TIME Video Games

Assassin’s Creed Unity Will Only Run at 1080p on PCs

Both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions of the game are locked at 900p and 30 frames per second.

Ubisoft’s upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity, a sneaking game about two secret societies warring during the French Revolution, will only be capable of 1080p display resolution if you’re rocking a Windows PC.

The 1920-by-1080 club’s doors are officially closed to game consoles, says Ubisoft. What’s more, both consoles will top out at 30 frames per second (enthusiasts tend to prefer games that run at 60).

Speaking with VideoGamer.com, Unity senior producer Vincent Pontbriand said the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One CPUs weren’t up to the job of juggling the game’s massive crowds.

“Technically we’re CPU-bound,” he said. “The GPUs are really powerful, obviously the graphics look pretty good, but it’s the CPU [that] has to process the AI, the number of NPCs we have on screen, all these systems running in parallel.”

Ubisoft

Pontbriand says Ubisoft Montreal’s design team, which had been hoping for a “tenfold improvement” in A.I. performance from the new consoles, was surprised and frustrated by the bottleneck. “It’s not the number of polygons that affect the framerate,” he said. “We could be running at 100fps if it was just graphics, but because of AI, we’re still limited to 30 frames per second.”

Frame rates aside, the pixel difference between 900p and 1080p would in theory be a GPU- and not CPU-related bottleneck, thus locking both consoles at 900p may have been a political decision.

Indeed, Pontbriand told VideoGamer.com that the studio “decided to lock [both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions] at the same specs to avoid all the debates and stuff.”

PlayStation 4 and Xbox One buffs have been locking horns since the systems launched last November over worries the Xbox One isn’t as powerful as Sony’s system. The concern is premised on the way each system displays graphics, and games released for both consoles have so far run at slightly lower resolutions on the Xbox One, though developers have argued the differences are visually trifling.

Last fall, when Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag arrived, both PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions ran at 900p. But Ubisoft quickly released a patch that upgraded the PlayStation 4’s visuals to full 1080p. Given Pontbriand’s statements, it seems unlikely it’ll do something similar with Unity.

The corollary to all of this? The highest fidelity version of the game, assuming you have enough processing gas to cook with, is going to be on Windows PCs.

TIME Video Games

How Assassin’s Creed Unity Navigates the French Revolution’s Politics

Assassin's Creed Unity's creative director explains how the game engages with the French Revolution's controversial, often lopsided-looking political ramifications.

“[Just] as the French revolution … understood itself through antiquity, I think our time can be understood through the French revolution,” said Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay, in a December 2001 Jacket interview.

Indeed, the French Revolution is one of these ever-topical historical periods brimming with controversies and lessons. It resonates across the political spectrum, and artists have explored it in countless books, movies, paintings, musicals, musical works, plays and more.

You can add games to that lineup on November 11, when Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Unity rolls out the most elaborate interactive simulation of the tumultuous time yet conceived.

It’s not a political game in the sense others that grapple with events like the Israeli-Palestinian crisis or food imports in the U.S. head-on are sometimes described. But the label or category “political game” can be misleading. It suggests there’s such a thing as a nonpolitical game. That’s a misnomer. Even a game as inocuous as Pac-Man can have political implications, and positioning a book or film or video game as apolitical, say for commercial purposes, to avoid alienating potential buyers, is as political a maneuver as any other.

Assassin’s Creed III tried to square this circle by relegating its political commentary–some of it witheringly critical of American historical revisionism–to optional encyclopedia entries. The trenchant stuff was there, but mostly happened offstage.

Where does Unity sit on that spectrum? Does it dig into the French Revolution’s political ramifications directly, or circle the periphery? I put the question to Unity director Alexandre Amancio late last week. Here’s what he told me.

We’ve already seen the series’ ethical framework shaken in recent games, with storylines that question both the Assassins and Templars’ motives. Is Assassin’s Creed Unity a continuation of that degree-by-degrees shift, or a more radical rethink?

I think Assassin’s Creed Unity takes things even further than we’ve seen to date. I think the French Revolution is the perfect setting for that ambiguity, because if you look at the French Revolution itself, the idea behind it is obviously that this is one of the first populist movements, when the people revolted against this old-school autocratic society. But the way the French Revolution proceeded, up to the Reign of Terror, you can definitely see how something that starts off as a genuinely positive idea can turn into a bloodbath and chaos.

Ubisoft

You’ve described protagonist Arno’s story as a redemption quest. Redemption from what?

At the beginning of the game, Arno’s adopted father dies, and the father happens to be the Grandmaster of the Templars in France. And because of certain details surrounding this death, Arno feels somewhat responsible.

So joining the Assassins is a means to an end for Arno. By joining the Assassins, he feels he has a better chance at redeeming himself for this mistake. That may sound counterintuitive, because if you want to avenge the death of a Templar, you wouldn’t join their enemies.

The thing is, and this goes along with your question about moral ambiguity, that the Templar Grandmaster is murdered because of a plot within his own order. There’s an extremist movement that causes a shift in leadership, so it’s sort of a coup. And part of trying to figure out who was responsible for the death ties into finding out who actually murdered the Grandmaster and why the Templars are shifting ideologies, but it’s also mixed in with the French Revolution and who’s pulling the strings behind both things.

This is how we tie Arno’s redemption quest in with the Revolution. A lot of the elements we see in the French Revolution we try to echo and mirror through metaphor. It’s the idea of extremism and how if you take two separate political entities and you take them to extremes, they wind up looping back and becoming the same thing.

You see this especially at the beginning of the story, where the Assassins and Templars are getting a little closer, because they’re figuring that the state of France is hitting such a critical point that it might explode. So by maybe moving toward detente and working together, maybe they can prevent the situation from deteriorating into a bloodbath. But what you see is that there’s elements on both sides who’d rather see society crumble, and so the game is sort of a study of that.

Speaking of the factions, if we’re thinking on the grand scale of human history, specific political ideologies tend to be short-lived. Creative license aside, isn’t it stretching the bounds of plausibility to portray the corruption-obsessed Assassins and control-obsessed Templars as these ideologically cohesive movements for millennia?

The more you play on these high-level universal truths and the more you tie them to different areas of the narrative, whether it’s the character’s personal story or history itself, or the events, the more I think they start to permeate the whole experience. I think that’s how you build a deeper and more satisfying experience, where it’s not just surface and touches every part of the fabric of the narrative.

The Assassins certainly go through that. I think that’s reflected through Arno. Arno’s character arc is a reflection of the Assassins’ progression, from the beginning of the revolution to afterward, and how he understands the truths that were told to him at the beginning.

Any time you read scripture, you’re always responsible for interpreting it in a certain way. So the same text that you read before and after a traumatic event might have a totally different meaning. Y0u might realize that something you thought was an absolute truth at one point in your life, after certain trials and tribulations, you look at that same phrasing and you see in reality that it meant something completely different.

This is Arno’s character arc. It’s about the meaning of what it is to be an Assassin, and what the tenets of the Assassins truly mean. The reason we did this is that it’s a renewal for the series and a new beginning for the brand. It felt like this study of what it means to be an Assassin was very important for new players as well as those who’ve been playing the story for a long time.

Ubisoft

Now if you look at the Templars, you have a similar thing going on, but with a different take altogether. The idea is that if you look back at the historical Templars in the Middle Ages, there was a great betrayal, a purge of the Templar order executed by Philip the Fair [Philip the IV, king of France in the late 13th century] and the Pope [Clement V]. This was the historical end of the Templars. And if you look at what Jacques de Molay [the last official Grandmaster of the historical Templars] was actually doing, he was already shifting the world toward something else. He thought that autocratic control was not the way to go, because people are always going to rebel against control and seek freedom. Even if the Templars believed people needed to be controlled, he understood you will never be able to change human nature.

So he was shifting the order toward something else, like a banking system, maybe something where people would control themselves if the system was built to reflect human nature. And if humans could regulate themselves, maybe it would be much easier to control things. But before he was able to undertake this, there was a betrayal and the Templars were purged.

What we’re seeing in Assassin’s Creed Unity, is somebody rising up, finding these old texts and realizing this guy was a prophet, that he was centuries ahead of his time, and this is what has to be done, and that the French Revolution might be the perfect setting to pull the strings and shift the world from something involving autocratic control to something more governed by desire and money and the economy.

How politically pointed can you afford to be in a game that’s part of a multibillions franchise, played by players of many political persuasions? How corporate-beholden are you to keep the political implications of this plot point or that one anodyne?

Very little, because that only becomes delicate when you want to take a strong position with a certain kind of view.

What we actually try to do, and I think this is just a personal belief that we have, is to avoid reducing history. You can’t start taking sides, because that makes it biased, and what we’re really trying to do is expose every slice of history in the most unbiased way possible.

It’s obviously incredibly difficult. History is always subjective, because it’s written by people, and no matter how objective you try to be, human nature makes it subjective. We try very hard to portray things as factually as possible. But for instance, we discovered that the French Revolution even today is controversial. Historians and specialists of the period don’t agree with everything and every event. We consulted with two historians on the project. We had a full-time historian on the project, but we worked specifically with two people known in French Revolution scholarship circles, and we had them review the entire script. And we noticed that even between them, there were things about which they didn’t agree. One of them thought that portraying a certain event in a negative way was positioning us in a Royalist category, for instance. You know, the September Massacres are called the massacres and not “the jubilation” for a reason, right? However well-intentioned the initial purpose was, the fact remains that it was a time of chaos.

So they weren’t always in agreement, but one thing the historians were in agreement about was that we portrayed the French Revolution in the game in a very objective way. They felt it was faithful to the gray area of this period. The very fact that our narrative is not about something that’s moralistic in the sense that we’re not forcing you to side with a certain camp expresses this. Our story is about individuals, about how these events take them down a road where they’ll learn things about themselves and their own views. We’re not trying to expose the evils of society and say these people were wrong, these people were right.

If anything, what we end up saying is that everybody was wrong. It’s a human thing. We believe in a certain truth or certain ideals, and then because we’re protective and convinced by these ideals, we fall into the trap of taking them to extremes. And the thing is, most often the truth’s somewhere in the middle. If anything, we’re trying to say people should try to keep a more open mind about the other side’s position on the political spectrum.

Ubisoft

You’ve also said that in Unity, unlike in Assassin’s Creed III where as Connor you were involved in or even instigating pivotal events in the American Revolution, that’s not what you’re up to as Arno. You’ve called Unity more a romance that happens to be framed by the Revolution. But romances are really, really tricky to pull off in any medium without botching the chemistry or coming off as oversentimental. I can’t think of a non-indie mainstream game that’s really done it.

You’re absolutely right. When you’re making a game about anything emotional, cinematics are your way of telling the narrative. The thing is, when you’re watching a cinematic in a game, you’re removed from the core of the experience, which is your input with the controller.

You mention indie games, and I think there are some that have succeeded in having you really experience emotion or feelings for NPCs when you’re playing the game by generating those things through interaction. The reason a shooter is visceral is because the movement and pressing of the button is exactly reflecting the emotion you’re trying to convey, say stress, adrenaline and so forth. Every time you’re able to provide input through the controller and directly reflect the emotion you’re trying to convey, it works. On the other hand, when you’re asking the player to be passive in watching interaction between characters on screen in a cinematic, of course the player’s going to feel removed, because games aren’t films.

What we tried to do is make the romance, as much as we could, happen during gameplay. Of course there are some cutscenes where a little bit of exposition takes place, but that’s inevitable. We really try as best we can to have the characters interact during gameplay. I think that’s how you get players to feel something in a video game.

Now another thing we did is the fact that, because the nature of a romance story is the interaction between two characters, and usually the gameplay is about you stabbing people or sneaking around the world, it makes it very difficult to do romance as something other than a side element. But because we made Arno’s romantic interest, Elise, a Templar, because she is from a different faction than the player, all of a sudden that makes it more relevant. Even if their ultimate goal is the same, because she’s affiliated with the losing part of the Templars, the one that got purged, their methods might differ, and their motivations certainly differ.

I really like opposites, and I like exposing the opposites, because I think that it’s through showing the opposite of something that you can strengthen what you’re trying to convey. Elise is motivated by a desire for vengeance. Arno is motivated by a desire for redemption. These two things are very different, because one ultimately leads to your doom, while I think the other can lead to you actually being saved.

By making their objectives the same, but their motivations opposite, hopefully their interactions will create tension, and players will feel this impossible decision and the inevitability of the relationship as they move forward. Ultimately the romance part of this game is a Cornelian dilemma, where Arno is stuck in this impossible decision, where he ultimately has to choose between the values of the Creed and his love for this woman who happens to be on the opposite side of the spectrum.

TIME Video Games

Twitch Takes a Step Toward Greater Broadcast Transparency

The popular player-driven video game streaming service says it'll take a proactive stance on increasing transparency for sponsored content.

Transparency is one of these noble words you hear a lot these days, but it’s rarely paired with practical definitions — and least of all with tangible action.

What does it mean to be transparent if you’re a company paying a celebrity to endorse your product? How do you divulge an ethically sufficient amount of information to stave off allegations of shilling?

Gaming channel Twitch is taking an interesting, proactive stance. The just-bought-by-Amazon company announced on its blog that it will immediately put into practice new policies designed to make clear what is or isn’t a sponsored broadcast.

“While we have always encouraged our broadcasters to acknowledge if they are playing games as part of a promotional campaign, we are now establishing a much more transparent approach to all paid programs on our platform and hope that it sets a precedent for the broader industry,” writes marketing VP Matthew DiPietro. “Simply put: We want complete transparency and unwavering authenticity with all content and promotions that have a sponsor relationship.”

What will “complete transparency” look like, specifically, on Twitch?

The company says “all copy and graphics” related to sponsored content will be identified clearly, including “sponsored” tags that’ll appear on streams and newsletters, letting viewers know that the content is sponsored by a brand. All Twitch front-page, social and email promotions will also be clearly identified, says DiPietro. Twitter dispatches, for instance, will include language like “brought to you by” or “^SP” to indicate a “sponsored tweet.”

Twitch

Furthermore, Twitch says it never has, and pledges that it never will, demand that “influencers”–the people paid by the brands to do whatever they do in the videos–express positive or negative sentiments.

Note that these are explicitly for “Twitch driven” campaigns. It’s not a service-wide mandate, in other words. In an update to the post, Twitch addresses sponsor relationships that occur outside the purview of Twitch’s campaigns, writing “we encourage all broadcasters to follow FTC guidelines.” The FTC guidelines are here, but they’re still only guidelines, not regulatory rules.

(In a response to a comment, a Twitch spokesperson says the company requires all broadcasters to follow the FTC’s Guidelines Concerning the Use of Testimonials and Endorsements, but that appears to conflict with the note at the blog’s top, which stipulates that Twitch only “encourages” this.)

Short of locking the whole outfit down, Twitch is probably hoping its “lead by example” approach will influence all of its broadcasters to be FTC guidelines-compliant. It’s an interesting experiment, and speaking from a viewer standpoint, essential. Now we wait, and watch, and see how well it works.

TIME Video Games

Good News: Pillars of Eternity Makers Just Delayed the Game

Obsidian

The crowdfunded roleplaying game that generated over $4 million gets a minor bump from late 2014 to early 2015.

Pillars of Eternity, one of the handful of crowdfunded games notable for blowing the ceiling off its asking price, has been delayed (briefly) until early next year. It was due at the end of this one, but apparently feedback from the beta test period prompted the studio to hold back a few more months.

“Since the very beginning of this project we promised our fans and ourselves that we would release this game only when we knew it would be absolutely ready for the best experience possible. We’re very close to that point, but not quite there yet,” wrote Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart on publisher Paradox Interactive’s forums. “The feedback we have received through our playtest process has been invaluable to us. We are coming into the home stretch but are pushing the release out just a bit to make sure we honor that promise we made originally.”

The game–a roleplaying adventure in the vein of Baldur’s Gate, targeting Linux, OS X and Windows PCs–was originally projected to arrive in spring 2014 (the Kickstarter page lists “April 2014″ for funder rewards), but was delayed last February to “winter 2014.” It’s starter budget was a million bucks, but Obsidian managed to quadruple that by the time the funding campaign wrapped in October 2012.

I usually feel a little relieved when I see a studio announce that some game’s been delayed. Not always. Sometimes you have debacles where a studio’s quietly dragging its feet, running out of money, still fumbling around with an inchoate project and dragging heels down spiraling tubes.

But when it comes to self-starter projects like this one (Obsidian didn’t sign on with Paradox to publish until March 2014), you want the studio’s full faith and credit behind whatever it winds up stamping “finished.” I couldn’t have been happier to see stuff like Dying Light, Batman: Arkham Knight and The Witcher 3 bumped to next year. Take your time, I want to tell every publisher and studio lead. These things are too important to screw up. We’ll wait.

TIME Video Games

An Hour’s Worth of Bloodborne Gameplay That’s Kind of Amazing

An alpha tester just uploaded an hour's worth of high-definition video of grueling hack-and-slash Bloodborne gameplay.

I care too much about coming to From Software’s Bloodborne fresh to play it in alpha. Or beta. Or anything short of gold.

But if you want to watch some dude in a cape and tricorn run around clobbering things in the employ of a game engine that looks really, really slick, the series of just released Bloodborne alpha-play videos above–four in all–are a treat.

Yes, there’s a Bloodborne alpha. It’s transpiring as I type this, and no, you can’t play it, since the signing-up period’s past. But this is arguably better, since it’s not really spoiling anything. What makes a game a game is playing it, after all, and this is just peering over someone’s shoulder.

If you’ve played Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls or Dark Souls II but paid little attention to Bloodborne, you’ll notice the DNA in these videos immediately. The interfaces are all but identical, as is the ebb and flow of combat. Even the way enemies die feels the same, though the animations and detail level are an order of magnitude greater.

Check out that creepy obese monstrosity just after 15:20. Notice how eerily lifelike it is when it moves. The Souls games are notorious for being some of the most difficult in recent memory, but at this level of fidelity, Bloodborne‘s adding “downright terrifying” to the mix.

Each video runs about 15 minutes: The initial one is of this fellow playing as Bloodborne‘s “standard” class. That’s followed by a video playing as the Kirkhammer class (Dark Souls meets Thor), a third involves crows and a freaky mini-boss, and the fourth is a full-on boss battle (with the dreaded “cleric beast”) that’s rather impressive.

Bloodborne arrives for PlayStation 4 (it’s exclusive) on February 6 next year.

TIME Video Games

PlayStation Plus Price Increase Isn’t in the Offing for North America

Sony's price for a 12-month U.S. PlayStation Plus subscription is currently $50 and looks to remain so for the near future, despite price hikes in other regions around the world.

Sony’s privileges and rewards PlayStation Plus online club for its PlayStation 3 and 4 game consoles won’t see a price hike in North America anytime soon, but its price tag is going up by a significant amount in other regions of the world.

“We slightly increased prices for PlayStation Plus in South Africa, Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and India regions due to various market conditions,” said a Sony representative in an email to Joystiq. “Currently, price adjustments are not being planned for PS Plus in the SCEA [Sony Computer Entertainment America] region.”

South African news portal iAfrica wrote yesterday that South African PS Plus members would see a “rather large price increase,” citing emails from Sony that indicated the price of a three-month subscription would rise from R145 (about $13) to R219 (about $20), whereas a 12-month subscription would rise from R489 (about $44) to R749 (about $67). According to iAfrica, Sony calls the increase “slight,” says it was “due to various market conditions,” and gave less than 24 hours notice of the change.

In the U.S., a three-month PS Plus subscription currently runs $18, while a 12-month subscription runs $50. The subscription, which unlocks a variety of discounts and access to free games, is also necessary on PlayStation 4 to play online games, though online play remains free on the PlayStation 3 and PS Vita.

Price increases can feel a bit like tax hikes: nebulously justified and almost impossible to vett, since no one’s allowed behind the scenes or liable to get more than vagaries (like the one above) out of spokespersons. The best you can do is look at comparable services, say Microsoft’s Xbox Live, which started at $50 a year in the U.S. and rose slightly to $60 in November 2010.

But in South Africa, a 12-month Xbox Live subscription currently runs in the vicinity of R600, or about $54. So from that vantage, assuming South Africans are getting nothing new in the bargain and considering the prior prices, Sony’s new fees look as stiff as iAfrica says.

TIME Video Games

Watch Nearly 10 Minutes of Civilization: Beyond Earth Game-splained

Studio Firaxis' upcoming turn-based 4X strategy game (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) explained in a nearly 10-minute gameplay trailer

The crack about some of the “all-new features” is corny, but the rest of this official Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth gameplay video is enthralling if you’re a turn-based strategy buff.

Crank things up to 1080p, turn on annotations and dive in. You can hop between chapters by clicking the tabs at screen bottom.

The game, which charts your colonization of another world using an enhanced version of the Civilization V engine (and which made our “biggest games of fall list“), is available for OS X and Windows on October 24.

TIME legal

Xbox One Counterfeiters Accused of Stealing ‘$100 to $200 Million’ in Data

Two of the four indicted U.S. men have pleaded guilty to computer fraud and copyright infringement, and will be sentenced next January.

Four men in the U.S. have been indicted by the Department of Justice for allegedly stealing unreleased software and other data from a series of gaming companies and the U.S. military.

Austin Alcala (18), Nathan Leroux (20), Sanadodeh Nesheiwat (28) and David Pokora (22) were charged with 18 counts of criminal activity, according to the federal indictment filed earlier in April and unsealed September 30. Charges included wire and mail fraud, theft of trade secrets, unauthorized computer access, copyright infringement and identity theft.

The indictment claims the four used SQL attacks and malware to hack into computer systems operated by Microsoft, Epic Games, Valve, Activision Blizzard, Zombie Studios and the U.S. Army itself. The DOJ alleges the hackers stole data ranging from authentication credentials to information about prerelease products in hopes of selling it for profit. The DOJ’s estimated value for all that data: between $100 million and $200 million.

The DOJ said the hacking ring stole information related to Microsoft’s Xbox One game console and Xbox Live online gaming network, Epic’s Gears of War 3 (a third-person tactical shooter), Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (a first-person shooter), and specialized software the U.S. Army uses to train Apache helicopter pilots. To date, the U.S. has seized $620,000 “in cash and other proceeds related to the charged conduct,” said the DOJ.

Two of the men–Nesheiwat and Pokora–have pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit computer fraud and copyright infringement. They’ll be sentenced on January 15 next year, and could serve up to five years prison time. On a side note, the DOJ said it believes Pokora may be the first foreigner convicted for hacking into U.S. companies to steal trade secret info. He was arrested last March while trying to enter the U.S. at Lewiston, New York.

“Today’s guilty pleas show that we will protect America’s intellectual property from hackers, whether they hack from here or from abroad,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell in a statement.

But a fifth person allegedly involved in the ring–an Australian citizen not named in the indictment who reportedly tried to sell a prototype of Microsoft’s Xbox One games console on eBay in August 2012 (the system wasn’t released until November)–told the Guardian that the DOJ’s valuations are “meaningless,” that the group was simply curious and that, save for an act of theft by a single hacker that relates to the DOJ cash grab, it made nothing.

TIME Video Games

Pokémon TCG, Nintendo’s First Affiliate iOS Game, Is Finally Here

Gamepad-fiddly platformers like Super Mario Bros. will never make sense on flat touchscreens, but card games like Nintendo's Pokémon TCG or Blizzard's Hearthstone seem like no-brainers.

Drop the word “Pokémon” into Apple’s or Google’s app stores (no need for the diacritical “e”) and you’ll unearth all sorts of odd-sounding concoctions, most of them creature-making tools or field guide paeans to Nintendo’s cutesy media franchise about a world full of exotic monster-pets you can catch and train to do your tactical bidding.

For years, Pokémon on smartphones and tablets has been a strictly fan affair, a cosmology of unofficial encyclopedias and builders, trivia games and wallpaper libraries. But all of those were unvarnished adjuncts compared to the wealth of games, cards, books and movies that swim in officially licensed waters.

Today everything changes: a Pokémon game is finally available on Apple devices. And not a port of one of the color-and-gem-obsessed Pokémon roleplaying games for Nintendo’s handhelds, but a translation 0f something that’s been around for as long as Pokémon itself.

When Pokémon Trading Card Game, or Pokémon TCG launched in 1996 as a physical card game (the same year Satoshi Tajiri launched the series with Game Boy games Pokémon Red and Blue), Patrick Stewart was squaring off with Alice Krige’s Borg, the original Beverly Hills 90210 was just past its halfway point, Sega’s barely one-year-old Saturn was staring down the headlamps from Nintendo’s oncoming N64 train, and Apple’s Bandai Pippin game system no one remembers arrived (and promptly disappeared).

After a run that’s approaching two decades and some publisher deck-chair rearranging, the partly Nintendo-owned property (via its The Pokémon Company International–a Nintendo affiliate) has gone where pundits have been claiming Nintendo needed to for years: Apple’s iPad and iPad Mini.

The Pokémon Company International says the new Pokémon TCG app is free-to-play, so gratis to download and get started. New players begin with a few freebie digital decks and can earn additional ones by winning battles–a little like Blizzard’s Hearthstone, in other words: play casually for nothing, but if you want to play competitively against other Pokémon sharks, you’ll probably have to spend money at some point. There’s also a cross-media incentive: If you buy physical Pokémon TCG products, you’ll get a code that unlocks their digital counterparts.

Pokémon TCG for the iPad and iPad Mini should feel familiar to OS X and Windows players, who’ve had access to it as a downloadable game since April 2011, says The Pokémon Company International. Who you are and how well you’re doing transfers cross-platform, too, so there’s no need to manage separate accounts. All the key PC game features–tutorials, online battles against the computer or other players, deck-building, trading cards, customizing avatars and so forth–are present in the iPad versions, adds The Pokémon Company International.

I’m not sure when the company plans to bring the game to Android devices, but given how vast the Android-verse is, it stands to reason such a version’s inevitable.

So is this Nintendo (directly or indirectly) reneging on past statements about not putting Nintendo games on non-Nintendo devices?

Not really. Nintendo can plausibly claim The Pokémon Company–“founded and affiliated with Nintendo”–is something rather different from the video game empire its design luminaries (like Shigeru Miyamoto, Takashi Tezuka and Eiji Aonuma) built.

In fact, you could argue Pokémon TCG is just Nintendo president Satoru Iwata (again, directly or indirectly) putting paid to a statement made earlier this year, when he said he wasn’t ruling out the possibility of creating games–even ones that use Nintendo characters–on smart devices, then added, “It is our intention to release some application on smart devices this year that is capable of attracting consumer attention and communicating the value of our entertainment offerings, so I would encourage you to see how our approach yields results.”

TIME Video Games

12 Fascinating Indie and Lower-Profile Games to Watch This Fall

A collection of some of the fall's most intriguing games you might or might not know about.

Welcome to our followup to the “biggest games of fall 2014” list, but don’t read the title designations “indie” or “lower-profile” as secondary in any way. In fact, several of the games in this spread sound vastly more intriguing than anything else out this season.

As before, keeping to my requirement that games on these lists have actual release dates, I’ve had to leave off a few I might otherwise have included, notably This War of Mine (still listed as Q4 2014).

  • The Long Dark

    A first-person survival simulation set somewhere in the “Northern wilderness” after a global disaster that knocks out the power, The Long Dark taps into that almost primordial fear of being stuck in the middle of cold, dead, godforsaken nowhere, the day fading to dusk and then blackness, the raw elements (and your hierarchy of human needs) scraping at the door. Food and water are in short supply, and you’re not completely alone: there’s the wildlife to consider, and then you’ll wind up bumping into other survivors, resorting, one assumes, to the kinds of disquieting things survivors do.

    The version I’m talking about here won’t be final, fair warning: it’s part of Steam’s Early Access program, whereby you swap money with the developer in exchange for a chance to peek at the game in the throes of development, absent some of its release features.

    September 22 / OS X, Windows

  • Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments

    Arthur Conan Doyle meets Dostoyevsky, figuratively speaking, in this latest Sherlock Holmes-ian meta-fictive mashup from Focus Home Interactive. It’s a contemporary adventure game with an adventure game’s more sedate pace, yes, but don’t let that dissuade you: developer Frogwares’ past work on this off-kilter series–a Cthulhu mystery (The Awakened) and chance to square off against Jack the Ripper (Sherlock Holmes Versus Jack the Ripper)–were very well received.

    September 30 / PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows, Xbox 360 and One

  • Costume Quest 2

    Studio Double Fine and founder Tim Schafer’s sequel to 2010’s generally well-liked trick-or-treat sim (a.k.a. “spooky roleplaying game”) adds “new costumes, features and gameplay,” but since Double Fine doesn’t specify what any of that means, it’s probably a safe bet that it’s mostly Costume Quest redux, not a radical makeover.

    October 7 / Linux, OS X, PlayStation 3 & 4, Windows Wii U, Xbox 360 & One

  • Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

    Before Nic Pizzolatto’s Rust Cohle and Marty Hart scrutinized ritualistic murders, we had insouciant horror novelist-turned-snoop Gabriel Knight.

    Creator Jane Jensen’s groundbreaking adventure game returns under her guidance for a 20th anniversary edition, with remastered backdrops and characters, re-orchestrated music, new puzzles and a fresh stable of voice actors. Barring technical issues or quibbles with the new voice actors (I’m going to miss Tim Curry as Gabe and Mark Hamill as Mosely), this should be a treat while we’re waiting for Jensen’s planned continuation of the series.

    Sins of the Fathers was a mammoth storytelling leap forward in 1993. Never mind King’s Quest or Quest for Glory or Leisure Suit Larry, Gabriel Knight is the series Sierra deserves to be remembered for, and if you’re too young to remember it yourself, here’s your chance to see why.

    October 15 / OS X, Windows

  • Fantasy Life

    We celebrate Japanese studio Level-5 for games like Dark Cloud 2, Dragon Quest VIII and the Professor Layton series, but they’ve had a few fantasy misses, namely the White Knight Chronicles games. It’s thus hard to know what to make of Fantasy Life, an older 2012 3DS game just now seeing light of day in the West.

    On paper, it’s an Animal Crossing-like roleplaying mashup that has you partaking in the mundane (crafting, fishing, mining) as well as the fantastic (casting, battling, exploring). Japanese and Western audience reactions don’t always align, but the game fared reasonably well with Japanese tastemaker Famitsu (35 out of 40), and sold over a quarter of a million copies.

    October 24 / 3DS

  • Freedom Wars

    One of the season’s rare PS Vita-only games, Freedom Wars is a third-person action/strategy shooter set in our pollution-choked, resource-starved future, where prisoners from penal colonies square off over what’s left in hopes of reducing their sentences.

    Fight alongside androids you can deploy as tactical aids and play with up to eight players cooperatively as you work to conquer Japan’s prefectures (called “panopticons” in the game) to secure resources and climb the leaderboards.

    October 28 / PS Vita

  • Farming Simulator 15

    Wait, you’re saying. Farming Simulator 15? They’ve made 14 versions of a game about growing crops, raising livestock and trundling around in a tractor?

    Just five, actually, counting this one, and those are corresponding release years, not serial enumerations. But yes, it’s a farming simulator, which sounds as riveting as simulation ideas like “Watching Paint Dry” or “Cleaning Your Cuticles.” Then again, sometimes humdrum-sounding games are more than the sum of our assumptions.

    Plus, Farming Simulator 15 looks kind of incredible in the trailers (the Crysis series has nothing on this thing). You’re getting wood-cutting (forestry), several new brands, a new Nordic environment and “wash stations” to play with.

    October 30 / Windows

  • The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

    This hard-to-categorize (kinda-sorta roguelike) game that touches on controversial topics including, in the developer’s own words, “child abuse, gender identity, infanticide, neglect, suicide, abortion, and how religion might negatively affect a child,” gets a remake and hops to consoles (the original version was for PCs only).

    New to the game: it’s rendered as a 16-bit visual tribute, includes two-player cooperative play, new music (with remixes of the original’s tunes), new playable characters, fleshed out content (more items, room and enemies), plus the Wrath of the Lamb expansion as well as a new finale and epilogue.

    November 4 / Linux, OS X, PlayStation 4, PS Vita, Windows

  • Tales of Hearts R

    Another rare PS Vita exclusive, Tales of Hearts R is a remake of original 3DS game Tales of Hearts, the eleventh entry in Bandai Namco’s Tales series. Like all Tales installments, it’s premised on story-heavy roleplaying, and tweaks the series’ action-oriented battle system slightly: in this case, adding the option to “chase” and combo-attack an enemy after knocking them skyward, thus the designation “Aerial Chase Linear Motion Battle System.”

    November 11 / PS Vita

  • Never Alone

    A puzzle-platformer in which you alternate between Nuna, an Iñupiaq girl (Alaskan Inuit), and her arctic fox, grappling with the ramifications of a perpetual blizzard. The game’s developers say Never Alone is in part about reflecting on the passage of wisdom from generation to generation by way of Alaskan stories, several of which appear over the course of the game.

    Never Alone was also designed with the assistance of the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, a non-profit Alaskan advocacy group that works with eight federally recognized tribes in the Cook Inlet region (Alaska’s most densely populated area), and a portion of the game’s sales will apparently go toward funding the CITC’s education-related activities.

    November 18 / PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

  • Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth

    Subtract all the really, really, really long-winded storytelling and passive explorations in the Persona games, and you wind up with something like Persona Q: Shadow of the Labyrinth, a.k.a. mostly the dungeon-crawling stuff.

    In Persona Q, you can still poke around a Japanese high school (and listen to pretty bad, if endearing, J-pop). But the lion’s share of your time’s going to be spent navigating the game’s eponymous labyrinth, fighting with up to five characters against shadow enemies, manipulating a combat system reminiscent of the Etrian Odyssey roleplaying series, but with Persona-related quirks.

    November 25 / 3DS

  • Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

    With all the attention of Crystal Dynamics’ acclaimed Tomb Raider reboot, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the Tomb Raider series’ comeback actually started several years earlier with the studio’s cooperative-angled platformer, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light.

    Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris revisits Crystal Dynamics’ isometric approach to Lara’s archaeological adventures, whisking the intrepid globetrotter off to Egypt, where she’ll do the usual things–explore, fight, solve puzzles, avoid traps–on the way to a showdown with the Egyptian god of storms and violence, Set.

    December 9 / PlayStation 4, Windows, Xbox One

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