Shacknews - Steve Watts

A programmer who was tinkering with Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure was stopped in his tracks by a cease & desist letter from Activision. Brandon Wilson discovered the security protocol that the figurines use to interact with the computer, and posted a few vague details on his blog before receiving the legal notice.

Wilson's personal site (via The Escapist) mentions documenting the Skylanders protocol and encryption method, and that he planned to emulate the portal using graphing calculators. It wasn't long before followed up with another note: "And here come the Activision lawyers! Suffice it to say, I've been shut down, so uh... nevermind."

He notes in his response that he is not collaborating with other hackers or intending to distribute the file publicly. "This research project was for my own personal knowledge and to satisfy my own curiosity as to how the game interacts with its USB peripheral," he wrote. "I have expressed no desire to release to the public tools that circumvent Skylanders' access control measures, and I continue to express no desire toward that end. I do not and did not have any intention to harm Activision or cause harm to its products or investments.

"I re-iterate that I have and do intend to comply with your request to cease any and all research and development into how the game Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure works," he continues. "Any and all publicly accessible documentation and/or source code has been removed to the best of my knowledge and ability."

Wilson seems to have handled the situation reasonably, but as The Escapist notes, Activision's letter referenced leaks that weren't his. He only had a zip file from a data dump that he didn't release to the public. It's necessary for Activision to protect its legal interests, especially when it comes to a game like Skylanders that relies on purchasing extra figurines to support its business model. Sometimes that means bearing down on fairly harmless hobbyists.

Shacknews - Jeff Mattas

We're not normally prone to reporting on PR-exclusive promotional swag for upcoming games, but the new Lollipop Chainsaw-themed 2012 calendar that showed up at the Shacknews offices is actually kind of cool. It's also quite ridiculous, but that's not exactly surprising.

The calendar itself (the images from which have been uploaded into the game screenshot gallery), features developer Grasshopper Manufacture's latest heroine posing with her chainsaw, lollipop, and sometimes even zombies. Various art-styles are represented, but all of the selected images retain that playfully-exploitive Grindhouse cinema aesthetic used to convey Lollipop Chainsaw's absurd premise.

We've even decided to give our only calendar away. If you like cheerleaders, zombies, or (especially) both, this may be the calendar for you. Entering the giveaway is simple, you just have to follow a few rules.

  • Leave a comment below telling us your favorite flavor of lollipop, type of chainsaw, or piece of zombie-inclusive fiction.

  • You must be 18 years or older and a resident of the United States or Canada (excluding Puerto Rico and Quebec)

  • Limit 1 entry per person (Only your first comment will be counted)

  • The entry period ends at 12:00PM PT Tuesday, January 3, 2012 (01/03/2012)

  • At that time, we will randomly select the lucky winner.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

Games on iOS devices are taking a sizable chunk of the handheld market, but designers are faced with making them touch controlled or relying on virtual sticks and buttons. Many of us raised on physical sticks find these pretty imprecise, so it only makes sense that a few third-party manufacturers are making controllers to fit the device.

The latest comes from 60beat, which promises all the standard gamepad buttons, no batteries necessary -- and so far, a very small pool of supported games.

The company site (via Joystiq) gives word that the device works on iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, and connects with a headphone jack. It features dual analog sticks, 10 buttons with shoulder buttons and in-joystick buttons, and apparently the power source comes from the headphone plug. It also packages an audio splitter, presumably so that plugging the gamepad in doesn't silence the audio entirely.

The pad only supports Bugdom 2 and Aftermath, though, so you won't be able to play the iOS versions of Sonic or Mega Man the way they were meant to be played on the device. At least, not yet -- as with all accessories, expanded support could come later. Check out the video below.

Shacknews - Andrew Yoon

Sony's HD collections have been the gold standard of HD collections. God of War, Sly, and Ico have all received impressive HD facelifts--and they certain fare much better than offerings made by Ubisoft and Capcom. So, how does Jak and Daxter's foray into the world of 720p fare? It looks pretty good.

I was unimpressed at first, watching a cutscene rendered in Jak 1's engine. While the visuals have been spruced up, the close-ups featured in the movies only highlighted the low-res texture work and low polygon count of the models. However, when the camera zoomed out during regular gameplay, I was impressed by how clean and bright everything looked.

The gameplay remains unchanged from the PS2 originals. Jak was a fairly standard platformer, even for its time, and it was easy to jump back in.

Jak 1 does look good, but Jak 3 definitely looks the best in Mass Media's spruced up engine. The jump in graphics detail from the first to last game becomes even more noticeable in high-definition. While I was unimpressed by the cutscenes from the first game, the last game was very easy on the eyes. (Arguably, this HD remake looks better than some of the less-polished efforts of this generation.)

The Jak collection doesn't feel as comprehensive as the others Sony has released. Jak's odd racing spin-off game is omitted from the collection, as is Daxter, and The Lost Frontier. There are no bonuses to be found. Also, don't expect a Jak & Daxter game for the PS3 either. The Sly Cooper Collection featured an incredible Sly 4 tease through its trophy collection. The Platinum in Sly 3 reads like this: "Unlock all trophies in Sly Cooper's final outing... Final? Really?" Unfortunately, the Jak collection features no such tease in its trophy list.

The Jak & Daxter Collection will be available on PS3 in February.

Shacknews - Andrew Yoon

While the music peripheral craze has died down, Harmonix hasn't stopped releasing Rock Band DLC on a weekly basis. In fact, there are nearly 3500 songs in the Rock Band catalog currently available to download.

Unfortunately, very few of these songs are 20 minutes long. Thankfully, Harmonix is fixing that this week with the release of Rush's seven-part "2112" suite.

Available December 31st on Xbox 360 and January 3rd on PS3 and Wii, "2112" is available to download in a variety of ways. For the more sane psuedo-rockers, the song will be available in three separate packages: one combines “Overture” and “The Temple of Syrinx”; the second features “Discovery” and “Presentation”; and the final track brings “Oracle: The Dream,” “Soliloquy,” and “Grand Finale.”

However, the more ambitious players will get the "2112" pack, which allows you to play the entire song in an epic 20-minute marathon session. The pack includes Pro Guitar and Pro Bass sections "for free," as well.

Each "track" will cost $2, but the pack will be available for $5.49. To see a video of the DLC in action, go to the Rock Band official website.

Shacknews - Alice O'Connor

Fallout: New Vegas lead designer J.E. Sawyer has reworked the balance of Obsidian's post-apocalyptic RPG, amping up the difficulty and tinkering to his own preference. Intriguingly, these changes come in a mod of Sawyer's making, not any official patch.

The mod, spotted by No Mutants Allowed, cuts the level cap, XP gain, health and healing, while also sprucing up a number of weapons and armour. A few more highlights are this-a-way.

You can download the tiny 88KB mod direct from Sawyer. To use it, you'll need to have every piece of New Vegas downloadable content installed, including the former pre-order bonus packs. You'll also need Fallout Mod Manager or the like.

As for why this is a mod rather than a patch, Sawyer explained that as well as technical reasons, "some of the mechanics changes make the game significantly more difficult... or at least more of a hassle... I'd rather have people opt-in to those changes than make them the default in a patch."

He added, "the game's over. The ship has sailed. No one is working on it anymore. No testers, nothing. This mod is just me working in my free time. If I horribly botch something, you can just un-check the mod and go on your way."

An Ultimate Edition of New Vegas, complete with all of its DLC, is due on February 7.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

Sonic the Hedgehog 4 may have been put on hold in favor of Sonic Generations, but the game is still scheduled for 2012. Now Sega is detailing a few of the changes coming to this second installment of the episodic franchise. For example, Tails and Metal Sonic will make their return to Episode 2.

A GameSpot AU interview (via Kotaku) with digital brand manager Ken Balough details the new additions. Complete with Tails-inspired facial hair, Balough announces that both the foxy sidekick and Metal Sonic will make a return. Plus, due to fan feedback, the game will feature a new graphics and physics engine. Balough says this should solve certain problems that didn't feel like the Genesis games, like Sonic sticking to a wall.

When announcing platforms, Balough mentions PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, iOS App Store, Android, and Windows Phone -- but not Wii, which received the first game.

Shacknews - Xav de Matos

Last night, Shacknews detailed a hack that has been plaguing Xbox 360 users for a few months. Some players have seen their Xbox Live accounts hijacked and--with the use of EA's FIFA 12--charges have been made to purchase content that can be traded to other users.

Hackers go in, purchase the content, transfer it to a "front" account, and sell the content for real world money. Microsoft is aware of the issue, but says the situation isn't widespread. EA on the other hand, has not issued a statement regarding the Xbox Live attacks--until now.

"A small number of gamers continue to report being impacted by fraudulent activity related to FIFA Ultimate Team on Xbox Live," an EA spokesperson told Shacknews. "We have worked directly with Microsoft to enable new security measures to try to keep players safe, and we will continue to help fight criminal activity--protection of our players, their accounts and data is extremely important. We appreciate the fans who continue to help self-police our communities, and we encourage anyone who is impacted in any way to contact us immediately at help.ea.com."

I asked the representatives what EA is doing for Xbox Live users that have been hacked. Isn't that a Microsoft security issue? Is EA offering any other help or compensation for those impacted by this situation? No response to these questions were offered at the time of publishing.

The startling realization I made while investigating this story is that gamers continue to place blame on Microsoft and EA. Gamers are furious; painting both companies in a poor light. That's fine, but shouldn't the blame be squarely put on the shoulders of the hackers?

Part of the issue for gamers is the amount of time Microsoft can take to recover hijacked Xbox Live accounts. It may seem like a simple switch must be flipped, but according to Microsoft, this is far from reality. Microsoft must track down accounts if they are completely taken over. That means contending with things like region changes, password switches, personal information swaps, and more. All of these tweaks made by hackers slow the process down.

One reader who submitted his story to me detailed an ordeal that began in September 2011 and was only recently settled. Though his situation was not related to the FIFA 12 attacks, he was hit in a similar fashion.

"This mail is confirmation that you successfully switched your Xbox Live account from United States to Russia. Your subscription to Prepaid 12M Xbox Live Gold in United States has been cancelled on Monday, September 05, 2011. In the meantime 5 month(s) has been exchanged from your subscription to Xbox Live Subscription Transfer in Russia," an email from Microsoft to Shacker Scott (a.k.a. soggybagel) read.

"Initially I thought that this was a SPAM or phishing email," Scott told me. "The first thing I did was to turn on my Xbox 360 and when the dashboard popped up all the dashboard headers were in Russian text." According to emails forwarded to me by Scott, his ordeal ended 109 days later--on December 23. Initially he was told the process would take 25 days, and when that date drew closer Microsoft offered him a free month of Xbox Live to create a new account to use in the meantime. According to Scott, only after contacting the Better Business Bureau to complain about Microsoft did any progress get made on his situation--though there's no evidence that the complaint expedited the process. Based on conversations with Microsoft, it seems that his situation was the worst: a hijacked account, a region change, and more. These steps slow recovery down, Microsoft told me.

After the 3 month and 18 day ordeal was over, Microsoft refunded Scott 1200 MS Points--which were stolen during the ordeal--and provided him with nine additional months of Xbox Live. Xbox Live Director of Policy and Enforcement Stephen Toulouse told me that this recompense is standard. "We make sure they are compensated for the time [plus] some extra (the amount varies by case) and fully refunded of any points or charges that occur. If the account takes an especially long time we give them a free gold account to play on while the original account is being recovered. They can choose to keep that account afterward in addition to their original account," he said.

My situation was different, as my account details were never changed. Recovery wasn't necessary as I was able to switch my password before my Xbox Live account was altered. A few days later, my FIFA 12 account purchases were canceled and my points were returned.

An EA spokesperson said the company is investigating the situation at multiple levels, which now also include taking down FIFA Ultimate Team phishing websites and scam attempts to "illegally re-sell FIFA Ultimate Team items."

EA also states it continues to educate users regarding the importance of account safety, noting that information is available on its forum and website; though EA's security notices revolve around its own websites and account information, and not Xbox Live hack I experienced. Within the last month, the franchise's official Twitter account has only mentioned phishing issues once, which was only a response to a follower's inquiry about a scam site. More promotion of the issue is certainly needed, including adding account safety education in the actual game, which FIFA 12 lacks.

EA tells me that "new security measures have been enabled" to combat this issue, though they wouldn't specify what those measure were. I was also told that EA will continue to "track data and collaborate with Microsoft to determine where further efforts should be focused."

When asked why FIFA 12's trading feature was still available during the investigation and whether or not future EA titles would remove the ability, EA offered no response at the time of publishing.

My account shows I've played FIFA 12, but it's all part of the scam.

It's still unclear whether or not the companies involved are sharing profits for the hijacked account purchases, as they would standard DLC. According to Toulouse, details on license transactions cannot be discussed, "but suffice to say both sides work together to help ensure the attackers do not profit."

That's the core here; the attackers are to blame. It's easy to get mad at Microsoft and EA because we--as members of the gaming community--can point to them as a "known enemy." The issue is we don't know who the attackers are, so we point place the blame on them. EA and Microsoft certainly need to streamline the process of recovery and investigation, but as long as FIFA 12 Ultimate Team Packs have a real-world value attached to them, some of us are going to be caught in the crossfire.

Next week, we conclude our investigation with a look at more Microsoft policies, including security measures beyond the initial log in of Xbox.com and how easy it is to move your online persona to the snowy region of Russia.

Shacknews - Steve Watts

Haunt, the next game from PaRappa creator Masaya Matsuura, will feature a cameo from another studio head with a big personality: Double Fine's Tim Schafer. Matsuura and producer Dewi Tanner talked in an interview about bringing him on-board for the game.

"So already at the time [GDC], we had some other voice over track already put in the game," Matsuura told Gamasutra. Tanner hints that he wasn't satisfied with the voice, and Matsuura says something still felt missing. "And one day you [Tanner] told me that about how Tim would be a good voice over actor."

They say they loved his speech at the GDC awards and that informed the decision. "It's a really specific mood that we were looking for in this game," Tanner said. "So it's a haunted house game -- we don't want it to be like slash horror -- so we wanted to keep a little sense of humor, and a little bit impish, in that sense. And I think Tim really has that kind of passe humor, which really comes out well. You can never know if you can really trust what he's saying."

Schafer has his own time constraints heading up a busy studio, and Matsuura jokes that he didn't have time for it. But Tanner says that since there's "not too much narrative" in Haunt, he was done after "a couple of afternoons."

Shacknews - Andrew Yoon

Mass Effect 3 is going to be a lot more challenging than the previous games. Given the increased stakes, that probably makes sense. "Veteran difficulty from Mass Effect 1 and 2 will be on par with normal difficulty in Mass Effect 3," BioWare admitted.

The added challenge not only makes the reapers a more terrifying threat, but encourages players to give Galaxy at War a chance. While fully optional, the franchise's new online co-op mode will make it easier for players to achieve a "good" ending by increasing the "Readiness Rating," a score that will determine the type of ending you can get by the endgame.

So, what if you can't handle the increased difficulty and Shepard fails to save the galaxy? @Gamer magazine notes that "if the Reapers beat you the first time around, you can always return to you previous save game and collect more resources." Multiplayer will help you continuously augment your single player shortcomings.

Mass Effect 3 will be available on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on March 6th.

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