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Universal’s House of Horrors: Part 1 of 3

Universal

All right, you’re thinking, I’ve seen it all. I’ve marvelled at the exceptional level of detail in Spider-man 3, I’ve been wowed by the fantastic grain reproduction in Silent Hill, and I just can’t imagine an image that looks more all-round perfect than Ratatouille. Well, gentle readers, I present tonight, for the viewing pleasure of the hardened technophile, an inside look at the other end of the spectrum: the transfers so repulsive that you’d actually go out of your way to make sure people didn’t accidentally see them and somehow “get the wrong idea” about high definition. Over the course of the next three posts, I’ll be delving into Universal’s swamp of catalogue releases, and we’ll be asking ourselves how some of these travesties actually made it out the front (or back) door in the first place.

Attention, BD fans: don’t go celebrating the assimilation of Universal into the Blu-ray umbrella just yet. This is what you have to look forward to.

 
Being John Malkovich
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 18.9 GB)

To be fair, this is already a really dingy, unappealing film to look at, but it shouldn’t look this bad.

Being John Malkovich Being John Malkovich Being John Malkovich

 
Brokeback Mountain
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 21.1 GB)

This one isn’t even a catalogue title, so why in the name of all that is pleasant does it look like this? Nincompoop reviewers talk about the amazing landscapes on display as if that somehow means the transfer is any good.

Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain Brokeback Mountain

 
Cat People
(Universal, USA, VC-1, 19 GB)

This one looks like someone took a giant dump on the disc stamper and then had it pressed. People won’t actually believe an HD transfer can look this awful until you show it to them. This is pretty much as bad as it gets.

Cat People Cat People Cat People Cat People Cat People Cat People

 
Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2008 at 6:45 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Look what arrived this afternoon

La Femme Publique

Straight from our friends in the People’s Republic of China, we have the first check discs for the upcoming release of Andrzej Zulawski’s La Femme Publique. This will be the first commercially released DVD for which my brother did the video transfer (as well as other assorted tasks), and we hope to be able to give you a release date soon.

Some screenshots to whet your appetite:

La Femme Publique
La Femme Publique
La Femme Publique
La Femme Publique
La Femme Publique

More information about the project is available here, or visit Mondo-Vision.com for a sneak peek at what else is in the pipeline.

 
Posted: Friday, June 20, 2008 at 9:47 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Mondo Vision | Technology
 

Anyone want a new computer?

Shuttle SD32G2

Before I go to the trouble of listing it on eBay (and incurring their usual fee), would anyone like to make me an offer on my previous computer system? The components are as follows:

- Shuttle SD32G2 Socket 775 case/motherboard/power supply/proprietary cooling system
- Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 (2.4 GHz) dual core CPU
- 2GB Kingston 667 MHz DDR2 RAM (two sticks of 1 GB)
- Asus DVD Burner DRW-1814BLT
- Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro video card (512 MB)

Now, obviously you’ll need to add your own external peripherals (monitor, keyboard, etc.), and it doesn’t come with a hard drive, so you’ll need to add that too, but otherwise this is a fully functional system, and one that is surprisingly quiet and powerful, despite its small size and tightly packed components. If you’re interested in making me an offer I can’t refuse, email me at whiggles[at]ntlworld[dot][com].

 
Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 at 4:54 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Technology
 

Any excuse to press PrintScreen

Devil May Cry 4

Attention, readers: here’s your eye candy for the evening. These screen captures come from the DirectX 10 version of the Devil May Cry 4 demo for the PC, the full retail version of which is due out on July 11th.

I’m considering picking up a copy, although I suspect I’ll need to get my hands on a compatible gamepad beforehand, as the keyboard controls in the PC version are counter-intuitive to say the least. Case in point: you can control both the character’s movement and the camera position. In most PC games played from a third person perspective, you’ll use the W-A-S-D keys to move the character and the mouse to move the camera. Not so in Devil May Cry 4, which has no mouse support. Instead, you use the cursor keys to move the camera, which, when you’re trying to move the character (using the W-A-S-D keys) and perform attacks (using the I-J-K-L keys) at the same time, is about as absurd and infuriating as things can get.

Devil May Cry 4 Devil May Cry 4 Devil May Cry 4 Devil May Cry 4 Devil May Cry 4 Devil May Cry 4

 
Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2008 at 11:12 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology
 

I can’t see a goddamn thing, Jim!

HD DVD

The Kingdom on HD DVD is an example of what I would call the second tier of Universal’s HD output. At the very top, you have titles like The Bourne Ultimatum and King Kong: recent releases which, barring any instances of compression artefacts, are as perfect as HD gets. There’s no sign of filtering, edge enhancement, noise reduction or any other unwanted tampering. Then you get titles like Mr. Bean’s Holiday and Eastern Promises, which still look very good, and appear to have come from excellent sources, but which introduce a layer of digital manipulation, usually a light sheen of filtering.

In the case of The Kingdom, there is clear evidence of ringing, particularly visible in the first shot. This is the thin, sharp, high frequency type usually associated with straight edge enhancement rather than the thicker, blurrier sort you get with filtering, so my theory is that someone sharpened this transfer. The fact that the credits text is also affected shows that this took place at the very end of or after the DI process: in other words, the editor wasn’t simply being fed a bunch of pre-sharpened footage. (Sometimes you’ll get transfers where the film-based material has been tampered with but the credits themselves are problem-free.) Theoretically speaking, therefore, it should be possible, one day, to go back to the source and get a “clean” master.

Trying the get clear screen captures of this disc was tough given the nature of the camerawork. The film was produced by Michael Mann, and the director, Peter Berg, seems to have attempted to replicate his, ahem, style by constantly shaking the camera around like a stoned monkey. The result is that the whole film is essentially one long jittery zip pan, so I found myself limited to the more serene, static moments, which are few and far between. Broadly speaking, it looks better in motion, although it does tend to make you feel seasick. Did I mention I hate this look?

The Kingdom
(Universal, UK, VC-1, 18.6 GB)

The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom The Kingdom

 
Posted: Friday, June 13, 2008 at 3:18 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

HD Image Quality Rankings updated

HD DVD/Blu-ray/DVD

I’ve performed some updates on the HD Image Quality Rankings page, moving several 8/10-rated titles down into the 7/10 bracket. Among these are several of the more noticeably filtered Warner titles, along with such disappointments as The Simpsons Movie and Sony’s somewhat unjustly lauded re-release of The Fifth Element. Two titles have also been pulled out of the prestigious 10/10 category and moved into the still highly impressive 9.5/10: Silent Hill, for having slightly elevated blacks (which can be corrected using the brightness control on your display, which you shouldn’t really have to do), and King Kong, for some minor compression artefacts.

It’s something of an indication of how good the best high definition transfers look that I am actually currently in a position of having to demote less impressive transfers. I consider this to be very good progress, given that, for the most part, even the best-looking standard definition DVDs were still heavily flawed.

 
Posted: Friday, June 13, 2008 at 12:48 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | DVD | HD DVD | Technology
 

Get ‘em while they’re still lukewarm

HD DVD HD DVD HD DVD

I know I said I wouldn’t buy any more, but with the silly prices HD DVDs are going for in various stores, I thought it would be a shame to pass up the opportunity to pick up some mega-cheap titles. HMV.co.uk is currently selling off a whole bunch of titles for as little as £4.99 each, a steal when you consider the AV quality of some of them. I snagged King Kong, The Kingdom and Stardust, all of which popped through my letterbox this morning.

I watched The Kingdom this evening. An eye-pleasing transfer from Universal - not one of their best, but, when you consider how dreadful some of their releases look, particularly their catalogue titles, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. Actually, barring a small amount of ringing, it actually looks very nice, with a very pleasing amount of detail and commendably little artefacting, despite the amount of fast cutting and shakycam on display. I also found it a rather interesting film too, at least until it decided to abandon its loftier aims and turn into an old fashioned Men & Guns™ car chase/shoot-out extravaganza. That, and the constantly jittering camera made me feel fairly seasick.

 
Posted: Monday, June 09, 2008 at 9:43 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Stair-stepping ahoy!

Blu-ray

On Wednesday, I finally got round to watching The Orphanage on Blu-ray. I knew next to nothing about the film beforehand, so was very pleased to discover an excellent piece of work, definitely one of the best horror films I’ve seen recently and every bit as good as, if not better than, the other recent film to bear Guillermo Del Toro’s name, Pan’s Labyrinth (although he mere produced The Orphanage, which was in fact directed by a fellow called J.A. Bayona). I highly recommend checking out this film if you haven’t seen it yet - an imaginative and highly effective take on the “spooky old house” and “creepy child” sub-genres.

The Blu-ray release, unfortunately, is marred by the fact that it appears to have been taken from a source with a horizontal resolution of less than 1920 pixels. A certain blockiness is evident throughout in diagonal edges, which take on a stair-stepped quality: look, for example, at Fernando Cayo’s nose in Shot 7 and Mabel Rivera’s cheek in Example 9. Basically, it’s like a less extreme version of the effect visible in Warner’s early so-called “1080i upconverted” transfers. It’s not dreadful, and it’s somewhat ironic that the end result actually looks somewhat better than the full 1920x1080 The Golden Compass in all its noise reduced glory, but it’s disappointing nonetheless. New Line’s HD output, so far, has been pretty problematic to say the least, and it’s a shame (but not entirely surprising) that reviewers haven’t been picking up on these faults.

The Orphanage
(New Line, USA, VC-1, 26.1 GB)

The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage The Orphanage

 
Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008 at 10:55 PM | Comments: 1 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

My compass is pointing to DVNR

Blu-ray

New Line were caught red-handed applying grain-reduction techniques to their Blu-ray and HD DVD version of Pan’s Labyrinth, and ever since, the more observant of us have been keeping close tabs on their treatment of films in high definition. The good news is that The Orphanage, about which I shall be posting later today, managed to escape from their clutches unmolested, but The Golden Compass has not been so lucky. Posters at the AV Science Forum were quick to pick up on a waxy appearing affecting several shots, along with the pictures to prove it. None of this was conclusive, though, particularly given that some of the shots posted looked absolutely fine, so I decided to get hold of a copy of the disc to judge for myself.

My copy arrived the previous Saturday, and, having now gone through it with a fine toothcomb, my overriding impression is that two things are going on here. First of all, certain actors, particularly Nicole Kidman, have been fleeced with the same technology that assaulted Johnny Depp’s cheeks and nose in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and Milla Jovovich’s face in Resident Evil: Extinction. As unpleasant as the results are, this is ultimately an artistic choice employed by the director and as such is not something for which we can blame the technicians who encoded the disc.

Secondly, however, a fairly heavy grain reduction pass appears to have been applied to the entire film. I have no idea whether this was done to the original DI master, or specifically for the Blu-ray release, but either way the results are somewhat less than pleasant. This is something that can’t really be conveyed with static screenshots, but the grain has stopped being moving detail and has instead become something more akin to a static pattern imposed upon the image. The process also appears to suck fine detail from objects such as walls, fabric and the actors’ skin, resulting in an image that, much of the time, looks pretty synthetic and unappealing. It appears to be present throughout, but the fact that its severity seems to vary on a shot by shot basis (compare Daniel Craig’s face in Shots 4 and 5) suggests to me that this was done on a per-scene basis at the DI stage.

This is not a bad-looking disc, per se, but it’s also pretty far removed from what film looks like. Perhaps this was what writer/director Chris Weitz intended for his movie, but, if so, his is not a taste that I share.

The Golden Compass
(New Line, USA, VC-1, 24.1 GB)

The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass The Golden Compass

 
Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2008 at 5:00 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

A bit of good news on the sound front

Technology

The latest Windows Vista beta driver for Creative’s Audigy, Audigy 2 and Audigy 4 series sound cards (available here) re-enables 5.1 audio for me in Hellgate: London (for some reason, I was previously restricted to stereo only for this game in Vista). Given that the last official Vista driver release for this card was in March 2007, it’s something of a cause for celebration that Creative have finally done something about supporting their older cards.

You know, the more I think about it, the less reason I have to keep my fancy new X-Fi Prelude card. Barring EAX 5.0 support and Dolby Digital Live encoding (currently broken), it doesn’t really offer me anything that I’m not getting with my aged Audigy. I think I’ll wait and see if their next set of drivers fix the DDL problems I’ve been experiencing. If not, I think I’ll just offload it and stick with Old Faithful.

 
Posted: Tuesday, June 03, 2008 at 11:45 AM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Technology
 

How to make a DVD on the cheap

DVD DVD

My copies of the new Anchor Bay US releases of Tenebre and Phenomena arrived this morning. Unfortunately, as you will know if you’ve been following discussions of these new editions, you’ll already know that both are less than stellar.

If you were expecting gorgeous new high definition-sourced transfers, you can think again: to my eyes, both appear to be “fake” 16x9 upconverts of the old non-anamorphic masters. The new Phenomena appears to suffer from some overzealous noise reduction, which causes smearing. This is particularly noticeable during the second shot in Chapter 2, where, if you look at the grass at the bottom left hand side of the frame, you can clearly see it smudging and smearing as the camera sways slightly. And, given that they are derived from the same masters that were used for the previous releases, both are still missing material - a few seconds in the case of Tenebre, around six minutes in the case of Phenomena.

Audio (and lack of subtitle) options are identical to the previous releases. In other words, this means that the original mono (for Tenebre) and stereo (for Phenomena) mixes are nowhere to be found. Both discs include 2.0 Dolby Surround tracks, but these are both down-conversions from the 5.1 remixes created by Chase Digital.

The bottom line is that, from an AV standpoint, I really don’t see there being much point in picking up these new DVDs provided you already own either the old AB disc or another version. These are by no means awful discs, but the sad fact, for AB, is that, since they released their original DVDs of these films, other companies have come along and done considerably better, so to recycle these old masters in 2008 really is a bit much. The new featurettes that have been provided for both films are very good, and I really enjoyed hearing from the various participants (including finally putting a face to a name with the first on-screen appearance I’ve seen of Franco Ferrini on the Phenomena featurette), but it’s really a question of whether these two short documentaries justify the price of the new discs.

Regarding the issue of the ongoing debate about which version is the best, there is no doubt in my mind that the best all-round version of Tenebre is the Dutch release from A-Film, entitled Shadows. While this release is bare-bones, and it’s true that it does suffer from some colour timing issues in its second half, they are considerably less severe than on the Japanese DVD (which is admittedly the sharpest-looking of the bunch). It is also completely uncut (as is the Japanese release) and features by far the cleanest English audio track I’ve ever heard for the film, especially in comparison to the one used by AB, which sounds pretty noisy and scratchy.

Things get a bit trickier for Phenomena. The best-looking release, by far, is the Japanese one, and it is also the full-length integral version, but unfortunately, presumably as a result of using a longer cut of the film which sometimes includes shots which differ in length from the English version by a frame here and a frame there, several dialogue scenes are rendered in Italian only on the English audio track. If you’re prepared to do a bit of piecing together in a video editing program, you can put together a satisfying version, but if you intend to play it straight from the disc and watch it in English, you’ll have to be prepared for some key narrative scenes being in Italian, despite English audio existing for them.

I’ve posted some screen captures comparing these new releases to various other versions that are available at Dark Discussion.

 
Posted: Monday, June 02, 2008 at 10:19 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Cinema | DVD | Dario Argento | Gialli | Technology | Web
 

Snow, sand, softness and sharpness

Blu-ray

The look of this BD is best described as “inconsistent”. Some shots look extremely good and indeed rank up there with the best of high definition, but on other occasions things tend to look a bit soft and filtered. This is particularly evident during the earlier scenes which take place against the snowy backdrop of 12th century France. In some instances (such as Example 2), I wonder if the image was pre-filtered to prevent the dense snow from choking the life out of the MPEG-2 encoder. Having said that, this is certainly one of the best MPEG-2 encodes I’ve seen, perhaps beaten only by Sony’s Resident Evil: Apocalypse.

Kingdom of Heaven: Director’s Cut
(20th Century Fox, USA, MPEG-2)

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Posted: Monday, June 02, 2008 at 6:51 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

The best pics in London

Now that's what I call fancy packaging

Above: Now that’s what I call fancy packaging

On Wednesday, while on my lunch break, I spied in the local Borders the UK Blu-ray release of Tim Burton’s latest extravaganza, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, complete with a rather fetching tin case. Back when Paramount originally announced this for release on HD DVD in the US, it was one of my most anticipated purchases, so you can imagine my disappointment when the HD DVD was cancelled and the film then failed to materialise on Paramount’s Blu-ray slate, despite (as far as I can gather) all of their other cancelled HD DVDs making the jump to Blu-ray. Luckily, Warner, who own the rights in the UK, have come to our rescue with an extremely nice release indeed, one that more than does the film justice and ranks among the best the studio has ever released for either format. The one failing, as seems often to be the case with the bit rate misers at Warner, is that some visible compression artefacts do creep in at times, one of the most offensive examples of which is visible in the first screen capture.

When you look at these pictures, you may notice what looks like smearing in the fine details of Johnny Depp’s face. Unfortunately, this is the result of the process that seems to be being used more and more frequently on big budget films - an automated spot/wrinkle remover which I’m sure is very flattering for the actors but has the unfortunate side effect of making them look like porcelain dolls. It was inconsistently applied in Resident Evil: Extinction, making Milla Jovovich look at times as if she was made of plastic, and it appears to run rampant in The Golden Compass (the details of which I shall go into in a future post). For Sweeney Todd, however, oddly enough it appears that only Depp’s cheeks and the bridge of his nose are affected, and it only seems to have been applied to close-ups. It’s not a failing of the transfer, but it does provide an example of how really good high definition transfers make this sort of tomfoolery easier to spot. Ironic, really, when you consider that it was probably applied in the first place because someone got ants in their pants about “imperfections” on actors’ faces being more visible in HD.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
(Warner, UK, VC-1, 27.1 GB)

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

 
Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008 at 5:09 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | HD DVD | Technology
 

Why I hate sound cards

Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1

Over the last few days, I’ve been getting to grips with my new system. So far, in all but a single area, I’m 100% satisfied. It runs fast, it runs quiet, and it’s reliable… until, that is, you put sound into the equation. I specifically picked out Auzentech’s X-Fi Prelude 7.1 sound card for this new system, because it offers real-time encoding to Dolby Digital (Dolby Digital Live), as well as featuring Creative’s X-Fi chipset, and therefore being compatible with their EAX 5.0 hardware audio acceleration (third parties can include EAX support for their sound cards, but only in software and only up to version 2.0). Other sound cards support Dolby Digital Live, and others (i.e. those from Creative) support EAX 5.0, but to the best of my knowledge this is the only one which supports both.

Unfortunately, to call the Dolby Digital Live implementation buggy at present would be a massive understatement. Every so often, the Dolby Digital stream seems to simply die, leaving me with an intensely irritating endless loop of the same snippet of sound being repeated over and over, a bit like a record that has become stuck. Disabling and re-enabling Dolby Digital Live fixes this, but this is not exactly a viable solution when it happens every four or five minutes, as it did when I played the demo of Bioshock last night. It also happens when I’m watching TV via Windows Media Center or playing a movie or video file in PowerDVD or Windows Media Player, which rules out this being a software problem. It’s also not a problem with my audio receiver, as the issue occurs even when it isn’t switched on. Other people have reported this problem too, and some have contacted Auzentech directly about the matter. One posted the manufacturer’s response:

Thank you for contacting Auzentech.

We have concluded that the DDL driver is still unstable.
(Crackle, Noise, To get sound back, we need to re-check the DDL)
We are working on the next driver continously and bring out the conclusion as soon as possible.

We appreciate your support and patience.

On the plus side, at least they acknowledge that there is a problem. On the downside, this post is more than three months old, and more driver updates have come along since then which have failed to solve the problem. Perhaps the DTS Interactive (the DTS equivalent of Dolby Digital Live) support which is supposed to be getting added before the end of the second quarter of 2008 (which, by my reckoning, gives Auzentech just under a month to make good on this promise), will be more stable? Until then, I’ve disabled my Prelude and gone back to my old Audigy.

Oh, and, for various reasons, it’s clear that I’m going to have to keep my installation of Windows XP around for certain tasks. One of these, currently, is playing Hellgate: London, which, on the Audigy, only seems to be able to output 2-channel audio in Vista. (With the Prelude, I was getting full 5.1 support, but what use is that when the sound is constantly getting stuck in an endless loop?) Another is playing Unreal Tournament 3, which appears to have a bug which causes the game to crash after a few minutes’ play when using the OpenAL audio mode. The solution? Disable OpenAL. All well and good, but, in Vista, you need OpenAL to be enabled in order to get 5.1 audio. Ah, sound cards. Don’t you just love them?

(Incidentally, I can’t get the DirectX 10 mode to work in Hellgate. When it’s enabled, I am greeted with a blank screen when I attempt to run it, occasionally with an error message telling me that an “unknown software exception” has occurred. Apparently, from what I’ve read on various forums, getting DirectX 10 to work with this game is basically a case of pot luck. It’s becoming more and more obvious that Hellgate’s coding is a joke.)

The final thing that I need XP for is transferring music to my MP3 player. No, I’m not kidding. Do you remember how, a while back, I posted about problems with video playback in Vista? Originally, I thought that the culprit was the ArcSoft TotalMedia TV capture software I had installed. Well, this morning I discovered that the blame should in fact be laid at the door of Sony’s SonicStage software, which I need to install in order to get my computer to interface with my MP3 player (curse Sony and their stupid proprietary formats). The moment I installed it, my video playback went belly-up. Uninstalling it didn’t fix things, but performing a roll-back via System Restore did. Just to make sure this wasn’t a coincidence, I repeated the trick three times, and each time, video playback went wonky as soon as the SonicStage installer had finished working its magic. So now, if I want decent video playback in Vista, I have to use XP to transfer MP3s to my player. The thing to do, I suspect, is to get my hands on a new MP3 player (Sony’s more recent players allow you to simply drag and drop music on to them without having to deal with any proprietary software), but I’ve just bought a new computer, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t feel like shelling out yet more money for new hardware.

 
Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2008 at 1:56 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | Music | Technology
 

30 gigabytes of joy

Blu-ray

30 Days of Night is one of four Blu-ray releases I received or otherwise picked up over the course of the week, which I shall be rolling out gradually with the added bonus of a series of delectable images. This is a film with a quite understated visual style - muted colour palette, murky lighting and a fair amount of grain. It also looks very nice indeed in high definition, albeit not always in the way that you would associate with so-called “demo material”. Another solid release from Sony.

30 Days of Night
(Sony Pictures, USA, AVC, 30.7 GB)

30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night 30 Days of Night

 
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 11:09 PM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Swoon

Blue Underground Blu-ray releases

Three months after announcing their intentions to break into the Blu-ray market, Blue Underground have provided a tantalising glimpse at some of the titles we can expect to see from them. While no release dates have been announced, these titles alone should be enough to whet the appetite of any serious cult cinema fans:

- The Final Countdown
- The Bird with the Crystal Plumage
- The Stendhal Syndrome
- Maniac
- Vigilante
- Fire and Ice

The brief preview trailer, available on their site, also shows material from Two Evil Eyes, Dead and Buried and Uncle Sam. We’re being promised 50 GB dual layer discs, 7.1 Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio tracks, plenty of extras and (contain yourselves) D-Box Motion Code support.

 
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 3:58 PM | Comments: 6 (view)
Categories: Animation | Blu-ray | Cinema | Dario Argento | Gialli | Technology
 

Ringo Starr was in The Simpsons once…

Blu-ray

Now that I have a Blu-ray drive in my main computer, I’ve been taking the opportunity to look through some of the discs I haven’t provided screen captures for yet. The Simpsons Movie is a title that immediately leapt out at me as a prime candidate for the PrintScreen button, mainly because it’s one of those discs that many reviewers have praised to the heavens, describing it as “perfect” and “flawless”, and other such hyperbolic nonsense. In actual fact, Fox’s encode of The Simpsons Movie features quite a lot of unsightly ringing, as a result of having been filtered.

(Lyris and myself, by the way, have all sorts of wacky names for the various artefacts that plague digital video. Ringo Starr, as you can probably imagine, refers to ringing. Stick around and you may get to meet Dusty Springfield, Billy Brickwall, Waxy O’Connor, and our old favourite, Mega Bloks.)

Why would anyone filter high definition content in the first place, especially material as basic-looking as Homer Simpson and his bland family? Well, I can’t say for sure, but it looks suspiciously like a technician left his or her software at the default settings and popped out for a leak, leaving the encoding software (or hardware) to wreak havoc. It’s not just that there’s ringing: for some reason, several shots show a bunch of errant hues showing up in the ringing, especially visible when you zoom in (Shot 3 is particularly affected by this).

The Simpsons Movie
(20th Century Fox, USA, AVC)

The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie The Simpsons Movie

 
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 2:51 PM | Comments: 3 (view)
Categories: Animation | BD Impressions | Blu-ray | Cinema | Technology
 

Vroom!

Upgrade 2008

Above: Upgrade 2008

This is my first post from my new and improved computer. I ended up picking up the components I previously discussed a little earlier than I had originally expected, which means that I’ve effectively treated myself to an early birthday present (my birthday is at the beginning of July, and my parents have said they’ll give me some money towards this venture). The bits and pieces arrived yesterday, and setting them up went surprisingly smoothly, particularly considering that, in the past, I’ve always relied on more tech-savvy parents and siblings to assist me when putting together a computer. I’d estimate that building it from the ground up took a little under two hours, at which point I was free to put my feet up and watch as various installers grumbled and ground.

Given that I ported my old hard drives over to the new machine, I was rather hoping I could get away without reinstalling Windows, but this, alas, was not an option. Windows XP actually started up, which surprised me no end as Vista failed to boot as all, but it was in a more or less unusable state as every single component had been changed and the poor thing simply didn’t know what to make of all this new hardware. (The fact that I had no USB functionality was a pretty major problem as it meant I was without keyboard or mouse, hardly the best position in which to find yourself, as I’m sure you’ll agree.)

I’m running Vista currently, and my plan is to stick with it unless I come across any significant problems. As a backup plan, I installed XP on a secondary partition, but my plan is to leave it alone unless I absolutely have to use it. I’d much rather have a single operating system, and Vista’s DirectX 10 compliance provides a fairly significant incentive for gamers to use it. (Of course, you’ll have to wait ‘til I’ve had a chance to install a DirectX 10 game like Hellgate: London before I can actually provide some thoughts on it.)

No doubt I’ll run into the usual teething problems associated with a complete system overhaul (I’m still ironing out the kinks with my new sound card, for instance), but so far, I have to say that things have been a lot more painless than I had any reason to expect.

 
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 at 11:07 AM | Comments: 0 (view)
Categories: Games | General | Technology
 

We interrupt this programme for a special report

Technology

Sorry about the lack of updates lately. I’m currently knee-deep in putting together a paper for the departmental Postgraduate Symposium, which takes place over Monday and Tuesday next week. My presentation is on Monday afternoon, and, while I’m nearing the home stretch as far as my paper is concerned, I want to take the time to make it as good as possible, so I’ve been spending pretty much all the time I have available on it.

Still, I’ve also taken the time to hammer out some plans for my new computer. Having weighed up the possibilities, I think I’m going to go with the following:

Case and PSU: Antec Sonata III Piano Black Quiet Mid Tower Case - With 500W EarthWatts PSU

Motherboard: ASUS P5K-E/WIFI-AP AiLifestyle Series P35 Socket 775 Socket eSATA 8 channel Audio ATX

CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 3GHz (1333MHz) Socket 775 6MB L2 Cache OEM

CPU cooler: Scythe Mine Rev-B

RAM: Corsair 4GB Kit (2x2GB) DDR2 800MHz/PC2-6400 XMS2 Memory Non-ECC Unbuffered

Video card: Gecube HD 3870 512MB GDDR3 OC edition Dual DVI TV Out PCI-E

Sound card: Auzen X-Fi Prelude 7.1

I already have my optical drive (an LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray/HD DVD combo) ready and waiting. Plus, I’ll retain my current monitor, audio system, keyboard, mouse and hard drives.

I feel pretty comfortable with the motherboard and RAM, since my brother bought exactly the same models for his machine and both are serving him very well. Plus, I’m an ASUS loyalist through and through and have bought motherboards from them (barring my current Shuttle) since 2002. I decided to go with a fast dual-core CPU rather than spending more money on a quad-core with a lower clock speed. I’m well aware of the benefits of a quad-core system when it comes to video encoding and other CPU-crunching activities, but, when it comes to gaming performance, which will probably be my primary concern, I suspect I’m better off squeezing as many megahertz as possible out of a dual-core system, given how few games take advantage of more than two cores.

Any thoughts on this system? Any suggestions?

 
Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 11:38 PM | Comments: 5 (view)
Categories: Games | General | PhD | Technology
 

I don’t like World of Warcraft (or: how I learned to stop worrying and love Guild Wars)

Games

I’ve written about Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft in the past. Going from the initial “This is okay” to “Hopefully it gets better than this” phases, through the dreaded “This is actually pretty boring” period before finally reaching my “No way is this worth $15 a month” epiphany, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is one game I simply don’t “get”. It epitomises the “donkey/carrot/stick” school of game design (to quote Ray Milland’s character in Dial M for Murder): effectively, the designers have created a game where the constant promise of eventual reward (the carrot) encourages the player to keep moving forward, while the threat of falling behind or not getting your value for money (the stick) dissuades him or her from staying put.

Now, I have absolutely no problem with this framework, provided the journey itself is actually fun. If exploring the world, hacking up monsters and collecting loot is a pleasurable activity in its own right, as it is in, say, Blizzard’s earlier Diablo, then the continual performance of bigger and better locations, monsters and loot is no bad thing. When this becomes a problem is when the fundamental game mechanics prevent me from getting any enjoyment out of this process, as is the case for World of Warcraft. The other day, nearly two years after I last played the game, I had a sudden urge to give it another whirl. Therefore, I left it on overnight, downloading around 2 GB worth of patches and content updates, whipped out my credit card, laid down $15, logged myself in and sat down to re-enter the world of Azeroth.

World of Warcraft

First problem: I never did succeed in taking a character beyond Level 19, and, given that the game is now nearly four years old, this understandably set me pretty far behind the curve. In a world where 70 is the current maximum character level, starting out at such a low level feels a bit like being placed in the remedial class. Oh well, I thought, might as well take the opportunity to re-familiarise myself with how the game plays. So off I went to hack up some gnolls for Harry Hardwick and gather a few crimson bandanas for Melissa Silkloins or whatever their names are.

Second problem: none of this is actually any fun. After persevering for a couple of hours, I quickly came to the conclusion that I’d once again wasted my money. Now, at the current exchange rate, blowing $15 isn’t the end of the world, but any transaction where the goods delivered are sub-par is annoying. It’s particularly annoying when, as is the case with World of Warcraft, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the problem is with me rather than the game. Maybe I just don’t “get it”. After all, the game boasts a record of 10 million subscribers (that’s a whopping 62% of the MMORPG market share), and I find it hard to believe that they’re all just complete morons staring slack-jawed at the screen and dumbly clicking the mouse in the hope that they finally get to chomp on that delicious-looking carrot. On the contrary, from what I can gather, the game takes some degree of skill to master. There’s also the fact that, in piddling around the smaller scale early areas and levels, I’m missing out on the high end epic battles and quests that are supposedly the game’s main draw.

But the problem is that I have absolutely no desire to persevere with the early stuff so as to eventually reach the better material that supposedly comes later. The gameplay mechanics strike me as fundamentally crap, with slow, clunky combat that feels like an unsatisfying trade-off between turn-based and real-time, chunky, unappealing graphics, and seemingly endless hours of trawling on foot from location to location (for a fee, you can purchase a ride from one major city to another using flying mounts, and, once you hit Level 40, you can purchase a horse of your own). This is, in my opinion, definitely the weakest game in the Warcraft franchise, and I struggle to name any other Blizzard game that I’ve enjoyed less. Honestly, I’d rather play Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing again than this.

Guild Wars

Luckily, there’s a solution. It’s called Guild Wars, and it’s like World of Warcraft, only fun. Straight off the bat, this game, which was designed by several ex-Blizzard staffers, seems to tick all the right boxes. First of all, it’s free to play, meaning that you pay a one-off fee to pick up a boxed copy of the game, and then you can play it for as long as you like at no extra charge. As with World of Warcraft, they don’t delete your characters due to account inactivity, either, so you can abandon it for months or years at a time and then hop back in where you left off. Secondly, and fairly fundamentally, it’s actually fun to play. Right from the word go, everything about it is more polished, more fluid, more appealing and just generally slicker than World of Warcraft. The combat is fast-paced and satisfying, and any location that you’ve previously visited is just a couple of mouse clicks away, thanks to the fact that you can instantaneously jump to cities and outposts from the world map instead of having to walk, fly or ride to them. Crucially, the “donkey/carrot/stick” problem is nowhere to be found. You can actually max out your character fairly quickly (Level 20 is the highest you can get), which means that, once you’re there, the “Just another half-hour and I can hit the next level” incentive is no longer present, so the missions have to be enjoyable in their own right. To Guild Wars’ credit, they are, and it doesn’t matter that you can hit Level 20 before you’re even a quarter of the way through the game. The experience of playing the game itself is enjoyable enough without character building even coming into play.

Guild Wars also makes use of the concept of instancing, meaning that, while towns are communal, whenever you enter a combat area, a separate copy of the location is created for you and your party, meaning that you don’t have to worry about someone coming along and stealing your loot or kills. Perhaps this detracts to some extent from the social aspect of games like this, but all that sort of thing is still possible in the town areas: it just means that you have to assemble your team before venturing out into the wilderness. Also, for social pariahs such as myself, the fact that you can hire computer-controlled henchmen to help you take on your opponents, rather than having to hope you can find another player or two whose goals match your own, is a big plus in its favour.

I’m currently playing the original Guild Wars “Prophecies” campaign and am having a blast inching my way towards completing it. Beyond that, I still have the “Factions” and “Nightfall” campaigns to finish (three separate Guild Wars campaigns were released, all of which can be purchased separately and work as stand-alone games, but which interlock to create a much larger world). There’s also the Eye of the North expansion set, which requires a copy of one of the three original campaigns and will supposedly help ease the transition into Guild Wars 2, which is apparently going to have its public beta later this year. Warcraft schmorcraft - you can take your monthly fee and stick it in a very private place.

 
Posted: Monday, May 12, 2008 at 3:30 PM | Comments: 2 (view)
Categories: Cinema | Games | Technology
 
 

 
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