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Machine built to perfection

Blu-ray

By brother picked up the US Blu-ray release of Alex (Dark City) Proyas’ I, Robot today, and I have to say I’m extremely impressed by the image quality: this is definitely the best disc I’ve seen from 20th Century Fox so far. Pin-sharp, naturally grainy and without a trace of artificial sharpening.

Now, obviously, we’re talking about two films produced in different time periods, with different technical specifications (Telecine-sourced for Dark City, digital intermediate for I, Robot), but this is much closer to how Dark City should have looked than the version released recently by New Line, mangled by their noise reduction machine of waxy faces.

I, Robot
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 26.4 GB)

I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot I, Robot

 
Posted: Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 11:18 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

How to lose your credibility in 113 minutes

Blu-ray

Today, after waiting what seemed like an age, my copy of the US Blu-ray release of Doomsday, Neil Marshall’s newest film, reached me.

Unfortunately, after a promising start, this film proceeds to completely ransack any sense of self-dignity. It’s essentially a string of pastiches of different genres, and as a result has no credibility or identity of its own, jumping from futuristic sci-fi to post-apocalyptic urban warfare to Lord of the Rings-esque medieval romp to Gladiator-inspired arena games to Mad Max-style car chase, all leading up to a confrontation between our heroine and the impossibly throaty-voiced David O’Hara wearing an outfit that left me fighting the urge to start singing “We are the Men in Black…”

I suppose it held my attention throughout, so at least I wasn’t bored, but I couldn’t take any of it seriously, and the impression I’m left with is that someone handed Neil Marshall a cheque for a rather large sum of money and told him to do whatever he wanted. Which is sort of admirable, I suppose, and I do to some extent admire his “fuck it” mentality, throwing in whatever he felt like. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t take it remotely seriously and was left with the impression that I was watching a movie written by a teenage boy with no concept of how to maintain a consistent tone or even string together a semi-coherent plot. By far the best thing about it was Rhona Mitra, who manages to retain a level of credibility even when everything around her is going to pot. Overall, though, Marshall really dropped the ball with this one, and is making the masterful The Descent look more and more like a fluke by the minute.

It also doesn’t help that, a few days earlier, I’d watched another “post-apocalyptic” Britain film, the infinitely superior 28 Weeks Later

…actually, you know what? Read Lyris’ review. It’s much funnier than mine.

As if to rub it in, the transfer, one of Universal’s first Blu-ray releases, is a sterling effort, looking natural and generally flawless, with no visible compression artefacts or any signs of digital tampering. Oh yeah, and the building visible in the final shot is my place of work, which is sort of neat, I guess. Too bad it wasn’t in a better movie.

Doomsday
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 21.9 GB)

Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday Doomsday

 
Posted: Friday, August 22, 2008 at 9:30 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta initial impressions

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 beta

As I’ve stated before, I’ve not always been a fan of the Command & Conquer series of real-time strategy games. In the mid-to-late 1990s, the RTS landscape was dominated by two key players, Westwood Studios and Blizzard Entertainment, with Westwood’s Command & Conquer games pitted against Blizzard’s Warcraft (and later Starcraft). While I know that many gamers were able to enjoy both, the majority seem to have come down firmly on one side or the other, and I was a staunch loyalist of the Blizzard camp. For me, their games were always more intuitive, tactile and polished, offering an overall more pleasant experience. In contrast, I tended to find Westwood’s games more finicky, frequently suffering from mushy, indistinct graphics, control issues and a general lack of a meaningful connection (a typical Command & Conquer game tended to consist of cranking out as large an attack force as possible and rushing the enemy en masse, whereas Blizzard’s games tended to stress quality over quantity, forcing the player to make strategic decisions about which units to build).

Times, however, have changed. Westwood Studios is no more, and the last RTS Blizzard put out was Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2002 (with an expansion set in 2003). The publisher of the Command & Conquer games, Electronic Arts, established their own studio, EALA, to continue development of the franchise, beginning with the rather poorly-received 2003 spin-off Command & Conquer: Generals. In the meantime, while Blizzard arguably continued to dominate the RTS market, particularly as far as E-sports are concerned, several other franchises emerged to compete, muddying the waters somewhat and meaning that the old C&C/-craft binary no longer existed.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

In 2007, the Command & Conquer series was resurrected with Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, which, coincidentally or not, was the first one I genuinely enjoyed. I picked up a copy of the game in April, and then snagged the Kane’s Wrath expansion set in July. Since then, both have remained on my hard disk and have been played rather obsessively. I’m not sure precisely what EALA did, but they managed to turn my thoughts on the franchise around completely, allowing me to enjoy their game in a way that I never could with Westwood’s efforts. (This turnaround, incidentally, mirrors my experiences with the Tomb Raider franchise, which I believe improved exponentially when Crystal Dynamics took over from Core Design.)

Kane’s Wrath came with a free key to enter the beta test of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, the third instalment in the spin-off Red Alert franchise. (While the vanilla Command & Conquer series takes place in the future, the Red Alert games operate in an alternate reality Cold War scenario in which Hitler never came to power and the Soviet Union emerged as the dominant adversary to the Allies in Europe.) My account was activated this morning, and I’ve spent most of the day getting the hang of it. (Normally I’d be at work, but we’re all on strike today over a pay dispute.) The beta supports only online play, without any means of learning the ropes before jumping on to the Internet and invariably taking a savage beating from more experienced players. Four maps are provided, as well as all three playable factions: the Allies, the Soviets and the new Empire of the Rising Sun (i.e. Japan).

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Whereas vanilla Command & Conquer has always offered a semi-realistic take on the world, the style of Red Alert is altogether more exaggerated, with units that range from your traditional infantry to armoured bears who can be shot out of cannons and parachuted into the enemy base. Much like the franchise’s famous FMVs, all of this is done in a firmly tongue-in-cheek manner, resulting in a rather silly but nonetheless engaging experience. Visually, the colour palette is a good deal more saturated than that of Tiberium Wars, and accordingly the unit and building designs are more exaggerated, looking chunkier and more toy-like. Lower-grade units such as infantry are still a bit too small on the screen, making it difficult to distinguish between, say, a Peacekeeper and a Javelin Soldier (a long-running complaint I have with these games), but otherwise the design is bold, striking and richly saturated.

Otherwise, the mechanics are largely the same as those of Tiberium Wars. The unit names and designs may be different, but the basic principles are more or less unchanged. The biggest monkey wrench comes in the form of the added emphasis on naval combat. Many buildings and a few units as well can be placed on both land and sea, which gives the gameplay an added dimension. I still haven’t quite got the hang of it (naval combat was always my weakest point in RTSes like Warcraft II and Age of Empires), but it seems fun and adds a degree of variety to the tactics that are available to you.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

Right now, certain aspects of the gameplay do feel rather unwieldy, although there’s nothing here that can’t be changed with a bit of balancing and polishing. The controls seem a tad unresponsive, a combination (I suspect) of lag on the beta server and the fact that, like Tiberium Wars, the frame rate has a forced cap of 30 fps (words cannot express how much this irritates me, especially in a fast-paced game like this). Likewise, the interface looks and feels somewhat clunky, which is odd given that it’s virtually identical to the one used in the previous Command & Conquer games. That aspect of the art could, I suspect, do with a bit of a polish to make things feel a bit more finished. Also, it may just have been my experience, but currently the Allies feel somewhat underpowered in comparison to the two other races. So far, the only game I’ve won while playing as them was against a complete beginner who hadn’t even managed to build any troops before I steamrolled his/her base, whereas I had considerably more successes while playing as the Soviet Union. I haven’t tested the Empire of the Rising Sun to any great extent yet, although their heavy emphasis on mechanical, “Transformers”-like units it’s really to my personal tastes. Oh, and I’ve experienced a fair number of crashes and connection failures, but that’s par for the course with unfinished software.

Overall, what I’ve seen looks fairly promising. Tiberium Wars definitely has a slicker, more polished feel, and it’s unclear whether this discrepancy is down to the fact that Red Alert 3 is still in beta, but I’d hazard a guess that, with just over two months to go before release, there won’t be any major changes made to the core mechanics between now and then. On balance, therefore, while the saturated, exaggerated world of Red Alert 3 appeals more to my tastes than the more realistic, sci-fi-oriented Tiberium Wars, I could see myself sticking with the latter in the long run.

Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 5:57 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology
 

JESUS CHRIST WHAT A HORRIBLE TRANSFER

Blu-ray

After the Escape from New York Blu-ray scandal broke, I knew I just had to see the disc for myself. Of course, the screen captures were pretty damning in their own right, but there’s something about seeing it in motion that makes it all the more “real”. Thank goodness for LoveFilm, who dispatched it to me yesterday. It was waiting for me today when I got home from work, and my goodness, it is, if possible, even worse than I expected.

Quoth Lyris:

As someone who’s authored and encoded DVDs, it is my opinion that the source looks like a processed standard-def studio tape (and not a very appealing one, either): that is, marginally better than DVD, but way below 1080p standard. The film grain structure (or what’s left of it) is thick and clumpy, it looks undoubtedly SD.

If Optimum are reading this, I urge them to look into it. Did the master tape come from France? Could there possibly have been a language barrier issue? For example, if Optimum requested an HDCAM SR tape of “Escape from New York”, the facility could have made them one, using a Digital Betacam tape as a source. Optimum receive the HDCAM SR tape and make a disc out of it, completely unaware of the original source material.

Escape from New york
(Optimum UK, AVC, 18.8 GB)

Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York Escape from New York

 
Posted: Saturday, August 16, 2008 at 9:56 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Grit, grime and zombies… oh my!

Blu-ray

Copied and pasted from the previous post

In terms of presentation, 20th Century Fox’s transfer is very good, seemingly representing the varied source formats (35mm, 16mm, high definition video) accurately. There may have been a small amount of noise reduction, but nothing too severe. A few of the HDV-based shots exhibit some noticeable haloing, but I’m assuming that this was inherent to the source format rather than something intentionally applied for the BD release. Either way, only a handful of shots are affected. The rest looks excellent.

28 Weeks Later
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC, 29.6 GB)

28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later 28 Weeks Later

 
Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 11:47 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

28 times better

Blu-ray

Tonight, I finally got round to watching 28 Weeks Later on Blu-ray after much procrastination, and I’m glad I didn’t just leave it to gather dust on the shelf. This is a much better film than its predecessor, 28 Days Later, which I always found rather overrated, mainly due to its cheap consumer grade video camerawork and clumsy “who are the real monsters?” themes. The sequel has these themes too, and it also has a lot of choppy hand-held camerawork, but it does both of them considerably better than its predecessor, and the fact that it’s shot on film means that it no longer feels like amateur hour.

It’s interesting that the director, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, is Spanish, given that one of his compatriots, Alfonso Cuarón, created a similarly effective portrayal of a post-apocalyptic Britain in the excellent Children of Men. Unlike Cuarón’s film, however, 28 Weeks Later is unabashedly a horror film - grim, violent and pacey. I’m actually extremely impressed by the plotting, in that it was one of those films where I could never precict what was going to happen next, and it threw me in a loop on several occasions when it came to who died and who survived.

Robert Carlyle may get top billing, but to be honest his screen time is somewhat limited. The film truly belongs to his character’s two children, played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton, both of whom are revelations, never once giving off the impression that they are actually “acting”. Catherine McCormack also shines in a brief role.

In terms of presentation, 20th Century Fox’s transfer is very good, seemingly representing the varied source formats (35mm, 16mm, high definition video) accurately. There may have been a small amount of noise reduction, but nothing too severe. A few of the HDV-based shots exhibit some noticeable haloing, but I’m assuming that this was inherent to the source format rather than something intentionally applied for the BD release. Either way, only a handful of shots are affected. The rest looks excellent.

 
Posted: Thursday, August 14, 2008 at 10:26 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Is this the new Traffic?

DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD

Over the last few days, a veritable shitstorm has erupted on the Internet regarding Optimum’s recent UK Blu-ray release of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York. The word of mouth was that this was in fact nothing more than a standard definition upconvert. Comparative screen captures seemed to confirm this, indicating virtually no improvement in detail over the UK Special Edition DVD release (and a rather unpleasant green tint to boot).

Optimum were swift to rebuke these claims, stating, in an announcement posted at DVD Times, that

We at Optimum always try to provide our customers with the best possible quality video from the best source available to us. All our titles meet the required line count to qualify as ‘High Definition’, i.e. 1080p or 1080i. Contrary to reports on some fan forums, we have been assured by our supplier that the original source for the Blu-ray of Escape from New York is HD. We have not released and we will not release films on Blu-ray from masters we know to be up-scaled from SD PAL. The quality of HD masters of older films can vary and we are sorry if you are unhappy with the quality of picture on Escape From New York Blu-ray. Should a better master become available for this or any other Optimum title then we will endeavour to publish it as soon as feasible.

Unfortunately, the evidence, to my eyes, would seem to be stacked against Optimum. I’m sure they were indeed “assured by their supplier” that the master handed to them was HD. Unfortunately, their supplier is Studio Canal, whose track record, in either HD or SD, is not exactly a shining beacon of light. Further faecal matter hit the fan yesterday when pictures emerged of a version of the film that has been broadcast on HDNet, blowing the Optimum release out of the water.

To quote Lyris:

The BD release screen grabs posted look very much like a Digital Betacam tape (or other unadulterated standard definition source) that has been scaled to 1920x1080 then processed. That would explain the SLIGHT gain in detail on the BD: it’s not been low-pass filtered like the DVD will have been prior to compression. Since Optimum have denied that this is the case, we’ll just have to say it’s a poor HD release.

One thing doesn’t change though: the review scores that this has received at some sites are cause for concern.

So, is Escape from New York on Blu-ray the new Traffic? I can’t be 100% sure, but what I do know is that it’s one sorry-looking disc.

 
Posted: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 at 6:58 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology | Web
 

This is a joke, I take it

Blu-ray

Yesterday, New Line’s US Blu-ray release of Dark City arrived from DVD Pacific, hot on the heels of my discovery that it had been molested by invasive digital tampering procedures. This is despite it receiving largely positive praise from most reviewers, but, as always, the pictures tell the truth that the words themselves do not.

Watching the disc tonight was a very unpleasant experience. This is not because I didn’t like the film: on the contrary, I thought it was excellent, and have now added it to my “movies I can’t believe I waited this long to see” list. My reason for not enjoying the experience was that, while virtually every shot in this film is an amazing, innovative piece of art, every single one of them is ruined by some form of digital meddling, whether that’s grain removal, sharpening or softening. This film should look amazingly atmospheric and film-like, and all of that is removed by this shoddy, amateurish transfer. Whoever was responsible for it should be ashamed of themselves.

New Line’s high definition output that I’ve seen has, so far, been problematic, to put it politely. That’s three out of four discs (Dark City, The Golden Compass, Pan’s Labyrinth) that have been ruined by utterly ridiculously levels of digital tampering, and another (The Orphanage) that has been taken from a source with a resolution lower than 1920x1080. The latter is not necessarily New Line’s fault - it may simply have been what the Spanish production company delivered to them - but it does mean that I have yet to purchase a single disc from them that is anything more than deeply flawed. While Sony are doing everything they can to preserve the integrity of the films under their jurisdiction, New Line seem to be intent on fucking up the heritage of the medium by systematically mangling their catalogue of titles. I sincerely hope that the recent acquisition of the company by Warner Bros. means that any future releases are removed from the hands of the incompetent clowns responsible for this desecration of Dark City.

 
Posted: Friday, August 01, 2008 at 9:24 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Go faster, my son!

Technology

After owning my current system for over two months, I finally decided, last night, that now was the time to start putting my excessive cooling solution to good use and overclock my processor. Back when I was putting the system together, I decided to go with an OEM 3 GHz Core 2 Duo, foregoing a quad core system in favour of a dual core system with a higher clock speed. There were two reasons behind this. First, and most obvious, was simple economics: a dual core system, particularly an OEM one, costs considerably less than a quad core system with a comparable clock speed. Secondly, although I do a bit of video encoding here and there, most of the applications I use (games, mainly) don’t take advantage of multi-core technology anyway, meaning that, 99% of the time, I’d be unlikely to see any performance gains with four cores as opposed to two.

Vroom!

Anyway, last night, I cranked my 3 GHz system up to just over 3.4 GHz, and so far have had no stability problems. I’ll be squeezing a few more megahertz out of it later today and intend to keep going until it gets unstable. It’s quite amazing how long it’s taken me to hop aboard the overclocking bandwagon, given my love of fast hardware, and given how easy it is to do these days.

Update, August 1st, 2008 02:17 PM: Up to 3.6 GHz now with no problems so far.

 
Posted: Friday, August 01, 2008 at 11:51 AM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology
 

But… but… grain!

HD DVD

Paramount’s HD DVD release of Babel features a stellar transfer (note: the MPEG-2 Blu-ray version is not reviewed here) which shows off the varied methods of photography to great effect. From the rough, 16mm Moroccan scenes to the 35mm anamorphic look of Tokyo, there’s really nothing to complain about here barring some minor artefacting. Predictably, not all reviewers were quite so impressed, some of them labelling the abundant grain a “problem with the transfer” (morons), but I’ll let you judge for yourselves using the images below.

Babel
(Paramount, USA, AVC, 25.8 GB)

Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel Babel

 
Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 7:31 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Reviews | Technology
 

These are the hands that ruined a movie

Blu-ray

What the hell do you call this? Good grief, it looks like someone took a dump and sealed it between the two layers of this BD-50. This is one of the worst high definition transfers I’ve ever seen, and it reflects very badly on Disney that they thought it was in an acceptable state for release. I’m not convinced that any additional commentary is necessary on my part: just look at the pictures, as they do a more than adequate job of conveying the sheer awfulness of this disc.

Gangs of New York
(Buena Vista, USA, VC-1, 38.8 GB)

Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York Gangs of New York

 
Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 6:52 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

It’s okay to emote, you know

The Witcher

Over the last few days, I’ve been playing a game I got the previous Christmas but, for one reason or another, never really devoted much time to, until now. The Witcher is based on a series of Polish fantasy novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, about which I must confess I know next to nothing. I am, however, told that they are phenomenally successful in their homeland, spawning a film and television series, comics, card games and now a PC role-playing game.

On the face of it, the game is not unlike any number of other CRPGs. Based on the Aurora Engine developed by BioWare for Neverwinter Nights, it features a tried and true combination of character building, item hunting, monster-whupping and plot development. It’s in respect to the latter that The Witcher distinguishes itself. Most fantasy RPGs have a fairly black and white view of the world, usually pits noble humans, elves and dwarves against irredeemable, bloodthirsty orcs, ogres and the living dead. This isn’t entirely surprising when you consider that almost all fantasy worlds are ultimately derived from JRR Tolkien’s writing, which had an “us vs. them” mindset to an even greater degree. As much as I enjoy games like Baldur’s Gate and Diablo, therefore, I often find myself drawn to the ones that try to do something a little different. Planescape: Torment, one of the best games of all time, did that by situating the game in the wildly unique and imaginative Planescape universe, which is devoid of traditional elves and goblins, and also by allowing the player to create a morally grey character whose actions and behaviour would have lasting implications on how he was treated and how the story unfolded. Seemingly minor decisions the player made at the beginning of the game could come back to bite him/her later - the Butterfly Effect, if you like.

The Witcher

I’m not going to suggest that The Witcher is the new Planescape: Torment. It’s far too clunky and awkwardly written (a by-product, I suspect, of the fact that I’m playing an English translation of a game originally written in Polish) for that. Planescape: Torment didn’t exactly have the most wonderful gameplay mechanics either (it used BioWare’s Infinity engine, whose combat system always seemed somewhat counter-intuitive, particularly in comparison with action-oriented CRPGs like Diablo), but its writing was first-rate, particularly for a computer game, and it, in conjunction with the evocative graphics and Mark Morgan’s moody score, helped suck the player into the world. In comparison, The Witcher’s mechanics seem rather unwieldy, while the world depicted definitely feels closer to a pastiche of Tolkien than something as original as Planescape, with the usual vile beasts and ale-swilling dwarves (complete with cod-Scottish accents, of course, since for some reason people have got it into their heads that all dwarves hail from my part of the world).

It does, however, appear to take the notion of the Butterfly Effect philosophy of game design to the next level. Seemingly insignificant decisions can open up entirely new avenues, while at the same time closing others off. There is also a commendable effort, on the part of the writers, to create a feeling of moral ambivalence, in that no ideology, race or decision is defined as unwaveringly good or bad. In the first chapter, for instance, there is an incident in which you have to choose between siding with some pitchfork-waving yokels who want to burn the local witch, and aligning yourself with the witch in order to fight off her assailants. This was by no means a straightforward decision. The locals were clearly stupid, violent and led astray by a corrupt priest, but at the same time ample evidence existed to suggest that the witch might very well have been up to no good. Champion of the underdog that I am, I decided to help out the witch, although, given that I then had to single-handedly defeat a horde of armed yobs, I suspect I chose the tougher path. The point is, though, that the game provided me with a moral dilemma and, instead of going with the easier option, I opted for what that felt more ethically acceptable. That, to me, is the essence of good game storytelling.

 
Posted: Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 5:56 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Books | Games | Technology
 

Clinging to the flotsam

Hellgate: London

Recent reports about the closing of Flagship Studios may have been premature… but that’s about as far as it goes. After four days of silence, the company has finally put out an official statement on the matter, claiming that, while the bulk of the staff have been laid off, the studio still exists as an entity and has retained the rights to its games. As per DIII.net:

San Francisco, CA (July 14, 2008) — Flagship Studios has announced today that despite rumors to the contrary, the company is still operating.

“It is with deep regret that I must announce that Flagship Studios has laid off most employees. However, the core management and founding team members are still at Flagship.” said Bill Roper, CEO of Flagship Studios. “The past five years have been an incredible experience for us, but unfortunately, we couldn’t sustain the size of the company any longer.”

Flagship Studios owns the rights to all its technology and IP, including Hellgate: London and Mythos. Due to the current situation, Flagship will not be taking any new subscribers for Hellgate: London, and all current subscriptions will not be billed.

Flagship wishes to extend their heartfelt thanks to those that have supported the company and games over the past five years.

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on, I don’t think this development can be considered to be particularly good news. It smells suspiciously like a last ditch attempt to hold on to their property, and, although I’m first and foremost in favour of artists being allowed to have control over their own work, whether the results are good or bad, part of me feels that it would be better for the game in the long run for it to be handed over to someone else. With only a skeleton crew left at the studio, I highly doubt that we will be seeing any ongoing content updates (such as the 2.0 patch, currently in beta on the test server) any time soon. In any event, their reputation has been so greatly tarnished, partly because of false information being reported by several major gaming news sites as fact, and partly because of the reality of the situation (bugs, lack of content updates, general lukewarm reaction to the game itself), that, barring divine intervention, which of course is a fantasy, there’s no way they’re going to bounce back.

Really, this is just prolonging the inevitable. I will, however, be holding off on my planned Hellgate/Flagship autopsy until we have more definitive news about what to expect from the game and the company in the future.

 
Posted: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 at 8:21 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology | Web
 

Gaming in living colour

Devil May Cry 4

Well, the decidedly neutered 2008 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is under way, and, as Lyris reports, Microsoft are set to shovel yet another selection of derivative and/or colour-sucked titles out on to the Xbox 360, along with some big news in the form of their ensnaring of the previously Playstation 3-exclusive Final Fantasy XIII. For me, the only upcoming games that have any pulling power whatsoever are Diablo III, Starcraft II and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (in roughly that order), only the latter of which is being shown at the expo, so none of this really matters from my perspective.

And yes, Anephric, you were right, Gears of War 2 is considerably more colourful than its predecessor. How strange that this paragon of brown and grey now looks comparatively saturated among the current Xbox 360 line-up.

Right now on the gaming front, I’m keeping track of the ongoing developments (or lack thereof) regarding the closure of Flagship Studios and what this will mean for their two games, Hellgate: London and Mythos. In spite of the hyperbolic and at times downright unpleasant statements from various commenters (yes, I’m sure you spending $50 on a disappointing game justifies personal attacks on the people who made it and jubilation over them losing their jobs - not), Flagshipped.com is providing by far the most comprehensive rundown of the situation. (For a slightly less vitriolic version, try Voodoo Extreme.) With the developers seemingly in hiding, unwilling to make any public statements on the matter, there’s no real way of knowing what’s going to happen in the near future. At least the game servers are still up at the moment, although it’s anyone’s guess how long that will remain the case.

On a brighter note, I received the retail version of the PC port of Capcom’s Devil May Cry 4 (or, as I’m apparently supposed to call it, going by the entry created in my games control panel, DEVIL MAY CRY 4) today. So far, it’s pretty good fun, but I remain unconvinced that gamepad-style gaming is for me. To be honest, I find the process of mashing buttons on a crudely shaped lump of plastic clunky and unwieldy, and would be far more at home with a traditional keyboard and mouse combo. I suppose I’m just a died-in-the-wool PC gamer who can’t change his ways after all these years, but I still wish Capcom had offered the option for PC gamers to play the game with the keyboard and mouse. I can’t imagine it offering any problems, and I’m sure it would have been quite straightforward to use the mouse for camera movement and the W-A-S-D keys for character movement.

World of Warcraft figures

Oh, and, while I was out shopping today, I picked up a couple of World of Warcraft figures at HMV - a steal for a fiver each, particularly given that the two that I was able to find, Valeera Sanguinar and Thargas Anvilmar, are both out of print. (Personally I’d rather have had a Warlock, but they didn’t have any left.) The pair of them look rather fetching perched on top of my (extremely dusty) audio decoder.

 
Posted: Monday, July 14, 2008 at 10:41 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Games | General | Technology
 

Birthday bash

Blu-ray

Thank you to all of you who wished me a happy birthday yesterday.

A couple of you wanted to know what sort of swag I managed to bag, and the answer is that, on the actual day, I didn’t get many presents. This is because my parents had already given me some money towards the new computer I put together at the end of May, so in effect I already had my main present. Still, I did pick out a couple of smaller goodies, including the Kane’s Wrath expansion set to Command & Conquer 3 and the Eye of the North expansion set to Guild Wars, both for PC. I also snagged an Xbox 360 controller, given that I’ve come to the conclusion that playing combo-based action games like Devil May Cry 4 with a keyboard isn’t the best idea.

Finally, the Blu-ray release of Gangs of New York arrived the day before my birthday, so I decided to throw it into the present pile just for the heck of it. Ultimately, I’m glad it wasn’t a “proper” birthday present, because the transfer really is absolutely horrible - every bit as Robert A. Harris and Xylon have said.

 
Posted: Saturday, July 05, 2008 at 5:49 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Games | General | Technology
 

Damn your eyes!

Diablo III

In a previous post, I briefly mentioned that certain members of the online fan community had reacted with dismay (that’s a polite euphemism, by the way) to Diablo III’s richer colour palette as compared with its predecessors. Today, I want to expand on this issue.

Colour in games is a subject I’ve touched on before. To put it simply, I think there isn’t enough of it. The trend, these days, is to go for grim, desaturated visuals in games, presumably because the developers are under the mistaken impression that using a colour palette comprised exclusively of brown and grey makes their product seem more mature and “serious”. The games industry has a rather irritating habit of aping Hollywood rather than breaking new ground of its own, and I suspect that what we’re currently seeing with games like Gears of War (in my opinion one of the most visually unappealing games released in recent years) is an offshoot of this. In filmspeak, “desaturated” has come to equal “raw and gritty”, and game developers, thinking that “raw and gritty” beats “fun and escapist” any day (despite the fact that any game’s first goal, surely, is to be fun to play), have latched on to this grim aesthetic.

Isn't this cheery?

Above: Isn’t this cheery?

I’ve already demonstrated the visual decay of the Unreal Tournament franchise, with the latest instalment, Unreal Tournament III, sucking all the saturation and joy out of a franchise that once prided itself on its arresting design and frankly excellent use of colour. Thankfully, there are people who understand that not everyone wants to play their games exclusively in brown and grey, with the recently released Community Bonus Pack 3 serving as an excellent example of what the game should have looked like from the outset. Here, a group of fans have taken the tools made freely available to them with the game and have created levels which, frankly, blow their official counterparts out of the water in terms of aesthetics.

Someone else who gets it is Brian Morrisroe, art director on Diablo III. Here is what he has to say on the subject of visual design:

There’s a certain amount of grit and realism that we want to bring to the game, but it’s important to take the player into a fantasy realm. That’s what we’re really all about here, is exploring that idea of giving you something you’ve never seen before. If we simply took photographs and just applied that to a bunch of polygons, that’s really not us doing our job, so we really wanted to explore and push this idea of bringing a unique, different look to the Diablo III universe.

Diablo III

Quite. Rob Pardo, Blizzard Entertainment’s Vice President of Game Design, expands on this when talking about the game’s colour design:

If you look at Diablo I and II […] they obviously have the Gothic look to it, but […] they weren’t very colourful games, and one of the challenges we wanted to take with Diablo III was could we add colour but still maintain that Gothic dark feel? […] I think we want to take […] dark as an emotion rather than actual colour art choice, and I think that’s something that took a long time to get to the point that we’re at now - like, I think we’ve probably gone through at least three pretty major art direction shifts until we got to the point where we’re on stage, because I think it’s really difficult to pull that off, but we’re really happy with the look of the game now.

This is all well and good, and I must say that, from watching the gameplay trailer and looking at the screenshots, and perhaps most importantly from listening to what the people in charge of the game’s look have to say, any fears I might have had that they didn’t know what they were doing quickly evaporated. Yes, the original Diablo is a tense, atmospheric exercise in mood, and much of its success in that regard an be attributed to the desaturated palette and heavy use of shadows, but that doesn’t mean that this is the only way to achieve that mood. Rich colours can be just as effective at conveying terror. Just ask Dario Argento:

Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria
Suspiria

Unfortunately, none of this seems to have occurred to the armchair game designers currently throwing their toys out of the pram over the new game’s art style. The web, in particular Blizzard’s official Battle.net and unofficial diii.net forums, are awash with people reacting with horror to the game’s frankly lovely graphics. Petitions have sprung up and angry gamers have threatened to boycott the game unless Blizzard alters the art style to make it look exactly they way they want, while the less articulate have resorted to calling the graphics “gay”, “cartoony” and “childish”.

The reaction, from some people, has been so extreme that the subject of this negative response was even broached in an interview with Brian Morrisroe and producer Keith Lee. Mercifully, Morrisroe’s response was a polite but firm “fuck off”:

Diablo II had some very vibrant colours in it, and that’s something we wanted to play up, and […] something we really wanted to continue to explore was how can we use that colour, how can we use that vibrancy to really establish a mood? If you look at a lot of pop culture out there, colour is used to establish emotional states, and that’s something that we’ve studied over the development of the product. […] We pick our palettes accordingly, so although it might seem vibrant, the contrast levels, the dark and light values that you’re seeing within the game are still within the realm of the universe that you know, but we’re just adding a bit more colour to bring out an emotional response from the player.

The thing is, what the complainers seem to be forgetting is that, if the vibrancy offends their eyes so greatly, it’s easy enough to dial down the saturation either on their monitor or within their graphics card’s control panel, in order to get something more akin to what they’re looking for. Once colour has been removed, however, it’s incredibly hard to add it back, and turning up the saturation control doesn’t make shades of brown and grey any less brown or grey. There seems to be an expectation among some people that Diablo III should both look and play exactly the same as its predecessors, which I honestly don’t understand.

 
Posted: Wednesday, July 02, 2008 at 7:41 PM | Comments: 4 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Dario Argento | Games | Technology
 

“She’s terrible!”

Blu-ray

…well, not very good, at any rate.

In the UK, last week, ITV released its first batch of Blu-ray titles, among them classics like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and David Lean’s Great Expectations - something of a departure, as I’m sure you’ll agree, from the usual slew of third-rate action spectacles that invariably end up being released in high definition. Eager to see what ITV was capable of, I picked up a copy of their release of Baz Luhrmann’s first film Strictly Ballroom.

It arrived this morning, and I’m disappointed to have to tell you that the results are considerably less than stellar. It appears that an old master has been used - a rather grimy one, and one that has been subjected to an alarming amount of grain reduction, sucking most of the fine detail out in the process. While it constitutes a noticeable improvement on the frankly pretty shocking American DVD from Miramax, that’s hardly the greatest advertisement for the Blu-ray format, and ultimately I can only really recommend this release to absolute die-hard fans, or at least those with less than discerning tastes.

Strictly Ballroom
(ITV, UK, VC-1, 18.2 GB)

Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom Strictly Ballroom

 
Posted: Monday, June 30, 2008 at 5:05 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | Technology
 

Softly, softly

Diablo III

This morning, I blew the dust off my Diablo and Diablo II CDs (remember when games came on CDs?) and went for a spin with both of them. Watching the Diablo III gameplay movie got me thinking about the ways in which the gameplay mechanics have changed since the original Diablo in 1996, and what this might mean for the third instalment.

Diablo

Diablo

The first game in the series is a pretty basic game on the surface. One of the hallmarks of the Diablo series as a whole has been its straightforward gameplay mechanics, stripping away a lot of the daunting complexity of a traditional role-playing game and combining what remains with fun, satisfying action elements, but this first outing is the most simplistic of the lot. The multiple act, multi-dungeon structure of the second and, it would seem, third games is nowhere to be found; nor are the weird and wonderful character classes like the Necromancer and Witch Doctor. Instead, players get to choose from one of three broad fantasy archetypes - a Warrior, a Rogue or a Sorcerer - and do battle in a single, multi-level dungeon, descending gradually deeper into the earth.

In many ways, though, simplicity is its greatest strength. This is a game that knows exactly what it’s meant to do, and more importantly, so does the player. Right from the beginning, you know that your mission is to make your way deeper and deeper underground until you ultimately face and defeat the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. The tone is remarkably consistent: everything is dank and murky, swathed in shadow, and the atmosphere is incredibly foreboding. This feeling of dread is achieved in many ways, and it’s not just the gloomy visuals and highly evocative sound design. Movement in Diablo is rather slow-paced, meaning that, should you be overwhelmed by insurmountable odds, running away is rarely an option. And it’s easy to be overwhelmed, particularly if you play the rather frail Rogue and Sorcerer classes. If you aren’t looking where you’re going, chances are you’ll find yourself slap bang in the middle of a pack of angry monsters, in which case it’s often game over. This ensures that you’re constantly on your toes, gingerly creeping down each corridor and round each bend, mindful of the fact that you could, at any moment, be signing your own death warrant.

Diablo II

Diablo II

Superficially, Diablo II is a direct continuation in every way. It retains the same basic premise and gameplay mechanics as its predecessor, but I can’t help feeling that the developers changed the tone in a subtle way. With the first Diablo, it quickly became clear that people liked doing two things: killing monsters and collecting loot. So, thought the designers, let’s give the players more of what they want. Let’s throw in more monsters and more loot, and let’s have people get to the monsters and loot quicker. To lessen the wait between dispatching one group of enemies and the next, players were given the ability to run, which had the immediate result of doubling (at least) the speed at which the game was played.

Unfortunately, this had the effect of stripping away a lot of the tension. The ability to run made it possible to stage a hasty retreat should you stumble into the middle of a gaggle of bloodthirsty monsters. In other words, you could afford to be more reckless, which in turn made the game more of a clickfest than ever before. Add to this a reduced emphasis on dungeon crawling with the addition of wide open outdoor maps, and the game not only lost a lot of its tension, it more or less completely removed the feeling of claustrophobia. Likewise, much of the atmosphere created by the first game’s moody locales and limited colour palette fell by the wayside thanks to the sun-scorched deserts and lush green jungles which players found themselves exploring. Put simply, Diablo II was a lighter, brisker, less tactically-oriented game than its predecessor.

Now, I love Diablo II. I consider it one of the greatest games ever created, and despite being eight years old, it remains permanently installed on my hard drive, and I continue to sink countless hours into frying skeletons to a crisp and beating zombies to a bloody pulp. When I want to whittle away a few minutes, or indeed a few hours, without having to tax my brain too much, chances are I’ll be reaching for the Diablo II CD. But, if I want a deeper, more immersive, more mentally taxing experience, it’s the original Diablo for me.

Diablo III

Diablo III

Flash forward to the present day, and Diablo III has just been announced. Now, without any hands-on experience with the game, and with numerous changes no doubt due to take place between now and the release date, it’s impossible to be sure of anything, but, with the help of the screenshots and particularly the gameplay trailer that have been released, it’s possible to speculate as to how Diablo III will compare to its predecessors in terms of atmosphere and gameplay style.

While watching the gameplay trailer, it’s abundantly clear, right from the get go, that the designers are intent on stressing the quantity factor, throwing massive hordes of monsters at the player, to be dispatched in a highly visceral show of splattering blood and squelching sound effects. So far, so Diablo II, and it’s also clear that we’re once again going to find ourselves playing in a combination of tight indoor and crowded outdoor environments. The official list of features states that players will explore the world of Sanctuary (with an emphasis on world) “in gorgeous 3D”, which suggests another globe-trotting yarn. No tightly-controlled Diablo I-style focus this time round, then.

That said, much of what has been stated and demonstrated in the gameplay trailer suggests that the developers are intent on pushing for a return to tactics rather than simply wading in and popping potions while spamming one or two spells. There appears to be a commendable emphasis on enemies working together to bring the player down, using their skills in conjunction and therefore requiring the player to use all the abilities at his or her disposal in order to survive. That gets my heartfelt approval, given the extent to which Diablo II is populated by cookie cutter builds relying on only a couple of overpowered abilities.

Likewise, I commented yesterday that the new game seemed to herald a return to the gloomy, foreboding atmosphere of the first Diablo. This is a particularly impressive achievement given that the colour palette is more saturated then ever before (something which has, rather predictably, already drawn its fair share of professional whiners who hate the notion of the game coming in colours other than black, grey and brown). Perhaps not surprisingly, this is only really evident in the interior levels, with the outdoor areas seeming lighter and breezier, but, provided there is plenty of dungeon crawling, I have no complaints about that. Particularly impressive is the sense of scale: at any given time, it’s hard not to be impressed by the high walls and expansive nature of the maps. This is especially evident when traversing higher ground, given that the truly 3D nature of the new engine allows the player do look down at areas below him or her, shrouded in fog and shadow. Sound design will, I suspect, once again play a key role in maintaining a dark mood, and I’m crossing my fingers that Blizzard are able to get Matt Uelmen, composer for the first two games, to once again provide the music.

 
Posted: Sunday, June 29, 2008 at 11:30 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Music | Technology | Web
 

Universal’s House of Horrors: Part 3 of 3

Universal

Eventually, all good things must come to an end. This is the third and final part of my exposé into the seedier side of high definition transfers, concentrating on the less than savoury excretions steamrolled by Universal on to HD DVD. (See here and here for the previous instalments.) As I approached the end of the alphabet (I went through the discs alphabetically), I discovered something quite shocking: there are actually a couple of discs in this line-up which look pretty good! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…

 
Lost in Translation
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 14.6 GB)

More indistinct, middle-of-the-road bla that doesn’t make me want to kill myself, but at the same time is the sort of disc I’d immediately hide if someone asked me to show them what the HD formats were capable of.

Lost in Translation Lost in Translation Lost in Translation Lost in Translation Lost in Translation Lost in Translation

 
Red Dragon
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 19.9 GB)

What happened here? By some bizarre twist of fate, they actually managed to mint a pretty decent-looking copy of this film. The flaws on display here - ringing, mainly - probably came from the optical printing process rather than from any external meddling. I’ve thrown in some extra images this time round because it’s actually reasonably pleasant to look at.

Red reddragon Red reddragon Red reddragon Red reddragon Red reddragon Red reddragon Red reddragon Red reddragon Red reddragon

 
Seed of Chucky
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 14.5 GB)

“Inconsistent” is the order of the day here. This one alternates between really looking pretty close to excellent and smelling like last week’s milk. Again, I’ve thrown in a few more pictures for this one, so you can get some idea of just how radically different the quality can be from one shot to the next.

Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky Seed of Chucky

 
Posted: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 at 11:23 AM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Universal’s House of Horrors: Part 2 of 3

Universal

Yesterday, we plumbed the depths of the depressingly underwhelming Being John Malkovich, the improbably soft Brokeback Mountain, and Cat People, one of the worst-looking discs released on either of the HD formats. Incidentally, yesterday, I told Blu-ray users that they had transfers like these to look forward to once Universal started rolling out its catalogue titles on the format, but it turns out I spoke too soon. Blu-ray already has a Cat People of its own: The Longest Day, from 20th Century Fox. Click here to see what happens when John Wayne has a nasty encounter with the grain-sucking machine.

 
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 17.3 GB)

Another big steaming lump of cack from Universal. What are they actually thinking?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

 
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 19.7 GB)

This one is actually quite a bit better than the others, but still falls short of acceptable standards. Ample evidence of filtering is present at all times. Really, you need to compare this with the horrendous standard definition DVDs from Criterion and Universal before it even begins to look halfway passable.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

 
The Game
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 23.6 GB)

Actually, you know what? I’ve seen a lot worse. At least this one still looks like film, albeit film of the rather murky, ill-defined variety. I could be wrong, but maybe this is just what the movie looks like? Either way, it’s a hell of a lot more pleasant watch than Cat People.

The Game The Game The Game The Game The Game The Game

 
Posted: Monday, June 23, 2008 at 12:52 PM | Comments: 8 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 
 

 
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