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Hitman III review: Let’s call it Hitman 2.5 and be fine with it

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The Hitman game series reached a zenith in 2018 with Hitman 2, technically the seventh in the series—but, hey, the seventh time can be the charm. Everything that we enjoyed in the 2016 series comeback was even better in this sequel, and IO Interactive nailed its “murder puzzle box” concept with sprawling, macabre playgrounds, all built to encourage a kill-multiple-ways core.

Three years ago, IO Interactive still had compelling directions to take its level design and plot composition, and the resulting sequel doubled down on dark humor and inherent video game silliness—while also getting a better handle on how to compose its levels. Walking through crowded scenes as a slow, blend-in-the-scenes assassin, looking for clues and opportunities, simply felt better in Hitman 2.

This week, Hitman III arrives on consoles, PCs, and streaming platforms with five new arenas of mayhem—the fewest yet in a numbered entry—and a pesky list of new tweaks. It feels very, very familiar—even more than the leap from 2016’s Hitman to 2018’s Hitman 2. It lands in a nearly identical interface as the last game, with the same XP progression meters, the same objective-based system, the same one-off “escalation” missions, and the same “custom contracts” sandbox. And its graphics engine revolves around a seemingly identical core, with one admittedly handsome tweak.

A sequel or an episode?

The worst part about Hitman III, then, is the number in the title. It betrays the game’s true nature as an expansion pack instead of a standalone game that can easily be enjoyed in isolation. That’s not a bad thing! If all you want are “more Hitman reboot levels that are up to the series’ par of excellence” (and that was the game’s original “episodic” plan), then III will neatly lodge into your brain. IO Interactive has concluded the “World of Assassination” trilogy in mostly fine fashion, although its inability to live up to the heights of Hitman 2 led me to immediately wish this were a more ambitious sequel.

If you’re new to the series, however, your path is clearer: set up a sale alert on Hitman 2, if not a package that combines Hitman 1’s and 2‘s levels in the same package. They’re great, and you have zero reason to skip them on your way to Hitman III.

This week’s sequel drives the point home by inviting new players to play the 5-year-old tutorial from Hitman 1. This teaches you to sneak onto a boat and silently kill a target. Along the way, lure guards into isolation; knock them out and steal their outfits; use their attire to blend in to otherwise inaccessible clearance zones; then pick up keys, access cards, and implements of death as you slither toward your target, seeking to avoid a firefight.

Once you finish training, go back to the same mission, with a guide pointing you to other paths toward the same target. You’ll rack up more experience points doing this, and these unlock mission-specific perks (new starting points, new places to hide weapons and gizmos within the map) and series-wide weapons and cosmetics.

Two new systems in a familiar game

The fact that this dated tutorial applies so well to Hitman III says a lot—that’s some serious “ain’t broke, don’t fix it” energy—though the new game does include two new tweaks. The first is a “shortcut unlock” feature, which should immediately comfort series fans.

Your repeat visits to levels to uncover new ways to kill your primary targets or fulfill objectives are sometimes sped up when you unlock a new shortcut starting point, but you may still find yourself marching the full length of the level to find and complete certain objectives. This year, clearly marked yellow doors can be seen in every new level, and you can unlock them from the inside of buildings. Meaning, after you snake your way through, say, a biker hideout in your first playthrough, you can permanently jimmy open the bikers’ barricaded front door to reduce the tedium whenever you return. IO Interactive takes care to place these rarely and deliberately, and they’re a great tweak.

The other new system is a smartphone camera, which doubles as a scan-and-hack tool for, say, turning on a TV or blacking out a security window. You have to use this in the very first mission to open the very first closed access point… and then the camera is put away for much of the game. This isn’t something like Metroid Prime, where you’re expected to constantly scan the environment looking for clues and analysis. Instead, it only gets used in moments clearly marked by the game, like when a voice in your ear recommends you scan a specific, colored logo to open a door or when a questgiver asks you to take a photo of a secondary target once you’ve knocked them out.

The camera includes a 4x zoom for the sake of examining the world when you’re short a sniper rifle, and that’s a welcome boon, but I’d hoped for more camera-based fun and trickery than this sequel offers. Plus, Agent 47 is never penalized when he’s seen taking photos in heavily guarded zones, particularly one high-security lab in the game’s China level. Pull out a pistol, and you’ll be shot down; take dozens of photos that somehow magically open and close doors, and it’s no big deal. Talk about an odd disconnect.

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Analyst: Nintendo says Microsoft’s xCloud streaming isn’t coming to Switch

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Enlarge / That Android Note Ultra 20 (with removable controller) at the top of the image is the closest you’re gonna get to a Switch-like xCloud streaming experience.

For years now, there have been rumors that Microsoft and Nintendo were planning a major partnership to bring the xCloud game streaming features of Xbox Game Pass to the Nintendo Switch. But now an analyst is citing Nintendo itself as saying that rumored team-up won’t be happening.

Game industry analyst and Astris Advisory Japan founder David Gibson tweeted yesterday that while a Switch/xCloud partnership “would make a lot of sense… I have had Nintendo tell me directly they would not put other streaming services on the Switch.” With Nintendo not offering a comment on the matter to Ars Technica, that kind of secondhand sourcing from an analyst in a position to know might be the best information we get for the time being.

Gibson’s tweet came in response to more speculative tweets from NPD analyst Mat Piscatella explaining why he thought such a partnership would be a good idea. “Nintendo would get a massive content gain and sell millions of incremental Switch, [and] Xbox Cloud would be in front of millions of new potential subscribers,” Piscatella said. In the same tweet, though, Piscatella noted that “none of this means that Xbox Cloud will actually ever make it to Switch… there is a list of reasons why it wouldn’t.” (And no, a Switch in the background of an Xbox livestream probably doesn’t point to any of those reasons in either direction.)

Back in 2019, Game Informer cited unnamed sources in reporting that a “Game Pass on Switch” announcement “could come as soon as this year.” Windows Central’s Jez Corden offered a similar report at the time, saying that he had “been hearing for almost a year that Microsoft was aiming to put Xbox Game Pass on Nintendo Switch and even PlayStation 4.”

That potential collaboration wasn’t as ridiculous as it might have seemed at first glance. It certainly would have fit with Phil Spencer’s December 2018 statement to Gamespot that Game Pass “started on console, it will come to PC, eventually it will come to every device.” XCloud General Manager Catherine Gluckstein followed that statement up in a 2019 interview with Wired, saying that Microsoft had “a vision to bring Project xCloud to every device where people want to play… I wouldn’t rule anything out, I wouldn’t rule anything in at this time.”

On Nintendo’s side, the Switch maker has already partnered with third-party publishers for cloud-based streaming of Resident Evil 7 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in Japan and international cloud versions of Hitman 3 and Control on the Switch. These are games that would otherwise be difficult for the underpowered Switch hardware to run natively, a situation that would apply to most of the streaming games on Xbox Game Pass as well.

Former Xbox exclusives like Ori and the Will of the Wisps (originally published by Microsoft Game Studios) and Cuphead have seen native releases on the Switch in recent years, too. And that’s not even mentioning the continued success of Microsoft-owned Minecraft on the Switch.

Alas, for now it seems the connections between Microsoft and Nintendo won’t extend to streaming a copy of Forza Motorsport or Halo on the Switch. In the meantime, at least we can sideload Android onto a hacked Switch and get some unauthorized cloud gaming that way.

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New handwriting analysis reveals two scribes wrote one of the Dead Sea Scrolls

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Enlarge / Photographic reproduction of the Great Isaiah Scroll, the best preserved of the biblical scrolls found at Qumran. It contains the entire Book of Isaiah in Hebrew, apart from some small damaged parts.

Most of the scribes who copied the text contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls were anonymous, as they neglected to sign their work. That has made it challenging for scholars to determine whether a given manuscript should be attributed to a single scribe or more than one, based on unique elements in their writing styles (a study called paleography). Now, a new handwriting analysis of the Great Isaiah Scroll, applying the tools of artificial intelligence, has revealed that the text was likely written by two scribes, mirroring one another’s writing style, according to a new paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.

As we’ve reported previously, these ancient Hebrew texts—roughly 900 full and partial scrolls in all, stored in clay jars—were first discovered scattered in various caves near what was once the settlement of Qumran, just north of the Dead Sea, by Bedouin shepherds in 1946-1947. (Apparently, a shepherd threw a rock while searching for a lost member of his flock and accidentally shattered one of the clay jars, leading to the discovery.) Qumran was destroyed by the Romans, circa 73 CE, and historians believe the scrolls were hidden in the caves by a sect called the Essenes to protect them from being destroyed. The natural limestone and conditions within the caves helped preserve the scrolls for millennia; they date back to between the third century BCE and the first century CE.

Several of the parchments have been carbon dated, and synchrotron radiation—among other techniques—has been used to shed light on the properties of the ink used for the text. Most recently, in 2018, an Israeli scientist named Oren Ableman used an infrared microscope attached to a computer to identify and decipher Dead Sea Scroll fragments stored in a cigar box since the 1950s.

A 2019 study of the so-called Temple Scroll concluded that the parchment has an unusual coating of sulfate salts (including sulfur, sodium, gypsum, and calcium), which may be one reason the scrolls were so well-preserved. And last year, researchers discovered that four fragments stored at the University of Manchester, long presumed to be blank, actually contained hidden text, most likely a passage from the Book of Ezekiel.

The current paper focuses on the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the original scrolls discovered in Qumran Cave 1 (designated 1QIsa). It’s the only scroll from the caves to be entirely preserved, apart from a few small damaged areas where the leather has cracked off. The Hebrew text is written on 17 sheets of parchment, measuring 24 feet long and around 10 inches in height, containing the entire text of the Book of Isaiah. That makes the Isaiah Scroll the oldest complete copy of the book by about 1,000 years. (The Israel Museum, in partnership with Google, has digitized the Isaiah Scroll along with an English translation as part of its Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project.)

Most scholars believed that the Isaiah Scroll was copied by a single scribe because of the seemingly uniform handwriting style. But others have suggested that it may be the work of two scribes writing in a similar style, each copying one of the scroll’s two distinct halves. “They would try to find a ‘smoking gun’ in the handwriting, for example, a very specific trait in a letter that would identify a scribe,” said co-author Mladen Popović of the University of Groningen. Popović is also director of the university’s Qumran Institute, dedicated to the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In other words, the traditional paleographic method is inherently subjective and based on a given scholar’s experience. It’s challenging in part because one scribe could have a fair amount of variability in their writing style, so how does one determine what is a natural variation, or a subtle difference indicating a different hand? Further complicating matters, similar handwriting might be the result of two scribes sharing a common training, a sign the scribe was fatigued or injured, or that he changed writing implements.

“The human eye is amazing and presumably takes these levels into account, too. This allows experts to ‘see’ the hands of different authors, but that decision is often not reached by a transparent process,” said Popović. “Furthermore, it is virtually impossible for these experts to process the large amounts of data the scrolls provide.” The Isaiah Scroll, for instance, contains at least 5,000 occurrences of the letter aleph (“a”), making it well-nigh impossible to compare every single aleph by eye. He thought pattern recognition and artificial intelligence techniques would be well suited to the task.

First, Popović and his colleagues—Lambert Schomaker and grad student Maruf Dhali—developed an artificial neural network they could train to separate (“binarize”) the ink of the text from the leather or papyrus on which it was written, ensuring that the digital images precisely preserved the original markings. “This is important because the ancient ink traces relate directly to a person’s muscle movement and are person-specific,” said Schomaker.

They next created two 12×12 self-organizing maps of full-character aleph and bet from the Isaiah Scroll’s pages, each letter formed from multiple instances of similar characters. Such maps are useful for chronological style development analysis. Fraglets (fragmented character shapes) were used instead of full character shapes to achieve more robust results.

The results indicated two different handwriting styles, an outcome that persisted even after the team added extra noise to the data as an additional check. That analysis also showed the second scribe’s handwriting was more variable than that of the first, although the two styles were quite similar, indicating a possible common training.

“We will never know their names. But this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”

Finally, Popović et al. created “heat maps” for a visual analysis, incorporating all the variations of a given character throughout the scroll. They used this to create an averaged version of the character for the first 27 and last 27 columns, making it clear to the naked eye that the two averaged characters were different from each other—and hence more evidence of a second scribe copying out the second half of the scroll.

“Now, we can confirm this with a quantitative analysis of the handwriting as well as with robust statistical analyses,” said Popović. “Instead of basing judgment on more-or-less impressionistic evidence, with the intelligent assistance of the computer, we can demonstrate that the separation is statistically significant.”

The authors acknowledge that their analysis doesn’t completely rule out the possibility that the variations are due to a scribe’s fatigue, injury, or a change of pen, but “the more straightforward explanation is that a change in scribes occurred,” they wrote. They also concluded that their study shows the added value that scholars engaged in paleographic research can gain by collaborating with other disciplines.

The next step is to apply their methods to more of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “We are now able to identify different scribes,” said Popović of the significance of their findings. “We will never know their names. But after seventy years of study, this feels as if we can finally shake hands with them through their handwriting.”

DOI: PLOS ONE, 2021. 10.1371/journal.pone.0249769  (About DOIs).

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PS4 owners lament the shutdown of beloved “Communities” social network

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Enlarge / Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead…

In the world of social media, new networks are constantly popping into existence and then fading away when they fail to become the next Facebook (or Twitter, or TikTok, etc.). Still, last week’s shutdown of the PS4’s Communities features (and the lack of a suitable replacement on the PS5) has left many PlayStation fans bitter about the death of a vibrant space they used to connect with fellow gamers.

For those who never had a chance to join a PS4 Community, the groups served as a kind of player-created and moderated message board system, accessible directly via the PS4’s system menu (and through the PlayStation Mobile app, before that connection was shut off last year). Members could share text messages, screenshots, wallpapers, and more on a shared “Community Wall” or form parties to chat and play multiplayer titles together with other online members.

Specific PS4 Communities could form around a single game or series, a geographic area, a cultural grouping, or just shared general interests (“Smoke&Play” and “Vaping Gamers” were popular Communities at one point).

“My reaction to the Communities going away at first was quite a shock if I’m honest,” said Alex Richards, who said he belonged to 15 different PS4 Communities, some with tens of thousands of users focused on PS4 trophy hunting. “Overall, I felt like it was like having to say goodbye to a virtual family of sorts, as I had met some fantastic people through being a part of the Communities, and knowing that the platform we all shared as people and gamers [would] suddenly disappear was a real shame.”

Richards was so upset by the shutdown that he put together a “RIP PSN Communities” video on YouTube, complete with maudlin music and sad gray raindrops casting a pall over the proceeding. “Thank you for the memories and the good times we shared,” he wrote in a video chyron.

A few examples of PS4 Communities that were available before their shutdown last week.
Enlarge / A few examples of PS4 Communities that were available before their shutdown last week.

Welcome to your PS4

Richards is not alone in mourning the PS4’s Community features and the unique ways they let players connect with others. “It was an extraordinarily convenient setup,” Australian PS4 owner Ian Mackinder told Ars. “If you wanted to send a picture or make a comment or whatever during play, it was just a few seconds’ work to flip from the game, do [a] post on whichever Community you chose, then return to play.”

That simplicity led to PS4 Communities forming around some interesting and unexpected shared interests. “The best example I can think of is one guy who set up a Community specifically for pictures from all PS4 games,” Mackinder said. “There was even a regular weekly competition where a theme would be specified (e.g. “emotion,” “black and white,” “heights,” etc.). Entries would come in from all games imaginable. No prizes, just… positive feedback and seeing who’d get first, second, third, etc.”

For others, the appeal of PS4 Communities was more utilitarian. “For games like Destiny 2, some [high-level] activities don’t have matchmaking, so it was the only way to squad up for endgame content,” PS4 Communities user Lesvix told Ars. “On the big Community, you had posts every minute so it was very convenient to find people.”

“Also, as an adult, I don’t like to play with children, so the community helped find people of the same age,” Lesvix continued. “When searching for people, you can mention 18+ in the post [and get] no children.”

“A tribute to a fallen hero”

For many, PS4 Communities were a welcoming way to get acclimated to a new title in the same place you were playing it. “Picture yourself a new gamer with a new game. Where do you turn for info?” PS4 Communities fan Blackdwag07 (who asked to go by his PSN handle) asked rhetorically. “YouTube is great, but it’s a video, maybe years old. With Communities, you could go to them [and easily find] info, news, wallpapers, and groups and friends to play with. I could ask any questions and get answers faster than searching Google, and better answers also.”

“The Communities were a valuable means of meeting fellow players, for new arrivals seeking guidance, and for both seeking and providing general advice/assistance,” Mackinder added. He cited the PS4 Communities for No Man’s Sky in particular as “very positive places. Any newbie who fronted up asking for advice could be sure of getting a response.”

Not every PS4 Community was so welcoming, of course. Many languished from a lack of activity or quickly got filled with spam or toxic harassment. But the players I talked to suggested that the PS4 Communities they stuck with were much less prone to abuse than other online spaces.

“There were many communities where the ‘owner’ had, for some reason or another, basically abandoned the community and left it completely unmoderated, meaning that pretty much any troll or griefer with the energy would have free rein for as long as they chose,” Mackinder said. “Communities that were properly looked after had no such problem.” Mackinder suggested that a basic check-in from Sony to see if Community owners and moderators were still engaged could have prevented a lot of the worst abuses in unmoderated spaces.

“I also owned a couple of communities myself, including one called PlayStation Network Addicts, which was more of a variety community,” Richards said. “It was a safe and inclusive space for all kinds of gamers and for the time in which it existed, I feel like it served its purpose well.”

Where to now?

When Sony announced the pending PS4 Communities shutdown last month, users were left scrambling to maintain their connections to the friends they had found through the network. “We thankfully have PSN Messages, including group chats and parties, but… a group chat allows up to 100 people, whereas PSN Communities allowed up to 100,000 people,” Richards said.

Aside from personal group chats, Discord seems to be the main beneficiary of the shutdown, with many PS4 Community users telling me they had moved their social groups to the gaming-focused social service. But Mackinder lamented that these replacements are “not nearly as convenient as what we had. But there you go. Thank you, Sony.”

Many former PS4 Communities users have moved on to Discord, though some find it less convenient.
Enlarge / Many former PS4 Communities users have moved on to Discord, though some find it less convenient.

“Since I do have [other] social media, [Communities] being deleted didn’t affect me that much,” PS4 Community user Scourge HH told Ars. “But I have to imagine, people who are more wary or shy regarding social media are probably feeling it much more, since they lost a huge social interaction feature, connected to the very games they play. I used to see a lot of people posting gaming compliments or finds on the different Communities.”

In the end, many PS4 players (and new PS5 owners) may never even realize that PS4 Communities are gone—Sony’s removal of the feature certainly suggests it wasn’t popular with a critical mass of the user base. Still, among the PS4 Communities users I talked to, Sony’s decision to shutter the feature has generally left them with a more negative view of the PlayStation as a whole.

“If there is no social space on PSN, I am thinking of switching to PC, and I have been using Sony since the PS1,” Lesvix said. “It’s funny how PlayStation gave free games as part of ‘Play at Home,’ but without Communities, it is more like ‘Play alone!'”

“I’d also add that there is a lot of bitterness about Sony’s actions,” Mackinder said. “No one expected much basic consideration from them, but a very common sentiment now is ‘My next console will be Xbox.'”

“In short, Sony has removed a huge quality-of-life feature from its services and has made sure that I at least will not purchase a PS5,” Blackdawg03 said. “Honestly, [Communities] made Sony games so much better because there was this huge group you could turn to. Other players would give their time, game materials and currency, help, and friendship to help you master your ‘lifelong game.'”

“I’m sorry for being emotional, but we lost our place to belong.”

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