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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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Big Brother is still watching you and he goes by the name Facebook | John Naughton

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The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.

The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.

Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.

Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.

Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”

Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.

Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.

You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.

What I’ve been reading

Masters and servants
Between Golem and God: The Future of AI is a beautifully structured essay on the 3 Quarks Daily website.

Dressed for all weathers
How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture is the thesis of an intriguing Aeon essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney.

On the mend
Monopolists Are Winning the Repair Wars is a terrific blog post by Cory Doctorow on the importance of the “right to repair” our own equipment.

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Amazon exec’s husband jailed for two years for insider trading. Yes, with Amazon stock • The Register

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The husband of an Amazon financial executive was sentenced on Thursday to 26 months behind bars for insider trading of the web giant’s stock.

Viky Bohra, 37, of Bothell, Washington, reaped a profit of $1,428,264 between January 2016 and October 2018 by buying and selling Amazon stock using eleven trading accounts managed by himself and his family.

Bohra was able to pocket these big gains because he got copies of Amazon’s confidential financial figures from his wife, Laksha Bohra, who worked as a senior manager in the mega corp’s tax department. Laksha had access to Amazon’s earnings before the numbers were publicly disclosed and reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Her husband “obtained” this secret information, despite her being repeatedly warned to not leak the confidential data, and used it to favorably trade in Amazon stock and options.

“This defendant and his wife were earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and bonuses from their jobs in tech – but he was not content with that – greedily scheming to illegally profit by trading Amazon stock,” Acting US Attorney Tessa Gorman, said in a statement.

“This case should stand as a warning to those who try to game the markets with insider trading: there is a heavy price to pay with a felony conviction and prison sentence.”

The FBI began sniffing around, and the Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington filed criminal charges [PDF] against Viky in 2020. He pleaded guilty in November to securities fraud. The prosecution had asked the courts for a 33-month sentence.

Separately, he was also charged by the SEC and told to cough up $2,652,899 in disgorgement, interest, and penalties.

“Mr Bohra knew exactly what he was doing and was driven solely by greed,” Donald Voiret, an FBI Special Agent leading the Seattle Field Office, added. “With his nearly unlimited access and knowledge of securities trading, he undermined public trust in our financial markets.”

Laksha Bohra was suspended from her job in 2018 and resigned shortly after, according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC [PDF], and will not face criminal charges as part of Viky’s agreement to plead guilty. ®

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Stripe rolls out new tax compliance tool for merchants

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Stripe Tax automates much of the calculating and collecting of levies like VAT and sales tax for businesses.

Fintech giant Stripe is rolling out a new product to automate businesses’ tax compliance.

Stripe Tax, which was built at the company’s engineering hub in Dublin, helps businesses to automatically calculate and collect sales taxes, VAT and goods and service taxes where they do business.

The product has been rolled out in 30 countries and all US states. Stripe Tax manages the requirements for tax collecting from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. This ensures merchants are in compliance with local tax rules but without the headache of managing it themselves.

According to a 2020 report from Stripe, two-thirds of businesses say that managing tasks like tax compliance inhibits their growth and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on product development.

The matter of tax has become more complex with the mix of physical and digital goods and sales across borders.

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Non-compliance with taxes, even through accidental oversight, can lead to serious sanctions or interest-laden tax bills for businesses.

Stripe Tax calculates taxes due by determining an end customer’s location and products they’re buying. It adapts as changes to tax regimes come into effect and generates reports for businesses on the levies calculated and collected.

“No one leaps out of bed in the morning excited to deal with taxes,” Stripe co-founder John Collison said. “For most businesses, managing tax compliance is a painful distraction. We simplify everything about calculating and collecting sales taxes, VAT and GST, so our users can focus on building their businesses.”

Large companies, including News UK, have started using the product.

“Directly integrating Stripe Tax into our subscriptions platform will save us countless hours, time that can be better spent elsewhere,” Ruan Odendaal, head of subscriptions platform at NewsUK, said.

Stripe has had a very busy 2021 so far. After raising funding at a $95bn valuation, it has been rolling out more services that go beyond the payments processing the company was originally built on, as well as expanding geographically with a focus on the Middle East.

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