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Assassins Creed Valhalla hands-on: An incomplete Witcher-ization

Enlarge / Assassin's Creed Valhalla stars Eivor, a Viking in the Early Middle Ages. Note: all i..



Enlarge / Assassin's Creed Valhalla stars Eivor, a Viking in the Early Middle Ages. Note: all images in this article were captured directly from live demo gameplay, not altered or sweetened by the publisher.Ubisoft

Assassin's Creed's many-year transition to becoming a full-blown RPG is complete. The November 17 launch of Assassin's Creed Valhalla on PC (UPlay, Epic Games Store), Stadia, PS4, and Xbox One follows the progression we saw in 2017's AC Origins and 2018's AC Odyssey, which guided the series' open-world formula away from sneak-and-assassinate parkour and toward a full-fledged hero story.

Ahead of today's Ubi Forward reveal event, Ubisoft invited us to a 3.5-hour hands-on session with a prerelease build of AC Valhalla. And our experience confirmed exactly what we'd assumed when the game's concept (codenamed Ragnarok) leaked late last year: the series has gone full Witcher. Sadly, thus far, that comparison isn't as watertight as AC fans may hope.

The world feels real, but not the characters

  • Your other option for how Eivor can look in the game; both variants can be further customized with outfits and more, Ubisoft says (though we didn't see anything in the way of hair or facial customizations).
  • Volumetric clouds, gorgeous lighting effects, and ample view distances are just some of the many things AC Valhalla gets right visually.
  • It's also nice to whip through the game's lush forests on a horse.
  • The longboat sequences aren't as nimble, but they show off the visual engine pretty well thanks to a "cinematic" camera toggle.
  • One boating sequence has you steer into a raid. The lighting and water-wave effects are top-notch.
  • Another ride through pastures.
  • One of my demo's boss encounters. The rest of its captured footage is quite blurry, thanks to electric attack effects that fill the battle zone.
  • Equipping new weapons like a flail results in momentum-filled swings. They take longer to wind up (though not as long as something like an average Dark Souls blade), but they can also whack multiple people at once.
  • The average frenzy in a "raid" sequence. That's a lot of allies and foes in the same crowd.
  • This is how combat typically looks, with your foes (in red armor) smushing against your allies (in blue armor, but often stained in thick coats of red blood).
  • In this moment of the pre-release demo, I'm asked to trigger a special attack on one foe, all while another foe is rearing an attack on me. AC Valhalla struggles with letting you nimbly aim at multiple nearby targets, instead relying on a lock-on system, and it's quite inelegant in action.
  • You cannot pet the dog, sadly.

My demo put me in control of Eivor, the game's Viking protagonist, roughly halfway in the middle of the game. (AC Valhalla's protagonist has the same name whether you pick their male or female version.) I've arrived in East Anglia in the Early Middle Ages with the goal of helping a deposed local king regain command from an invading force—to stabilize the region and thus engender my Viking brethren to its leadership.

Two things stand out from my session, which revolved around an otherwise boilerplate open-world adventure: visuals and combat.


Unlike in AC Odyssey, Ubisoft has cast a solid voice actor for the male version of the game's protagonist. I split my demo session between the available gender options and couldn't pick a favorite. Both were solid enough.A good percentage of AC Valhalla looks absolutely breathtaking, with a rendering pipeline that seems tailor-made for higher-end PCs and consoles. (My session took place on a high-end PC with an RTX 2080 Ti, 64GB of RAM, and a recent Intel Xeon CPU, and it ran somewhere in the ballpark of 60fps.) Reminder: Buying the game for either current-gen console will include a free upgrade to its version on respective next-gen consoles, though Ubisoft wasn't ready to confirm how each console version will differ, in terms of resolution, frame rate, or other graphical upgrades and downgrades.

Volumetric clouds absorb the game's clear-sky shades of blue, orange, and violet. Crepuscular rays carve through battlegrounds. When rain falls, either with sunlight peeking through the clouds or in the middle of a lightning-filled night, its particles twinkle to reflect whatever light is available. Water wave patterns employ subtle 3D tricks to look more handsome than a standard-issue blend of textures. And this Early Middle Ages world is flush with deeply green and highly detailed, windswept foliage, which appears to realistically sway and trample whether affected by the wind or your footsteps. I've never delighted so much in climbing one of the series' lookout towers so that I might breathe in AC Valhalla's beautifully modeled world.

Yet the same cannot be said for the game's facial rendering, which (at least in this preview state) languishes in derpy territory—proving, at least, that Ubisoft is committed to keeping all of its cut scenes within the real-time gameplay world, as opposed to building sweetened faces and character models for conversation-specific moments. Older AC series games could get away with this, owing to plots that revolve more around historical references and frequently disposable allies and adversaries. AC Valhalla's larger plot will likely share these qualities, but the session I played hinged squarely on liberating King Oswald, then attending a wedding sequence. Meaning, its cast was consistent.

The result was a lot of conversations about the region, about an alliance between Danes and Saxons, and about the battles and struggles required to reach a brief moment of peace. And when I wasn't bothered by facial animations in this unfinished build, I was bored by the lack of narrative stakes. Eivor, like other AC protagonists, is a battle-hardened everyperson by default—and, in terms of personality, decidedly less challenging and acerbic than the Alexios/Kassandra hero options we got as a breath of fresh narrative air in AC: Odyssey. You can choose to end one sequence by either killing or sparing a foe, but the outcome of that decision doesn't vary much.

Otherwise, Eivor is a toothless warrior: battles hard, drinks harder, and delivers some mild sarcasm, but nothing as memorable or surprising as CD Projekt Red's beloved Geralt of Rivia. And without a solid supporting cast of comic relief or ethos-challenging allies, Ubisoft didn't make up for Eivor's issues—at least, not in this demo.

Bosses, raids, and “horsie height”

I have to get that out of the way because AC Valhalla's combat and traversal will focus fans' expectations on something Witcher-esque. Should you wish to play by the original series' core tenets, particularly wall-climbing and surprise assassinations, those options are occasionally available, but this game's major battle sequences are tuned much more toward open, shout-and-charge, ability-filled combat.

The best examples come from battles against beasts and bosses, a relatively new AC series concept. I faced off against two "major" foes during my demo. One was an armored, lightning-conjuring warrior named Cordelia, a "demon goddess" who emerged when I paid respects to a gravesite, while the other was Rued, the leader of an invading clan and King Oswald's captor. In both cases, the bosses I fought were the same size as Eivor, each with their own variety of high-speed dodges, charge-up weapon swipes, and ranged blasts (with Rued throwing axes and Cordelia shooting electric blasts). The resulting combat felt more like The Witcher than Dark Souls, primarily because your hero has no stamina meter for basic moves like quick swipes, heavy swipes, ranged attacks, or dodges.

Instead, you have a meter dedicated to special abilities, which range from putting poison on your next arrow to a straight-line rush to throwing a pair of axes at your two nearest foes. Your ability meter refills with successful melee swipes and dodges, and I had a good time chaining together simple moves (particularly perfectly timed parries) to build up my supernaturally charged strikes against these foes. This isn't the AC I grew up with, but the combat designers for these bosses know what they're doing.

The same cannot be said for "raids." You're now expected to rush into fortified zones alongside an army of fellow Vikings, where the total number of combatants, friend and foe alike, nears the two-dozen range at any given time. That sounds positively epic, but this slew of bodies has not been coded to fit neatly with the kind of huge-crowd combat you have seen in series like Batman Arkham. Instead of letting you aim your movement-specific joystick to guide attacks at enemies all around you, AC Valhalla expects you to juggle a "lock-on" system with the right joystick. The trouble is, enemies surround you so frequently that the person you're aiming at isn't who you're hitting roughly 33% of the time, and worse, enabling a lock-on makes it more difficult to successfully dodge or parry other nearby attackers.

  • The game's RPG-like nature lies primarily in this power-up interface, which grants equipment bonuses based on which branching path you upgrade the most.
  • As you unlock more options in a particular chain…
  • …you unlock apparent animal representatives, as seen in the background.
  • You can equip up to eight special abilities at a time, which can only be triggered when their meter recharges. Read More – Source

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Google suspends ‘free speech’ app Parler




Google has suspended “free speech” social network Parler from its Play Store over its failure to remove “egregious content”.

Parler styles itself as “unbiased” social media and has proved popular with people banned from Twitter.

But Google said the app had failed to remove posts inciting violence.

Apple has also warned Parler it will remove the app from its App Store if it does not comply with its content-moderation requirements.

On Parler, the app’s chief executive John Matze said: “We won’t cave to politically motivated companies and those authoritarians who hate free speech!”

Launched in 2018, Parler has proved particularly popular among supporters of US President Donald Trump and right-wing conservatives. Such groups have frequently accused Twitter and Facebook of unfairly censoring their views.

While Mr Trump himself is not a user, the platform already features several high-profile contributors following earlier bursts of growth in 2020.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz boasts 4.9 million followers on the platform, while Fox News host Sean Hannity has about seven million.

It briefly became the most-downloaded app in the United States after the US election, following a clampdown on the spread of election misinformation by Twitter and Facebook.

However, both Apple and Google have said the app fails to comply with content-moderation requirements.

Analysis: Necessary or draconian action?

By Shayan Sardarizadeh, BBC Monitoring

For months, Parler has been one of the most popular social media platforms for right-wing users.

As major platforms began taking action against viral conspiracy theories, disinformation and the harassment of election workers and officials in the aftermath of the US presidential vote, the app became more popular with elements of the fringe far-right.

This turned the network into a right-wing echo chamber, almost entirely populated by users fixated on revealing examples of election fraud and posting messages in support of attempts to overturn the election outcome.

In the days preceding the Capitol riots, the tone of discussion on the app became significantly more violent, with some users openly discussing ways to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory by Congress.

Unsubstantiated allegations and defamatory claims against a number of senior US figures such as Chief Justice John Roberts and Vice-President Mike Pence were rife on the app.

Google and Apple say they are taking necessary action to ensure violent rhetoric is not promoted on their platforms.

However, to those increasingly concerned about freedom of speech and expression on online platforms, it represents another example of draconian action by major tech companies which threatens internet freedom.

This is a debate which is certain to continue beyond the Trump presidency.

In a statement, Google confirmed it had suspended Parler from its Play Store, saying: “Our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence.

“In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.”

Apple has warned Parler it will be removed from the App Store on Saturday in a letter published by Buzzfeed News.

It said it had seen “accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate” the attacks on the US Capitol on 6 January.

Mr Matze said Parler had “no way to organise anything” and pointed out that Facebook groups and events had been used to organise action.

But Apple said: “Our investigation has found that Parler is not effectively moderating and removing content that encourages illegal activity and poses a serious risk to the health and safety of users in direct violation of your own terms of service.”

“We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.”

In a related development, Google has kicked Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast off YouTube, saying it had repeatedly violated the platform’s rules.

The ex-White House aide’s channel had more than 300,000 subscribers.

“In accordance with our strikes system, we have terminated Steve Bannon’s channel ‘War room’ and one associated channel for repeatedly violating our Community Guidelines,” Google said in a statement.

“Any channel posting new videos with misleading content that alleges widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 US Presidential election in violation of our policies will receive a strike, a penalty which temporarily restricts uploading or live-streaming. Channels that receive three strikes in the same 90-day period will be permanently removed from YouTube.”

The action was taken shortly after the channel posted an interview with Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in which he blamed the Democrats for the rioting on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

One anti-misinformation group said the action was long overdue after “months of Steve Bannon calling for revolution and violence”.

“The truth is YouTube should have taken down Steve Bannon’s account a long time ago and they shouldn’t rely on the labour of extremism researchers to moderate the content on their platform,” said Madeline Peltz, Senior Researcher at Media Matters for America.

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20 years of tech with Jeff: From green iMacs and DVDs to the iPhone era




When I started covering technology here two decades ago, I didn’t own a cellphone, nor did my company deem it in their interests to buy me one.

My tenure at USA TODAY pre-dates text messages, soundbars, talking speakers, QR codes, video chat, Uber, DoorDash, Zoom calls, YouTube, Wi-Fi, affordable flat-screen TVs….you get the idea.

So many changes in such a short period of time! This is my last column for USA TODAY as your Talking Tech columnist. Let’s say goodbye by celebrating how far we’ve come through the years.

My stint started in 2000 – I began at USA TODAY earlier, covering entertainment – at a time when we spent a lot of time talking about the big three tech companies: AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft. AOL had just shocked the world by buying Time Warner for $165 billion. (You know how well that turned out. But I digress.)

We did use computers, yes indeed, mostly desktops, and they were Windows machines with black-and-white monitors. We weren’t online; we went online, with a phone line attached to our computers. You know, the type we used on our landlines. Remember them?

Apple back then had less than 3% market share. It wouldn’t start its evolution into the world’s most valuable $2 trillion company until 2001, when it introduced the iPod MP3 music player and helped bring digital music to the masses. This is after the short-lived Napster popularized MP3s by showing how easy it was to copy licensed music. In 2003, the iPod shifted into a mainstream product when CEO Steve Jobs (who rejoined the company in 1997) opened it up to be used on Windows computers with the iTunes music store, the first easy to use, legitimate avenue for buying music, back then at 99 cents a song. Streaming and the celestial jukebox was a far off dream.

We started Talking Tech in 2006 as a weekly, ahead-of-its-time video series, produced bicoastally on two webcams. The first episode – with my former partner, Edward C. Baig – was a review of the Flip Video camera. Remember that one, kids?

By 2010, Flip was soon to be gone, as Apple introduced the iPhone 4, the first iPhone with a decent camera. Kodak became a memory, Canon, Nikon, Olympus and other mainstays of the camera business saw their sales tumble, as people preferred the camera that was in their pocket, their phone.

But I have to admit, I never foresaw just how great the smartphone cams would become. I always loved using them, but there was a stigma to “cellphone video.” Now we can shoot 4K video that looks nearly as good as what you get from a traditional camera, mostly due to computational photography tricks. But I’m not complaining. Have you seen my iPhone sunsets?

Then there’s Google and Facebook.

It was in 2000 that Yahoo handed over its search keys to a scrappy startup that said it had a method for more effective online searches. From there, we got Google stepping out onto its own in 2003 by sending people to its website and popularizing the verb, “Google It.” We got Google Maps (remember life without it?), Gmail (free e-mail without being tied to our internet provider), Google Translate, Google Photos and so many other features that I don’t think we could live without today.

That’s the good side.

There’s also Google tracking our every move, in order to put personalized ads in front of us everywhere we go, and saying goodbye to our privacy. Google will claim that much of the privacy invasion is “opt-in” and that we agreed to it when we signed up for services. But who remembers doing that?

Facebook took the snooping to an even greater level. But today’s column is about celebrating tech. So let’s bypass the misinformation and online rage that erupted from the social network and instead just give props to a site that reconnected some 2 billion people with old friends and family. I announced my pending exit on my newsletter, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. You know where I got the lion’s share of responses? Facebook, hands down.

Amazon. Who believed you could order anything you ever wanted with one click, and have it arrive the next day? By 2001 Amazon had announced its first profit, but it was more recently that we saw Amazon really showcase what was it was to become, by acquiring Whole Foods and launching Amazon Fresh, the supermarket with a radical cart that automatically tallied up your purchases, launching the smart speaker craze with Echo and Alexa and being a dominant force in streaming with Fire TV.

But Amazon missed out on phones. Google got in early, in 2008, with the Android operating system, which it grew by giving it away for free to companies like Samsung, LG and Huawei. That business model would enable Android to claim a whopping 85% market share, where it’s featured on so many low-cost phones.

If I had to pick the most influential tech device of my generation, there’s no hesitation. It’s the iPhone, hands down, even bigger than the VCR or the personal computer.

Because the iPhone (and other smartphone brands to follow) put the computer into our pockets, untethered and presented in a easy, intuitive way that appealed to the masses. Listen to music, answer the phone, watch TV, surf the net, all on one device. One in which we can also monitor our daily steps, show us how to get around and take amazing photos. (Again, those sunsets!)

I love my laptop, but it didn’t change my life.

So what of the future?

In 2016, I did a column quoting analysts saying that the smartphone as we know it, would cease and morph into some form of eyewear within the next few years. I didn’t believe it then, I don’t believe it now.

Having stuff flying in front of your eyes as you walk down the street is a distraction. (Take that, Google Glass.) We watched screens in the 1950s. We’re going to be looking at screens in the 2020s and 2030s.

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Are you willing to pay for email? How about podcasts? Here are our tech predictions for 2021




It’s that time of year when we make predictions about what to see from technology in 2021.

We already know we’re good for new iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones, new smart speakers from Amazon and beautiful new smart TV sets that will have higher resolution than ever before – at a lower cost.

So let’s offer up some tech predictions about what else we’ll see, or just might.

Let’s start with a given:

You’ll be paying for email in 2021

The world’s most popular email program Gmail, is owned by Google, which has decided to follow in Apple’s footsteps by getting more people hooked on monthly subscriptions. (Apple’s Services – which includes Apple Music, News and iCloud – is now its second-highest revenue generator, above Macs, iPads and Apple Watches.)

As of June 1, Google will no longer allow users to upload their photos and videos to Google Photos for free. Google offers 15 GBs of free storage for photos, but that also includes Gmail and Google Drive backup. The ask is that you pay for storage, which starts at $1.99 a month – but for just 100 GB of storage.

I don’t know about you, but my Gmail is 41 GBs worth now, I have 15 GBs worth of photos in Google Photos and 1.7 TBs on Google Drive.

Sure, I can clear out Google Drive, but the thing is, my email is a living, growing thing that is just not going to get smaller, no matter how hard I try to clean it up. It grows every day. So if you like your Gmail, get used to it – you might be paying.

Microsoft and Yahoo still offer free email, but they’re littered with ads, and you’re encouraged to step up to the “premium” versions, which starts at $5 and $3.49 a month, respectively, to go ad-free. Yahoo is eliminating the ability to automatically forward emails from Yahoo Mail beginning next week, unless you spend $34.99 a year for the service.

Big tech won’t find the new administration any friendlier

Facebook and Google’s woes in Washington, D.C., won’t change with a new Biden administration, we believe. The companies will continue to be hauled into Washington to defend against being broken up. President-elect Joe Biden has complained to the social network many times about all the disinformation coming out about him on Facebook, and the company declined to act. That certainly isn’t likely to play well in the Biden years.

The streaming wars will lose a big player

Many new streaming networks launched in 2020, most notably HBO Max and Peacock, and many more are on the horizon for 2021, including Paramount Plus and Discovery +, but at least one of the new networks will go down. Or so says my USA TODAY colleague Brett Molina, who puts Paramount Plus as the most likely victim.

Paramount Plus is the soon-to-be new name for what was CBS All-Access, with the addition of movies from the Paramount Pictures library and TV shows from the Viacom (MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon) vault. “There’s just too many of them,” Molina says. “I can’t see it lasting.” (You will see many more first-run films on streaming channels in 2021, as Warner Media has announced its entire slate for HBO Max and Disney + has first-run fare scheduled as well.)

5G won’t get any better until late 2021

The launch of new phones with access to the supposedly faster wireless speed of 5G, and the wireless carriers’ breathless hype about speed left many consumers scratching their heads. The promised speeds were no faster than 4G. One day 5G will live up to the hype, but not until late 2021, believes Gene Munster, an analyst and investor with Loup Ventures. For real progress, we’ll have to wait for 2022.

Local retailers will find a way to compete with Amazon

It’s an aspirational wish, but “someone will solve the need and find a way to fill it,” says Kieran Hannon, the chief marketing officer for OpenPath, a company that offers next generation office entry technology. He believes a service will be developed to help local retailers compete with the Amazons of the world by letting customers order from a direct website serving locals and have products delivered to them at home, thus keeping sales in the neighborhood.

Zoom and video meetings will only get bigger

Business travel may start to come back from the dead in the second half of 2021, but all the companies that saved money from the trips won’t likely be as eager to send staffers traipsing around the country when meetings can be done cheaper and more efficiently via video.

Students will one day return to the classrooms, but company meetings, seminars, webinars and the like will likely continue. No need to return those ring lights to improve your appearance yet.

Speaking of Zoom, a possible acquisition?

The video networks is one hot property that saw its usage numbers climb from 10 million to 300 million amid the pandemic, making it one prime acquisition target. Who better to buy Zoom than Amazon?

The companies already work together, with Amazon Web Services providing the server backbone for all those Zoom meetings. Unlike Google, Apple and Facebook, which have their own well-established video networks (Google Meet, FaceTime and Messenger), Amazon doesn’t have one.

So with Zoom in the company, and all those meeting minutes (about 2 trillion in April alone,) what an attractive target that would make for Amazon to remind us to use Alexa and buy more stuff, right?

Pay for podcasts?

Finally, Munster from Loup Ventures believes Apple will follow its smash success with the Services division by introducing a new way for podcasters to make money on their shows by charging admission. He sees a “Podcast +” that sees everyone’s favorite audio shows (like Talking Tech) added to the Apple One bundle with Apple Music. “Good news for podcasters, who may see Apple as another avenue to monetize their listener base.”

We love it.

Happy New Year, everyone!


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