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Call of Duty: Warzone debuts biggest map change in a year with 1984 Verdansk

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Call of Duty: Warzone debuts biggest map change in a year with 1984 Verdansk

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The Call of Duty: Warzone free-to-play battle royale game has grown to more than 100 million downloads in the past 13 months on the strength of one major map.

But Activision blew up that map yesterday, with a nuclear missile landing on the city of Verdansk in a desperate attempt to wipe out a zombie infestation. And now Warzone’s creators have unveiled a new map, in the same place but set back in time to 1984. And the result is a new setting for Warzone heroics to unfold.

Warzone has become the big onramp to Call of Duty, alongside Call of Duty: Mobile, which has been downloaded 300 million times. It is bringing more new players into the franchise, which has sold more than 400 million copies since 2003. And this map change is critical to keep players engaged as Raven Software and Treyarch launch Season 3‘s new content this week.

This new map and the new season represent a big effort by the developers and an attempt by Activision to grab even more of players’ finite gaming time.

“A free-to-play game with a Battle Pass is completely different than our previous model, which is one game every year,” said Amos Hodge, the creative director at Raven Software, in an interview with GamesBeat. “And there are three or four updates throughout the year. It’s a completely new structure for us. It was an experiment for us; we didn’t know how I was going to go. And now at the year mark, we are getting in a groove and we’ve learned a lot from experimentation. So we’re sort of hitting our stride now. And I think next year is going to be even better.”

Above: Kaboom!

Image Credit: Activision

The events began as a zombie-infested ship crash landed on the outskirts of Verdansk. The zombies slowly spread across the map until yesterday, when they took over the city. Players who died in infestation zones became zombies, and then the nuke finally wiped out the city in its modern form. I played a round where zombies chased me, and then I turned into one and had to hunt for the last survivors on the map. And I watched as the map got nuked. It was a lot of fun, but I was a bit sad as well.

For those who are nostalgic about how Warzone saved us during the pandemic, modern Verdansk is gone for good.

1984 Verdansk

map

Above: A half-built stadium in 1984 Verdansk in Warzone.

Image Credit: Activision

The smart thing about taking the city back in time is that it will feel familiar to players who enjoy the modern map, yet fresh enough to attract a whole new group of players who feel like they can get in at the beginning again.

“The players know what happened before Warzone, and they get the narrative and the familiar place,” Hodge said. “So I guess it is the best of both worlds for us.”

“I think players will like the new map,” said Hodge. “I think through the positive lens of the evolution and quality of life improvements on top of new gameplay. And we fix some stuff.”

Now the game is taking us back to the era of Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War, showing Verdansk in 1984.

“Season Three really begins with an epic transition event,” Hodge said. “We wanted to kick we wanted to kick this event off with a can’t miss season ending event. We want our players to experience the story. We’re going to take them on a ride where they can experience the narrative and be part of it. This is going to be a moment in time where players come in, they experience the story. And if you miss it, you miss it. This is a one time deal. This is the only time they can experience the story of this transition and the transition is divided up into four stages.”

Players will transition from the destruction of Verdansk to a fleet of helicopters landing there in 1984, at the peak of the Cold War.

New locations and redesign locations

map 8

Above: The big radar array in 1984 Verdansk in Warzone.

Image Credit: Activision

It’s the same Warzone map that breeds familiarity for players who have played on the same ground for a year. But the buildings and key features are all different. There are huge landmarks of modern Verdansk, like the stadium and the dam that are still under construction in 1984.

The airplane boneyard, which is where I have landed many times to collect loot, is a vibrant airplane factory in 1984. The superstore is still there, but the developers fixed it. No longer are there tons of hiding spots for campers. There are more open spaces as the store can be seen in its prime. I have died many times in that superstore.

The overall atmosphere of 1984 Verdansk is brighter, as it’s springtime and the buildings aren’t in a shabby shape. When you land, it will feel like you’re dropping into a different place. There’s a huge radar array that rises near the radio tower. That array isn’t present at all in modern Verdansk. But it’s both a sniper’s heaven and hell. Snipers can land on it or climb and snipe in so many directions. But they are also vulnerable to parachutists from above, and probably won’t live long on it.

The stadium is also wide open now, with many more sight lines. And while the dam doesn’t exist, there are a bunch of buildings in that area, including a cable car that goes to the top of a hill, making the whole area easier to traverse.

If you don’t think a new map is a big deal, the developers at Raven said they have been planning it for a long time and worked on it for the better part of a year. That’s because it’s so much bigger than many Call of Duty multiplayer maps. All told, there are seven major new locations within the Warzone map, and five redesigned areas. That’s like creating 12 new multiplayer maps for the premium game.

Even the Gulag, where you go after you’ve been killed the first time, has changed. You now have more of a maze to duel with another killed player as you fight for a second chance to respawn on the battlefield.

“It’s important to us the Gulag stays fresh, as it is one of the places that virtually every player sees every map,” Hodge said. “You’re going to die, you’re going to go to the Gulag, so it’s important that stays fresh and competitive and keeps players engaged.”

Change is good

map 2

Above: The surface of the stadium in 1984 Verdansk in Warzone.

Image Credit: Activision

Many staples will stay the same, as the map will still feature a battle royale of teams (from one to four players) with a total of 150 players. The deadly gas encircles the city and closing in on the survivors until there is almost no place left to fight. The Resurgence mode, which featured 99 players in trios, will now be playable on the big map, rather than the much smaller Rebirth Island map.

Hopefully, the changes to the map and some new guns will make Warzone players happy, as they’re a notoriously whiny bunch with complaints about things like overpowered guns and cheating.

Activision president Rob Kostich said in an interview with GamesBeat that the security team has banned more than 475,000 accounts now for problems like cheating. That’s roughly one in every 200 players.

“We’re investing more resources there to make sure we provide the best possible experience for our fans. We have to take action, and also communicate about that, which we’re going to do,” Kostich said.

The team has also reduced Warzone’s size. It takes up less hard drive space now. With such things under control and the surprise success of Warzone no longer so fresh, Kostich has been looking on the bright side.

“When we launched Warzone, our goal was to make the best-looking, best-playing battle royale experience on the planet,” Kostich said. “I think we accomplished that. For Warzone in particular we have plans years into the future now for the things we have to do. We’ve been thinking hard about this. We know how important it is to our fans. Our team is super excited to deliver on that for the community.”

How Warzone is transformational

Inside the new Gulag.

Above: Inside the new Gulag in Warzone.

Image Credit: Activision

The Season 3 of Warzone and the Cold War multiplayer game shows how much Activision is investing into year-round Call of Duty with its thousands of developers. It’s part of a strategy to grow the community far above the size it was just a few years ago.

“Warzone was the thing that was transformational to all of it,” said Kostich. “Certainly, not everyone on the planet has the ability to pay $60 or the equivalent to play Call of Duty. For my money, Call of Duty is the best moment-to-moment action experience there is. Warzone has allowed everyone to come in and experience Call of Duty. Now it’s become the focal point, the central point, the welcome mat if you will for the franchise as we go forward.”

He added, “What’s important to us is we give all of our fans an incredible fun experience with Call of Duty, whether you’re free-to-play or premium, whoever you are. In Warzone that’s the first entry point, where you’ll experience the latest and greatest the franchise has to offer. You’ll go on a narrative journey with us through time. It’s the thing that’s transformed our business. It’s made our players more excited about our premium offerings as well. They get engaged in Call of Duty, all it has to offer across zombies and everything else.

The dam is transformed in Warzone.

Above: The dam is transformed in 1984 Verdansk in Warzone.

Image Credit: Activision

Warzone has been a great way to upsell players from free-to-play to a paid game. There’s almost no friction in the transaction, as you just have to click a few buttons to upgrade from Warzone to Cold War, Kostich said. It’s seamless for players.

“Warzone being the central point of things going on, people understand all the great things that are happening in the franchise,” Kostich said. “If they want to get a deeper experience with a certain aspect of Call of Duty, we have those premium experiences, which will differ. It’s great to get those experiences, but we can take parts of those and fuse them into Warzone in the longer term or for a limited time, making that fun and interesting for the community.”

And while zombies are wiped out for now, Kostich said there is no reason they couldn’t come back into the story, given that the stories of Zombies, Cold War, and Warzone are now intertwined. Miles Leslie, creative director at Treyarch also confirmed in an interview, “The zombies are leaving for now.”

Hodge said it was a huge effort to create the AI for the zombies so that they could work well in Warzone.

“The reason Zombies was so important to us was from a technical perspective, we had not done AI in a large map,” Hodge said. “That is not an easy effort. We optimized the map just for 150 players.”

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Colonial Pipeline paid a $5 million ransom—and kept a vicious cycle turning

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Colonial Pipeline paid a $5 million ransom—and kept a vicious cycle turning

Sean Rayford | Getty Images

Nearly a week after a ransomware attack led Colonial Pipeline to halt fuel distribution on the East Coast, reports emerged on Friday that the company paid a 75 bitcoin ransom—worth as much as $5 million, depending on the time of payment—in an attempt to restore service more quickly. And while the company was able to restart operations Wednesday night, the decision to give in to hackers’ demands will only embolden other groups going forward. Real progress against the ransomware epidemic, experts say, will require more companies to say no.

Not to say that doing so is easy. The FBI and other law enforcement groups have long discouraged ransomware victims from paying digital extortion fees, but in practice many organizations resort to paying. They either don’t have the backups and other infrastructure necessary to recover otherwise, can’t or don’t want to take the time to recover on their own, or decide that it’s cheaper to just quietly pay the ransom and move on. Ransomware groups increasingly vet their victims’ financials before springing their traps, allowing them to set the highest possible price that their victims can still potentially afford.

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In the case of Colonial Pipeline, the DarkSide ransomware group attacked the company’s business network rather than the more sensitive operational technology networks that control the pipeline. But Colonial took down its OT network as well in an attempt to contain the damage, increasing the pressure to resolve the issue and resume the flow of fuel along the East Coast. Another potential factor in the decision, first reported by Zero Day, was that the company’s billing system had been infected with ransomware, so it had no way to track fuel distribution and bill customers.

Advocates of zero tolerance for ransom payments hoped that Colonial Pipeline’s proactive shutdown was a sign that the company would refuse to pay. Reports on Wednesday indicated that the company had a plan to hold out, but numerous subsequent reports on Thursday, led by Bloomberg, confirmed that the 75 bitcoin ransom had been paid. Colonial Pipeline did not return a request for comment from WIRED about the payment. It is still unclear whether the company paid the ransom soon after the attack or days later, as fuel prices rose and lines at gas stations grew.

“I can’t say I’m surprised, but it’s certainly disappointing,” says Brett Callow, a threat analyst at antivirus company Emsisoft. “Unfortunately, it’ll help keep United States critical infrastructure providers in the crosshairs. If a sector proves to be profitable, they’ll keep on hitting it.”

In a briefing on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Pskai emphasized in general that the US government encourages victims not to pay. Others in the administration struck a more measured note. “Colonial is a private company and we’ll defer information regarding their decision on paying a ransom to them,” said Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, in a press briefing on Monday. She added that ransomware victims “face a very difficult situation and they [often] have to just balance the cost-benefit when they have no choice with regards to paying a ransom.”

Researchers and policymakers have struggled to produce comprehensive guidance about ransom payments. If every victim in the world suddenly stopped paying ransoms and held firm, the attacks would quickly stop, because there would be no incentive for criminals to continue. But coordinating a mandatory boycott seems impractical, researchers say, and likely would result in more payments happening in secret. When the ransomware gang Evil Corp attacked Garmin last summer, the company paid the ransom through an intermediary. It’s not unusual for large companies to use a middleman for payment, but Garmin’s situation was particularly noteworthy because Evil Corp had been sanctioned by the US government.

“For some organizations, their business could be completely destroyed if they don’t pay the ransom,” says Katie Nickels, director of intelligence at the security firm Red Canary. “If payments aren’t allowed you’ll just see people being quieter about making the payments.”

Prolonged shutdowns of hospitals, critical infrastructure, and municipal services also threaten more than just finances. When lives are literally at stake, a principled stand against hackers quickly drops off of the priorities list. Nickels herself recently participated in a public-private effort to establish comprehensive United States–based ransomware recommendations; the group could not agree on definitive guidance about if and when to pay.

“The Ransomware Task Force discussed this extensively,” she says. “There were a lot of important things that the group came to a consensus on and payment was one where there was no consensus.”

As part of a cybersecurity Executive Order signed by President Joseph Biden on Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security will create a Cyber Safety Review Board to investigate and debrief “significant” cyberattacks. That could at least help more payments be made in the open, giving the general public a fuller sense of the scale of the ransomware problem. But while the board has incentives to entice private organizations to participate, it may still need expanded authority from Congress to demand total transparency. Meanwhile, the payments will continue, and so will the attacks.

“You shouldn’t pay, but if you don’t have a choice and you’ll be out of business forever, you’re gonna pay,” says Adam Meyers, vice president of intelligence at the security firm CrowdStrike. “In my mind, the only thing that’s going to really drive change is organizations not getting got in the first place. When the money disappears, these guys will find some other way to make money. And then we’ll have to deal with that.”

For now, though, ransomware remains an inveterate threat. And Colonial Pipeline’s $5 million payment will only egg on cybercriminals.

This story originally appeared on wired.com.

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Talend: 36% of business leaders don’t rely on data to make decisions

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40% of business leaders still rely on gut decisions, not data.

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Even as enterprise leaders tout the importance of data, 36% of business leaders don’t rely on it for making critical decisions, according to a survey by Talend, an open source data integration platform. The same survey found that 78% of business executives face challenges effectively working with data to make decisions.

Above: 40% of business leaders still rely on gut decisions, not data.

Image Credit: Talend

Our relationship with data is not healthy. Talend’s survey found only 40% of executives always trust the data they work with. For decades, managing and using data for analysis was focused on the mechanics: the collecting, cleaning, storing, and cataloging of as much data as possible, then figuring out how to use it later. Companies don’t know what data they have, where it is, or who is using it, and, critically, no way to measure their data health.

Data health is Talend’s vision of a comprehensive system for ensuring the well-being and return of corporate information. Data health offers proactive treatments, quantifiable measures, and preventive steps to identify and correct issues, ensuring that corporate data is clean, complete, and uncompromised.

Data health is a complex journey of unique requirements, regulations, and risk tolerance. It will take substantial market collaboration and research to align on appropriate standards for different companies. Eventually, data health solutions will help create a universal set of metrics to evaluate the health of corporate data and establish it as an essential indicator of the strength of a business. Talend’s initial framework imagines four primary focus areas to establish data health: reliability, visibility, understanding and value. We believe that data health will become a key, if not the most important, performance framework used within and across organizations to monitor and evaluate the health of the company. With this new data health first approach, and new standards, leaders can level the employee playing field and drive a data-charged cultural change.

From March 24th to April 8th, 2021, Talend led a survey via Qualtrics among a base of 529 independent respondents worldwide. (57% North America, 26% Asia-Pacific, 17% Europe). The respondents are all executives — with titles ranging from director to the C-suite — from medium and large companies making more than $10 million in annual revenue.

Read Talend’s full report Data Health Survey.

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Pipeline attacker Darkside suddenly goes dark—here’s what we know

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Pipeline attacker Darkside suddenly goes dark—here’s what we know

Darkside—the ransomware group that disrupted gasoline distribution across a wide swath of the US this week—has gone dark, leaving it unclear if the group is ceasing, suspending, or altering its operations or is simply orchestrating an exit scam.

On Thursday, all eight of the dark web sites Darkside used to communicate with the public went down, and they remain down as of publication time. Overnight, a post attributed to Darkside claimed, without providing any evidence, that the group’s website and content distribution infrastructure had been seized by law enforcement, along with the cryptocurrency it had received from victims.

The dog ate our funds

“At the moment, these servers cannot be accessed via SSH, and the hosting panels have been blocked,” the post stated, according to a translation of the Russian-language post published Friday by security firm Intel471. “The hosting support service doesn’t provide any information except ‘at the request of law enforcement authorities.’ In addition, a couple of hours after the seizure, funds from the payment server (belonging to us and our clients) were withdrawn to an unknown account.”

The post went on to claim that Darkside would distribute a decryptor free of charge to all victims who have yet to pay a ransom. So far, there are no reports of the group delivering on that promise.

If true, the seizures would represent a big coup for law enforcement. According to newly released figures from cryptocurrency tracking firm Chainalysis, Darkside netted at least $60 million in its first seven months, with $46 million of it coming in the first three months of this year.

Identifying a Tor hidden service would also be a huge score, since it likely would mean that either the group made a major configuration error in setting the service up or law enforcement knows of a serious vulnerability in the way the dark web works. (Intel471 analysts say that some of Darkside’s infrastructure is public-facing—meaning the regular Internet—so malware can connect to it.)

But so far, there’s no evidence to publicly corroborate these extraordinary claims. Typically, when law enforcement from the US and Western European countries seize a website, they post a notice on the site’s front page that discloses the seizure. Below is an example of what people saw after trying to visit the site for the Netwalker group after the site was taken down:

netwalker notice

So far, none of the Darkside sites display such a notice. Instead, most of them time out or show blank screens.

What’s even more doubtful is the claim that the group’s considerable cryptocurrency holdings have been taken. People who are experienced in using digital currency know not to store it in “hot wallets,” which are digital vaults connected to the Internet. Because hot wallets contain the private keys needed to transfer funds to new accounts, they’re vulnerable to hacks and the types of seizures claimed in the post.

For law enforcement to confiscate the digital currency, Darkside operators likely would have had to store it in a hot wallet, and the currency exchange used by Darkside would have had to cooperate with the law enforcement agency or been hacked.

It’s also feasible that close tracking by an organization like Chainalysis identified wallets that received funds from Darkside, and law enforcement subsequently confiscated the holdings. Indeed, Elliptic, a separate blockchain analytics company, reported finding a Bitcoin wallet used by DarkSide to receive payments from its victims. On Thursday, Elliptic reported, it was emptied of $5 million.

At the moment, it’s not known if that transfer was initiated by the FBI or another law enforcement group, or by Darkside itself. Either way, Elliptic said the wallet—which since early March had received 57 payments from 21 different wallets—provided important clues for investigators to follow.

“What we find is that 18% of the Bitcoin was sent to a small group of exchanges,” Elliptic Co-founder and Chief Scientist Tom Robinson wrote. “This information will provide law enforcement with critical leads to identify the perpetrators of these attacks.”

Nonsense, hype, and noise

Darkside’s post came as a prominent criminal underground forum called XSS announced that it was banning all ransomware activities, a major about-face from the past. The site was previously a significant resource for the ransomware groups REvil, Babuk, Darkside, LockBit, and Nefilim to recruit affiliates, who use the malware to infect victims and in exchange share a cut of the revenue generated. A few hours later, all Darkside posts made to XSS had come down.

In a Friday morning post, security firm Flashpoint wrote:

According to the administrator of XSS, the decision is partially based on ideological differences between the forum and ransomware operators. Furthermore, the media attention from high-profile incidents has resulted in a “critical mass of nonsense, hype, and noise.” The XSS statement offers some reasons for its decision, particularly that ransomware collectives and their accompanying attacks are generating “too much PR” and heightening the geopolitical and law enforcement risks to a “hazard[ous] level.”

The admin of XSS also claimed that when “Peskov [the Press Secretary for the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin] is forced to make excuses in front of our overseas ‘friends’—this is a bit too much.” They hyperlinked an article on the Russian News website Kommersant entitled “Russia has nothing to do with hacking attacks on a pipeline in the United States” as the basis for these claims.

Within hours, two other underground forums—Exploit and Raid Forums—had also banned ransomware-related posts, according to images circulating on Twitter.

REvil, meanwhile, said it was banning the use of its software against health care, educational, and governmental organizations, The Record reported.

Ransomware at a crossroads

The moves by XSS and REvil pose a major short-term disruption of the ransomware ecosystem since they remove a key recruiting tool and source of revenue. Long-term effects are less clear.

“In the long run, it’s hard to believe the ransomware ecosystem will completely fade out, given that operators are financially motivated and the schemes employed have been effective,” Intel471 analysts said in an email. They said it was more likely that ransomware groups will “go private,” meaning they will no longer publicly recruit affiliates on public forums, or will unwind their current operations and rebrand under a new name.

Ransomware groups could also alter their current practice of encrypting data so it’s unusable by the victim while also downloading the data and threatening to make it public. This double-extortion method aims to increase the pressure on victims to pay. The Babuk ransomware group recently started phasing out its use of malware that encrypts data while maintaining its blog that names and shames victims and publishes their data.

“This approach allows the ransomware operators to reap the benefits of a blackmail extortion event without having to deal with the public fallout of disrupting the business continuity of a hospital or critical infrastructure,” the Intel471 analysts wrote in the email.

For now, the only evidence that Darkside’s infrastructure and cryptocurrency have been seized is the words of admitted criminals, hardly enough to consider confirmation.

“I could be wrong, but I suspect this is simply an exit scam,” Brett Callow, a threat analyst with security firm Emsisoft told Ars. “Darkside get to sail off into the sunset—or, more likely rebrand—without needing to share the ill-gotten gains with their partners in crime.”

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