How to block the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, version 1809, from installing

How to block the Windows 10 October 2018 Update, version 1809, from installing

I take it as an article of faith that you don’t want to install the latest version of Windows 10 right away. As we’ve seen, repeatedly, upgrading to a new version of Windows 10 as soon as it’s out leads to madness.

For almost everyone, the new features in Windows 10 version 1809, a.k.a. the October 2018 Update — new emojis, long overdue clipboard improvements, more convenient updates — just aren’t worth the bother of installing and setting up an entirely new copy of Windows. (Unless you really want Candy Crush Soda Saga installed for the umpteenth time.)

If you’re an Edge or Cortana fan, your opinion may vary, of course. And there are undeniable benefits under the covers. But for 90% of us, I would guess, 1809 isn’t high on the priority list. It certainly isn’t worth thrusting yourself into the unpaid beta-tester pool at the earliest opportunity, while waiting for Microsoft to iron out its problems. Thus, for most Windows 10 users, it makes a whole lot of sense to wait and update to 1809 when you’re good and ready for it — not when Microsoft decides to push it on you. (Whatever you do, don’t manually check for updates.)

Turning the Automatic Update switch off should only take a few clicks. After all, that’s what we had with Windows 7 and 8.1. We’ve gone beyond that now. Windows 10 updates itself “as a service” — but your system needn’t be servile.

The textbook approach (for Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise and Education)

For those of you running Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise or Education, there’s always the Microsoft Party Line. Here’s the official way to turn off Windows 10 “feature updates” (that’s the official name for a version upgrade):

Step 1. Click Start > Settings > Update & Security. Click the link marked Advanced options.

You see the Advanced Options pane. If you’re running the Windows 10 April 2018 Update, version 1803, what you see is shown in the screenshot.

win10 1803 advanced options Woody Leonhard / IDG

If you have Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise or Education, you can delay the installation of the current Windows 10 release. (Click image to enlarge.)

Step 2. Set the branch readiness (under “Choose when updates are installed”) to Semi-Annual Channel.

This setting should tell Microsoft to refrain from installing the next version of Windows (in this case, 1809) until there’s been an official announcement that the version is “ready for widespread deployment” or “full availability.” As you’ll see in the next section, that’s not what happened with the last version of Windows 10. One hopes it’ll happen in the future.

In theory, new versions of Windows 10 will be deemed “ready for widespread deployment” four months after initial release — in the case of 1809, that would be in early April 2019. In practice, the milestone (formerly called “Current Branch for Business”) has taken two to three months.

There’s no warning about the shift to Semi-Annual Channel. Microsoft just declares a new version to be ready for full availability, for reasons as yet unknown, and that same day, the new version starts rolling out to those on the Semi-Annual Channel branch.

If you’re running Windows 10 Creators Update, version 1703, the pane’s a little bit different. You want to choose Current Branch for Business.

Step 3. Set the Feature Update deferral to 365 days.

In theory, this setting tells Microsoft that you want to wait for the next version of Windows, version 1809 in this case, to be declared “ready for widespread deployment” and after that you want to wait for an additional 365 days.

The setting’s the same for both Windows 10 1803 and 1709.

While you’re here, you should also tell Windows 10 to wait 30 days before installing cumulative updates (“quality updates”).

You can “X” out of the pane. There’s no Save button.

If you use Windows 10 Home

For those of you running Windows 10 Home, the situation isn’t nearly as straightforward. Many people recommend that you turn off the Windows Update service, wuauserv, but I’ve never been a fan of that approach — too many possible problems and undocumented side effects. (If you feel so inclined, though, just google “disable wuauserv.”)

My recommendation is to mark your internet connection as “metered” — telling Microsoft, in effect, that you’re paying for internet by the bit, and you don’t want to overload your connection. There’s no guarantee this approach (dare I call it a “trick”?) will always work, but, unlike the official settings mentioned in the preceding section, it doesn’t look like Microsoft has ignored them specifically to force upgrades on blocked machines.

Metered connections have some odd side effects, with selective downloading that’s occasionally hard to predict, but if you don’t have Pro, Enterprise or Education, it’s an easy way to dodge the forced upgrade bullet.

To set your internet connection to metered, click Start > Settings > Network & Internet. If you have a wired (Ethernet) connection, on the left, click Ethernet, click on the network icon, and slide “Set as metered connection” to On. If you connect to the internet via Wi-Fi, the instructions are the same (see the screenshot) except, on the left, click Wi-Fi.

win10 1803 set metered connection Woody Leonhard / IDG

Setting your internet connection as metered can stop Windows 10 updates. (Click image to enlarge.)

Windows 7 and 8.1

If you haven’t yet made the leap to Windows 10, there’s nothing to worry about. The days of pushed Win10 updates are long behind us, and it’s unlikely they’ll come again. In theory, Win7 and 8.1 users have to pay for the Win10 upgrade. I’ve seen no indication that Microsoft will ever bring back the “Get Windows 10” debacle.

Microsoft’s propensity to forget its own settings

On three separate occasions in the past year — in November 2017, January 2018, and March 2018 — Microsoft forcibly upgraded Windows 10 Pro machines that have Advanced Options set to defer upgrades. Microsoft has, in effect, ignored its own settings. You can think of these incidents as accidents, or the result of overworked or overly zealous individuals. I, for one, am not so magnanimous.

These aren’t fly-by-night reports, or wails of pain from users who forgot to turn something on or off. All three have been documented by Microsoft as being Microsoft mistakes, in nooks and crannies of its various posts.

Oddly, it seems that the metered connection trick kept working in the face of all of those “oopsies.” You may well want to set your internet connection to metered, even if you use Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise or Education. Belt and suspenders and all that.

Microsoft’s official back door: The last, and most nefarious of the three “oops” events involves a, uh, feature called Update Assistant and its executioner program, updateassistant.exe. The poorly documented Update Assistant has been around for a long time, but its intrusive nature came to light when it started (erroneously, according to Microsoft) ignoring the Windows Update settings that were supposed to block installation of the next version of Windows 10.

Update Assistant has evolved. You may have seen KB 4023057, the “Update to Windows 10 Versions 1507, 1511, 1607, 1703, and 1709 for update reliability,” which has been released and re-re-re-released more than a dozen times. This “Remediation Shell” (formerly “WaaSMedic”) patch is intended to (in the words of abbodi86):

Fix and reset Windows Update-related parts to their “supported” configuration, i.e. restore registry settings, services status, schedule tasks, clear disk space, and launch UpdateAssistant.exe if installed. Mainly it’s meant to pave the way to receive the latest updates, whether quality updates, or feature update to latest Windows 10 version… it evolved from just fixing the Registry to restoring tasks and fixing the drivers DB, and compatibility for UAC management.. the main purpose or function did not change: re-allow blocked or disabled Windows Update.

Microsoft’s so gung-ho on blasting away your Windows Update blocks that it’s set up a regimen worthy of the finest malware. The most egregious example is KB 4023814 which has an odd web page that says:

Some versions of Windows 10 display a notification to install the latest version.

If you’re currently running Windows 10 version 1507, version 1511, version 1607, version 1703, or version 1709, you can expect to receive a notification that states that your device must have the latest security updates installed and then initiates an attempt to update your device.

The KB article somehow neglects to mention what KB 4023814 actually does. As MrBrian notes on AskWoody, when you run the patch, it installs (or updates) updateassistant.exe and Windows10Upgrade.exe, then sets up two scheduled tasks:

  • UpdateAssistant runs every time you restart your machine or log on to Windows. The scheduled task looks to see if updateassistant.exe or Windows10Upgrade.exe is available and, if not, reconstructs it from the files in C:WindowsUpdateAssistant or UpdateAssistantV2. It then runs updateassistant.exe.
  • UpdateAssistantCalendarRun runs every three days whether you reboot or not. Like UpdateAssistant, it reconstitutes the updateassistant.exe or Windows10Upgrade.exe file, then runs updateassistant.exe.

MrBrian has also found references to yet another task named UpdateAssistantWakeupRun. Abbodi86 says the latest KB 4023814 versions are just wrappers for Windows10Update.exe.

To put icing on the cake, you can’t uninstall KB 4023814. It doesn’t show up in your list of installed updates. It isn’t in the Microsoft Update Catalog either, for that matter.

Microsoft really doesn’t want you to mess with the Windows Update service. If you do, your efforts are likely to be blasted away. Microsoft has used this vector to force people from Windows 10 1703 to 1709, whether they wanted it or not. It remains to be seen how many “oops” moments we’ll see in the movement from 1709 to 1803.

If you ever wondered why 90% of all Windows 10 users got bumped to Windows 10 1803, now you know.

Of course, from Microsoft’s point of view they’re simply correcting any bugs that may have been introduced in the upgrade process. Defeating those who actively block the upgrade is just a bit of fortuitous collateral damage.

Wushowhide

When all else fails — or if you want to hold the Windows 10 1809 upgrade at bay while you install other updates — Microsoft’s wushowhide utility works great. You want to hide the “Feature update to Windows 10, version 1809.” The trick is that you can’t hide the “Feature update to Windows 10, version 1809” update until it actually appears on your machine — and it may not get pushed to you for days, weeks, or even months.

To prevent any nasty surprises, you should run wushowhide before you switch off any of the 1809-blocking techniques mentioned in this feature, or before you click “Check for updates.” If 1809 is being offered on your machine, wushowhide lets you “hide” the patch while you use Windows Update to get your other patches brought up to date.

Here’s how to run wushowhide:

Step 1. Go to KB 3073930 and download Microsoft’s Wushowhide tool. (Click the link marked “Download the ‘Show or hide updates’ troubleshooter package now.”) Drag the downloaded file, Wushowhide.diagcab, to any convenient location.

Step 2. Double-click on Wushowhide.diagcab to run it.

Step 3. This part’s important. Click the link marked Advanced. Uncheck the box marked “Apply repairs automatically.” Click Next.

Step 4. Wushowhide will run for a long, long time. When it comes back up for air, click the link to Hide Updates. If you see a checkbox marked “Feature update to Windows 10, version 1809,” as in the screenshot, check the box next to the item and click Next. (If you don’t see “Feature update to Windows 10, version 1809,” the upgrade isn’t being sent to your box yet. “X” out of wushowhide and check again tomorrow.

win10 1803 wushowhideWoody Leonhard / IDG

Microsoft’s wushowhide utility works great to hide selected Windows updates and keep them from being installed.

Wushowhide is an odd bird. If it successfully hid the upgrade/update/patch, you’ll see a “Troubleshooting has completed” dialog with your 1803 patch marked as a “Problems found.” You did everything right.

Step 5. Click Close. You’re done.

If you don’t trust Microsoft’s wushowhide tool, you can verify for yourself that it hid the version 1809 upgrade. Go back to Windows Update (Start > Settings > Update & security, then Check for Updates) your machine should show “Your device is up to date.” The 1809 upgrade didn’t get installed.

When you’re ready to install version 1809 — you probably will, at some point — the reverse procedure’s just as easy. Here’s how to unhide the update:

Step 1. Double-click on Wushowhide.diagcab to run it. This part’s important. Click the link marked Advanced. Uncheck the box marked “Apply repairs automatically.” Click Next.

Step 2. Wushowhide will run for a long time. When it comes back up, click the link to Show hidden updates.

Step 3. Check the box next to “Feature update to Windows 10, version 1809,” click Next, and click Next again.

Wushowhide will dutifully tell you it is “Resolving problems.” When it’s done, you see a “Troubleshooting has completed” dialog.

Step 4. Click Close.

Version 1809 will then get queued up again, and the next time Windows Update runs (you can check for updates manually, or let it run by itself, likely overnight), your machine will reboot into Windows 10 Redstone 5, version 1809, build 17763.

Your options

Nobody knows what kinds of dirty tricks (er, remediation techniques) Microsoft will employ to push Windows 10 users onto 1809 — whether we’ll have even more “oops” experiences. So it’s impossible to say definitively how you can block the upgrade to 1809, both now and in the future.

At this point, if you’re serious about staying on your current version of Windows 10, here’s what I would recommend:

  • If you’re running Windows 10 Pro, Enterprise or Education, follow the official instructions and set Windows Update’s advanced options to Semi-Annual Channel and 365-day deferral of “feature updates,” as shown in the screenshot.
  • No matter which edition of Windows 10 you’re using, set your internet connection to “metered.”
  • If you’re feeling particularly paranoid (and technically capable), delete the UpdateAssistant scheduled tasks and delete everything in c:WindowsUpdateAssistant and UpdateAssistantV2. Carefully watch what’s being applied to your machine to make sure no more UpdateAssistant-related patches leak through including, notably, KB 4023814 and KB 4023057.

Work is under way to figure out how best to keep updateassistant.exe and Windows10Upgrade.exe at bay. We’ll be following closely on AskWoody.com.

Thx to MrBrian, abbodi86, and the other intrepid interlocutors on AskWoody.

Follow the update struggle on the AskWoody Lounge.

Read More

Wi-Fi Alliance Simplifies Things With Version Numbers

Wi-Fi Alliance Simplifies Things With Version Numbers

Credit: Casezy idea / Shutterstock.comCredit: Casezy idea / Shutterstock.com

Most people don’t bother to learn the differences between Wi-Fi standards. Those who try are greeted by nonsensical designations like 802.11 a/b/g/n and the like. These monikers have meanings, sure, but it’s not easy for the lay person to grok at a glance which is better. The Wi-Fi Alliance announced a new system that uses good-ol’ numerals to differentiate between the varying communications protocols and make it easier to know which is the newest.

The Wi-Fi Alliance is a non-profit that certifies products using the various wireless communications protocols developed by IEEE. Companies that want to use the Wi-Fi branding for their products have to go through the group. Most do. “Wi-Fi” is something like Kleenex or Q-Tip for wireless standards. Not everyone knows what Bluetooth is, or how NFC works, or what their cellular network is capable of. Wi-Fi is equivalent to “wireless” for them.

This new versioning system reflects the relative disinterest people have in learning about the differences between 802.11a and 802.11ac or any of the other standards available. The Wi-Fi Alliance said that 802.11n will now simply be known as Wi-Fi 4, 801.22ac as Wi-Fi 5 and the upcoming 802.11ax will be Wi-Fi 6. (Apparently with Wi-Fi, much like the original Star Wars trilogy, you don’t need to worry about what came before versions 4-6.)

Here’s how the Wi-Fi Alliance explained the reasoning behind this new versioning system in its announcement:

“For nearly two decades, Wi-Fi users have had to sort through technical naming conventions to determine if their devices support the latest Wi-Fi,” said Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO of Wi-Fi Alliance. “Wi-Fi Alliance is excited to introduce Wi-Fi 6, and present a new naming scheme to help industry and Wi-Fi users easily understand the Wi-Fi generation supported by their device or connection.”

The non-profit said that the new Wi-Fi designations won’t be restricted to spec sheets and marketing materials. Companies will also be able to use them in their products’ user interfaces to let people know what kind of Wi-Fi connection they’re currently using. That can have a dramatic impact on performance–you might want to use a 2.4GHz band if you’re looking for max range, for example, and a 5GHz one if you need maximum speed.

Right now there isn’t a great way to figure out which band you’re using when you connect to a network. Having your smartphone, laptop, and other devices tell you whether you’re using Wi-Fi 4 or 5 would be an obvious improvement. That isn’t up to the Wi-Fi Alliance, though, so individual companies will have to decide if they want to make this information more readily available to their customers. Hopefully most of them decide to do so.

The Wi-Fi Alliance said this new versioning system will officially go into effect when 802.11ax (sorry, Wi-Fi 6) debuts sometime in 2019. It’s not clear if companies that want to use Wi-Fi 4 or 5 to refer to 802.11n and 802.11ac will do so before the new version comes out.

Read More

What to Expect From Google’s Pixel 3 Hardware Event

What to Expect From Google’s Pixel 3 Hardware Event
Last year’s Pixel 2
Photo: Alex Cranz (Gizmodo)

In less than a week’s time Google will be holding court in New York to reveal some less-than-mysterious new hardware offerings. Those Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL smartphones might have been thoroughly leaked ahead of next week’s gathering, but what other surprises has Google managed to keep under wraps?

The event officially gets under way at 11am ET on Tuesday, October 9, and as in past years you should be able to watch it live on YouTube. Gizmodo will be there reporting on all the new hardware to find out what’s neat, what’s noteworthy, and what’s not worth your time. Until then, here’s a crash course on everything we expect to see.

The Pixel 3 and the Pixel 3 XL

This one’s basically a foregone conclusion, and that’s not only because Google typically reveals its smartphones in October and the company tagged the official invite with the #madebygoogle hashtag it reserves for hardware. For months we’ve been inundated with leak after leak after leak of the devices leading up to this event.

The first and most thorough reveal came from Russian blog Rozetked, which seemingly got its hands on a Pixel 3 XL almost two months ago. The leak appears to reveal that, at least for its larger handset, Google will also be embracing the notorious smartphone notch, while maintaining a larger bottom bezel to accommodate the Pixel’s forward-facing stereo speakers. The size of the Pixel 3 XL’s 2960 x 1440-pixel display hasn’t been confirmed yet, but the device apparently runs on a Snapdragon 845 processor and will come installed with Android 9 Pie—no surprises there.

Rozetked also took the opportunity to try out the suspected Pixel 3 XL’s camera, and the results suggest that the smartphone might once again out-perform other smartphone cameras on the market, which has been a hallmark selling point of the Pixel line in recent years.

The leaked photos also revealed the smartphone’s packaging, which included what looked like a fully wired version of Google’s Pixel Buds, but they weren’t tested to see if they worked with the company’s Google Assistant or instant translation features like the wireless versions do.

Those of you with smaller hands and pockets weren’t left out of the leak fun, however. About a month ago a bunch of photos of the purported Pixel 3 appeared in an Imgur gallery, revealing a generous but reasonably-sized 5.5-inch screen (a half-inch larger than the Pixel 2), a two-tone back panel, a pair of eight-megapixel front-facing cameras that could facilitate wide-angle selfie shots, but no screen notch up top. Instead, the Pixel 3 will have aesthetically-pleasing matching bezels on the top and bottom.

One other feature gleaned from the Pixel 3 photos is a battery with a potential capacity of around 3,000 mAh, which is not only larger than the Pixel 2’s, but also larger than the 2,658 mAh battery Apple is including with the iPhone Xs.

A Google Home smart speaker with a display

Smart speakers became more than just talking heads when Amazon upgraded Alexa and the Echo Show with a touchscreen display back in 2017. Screens are now en vogue, and a smart addition as the Lenovo Smart Display for Google Assistant proved.

So it comes as no surprise that back in August a report from Nikkei claimed Google was planning to release a smart display of its own ahead of the holiday season. A website called MySmartPrice also shared what appears to be leaked renders of the device, revealing a seven-inch touchscreen. What remains to be seen is how Google could potentially differentiate its smart display from Lenovo’s, which runs stock Android and has enjoyed a few months head start. Compatibility with smart home thermostats? Extra functionality as a smart security camera for your home? Or will cute pastel colors be enough for these to outsell the competition?

But probably no new Google Home Mini

Yesterday Google revealed a new Aqua-colored version of the Google Home Mini, which seems to indicate the product isn’t going to see a refresh next week. And if the pretty affordable Home Mini isn’t getting an update this year, which is the most popular smart speaker Google sells, would the pricier Google Home be getting one? So far there’s no evidence that’s happening.

The Chromecast 3

Potentially first leaked by FCC documentation back in April, there’s now no doubt that a new version of Google’s streaming stick is en route after Best Buy sold a Chromecast 3 to a customer before the device was officially listed in the store’s system. Reddit user GroveStreetHomie shared a photo of the third-generation Chromecast they managed to buy, which, according to previous leaks, will run on a quad-core Amlogic S905X processor powered by 2GB of RAM and 8GB of storage enabling 4K content to be streamed at up to 60 frames per second.

New Pixel Buds

When Apple killed the headphone jack, it tried to make up for it with a great pair of wireless earbuds that helped fill the hole. Google followed suit with its own wireless earbuds called the Pixel Buds that were, by comparison, definitely not as great. There’s a lot of room for improvement here, and a lot of catch up needed given how many excellent wireless earbud options are now on the market. Google could start by removing the cord that tethers the Pixel Buds together, improving the functionality of the charging case, and maybe even making that fancy real-time translation functionality available on more Android phones.

A follow-up to the Pixelbook

The $1,000, transforming, Chrome OS-running Pixelbook is coming up on its one-year anniversary, which means it’s almost an antique at this point. Does Google plan to release an updated version with improved specs? There have been rumors about two successors in development code-named “Nocturne” and “Meowth” which were both apparently referenced in the Chromium source code (Google’s open-source web browser) earlier this year.

According to 9to5Google, the new Pixelbook might actually be named the Pixel Slate and will come in the form of a Chrome OS-powered detachable tablet that can separate from a backlit keyboard accessory, instead of having it just flip out of the way beneath the screen. The Pixel Slate would potentially come in a version powered by Intel’s Kaby Lake processor for better performance, or the low-power Amber Lake variant for maximizing the device’s battery life and improving its price point.

Other rumored features include a 3:2-ratio, 3,000 x 2,000-pixel display, two USB-C ports but no SD card slot, and a fingerprint sensor located on the tablet’s bezel.

But don’t expect a Pixel Watch

It would certainly be nice to see the developer of Wear OS release a smartwatch optimized for all the ins and outs of the wrist-worn operating system. But 2018 won’t be the year Google jumps on the wearable bandwagon. During a recent phone call with Tom’s Guide, Miles Barr, Google’s director of engineering for Wear OS, confirmed the company had no plans to release a smartwatch this year, and would instead focus on improving Wear OS itself.

Read More

Witcher Author Threatens CD Projekt Red With Legal Action If It Doesn’t Pay Him More

Witcher Author Threatens CD Projekt Red With Legal Action If It Doesn’t Pay Him More
Screenshot: Kotaku (The Witcher 3)

The creator of The Witcher books, Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski, has called on CD Projekt Red to pay him up to $16.1 million more in royalties following the success of the studio’s video game adaptation of the series. In a post on the company’s website, CD Projekt Red called the demands “groundless.”

Lawyers for Sapkowksi claim in a letter CD Projekt Red reposted on its website that Polish copyright law entitles him to more royalties based on the now large discrepancy between what the studio originally paid him and how much it has gone on to profit from the copyright. Citing Article 44 of Poland’s 1994 copyright law, they write, “[Article 44] may be invoked when the compensation remitted to the author is too low given the benefits obtained in association with the use of that author’s work.” The lawyers also argue that the original agreement only applies to the first Witcher game and not any others, something CD Projekt Red denies. “All liabilities payable by the Company in association therewith have been properly discharged,” the company writes.

Not much is known about the original agreement by which CD Projekt Red secured the rights to make its Witcher trilogy, which wrapped up in 2016 with the release of the Blood and Wine expansion, or its current digital card game Gwent based on the same characters. Based on reporting by Eurogamer, the studio apparently approached Sapkowski in the early 2000s about making games based on his books. “It wasn’t a huge amount of money,” CD Projekt Red co-founder Marcin Iwiński told the site in 2015.

In Sapkowski’s view, the studio’s offer wasn’t so meager. “Well they brought a big bag of money,” he told Eurogamer in 2017. Sapkowski didn’t expect the games to amount to much, so he settled for the flat amount rather than royalties based on its financial success. In hindsight he regretted his decision.

Screenshot: Kotaku (The Witcher 3)

“I was stupid enough to sell them rights to the whole bunch,” he told Eurogamer. “They offered me a percentage of their profits. I said, ‘No, there will be no profit at all – give me all my money right now! The whole amount.’ It was stupid. I was stupid enough to leave everything in their hands because I didn’t believe in their success. But who could foresee their success? I couldn’t.”

In the years since, The Witcher has come to be one of the role-playing genre’s defining series, with with CD Projekt Red reporting in 2016 that The Witcher 3 had shipped 10 million copies. By the following year, the studio announced that the trilogy as a whole had sold 33 million copies worldwide.

Now, Sapkowski is trying to pressure to the company into paying him more to account for that success. While his lawyers’ letter mentions various legal arguments in Sapkowski’s favor and claims the original contracts “do not conform to even rudimentary due diligence principles,” the ultimate goal appears to be some sort of new settlement, calling for the studio to resolve things with him amicably lest either party’s reputation be damaged.

For its part, CD Projekt stated it’s also interested in keeping its relationship with the author of the source material on good terms. “It is the Company’s will to maintain good relations with authors of works which have inspired CD PROJEKT RED’s own creations,” it said in the post on its website. “Consequently, the Board will go to great lengths to ensure amicable resolution of this

dispute; however, any such resolution must be respectful of previously expressed intents of both parties, as well as existing contracts.”

It’s unclear how much of either side’s words amount to posturing, and CD Projekt Red did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the terms of its original agreement with Sapkowski and whether it would be open to some new financial settlement. The letter from Sapkowski’s lawyers give a deadline of October 19 for negotiations to begin.

Read More

What Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Changes From Origins

What Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Changes From Origins

At a glance, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks a lot like last year’s Assassin’s Creed Origins. Despite swapping Egyptian pyramids for Greek temples, the surface-level similarities are numerous. There are plenty of subtle differences, however.

(Note: This piece is based on the 14 hours I’ve played with the game as well as our reviewers’ 75 hours and some fact-checking we’ve done with the development team via Ubisoft PR.)

Let’s get the basics out of the way first.

What’s Not Different

Both Origins and Odyssey are third-person adventures set in vast recreations of iconic ancient time periods. Both eschew many of the trappings of the 10 major Assassin’s Creed games that preceded them. You can’t assassinate targets in a single strike by default, and there’s no mini-map to guide players. There’s little overt reference to Assassins fighting Templars, because both games precede that core of that conflict, instead showing some of the roots.

They’re math-driven, loot-heavy games, with more of an evident Diablo or Destiny influence. They dole out weapons and wardrobe options of color-coded rarity and escalating statistical proficiency, and have a skill tree for players to climb.

The ancient stories of Origins and Odyssey are both being experienced by a modern day researcher, Layla Hassan, who is using an Animus device to expire the past. And both are loaded with so much to do that they can run players 80 hours even before the roll-out of a season of downloadable content.

They also both do that thing where you have a pet eagle that works as a surveillance drone.

The Obvious Differences

Origins starred a proto-Assassin named Bayek who used a hidden blade and treks through ancient Egypt fighting the forces of Ptolemy and, later, Julius Caesar. On rare occasion, you could also play as Bayek’s wife, Aya, often in naval missions that aped the feel of the grand ship combat in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. While the game explored the origins of the Assassin’s Order, it did little with the series’ modern day lore other than to introduce Layla Hassan. It made even less mention of the First Civilization, a precursor race shown in earlier games as having somehow influenced human development.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

Odyssey stars the player’s choice of Alexios or Kassandra, a Spartan who uses the seemingly magical spear of Leonidas, itself a First Civ artifact. The adventure is set in ancient Greece at the time of the Peloponnesian War, four hundred years before Origins. According to my colleague Heather Alexandra, who reviewed the game and has played more than I have, it goes deep into First Civ lore in extensive, optional sections late in the game, though early on it mostly steers clear of any of the series’ elaborate meta-narratives.

Origins’ creation was led by Ubisoft Montreal and a creative leadership who had last worked on Black Flag. Odyssey’s was handled primarily by Ubisoft Quebec, whose previous AC was 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

While Origins began to lean Assassin’s Creed into the realm of role-playing games like The Witcher, with more emphasis on elaborate sidequests and gear collection, Odyssey goes all-in with the addition of dialogue options and even the ability to sleep with numerous side characters.

Odyssey also restores naval exploration and combat to a full offering, complete with the options to recruit crew members and upgrade your ship. It adds an elaborate territorial control system that lets players flip dozens of regions in the game from Athenian to Spartan control or vice versa. Players do this through new large-scale battles that involve dozens of warriors fighting around your hero, as well as through a more Assassin’s Creed-like incremental system of weakening a regional leader’s control before you can assassinate them.

Other Differences Are More Subtle, But Still Meaningful

Odyssey offers a better way to explore. Origins was often too easy, in part because it removed the detective work of tracking down quest items and targets. Upon receipt of a new quest, the game would show a yellow icon or circle on the map indicating where the player should go. You’d go there, then be prompted to switch to control of your eagle Senu. Senu’s bird sense would highlight the loot or assassination target, or whatever else you were going for. After that simple extra step, you’d be back to following a waypoint on your HUD.

Odyssey puts a few creative twists on that. Those who liked Origins’ heavily assisted navigation can opt to keep it via a gameplay option called Guided Mode. However, the game recommends players try the superior Exploration mode, which does not mark the map when players get a new quest. Instead, players must rely on textual clues about where to go. They might be looking for a target who they’re told is in a forest in the western part of a specific region, for example, but there won’t be a big yellow circle indicating where that is.

In Guided Mode, a yellow circle shows the player where to go to continue a quest.
In Exploration Mode, players often need to rely on text clues alone to indicate where they should go to continue a quest.

Exploration mode is a much more satisfying way to play, though Odyssey still displays a prompt to switch to your eagle when you’re finally near your objective. You can’t turn that off, a Ubisoft rep confirmed to me, since players testing the game would sometimes lose track of their objective. Still, Exploration mode is worth at least trying. I greatly prefer it.

Ability specializations enable you to play as a sneaky assassin. Origins’ combat was biased toward players who were interested in swinging swords out in the open. There were ranged moves and stealth moves, but Bayek’s hidden blade was sometimes not a one-hit kill, which was a break from older games in the series. Guards could quickly detect Bayek and ruin any plans for a stealthy approach, and more often than not, what started as an infiltration would end as an all-out brawl.

Odyssey still lets you play barbarously, but its stealth system is more accommodating to those who wish to skulk—and remain skulking—in the shadows. Early on, players can start increasing the potency of stealth attacks that use Leonidas’ spear, which is this game’s version of the hidden blade. They can also learn how to chain assassinations and perform extra-potent assassinations that require a long button-press but dole out double damage. There are still enemies who can’t be taken out with one stab, but Odyssey is much more permissive of players trying to control their character as if they were classic AC heroes Altair or Ezio.

Odyssey gives players a load of possible melee moves, but only allows you to map four of them to the controller’s face buttons at a time. That encourages you to pick a load-out of your favored moves, and will likely encourage players to adopt and stick to certain aggressive or low-key styles of play. You can switch out active moves on the fly just by pausing, if you want.

A new weapon-engraving system also rewards focusing how you play. Perhaps to a fault, Odyssey regularly pops up alerts about things you’re doing in the game. Oh, you’ve just killed another predator animal, or another enemy with a sword. Those actions and others like them count toward goals that unlock new engravings that a blacksmith can etch into your weapon. Those engravings are basically weapon perks and they match the kind of actions that unlock them. Killing animals, for example, allows you to get an engraving that makes your weapons even more potent at killing animals, which then would make it easier to hunt and fight the game’s legendary beasts. Or, if you do a lot of stealthy assassinating, you’ll be unlocking engravings that make your weapons even more powerful when used for assassinations. Likewise if you focus on ranged combat or out-in-the-open melee.

The loading screens are different. In Origins, true to longstanding Assassin’s Creed tradition, you could make Bayak run through an endless digital horizon. In Odyssey, all you get is a non-interactive screen of a fire and an artifcat glowing. Advantage Origins!

There are more gear slots. You’re not collecting outfits one at a time in Odyssey, as you were in Origins. Instead, you’re collecting helmets, chest pieces, lower body armor, gauntlets and footwear, which is either great news for lovers of loot collection or bad news for people who don’t buy Assassin’s Creed games to spend a major chunk of their time doing inventory management.

Odyssey offers more types of quests. Origins gave players main quests, sidequests and a handful of timed events, mostly involving fighting a rotation of a few gods. It all added up to more than 180 quests, downloadable expansions included, a lot of which was fun to do.

Odyssey slices things up differently, with a structure that feels a shade more like Destiny or other games meant to offer players reasons to turn the game on regularly. There are main Odyssey quests, and then below those, major side-quests classified as “world” or “character” missions. Then there are numerous bounties, which are timed and usually involve having about a day to hunt down a target. And there are contracts, which involve having to do things like sink X number of boats or fight Y number of enemies. Players grab bounties and contracts from message boards in the game’s towns, and they appear to replenish frequently. There are also daily and weekly quests that dole out a special currency that can be used to obtain rare gear or to get lootboxes that randomly include such rare gear, similar to the Nomad’s Bazaar in Origins.

Among the range of side activities in Odyssey are the aforementioned large-scale battles and also a batch of “impact quest giver” quests that a Ubisoft rep clarified to me are quests that pop up based on decisions you’ve made in the game.

Quests allow for somewhat malleable outcomes. In my experience with the game, Odyssey has recognized when I’ve bungled what was supposed to be a stealth mission. Once, a quest giver asked me to keep a mission quiet, but I screwed it up and alerted several guards. When I returned for my reward, I found my quest-giver besieged by enemies. After I fought them off, I got a scolding about making too much of a ruckus and leading the enemy back to them.

Quests level up as you play. When Origins launched, it was easy to grind away at the game and become over-leveled for any early quests you skipped and then tried later. Enemies in the game’s starter regions would be weak and the game could often feel too easy. A patch enabled players to make enemies scale up in difficulty as they did. Odyssey makes that kind of leveling mandatory, though it handles it differently depending on whether you’re playing on normal or hard difficulty.

Every region on Odyssey’s map has two numbers associated with it. Those numbers indicate, in part, how leveled up you need to be to explore the region without getting thrashed. If you’re in a region and start leveling up, the quests in that region will level up with you. Enter a level six zone at character-level six and then improve to seven, and any level six quests you grabbed in that region become level seven quests, complete with tougher enemies. If you hit the max level for the region and playing at normal difficulty, then quests will keep leveling but will lag some and eventually stay wo levels behind your character, no matter how high you go, according to Ubisoft. If you’re playing on hard or nightmare, the quests will, at most, linger one or zero levels behind you

The Mercenary system is a game unto itself. Black Flag had a wanted system along the lines of Grand Theft Auto’s, which would send hunter ships after you the more mayhem you committed on the high seas. Origins placed a high-level enemy called a Phylake in many of its regions, requiring you to flee for your life if their regular patrol routes drew them near, though you could eventually level up enough to fight them, kill them and activate a quest in the course of all of that.

One of dozens of mercenaries who you can hunt or who will hunt you down. Note that this one travels with a wolf and is too high-level to take on at the moment (as seen by their power level number being red).

Odyssey combines what those earlier games did and mixes in a touch of the Nemesis System from Shadow of Mordor for an elaborate side challenge involving mercenaries. Powerful mercenaries populate the game’s world. A special pause menu interface displays more than nine tiers of mercenaries, as well as your standing among them. Most in that menu are initially masked in silhouette. Mercenaries vary in power, strengths and weaknesses. Players can gather intel on them and hunt them down. A wanted system that tracks the player-character’s own excessive violence will also trigger mercenaries to start hunting them down. Inevitably, mercenaries will confront you, barking taunts as they do. And even as you kill mercenaries and move up the tier ranking, new mercenaries will emerge. At any time, players can pay off or assassinate characters who ostensibly are putting bounties on your head, which will chill things out for a while.

As with the regional control stuff, the mercenary system is surprisingly involved, arguably superfluous, distractingly engaging and yet another multi-level means for acquiring exotic loot.

A more customizable HUD. While Origins let players switch between a few pre-set options for your heads-up-display, Odyssey lets you tick 20 options on and off. I turned the damage numbers off right away. Closing my game wouldn’t save the options I’d selected, nor would the game remember my HDR settings, but Ubisoft says those are bugs that should be patched after release.

Traversal is slightly faster. I thought Kassandra felt like a quicker climber than Bayek. Not quite. According to a Ubisoft rep, climbing is not “meaningfully faster” but moving up steep inclines has improved, and jumping down is faster. Getting up and down is therefore a shade quicker than in the previous game, though obviously not as brisk as just using a grappling hook in Ubisoft Quebec’s last AC game, Syndicate.

P.S.: There’s nothing quite like this in Origins.

There are hosts of other similarities and differences between Odyssey and Origins, including some that’d spoil the new game. These, though, are some of the biggest and some of the easiest to miss. A lot of the subtler differences help Odyssey feel like an improvement over the already impressive Origins, and help the new game stand apart as more than just more of the same old thing.

Read More