Hitman (2016) 2 (2018) is Ready for Disguises and Murder

The all-caps sequel to the all-caps Hitman (2016) is out, Hitman (2016) 2 (2018) is io interactive’s first murder simulator post-expulsion from Square Enix and apparently this iteration has a magic briefcase. It also has all of the missions from the first (2016) game upgraded a bit for people who already owned that. If you don’t, they’ll make them available for a twenty.

There’s a freely-downloadable prologue on Steam for Windows that lets you play those upgraded Hitman (2016)’s campaign missions, if you have access to them, as well as redone training missions from Hitman (2016) that include the new features like vegetation you can hide in.

I loved Hitman (2016) for all its quirks, it’s the best goofy action game where you can dress up and get shot for pulling a fire alarm. Although this game drops the episodic format, Hitman (2016) 2 ( 2018) still includes the scheduled elusive targets that were the reason I returned for many more silly one-off assassinations every month.

PC Gamers’ Phil Savage likes this sequel well enough:

Mumbai is like a better version of 2016 Hitman’s Marrakesh, with large, bustling crowds that border more restricted areas that, crucially, are more enjoyable to traverse. A construction site that doubles as a movie set is a particular standout, with a clever placement of guards that ensures that—even with the right disguise—you’ll need to take a circuitous path or scale the unfinished elevator shaft. A great Hitman level forces you to adapt and respond as you go, and Hitman 2’s environments excel at providing the routes and options needed to adjust your plan on the fly.

Hitman (2016) 2 (2018) is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam for Windows at $60 all the way up to an eye-watering $140 for the ridiculous edition that includes a briefcase with a rubber duck inside.

There was a version of the previous Hitman game for Linux and macOS but I haven’t seen anything promising those ports for this sequel.

Chris Schilling’s Tetris Effect Review

Tetris Effect is out now, here’s part of Chris Schilling’s review:

Tetris has always been an exceptional puzzle game; now, thanks to the efforts of Tetsuya Mizuguchi and developer Resonair, it’s something much more than that. Mizuguchi’s career-long fascination with synaesthesia has given us the likes of Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden – and in the way it turns play into performance, Tetris Effect has at least as much in common with those games as Alexey Pajitnov’s seminal puzzler. The result, not unexpectedly, is extraordinary.

My favorite part of this review, though, is in the list of pros and cons, there’s this con: “Pretty much ruins all other Tetris games”

The only  downside I can see is the PlayStation 4 exclusivity, but it’s the $40 price tag which will be more of a shock to many folks looking at a downloadable puzzle game. There is also a physical disc version, which is more likely to drop in price faster.

Jason Snell’s 2018 MacBook Air and Mac Mini Reviews

Jason Snell has reviewed the 2018 Mac Mini:

Apple has witnessed how the Mac mini has gone from being the best Mac it could build for $499 to one that’s a vital tool for professional and home users in a variety of contexts. And so, after a long time in the wilderness, the Mac mini has at last been updated—the right way. The last time the Mac mini got updated, Apple took away the highest-end configurations. This time, the Mac mini has been built with those many niche uses in mind.

and the 2018 MacBook Air:

Just when we thought it was dead, after several years of essentially no updates, the MacBook Air has returned with a new version that’s clearly inspired by the classic design. It’s been so long since the last major MacBook Air update, in fact, that most of the “new” features on this device are simply a recap of all the changes Apple has made to other Macs the past few years, finally rolled into this one: a new keyboard, Retina display, Force Touch trackpad, Apple-designed T2 processor, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3, “Hey Siri”, and Touch ID.

Surprise! The definitive Mac of the 2010s is going to survive this decade. And while this MacBook Air is dramatically different from previous models in many ways, it’s also got a bunch of familiar touches that make it undeniably a MacBook Air. Like its predecessors, it’s not the computer for everyone… but it will probably be the most popular laptop among the (count ‘em) six models Apple currently offers.

He also has video reviews of both, and it sounds like they’re both good computers, even if they miss out on some features of older models like MagSafe which has saved my laptops many times.

There’s reason to think that Apple’s custom ARM processors, which now outperform many of their Mac computers in some benchmarks, are coming to replace Intel’s chips. These models, and any speed bumps they get in the next few years, might be some of the last Intel-based Apple updates.

Apple Special Event October 2018 Notes

New ipad pros

Last month we had new iPhones, this time Apple has announced a new set of 11″ and 12.9″ iPad Pros, a new Mac Mini, and a new Retina-blessed MacBook Air. This event was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in New York City.

Tim Cook started out the show by talking about what creative people do with the Mac. A montage played of various well-known folks starting at their Mac laptop screens, notably included were Lin Manuel-Miranda, Paul McCartney, Kermit the Frog, U2, teachers, photographers, and many other people.

The 2018 MacBook Air

Apple’s laptop situation isn’t great. Earlier this year they released new 2018 MacBook Pros that may have allieviated some of the issues with the reliability of 2016/2017 model keyboards. At the same time they also acknowledged the issue and offered extended repairs for three years for anyone who bought those devices.

Last week, the only laptop Apple sold with USB type-A ports was the MacBook Air. It was oddly placed in the product line, because it was actually heavier than some of the other laptop models and was their only device with a screen that wasn’t high-enough of a resolution to be deemed Retina.

Still, starting at $1000, the MacBook Air appeared to be something Apple wanted to keep around way past the due date. They’ve updated it over time with small updates, but Apple has never done a significant redesign of the Air’s body style since it shipped in 2009. This 2018 MacBook Air update is long overdue.

Cook introduced the new Air with this video before handing the device’s introduction off to Apple’s VP of Engineering, Laura Legros:

Finally, finally, the MacBook Air, 2018, has a Retina screen. It also has Touch ID authentication through a single dedicated spot on the keyboard (without the Pro’s Touch Bar,) two USB Type-C connectors with Thunderbolt 3, a new keyboard, Hey Siri hotword detection, and an entirely new body with much thinner bezels around the 13.3″ screen.

Legros said that this was the “greenest Mac Ever” with 100% recycled aluminum, and then introduced this video:

This Air is also more expensive, starting at $1,200 for the base model with 8GB of RAM, a paltry 128GB SSD, and a 1.6 GHz dual-core i5 that can boost to 3.6 Ghz.

If you want 16 gigs of RAM and a 512GB SSD you’re looking at an $1800 MacBook Air. There is even a 1.5TB SSD option that brings the price up to $2,600!

Yow. Legros called this “…the most affordable Retina Mac we’ve ever offered.”

My impression is that this is the laptop that Apple wants to compete with the new 2018 iPad Pro for the future of labor and entertainment.

The 2018 MacBook Air can be purchased online now, or it’ll be in stores on the 7th of November.

The 2017 Air is still for sale, if you want Type-A USB ports and a non-Retina screen at a lower $1000 price.

If I needed to replace my MacBook Pro and wasn’t onboard with the XCode-less iPad, I’d get this Air in a second.

The 2018 Mac Mini

Speaking of overdue updates, it has been four years since the Mac Mini was last updated.

Cook came back out to introduce the 2018 Mac Mini with this sci-fi trailer:

After the video Tom Boger, Apple’s head of Mac Marketing walked onstage to talk about this updated Mini.

Boger specified that the new Mini doesn’t use “mobile parts” but didn’t call the CPU a desktop processor. It’s a 3.6Ghz Quad-Core processor to start.

Spinning disk options are gone in favor of SSD’s, internally. The external design is extremely similar to the old Mac Mini except Apple in 2018 is attacking the the port situation differently. The 2018 Mac Mini has just two USB 3 type-A ports, one HDMI 2.0, four USB type-C (Thunderbolt 3) ports, one ethernet port, and one”3.5 mm headphone” jack that looks particularly awkward to access between and just below the USB Type-A ports as reader basscomm points out.

Just like the Air, you can order a Mini today and they’ll be generally available on the 7th. They start at $800, the configuration I’d go with is the 3.2GHz i7 with 16 GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. That configuration is $1700.

The most expensive configuration you could do is the same CPU with 64GB of RAM, 2TB of SSD, 10 Gigabyte ethernet instead of Gigabit, and that is $4,200!

Yow.

The cheapest iMac Pro is $800 more at $5000, but it starts with a much more reasonable 32GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD. That is a machine that could last ten years or more.

This mini is also supposed to be made of 100% recycled aluminum.

Retail Updates

Angela Ahrendts spoke about retail Apple Stores, and specifically the Today at Apple series of classes for people to learn how to create with Apple devices. Ahrendts introduced new classes, and talked about the renewable energy resources that power the stores.

The 2018 iPad Pro 11″ and 12.9″

Cook returned to talk about iPad sales, and showed this chart to demonstrate how Apple had sold more iPads in 2017 than “…the entire notebook lineup of all of the biggest notebook manufacturers.” Look at this chart, it has one notable exception missing from it:

More ipads than notebooks

Cook went on to boast that “…this makes iPad not only the most popular tablet, but the most popular computer in the world.”

Heavily rumored, and now proven to be correct, there is a new iPad Pro in two sizes: 11″ and 12.9″. They have no lightning ports, instead there is one USB Type-C port and a new “Smart Connector” that works with a new Apple keyboard case as well as a new Pencil stylus. Here’s the video that Cook used to introduce the new iPad:

The new iPad Pro tablets have a much smaller bezel, with Face ID that works in both landscape and portrait orientations. Just like the iPhone X, XS, and XS Max, the home button has been replaced with gestures. The new iPad Pro still has an LCD screen, but it also has curved edges like the iPhone XR. Apple’s John Ternus reintroduced this concept, again calling it Liquid Retina.

The 11″ iPad Pro has the same physical width and height as the old 10.5″ garbage iPad Pro that can now be safely disposed of in the nearest fire before you upgrade. The 12.9″ iPad Pro is a smaller package than the old 12.9″, because of the edge-to-edge-ish design of the new Pro’s. The new 12.9″ iPad Pro is also a full millimeter thinner than the older 12.9″ design.

Both new iPad Pros have a look on the sides that resembles my favorite iPhone design, the 4S’s solid edges. They also both have an A12X system-on-a-chip instead of the A10X that last year’s design had.

The AnnX chips are supposed to focus on graphics performance, Ternus compared the new iPad to the equivilent of a portable Xbox One S.

Dropping the lightning port for USB type-C allows the iPad Pro to connect to other USB devices and external displays. No support was expressed for USB peripherals like mice, keyboards, or external storage options. Instead, it was demonstrated almost solely as a camera connector and for charging your iPhone which still ships with a type-A cable that can’t plug into any of the current generation of Apple laptops.

The Pencil stylus is particularly interesting, it magnetically anchors to the side of the iPad Pro and it also has contact charging. The 2018 Pencil has a new action accessible by double-tapping its side. The new Apple Pencil stylus is $130.

I’m curious about the usability of Apple’s new folio keyboard for the iPad Pro. They specifically called out that it could switch between two angles. One for use at a desk, and one for use on your lap. That functionality is exactly what I’ve been looking at third-party keyboards for, replacing all laptop usage scenarios. The new iPad Pro Smart Keyboard Folio is $180 for the 11″ iPad Pro, and $200 for the 12.9″. That is a lot. To compare, the Brydge keyboard that turns the 2017 iPad Pro 12.9″ into a clamshell-style laptop while supportting way more angles of operation is $150.

Apple showed off a free-to-play game from Ubisoft called Assassin’s Creed Rebellion and said it was at 120 frames-per-second. Then they said that it was something that “no console could deliver.” That is sort of true in the sense that the game looks like Ubisoft’s take on Fallout Shelter and TV displays don’t really exist to take advantage of higher frame-rates from consoles as far as I know.

Greg Thomas from Take Two’s 2k Sports division talked about NBA 2k Mobile on the new iPad Pro while his underling demonstrated it. Thomas said it runs at 60 fps at the full retina resolution with no upscaling, it didn’t look that great to me.

Adobe’s VP of design Jamie Myrold and Chantelle (no last name or title given) demonstrated the new version of Photoshop, they repeatedly insisted that this was “the real Photoshop” on the new iPad. It isn’t available yet, but it was clearly frustrating to work with for an on-stage demonstration. Chantelle eventually swapped the same image she was working on to an augmented reality experience with depth between the layers in a separate program they’re calling “Project Arrow.” Both products are supposed to be available in 2019.

Phil Schiller narrated this other video introducing the new iPad Pro tablets:

If I were going to swap my laptop for an iPad I would get a Mac Mini to handle the desktop computing tasks that the iPad can’t.

The new iPad Pro’s are up for order today with general availability on the 7th.

 

Guess where all the recycled aluminum for the Macs comes from? The runoff from iPads and iPhones. As a Philadelphian I will now refer to these new Macs made with recycled aluminum as “Scrapple Macs.”

Overall

I’m disappointed that the Macs on display here have 128GB SSDs by default. I believe that many people will need more storage, and then they’ll have to use an external disk.

Apple’s folks talked up the capabilities of the new MacBook Air for expansion through devices like external GPU kits to bring actual graphics acceleration capabilities, those external enclosures are expensive as-heck and they oddly didn’t mention them for the Mini.

The iMac, MacBook, and Mac Pro are now the most out of date Macs according to the Mac Rumors Buyer’s Guide at 512 days since the last update for the iMac and MacBook, and a whopping 1777 days since the Mac Pro was updated in 2013.

The iPad Mini hasn’t really been updated since 2015! It was rumored to receive an update at this event, but didn’t end up getting one. That size is still interesting to me, although now I would be more likely to use a 12.9″ iPad Pro as a laptop replacement.

These custom ARM chips that Apple is developing really make me wish for a smaller Mac single-board-computer targeted towards the hobbyists that originally made the first Apple computers. I believe that Apple’s A-series would be perfect for these applications and would outclass the competition in build quality and ease-of-use, even though they would certainly not be cheaper.

I have felt the urge to switch to an iPad for all of my photography and writing needs for some time, I sold my iPad Mini earlier this year and regretted that decision because there hasn’t been a good device to replace it with. All of these devices are great, but they are also far out of reach of everyone. I hope that more of the new iPad Pro features make their way to a new iPad Cheap next year.

The Deal With The iPhone XR

That iPhone XR came out and it has almost the exact trade-offs we discussed before.

The XR is like the XS and XS Max in many ways, except It’s missing the telephoto camera system of the X, XR, and previous Plus-sized devices which can be useful for composing shots or getting superior “portrait mode” photos in daylight. I specify daylight, because the telephoto (zoom) camera system makes portrait shots almost unusable at night on the XS and XS Max. The telephoto system used for portraits on the XS and XS Max captures less light (f2.4) than the “wide-angle” (default, non-zoomed, f1.8) lens.

Ben Sandofsky has way more information about the depth system in these phones, the pros and cons of each, and specifically the upgrades he made to the Halide camera app to support taking “portrait mode” style photos on the iPhone XR of more than humans. The built-in iPhone XR camera app will currently refuse to take portrait photos of non-human objects and beings because it uses a neural network that was trained to detect people so that it can separate them from the background.

There are some other differences between the XR and XS/XS Max, they’re important, but the camera situation is probably the biggest technical difference for most people.

  • The iPhone XR screen is bigger than the XS, X, and all prior phones, but not as big as the Max,
  • The XR has better battery life than any other iPhone
  • Way more color options for the chassis you’ll never see unless you’re a rich person who doesn’t put an iPhone with a glass back and glass front in a case.
  • The LCD screen has a lower resolution and is mostly worse than the XS and XS Max’s OLED screen, but still good.
  • The XR is less water resistant than the XS and XS Max.
  • The XR has less RAM than the XS and XS Max. The XR has 3 GB vs the XS and XS Max’s 4 GB.
  • The XR has different price tiers for storage, it’s “just” $50 to bump it from 64GB to 128GB. It’s $100 to bump the XS and XS Max from 64GB to 256GB.
  • The XR has no 3D Touch, instead you can “long press” to get 3D Touch actions in situations where long-pressing didn’t do anything before. For example, on previous iPhones you could tap and hold an icon on the home screen to make them start jiggling to be able to delete or move apps and put them into folders. iPhones that have 3D Touch also let you press forcefully on icons to bring up a small menu of quick actions for that app, like jumping straight into a selfie mode with the camera. The XR can’t 3D Touch and will only switch into the jiggling icons mode, it won’t let you open up the quick action menu for each app.
  • The XS and XS Max have better cellular radios that can handle faster speeds (“Gigabit-class LTE”)
  • The XR has slightly bigger borders around the screen.
  • The glass on the back of the XR’s is less durable than the glass on the back of the XS and XS Max.

Here’s what is the same

  • Same camera array on the front with the same Face ID system that doesn’t work in landscape mode
  • Same A12 system-on-a-chip
  • Similar goofy notch at the top which either doesn’t bother you at all, stops bothering you within a few days, or will constantly haunt you because you can’t let anything go.
  • Still more expensive than the previous generation of devices were when they were released
  • Same Qi “Wireless” (contact) charging
  • Same shitty 5-watt charger in the box

Overall, I would recommend the XR to anyone who wants to save money and is coming from a non Plus-sized 6/7/8 or earlier iPhone. The situation for people who had a Plus-sized iPhone is a little bit more difficult. The iPhone 6/7/8 Plus’ have two cameras for portrait and zoom, and a higher resolution “Retina” LCD (1920×1080) than the iPhone XR’s “Liquid Retina” screen (1792×828).

Specs aren’t everything, the XR’s screen is by all accounts fine, and not everyone would choose to pay a base price of $1000 over the XR’s $750 just to get the extra camera, worse battery life, fewer color options, and a shinier chassis (the XR has an aluminum band of metal around the edges instead of steel). Joanna Stern can’t even think of many people to recommend the XS and XS Max to over the XR. I’m really, really, into photography and it’s complicated even for me because I love taking good photos at night and the XR takes better portrait photos at night.

Still, still, these new iPhones are too expensive. Nick Heer:

But there is one thing eating at me with this new iPhone lineup: the starting price for a current model year iPhone is now $50 more than last year, and $100 more than two years’ prior. It’s as though they’ve dropped the entry-level model and are starting at what was previously Plus model pricing. In Canada, the difference is even more pronounced — for the first time, you cannot get a current model year iPhone for under $1,000. The iPhone XR might be the least-expensive iPhone Apple launched this year, but it is by no means a budget device.

It might be the right business strategy for Apple to keep raising their iPhone prices but it’s bad for the people buying them.

Gouranga is Gone

While writing up the last post I noticed that the long-running Grand Theft Auto fan site, Gouranga (named after the original GTA’s kind of awful practice of running over a procession of Hare Krishna’s), has shut down and the domain is owned by Rockstar’s parent company, Take Two.

Here’s the last copy of Gouranga that I can find on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The Internet Archive’s copy also goes way back to 1999.

Gouranga was the place to read about Grand Theft Auto until the site’s owner, schu, stopped updating it during the development of Grand Theft Auto IV. Schu was even nice enough to offer unofficial support for those games.

Red Dead Redemption 2, Games Labor, and Dan Houser’s Office

Red Dead Redemption 2 is out today, it’s another game that doesn’t understand that a bigger number means sequel because this is Rockstar Games’ prequel to Red Dead Redemption. Not Red Dead 1, that was a different game called Red Dead Revolver which as near as I can tell almost nobody played but impressed somebody enough to greenlight Red Dead Redemption.

Keza MacDonald calls RDR2 “a near miracle”:

Anybody coming to Red Dead Redemption 2 expecting Grand Theft Auto with horses will be rather baffled by this slow-paced, sumptuous, character-driven Old West historical drama, in which you spend probably 60% of your time simply riding around the American wilderness. There’s action too, in the form of shootouts, train robberies and frequent thrilling escapes on horseback, but these flashes of excitement punctuate a game that is largely about just being somewhere; about hunting, fishing and having long conversations on cross-country rides or around a campfire. In a mad fit of indulgence, Rockstar Games – the creators of Grand Theft Auto and one of the most successful game developers in the world – appears to have spent seven years and hundreds of millions creating the video game equivalent of Deadwood.

Sounds great, I’m excited. Fire up the consoles, we’re going to ride horsies like big boys, yeehaw.

Oh wait, Rockstar Games founder Dan Houser had to talk about the working conditions in this article from Harold Goldberg:

The polishing, rewrites, and reedits Rockstar does are immense. “We were working 100-hour weeks” several times in 2018, Dan says. The finished game includes 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue, and many more lines of code. Even for each RDR2 trailer and TV commercial, “we probably made 70 versions, but the editors may make several hundred. Sam and I will both make both make lots of suggestions, as will other members of the team.”

The result of all their labor, Dan says, is “this seamless, natural-feeling experience in a world that appears real, an interactive homage to the American rural experience. [It’s] a vast four-dimensional mosaic in which the fourth dimension is time, in which the world unfolds around you, dependent on what you do.”

Who was working 100 hour weeks? “We”

Rockstar followed-up with Jason Schreier and denied the interpretation that the whole studio was that mismanaged and forced to work 100 hour weeks, sort of. Houser said the quote was only about the senior writing staff, and nobody else was forced to work that hard:

“…that additional effort is a choice, and we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive – I’m just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard.”

That’s not a real denial of anything, and keep in mind that it has been 8 years since Red Dead Redemption shipped. 8 years sure sounds like plenty of time to ship anything, even if they also shipped Grand Theft Auto V 5 years ago and have been working on Redemption and Grand Theft Auto V Online since. Clearly Red Dead Redemption 2 is a huge game and the high scores benefitted from the work these people put into the game they love over that seemingly vast time, but there’s no way this gets better.

Rockstar then made a half-hearted attempt at remedying the situation by allowing current employees to speak publicly without fear of retaliation, which, I don’t know what you think that means but it definitely doesn’t actually mean you could talk about working conditions without fear of retaliation. Anyone who has worked for more than a few years knows that you can’t speak frankly about a current employer unless you are the executive running the company.

Jason Schreier was already working on a story about this that you must read, and of course the majority of the 77 current and former employees he spoke with requested anonymity. It’s a depressingly realistic look at the practice of crunch at Rockstar:

Three people who worked at Rockstar San Diego between 2011 and 2016 recall a period where they were told that overtime wasn’t optional. “It was mandatory 80 hours for basically the whole studio,” said one person who was there. “If you don’t have any work to do on Red Dead 2, just test GTA V for another eight hours.” Said a second: “Maybe they didn’t tell anyone 100 hours, but they definitely told us 80. Concept artists were sitting there being glorified QA.”

[…]

For some people working on Red Dead Redemption 2, crunch started as early as 2016. For others at Rockstar, crunch periods started in the fall of 2017, a year before the game’s release date. Even when the company wasn’t in official crunch mode, dozens of current and former employees say they’ve felt compelled to stay late for a variety of reasons. “Rockstar pressures employees to put in overtime in several direct and indirect ways,” said one current Rockstar developer. “Coming in on weekends is perhaps the only way to show you are dedicated and care. So you can be very efficient and hard-working during the week, but if you don’t show up on the weekend, you’re accused of not doing your share and will be constantly harassed.”

Schreier also confirmed that an employee who worked on a Rockstar game for multiple years and leaves before it ships won’t be included in the game’s credits:

“That has been a consistent policy because we have always felt that we want the team to get to the finish line,” said Jennifer Kolbe. “And so a very long time ago, we decided that if you didn’t actually finish the game, then you wouldn’t be in the credits.”

Rockstar have a website up to credit people who left before the game shipped, which is good except it doesn’t include any mention of title or contribution, and this list should also be in the fucking game. People working on games everywhere need a union to collectively bargain for their time, pay, and define standards for receiving credit for the work they’ve done.

Later, Dan Houser was quoted by Sam White in British GQ as saying that he feels like games are magical because people don’t understand how they’re made:

…and it’s that games are still magical. It’s like they’re made by elves. You turn on the screen and it’s just this world that exists on TV. I think you gain something by not knowing how they’re made. As much as we might lose something in terms of people’s respect for what we do, their enjoyment of what we do is enhanced. Which is probably more important.”

Not knowing how something is made, or caring about it, is the hurdle that players need to cross in order to help the people making these games attempt to have a life outside of work. If you appreciate games, even ones with highs as high as Red Dead Redemption 2 (and there are some incredible lows in the writing of it and other Rockstar games), then you need to learn that everyone working on them needs to be able to have a life outside of them.

Patrick Klepek has a great article on Waypoint talking about how to make a difference in the lives of everyone working on games, and how a boycott might not be the best way to bring change. There’s this one really important tip Klepek has about buying games that are on Steam when the developer also has other options for buying the same game without giving up a 30% cut to Valve:

Another note: if a developer has a game listed on Steam, itch.io, and a personal website, buy it anywhere but Steam. Sure, yes, Steam is a useful tool and it’s nice to have your games in a single spot, but itch.io gives developers greater flexibility in profit margins, and on a personal website, nearly all of it goes to them. For smaller developers, the dollars add up. Other forms of economic reinforcement include supporting creators on Patreon—or tipping.

Maybe the most telling quote about this situation was from Houser in Goldberg’s original article that sparked the current conversation about poorly managed crunch. Speaking about his office, Houser said: “It’s an absolute shithole,”

EXAPUNKS Out of Early Access

Developer hacker training simulator, EXAPUNKS, has exited Steam’s Early Access program for games that aren’t ready for the spotlight yet.

Typical development courses are about learning “big data” and rust and other modern baloney, Zachtronics’ EXAPUNKS is about pulling off hacking heists to earn a cure for the phage that you were accidentally infected with. Oops!

In the early access process much has changed, Zachtronics added an animated gif recorder to save short clips of your solutions to EXAPUNKS’ programmular puzzles. They’ve also added a bonus 9-level campaign, and released a free TEC Redshift player program on Steam that lets you experience community-made homebrew games on the in-game fantasy console without owning the full EXAPUNKS game. Interestingly enough, the homebrew games are embedded in image files distributed online. It’s not quite clear how to get them, so I’ll explain here that you download the image to your computer and then drag and drop the image file into the TEC Redshift Player. Here’s an example image I found online that plays the original Gameboy Tetris music in the TEC Redshift Player.

There were many more updates in that process, and EXAPUNKS is reviewing well. Jody Macgregor enjoyed the challenge in his review for Windows Gamer.

Every time I write about EXAPUNKS, or any other Zachtronics game, I want to mention that I think they’re something special, they each inhabit a little world of their own perfectly and I love that about them even if I’m not always up to their challenge.

EXAPUNKS is $20 on Steam or through the Humble store for Windows, macOS, and Linux. There’s a temporary sale, bringing the game down to $16. The feelies that were available for pre-orders may be available directly from the developer, otherwise you’ll probably get a PDF or something with the game to read Trash World News, the in-universe zine.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is Good

It’s the most wonderful time of the year for everyone who was raised on a diet of murder simulators, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is out, and it’s good, with some caveats.

This year’s Treyarch-designed Call of Duty is something like three years of work now that there are three studios working on their own individual series within the Call of Duty brand.

As usual, I’ll note here that I have good friends at this Activision studio but I try to not let that influence my opinions about any of their games.

Black Ops 4 is split into three subsidiary modes: competitive multiplayer, blackout (battle royale mode), and zombies. There is no single-player campaign, which I am pretty disappointed by, but there are a set of tutorial matches with vignettes that tell the tales of Black Ops’ different playable characters.

The playable characters – with different abilities in the regular competitive multiplayer mode – took some getting used to. I never cared for defined “hero characters” in games that didn’t traditionally have them. WarCraft 3 being the example that first sticks to mind. Nevertheless, I enjoy them in Black Ops 4

BLOPS 4’s UI is somewhat broken and poorly designed. Look at this icon, what does it mean to you: Settings question mark

If you said “settings” or “options” you’re wrong, just like I was. It is the “custom game” icon. If you click that icon while you’re in a party the UI changes from this:

Shot 0015

to this:

Shot 0016

Which are quite similar except for the disappearing “settings” button and the addition of some text that says “custom games.”

If you don’t notice either of those changes, and you hit “play” you’re plunged into a match that you’re hosting without any human players. If you’re as dumb as I was, you’ll sit there for a few minutes wondering when they’ll join.

Still, despite all the quirks to the UI, Black Ops 4 is an undeniably fun multiplayer-only romp through murder town. The competitive multiplayer modes are fine, there’s one like Counter-Strike this year, it’s called Heist. You can still just play team deathmatch if you want. This year you can only heal when you press a button instead of by hiding and waiting for the jelly to disappear from the screen’s edges.

Blackout is the new Battle Royale-like and it’s fun, it feels a little bit incomplete but miles ahead of the competition in terms of how the game feels to play. With PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds I’m always struggling to do the most basic tasks. Clambering over or onto an object in Blackout works 9 times out of 10 instead of PUBG’s 4 or 5 times out of 10. Blackout also has it’s own spin on almost everything. There are packs that provide you with perks, and you can’t examine items that are on the ground to see their stats. I’m guessing they want us to learn what they look like.

The downside to Blackout is that there’s only one map, for now, and it isn’t clear where this mode is going to go. It can’t compete with Fortnite, per se, because it isn’t free-to-play, or at least not yet. Does that mean there will be a Blackout mode in next year’s Call of Duty? Will Treyarch continue to work on this one, including adding more content? That isn’t clear to me.

Finally, there’s still a Zombies mode if you enjoy co-operative zombie hunting with ridiculous dialog between Zombies-specific characters the studio designed. I want to enjoy this mode, I almost never do. There are a lot of hidden things about it, and I’ve never learned about them.

For me, the best single-player Call of Duty campaign was Infinite Warfare in 2016, and I also miss playing that game’s multiplayer. I enjoyed all of the sci-fi movement trappings that this game has eschewed by placing the timeline in-between Black Ops 2 and 3, which seems like the weirdest decision of all given that this game has no single-player campaign and a bunch of cutscenes instead. Also, the number is 4 which is higher than 3. I’m not sure Treyarch understands how the numbers work. Maybe they need to call Mason.

This is the first year that Activision has gone all-in on Blizzard’s Battle.net launcher and Black Ops 4 is only available there for Windows players alongside Destiny 2 (Destiny 1 was never available on Windows). As disappointed as I am with Valve, lately, there isn’t any good reason for this from a player’s perspective. We get Battle.net’s social features and rich presence notifications but that is about it. I’m curious where 2019’s Call of Duty will end up, but it is extremely unlikely it’ll be on Steam. Activision definitely doesn’t want to give up any cut to Valve. The negative feedback in the reviews for WW2, Infinite Warfare, and Advanced Warfare on Steam probably didn’t help things, either.

Unfortunately, this year Activision has again chosen to split their players up with an add-on pass that isn’t included with the “standard” $60 version of Black Ops 4. They’re also adding in some kind of in-game microtransactions.

I’m not going to fully review Black Ops 4, there are good reviews elsewhere. Notably, IGN split their review into four pieces, one  for each mode and an overall score. It’s a game that I’m surprised to find my friends who abandoned Call of Duty years ago talking about and playing, and I love it.

Despite all of the odd decisions and bad UI, I love playing Black Ops 4. It’s the definitive way to play Treyarch’s version of multiplayer Call of Duty, and I have fun with their take on the Battle Royale genre. If you miss dumb, exciting, and fun multiplayer shooters, this is that. If you loved any campaign from previous Call of Duty games and you like to skip multiplayer because you didn’t want to be schooled by 12-year-olds, this isn’t for you. I’m losing to them every night, and that’s OK. I can still get to the top of the leaderboards sometimes.

The Obra Dinn Returns October 18th

Lucas Pope of various independent adventures and most notably Papers, Please has been working on Return of the Obra Dinn for at least four years. The Obra Dinn is a ship, a good ship, that was lost at sea in 1803. Here, now, in 1807 it “drifted into port” and you’re an insurance investigator sent to assess the damage and find out how each member of the crew fared.

If you followed development of the ship’s return you might have seen the prototypical demonstration versions Pope released, one is still available on itch. Obra Dinn has what was an original mechanic the first time I played it, and is now a bit like what players found in last year’s Tacoma — scenes of a crew interacting that aren’t with the ship (or station, in Tacoma’s case) anymore.

That’s confusing if you haven’t played either, in Tacoma it was like watching a holographic replay of the crew’s life. Of course, in 1807 the fictional setup for how you can view those replayed scenes is different from a space station in the future, but I fell in love with the prototype’s beautifully stippled 1-bit graphics and the brutal still scenes of the Obra Dinn’s crew paired with just enough voice acting. If they were TV shows I’d say that Tacoma was a great “SyFy” original and what I’ve played of Obra Dinn is a Netflix Marvel series minus the 3-5 extra episodes of cruft.

The trailer above demonstrates many changes to just about everything from the prototype, so there are still plenty of unknowns here. I’d recommend sticking with the trailer and skipping the old GDC demo, to avoid spoiling too much.

Return of the Obra Dinn will be $20 on Windows and macOS on October 18th, which is very soon now, via Steam, Humble, and gog.