12.29.2009

Review - Brilliance of the Moon

Brilliance of the Moon (Tales of the Otori, # 3) Brilliance of the Moon by Lian Hearn


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
While not as engrossing as the first book (since Across the Nightingale Floor has the origin story), Brilliance of the Moon is much more entertaining than the 2nd book, Grass For His Pillow, and works to assuage some of the frustration built up in the narrative of the second book. Originally, Tales of the Otori was a trilogy and this was the final book (which is no longer the case), if it were still the final book I would be disappointed by it, since my only real criticism towards Brilliance of The Moon is its' rushed pace. It feels like important events are glossed over and poignant moments are only given a quick mention before moving on. Fortunately, there are still two more books to read.

View all my reviews >>

11.24.2009

Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine


Adaptations of movies into video games have always been hit or miss.  Which is why it's always a massive shock when a game based on a movie can come along and have the audacity to be good.  Gamers were floored after playing The Chronicles of Riddick, GoldenEye 007 or even Aladdin for the Super Nintendo.    Now, add to that list X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the video game based on the 2009 summer blockbuster of the same name. 


What really sets Wolverine the video game apart is that it is not only a good game, but it is actually better than the movie!  It may be hard to believe, but while the film was a decent, PG-13 romp around the most famous X-Men's backstory, the game is an M-rated, gore-filled, power trip that expands on the visuals of the film by adding plot from the lauded comic books.

Much in the way that the Harry Potter video game I recently reviewed failed, Wolverine succeeds.  The visuals of Wolverine-the film are consistent with Wolverine-the game, while the game's length is padded to expand it beyond the film's 2-hour running time, by using the ample and brilliant material found in the X-Men and Wolverine comics.  The end result is that Raven software has created a real labor of love that will appeal to any fan of 'The Wolverine'.

Since we fans were first introduced to this unruly anti-hero with his metal skeleton and razor sharp adamantium claws, we couldn't help but imagine what would happen if Wolverine were finally let off of the leash of the Comics Code Authority or his youth friendly PG-13 rating and let to run wild in all his feral glory.


Thanks to the game's well-deserved Mature rating, that train of thought need no longer exist only in the realm of fantasy and the end result is something that closely resembles the God of War formula.  Take a nearly indestructible and highly incensed hero and lay waste to legions of enemies in the most gruesome and satisfying ways possible.

Structurally, the comparison to the God of War games is also apt.  As Wolverine, you will navigate through each level, mashing on a couple attack buttons to fight off your foes, grabbing them to throw them, execute them or use the environment to do the dirty work for you and just generally flip out and kill everything that moves.  One, incredibly fun mechanic introduced for Wolverine is his lunge move.  The lunge allows Wolverine to lock on to an enemy from across the plane and then leap through the air and spear him with his claws.  Not only is this a useful and awesomely satisfying attack, but it's also used as a navigational necessity.  The lunge is sometimes the only way to cross a chasm or jump on to a vehicle.  It sounds contrived, but the game pulls the occurrences off in such away that it doesn't feel too artificial and besides, the lunge move is just so much fun to pull off that you really won't mind it.

Also like God of War is the existence of special moves which are fueled by a rage meter.  Killing enemies and pounding open boxes and crates will release orbs that fill this meter.  Wolverine can use the contents of his rage meter to fuel some spectacular special moves as well as a "Berserker" state that makes all of his normal attacks more powerful for a limited time.  You'll also find the inclusion of some extremely cinematic Quick Time Events in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The visuals are quite decent in Wolverine.  The game uses the Unreal engine at its core and runs at a decent framerate, although it is prone to slow down when a number of enemies and effects are all happening on screen at once.  One of the most stunning elements of the game's graphics is the depiction of Wolverine.  As Wolverine begins to take damage, you can actually see his body being chipped away by gunfire, explosions and other enemy weaponry.  When Wolverine is at the brink of death it's usually possible to see his exposed ribs poking out of his chest cavity and most of his face missing.  After a few seconds his mutant healing factor will kick in and you can watch as all of his wounds close up and heal.  It's pretty amazing the first time you see it and novelty never quite wears off.


Also included in the game are several high quality pre-rendered cinematic cut scenes.  These scenes are absolutely gorgeous and a joy to watch as they generally maintain the same gruesome vibe as the rest of the game while being stunning in all of their high definition glory.  The scene in which Wolverine's skeleton is infused with adamantium is a particular stand-out. 

The story of the game is heavily adapted from that of the film, but also filled in with elements from the comic books, for example The Sentinel program that produces giant mutant-terminating robots makes an appearance.  And the structure of the story-telling is also done in an interesting mash-up of flashbacks.  Which help vary the locales you'll find yourself in as you jump from one moment in Wolverine's past to another.  At first it feels like the story is randomly hopping around, but as the plot is fleshed out, the cleverness of the storytelling becomes apparent.  Most of the cast from the film also make appearances in the game, and as a result, the voice acting is decent.  No one sounds tremendously like they were phoning it in, but to say it is top-notch would be an over-statement. 

In the end, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is much like God of War, but despite their extreme structural and mechanical similarities, Wolverine's presence as The Original Bad-ass (I'd back Wolverine in a fight with Kratos anyway), makes the game feel distinctly different, albeit related.  You probably just won't mind the similarities.  In fact, it's the perfect litmus test to gauge whether or not you will enjoy the game.  Did you enjoy playing any of the God of War games?  Do you like Wolverine?  If you answered yes, then X-Men Origins Wolverine is definitely for you!

10.30.2009

Single Discovery: Netsky - Eyes Closed

Not available yet, but soon to be released on Grid Records, this track is Eyes Closed by Netsky. Netsky's warm tones and sparse, repetitious vocals flow like a ribbon pulled by a current.

10.27.2009

Should You Discover Uncharted?

With the release of Uncharted 2 just a few short weeks ago, I would imagine many people who missed out on playing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune are wondering if they should go back and give it a try before playing the hotly anticipated sequel.

The answer yeah, kind of, at least for a little bit. Before, I continue, let me just state, unequivocally that Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a breathtaking spectacle of a game. The biggest draws of Uncharted are the characters, their animations and the lush, rich graphical detail of the world they inhabit. Secondary, and probably most importantly to a video game however, is the gameplay. Unfortunately, the gameplay in Uncharted isn't as compelling as the visuals.

As Nathan Drake, you will spend too much of your time firing bullets into ammo-sponge pirates. These pirates can take multiple shotgun blasts before they go down. In between blasts, you'll want to duck and cover, using a cover based system that, 2 years after the game's release, is starting to feel a little antiquated. What's more, is that while you are hiding behind cover you need to make sure you know where all your enemies are, otherwise you risk getting flanked.

While it's refreshing to know that you can't just stay hidden behind a rock for an entire gunfight without your adversaries getting wise, in later battles it can be frustrating to have to repeat a section a couple times only because you didn't know from what vantage point your enemies were shooting you. Hiding behind cover is one thing, staying on the move is another, but the sniper on the ridge behind you with the grenade launcher just feels like a cheap shot.

But don't get the wrong impression, it's not all bad. The gunplay in Uncharted is tough and and it can also be a lot of fun, but it also accounts for about half of the gameplay you will experience. The other half of the game consists of about 40% platforming; jumping, swinging and climbing through the environments, while the remaining 10% is puzzle solving. I would have liked to see the puzzle solving element vastly expanded. The puzzles that were featured in the game seemed pretty simplistic. So, while the gunplay is lackluster, it's shortcomings wouldn't be so noticeable if there just wasn't so much of it. Uncharted does so many things right that the things that aren't quite up to snuff stick out like a sore thumb.

So, should you play Uncharted: Drake's Fortune?

Well, if you've ever played a Tomb Raider game, or enjoyed an Indiana Jones film, then yes, absolutely. The game has the old-time adventure vibe similar to films like Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone, while being more realistic and believable than a Tomb Raider adventure.

Completionists may be inclined to play it all the way to the end. Just be advised that some of the final chapters take an extremely creepy survival-horror tone. I wish that Naughty Dog (the game's developer) hadn't felt the need to follow the footsteps of games like Tomb Raider and include a supernatural element. The characters and villains established early on in the game were enough to make for a compelling ending to the game, although I understand the desire to ratchet up the tension by including a new scary "element".

Trophy-hunters should be aware that hunting for the hidden treasures (little items you pick up in random locations throughout the game) should be done with a guide. You can find quite a few without the guide, but you will need help for the harder items. Luckily after beating the game you can go back through each chapter in a level select mode to find missed treasures. Another series of trophies are contingent on beating the game on the hardest difficulty setting, but I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy. The game's difficulty is already borderline frustrating on the 'easy' setting. There's a reason why the game's hardest difficulty level is called 'Crushing'.

Playing casually, on the easiest difficulty (I started on Normal, but switched after a couple chapters) yielded 24 trophies for me, which is about 40% of the number available.

In the end, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is definitely worth some of your time. I would suggest renting it, borrowing it or getting it for cheap and play at least until somewhere between Chapter 5 and Chapter 8. At that point, you will have seen most of the great things the game has to offer. All of the major characters are introduced within the first couple chapters (some of these characters will be making a return in the sequel) and the plot, while well executed, is not overly complex, so you don't need to worry about being lost in Uncharted 2 if you've played through a bit of the original. Enjoy the spectacle that is Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, but don't stay too long. And remember that most of the shortcomings of the 1st game have been addressed in the sequel.

9.17.2009

Single Review: Zarif - California (Danny Byrd Remix)



We have been waiting forever for this tune to drop and now it is finally available to the masses! Accidentally leaked by Tony Coleman on his Hospital Records podcast (link opens iTunes) 87, I have been anxiously waiting for the day I could get my hands on this track.

California doesn't really do anything that you haven't heard before. It follows the Drum 'n' Bass formula popularized by the likes of Cynatific, Logistics and of course, the song's remixer Danny Byrd. The stuttered voices are reminiscent of Neon Skyline by Cyantific, and chopped with equal skill, while the melody, song structure and samples used come together so perfectly to create a song that just makes you feel good. There's really no other way to describe it. This is one of those rare, mood-altering songs in the company of Call Me Back by Logistics or The Sun by Phetsta & ShockOne that can make you drop what you're doing and bop your head along to the beat in aural bliss.

So, while California may not do anything that you haven't heard before, it doesn't matter, because what California does do, while formulaic, is a perfection of that formula. It is a nearly-perfect gem.

For the love of good music, go buy it now.
Zarif & Danny Byrd - California - Single

9.10.2009

New York Times - 1969 A Year in Review

The nostalgia has been pretty potent recently, between yesterday's launch of The Beatles RockBand and its accompanying CD box set, and the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, celebrated just a few weeks ago.

To help put things in perspective, The New York Times has put together an interactive highlight reel of the entire year: 1969. Check it out.

-Read

Via Flavorpill

9.07.2009

Review: Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Since the days of E.T. movie-based video games have been known for one thing above all others: sucking. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince is not without merit, but given the nature of interactive entertainment and the fact that it is not uncommon for a game to provide 40+ hours of gameplay, it is baffling that Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince doesn't borrow more from the 800 page novel on which it is based (to legitimately pad the game’s length) while using the visuals from the film on which it is also based, for reference.

Instead, the game suffers from a self-inflicted catch-22. If you have seen the films or read the books, you are bound to be disappointed by the poor adaptation of the story elements in this very short (10 hours or less) game. On the otherhand, if you have never read the book or seen any of the films, you will be completely lost by the plot, characters and even basic elements like the "rules" of the Harry Potter universe and what the hell things like Quidditch are.

To be fair, the longer a game lasts, the longer it takes to make and this game was pushed out the door to meet a simultaneous release date with the film. While it seems like a no-brainer for the game to elaborate on the film by drawing additional material from the book, it would have taken more time for the developers and time is money.


There is nothing wrong with the gameplay of Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince. The game actually offers more variety in gameplay than most games of it’s kind. You will spend most of your time making potions in gameplay sequences that have been likened to Nintendo’s Cooking Mama, playing Quidditch, which basically amounts to a Star Fox-ian, on-rails, flight sequence, dueling with other wizards which bares similarities to a simplified fighting game combined with a 3rd person shooter and finally, roaming around Hogwarts castle, exploring and searching for treasure.

Issues with the gameplay generally go hand in hand with foreknowledge of the source material. For instance, when the game began, I knew that one of the first sequences of the book (and the film) consists of Harry Potter and his crew following the evil Draco Malfoy to see what he is up to. So, naturally, I expected the first level would be some kind of stealth level, following an oblivious Draco and spying on his dealings. However, as the game began, those scenes were glossed over quickly by a poor cinematic. The game has to fight the expectation of the gamer and so while the existing gameplay is decent enough, a player familiar with the book or novel will spend more time thinking about what wasn’t included in the game rather than what was. While someone who is not familiar with the film or novel will likely never bother to play the game.

The graphics in Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince consist of poor cinematics voiced by imitation voice actors that don't do justice to their film counter-parts, stilted pacing, and a magnificent digital interactive reproduction of Hogwarts School for Witchcraft & Wizardry.

If there is one draw to this game it is walking around the grounds of Hogwarts. You can see exactly where the time of the developers was most spent, as the Hogwarts of the game looks exactly like the films and all of it manages to fit structurally in a believable way. It's really quite impressive.

What's puzzling is that The Half-Blood Prince is a sequel to The Order of the Phoenix and the large scale Hogwarts was originally built for that game. In fact, other reviewers have said if you have already played The Order of The Phoenix, you really need not bother with The Half-Blood Prince as there is really no new majesty to wandering around Hogwarts that wasn't already experienced. So that begs the questions of what did the developers spend all their time working on?

Aside from Hogwarts, the rest of the game's graphics are inconsistent. The character models look very good, but don't hold up to up-close scrutiny, Snape and Hermoine are absolutely frightful. Ginny has plastic hair and Ron's head is too small for his body.

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince is not a very challenging game, which is probably to it's benefit. The game has a number of easy Trophies or Achievement Points for PS3 or Xbox360 players. Some of the later Trophies/Points can be a bit hard to acquire, but are generally attainable. You can see Hogwarts, get some Trophies or Achievement Points and be done in a weekend. Perfect for a rental or bargain bin shopping.

6/10

Check Out The Manhattan Project

Ever wondered what Manhattan had been like back in 1609? No? Well now you don't have to wonder; The Wildlife Conservation Society in conjunction with Pond Media & Design has put together a Google Maps mash-up of sorts called The Mannahatta Project that shows a satellite view of what the city looked like when it was teaming with wildlife rather than people. When it was a real jungle, rather than a concrete jungle. When it was a... okay, I'll stop there. You get the idea.

The map is so detailed you can go block by block and get a report of what wild life used to live there, and what's there now. Pretty amazingly detailed stuff.

6.09.2009

Review: Tomb Raider Underworld

It is impossible to talk about Tomb Raider: Underworld without mentioning the game's predecessor, Tomb Raider: Legend, and to a lesser degree, Tomb Raider Anniversary.


These three games now as a trilogy, with Legend and Underworld being completely interwoven and Anniversary serving as back story. These 3 games are also the new Tomb Raider games developed by Crystal Dynamics, and serve as kind of a re-focusing for the franchise.


Underworld picks up precisely where Legend left off. Lara is continuing her quest, following in her father's footsteps to find her missing mother. There is a short synopsis that sums up the events of Legend in one of the menus of Underworld, but short is almost an understatement.


The story isn't the only thing that will be familiar to those who have already played through Legend. The gameplay of Underworld is largely unchanged, but boasts a number of improvements. This time around, Crystal Dynamics sought to give players as much freedom as possible, which means more climbing abilities for Lara, and the removal of seemingly needless limitations such as the inability to jump diagonally.


The combat has also seen changes, but they feel largely unnecessary. Lara can now activate 'bullet-time' by filling an adrenaline meter, rather than when executing special moves as was the excuse in the previous games. Most of your favorite weapons make a return, such as the shotgun, assault rifle and dual submachine guns. Later in the game Lara even gets to wield Thor's hammer. As for gadgets, it's the same as before, a rope gun, a bottomless backpack, an invaluable personal light source (flashlight), and a camcorder that really just serves as binoculars. There were a few moments where Lara has to use her rope gun in slightly unorthodox ways in order to progress, but throughout most of the game, and with exception of the flashlight, you really won't be using Lara's gadgets much at all.


The visuals in Underworld are the most impressive yet for a Tomb Raider game. Obviously, that's not saying much considering that at the time of writing this, this is the only Tomb Raider game available on current generation consoles. Compared to Tomb Raider: Legend and Tomb Raider: Anniversary the game looks astonishing. Compared to other current generation titles, like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune or Assassin's Creed, Underworld holds up, but doesn't stand out. Where Underworld really shines is in its lighting. The light design is extremely well done. Lara and the creatures that are after her all cast real-time shadows. What's more, several level sections are completely pitch black, with nothing but Lara's flashlight or the headlight from her motorcycle to light the way.


One major problem with the graphics was that the game suffers from a jittery kind of glitchy-ness that generally attacks during in-engine cut scenes. It's nothing major, but definitely distracting when it occurs during the moments you're supposed to be paying attention to the story. Another perennial problem with Tomb Raider games is the camera, and this game is no exception. The camera generally does a good job of adjusting depending on where Lara is in the level. It seems like the designers designated good angles for the camera to take based on where Lara is in a particular environment, however once the user tweaks the camera with the right analog stick, all bets are off, and if Lara is backed into a corner or tight space the camera has a tendency to go haywire. This can be especially frustrating during combat. Once nice touch with the camera, though is the Gears of War-style shakey cam that follows Lara when you make Lara sprint.


Stylistically, the graphics are realistic, but Lara and the cast of Underworld all maintain the slightly exaggerated almost cartoon-like character designs from the previous two Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider games.


The sound in Tomb Raider is decent, the music shines more so than the previous two games. Some of Lara's grunts, and screams are recycled from previous games. Sound effects generally sound good, from footfalls to gunshots, sounds will echo depending on the environment you're in. Enemies can generally be heard before they are seen and the voice acting is decent, if not a little hammy in spots.


Underworld is not a challenging game. The game clocks in between 6 and 10 hours long. It's short, and honestly, I wouldn't have wanted it to be much longer. The game takes you to a good variety of locales (although it would have been nice to visit a city akin to the Tokyo level in Tomb Raider: Legend) a few more levels wouldn't have hurt, but may not have necessarily helped either. The game's length is relative to being able to solve the puzzles that Lara encounters along the way. None of the puzzles are diabolical in any serious way. I got stuck a few times and had to look for help, but everytime, my problem was that I had overlooked something painfully obvious or didn't realize that I could interact with an object in a certain way necessary to progress. The game does have multiple difficulty levels, but those only seem to affect the combat in the game, making enemies more plentiful and harder to kill. As far as I can tell, the difficulty level has no impact on the puzzles. You can breeze through Underworld in a handful of sittings. Underworld is shorter than Legend and Anniversary, but it's an extension/continuation of Legend.


The bottom line, is if you're a fan of Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series, or if you played through Tomb Raider: Legend, you need to play this game. Tomb Raider is the best looking game of the series and the basic elements that you enjoyed in previous games have all returned (in addition to some of its pitfalls). The story picks up right where Legend left off, so in some respects, Underworld kind of feels like half a game. On the other hand, if the game were longer or more drawn out it would risk becoming repetitive or dull. Underworld is a quick 6-8 hour experience that probably disappointed people who paid full price for the game, but now, as a rental or picked up at budget price will not induce buyer's remorse.

5.28.2009

Boldly Go - Music Review

By now, you all should have seen J.J. Abrams' re-imagining and re-invigoration of Star Trek. The film was fantastic, no here’s the low-down on the score by Michael Giacchino.

At first I was disappointed that J.J. Abrams and Michael Giacchino didn’t use the “official” Star Trek theme, scored by Jerry Goldsmith, as the main theme to the movie. But, as I listened to it more, I came to appreciate it more for various reasons.

First, this movie is clearly meant to be a break from what has become the “traditional” Star Trek canon. It is a new start and so a new theme makes sense. The theme is also a little more primitive (not the best word) or basic (still not the best word). It’s not as orchestrated and precise as the Goldsmith theme, but gives a sense of something a little more guttural, emotional and adventurous, something that’s by the seat of your (well, Kirk’s) pants. However, it still has an epic quality akin to warping through space.

Diving a little deeper, Gene Roddenberry described his original vision of Star Trek as a wagon train in space. A push into the final frontier of space, just as we once pushed into the final frontier of the West. Roddenberry referred to Star Trek as a sort of space western (seems neither George Lucas or Joss Whedon were as original as people may think--Roddenberry was really decades ahead of them).

Anyway, if you listen you’ll hear a definite western motif interspersed between the more
intense thematic elements. Also, the opening track, Star Trek, pays huge homage to Jerry Goldsmith with the electronic tonal “chimes”, a sound concept created by Goldsmith for the Star Trek: The Movie score (for the Klingons, originally), and a concept he pushed throughout his career. Goldsmith was a true innovator in composing scores and using new technology and electronics to augment the orchestra well before it was as easy as the click of a mouse. He truly helped lay the groundwork for all of today’s “modern” score composers, from Hans Zimmer to Danny Elfman and anyone else we’d call “cutting edge”.

Needless to say, Giacchino had big shoes to fill, so it's fitting that he decided to take the score in a completely different direction. Unfortunately, the previously mentioned opening track, which pays homage to Goldsmith's theme is also tied to Nero’s ship in the opening sequence and so the theme and instrumentation doesn’t last long before it's interrupted by freaky horns and your nightmares begin.

Track 5, Enterprising Young Men, is the new Star Trek theme. Be sure to listen to the last track, End Credits, all the way through--actually, start with the track right before it, To Boldly Go. It starts off a bit cheesy with the original series theme, but even that is modified a bit toward something cool, and then let go altogether to be replaced by Giacchino’s new theme. Right at the three-minute mark it becomes very sweeping and vast, a bit reminiscent of Goldsmith’s First Contact theme.


The more I listen to the score, the more little homage’s to Goldsmith and the Star Trek canon I pick up, as well as the originality of Giacchino.


Have fun listening!

4.15.2009

Exoskeletal Rundown

This Week In Technology

Exoskeletons seem to be everywhere I turn these days.  

Engadget has posted several stories in the last week about independently powered exoskeletons.  

The first came a few days ago with a story about the ominously named Japanese corporation Cyberdyne's new HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) suit.  The suit appears to be primarily geared towards heavy lifting.  Cyberdyne claims the suit will increase a users strength by ten times.  This is also one of the rare exoskeleton suits I've seen that use nerve impulse readers to operate, rather than a push/pull interface or joystick.  The suit uses pads that read the biosignals generated for muscle movement and interprets them into the movements of the suit.  The HAL suit will set a wearer back a cool $4200.  Which, honestly, considering that this thing could allow someone to lift a car, single-handedly, is kinda affordable.

And just the other day was this post shows a device more geared toward assistive living, rather than enhancement.  This particular product is from Honda is designed to help people walk.  Let the video speak for itself:


Bruce Sterling mentions an exoskeletal work suit called 'boneware' in his new novel The Caryatids.


And let's not forget the most famous exoskeletal suit of all:


Ripley's Power Loader from Aliens

4.08.2009

TWITpost - Cyberpunk Month Continues

Time once again for This Week In Technology.

In keeping with our April Cyberpunk theme, I couldn't help but marvel at the fortune of finding Bruce Sterling's new novel on the new releases shelf at my library. Bruce Sterling for the uninitiated is often mentioned in the same breath as William Gibson and all of the other luminaries of the sub-genre. In short, he's totally O.G.

I haven't really read much by him, to be honest. Aside from his short story that appeared in Burning Chrome. His new novel, The Caryatids, published in February, isn't specifically referred to as cyberpunk, but the jacket cover does mention William Gibson and Neal Stephenson in the first sentence.

I have only just begun the book, so I can't really talk much about the plot, but in the first 25 pages there have already been numerous references to nanotech-based sensorwebs, exoskeletal suits called boneware, orbital cities, and of course, cloning (which I suspect is a pivotal/central aspect of the book). If that sounds interesting to you, I recommend checking it out. No pun intended.

Next up we have a trailer for a short film that also fits nicely into the cyberpunk sub-genre. Turbo is a movie by USC graduate student Jarrett Conaway. Essentially, this shoe-string budget, digitally made special effects extravaganza is about video games. The 20-minute film has all the trappings of cyberpunk from anime haircuts, to mirror shades, gesture-based interfaces, virtual competitions and meatspace brawls. Think of the fighting game played in 2005's The Island, only not lame or sponsored by Xbox.


It was reported this week that Japan is aiming to send bipedal robots to the moon by the year 2020. The idea is still in the planning stages and will be formulated over the next two years. My affinity for all things robotic aside, I think this is a great plan. Call me crazy but it makes a lot more sense to send a robot to the moon rather than a person. I'm not so sure about the bipedal part though. How do you make sure that a bipedal robot stays on it's feet in low gravity? I suppose if a Segway can do it, then so can Asimo, but what's wrong with a lunar rover?

Following up from last week's post. I received my blu-ray copies of Akira and Blade Runner and while I haven't yet had a chance to watch them, I popped them in just to check out the video quality and am very excited for the feature presentation. Akira looks great and sounds even better, even on my sound-system-less TV. I was a little disappointed that the aspect ratio is not anamorphic, but that might have something to do with the original print.

Blade Runner is unbelievably stunning. Having just watched the DVD version, the improvements are made to the remastered blu-ray are like night and day. I read somewhere that the fidelity of this new release is such that people watching it may have a better theatrical experience than those that went out see the film in theaters back in 1982. I'm inclined to agree. The special effects look amazing and the cityscapes breathtaking. It is truly going to be like seeing this film for the first time.

4.01.2009

April is Cyberpunk Month!

A couple years ago, I declared that April would be the month that we celebrate the science fiction sub-genre known as cyberpunk. It started out as just an excuse to wile away my least favorite month with my favorite kind of fiction. Now, it's something I look forward to every year, as both an opportunity to re-enjoy my favorites but also catch-up on old classics I may not have gotten around to yet.

First Encounter

My first encounter with cyberpunk came fairly early, I remember an attempted viewing of Blade Runner at my library when I was in middle school (I say attempted, because I only made it 25 minutes into the film before I gave up) and of course Akira was standard viewing for any science fiction fan in the 90's. Although at that time, I didn't realize that Akira was considered cyberpunk and more importantly, I didn't even know what cyberpunk was. Even now, it is a description-defying genre that can be simultaneously nebulous and discriminating. I generally hold an all encompassing view of cyberpunk in that anything that has near-future technology, and a conspiratorial tone can be included.

So, the seeds had been planted with Blade Runner and Akira and there were also some smaller works like Strange Days and the unfortunate Johnny Mnemonic (film), but it wasn't until 1997 that the plant began to sprout. That was the year I skipped class with a buddy and went to see the Wesley Snipes action vampire flick Blade. I went to see the movie because it was based on a comic book I was vaguely familiar with, but I came away completely flabbergasted by the atmosphere, the bullet-time-esque special effects and the paranoia inducing conspiracy that drove the whole plot.

Yes, it's a vampire movie, but it contained some undeniably strong cyberpunk aspects. One line snarled by the eponymous Blade sums up a popular cyberpunk theme quite nicely: "You'd better wake up. The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping. There is another world beneath it--the real world. And if you want to survive it, you'd better learn to pull the trigger."

Two years later, The Matrix was unleashed on the world (recapped perfectly in this 
article from Wired.com), and suddenly Cyberpunk was cast into my lexicon. It helped me track down classic novels like William Gibson's Neuromancer and the rest of the The Sprawl Trilogy, as well as Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Ironically, The Matrix opened on March 31, 1999, a fact that I had forgotten up until I read the Wired.com article, but it further gives credence to my idea of designating April as Cyberpunk Month.

This year's agenda

It seems like most years I end up going back through old works. People have been saying that Cyberpunk is dead, probably since the term was first coined.  This year, however, it seems like there will be a good balance of old works and new.

  • The Matrix has been re-released in a 10th Anniversary edition on Blu-Ray.  I already have the Ultimate box set on BD, so I'll passing on this release, but for those of you crazies out there that did not like the rest of The Matrix Trilogy, this might be for you.
  • The Prodigy just released a new album Invaders Must Die.  This group, along with The Crystal Method and Leftfield is inextricably linked in my mind to Cyberpunk, as they provided the soundtrack to my initial read through of The Sprawl Trilogy.
  • On television, we have the upcoming season finale of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, as well as Joss Whedon's new show (with only slight cyberpunk overtones) Dollhouse.
  • On the horizon is Alex Rivera's extraordinary looking Sleep Dealer.
  • And there is also talk of a new Syndicate game.


Also, be sure to check out some of these super-cool illustrations by Dan LuVisi and make a point to visit Cyberpunk Review a great website that celebrates cyberpunk all year 'round, not just one month out of the year.

On my personal agenda for this year, I will be finishing up the second season of Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex and re-watching the Ghost In The Shell movies Innocence and Solid State Society, as well as re-experiencing Blade Runner and Akira for the first time on Blu-Ray.  It will be my first time seeing the 2001 Pioneer re-dub of Akira, so I am very excited for that. 

On the literary front, I'll be going back and reading Mirrorshades, the collection of short stories compiled by Bruce Sterling and possibly checking out the Akira manga on which the movie was based.  And I'm still looking for a good video game to try that fits the genre.

So go forth and read/watch/play something Cyberpunk!  (As long as it's not a Billy Idol album because that soooo doesn't count.)

3.11.2009

Pwitter Patter - TWITpost

T.his W.eek I.n T.echnology

PSN

I don't know about you folks, but up until recently my default platform for online video purchasing and downloading was iTunes. That all changed when I got my Playstation 3. The Playstation 3 is hooked up to the TV in the living room, which immediately makes it more enticing than watching videos on my computer. I've never minded watching video content on my computer screen. Heck, when I was in college, most of the movies I watched were on my 12" laptop screen.  However, in the end, it's all about the couch.

I've heard a lot of salesman-talk about electronics companies "making a play for the living room", recently. You hear this kind of thing from Microsoft all the time, and Apple actually did make a play for the living room a couple years ago when they introduced the Apple TV, or TV for those of us with keyboard savvy.

I have looked at the Apple TV and thought long and hard about buying one, but in the end, the PS3, just gives you more bang for the buck. It has most of the functionality of the Apple TV (minus actually being able to play DRM'd content purchased from the iTunes Store), plus a Blu-Ray drive, potential Hulu support, and oh yeah... you can play games on it.

Needless to say I've been happy with my overall Playstation experience, but I have been fairly hesitant to buy more than movie rentals from the Playstation Store. To be fair, I generally don't buy movies or TV Shows from the iTunes Store either, preferring instead to buy DVD copies and rip them into iTunes.

When I first bought my PS3 the Playstation Store was kind of a joke. There was very little content and the servers were so slow that you couldn't even load a preview of the content you were thinking about purchasing without having to wait for the video to buffer a few times. Since that time however, the Store has been improving by leaps and bounds. Download times are faster, preview videos now buffer quickly (although I'm not sure that the connection is quite adequate enough to watch your purchase while the video downloads in the background), and the amount of content found in the Store continues to grow.

The situation improved further when PSN
announced the addition of content from NBC Universal earlier this week.  Being a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica, and a lot of the other content added, this really just serves to sweeten the pot and now I can't help but think that maybe it might be time to start purchasing more content from the store.

I took care of the first hang up I had, which was a backup solution.  Since my computer died last year, I have become religious about backing things up.  When I got my PS3, I put a 500GB hard drive in it and now I have an external 500GB hard drive to back up the content on the Playstation using the PS3's built-in Backup Utility.  So the fear of buying things from the Store and losing them in a hard drive crash is somewhat allayed.

The other thing that bothers me about purchasing content from the Playstation Store is that it's just as DRM'd as the stuff you buy from iTunes.  Meaning, I can't copy it over to my computer or my wife's computer or my phone.  At least with iTunes, you have a bit of versatility with other platforms that run iTunes.  And I suppose if I had a PSP, it'd be a different story.

So we will see what happens.  As Sony continues to add quality content to their store and improve the speed of their servers they will continue to whittle away my excuses.  If there were some way to stream media from a PS3 to a computer or just some other way to interact with the media I buy other than strictly via my PS3, I would be much more enthusiastic about buying content from them.

Pwitter

No, that's not a typo, it's a program.  Pwitter is the new desktop Twitter application I have been rocking recently, and I am amazed at how much I like it.  I'm amazed because when I first started using it I really thought of it as a clone of Twitterrific, but the more I used it and the more I played with it, the more the differences and advantages became apparent.  Everything from the sound effects to the customizibility (that's a word now) to the dearth of advertisements became very pleasing to me.  Pwitter is simple, but extremely configurable and I dig that.  I won't go into too many specifics, because chances are you either don't give a shit about Twitter or you've already got your desktop Twitter app of choice, but if you're in the market for a new Twitter app, give Pwitter a try.

Leggo my Legos

Lego fever has struck me once again but this time it's much different than the forms of nostalgia and "hey neat" that it took last time around.  This time, it's slightly more creative, and much nerdier, 'natch.

When we were little we all got bored with the instructions of our sets and attempted our own creations, that's half the fun of Legos.  My creations were always borderline cool, but generally just modified versions of pre-existing sets.  I was never too good at just building something off the top of my head.

Inspiration struck when I saw this guy's work.  His mecha are impeccable (nerdcore rappers feel free to steal that line) and it really inspired me to give it a go of my own.  I already have a couple sets that could easily translate into some of this stuff, but I decided to buy a few more (I need the pieces!) and plan to give it an honest attempt the next time I get the itch.  Because we all know I could use another hobby.

3.04.2009

Temporal Jumpstart Mistabishi

Science fiction is on the menu this week.  We're talking about the new Friday night line up of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Joss Whedon's new project Dollhouse.  I'm not going to bother talking about how putting these shows on Friday is not only insulting to science fiction fans (yes, we know we don't have lives and we don't go out on the weekends, thanks for reminding us) but also a death knell for these two ratings-challenged shows.  Moreover, I won't mention that Whedon's previous much celebrated show that was cancelled prematurely due to low ratings after only being on for one season, Firefly was given the same Friday night timeslot.  I've already made my peace with the fact that neither show will be renewed for the next season.

One of the criticisms I've heard of Terminator is the choice of Lena Headey as Sarah Connor.  I totally understand.  Linda Hamilton left some mighty big shoes to fill and Headey is not nearly as tough-looking or menacing as Hamilton could be.  My only justification for accepting Headey as Sarah Connor comes from the plot of the show.  If you're not familiar with, it won't spoil anything to tell you that in the pilot episode, a high school aged John Connor and Sarah Connor jump forward a few years in time to avoid certain death.  In Terminator 3, we learn that Sarah Connor died of cancer, and that's the time that they land in.  So thanks to temporal mechanics, the John and Sarah of Terminator 2, veer into an alternate timeline, negating the events of Terminator 3 and creating a whole new ball of string theory.  What?

Basically, the character Sarah Connor in the TV show is a different person than the one in the movies.  So, I say, cut her a break.  She's had different experiences and different stimuli to affect her character.  Also, it's a TV show and despite it not having the same cast as the movies, it's good and shit blows up, sometimes (although still not as often as I would prefer).

I don't have much to say about Dollhouse that can't be summed up by this comic strip.  Suffice to say Dollhouse is off to a really slow start.  Billed as Alias 2.0, it really just hasn't cashed in on it's very strong premise.  Take The Island and mix in elements of Alias and Charlies Angels and you potentially have a great show.  However, at this point the only thing that is keeping me watching after last week's episode (Stage Fright) is Whedon's track record with Firefly.  Firefly was a great show, but I recall that it took a good 4 or 5 episodes before the show found it's groove and really started to take off.  So, I will wait patiently and hope that Dollhouse gets a jumpstart soon.

Lastly, I can't help but sneak a little technology in to the post this week.  Here's the video for 'Printer Jam' from drum 'n' bass maestro Mistabishi's new album Drop:

video

2.25.2009

This Week in Technology

I thought I was all done talking about Flower (PSN), until I saw this article and it made me laugh.  It's not that the article was bad, quite the opposite in fact.  Clive Thompson's look at Flower makes some really good observations, but it made me think of something that I forgot to mention in my initial write up.  I always used to laugh at my classmates in all the college lit classes I took (and I took quite a few).  Whenever the professor would ask "what is this book about?", no matter the book, you would always get someone raising their hand and saying: "It's a commentary on the Industrial Revolution."  Not to say that they were wrong, it's just that it became the default, fail-safe answer for any novel.  It's a commentary on the Industrial Revolution.  After reading Clive Thompson's article and listening to some of the other interpretations of "the meaning" of Flower, I couldn't help but laugh.  Flower is a commentary on the Industrial Revolution.

In other news, I am finally starting to feel like Facebook has reached critical mass.  I'm not citing any numbers or anything tangible, but rather this is from my personally subjective point of view.  Now that my boss and co-workers have joined Facebook, I feel like the only thing left is for my parents to join and the nail will be in the coffin.  In the past, I have read articles about how social networking sites "jump the shark" as it were and the mass exodus begins.  Friendster was abandoned, and a lot of new Facebook users are ex-Myspace users.  I like Facebook, in terms of function and design, so I don't want to abandon it, but I feel like there are more people on Facebook that I don't want to interact with than people that I do want to interact with at this point.  I'm not planning to go anywhere, but I wonder if Facebook will ever fail.  Will people jump ship the way they did with Friendster?  Will something cooler come along and lure us all away?  Or will people just leave Facebook because it's no longer cool?  I imagine the latter will happen regardless.  The dynamics of social networking sites is fascinating and ridiculously stupid at the same time.

2.18.2009

This Week in Technology

This Week in Technology has been an interesting one. My time has been increasingly devoted to video games. Most notably Flower for the PSN. Released last week, I didn't actually pick it up until the weekend. A fitting Valentine's Day purchase. I played through the entire game over about two or three sessions. With only 6 (technically 7) levels, it's a pretty short experience. Despite that, or possibly because of it, I enjoyed the game a lot. While I was initially skeptical about the controls at first (the game uses Sixaxis "tilty" controls exclusively), I was able to get the hang of them by the second level or so. While I still feel that being able to play the game with the analog sticks would be nice, the Sixaxis use was not a deal breaker.

[video]
In the end, I was driven to keep playing Flower just to get the trophies that are available. There are 14 trophies to pick up and most of them are fairly easy. The ones that are difficult have easy workarounds. There is even a trophy you can pick up by not playing the game for a week. Which is partly why I dropped the game like a bad habit after beating the final level. I will pick it up again on Sunday, get my "Welcome Back" trophy and one other that I missed, and then probably only revisit the game when I'm feeling stressed out and need a game to facilitate chillaxing.

I have been hearing mixed reviews about Flower. Some of the guys over at Giantbomb.com seem to despise it for it's saccharine pretension. Personally, I think the game is gorgeous, calming and engaging. Really the only reason I call it a game is because of the trophies. The game plays like part sandbox/tech demo, part roller coaster/interactive experience. One thing is for sure, there is nothing quite like it available right now. Yes, I agree that it is a bit pretentious, but there are not a whole lot pretentious games out there, so I feel like there's room for one more. When you mention pretentiousness and games, my mind generally goes to the Metal Gear Solid series first. I've also heard that Braid is another good example, but I have not played it. I feel like there is a place for it. Metal Gear is totally pretentious, but that doesn't mean that they are bad games. Some people might be turned off by it, but at that point it's about personal preference and perception. Anyway, I enjoyed Flower. It is one of those games that I will return to every now and again, and I hope that they plan some additional downloadable content at some point along the way.

Having had my fun with Flower, my attention is now turned fully to Street Fighter IV. I've been playing Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix for a couple of weeks now, but with the launch of SFIV last night, I am now fully pumped. I ordered my copy from Amazon today, and am hotly anticipating it. I haven't been this psyched for a fighter since Tekken 5 (which I have still never had an opportunity to play). I haven't played a Street Fighter game in any serious way since 1994, but the other night I even had dreams about Street Fighter. Tired of watching the fighting game scene pass me by, I am now in a full-on effort to buff up my skills so I can compete online. I've heard that SSFIITHDRemix is the best way to prepare for Street Fighter IV, so here's hoping.
In other, non-video-game-related-yet-equally-nerdy news, I have been hitting up Twitter quite a bit lately, ever since the recent holidays. I see a lot of resistance towards Twitter. People seem to just have a predisposition that Twitter is retarded and it reminds me a lot of the irrational stigma against Windows Vista. I have found that Twitter is awesome, but there are two factors that are kind of key.

  1. Find people that you know and care about on Twitter. Sure you can follow news organizations and big-time bloggers that have hundreds of followers, but you're going to get waaaaay more out of Twitter if you are following people that you know and care about. Unfortunately, I am having a lot of trouble with this one. I have a few people that I sort of know, but the people I would much more into following are all in the camp of believing that Twitter is retarded and/or too hard to use.
  2. Find the technology that works for you. Most people think Twitter is only available via text messages, but that's not true. I don't use text messages at all when I tweet. I get my updates via a handy Twitter add-on for Firefox called, cleverly enough, TwitterFox. This little guy lives in the status bar on my browser and pops up whenever someone posts a new tweet. I also use a desktop application called Twitteriffic as well as it's iPhone counterpart when I'm on the go. Twitteriffic also makes it super easy to upload pictures via Twitpic. There are all kinds of different, free, apps and interfaces for Twitter out there, and you can find them all here. Once the technical aspect of Twitter is set up (which doesn't take much other than a username and password) posting and receiving tweets is second nature.
I would say that at this point I use Twitter more than Facebook, which is saying quite a bit.

Lastly, I've been thinking a lot about building my own computer, lately. I have never actually built a computer before, and have never really wanted to. I work with computers everyday, so the last thing I want to do with my free time is use it to log more hardware time. The thing about this computer is that I want to build a Mac. More specifically, I want to take an old Mac chassis and put the guts of a new Mac into it. I have always loved the PowerMac Quicksilver and the PowerMac Mirror, but they came out during the G4 days and now, with the release of Snow Leopard and iLife '09, Apple is starting to drop support for the old PowerPC chipsets. So the thought occurred to me, why not have the best of both worlds?


I found the record of a few projects, but I was promptly reminded by my wife that I don't "need" another computer. Maybe someday, but for now this one gets shelved as a pipe dream. Sigh.