Hack ‘N’ Slash is the Double Fine adventure that deconstructs and rewires the genre

The title may be Hack ’N’ Slash, but it’s clear from the opening moments of Double Fine’s inventive action-adventure that you won’t be doing much of the latter. Alice, a young elf, immediately breaks her sword on the bars of her cell, revealing a USB connector beneath the blade. Plug it into the door’s slot and you can access its code. Luckily, there’s just one command, ‘Open: false’. Change the answer to ‘true’, and it swings ajar so her quest can begin in earnest.

Hack ’N’ Slash was officially conceived during Double Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight, an annual event where employees form small groups to create game prototypes. Yet for Brandon Dillon, the game’s project lead, the idea had been brewing for much longer. Dillon played games on an emulator when he was young, and was struck by the discovery of the reverse-engineering tools built into the software. “It felt really empowering to open up the hex menu to figure out how to use those tools, find whichever value I wanted to tweak within the game, and do whatever I wanted to with it,” he tells us. “I didn’t really have the emotional maturity to deal with games that were as difficult as NES games were. With something like Contra, I couldn’t appreciate the game they were trying to present to me. But I could bring it into an emulator, tweak values and make it a little bit more humane. It felt like I had made the game my own, and that way I got to really enjoy it.”

Hack ’N’ Slash is about cheating, then, but crucially it’s creative cheating. Take one of the first enemies you’ll encounter: a spiked turtle affected by the corruption blighting this fantasy world. It will charge at you, but flips onto its shell when dodged, exposing its USB port. Plug in and you can set its health to zero, slow its movement speed, turn it into an ally, or even get it to explode after charging. You can have it spit out dozens of health-restoring hearts upon death, adjust its perception sensors so it can’t see you, or even get a little more adventurous and play around with its AI routines, getting it to walk around in circles. Soon after, you’re asked to tackle a boss. Dillon says that some players create chaos by spawning dozens of turtles from a nearby nest in the hope that the crowd will hurt it. We opt instead to play matador: we vastly increase a single turtle’s damage output, invite it to charge us (at a reduced speed, of course) and then dodge at the last moment, finishing the job in a single strike.

As Alice collects more items, she’s able to see the inner workings of her world, revealing hidden symbols, invisible platforms and the vision cones of armed guards. The puzzles steadily increase in complexity until, by Act 4, you’re looking at the game’s code in order to reverse-engineer solutions. “I always thought it would be cool to make a game that would allow people to have those really insightful and empowering moments that I had throughout my history of learning to become a better programmer,” Dillon says.

As a result, the game’s progression feels strangely educational, although that’s a happy accident, as Dillon freely admits. “It does have a kind of curriculum,” he says. “The way I designed the game is [to give you] all the cool hacking tools and principles, and order them based on complexity. So it accidentally wound up [being] educational, because that was the way to work out the puzzle progression.” That unintentional progression curve has already had unforeseen benefits: since the game launched on Steam Early Access, Double Fine has had requests for educational licences, to allow the game’s mechanics to be used as a learning tool.

A full release is not too far off, but already  Hack ’N’ Slash shows great promise. It’s rare to find an adventure game that’s prepared to let its players get stuck, but Hack ’N’ Slash is all the more rewarding as a result. “It needs to feel a little bit mysterious and weird and difficult to grapple with,” Dillon explains. “Actually, this is something Tim [Schafer, Double Fine’s founder] has talked about within the context of the adventure game. Being stuck is part of it, because getting unstuck is what makes you feel smart.”

During playtesting, Dillon and the rest of the development team would watch players struggle and wonder if they should make the game easier. The answer was almost always no, however. “You have to [retreat] from those modern game design instincts, hang back and let it simmer for a little bit, and let the player have the insight for themselves,” he says. “Don’t take that away from them.”


Oculus Game Lucky’s Tale Will Blow Your Mind

I’ve tried to describe Lucky’s Tale, with words and stuff, to other people at the E3 show here in Los Angeles. I can’t do it. I usually end up saying, “You’ve just got to go try it.”

Oculus still hasn’t said anything about when it plans to ship the consumer version of its virtual reality headset. But it’s already working with game developers to show off some real games — not tech demos, but actual consumer products it’s developing as first-party software for the Rift. One of them is Lucky’s Tale, created by Playful, the new studio started by Paul Bettner, co-creator of Words With Friends.

So imagine a Mario 64-style third-person cartoony run-and-jump platformer game. Now imagine that the Oculus take on this is not that you are seeing every vomit-inducing jump and roll from Mario’s eyes, but that you’re just hanging out watching as Mario does all this stuff. You’re in there with him, controlling his moves, but you’re on the sidelines. And by moving your head around you can get better views of the action.

That’s Lucky’s Tale. It doesn’t sound like it should work, sounds like kind of a waste of virtual reality — what, it’s just like playing a regular videogame but the screen wraps around your head? But the sense of presence is staggering. It’s like you’re actually in there. When Lucky hits a box and stars pop out of the top of it, you naturally look upwards to see where they’re going to fall. And at that moment you feel like you’re staring up at the sky in real life, looking at things that are about to fall on you.

If you don’t expect that this would be so impressive, neither did I, and neither did Paul Bettner.

“When we first got together with Oculus, we looked at this new platform and realized, all the rules of making games just got thrown out the window,” he told WIRED on Tuesday in a meeting room within Oculus’ E3 booth. “When we realized that… we decided the only way to figure this out was to rapidly create one prototype after another.”

Bettner and his team, working alongside Oculus, cranked out all kinds of different, playable game ideas, over 40 of them, over the course of four months. But it was the third-person platformer that stuck. “The moment we saw it, we were just blown away — oh my gosh, this works better than anything else we’ve tried,” he said.

Paul Bettner. Photo: Brian Guido/WIRED

There’s a cool only-in-VR moment as well. Lucky can pick up and throw bombs, and you’ve got to aim at targets by just moving your head and focusing your gaze on the bullseye. It’s intuitive, simple and deadly accurate.

The flexible nature of the cartoon platform game, Bettner says, means we can expect all sorts of experimenting with the play controls in Lucky’s Tale.

“It gives us an excuse to put all these different experiences into one game,” he says. “If I’m a gamer and I just got my shiny new Oculus, I want a game that’s going to take me to all these different places and do all these different things.”

That’s the big question — now that we’re starting to see some full games that promise to blow us away with the power of VR, when can consumers expect to actually get their hands on a finished Oculus Rift?

“We designed this as a launch game for the consumer Rift, so our launch date is their launch date,” Bettner says. Now I really can’t wait for that day.

In Batman: Arkham Knight, the Batmobile Is Your Sidekick—And a Tank

Playing Arkham Knight, you realize how unlikable a character Batman remains, how much by this point in the Arkham series you’ve developed your own lack of interest toward his lack of interest.

He’s all next-gen menace, a gothic armor-clad soldier of dourness, as obdurate as Master Chief in a cape. His judge-you eyes stare out over a scowl of nasolabial folds as rigid as jail bars. There’s no sense of him taking pleasure in his godlike command of all that bleak, industrial, forever-night-space—space that developer Rocksteady says is five times the size of Arkham City’s bleak prison sprawl.

But there is substantial pleasure to be had in controlling Batman’s new ride, something I wasn’t expecting going into my E3 demo yesterday. Maybe that’s because a feature like the Batmobile—the name alone sounds absurd, the sort of thing Adam West’s Batman would call it—seems like a comedown. It’s a car. That’s Arkham Knight’s entire impetus at first blush: Batman gets his driver’s license.

And yet as I brushed the cobwebs from my fingers to maneuver Batman from rain-slick rooftops to familiar thug-stalked rooms (Arkham Knight uses more or less the same controls as the prior games), I realized the Batmobile isn’t just your means of locomotion or another accessory in your arsenal of Bat-tools. It’s a fully realized second character, and in some ways, a more likable one.

I’d anticipated the Batmobile’s cool Batman-propelling features, the one where Batman ejects upward and drops into a cape-glide, or the one where the car can transform into a Tim Burton-esque tank, then glide sideways like someone strafing in a shooter. What I hadn’t been expecting was the role the Batmobile plays in solving environmental puzzles: not simplistic one-shot deals like “shoot the cover off that vent cover” or “blow a hole in that wall,” but elaborate, multi-part conundrums where I had to learn to shuffle fluidly between Batman and the Batmobile while thinking about its—and Batman’s—relationship to the world in completely new ways.

At one point, for instance, I had to rescue a hostage stuck in a chamber underground. To get to him, I used the Batmobile—controlled directly by you, but implicitly by Batman with a remote—to isolate and blast open access-ways for Batman, who I’d then shift back to, jogging from room to room to fiddle electrical panels or clamber through crawlspaces. After some detective mode sleuthing and destructive prep work, I had to use the Batmobile to fire a tether that attached to something which, as I hauled backward on the connective cable, slowly dragged an elevator car up a shaft. That allowed Batman to climb in and me to roll the car forward, lower him down, then pull off my rescue, after which I repeated the maneuver to raise the hostage to safety.

The person running my demo was helping me along, telling me what to do and where to look, intentionally spoiling the puzzle-solving for brevity’s sake. But the sense was of two characters working together to solve sophisticated scenario-driven environmental stumpers, as if Batman were Ratchet and the Batmobile Clank. Now imagine what that might mean, if Rocksteady’s as shrewd as in the last two games, for all the side challenges and mini-games that such an essential partnership might lend itself to.

I was expecting Arkham Knight to look breathtakingly fantastic, and to feel like the apex of everything Rocksteady has learned about fulfilling nerdy superhero power fantasies. But I wasn’t expecting that clever Ratchet & Clank segment or for the Batmobile to feel so essential—and if I’m right that Rocksteady’s planning to thread that partner-play motif throughout the game, Arkham Knight may just have laid its most compelling card on the table.

Nintendo comes out swinging

Nintendo’s perspective has always skewed left of reality. Even before getting into modern videogames, they pushed for unreal experiences. Early amusements, like 1973’s Laser Clay Shooting System, gave the satisfaction of shooting down clay pigeons using only electronics and light. Their long-standing mascot, Mario, is a plumber from New York the way Godzilla is a lizard shot through with radiation: the logistics matter less than the results.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo is going on right now in Los Angeles. Each of the main platform holders traditionally gives a live press conference to make announcements and reveal new games. Last year Nintendo decided to live-stream a pre-fabricated video instead, a choice that to some felt like waving the proverbial white flag. Sony and Microsoft both had their beefy new machines to unveil; the prevailing wisdom held that Nintendo would side-step, reluctantly if not gracefully, and allow their competitors center stage. The announcements that followed—relatively safe sequels in known franchises—seemed to bolster that opinion.

 So when they announced months ago they were not crawling back to the E3 stage again, with the intention of showing another video in place of a live presser, the familiar voices called out: This is another sign of weakness; the Wii U’s days are numbered; Nintendo doesn’t have the stomach to fight with the big boys.


 The Nintendo Digital Event started at 9 AM Pacific Time on Tuesday. On computer monitors and television screens streaming the video across the world, the first image shown was of a press conference stage molded in clay. Reggie Fils-Aime, rendered in claymation, steps to the center as an announcer flubs his name.

 “And you guys thought we wouldn’t have a press conference,” Clay Reggie starts off, adding with a shrug, “Not my problem.”

 A quick back-and-forth with claymation E3 generic game journalist results in Reggie eating a fire flower and tossing fireballs at the bearded badge-wearer, setting him alight with pixelated flames. One could question the passive-aggressive tactics of a company destroying a fictional representation of a media member; one could also consider the emotional drain of running a company constantly bombarded with flippant requests and jejune derogatory remarks. Let’s call it a push and move on.

But what happens next is a firm response to the worrywarts who questioned Nintendo’s lack of live stage show. The video now shows Satoru Iwata standing in darkness, chin down, faint light outlining him from above. Reggie Fils-Aime (now in the flesh) stands across from him, his face a frightening visage, eyes open and murderous, pockmarked cheeks giving his skin the look of a dusty battleground’s mortar-blasted soil. The two run at each other. This is the East vs. West inter-company stand-off many have suspected to be bubbling behind closed doors. Nintendo’s ship has slowly taken on water, the past financial year their third in a row in the red. Tensions must be high. Then we watch the COO of their American branch uppercut the President of the entire company, the short Japanese man flying off into the air, then righting himself as he lands, ready for more.

This is all prelude to footage of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U, which they decide to play in lieu of further roundhouse kicks. And the faux-kung fu wasn’t just for show. It was a subtle hint at the coming announcement: Mii characters can now fight alongside established Nintendo characters like Samus and Link in the Smash Bros. arena. During a normal press conference, the same video package could be shown on the big screen before revealing the two head honchos playing the game. But to what end? We, the players at home, still see the game we now want to play. The media, in their hotel rooms, will still be able to demo that same game and report back with detailed accounts.

But Nintendo knows that “reality” is sometimes better than the real thing. When Mii Iwata lands the finishing blow on Mii Reggie, NOA’s big whig goes flying off into the darkness. In Nintendo’s world, Japan is king, and reality is an ugly canvas. Why create another Chicago when you can explore Hyrule? Why talk on a stage if you can deliver something else entirely?

Of course, the proof is in the games. Video or press conference, livestreamed or in-person, any announcements are all just burnished glimpses at works-in-progress. The delivery method for those announcements should have little bearing on whether the games shown capture your attention. Later that evening, Nintendo will hold a liveSuper Smash Bros. tournament in the same space they could have set up their conference. It’s a telling, and smart, choice. I can’t see Nintendo returning to a live press conference in the future. They clearly enjoy doing it their way. And isn’t that the point? Fils-Aime said as much in the video himself: “At the end of the day, Nintendo game creators share one belief: there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun.”


Pre-order Mario Kart 8, get gasoline


Preorder Mario Kart 8, get free fuel. Real fuel.

Best Buy is running a promotion for Nintendo’s cart racer, offering a $10 prepaid MasterCard for those who put in orders for the game now. Though the premium is a $10 card usable anywhere MasterCard is accepted, for fuel or anything else, the sales pitch is that you get free gasoline if you go ahead and commit to the Wii U game.

Pre-orderers have to register a code by June 30 to collect the goodie. Mario Kart 8launches on May 29.


5-Year-Old Boy Discovers Microsoft Xbox One Security Flaw

Kristoffer’s father, Robert Davies, started noticing that Kristoffer was logging into his Xbox Live account and playing video games that were off-limits. When prompted to enter a password, Kristoffer would enter a series of spaces and hit enter, gaining access to his father’s account.

“I was like yea!” Kristoffer told KGTV-10, a CNN affiliate, after breaking into his dad’s account. Glee quickly turned into panic as the thought of his father finding out what he did dawned upon Kristoffer. Instead, Davies was interested, as he himself works in online security.

“How awesome is that?” Davies said. “Just being five years old and being able to find a vulnerability and latch on to that. I thought that was pretty cool.” After Kristoffer showed his father what he did, Davies reported the issue to Microsoft. “We’re always listening to our customers and thank them for bringing issues to our attention,” Microsoft said in a statement to KGTV-10. “We take security seriously at Xbox and fixed the issue as soon as we learned about it.”

According to KGTV-10, Microsoft will give Kristoffer four games, a $50 gift card and a year-long subscription of Xbox Live.


Atlus picks up RPG Citizens of Earth after failed Kickstarter

Citizens of Earth, the retro-inspired role-playing game from indie studio Eden Industries, will be published by Atlus and is set for release later this year on Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Windows PC and Wii U, the publisher announced today.

Vancouver, Canada-based Eden Industries attempted to fund development of Citizens of Earth with a CA$100,000 Kickstarter campaign last fall, but the funding drive fell short with a final total of CA$36,875. Upon the closure of the campaign, Eden vowed to continue developing the game. Atlus will release Citizens of Earth in North America and Europe as a downloadable title.

Citizens of Earth casts the player as Vice President of the World. The day after the vice president takes office, the people of planet Earth go crazy. It’s up to the player to recruit helpers from a pool of 40 playable characters to help figure out why this happened, and to “delegate as much of the dirty work as possible,” according to a press release from Atlus. The publisher is holding a contest in which it’s asking people to submit designs for a 41st playable character.