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Half-Life: Alyx review round-up: A watershed moment for VR – TechSpot

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The big picture:
Valve’s first Half-Life game in nearly 13 years has finally arrived and while it’s not Half-Life 3, it’s not just another mundane title to showcase the potential of virtual reality, either. Simply put, Valve has delivered in a big way with its latest effort as evident by the overwhelmingly positive reviews hitting the Internet today.

Here’s a quick look at what some those with early access to the game have discovered thus far.

Valve doesn’t throw you to the wolves out of the gate as Ben Kuchera with Polygon recounts:

The first hours of Half-Life: Alyx are dedicated to slowly introducing you to how things are going to work in VR. You have time to look around, and I spent too much time in an early room cleaning off a window so I could write on it with a dry-erase marker. Valve didn’t skimp on the movement options, so if you want to teleport, or move freely, or use a transition animation that meets in the middle, you can.

You’re going to want to spend some time experimenting with all the gameplay and graphical options to make sure the experience is comfortable, as no two people react to VR in exactly the same way.

That said, you may want to bring a change of pants once you venture into the world as Patrick Klepek with Vice details:

One thing I want to stop and emphasize: this is, more than anything, a horror game. There are moments in the sun, there are times when you fight humanoid Combine enemies, but the vast majority is Alyx is spent combating and avoiding unknown horrors. It’s the most high-profile horror game since Resident Evil 7, a game I adored, but I don’t know that Valve has properly informed the public for how far they lean into this! Alyx feels like a bunch of Ravenholm fanboys got together and wondered what it’s like to make a full game out of it.

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Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to take everything seriously as Kotaku’s Nathan Grayson notes:

Want to defiantly flip off a Strider? Go for it. Want to pick up a zombie corpse and slap its face around like it’s the third (and worst) Stooge? Sure, knock yourself out. Want to try to do the same thing to a headcrab, only for it to leap out of your hands and onto your face? It’s your funeral. That’s what makes it special. You can be silly. You can be expressive and dramatic. You can pick up every last object you find in the game world, gently examine it, and then hurl it into an abyss. You can embody Alyx however you choose.

IGN’s Dan Stapleton was quick to pick up on the level of detail that Valve has baked into the game:

One of the first things that struck me when I started playing Half-Life: Alyx was the dirt under Alyx Vance’s fingernails. It’s a simple thing, but it’s not often that you see that level of fine detail in a VR game. Usually, virtual hands are either low-detail ghostly apparitions or gloved. This grit also tells us something about this character, a scrappy survivor raised in the aftermath of the Seven-Hour War in which the alien Combine conquered Earth, and it quickly establishes that she isn’t as buttoned-down as that MIT-educated nerd Dr. Gordon Freeman.

CNET’s Scott Stein with a very timely open to his review:

It’s strange to escape a world that seems increasingly dystopian for a world that is… more dystopian. As the kids run around screaming and I worry about food supplies and New Jersey now has a curfew, I creep upstairs and head to my home holodeck that I’ve assembled: small sensor cubes with snaking wires stacked on storage boxes and my bookshelves. A Valve Index VR headset, cabled to an Alienware laptop on my desk.

Mike Minotti with VentureBeat also touches on the reality of playing Half-Life: Alyx right now:

I almost feel bad holding this against the game, but now is a rough time to play something that immerses you into an intense, 10-hour long experience in a post-apocalyptic world filled with monsters and lots of other things that want to kill you.

And while the situation in the real world is obviously out of Valve’s control, the game isn’t doing itself any favors with levels that drag (there’s a part where you’re stuck in the same hotel for what felt like hours) and a limited color palette. And despite the length of the game, you often feel like you’re going through the same environments: dilapidated buildings, creepy underground areas, and abandoned streets.

Half-Life: Alyx is a compelling game that you won’t want to stop playing, reports Christopher Livingston with PC Gamer:

I played the final three hours of Half-Life: Alyx in a single session. Before Alyx, I never used VR for more than 30 minutes at a time. I don’t get motion sick but I do get generally tired of VR. Tired of having a hunk of plastic strapped to my face, of having to stand and stoop and reach awkwardly around, of not being able to check my phone or have a sip of coffee. But I didn’t take a break, or even want to, during the final chapters of Half-Life: Alyx. I wasn’t tired. I was completely enthralled and unwilling to stop playing.

GameSpot‘s Michael Higham sums it up as follows:

Not only has Half-Life: Alyx made good on its shift to VR, it has elevated many of the aspects we’ve come to love about Half-Life games. It may not be as bombastic as previous games, but the intimacy of VR brings you closer to a world you might have thought you knew over the past 22 years. Even when familiarity starts to settle in, its gameplay systems still shine as a cohesive whole. And as it concludes, Half-Life: Alyx hits you with something unforgettable, transcending VR tropes for one of gaming’s greatest moments.

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Senior staff leave gaming firm Ubisoft in harassment probe – Japan Today

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Gaming company Ubisoft’s second most powerful executive is among senior staff to have left the firm as it pursues an internal investigation into sexual harassment allegations, it said Sunday.

Last month the French company, one of the world’s largest video game publishers whose portfolio includes Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, launched a probe after allegations of sexual misconduct were shared online.

Serge Hascoet, chief creative officer and the company’s second-in-command, has now resigned along with human resources director Cecile Cornet, Ubisoft said in a statement.

“Ubisoft has fallen short in its obligation to guarantee a safe and inclusive workplace environment for its employees,” said CEO and co-founder Yves Guillemot.

“This is unacceptable, as toxic behaviors are in direct contrast to values on which I have never compromised — and never will,” he said.

Guillemot will take over Hascoet’s role temporarily as he oversees a staffing overhaul, the statement said.

The managing director of the company’s Canadian branch, Yannis Mallat, also stepped down.

“The recent allegations that have come to light in Canada against multiple employees make it impossible for him (Mallat) to continue in this position,” the company said.

The announcement follows the departures of another two top executives earlier in July, after current and former employees used social media to denounce predatory behavior by managers.

Ubisoft, which counts 18,000 employees worldwide, is the latest video game company to face sexual harassment allegations.

The global game industry has been dogged by criticism over its treatment of women in both games and real life.

This was encapsulated in the so-called “gamergate” controversy in the United States in 2014, which saw critics of the way women were depicted in games receive death and rape threats, prompting calls to reform the industry’s culture.

The allegations made against Ubisoft on Twitter last month accused managers in the company’s Toronto and Montreal studios of sexual misconduct, and denounced an allegedly toxic work environment for women.

Accusations also targeted managers in Brazil, Bulgaria and the United States, with some of the alleged incidents going back years.

Some named the alleged perpetrators, and many accused the company of failing to respond to staff complaints and even promoting those accused of wrongdoing.

“I am a former employee and they swept every claim of sexual harassment under the rug,” read one tweet.

Alleged incidents include a creative director licking the face of a female co-worker during an office party, and a manager demanding oral sex from a colleague.

“Moving forward, as we collectively embark on a path leading to a better Ubisoft, it is my expectation that leaders across the company manage their teams with the utmost respect,” Guillemot said on Sunday.

© 2020 AFP

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Watch Dogs: Legion preview: Three hours with Jane Bond and a construction worker – Polygon

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My name is Margareta Ionescu, and I am a spy.

I spent the last several minutes on the trail of a possible informant, investigating a series of crime scenes and tailing the ghostlike AR apparitions of getaway vehicles in my Aston Martin-inspired spy car that fires missiles like I’m in Spy Hunter. I’m wearing a designer suit and way-beyond-smart watch, which is useful for hacking into the high technology of near-future dystopian London in Watch Dogs: Legion.

All of that led me here — a city block that’ll one day be a building but is now little more than a crater filled with construction equipment and ramps and bare concrete rooms. I crouch behind a Jersey barrier and consider my options.

I put my spy skills to the test, and I looked good while doing it. But now I’m wearing a mask that looks like a pig with a monocle mouthing a stick of dynamite like it’s Churchill’s cigar, and honestly, it’s cramping my style.

I can’t take off the mask, though. And anybody who sees Jane Bond here will throw me some serious side-eye. Probably attack me on sight, now that I think of it. Everything that makes me a credible MI6 agent also makes me a terrible fit for the next phase of this subterfuge.

I consider the possibilities, pull out my phone, and call my teammate for an assist. A few seconds later, I’m no longer a spy.

Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

My name is Pam Ahmadi, and I am an unassuming blue-collar construction worker.

When I saunter into the construction site, nobody cares. My reflective vest, hardhat, and the wrench that I’m carrying reflect my humble origins and also hide me in plain sight. To the baddies patrolling, I look like I belong here. No pig mask necessary.

I spend the next 15 minutes or more role-playing as a lowly construction worker. But I’m really a DedSec agent, a member of the heroic faction in Watch Dogs: Legion. We fight for the people, I’m told, and against the forces of technological oppression.

I hack the closest surveillance camera and use my electronic vantage points to mark enemies. I arc to another camera where I disable the alarm systems above doors. A few cameras later, I even find the hostage I’m looking for.

I turn the surveillance systems against their owners, and I sneak up behind armed guards and choke them unconscious. When stealth fails me, I knock the forces of evil out cold with my wrench.

This is the ideal, I think. This is how those at Ubisoft want me to play Watch Dogs: Legion.

The moment-to-moment gameplay in an open-world city is so familiar that it’s hardly worth discussing. I can do all of the things I expect — wander around, hijack cars, bump into people, fast travel, accidentally punch people when I hit the wrong button, find missions and liberate neighborhoods. Exploring greater London lifts the fog of war that’s covering most of my map, so incentive abounds to check my map for hotspots, missions, and landmarks.

If that was all there was, I’d be bored. But Watch Dogs’ twist has always been a layer of futurism — a not-too-distant, more or less credible version of our future world where high technology allows you to do more than just run around a city. That continues in Watch Dogs: Legion with ambition — everyone you meet in its vast open world of near-future London is potentially a playable character.

That’s why I could trade my spy for a construction worker. I have a roster, and I can and should bring the best person possible to the front. But I’d need to put in the work first using the system to recruit Londoners to my squad. If I showed up to that mission without a construction worker, things would have played out very differently. But if, say, a few hours before, I found and recruited someone from a construction site, contacted them, went on a mission to convince them that I was helpful, and then folded them into my team of rebels, I could be better prepared later. Apply the same logic to a Bobby or an office worker, and the argument for team diversity makes itself.

Speaking of which, my construction worker is still on the trail of the prisoner, and there are two doors leading into the room where he’s tied up. Both of them are locked. (Of course they are.) I need a key. Fair enough, I figure. I’ve played video games before. I know what I need to do.

A construction worker hits someone with a wrench in Watch Dogs: Legion

Image: Ubisoft Toronto/Ubisoft

I spend the next five minutes or so looking for the people I haven’t knocked out yet. And I’m getting good at this. I’m hacking and downing drones, I’m stealthing my way through, and I’m enjoying myself. It’s only when I think that everybody’s incapacitated and nobody’s dropped a card that I find myself confused. Where’s the key card?

To answer that, I have to think like Watch Dogs: Legion, which is unlike basically any other game.

So I walk back to the room where the prisoner’s waiting patiently. I peek through a window and hack into a surveillance camera, and wait — what’s that I see in the corner of the room? An item labeled “Smart Tablet / Access Key!” But if I can’t get in the room, how do I get the … oh.

Duh.

I’m not thinking in the way that Watch Dogs: Legion wants me to. I don’t need a physical key.

I highlight the tablet, press my controller’s left bumper, and I’m downloading the key’s data. A few seconds later, I open the door and save the prisoner’s day. Not bad for a construction worker. And not bad for an open-world game that’s trying to do something different.

This is Watch Dogs: Legion’s potential, if you ask me (and thanks for asking, by the way!). It’s also what sets Watch Dogs apart from its city-based open-world competitor cousins. Grand Theft Auto games have grit and grime. Saints Row games have smut and superpowers. Watch Dogs has a layer of in-game tech that twists open-world ideas into a game that wants you to rely on the near-future hacking skills as much as (if not more than) your punching or shooting.

If you aren’t building a team of everyman subversives and switching between characters and cameras, then you’re just playing it like yet another open-world game set inside of a city, and that’d be pretty boring. This, on the other hand? Whether I’m Margareta Ionescu or Pam Ahmadi or potentially thousands of other characters, this twist has potential.

Watch Dogs: Legion will be released Oct. 29, 2020 on Google Stadia, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows and later on next-gen consoles.

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Nintendo's Brutal Mario Game. Shigeru Miyamoto and his team made a… | by James Burns | SUPERJUMP | Jul, 2020 – Medium

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Shigeru Miyamoto and his team made a “kaizo” game long before fan hacks emerged

James Burns

Jul 12 · 7 min read

Have you ever heard of a kaizo game? The concept is pretty straightforward. Players take an existing game — including its assets, like character sprites — and “remix” them to build eye-wateringly difficult levels. There’s a whole culture around kaizo games. If you’re curious, I highly recommend checking out Josh Bycer’s fantastic piece on the topic.

One of the most fascinating elements of kaizo games is the concept of a kaizo trap. The idea is that the designer sets up a particularly nasty obstacle that the player will trigger with little to no forewarning. It’s often the case that these traps are aimed squarely at players who attempt to take the easiest path through a level. I think of it as a kind of contrapasso, which makes it all the more delightfully fiendish.

Most people would probably think of kaizo games as setting out to achieve the exact opposite of what games generally aim for. For the most part, video game designers try to carefully balance difficulty. Challenge is important, but overwhelmingly punishing difficulty (where, for instance, players routinely encounter unavoidable deaths) is usually a sign of poor game design. Kaizo games avoid the “poor game design” moniker because they are deliberately designed to inflict maximum pain, and players understand this when diving in.

Aside from the specific mechanical traits that make a kaizo game, well…kaizo, there’s another important ingredient at play: it’s the fans taking an established game and “hacking” it in order to turn it into the equivalent of running uphill during a landslide.

But what happens when a prominent, family-friendly game company converts one of its most iconic, beloved titles into a heinous meat grinder?

That’s exactly what Nintendo did in 1986, when they released Super Mario Bros. 2 on the Famicom Disk System in Japan.

The story behind Super Mario Bros. 2 is fascinating and there are many wonderful documentaries on the internet that dive into quite some detail on the topic. For now, though, I’ll give you the crash course.

Super Mario Bros. was released in 1985 and became a global phenomenon. Nintendo wanted to rapidly follow it up with a sequel, which was due to be released on the Famicom Disk System (an attachment for the Famicom console that played games on special re-writeable disks). There was a feeling that many Japanese players had already mastered Super Mario Bros., and therefore needed a more challenging sequel. Nintendo marketed Super Mario Bros. 2 as being “for super players”. Unfortunately, the game was so brutal that Nintendo of America didn’t want to publish it (leading to another title — Doki Doki Panic — being retrofitted to become Super Mario Bros. 2 in western markets). The “real” Super Mario Bros. 2 would eventually be released in western markets as part of the 1993 Super Mario All-Stars compilation for Super Nintendo. On the compilation, it would become known as Super Mario Bros. The Lost Levels.

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Super Mario Bros. 2 (Famicom Disk System) box art. Source: inserteaquititulodeblog.wordpress.com.

Let me just say: I’m a huge Mario fan. And I’m pretty damn good at Mario games, if I do say so myself. But I’ve never beaten Super Mario Bros. 2 — not until recently, that is. The ability to play this game as part of the Nintendo Switch Online NES catalogue (with those sweet, sweet save states) has been a literal game-changer for me.

I always knew Super Mario Bros. 2 was difficult. What I didn’t really appreciate until my latest play through is just how blatantly treacherous Nintendo’s designers could really be. This game is full of dark patterns that strike at the heart of Nintendo’s own Mario rulebook. This is, in part, what makes Super Mario Bros. 2 so much fun to play. It’s as though the Mario team got utterly ruined on sake after a haywire office party, said fuck it, and took a match to the million-seller they’d only just shipped.

Let’s start with the most well-known change: the poison mushroom. This little bastard appears right away in World 1–1. Sure, it looks like the recently-paroled cousin of the regular super mushroom upon close inspection. But if you’ve just arrived here from the first game, your instinct will be to pick up whatever looks like a “power up”. Doing so is the equivalent of absent-mindedly putting your hand on a hot stove: after recoiling from the sting, you’ll immediately be on a more careful and deliberate footing.

Don’t worry, though: the poison mushroom is just the beginning of the fuckery. How about World 3–1’s backwards warp pipe? Just like the original game, you will find warp pipes at various points and some of them will certainly propel you forward to later worlds. World 3–1 is a masterclass in psychological warfare. You find the springboard right before the flagpole. As you fly right over said flagpole, you just know you’re in for some Nintendo magic. How exciting! Sure enough, you’ll eventually stumble upon a warp pipe. Then you realise it’s a World 1 warp pipe and you have no way of avoiding it (other than falling into the pit and losing a life). It’s like someone asking you to taste some delicious cake batter from a wooden spoon…only to smack you in the teeth with the same spoon a moment later.

There’s a whole lot more to contend with in Super Mario Bros. 2. Some jumps are physically impossible unless you first find a hidden block in the environment to leap from. Even then, some of these blocks are high enough that you can’t easily jump on them from a standing start — it’s necessary to get a good run up, leap on the hidden block, and then leap across the impossible chasm.

Later in the game, you’ll encounter powerful gusts of wind that violently propel Mario across the screen while in mid-air. I found World 7–3 particularly challenging. In order to navigate through the level you need to use springboards while dealing with the wind gusts. Because the springboards propel Mario up “above” the visible are of the level, it’s incredibly difficult to know where he’ll land when he eventually comes back down.

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Source: Nintendo.

Although it’s filled with devious twists and turns, I am being slightly hyperbolic when I suggest that it’s a kaizo game. There’s nothing here that’s inherently unfair; nothing that leaves the player with no recourse. Rather, Super Mario Bros. 2 is a clear indication that Miyamoto and co. understand their own creation down to the pixel. They know exactly what skills you had to master in the original game, and the expectations you established based on that game’s rules. The deliberate violation of these rules in the sequel doesn’t imply that Nintendo abandoned all sense and structure. Rather, your muscle memory is used against you in an effort to shake you from complacency. It’s almost like being forced to write with your opposite hand — the basic rules of writing are the same, but you can’t entirely fall back on what you already know. You’re pushed back into a growth mindset, where knowledge is again replaced with curiosity. For this reason, I’d say Super Mario Bros. 2 is great to dive into right after you’ve finished Super Mario Bros. Playing both back-to-back will further sharpen your appreciation of the sequel.

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Source: Nintendo.

Remember, too: if you’ve never played Super Mario Bros. 2 then you will die and this will likely be a repeated occurrence. This is why playing the original version with limited lives is extremely tricky. But if you’re playing on Nintendo Switch, don’t be ashamed to take advantage of those save states. They make the game accessible enough to work your way through without entirely dulling the (good) pain.

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