Meewella | Fragments

The Life of P

Month: February 2008

Intergalactic Oscar Takeover

Law school exams are over which gives me a week or so respite before the electives course begins. This also means we are being divided into new classes so the gang I’ve got to know over the last six months has been split up. I’m sure we’ll still see a great deal of each other, particularly with our usual ‘spoons hangout still just 30 seconds away from school.

Puzzle Quest: GalactrixGDC is supposedly a convention for game developers to share ideas and innovative solutions to challenges they have faced but, perhaps fuelled by the demise of the old-style E3, it is becoming more of a media circus. Marketing has clearly come to the fore with announcements of several new titles. One of these is Puzzle Quest: Galactrix. The original Puzzle Quest was one of the few games that successfully bridged the divide between the casual gamer and the more hardcore, with its basic puzzle game heart coupled with some deeper RPG elements. The end result was that Kirsten and I were both hooked for quite some time. I am pleased to see the sci-fi themed follow-up is not simply the same Bejewelled clone with a new skin. While not quite a sequel (one of the devs described it as a “cousin” to the original) it mixes things up with a hexagonal board and an interesting approach to gravity — when you match gems, new ones drop in along that axis rather than vertically downwards. Hopefully it will again appear on a plethora of platforms so that everyone can enjoy.

I have grown bored with the Oscars so while I still take a cursory glance at the nominations and winners, actually watching the ceremony is totally out of the question. Part of the problem is that from the list of nominees I can usually pick the big four (best actor, actress, director and picture) straight off even if I haven’t seen the films in question. This year was no exception. This makes it somewhat difficult to get excited about a ceremony that supposedly derives its tension from the winners being announced. Of course it’s always a pleasant surprise when there is an unexpected winner (like Crash) but those are certainly the exception.

It must be the season for massive acquisition offers. Yahoo!’s board is currently facing the possibility of being sued by shareholders for rejecting Microsoft’s high profile advances. Meanwhile Electronic Arts, now the 2nd largest game publisher in the world, has offered $2 billion for the troubled Take Two. The smaller publisher holds a host of developers including Rockstar and the Grand Theft Auto franchise. With its fourth instalment due for imminent release it stands to make very large profits to smooth its recent turbulence, and will likely wait until afterwards to consider offers. However the mainstream press has ignored the fact EA probably has its sights on the publisher’s wide range of sports titles which, while snubbed by many for their incremental improvements in annual releases, sell in the millions each year and are the chief rivals to EA’s own sports games.

Make Love, Not HD DVDs

I have not yet weighed in on the end of the high definition format war, now formally over following Toshiba’s announcement that shortly they will be ceasing production of HD DVD devices. This obviously leaves Sony’s blu-ray as the victor, presumably having learned from the famous failure of their betamax format to VHS and thus being willing to spend vast sums to win over major studios. It is, of course, content that decides competitions like this, not innate quality. On paper blu-ray the higher capacity blu-ray certainly looked to be the better format but as it stands things are not quite so clear cut for the consumer.

HD DVD was arguably a more direct evolution of the old format so production of both media and, more visibly, the players were much cheaper. The consumer is now saddled with the more expensive format and with the early victory for blu-ray, there hasn’t even been the competitive need for major cuts in player prices. The other issue is that the blu-ray movie format is still in flux. The java system used to provide interactive features has caused issues and there are already three tiers of players. The earliest adopters with profile 1.0 players are left out in the cold, while profile 1.1 and now profile 2.0 players leave one wondering whether there is any guarantee to the consumer that the format is going to be properly finalised at all. Certain discs have severe problems playing on earlier players, while others experience boot times of up to 90 seconds. The PS3 is the only blu-ray player that can be updated to keep up with these changes. Buying a standalone (and often more expensive) player is just too risky even with the war won.

A strange aside to all this is that, as well as blu-ray, Sony have spent a huge amount developing the cell processor which powers the PS3. Last year they arranged to stop production and transfer the technology to Toshiba who would produce the processors for them. The finer points of this deal were only recently settled leading some to suggest Toshiba may have been bought off through favourable terms in return for ending the format war early.

So the end of the format war does not make it safe for most consumers to bite the bullet and buy a blu-ray player just yet. If you want one now, the PS3 is the safest bet since it’s impressive processing power means that firmware updates should be sufficient to keep it on the cutting edge (and really it must be up-to-date if the Sony wish to maximise the advantage of holding the winning format).

Another question several people have asked me is what this means for Microsoft and the Xbox 360. Not a huge amount really. They hedged their bets supporting HD DVD via an external add-on rather than integrating it into the console. It is almost inevitable that a blu-ray add-on is in the works (rumour says they already have operating units in Redmond). The real difference is that the PS3 has suddenly become a much more appealing prospect as a second console and so it seems the gaming world will have a three-horse race after all…

Cracking Crystal Skulls

Film reviews dropped off last year due to time constraints, but I hope to rectify that with at least some of the back catalogue to coincide with DVD releases. The first of these is Ratatouille, with Pixar’s lovable rodent gastronome. Its polish is undeniable and it looks stunning, but somehow I felt it lacked a certain Pixar magic. It still comes highly recommended as a fantastic family film. I am also bemused by the fact that for Americans they needed to spell it phonetically below the title…

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullA teaser trailer is now out for the upcoming Indiana Jones film, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, revealing the first footage from Indie’s first outing in almost 20 years. In fact this one has been knocking around for the better part of a decade before getting under way. Harrison Ford has not been getting any younger during those delays but it is comforting to see some self-awareness in the trailer, showing that they recognise this is an older Indie and the action, while still present, is not going to become a joke. I was initially a little disappointed to see them move away from the Excalibur plot that was in discussion several years ago, since I’ve always had a soft spot for the Arthurian legend. On the other hand perhaps it is for the best since Indie’s biggest modern rival is Lara Croft and her most recent adventure, Tomb Raider Legend, covered that very angle. I cannot help but wonder if George Lucas had a strong hand in the trailer since the entire first half is wasted in an unnecessarily long montage from the old films, a technique used in the first trailer for Star Wars Episode III.

Meanwhile law school exams start tomorrow so I had better get back to something vaguely resembling work…

PlayDigital: Legal DRM-free MP3 Reaches the UK

Beating Amazon to the punch, with Play.com’s launch of their new PlayDigital download service, DRM-free high-quality mp3 downloads from major record labels finally reach the UK. Which also means it is time to put my money where my mouth is and, in line with a promise I made a long while back, buy an album. This actually proved harder than I expected. Not through any fault of the store itself, I hasten to add. It feels just like buying anything else from Play, which is to say almost too easy. No additional software is required, you simply pay and then download (download speed was disappointingly slow but this is likely due to the store being swamped at launch). The first issue is that EMI is still the only one of the big labels who is playing nice and fully embracing this non-crippled digital distribution model, and the second is a question of pricing. Harking back to my darker metal roots Paradise Lost’s In Requiem was my first choice until I realised that the album offered for download at a very reasonable £7.25 was actually being sold physically, jewel cased CD with free postage, for just £6.66. If I were not the album buying sort the general 65-70p price point for single tracks is great, and undercuts Apple’s iTunes enough to tempt people away, particularly when one notes the format offered here is far superior to anything offered by Apple as I’ve discussed before.

So, given that I did remain true to my word, what was the eventual winner? Dragonforce’s blisteringly fast Inhuman Rampage for a bargain £5.25. The first couple of minutes of Through The Fire & Flames has already given me a real craving to play Guitar Hero…

Razer MakoOn a related musical theme I am generally disparaging of fashion speakers like JBL’s Creature series, glossy white and very slick but utterly average in the most important characteristic of sound reproduction — they match Macs wonderfully which one assumes was really their primary purpose. However the new Razer Mako 2.1 system has really impressed me from what I’ve seen so far. I’m dying to hear for myself whether they live up to the THX certification they have received (Logitech’s THX certified speakers sound simply phenomenal and have long been my favourites for a PC). These are definitely ones to keep an eye on.

UPDATE: I have heard from others that they are now getting fast downloads from PlayDigital so any speed issues are now resolved.

Planet Earth Makes Me Angry

But probably not for the reason you think. Planet Earth actually imbues me with a deep contempt for the broadcast regulator. The BBC is sitting on an immense library of stunning HD footage which they wish to share with everyone via freeview. For months the regulator has argued HD broadcast over freeview is impossible because it is poor use of limited bandwidth. Of course. What we really need are five extra shopping channels. As HDTVs gradually become the norm, it is difficult to see how such a position can be maintained. It is inevitable that eventually free HD footage must be made available. This will either require an incalculably expensive network of free cable provision, or better use of the available broadcast bandwidth. Currently, it seems, the regulator is just not doing its job. The question is are enough people complaining for them to care? Also, there are over 6 billion humans and only 40 Amur leopards left in the wild. That can’t be right either.

I came across Street Kings, a film about cop culture directed by the writer of Training Day, via the roundabout fact that Hugh Laurie acts in it. Given that his brief appearance in the trailer lasts a scant half a second, one imagines there must be more direct routes through which one might arrive in the same location. He is surrounded by a strangely assembled cast that seems almost contrived with its mix of Keanu Reeves, Forest Whitaker, “Common” and “The Game”. As Jehan points out, Laurie’s inclusion will serve only to cement the already prevalent American misconception that he is in fact an American. Because why wouldn’t he be?

Highly Compatible

The whole social networking lark throws up quirky moments from time to time, such as Last.fm now informing me that apparently I have a high musical compatibility with Neil Gaiman. Quite how this has any bearing on the real world I am unsure, but it’s still nice to know. Since I now stream a lot of media to my living room via the Xbox 360, Last.fm no longer really provides an accurate picture of what I’m listening to. Mind you, music played on portable devices while travelling was never recorded either, so it was hardly angling for a high degree of accuracy to begin with. The inherent advantage of an open platform for console development is that it would allow for such small applications to be ported over, but this is totally contrary to the current business model so for now that’s a pipe dream.

When it comes to technology, and in particular mobile phones, it is no secret that I like big swanky screens. However I also really like the tactile feedback of buttons which has made me reluctant to buy into any of the first generation touchscreen devices which shun any form of old-fashioned clicking. Now Sony Ericsson’s fusion in the new XPERIA X1 (which in fairness is rumoured to have been designed by the folks at HTC) looks like it might just steal my heart.

There has been a flood of mobile announcements with the Mobile World Congress kicking off in Barcelona. If full keyboards aren’t your cup of tea SE‘s new G series “touchscreen organisers” are worth a look, while Nokia’s high-end flagship model gets an upgrade in the N96.

Free Neil Gaiman

No, he’s not been incarcerated, but he is giving away some of his writing for free. To celebrate the 7th birthday of his blog the big plan is to release one of his books online gratis, for one month to start with. Interestingly which book is being left up to his readers who are encouraged to pick what they believe is the best book for new readers to be introduced to his work. Clear frontrunners are currently American Gods and Neverwhere. American Gods is undoubtedly an incredible piece of work, though arguably too heavy for an initial introduction. My personal vote goes to Smoke & Mirrors, a less well read collection of short stories, in part because they are just magical and in part because shorter chunks seems better suited than a full length novel for electronic distribution, unless one is lucky enough to own a Kindle.

This brings to mind that the fifth birthday of this very blog occurs later this year, 4th September for those paying particularly close attention. I aim to transfer over more of the old posts, having stopped a few months after the site redesign in 2005. However I’m also looking for something big to celebrate five years, but since my writing is basically made available for free I cannot really follow suit. Ideas on a postcard. Or possibly the comments if you don’t want to pay for postage.

Market sellers in Camden are in trouble after a serious fire raged through over the weekend. It is now known where it started but not exactly how. Most of Camden is still open for business but this will undoubtedly affect business and the high street will remain closed for several days. I have recently been visiting Camden a lot more regularly and on my last visit was dismayed to see that the Black Rose, from where most of my youthful “accessories” came, has closed down. This is what happens when I stop paying attention…

Fifteen, London

I will readily admit to being sceptical of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, the premise seeming to be (and I am aware of the snobbery of which this will reek) an expensive meal cooked by chavs. Yet at £100 a head, £60 for the tasting menu and £40 for the optional wine pairing, one’s expectations are unavoidably heightened. Given this starting point it is difficult to convey just how impressed I was with the evening that formed an early Valentine’s dinner for Kirsten and myself, courtesy of Octopus Publishing.

The venue, close to Old Street, is in an odd area but a very nice building. The interior furnishing is stylish yet does not hide its roots with the graffiti-style “fifteen” logo sprayed with scant subtlety in gold across one wall. From the moment we were seated the service was nothing short of exceptional. Upon arrival of each dish of the six course menu, its preparation was carefully described before we took a bite. Bruschetta with crab through gnocchi with lamb to sea bass and a mascarpone tart for dessert left no complaints. Arguably the main courses felt somewhat bland by comparison to their more adventurous introductory dishes, but this is a minor quibble.

Yet the highlight was probably the wine selection. Our sommelier took the time to introduce each wine, carefully chosen to match each dish, impressively enough that we requested and took home a listing of their wines. Standouts for me were a fantastic dry Australian Riesling (given that I am not generally a fan of whites) and the surprisingly but clever combination of Pinot Noir to accompany a fish dish (proving easily as good a match as a traditional white with its light tannins). The most memorable mouthful, however, came early in the meal. Between the Insalate and Primi came a single spoon laden with salmon, cranberry and lime juices as well as a garnish. The multitude of exceptional flavours in that single mouthful, coupled with the accompanying champagne, lingered on for the rest of meal.

So all in all a wonderful meal that comes highly recommended. The only reservation is, of course, the price at £100 a head. For that price one feels that Heston Blumenthal’s eclectic Fat Duck remains a more appealing prospect, and is still where my first (lawyerly) paycheque is likely to head. Nevertheless, as a high quality meal within London that also aids the underprivileged by training them as top chefs, Fifteen has undoubtedly gone from strength to strength. Bravo Jamie.

RezHD

RezHDThe latest addition to Xbox Live Arcade is easily one of the best yet, despite being a high definition remake of a game about seven years old. At it’s core it’s a wireframe rail shooter (where the player does not control the character’s movement, only their aim). Set inside a computer system, the player aims to reboot a rogue AI, destroying any viruses and firewalls they come across. Aside from its visual style (now totally free of the jagged edges from previous versions) what really sets it apart is its trance/techno soundtrack. This moves it into “stoner game” territory (examples such as Jeff Minter’s recent Space Giraffe had totally put me off) but there is an intelligent depth to its implementation. Each section starts with a basic beat and then with each level completed it adds an additional track, so by the time you reach the boss you are absorbed in a layered world of sound. On top of this while shooting down enemies you add small sound elements depending on the number you hit at once (from 1 to 8). It becomes an experience so you often aim to take out 4 or 6 instead of the maximum because it sounds better.

RezHDThe thing that takes it further into the psychedelic realm is the vibrations. Unsurprisingly the controller you use vibrates in time with the music, but more interesting (read: weirder) is that you can set up several additional controllers to vibrate independently in time with different soundtrack layers as well. These can be positioned around one’s body like the back. I assume the intended purpose is not quite as explicit as the trance vibrator packaged with the Japanese PS2 release of Rez. It’s all very difficult to describe so I was fortunate that there was enough buzz around the game to convince me to download the demo, which in turn convinced me to purchase it shortly thereafter. This is undoubtedly as much art as it is game. At a bargain price of around £6, it’s impossible not to recommend and is fine example of how the Live Arcade platform should be used. In fact it earned a perfect score from 1UP.com.

Away from the Xbox this week has been spent preparing a “Consolidation Transaction”, BPP’s form of enforced group revision that everyone feels is largely a waste of time. Instead of preparing and giving a presentation on small pockets of the course, actual revision would undoubtedly be a better use of our time. In fact sleeping would probably be a better use. Kirsten’s friend Jolanda has been staying with us for a few days, watching a lot of quirky TV comedies like Green Wing, older cartoon comedy God, The Devil & Bob, and Kevin Smith’s new show, Reaper. All are highly recommended.

"You shouldn't trust the storyteller; only trust the story."

(CC) BY-NC 2005-2017 Priyan Meewella

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