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Indie farm-em-up Stardew Valley is coming to iOS and Android – TechCrunch

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Stardew Valley, the hit indie farming game made by one guy in his spare time, is coming to mobile. I’ve dropped dozens of hours into this charming little spiritual successor to Harvest Moon, and now I know how I’m going to spend my next few plane rides.

In case you’re not aware, Stardew Valley is a game where you inherit a farm near a lovely little town and must restore it, befriend (and romance) the locals, fish, fight your way through caverns, forage for spring onions and wild horseradish, mine ore, and… well, there’s a lot. Amazingly, it was created entirely by one person, Eric Barone, who taught himself to code, make pixel art, compose music and do literally everything. And yes, it took a long time. (GQ of all things wrote an interesting profile recently.)

Fortunately it was a huge hit, to Barone’s great surprise and no doubt pleasure, and deservedly so.

Originally released for the PC, Stardew Valley has since expanded (with the help of non-Barone teams) to the major consoles and is now coming to iOS — undiminished, Barone was careful to point out in a blog post. This game is big, but nothing is left out from the mobile port.

“It’s the full game, not a cut down version, and plays almost identically to all other versions,” he wrote. “The main difference is that it has been rebuilt for touch-screen gameplay on iOS (new UI, menu systems and controls).”

Barone has added a lot to the game since its release in early 2016, and the mobile version will include those updates up to 1.3 — meaning you’ll have several additional areas and features but not the multiplayer options most recently added. Those are planned, however, so if you want to do a co-op farm you’ll just have to wait a bit. No mods will be supported, alas.

In a rare treat for mobile ports, you can take your progress from the PC version and transfer it to iOS via iTunes. No need to start over again, which, fun as it is, can be a bit daunting when you realize how much time you’ve put into the game to start with.

I can’t recommend Stardew Valley enough, and the controls should be more than adequate for the laid-back gameplay it offers (combat is fairly forgiving). It’ll cost $8 in the App Store starting October 24 (Android version coming soon), half off the original $15 price — which I must say was amazingly generous to begin with. You can’t go wrong here, trust me.

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Epic continues its studio-acquisition spree, buys Fall Guys devs

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Enlarge / At this time, we’re unsure whether Mediatonic was paid by Epic in cash, stock options, or golden crowns.

On Tuesday, Epic Games, the maker of Unreal Engine and studio behind Fortnite, continued its push into owning a corner of the game- and software-development ecosystem by acquiring Mediatonic, the makers of popular video game series Fall Guys.

The studio, headquartered in London with satellite operations throughout Europe, was formed in 2005 and is mostly known for contract work on licensed games (along with a significant stint making “web” games for platforms like Facebook), only to explode last year with Fall Guys, a quirky, family-friendly twist on the burgeoning “battle royale” genre. The game’s 2020 success was propelled in part by a PlayStation Plus giveaway and high viewership on Twitch.

Steam wiggle room?

This studio acquisition means Devolver Digital has been relieved as Fall Guys’ publisher. In its stead, Epic Games’ ownership of Unreal Engine will be leveraged, as per Mediatonic’s announcement on Fall Guys‘ future:

Fortnite and Rocket League already have tons of features we’d love to bring to Fall Guys—account systems, cross-play, squad vs. squad modes, etc… We’re going to work hard on bringing more of these features to Fall Guys, too!

This comparison to Rocket League is an immediate reminder that Epic has been bullish on the studio-acquisition front, since it purchased game maker Psyonix in May 2019. Within a year of that acquisition, Epic turned the game Rocket League (which originally launched with a $19.99 MSRP) into a free-to-play product, and Mediatonic’s FAQ on its own acquisition acknowledges this possibility by saying the company has “nothing to announce right now” about going F2P. In Psyonix’s transition, Rocket League was eventually wrested away from Steam for PC players, and Mediatonic has, for now, pledged that its own game “will remain purchasable on Steam and PlayStation” and will soon get ports to Xbox and Nintendo Switch. (That language about “will remain purchasable” gives Mediatonic and Epic Games plenty of wiggle room to change the deal going forward.)

Epic Games’ development-acquisition tear has largely revolved around software and tools, not game studios, as evidenced by the company’s acquisition of the hugely popular RAD compression and development suite in January. (If you’ve played console or PC games in the past decade, you’ve seen the RAD logo in at least one game’s opening crawl, if not dozens of them.) And two animation-minded acquisitions, of Hyprsense in November 2020 and Cubic Motion in March 2020, have been paid forward in Epic’s “digital humans” initiative, which revolves around impressive real-time human animations for Unreal Engine games and software alike. These acquisitions have come alongside continued rounds of funding in Epic’s favor, with summer 2020 seeing the studio getting an injection of $1.78 billion.

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It Takes Two hands-on: Impeccable co-op platforming—on mute, at least

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The team at Swedish game studio Hazelight has spent nearly a decade making cooperative adventure games—and doubling down on the “co-op” tag by requiring two players for their games to work. But where 2013’s Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons offered a refreshing morsel of co-op adventuring, 2018’s A Way Out buried its most clever moments in an overwrought story and slow mechanics.

Trailers for the company’s next game, March 26’s It Takes Two (published by EA), got my hopes up in both of those critical categories. The footage seemed to turn a new Hazelight storytelling page in terms of a “rom-com” plot, while its always-cooperative gameplay looked bouncier and more action-packed. I optimistically attended an online preview event last week to see what the fuss might be about, which allowed me to install and test the game’s first two hours on my PC (and link up with Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland as an online co-op partner).

In the game’s first two hours, we discovered a real surprise: EA’s best-controlling 3D platformer since 2007’s The Simpsons, and a remarkably fun co-op spin on the genre in terms of solving puzzles and battling enemies with asymmetrical, often-changing abilities. What wasn’t surprising, sadly, is Hazelight’s persisting shoddiness at telling a story worth investing in.

Hammer, nails, nectar, matches

I’ll start with the good stuff, which requires a yadda-yadda-yadda of the plot: each player controls either the husband or the wife in an unhappy couple. Additionally, you’ve been transformed into handmade dolls. Getting yourselves back to normal requires adventuring through a Honey, I Shrunk The Kids-styled world: ordinary objects and environments become all the more dangerous when you’re pint-sized.

After the game’s introductory sequence plays out, a solid line splits the screen (even when played online). That means players can see each other’s perspective while 3D-platforming. Both players get a tutorial-like chance to run, dash-roll, double-jump, rail-grind, and crouch-walk around an attic, and this quickly confirms that Hazelight has mostly nailed the basic sweet-sauce foundation that Super Mario 64 built. Blobby jump physics feel powerful and predictable, and it’s easy to reach and maintain a high running speed without feeling slippy or imprecise. The game’s behind-the-back camera system generally keeps up, except when the system occasionally fails to auto-adjust for high-jump landings—and makes players squint to find a hard-to-see landing shadow.

With that core established, IT2 transitions into an asymmetrical adventure where husband Cody and wife May each receive one special, temporary ability for the duration of a “chapter.” The first chapter gives May a hammer and Cody a magical nailgun. When that chapter concludes, the items change: Cody gets a squirt-gun full of nectar, and May gets a funky little launcher that shoots tiny, barely lit matches.

You will need your partner’s unique help to proceed, and vice versa.

The hammer-and-nail chapter plays out logically enough: May’s hammer can whack nearby objects in need of blunt force. Meanwhile, Cody’s nailgun can shoot distant targets and switches. This dynamic becomes more clever by the chapter’s end, in that May will use the hammer to swing from platform to platform, while Cody will have to alternate between shooting nails at switches and giving May veritable “hooks” to swing from, all while managing a limited nail supply.

This is the weaker of the game’s first two chapters, in part because the person with the nailgun mostly stands still while managing nails and looking for switches to hit, all while the hammer-user does more of the active running and hustling. (A brief “protect me from enemies” sniping challenge for the nailgun might’ve helped here.) But for the most part, you will need your partner’s unique help to proceed, and vice versa—and this often requires proper timing or “shoot the door… now” levels of coordination. These moments feel pretty good, thanks to clear level design and clever puzzles that usually require mild conversations to solve.

Promising asymmetry, fun rides

Once you enter a wasp’s nest (literally—your team is teeny-tiny), the second chapter’s new pair of abilities (sticky, heavy nectar and flammable matches) kicks into satisfying gear. Sometimes, you simply need to destroy a flammable object, so one player gets nectar stuck to the object, and the other player shoots a match at it. Other puzzles are a matter of physics—like when you see a swing that can be weighed down. Once you’ve situated on the swing, put a pile of nectar on one half, and set that nectar on fire, the weight-changing momentum will send players the way they need to go.

Plus, this chapter introduces co-op combat, which fits comfortably into the game’s aforementioned bouncy-platformer control scheme. IT2 is at its best when it alternates between clever puzzles and screen-filling combat, which feels fun and requires productive communication with your teammate. In the case of nectar-and-fire combat, usually a weak point must be doused in nectar, then set on fire to harm a boss, for example. This might be why the second chapter felt more thrilling than the first, since the hammer-and-nail portion includes nothing by way of combat and a few redundant puzzles.

From the look of things, every chapter in this “12-hour game” (according to director Josef Fares) introduces a new pair of asymmetric abilities. I have a sneaking suspicion the nectar-and-fire combo will be among the final game’s best (and thus made it an ideal gameplay sample for the preview version we played). I’ve spied additional abilities in gameplay trailers: a top-down, Gauntlet-style level where one player wields a fiery sword and the other shoots beams of ice; a chapter where the players hold opposing-polarity ends of a magnet to move each other around; and an ambitious-looking time-reversing sequence, in which one of the players can make and manipulate a clone.

These are interspersed with higher-speed sequences on vehicles, and I’ve already played a couple of those. One involved both players sliding-and-grinding on a series of rails. Meanwhile, another involved players splitting up the pilot and gunner duties on a tiny biplane (which uses Cody’s adult-sized underpants as a basis for wings). These also control well, and I’m hopeful the game’s frantic swaps between gameplay styles remain as steady in the final 12-hour version.

Rated G for gaslighting

Here’s another reason for optimism thus far: IT2, more often than not, is happy to let an idea or gimmick expire before it gets old. Sure, the hammer-and-nail chapter could’ve been shrunk by one or two puzzles, and some of the mini-bosses could have died a cycle or two sooner. But my two-hour test felt dense in terms of puzzle and action variety, and so much stuff to do was really good fodder for my back-and-forth banter with Orland as a testing companion.

The game’s plot and characters also proved to be fruitful as conversational fodder… but not for pleasant reasons.

We were dropped into the final game’s opening sequence exactly as it will play out for the game’s retail buyers, and that meant we saw exactly how Cody and May’s relationship and personalities unfold for new players. They’re on the verge of divorce, we come to learn, and the game opens with them bickering while their daughter Rose spies on the fighting from afar. She cries onto a pair of dolls and pleads for her parents to become friends again, at which point they wake up as confused, terrified dolls.

Cody quickly makes himself known as a manipulative and downright toxic husband. In multiple sequences, May (the family’s breadwinner and an accomplished engineer) makes clear that Cody failed to uphold his responsibilities as a co-parent, and he responds with passive-aggressive deflection. “You broke the vacuum cleaner,” May points out in one sequence (when their shrunken-selves encounter said vacuum as an impediment on their miniaturized adventure). Cody replies: “Yeah, well, you didn’t fix it!”

Elsewhere, May chides Cody for failing to pick up their daughter from school on time recently. The only response he can muster is that May is too busy at work to contribute.

This becomes the plot’s common refrain, and we’re forced to watch May repeatedly give up on advocating for herself—without either her voice actor or the character’s animation acknowledging what a scumbag Cody is. Sadly, the person who controls May doesn’t get a button-press prompt at any point that says “ditch the mother____r already.”

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Hacker reduces GTA Online load times by roughly 70 percent

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Enlarge / You could spend less time looking at loading screens like this with a new DLL fix.

A hacker going by the handle T0st says he has figured out a core issue that caused longer-than-necessary load times in Grand Theft Auto Online for years. The hacker has released a proof of concept DLL fix that shortens those lengthy startup times by roughly 70 percent.

Grand Theft Auto Online‘s PC load times have been a persistent issue for seven years now, remaining slow despite general improvements to hardware and the game’s status as a continuing lucrative revenue stream for publisher Take Two. An anonymous Reddit poll last year found that roughly half of players were waiting three to six minutes for the game to load up, and about 35 percent of players waiting even longer to start every session.

That’s not a scientific survey or anything, but even accounting for self-selection and reporting issues, those load times are very long, especially for such an old game. The problem is even harder to understand when the single-player Grand Theft Auto V tends to load many times faster.

Saving time with disassembly

To get to the bottom of the problem, T0st writes that they started by profiling their own CPU to try to figure out why the game was maxing out a single CPU thread for over four minutes during loading. After using a tool to dump the process stack and disassembling the GTA code as it was running in memory, T0st noticed a set of (somewhat obfuscated) functions that seemed to be parsing a 10MB JSON file with over 63,000 total entires.

The JSON file in question appeared to be the “net shop catalog” that describes every single item GTA Online players can purchase with in-game currency. Parsing a 10MB file shouldn’t be too much of a problem for a modern computer, but a few obscure problems in the specific implementation seem to lead to massive slowdowns.

For one, the specific function used to parse the JSON string (seemingly sscanf, in this case) was apparently running a time-intensive strlen checking function repeatedly after the read for every single piece of data. Simply caching that string length value to speed up those checks resulted in an over 50 percent reduction in load times on its own, T0st writes.

After parsing all this JSON data, GTA Online seems to load it into an array in an extremely inefficient way, checking the entire array for duplicates from scratch as it grows. Replacing that process with a hash table that can quickly check for duplicates led to a roughly 25 percent load time reduction on its own, T0st writes.

With these two fixes combined, T0st says GTA Online‘s load time went down from six minutes to just under two minutes on the test machine. Those interested in replicating the results can build a similar DLL from T0st’s source code. Players should only do so at their own risk, though, since this kind of modification could easily (and erroneously) set off the game’s anti-cheat checks.

Meanwhile, T0st writes that implementing this fix for all players on Rockstar’s side “shouldn’t take more than a day for a single dev to solve.” Here’s hoping the renewed attention this issue is getting will get Rockstar to do so sooner than later.

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