The month long absence was largely to do with focusing on starting work as a trainee solicitor at Bird & Bird although, with the first two weeks spent on what broadly amounted to an LPC-lite Professional Skills course, very little has actually been going on. The trainees are a fantastic bunch, and I’d managed to meet about two thirds of them already through various social events over the past two years since the summer scheme (yes, it has been that long). From that bunch Rachel, Chelsea and Matt have joined, with Kelvin also starting in the firm’s Hong Kong office. Rob will be joining us next year.
Obviously client confidentiality means I’m unlikely to discuss work at length here, but the firm culture is possibly even better than we had hoped. Rather than waxing lyrical about the ubiquitous “work-life balance” claim of every law firm, instead they just give us great hours with virtually no late nights so that people can, well, go away and have lives. I’ll be in the IP department for the next six months and, having been a student for too long, I’m actually looking forward to getting properly stuck into some real work.
With classic poor timing in my last week of freedom before work, my Xbox 360 finally gave up the ghost, refusing to start and displaying the dreaded three red lights — meaning a critical hardware fault. While an electronic device of that value ought not to break after just 2 years, Microsoft’s support has been stellar. With unusually high failure rates they extended their warranty to three years, meaning that after logging the problem online they emailed me a UPS label and paid for all transportation costs. Once received the turnaround was only around a day, and it arrived back working fine. The included note stated they had found problems in both the motherboard and DVD drive, so not exactly a minor repair. The inclusion of an unboxed scratched-up disc of outdated tennis game Top Spin 2 was a somewhat insulting gift, but the 1 month Xbox Live subscription card was vastly more welcome. Overall it was a problem that should not have happened, but being able to resolve it for free without even calling up a helpline mean Microsoft get top marks for their response.
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…
The 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.
The 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.