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Demon’s Souls: The first truly next-gen game is a lopsided but impressive showcase – TechCrunch

The next generation of gaming is here with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — except it isn’t, because there are almost no next-generation games to play on them. Demon’s Souls is the first title that can truly be called next-gen, and it shows — even though it’s a remake of a PS3 game… […]…

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The next generation of gaming is here with the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — except it isn’t, because there are almost no next-generation games to play on them. Demon’s Souls is the first title that can truly be called next-gen, and it shows — even though it’s a remake of a PS3 game… which also shows.

The original Demon’s Souls was an incredibly influential game. Its sequel, Dark Souls, was more popular and improved on the first quite a bit, but much of what made the now major series good had already been established. “Souls-like” is practically a genre now, though the originals are unsurprisingly still the nonpareil.

The comparative few who played Demon’s Souls were elated to hear that it was being remade, and by Bluepoint at that (who also remade the legendary Shadow of the Colossus), but worried that the game might not stand up by modern standards.

Can an old game, the essentials of which are a decade behind its descendants, be given a really, really, really ridiculously good-looking coat of paint and still act as a blockbuster next-gen debut? Well, it kind of has to — there’s no other option! Fortunately the game really does hold up, and in fact makes for a harrowing, cinematic experience despite a few significant creaks.

I don’t want to give a full review of the game itself; let it suffice to say that, although it looks and runs much better, the core of the game is almost entirely unchanged. Any review from the last decade is still completely relevant, down to the “magic is overpowered” and “inventory burden is annoying.”

As a next-gen gaming experience, however, Demon’s Souls is as yet without comparison. It serves as a showcase not only for the PS5’s graphical prowess, but its sound design, haptics, speed and OS.

Image Credits: Sony

First, the graphics. It’s clear that Sony and Bluepoint intended this to be a truly lavish remake, and the game’s structure — essentially five long, mostly linear levels — provides an excellent platform for breathtaking visuals carefully tuned to the user’s experience.

The environments themselves are incredibly detailed, and the various enemies you fight very well realized, but what I kept being impressed by was the lighting. Realistic lighting is something that has proven difficult even for top-tier developers, and it’s only now that the hardware has enough headroom to start doing it properly.

Demon’s Souls doesn’t use ray-tracing, the computation-heavy lighting technique perennially on the cusp of being implemented, but the real-time lighting effects are nevertheless dramatic and extremely engaging. This is a dark, dark world and the player is very limited as far as personal light sources, meaning the way you experience the environment is carefully designed.

Although the detailed armor, props and monsters are all very nice, it’s the realistic lighting that really sets them off in a way that seems truly new and beautiful. Dynamic range is used properly, to have actually dark areas illuminated dramatically, such as the still-terrifying Tower of Latria.

Image Credits: Sony

The game isn’t a huge leap over the best the PC has to offer right now, but it does make me excited for game designers who really want to use light and shadow as gameplay elements.

(Incidentally, don’t bother with the “cinematic” option versus “performance.” The latter keeps the game silky smooth, which for Souls games is a luxury, and the other setting didn’t improve the look much if at all, while severely affecting the framerate. Skip it unless you’re taking glamour shots.)

Similarly sound is extremely well done in the game, though I’m cautious about hyping Sony’s “3D audio” — really, games have had this sort of thing for years on many platforms. Having a decent pair of headphones is the important bit. But perhaps the PS5 offers improved workflows for spatializing sound; at all events in Demon’s Souls it was very good, with great separation, location and clarity. I have reliably dodged an enemy attack from offscreen after recognizing the characteristic grunt of an attacking foe, and the screeches and roars of dragons and boss monsters (as well as the general milieu of Latria) were suitably chilling.

A Sony DualSense controller seen from above.

Image Credits: Sony

This combined well with the improved haptics of the DualSense controller, which seemed to have a different “sensation” for every event. A dragon flying overhead, a demon stomping the ground, a blocked attack, an elevator ride. Mostly these were good and only aided immersion, but some, like the elevators, felt to me more like an annoying buzz than a rumble, like holding a power tool. I hope that developers will be sensible about these things and identify vibration patterns that are irritating. Fortunately the intensity can be adjusted universally in the PS5’s controls.

Likewise the adaptive triggers were nice but not game-changing. It was helpful when using the bow to know when the arrow was ready to release, for instance, but beyond a few things like that it was not used to great advantage.

Something that had a more immediate effect on how I played was the incredibly short load times. The Souls series has always been plagued by long load times when traveling and dying, the latter of which you can expect to do a lot. But now it’s rare that I can count to three before I’m materializing at the bonfire again.

This significantly reduces (but far from eliminates) frustration in this infamously unforgiving game, and actually makes me play it differently. Where once I could not be bothered to briefly travel to another area or the hub in order to accomplish some small task, now I know I can return to the Nexus, fuss around a bit with my loadout and be back in Boletaria in 30 seconds flat. If I die, I’m back in action in five seconds rather than 20, and believe me, that adds up real fast. (Load times are improved across the board in PS4 games running on the PS5 as well.)

Aiding this, kind of, is the new fancy pause screen Sony has implemented on its new console. When hitting the (annoyingly PS-shaped) PS button, a set of “cards” appears showing recent achievements and screenshots, but also ongoing missions or game progress. Pausing in Latria to take a breath, the menu offered up the ability to instantly warp to one of the other worlds, losing my souls but skipping the ordinarily requisite Nexus stop. This will certainly change how speedruns are accomplished, and provides a useful, if somewhat immersion-breaking option for the scatterbrained player.

The pause menu also provides a venue for tips and hints, in both text and video form. Again, this is a funny game to debut these in (I don’t count Astro’s Playroom, the included game/tech demo, which is fun but slight), because one of the Souls series’s distinctive features is player-generated notes and ghosts that alternatively warn and deceive new players. In another game I might have relied on the PS5’s hints more, but for this specific title they seem somewhat redundant.

As arguably the only “real” PS5 launch title, Demon’s Souls is a curious but impressive creature. It definitely shows the new console to advantage in some ways, but the game itself (while still amazing) is dated in many ways, limiting the possibilities of what can be shown off in the first place.

Certainly the remake is the best (and for many, only) way to play a classic, and for that alone it is recommended — though the $70 price (more in Europe and elsewhere) is definitely a bit of a squinter. One would hope that for the new higher asking price, we could expect next-generation gameplay as well as next-generation trimmings. Well, for now we have to take what we can get.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2020/11/13/demons-souls-the-first-truly-next-gen-game-is-a-lopsided-but-impressive-showcase/

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Cruise strikes deal to launch robotaxi service in Dubai – TechCrunch

Cruise has expanded its robotaxi ambitions beyond San Francisco. The autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has struck a deal to launch a robotaxi service in Dubai in 2023. The robotaxi service in Dubai will use the Cruise Origin, the all-electric shuttle-like vehicle that has […]

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Cruise has expanded its robotaxi ambitions beyond San Francisco. The autonomous vehicle subsidiary of GM that also has backing from SoftBank Vision Fund, Microsoft and Honda, has struck a deal to launch a robotaxi service in Dubai in 2023.

The robotaxi service in Dubai will use the Cruise Origin, the all-electric shuttle-like vehicle that has no steering wheel or pedals and is designed to travel at highway speeds. The Origin, which was unveiled in January 2020 will be manufactured by GM.

Cruise will establish a new local Dubai-based company which will be responsible for the deployment, operation and maintenance of the fleet.

The service will start with a limited number of vehicles with plans to scale up to 4,000 vehicles by 2030 as part of Dubai’s self-driving transport strategy, according to Mattar Mohammed Al Tayer, the director-general and chairman of the board of the RTA. The robotaxis — and eventually the service — will be introduced gradually and limited to specific areas before expanding to other parts of the city.

Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed said the agreement with Cruise is a “major step towards realizing Dubai’s Self-Driving Transport Strategy aimed at converting 25% of total trips in Dubai into self-driving transport trips across different modes of transport by 2030.”

Importantly, Cruise has a lock on Dubai for at least a few years. Under the agreement, Cruise is the “exclusive provider” for self-driving taxis and ride-hailing services in Dubai until 2029. Al Tayer said the selection of Cruise was not taken lightly and involved a comprehensive, multi-year process.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/12/cruise-strikes-deal-to-launch-robotaxi-service-in-dubai/

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China gets serious about antitrust, fines Alibaba $2.75B – TechCrunch

Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates. In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its interent economy. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said […]

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Chinese regulators have hit Alibaba with a record fine of 18 billion yuan (about $2.75 billion) for violating anti-monopoly rules as the country seeks to rein in the power of its largest internet conglomerates.

In November, China proposed sweeping antitrust regulations targeting its interent economy. In late December, the State Administration for Market Regulation said it had launched an antitrust probe into Alibaba, weeks after the authorities called off the initial public offering of Ant Group, the financial affiliate of Alibaba.

SAMR, the country’s top market regulator, said on Saturday it had determined that Alibaba had been “abusing market dominance” since 2015 by forcing its Chinese merchants to sell exclusively on one e-commerce platform instead of letting them choose freely among different services, such as Pinduoduo and JD.com. Vendors are often pressured to side with Alibaba to take advantage of its enormous user base.

Since late 2020, a clutch of internet giants including Tencent and Alibaba have been hit with various fines for violating anti-competition practices, for instance, failing to clear past acquisitions with regulators. The meager sums of these penalties were symbolic at best compared to the benefits the tech firms reap from their market concentration. No companies have been told to break up their empires and users still have to hop between different super-apps that block each other off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that China’s antitrust authorities are getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

“Today, we received the Administrative Penalty Decision issued by the State Administration for Market Regulation of the People’s Republic of China,” Alibaba said in a statement. “We accept the penalty with sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination. To serve our responsibility to society, we will operate in accordance with the law with utmost diligence, continue to strengthen our compliance systems and build on growth through innovation.”

The thick walls that tech companies build against each other are starting to break down, too. Alibaba has submitted an application to have its shopping deals app run on WeChat’s mini program platform, Wang Hai, an Alibaba executive, recently confirmed.

For years, Alibaba services have been absent from Tencent’s sprawling lite app ecosystem, which now features millions of third-party services. Vice versa, WeChat is notably missing from Alibaba’s online marketplaces as a payment method. If approved, the WeChat-powered Alibaba mini app would break with precedent of the pair’s long stand-off.

In recent weeks, however, there are signs that China’s antitrust authorities are getting more serious. The latest fine on Alibaba is equivalent to 4% of the company’s revenue generated in the calendar year of 2019 in China.

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/09/china-gets-serious-about-antitrust-fines-alibaba-2-75b/

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After its first $54M fund, Algebra Ventures launches $90M fund for startups in Egypt – TechCrunch

The venture capital scene in the North African tech ecosystem will be absolutely buzzing right now with the announcement of two large VC funds in the space of two days. Today, Algebra Ventures, an Egyptian VC firm, announced that it has launched its $90 million second fund. Four years ago, Algebra Ventures closed its first […]

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The venture capital scene in the North African tech ecosystem will be absolutely buzzing right now with the announcement of two large VC funds in the space of two days. Today, Algebra Ventures, an Egyptian VC firm, announced that it has launched its $90 million second fund.

Four years ago, Algebra Ventures closed its first fund of $54 million, and with this announcement, the firm hopes to have raised a total of $144 million when the second fund closes (with first close by Q3 2021). If achieved, Algebra will most likely have the largest indigenous fund from North Africa and arguably in Africa.

According to the managing partners — Tarek Assaad and Karim Hussein, the first fund was an Egyptian-focused fund. Still, the firm made some selective investments in a few companies outside the country. The second fund will be similar — Egypt first, Egypt focused, but allocating investments in East and West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East.

Assaad and Hussein launched the firm in 2016 as one of Egypt’s first independent venture capital funds. It wasn’t easy to start one at the time, and it took the partners two years to close the first fund.

“Raising a venture capital fund in Egypt in 2016, in all honesty, was a pain. There was no venture capital to speak of back then,” Assaad told TechCrunch. “The high-flying startups back then were raising between $1 million and $2 million. We decided to take the bull by the horn and raise from very established LPs.”

These LPs include Cisco, the European Commission, Egyptian-American Enterprise Fund (EAEF), European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), International Finance Corporation (IFC) and private family offices. From the first fund, Algebra backed 21 startups in Egypt and MENA, and according to the firm, six of its most established companies are valued at over $350 million and collectively generate more than $150 million in annual revenue. It hopes to back 31 startups from the second fund.

Algebra says it’s sector-agnostic but has a focus on fintech, logistics, health tech and agritech. Although the firm has invested in startups in seed and Series B stages, Algebra is known to be an investor in startups looking to raise Series A investments.

Another appealing proposition from Algebra lies in the fact that it owns an in-house team focused on talent acquisition — in operations, marketing, finance, engineering, etc., for portfolio companies.

The firm’s ticket size remains unchanged from the first fund and will continue to cut checks ranging from $500,000 to $2 million. However, some aspects as to how the firm handles operations might change according to the partners.

“One of the lessons learned in our first fund is that we see that there are more interesting opportunities and great entrepreneurs in the seed stage. And given that we’re more on the ground in Egypt, sometimes we wait for them to mature to Series A. But going forward, we might need to build relationships with those we find exceptional at the seed level and also expand our participation on the Series B level, too,” Hussein said on how the firm will act going forward.

Algebra Ventures

Karim Hussein (Managing partner, Algebra Ventures)

Hussein adds that the company will also be doubling down on its talent acquisition network. Typically, Algebra helps portfolio companies hire C-level executives, and while it plans to continue doing so, the firm might adopt a startup studio model — pairing some professionals to start a company that eventually gets Algebra’s backing and support.

The reason behind this stems from the next set of companies Algebra will be looking to invest in. According to Hussein, the partners at Algebra have studied successful businesses in other emerging markets for some time and want to identify parallels in North Africa where the firm can invest.

“In cases where the firm can’t find those opportunities, we may spur some of those in the network to start building those businesses and capture those opportunities,” he remarked.

Before Algebra, Hussein has been involved with building some successful tech companies in the U.S. Primarily an engineer after bagging both bachelors and doctorate degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and MIT, respectively, he ventured into the world of startup investing and crazy valuations after working for a consulting company in the dot-com era.

He would go on to start Riskclick, a software company known for its commercial insurance applications. The founders sold the company to Skywire before Oracle acquired the company to become part of its suite of insurance services. After some time at WebMD, Hussein returned to Egypt and began mentoring startups as an angel investor. Alongside other angel investors, he started Cairo Angels, an angel investor network in Egypt, in 2013.

“There was a massive gap in the market. We were putting in a bit of small angel money to these businesses but there were no VCs to take them to the next level. So I met up with Tarek and the rest is Algebra,” he said.

Assaad is also an engineer. He obtained his bachelors in Egypt before switching careers by going to Stanford Graduate School of Business. He continued on that path working for some Bay Area companies before his return to Egypt. On his return, he became a managing partner at Ideavelopers, a VC firm operating a $50 million fund since 2009. The firm has had a couple of good success stories, the most notable being fintech startup Fawry. Fawry is now a publicly traded billion-dollar company and Assaad was responsible for the investment which realized a $100 million exit for Ideavelopers in 2015.

Algebra Ventures

Tarek Assaad (Managing partner, Algebra Ventures)

With Algebra, both partners are pioneering local investments in the region. Some of its portfolio companies are the most well-known companies on the continent — health tech startup Vezeeta; social commerce platform Brimore; logistics startup Trella; ride-hailing and super app Halan; food discovery and ordering platform Elmenus; fintech startup, Khazna; and others.

The firm’s latest raise and $144 million capital amount is one of the largest funds dedicated to African startups. Other large Africa-focused funds include the $71 million fund recently closed by another Egyptian firm, Sawari Ventures; Partech’s $143 million fund; Novastar Ventures’ $200 million fund; and the $71 million Tide Africa Fund by TLcom Capital.

These funds have been very pivotal to the growth of the African tech ecosystem in terms of funding. Last year, African startups raised almost $1.5 billion from both local and international investors, according to varying reports. This number was just half a billion dollars six years ago.

However, regardless of the period — 2015 or 2021 — African VC investments have always been largely dominated by foreign investors. But VC firms like Algebra Ventures are showing that local investors can cumulatively raise nine-figure funds or attempt to do so. Obviously, this will provide more startups with more funds and pave the way for indigenous and local VCs to at least increase their participation to nearly equal levels when compared to international investors.

“Raising a venture capital fund in Egypt in 2016, in all honesty, was a pain. There was no venture capital to speak of back then,” Assaad told TechCrunch. “The high-flying startups back then were raising between $1 million and $2 million. We decided to take the bull by the horn and raise from very established LPs.”

Source: https://techcrunch.com/2021/04/06/after-its-first-54m-fund-algebra-ventures-launches-another-90m-fund-for-startups-in-egypt/

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