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How Ars Technica’s tech-savvy staffers conduct happy hours in locked-down 2020

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Artist's approximation of Security Editor Dan Goodin's Zoom calls with other infosec pros.
Enlarge / Artist’s approximation of Security Editor Dan Goodin’s Zoom calls with other infosec pros.

Getty Images / Aurich Lawson

As the United States settles into Labor Day weekend, we hope you’re finding ways to celebrate—or, more crucially, to carve out something that resembles a “vacation” when travel and holiday options have become more limited. With that in mind, I polled my Ars colleagues with a vacation-minded question: How do you put the “happy” into “happy hour” in a socially distanced universe?

Unsurprisingly, many of the answers hinge on technology, though not all of them. If you’ve been struggling to socialize or break out of a 2020 rut, we hope our suggestions inspire you, though we’d also love to see your own suggestions in the comments section below.

Life updates between bets

In the before time, I was part of a semi-weekly poker night with friends from graduate school. Once the pandemic hit, we moved poker night online. We used Zoom for video chat, but we actually had a tough time finding good online poker software.

We wanted a service that would let us create private rooms and play fake-money games with a decent user interface. After trying and discarding several options, we discovered Pokernow.club. It’s free, Web-based, and has a nice user interface.

I’ve found online poker is a good choice for catching up with friends. People of all skill levels can play. Poker doesn’t involve constant action, so there’s plenty of time for people to update one another on their lives between bets.

While Zoom poker isn’t as much fun as real-life poker, it has had one upside: we’ve been able to invite mutual grad school friends who moved to other cities. —Timothy Lee, Senior Tech Policy Reporter

Don’t toot your horn here

I have two big social outlets. The first, a local wind ensemble I play in, is unfortunately remaining on hiatus until a room full of people tooting their own horns no longer presents a pandemic risk. The other, however, is my tabletop RPG group, and that’s still going like gangbusters.

We’re doing so well because playing online is our first nature: we’ve always been in five states and three time zones ever since we started our game in 2015. We get together every two or three weeks on Roll20 to tell stories and roll virtual dice into the wee small hours of the night. (At least, for me. Our California contingent plays at reasonable hours, hehe.) It’s a great way to hang out with friends without the stilted strange awkwardness that can come from running a Zoom or Hangout happy hour just for the sake of screens.

Another thing I’ve discovered lately: even for someone like me, a tried-and-true introvert who’s used to working from home and mostly socializing online, you sometimes need to go outside. Grabbing a blanket and a cup of coffee and sitting outdoors just to chat with a friend (several feet away) a couple of times a month is a great mood-booster. —Kate Cox, Tech Policy Reporter

Sliders versus switches

I have a family with three children, so in a lot of ways “happy hour” was already either kind of a myth, or properly socially distanced, depending on how you want to look at it. I spend more time with friends on the Internet and less in person than I used to—but it’s a change more like shifting a slider than turning off a switch.

The biggest impact has likely been on my mom, who moved to a nearby town to be closer to me and the kids a year ago—we still visit pretty regularly, but visits are outdoors-only. Thankfully, she’s got a place with acres of yard, so as long as the weather’s good, that’s not so bad. —Jim Salter, Technology Reporter

The Kusogrande rabbit hole

I’ve always played games online, but games have become my main connection with the outside world during the pandemic, so they’re more important than ever. My wife and I started a Discord group with some fellow friends and family members who play games—her brother, some game developer friends of mine, an old friend of mine who I’ve worked with several times over the years, and a friend of my wife’s from the swing dancing scene.

We’ve all played Minecraft for hours every Friday night since April 29. Our survival world now has a jungle city, a skyscraper made of cascading water, a military fortress, a series of Pacific Modern homes in terracotta, a nightclub on a balcony, an interdimensional transit system, an underwater luxury penthouse, and a working Mario Kart race track with a scale recreation of Peach’s castle from Super Mario 64. We’ve been busy!

Also, I’ve gotten heavily into the Kusogrande community, a Twitch-based scene where people speedrun, showcase, and race in bad or strange video games—a sort of Mystery Science Theater 3000 for video games.

Last but definitely not least, I’ve been doing game jams on itch.io and Discord. Dozens or even hundreds of people form teams and spend a weekend or a week developing small-scope games that riff on the same theme, then share their work and vote for the best games. Weirdly, thanks to these things, I feel like I’ve actually been more socially active and connected during the pandemic than I was before it! —Samuel Axon, Senior Reviews Editor

Yes, our infosec pro uses Zoom (sometimes)

I’ve done one video-based happy hour since the lockdown began. The meetup was with a bunch of security people from my neighborhood. It was good to see everyone’s faces and catch up. One of the fun things is that several kids, including my own, joined the conversation and got to hear about and discuss hacking and security. That’s something that never happened when our group held happy hour in a bar. Now that I’m thinking about this, I’m ready to rally the group for another video get-together.

If you’re wondering: we didn’t spend any time thinking about which platform was the most secure. Zoom provides encryption in transit, the same protection offered by Gmail and most other online services. Had we been discussing sensitive topics, we might have chosen FaceTime or another service that uses end-to-end encryption. —Dan Goodin, Security Editor

Feeling wrecked? Try Rec Room

My social groups in Seattle are pretty analog, and my local board gaming crew never agreed upon a digital facsimile for any of our favorite games. We bought a few standalone game clients on Steam, but we had bad luck with everything we chose. Tabletop Simulator, despite its potential for aimless fun and easy add-on DLC packages, remains a difficult proposition for basic actions like picking up pieces and cards in a given game. Blood Rage‘s Steam version launched with a nightmare list of launch-week woes, while Charterstone‘s server-side management of ongoing games crashed enough times to kill its “legacy” appeal.

For locked-down socializing, I have found that the most exhilarating option has been to dip into virtual reality, particularly in Rec Room, a free-to-play social-space app that includes a series of structured and free-form multiplayer games and activities. Since the game’s launch in 2017, its suite of fun has become quite diverse, and it works on pretty much every VR headset imaginable, from PlayStation VR to Valve Index. (If you don’t have VR access, you can join any session in “2D” format, as well.) Start simple with accessible fare like bowling and table tennis. Team up and fight strangers in paintball gun battles. Join forces in co-op adventures, where you either fake like a sword-and-shield medieval warrior or wield laser guns in an ’80s-styled robo-battle.

Arguably, the app’s best quality is how it lets a “leader” guide a group of friends from one activity to the next seamlessly, so that friends aren’t constantly worrying about whether they’ve been disconnected or split up. The games are fun, sure, but they’re mere window dressing for the natural socializing afforded by VR. Everyone can hear and see each other as if hanging out in real life, and positional audio sells the sense that you’re all really wandering around at a bowling alley. It feels good to not fret about how many feet of space is maintained between friends, and to see hands and heads move around as if people are really right there. —Sam Machkovech, Tech Culture Editor

“OMG CROTCH KNIFE”

A lot of my socializing with family and friends has involved cocktails in the back yard, socially distanced. We make an amazing simple syrup with pomegranate juice or cherry juice and then add some fresh-squeezed lime and whatever alcohol sounds good, add some ice and shake it up.

While away camping alone this summer, I did manage to simulwatch John Wick 2 with my husband, who was holding down the fort back home. Sometimes we got off-sync and spoiled an upcoming event, but our texting stream during the movie pretty much sums it up. (Colby is my dog.) —K.S., Associate Copyeditor

Me: Now they’re sHOOTING AGAIN
ugh
Dude brains
Not right
OMG CROTCH KNIFE
No way
So wrong
Husband: Right!
Me: He needs therapy
And of course the guy is a head taller than everyone else on the stupid train
Husband: Hm
Me: Why are they dragging this guy’s death out so long
Lol and everyone leaves the train at a run
I need to let Colby go potty
Almost to the half hour mark
Morpheus!!
hahaha
Ok
Gonna pause now
Husband: K, I’ll wait
Me: ok
Husband: ok
Me: Started
Husband: You don’t want me owing you
Me: Hm
Not sure I remember them saying tha
That
That was a lot of headshots
Whoa
Broke the rule
Husband: Now what?!
Me: Why did he get him?
That’s crazy.
Husband: There you have it

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Blizzard offers refund for nerfed $25 Hearthstone card

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Enlarge / Shine bright like a diamond.

Last month, Hearthstone broke a long-standing precedent by selling a single cosmetic card upgrade for a whopping $25 (or a similar amount of in-game currency). Now that the expensive card’s power level is being scaled back, Blizzard is offering a generous refund to players who made that purchase—and it’s letting them keep the ultra-rare card, to boot.

Drek’Thar has been an extremely popular Hearthstone card since its release in December alongside the Fractured in Alterac Valley set. Thanks to the card’s ability to draw and summon two minions from your deck whenever cast (if your deck is constructed correctly), Drek’Thar was showing up in upward of 20 percent of all competitive decks this month, according to HSReplay.net statistics, and decks with the card were winning more than 60 percent of the time.

A diamond is forever

For months, Hearthstone players could find a Legendary Drek’Thar in regular packs, craft a copy by using in-game dust gained from excess cards, or earn a “free” Golden copy by completing various in-game quests. Starting April 5, though, Blizzard added a way to obtain a new version of Drek’Thar: pay $25 (or 3,000 in-game gold) to purchase an ultra-rare “Diamond” upgrade.

Diamond cards were first introduced in a late-March Hearthstone update as a purely cosmetic modification to existing cards. The ultra-rare Diamond versions, which come complete with custom animations, are targeted at hardcore collectors who want to show off the rarest and prettiest versions of their cards.

For the most part, players could obtain Diamond cards by completing quests on the game’s Tavern Pass Reward Track or by collecting full sets of other Legendary rarity cards. Drek’Thar was the exception, though; the only way to get the Diamond version of that card was to buy it with in-game gold or cold, hard cash during his April sales window.

Many players weren’t happy about that sales tactic, as exemplified by a popular Reddit thread full of complaints about perceived greed on Blizzard’s part. “It’d be one thing if you’d get multiple diamond cards, but for a single card, it is not even close enough to be worth 25 USD,” user prplehuskie13 wrote in a representative comment.

Sorry for the nerf—have some gold

Fast forward to Thursday, when Blizzard’s Hearthstone update 23.2.2 scaled back Drek’Thar’s in-game power level. Now, instead of summoning two additional minions, the card only summons one when cast. The change has led to an immediate reduction in Drek’Thar’s usage and win rates, according to HSReplay.

These kinds of nerfs are pretty common when a card becomes too dominant in the Hearthstone metagame. And when they happen, Blizzard offers affected players refunds in the form of in-game dust that can be used to craft other cards (while also letting players keep the newly nerfed cards in their collection).

For players who spent money on Diamond Drek’Thar, though, Blizzard is going the extra mile with its refund. “Any players who own Diamond Drek’Thar at the time that the patch goes live will automatically receive 3,000 Gold when they log in as a refund,” the company wrote.

That’s enough gold to buy 30 packs of cards, which would usually cost $35 to $40 if purchased in various bundles. And that refund is on top of the nerfed Diamond Drek’Thar itself, which players will get to keep as evidence of their conspicuous digital consumption.

While Blizzard stopped short of giving actual money back to players who spent $25 for a Diamond Drek’Thar, the in-game gold is a pretty generous bonus for those who made the investment. And who knows—maybe it will make those Hearthstone whales even more willing to throw money down on a single cosmetic card upgrade in the future.

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A time paradox births a “freaking Kugelblitz” in Umbrella Academy S3 trailer

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The third season of The Umbrella Academy will debut in June on Netflix.

The Hargreeves siblings return to 2019 only to find themselves caught in an alternate timeline where they were never adopted by their wealthy father in the official trailer for The Umbrella Academy S3. Instead, they must confront their alt-timeline counterparts, the Sparrow Academy, and ward off yet another apocalypse as they try, once again, to return home.

(Spoilers for first two seasons below.)

For those unfamiliar with the premise, in S1, billionaire industrialist Sir Reginald Hargreeves (Colm Feore) adopted seven children out of 43 mysteriously born in 1989 to random women who had not been pregnant the day before. The children were raised at Hargreeves’ Umbrella Academy, with the help of a robot “mother” named Grace (Jordan Claire Robbins) and became a family of superheroes with special powers. But it was a dysfunctional arrangement, marred by the tragic death of one of the children, and the family members ultimately disbanded, only reuniting as adults when Hargreeves died. They soon learned that they had to team up to prevent a global apocalypse.

As I’ve written previously, S1 ended on a cliffhanger, after Vanya (Elliot Page) rediscovered his powers and destroyed the Moon with the acoustic energy he accumulated playing the violin in a concert at the Icarus Theater. As the Moon’s fragments rained down on Earth, marking the start of the apocalypse, Five (Aidan Gallagher) offered to bring his siblings back with him in time so they could once again try to avert the destruction of the world. The S1 finale ended with the group’s time jump.

Enlarge / (l-r) Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman), Viktor (Elliott Page), Luther (Tom Hopper), Five (Aidan Gallagher), Diego (David Castaneda), and Klaus (Robert Sheehan) returned to an altered timeline in 2019.

YouTube/Netflix

But that jump didn’t go smoothly. The siblings landed in the early 1960s, but they all arrived at different times between 1960 and October 1963 in Dallas. Five landed on November 25, 1963, just in time to witness nuclear annihilation linked to the fact that history had been altered when the assassination of President John F. Kennedy did not occur. Five managed to travel back to 10 days before the nuclear apocalypse and track down the separated siblings, all of whom had built new lives for themselves.

The Umbrella Academy had to figure out how to avert the apocalypse while negotiating a deal with the Handler (Kate Walsh), head of the Commission, so they could return to their original timeline. They were also being pursued by a trio of Swedish assassins determined to wipe them out. And we learned that their adoptive father, Reginald Hargreeves, was actually an interdimensional being with some pretty devastating super powers of his own.

The siblings ultimately managed to travel back to 2019, only to find that the timeline had been altered. Hargreeves was still alive in this timeline and had adopted five different “gifted” children who made up the Sparrow Academy—one of whom was their deceased sibling Ben (Justin H. Min), who appeared in the first two seasons as a ghost who could only communicate through Klaus (Robert Sheehan). In the new timeline, Ben is very much alive and remembers nothing about the Umbrella Academy or his original siblings.

Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.
Enlarge / Their dead sibling Ben (Justin H. Min) is very much alive in this timeline and part of the rival Sparrow Academy.

YouTube/Netflix

That’s quite a setup for S3. Per the official premise:

After putting a stop to 1963’s doomsday, the Umbrella Academy return home to the present, convinced they prevented the initial apocalypse and fixed this godforsaken timeline once and for all. But after a brief moment of celebration, they realize things aren’t exactly (okay, not at all) how they left them. Enter the Sparrow Academy. Smart, stylish, and about as warm as a sea of icebergs, the Sparrows immediately clash with the Umbrellas in a violent face-off that turns out to be the least of everyone’s concerns. Navigating challenges, losses, and surprises of their own—and dealing with an unidentified destructive entity wreaking havoc in the Universe (something they may have caused)—now all they need to do is convince Dad’s new and possibly better family to help them put right what their arrival made wrong. Will they find a way back to their pre-apocalyptic lives? Or is this new world about to reveal more than just a hiccup in the timeline?

We know that Vanya will come out as a transgender man, Viktor, in S3, mirroring Elliott Page’s own real-life transition. And it looks like Ritu Arya will be reprising her role as Lila, the late Handler’s adopted daughter (and Diego’s love interest) from 1963, who can mirror the powers of other gifted people. Ben’s fellow Sparrows in the new timeline are Marcus (Justin Cornwell), Fei (Britne Oldford), Alphonso (Jake Epstein), Sloane (Genesis Rodriguez), and Jayme (Cazzie David).

It's Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve's closest assistant.
Enlarge / It’s Pogo! The super-intelligent chimp is Reginald Hargreeve’s closest assistant.

YouTube/Netflix

The trailer picks up where S2 left off, as the Umbrellas confront Reginald, who insists they don’t belong there, leading to the reveal of the Sparrows and Ben. “When we jumped here we created a time paradox,” Five explains. “Our little paradox brought forth the freaking Kugelblitz.” In physics, a kugelblitz is a black hole formed from radiation rather than matter. In the series, the Kugelblitz is a glowing cube that seems to be some kind of powerful weapon. It might just be turning into a black hole (if it isn’t one already), since it seems the paradox is swallowing everything up. That’s right, we’ve got another looming apocalypse on our hands, and only four or five days to save the world.

It’s good to see that the wry humor that raised S2 above its rather more dour freshman outing is intact. There’s the inevitable battle between Umbrellas and Sparrows, but perhaps they’ll decide to combine their gifts and work together, because apocalypse. There’s a great scene where Viktor tells Marcus that he’s not better than him. “I ended the world twice,” Viktor says. “And you? You’re just meat and spandex.” Burn!

Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics' Hotel Oblivion?
Enlarge / Could this be an alt-timeline take on the comics’ Hotel Oblivion?

YouTube/Netflix

We might meet the alternate versions of the Umbrellas in this new timeline, since even though they weren’t adopted by Hargreeves, they should still exist. And what should our originals do when they meet those other selves? Diego wants to kill that self, and Klaus wants to sleep with his counterpart. (“Oh, come on, as if you wouldn’t climb Luther Mountain,” he says when Luther objects.) Avoidance is the wisest course of action, which probably means nobody will take it.

And is that the Hotel Oblivion making an unexpected appearance, renamed the Hotel Obsidian? In the comics, the hotel is a tower on another planet, built by Hargreeves, that serves as a prison for all the criminals captured by the Umbrella Academy. It’s briefly mentioned in The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite and plays a major role in 2019’s The Umbrella Academy: Hotel Oblivion, in which a supervillain named Perseus X breaks out all the prisoners in 1980. We’ll have to see how much, if any, of this storyline will find its way into the series—it doesn’t look like the hotel is on another planet, and the name has been changed—but its presence here in an alternate timeline is intriguing.

The third season of The Umbrella Academy drops on Netflix on June 22, 2022.

Listing image by YouTube/Netflix

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Multiversus hands-on: Finally, a compelling Smash Bros. clone

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Enlarge / Yes, we’re as surprised by this game being good (at least in its closed alpha state) as you are.

Warner Bros. Games

Starting today, Warner Bros. Games is taking the formal veil off its worst-kept video game secret in years: Multiversus. When we saw the leaks about this upcoming free-to-play PC and console game, which stars various WB and Time Warner intellectual property in a cartoony, Smash Bros.-style arena fighter, we had our reservations. Was WB seriously trying to compete with Nintendo’s biggest fighting game by pitting Arya Stark against… Shaggy from Scooby-Doo? Whose dream cartoon face-off is that?

A few days ago, WB invited us to go hands-on to see for ourselves what the game is like ahead of today’s launch of a closed alpha test to address those kinds of questions and more. So far, we’ve come away impressed and surprised. In a world that didn’t necessarily need another Smash Bros. clone, the devs at Player First Games have seemingly cracked the code—and made something that could neatly coexist with Nintendo’s massive hit, if not surpass it. (Even better, at first blush, the F2P stuff seems tolerable!)

Less blocking, more cooperating

Just a normal, everyday mash-up of WB intellectual property.
Enlarge / Just a normal, everyday mash-up of WB intellectual property.

WB Games

Most of the “arena fighter” genre basics, as established by Smash Bros., are accounted for in WB’s latest fighting game. Instead of wearing down an energy bar à la Street Fighter, Multiversus players try to “ring out” their foes by racking up damage and setting up knockout blows. Movement is pretty Super Mario-like in terms of dashing and jumping between floating platforms, and players have a range of basic and special attacks that don’t require complex joystick and button combos.

Reindog, the "brand-new" character who joins a bunch of familiar WB faces in <em>Multiversus</em>, can use its tether to not only boost allies but also yank them back to safety. If you can imagine jumping off-screen to punish a foe in crazy fashion, then having your ally yank you back, you can begin imagining where <em>Multiversus</em>' co-op appeal begins to shine.
Enlarge / Reindog, the “brand-new” character who joins a bunch of familiar WB faces in Multiversus, can use its tether to not only boost allies but also yank them back to safety. If you can imagine jumping off-screen to punish a foe in crazy fashion, then having your ally yank you back, you can begin imagining where Multiversus‘ co-op appeal begins to shine.

WB Games

The biggest differences in Multiversus come from the game’s focus on two-on-two fighting, as opposed to the one-on-one and free-for-all combat traditionally seen in Smash clones. Most of Multiversus‘ current cast members have at least one maneuver in their arsenal that will benefit a teammate, though these moves also function as fine solo-combat options if you don’t team up with someone. Wonder Woman can generate a shield for allies; Garnet from Steven Universe can throw a bolt that both harms foes and boosts allies; while a new game-specific creature dubbed Reindog can fake like the Medic from Team Fortress 2 and connect a power-boosting line to a teammate.

The rest of the game’s mechanics have been shifted from the Smash Bros. archetype to nudge players into using their special co-op powers. For one, shields don’t exist; you can’t stand back and hold a shield button down to block incoming projectiles, and you can’t tap a “perfect block” at the right time to counter a melee attack. Any team that has a defensive or shielding ability available will want to lean on that to some extent. A default “grab” button doesn’t exist in this game, either; certain characters have grabs as special abilities instead.

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