All posts by Sam Machkovech

Ron Howard on new Einstein series Genius and its parallels to modern politics

Enlarge / Ron Howard speaks to Ars Technica at March's South By Southwest festival. (credit: Sam Machkovech)

AUSTIN, Texas—Writer, director, and actor Ron Howard is very careful when considering his place in the geek-media universe. Over 20 years ago, his film Apollo 13 kicked off a trajectory of major science-and-heart storytelling, which recently crystallized as an ongoing series-development deal with National Geographic's TV channel.

This Tuesday's premiere of TV mini-series Genius, which sees Geoffrey Rush playing the role of Albert Einstein, won't be the last of that deal, either—and Howard laughs at how that fact might look to people in his past.

"My tenth grade science teacher, Mr. Dowd, would be, you know, rolling over in his grave!" Howard says with a laugh during an interview at last month's South By Southwest festival. "No, no, he'd enjoy it. He had a great sense of humor. The fact that I'm telling stories about science"—and saying this makes Howard laugh uncontrollably—"well, he thought I was a nice guy. He knew I didn't get it."

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments


A major Nintendo policy change has saved at least one Switch game

Enlarge / There. All better, Nintendo Switch. (credit: Sam Machkovech)

With the Nintendo Switch's newness starting to fade, interest in the new console has begun to shift toward its upcoming wave of "bigger" games. These include a gussied-up Mario Kart 8, the brand-new fighting series Arms, and a new Splatoon game that is finally looking more like a sequel than a last-gen port. But something interesting is quietly bubbling within the world of Switch games—though, sadly, I don't mean Nintendo's catalog of classic Virtual Console games.

What's bubbling up is just about as good, however: frequently updated games. And in one case, those updates have transformed at least one major Switch game from "maybe try" to "must buy."


Nintendo spoke at length at a late-February event about how its Nintendo Switch platform will make certain development tasks easier for game makers. The participating "Nindies" game makers on hand echoed that statement. At the time, they mostly spoke about the ease of translating games from other platforms, whether through a major engine like Unity and Unreal or through their own custom-built engines.

Read 18 remaining paragraphs | Comments


American Gods may have finally nailed the modern-fantasy formula on TV

AUSTIN, Texas—TV pilots ain't what they used to be, as the Netflix model takes much of the weight off a first episode's shoulders. Series can take their time revealing characters, unfolding plots, or even having much plot take place in a single episode.

Weirdly, the first hour-long episode of Starz' new American Gods series feels like a relic of that older era—in all of the best ways. This is TV built to stun, with equal parts momentum and cautious pauses, and it won't embarrass fans of its source material. The Neil Gaiman novel of the same name has no shortage of mystery, intrigue, and surprise in its first few dozen pages. Starz' take on the book manages to follow its every major plot thread to a satisfying degree, all while setting into motion a solid framework for how we should expect the modern-fantasy epic to unravel.

Vikings soaked in corn-syrup blood

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments


Virtual Rick-ality proves why Rick and Morty is great—and why VR has its limits

I'm Tiny (virtual) Riiiiick! (credit: Adult Swim Games)

Roughly one year into commercial VR's lifetime, two of its games have emerged as the funniest: Job Simulator and Accounting. The former, made by Owlchemy Labs, is an elaborate toy playset set in a dystopian future, while the latter is an off-the-wall humor experiment that hinges on its VR characters shouting ridiculous things. The first is funny because of how it lets you play around; the other is funny because of its endless stream of spoken jokes (helmed largely by Rick and Morty co-creator Justin Roiland).

Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, then, is VR comedy's chocolate and peanut butter—because it really does squish the aforementioned games together. The bonkers designers at Owlchemy teamed up with the writing and production staff at Rick and Morty, including Roiland, to give the Adult Swim animated series its first VR game (and, arguably, its most full-blown video game altogether). True to its source material, Virtual Rickality is hilarious and weird, and series fans will want to experience it. But it's also a reminder of VR's limits as an entertainment medium, a fact that the series' fans will more easily forgive than anybody who lands on this game as a newcomer.

How many clones can he kill?

Read 19 remaining paragraphs | Comments


Facebook’s first VR app surprises, lets us collaborate and be juvenile

Ars' Sam Machkovech tests Facebook Spaces in VR, with help from Kyle Orland. Edited by Jennifer Hahn. (video link)

After receiving a robust reveal at 2016's Oculus Connect conference, the first bonafide Facebook VR experience launched for free as part of a surprise announcement on Tuesday morning. Ars Technica's staff didn't get advance notice about the first Facebook Spaces beta going live, so we had to hit the ground running to check it out.

The above video includes the first-ever Ars "meeting" in a VR chat space, but considering all of the silliness and infantile humor included, we'd be hard-pressed to technically call this a "work" function. We came away from our demos surprised and impressed by the features that this beta includes—but if the app wants to be serious about either business or fun, it has obvious work to do.

Read 27 remaining paragraphs | Comments


Original StarCraft is finally free-as-in-beer after delayed patch

Forget the box! It's free now! Finally!

Forget the box! It's free now! Finally! (credit: Blizzard Entertainment)

Last month, the game makers at Blizzard announced a remastered, 4K-friendly version of the original StarCraft, set to launch this summer. That announcement also teased a much sooner release of the original StarCraft that would be completely free. After a delay, that free version is finally available to download worldwide. Blizzard has posted links to Mac and Windows builds here.

The late-March remaster announcement included the promise of the game's original, lower-res version, complete with all Brood War expansion content. The low-res version would be made entirely free to download (technically, "free as in beer"—you can grab the compiled game and play it to your heart's content, but you are not formally allowed to pick the files apart and use, say, the game's source code as you please). However, a beta launch of this new version, numbered 1.18, resulted in crashes and issues for testers, so Blizzard held it back for testing and tweaking until Tuesday.

It makes sense that the patch's beta launch was a little rocky, considering the game hadn't been updated since 2009 and had to pass muster on modern Windows and Mac operating systems. This version may very well receive further patches as well, since it will contain identical gameplay to the summer remaster version. The newer StarCraft will only receive a superficial update in the form of completely redrawn assets; all other parts and mechanics of the game will be so identical that remaster players will be able to compete online against original-version players.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments


Facebook wants you to stare even more at the real world through your phone camera

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg kicked off his company's annual "F8" conference on Tuesday with a stark mission statement: People don't look at Facebook on their phones enough, and he has plans to change that.

The plan revolves around adding "augmented reality" (AR) features to Facebook's smartphone apps using our existing cameras. Starting today, basic features will be added to the Facebook app in a "closed beta" that makes more content appear when pointing a phone's camera at the real world.

Read 10 remaining paragraphs | Comments


Halo Wars on Steam is first online Halo game to rely on Steamworks

Coming to Steam. But, wait, where'd the Xbox Live requirements go? (credit: Microsoft Studios)

Might a mainline Halo game one day receive a bonafide Steam launch? Microsoft Studios tiptoed ever closer to that possibility with a Monday announcement—Halo Wars: Definitive Edition (HWDE) is coming to Steam later this week.

You're not smokin' something: Microsoft is indeed releasing its resolution-bumped, mouse-and-keyboard-supported version of the 2009 real-time strategy game on Steam on 4/20. The Steam version will cost $19.99. What's more, it's the first online Halo game to have major Xbox Live features and requirements stripped in favor of Steam's own solutions.

This follows other official, top-down Halo games, the twin-stick shooters Spartan Assault and Spartan Strike. They launched on Steam in 2014 and 2015, respectively. Halo: Spartan Assault was originally designed as a Windows Phone game and only came to other platforms after its lukewarm launch had cooled. HWDE, on the other hand, is barely two months old, and its Steam launch will do a few important things. First, it will officially support Windows 7 and 8.1, which could spur wider adoption than its original, Windows 10-only launch—especially for a game with such low system requirements (in short, Intel HD Graphics 4200) that it could run in, say, PC Bang cafés.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments


Xbox One, Windows 10 become more Steam-like with “self-service refunds”

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson)

Xbox One is officially the first video game console to support digital purchase refunds by default. The new "self-service refund" system was announced on Wednesday on the console's "Alpha" preview ring, which is normally used to test and tease other upcoming features to the system's interface, and it confirmed that the refund process will soon land both on Xbox One consoles and the Windows Store marketplace on Windows 10 PCs.

The announcement later appeared on support forums for Xbox's Alpha group, but its effects have already begun propagating to normal users, who now can follow the below steps to request online-purchase refunds for qualifying software.

Microsoft's self-service refunds work much like returns do on PC game-download service Steam. Shoppers have up to 14 days after purchasing a game or app to request a refund, and that will only work if the software in question has not been used for more than two hours while owned.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments


“All eras” of Star Wars come together in revealing Battlefront II trailer


A new cinematic trailer for the next announced Star Wars video game, Battlefront II, was briefly advertised on an official EA Twitter account before being deleted. As of press time, mirrors of the video still haven't been taken down. Normally, an all-sizzle, no-gameplay trailer doesn't constitute a reason to break into your regularly scheduled news feed, but the trailer does hint at new things for the multiplayer-focused series, including an expansion to "all eras" and a possible new-character campaign.

The trailer opens by focusing on an unidentified woman, and she shows up at the same time as the climactic moment of Return of the Jedi. We see the woman among a group of apparent Imperial guards—clad in mostly black, helmeted armor with red accents—who look up and see the in-construction Death Star explode. This unnamed woman is the only one without a helmet on, and she looks up at the explosion with astonishment, not anguish. Moments later, a TIE Fighter flies through the busted Death Star's debris, and then we see the same kind of black-and-red helmet in a TIE Fighter cockpit engaging hyperdrive. Since this was combined with teaser text about "a new soldier's story," it's not crazy to expect a structured campaign as a result, in which players use the new character to complete missions within the game's multiplayer battlegrounds.

Read 3 remaining paragraphs | Comments