Guest review series: Myst IV

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Headless Hollow once again welcomes Peter Miller with the first in a series of guest reviews of the latest in the Myst saga, Myst IV: Revelation (Mac version). Go here for his review of the downloadable demo. Take it away Pete!

Well, first impressions of Myst 4: Revelation are that it might well live up to expectations. Even my very high expectations.

I was suspicious at first. The installer boots a frustrating command-line ‘Wizard’ that is so redolent of Windows that I felt that I might need to wash my hands after touching it. I would have thought that Ubisoft might have gone the extra few inches to make an OS X friendly installer, but I guess I should just be grateful that Revelation got to Mac in the first place. Anyway, it’s but a moment’s distaste and the installer did its thing without problems. Be warned though, a complete install takes in excess of 7 gig so you need plenty of space on your drive. There is a minimum install option which I assume may require swapping of the 2 DVDs which the game comes on.

The menu page is still rather cheap-looking. It seems kinda weird to me that it shouldn’t be a beautiful hi-rez illustration. It’s not as if it has to do much. The music here is the same lovely piece used in the demo.

Without spoiling things, starting the game moves you quickly into the story. There is the usual preamble from Atrus and a rather twee but bearable intro to the new world.

Then you get to see just how good the game mechanics are. As promised in the demo, everything is full of life and movement. There are beautiful lighting effects, sun, shadow, moving clouds, birds, insects, smoke, water; it’s all there. It is a joy to just move around this world and look. It reminds me of the first impression I had of Riven which is my favourite installment of the Myst saga.

There are still some ragged moments; on my PowerBook the synchronisation of dialogue in the movie clips was never right. Some of the transitions are a little bumpy and there is annoyingly long pause between most of them.

Music-wise, Jack Wall’s score is more evocative and better realised than Exile. It seems to have a greater emphasis on atmosphere, and a much wider palette of instrumentation. It feels folkier and more appropriate to the Myst ouvre than Exile’s rather more derivative offering. That’s not to say it doesn’t have drama—there are some great moments and I found myself getting quite caught up in the story at one point when I should have been hurrying off to keep an appointment. I think that can be taken as a very good sign. The music features quite a bit of vocal work too, which is a thoughtful musical reflection of the addition of more player/character interaction than in the previous titles.

The ambient sound is also nice—not quite as evocative or original as Riven but appropriate and well realised. I recommend that you play the game on a good sound system to get the best out of the beautiful sonic environment. There are some lovely little tricks that you might miss if you’re just relying on your Mac’s inbuilt speakers.

Thus far, I have encountered only a couple of the game’s puzzles, and they seem appropriate and clever. The story is simple but there is already some subtext: SPOILER FOLLOWS! (For instance, at one point Yeesha shows you a pendant and talks about what it can do. She complains that Atrus doesn’t take it seriously when it shows her ‘visions’ but that her brothers do… Wait a minute. Her brothers? Sirrus and Achenar? Aren’t they supposed to be imprisoned and isolated on other worlds… and she has spoken to them? That doesn’t bode well… )

There’s also another engaging feature in this game—there is humour! I laughed out loud a few times, once at some clever psychological manipulation (oops, I probably shouldn’t have opened that box… ) and another time at a pretty obvious reaction (well, what do you think happens if you poke your finger into an electrical generator?).

Some warnings. A friend who is running the game on a PowerBook with a slightly slower video card than mine doesn’t have access to the interactive water effects, nor to some of the ‘immersive’ effects (the moving trees and plants and the depth-of-field effect for instance). The same thing happens on my G4 and Cinema display. On that machine, even at the minimum resolution there are also many graphic anomalies such as visible mattes, image tearing, strange glitches and so forth. So you need a pretty fast video card to make the best of the game.

So, first impressions are good. More as it comes to hand.

Film review: Shaun of the Dead

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Shaun of the Dead

Having been chewed up and spat out by London twice in my life, there’s nothing I like more than having a good laugh at the London slacker stereotype who spends his days down the pub. And before everyone starts groaning and feasting on flesh, the scenes where Shaun (Simon Pegg) goes about his normal routine are some of the best in this very funny ‘romantic comedy, with zombies’.

In fact, apart from the flesh-eating, the film makes plain there’s very little difference between your average Londoner going to work and a flesh-eating zombie. Shaun spends his days in a crap job, on the couch playing video games or down the pub with his disgusting mate Ed (Nick Frost), and it’s only a plague of animated dead people that gets him up off the couch to save his Mum and his recently-ex girlfriend. They’re joined by the excellent Dylan Moran Of TV’s Black Books playing an annoying yuppie and Lucy Davis of The Office as his ‘failed actress’ girlfriend.

I’ve seen many a horror film in my time (especially in my early twenties when I was seeing a very innocent-looking blonde who in fact had a strange obsession with gory horror videos that I never questioned at the time), but there was one scene in particular where my stomach turned over, and if I was a kid I’m sure would haunt me for years. It seems strange how this film gets an MA rating, but a bit of sex tips a film into R territory—but that’s a whole other subject.

It’s good to see some well-made English comedy making it to the big screen and while the film is a bit of a one-joke affair, it’s so well made that as much as possible is squeezed out of that joke. Thanks to a tight script, imaginative direction and good acting, Shaun of the Dead even manages to wring out a little social comment, pathos and real horror as well.

Three and a half darts out of five.


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What a depressing weekend. Howard and Liberal back into power with what looks like the balance of power in the Senate (oh, with the help of a new church-based ‘family values’ party), and Australians prove that as long as their mortgage payments don’t go up a few bucks and Australian Idol keeps churning out the episodes, they don’t give a shit that the person running the country is a deceitful weasel incapable of admitting when he is wrong and slowly turning back the clock on this country until we become a conservative, selfish little isolationist country in the pocket of America.

Look, I don’t claim to be an expert on politics, but it is obvious even to me that the government of a country is responsible for more than running the economy. It sets the ethical tone for a nation. And I’ve never been so depressed by an election result in my life. It’s quite obvious Australians have become soley motivated by money and fear, gripped by a growing conservatism that will slowly intrude more and more into our personal freedoms. Now watch that idiot Bush get back in and the trend continue.

Love Without Hope

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Love Without Hope. That’s the title of a new blog by a friend of mine. She’s new to the blog game, go and give her some encouragement. Then again, how about giving me some encouragement?? (More coming soon, I’m working like a madman lately.)

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You can now email your nearest and dearest your favourite posts from Headless Hollow by clicking the little envelope icon at the end of each post. Go ahead, make their day.

Guest review: Myst IV demo

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Headless Hollow welcomes the esteemed sound designer Peter Miller (of ‘The Ring’ fame) with this guest review of the new Ubisoft Myst IV downloadable demo (Mac version):

Let me say from the get go that I am a big fan of the original Myst, and of the sequel to that game, Riven. I think it is universally agreed that these games redefined the puzzle/adventure style game which, up until they came along, were pretty much devoid of atmosphere and style. Having said that I was less enamoured of the clumsy Exile, which, for all its technical progress on the first two titles was bereft of the magic and charm of those games.
So it was with high hopes for a return to form that I downloaded the demo for Myst 4: Revelation.

Well. It started badly. This is no tiny example file—the zipped demo is a whopping 185 meg, which is a sizeable investment of time if you’re not on a fast pipe. What makes matters worse is that if you’re a Mac user, the archive has been incorrectly formatted and it took me quite a bit of experimenting and hunting around the web for advice before I could actually boot the demo. That this problem has not been rectified as of this writing is a sad indictment of the disinterest which Ubisoft shows to Apple users, forgetting that the Mac platform was where the Myst saga was originally born. Why should they care, I guess, when all the money is in the PC world.

My first impression on beginning the game was one of shoddiness. After an explanatory introduction by our old friend Atrus, we are taken to a game menu that looks cheap and poorly designed. It is offset somewhat by the music that we hear: an engaging change of style from the previous Myst adventures. The track is interesting and evocative and even a little dark, something like a cross between the almost ubiquitous Lisa Gerrard and some of Howard Shore’s score for Lord of the Rings.

Upon entering the game proper, however, the music turns into a bland Riven copycat, with none of the panache of that work. It was so reminiscent of the mediocre Exile music that I found myself wondering whether they’d just re-used some music from that title for the sake of expedience.

Visually, this segment of the world of Revelation looks wonderful. In the demo, the player arrives on a moonlit night outside Atrus’ room. Complete spherical vision is implemented—you can look left, right up and down, wherever you wish. From the wooden walkway on which you first appear there are a number of buildings visible, although unreachable in the demo. The moonlight illuminates everything with a soft blue glow, and a slight mist drifts across the moon and stars. Stand there staring at this beautiful sky for a minute or two and you might even see a shooting star zip across the heavens. Beneath you, a river runs down into a chasm, a mist of water spray rising above it in the distance. A breeze stirs the trees and moths dance around the lamps that light the walkways. There is motion in everything. In addition to all this, a clever depth-of-focus trick is used to defocus the background slightly if the player is looking at something close. It’s subtle but effective. Sound-wise, we are treated to the usual ambient sound, nice but not spectacular. The outside atmosphere sounds a little generic to me, almost identical to the town ambience in Diablo 1 (or maybe it’s just the owl). One annoying thing: on transitions, the ambience fades out and in again. This has the effect of breaking the continuity of place and I hope it isn’t this way in the game. They managed crossfades in Exile, so it seems to me that it should be possible here.
A major disappointment happens when you click to enter Atrus’ room. As with Exile, transitions through doors and so forth are accomplished by a bridging movie sequence. This particular one is very rough, with jagged edges on the doors, lighting mismatches and a very noticeable drop in resolution. It’s the kind of thing that Cyan spent so much time on getting right in Riven. It might seem like a small criticism, but these things smack of franchise to me—let’s just get the game out so we can make some money! Attention to detail is not just a luxury in the world of Myst: it is the very foundation upon which the Myst reputation was built. I sincerely hope that this is just an artifact of the demo. Personally, I wouldn’t even have allowed this in a demo, but maybe I’ve got higher standards than those that Ubisoft find acceptable.

Inside this room, we are treated to more beautiful visual ambience. The light from the moon picks out dust motes floating in the air, and potted plants sway gently in the breeze. There are a number of things to be discovered whilst poking around. One innovation for Revelation is an animated 3D hand cursor (available in left or right handedness!) that changes to indicate the actions it can perform. Clicking on objects throughout the room has the effect of causing the fingers to tap on things with an appropriate sound: glass, paper, wood. It’s cute. If something can be examined closely, the hand magically produces a magnifying glass.

There are the requisite journals and notes to be found in here, the threads of the beginning of a story concerning Atrus’ two troublesome sons. It seems a bit like a rehash of things we have encountered before, and it’s a tad disappointing to be going over this ground again. Still, I will reserve my judgement on that point until the full story is available. It seems to me though, that given the extraordinary possibilities inherent in the Myst universe, the tale of familial woe has been explored a little too thoroughly. We shall see. The documents in the study are adequately ‘Myst-like’ but they are somehow detailed with less love and conviction than we have come to expect. Once again, it smacks of a watering-down of a concept, and a fear of deviating too far from the tried-and-true formula.

There is of course, a puzzle to be solved, and it is a relatively straight forward button-pusher, with a superfluous ‘hint’ parchment to be found in the room (I suppose you don’t want the demo to be too puzzling or you might scare off the faint-of-heart). It’s a nice enough teaser though, with a pretty visual component.

We also discover that there are some tools for ‘recording’ your Revelation experience, both as stills and movies. While I could figure out how to make a recording, there are no notes with the demo to tell you how to retrieve your recording. I assume that will not be a problem with the game proper.

There is also an amulet to be found that enables flashbacks and voiceovers in appropriate places. A friend who ran the demo was unable to activate these features properly, even though his computer was almost identical to mine. On that subject, I have to report that the demo was very buggy, and crashed several times in play. I am so unused to crashes under OS X that this seemed entirely unacceptable to me. Once again, I will make allowances for the demo. I desperately hope this is not indicative of the release, or I will be first in line for my money back. There is no excuse anymore for a full release that is this unstable.

Myst 4: Revelation has a lot to live up to. My own hope is that it transcends the rather vapid puzzle solving that was the main point of Exile and has something of the flair of Riven with its complex subplots and wonderful air of mystery. The demo has enough intriguing and magical set dressing to make me want to like it and I only hope that Ubisoft has taken the time and care to look after this special world.

Film review: Big Fish

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Big Fish

I missed Tim Burton’s latest at the cinema but saw it the other night on DVD, and I can’t help but give it a good review since the tears were flowing at the end—and any film that gets the emotions churning that much must be doing something right. Sure, it has many flaws. It’s not as magical and other-worldly as Burton’s usual work (excepting the forgettable Planet of the Apes of course); Billy Crudup is a bit of a charismatic black hole, and to me Ewan McGregor is one of those actors who doesn’t become the character, but always just seems to be playing slight variations on himself.

But that said, I enjoyed the film and the comfortably sentimental journey it takes you on. I’m a sucker for the classic father-son redemption storyline, and the big themes of life and death, love and remembrance, and they are touched on lovingly. It’s a film full of storybook imagery and warmth and a welcome return to form.

Three and a half jumping spiders out of five.

Rant: Ikea

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We needed some bookcases for our living room. Anything from a non-Ikea/Freedom-type shop proves way too expensive. A browse of the Ikea website reveals they have simple 4×4 and 5×5 cubes bookcase in dark wood—they‘re affordable, and look fine. But then you start to deal with Ikea. You call to see if the item they advertise on their website and in their brochure is in stock and you get a five minute recorded blurb telling you about the website before you join the queue to talk to a sales person. Umm—I‘m using the phone, if I wanted to use the web I would wouldn‘t I? Then, of course, the 5×5 model is out of stock and won‘t be in again for 6 weeks. Six weeks?! Why does this happen every time I want something from Ikea?

The place astounds me; how does a business be so blatantly unconcerned with customer service, and yet have somehow developed some kind of untouchable reputation for quality and customer satisfaction?
Isn‘t the founder of Ikea one of the richest men in the world? Probably because he understood that marketing is everything. Give the public cheap, crappy quality goods dressed up as designer items, hire young and inexperienced staff, get the customers to do all the work (wait for six weeks, pick their goods up from the factory, build it themselves with the help of a badly designed language-free leaflet) and then sit back and rake in the profits.

Of course, we bought two of the other model and some other stuff and ended up spending $800. Now excuse me, I‘m off to watch Fight Club.

Film review: I, Robot

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I, Robot

I’m beginning to think I need two film review scales: one for ‘summer blockbusters’ and another for ‘real films’. Can one really compare a special effects blockbuster to an emotional character piece, for example? Not really; so keep in mind my ratings are a function of the genre. In any event I’m scaling them down a tad so I have more room to move for those films that are really memorable.

As the credits rolled on I, Robot I felt as if I’d been quite entertained; until the vaguely apologetic sentence ‘inspired by Asimov’s book’ came up on the screen and I suddenly recalled how many blockbuster movie cliches had wended their weary way across my eyes.
Of course, abandon all hope of being true to Asimov all ye who enter: we all knew that from the first trailer.

I, Robot isn’t a bad film, though one wonders how much Alex Proyas was forced to include or leave out by the beancounting suits at Fox. No director puts four or more screen-filling shots of the Audi logo in his or her film by choice, surely, and the references to Smith’s ‘retro 2004 shoes’ must have muscled out some nice screentime filled with, oh say useless things like character development. It’s just frustrating how many boxes have to be checked these days for the studio to guarantee their millions of dollars on a film. Check, the car chase; check, the troubled cop with a past; check, the sweet old grandmother (with pie); check, the sexy but frigid scientist who at the end of the film sports tousled hair and leather pants.

The film looks great, the action is slick, there are some nice camera moves, and Will Smith does his Will Smith thing perfectly. Alan Tudyk does a nice job as the robot (check out his great work as Wash in the fantastic Firefly). The plot is even a little more complex than at first glance. You’ll feel entertained. And then the credits roll, and that ‘inspired by Asimov’s book’ line comes up, and you think “There’s so much fantastic sci-fi literature out there, years and years of it, great stories; why can’t they just stick to the story?”

Two and a half NS-5s out of five.

Film review: Spiderman 2


Spiderman 2

Spiderman was one of my favourite superheros as a child, and not just because we both had the same first name (though that counted for a lot). Peter Parker was a real person struggling to deal with a normal life and a super-one, long before Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns made super heroes synonymous with psychology.

So it’s a pleasure to see Sam Raimi giving us films as rich as the source material, along with a playful sense of humour, the visual flair that first blew us away in Evil Dead, and a bunch of actors proving you don’t have to ham it up just because you spend a lot of the movie running around in primary colors or with four mechanical tentacles attached to your back. In fact, though the action scenes are incredible, it’s the subtlety of Tobey Maguire’s performance that defines the movie.

With Spiderman 2 Raimi, freed from the need to tell his back story, throws himself with obvious pleasure into making a classic Spidey tale. The film is a joy to watch from start to finish, and it feels like they had as almost as much fun making it; take for example some classic horror B-movie homage shots, the hilarious elevator scene, and the delight taken hammering in the pathetic state of Peter Parker’s life. Amazingly, the laugh-out-loud scenes are perfectly balanced by beautifully acted and emotional ones, some of which revel in the rich symbolism possible in this genre.

Watching a superhero blockbuster done so well throws into sharp relief how badly done they usually are. Spiderman 2 is a rollercoaster ride with action, emotion, laughs and, surprisingly, depth.

4 and a half web-slingers out of 5.

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