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Looking back at the best games of the 2010s (so far)

12/26/2014 10:00am

It may be hard to believe, but on January 1, 2015, we will be halfway through the decade known as the 2010s (the '10s? The teens? The twenty-teens? None of these sound right...). The passage of time being what it is, we guess this moment was inevitable. Still, we're finding it hard to get used to the fact that we're about to be in the second half of the second decade of the "new" millennium.

Mid-decade breaks are a good chance for introspection and retrospection, so we've decided to look back at what the decade so far has brought to the world of gaming. To that end, we asked Ars editors to pick up to five games as personal favorites from the past five years.

For this list, we were looking for games that have stuck with us over the years, the games we've spent countless hours immersed inside, the games we recommend to friends without reservation. These are personal picks that reflect the eclectic and wide-ranging tastes of our individual editors, not necessarily the games that will be regarded as the "best" by the critical establishment. We didn't allow more than two editors to pick any one game to ensure a list that wasn't just a bunch of repetitive selections of the same old titles.

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Our brains are being “continuously reshaped” by smartphone use

12/26/2014 9:54am

Extensive use of smartphone touch screens is changing the sensory relationship between our brains and our thumbs, a study published in Current Biology has revealed.

The plasticity of the human brain and how it adapts to repetitive gestures has been tested in multiple contexts previously, including in musicians and gamers, but neuroscientists from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich believe smartphones provide a unique opportunity to understand how everyday life can shape the human brain on a huge scale.

Smartphone growth has seen people using their fingers—and in particular their thumbs—in a completely new way multiple times a day, every day. The very nature of the devices means there is usually a record kept of all the things we are doing with our thumbs on our phones, providing the neuroscientists extensive data to work with.

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When the doctor’s away, the patient is more likely to survive

12/26/2014 9:30am

"Don't get sick on a weekend." That advice is also part of a title of a research paper that evaluates the fates of patients who go through the emergency room on a weekend. These patients are more likely to die. It's just one of a number of studies that suggests patients who enter the hospital while the staffing is lower or the staff more relaxed end up with worse results.

But the precise cause of this enhanced weekend mortality has been hard to determine; is it the reduced staff, a more leisurely approach to care, or some other factor? To try to get at the cause, some researchers obtained records of heart patients who had a critical event during a time when hospitals were at full staff, but heart specialists were likely to be out of town. Unexpectedly, they found that the patients did significantly better when the relevant specialists were unavailable.

The study relied on medicare records to track patients that were admitted to a hospital with a serious heart condition: acute myocardial infarction, heart failure, or cardiac arrest. The key measure was simply whether the patient was still alive 30 days later.

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Wheel-to-wheel racing: Ars compares Xbox One steering wheels

12/26/2014 8:44am

CN.dart.call("xrailTop", {sz:"300x250", kws:[], collapse: true});When the Xbox One arrived last year, the lack of compatibility with existing peripherals annoyed more than a few people. Microsoft said that dumping backwards compatibility would allow for richer experiences, but it also meant that, at launch, racing fans had no way to use a decent wheel and pedal setup with games like Forza Motorsport 5. The game was excellent with a wheel, but no one knew that for a few months after launch, because there simply weren't any Xbox One-compatible wheels on the market.

At the close of 2014, things are looking better. Thrustmaster has not one but two wheels on the market for the Xbox One, and Mad Catz has joined the fray as well. We’ve previously taken a look at Thrustmaster’s TX Racing Wheel but have now been able to put one up against the Mad Catz Pro Racing Force Feedback Wheel thanks to the nice people at Turn 10. Better still, you could win either of them in the 2014 Ars Charity Drive. Over the course of a couple of weeks we put both the TX and the Mad Catz wheels through their paces with both Forza Motorsport 5 and Forza Horizon 2 to see which one deserves pole position.

Design and build quality

Let's start with the Mad Catz Pro Racing wheel first. The wheel’s base is a compact plastic case supported by a powder-coated aluminum frame. At the back are ports to plug in the AC power adapter and the pedals (with what looks like an RJ45 connector), the USB cable that connects to the Xbox One, and a switch to change between 270 degrees and 900 degrees of rotation. The aluminum frame holds the base with two allen bolts on either side. Removing the front bolts allows you to change the angle of the wheel base relative to the frame—the base pivots at the rear bolts, and there are four predrilled holes in the plastic case allowing for up to 15 degrees of rake. You can mount the frame directly to one of Playseat’s gaming seats via predrilled holes, and Mad Catz also includes a pair of plastic clamps to secure the wheel to a desk, table, or, in my case, a Fanatec wheel stand. Oh, there’s also a pair of plastic moldings that you can bolt on to attempt using the wheel on your lap, but I can't recommend doing so.

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Grinches steal Christmas for Xbox Live, PlayStation Network users

12/25/2014 8:05pm

There's nothing like waking up early on Christmas morning, unwrapping your gifts after your parents finally get out of bed, getting the game you'd asked Santa for, and popping it into your console for some online gaming—only to find out you can't log on. That was the sad reality for gamers all around the world on Christmas Day as an apparent Distributed Denial of Service attack made logging into the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live difficult, if not impossible, for most users.

Complaints about service disruptions began Christmas Eve, with disgruntled gamers taking to Twitter to complain about not being able to connect to Xbox Live and PSN. Both Sony and Microsoft acknowledged the problem, saying that their tech folks were working to get the networks back online.

"We are aware some users are unable to sign into Xbox Live. Our teams are working to resolve the issue. Visit xbox.com/support for status updates," said Sean McCarthy, general manager of Microsoft's Xbox Product Services in a statement to CNN. "We don't share info on the root cause of specific issues."

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The 20 best games of 2014, as chosen by the Ars brain trust

12/25/2014 10:00am

2014 was a difficult year to pin down in gaming. A number of highly anticipated AAA blockbusters ended up letting down both critics and many players with horrible narratives (Watch Dogs), broken design (Assassin's Creed: Unity), too-punishing difficulty (Alien: Isolation), or underwhelming repetitiveness (Destiny). A lot of the best games of the year actually came out in some form in previous years (Hearthstone, The Last of Us Remastered, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Grand Theft Auto V's re-release) and thus didn't feel like they belonged on a list highlighting what was truly new in 2014.

On the independent side, there were a lot of interesting experiments but few stand-out, bona fide hits that will stick with us the way Papers, Please or Gone Home have in years past. In the middle were plenty of games that were endearing (Captain Toad's Treasure Tracker), well-constructed (Shovel Knight), enjoyably brutal (Dark Souls II), or just plain silly (Goat Simulator). But most didn't stand out enough to really represent the year.

So after much debate and discussion among the Ars editor brain trust, we've come up with this list of 20 games that we feel represent the best and most interesting titles of the year. It's a bit of a mish-mash of titles with only a top few that really stand out above the rest as true classics. Still, these are the games we think people will look back on and remember when they think about the muddled past 12 months in gaming.

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Meet our office-mates: The pets of Ars Technica

12/25/2014 9:00am

On the whole, working at home is a pretty good deal. The commute is great and the dress code can't be beat. It's also quiet—at least the weekdays are during the school year, for those of us who are parents. But that quiet can also beget loneliness, especially if you live alone or your spouse has a job that requires commuting. That's where pets come in. Ranging from dogs to tree frogs, the Ars staff has a number of four-legged creatures keeping us company throughout the workday.

When we gave you a peek at our offices at Thanksgiving, a few of you asked about our pets. So as we all hopefully spend Christmas in the company of those closest to us, we thought we'd share some "family pictures" with you.

Eric Bangeman, Managing Editor

Macintosh is our 13-1/2-year-old Airedale Terrier.

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CN.dart.call("xrailTop", {sz:"300x250", kws:[], collapse: true});I've owned a lot of different creatures in my life, including a prairie dog, Jenday Conures (who found a new home when they wouldn't stop screaming during inopportune times in my home office), and poison dart frogs. Currently, we have a small menagerie in the Bangeman household, starting with our oldest and most venerable member, Macintosh. Mac is an ancient (13-1/2-year-old) Airedale Terrier who enjoys sleeping and defending the house loudly from all manner of delivery folk. Our other dog is Martini, a four-year-old miniature bull terrier. She's a clown, typical of the breed, and her favorite thing to do is to bat a tennis ball around the house—but only if she has another tennis ball in her mouth (otherwise it's no fun).

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Suit over Facebook’s practice of scanning users’ messages to go forward

12/24/2014 7:00pm

A US District Court in California has ruled that a suit that targets Facebook's data-harvesting practices can go forward. The company had attempted to have the whole thing tossed out, but only succeeded in having two relatively minor allegations dismissed.

There are three plaintiffs to the suit, all of whom allege that various state and federal statutes were violated by Facebook's practice of scanning private messages in order to target ads more precisely. They also are upset that the mention of any company in these messages ends up counting as a "like." Their suit [PDF] alleges that Facebook's messaging service is "designed to allow users to communicate privately with other users," and the scanning therefore violates the federal Wiretap Act as well as California’s Invasion of Privacy Act.

Facebook, for its part, wants to see the whole thing thrown out. It claims that it must handle the content of the messages in order to ensure delivery, and therefore it is not possible for it to unlawfully intercept them. Failing that, it suggested that the scans were part of ordinary business practice, and therefore exempt from the law. And, in any case, it stopped the practice back in 2012. For all those reasons, its lawyers argued, the case should not proceed.

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Korea calls on China for help following hack attempt on nuclear power company

12/24/2014 3:05pm

Last week, Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power, which runs South Korea's 23 nuclear plants, suffered a security breach in which personnel records, public health monitoring data, and reactor designs were obtained from the company's systems and posted online. The attacker, which linked to the materials on an anti-nuclear activist site, also threatened to release further information unless three of the company's plants were shut down by tomorrow.

Now, Korean investigators have identified a Chinese IP address as the source of the attacks and are asking the Chinese government for assistance in the investigation.

According to a report in The Korea Times, the attacks were routed through three different VPN service providers in the US, Japan, and Korea. By obtaining these records, the initial IP address that launched the attack were traced to the city of Shenyang, which is on the China-North Korea border. An article from Australia's ABC indicates that this city hosts one end of North Korea's main Internet connection to the outside world, which was severed earlier this week.

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Rockstar litigation, a high-water mark in patent wastefulness, is over

12/24/2014 1:34pm

In 2011, a group of five companies spent the remarkable sum of $4.5 billion to purchase thousands of patents from Nortel, a bankrupt Canadian telecom. Microsoft, Apple, Ericsson, Sony, and Blackberry formed "Rockstar Bidco," successfully keeping the patents out of the hands of Google.

After the sale, Rockstar became just another patent-holding company, albeit one with a lot of ammunition. A handful of engineers from Nortel stayed on in a small Ottawa office, working to dissect other companies' products and bolster infringement claims. Rockstar also opened a small office in Plano, a minimal presence that it used to try to keep lawsuits in its chosen venue, the Eastern District of Texas.

Now Rockstar is retiring from the stage. A group of more than 30 companies operating under the aegis of RPX, a defensive patent aggregator, paid $900 million to acquire the approximately 4,000 "patent assets," a phrase that includes both US and international patents, as well as patent applications. The group of buyers includes companies involved in active litigation with Rockstar: most notably, Cisco and Google. RPX itself paid $35 million of the purchase price.

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The Interview to be streamed online through YouTube, Xbox Video, Google Play

12/24/2014 12:36pm

While its cinematic release will be limited after terrorist threats were made, Sony's comedy The Interview is going to be available to watch in the comfort of your own home, after the company struck up multiple streaming deals.

As of 12pm CT today, the film will be available on YouTube, Google Play, Xbox Video, and a website, seetheinterview.com, priced at $5.99 to rent, and $14.99 to buy. Variety reports that it will also be coming to Netflix in coming days. Oddly, Sony's own PlayStation Store hasn't been named as offering the film.

According to a New York Times report, Sony was previously working to have the film streamed by Apple, but this fell through with the Cupertino firm apparently uninterested in moving so fast.

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Minneapolis residents to get 10-gigabit fiber, for $400 per month

12/24/2014 12:10pm

While most parts of the US have to make do with Internet speeds of less than 100Mbps—in many cases much less than 100Mbps—some residents of Minneapolis will soon have access to a ludicrously fast fiber-to-the-home speed tier: 10 gigabits per second.

The service is offered by US Internet, the company that already provides "a couple thousand" Minneapolis residents with 1Gbps service for $65 per month. The 10Gbps service will be available immediately to existing customers willing to pay the $400-per-month fee, though US Internet expects the number of customers who take them up on the deal to be relatively small. All together, US Internet has "a little over 10,000" fiber-to-the-home customers at different speed tiers, all located on the west side of Interstate 35W.

This summer, the company plans to widen its service area to the east side of I-35W, which will encroach further into incumbent Comcast’s territory. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Comcast offers 50Mbps service for $77 and 25Mbps service for $65 in that area; US Internet by contrast prices its 100Mbps service tier—the company’s most popular—at just $45 per month. The gigabit plan at $65 gives customers about 40 times the bandwidth of Comcast’s 25Mbps plan for the same price.

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Samsung’s flagship London store closes after less than a year

12/24/2014 11:54am

After operating for less than a year, Samsung's largest retail store in London is closing. The Verge spotted tweets of the store's ongoing deconstruction today—Samsung couldn't even wait until the holiday shopping season was over.

The store, which only opened in April 2014, was premium retail space in one of Europe's biggest malls. While the biggest one is closing, Samsung still has nine other stores in the UK, which the company said it was committed to keeping open. Samsung's retail store idea was no doubt modeled after Apple's retail operation, which, by way of comparison, has 43 stores in the UK.

The move is the latest bad news that caps off an awful year for Samsung. Sales of its 2014 flagship, the Galaxy S5, were 40 percent below what the company was expecting. Thanks to the lagging sales, in one quarter Samsung saw a 60 percent drop in profits from the previous year. Things are bad enough that many executives returned $2.9 million in bonuses due to the company's performance, and Samsung was even considering canning the head of its mobile division (but cooler heads prevailed).

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UK cinema calls police on preteens with iPads during Mockingjay screening

12/24/2014 11:02am

Both The Daily Mail and The Argus are carrying the story of seven 12-year-old Brighton, UK girls who were questioned by police after staff at a Cineworld multiplex reportedly saw that some of the girls had iPads and smartphones. Concerned that the girls might be engaging in copyright infringement by recording parts of the movie, the staff called 999 (the UK emergency services number, equivalent to 911 in the US) and requested police to help deal with the situation, which the Mail says the staff characterized as an "emergency."

The seven girls were reportedly removed from the theater and detained for questioning, with police looking through at least some of the girls’ devices for the presence of infringing content. After the search, the police concluded that no crime had taken place and the kids were released. Three of the girls returned to the theater to finish the film, while four remained outside and waited for their parents to pick them up.

While both the Mail and The Argus report that the Sussex police and the Cineworld theater chain have apologized to the children's families for the incident, a spokesperson for the chain also made it clear that Cineworld felt its actions were correct and justifiable. "While we regret that the customers felt distressed, we are confident that the correct procedures were followed," said the spokesperson. "Cineworld takes its responsibility to protect the copyright of films very seriously. Copyright theft is a very real threat to the film industry and as such we work closely with film distributors and law enforcement agencies to prevent illegal recordings."

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Samsung PlayStation? PS Now coming to Samsung smart TVs in 2015

12/24/2014 10:40am

Starting at some point next year, new TV buyers won't need a PlayStation to play the selection of PS3 games available on the PlayStation Now streaming service. Sony has just announced that PS Now will ship on "select Samsung smart TVs in the first half of 2015." Making the service available on different kinds of devices was always part of the plan, but this is the first time it's been made available on a non-Sony device.

PS Now will be available as an app on supported TVs—customers will need to bring their own DualShock 4 controllers, but otherwise playing on one of Samsung's TVs is the same as playing on a Sony device. This includes "the ability to earn in-game trophies, play games online with friends, and save your game progress in the cloud."

If you want to use PlayStation Now, um, now, the service's open beta requires a PlayStation 3, 4, Vita, or supported TV. It will also run on a selection of Sony's own smart TVs. The full list of PS3 games available on the service is here, and the list will likely expand by the time these TVs launch (the last addition was made on December 16, just a few days ago).

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NASA’s MAVEN charts a disappearing Martian atmosphere

12/24/2014 10:25am

A picture has emerged over the last decade of an early Mars that was once much warmer and wetter than it is today. Mars would have needed a thicker atmosphere to keep that water on the surface in liquid form, but today, its atmospheric pressure is less than one percent of Earth’s. What happened to Mars to cause such severe climate change over its history? A clue to this atmospheric loss has been revealed by MAVEN.

NASA’s MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) mission doesn’t get as much love from the public as the highly celebrated rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. This orbiter still has an important mission, however: to sample and study the tenuous atmosphere of Mars. Launched on time and under budget in 2013, this craft began science operations on November 16, seeking to answer the question of what happened to Mars’ atmosphere and explore its interaction with the solar wind.

While the examination of old rocks by the Curiosity rover has told us something about the timing of Mars' atmospheric loss, MAVEN can observe the processes that have driven it.

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Dealmaster: Get $25 in Skype Credits for $12.50

12/24/2014 10:12am

Greetings, Arsians and Happy Christmas Eve! Just because Santa has already taken off doesn't mean there isn't still time for some deals! Courtesy of our partners at TechBargains, we've got a bunch of deals to fill any holes left in your holiday lineup.

Today's top deal can be delivered right away: it's $25-worth of Skype Credit for just $12.50! That should be good for 1,000 minutes of calls and texts, perfect to call those far-away relatives and friends and wish them Merry Christmas/Hanukah/Kwanza/Festivus/Whatever.

Featured

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Google, Microsoft throw weight in fight against Marriott Wi-Fi blocking request

12/23/2014 5:36pm

Google, Microsoft, and Wireless Industry trade groups are banding together to tell the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) that hotels shouldn’t be allowed to block guests’ personal hotspots while they stay at a hotel.

In October, Marriott Hotel Services came to a $600,000 settlement with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over allegations that the hotel chain blocked Wi-Fi signals from guests’ hotspots, forcing them to use the chain’s custom networks, which ran between $250 to $1,000 per access point. Although Marriott paid its fine, it remained defiant, arguing that it was only trying to provide the best service to its customers.

Later, as Re/code reportsMarriott submitted a petition for rulemaking, asking the FCC to sanctify its practice.

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What Would Twitter Do? Musician’s tweets of Sony e-mails lead to threats

12/23/2014 4:45pm

Musician Val Broeksmit spent several days this month publishing screenshots from the hacked Sony e-mails on his Twitter feed. The e-mails he published included deals about new movieshow much the main players were getting paid, and feuds between Sony exec Amy Pascal and Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel.

That got the attention of Sony's legal team, who threatened not only him but Twitter. Yesterday, Vice published a letter from Sony's legal team to Twitter. That has put Broeksmit suddenly at the center of a lot of media attention.

Sony's letter to Twitter doesn't state that a lawsuit is imminent. In fact, the document isn't substantively different from letters that Sony sent out to dozens of media organizations, including Ars, starting about a week ago. The letters, signed by lawyer David Boies, tell media organizations to stop publishing any parts of the Sony e-mails, which it calls "Stolen Information." They also state that Sony hasn't authorized any publications, reserves all its legal rights, and other legal boilerplate.

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Immune cells tweak the body’s metabolism to help control obesity

12/23/2014 2:55pm

Obesity has reached epic proportions in the United States and is rising in other developed and developing countries as they adopt our diet and lifestyle. Autoimmune diseases, like celiac disease and multiple sclerosis, and allergies, also immune-mediated, have blossomed recently, too.

These conditions have exploded within too short of a time period to be attributable to genetic changes, so environmental factors, from synthetic pesticides to plastics to antibiotics, have been blamed for their increased prevalence. While it's probably simplistic to search for one cause to explain away both these types of modern ills, some studies are indicating that immune cells and molecules are important for regulating metabolism—and are dysregulated in obesity.

A specific type of immune cells, called Group 2 innate lymphoid cells (ILC2s), were found in white adipose tissue in mice last year. Now, they have been found in the same tissue in humans. Obese people, along with obese mice, have fewer of these cells in their fat than lean individuals do.

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