Tech round-up for October 24: Google Pixel 3, Mysterious Package Company, podcast festivals in Toronto and Vancouver, Assassin's Creed Odyssey

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This week, the Mysterious Package Company intrigues, podcast festivals are coming to Toronto and Vancouver, and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey makes some changes that make it a better game. But first, a look at the Google Pixel 3 smartphone.

Google’s Pixel 3 is the best Android smartphone you can get

I’ve been using the Google Pixel 3 for a couple of weeks now and it’s easily the best Android device available.

Available in two sizes, the 5.5-inch 3 ($999 and $1,129) and the 6.3-inch XL ($1,129 and $1,259), the smartphones aren’t all screen like others are (the Pixel 3 has a top and bottom bezel and the Pixel 3 XL has a bottom bezel and a notch at the top), and they aren’t equipped with facial recognition.

They have a fingerprint scanner on the back of the phone, a USB-C port that does duty for connections, charging, and for headphones (the devices ship with USB-C earphones and an adapter for headphones with a 3.5mm jack).

The glass backs allow for wireless charging (Qi standard) which works great with the Pixel Stand, which turns your smartphone into a Google Home hub.

And the lean software installation and Android Pie operating system means that these phones run fast, giving you barely time to blink when opening and switching between apps.

The photos you’ll take with the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are class-leading. The machine learning/AI support for photography means that you’ll be snapping photos and taking selfies that rival what you’d get with a DSLR. The Top Shot feature alone will be your saviour.

But a few of the lesser talked about features are what really make a difference, I think, and serve to set the Pixel 3 devices apart from iPhones and other Android devices.

Google Lens, for example, is more integrated into the phone, so you can use the camera to help you identify that plant growing in your yard or translate that street sign when you’re on vacation in Eastern Europe. You can even use it to scan business cards.

Google Assistant, meanwhile, can screen your phone calls before you answer them, in the same way a receptionist would.

And if you’re thinking about moving to the Pixel 3 or Pixel 3 XL from a different device or manufacturer, the “Quick Switch Adapter” software makes it easy.

Surprise someone with the gift of an experience from the Mysterious Package Company

For the past few weeks, Drex has been receiving strange packages.

They’ve been coming from the Mysterious Package Company, a Toronto-based group that tells stories through objects and artifacts they send to people in the mail. These items are clues to puzzles and narratives that build over time until the story is complete.

I was given the opportunity to “gift” one of these experiences to Drex, and the entire thing was a surprise to him until he received a final letter revealing my involvement.

He told me it was “totally weird” and that he thought at first he was being pranked.

The story I sent him was Tempus Fugit, which he found to be a bit confusing. There are a few other genres of experience, including a couple that are okay for families, and a couple of more horror-like ones that are definitely not.

Now that I’ve sent one, I want to be a recipient! I’m curious to experience the strange storytelling for myself.

Podcast festivals hit Toronto, Vancouver in November

There’s a podcast for everyone these days, and if you want a chance to see the people behind the microphones, check out the Hot Docs Podcast Festival, dropping into the Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto for five days from November 1 through November 5.

Highlight event: LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow doing a live reading Friday, November 2 at 6:30 p.m.

Starting a few days later is the inaugural Vancouver Podcast Festival, which runs November 8 to November 10 at a number of venues in downtown Vancouver.

Highlight event: Harry Potter Podfest at the VPL at 11 a.m. on November 10. This one is free.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey sheds some baggage and shows off a tantalizing new approach to open world games

The new Assassin’s Creed game from Ubisoft is quite unlike the others in the blockbuster franchise.

For one, it’s set before the time established by the previous games as when the Brotherhood of Assassin’s was created. That’s easily dealt with by the narrative. The more prominent shift is away from the strictly stealth-based assassination simulation of the early games, where you needed to escape the chase by hiding in nooks and crannies or crowds of people.

Instead, Odyssey puts you in a more organic, freeform system in which you have more freedom to come up with your own approach. It’s akin to the way other games like Horizon Zero Dawn and Far Cry are presenting open world experiences.

With developed led by Ubisoft Quebec and available for PS4, Switch, Windows, and Xbox One, you become immersed in the world of Ancient Greece just a generation after the Greco-Persian War of the fifth century BCE. It’s takes its initial inspiration from the battle in which Leonidas and the Spartans confronted Xerxes and the Persian army, a tale documented by Herodotus.

The Greek historian is prominent in Odyssey, just as real-life figures have appeared in all Assassin’s Creed games before. The central character you embody is a mercenary of Spartan origin who gets caught up in the political shifts of the time.

You get to choose whether your character is male or female (I played as the very able Kassandra, wonderfully performed by Canadian actor Melissanthi Mahut). You make other decisions, too, and they all impact that game you play to some degree.

And while you aren’t an assassin here, the way you were in previous Assassin’s Creed games, you are a capable killer when you need to be. I confess to missing the pure stealth tactics of those early games, but Odyssey is fluid and dynamic and easy to enjoy.

You may find that the activities get tedious after a while. Tedium is part of any open world game. The trick for the developer is to craft a world that people want to spend time in so that it doesn’t feel boring doing the same things over and over again.

That’s certainly true of Odyssey. The developers crafted a deep and engaging story with crisp characters and varied connections. I was playing for about 20 hours before I started to really notice the grind.

And what drove me forward was the notion that I had just unravelled another twist in the web of intrigue anchoring the narrative.

Assassin’s Creed may be more about solving whodunnits than sneaking around to perform assassinations, but it’s a shift that makes Odyssey one of the best Assassin’s Creed games in years.

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