Saturday, July 24, 2021

IN THE EVENT YOU Play ” NEW WORLD “? Beta Impressions From The Frontier

Amazon Games’ upcoming MMORPG New World is in the spotlight as a lengthy closed beta session shows off the action ahead of an August 31st release. New World has changed its vision multiple times over the course of development, and now the question on everyone’s mind is – where is this going to land on release? What kind of player is it for? What kind of MMORPG is it? And perhaps the most important question, is it worth your time at all? Over the course of the beta (and a demo session that took me into an endgame slice with a fully-geared character), I’ve seen some areas with huge potential that are currently underserved in the MMORPG space – and some others that could be intense detriments for the title. Let’s talk about New World!It successfully lands a powerful frontier survival vibe If you’re familiar with survival games that have you punching wood to get a house going, New World delivers on this front initially by giving the player myriad survival pursuits. Hunting turkey on the borders of your established safe zones to raise your cooking skill and create rations is far more engaging than it has any right to be. Hunting down elusive saltpeter deposits in mines and crafting your own shells for your old-timey rifles feels fun. Being able to skill up in everything to your liking is a classic system à la Runescape, and its nice to know you can work up every single crafting and gathering skill if you wish, right down to doing some fishing. Banging together your first batch of gathering tools is actually freaking awesome. Digging up carrots and potatoes feels meaningful. Coming back to your town in the middle of the wilderness to trade feed and talk with your fellow explorers has all the allure of bustling about Disney’s Frontiertown, and I’ve rarely had so much investment into crafting and trading systems in MMOs. I can see potential problems with these aspects later down the line, i.e. do I really want to spend my time in the endgame gathering resources just so I can play the game, but for now, there’s plenty of magic in creating my own food, ammunition, and supplies before I trek out into the wild. It feels gritty, it feels raw, and it feels fresh. Faction PVP can be a lot of fun Territory control and faction-based opt-in PVP not only bring back a bit of realm-vs-realm feel from the glory days of Dark Age of Camelot, but they inject something that many online experiences have moved away from in the last decade – social interaction. That means yes, you are going to see a player named PoopyPants (Yes, this was a real player I saw) cutting down trees and screaming outside of town about the price of silver ore, and your chat feed is going to be inundated with comments that make the infamous Barrens chat look downright erudite. However, it also successfully adds shared social stakes to the experience, even if you choose not to interact at the verbal level with any other players. By funneling players into three different factions, you have an investment in your tribe regardless of how deep you want to take it. If you still just want to solo and bring back a load of furs to trade in town, you can – but the real fun is to be had by grouping up, interacting with others, and eventually taking over some territory as your chosen faction. At the solo, guild, and greater level, having game flow dictated by players instead of the “theme park” experience is a bold choice and more than a bit refreshing. The issue here is how interesting and meaningful are these faction wars going to be in the endgame? While I don’t have the answer to that yet, the prospect of really engaging with other players in a meaningful way in a MMORPG gives me a powerful nostalgia bump and some serious differentiation from many other genre offerings today. On the flip side, if you’re not really interested in territory wars or PvP, other existing MMORPGs might be a better choice. The combat is New World’s biggest weakness In almost every MMORPG, you’re going to be doing a ton of combat. It’s probably the biggest portion of the entire gameplay experience. With limited skill options, awkward animations, and very little excitement, New World’s combat is decidedly dull. Now, there’s something to be said about popping an opposing faction member from a great distance before you engage in a 3v3 skirmish that gets real greasy, but that’s more about the player-to-player interaction than the combat, which can often feel wooden and wonky. While I enjoy systems that attempt to break the genre out of the tab-targeting standard that’s been grandfathered into MMOs for ages, it misses the mark here.  I found it hard to determine if the other aspects of the game that seem enjoyable can carry this particular aspect either, as combat is the core of almost every other pursuit. Even if you’re just spelunking for saltpeter, you’re going to have to fight a ton of various zombie-like creatures, wolves, or bears, and it simply does not feel good. This problem is exacerbated in group experiences, both PvP and PvE, but more pronounced in the latter. Chewing into spongey opponents as a pack with the glaring lack of feedback from weaponry is almost comical, and your options in combat feel extremely limited and lacking. Everything can feel the same Enemies, locations, and activities can become a big bowl of mush without breaking it up with some PvP pursuits. You’ll see many of the same rickety little fishing villages, decrepit farms, and crumbling ruins as you traverse the giant world. Killing some undead buccaneers at level 5 feels the same as it does at level 15, and you’re going to be doing a ton of daily-quest/fetch style activities in order to grind out your faction reputation, like wandering around the aforementioned locations for boxes and killing X undead baddies. It feels intensely repetitive even after only twenty hours of gameplay, so I’m concerned about how that will translate to the endgame – will I still, as an elite member of the Syndicate, still be wandering farms killing undead and picking taters? I mean, I do like picking taters... Travel is rough When you’re just starting, it’s fine that you’re walking everywhere because you don’t have far to go. However, this takes a turn at around level 12, where you’ll find the autorun button and some movies on your favorite streaming platform to be your best friends. The world is large, and traveling it all on foot is a huge pain. Without mounts, and the fact that fast travel is limited by resources, moving around the map is an absolute bore and a chore. I realize there are other meaningful concerns that probably flow into this decision, like the implications of having everyone zoom around in a game that’s attempting to create stakes with territory control and PvP, but this becomes harder and harder to ignore the more you play and get quests on opposite ends of your map. Forging ahead Based on the beta, New World is going to be an interesting but potentially niche addition to the current crop of MMORPGs. However, it seems to really serve players that want to play with small groups of friends for faction skirmishes and that are interested in greater territory control wars with big guild politics and all that. If you’re not interested in that kind of greater pursuit with plenty of social interaction and PvP, the PvE elements by themselves do not seem compelling enough to keep things rolling.  While I love the feeling of crafting my own stuff, slowly increasing the areas that I’m strong enough to explore, and fastidiously upping all my gathering and crafting skills, I can see those charms fading rapidly as the activities become somewhat rote. The dynamics involved in faction wars and territory control seem to be the peppy antidote for the never-ending rock farm in various undead shacks and homesteads. As with other games that lean into this kind of emergent gameplay (RIP Shadowbane), some of New World will be what players shape it into.
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    Plans for an in-person MWC continue as Sony, Nokia and Ericsson out bow

    After scuttling one massive international trade show last year, the GSMA is sticking to plans for an in-person Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this June — just without a few marquee names. A handful of companies, including Oracle, smartphone maker Sony, and networking firms Nokia and Ericsson, have all confirmed that they will not be attending the show in the flesh.  This isn’t the first time the GSMA has put on an in-person event during the pandemic — it held a Mobile World Congress in Shanghai in late February, with a spate of virtual panels and addresses supplementing the on-the-ground experience. According to a statement provided to Bloomberg, around 17,000 people attended the Shanghai event and no positive COVID diagnoses have been reported so far, though it’s worth noting that many of the attendees didn’t have to travel internationally to attend.  To help mitigate risk, the show organizer is planning a similar online component to accommodate remote attendees this summer, and plans to host a significantly smaller number of people on-site in Barcelona: think 50,000, down from the more than 100,000 who typically attend. Compounding the difficulties of running an in-person trade show are the strict travel restrictions still in effect around the world. The website for the US Embassy in Spain and Andorra tells would-be attendees that entry into the country is not allowed unless they meet “very specific requirements or have already obtained special permission from the Government of Spain.” And at time of publication, residents of the UK, Brazil, and South Africa are barred from entering Spain until March 30th. That ban had already been extended, and may well be extended again — at the time, Spanish officials expressed concern over more virulent COVID strains finding a foothold in the country. (Considering the possibility that MWC could be a superspreader event, Engadget will not be attending the show.) Despite the GSMA’s insistence that a safe, in-person show is possible, some companies that have historically used Mobile World Congress as a launchpad for new products have spent the last year figuring out how to go it alone. Samsung, for instance, staged multiple virtual launch events for its high-profile smartphones in 2020 and plans to host another next week. Huawei ferried reporters to a warehouse in London in luxury cars, where they tested the then-new Mate 40 Pro without ever leaving their vehicles. Factor in a bevy of announcements from MWC mainstays like Oppo and ZTE at the earlier Shanghai event, and we’re left with one big question: even if Mobile World Congress isn’t ultimately canceled this year, will there even be any major announcements to look forward to?

    iPhone 12 mini 'production cut' hints demand was less than hoped

    Apple is slashing production of the iPhone 12 mini through the first six months of the year, according to Nikkei. The company will reportedly produce at least 70 percent fewer units than it initially planned. That will account for most of a 20 percent drop in overall planned iPhone 12 production until June. Apple is even said to have told some suppliers to temporarily stop making specific parts for the iPhone 12 mini. Some other components have been reapportioned for the iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max. Even with the cuts, Apple is still on track to make more iPhones this year than it did in 2020. Nikkei suggests the company plans to manufacture 75 million units in the first six months and 230 million handsets in total, representing an overall increase of 11.6 percent. This is reportedly to help Apple get ahead of possible parts shortages as well as possible economic recovery (and more people perhaps having enough spare cash to buy a new phone). The report backs up previous suggestions that the 5.4-inch iPhone 12 mini isn't selling all that well. Although the iPhone 11 is a year older than the 2020 lineup, it offers superior battery life to the iPhone 12 mini and it costs $100 less. That, aligned with the fact many people are opting for phones with larger screens, could be one reason why the iPhone 12 mini seemingly isn't selling as much as Apple would have hoped.

    Apple releases 14 iOS.4.1 and 11 macOS.2.3 to handle a WebKit vulnerability

    Apple has released a set of updates it recommends all iPhone, iPad and Mac users download as soon as possible. No, iOS 14.5 and Big Sur 11.3 aren’t out yet. Instead, what we have are iOS 14.4.1 and macOS 11.2.3.  When you download them on your devices, all you’ll get is a terse explanation from Apple saying that they’re “important.” However, the support pages spotted by 9to5Mac provide more information. Both updates address a memory corruption issue within WebKit, the engine that powers Apple’s Safari browser. The vulnerability, which was discovered by security researchers from Google and Microsoft, may have allowed bad actors to execute code on your devices using “maliciously crafted” web content. On iOS, you can manually download an update to your iPhone or iPad by opening the Settings app, and then tapping “General” followed by “Software Update.” Meanwhile, on macOS, open the System Preferences menu and click on “Software Update.”

    Dish is buying Republic Wireless and its own 200,000 subscribers

    Dish plans to add yet another mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) to its wireless business. On Monday, the company announced that it has an agreement in place to buy Republic Wireless. With the deal, which should close before the end of first half of the year, Dish will add approximately 200,000 customers to its wireless subscriber base. The company claims Republic Wireless customers won’t see “any immediate” changes to their plans. After spending nearly a decade of trying to break into the wireless market, Dish has made a lot of recent progress. It all started July when the company paid $1.4 billion to buy Boost Mobile from T-Mobile and Sprint. The two carriers agreed to divest themselves of the pre-prepaid brand to get regulatory approval for their $26 billion merger. One month later, Dish bought Ting Mobile from Tucows. It’s too early to tell if Dish will successfully transform itself into a competitive national carrier, but it’s certainly trying to make a go of it.

    Google tests a beefed-up YouTube Android app for Chromecast

    Google might be working on a new version of YouTube for Android that significantly improves the Chromecast experience, 9to5Google has reported. Currently, casting to a Chromecast-connected TV using the YouTube app is a minimalistic experience, with your TV showing only basic details like the channel name, view count, date and time. With the new pseudo-app, however, casting YouTube will reportedly be more akin to using Android TV.  The new player appeared to some Android YouTube Reddit users, with a remote control appearing in the app. That launches a player on your Chromecast-powered TV that lets you change settings like resolution, captions and subtitles, and even use granular controls like "stats for nerds," according to 9to5Google.  When a video concludes, instead of just seeing the usual "ready to watch" image, you'll see a home screen with "what to watch next" suggestions, much like Android TV. Reddit user garethonreddit captured a screen indicating that the app appears to be an HTML5-powered web experience. Another user noted that the new interface seems to come with more advertisements, however. If the new app rolls out widely, the richer on-screen YouTube experience would certainly give Chromecast owners more value for their money — though many wouldn't trade that for more ads. It would be nice to see similar improvements in other Chromecast-enabled apps that deliver a more Android TV-like experience, like you get from Google's latest Chromecast devices. 

    The OnePlus 9 series shall debut with Hasselblad-tuned cameras on March 23rd

    OnePlus will unveil its latest flagship smartphones — the OnePlus 9 5G series — during a streaming launch event at 9 AM Eastern on March 23rd. And when those phones make their debut, they'll pack cameras tuned by 180-year-old Swedish camera maker Hasselblad. “With OnePlus’ top-of-the-line hardware and computational photography and Hasselblad’s rich aesthetic knowledge in traditional photography, I am confident that the OnePlus 9 Series will be a major leap forward in our ability to deliver a premium, flagship camera," said OnePlus CEO Pete Lau in a press release. Word of the partnership won't come as much surprise to the company's fans: leaked images of an unreleased OnePlus device sporting Hasselblad branding have been circulating for weeks. And more recently, OnePlus has shared a number of space-themed teasers that obliquely reference the deal. (Hasselblad has supplied NASA with cameras for use in space for decades, including the venerable Hasselblad 500ELs that landed on the moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.) But what does this deal actually mean for the OnePlus camera experience? To start, the OnePlus 9 series should benefit from "advanced color calibration" jointly developed by the two companies. Long story short, users should expect more accurate, natural-looking colors in photos taken with the OnePlus 9 Pro and beyond. And since Hasselblad deals almost exclusively in pro-grade, medium-format cameras, it's perhaps natural that special attention was paid to the OnePlus 9 series' Pro mode. In addition to typical features like direct control over ISO, focus, exposure time, and more, the Hasselblad Pro mode also lets users shoot photos as 12-bit RAW files and work with an editing interface inspired by Hasselblad's own Phocus image processing app. Meanwhile, on the video front, OnePlus says its Hasselblad-branded cameras will offer "improved" HDR video recording, plus support for 4K 120FPS and 8K 30FPS recording. Hasselblad bits aside, the OnePlus 9 Pro is widely expected to ship with four rear cameras, and the company revealed a few new details about them this morning. The phone's main camera will use one of Sony's new IMX789 sensors, which we've heard was custom-developed for the upcoming OPPO Find X3. (Given OnePlus's shared corporate parentage with OPPO, this really shouldn't be a shocker.) OnePlus also confirmed that its latest ultra-wide camera will use a so-called "freeform" lens — as seen on the Huawei Mate 40 Pro+ — that and all but eliminates barrel distortion in those spacious photos. With all this in mind, there are a few things worth noting. For one, despite OnePlus's embrace of space imagery in its recent teasers, the company has made no mention of a Pixel-like astrophotography mode. What's more, Hasselblad's deal with OnePlus will last for three years, and it's unclear how OnePlus's approach to color science may shift after the partnership expires. And this isn't Hasselblad's first attempt at a smartphone partnership, either — years ago, it teamed up with Motorola to create a separate 12-megapixel camera that magnetically attached to Moto Z smartphones. (Spoiler alert: It was just alright.) As it turns out, the OnePlus 9 is only part of the company’s plans to set new standards for smartphone photography. Over the next three years, OnePlus has pledged $150 million to “further develop” four camera research and development centers around the world, as well as experiment with new camera components and technologies to debut in future devices. On the docket right now: developing panoramic cameras with a 140-degree field of view and new lenses to improve autofocus for selfies, though the company was quick to note its efforts may extend well beyond these projects. OnePlus cameras have steadily improved over the years, but they have so far lagged behind competing offerings from companies like Samsung and Apple. With this multi-year deal in place, OnePlus seems ready to dramatically up its photography game, but for now, consider us cautiously optimistic. With any luck, the company's March 23rd launch event will have plenty of sample images — and more juicy details about its Hasselblad deal — for us to pore over.

    Huawei's smartphone struggles are hitting it hard in China

    US trade bans against Huawei are having a very tangible effect on the company's sales at home. Counterpoint Research now estimates that Huawei's China market share dropped to 16 percent in January 2021. For context, the tech giant had a 41 percent share in the first quarter of 2020. Even though the metrics aren't completely comparable (and Counterpoint is shy on numbers), there has clearly been a sharp drop. Huawei's decision to sell the Honor brand played a part, but Counterpoint pinned the decline largely on US restrictions. With components like processors and 5G modems in short supply, Huawei is focusing on premium, low-volume phones like the Mate 40 Pro to make the most of its limited stock. The fall from grace has already changed the dynamics of the Chinese market. Oppo became the country's top brand for the first time ever in January, claiming 21 percent share, while its sibling brand Vivo wasn't far behind with 20 percent. Huawei was tied for share with Apple and Xiaomi at 16 percent each. The future doesn't look bright for Huawei. Analysts expect it to continue its decline throughout 2021. The competition isn't standing still, either. Oppo is poised to launch its flagship Find X3 phones on March 11th, and has been scooping up sales of more affordable devices with the Reno 5 and A series. Xiaomi, meanwhile, recently launched the Mi 11. While Honor might carry on the spirit of Huawei's work, it's evident that Huawei itself faces bleak prospects in the months ahead.

    Apple's next iPhone could include a smaller display notch and larger battery

    Apple may not announce the 2021 iPhone until the second half of the year, but that hasn't stopped the rumor mill, with a new report this week coming out from reputable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. In a note obtained by MacRumors, Kuo says Apple will release four different iPhone models in 2021 that will come in the same sizes as the 2020 lineup. That means the mini variant will stick around for at least another year. Corroborating a report last month from well-known leaker Max Weinbach and others, Kuo said the iPhone 13 Pro models will feature energy-efficient 120Hz LTPO (low-temperature polycrystalline oxide) displays. The Pro models will also include an updated ultra-wide camera that will feature a faster f/1.8 aperture lens that includes autofocus. The 2021 models won't feature a drastically different design than their 2020 counterparts. However, thanks to some small engineering breakthroughs, they'll reportedly include bigger batteries and smaller display cutouts. Kuo said the iPhone won't move to USB-C in 2021, but nor will Apple introduce a phone this year that doesn't include any ports at all. Internally, all four phones will feature Qualcomm's X60 5G modem. The 5nm radio is smaller and more power-efficient than the X55 modem found in the iPhone 12 lineup. Notably, the note doesn't make any mention of Apple adding an in-display fingerprint scanner to the 2021 models. According to a report Bloomberg's Mark Gurman published at the start of the year, that was one of the main upgrades Apple was considering for 2021. It also looks like Touch ID is off the table, with Kuo noting that the company doesn't plan to take a page from the iPad Air and integrate the technology into the 2021 model's power button. Kuo's note also includes some tidbits about Apple's 2022 and 2023 iPhone lineups. According to the analyst, at least some iPhone models next year will feature a Samsung-style punch-hole display cutout. Whether the entire lineup abandons Apple's divisive notch will depend on panel production yields. Kuo didn't say what the move will mean for Face ID. Apple is also reportedly preparing a new SE model with 5G connectivity and a faster processor the company could release in the first half of 2022.

    Google mobile search redesign targets results, not frills

    You might soon have an easier time searching the web from your phone. Google is rolling out a visual redesign of mobile search that should help you focus on the results rather than... well, everything surrounding them. Results pages now run edge-to-e...

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