Archive for January, 2010

PC Classic Review: Jedi Academy

January 31, 2010

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy

Released: Sep 2003 (PC)

Developer: Raven Software

Publisher: LucasArts & Activision

Genre: 1st/3rd Person Action Shooter

Decided to dust off this title and see who still played it online, I was surprised to see quite a few people still do so I thought why not play through from start to finish. By the time I gotten to my favourite part of the game (choosing between the light path and the dark path) I realised I’d never actually completed the ‘light path’ version of the storyline. All done but I still prefer the dark side ending. Either way I realised how well this game has lasted for its age, the game play is still as fun and exciting and the lightsaber combat second to none. I’m still in awe of the amount of customisation you were able to do (back in the day of course) on your character in a game that is a first/third-person shooter and not an RPG. It was developed by Raven Software and published, distributed and marketed by LucasArts in North America and by Activision in the rest of the world.

You play as Jaden Korr, (a character you can customise to be male/female, human, twi’lek etc) a padawan who is travelling to Luke Skywalker’s jedi academy on Yavin IV, along with other new jedi hopefuls. Kyle Katarn, (the reluctant jedi you played as in Jedi Outcast) returns as a mentor at the Academy and becomes your master. However your ship is attacked and crashes into the planet, leaving Jaden and one other student, Rosh Penin, to make their way to the academy on foot. The storyline revolves around solving several questions related to this attack at the start of the game. From here you take on several missions, mostly with Kyle to begin with to find these answers and soon discover that a dark jedi called Tavion (Dessans apprentice in Jedi Outcast) is behind the attacks. Tavion is attempting to resurrect the spirit of dark sith lord Marka Ragnos by using his sceptre to drain dark force energy from locations across the galaxy. On each subsequent mission after the training you set about finding out more about the cult, battling with dark jedi, the remnant and a few bounty hunters along the way.

The options of customising your character does not end at physical appearance, you are able to specialise and train in a selection of different force abilities, light and dark. You start out with eight core force powers; pull, push etc which are automatically upgraded every time you return to the academy after missions. There are also eight advanced force powers to choose from (4 on the light side and 4 on the dark) the light side abilities are; absorb, protection, heal, and mind trick. The dark side powers include life drain, force lightning, force grip, and rage. You receive a point when you complete a mission (each power has three levels of improvement) and you can distribute it in any of these eight powers at the start of the next mission.

Personally force grip and heal are the powers of choice to get up to maximum level, and whether you choose the light or dark path nearer the end of the game (each with its own ending) you can have as many of the dark side powers as you like. Nothing like dangling a storm trooper over the edge of cliff using force grip or throwing him halfway across the map!

Jedi Academy captures the excitement of lightsaber combat perfectly and not to far into the game allows the player to select between single, dual or a staff lightsaber. The problem with Jedi Outcast was the amount of tedious levels you had to play before you got your lightsaber, in this game you have it from the start and can customise it to your liking. I tend to favour dual lightsabers in green and purple, I have no idea why. After completing the single player I was actually surprised when I logged into multiplayer to find servers still running and being played online. Usually by now they’ve been taken over by bots and the odd nostalgic gamer but these were very full and active. Good times. The game itself is relatively easy to complete (mainly due to the lack of good AI in the enemy) and even has the option of avoiding harder missions if you choose too. Some of the better levels involve locations or characters from the movies. The Hoth mission is particularly good and the fight with Bobba Fett is awesome (although I feel they could have done more with this level).

Jedi Academy is a great game and still worth revisiting. It is still highly playable in single and multiplayer mode and has plenty to offer in the way of character customisation and mission/weapon selection. I love the choice of the light or dark path nearer the end of the game as it actually evokes real emotions in the player and for the situation the characters are in. All I can say is the dark side path isn’t easier by a long way. The sound effects, music and voice acting really add a great atmosphere to the game and an extra dimension to the characters. Jeff Bennett returns to voice Kyle Katarn and Jennifer Hale and Philip Tanzini provide the female and male voices of Jaden Korr, with some great supporting voice artists Bob Bergen, Kath Soucie and Cam Clarke. I really enjoyed playing Academy again and even more now it’s available through Steam.

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Movie Review: Avatar

January 24, 2010

Avatar

Directed and written by: James Cameron

Released: December 2009

Cast: Sam Worthington – Jake Sully, Zoe Saldana – Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver – Dr. Grace Augustine, Stephen Lang – Colonel Miles Quaritch

 Admittedly with most new films, and especially ones I feel are being over sold and hyped up too much, I tend to steer clear of and take the attitude, “I’m sure I’ll watch it eventually”. My love of movies and the cinema certainly hasn’t changed over the years but my attitude to how a movie is marketed has. Oddly I tend to go and see and enjoy films the less I have heard about them. I really think a person can make a decision based on one or two reviews and maybe a trailer. It’s about as much as I need to decide whether I want to see the film or not.

On to the film, and you can tell I enjoyed it because I’m actually inspired to write a review! Admittedly I held off for as long as possible and I’ve only just seen it, I couldn’t avoid the reviews, the trailers, the adverts, the blogs and the tweets. It even inspired me (in a way) to write my blog on Danny Elfman and mention James Horner and James Cameron.  Of course I tried to keep my expectations low (I find I also enjoy much more if I do this) even though most reviews gave it 4 stars in 2D and 5 stars in 3D (Empire). I thought I might as well go for this ‘5 star’ experience and I’m very sorry to say… it was worth it *insert cynical critic won over by Avatar joke here*

The film follows the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a paraplegic marine who decides to take the place of his recently deceased brother in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. Jake learns of the growing conflict between the humans and the native humanoid race called the Na’vi. The humans are there to study the Na’vi, led by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) but also to mine a precious mineral, headed up by evil ‘company’ types and led by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). In the mix of corporate greed and scientific study is gun-ho marine Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who believes a peaceful solution is impossible and force is the only way to take what they want, Quaritch only has one goal in mind and intends to force the Na’vi from their home, which just happens to be sitting on the largest deposit of the precious mineral the company is after.

Jake, working for the scientists, and indirectly for the Colonel, begins attempting to infiltrate the Na’vi people with the use of an “avatar” identity. The Avatar is a body of a Na’vi controlled by a human mind. Whilst the human body is safely sealed in a laboratory the Avatar body under control from the human is free join the others and open diplomatic relations. Jake is new to the Avatar program and the film follows his integration into Na’vi society, learning their ways and becoming more and more deeply involved in the tribe and the Na’vi culture. It’s not until part way into the film, when military action against the Na’vi is increased, do we know exactly where Jake’s loyalties lie.

The 162 minutes flew by (James Cameron doesn’t seem to make short movies). Jake’s journey is emotional and fascinating and the film has just the right mix of action and love story, jumping from scenes with the Na’vi tribe and scenes back at the base or laboratory were we begin to see Jake’s disconnection from his real human life and his obsessive behaviour with his avatar persona. The story builds on these elements of disconnection, loyalty and betrayal between characters, as well as an epic final battle between the Na’vi and the humans.

Some of the creatures are animated beautifully and stunningly realistic in places, well, as real as a dragon or alien humanoid can get. The action is second to none and with James Horner’s “Aliens esque” score in the background you know it’s going to be a good fight. It was great to see Sigourney Weaver back in the sci-fi genre and I thought she was well supported from the rest of the cast. Jake is a great lead character and the way he becomes part of the tribe is funny and believable, if a little clichéd in places. There is good chemistry between the character Neytiri, (voiced by Zoe Saldana), and the character Jake which forms the love story part of the film.

The storyline and dialogue are simple to the core but it doesn’t have to be complicated or Shakespeare to be a good watch. These two factors become background to a film that sells itself on its visual prowess, a rare case where a film can boast a sufficient story and script, great characters (although some are pushed to the side a little nearer the end) and still be highly watchable even with an overload of CGI. Hope Lucas is taking notes. I left the cinema feeling satisfied (*innuendo to easy*) and would certainly watch it again, in 2D perhaps, although I get the feeling it’s not going to be nearly as impressive at home. Visually the most stunning film I have seen in 3D. It makes full use of the technology and doesn’t disappoint. Seeing it in 3D on the big screen for me is the only way to go.   

Avatar Website and Trailer here!

Avatar Poster from Hollywood Movie Costumes and Props go here!

Production information from IMDB and Avatar movie stills from IGN

Film History: Ealing Studios 1939 – 1949

January 17, 2010

Film History

Ealing Studios 1939 – 1949

I’ve decided to take a slightly different slant on this weekend’s blog on movies. A new category for this has been created under ‘Film History’ and will usually cover a studio, director and film in its content. This weekend I will look at Ealing studios and Michael Balcon 1939 – 1949 and one of one Alberto Cavalcanti’s films Went the Day Well? (1942) Once I have introduced a studio, I will then look at a certain film from that period, in future blogs I will look at more films from that studio but doing it all in one blog might be a bit long!

When Michael Balcon joined Ealing in 1938 (taking over from Basil Dean as head of production) he brought with him his long-standing policy on film making of realism and projection of national identity. This policy had been with Balcon during his years as head of Gaumont British in the thirties. Balcon in 1932 was given more responsibilities as a producer, supervising all production at two studios, Gainsborough and Gaumont (Gaumont being the bigger of the two). Balcon brought his own distinct style to the screen, focusing on social issues, realism and non flamboyant productions. This was in contrast to the styles of producers such as Alexander Korda, head of London Films, who favoured risk taking, fantasy and expressionist cinema. Balcon’s work at Gaumont in the thirties, compared to other producers, was to include a sense of realism, accuracy and moral improvement in his films. Balcon described himself as a ‘gladstonian liberal’, and the qualities that embraced by that description also followed. Qualities which were projected as distinctly British during the Second World War, these criteria were all seen as important for Balcon and would form the base of film production at Ealing throughout the war and the post war years.

Films to come out of Ealing in the 1940’s generally had close references to realism and national identity, this closely related to the policy at Ealing and the ideals of Balcon himself. Went the Day Well? (1942) and Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) are just a few I have watched over and over and I can always spot something new. The team at Ealing, a small creative elite, consisted of only the people Balcon thought was up to the task of putting his vision of Britain on-screen (famous for their round table discussions before each film could begin production) However, the director Alberto Cavalcanti seems to stand out from the rest, for his ability to combine narrative fiction with realism and propaganda, national identity and patriotism were naturally brought to the fore in these films. Cavalcanti at this time was primarily interested in a type of documentary realism which specialised in persuasion and detail.

Cavalcanti’s Went the Day Well? is the best example of the combination of all these factors, it is a film that provides us with a ‘what if’ scenario with regards to Nazi invasion through the British countryside during the Second World War and is one of the most revealing films to come out of the wartime period. It warns about complacency during wartime, and that the even the most remote, comfortable and traditional English setting had to be on alert at all times, such as that at Bramley End. The people of the nation coming together and committed to the war effort is portrayed best in this Ealing film, the ‘social unit’ of small shops, the post office and church hall all create a typically English feel and the kind of vision Ealing was trying to portray in this period.

The film is about a sleepy village in the English countryside called Bramley End. This peaceful corner of England however is the target of a unit of German paratroopers, sent ahead of the impending invasion and posing as British troops in order to establish a stronghold. However, through a series of clues left by the troops the villagers grow increasingly suspicious of the unit and their plot begins to unravel. Bramley End is presented to us as communal and devout, with its natural leaders coming from the upper, middle class levels of society. Albeit in this case their most natural leader Oliver Wilsford (Leslie Banks) is in fact a German spy, a common factor in Ealing war films was to include a fifth columnist or Nazi sympathiser. The film is a picture of Englishness, (presented in the scenery and the villagers) who, in their arising crisis become united against the threat and we see some dramatic changes in order to defend themselves and the village. 

The manor house plays a central part in this film, as well as being the last bastion of defence against the German attack, its symbolism is boundless, like Great Britain, it is an island that ‘must be’ defended, and is the central symbol for community in the village. The manor house is defended by the villagers and gender and class are not an issue when fighting a common foe. Another scene to note is the opening and close of the film, it both begins and ends with the graveyard, which we discover at the end is the grave of the Germans killed at Bramley End in the struggle. They have been given a memorial, even though they terrorised and killed innocent villagers and the villagers returned it with vengeance. These scenes to start and end the film show that even though the people of Bramley End have endured pain and suffering at the hands of the Germans they are still willing to forgive and give respect to those lost, even the enemy, this gives the viewer a strong sense of what it is to be British.

The film presents its vision of the national image through its English landscapes and village setting, in contrast to the German invasion of the village which brings home the reality of war to such a peaceful setting. The film was designed to have an impact on the audience, Cavalcanti using the threat of German invasion as realistically as possible in order to alert the audience to the possible dangers of invasion. I would recommend this film to anyone who has an interest in the Second World War, for its time some of the scenes and violence are quite surprising and the change in some of the characters from peaceful villagers to freedom fighters is dramatic and very realistic.

Golden Axe

January 10, 2010

Great title screen with that action packed title music to bring you into the game

Developer: Sega/Virgin Games

Genre: Side scrolling beat ‘em up

Year: 1990

Platform: Amiga 500

Disks: 1

Golden Axe takes me back to the first days of my Amiga and has always been one of my favourites. Why else would I own it the Mega Drive as well? The story is simple and revolves around three warriors who are seeking revenge against a murdering tyrant called Death=Adder, who has subsequently done each of our heroes a wrong in some form. You can play in 1 or 2 player mode and you must select from 1 of the 3 choices of character, each with their own agenda in seeking to take on Death=Adder.

Ax Battler

Ax=Battler: ‘Conan the Barbarian’ warrior type complete with stylish blue underwear and a look of “if you laugh I’ll lop your arms and head off”. Ax uses his sword and brute strength to defeat his enemies but is lacking in the magic department.

Gilius Thunderhead

 

 

Gilius=Thunderhead: Small, powerful and angry, the dwarf character is a popular choice and has a funky rolling axe to the crotch move. Nippy and reliable, not as strong as Ax but has better magic skills.

 

 

 

Tyris Flare

 

 

Tyris=Flare: ‘Red Sonja’ warrior type, with princess Leia type bikini, enemies stand and drool as you swipe at them with your sword repeatedly. Tyris main strength lies in her awesome magical ability, there’s nothing like having a huge dragon to do your bidding.

These guys have a long reach and can knock you for six…

The game play is brilliant, and although stages are short you cannot fault its pace and fighting system. In either 1 or 2 player mode you must battle through six stages, meeting different enemies throughout including skeletons, club wielding thugs, giants, knights and the odd dragon riding, axe wielding dominatrix. I’ve never liked the skeletons as they always seemed to be more nasty when attacking, especially that sword swipe across the stomach.

Your goods or your life Sir! But my goods are life…. *kick* Hey!

At the end of each stage you have the chance to replenish your health and magic by generally being rude and abusive to some passing hobbit like creatures either dressed in green (food) or blue (magic potion). A swift kick to the sack (ouch…) forces them to give up the goods. Magic is your greatest ally when taking out multiple enemies, each character, depending on how full their magic meter is, will have different creatures or natural elements to help them dispatch a number of foes on the screen, very useful if you’re low on energy and are being over whelmed. I always found by the time I’d got to Death=Adder I’d forgotten to save them up.

Tyris shows us how to balance a dragon on our heads whilst taking out the enemy…

The graphics are superb and I love the way the characters are drawn, each having their own unique special moves, strengths and weaknesses and magical abilities. The level designs are colourful and detailed and you’ll find yourself being surrounded by enemies from all sides. It’s always fun making them run off the side when the opportunity arises, all it needs is an animated look of confusion on their faces as they fall to their doom. Kicking and throwing them off the edge works just as well. Its only real drawback (certainly in this version) is the occasional pause to load, which can slow the game down a bit, otherwise it’s a stand up conversion and a game that looks just as good now as it did back in the day. The game music and story scene music is good, and the sound effects are brilliant, right down to the knocking sound of hilt to head and then a swift boot to the face.

Seems to be a distinct lack of armour around these parts…

Golden Axe on the Amiga is a great game and great conversion from the original coin op. Death=Adder is a great boss fight and always satisfying when he finally goes down, making sure of course he falls in the middle of the screen so you can experience the ‘spinning axe of death’ to its fullest. I feel the length of this version is just right, otherwise the game play would become to repetitive, which is the feeling I get after playing the Mega Drive version with the extra levels. Golden Axe is classic game and brilliant conversion and one that I keep coming back to and replaying. Its charm and appeal is timeless and if you can find someone to join in, 2 players is the way to go.

Bit o’ gameplay below if you’ve not seen the game before!

Mid Week Mini: Danny Elfman

January 7, 2010

Danny Elfman

Composers and filmmakers can often go hand in hand for their style and creativity when applying music to a movie. Last time I took a quick look at Basil Poledouris, a composer who wrote for a range of films and genres. However, there are a few composers who will immediately spring to mind when I hear a new movie is coming out. Perhaps when you hear of a new Lucasfilm project you think generally think, “Ah, John Williams will be onboard!” James Horner returned to score Avatar (2009), a composer I always think of when James Cameron writes or directs. The director or genre will offer a clue about who will score the soundtrack.

Now think, Tim Burton (although most people would shout Johnny Depp) I am or course speaking of Danny Elfman.  He is a composer who suits Burton’s dark, gothic creativity perfectly. Some of his work with Burton includes; Beetlejuice (1988) Batman (1989) Edward Scissorhands (1990) Batman Returns (1992) A Nightmare before Christmas (1993) Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Corpse Bride (2005). I love the eerie feel to the music, usually provided by a choral background, and the way it draws you in and provides a dark ambience to the story being told. A particular favourite of mine is The Nightmare before Christmas, with Elfman providing the singing voice for Jack Skellington. It’s a film I can watch over and over and never grow tired of, it is also strangely becoming a tradition to watch it on Christmas Eve, along with Scrooged (1988).

Obviously Danny Elfman has worked with many other directors and producers on many projects, his job title ranging from music producer and composer to singer/actor. He has a long and impressive resume of work in film and television music.  However his long-term collaboration with Burton has produced his most recognisable work (possibly aside from The Simpsons) and he seems to flawlessly provide the right atmosphere (to bring out the best in the scenes, characters and dialogue) in any movie he composes for.

Image of Danny Elfman from Collider.com, visit the site and interview here!

Amiga Classic Review: Superfrog

January 2, 2010

Superfrog

Year: 1993

Developed by: Andreas Tadic – Team 17

Genre: Platformer – Scrolling Screen (3 Disks)

It’s the same old story, prince meets princess, princess falls in love with prince, jealous witch turns prince into frog and kidnaps princess. Depressed frog sits next to river, (until some shameful in-game advertising goes floating by), sees the bottle and decides to drink the stuff. It’s not a good idea to drink things you find floating down the river. The aforementioned drink turns our depressed frog into Superfrog, who then sets off to rescue the princess and defeat the witch.

There are 6 worlds to play in this great platformer from Team 17. Starting off in the Magic Woods Superfrog battles his way to the witches ‘Spooky Castle’, and is then transported through a number of twists  and turns to a fun park, ancient world, ice world (always seems to be a standard level), space level (frogs in space?) down to the final confrontation with the witch.

The levels within each world have the same objective, collect enough gold coins to open the portal to the next level and so on. Each level is designed to be challenging with just enough enemies to keep you on your toes, although this can be adjusted in the options menu between normal and hard.

There are many items to collect including coins, fruit and jewels and special items including wings, red nose (invisibility), a strange bogie like side kick you can lob at enemies and energy drinks to re-fill your meter, also keep an eye out for secret passages. Blindly running into walls (only in-game) seems to be the best way to find them.

The graphics are great and everything is nicely drawn, Rico Holmes, Eric Schwartz have both created a game where each world has its own distinct theme, design and enemies to defeat making the game play varied and interesting. Too many platform games feel like they repeat themselves after only a few levels but this one doesn’t.

The intro sequence is amusing and a nice touch in setting up the story for our hero and the music is actually pretty good, with a different score by Allister Brimble created for each world. I keep mentioning annoying and repetitive music in some of these old games (no pleasing some people) but for once I am quite impressed. Superfrog’s only real downfall is the control of its hero. For a character that can move so fast and who seems to have been the Amiga’s answer to a certain blue hedgehog, the levels aren’t really designed to support that kind of character.

The game play can be very fast and frustrating at times as running into enemies and especially spikes can happen quite often. The game has very few flaws but the more specific annoyances come in the form of being killed when running into the sides of spikes (even Sonic didn’t have that trouble).   When playing you will want to move Superfrog quickly, because he was designed that way, but in fact you need to move him relatively slowly and carefully, otherwise it would be like trying to run as fast as possible through a mine field in the hope you don’t step on one.  

Once you get used to the speed and used to the fact you can’t just go hurtling off the game is brilliant fun and highly playable. Asides from the control issues, Superfrog performs well in all other areas such as level design, graphics, music and playability.

I love coming back to this game and love the animated intro sequence, although I’m never too happy about blatant product placement in games but I think I can forgive Superfrog (and Lara Croft for that matter). After each level there is a ‘gamble option’ which opens a great little side game which enables you to gamble coins in order to score more points (up to x2) win extra lives or a level code, it breaks up the game play nicely getting you ready for the next set of levels. Superfrog is a brilliant game from Team 17 and one that has stood the test of time.

Amiga Computing June 1993 gives Superfrog a relatively high 93%

Review in Amiga Computing

Amiga Power June 1993 a lower 78%

Review in Amiga Power