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Spoilers ahead for Mafia: Definitive Edition

At the very end of Mafia: Definitive Edition — 2K-owned developer Hangar 13’s remake of the 2002 critically-acclaimed original — the cabbie-turned-mobster protagonist Thomas “Tommy” Angelo (Andrew Bongiorno) notes that family is everything. On his deathbed, Tommy is at peace, for his family’s safety and financial future are secure, even as he might have spent most of his married life chasing fellow mobsters or in jail to ensure that outcome. But the ending’s familial focus feels out of place because Tommy’s family have essentially been ignored until that point. His wife Sarah (Bella Popa) is an afterthought and the daughter doesn’t even have a name. Those are glaring omissions, and emblematic of its fumbles across the board.

It’s a shame too, for the story is (still) by far the best part of Mafia: Definitive Edition, as it was nearly two decades ago. And it’s been improved upon on nearly every front. Even though he’s working with a plot that’s inspired by dozens of mafia movies — Goodfellas and The Godfather among them — and lacking in originality or humour, writer-director Haden Blackman (Star Wars: The Force Unleashed) lifts it on a scene-by-scene level, with richer dialogue and performances. And a new cast — well chosen for their acting abilities and vocal authenticity — infuse life into the characters that inhabit Mafia: Definitive Edition, while massively benefiting from the technological progress made in the video gaming arena in regards to facial capture since 2002.

Mafia: Definitive Edition also adds to that with the most easily overlooked of things: radio. Set during the Great Depression of the 1930s, the game takes place during an era when economic collapse has cast a long shadow on American life. US Presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt are trying to offer words of encouragement, there are proclamations from the mayor, councillor, and police chief about rising crime in the waning days of the Prohibition, while the news brings word of Hitler and the Nazis’ rise across the pond in Europe.

Culturally, the ‘30s were a time of great experimentation in the US as well. Swing jazz (Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and Django Reinhardt are on the new licensed soundtrack) stitches together those announcements. The radio is critical to fleshing out the world of Mafia: Definitive Edition, so much so that the game had a dedicated “radio writer” in Matthew Aitken. And it’s further fleshed out by a wonderful new soundtrack from composer Jesse Harlin (who deploys the full orchestra and sneaks in mandolin and the cimbalom), which infuses gravitas into the story.

And it all looks great too, as it should. The fictional city of Lost Heaven borrows from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco of the 1930s, which means a motley of bridges, trams, muscle cars, zeppelins in the air, and neighbourhoods divided by rivers. It’s a bit flat during daytime save for the pop of colourful vehicles, but it’s lit up (literally) at night thanks to neon signs and billboards. And it’s now available in 4K HDR (on PC, PS4 Pro, and Xbox One X) though the textures and character models feel like upscaled 1080p outside of cutscenes. They don’t have enough detail, suffer from aliasing when it comes to advanced water effects, and have artefact troubles. Still, Mafia: Definitive Edition delivers a visual upgrade over Mafia that is like night and day, and it’s begging for a photo mode, which is unfortunately one place the game falls short.

But there are bigger problems than the lack of a photo mode. For all the beauty and nostalgia of ‘30s America offered by Lost Heaven, it’s just a pretty front. Unlike open world games of today, Mafia: Definitive Edition is a linear game that pushes you from one story mission to the next. Sure, you’ve a lot of collectibles to pick up on your way in pulp magazines, comic books, and cigarette cards, but there are no side missions, frivolous activities, or non-story characters to meet. Lost Heaven might look like a living, breathing city at first, especially as the opening sequence sweeps you through the streets and introduces you to its many neighbourhoods, but it all feels like one giant film set once you actually start to explore.

Like the original game, Mafia: Definitive Edition spins off free roam into its own mode: “Free Ride” — there aren’t two versions of Free Ride unlike in the original. If you’d like to murder innocent citizens and rack up crazy police chases, you have to quit the story mode and go back to the main menu first. Keeping that awkward transfer system is rather in keeping with the sensibilities of the narrative, as Tommy isn’t in a line of work that intentionally invites attention. It made me think of Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker, who once noted how “random” open world games can be. On Mafia: Definitive Edition, it has the added benefit of good pacing. By focusing on the main story through and through, it doesn’t slow things down and keeps you engaged.

Tommy Angelo and the consigliere Frank Colletti (Steven Oliver) in Mafia: Definitive Edition
Photo Credit: 2K/Hangar 13

Mafia: Definitive Edition is essentially one giant flashback as Tommy recounts his rise in the mafia to Detective Norman (Dameon J. Clarke), because he needs protection for his family. It’s an underdog story in parts, as Tommy’s boss Don Salieri (Glenn Taranto) doesn’t wield the level of influence carried by his rival Don Morello (Saul Stein). And naturally, it’s also about what the mafia life does to you, as you lie to your loved ones, constantly live in fear, and question the loyalty of everyone around you. But there’s a lot about the mafioso life that the game doesn’t give us. It doesn’t show the extravagances like Goodfellas. More importantly, it never unpacks the layers that make up Tommy, and resorts to throwaway references that don’t stick. Despite being the lead, he feels like a cardboard character.

Like the narrative, the missions in Mafia: Definitive Edition lack the variety offered by open world games today, though it’s partly made up for by the visual variety it offers. Hangar 13 has tried to improve upon the combat mechanics too, with the introduction of a cover system and melee combat, but it’s again neither here nor there. Melee combat is a joke, as it’s essentially a game of dodging or countering a blow and then repeatedly hitting the attack button until you activate a mini-cutscene where Tommy finishes the opponent off.

Gunplay is relatively better. Enemies will try to flank you or move closer for a killing blow and will fling a Molotov cocktail or grenade that will force you to move. But not always. Their numbers are also believable. Movement isn’t very natural though and it can be frustrating to be caught in the line of fire or discovered during a stealth mission, when Mafia: Definitive Edition doesn’t respond as you expect it to. And on certain occasions, bullets seemed to go through walls and enemies. It’s not a case of bullet sponges though, rest assured.

Hangar 13 has also introduced new elements to driving on Mafia: Definitive Edition as well. There are motorcycles you can ride now, for instance. And then there’s a “ram” button that gives you a tiny acceleration boost and better car handling, to help you knock chasing vehicles into oncoming cars, lampposts, and buildings. And when you’ve guided navigation turned on, Mafia: Definitive Edition will temporarily display sign posts on street corners to tell you what direction you need to take, helping you keep your eye on the road, rather than glancing at the mini-map.

mafia definitive edition driving night mafia definitive edition review

The city of Lost Heaven at night in Mafia: Definitive Edition
Photo Credit: 2K/Hangar 13

There is selective damage, as with the original Mafia game. After banging the front of our car one too many times, we lost all acceleration. Of course, driving is a challenge in itself anyway, since you’re working with old, over-heavy cars that tend to behave erratically and don’t go around corners very easily. Weirdly, there’s no handbrake button to help you slide through them. You can further amp up driving difficulty by switching to simulation handling, and then compound that by shifting to manual transmission.

Mafia: Definitive Edition has four preset difficulty options: “Easy”, “Medium”, “Hard” and “Classic”. The last of them is new and essentially cranks everything to the maximum. Your health depletes much quicker as you take damage, as does your vehicle, and you regain less of it when you use first aid kits. Your opponents are stronger, smarter and aren’t visible on the mini-map. The police responds not only to bodily harm, but even regular infractions such as speeding, vehicle collisions, and jumping red lights. And if you reload a weapon with bullets still left in the clip, you lose them all.

Ultimately, this is a game designed around the campaign that lasts around a dozen hours, and you’re unlikely to spend much more time in Mafia: Definitive Edition, as there’s little to do of significance or anything appealing that will make you want to dive back in. But much more annoyingly, it’s half-baked in every respect. The updated story is handled better but still suffers from some glaring gaps. The improved visuals aren’t up to 2020 standards — and oh, they are just a façade. There are new combat mechanics but they don’t do enough to lift the shooting bits. Mafia: Definitive Edition is crying out for a stronger hand at the wheel and a deeper rethink, for in its current state, it’s oblivious of the fact that it’s been 18 years since the original.

That’s a long time for any piece of entertainment, more so in video gaming, and Mafia: Definitive Edition is a long way from what it needed to be.

Pros:

  • Well-handled story, with rich dialogues
  • Good acting, believable accents
  • Radio a great world-building tool
  • Looks great at night
  • Enemies are smart, at times
  • Realistic difficulty options

Cons:

  • Protagonist, story’s family focus needed more
  • Melee combat is a joke
  • Character movement not smooth
  • 4K textures need more detail, refinement
  • Nothing to do outside main story

Rating (out of 10): 7

Gadgets 360 played Mafia: Definitive Edition on the Xbox One X. The game is available at Rs. 2,199 on Steam for PC, and Rs. 2,499 on PS4 and Xbox One. You can get it as part of Mafia Trilogy too, which also includes Mafia II: Definitive Edition and Mafia III: Definitive Edition. The bundle costs Rs. 3,299 on Steam for PC, and Rs. 3,999 on PS4 and Xbox One.

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VDI vs. DaaS: What is the difference, and which is best for your virtualization needs?

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Desktop virtualization is nothing new, but now you have two popular forms to choose from: VDI and DaaS. Learn how VDI and DaaS differ so you can make the best investment for your business.

Image: Denis Isakov, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Anyone who has spent much time in an enterprise computing environment has played with a virtual machine (VM) at some point. Local virtual desktop infrastructures (VDIs) were the standard, but today’s bandwidth availability and cloud options make Desktop as a Service (DaaS) much more practical, and COVID-19 is making DaaS more attractive than ever.

What is VDI?

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has been around for a long time, and traditionally was the only way to run a virtual desktop. Slap a server in the data center, load it up with virtualization software, turn on some machines, and you’re good to go.

Since VDIs are centrally located, the IT team is responsible for managing them. That means the hardware, software, licensing, and deployment are all handled in-house. Latency is minimal, the IT department has complete control, and even if access to the internet goes out, work can still get done.

SEE: Virtualization policy (TechRepublic Premium)

But that’s not to say VDI doesn’t have its drawbacks. While it’s convenient to manage hardware and software internally, VDI systems require dedicated IT staff to handle all possible contingencies. Hardware failure, software issues, and anything else that could go wrong has to be handled in-house, and that can get expensive.

What is DaaS?

DaaS, as Citrix’s Kenneth Oestreich said, is “VDI that’s someone else’s problem.” At its most basic level, that’s true: DaaS is a VDI that is hosted in the cloud by a company like Citrix, Amazon, VMware, Microsoft, or Google. With DaaS, all of the hardware is managed by the provider, so you won’t have to worry about rackspace, hardware breakdown, or maintenance.

DaaS systems are subscription based and are generally charged by seat. It can be tempting to rush into a DaaS system to clear the clutter of a data center and the calendars of IT staff, but there are quite a few reasons why that may not be the best idea.

“There are two types of DaaS providers: Those that give bare bones systems and those that are business ready,” Oestreich said. Most DaaS providers offer the most basic of systems that only come with standard Windows software–anything users need to do their jobs still has to be supplied and configured by the IT department.

Is the DaaS revolution upon us?

Infrastructure, software, and computing platforms are all increasingly being hosted in the cloud, so surely desktop computers are only a step away, right? Not necessarily, at least if you ask Gartner’s Nathan Hill.

Long-term pricing, Hill says, is a major impediment to greater DaaS implementation. “The pricing of DaaS can often be misleading, as the entry point price … often covers a very light resource profile for not much more than OS or workspace hosting.”

Hill said that DaaS is great for agile computing needs, but as a replacement for the average employee’s desktop it isn’t going to always fit the bill. “To replace a permanent desk-based employee today is invariably going to result in a higher total cost of ownership, so the question becomes can organizations justify increased investment for the agility the platform can bring,” he said.

TechRepublic’s Bill Detwiler, writing about the top DaaS providers in 2020, notes that predictions for DaaS market growth forecasted by Gartner in 2016 haven’t kept up with more recent findings: In 2016 Gartner predicted 50% of new business VDI deployments transitioning to DaaS by 2019, which hasn’t happened. 

Gartner’s Market Guide for Desktop as a Service, released in November 2019, indicates that DaaS adoption has been slower than expected, with the company forecasting only a 20% move from VDI to DaaS by 2023. 

2019 was a big year for DaaS industry announcements, with Microsoft’s DaaS offering, Windows Virtual Desktop, going into general release, and Citrix’s DaaS product, Citrix Managed Desktops, doing the same. These moves came prior to Gartner’s market guide, meaning it was still predicting slower growth as of late 2019. 

SEE: Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

That may have changed with the spread of COVID-19, however: An article on digital workplace trends from Gartner published in August 2020 lists DaaS as one of six trends to keep an eye on, largely because of how quickly the pandemic accelerated shifts to remote work. 

“COVID-19 highlighted the value and business continuity strength of DaaS in its ability to rapidly enable remote work where on-premises options have stalled. The pandemic is likely to accelerate adoption of DaaS, and it may even perpetuate as a delivery architecture when employees return to the office,” Gartner said.

What are good use cases for DaaS?

Both Oestreich and Hill agree that business-ready DaaS systems can benefit certain kinds of organizations. Schools can use DaaS for student computing in labs and as follow-along training tools; temp workers can be given a workstation without hardware setup; and anyone needing to test hardware and software profiles can benefit from a completely cloud-based system.

Oestreich said that Citrix partners offering vertical integration have had success, which he sees as the eventual path of DaaS offerings. Partner companies like Approach Technology and TekLinks offer industry-specialized DaaS platforms, and they continue to grow rapidly. These specialized providers can offer industry-specific software bundled right into DaaS machines, taking all the licensing and implementation out of a company’s hands. Amazon WorkSpaces, Evolve IP, and MTM Technologies AnywhereApp also offer compliance options for various industries.

SEE: Business continuity policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Should I wait to invest in DaaS?

“When you add all the service components for a fully managed service,” Hill said, “DaaS can often climb to $100 per user per month or more.” The cost, he says, is one of the biggest reasons why VDI isn’t going to vanish overnight.

The initial investment in DaaS can seem cheap, but that’s for the most bare-bones system; in those cases, IT staff are going to still need to manage software installation and VM deployment. Couple that with costs in the hundreds per seat, and you might not save any money.

Think of local VDI systems as a car you’ve already paid off: All you need to worry about are maintenance costs. A new car might seem appealing, but the monthly fees can quickly outpace the annual cost of repairs on the older model. Likewise, a large chunk of cash spent on VDI servers might seem like a lot, but spaced out over a year, it’s much more affordable.

“DaaS is a commodity,” Oestreich said. “A lot of businesses spend time chasing prices for no more advantage over a locally installed VDI.” To get the maximum benefit out of DaaS, a business needs to invest a lot of money monthly, and then there are still problems of latency, data hosting, and regulations.

Fields like government, healthcare, and financial services haven’t always been able to adopt DaaS because vendors weren’t compliant with industry standards; that has changed, with several vendors mentioned in Detwiler’s DaaS providers article offering multiple compliance options for different industries. Hill suggests that IT staff monitor the changing face of the DaaS market, and when considering a move think about the benefit to specific employees, not the whole organization. IT professionals should also check with potential vendors to verify they offer connections that meet industry regulations.

How does COVID-19 affect VDI vs. DaaS decision-making?

DaaS is still a newer technology, and it’s growing along with the rest of the Everything as a Service (XaaS) world. In the future, it’s entirely possible that work desktops will all be thin clients connected to the cloud, but we’re not quite there yet, especially in light of Gartner’s data that DaaS adoption has been slower than expected.

“The reality is that VDI and SBC as technologies are more mature than DaaS,” Hill said. Maturity may not matter if COVID-19 keeps businesses distributed to home offices. Gartner made another excellent point in favor of DaaS adoption in its digital workplace trends article: It’s costly to invest in VDI. DaaS prices vary widely from vendor to vendor, but with remote work likely to be permanent even after the pandemic ends, those costs may be preferable to in-house deployments. 

If pandemic-triggered remote work trends continue, many physical offices may never reopen, which is another nail in the coffin for the data center in favor of a complete transition to the cloud. 

Also see

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the latest information about VDI and DaaS.

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Fast and Robust Bio-inspired Teach and Repeat Navigation

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The navigation of robots is a demanding task. Luckily, we can rely on biological systems, such as ants, which can navigate with limited vision and computing power. A recent study suggests a teach and repeat navigation system for repeated route following.

It is based on wheel odometry, with vision providing a periodic correction signal. This technique can be applied to small low-cost robots, which usually have wheel odometry sensors and a monocular camera but do not have stereo vision or LiDAR sensors. The rate of visual correction can be changed accordingly to available computation resources.

Fast and Robust Bio inspired Teach and Repeat Navigation

Example of a navigation Doppler lidar instrument. Credits: NASA

The approach was verified in indoor and outdoor trials at different times of the day and in varying weather conditions. It can be used for new robotic systems with minimal tuning. The method is robust to odometry errors and can work with low-resolution images.

Fully autonomous mobile robots have a multitude of potential applications, but guaranteeing robust navigation performance remains an open research problem. For many tasks such as repeated infrastructure inspection, item delivery or inventory transport, a route repeating capability rather than full navigation stack can be sufficient and offers potential practical advantages. Previous teach and repeat research has achieved high performance in difficult conditions generally by using sophisticated, often expensive sensors, and has often had high computational requirements. Biological systems, such as small animals and insects like seeing ants, offer a proof of concept that robust and generalisable navigation can be achieved with extremely limited visual systems and computing power. In this work we create a novel asynchronous formulation for teach and repeat navigation that fully utilises odometry information, paired with a correction signal driven by much more computationally lightweight visual processing than is typically required. This correction signal is also decoupled from the robot’s motor control, allowing its rate to be modulated by the available computing capacity. We evaluate this approach with extensive experimentation on two different robotic platforms, the Consequential Robotics Miro and the Clearpath Jackal robots, across navigation trials totalling more than 6000 metres in a range of challenging indoor and outdoor environments. Our approach is more robust and requires significantly less compute than the state-of-the-art. It is also capable of intervention-free — no parameter changes required — cross-platform generalisation, learning to navigate a route on one robot and repeating that route on a different type of robot with different camera.

Link: https://arxiv.org/abs/2010.11326




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Facebook Demands Academics Disable Ad-Targeting Data Tool

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Academics, journalists, and First Amendment lawyers are rallying behind New York University researchers in a showdown with Facebook over its demand that they halt the collection of data showing who is being micro-targeted by political ads on the world’s dominant social media platform.

The researchers say the disputed tool is vital to understanding how Facebook has been used as a conduit for disinformation and manipulation.

In an October 16 letter to the researchers, a Facebook executive demanded they disable a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers used by 6,500 volunteers across the United States and delete the data obtained. The plug-in lets researchers see which ads are shown to each volunteer; Facebook lets advertisers tailor ads based on specific demographics that go far beyond race, age, gender and political preference.

The executive, Allison Hendrix, said the tool violates Facebook rules prohibiting automated bulk collection of data from the site. Her letter threatened “additional enforcement action” if the takedown was not effected by Nov. 30.

Company spokesman Joe Osborne said in an emailed statement Saturday that Facebook “informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms.” The company has long claimed protecting user privacy is its main concern, though NYU researchers say their tool is programmed so the data collected from participating volunteers is anonymous.

The outcry over Facebook’s threat was immediate after The Wall Street Journal first reported the news Friday considering the valuable insights the “Ad Observer” tool provides. It has been used since its September launch by local reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida to write about the November 3 presidential election.

“That Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in US history is alarming,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which is representing the researchers. “The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy. “

“The NYU Ad Observatory is the only window researchers have to see microtargeting information about political ads on Facebook,” Julia Angwin, editor of the data-centric investigative tech news website The Markup, tweeted in disappointment.

The tool lets researchers see how some Facebook advertisers use data gathered by the company to profile citizens “and send them misinformation about candidates and policies that are designed to influence or even suppress their vote,” Damon McCoy, an NYU professor involved in the project, said in a statement.

After an uproar over its lack of transparency on political ads Facebook ran ahead of the 2016 election, a sharp contrast to how ads are regulated on traditional media, the company created an ad archive that includes details such as who paid for an ad and when it ran. But Facebook does not share information about who gets served the ad.

The company has resisted allowing researchers access to the platform, where right-wing content has consistently been trending in recent weeks. Last year, more than 200 researchers signed a letter to Facebook calling on it to lift restrictions on public-interest research and journalism that would permit automated digital collection of data from the platform.



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