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15 video games we’re playing while in quarantine

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Enlarge / Like much of the world, we took have a love/hate relationship with Tom Nook at this point..

While it’s hard to see much upside in our current COVID-19 pandemic, there’s at least one group for whom maybe quarantine life isn’t all that bad—gamers. Maybe you finally have the time (and nothing else to do) to work your way through some 100-hour plus campaign or to retrieve every star in Mario 64. Or, as someone with a partner/roommate/kid, maybe you suddenly never get a chance to game by yourself and have newly been embracing the joys of co-op and multiplayer more than you ever imagined. (Alternatively, maybe you’re sticking to whatever handheld isolation you can find instead under such circumstance.) Heck, maybe you’re just so bored you decided to finally torture yourself through Dwarf Fortress’ initial learning curve.

No matter how you slice it, video games have been one of the most reliable forms of at-home entertainment in both the best of times and the worst of times. So although sheltering-in-place has altered many aspects of life in unquestionably negative ways, around Ars we’ve stumbled into some gaming silver linings over the last month-plus. Here’s what’s been keeping our thumbs active in these quartan-times when the work keyboards have retired for the day.

Srsly, how can you say no?

Transporting back to 1994

My name is Nathan, I’m one of the fools who waffled on acquiring a Switch and now lacks any modern gaming device mid-quarantine. I’ve forever been a console player, and over the years as consoles gained connectivity they’ve become one of the easiest ways to regularly connect with my younger siblings. But here we are. I guess we’ll have to… talk? Scattergories works over video chat, at least.

As for my gaming fix, I’m not entirely without console-access luckily. The first gaming system I ever had was the SNES, a 1992 Christmas gift that my parents still discuss due to the new heights my seven-year-old vocal pitch reached out of excitement. So last year for my birthday, my sister sent the modern incarnation, the Super NES Classic.

Life right now has undoubtedly been hard, and I’m no masochist—Super Ghouls n’ Ghosts and Contra 3 remain untouched. I’m also not a gaming historian (sorry, Star Fox 2) and will never understand why Secret of Mana (a third RPG behind Earthbound and Super Mario RPG) had to be included over a big popular mid-90s port like NBA Jam or Mortal Kombat or even Dr. Mario.

Instead, I’ve spent my limited solo-TV time playing through a familiar side-scroller that’s fun with juuuust a touch of challenge: the original Donkey Kong Country.

The positives here probably don’t even need naming after 25-plus years, but here we go: The soundtrack remains filled with sneaky bangers. The game prominently features the perennially underrated DK (and his expanded universe) as opposed to the milquetoast Mario. The game’s animal mechanics felt revolutionary at the time and remain downright charming today (try smacking some gophers as a rhino right now and see if you feel better, I’ll wait). And the overall game play has the exact blend of ease and challenge I’m looking for—maybe I can breeze through the first eight levels without stopping to sip my coffee, but then “Mine Cart Carnage” hits and suddenly my accumulated extra lives are teetering on single digits and my right thumb is in pain from trying to time jumps over abandoned mine carts juuuuusssst right (I’m not the only who can’t handle this level effortlessly as an adult, thank you Kotaku). If the Switch Lite (I want that and not the docked version, right?) ever comes back in stock, rest assured this never-owned-a-Wii gamer will be Tropical Freeze-ing the worries away soon after.
Nathan Mattise, Features Editor

A video game of sorts that everyone can enjoy

Zoom gaming hour

I stay on top of the latest and greatest games, indie to AAA, for a living. But as shelter-at-home orders have kept me separate from friends and family, I’ve found the various Jackbox Party Packs have provided the perfect way to stay connected. These collections of casual party games run the gamut from trivia to word games to secret-information investigations to straight-up popularity contests, all with the slightly off-kilter humor you might expect from the team behind You Don’t Know Jack.

The Jackbox Party Packs satisfy all the requirements necessary for a successful online multiplayer experience with pretty much any group:

* The instructions are simple enough to explain quickly for newcomers.
* It’s not reflex-based, so no worries about Internet lag affecting player performance.
* It works on pretty much any platform; all you need is a videoconference that can “share your screen” and a smartphone web browser for each player.
* It encourages creativity and laughter in a mostly non-confrontational way.

We started with a weekly Friday night Jackbox meetup with a group of college friends but have since expanded to post-Seder games with the extended family just as easily. Even my five-year-old has gotten in on the act, laughing her way through a family-friendly edition of the Pictionary-like Drawful just before bedtime.

D tend to get self-conscious just looking at my reflection during video conference calls, and I think the idea of drinking alone together at a “Zoom Happy Hour” sounds excruciating. But a Jackbox game provides the perfect focal point and excuse to catch up with far-flung friends and family while doing something fun together.
Kyle Orland, Gaming Editor

Free time is now game time

Two weeks before the lockdowns began, my wife and I moved from LA to Chicago to be closer to friends and family. Sadly, all this means we’re even more socially isolated now than we were in LA.

Or, are we? Through games, we’ve been more social than we have been in years. Our more gamer-lite friends who used to not have much time to play games online are now suddenly all-in. We started a Discord server with everybody and have been playing Minecraft, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, or Animal Crossing: New Horizons multiple nights per week. It’s been a blast.

On my own, I’m in the final chapters of the Final Fantasy VII Remake. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but I’ve been surprised and delighted.

I’ve been a Fallout 76 player since launch, and between the new folks coming in with the just-launched free Wastelanders expansion and old 76 friends playing more because they have more time at home now, the most positive game community I’ve ever been a part of has been hopping like never before. Haters can hate all they want, but Fallout 76 has its fans and we’re having a great time.

Also, I collect PlayStation games—all generations, to the tune of more than 1,000 games—and I’ve been casually poking around in some classics I never got around to playing before. For example: it turns out Dino Crisis is a roaring good time, if you’re into all the tropes and trappings of cheesy survival horror games from the late 90s—which I absolutely am.

On top of all that, I’ve been competing in the Kusogrande bad games speedrunning competition on Twitch, and I’ve made good progress on a text-based game development project I’ve been working on for the past year.

All this is to say that I have spent most of my free time with games since the shelter-in-place order came down. Everyone has their own way of staying sane amidst all this, and this is mine. It’s working well for me.
Samuel Axon, Senior Reviews Editor

When play is for work…

I’ve been fortunate to write about some very big, time-sucking video games for you, dear readers, over the past few months. Some of the resulting reviews have already gone live at Ars Technica: Final Fantasy VII Remake, Resident Evil III Remake, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Half-Life: Alyx, and Valorant. If that’s not enough, I have a few other game reviews in the works for this coming week.

So that changes the conversation on my end. What do I play to “wind down” when I’m not playing games for work? Nothing, really. Animal Crossing is a brainless exception when I partake in my state’s variety of legal inebriants. But mostly, during my downtime, I watch other people play games.

Twitch streams are my sweet relief. Within these feeds of familiar games, conversations between streamers and their chat rooms remain beautiful, shiny, and crystallized, like they were frozen in resin before the rest of the world joined their “stay home in front of a screen” party. Because, really, these folks were already prepared. They already set up immaculate green-screen rigs, paid for quality microphones and webcams, and erected secondary and tertiary monitors for things like monitoring chat rooms and managing their friends lists.

Twitch is a simpler place for me. It’s where I go when I want to hear people talk about something other than… *gestures around mildly*. (If you’re wondering about my favorites, they include the Apex Legends battles of NiceWigg, the Super Mario Maker 2 explorations of GrandPooBear, the fighting-game ruminations of Maximilian_DOOD, and the caffeinated exaltations of Viking_Blonde.)
Sam Machkovech, Culture Editor

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The Callisto Protocol review: A relentless horror spectacle

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Enlarge / Hello, gorgeous.

In the survival-horror genre, building tension and ramping up a sense of dread is the backbone of the experience. As a new sci-fi horror IP coming from the creators of Dead Space, The Callisto Protocol homes in on that creeping sense of unease as it forces you to confront its many grotesque threats head-on. When playing The Callisto Protocol, I always felt on edge, even during moments when I could have let my guard down.

The game takes some strong influences from its spiritual predecessor Dead Space and puts its own spin on a more visceral type of horror experience. That said, The Callisto Protocol‘s influences and genre are abundantly clear, and it occasionally falls back on familiar tropes and some frustrating combat encounters. Still, it maintains its solid, relentless poise as an unnerving yet still thrilling survival-horror game.

Welcome to Black Iron Prison

You play as Jacob Lee (Transformers’ Josh Duhamel), a far-future freelance cargo hauler with a murky past who crash lands on Jupiter’s titular frozen moon. After getting abducted by the ruthless head of security, Captain Ferris (Days Gone’s Sam Witwer), Jacob finds himself trapped in the mysterious and inhumane Black Iron Prison.

Eventually, a mysterious viral outbreak mutates nearly everyone inside, turning them into ravenous monsters called Biophages. Launching an escape with other prisoners, including the enigmatic anti-corporate activist Dani Nakamura (The Boys’ Karen Fukuhara), Jacob delves deep into Black Iron Prison and the moon’s lower depths to uncover what happened and make it out alive.

Right from the start, and despite the grotesque, over-the-top horror setting, there’s a palpable sense of realism to The Callisto Protocol’s story and visuals. This is hard sci-fi through and through, in the vein of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Event Horizon or John Carpenter’s The Thing (or the original Dead Space series, unsurprisingly). The game plays it straight with its unsettling vision of a future gone awry, which provides a rich environment to play in. Aside from rare one-liners, there’s not much levity, which keeps with the game’s bleak narrative and atmosphere.

Remember to breathe.
Enlarge / Remember to breathe.

As a cinematic, story-driven game, The Callisto Protocol keeps its pace and structure tight, focusing on Jacob’s ordeal as he’s ferried to different encounters and events in a mostly linear fashion. Aside from chapter breaks and more in-depth cinematics, you’re always viewing events from Jacob’s perspective. The performances from the main cast do an effective job of selling the plot’s sense of urgency and dark tone. While the story largely keeps its twists subdued and doesn’t venture far from its initial premise by the end of its 12-plus-hour campaign, it still succeeds as a solid vehicle for an intense and brutal horror game.

What truly sells The Callisto Protocol and its setting are the fantastic visuals and sound design. The presentation is incredibly effective at establishing mood, with small details combining together into the most impressive and effective survival-horror tapestry I’ve seen in a long time. This is especially evident in the gruesome design of the Biophages, as well as the numerous, wince-inducing death scenes.

When the visuals and sound design all work in concert, it creates a stark sense of dread and unease that sticks with you to the end. One section had me explore the depths of the prison while the power was fluctuating, creating moments of darkness for the enemies to move around unseen. Just trying to keep track of where these monsters were put me on edge. It was an unnerving section that really showcased the craft of the game’s impressive presentation.

While Black Iron Prison is slightly similar to the USG Ishimura from Dead Space, the setting comes into its own once the game’s scope expands, showcasing fantastic views of the outside frozen lunarscape and the darker depths of Callisto. The game’s linear progression and tight pacing cut down on backtracking. That said, there are still moments where you can venture off and explore hidden rooms, mainly to uncover some intriguing clues and audio logs about Black Iron Prison history and what came before.

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The Mandalorian season 3 has been delayed—but only a little

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Enlarge / A promotional image for the third season of The Mandalorian.

After months of silence about it, Disney has finally revealed the premiere date of the third season of its first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian. The new season will premiere on March 1, 2023.

That’s just a little bit later than what Disney said to expect the last time it made an announcement; the release window was announced to be February 2023 in a tweet in May.

Minor premiere date slipping aside, it’s been quite a time since the previous season in either case. The second season premiered back in October 2020. That said, it wouldn’t be accurate to say that it’s been more than two years since we last spent time with the show’s two central characters, Mando and Grogu.

That’s because both appeared prominently in The Book of Boba Fett, a limited series that ran from December 2021 through February 2022. In fact, they were so prominent in part of that show that we called it The Mandalorian season 2.5 when we reviewed it.

Expect them to be the main focus of The Mandalorian season three when it premieres March 1, though; that point is driven home by the promotional image shown above and by the plot threads that carry over from The Book of Boba Fett and prior seasons of The Mandalorian.

The Mandalorian received generally positive reviews when it premiered—a stark contrast to the divided responses to most of the recent Star Wars movies. Thus far, the various TV series have been helmed by a different creative team than the movies. Accomplished director Jon Favreau and Star Wars animated series veteran Dave Filoni seem to have done a better job satisfying fans than some of the other directors, producers, and writers of the films.

Disney sought to spin off several additional live-action Star Wars shows from the series, several of which stem from characters who had guest roles in the second season, including the first live-action rendition of Ahsoka Tano from the popular Clone Wars animated series.

Not all of Disney’s now-numerous live-action Star Wars series are Mandalorian spinoffs, though. Earlier this year, Disney+ ran a limited series focused on Obi-Wan Kenobi that took place between the prequel films and the original trilogy. The same goes for the thriller Andor, which just finished its first season to widespread critical acclaim.

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Nintendo apologizes for Pokémon performance problems, promises “improvements”

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Enlarge / Portrait of the author learning that some of the Pokémon Scarlet and Violet performance problems might be fixed.

Andrew Cunningham

Our review of Pokémon Scarlet and Violet mentioned some of the game’s pervasive performance issues, and we weren’t the only ones. Even more mainstream outlets like The Guardian and CNN noted the games’ performance problems. Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry team, known for its in-depth analyses of game performance, called the games “comprehensive technical failures,” also calling attention to their blurry and poorly tiled textures and “low-geometry” environments.

Players have noticed plenty of other problems, too; these include a bug that allowed players to run twice as fast by connecting two controllers to the Switch, bizarre animations and clipping problems, Pokémon that blast off into the sky like Team Rocket, and some evidence that online battles were using the same probability seed for every match, making it easier for attentive players to make low-accuracy moves hit 100 percent of the time. I captured a screenshot of a Hoppip that was casting three shadows simultaneously (though it’s possible the Paldea region has three suns that I just don’t know about).

I'm no scientist, but I don't think this is how lighting works.
Enlarge / I’m no scientist, but I don’t think this is how lighting works.

Andrew Cunningham

Nintendo released a 1.1.0 update for both Pokémon games today that includes “select bug fixes” (though the company didn’t specify which). But alongside that mostly routine post-launch update came a less-routine acknowledgment of the performance problems and a suggestion that the company would provide fixes.

“We are aware that players may encounter issues that affect the games’ performance. Our goal is always to give players a positive experience with our games, and we apologize for the inconvenience,” the statement reads. “We take the feedback from players seriously and are working on improvements to the games.”

Notably, “tak[ing] feedback from players seriously” and “working on improvements” don’t amount to a promise that every single dropped frame and ugly texture is going to be fixed. But like Sword and Shield, Scarlet and Violet will likely enjoy a decent amount of post-release support, including functional updates like Pokémon Home compatibility and substantial new DLC content. This should hopefully justify the time and money needed to make noticeable performance improvements, even though the games as they currently exist have still managed to be the fastest-selling titles Nintendo has ever released.

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