Gaming & Culture

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

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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

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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.