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Watch Dogs: Legion hands-on: Play as anyone, care about no one

Enlarge / If you're looking for an open-world adventure full of generic, unclear rebellion, Wat..



Enlarge / If you're looking for an open-world adventure full of generic, unclear rebellion, Watch Dogs: Legion might hit the spot when it launches later this year.Ubisoft

Last year, Watch Dogs: Legion emerged from Ubisoft's coffers with an ambitious pitch for the open-world genre: play as any character in the game. Security guards, grandmas, and even members of rival factions can be "recruited" to become a playable character (with some being trickier to convince than others). It's certainly a first for a GTA-like: why run people over with your car when you can sign them up to your cause?

But is this twist enough to boost the Watch Dogs series to a compelling romp, years after its "GTA with hacking" conceit was already wearing thin? After a delay from its original 2019 launch window, players across the world will find out October 29 on PC (UPlay, Epic Games Store), Stadia, Xbox One, and PS4. (The game will also launch on next-gen consoles "upon their launch," Ubisoft reps have told Ars.) In the meantime, I got to play a preview build for nearly four hours last week to find out for myself. And while the play-as-anyone conceit really works as advertised and is impressive as a feat of engineering, its execution within a video game is currently hard to recommend.

Taking the “N” out of NPC

  • Look, it's the hero of Watch Dogs Legion! No, I'm kidding. Every single person in the game can be your controllable hero. (Note: Every image in this article was captured from live demo gameplay.) Ubisoft
  • Notice that each member of your crew has different perks in that right-hand sidebar. This construction worker, for example, can more easily sneak into construction sites.
  • And this tagger can access a graffiti side-quest chain more easily.
  • You can spend in-game currency to upgrade your range of skills, but a character must have a built-in proficiency in that skill or weapon before they can use it.
  • How do we grow your WDL troops> By enlisting their services in the wild. Some people are agreeable by default.
  • Some have a red thumbs-down icon and must be persuaded…
  • …by helping them with any worrisome issues in their itinerary. (Which you can scan and spy on.)
  • Yes, even this gun-toting guard can be swayed to Dedsec's ranks.
  • Sadly, because every single NPC in the game can become playable, their dialogue is all quite generic.
  • I heard this specific speech from two different new recruits.
  • Sadly, I was unable to convince this cranky woman to join my team before my demo's time ran out.

This version of Watch Dogs is set in a near-future version of London (with most of its historic landmarks intact) on the eve of a terrorist attack. A spate of explosions goes off across the city, and the evil mastermind behind it frames a vaguely anti-government, anti-corporation group called Dedsec. A privatized, automation-minded security firm wrests control of London's police forces, then ramps up body-scanning checkpoints and security drones. Dedsec's ranks are arrested and otherwise detained, but their message—of, uh, fighting the power, but not in any specific or controversial way—lives on, carried in part by an AI entity.

Though Ubisoft didn't show us the game's intro, the intro appears to revolve around a single converted Londoner starting a grassroots Dedsec revival. One citizen takes up the mantle, then does someone a favor (in WD:L's case, a series of open-world video game missions) to convince someone to join the group. Do that again and again to enlist more strangers.

In my demo, Ubisoft was clearly proud of this core play-as-anyone functionality, as I was told to recruit whoever I wanted. Like in Watch Dogs 2, players can use a supercharged smartphone to scan anybody walking past, revealing deeply personal information. Now in WGL, you're expected to leverage this information for the sake of Dedsec recruitment. If the person is already sympathetic to the cause, then it's a matter of asking them what favor they might need done, at which point you take on a chain of two to three missions.


More stubborn Londoners will have a red "thumbs-down" icon on their scanned profiles, which means you'll need to study their entire itinerary (yes, your phone can reveal all of their calendar data). Find a moment in their schedule that looks sensitive, like dealing with a debt collector, then show up at the listed time and location to help them out (usually with brute force). This will unlock a similar "please do me a favor" chain of two to three missions.

Ubisoft compels you to recruit strangers by locking specific perks and abilities to different NPCs, instead of offering a robust skill-tree system. Some characters can wield certain weapons. Others have location-specific disguises that let them blend in and temporarily stealth-walk through areas (like a construction worker for the game's seedy construction sites). And others have specific abilities, like generating new drones on the fly, having faster stealth-kill moves, or going temporarily invisible. Each can have up to two weapons and up to two active abilities, along with a few passive perks.

Before you choose to recruit anyone, their specific abilities appear in their background scan, so you can choose whom you bother to help and/or enlist. Once you have a roster, you can freely swap from one Dedsec member to the next—in fact, new ones warp exactly wherever your current player already is, as if your HQ has a working transporter from Star Trek.

Disposable lives, imperative exploding vans

In related news, WD:L doesn't sport any sort of quicksave system, and neither does it have "lives." If your current character dies, they'll either be "arrested" or "injured"—meaning, they're in video game timeout. An in-game timer begins ticking until they can come back to the action (about 10 minutes). Once they're back, they're good as new: no penalty, no hospital bill, no posted bail.

This allows players to cheat their way out of certain challenges. One example: nearly all of the missions I played during my preview test ended with some form of "escape the enemy-filled zone," which you can do either via combat or stealth. One time, I died by foolishly rushing into a mess of enemies. I expected the game to rewind upon my death and make me try again, but instead, I became one of my other comrades, who warped into the zone to replace my "injured" character. That new comrade happened to spawn into the zone's exterior, away from the baddies. "Mission complete," the game told me. Ubisoft reps said that worked as intended. Really? Hmm.

However, some deaths will cancel an entire chain of missions in progress, particularly the multipart missions you must undertake to conscript new Dedsec-heads. Twice during my session, I got to the final portion of a mission, only to fail; in my case, both failures were thanks to vans exploding for seemingly no reason. This was unfinished software, of course, and I was assured that spontaneously combusting vans aren't slated to launch in the final game.

Learning what is (and isn't) precious

The thing is, glitches happen in open-world games. Failing a single mission because of some wacky glitch is an unfortunate price of the genre. But failing a 20-minute chain of missions (driving, battling, driving, battling, driving, and battling) because of one mess-up is a lot harder to swallow. In these moments, the game tells you your new prospective Dedsec member has changed their mind. Move on. Find another NPC. But in one mission's case, I couldn't move on without getting that specific NPC to join Dedsec, and I imagine other WD:L missions revolve around similar "enlist a certain person to move forward" premises.

Pushing forward to reenlist that specific NPC brought up a new 20-minute chain of missions, and this is when I grew concerned that the way WD:L generates missions could prove redundant fast. Because these recruitment missions are attached to generic characters, they're all randomly generated from within the game world. You'll find yourself repeatedly hacking into hospitals by crawling around similar-looking outdoor pavilions, or hacking into construction sites that look the same. And once you're inside one of them, the level design and mechanics have to work for any character, so you're not expected to leverage any of the recruited characters' unique abilities. Just generically rush or stealth to an objective. If the full game doesn't do a better job guiding players to using unique abilities, WD:L is in serious trouble.

Back to the vans, though. To clarify, I didn't fail those missions because my character died. I failed them because a van blew up. The same can happen when you're expected to recover other cargo or specific hostages. Certain things in WD:L are precious… but not the members of your action-stealth collective.

Pithy philosophy, mild open-world tweaks

  • Time for a cargo drone to make a special delivery: ourselves! Ubisoft
  • Hack giant cargo drones to ride them like massive hoverboards.
  • You can pilot smaller cargo drones to make deliveries as part of side quests.
  • Or use a little spiderbot to finish line-matching side missions.
  • Step one: Hack the drone.
  • Step two: Use that drone to infiltrate someone else's phone.
  • You get access to a variety of cars to traverse this version of futuristic London, and most of those cars are electric.
  • New to this sequel: Boats!
  • Electric cars, funnily enough, are usually empty, since they function pretty much like Waymo taxis. It's weird to jack a WDL car and not throw someone out of it.
  • Instant torque and hard-gripping tires are a common thread in WDL's electric cars.
  • I do apRead 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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