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Shacknews - Steve Watts

While the Xbox One turning on with the sound of your voice made for an impressive stage presentation, it didn't take long for the Internet to notice: doesn't that mean it's listening all the time? Today, in a bevy of new information that also included online checks and game licensing, Microsoft attempted to put fears at ease with more detail about the new Kinect's privacy settings.

In a detailed announcement, Microsoft stated that you'll personalize your Kinect during start-up. That will let you pick which settings are on from the start, and you can turn the sensor on, off, or pause it. When the Kinect is off, Microsoft says, it's only listening for the command "Xbox on," but you can disable that feature as well. When the Xbox One is in use, Microsoft is careful to note that it's not recording or uploading any conversation. Finally, you can use other inputs if you just want to turn off or pause the Kinect.

Concerning personal data, Microsoft claims that nothing will leave your Xbox One without explicit, expressed permission. It uses examples like a fitness game measuring heart data or a card game that views your face to determine the strength of a bluff.

This is all much more specific than the information we heard late last month, which simply promised privacy settings without going into detail.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

Almost as soon as the Xbox One announcement ended, we started hearing contradictory tales from Microsoft regarding the system's connectivity requirements. The last two weeks have apparently given the company a chance to get its messaging straight, as it finally clarified today just how often the system needs to check in.

As confirmed on the official site the system will require an online check-in every 24 hours on your primary console. If you're accessing your game library on someone else's system, that window gets narrowed to every hour. The page warns: "Offline gaming is not possible after these prescribed times until you re-establish a connection, but you can still watch live TV and enjoy Blu-ray and DVD movies."

This is similar to what Phil Harrison told Kotaku, which apparently let the cat out of the bag early. Microsoft quickly told Polygon he was merely describing "potential scenarios."

More mundane details include the recommended connection speed (1.5Mbps), and the ability to sign in and install games from your friend's house to play them there. That's certainly convenient, but the one-hour check-in time might make it less welcoming.

Shacknews - Steve Watts
Steam announced a new "Family Sharing" feature today, and is accepting beta applications to test it. When it launches fully, close friends and family will be able to play one another's games, while still earning their own achievements and saving their individual progress through the cloud.
Shacknews - Robert Workman

It's that time again, as Sony has announced that the PlayStation Network will be down this Monday for yet another round of maintenance.

The network will be taken offline from 9:40 AM PDT to 4:50 PM PDT on Monday. During that time, you won't be able to access the PlayStation Store, Account Management or Account Registration services, although you will be able to use Netflix and play certain games online, provided you logged in to PSN by August 20th.

No word yet on what Sony will be doing maintenance on, but an update could be coming to the Network shortly. We'll keep you informed. 

Shacknews - Robert Workman

Rebellion, the developers of the just-released action/adventure Sniper Elite 3, has announced the release of the second episode of the Save Churchill campaign.

In 'Belly of the Beast,' you'll find yourself tackling a new single player (or co-op) mission where you'll have to hunt down a man named Raubvogel, a mastermind of the Schutzvollstrecker, a secret faction of the German military. It seems he's been busy torturing a number of Allied prisoners for intelligence on the movements of the Allied leaders.

So, with your skills intact, you'll have to hunt down Raubvogel, fighting against all odds to bring him down once and for all.

The DLC pack is available now on Steam, and will come next month to consoles. The first two episodes are $6.99 each.

Shacknews - Ozzie Mejia

It's been nearly five years since Super Meat Boy perfectly blended together the retro elements of classic platforming and masochistic difficulty. However, it's still inspiring developers to try their own takes on the genre, with Costa Rican developers Green Lava Studios creating its own diminutive hero to star in their latest game, Fenix Rage.

Fenix Rage sees the title character as the lone survivor of his village, which was at the wrong end of a big explosion. The perpetrator was the evil Oktarus, who goes on the run with Fenix in hot pursuit. The idea is to chase Oktarus across four worlds of varying environments, each with 20 levels.

Fenix has some basic platforming moves, like jumping, wall jumping, and air dashing. Speed is key, as the idea is to finish levels as quickly as possible, with Green Lava designing this game for speed runs. As with other hardcore platformers of this type, a single hit will do Fenix in and enemies will be strategically placed across each level, requiring maximum precision with the air dash mechanic.

Stages are delightfully masochistic, with certain levels requiring some special mechanics to move ahead. For example, ice blocks can only be broken by a fiery Fenix, requiring him to slide down a lava-covered wall for a quick charge. Enemies will often get in your way, depending on their movement patterns, and boss battles can get very frustrating. However, Green Lava has made it so that respawning is instantaneous, making it much easier to try again and get that "one more!" feeling. It's hard not to get that feeling, especially during one of the lengthier World 4 levels, where I just couldn't stop trying my hand at it. The controls are friendly and intuitive enough that anyone with a sense of pride shouldn't have a problem trying one of the more difficult levels multiple times.

There's no shortage of content here, since completing the main four worlds will unlock a special dark world, which will offer harder versions of the first 80 levels. Completing that will unlock Sanctuary, the game's ninth world. Aside from the story, Fenix Rage has a couple of other unlockable modes to try. Challenge Mode requires players to complete each level with only a set number of jumps and dashes. After finishing that, players can unlock God Mode, which requires an invicible Fenix to clear out each level of all enemies before the time limit expires.

Each level also has its own set of unlockable goodies. Some levels will feature a special secondary red exit portal that will expire after a certain time. Reaching this goal in time will send players to a special 'Fenix Box' stage, allowing them to play an old prototype level. Gaining red stars in Challenge Mode will unlock arcade games, which will see Fenix using his abilities to play mini-games, such as one that tests how long Fenix can keep a soccer ball in the air. Every level also has a collectible cookie, which offers up an outside-the-box unlockable in the form of an actual cookie recipe. Indeed, collecting all of the collectible cookies in a world will reveal a real-world recipe for that world's corresponding cookie.

Fenix Rage hopes to scratch the Meat Boy itch that's been developing since Team Meat's game first released in 2010, while also providing the sense of speed that made early Sonic games so memorable. It looks to be a solid effort from the former mobile devs at Green Lava Studios. Players will have the chance to tap Fenix Rage on September 24 on PC, with Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions set to release in 2015.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

As of yesterday, Blizzard completed its first Hearthstone expansion, The Curse of Naxxramas. The multi-week event spread out 30 new cards with special boss battles. Now that it's finished, we spoke to game director Eric Dodds and production director Jason Chayes about how it started, how it's impacting the game already, and what it is teaching the studio for the future.

"We actually started on it earlier than [the official launch]. Believe it or not, this has been in development since before Hearthstone released," Chayes said. "The full team wasn't on it but the initial design started before that. What happened was as the production focus shifted from releasing on iPad and that's when a lot of the focus went to the UI and focusing on how adventures fit." 

Team 5, the nickname for the small team within Blizzard that made Hearthstone into what it is, is growing rapidly according to Chayes. It's now up to 30 members, and they're working on how to incorporate more members as they juggle upcoming expansions and features.

Most of the new cards are very focused on Deathrattle effects, fitting enough for a story focused around a necropolis crawling with undead ghouls. Dodds said this came from a desire to introduce a lot of new elements around a theme, without overcomplicating it.

"We wanted to add new mechanics to the game but we didn't add a new keyword or anything that players would have to learn a new concept," he said. "We really liked the idea of doing something with deathrattle because it's a mechanic that's already in the game, so you already know what that keyword means, but it's a mechanic we hadn't done a lot of exploration of the design space behind it. There was tons of space and area to explore, but you already get what it is."

Then came the idea of a progressive rollout. Though Blizzard has plans to produce a large expansion with lots of new cards next, the solo "Adventure" mode is serving as a test-bed for future development. Chayes said that too much change at once may be "overwhelming for players," so Naxx served as a prototype to help them get a grasp on how players respond to the injection of new cards. "We're looking closely at that and gauging how people feel about the rate at which new cards were introduced," he said. 

Dodds added that the progressive release also meant that the game stayed unpredictable for longer. "We thought it would be fun to release just a few new cards each week so the meta never stabilized, not even a little. Every week there's new cards, and just as you're starting to figure out maybe what's going on, there's new cards in the environment. We wanted to make it so people constantly had to explore and innovate." 

At the same time, he doesn't expect the game to fully settle now that all the cards are released. "If the past is any indicator, people will be guessing for another few months to come," he said. "It takes a while to settle down, and we've had it before where things are stable and then someone figures out a new deck. I wouldn't be surprised if the meta keeps shifting for months to come as people discover weird new combos."

What form it that shift takes, Blizzard's guess is as good as ours. Dodds said the team doesn't have a vision or goal for how it wants the new cards to shift the meta. "It's more that we want to provide tools to players to deal with lots of different meta types." As an example, he cites Loatheb. The communmity largely interpreted it as a nerf against the popular Miracle Rogue, but that wasn't quite the intent. "We wanted to build a card so that if you thought you'd run into [spell-heavy decks], you have a tool to deal with it. In general they're intended that, whatever the meta brings, those cards are there to deal with that specific class of problems."

That also plays into the solo content itself. By designing the challenges as combat puzzles, Blizzard found a way to train players how to think about overcoming popular decks. "If you look at high-level play, there's an element of combat puzzle there," Dodds said. "You look at the metagame and see whatever deck everyone is playing. If you can figure out how it works and what the counter is to it, you're going to have an advantage for a while until the meta shifts again. We just did the extreme version of that."

At the same time, it balanced the Normal and Heroic challenges to fit different player types. The Normal challenges should be doable for most players, because Blizzard didn't want to make obtaining the new cards too difficult. The Heroic challenges are specifically catered to high-level players who might not have felt satisfied by the relative ease of those missions, but in both cases players were meant to be forced to think differently.

If you're still having a little trouble thinking differently for the Heroic challenges, check out our guide.

Shacknews - Robert Workman

Disney continued its Star Wars-oriented mobile push this week with the announcement of yet another new game for the App Store, Star Wars: Commander.

This game, a free-to-play title in the same vein as Clash of Clans and its numerous copycats, has you managing allies as the battlefield commander, fighting off enemies while making your way across the galaxy. You can choose between the Rebels and the Empire, depending on whether you're in a good mood or simply want to crush those puny Rebels under your boot.

The game features the ability to build and defend your base, take part in epic battles, and even upgrade your weapons and attack patterns so you truly become the ultimate Commander. Well, that's the idea, anyway.

Star Wars: Commander is available for download now, and highly recommended for fans of the series. After all, Episode VII is still a ways off.

Shacknews - Robert Workman

Last week, Sony had several surprises in store at Gamescom, including the reveal of a mysterious new game called The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. It left several questions unanswered, but nevertheless set the stage for what would no doubt be a fascinating game. And now, it's not going to be too long before we get to play it.

The game will make its way to both PlayStation 4 and PC on September 25th, putting you in the shoes of Paul Prospero, a detective trying to investigate the disappearance of a young boy named Ethan Carter. How does he do this, you ask? By being able to talk to the dead.

Check out the teaser trailer below and prepare for spookiness next month.

Shacknews - Robert Workman

Following the release of the excellent port of Diablo 3 last year, Blizzard proved that the game could work outside of the PC world. But could there be more done with it? Enter Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls Ultimate Evil Edition.

This edition not only includes every quest from the original game, but also the introduction of a new class, the Crusader (bringing the total to six) and hours of new content that will keep even the highest-class warrior coming back for more.

Like the previous Diablo games, Reaper of Souls complies heavily on the "defeat the enemies and grab the loot" loop, as you'll want to use this to level up your character, earn new abilities by unlocking runes, and picking up additional weaponry that can make all the difference in mowing down ghosts, skeletons and other enemies that appear over the course of each mission. Some may find it repetitive, especially using a controller in favor of the tried-and-true mouse and keyboard, but in truth, there's something truly involving about the whole experience that makes you want to come back.

Perhaps it's the level of experimentation. After all, there are six classes available here, in both male and female form, to mess around with, and each one brings something remarkable to the table, whether by outrageous spellcasting, distance shooting, or all-out brawler skills. It actually helps to get the hang of each class just to see what's offered overall, especially when you're trying to figure out what position to play in a good co-op multiplayer get-together.

Ah, multiplayer. This is truly one of the finer aspects working in Reaper of Souls' favor. The game supports up to four players either online or locally, making for quite the good loot run no matter where your friends are. The multiplayer sessions we took part in not only provided ample rewards, but also an experience that is at times chaotic, but always satisfying, especially when you lay the smack down on a large, overbearing brute.

The experience is much deeper than that, though. Along with customization options and the ability to try different techniques with your character through the rune system, you can also partake in other activities that help level the playing field. Apprentice Mode allows inexperienced players to join their friends on the same fighting stage, without having to worry if their skills are up to par, as they're bumped up immediately for that particular play session. The Adventure Mode is also worthwhile, in case you feel like an endless run of pillaging evil souls and cleaning up on the cash. The Nemesis System is also tremendously cool, as friends will try to avenge you should you be unable to defeat an enemy, and vice versa. The rewards you'll reap from completing the task make it well worth tackling, rather than a cheap add-on gimmick.

Finally, the gift giving system enables you to pick up even more goods within the game, as you can reward (and be rewarded) with random gifts through sessions you play with either friends or online players. This encourages jumping into multiplayer get-togethers more than most games, on top of the already bountiful fights that await you within the game. Solo play is good as well, but it's best left for those times that your friends aren't immediately available. This is definitely one you'll want a devoted battle group for.

The gameplay is well-balanced across all classes, thus introducing the key aspect of experimentation. You may think a brute class is the be-all-end-all one to approach for the game, but hang on. The Wizard and Witch Doctor are great in their own right, and the Demon Hunter is excellent for distant attacks. And provided you'll get surrounded quite often, it never hurts to have a key player out in the field. The controls on a gamepad are just as adequate as with a mouse and keyboard, even without the "dead on" accuracy. Only the true die-hard PC nuts will have anything to complain about, and even they may be too busy bashing in skulls to care.

Presentation-wise, Diablo 3 is truly a gem. Every aspect of the game's PC design is intact, with a solid frame rate (not 60 frames per second, but not necessarily needed), plenty of action happening on the screen at once, and vivid little animations and lighting effects. The only negative is that sometimes you can't see your way out of a map until you've already walked into a trap, but, hey, that's just part of the fun.

Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls Ultimate Evil Edition is a near-flawless representation of a game that can survive on either medium, complete with its robust leveling system, excellent multiplayer gameplay and solid presentation. It takes everything that made last year's game work so well and expands it to the point that the experience can't really get much better than this. More DLC or another expansion is likely to come into the picture at some point, but I don't mind. It's all the more reason to call upon my battle party to clean house once more.

This impression is based on a copy provided by the publisher. Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls Ultimate Evil Edition is available now for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 for $59.99, and PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 for $39.99. The game has been rated M for mature.


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