Sunday, March 30, 2008

Movies In Brief

Still in Perth, with intermittent internet access; back next Wednesday night. In the mean time, some brief comments on films I can't be bothered describing in more detail.

Run Fatboy Run: Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) writes and stars in a comedy about a loser who signs up for a marathon to win back the woman he left pregnant at the altar. Pegg's genius for timing and genuine humanity makes for a heartwarming and mostly hilarious film. David Schwimmer (Friends) directs, with mixed results. A second act heavy with physical humour and a miscast Thandie Newton (Crash) in the romantic lead are the only things keeping this film from being a comedic masterpiece. Still highly recommendable.

Across The Universe: A film musical in the finest tradition of its genre, Across The Universe tells the story of a group of misfits struggling their way through the 1960s to a soundtrack of first-class Beatles covers. Music, choreography and cinematography all combine perfectly to produce visually and aurallly stunning theatre. The plot is unfortunately not as cohesive but it in any case takes a back seat to a procession of fantastic musical sequences. A must-see for fans of the Beatles or musicals generally.

Black Sheep: Deeply and intentionally silly, this New Zealand film about an outbreak of zombie sheep manages regular laughs if you have an exceptionally high tolerance for bad puns, horrible acting and wince-inducing dialogue. An original concept and creature effects by the Weta Workshop are its strongest selling points; some audiences will have a lot of fun but those with a low pain tolerance may want to leave early.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Jumper is a superhero action movie that expertly achieves what it sets out to do. A dopey story and flatulent characterisation won't stop you from having a heap of fun while watching.

Hayden Christensen (Star Wars prequels) plays, effectively, Hayden Christensen, a meatheaded thug who thinks he's significantly more entertaining than he actually is. Discovering that he has unlikely powers of teleportation, he immediately robs a bank and starts living off the stolen money.

Hot on his heels is Samuel L Motherfucking Jackson (Snakes On A Plane), agent of a hidden secret order of mystical hidden secrecy. His apparently sworn purpose is to hunt down and exterminate "jumpers", which he does with what insiders often refer to as "extreme prejudice".

Given that the director is Doug Liman (The O.C.) and Christensen's girlfriend is played by Rachel Bilson (The O.C.) it feels very much like Jumper is a superhero-themed extension of a certain popular TV soap. The film distinguishes itself by its absolutely first-class visual effects. The core gimmick of "jumping" looks fantastic and is deeply convincing, and it's used to great effect to pit Christensen and Jackson against each other in a fairly non-stop procession of superpowered action.

The plot is really pretty stupid, and has more loose ends than a primary school craft project, but it's clear that's not really what the film's about, and you can safely switch off your brain and sit back while the entertainment seeps in.

Jumper is Hollywood doing what Hollywood does best and is a highly recommendable way to trade $15 for 90 minutes of unthreatening fun.

Garfield Minus Garfield

For those who haven't seen it yet, Garfield Minus Garfield. Hilarity ensues. Thanks to Arkem for the nod.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Swancon 2008

Swancon 2008 was a great steaming rancid sack full of fun. Oh such fun. The convention went down to the Fun River and hauled up some giant buckets full of win, and then made from them a crude soup flavoured generously with awesome.

A heapin' helpin' of masquerade photos are up at; Craig also has a gallery on Facebook.

Regular flow of news-n-reviews will resume shortly; stand by for violent abuse of the phrase "nun-punching".

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Go Camel Photography

To veer sharply off topic for a moment, and advertise for a friend, can I recommend Go Camel Photography, who are putting all sorts of cool images on pretty much every sort of surface you can think of, specifically in order to fulfill your consumerist fantasies?

Check out the site and if you like it drop a link to it somewhere for Google to notice.

RIP Arthur C Clarke

Prolific science-fiction author Arthur C Clarke passed away 19 March 2008 in Sri Lanka at the age of 90. Clarke will be remembered as the author of novels such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rendevous With Rama, The City And The Stars, and Childhood's End.

Sins Of A Solar Empire

I don't really know what to say about Sins Of A Solar Empire other than that I've been enjoying it. It's one of the few shining lights in the vast emptiness of contemporary PC gaming.

It's a multiplayer space real-time strategy. I say multiplayer because the single player options are limited to customisable skirmishes against AI opponents. Shipping without any significant single-player campaign is an option that worked for Rise of Nations and it works again here.

The game's biggest claim to fame is its epic scope. You can zoom right in to see the details on your smallest ships as they fire lasers and dogfight, which makes the game look a lot like genre classic Homeworld, or you can zoom out to see the entire gravity well in which you're fighting, the neighbouring planets, the solar system, the local cluster, or in extreme cases the galaxy and neighbouring galaxies.

The game also borrows heavily from Warcraft III for some of its gameplay elements. Your capital ships are effectively hero-class units. They're worth entire fleets of smaller ships, and they gain experience through combat, which allows them to purchase new abilities or level up existing ones.

The third interesting innovation is the bounty system. Each solar system features a "pirate planet", guarded by a fleet of pirates so immense as to make defeating them generally not worthwhile. Every ten minutes or so the pirates will dispatch a fleet to attack a player. Players can pay credits to set bounties on other players; the player with the highest bounty when the pirate timer runs down will be the target of the attack, and the size of the fleet that attacks is based on the size of the bounty.

Players can collect bounty on other players too. Each time a player loses an asset, the person who destroyed that asset claims some of the bounty on the asset's owner. In this way bounties can run all the way down to zero. In multiplayer games it can serve as a way of motivating opponents to fight amongst themselves.

The game doesn't look particularly wonderful when you zoom right in. Ship textures are clean and crisp, but dull, and most of the ship designs are variations on the idea of a flying rectangle. Thankfully the gameplay is the real star, and matches can be customised in a huge variety of ways for maximum fun.

If you're a PC gamer who attends LAN parties or plays online, Sins of a Solar Empire is an easily recommendable purchase. The solo gamer might not get as much out of it, but it remains a fun experience even against AIs.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Vantage Point

Vantage Point attempts to be Rashomon For Dummies, but even dummies are likely to be personally offended by the nun-punching awfulness of this cinematic diarrhoea.

While attending a terror summit in Spain, the US President is the target of an assassination attempt. We see what may be generously referred to as "the story" from the point of view of a bunch of different characters, including a TV crew, the president's bodyguard, a Spanish police officer, and a tourist. The film attempts to weave a suspenseful mystery out of these competing narratives but the real mystery is whether Dennis Quaid thinks he's acting or whether his face is just twisted up like that all the time.

The film can't even hold to its sole gimmick. About two thirds of the way through the movie the director (Pete Travis, on his first big screen outing) does away with the whole multiple viewpoints nonsense and puts the rest of the filmic offal in sequential order. This allows him the opportunity for a reasonably good car chase but leaves the viewer wondering if Travis just got bored of the gimmick or realised that making a watchable film was completely beyond him, let alone a watchable clever film.

Veteran actors Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Gorillas in the Mist) and William Hurt (The Good Shepherd, Broadcast News) struggly bravely in poorly-written roles but their time on screen is all too brief and their dialogue is ear-gratingly annoying. You'll instead be seeing a lot of Matthew Fox (Lost, Party of Five) leading a cadre of terrorists so generically evil that they may as well be twirling their moustaches and tieing the president to a train track. Their motives don't seem to stretch far past a general dislike for the United States, and while step 1 of the plan seems to be to kidnap the president, and step 3 is probably profit, step 2 is never even mentioned.

I don't often think about walking out of the cinema, but Vantage Point was definitely touch and go. The rubbish on offer here would look bad coming from something made-for-TV; paying $15 to see it with strangers is a con of epic proportions. Avoid as though it were Robo-Hitler.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Little Birdy / Sugar Army @ The Corner in Melbourne

Saw the Little Birdy gig at The Corner in Melbourne last night. Lead singer / guitarist Katy Steele did an opening set showcasing some promising stuff from their upcoming album, and the actual Little Birdy set was as awesome as expected, but check out the warm-up act:

Sugar Army doing their single Jigsaw. These guys were worth admission all by themselves; 100% of notes hit. Picked up their EP and look forward to seeing more of them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

WoW Horde Banner

I never realised before that the Horde banner from World of Warcraft is a kind of Union Jack.

That's an Orc shield in the middle (the red) bearing the traditional Horde crest, with three purple Troll paragons above it, all fixed onto a Tauren standard. Not sure exactly where the Undead are represented there, but they're only barely in the Horde anyway.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Perth Travel Dates

For those who are interested:

I leave Canberra 9.15 am, Friday 14 March 2008.
I arrive Melbourne 10.20 am, Friday 14 March 2008.

I am in Melbourne 14-16 March to see Little Birdy.

I leave Melbourne 7.40 pm, Sunday 16 March 2008.
I arrive Perth 9.40 pm, Sunday 16 March 2008.

I am in Perth 16 March - 2 April for Swancon and general holiday.

I leave Perth 3.25 pm, Wednesday 2 April 2008.
I arrive Canberra 10.25 pm, Wednesday 2 April 2008.

Friday, March 07, 2008

South Australian Attorney-General vs Game Classification

As you all know, Australia doesn't have a Federal R18+ classification for videogames. Games that exceed the M15+ classification are denied classification, which under state law prohibits them from being imported, advertised or sold. This has two important effects: (1) that many games, roughly one high-profile game a year, are effectively banned in Australia, and (2) that publishers engage to varying degrees in self-censorship to fall within the classification system and therefore do not produce games on certain topics and themes.

The Australian Federal ratings body is the Office of Film and Literature Classification. Their mandate is not to act per se as a censorship body but rather to allow the Australian people to make informed decisions about media content prior to exposing themselves or their children to that content. Note that they can issue an X rating to film media even though X rated material is banned in the majority of Australian states and territories.

The appropriate Federal position should be to allow games to be classified R18+, and then leave individual states to decide what ratings can be sold. (The appropriate State position is to then allow R18+ games to be sold.)

With the recent change in the Australian Federal Government, a change to the classification system may now be in the works, albeit as a depressingly low government priority. However, a major opponent to any change is South Australian Attorney-General Michael Atkinson. In a recent speech in the SA Parliament, he said:
I have consistently opposed an R18+ classification for computer games. I am concerned about the harm of high-impact (particularly violent) computer games to children. [...] I do not want children to be able to get their hands on R18+ games easily. I understand that the lack of an R18+ classification denies some adults the chance to play some games, however, the need to keep potentially harmful material away from children is far more important.
This is an inconsistent position for a number of reasons. Firstly, R18+ games would not be worse than R18+ movies. Yes, they are interactive, but the OFLC already takes interactivity into account when issuing a rating. Identical content is given a higher rating where it is interactive, so a M15+ film could received a R18+ rating in an identical but interactive context. This is despite the fact that there is no clear evidence showing any harmful effects on children from exposure to violent or mature gaming content, or evidence showing that interactivity increases the impact of media.

Secondly, he makes two assumptions: (1) that if R18+ games are in Australia, children will play them, and (2) that if they are not, less children will play them. Yes, children will play them, in the same way that children will watch R18+ movies and get access to porn. That's the magic of the internet. It's also the magic of informed parenting, where parents make their own decisions about how worrying they think these things are, and impose various levels of either enforcement or supervision to control and educate their children's access to content. People will see mature content if they want to see mature content; that's a given. With an appropriate classification system parents can be informed about this content and better understand what their children are being exposed to.

On this topic Mr Atkinson goes on to say:
Proponents for the classification say the latest technology allows gaming platforms and computers to be programmed to allow parental locks. Today’s children are far more technologically savvy than their parents. It’s laughable to suggest that they couldn’t find ways around parental locks if R18+ games were in the home.
Of course dedicated kids could find their way around parental locks on games. But is Mr Atkinson really saying that kids getting access to their parents' R18+ games is a greater worry than them accessing their parents' pharmaceuticals, firearms or fireworks, all of which are legal in Australia, often without a licence?

The law is a blunt instrument. It should not be used to legislate responsible parenting. If Mr Atkinson is worried about the effects of high-impact games on minors then he should be the foremost supporter of a system that provides parents with high-quality information about game content, and encourages parents to share games with children and discuss their content openly and maturely.

Thanks to The Angriest for linking me to Mr Atkinson's speech. The full text of that speech can be found here.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Def Jam: Icon

Def Jam: Icon looks fantastic, sounds fantastic, and is packed with innovation and originality. Unfortunately, it's just not fun to play.

This is the follow-up to Def Jam: Fight for NY, which was excellent and well worth your time if you ever see a copy. Made by EA Games under licence from music label Def Jam Records, the franchise involves taking real life Def Jam artists such as Redman, Sean Paul or Ludacris, and beating the snot out of them with your fists or the nearby environment.

Where Fight for NY was a solid grassroots brawler with some interesting environmental twists, Icon is a more ambitious game and attempts to draw more heavily on the Def Jam name and musical theme. Winning fights is now less about landing solid grapples than it is about controlling the background music; each fighter has a theme song, and when your song is playing you have more momentum and stopping power.

Changing the song involves working the virtual "deck" - making circling motions on both analog sticks causes your fighter to spin his hands in the air as if changing discs on a turntable, and if you're not interrupted the music will change to your theme.

The background of each arena thumps in time to the beats of the current song. First of all, this looks amazing and is the core of the game's visual style. Secondly, on the big beats parts of the environment become interactive: lights arc with electricity, speakers send out waves of pure sound, cars blow up and doors slam open and shut. The key to victory involves forcing your opponent into these hazards at the relevant point in the music. If you're finding the timing difficult, you can always "scratch", which involves circling a single analogue stick to jump the music and make the background pop (your fighter also makes the appropriate DJ hand-gestures).

All of the above is a blast. It's an original and clever attempt to tie the game to a musical theme. Unfortunately, the core fighting mechanics are just dull. The controls feel sluggish, the moves are generic, and the scissor-paper-stone background of the punch-block-grapple system is insultingly shallow. The clever music mechanics just aren't enough to make you keep dunking your head in the turgid gameplay once you've already been down two or three times.

The character roster is a bit weak, too. Whereas Fight for NY featured guest appearances by the likes of Henry Rollins, Carmen Electra, and Stargate SG-1's Christopher Judge, Icon's lineup is much more bland. You'll have to be a solid hip-hop enthusiast to realliy appreciate fighters like Young Jeezy, EB-40 or Big Boi.

The single-player career mode sees you building your own record label. The fighting is generally in the context of impressing or representing artists so they'll sign to your label, and in between matches you'll have to buy your create-a-fighter clothes and bling, as well as budgeting and managing your artists' music releases. The window dressing is even more dreary than the fighting, and if you're playing the game you'll probably want to skip the nonsense to get right to the battling.

There are multiplayer options for 2-player local versus matches, or online head-to-head. Playing against a real person is better than the predictable computer, but it still gets old after about an hour of play. The XBox 360 version also allows you to import your own music to fight to, which can be very awesome, but the implementation is a little awkward and is only available outside the main career mode.

Fight for NY remains an unsung classic, but ultimately Icon doesn't live up to its pedigree. The people involved in making it are to be commended on trying something different, and on making a game that looks and sounds great, but as gamers we'll probably to better off waiting to see what they do next than signing up for the disappointment of Icon.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

RIP Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax, founder of seminal RPG publisher TSR and co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons and its successors, died 4 March 2008 aged 69 at his Lake Geneva home. It appears at this stage that his death was as a result of a heart attack.

His contributions to roleplaying and to gaming are indisputable and his presence will be sorely missed.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Postcard from Egypt

Today I got in the mail an awesome postcard from Egypt postmarked 20 Feb 08. It's addressed to "GregT" and describes someone's trip to the Great Pyramid.

I have no idea who it's from. I can't read the signature. Anyone want to own up to it, because you rock?

EDIT: Mystery is now solved, see comments.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

PC Gaming (*sigh*)

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened: I was absolutely looking forward to playing a game based on the concept of Sherlock Holmes vs Cthulhu. Unfortunately the sound is buggy (choppy and occasionally cutting out altogether) and the interface is annoying so this one's going back on the shelf.

Pirates of the Burning Sea: If the latest pirate-themed MMOG had had a free trial, or even a download-purchase option, I would have ended up playing it and probably subscribing. It didn't, so I haven't. Seriously, who in this day and age launches a MMOG without a try-before-you-buy option?

Sam & Max Season Two: is awesome. Way better than Season One, which was pretty darn good. It's no longer just a good imitation of the old LucasArts classics - it's way better. You should be playing this. And, once again, you don't have to futz around with all that GameTap rubbish to buy - it's a regular normal-style online store.