other consoles.

Sony and Major League Baseball issued a joint statement on Monday night confirming that their shared license for the series MLB The Show will persist for an indeterminate amount of time. This also included a pledge that the series will appear on “additional console platforms beyond PlayStation platforms as early as 2021.”

The gazillion-dollar question, of course, is which other console platforms we might expect the series to launch on. Neither Sony nor MLB had any answers to that question as of press time. Sony also didn’t hint to doing the same thing for any other current PlayStation-exclusive series.

Since the series began life in 1998 on PlayStation 1, simply titled MLB ’98, Sony’s baseball games have launched exclusively on PlayStation platforms—and, in fact, they’ve launched on every PlayStation-branded device. While other multi-platform baseball sim series have fallen by the wayside in the years since, most recently 2K Sports’ MLB 2K13, Sony’s PlayStation-exclusive take on the American pastime has persisted as an annual release.

Unlike Sony, rival console publisher Microsoft has dipped its toe pretty loudly into multi-console publishing in the past few years. The trend began with Minecraft, but Microsoft technically inherited that series’ multiplatform status upon acquiring its creator Mojang in 2014. Microsoft’s multi-console strategy truly blossomed in 2019 with the launch of former Xbox exclusives Cuphead and Ori and the Blind Forest on Nintendo Switch.

Could Sony be catching Switch fever, as well? (Nintendo is already hinting to the possibility.) Might Sony go so far as to launch MLB The Show on Xbox, thus creating a tangled love triangle of who publishes on whose consoles? Or will this become a bizarre move on Sony’s part to support Google Stadia, even though Sony has its own complicated sometimes-streaming subscription service? And either way, how far might Sony and the MLB milk this cloud of mystery, assuming that “as early as 2021” could mean one, two, or even 4,000 years later?

Update: This article’s headline has been updated to reflect the fact that “Sony” at large has published games on non-PlayStation consoles in recent years, mostly in the form of Sony Music Entertainment’s UNTIES entertainment publishing group. But those games are rarely marked with “Sony” or “PlayStation” branding, let alone temporary exclusivity on PlayStation platforms. Today’s news marks the first time a series from Sony Interactive Entertainment with loud ties to the PlayStation brand has been announced for other competing consoles.

Star Trek and Fallout actor Rene Auberjonois has passed away

Rene Auberjonois speaking at a fan convention.

Enlarge / Rene Auberjonois speaking at a fan convention.

Esteemed character actor Rene Auberjonois died in his home in Los Angeles on Sunday at the age of 79, The New York Times reports. The cause of death was lung cancer.

Auberjonois was a prolific actor whose 55-year career spanned well over 200 roles. To many, he was the shapeshifting security officer Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. To others, he was Father John Mulcahy from M.A.S.H. or Clayton Endicott III from Benson. Others still may know him as Paul Lewiston from Boston Legal or as Dr. Burton from Batman Forever. Many more would recognize him from his numerous guest roles on TV series like Stargate SG-1, Madam Secretary, The Good Wife, Archer, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and many more.

He also played numerous roles in video games. He voiced Mr. House, a central character in 2010’s Fallout: New Vegas. He also appeared as Karl Schafer in Uncharted 2, Talos in God of War, and Janos Audron in the Legacy of Kain series. Additionally, he was an acclaimed audiobook reader and a regular performer on the theatre stage.

Born in Manhattan in 1940, Auberjonois attended now-called Carnegie Mellon University before beginning his career in theatre, film, television, and voiceover. His father was a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist, his grandfather was a notable painter, and his mother was descended from the family of Napoleon Bonaparte.

While he was not a professional artist like his grandfather, Auberjonois treated the visual arts as a hobby. He was known for selling drawings and other artwork to fans at Star Trek conventions and donating the proceeds to charity.

In the 2000s, Auberjonois reportedly expected to retire from acting, but the success of Boston Legal gave his career even longer legs than he had anticipated. He worked all the way until his death.

He is survived by his wife of 56 years, a son and two daughters, and three grandchildren.

Surprise! Oculus Quest becomes first VR set with native hand tracking—this week

Starting this week, the Oculus Quest VR headset becomes even more tantalizing by adding a feature we’ve never seen ship as a built-in option in a VR system: hand tracking. VR users will be able to put down their controllers and use their fingers to manipulate VR worlds, as tracked by Quest’s array of built-in cameras.

The feature received a tease at October’s Oculus Connect 6 conference and got an “early 2020” launch window from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. But someone on the Oculus engineering team clearly ignored Lord Zuck in getting this feature out the door a bit early, and it will land in an “experimental” tab in Quest’s settings menus as a free update by week’s end.

Today’s news comes with two important asterisks. First, there’s no fully fledged VR software available for the feature yet. At launch, the experimental feature will only work within Oculus Quest’s root menu, which at least includes photo and multimedia viewing tabs. Within “a week” of the toggle going live, a Software Development Kit (SDK) for Quest hand tracking will go live for Oculus developers, which will allow them to tap into Oculus’ hand-tracking system and potentially implement it in various games and apps.

And second, Oculus is limiting its hand-tracking framework to the Quest ecosystem. This update isn’t coming to the PC-centric Rift or Rift S headsets, and it won’t work if you use Oculus Link to connect a Quest to your favorite PC VR games.

First of its kind, for a reason

Normally in VR, users grab onto controllers full of triggers and buttons. For some VR software, a piece of handheld plastic makes sense: it can sell the sensation of holding a weapon or VR item, and it adds haptic feedback like rumbling when your real-life hand gets near VR objects. But there’s something to be said about lifting your empty hands in the VR sky and seeing your real fingers wiggle, which, based on pre-release tests, we can confirm Oculus Quest hand tracking nails.

We’ve seen hand-tracking experiments on other VR headsets, but these have largely come in the form of proprietary add-ons like Leap Motion, which require additional hardware and a bolted-on rendering pipeline. These systems have been impressive enough as tested at various tech expos, but VR hand tracking has always been underwhelming in execution—just imprecise enough, in terms of recognizing individual fingers and “pinch” gestures, compared to the “it just works” appeal of a compatible controller.

Quest’s native hand-tracking support, on the other hand, taps into the headset’s existing camera array, and it may very well work without adding a processing burden to the system (though we’ll have to wait for the SDK to know for sure). That reduced friction is the best news for a hand-tracking system that, at launch, is admittedly simple and limited.

“Fwshht” like Wolverine, but not yet

Right now, Quest turns your empty hands into laser pointers that can manipulate menus. Leave your hands somewhat open, like you’re about to pinch a pesky fly buzzing around, to make a pointer appear on a distant menu, as aimed by your hands’ orientation. Quickly pinch your index finger and thumb to “click” any menu buttons, or hold your pinch to drag menu elements like a scrolling list or volume slider.

Based on tests in October, we know that the system natively recognizes a few hand gestures, particularly the balling of fists. (In one fantasy-themed test, I could dunk my real-life hands in a vat of virtual goo, then ball my hands into fists to make Wolverine-like blades “fwsshht” out of my virtual knuckles.) But those tests revealed two weaknesses: the inability to recognize hands when they are touching each other, and a relatively narrow “vision cone” for hand tracking. If your hands aren’t front-and-center in your VR field of vision, they’ll vanish and require an awkward moment to reappear.

When I did things the way Oculus wanted me to, at least, the system as tested in October was fast and accurate. I could wave my hands around, then point at distant objects or poke nearby ones and expect instant visual feedback. As a result, I expect the hand-tracking update to be an interesting one for apps outside the gaming ecosystem, from real-life job training simulations to media apps. I doubt that this system will replace controllers in demanding games and apps any time soon, but as an experimental freebie, and one whose simplest use cases actually work, I’m OK with it.

What’s more, this update puts the ball in other VR headset makers’ courts. Valve Index, and most Windows Mixed Reality sets, include a similar array of outward-facing cameras; Oculus’ primary differentiation here is software engineering, not unique cameras. Who’s next to step up to hand tracking?

Listing image by Oculus

A new generation ain’t afraid of no ghosts in Ghostbusters: Afterlife trailer

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Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, and Paul Rudd star in Ghostbusters: Afterlife.

It has been more than 30 years since Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd first strapped on their proton packs to battle a ghostly infestation in Manhattan in the 1984 blockbuster comedy Ghostbusters. Now the legacy continues. Sony Pictures just dropped the first trailer for Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a sequel directed by Jason Reitman (Juno, Thank You for Smoking), featuring a whole new team.

Reitman is a fitting choice to direct, as he’s the son of Ivan Reitman, director of the 1980s films. You may have glimpsed Jason, his mother, and his sister in the original Ghostbusters as residents who are fleeing their haunted skyscraper. Reitman resisted following in his father’s footsteps for years before finally succumbing to the call. “I’ve always thought of myself as the first Ghostbusters fan, when I was a 6-year-old visiting the set,” Reitman told EW back in January. “This is the next chapter in the original franchise. It is not a reboot. What happened in the ’80s happened in the ’80s, and this is set in the present day.”

Vanity Fair offered a first look at the latest film last week, featuring several stills—including one showing the original Ghostbusters tricked-out ambulance. Per the official synopsis, “A single mother and her two children move to Summerville, Oklahoma, after inheriting property from a previously unknown relative. They discover their family’s legacy to the original Ghostbusters, who have become something of a myth, as many have long since forgotten the events of the ‘Manhattan Crossrip of 1984′”—i.e., the events of the original film. Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) plays mom Callie, while Mckenna Grace (The Haunting of Hill House) plays her science-loving daughter Phoebe. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) plays son Trevor.

“As the family arrives at an old farm, they begin to discover their connection to the original Ghostbusters,” Reitman told Vanity Fair. “Trevor and Phoebe are about to find out who their grandfather was and whether they’re ready to pick up the proton pack themselves.” Among other revealed details, Phoebe will find a device that reads psychokinetic energy. Paul Rudd plays summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson; the Manhattan Crossrip was his most formative childhood memory, and we see his delight at holding a bona fide vintage ghost trap in his hands.

The trailer does not look anything like a Ghostbusters movie when it opens. We see Trevor hanging with some new pals, one of whom asks what the family is doing in Summerville. “Honestly, my mom won’t say it, but we’re completely broke,” he replies, as we see a flashback of Callie wearily pulling an eviction notice off the door of their old home. “And the only thing that’s left in our name is this creepy old farmhouse our grandfather left us in the middle of nowhere.” Then there’s a loud noise from the bottom of the mine shaft they’re sitting above, and a fluorescent green ghostie shoots out into the air.

The family’s arrival seems to have awakened something in the town. As Rudd’s Mr. Grooberson tells Trevor, “Somehow, a town that is nowhere near a tectonic plate, that has no fault lines, no fracking, no loud music even, is shaking on a daily basis.” Then Phoebe finds an old ghost trap, which Grooberson initially mistakes for a replica. “There hasn’t been a ghost sighting in 30 years,” he says to Phoebe, and gives her a crash course on the Manhattan Crossrip. “New York in the ’80s? It was like The Walking Dead.”

The Ghostbuster aspects slowly begin to emerge. “My grandfather died. My mom says we’re just here to pick through the rubble of his life,” Phoebe tells her teacher, right before she discovers all her grandfather’s old Ghostbusters paraphernalia, including the uniforms. Meanwhile, Trevor discovers the Ghostbusters-mobile with its ECTO-1 license plate, outfitted with a handy gunner’s seat and a (functioning) proton pack.

“Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it karma,” a voiceover intones, and it sounds a lot like Bill Murray, aka Peter Venkman himself. “I believe everything happens for a reason.” The original cast is expected to appear in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, including Murray, Sigourney Weaver (as Dana Barrett), Dan Aykroyd (as Ray Stantz), Ernie Hudson (as Winston Zeddemore), and Annie Potts (as Janine Melnitz).

Harold Ramis, who played Egon Spengler, died in 2014, and it’s pretty clear that Spengler is the kids’ recently deceased grandfather. Phoebe finds a collection of spores, molds, and fungus (his favorite hobby), and one of the old uniforms has “Spengler” stitched onto it. That might explain the relatively subdued, more contemplative tone of this first trailer: at once mourning the loss of Ramis and celebrating the legacy he helped create, now handed down to a new generation.

Ghostbusters; Afterlife hits theaters July 10, 2020.

Listing image by Sony Pictures

BioShock will return, but without Ken Levine

BioShock will return, but without Ken Levine
Publisher 2K announced today that development has started on the first new BioShock game since 2013’s BioShock Infinite. But Ken Levine, who served as creative director on Infinite and 2007’s original BioShock (and as lead designer on System Shock 2), will not be involved with the new project.

Instead, the new game “will be in development for the next several years” with Cloud Chamber, a 2K-subsidiary studio based in both Novato, California, and Montreal. Veteran Firaxis game producer Kelley Gilmore will be heading up the new studio and confirmed to GamesRadar that the BioShock project will be moving forward without Levine.

“Ken and his team at Ghost Story Games are fully engaged in developing a new experience that will surely be another incredible game for all of us to enjoy,” Gilmore told the site. “He is not affiliated with Cloud Chamber or the development of our BioShock title.”

Levine’s lack of involvement in the new project isn’t that shocking considering his 2014 announcement that BioShock studio Irrational games was “winding down” and transforming into “a smaller, more entrepreneurial endeavor.” Not much has been said publicly about what the rebranded Ghost Story Games has been working on since then, but Levine said in a 2017 interview that he was inspired by Shadow of Mordor‘s Nemesis system and is working on a “much more ambitious” version of it for Ghost Story’s first project.

Levine was also not directly involved with the development of 2010’s BioShock 2, which was helmed by Novato-based 2K Marin. Levine did receive a “Special and heartfelt thanks” credit for that sequel, however.

As for BioShock, the new title will feature series veterans Hoagy de la Plante (as creative director), Scott Sinclair (art director), and Jonathan Pelling (design director), Gilmore said. Former Zynga General Manager Ken Schacter will serve as studio manager for the Montreal office. Cloud Chamber is also actively recruiting for dozens of positions that will form the core of the new BioShock team.

“We founded Cloud Chamber to create yet-to-be-discovered worlds – and their stories within – that push the boundaries of what is possible in the video game medium,” said Kelley Gilmore. “Our team believes in the beauty and strength of diversity, in both the makeup of the studio and the nature of its thinking. We are a deeply experienced group of game makers, including many responsible for BioShock’s principal creation, advancement, and longstanding notoriety, and honored to be part of the 2K family as stewards of this iconic franchise.”

Diana Prince reunites with her long-lost love in first Wonder Woman 1984 trailer

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Gal Gadot reprises her role as everyone’s favorite Amazonian demigod in Wonder Woman 1984.

Diana Prince faces off against two new formidable foes and reunites with an old love in the hotly anticipated first trailer for Wonder Woman 1984, with Gal Gadot reprising her titular role. Director Patty Jenkins unveiled the trailer today at Comic Con Experience (CCXP) in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Inspired by the comic book heroine created by William Moulton Marston in the 1940s for DC Comics, Wonder Woman made her big-screen debut in the DCEU with 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, followed by 2017’s Justice League. The first fell short of box office expectations; the second bombed outright. So when Jenkins took on Wonder Woman’s origin story, she deliberately departed from the grim humorlessness and dark sensibility of those earlier films, bringing a brighter energy and wit to her tale, along with the usual action. That vision paid off: Wonder Woman went on to gross $821 million worldwide and earned critical raves, making it the most successful of the DCEU films thus far.

Jenkins first broached the possibility of a sequel shortly after the first film’s release in June 2017, and principal photography began a year later. It has been described as a standalone film rather than a direct sequel, “in the same way that Indiana Jones or [James] Bond are, instead of one continuous story that requires many installments.” (That standalone strategy worked well for Warner Bros’  2019 box office smash Joker, which became the first R-rated film to gross over $1 billion worldwide.)

This second film is set almost seventy years after the original film. “In this movie we find [Diana] in 1984 and [she] is quite lonely — she’s lost her friends and doing what she needs to do,” Gadot said at CCXP. “She’s helping mankind and saving them until something crazy happens to her.”

This being the 1980s, Diana is operating in a Cold War scenario, taking on Pedro Pascal’s villainous Maxwell Lord, a shrewd and powerful businessman. Kristen Wiig also co-stars as Barbara Ann Minerva, a British archaeologist in the comic books who becomes Wonder Woman’s arch-nemesis Cheetah. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright reprise their roles as Diana’s mother, Hippolyta, and aunt, Antiope, respectively, in flashbacks to Diana’s Amazonian upbringing on Themyscira.

As New Order’s “Blue Monday” plays in the background, we see Diana having some heart-to-heart girl talk with Wiig’s Minerva about long-lost loves and a glimpse of an old photograph of Steve Trevor. “My life hasn’t been what you probably think it has,” Diana tells Barbara. “We all have our struggles.” Then trouble breaks out at a local supermall, and Diana intervenes to restore order. Inside the mall there are walls of TVs that just happen to be showing Maxwell Lord giving a motivational pitch. “Life is good but it can be better,” he says. “All you need is to want it. Think about finally having everything you always wanted.”

Lord has had various incarnations in the comics, including one where he had supernatural powers of persuasion. It’s unclear from the trailer what, if any, powers he displays in this film, but there are hints he might play some role in the miraculous reappearance of Steve while Diana is attending a gala. We see Diana and Steve’s emotional reunion, and then a shot of Lord declaring he will now take what he wants in return.

The rest of the trailer is a series of action shots as Diana and Steve work together once again to thwart whatever evil plan is threatening the day—including flashbacks to a young Diana competing in an Amazonian tournament, and a glorious shot of Diana’s iconic golden armor. But we don’t get to see Wiig in full Cheetah mode, which is a shame.

Wonder Woman 1984 hits theaters June 5, 2020. If it’s as successful as its predecessor, we can probably expect a third Wonder Woman film. Jenkins told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this year she has already mapped out the plot for a third installment, in a more contemporary setting.

Listing image by YouTube/Warner Bros

A nebbishy bank teller discovers he’s trapped in a video game in Free Guy

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Ryan Reynolds stars in Free Guy.

A lowly bank teller discovers he’s actually a non playable character in an open-world video game in Free Guy, a forthcoming film from 20th Century Fox. Director Shawn Levy debuted the first trailer this weekend at the 2019 Comic Con Experience (CCXP) in Sao Paulo, Brazil, describing it as “a superhero origin story except without the tights, powers, or pre-existing IP,” according to Deadline Hollywood. Stars Ryan Reynolds and Joe Keery (Steve Harrington on Stranger Things) were also on hand for the event.

Per the official synopsis, Free Guy is about “a bank teller who discovers he is actually a background player in an open-world video game, decides to become the hero of his own story…one he rewrites himself. Now in a world where there are no limits, he is determined to be the guy who saves his world his way…before it is too late.”

The trailer opens with cheery bank teller Guy (Reynolds) waking up and heading to work. He remains completely unfazed as he encounters all manner of bizarre occurrences en route: shootouts, explosions, a guy with a flame-thrower, and his pal Joe getting thrown through a storefront window. (“Whoa-ho! Mondays! Amirite, Joe?”)

Guy’s bank gets robbed every day, but this particular day, he decides to fight back, “killing” one of the robbers (“He’s just resting”) and taking possession of the dead man’s glasses. When he walks out of the bank and puts on the glasses, his perspective shifts dramatically: he sees the “world” as it really is—one elaborate video game. The bank heist is just one of the “missions” players undertake in the course of the game.

Guy picks up the ground rules governing the game pretty quickly, starting with a “first aid” token that heals his broken nose. “Is this what recreational drugs feels like?” he asks a random motorist. He also finds an ally in Milly, aka Molotov Girl (Killing Eve‘s Jodie Comer), who is able to move in and out of the game at will. Meanwhile, game developer Antoine (Taika Waititi) has plans to shut the game down, against the objections of a programmer, Keys (Keery). Keys and Milly created the code that resulted in Guy—who is supposed to be a non playable background character—becoming aware of his virtual environment.

At CCXP,  Reynolds described the film as “a modern-day Back to the Future for this generation.” Tonally, I get the comparison, but Free Guy also has recognizable elements from Westworld, The Matrix, Wreck It Ralph, and even the Deadpool movies. “It’s not just spectacle — it’s very much connected to the characters,” Levy said. “It’s the rise of an idealist in a world that is very cynical and dark.” That should make it the perfect vehicle for Reynolds’ sweetly acerbic irreverence.

Free Guy will hit theaters July 3, 2020.

Listing image by YouTube/20th Century Fox

The Aeronauts brings the joy and perils of Victorian ballooning to vivid life

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star in <em>The Aeronauts</em>

Enlarge / Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones star in The Aeronauts

Just in time for the holiday season, Amazon Studios has released The Aeronauts, a soaring historical adventure film about the perils faced by a Victorian scientist and a balloonist attempting to fly higher than anyone before them. Granted, the characters might be a bit thinly drawn when it comes to emotional depth, and the earth-bound first act is solid, if unremarkable, period drama. However, once the film (literally) gets off the ground, it blossoms into a gripping, thoroughly entertaining epic tale of survival at punishing altitudes. Above all, the film looks spectacular; every frame is practically a canvas, painted in vibrant, almost Disney-esque hues.

(Some spoilers below.)

The Aeronauts is a fictionalized account of a historic balloon flight by pioneering meteorologist James Glaisher. He and his pilot, Henry Coxwell, made several balloon flights to measure the temperature and humidity of the upper atmosphere between 1862 and 1866. Armed with scientific instruments and bottles of brandy, Glaisher and Coxwell set a world-altitude record, reaching an estimated 38,999 feet (11,887 meters) on September 5, 1862. They were the first men to reach the atmospheric stratosphere, and they did it without the benefit of oxygen tanks, pressure suits, or a pressurized cabin.

During the flight, the men released pigeons at various altitudes to see how well they flew, recalling that those released above the three-mile mark “dropped like a stone.” They would have continued rising and likely died because the valving rope Coxwell needed to manipulate to begin their descent got tangled up with the balloon net. Coxwell had to climb out of the basket and up into the rigging to release the valve with his teeth—his hands were badly frostbitten—in order to begin their descent. By then, Glaisher had passed out. Eventually, the men landed safely (if a bit roughly) about 20 miles from their original launch point.

The film version recreates many of those elements, but while Glaisher is a primary character (played by Eddie Redmayne of The Theory of Everything) in The Aeronauts, writer/director Tom Harper opted to replace Coxwell with a fictional female character, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones, also of The Theory of Everything). It opens with a frustrated Glaisher trying in vain to convince his scientific colleagues of the potential of ballooning to enable better study of Earth’s atmosphere, resulting in more accurate weather prediction. Meanwhile, a widowed Amelia is facing pressure from her mother and sister to remarry and leave her ballooning adventures with her late husband behind her. When Glaisher offers Amelia a job piloting a balloon higher than anyone has attempted before, she is initially reluctant, but then accepts. They end up facing far more peril than they bargained for.

Up, up, and away

Harper wanted his sky-borne scenes to be as authentic as possible. These were by far the most challenging aspect of the production, since he wanted to shoot his actors in an actual balloon at 2,000 feet. According to co-producer Todd Lieberman, that involved finding someone willing and able to build an 80-foot helium-filled (as opposed to a hot air) balloon—and someone willing and able to fly it. A company called Flying Pictures, headed by Colin Prescot, obliged. Prescot also brought renowned Swedish aeronaut Per Lindstrand aboard to pilot the balloon. (Lindstrand famously made a series of transoceanic hot-air balloon flights in partnership with Sir Richard Branson.)

“I think a balloon of this kind hadn’t been built in over four decades, and this might be the first replica of a period balloon of that era ever built,” said Lieberman.

Every crew member went up in a balloon just to experience what it was like, and Felicity Jones went to Germany for gas-balloon flight training (as well as acrobatics) to prepare for her role as Amelia. For the actual filming at altitude, the pilot crouched low in the basket while cameras mounted on helicopters and drones captured the action. That really is Jones climbing up and sitting on the balloon’s hoop, although she wore a protective harness that was subsequently removed in post-production. As for the scene where Amelia must climb up the side of the ice-encrusted balloon—a stuntwoman actually performed that feat at altitude, with close-ups and other footage for the scene filmed on a sound stage outfitted with a 180-foot crane.

“The hardest part of these ballooning expeditions, we learned, is landing them,” said Lieberman. “The wind dictates where the balloon goes.” The crew relied on WhatsApp group chats and chase vehicles to follow the balloon’s path while it was making its descent to figure out where it was likely to land. “It was a less-than-ideal landing, to say the least, but we got them down safely,” said Lieberman.

“The hardest part of these ballooning expeditions, we learned, is landing them.”

While it wasn’t possible to film at 37,000 feet, the filmmakers went to great lengths to replicate those conditions on set. Redmayne spent some time in an oxygen-deprivation tank to get a feel for the effects of hypoxia. And when shooting the scenes when the balloon was freezing over, part of the set was cooled down to below freezing, while Redmayne and Jones would plunge their hands into buckets of ice before scenes.

“Not only were they acting as if they were freezing,” said Leiberman, “they actually were freezing.”

An amalgamation of history

The Aeronauts takes pains with regard to historical accuracy, although as Lieberman noted, “We weren’t making a documentary.” While Glaisher and Coxwell’s historic feat provided the basis for the main story, many other details of the fictionalized flight were taken from a book of historical ballooning accounts called Falling Upwards by Richard Holmes. Intrepid aeronauts of the past really did make a parachute of the balloon and witness butterflies at surprisingly high altitudes. And per Lieberman, an aeronaut named Charles Green—inventor of the trail rope as an aid to steering and landing a balloon, among other accomplishments—really did summit the side of a balloon, albeit at a lower altitude than is portrayed in the film.

The decision to replace Coxwell with the fictionalized Amelia proved controversial. Tthe Royal Society’s head of library, Keith Moore, told The Daily Telegraph last year, “It’s a great shame that Henry isn’t portrayed because he performed very well and saved the life of a leading scientist,” adding that he wished the film had chosen to include one of the “many deserving female scientists of the period.”

Amelia was actually inspired by several historical female aeronauts, most notably Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to find work as a professional balloonist when her balloonist husband, Jean-Pierre, died. (The account of Amelia’s husband’s death in the film was inspired by the real demise of aviator Thomas Harris in 1824.) The flamboyant couple used dogs at their launches, as portrayed in the film, and often set off fireworks. In fact, that’s how Blanchard died in 1819: during an ascent, one of the fireworks set the balloon on fire. British aeronaut Margaret Graham and American aviator Amelia Earhart were also influential as Harper was developing the character.

“The idea of two scientists sitting in a basket going up and down who shared the same basic outlook on life didn’t hold much tension,” said Lieberman. “So we decided to do an amalgamation: take the best of these different flights from the time period and find a counterpoint to James Glaisher.”

Glaisher really did struggle to raise funding for his expeditions from the Royal Society. His eventual success resulted in his becoming president of the newly formed Royal Meteorological Society just five years after his historic flight with Coxwell. In the end, The Aeronauts is an uplifting story, both literally and figuratively—just as the filmmakers intended.

The Aeronauts is now playing in theaters.

Review: Horrified is a terrific family-friendly monster-themed board game

Review: Horrified is a terrific family-friendly monster-themed board game

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

Some folks use “family game” as a pejorative. Not me. For one thing, I happen to like my family. More importantly, as a player and critic of board games, it is my holy duty to introduce as many games as possible to my family. In the cardboard eschaton, all games shall be family games, because families will play anything and everything together.

With that very important disclaimer out of the way, it’s now time to announce that Prospero Hall’s Horrified is my favorite family game of the year.

Better than Pandemic?

Let me rag on a game that I happen to respect for a minute.

My hang-up with the popular co-op disease-fighting game Pandemic is that it’s always making things harder for its players. To some degree, that’s a surefire formula for a cooperative game, and Pandemic should know; it set the standard for the genre. Every turn you can fix one problem, maybe two, but three new problems spill onto the board. Before long, the game board can look like an overwhelming pile of disease cubes.

But Horrified takes that formula by the neck and gives it a good wringing. The result feels familiar—but the game rewards its players rather than constantly punishing them. In Horrified, you’re the cure, not merely the treatment.

Welcome to the world’s most unfortunate town

Imagine living in a town that’s already hemorrhaging citizens to Dracula when the Creature from the Black Lagoon wades up and starts snacking on picnickers. Also, the Invisible Man is peeping on everybody’s significant other, Frankenstein’s Monster keeps strangling bystanders, the Wolf Man has been fetching femurs that are still attached to their owners, and the Mummy is smashing records for biggest box office flops.

That’s Horrified in a nutshell. Two or three classic monsters are all terrorizing your town at the same time, and it’s your task to defeat, seal away, or cure them before they murder too many of your neighbors. It’s a bad, bad place to live—but at least houses are affordable.

The turn-by-turn procedure here will be familiar to anyone who’s played a cooperative game in the vein of Pandemic. Everyone has their own character, complete with some minor power that defines how they play, like teleporting to a friend’s location or gathering objects from afar. With only a handful of actions, you move about town, collecting items and ushering bystanders safely to their destinations. The danger is that nearby monsters might activate in between each player’s turn. Rather than being inevitable, these appearances are governed by a separate deck. Sometimes a monster will remain stationary, dormant but dangerous. Other times it will sprint across multiple spaces to maul somebody—or even spring special abilities on you.

These monsters are what make Horrified special. They’re each billed as unique, with their own behaviors and means of defeat. In practice, though, some of their traits are closer than they ought to be; expect to see plenty of goals that require you to spend matching items in the monster’s space. But for every disappointing objective, there are two made of sterner stuff. In the midst of gathering items and fleeing from the shadows, you might take a detour to hunt through the swamp to solve a hieroglyphic puzzle at the museum or to prevent Frankenstein’s Monster from reuniting with his Bride, at least until you’ve prepared the perfect first date. The real test is when these challenges are combined. Breaking all of Dracula’s coffins isn’t hard, but braving those hidden vampire lairs while you’re being robbed blind by the Invisible Man and staying far away from the Wolf Man? That’s when things get interesting.

A campy horror yarn for the whole family

The appeal of Horrified is that it’s every bit as easy to explain to newcomers as what I’ve written above. Easier, really. Among experienced players, it might even seem too simple, with only a handful of actions to select from. But everything about it, from its crisp interface to the transparency of its board state, is designed to lure in the unsuspecting.

Consider how campy it is. Rather than shooting for horror, it’s “scary” the way a bad throwback movie is scary, with unconvincing rubber body suits and stilted acting by performers who plainly believe they’re cut out for Broadway instead of this moving picture fad. The colors are bright, and the monster miniatures are posed with exaggerated goofiness. But it’s a trick. Twenty minutes later, you’re sweating the proximity of the Creature to some pedestrians and wondering if you can return those scrolls to the museum in time.

In other words, this game is entirely possible to lose. All those deaths gradually add up, whether they are your own or those of the cardboard townsfolk cowering on the table. Lose too many people and the monsters win. But each loss feels more immediate than a disease cube could ever be. That masticated villager wasn’t a statistic; he was Fritz the Hunchback, at home in the tower but trying to reach the institute for safety. I didn’t quite grasp this until my sister smacked the table in frustration when we lost a villager we’d been guiding across town. By giving those cardboard cutouts a name and a goal, Prospero Hall has made them a little bit more human. Our brains are weird like that.

Not that I should be surprised. Prospero Hall has been doing some great work these past few years, including the board game adaptation of Jaws from earlier this year, and each release only grows more assured and more personal. Horrified continues that tradition. It’s the sort of game you can take to dinner with your extended family. Better yet, it’s one of those rare games everyone will be able to dig into.

Halo Reach on PC is the customizable combat we’ve been wanting—but just barely

Back into <em>Reach</em>. This time, on Windows PC.

Enlarge / Back into Reach. This time, on Windows PC.
Xbox Game Studios

Years of teases and waiting have finally ended with this: Halo is back on PC in officially supported fashion.

In particular, this week’s launch of 2011’s Halo Reach on Windows PC is fascinating because of how it compares to the last time Microsoft tried the Halo-on-PC thing. Rewind to 2007, and Microsoft shoved out a Halo 2 port that required both Games For Windows Live and Windows Vista to run—and shipped in mod-unfriendly fashion. It received nary a patch or useful update and left diehard fans scrambling to patch it into decent shape.

Compare that to Halo Reach, which is still a Windows-only game but works on any Microsoft OS from Windows 7 and up and can be purchased either on the Windows Store or Steam. If you pay for Xbox Game Pass on PCs, you get it day-and-date via Windows Store. If you buy it on Steam, meanwhile, you get one heckuva cool option already: total mod support. Simply pick the game’s “cheat detection disabled” option upon boot and you can fiddle with every relevant file (within a “friends-only” online sandbox, which is fair enough).

In spite of some imperfections at launch, Halo Reach‘s PC version is already a testament to a new attitude at Microsoft about PC gaming. (Since Halo Reach is pretty well known, this article focuses squarely on what’s new or different in this PC port.)

There’s a lot of good news, so we’ll start with the bad

For one, Reach has arrived on Windows PCs by itself, which may surprise anyone who sees that it’s part of the Halo: Master Chief Collection—as in the 2014 anthology that landed on Xbox One in 2015 with a crushing, bug-filled thud (but was eventually patched to a pretty shining state, complete with Xbox One X support). Why is this anthology only one game strong on PC, when it’s up to six games on Xbox One consoles?

Xbox Game Studios has made clear that this piecemeal launch on PC is intentional. Instead of dumping multiple games onto Windows PCs simultaneously, the MCC team at 343 Industries is trying to nail one Halo port at a time—and some wonky issues upon Reach‘s launch confirm they’re going the right route. [Update: To clarify, as of press time, fans can either buy Halo Reach by itself for $10 or the complete MCC for $40. The latter will include all other MCC games as they launch, one at a time, over the next year-plus.]

A litany of sound-mixing bugs currently curse every mode in the game, which I was able to replicate by simply playing the campaign, versus, and “Firefight” gauntlet modes. Sometimes, the sound mix goes all over the map, with volume levels surging or plummeting for various elements (speech, music, sound effects) with no rhyme or reason.

There’s also an overly touchy anti-cheat detection system at launch, which punted me from all public matchmaking after only playing one match. A quick perusal of Halo Waypoint, the series’ official forums, suggested I turn off the app that manages my Razer peripherals’ backlit buttons, but this only temporarily fixed my problem. 343i eventually posted an official suggestion that affected players pick the “verify files” option in Steam, which forced a 2GB download (the whole package is roughly 20GB) and got me back online safe and sound ever since. But that suggestion only came via Halo Waypoint, not as an in-game “news feed” update, which could leave less vigilant players wholly offline and annoyed.

And for a customization-hungry crowd like PC players, Halo Reach is currently slight in the options department. Most glaring of all is a lack of discrete visual toggles. You can’t go into the game and pick out levels of anti-aliasing, texture size, ambient occlusion, or even a toggle for bloom lighting effects. The only toggle is “original” or “enhanced” for graphics, and A/B testing of screens in various campaign moments implies that there’s only one change to the “enhanced” half: a more generous level-of-detail (LOD) setting so that distant objects like foliage and certain buildings appear more detailed. And it’s incredibly subtle stuff.

As a personal nitpick: though Halo Reach on Xbox One consoles includes support for split-screen modes, its PC counterpart does not. It’s a glaring omission for a series whose chief Bonnie Ross previously announced that, going forward, all Halo shooters would come with split-screen options by default. I prefer to connect my PC to my living room TV for split-screen gaming whenever possible. In an official statement, a 343i representative told Ars that the team is “investigating possibilities” for split-screen play on PC but wouldn’t confirm anything further than that.

The “burp-talking” in Rick and Morty isn’t as meaningless as you might think

Constant burping is one of the defining features of mad scientist Rick Sanchez on <em>Rick and Morty</em>.

Enlarge / Constant burping is one of the defining features of mad scientist Rick Sanchez on Rick and Morty.
Adult Swim/Comedy Central

Eccentric mad scientist Rick Sanchez, of Rick and Morty fame, is as notorious for his constant mid-speech belching as he is for his brilliantly eccentric inventions—and for routinely dragging grandson Morty into highly dangerous situations. Now, paralinguistic researcher Brooke Kidner of the University of Southern California has made the first acoustical analysis of Rick’s unique speech patterns. She described her work at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America this week in San Diego.

“Paralinguistics have been shown to carry significant meaning when inserted into conversation, and being able to understand the meanings of these less common sounds can lead to a greater understanding of natural language processing,” Kidner said at a press conference.

Kidner’s unusual study began with a phonetics seminar course at USC, focusing on non-speech sounds that occur in human speech—groans, gasps, sighs, the infamous “Loser!” sneeze, and so forth—and how we attribute meaning to them (sarcasm, for instance). The instructor noted that burps were an example of non-speech sounds with no meaning. Kidner brought up Rick Sanchez’s constant mid-sentence burps in Rick and Morty as a counter-argument, and the instructor encouraged her to investigate further.

Such sounds are technically known as paralanguage (or vocalics), a field pioneered back in the 1950s by George L. Trager, a linguist who worked in the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. Trager was one of the first to acoustically analyze paralinguistic sounds, producing detailed representations for several, including belching. “He acknowledged that belching is a sound that can be talked through,” Kidner said. “You can still move the articulators in your mouth to try and make an ‘L’ or ‘T’ sound, although it’s easier with vowel sounds.” In other words, you can keep talking mid-burp.

That’s the hallmark of Rick’s speech patterns (“burp-talking”) on Rick and Morty—possible due to alcoholic gastritis, according to one theory, since the character drinks a lot. Series co-creator Justin Roiland voices both main characters and has said that the tic started when he burped accidentally while recording voices for an animated short satirizing Back to the Future. When Rick and Morty was in development, he adapted the burping to Rick’s character, although it took a bit of trial and error before the creators realized the optimal BPM (burps per minute) for that first season. Roiland is not a natural-born belcher, however. “I can’t burp on command,” he told Vice in 2015. “I have to sit there with a low-calorie beer and a bottle of water and blow air into my stomach. It’s disgusting.”

Some Stadia games cost more than their downloadable counterparts

Since back in June, Google has been telling us that the publisher-set prices for games on its Stadia streaming service would be “competitive… to what you would see on other platforms.” While that’s been true of the vast majority of games on the service, fans were surprised to find a Stadia price premium for yesterday’s launch of Darksiders Genesis.

The new action-adventure title is currently on sale for $40 on Stadia, compared to a $30 price on other PC platforms (including Steam, GOG, and the Humble Store). Steam players could get an even better deal with a pre-order price of $25.50 for the game. Console versions, which aren’t due until next February, are currently listed at the higher $40 price point on various digital and retail storefronts.

A spokesperson for THQ told Polygon that “THQ doesn’t comment on their price policy.”

While most titles sell for the same price on Stadia and other platforms, there are a few others that currently see a streaming price premium. Just Dance 2020 goes for $50 on the service, compared to $40 on modern consoles (the Wii version has already been reduced to $30 at many retailers). Grid is currently available for $27 as part of a Steam “supersale,” down from the $60 standard price on Stadia (the “Ultimate Edition” of the game is $5 cheaper on Steam even without discounts). And the Platinum Edition of Farming Simulator 19 sold for $40 on Stadia, compared to a $25 to $35 Steam price, before Google added the game to December’s Stadia Pro freebies (and offered refunds to early purchasers).

But there are deals to be had on Stadia, too. Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration sells for just $30 on the streaming service compared to $60 currently on Steam. Games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Mortal Kombat 11, and Final Fantasy XV were briefly offered at steep discounts for Stadia Pro subscribers when the service launched (those discounts are inactive as of this writing, though. A Google spokesperson said there’s no set length for how long further “frequent” Stadia Pro deals will last going forward). And a $10/month Stadia Pro subscription (which is still the only way to access the service) also provides access to up to four free titles on Stadia.

Listing image by Kyle Orland

The full trailer for Disney’s live-action Mulan is here, and it’s breathtaking

[embedded content]
Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei stars in Disney’s live-action Mulan.

Disney has released the full trailer for Mulan, the studio’s live-action remake of its own 1998 animated film. When the first teaser dropped in July, I noted that, while I’m not a huge fan of Disney’s live-action remakes, “this is an effective, sumptuously eye-catching teaser for Mulan.” This latest trailer cements that assessment. It looks gorgeous, very much in the style of a period war drama, and its rumored $300 million production budget shows in every breathtaking shot.

Both films are based on the Chinese legend “The Ballad of Hua Mulan,” which tells the story of a young woman in the Northern Wei era (spanning 386-536 CE) who takes her father’s place when each family is required to provide one male to serve in the emperor’s army. In this version, Hua Mulan is already a well-trained fighter, and she serves for 12 years, with none of her fellow soldiers ever suspecting her true gender.

Disney’s animated film broadly followed the traditional storyline, except Mulan is not well-trained when she first runs away. The film also added a love interest, a goofy dragon representative of the family ancestors named Mushu (hilariously voiced by Eddie Murphy), and a catchy original soundtrack. Mulan was released to critical acclaim, grossing $304 million worldwide and earning Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. In other words, while it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, it was popular enough to merit a spot on the roster of Disney’s ongoing live-action remakes.

This new live-action version, directed by Niki Caro, also preserves the traditional storyline and several elements of the original film. The matchmaker has just found the free-spirited Hua Mulan (Liu Yifei) a suitable match, and Mulan dutifully tries to learn the arts associated with being the perfect Chinese wife—while secretly practicing martial arts. She’s far better at the latter.

When her famed war veteran father Hua Zhou (Tzi Ma), who has no sons, is conscripted into the Emperor’s army to help ward off Northern invaders led by Böri Khan (Jason Scott Lee), she disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place. Mulan also has a younger sister, Hua Xiu (Xana Tang) in the live-action version, which also includes a new Khan ally: a witch named Xianniang (Gong Li) who can shapeshift into a hawk form.

This new trailer opens with Hua Zhou lecturing his daughter on the importance of being a good Chinese wife. “Do you know why the phoenix sits at the right hand of the emperor?” he says. “She is his guardian. His protector. She is both beautiful and strong. Your job is to bring honor to the family. Do you think you can do that?” We see Khan’s horde in action, leaping up walls and leaving no survivors, and several dramatic shots of the witch Xianniang, who is quite a formidable fighter herself. And we see Mulan running off in the middle of the night to take her father’s place: “It is my duty to protect my family.”

Listing image by YouTube/Disney

Radiolab co-host to depart podcast after 15 years

Robert Krulwich, left, is departing <em>Radiolab</em> after co-hosting the radio series for 15 years with Jad Abumrad, right.

Robert Krulwich, left, is departing Radiolab after co-hosting the radio series for 15 years with Jad Abumrad, right.
Jad Abumrad / WNYC

Radiolab, the WNYC radio show that became the pop-science cornerstone of most podcast directories throughout the 2010s, announced a major shakeup on Thursday to fans via its official newsletter. Longtime co-host Robert Krulwich will soon leave the show, with his announcement hinting to only a pair of episodes left before he moves on to other independent projects.

In his not-quite-goodbye to fans, Krulwich appears to declare that the series’ producers and staff have succeeded in the mission he’d begun with the series years ago: to create a pipeline (a self-perpetuating one, arguably) for compelling science-based radio accessible to new audiences. After the show caught on with radio listeners nationwide, “the next question we asked ourselves is what’s Radiolab to become, other than the two of us delighting each other?” Krulwich writes. “The answer came literally through the door as one wonderfully talented person after another came and joined us until we now have pretty much the strongest bench in the business, a gang of people who, in their very different ways, have learned to tell stories that grab audiences, sort of like we did but more and more in their own voices with their own musics and their own styles.”

Krulwich then describes a moment from roughly a year ago where it dawned upon him that his time at Radiolab was drawing to a close:

I was sitting in an editorial meeting and it dawned on me (and this was both a pleasant and not-so-pleasant feeling) that I was no longer crucial to what was going on. The room was rich with back and forth, ideas percolating, and if I had tiptoed out, the place would be every bit as vivid as if I’d stayed. I’m not being overly modest here. I was crucial for a long time, but in a healthy system, you make way for the new, the fresh, the untested. From the beginning I’ve been the oldest, 25 years older than Jad who is now almost 20 years older than our youngest reporters. There comes a time—and I think it has come—when you get out of the way and let the future come flooding in. We have a flood of people who are ready to step up and that they came to us, chose us, that we got to teach them what we knew with Jad and Soren and Suzie guiding them—that, I’m now thinking, may be our grandest achievement—that what we started just might endure with different voices, different forms, but true to the idea that complexity can be delicious.

No end date has been announced, with Krulwich hinting to one episode being finalized for “next week” and an eventual super-sized episode about “a world population puzzle” as his remaining Radiolab duties. From there, Krulwich says he’ll work on “new projects, a documentary, a global warming interactive, and more grandpa duty.” The announcement comes with a separate letter from series creator Jad Abumrad, which shows he’s not ready for a complete goodbye: “Radiolab won’t ever really let Robert go. You will still hear him on the show from time to time (that’s how much we love him), and you’ll most certainly hear his influence—his unbridled curiosity and wonder—in each and every Radiolab story yet to come.”

Krulwich has co-hosted the series since 2004, two years after Abumrad created the series as a weekly WNYC series that rounded up reported stories based on particular themes—though not with the scientific leaning that the series eventually became known for. Much of that was due to Krulwich’s background as a science reporter, which he had previously explored in 1999’s science-themed news miniseries Brave New World—a series that arguably received more attention due to its house band, the nerd-pop icons They Might Be Giants.

A chance encounter between the two reporters, separated by 25 years of age, led to collaborations and radio-show experiments, including a historical rumination about Flag Day submitted to, and declined by, Ira Glass’ This American Life. “It was a special class” of “horrible,” Glass told the co-hosts years later. Undeterred, the duo continued collaborating. Krulwich guested on Radiolab for his first time in 2004, and he became the informal co-host in 2004 before joining the team in earnest in 2005.

Radiolab has since exploded as a podcast phenomenon with a variety of official series offshoots, including the Supreme Court-focused More Perfect and 2019’s fascinating Dolly Parton’s America. The original series, like many other modern podcasts, is also known for live-recording events across the United States, sometimes even with live bands guesting with sonic experiments.

The modders who spent 15 years fixing Knights of the Old Republic 2

Released on December 6, 2004, Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (KOTOR2) was the first game from the then newly formed Obsidian Entertainment. At that time, the new studio was a shoestring operation with just seven veteran developers who had made the move from the recently shuttered Black Isle Studios, all holed up in CEO Feargus Urquhart’s attic. But publisher LucasArts, wanting to capitalize on the success of the original KOTOR from the year before, reportedly gave that threadbare new team just 14 to 16 months to create a sequel.

It’s no surprise that the finished product had some issues.

The most noticeable of these issues at launch might have been the conclusion to the HK-50 factory side quest. Specifically, that conclusion is just nowhere to be found in the final game.

That means players never get to discover the origins of KOTOR2’s most recurring threat. Several files buried in the game’s code reveal content Obsidian made for KOTOR2’s final planet—including dialogue and action set pieces—that the developers just couldn’t get working before launch.

And that’s where 15 years of collective modder obsession comes in…

Putting the pieces back together

When he first started modding KOTOR2 over ten years ago, Zbigniew “zbyl2” Staniewicz had previously been working with the mod toolset for Neverwinter Nights. That meant he already had experience navigating KOTOR2’s engine.

His initial focus was finishing a mod to bring cut planet M4-78 back into the main game. That’s the droid planet where players were supposed to originally find Jedi Master Lonna Vash hiding from the Sith threat stalking Jedi across the galaxy.

Progress on restoring the M4-78 file was halted while Staniewicz was waiting for a writer to return scripts. So he moved on to begin work on what would become the Restored Content Mod.

“Another group that was making a restoration mod was taking years to release anything, and I knew I could have done what they were trying to do much faster,” he recalled. “I met this other guy in the modding community [DarthStoney] that shared my sentiments and we just went for it.”

Originally, Staniewicz and his team planned to fix one planet at a time and release them accordingly as they were completed. Once the team finished working on Nar Shaddaa, however, they decided to keep going and release their work as one large mod encompassing all the cut content.

As development went on, Staniewicz started looking for more people to help get the project across the finish line. A modder named Hassat Hunter was brought in to perform beta testing and eventually began assisting with development. And another modder named VarsityPuppet was brought in to troubleshoot issues with that incomplete HK-50 Factory, putting together the unfinished second half of the mission.

This kind of modding was far from a direct process. Even something as simple as changing the location of an NPC required going into the game, finding the character, writing down the coordinates, then leaving the game and inputting and modifying the coordinates in a modding tool, as Staniewicz described it. But that mod tool gives no indication if the process worked, so the modders had to start the game back up and find the NPC’s new location to see if they had succeeded.

“With what was left in the game files, the dialogue worked, but there was no ending,” Staniewicz explained. So they put the final sequences of the factory mission together to fit the available dialogue from the factory and Malachor V.

After releasing a few versions of the RCM, Staniewicz stepped away from the project while the team was fixing problems with the game’s random loot system, saying he believed he no longer had substantial feedback to offer during the process. The involvement of the other team members meant progress never ground to a halt, though. “If it was just me and Stoney… we probably would have stopped way sooner,” Staniewicz said.

The Restored Content Mod entered open beta in 2009. It has more than 400,000 subscribers on the Steam Workshop.

Putting on a disguise

Not all KOTOR2 mods are so intricate. Effix, who has posted more than 60 mods on Steam since 2010, focuses instead on more cosmetic changes. That can mean everything from changing a companion’s hair color to turning Hanharr, a darkside specific Wookiee companion, into a pink “Care Bear.”

“There was someone who suggested it, and a few others were also on board with the idea or daring me to [make the Care Bear mod],” Effix said. “I don’t think they expected me to make work of it, but to me that was extra funny to turn that idea into an actual mod.”

Other work by Effix includes mods allowing the player to replace their standard human head with alien variants like the ancient Rakatan or dark Darth Malak. “The technical term [for these mods] is ‘disguise’ because that’s the name of the [in-game] item property that lets you take on another appearance,” Effix said. “A lot of things from KOTOR [like disguises] were left in KOTOR2‘s files, even though they might not make an appearance in the game.”

The bulk of Effix’s work, he said, is done through Fred Tetra’s “KOTOR Tool,” a simple utility for editing modules, images, wire models, character appearances, dialogue, and items in the game. Focusing on these elements has helped Effix to retain his enthusiasm for modding the game, he said, as has concentrating on projects that are “fairly bite-sized” when compared to others. “I like doing retextures because I like giving something a new look, and for me it’s pretty straightforward. I’m not that into more complex things like scripts, adding new areas, new 3D models and animations.”

“Making mods for a game that you really enjoy is great fun, so that’s my motivation,” he added. “It’s also satisfying to get positive feedback from people who use your mods and also are passionate about the same game. For me it’s a fun and relaxing hobby. It’s cool to create things and see your creation in a Star Wars game, and I get a lot of positive feedback from the community.”

Listing image by Effix

The next Xbox is in the wild, connecting to current-gen Xbox One players

We'd prefer to use an official image of the console, but we won't have one of those until Xbox chief Phil Spencer invites us over to his house. And, ya know, Ars tech culture editor Sam Machkovech lives down the block in Seattle, so...

Enlarge / We’d prefer to use an official image of the console, but we won’t have one of those until Xbox chief Phil Spencer invites us over to his house. And, ya know, Ars tech culture editor Sam Machkovech lives down the block in Seattle, so… (credit: Xbox)

A late Wednesday post from the leader of Microsoft’s Xbox team, Phil Spencer, confirmed that the first “Project Scarlett” console is officially in the wild, ahead of its late 2020 launch window. And current Xbox One players appear to have already unknowingly connected to it.

“And it’s started,” Spencer posted on his Twitter account on Wednesday. “This week, I brought my Project Scarlett console home and it’s become my primary console, playing my games, connecting to the community and yes, using my Elite Series 2 controller, having a blast.”

Without any extra posts or clarification as of press time, we can only surmise so much from this single statement. But it’s admittedly dense. Primarily, Spencer affirms a few details that he and the Xbox team have previously announced about Project Scarlett, the current codename for the unnamed successor to the Xbox One console.

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Star Trek writer and Hollywood trailblazer D.C. Fontana has died

A serious woman in a suit

Enlarge / Fontana discusses her storied career in an interview. (credit: The Writer’s Guild Foundation)

Dorothy Fontana—one of the most influential writers in Star Trek‘s long history, a renowned teacher and mentor of screenwriters, and a trailblazer for women in Hollywood—passed away in her home in Los Angeles this week at the age of 80, according to a press release from the American Film Institute.

Her numerous Star Trek contributions and roles include story editor on The Original Series and writing credits for several key episodes of The Original Series including the introduction of Spock’s parents and many explorations of Vulcan culture. She also co-wrote The Next Generation pilot “Encounter at Farpoint” with franchise creator Gene Roddenberry, and she had various writing and story roles for Star Trek video games and several individual The Next GenerationDeep Space Nine, and The Animated Series episodes, such as the DS9 episode “Dax,” which established the background of the titular character and her species.

In addition to her work on Star Trek, Fontana wrote episodes of Babylon 5, Bonanza, Dallas, Kung Fu, The Six Million Dollar Man, and many more classic TV series. She was also a member of the board of directors for the Writers Guild of America, and she was most recently employed as a senior lecturer at the American Film Institute, where she taught classes to screenwriters, directors, and producers.

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Amazon’s new fantasy series, Wheel of Time, adds four more cast members

Cover art for the first <em>Wheel of Time</em> novel. Production on the fantasy series began on September 16 of this year.

Cover art for the first Wheel of Time novel. Production on the fantasy series began on September 16 of this year. (credit: Tor Books)

Amazon Studios has announced four new cast members for The Wheel of Time, the long-awaited TV adaptation of the late Robert Jordan‘s bestselling 14-book series of epic fantasy novels, Deadline Hollywood reports. Clearly, Amazon has joined the hunt for the next Game of Thrones, since within the fantasy genre, Jordan’s series is as popular as George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The first season of the TV adaptation started shooting on September 16—coincidentally, the 12th anniversary of Jordan’s death in 2007.

The TV series will center on Moiraine (played by Oscar-nominee Rosamund Pike), a member of a powerful, all-woman organization called the Aes Sedai. (In this world, magic exists, but only certain women can use it—i.e., the members of the Aes Sedai.) She identifies four young people, one of whom could be the reincarnation of a person who, prophecies say, will save or destroy humanity. Together, the youngsters embark on a journey across the world.

As Ars reported earlier this year, the first round of casting included Josha Stradowski as Rand al’Thor, aka The Dragon Reborn, He Who Comes With the Dawn, the Coramoor, Shadowkiller, and who knows how many other monikers. Marcus Rutherford was cast as apprentice blacksmith and dream-walker Perrin Aybara. Zoe Robins plays healer Nynaeve al’Meara, and Madeleine Madden plays the powerful channeler Egwene al’Vere. Finally, Barney Harris was cast as series comic relief Matrim Cauthon.

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The next Bond film: No Time to Die mashes up Aston Martins, Gatling guns

Ahead of this year’s deluge of December film releases, MGM showed up with a trailer for Daniel Craig’s fifth go at the James Bond franchise: No Time to Die, slated to launch in April 2020. From what we can tell, this 2.5-minute clip sure looks like 007 material, with car chases, globe-trotting action, and hints that nobody is to be trusted.

As is to be expected from Bond films, this one sees everybody peeling around in Aston Martin automobiles. The iconic DB5 takes center stage in a chase scene that bookends both halves of the trailer, clearly reinforced to withstand a ridiculous amount of bullets. It also includes a very Bond-ian tweak: a mechanism in the headlamps that can cycle the light bulbs out and a pair of Gatling guns in. Couple that update with Bond’s driving skills in a parking lot and you have quite the 360-degree turret. (Take that, Mandalorian.)

We also see new Bond series co-star Lashana Lynch roll into town in a DB11, which Ars car editor Jonathan Gitlin has personal experience with, along with a hard-to-discern Aston Martin model that Craig reveals by quickly yanking a cover. That model certainly has a 1980s vibe, and we look forward to said car driving very fast in the April 2020 film.

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