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Report: System Shock 3 developers are “no longer employed”

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The latest (and possibly last) public trailer for System Shock 3.

The long-pending dream of a new sequel in the storied System Shock series may be well and truly dead, according to a new report from Video Games Chronicle.

The fate of the new sequel—the first in the series since 1999—started to look questionable last February, when struggling publisher Starbreeze was forced to sell the rights to the game back to developer OtherSide Entertainment to recoup costs. In the wake of that move, though, OtherSide managed to put together a GDC demo and was optimistic about potential publishing options, including self-publishing. OtherSide also put out a new “pre-alpha” gameplay trailer as recently as November, suggesting things were moving along predictably.

The development seems to have taken a turn for the worse in recent months, though, with former community manager Sam Luangkhot confirming in December that a number of high-profile members of the OtherSide team had been laid off. That list of departures included the game’s writer & director, senior designer, lead programmer, QA lead, and senior environment artist, according to publicly available LinkedIn profiles posted by those affected.

More recently, an anonymous OtherSide developer (whose authenticity has been confirmed by Luangkhot) suggested on the RPG Codex forums that the entire OtherSide team is “no longer employed there.” The developer went on to say that while the game’s core systems were “nearly done,” the team was still “way behind on… content” years after the game was first announced.

“The only reason I’m posting is because I saw so much confusion about the state of the company and the project I thought some first person information would be welcome,” the anonymous developer wrote in a separate post. “If Starbreeze hadn’t gone into crisis I think we would’ve delivered something interesting with some fresh and innovative gameplay, but a much smaller game than what people were expecting and inevitably disappointing for a sequel to such a beloved franchise.”

“Those high expectations drove a lot of expensive experimentation,” the developer continued. “We were a small team and knew we couldn’t compete with current immersive sims in production quality and breadth, so we had to be creative and clever and weird. And we were on our way to make something unique and possibly fun, but probably not what the audience was hungry for.”

The reports would suggest an anticlimactic conclusion to a project that started over four years ago as a wild idea from a handful of System Shock development veterans. The potential of the project was enough to drag storied game maker (and original System Shock producer) Warren Spector out of academia and back into a studio director position with OtherSide.

Spector said as recently as May that he and the team were having difficulty balancing the audience’s perceived desire for gore with the kind of survival-horror tension the series is known for. “There are expectations with a game like System Shock that I’m going to go a little bit further [with violence] than I normally would,” he said at the time. “So what I’m trying to do is listen to my team, listen to the audience, and adjust my beliefs, or work within my beliefs, appropriately.”

The fate of System Shock 3 shouldn’t impact a separate System Shock reboot effort being undertaken by Nightdive Studios. That project continues to make apparent progress after a $1.35 million Kickstarter campaign and a delay to a planned 2020 release a few years ago.

Listing image by Electronic Arts

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Review: More remix than adaptation, Foundation is top-notch storytelling

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Isaac Asimov’s hugely influential Foundation series of science fiction novels is notoriously difficult to adapt to the screen. The author himself admitted that he wrote strictly for the printed page, and he always refused invitations to adapt his work for film or TV. But Asimov was more than happy to let others adapt his work to a new medium, and he was wise enough to expect that there would—and should—be significant departures from the print version.

That’s just what showrunner David S. Goyer (Dark Knight trilogy, Da Vinci’s Demons) has done with Foundation, Apple TV+’s visually stunning, eminently bingeable new series. Goyer describes it as more of a remix than a direct adaptation, and to my taste, it is a smashing success in storytelling. This series respects Asimov’s sweeping visionary ideas without lapsing into slavish reverence and over-pontification. That said, how much you like Goyer’s vision might depend on how much of a stickler you are about remaining faithful to the source material.

(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)

The fundamental narrative arc of the series remains intact. It’s a story that takes place across multiple planets over 1,000 years, with a huge cast of characters. Mathematician Hari Seldon (Jared Harris, Chernobyl, Carnival Row) has developed a controversial theory of “psychohistory” that essentially applies math to sociology to make predictions about the future of the Galactic Empire, which rules every living person in the Milky Way. Seldon’s calculations predict the fall of the empire, ushering in a Dark Ages that will last 30,000 years, after which a second empire will emerge.

The collapse of the empire is inevitable, but Seldon has a plan to reduce the Dark Ages to a mere 1,000 years through the establishment of a Foundation to preserve all human knowledge so that civilization need not rebuild itself entirely from scratch. He is aided by his adoptive son and right-hand man, Raych Foss (Alfred Enoch, who played Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter franchise) and his new protege, Gaal Dornick (Lou Llobell, Voyagers), a math prodigy who travels to the capital to work with Seldon.

Seldon’s predictions make him a dangerous traitor in the eyes of the empire’s rulers. As he himself notes, those in power fear and despise change, and yet change is constant—and inevitable. Instead of executing him and creating a martyr, the rulers exile Seldon to the remote planet of Terminus at the edge of the galaxy, along with the members of the new Foundation, where they begin compiling the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Eventually, there is a threat from a neighboring outer planet, ultimately resolved by the warden of Terminus, Salvor Hardin (Leah Harvey, Fighting with my Family). And the Foundation members learn that Seldon’s plan was far more ambitious and complex than they realized. He told them just enough to set events in motion, since the tenets of psychohistory include an uncertainty principle of sociology, whereby if the collective population learns too much about its predicted fateful actions, those actions will soon become unpredictable. The clash between Seldon and the empire has often been described as a thousand-year game of chess, but there’s an element of rolling the dice and trusting in probabilities for the long game as well.

Perhaps the biggest change from the books is the replacement of the Empire’s ruling committee with a trio of clones called the Cleons. Brother Day (Lee Pace, Halt and Catch Fire, Pushing Daisies) is the primary ruler, with Brother Dusk (Terrance Mann, Sense8) serving in an advisory/legacy role. Meanwhile, Brother Dawn (played as a child by Cooper Carter and as a teenager by Cassian Bilton) is being groomed to take over as the new Brother Day. This gives more of a human face to the rulers, with complex emotions and interpersonal relationships, and all the actors are perfectly cast. I personally would watch Lee Pace read the phone book, and he has much meatier fare to work with here. Technically, they are all perfect incarnations of the same man, at different ages, and this is both the source of their strength as a team and of their conflicts. (Dusk has gained valuable wisdom, if the younger, strong-willed Day could bring himself to listen.)

We knew from the trailers that Salvor Hardin, warden of Terminus, had been gender-swapped, but the character has also been completely reimagined. The Salvor of the books is a shrewd politician (the latest in a long line) who deftly navigates a fraught political environment as the Foundation plants roots on Terminus. In the series, Salvor is a young woman who is still figuring out who she is and what role she’s meant to play in Seldon’s great plan. She shares many of the same traits as Book Salvor, but they are not yet fully developed. She also has a love interest in intergalactic space junker Hugo Krast (Daniel MacPherson, A Wrinkle in Time), and a secret connection in the grand scheme of things that we shall refrain from revealing here.

Asimov’s original trilogy was (to my college self) an enjoyably brisk read, even if the prose got a bit dry and cerebral at times. Goyer has preserved that same tight pacing in the TV series, deftly weaving in character backstories to flesh them out, setting up relationships and the inevitable conflicts between those characters, and inventing some pretty big dramatic moments out of whole cloth to keep the story humming along and viewers hooked. The story jumps between settings and time periods quite a lot, but the writers have done an excellent job sign-posting those jumps, especially in the earlier episodes, to ensure viewers are sufficiently oriented to follow along. (No need for elaborate timeline charts here, as with The Witcher and Dark, although that may change with subsequent seasons.)

The actors all deliver strong, powerful performances from the aforementioned leads on down, and the cinematography and costume and production design are exceptional. Apple TV+ is deeply invested in this series, and it shows. If I had one tiny quibble, it would be that Goyer had so much ground to cover to set up this first season that the big ideas sometimes feel more ornamental than central. I’d love to see the ensuing seasons (assuming they transpire) take a few more breaths here and there to bring those elements front and center more often. I’m confident this writing team could do so without bogging down everything else that works so well.

In short, this is a terrific first ten episodes—Goyer envisions some 80 episodes, should Apple TV+ give him the chance—with no maddening cliffhanger. The finale resolves several plot lines and sets up a few others, leaving viewers both satisfied and eager for more. I think Asimov himself would be pleased with Foundation, particularly since his daughter Robyn is an executive producer on the series and signed off on Goyer’s vision.

The first two episodes of Foundation are now available for streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes will drop every Friday until the S1 finale on November 19, 2021.

Listing image by YouTube/Apple TV+

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Death Stranding Director’s Cut review: More fun, just as divisive

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Death Stranding‘s release in 2019 was probably the most anticipated game of Hideo Kojima’s career.

The Metal Gear director had arguably become the premiere auteur in video games. He had a reputation for convention-bucking design, meta-humor, and unapologetic cinematic influences. But this project was the first child of his acrimonious divorce with Konami, and no one had a clue what he might do next.

Death Stranding was appropriately weird, whatever it was. The first teaser showed crab exoskeletons crawling over a lifeless beach, tar handprints imprinted on the sand, a naked, weeping Norman Reedus (Senior Gaming Editor Kyle Orland noted in our original review on PS4, Death Stranding is Hideo Kojima unleashed. So what could possibly be left for a Death Stranding Director’s Cut? It turns out, quite a lot—just maybe not by that name.

Death Stranding Director’s Cut [PS5]

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A Hideo Kojima game, still

Yes, Death Stranding has finally hit PS5, and it’s as uncompromising now as it was two years ago—even if it doesn’t much resemble a director’s cut in the typical film sense. Unlike Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut (Sony’s other recent PS5 re-release buoyed by extended content), Death Stranding‘s doesn’t have a full-blown expansion bolted on to its older foundations to help flesh out its story.

Kojima doesn’t agree with its naming convention, either, which won’t faze anyone who follows his daily film, book, and music recommendations on social media. In a recent tweet, he offered a more fitting name for this release (“Director’s Plus”), confirming that there wasn’t a collection of cutting-room-floor scenes inserted back into the original’s ambitious, unwieldy script.

If you skipped Death Stranding when it was on PS4 or PC, Director’s Cut is the one to play. It offers fresh goodies for players to mess around with and a couple of fun, if bite-sized, new mission areas which blatantly call back to Metal Gear, among other things. As a bells-and-whistles port, Director’s Cut does a good job of expanding on its delivery-man-in-the-post-apocalypse-simulator premise, bolstered by the exclusive DLC of its release and tweaked further to take full advantage of the PS5’s suite of exclusive features.

These extras don’t necessarily push things far outside the grueling moment-to-moment revolutions of the game’s underlying systems—and in some instances, they even intensify the game. But what stands out more to me than the advertised toys is how KojiPro has gone back and seemingly re-finessed what was previously there, going so far as to smooth out some of the prickly rough edges that divided players on release. Though subtle, these revisions offer the best argument for playing (or replaying) this version. That said, I’ve loved Kojima’s work since 1998, so if you weren’t already on board for Death Stranding‘s wild ride, my digging into what’s new here may not change your mind.

For everyone else, you’ll find plenty of Kojima goodness. Director’s Cut leans into Metal Gear‘s inclination to turn on a dime from theatrical gravitas to left-field absurdity, something that was curbed a bit in the original Death Stranding. Now you’re free to run for your life past umbilical-corded monsters to building ramps for daredevil jumping over chasms, or you can use a cargo catapult as a remote-controlled mortar to bombard terrorists in POV with a load of parcels—y’know, normal stuff for any software carrying the “A Hideo Kojima Game” label.

There’s more here for diligent players, too. You can uncover additional equipment types designed for more efficient hauls across Death Stranding‘s desolate landscape, a genuinely unexpected shift that goes a long way toward making Director’s Cut as inviting for newcomers as it ever will be. There are also actual changes to the game world itself, though you’d likely never notice them without comparing this version with the PS4’s. Regardless of whatever you choose to do, though, you’re playing in Kojima’s sandbox. Hope you like his pitch.

Reconnecting the world?

If you’ve never touched Death Stranding, it’s a good example of what happens with a celebrity creative calls up all his buddies to make something crazy. Joining Reedus, several of its characters are played by actors or directors Kojima deeply admires, including Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal, Casino Royale), Lea Seydoux (Blue is the Warmest Color), Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives), and Wonder Woman herself, Lindsay Wagner, though she was mostly let off the hook for voice work alongside Del Toro and Refn. A number of other friends appear as survivors in the world: Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Kong: Skull Island), Geoff Keighley, Junji Ito, Famitsu Weekly editor Hirokazu Hamamura, Remedy head and Max Payne face model Sam Lake—the list goes on.

Its plot sounds equally insane. After a future America is devastated by a mysterious cataclysm, invisible ghosts from a post-limbo otherworld permeate the land of the living. These ghosts (BTs, an abbreviation for “Beached Things”) cause voidouts (massive explosions that annihilate entire cities) when they come into contact with a human. Meanwhile, any corpse will transform into a BT itself if not incinerated. Following the disaster, the country is in shambles, and survivors from sea to shining sea to permanently hunker down in underground shelters. They want to avoid BTs and the storms of instant-aging “timefall” the monsters bring in their wake.

Sam Porter Bridges (Reedus), a porter from the organization Bridges (one of Kojima’s tamer name choices) is different. He can come back from the dead, for one. He also has an affliction that allows him to sense nearby BTs, and he is partnered with the baby from the game’s first teaser, BB, who lives in a pod on Sam’s chest and operates as a living spectral radar to make BTs visible. With these gifts, Sam is tasked by Bridges with the unenviable job of saving what’s left of America and reintegrating the now-disparate “strands” of society through an interconnected successor to the internet.

As such, you deliver cargo to people in need on a coast-to-coast journey while also bringing more nodes into the so-called Chiral Network. In a clever touch, outposts throughout the country indirectly connect you with other players on their own expeditions, allowing anyone “in-network” to share items, traversal equipment, vehicles, and (if they feel like lending a hand) lost deliveries, transported asynchronously in from others’ games.

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Apple turns post-lawsuit tables on Epic, will block Fortnite on iOS

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Enlarge / A Fortnite loading screen displayed on an iPhone in 2018, when Apple and Epic weren’t at each other’s legal throats.

Weeks after Epic’s apparent “win” against Apple in the Epic Games v. Apple case, Apple issued a letter denying Epic’s request to have its developer license agreement reinstated until all legal options are exhausted. This effectively bans Fortnite and any other software from the game maker from returning to Apple’s App Store for years.

Epic was handed an initial victory when the US District Court for Northern California issued an injunction on September 10 ordering Apple to open up in-game payment options for all developers. At the time, the injunction was something of a moral victory for Epic—allowing the developer to keep its in-game payment systems in its free-to-play Fortnite intact while avoiding paying Apple a 30 percent fee that had previously covered all in-app transactions.

But now Epic has faced a significant reversal of fortune.

In a letter sent on September 21 to Epic’s legal counsel, Apple’s lawyers said the company refused to reinstate Epic’s account until the courts issue a final, non-appealable verdict. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney revealed Apple’s decision in series of tweets posted on September 22. Sweeney claims the appeals process for the case could take as long as five years.

Apple’s revocation of Epic’s developer license—required to develop and distribute games to the App Store—was “valid, lawful, and enforceable,” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said in her ruling. This leaves the decision whether to allow Epic back into the App Store up to Apple.

Apple’s legal team also cited Epic’s alleged “duplicitous” conduct. Apple is referring to the move that sparked the case—Epic adding code into iOS’s version of Fortnite that enable users to buy items directly from the company.

The letter pointed to a tweet Sweeney had posted earlier this month. In the tweet, Sweeney said he “wouldn’t trade an alternative payment system away to get Fortnite back on iOS.” Sweeney said his words were taken out of context.

Sweeney tweeted an email he wrote to Apple’s legal counsel on September 16, stating that, while Epic was appealing the court’s decision, the developer had paid Apple the court-ordered $6 million in damages required by the September 10 ruling. He said that his company had disabled the server-side software required for in-game payments for players who still had Fortnite installed on their iOS devices. He also alleged that Apple lied about its intentions to work with Epic to bring the developer back to the App Store.

“Apple lied,” Sweeney said. “Apple spent a year telling the world, the court, and the press they’d ‘welcome Epic’s return to the App Store if they agree to play by the same rules as everyone else.’ Epic agreed, and now Apple has reneged in another abuse of its monopoly power over a billion users.”

While the September 10 ruling went in Apple’s favor, the company was not granted everything it sought in its legal defense. Judge Gonzalez Rogers gave Apple a victory in ruling it had not violated antitrust law, though the company lost the ability to prevent developers from including and advertising their own in-game app purchase payment systems. That ruling could lead to greater repercussions for Apple from other game makers or subscription service providers in the future.

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