Saturday, 31 December 2011

Arco Warriors [Review: Cyberlords Arcology]

Cyberlords is a sci-fi RPG playable on mobile devices. Jesse, an inhabitant of the Asgard Arcology megacity, wakes up in a clinic owned by the sinister McCoy corporation. Is Doctor Who in charge of this dystopic future? Or perhaps it’s the crisps. For a moment I thought Jesse might even have lost his memory but thankfully the cliché police did not have to be called, and soon Jesse is receiving cryptic messages, from an artificial intelligence, that might help him to escape and contact the resistance. He can then tool up, recruit some thugs and hackers, and carry out a series of missions to uncover the secrets of the Arcology and the McCoy corporation’s sinister plans for its population.

I’m loving this game with it’s eight-bit style 2D graphics, simple colours and copious blood and guts, all reminiscent of the ancient classic Syndicate. As far as the RPG side goes, the playing area is large and divided into many zones and levels. You assemble a group of four player-characters, each with a little bit of personality and backstory. Sadly there’s no choice about who you recruit. There’s also a Deus Ex style system of cyber-upgrades - find the blueprint, bring it to the Resistance doctor for implantation, then trade your experience points for further upgrades. Implants might improve your stamina, speed or accuracy, or give you the ability to regenerate or hack into robot guards, but some are a bit too far fetched - one even allows a character to use both hands simultaneously!

There are story and side missions most of which are combat heavy, and some of which will send you across the playing area and back again. It helps that the control system is reasonably good with one-touch or two-touch routes to almost everything you want to do, although it’s slightly awkward if your four characters are too close together. Minor issues aside, Cyberlords is a stylish and satisfying RPG and another proof that complex gaming experiences can be provided on a mobile.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? [Review: The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe]

You can tell so much about a man from his intertextual references. The 2011 Doctor Who Christmas Special is peppered with the blasted things, many of which are more or less throwaway – the opening, which lumps together Star Wars and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, is both brilliant and utterly irrelevent, while the links to C.S. Lewis are fun but superficial only – World War II setting, evacuee children, the portal to a forest world, trees that talk to each other – rather than exploring the deeper themes of the Narnia novels.

What this episode is really about is trees. Doctor Who and trees have history: the Doctor’s (other) nemesis the Rani used landmines that turned people into trees (Mark Of The Rani, 1985.) Also, when taking Rose to see the destruction of the Earth, which you have to admit is a fairly impressive first date, the pair encounter Jabe, a sentient tree from the Forest of Cheem (The End Of The World, 2005.) Jabe gets an indirect mention in this episode too. Christmas trees on the other hand are to be feared: particularly deadly variants have appeared in previous Christmas Specials. These trees are sinister in a different way, but they’ve also attracted the attention of some unscrupulous humans from Androzani Major (a clever reference to The Caves Of Androzani, 1984, which was once voted best episode of all time.)

The plot is unusually weak for Doctor Who, with an ending that is both unsatisfying and hole-ful. A fundamental attack on sentient life goes unpunished, and while the victims are technically saved, they are only saved in a metaphysical, insubstantial way. Meanwhile the human tragedy, which is really moving throughout the episode, is resolved far too easily.

If, however, you can put the ending to one side, what you are left with is a box of delights. Matt Smith’s Doctor is on good comic form in his misguided attempts to become “the Caretaker,” and once again his clowning is offset by unexpected moments of empathy. A confrontation between Madge, played by Claire Skinner, and three Androzani troopers led by comedian Bill Bailey, is funnier still. There’s great dialogue, setting, atmosphere, characters and acting throughout, and the right mix of comedy and tragedy.

Of course, you don’t need the Doctor to tell you never to cross a Christmas tree:

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Once Upon A Time In Lapland

Short film made for a Kino London challenge, with a title chosen by the audience, filmed in Dalston in November, screened for a Kino audience on 1st December. Music by Parlour Cafe used with kind permission of the artists. I previously blogged about the making of this film here.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Unshrinkable [Review: Gulliver's Travels]

Some time back I reviewed the Asylum TV movie 2010: Moby Dick and I promised solemnly to scrutinize any other movie adaptations of seafaring fantasy novels to the same degree.

Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel, encounters the small bodied and smaller minded Lilliputians and intervenes in the ages-long war between the Bigenders and Littlenders. This is just the first in a series of fantastic voyages, each satirizing some aspect of Swift’s society. In the final encounter humans are depicted as savage Yahoos shamed by their serene, civilized superiors the Houyhnhnms. Horse worship, incidentally, is an important sci-fi trope, although arguably some authors, Suzy McKee Charnas and Elizabeth Moon for example, are both a little too comfortable in the saddle.

When I first read the original Gulliver’s Travels, a good twenty five years ago, one of the most memorable scenes for me was the one in which Gulliver cajoles the Lilliputians to build him a giant TV room and then to humiliate themselves by acting out a game of Guitar Hero for him. It strikes me as rather clever of Swift, writing in the 1720s, to have come up with such a biting a satire on console gaming.

I was extremely pleased to see that this scene, curiously missing in the so-highly-acclaimed TV adaptation, is central to the recent Jack Black movie. Indeed, If you don’t understand the role Guitar Hero plays in Gulliver’s adventures then very little else in the novel makes sense. This scene, which will go on to become a modern cinema classic, pretty much makes up for the fact that Jack Black’s version cuts out EVERYTHING ELSE. Swift would have been so proud to see his vision finally given the faithful and authentic presentation it deserves.

All I Want For Christmas Is You

Only a few weeks ago, Blender users woke up to discover Christmas had come early - four massive new features taken from experimental branches and added to the main build (beta 2.61) Just as Santa promised: the Tomato camera tracker, the Cycles render engine, a toolset for motion capture, and the Ocean Simulator. I tested the tracker when adding effects to handheld shots in Lapland, and here are some quick test renders with the ocean sim.
blue reflective material
with added foam texture

Now to come up with some ocean scenes...

Friday, 16 December 2011

Eddie Knows [Review: Anachronox]

K'Conrad Khk: "All roads lead to Eddie. It was a pleasure, detective."
Sly Boots: "Likewise, shoeshine. What's your secret?"
K'Conrad Khk: "You would be surprised how rarely people look up."

Classic role-playing game Anachronox is reviewed over at the Wertzone, reminding me of how much I loved that game, and why: the memorable dialogue and characters, the levels each with their own mood and different shades of humour, and particularly the beautiful environment design and attention to detail. For many of the locations, particularly the mechanically shifting, multicultural city of Anachronox itself, there is pleasure just in exploring. And while K'Conrad's quote above could be a philosophy for life, it also applies to the level design - look up in Anachronox and more likely than not, thanks to some interesting local gravity effects, there will be something going on.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Master Chefs of Dune

"The beginning is a very delicate time. Know then that it is the year 10191. The Known Universe is ruled by the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV, my father. In this time, the most precious substance in the universe is the spice Melange. The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its navigators, who the spice has mutated over 4,000 years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space. That is, travel to any part of universe without moving.
"Oh, yes. I forgot to tell you — the spice exists on only one planet in the entire universe. A desolate, dry planet with vast deserts. Hidden away within the rocks of these deserts are a people known as the Fremen, who have long held a prophecy that a man would come, a messiah who would lead them to true freedom. The planet is Arrakis, also known as Dune." Princess Irulan, Dune (film adaptation, 1984)
But does spice really exist only on Arrakis? Consider the evidence.
Claire 22, from Birmingham, a finalist in the current BBC series of Masterchef: The Professionals. This aspiring chef and restauranteur, barely older than Paul Atreides when his family first relocated to Arrakis, impressed judges Greg Wallace and Michel Roux Junior with her signature dish: roasted loin of muad'dib with langoustine and lardo, potato nests, asparagus and samphire, earning her place in the final three. How to follow such an accomplished feat? As most viewers will agree, this week Claire 22 really pushed the boundary with her roasted white sandworm fillet accompanied by pine nuts, rhubarb, chervil and buttermilk.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011


This is how a good screening feels: "Once Upon A Time In Lapland" was shown at Kino London on Thursday. All the production team made it to the screening, the film was well received, and, best of all - the rumours about mince pies turned out to be true.

Our film needs some final adjustments but will be online very soon. The programme on Thursday was rich and varied: here are two that made me laugh:

Laplander 2: The Last Santa
made by Molly Brown who also accepted a challenge at the November screening

Suicide Tuesday directed by Anton Short

The Kino London team: Jamie, Laura and Santa

You Don’t Know Jack [Review: Dauntless]

Dauntless is the flagship of Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet and the first novel in this military sci-fi series. Soldier Jack Geary goes MIA and presumed dead at the beginning of a hundred year interstellar war - his escape pod is detected and he is revived a century later, to discover that his last stand has become legend and he is now a mythical and revered figure. Meanwhile something is wrong with the Navy. The first signs seem small - the failure to salute, captains having too many meetings or (Ancestors forbid) voting on a course of action rather than taking orders, but it’s worse: the Navy has lost its grip on both strategy and also wartime morality.

A humiliating defeat places Geary in command and only his strategic thinking converts annihilation into retreat. Geary has two challenges which are of course complementary. He must bring the fleet home with its secret cargo of strategic importance, and defeat any threats encountered along the way. Meanwhile he must hold the captains and crews together even as they judge him against the impossible standard of his legend, restore the military skills and attitudes that have been lost and change the culture of the fleet, against strong resistance.

For most of the novel Geary struggles with his fellow captains and soldiers, making allies and enemies along the way. He realizes he will have to go slowly to avoid either alienating his men and women* or, worse, damaging their self-belief. It’s only later that he gets the reasons for their apparent idiocies - the constant attrition of experienced officers and the way that a prolonged and hopeless war has re-shaped their society.

*As with the Honor Harrington series and many other military sci-fi novels, this is a future in which the military has embraced gender equality.