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Melting pot of open-world influences makes for one of the more immersive zombie slayers out there • The Register

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The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games, our monthly gaming column. In May, the industry finally pushed some hot properties out the door including Resident Evil Village, Biomutant, and the Mass Effect remasters. But we opted to check out something just a little bit older.

Though pop culture might have reached peak zombie almost a decade ago, Oregon-based Bend Studio still managed to walk away with a decent game in the 2019 PlayStation 4 “exclusive” Days Gone. We say “exclusive” because we’ve been playing the PC port, which came out on 18 May. This follows a recent trend of titles made specifically for Sony’s last-gen console being re-released for PC a couple of years later including Death Stranding and Horizon Zero Dawn.

Yes, the world stopped giving a toss after the eleventy-first season of AMC’s flagging comic book adaptation The Walking Dead, but somehow surviving a zombie apocalypse remains a gripping setting for many – yours truly included. Even if it’s one of the most done-to-death concepts under the sun, Bend has done a fantastic job of rendering an Oregon scorched by a mysterious viral epidemic that has turned 99 per cent of the population into rabid, shambling cannibals.

Motorbike is your route through the madness – and it handles like a dream

Motorbike is your route through the madness – and it handles like a dream

The player takes the role of Deacon St John, certainly one of the stranger names for a triple-A protagonist, one of these 1%-er biker types with a sensitive side. If you’re already drawing some parallels with Walking Dead favourite Daryl Dixon, you’d be on the right lines. Deek (as his biker pal Boozer calls him) blazes through the wasteland on a Harley-type motorbike – the transport of choice following The Event – and one of the most useful weapons at his disposal is a crossbow, both just like Dixon.

Not having enough fuel in your bike means walking to the next objective, and no fast travel either

Not having enough fuel in your bike means walking to the next objective, and no fast travel either

So you can see that Bend was trying to tap into the zombie-geist of days gone here (if you’ll excuse the pun), the only problem being that it was late to the party – not helped by the fact that the game took some six years to develop.

To be fair to Bend, Days Gone probably needed it. Graphically, it’s just about up there with the other PlayStation zombie-slaying smash hit The Last of Us in terms of environments and facial animations, and the ace up its sleeve is the sheer amount of “Freakers” (as they’re known in game) that can be shown on the screen at one time. In certain locations, hundreds of enemies can coalesce into “herds” which can be defeated if you take stock of your environment and go in well-equipped.

A number of ramshackle communities have sprung up 'in the shit'

A number of ramshackle communities have sprung up ‘in the shit’

Early on, Boozer is seriously injured after a rendezvous with a blowtorch at the hands of some crazy cultists, forcing Deek, who is known in those parts as a Drifter, to interact with some of the more organised communities that dot the Oregonian countryside.

While The Last of Us was a linear adventure, Days Gone is open world, a big plus in my book, meaning you can take on missions and side objectives in whatever order you like as they become available.

Gameplay draws on a vast array of proven open-world formulas, which goes a long way to explain why Days Gone is so fun. You have the marauder and cultist camps to brutally murder at your leisure, much like the occupied settlements and radio towers of the Far Cry series, not to mention that you can also mark enemies with your binoculars, another tell-tale Far Cry reference.

Marking enemies means you can track their movements out of line of sight

Marking enemies means you can track their movements out of line of sight

The scarcity of fuel and general maintenance of your bike also seem to take cues from the 2015 Mad Max game. The visibility and sound meters may as well have been stripped from DayZ, Bohemia’s troubled multiplayer zombie survival game, and constantly managing ammunition calls the Resident Evil series to mind. The post-rock/Western soundtrack and backdrop is also redolent of Red Dead Redemption. The third-person cover shooter mechanics date back to Gears of War, and the solid stealth system to Metal Gear Solid and its ilk. Nods must also be given to Dying Light and, of course, The Last of Us. Not one of these is a bad game so when you add them all together… well, you can do the maths.

Firearms have wicked sway and recoil, which makes popping Freaker heads a challenge, but it can be mitigated to an extent by the “focus” ability (a bit like Red Dead’s slowmo Dead Eye mode) which is unlocked as you level up Deacon and gain new perks and abilities. There’s a wide choice of weapons to pick up from fallen human enemies and better guns can be permanently purchased from settlements, depending on how much they trust you. These can then be equipped for an excursion from a gun locker at one of Deacon’s many holdouts at a limit of a primary (rifle), secondary (pistol), and “special” (crossbow or sniper). Trust can be built by handing in Freaker bounties (their ears), selling meat, and doing jobs for the settlement.

Combat takes place from over the shoulder – here with a silenced M14

Combat takes place from over the shoulder – here with a silenced M14

It wouldn’t be a survival game without crafting either, and resources can be found all over the place. Grabbing as much as you can carry is crucial because they can be used to make everything from bandages to melee weapons to Molotov cocktails to crossbow bolts, all of which could help you make it out alive from the next Freaker encounter.

One melee weapon can be carried alongside your guns but it won’t last forever, otherwise Deacon will resort to his considerably weaker knife, though you can repair these and craft deadlier varieties as the game progresses. While the map initially seems on the small side for the genre, more areas become available as you complete story missions, again much like Mad Max.

However, Days Gone isn’t without flaw. One immediately noticeable goof is that Deek can switch his flashlight on and off, but there isn’t one visibly attached to his character model. Instead, it appears as though the game camera has a torch affixed, meaning you can rotate to look him in the eye but the light is shining on the scenery behind him. Weird. Since Bend is a Sony-owned studio, you wonder why the devs couldn’t have copied the flashlight effect from The Last of Us, which clearly shows one mounted on the character’s backpack strap and only shines in the direction they are actually facing.

Deacon also has tracking abilities to solve mysteries and find resources

Deacon also has tracking abilities to solve mysteries and find resources

There are also what I assume to be sort of “dynamic events” that flash up on the minimap as question marks. They show that you are close to one and the direction to head in, but when you get close they vanish, meaning it’s indeterminable whether you ever found what was being flagged up. I soon began to ignore these as they often resulted in minor loot or extreme danger (in one case I was ambushed and captured by marauders).

But for a PC port, it’s a good one. It ran silky smooth from launch on my RTX 3070, Ryzen 9 3900X rig (yes, I upgraded) and bugs were few and far between, though not non-existent. A couple of times an enemy would suddenly be propelled into the air by forces unseen, conveniently landing behind me and exposing my position. That’s about as egregious as things got.

Enemies, both human and otherwise, like to set up ambushes in tunnels

Enemies, both human and otherwise, like to set up ambushes in tunnels

Interestingly, about a month before the PC version’s release, axed Days Gone lead John Garvin complained in an interview with fellow designer David Jaffe: “If you love a game, buy it at fucking full price.”

He added: “Don’t complain if a game doesn’t get a sequel if it wasn’t supported at launch. It’s like God of War [2018] got whatever number millions of sales at launch and, you know, Days Gone didn’t.”

The comments seem to be in response to a Bloomberg report stating that Bend had pitched a sequel to Days Gone but that it had been rejected by Sony despite profitability. The report goes on to suggest that Sony’s fixation on blockbuster “exclusives” is strangling innovation and smaller studios within the PlayStation hierarchy, and claims that Bend itself feared that it would end up being merged with current golden boy Naughty Dog (The Last of Us).

I couldn't safely get down from this tower until the horde had moved on

I couldn’t safely get down from this tower until the horde had moved on

Perhaps it is the staid formula that meant Days Gone didn’t sell like hotcakes. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good game. Not mind-blowing, sure, but a merry romp all the same. The script is believable, the characters stand out, and the story unravels slowly. The acting is enjoyable too, particularly Deacon, whose frayed sanity and likeness is portrayed by Sam Witwer.

Anecdotally, Days Gone didn’t run especially well on its original PlayStation 4 jaunt. I didn’t grab it despite owning the console but was happy to check out the port and was pleasantly surprised. As such, you could safely consider this to be the definitive version. Long may this trend continue – and it looks like it will seeing as Uncharted 4 is the next PlayStation “exclusive” headed for PC.

Days Gone does, however, make me wonder how the considerably more lo-fi, sandboxy, and perennially in-development Project Zomboid is looking these days… A topic for another column perhaps. ®

Bootnote

Rich played the first 20 hours of Days Gone on Twitch as ExcellentSword. Chuck him a follow for more video game impressions as they happen! Every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday from around 8:30-9pm UK time.

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NFT sales hit 12-month low after cryptocurrency crash | Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

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Non-fungible tokens have been swept up in the cryptocurrency crash as sales reached a 12-month low in June.

NFTs confer ownership of a unique digital item – often a piece of virtual art – upon someone, even if that item can be easily copied. Ownership is recorded on a digital, decentralised ledger known as a blockchain.

Sales of NFTs totalled just over $1bn (£830m) in June, according to the crypto research firm Chainalysis, their worst performance since the same month last year when sales were $648m. Sales reached a peak of $12.6bn in January.

“This decline is definitely linked to the broader slowdown in crypto markets,” said Ethan McMahon, a Chainalysis economist.

“Times like this inevitably lead to consolidation within the affected markets, and for NFTs we will likely see a pullback in terms of the collections and types of NFTs that reach prominence.”

The cryptocurrency market, worth about $3tn last November, is now worth less than $1tn.

NFTs rely on a blockchain – the decentralised ledger first used by bitcoin to track ownership of the cryptocurrency – to record who owns them and allow them to be traded. Most are based on the Ethereum blockchain, which is maintained through a carbon-intensive system called proof of work.

NFT chart

At its peak, the NFT market was attracting vaulting sums including $2.9m for a token of the first tweet by Twitter’s cofounder Jack Dorsey. A digital collage by the visual artist Beeple sold for $69m; the main token for the “play to earn” video game Axie Infinity hit a total value of $9.75bn; and Coca-Cola raised more than $575,000 from selling digital items such as a customised jacket to be worn in the metaverse.

According to the Chainalysis data, NFT sales peaked in January. In April an attempt to sell on the Dorsey NFT was abandoned when bids topped out at $14,000.

However, demand for so-called blue chip NFT collections has held up, according to DappRadar, a firm that tracks NFTs and blockchain-based video games.

The price of the cheapest NFT in the Bored Ape Yacht Club has declined by only 1%, to $90,00o, over the last month, according to DappRadar’s head of research, Pedro Herrera. “Blue chip collections are performing vastly better than the vast majority of NFTs,” he said.

NFT sales reached $40bn last year and the 2022 total has already exceeded that, at more than $42bn, according to Chainalysis. Sales in January and February accounted for more than half of the 2022 total so far.

The cryptocurrency market has come under pressure amid volatility in the wider stock markets, amid fears over rising inflation and higher interest rates, which have dampened appetite for riskier assets including tech stocks and digital assets.

Faith in crypto assets has also been shaken by the collapse of Terra, a so-called stablecoin whose value was supposed to be pegged to the US dollar, and troubles at crypto-related financial institutions such as the Celsius Network, a lender that has paused withdrawals.

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We speak to Purism’ CEO about the Librem 5 USA smartphone • The Register

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Interview In June, Purism began shipping a privacy-focused smartphone called Librem 5 USA that runs on a version of Linux called PureOS rather than Android or iOS. As the name suggests, it’s made in America – all the electronics are assembled in its Carlsbad, California facility, using as many US-fabricated parts as possible.

While past privacy-focused phones, such as Silent Circle‘s Android-based Blackphone failed to win much market share, the political situation is different now than it was seven years ago.

Supply-chain provenance has become more important in recent years, thanks to concerns about the national security implications of foreign-made tech gear. The Librem 5 USA comes at a cost, starting at $1,999, though there are now US government agencies willing to pay that price for homegrown hardware they can trust – and evidently tech enthusiasts, too.

We first wrote about the Librem 5 smartphone in 2017, considering it a privacy-centric device with a Linux OS. The Librem 5 USA, as noted, tries to use American companies with US fabrication “whenever possible.” It has a 5.7-inch 720×1440 screen with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a user-replaceable 4,500mAh battery.

The goal is to produce a phone that can be trusted from the hardware to the OS and apps, something that Apple and Google have become vocal about, too.

The Register spoke with Todd Weaver, founder and CEO of Purism, about how things are going.

Weaver said Purism is about two weeks away from actually holding stock and selling phones, which isn’t something the company, which began with crowdfunding, has previously had to do. In the past, people have pledged funds with orders, and it has later fulfilled them; now it’s building inventory in anticipation of sales.

“We’re actually transitioning to holding stock and pushing sales,” he explained. “We’ve never had to do that before. We’ve never had to do outbound sales.”

The phone, to start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware

Previously, said Weaver, the company’s growth has been a result of inbound requests for its products based on the material it has published about its projects.

“The phone, to kind of start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware,” said Weaver. “It runs on a CPU that is not normally in phones.”

That would be a quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 i.MX8M running at 1.5GHz. Weaver said Purism isolated the device’s baseband modem from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth “so that you can actually turn it off with a hardware kill switch. That basically becomes the ultimate in security.”

A key thing to realize here is that baseband modems are effectively small computers running in handsets and handle the cellular communications; if a modem is compromised or made to run rogue firmware, it can potentially take over the rest of the device, hence Purism’s desire to isolate it, if the user so wishes. In fact, it has three hardware kill switches: one to cut off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one for cellular, and one for the microphone and cameras. All three will cut off GPS, too.

The main printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) is made by Purism in the US, and its microprocessor, from Dutch semiconductor maker NXP, is also made stateside.

The chip, Weaver explained, “is normally in airplanes, in commercial-grade devices, and in cars. It’s a quad-core CPU. But the reason we had to do that was we wanted to properly isolate. So in every other phone that’s made, the baseband modem – the cellular modem – is attached to memory and CPU. Fundamentally the carriers have firmware access that’s lower than the operating system.”

To make the phone secure, Weaver said, to protect privacy and individual freedoms, Purism had to consider security at the hardware level and move up the stack.

“There are all sorts of ways that has to be solved,” he said. “We solve it from the hardware, software, applications, data, and even services.”

The point, said Weaver, is to be able to just take the device and have peace of mind and control over your own digital life.

“We started in 2014, initially just crowdfunding laptops,” said Weaver. “My goal was to produce phones. But I knew that I had to increment through because we had to show that we can manufacture devices. We can do hardware, software, and services. Our model is very similar to Apple in that regard – we produce hardware and we have an operating system that’s married to it, so that it works.

“And then we also include services that fully respect you. If you had an iPhone or an Android phone and a Purism phone like Librem 5 sitting all next to each other, the iPhone will leak probably about three gigabytes of data without doing anything. Android devices are worse. Ours will leak exactly zero bits – nothing is sent without your explicit interaction, to make a request for weather information or browsing the web.”

Research last year suggested Android and iOS beam back telemetry to base even when users opt out of these transmissions, and a complaint was raised in 2020 over what appeared to be Android’s mysterious wireless data transfers.

While working toward phone manufacturing with the release of the Librem laptop, mini PC, and servers, Weaver explained his company was refining PureOS, its Linux distribution. “It’s our operating system that doesn’t have any mystery code in it,” said Weaver. “It’s all the source code, from the bootloader on up.”

Librem 14

Purism’s quest against Intel’s Management Engine black box CPU now comes in 14 inches

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Purism, said Weaver, has been working on modifying the PureOS Linux kernel to conserve energy when idle.

“A lot of the things Android initially did to Linux, we are doing to mainline Linux, so that we can actually have these things idle down better,” he said. “Basically, it’s a better way to do nothing.”

He also said the processor tends toward the toasty side. “We pushed really hard with NXP, modified a bunch of Linux kernel development, so that we could get that cooler. It’s just that CPU runs hot. The next iteration, we’ll be using probably I.MX9 … that’s still probably two years away.”

Weaver also said some thought is being given to the possibility of soldering the currently modular modem in place, which would allow for thinner devices and would please government agencies that see a removable component as a security issue.

Asked what sorts of things are possible with a Librem phone that Android and iOS devices don’t offer, Weaver cited the way tethering works. Mobile providers often charge extras for tethering, but with a Librem 5 phone data is just data. He also pointed to disk encryption with user-controlled keys and chat applications that can handle multiple protocols, such as SMS, MMS, XMPP, and Matrix.

For people who want an alternative to Android or iOS, Weaver said it’s an easy sale. “I almost have to back them off to say that, you know, not all your apps are going to run there,” he said. “It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat.”

It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat

Given the benefit Apple and Google get from their respective app stores, it’s not surprising that Purism is trying to deal with what Weaver calls “the App Gap” – the vast number of mobile apps not available on PureOS at the moment.

“Initially, we developed a lot of the core applications,” said Weaver. “We also wrote a library that allows for all the existing GNU/Linux-based applications to shrink down and run on our mobile phone. So by doing that, you don’t have to write a new application, it’s just include our library, and it will now work on the phone.”

That takes some effort, Weaver conceded, and Purism has produced documentation and helped Linux developers adapt their existing apps.

Purism is also enhancing its PureOS Store by partnering with a group that’s funding Interledger, an open payment network federation system.

“We’re actually going to be adding to PureOS Store, which is equivalent to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, where we allow for people to charge a subscription or charge for an app,” said Weaver. “And then we also have the ability to pay bounties even, for apps that are really needed that aren’t yet developed. So basically, the solution to fill the App Gap is cash.”

“You have to incentivize developers by ‘Hey, you can get paid,'” he elaborated. “The ecosystem grows and also actually puts money towards that effort. Our business model – by selling hardware with high enough margin, having services that are attached – allows us to basically reinvest to fill the App Gap.”

Privacy has always been a tough sell in the tech industry, at least in a mass market context. But over the past decade, the Snowden revelations about the extent of government information gathering, constant privacy scandals, the online ad industry’s unrepentant intrusiveness, pushback against Big Tech and surveillance capitalism, and the always sorry state of data security have buoyed interest in privacy. Add to that trade tensions with China and the supply chain nationalism that has followed, not to mention competition and privacy regulations emerging in the US, UK, and EU, and it looks like an opportunity.

“We’re not make-or-break off any one of those issues,” said Weaver, “but by fundamentally targeting civil liberties, individual freedoms, and privacy rights, then all of those things come out, and as they do, we see an influx of sales.”

“We have devices in every letter-agency in the US and some governments from outside the US,” said Weaver. “And those devices can vary from air gap laptops, to phones and even phone service.”

Weaver declined to discuss Purism’s financial situation in detail, but said the Librem 5 crowdfunding campaign raised $2 million.

“Since then, we’ve grown by triple digits year over year and even during COVID-19, we had a growth year,” he explained. “So overall, our sales have continued to increase. And we’ve grown mostly from revenue, but we’ve also taken on north of $12 million in investment.”

Weaver said the total available market is huge – billions of people have cell phones.

‘When you’re looking at somebody who cares about privacy rights, or they care about ‘I don’t like Big Tech,’ or ‘I don’t like the duopoly a mobile phone the space,’ or ‘I don’t like the intrusion,’ or I would like to advance civil liberties,’ every one of those areas is a potential customer,” said Weaver. “And those areas are immense. So we have not had a demand problem. We have had a supply problem, from parts to actual availability.

“We lost probably about two years on specific parts to actually manufacture this device in the US. China still has a shortage. We’ve never had that lack of interest. Once we get to the point of actually holding stock, then we’re going to be able to resume promoting.”

Soon, then. ®

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This start-up is offering stressed techies the chance to switch off at its cabins

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Slow Cabins is coming to Ireland and aiming to tap into the trend for low-impact, sustainable, digital-free tourism.

A hospitality rental company targeting techies who want to digitally detox is preparing to welcome its first guests in Ireland.

Founded in 2017, Slow Cabins seeks to offer people the opportunity to spend time away from their tech lives in relaxed, remote and eco-friendly surroundings.

It is currently taking bookings in Ireland and will open its first cabins here from 1 August. As well as Ireland, the start-up has operations in Belgium and the Netherlands.

All of its cabin locations are secret to purposely encourage guests to switch off and detox from their day-to-day stresses. Guests book their cabins without knowing the exact location, but all cabins are located within a two-and-a-half hour drive from major cities.

Within about two weeks of the trip, guests receive details with the exact location of their cabin. Even then, they may have to park their cars and hike to get to their accommodation.

The idea behind Slow Cabins comes from low-impact and sustainable tourism. Cabins are equipped with queen-sized beds, log burners, solar panels, dry toilets, fire pits, grills and large windows. Each cabin is powered naturally by sunlight and water.

“Recent European studies show that our resilience improves and stress levels decrease by up to 70pc after a stay in nature,” said Slow Cabins Ireland director Matthew Parkinson.

“Getting away from it all brings peace, energy and a sense of perspective. And that’s where Slow Cabins have an interesting role to play in a fast ‘always-on’ society. Profit is not our only goal, but rather a means to create more positive social and environmental impact,” he added.

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