TIME Video Games

Why You Probably Can’t Play the New Call of Duty Game

Activision's first online-only Call of Duty goes into public beta today, but only for gamers in China

The biggest experiment in games magnate Activision’s history is underway right now. No, it’s not Bungie’s Destiny, nor Blizzard’s latest World of Warcraft expansion. And it’s not a resurgent live-streaming version of Guitar Hero, nor is it the world’s first toy-game (Skylanders) MMO.

I’m talking about something bigger still, and, ironically, something most of you reading this can’t play at all.

It’s Call of Duty Online, a bona fide free-to-play, PC-only multiplayer version of Activision’s popular Call of Duty shooter franchise that’s shifting from open beta to what Activision calls a “public open beta” today.

The catch: it’s for China, and China only.

Activision

Surprised? Don’t be. China is a gaming behemoth. The country is home to an estimated 368 million video game players. That’s more than the entire population of the United States. The surprise would be a company as affluent and internationally beholden as Activision not launching a major project like this in China.

Call of Duty Online isn’t “World of Warcraft with guns,” nor is it a geographically continuous first-person shooter drawn from predominantly fresh content.

Instead, longtime Call of Duty developer Raven Software and Activision Shanghai have cobbled together material from the Black Ops and Modern Warfare series subsets, folding them into a kind of multiplayer anthology. Imagine the top competitive maps and modes from the Black Ops and Modern Warfare games rolled into a single package and flavored with localized content, then shoehorned into a free-to-play framework with connective character-building tissue.

And the game’s local network host? Shenzen-based Tencent, the fourth-largest Internet company in the world after Amazon, Google and eBay.

Not that moving from West to East could have been simple. Consider the Western obsession with shambling corpses in books, films, TV shows–and in several of the Call of Duty games.

“We discovered a few interesting differences along the way,” Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg said when I asked him to list some of the cultural challenges in making the game. “For example, zombies play a big role in Call of Duty in the West, but culturally, characters that are undead have a very different cultural meaning in China.”

In the West, zombies are generally depicted as brainless, shambling husks. In China, the undead, or “jiangshi,” are rigor mortis-stiffened corpses that ambulate by hopping. The solution for Call of Duty Online? Zombies are out, cyborgs are in.

What about China’s so-called “anti-fatigue” system? This is China’s state-mandated watchdog approach to limiting how much time players can spend playing games, rolled out in 2007. An Activision spokesperson confirmed to me that yes, in fact, Call of Duty Online is fully compliant with Chinese playtime requirements (a curious requirement that presumably impacts Activision’s revenues).

Chinese gamers have had access to the game for at least a year, of course, making this more of a transitional event. What’s the difference between an “open beta” and an “open public beta” anyway?

“This is the first time it’s really out in the wild,” said Hirshberg. “Everything we’ve done up to now has been for more controlled, finite audiences.”

So why tease Western gamers with a game they can’t play? Hirshberg says it’s simply because there’s been a lot of curiosity in the West about the new title. Not that anyone’s saying Call of Duty Online won’t eventually visit other regions. As Hirshberg himself noted a year ago, speaking about what his company stands to learn from a Call of Duty game spun in microtransactive form: “[There] are a few other regions where that would be very relevant.”

Read next: Why 2014 Was the Year Sex Got Real in Video Games

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TIME Video Games

The 10 Best Classic PC Games You Can Play Right Now

Oregon Trail
Internet Archive Oregon Trail

These 10 MS-DOS titles load up in your browser — no floppy disks required.

In the 1980s and 1990s, before Nintendo Entertainment System and Sega Genesis invaded our living rooms, PC games earned the highest scores with gamers. And while classic titles like Super Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog have been re-released, until recently classic computer games were only available to those willing to download emulators and track down files (or people somehow still sporting floppy drives).

Earlier this week, the Internet Archive tanked the world’s productivity by re-releasing almost 2,400 classic PC titles, all playable within a web browser. With that many games, you can bet there’s a lot of bad ones, and sadly, some of the best titles don’t work. (I’m looking at you, Pool of Radiance—there’s no way I can “Insert Disk 3” in 2015!)

But these ten favorites not only function, they’re still fun:

AD&D Eye of the Beholder: Roll the dice in this 1991 Dungeons & Dragons role playing game that was among the earliest titles to offer character creation. Sure, a lot of today’s games have this, and have leveled up to modern graphics, but there’s nothing like the nostalgia of being a chaotic good paladin roaming the dark passages beneath the city of Waterdeep. Look out, Kobolds!

Burgertime: Move over, Candy Crush, here comes the main course. Guide Peter Pepper in this hamburger assembling action game as he tries to build the biggest mouthfuls while being chased by enemy eggs, pickles and hot dogs. Back those bad guys off with a blast of pepper, chef, and stack those burgers as high as you can.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Riding the wave of Indy’s last adventure (because we all agree that the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull never happened, right?), this 1989 title was a Holy Grail for gamers, because it gave you control of one of the 80’s coolest characters. Among LucasArts’ earliest games, this browser version is easy to play using a keyboard, but it’s difficult to beat because Dr. Jones is a bit of a pushover.

The Hobbit: Open door. Go East. Enjoy game. Sure, after six movies, you might be sick of those tricksy little hobbitses today, but when this game was released in 1983, Tolkein fans only had the books, a 1977 cartoon, and some Led Zeppelin songs to tide them over. This text-based game barely has graphics — and if you want to go really old school you can even play without them, as you guide Bilbo through Middle Earth using only your imagination as your eyes.

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards: Back in the day, Sierra games were some of the most popular 8-bit adventures around. Today, through some copyright craziness, you can hardly find the old classics anywhere. (King’s Quest, the company’s first and biggest hit, is missing from this archive, for instance.) But this adult-oriented title follows the exploits of Larry Laffer as he strolls the city of Lost Wages, looking for love. Tame by today’s standards, it was the Grand Theft Auto of its time.

Lemmings 2: The Tribes: For some reason the original Lemmings didn’t make the online arcade, but this sequel still scratches the itch for people looking to save as many suicidal critters as they can. A cute puzzler, the object of this game is to lead the little rodents to safety, using lemmings’ specialized digging, blasting, and building skills to navigate the landscape of each level. Or, if you were a wicked child, you can still just guide them to elaborate, untimely demises.

Oregon Trail: B-A-N-G. Nostalgia for this stalwart of elementary school libraries has never faded — probably because they’ve relaunched the game so many times. Originally released in 1971, the Internet Archive’s edition is from 1990, but don’t worry, you can still die of dysentery in it. Some players have reported it freezes up, but others say claim if you load the page using the Firefox web browser, you’ll be on your way to the Willamette River Valley in no time.

Prince of Persia: Today’s kids will know this as the game that launched a Jake Gyllenhaal movie, but children of the 1990s fondly recall this as a top-notch adventure game, with great graphics and gameplay (at least for the time). Sure, it’s your typical rescue-the-princess plot, but the run-and-jump platformer has one thing that never gets old: infinite lives.

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?: That’s a great question, but here’s an even better one: How come Interpol needs entry-level detectives to locate a woman wearing a red trench coat and hat? Regardless, this educational title rocked elementary school kids’ worlds back in the 1980s, putting their geography and history smarts to the test. Perhaps the best part of this game is its throwback sound effects, which you can hear in the browser without having to install a Sound Blaster card.

Wolfenstein 3D: The game that ushered in the first-person shooter category, this 1992 title was the precursor to Doom, Quake, and many of the gore-fests roaring across consoles today. Rated “PC-13” (for “profound carnage”), Wolfenstein has you, as allied spy B.J. Blazkowicz, racing to escape the Nazis’ clutches. Want a real challenge? Beat it using just the pistol, or even better, the knife. Guten tag!

TIME technology

Why Reporting Offensive Players in Online Games Is a Losing Battle

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xoJane.com is where women go to be their unabashed selves, and where their unabashed selves are applauded

Some players live for crapping up someone else's gaming experience for no other reason than because they can

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Picture this: After a long day at work, you come home to relax, unwind, and play a video game where you pretend to be a science fiction soldier playing capture the flag for the next four hours. At some point during the evening, the game’s auto-matching program assigns you to a team with a player whose online username can’t be repeated in polite company. Then another teammate uses the in-game voice chat to preach views on “those dirty Mexicans.” Rather than play the match, your team grows tired of the rants and decides to “go Jew for a while.”

What exactly happened here? All you wanted was a few hours of mindless entertainment before bed and another day at the job, and now you’re wondering if the entire human race lost its mind in the meantime. You think about reporting the ugly behavior of your former teammates, but they’ve since vanished into the online ether. You grumble to yourself, but rejoin the game, hoping the players in the next match aren’t complete airheads.

I’ve played online games since the late-’90s and watched similar problems happen with each of them: Developers focus their time on fixing problems that affect playability, not the player base. Someone won’t play a game because the players are sexist, racist, and otherwise bigoted? Someone untroubled by such prejudice will eventually log on and play.

Many online games state on their boxes and splash screens that their online content is not rated by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, informing players about the no-man’s-land of online content they’re about to enter and (more importantly, from a business standpoint) protecting the parent company from potential lawsuits. The content delivery services that host these games have boilerplate anti-harassment policies, yet the overworked and understaffed game company can’t keep up with anything but the most flagrant of problem players. A “snitches get stitches” culture takes root. Eventually, the players are left to police themselves.

According to Xbox Live’s EULA, a player can’t “use [Xbox products including Xbox Live] to harm, threaten, or harass another person, organization, or Microsoft.” Sony Entertainment’s EULA lists a plethora of activities players cannot do on the Playstation Network: “You may not take any action, or upload, post, stream, or otherwise transmit any content, language, images or sounds in any forum, communication, public profile, or other publicly viewable areas or in the creation of any [username] that [Sony and its affiliates]…find[s] offensive, hateful, or vulgar. This includes any content or communication that SNEI or its affiliates deem racially, ethnically, religiously or sexually offensive, libelous, defaming, threatening, bullying or stalking.” Even the family-friendly Nintendo Wii comes with an EULA stating its online services may not be used “for commercial or illegal purposes, in a way that may harm another person or company, or in any unauthorized or improper manner.”

For personal computers, three companies dominate the online-gaming content delivery market: Valve’s Steam service, Electronic Arts’ Origin service, and Blizzard Entertainment’s Battle.net. Steam’s subscriber agreement contains a list of conduct rules players must follow, including a clause saying players must not “defame, abuse, harass, stalk, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others.” EA’s EULA prohibits users from “Defaming, abusing, harassing, threatening, spamming, violating the rights of others and/or otherwise interfering with others’ use and enjoyment of [Origin and all related software, services, updates, and upgrades];” or “Publishing, transferring or distributing any inappropriate, indecent, obscene, foul or unlawful conduct.” Blizzard’s EULA states that players will not “use or contribute User Content that is unlawful, tortious, defamatory, obscene, invasive of the privacy of another person, threatening, harassing, abusive, hateful, racist or otherwise objectionable or inappropriate.”

For now, content-delivery services for mobile devices come without the social networking options available for similar services on consoles and computers. Google’s Terms of Service states that available content “content is the sole responsibility of the entity that makes it available. We may review content to determine whether it is illegal or violates our policies, and we may remove or refuse to display content that we reasonably believe violates our policies or the law. But that does not necessarily mean that we review content, so please don’t assume that we do.” Apple’s App Store EULA states: “You understand that by using any of the Services, You may encounter content that may be deemed offensive, indecent, or objectionable, which content may or may not be identified as having explicit language, and that the results of any search or entering of a particular URL may automatically and unintentionally generate links or references to objectionable material. Nevertheless, You agree to use the Services at Your sole risk and that the Application Provider shall not have any liability to You for content that may be found to be offensive, indecent, or objectionable.”

Game apps come with their own Terms of Service. Zynga, creator of Facebook apps like FarmVille and mobile-device apps like Words with Friends, states in their community rules where users agree not to “post any content that is abusive, threatening, obscene, defamatory, libelous, or racially, sexually, religiously, otherwise objectionable or offensive; or violates any applicable law or regulation.”

So if all of these prohibitions are in place, why are you still reporting offensive user names like RapeFace and flagging users referring to earning in-game currency as “jewing”?

First, what can be considered “offensive content” can be debated ad infinitum in a courtroom, costing companies money. Second, staffing shortages lead to prioritization, and actively policing user content usually ends up at the bottom of priority lists, as it’s a problem without a concrete deadline. These two situations combined to form the user policing system used by nearly all of the aforementioned services: It’s up to players to notify company staff that something is amiss, from flagging content as inappropriate to filling out a Web form akin to a police report, describing the situation and providing screenshots and timestamps when necessary.

At the moment, Halo 4 is the only mainstream multiplayer game to take a zero-tolerance policy in regards to sexist behavior. Halo’s server host, Xbox Live, has the funding to support a team of live humans enforcing its online-content rules. Other online games have in-game monitors or forum moderators in reactive roles, fixing problems on case-by-case basis like overworked Wild West sheriffs.

Some players live for crapping up someone else’s gaming experience for no other reason than because they can. After all, the EULA doesn’t cover intentionally dropping the captured flag, opening your base to the other team, or other forms of grief play. Some players see it as their divine calling to find the line between permitted and unacceptable behavior and cross it — or better yet, troll someone else into crossing it, and reporting that player for rule-breaking. A recent case of griefing — intentional game disruption meant to harass or annoy — during team events in Lord of the Rings Online caused both players and LOTRO’s developer Turbine to reexamine its definition of in-game harassment.

Understandably, when reporting a bad player can take longer than playing a game session with said bad player, the path of least resistance is to put up with whoever it is until the sessions end or the players change. Platforms like Steam and Battle.net encourage users to mute, squelch, kick, or otherwise dismiss problem players from their personal gaming sessions as a means to solve the problem, rather than such measures acting as a first line of defense. Not every online platform has a paid team of employees specifically hired to enforce the rules, and because of this, online gaming culture sees such systemic problems as subjective, even victim-blaming.

In the online gaming frontier of the ’90s, EverQuest and Ultima Online and the earliest incarnation of Battle.net hosted live human moderators, but as scope grew, their roles shrunk. Now that gaming’s problems with sexism, racism, and homophobia have been laid bare thanks to GamerGate, it’s time to take these problems seriously instead of pushing them aside. Hiring staff dedicated to solving these issues shows that gaming companies won’t tolerate prejudice.

However, this behavior can’t be curbed by user policing alone. As in real life, there’s a fair amount of enabling in the virtual world. Most online gaming groups (clans, corporations, etc.) have at least one player who is an abominable human being yet plays the game like the Pinball Wizard. Other players justify his or her inclusion by stressing the problem player’s skills, abilities, or knowledge, dismissing personality problems with “he’s just like that, you’ll get used to it” or “she’s a great player — we’ll put up with her crap if it means she’s on our team.”

To fix what the game can’t, stop playing with such players. Easier said than done, right? If there’s an in-game group or clan that promotes acceptance and good sportsmanship, join it. Join communities like the Rough Trade Gaming Community and RPG.net. Lurk on subReddits like Truegaming. Or simply investigate the in-game community for players who fit your play-style. I’ve been playing games online since 1998, and the few times I haven’t found a BS-free group, I’ve started one, and never was I short on teammates.

So until the online gaming world gets its act together, I’ll hang out with my gaming group, where the foremost rule is “Don’t be an airhead.” If you’re ready to give gaming one more try, look me up by my Disqus name on Steam. Hope you like space ninjas.

Laura Carruba is a freelance writer and contributor to xoJane. This article originally appeared on xoJane.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Video Games

Sony Pushes Back PlayStation 4 Launch Date in China

PlayStation 4 Launch China
Chesnot—Getty Images A visitor plays on Sony Playstation 4 video game console (PS4), produced by Sony Corp during the 'Noel de Geek' at the Cite des Sciences et de l'industrie on Dec. 23, 2014 in Paris, France.

Latest setback for Sony's PlayStation, which was hacked last month

Sony said Thursday it is delaying for “various reasons” the launch of its PlayStation 4 in China, where a 14-year ban on foreign game consoles was lifted last year.

The delay in sales, originally scheduled for Jan. 11, resulted from prolonged negotiations with China’s regulators, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed company source. Sony said it has not decided on a new date.

China’s Ministry of Culture, the agency regulating video game content, is notoriously slow to approve foreign titles. The lengthy approval process is believed to be why Microsoft’s Xbox One launch last year was also delayed. Both companies have been forced to limit their game offerings, as Chinese regulators do not approve of violent, profane or political content, the reason for Beijing’s blanket ban on foreign consoles in 2000.

The delay is the latest setback for the Sony PlayStation, which, along with Microsoft’s Xbox Live, suffered multi-day network outages last month. A hacking group named Lizard Squad has since claimed responsibility for tapping into the two online networks. The PlayStation and Xbox hacks are understood to be unrelated to the devastating cyber attack on Sony in November.

[Reuters]

TIME Video Games

Why 2014 Was the Year Sex Got Real in Video Games

BioWare

At least sometimes and in some titles

What can last year’s mainstream video games tell us about the state of sex in gaming? Attempts to grapple with sex maturely in gaming remain elusive—though there were some standouts in 2014.

Cable and even old-fashioned broadcast TV now feature explicit sex routinely, whereas games, on balance, offer cruder visions of humans in erotic scenarios. In part, the industry’s hands are tied by technological limitations that can make graphic sex feel clumsy or inhuman.

Worse, games are still judged by double standards. A BDSM-explicit “erotic romance” like E.L. James’ novel 50 Shades of Grey or the rape scene in an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones provoke at best passing social media chatter. By comparison, the option—that it’s a choice and an inessential side activity are crucial distinctions—to follow implied sex with violence in a series like Grand Theft Auto leads to widespread outrage, not to mention sending legislators scrambling to introduce censorial bills. Consider the row that erupted in 2005 when someone unearthed a crude sex-related mini-game in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the presumption being that mere exposure to these things in a game (as opposed to a film or movie) somehow guarantees bad behavior.

On the other hand, agency in games gives players broader authorial control over their experience. One’s behavior in a roleplaying game, for instance, can modestly or substantially alter the evolution of a romantic journey that might culminate in scenes of physical intimacy. A player can spend dozens of hours with a relationship-driven game, examining (if the game supports it) the ramifications of choices for both the gameplay and story, perhaps exploring romance-related avenues that broaden appreciation of the game’s characters or plot dilemmas. The payoff might be the act itself, a typically non-interactive sequence in which lovers are depicted doing what lovers do. Or it could simply be the sense of having explored an optional storyline that didn’t relegate sex to a tawdry stereotype or crass objectification.

Here’s a closer look at sex in games last year:

Dragon Age: Inquisition

BioWare’s been at the fore of grappling with mature sexual themes in its roleplaying games for years, challenging cultural assumptions about sex both in and outside gaming. Dragon Age: Inquisition continues that tradition, allowing players to pursue friendships that can morph into romantic relationships with its cast of secondaries, be they male or female, human or not. The sexual choreography itself still feels awkward (again, technological limitations: when the act ensues, it’s a little like watching marionettes couple), but writer David Gaider raised the bar by including what he describes as the “the first fully gay character” he’s written. (You could have same-sex relationships in BioWare’s Mass Effect, but the characters were apparently bisexual.)

Wolfenstein: The New Order

You’d expect a sequel to a series of all but plotless games mostly about shooting Nazis to treat sex cheaply, but Wolfenstein: The New Order‘s two sexual liaisons (render and animation limitations notwithstanding) wouldn’t be out of place in a film or television show. The New Order‘s story won’t win any Emmys, but the sex scenes feel more like intimacy variables plugged into broader character-development exercises than mere titillation. And, who would’ve thought a Wolfenstein game could be as much about character-building as enemy-butchering?

Grand Theft Auto V

Sometimes humans behave very badly, and sometimes holding up mirrors involves guileful irreverence. (As Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.”) That, it seems, to me anyway, is Rockstar’s point throughout Grand Theft Auto V. You can argue the studio’s overplayed that hand, that the point is made crudely, and that making the same point game after game moves too freely between expressive and exploitive. There’s room for debate here.

But sex in Grand Theft Auto V—often raucous, violent and ridiculous—is hardly a celebration of bad behavior. This is a game that views both women and men through a lens absurdly. I tend to hold with Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick when, responding to a question about sexual violence in the game, he said: “Look, this is a criminal setting. It’s a gritty underworld. It is art. And I—I embrace that art, and it’s beautiful art, but it is gritty.”

TIME Video Games

PlayStation Now Will Offer Over 100 Games for $20 a Month

Sony

PlayStation now will feature an all-access model at launch

PlayStation Now, Sony’s streaming workaround for PlayStation 4 owners looking to play PlayStation 3 games without a PS3 console, will finally go live in the U.S. and Canada on January 13 after running in beta for nearly a year.

Sony is rolling out PlayStation Now as a flat all-you-can-play service, as opposed to a subscription-free model that requires players to pay for each game, or a hybrid subscription plus pay-for-each-game model. Until now, Sony has let gamers rent games on an hourly, weekly, daily or monthly basis.

For either $19.99 a month or $44.99 for three months (about $15 a month), Sony is teasing access to “over 100 PlayStation 3 games.” If you want to take it for an obligation-free spin, Sony is offering a seven-day trial that includes access to everything. The complete list of PlayStation Now launch games is here.

PlayStation Now streams visual information from remote Sony-managed servers to the PlayStation 4, like game streaming pioneer OnLive, which has offered as much for PC games since 2010. The games are processed on the remote servers, and all that’s piped to players is the graphical output. All updates, downloadable content and saved games are handled by Sony’s backend, so you have access to everything instantly.

The caveat: visual streaming algorithms that hinge on reciprocal feedback–visual to you, your gamepad input back to the servers–can have noticeable fidelity issues. Be aware that you’ll need a zippy baseline broadband connection to meet the service’s requirements (a steady 5 Mbps, according to Sony, with all of that dedicated to PlayStation Now). If anything interrupts the flow, image quality will degrade, a bit like a camera going out of focus.

In my time with the PlayStation Now beta last year, I was impressed by just how solid the games looked, but I still noticed moments where image quality would drop–probably a point of contention for videophiles, never mind competitive gaming purists, who require visual verisimilitude. But if you’re looking to interface casually with a slice of Sony’s PS3 catalogue, PlayStation Now may be of interest. A 500GB PS3 still goes for $250 today, to say nothing of the cost of individual games.

PlayStation Now will be PS4-only at launch, but Sony plans to support other devices down the road, at which point you’ll be able to pause a game you’re playing on one device, then pick it back up from another.

TIME Video Games

PlayStation Offers Deals in Apology for Holiday Outages

Sony PlayStation
Chesnot—Getty Images Gamers play video games with the PS4 consoles of Playstation during the International Games Week on October 29, 2014 in Paris, France.

The PlayStation Network is offering members a bonus after mass outages

Frustrated gamers who were unable to access the PlayStation Network on Christmas Day are getting reprieve from Sony.

The company is offering PlayStation Plus members a five-day membership extension, as long as users had a membership or free trial on December 25. Those bonus five days will be automatically applied to users’ accounts, so gamers won’t have to fiddle with special requests or forms.

Sony will also offer a 10% discount off a total cart purchase in the PlayStation Store to all PlayStation Network members throughout January. That includes blockbuster new releases, indie games and add-ons, as well as TV shows and movies.

The PlayStation Network was plagued by outages over the Christmas weekend that have been attributed to a hacking collective called Lizard Squad.

TIME Video Games

5 Things That Work in the Halo 5: Guardians Multiplayer Beta, 5 Things That Don’t

We've been playing Microsoft's Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta for Xbox One for a day

Don’t worry, this isn’t a review! Microsoft and developer 343 Industries’ Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta launched Monday, and we’ve only had a glimpse of the levels and gameplay modes to come before it wraps on January 18. At this point, we’re still waiting on five additional maps (of seven total) and two additional game types (the beta’s just “Slayer,” i.e. deathmatch, so far). So we’d be remiss to make too much of what we’re seeing here.

But we can say a little. The two levels available now are tiny 4v4 team arena battles—first team to 50 kills wins—that run for 10 minutes each, with all the topsy-turvy, tactically grinding, kinetically anarchic exuberance that accompanies squeezing eight trigger-happy players into cramped multilevel spaces with curling tunnels, climbable platforms and dead-end corners.

If you’re new to Halo multiplayer, or simply out of practice (like me), your first several matches may quash your enthusiasm. You have to play 10 matches to be properly ranked and matched, and in those initial rounds, vets will prowl and prevail over the battlefield in killer twos and threes. But stick around and you’ll discover several fascinating wrinkles, from the pleasures of sprint-smashing and jump-clambering, to the way medals and callout announcements improve your ability to suss the game you’re playing.

Stuff that seems to work so far

Medals and announcements improve the invisible battle narrative

Halo 5 introduces medals that manifest when you pull off a noteworthy move or support a teammate. Some are balking, but consider this: kills, assists, reversals, and combinations help ground your sense of accomplishment over the course of each 10 minute session, and your sense of “what just happened?” improves considerably. Even “distraction,” a passive medal awarded for diverting an opponent’s attention as a teammate delivers the coup de grace, helps you better figure out what’s going on and why.

Ditto voice announcements, whether the game’s squawking about a spawn-in weapon’s availability, or speaking on your (or your teammates’) behalf, identifying some tactically helpful occurrence, like who just grabbed what.

Think of medals and voice announcements as vital battle information disguised as salutary rewards: they contextualize actions you’d otherwise miss entirely in confusing eruptions of activity.

Sprint-assaults and clambering (ledge-climbing) don’t break the game

Cynical comparisons to Titanfall and Call of Duty don’t really work here, because broken up, Halo 5‘s refined Spartan gameplay—focused on map and weapons control in close-quarters—feels nothing like either of those games. Halo 5 is faster-paced, granted, but the resemblances end at pacing generalities.

Sprinting feels a trifle faster than in Halo 4, but provides enough oomph to facilitate longish jumps between platforms that require deftly executed clambers, and sprint-assaults (a.k.a. the “Spartan Charge”) adds a satisfying timing element to melee situations that rewards skillful combo maneuvering: attack from the sides or front and you’ll damage shields, attack from behind and it’s a one-hit execution. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve whiffed melee encounters because I misjudged distance, though I’m getting better; there’s a welcome learning curve to perfecting this move.

(Why no mention of Ground Pound, a charge maneuver that lets you one-drop kill an enemy with splash damage? Because the maps don’t really encourage its use, nor, to date, have I witnessed anyone else using it, which may or may not–I need to play a whole lot more–speak for itself.)

It’s as smooth as any of the Master Chief Collection remasters

The beta runs at 720p and at or near 60 frames per second continuously. I’d be just as happy playing at 30 (indeed, I prefer the look and feel of 30), but I realize purists, especially hardcore shooter wonks, prefer and arguably benefit from 60’s heightened frame continuity when finessing split-second maneuvers or tracking shots.

It looks like a Halo game, and that’s just fine

Halo 5‘s preliminary outing doesn’t visually distinguish itself from the remastered Halos, but then I’m not sure it has to, because the older installments already look outstanding in The Master Chief Collection. (That, and I’m sure 343 Industries wants to save the visual surprises for the final version, due next fall.)

Of the two maps, “Truth” is less interesting, but only because it’s a remake of “Midship,” a purple-blue Halo 2 multilevel maze set aboard a Covenant warship that’s been rejiggered for each of the subsequent games. “Empire” is the newcomer here, a graphically quotidian building-scape that’s no more vertical than Truth (which also has multiple levels), but harbors elevated nooks and high-up hiding spaces.

The first two maps are small but geometrically nuanced

Vets can probably say (and doubtless grouse) far more about the level design, but I’m digging what I’ve seen in the two launch arenas, from their insidious chokepoints to the cleverly positioned sight lines to the proportionate placement of spawn-in weaponry. And the special weapons–an Elite power sword in “Truth,” sniper rifles that spawn periodically in “Empire”–force you to double down on effective map control, encouraging your team to come together quickly and function as a cohesive unit.

The stuff I’m less jazzed about

The jury’s still out on “smart scope”

Call a spade a spade: probably because better players (than me) keep using this feature during aerial jumps at some distance or with sniper rifles for one-shot executions (read: mine). Still, it seems a little balance-questionable to let Spartans pick up anything from standard issue weapons to the most powerful gunnery, then quick-zoom-fire without mobility penalties and thus, since the ballistic spread is concentrated at a distance, with far more devastating accuracy.

I prefer there to be some penalty for at least some not-long-range weapons fired from a distance to prevent the game from devolving into an “everyone’s headshotting from a distance” match. Again, to be fair, I didn’t witness the latter happening, and the maps were busy enough sightline-wise to discourage it, so let’s call this more of a potential concern.

Thrusting may be a maneuver too far

For a Halo game, anyway: it’s like blocking in Super Smash Bros., where you know the feature’s there, you know it’s clearly capable of helping, but you’re always forgetting to use it–or having trouble using it effectively while juggling everything else. I’ll cop to my own Halo-ish biases (including a strong preference for fewer abilities in frenetic arena-style maps) being the potential issue here.

The voice acting makes the game feel too much like a game show

I’m totally into all the new information–as noted above, it’s often crucial, hands-free feedback. But the voices sounds a little too Smash TV at this point, a little too goofball and overtly eSports beholden. Hopefully those voiceovers are just placeholders, and there’s still plenty of space between now and the full launch this fall for debate over specificity (which things warrant callouts), their frequency and the voiceover personality types.

The Halo Channel could use a tune-up

It looks slick and comes loaded with scads of Halo-related indulgences, but navigation is sluggish: the menubar marker lags badly, scrolling text chugs into place and you’ll lose your place altogether if you move the navigation cursor too fast. I’d rather half (or have none of) the visual ornamentation, if it made the interface respond better. At this point, it’s like using Safari under OS X Yosemite on my 2014 Retina MacBook Pro. (Note: the Halo Channel isn’t beta specific–it launched independently in mid-November–but it’s woven into and comments on the beta experience, thus my inclusion of it here.)

The ads in the Halo Channel cheapen the experience

Before I could watch “The Sprint,” a series of insightful video vignettes about the Halo 5 multiplayer beta map “Truth,” I had to watch an un-skipable ad for the U.S. Navy. I play (and happily pay for) games (or game features) to get away from this stuff, and it’s a shame to see Microsoft muddying its Halo-verse by periodically dragging you out of it.

TIME Video Games

The Much-Awaited Halo 5 Multiplayer Beta Starts Today

Microsoft is kicking off 2015 with a Halo 5 multiplayer beta you can download today if you bought The Master Chief Collection

The Halo 5: Guardians multiplayer beta is on. It’s a trifle later than expected (by two days), but Microsoft has made good by extending the beta an extra day, thus you can now plasma-filet fellow players through January 18.

The beta should be downloadable by 12 p.m. ET Monday afternoon — but you need to own Halo: The Master Chief Collection to qualify for access.

Microsoft released a trailer a little over a week ago that walks through some of the beta’s features. It’ll focus on 4v4 Arena play across seven maps and three game types, and represents “only a small portion” of the final product, according to Redmond.

The final version of the game — which will let you play as a brand new character, Spartan Locke, sleuthing for an M.I.A. Master Chief — launches this fall (somewhere between September 23 and December 21) on Xbox One.

In related news, Microsoft is opening up preorders for the full Halo 5 game early. It’s happy to part you from a significant wad of your holiday cash if you’re feeling particularly Halo-hardcore: Microsoft is selling a Limited Collector’s Edition of the game, which includes a poster, digital miscellany, items (not specified) wrapped in a steel book, and a numbered statue (of what, also not specified) for $250.

A $100 Limited Edition includes the digital content, items and steel book, while the $60 standard version includes the poster only if you preorder.

TIME cybersecurity

Playstation Back Online After Christmas Hack

Playstation 4
Pablo Blazquez Dominguez—Getty Images A man plays on a Playstation 4 on Nov. 9, 2013 in Madrid.

Two days after a Christmas hack downed Sony's Playstation and Microsoft's Xbox online networks

Sony’s Playstation network is “gradually coming back online,” the company announced early Saturday, two days after a hacking group claimed responsibility for downing it.

A group known as “Lizard Squad” said they hacked both the Playstation network and Microsoft’s Xbox Live just as new users were launching consoles they received on Christmas. The console’s networks allow users to play games with an online community.

On Friday, the Xbox network was “up and running,” according to NBC News.

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