December 2006

 
 

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Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

With the release of Tomb Raider back in 1996, Core Design struck gold and gave the gaming industry its first true action heroine, Lara Croft - even if her gender and ample bosom arguably contributed far more to its success than any actual merit of the gameplay itself. Following the remarkable success of the first game, Core followed up with a sequel every year, with the law of diminishing returns ensuring that each subsequent instalment was inferior to its predecessors, until, following a three-year break after the half-hearted Tomb Raider: Chronicles, the Derby-based studio released the disastrous Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, a supposed drastic reimagining that, in reality, shambled on to the scene as an unfinished, buggy mess. The Angel of Darkness was so bad that publisher Eidos Interactive yanked development duties away from Core (an embarrassing situation, beyond any doubt) and handed them over to Crystal Dynamics, the US-based developer of the Legacy of Kain franchise. Tomb Raider: Legend, their first effort featuring the buxom adventurer, was eventually released in Spring 2006, three years after Core’s final offering. The result: the best Tomb Raider game in years and arguably the first truly great instalment in the franchise.

Crystal Dynamics have wisely struck a balance between reinventing the game from the ground up and leaving enough of the original format to make it instantly familiar to those that have played its predecessors. One of the biggest criticisms of the various sequels was that they made the “Tomb” in Tomb Raider something of a joke, with Lara travelling to seemingly every location except actual tombs. Crystal Dynamics have rectified this, and, while there are certainly some diverse locations on display, including a trip to the skyscrapers of Tokyo at night, the bulk of the game takes place in various underground caverns and mausoleums. Including the fairly brief final boss fight, there are a total of eight different locations, most of them fairly sprawling although never daunting in their scale, with an estimated total of 10-15 hours of gameplay (according to the timer, I finished it in 9 hours and 36 minutes).

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

It’s all over rather quickly, therefore, and I certainly found myself wishing it had gone on for a little longer, although various hidden goodies, which can be picked up to unlock bonus costumes and weapon upgrades, as well as a time trial option, do encourage you to replay the game. At the same time, Legend seems far less impenetrable than, say, Tomb Raider III, which eventually turned into giant sprawling level after giant sprawling level of tedium. It also helps that Legend’s gameplay feels far more concentrated than many of its predecessors, with a focus on puzzles that can be completed using items already at your disposal rather than having to trek across huge levels to find an obscure button that will open a random door. Indeed, very few puzzles even require you to leave the room in which they are located, meaning that accomplishing your immediate objective is always within your grasp, thereby encouraging you to keep playing rather than simply giving up. The puzzles are also very logical, and indeed many even seem a little too straightforward, given that Lara or her various associates will often offer handy hints as to what needs to be done.

Crystal Dynamics have also reined in the frustration factor inherent in the constant deaths and restarts incurred during the previous games - a combination of their cumbersome controls and the games’ demandingly exact grid-based movement system. Previously, even a simple jump from one block to another would be fraught with danger, as, chances were that you would line Lara up slightly wrong and end up missing your target. Legend is far more forgiving, in the sense that, provided you aim in the general vicinity of where you intend to go, chances are that Lara will automatically adjust her trajectory mid-jump and land where you want her. On the PC version, accuracy is also much-aided by finally allowing players to use the traditional mouse-and-keyboard combination favoured by every action game for years (this function was also present in The Angel of Darkness, although it did little to improve playability due to that game’s clunky movement). As a result, Legend is infinitely smoother and more natural to control than any of its predecessors, meaning that gamers can actually play the game instead of wrangling with its basic mechanics.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

A considerable amount of effort has also been invested in the story, which is of a more personal nature, given that it involves the fate of Lara’s dead parents (the storyline has been modified somewhat since the first game to tie in better with the two film adaptations, although there are still some key differences between these two strands of the franchise) and a group of fellow explorers, many of whom came to a sticky end during a grave-digging jaunt in Paraíso. The various in-game cut-scenes are highly effective, with Lara ably voiced by actress Keeley Hawes (who played Zoe in the first three seasons of Spooks). Her banter with her various assistants, who keep in contact with her via a headset, is often quite funny, although there are a few clunkers, and, on occasions in which a particularly tricky puzzle requires multiple attempts (which are, admittedly, laudably few in number), the continued repetition of the same zingers becomes a little tiresome. Graphically, the game is also very impressive, with only a handful of blocky textures, which the art direction and level design do an admirable job of concealing the fact that the game is ultimately still based around jumping from one square block of ground to the next.

Where the gameplay is a little less impressive is in terms of its combat. It all feels a bit perfunctory, with very little possible variation beyond simply jumping about and pumping enemies with lead before they can finish you off. At Medium difficulty, the game is fairly generous in terms of doling out ammo and health packs (you can carry up to three at a time), while guns are limited to only a few variations (in addition to the now-standard pistols, you can carry only one other weapon at a time). It is possible to jump on top of human enemies to knock them down, which causes the game to enter into slow motion, allowing you to more precisely execute them, although the occasions on which this can be done (and indeed when this is actually worthwhile) are relatively few. The various bosses, meanwhile, which conclude most of the levels, can initially seem a little daunting, but are generally fairly straightforward once you work out the central puzzle, with very few of them requiring much in the way of dodging and acrobatics. A handful of motorcycle chases also tend to be a little frustrating, given that their controls are much more clunky than the game proper (the mouse, annoyingly, can’t be used for steering).

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend

Tomb Raider: Legend is ultimately a highly enjoyable game. It may not be particularly lengthy or taxing, but it is a beautifully-presented adventure with slick controls, an engaging plot and some fun puzzles. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it certainly salvages an aging franchise, breathing life into a series that I had otherwise given up on.

8/10.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 11:15 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Games | Reviews | Technology
 

DVDs I bought or received in the month of December

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • An American Werewolf in London (R0 USA, HD DVD/SD DVD combo)
  • Basic Instinct (R0 France, HD DVD)
  • Casablanca (R0 USA, HD DVD)
  • The Double Life of Véronique: The Criterion Collection (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Four (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Miami Vice (R0 USA, HD DVD/SD DVD combo)
  • Operation Crossbow (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • The Quiller Memorandum (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Serenity (R0 UK, HD DVD)
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Ultimate Edition (R1 USA, SD DVD)
  • Wolf Creek (R0 USA, HD DVD)

This month, the number of HD DVDs I picked up exceeded the number of standard definition DVDs for the first time: long may this trend continue.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 2:32 PM
Categories: Animation | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD
 

Search queries for December 2006

For your viewing pleasure, a sampling of some of the search queries that brought visitors to this site during the past month:

hanging boobs
cartoon naked
porn involving women snd dogs
postman pats hat blows off
fucked ass
snow white and the seven dwarfs sex film
game sex
sarah michelle gellar hairy arms
disney sex.com
cunt
freaks of nature
violent porn
naked pregnant
freaks of nature
bysexual stacey
ren and stimpy naked
young boobs
european boobs
fucking boob

 
Posted: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 2:28 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Web
 

Kisses, bangs, tombs and Blu-ray - oh my!

We took a little family outing today, and went to Braehead Shopping and Leisure Centre, where all the cool people buy their groceries. In the after-Christmas sales (or not), I picked up Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Legend (what a mouthful) for PC. I’d downloaded the demo on a whim and played it the night before, and found it to be surprisingly good, especially in comparison with its tedious predecessors. It seems that the move from Core Design to Crystal Dynamics salvaged the crumbling franchise and resulted in what it possibly the first truly good Tomb Raider game: even the much-lauded original struck me as rather anaemic, thanks mainly to the awful controls - Legend solves this by switching to a much appreciated mouse-and-keyboard combo. I’ll probably do a full review once I’ve worked my way through the whole thing.

HD DVD

I also picked up Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on HD DVD. I’d been toying with getting the US release, which is an HD DVD/DVD combo, for some time, but, when I saw that the UK version was just a straight HD DVD, I decided to get it instead. I’m glad I did: this is probably the funniest film I’ve seen all day, and quite possibly my favourite HD DVD release so far. It’s a little too smugly self-referential at times, especially in terms of the narration, but the rest of it had me guffawing uncontrollably. I don’t think I actually understood the plot at all, but who cares when you’ve got Robert Downey Jr. losing his finger and having it swallowed by a dog, Val Kilmer playing a gay private detective called (what else?) Gay Perry, and Michelle Monaghan running down a Los Angeles highway in the middle of the night wearing a skimpy Santa outfit? I understand that the film didn’t do particularly well at the box office, partly due to an ineffective advertising campaign that seriously misrepresented it, but don’t let that put you off: this borderline satire of film noir is highly entertaining stuff and one of the most purely enjoyable films I’ve seen in ages.

After that, we headed over to Costco, where Lyris wanted to look into a 1080p television that he will, we hope, soon be picking up. It was there that I had my first up close and personal experience with Blu-ray. And do you know? It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting…

It was worse!

I came across Lyris watching something on a moderately-sized HDTV. I glanced at the screen and saw what looked to me like a heavily edge enhanced but rather crisp DVD. “What’s this?” I began to ask, but, even as the words left my mouth, I began to wonder if something foul was afoot. “That’s not… is that… Blu-ray?” I spluttered. It was. The title in question was S.W.A.T., described by High-Def Digest as “a very nice-looking disc from Sony, and definitely one of the better they’ve put out on the format thus far”. If this ranks among the studio’s best, I’d hate to see their worst. The image was definitely sharper than standard definition DVD, and yet I wouldn’t actually describe it as better. Sharper, yes: the edge enhancement was pretty invasive, and the image overall looked incredibly harsh rather than particularly detailed. But that paled in comparison to the appalling compression. “MPEG2 is perfectly viable for high definition” my left buttock. The film grain was rendered as grubby noise rather than actual grain, and, whenever the camera moved, macro-blocking was in abundance. Worse still, any part of the screen that might be described as remotely saturated was alive with smearing artefacts. Admittedly, an improperly set-up television in a warehouse is far from an ideal setting for evaluating a disc, but I highly doubt that all the calibration in the world would save the mess that assaulted my eyes today. I’ve never felt more glad we went with HD DVD instead.

 
Posted: Friday, December 29, 2006 at 10:07 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Games | General | HD DVD | Technology
 

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

Blizzard Entertainment released their original real-time strategy Warcraft: Orcs & Humans in 1994. This was followed in 1995 by the groundbreaking Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, which refined the formula, adding improved graphics and sound, as well as taking the conflict into the air and sea with the inclusion of flying units and ships. 1998’s Starcraft, however, remains arguably their most polished RTS to date, and continues to be considered the best PC game ever by many players, both casual and professional. Thanks to Blizzard’s continued adage that their games be easy to play but difficult to master (in other words, the basic mechanics are straightforward, allowing newcomers to immediately begin playing without needing to devour a huge manual, but at the same time requiring patience and skill to become a truly impressive player), they delivered a nuanced, balanced game with a solid audio-visual presentation and exciting, addictive gameplay. The game was so good that virtually no other RTS could get a word in edgeways, and that remained the case for many years, although Ensemble Studio’s Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings certainly put up a worthy fight.

2002’s Warcraft III: reign of Chaos, therefore, had a lot to live up to. When it was initially announced at ECTS in 2001, Blizzards’ spokespeople declared that, as the studio felt it had taken RTS gaming as far as it could go with Starcraft, it was going to focus on a new model for the third instalment of the Warcraft saga. The game was touted as an “RPS” - a role-playing strategy, sidelining the traditional strategy activities of base management and unit production in favour of a more tactical approach, emphasising exploration and intense, small-scale battles between powerful hero units, whose strength and abilities would improve with experience. In its initial demonstrations, the game looked rather similar to Myth: The Fallen Lords, sporting a 3D engine and with a camera view locked behind the heroes’ heads, close to the horizon line.

Initial reactions were mixed at best, with Blizzard’s impressive track record and brand loyalty being enough to convince some gamers that this would be the best thing since sliced bread, or at least since Starcraft, but others, sensing a move away from the 2D RTS format that had made the company such a success, were considerably more sceptical. Many were greatly relieved, therefore, when, only a few months after it had been announced, Blizzard declared that it was going to reign in the role-playing elements and bring the game back to its strategy roots.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

The finished game, therefore, has a lot in common with its spiritual predecessors, sporting the same basic user interface as Starcraft and once again following the formula of building a base, training units and vanquishing the opposing team. The engine remains 3D, but the camera itself stays, for the most part, locked into a top-down isometric perspective heavily reminiscent of its 2D predecessors. To call Warcraft III the immediate successor to the Starcraft throne would, however, be inaccurate, because, despite the similarities, much has changed. The appearance and core mechanics will still be instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of Blizzard’s previous RTS games, but those who approach this in the same manner as Warcraft II or Starcraft, expecting the same basic strategies and play styles to work, will be in for a surprise.

While the role-playing elements may have been reigned in, they have not been obliterated by a long shot. The backbone of the game is still building up a strong base and maintaining a solid economy, but a low unit cap and a focus on special hero units who must kill enemy units in order to level up and access new abilities means that there is a greater dependence than ever on micro-managing battles. In Starcraft, for example, a Zerg player might simply amass a hundred similar units, send them in the direction of their opponent’s base, and beat them into submission through sheer weight of numbers, but such a strategy (if you can even call it strategy) would never work against a moderately skilled player in Warcraft III. The old rock-paper-scissors system at the heart of all the -craft games has been emphasised considerably, meaning that even the most powerful unit in the game can be completely neutralised by the correct counter.

The result of this is that smart selection of appropriate units and skilled management of the player’s army is rewarded to a far greater extent than in the previous games. There is no longer a be-all and end-all strategy that can be memorised and used to win every game, which in theory leads to a more varied gameplay experience. In practice, of course, a brief glance at the various replays available on the Internet will reveal that the same basic strategies tend to be favoured (virtually every Human player chooses the Archmage as their first hero, for instance), but even within these basic templates there is more variety. Players can now quickly adapt their strategies to counter an opponent by, for example, retraining their heroes with a different selection of skills (for a price, of course), while high level players will frequently engage in minute micro-management of battles, “dancing” with their units in order to conserve as many hit points as possible.

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

And yet, despite this shift from large-scale macro-management to small-scale micro-management, little has ultimately changed. The objective of the majority of multiplayer skirmishes is still to destroy the enemy’s base, while the removal of sea units (leaving just land and air) actually feels like something of a step backwards from Warcraft II. Blizzard’s -craft formula has endured over the years for a reason, so perhaps the decision to retain the same basic mechanics, almost down to a T, was a wise one. The improvements are generally more subtle - you can, for example, queue up worker units to construct multiple buildings, as well as add weapon, armour and spell upgrades to production queues. Additionally, once a worker finishes building a resource centre, he will then automatically begin harvesting the relevant resource (for example, a Peasant who has finished constructing a Lumber Mill will go to the nearest tree and begin chopping). The result of these subtle refinements is that, once you get used to them, it becomes difficult to go back to an earlier game in the series and learn to adapt to playing without them.

With Starcraft, Blizzard introduced the groundbreaking idea of having each of its three playable factions being completely different from one another, and therefore requiring completely different play styles, while at the same time wrangling the seemingly impossible task of balancing them so that no race had an advantage over the other. By increasing the number of races to four for Warcraft III (actually reduced from an originally projected six), the developers made that task even harder for themselves, and generally manage to pull it off quite successfully. Ultimately, the same basic principles remain for each faction - each race has a worker unit who harvests gold from a gold mine, for example - but little subtleties ensure that they don’t do everything the same way. Orcs and Humans, for example, can harvest gold directly from the mine, but the Undead and Night Elves must first construct an additional structure on top of the mine, with their worker units remaining inside it instead of walking back and forth between it and the Town Hall. Likewise, everyone harvests lumber, but, in the case of the Undead, it is actually Ghouls, the race’s basic melee units, that perform this task rather than their standard workers, the Acolytes. Furthermore, the Night Elves, who have a great affinity with nature, do not chop down trees but instead send their Wisps to “bond” with them and extract their resources non-destructively. Little touches like these show that Blizzard is not intent on making these changes simply for the sake of being different, but has instead worked hard to make them thematically appropriate. The regal Humans, with their imposing castles and fortifications, have the strongest defences in the game, while the Undead, who are running rampant across the world and spreading their plague, can only build on ground that has been “infested” by Blight, which renders the land sickly and allows nearby Undead units to heal more quickly. Admittedly, many of these ideas initially appeared in Starcraft in a similar form (the Blight is nothing more than a variation on the Zerg’s “Creep”), but all the same we’ve come a long way from the days of the first Warcraft, in which the only real difference between the Orcs and the Humans was the colour of their skin.

The game comes with a single player campaign which involves all four races. Strictly linear in its structure, players progress from one level to the next, maintaining their principal hero units’ abilities, experience and inventory items, but with one’s performance in one level generally having no direct result on the next (this is very different from the Myth games, where basic units who survived one level would progress to the next with more hit points and better weapons). It is in this campaign that Warcraft III becomes rather disappointing. Starcraft’s storyline, while not of the same quality as RPG greats like Planescape: Torment, was at least engaging and dramatic, and populated by believable characters that the player could relate to. The ongoing banter between Raynor and Kerrigan in the Terran campaign, for example, was amusing and touching, and made Kerrigan’s betrayal to the Zerg at the end of the penultimate Terran mission surprisingly heart-wrenching. In Warcraft III, however, most of the plot developments are predictable, being lifted either from other game storylines (Arthas’ corruption by the Lich King mirrors the infestation of Kerrigan) or from the work of JRR Tolkien, whose influence permeates through every single fantasy mythology created since the mid-1950s. At times, the narrative even repeats itself, with the characters of Arthas and Illadan going through almost identical arcs as they are influenced by the forces of evil. The pacing is generally not particularly well handled, either, with Arthas’ growing obsession and descent to the dark side not coming across as remotely believable. The campaign also lacks the epic scope demanded by the storyline of an entire world at war, and the decision to focus on small-scale battles disadvantages the credibility of the single player mode. Only on one occasion - during the final Orc level - does the campaign come close to being awe-inspiring, as the sky turns red and giant demons constructed of stone and fire come crashing to earth. More moments like these would have made the campaign less of a slog through a series of predictable and rather easy missions (the entire 34-mission story, including two tutorial maps, can be completed in a couple of prolonged gaming sessions).

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

The entire graphical presentation is also at odds with the nature of the story. The Warcraft games have always favoured a colourful, exaggerated, cartoony appearance (in comparison to the more realistic Starcraft, and competing franchises such as Age of Empires and Myth), and the third instalment is no exception, with the rather basic polygonal models actually coming across as quite lively in spite of the move to 3D. In the previous games, the storyline itself was restricted to separate mission briefing screens, but, with Warcraft III, the bulk of the plot development has been shifted into scripted events that use the game engine itself. This means that, when grotesquely caricatured figures, whose mouths flap about in a thoroughly over-animated style, are talking about the end of the world, it’s all a little difficult to take seriously. In this respect, the pre-rendered CGI FMV sequences, which introduce the game and bookend each section of the campaign, and are rendered in a more photo-realistic style, are much more effective. Add to this some rather poor voice acting, which tends to be either too bland or too over the top, and it becomes clear that Starcraft was the better game in terms of unifying narrative and gameplay.

As an overall gaming experience, Warcraft III is a solid effort. The presentation is reasonably strong and the multiplayer and player-versus-computer skirmish modes are well-balanced and entertaining. The single player campaign, however, is a let-down, while the smaller scale of the conflict detracts from the worldwide, epic nature of the storyline. As such, Starcraft is still by far the best strategy game experience on the PC, and remains a benchmark that, in nearly nine years, Blizzard has yet to match.

8/10.

 
Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2006 at 7:46 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Games | Reviews | Technology
 

Video vulgarities

Gah! I’m sick and tired of this sodding nVidia card and its utterly useless video support. So much so, in fact, that I’m going to punt it as quickly as possible, and have ordered a new card from the trusted ATI to replace it. I decided to splurge on a Sapphire Radeon X1950XT from Chillblast. Hopefully I can recoup as much as possible of the cost of buying the nVidia card in the first place.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2006 at 9:05 PM | Comments: 10 (view)
Categories: Technology
 

Jingle bells

DVD DVD

In case you didn’t notice, yesterday was Christmas. As luck would have it, the various presents I had ordered all showed up on Saturday, contrary to all expectation (Saturday being the last day for the postal service until the 27th), and I got one or two surprises in addition to those. Thanks must go especially to Lee for sending me a copy of Burton on Burton, which, as you can probably guess, is a book on director Tim Burton and his bizarre gothic fantasies. I’m sure I’ll enjoy getting stuck into it when I next have a spare moment.

Otherwise, there were no huge surprises. I got The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers - The Complete Recordings (what a mouthful!) on CD but haven’t had a chance to listen to anything but the first couple of tracks. And, in terms of DVDs, my collection now includes Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 4, The Double Life of Véronique (Criterion), The Quiller Memorandum and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Ultimate Edition). I’ve not had the time to watch any of them, but I gave most of them a brief glance, and have collected my thoughts below.

DVD DVD

  • The Double Life of Véronique: This release looks slightly better than the French MK2 release (repackaged in the UK under the Artificial Eye label), but it’s a close call. There is less noise reduction and the compression is better handled, giving the image a more eye-pleasing, filmlike appearance. However, I am once again annoyed that Criterion, who are (wrongly, in my opinion) frequently held up to be the pinnacle of DVD production companies, have chosen to assault the image with edge enhancement and brick-wall filtering. Especially following the advent of HD DVD, I am acutely aware that the vast majority of DVDs simply aren’t of an acceptable level of quality.

  • The Quiller Memorandum: Probably the worst transfer I’ve seen all year. This DVD was released only a month ago, and yet it looks almost like a LaserDisc master. The image is flat, detail is non-existent, and I once again find myself wondering how Fox, like Criterion, can garner so much praise for such feeble efforts.

  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: This restoration, undertaken by Synapse’s Don Mar Jr., has been praised to the high heavens on the Internet, and with good reason: the film has undoubtedly never looked better on a home video format, and the material May had to work with can’t have been in particularly good condition. All the more reason, then, for my to be annoyed by Dark Sky’s DVD, which is ineptly encoded, resulting in some of the most blatant macro-blocking I’ve seen in a long time. At times, the screen is such an array of compression blocks that it resembles a UK Freeview TV broadcast (which anyone who has witnessed this ingenious but flawed “digital TV through an antenna” solution will agree is capable of looking very bad indeed).

That’s all for now. Thoughts on the Looney Tunes discs will follow eventually.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2006 at 4:54 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | General | HD DVD | Music | Technology
 

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas '06!
 
Posted: Monday, December 25, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: General
 

Silent night, Holby night…

Many of you probably know that I am something of a fan of the British medical drama series Casualty. These days, the show is sometimes so bad that I wonder why I don’t pack it in, but the two-part Christmas special that ran last night and tonight reminded me why I still tune in every week. These episodes were written by Barbara Machin, the creator of the excellent Waking the Dead and one of the show’s regular writers when it was at its peak, and she managed to deliver something that I’d thought the show was no longer capable of: cutting-edge, intense drama (as opposed to the soap we tend to be served up). It was like stepping into a time machine and going back a decade or so to when the show was of a consistently high standard and something that was unmissable television rather than the schedule-filler it so often seems to be now.

The concept itself is something that I’m sure has been done before in countless other shows, but nonetheless felt fresh and unique. Essentially, it told the same story from the perspective of three different characters, one after the other, with the focus shifting each time it was replayed, allowing the audience to see things that hadn’t been apparent before. Obviously, having every episode play like this would be pointless, which is what what really pleased me was the quality of the drama itself. Characters who had, for months or years, been stuck in the background or were written completely out of character, came to the forefront and seemed like their old selves again. I never expected this show to ever again amaze me and have me absolutely gripped, but I have no happily been proved wrong. This was not just the best episode of Casualty in years but one of the finest television programmes I’ve seen all year. I am, quite literally, stunned.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006 at 11:35 PM
Categories: TV | Waking the Dead
 

What a difference a day makes

I decided to format my hard drive yesterday. My previous install of Windows actually dated back to May 2005, when I first got my current rig - a pretty exceptional lifespan, given that most experts recommend reinstalling Windows every six months to keep things in tip-top shape. I’ve personally always found that number to be somewhat exaggerated, but it’s definitely true that, eventually, your system will begin to get bogged down, for one reason or another, meaning that hitting the big red button is the most straightforward way to sort things out.

Result: PureVideo, the advanced video technology from nVidia whose non-functionality I ranted about recently, now inexplicably works. Why? I don’t know, and I’m annoyed that it only works in Windows Media Player, not PowerDVD or WinDVD. In any event, I don’t see any immediate different in image quality, so I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it, although the ability to control various attributes in more detail, such as deinterlacing mode and preferred overlay settings, is a nice bonus.

I’m fast coming to the conclusion, however, that nVidia’s much-criticised drivers really are every bit as bad as people have made out. Most of my problems stem from the complete stupidity of the implementation of its video controls. Just as PureVideo decided to start working for no reason, the gamma control has decided to disable itself arbitrarily. The slider is greyed out - a problem that apparently also affects several other users, but doesn’t affect others. Once again, there is no known solution. Likewise, I sometimes find that, when I run PowerDVD or Media Player, the colour temperature will have magically changed itself, giving everything a blue or red cast. And don’t even get me started on the fact that Media Player requires the brightness to be set considerably lower than PowerDVD in order to get black rather than grey - this may be a Microsoft problem, but I certainly don’t remember it being an issue when I had an ATI card.

Now I see where all the off-colour jokes about their drivers come from.

 
Posted: Sunday, December 24, 2006 at 1:58 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: General | Technology
 

PowerDVD HD - finally

Cyberlink

As you probably know, I use my computer quite extensively for DVDs - not just for playback, but also for taking screen captures for reviews, analysing bit rates, carrying out in-depth comparisons between different releases of the same film, and so on. As you can therefore probably imagine, I’m dying to start doing the same thing with HD DVD content. Originally, I thought this would mean either buying an expensive HD DVD drive or waiting for them to come down in price, but the recent discovery that the $200 Xbox 360 add-on drive could actually be hooked up to any PC and used for HD DVD playback right out of the box was a considerable relief, and means that, when they finally become available again (the initial shipments were snatched up faster than you can say “steal of the century”), I will certainly be picking one up.

More good news, then, that Cyberlink has finally released its long-delayed high definition version of the venerable PowerDVD suite. PowerDVD Ultra can play both HD DVD and Blu-ray movies (although the word on the street is that it can only do one at a time, meaning that you have to choose which format you want to play during the install process). At $99, it’s a bit steep, but I expect it will eventually come down in price, and, in any event, I won’t be buying it until I’ve ascertained that it is capable of playing titles in full 1920x1080 resolution. The early HD-enabled versions of PowerDVD bundled with HD DVD PC systems downscaled the image to 960x540, regardless of the fact that, so far, no commercially released titles have had the resolution-limiting ICT flag enabled, and despite the fact that those with HDCP-enabled video cards and displays (like me) are being affected by what should, for them, be a non-issue. Apparently, this is because PowerDVD were terrified of being sued, and therefore chose to mangle the viewing experience for their customers rather than face the wrath of the Hollywood thugs. Obviously, if I can’t watch, analyse and capture discs in their native resolution, there’s not much point in the whole affair, so I certainly won’t be frittering away any pennies until I know exactly what I’m dealing with. I hope for a trial version before too long.

Update #2, December 24, 2006 11:55 AM: I seem to have been misinformed about the downscaling issue, which it turns out does not affect PowerDVD. I give visitor Demented’s response below in full:

“You have slightly got your facts wrong here. PowerDVD 6.5, which came bundled with Toshiba HD-DVD laptops and other HD-DVD drives, does play titles at full resolution. The problem with this early version is that it is full of bugs.

You appear to be confused with the Intervideo Japanese Win DVD HD-DVD software which would automatically downscale titles to 960x540. I can confirm that the Intervideo BD player does play titles in full 1080p.

PowerDVD Ultra does also play titles in full 1080p but the upcoming Intervideo release looks to be slightly better and much cheaper. Another problem for PowerDVD Ultra owners is that you have to specify which version you install – either BD or HD-DVD. This is yet another needless annoyance for those of us who have both formats.”

As such, I suspect I’ll now wait to see what Intervideo come up with, although personally I’ve always found the interface design of Cyberlink’s players to be more intuitive.

 
Posted: Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 10:07 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

IE7 getting you down?

Have you noticed a slight decrease in system performance after installing Internet Explorer 7, especially when it comes to file browsing and closing programs? I certainly did, but I couldn’t for the life of me work out where the problem was coming from, as even uninstalling IE7 didn’t fix it. I don’t, as it happens, use Internet Explorer for web browsing, but I do occasionally refer to it for compatability testing or that rare site that refuses to work in a proper web browser. As such, I try to keep up to date with it, if only to plug as many holes in Microsoft’s notoriously leaky faucet as possible.

This evening, I finally came across the solution by chance at forums.whirlpool.net.au:

Have you noticed a decrease in system response times especially with menu response this is caused by “ctfmon.exe” starting after installing ie7? I have removed “ctfmon.exe” and all is fast again.

To fix it Go to Start, then Control Panel, then Regional and Language Options, then click Languages tab, then Details, then Advanced tab, then put a check next to “Turn off advanced text service” then hit Apply. ctfmon.exe will be removed from the Task Manager process list permanently

Finally click start run type: Regsvr32.exe /u msutb.dll and ctfmon.exe will be banished

And there you have it - your system will be back to full speed again.

 
Posted: Saturday, December 23, 2006 at 8:05 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Technology | Web
 

Here’s someone else who doesn’t pay import duty

HD DVD

The HD DVD of The Adventures of Robin Hood arrived from Deep Discount DVD yesterday, and I’m pleased to report that Warner have delivered another stellar disc. It’s becoming quite apparent that, at Warner, there are two processes through which a title can go. The first, which has given us discs like Constantine, Million Dollar Baby and V for Vendetta, delivers a noise reduced, slightly edge enhanced transfer. These are good-looking discs, but not up to the standards I demand. The second, which has given us discs like Corpse Bride, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and now, seemingly, The Adventures of Robin Hood, results in an image that seems to be more or less completely untampered: sharp as a tack, appropriately grainy (or not, as is the case with the all-digital Corpse Bride), and no edge enhancement in sight. A couple of scenes in Robin Hood show some slight ringing, and I’m currently investigating to determine whether this is caused by edge enhancement applied to the transfer, or something else endemic to the source materials (optical process shots, for example, often result in what nowadays we would refer to as edge enhancement).

As for the film, I found it to be a hoot: gloriously colourful, outrageously camp and filled with swashbuckling adventure and melodrama. Not the sort of thing I usually go in for, but I was suitably entertained and found it to be an enjoyable enough way to kill an hour and a half. The high definition Looney Tunes cartoons look gorgeous too, although something is up with the sound on both of them, with a lot of crackling that sounds decidedly digital in nature during the high frequencies. I’ve tried two different sets of speakers, so it’s not my sound system, and I can therefore only assume that this is a mastering fault.

On the not so positive side, only one of my four Christmas DVDs has arrived (Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 4), which means that, if they don’t show up by tomorrow (I’m not confident), they’ll be too late.

 
Posted: Friday, December 22, 2006 at 10:37 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Animation | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

HD DVD review: Miami Vice

HD DVD
Miami Vice is ultimately close to two and a half hours of posturing, insincere characterisation and abrasive style, none of which would suggest, barring the appearance of his name during the opening credits, that a filmmaker of Michael Mann’s calibre was behind it. To describe it as a failed experiment would be charitable: a mess is a more accurate description.

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx don their designer shades and head out to the beach as I review Universal’s recent HD DVD/DVD combo release of Miami Vice.

 
Posted: Thursday, December 21, 2006 at 2:41 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Reviews
 

Pencils at the ready!

Disney/Pixar

Source: Animation Nation

Some potentially very interesting, not to mention shocking, news has just surfaced regarding Walt Disney Pictures. As you probably know, shortly before the release of Home on the Range, it was announced that this would be the studio’s finally traditionally animated feature, with the bulk of the staff being laid off and the remainder retrained in 3D animation. However, when Pixar big-shots John Lasseter and Ed Catmull took over Feature Animation as part of the terms of Disney’s acquisition of Pixar, it was widely expected that 2D would eventually make a return to Disney in some form. I don’t think that anyone, however, was expecting this:

Pencil. Paper. Have you two met? I think the better question may be directed to the animator — do you remember how to use them? I remember when Toy Story came out in 1995 — it was huge! It broke barriers being the first full-length computer animated film. It was exciting and quickly became the thing to do; seemingly making hand drawing the thing of the past. Disney animation is now putting a stop to the CGI addiction and returning to a more traditional drawing plan.

This change, just announced today by John Lasseter and Ed Catmull, will take place in Walt Disney Co.’s Burbank studios, leaving Pixar to exclusively work on CGI projects. There isn’t a specific answer to why the change happened, but one rumor centers around Chris Sanders who is responsible for Lilo and Stitch and the upcoming film American Dog. Lilo and Stitch, if you can remember, was hand-drawn — and was a huge success. Perhaps they’re hoping the same hand-drawn success with American Dog.

If this turns out to be true, all I can say is “wow”. This is something that I never thought would happen in a million years, but it sounds as if traditional theatrical animation is well and truly on its way back. It sucks that so many artists were laid off in the first place, many of them after having already completed extensive 3D retraining, but if ditching Disney’s schedule of CGI flicks in favour of a return to the studio’s roots means yet more upheaval in the short term, I’m sure most will agree that the benefits will be immense in the long run.

 
Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 10:07 PM
Categories: Animation
 

Buena Vista quietly switches to VC1

Source: High-Def Digest

Due in stores today, Disney’s latest wave of Blu-ray titles features the studio’s first VC-1-encoded title, the Jodie Foster thriller ‘Flightplan.’

Interesting, interesting. Could we be in line for an HD DVD announcement at some point in the new year?

 
Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 6:53 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Le DVNR et la compression

HD DVD

My copy of Studio Canal’s recently released HD DVD of Basic Instinct arrived from Amazon.fr this morning.

Unfortunately, the transfer, while clearly in a different league compared to standard definition, is artefact-ridden in a way that I’ve never seen on an HD DVD until now. Daylight scenes generally look fine, but those taking place at night or in subdued interior lighting conditions (which accounts for a considerable portion of the film’s duration) look smeared and defocused. Grain patterns stick to the walls and actors’ faces during panning shots, making it pretty clear that some intensive DVNR has been applied. And why? The film isn’t even 15 years old, and the compressionists have 30 GB of data to play with (and no extras, barring a trailer for other Studio Canal titles and some test patterns). I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that this is the least impressive HD DVD I’ve seen so far (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and An American Werewolf in London are contending for that crown), but it’s definitely underwhelming and not the sort of thing I’d show to someone to sell them on the delights of high definition.

I just hope this isn’t indicative of what we can expect from Studio Canal as a whole. Certainly their trailer reel, which showcases everything from The Elephant Man to Rambo to Ran, looks rather mixed in terms of quality, with some material looking absolutely excellent (the grain in Rambo looks phenomenal, and their version of Million Dollar Baby looks more impressive than Warner’s), but some not so impressive (Ran is marred by giant edge enhancement halos).

 
Posted: Wednesday, December 20, 2006 at 1:12 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

Links updated

As I previously mentioned, when I switched web hosts from Fuitadnet (die, die!) to Donym (doodle pip!), I had to reinstall Movable Type, which changed the URLs for all my news posts made using that system. Of course, it didn’t occur to me until today that this meant that there were a bunch of dead links all over the site, since many news posts linked to other posts, and so on. Therefore, I’ve been through everything and updated the URLs to point to the correct locations. Hopefully I haven’t missed anything, but if you find any other dead links, let me know.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 6:17 PM
Categories: Web
 

Asterix gets a paint-job

My copies of the first four books in the new Astérix: La Grande Collection line (see here and here for more information) arrived this morning. Rather than going chronologically, they seem to be being released in something resembling a “pincer” movement, with titles from both the beginning and the end of the series being released at once, working towards the middle. In many ways, this is something of a shame, because it will be, by my reckoning, several years before we get to the series’ golden age with stories like The Mansions of the Gods and Asterix and the Roman Agent. On the other hand, it allows us to see the two extremes of Uderzo’s art style, with the bold, slightly crude shapes of the late 50s/early 60s being mixed with the hyper-detailed but less vibrant illustrations of the 21st century. Now available, therefore, are Astérix le Gaulois (Asterix the Gaul), La Serpe d’Or (Asterix and the Golden Sickle), Astérix et Latraviata (Asterix and the Actress) and Astérix et la Rentrée Gauloise (Asterix and the Class Act - a compilation of short stories from various different eras).

Asterix the Gaul

I must confess that I feel I may have unfairly characterised these new editions in my previous posts on the subject. Now that I actually have them in my hands, I’m able to appreciate the work that has gone into them. No, purists, of which club I consider myself a part-time member, are not going to like these: these are not the books as they were originally released. (On the other hand, a glance at a reproduction of the first page of Asterix the Gaul from the first issue of Pilote, included with the new edition for comparative purposes, reveals that that particular story has never be available in book form with its “original” colours: Uderzo seems to have done some “touching up” of it when all the pages were collected together into one volume.) As someone who demands that films be presented in their original aspect ratios and audio mixes, I suppose I should be one of the people crying bloody murder at this desecration of a classic. And yet I’m not. I have all of the books in their original versions, and they’re not going anywhere. Yes, it will be a shame if, in years to come, these recoloured versions end up being the only versions available, but for the time being I will look upon them as curious alternatives, much like when a film is released on DVD with both its original mono audio and a bells-and-whistles DTS remix.

Asterix and the Golden Sickle

Some thoughts:

First, I’m not sure if it’s the larger size (the Grande Collection, appropriately named, is approximately 33% larger than its predecessors), or the restored inking, or a combination of the two, but the panels come alive like never before. Little details that were previously lost are now visible, and panels that previously felt too “busy” thanks to a lot of characters or text being crammed into them now have room to “breathe”. The paper is also of a very high quality, similar to that of the most recent UK hardcover and paperback re-releases from Orion.

Asterix and the Actress

But what of the colours? So sue me, I like them. What, in the Flash demonstration I linked to previously, looked unsubtle and flat now looks warm and textured when actually printed. I’m not sure whether it’s because the flat colours have now been printed on to paper, or because what the Flash demonstration showed was an early prototype, but whatever complaints I had then have now gone. Look at the scan from Asterix the Gaul at the top of this post and then look at the various alternatives shown here - you may disagree, but I like this one the best. Especially impressive is the work done on panels featuring light sources other than sunlight, such as burning fires or the moon. These are now shaded and lit appropriately, while grass, dirt and the sky are no longer filled with a single flat wash, but are instead given subtle gradients that help give a sense of depth.

Asterix and the Class Act

On the most recent story but one (Asterix and the Falling Sky, for some reason, has been held back for the time being), the reworked colours on Asterix and the Actress are more subtle than on the earlier stories. In many instances, this is not so much a case of changing the colours as of simply repainting the same relative hues. In general there seems to be a tendency to go for increased brightness and saturation, which at times gives the panels an overly garish appearance, but for the most part the changes are subtle and non-destructive, albeit somewhat unnecessary.

Many people are undoubtedly going to hate these new editions, and that’s understandable. It certainly seems to be a case of Uderzo indulging in revisionism for revisionism’s sake, and I’m sure plenty of readers would have preferred the original colours to be maintained in these new larger print editions. Still, these new versions are attractive and “restored” with appropriate care, and they are certainly not the travesty they could have been. I won’t be getting rid of my older editions any time soon (I still have the entire French run in near-mint condition from the mid-to-late 90s, not to mention English copies from various vintages), but I think I’ll continue to buy the Grande Collection as new titles become available.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 5:01 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Books
 

RIP Joe Barbera 1911-2006

Source: USA Today

This really is the end of an era.

 
Posted: Tuesday, December 19, 2006 at 11:07 AM
Categories: Animation | General
 
 

 
 
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