Sunday, 14 June 2009

Go Johnny go go go go..

Fantastic news for Natal enthusiasts still holding out for the verdict as to whether what we saw at E3 was real or dressed up fantasy. Impressions coming out of E3 have been very positive, but it still feels very much a believe it when I see it kind of experience. The cautious optimism however is gradually being replaced by downright frenzied excitement with the word that Johnny Chung Lee is part of the development team. You may recall Johnny Lee is the genius behind various Wii remote related applications, that pushed the boundaries of what technology could be made to do in the home. We all probably thought Nintendo would snap him up, but they have, it appears, been caught napping, and it's Microsoft who have made a very very wise decision.

Of Natal, on his blog Lee says "The human tracking algorithms that the teams have developed are well ahead of the state of the art in computer vision in this domain. The sophistication and performance of the algorithms rival or exceed anything that I've seen in academic research, never mind a consumer product". Strong praise indeed, and to have it come from the most recognised academic developer of home made motion tracking, bodes very well for Natal's credibility.

Lee is working on "making sure this can transition from the E3 stage to your living room", so I just got a whole lot more excited for how we'll be playing games in a few years time. As Lee says, "We would all love to one day have our own personal holodeck. This is a pretty measurable step in that direction." Blimey! Do want.

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Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Horror Corner - Martyrs

I went into French Horror film Martyrs scared. I foolishly looked at an early preview, and was disturbed by what I had read. Ultra violent. Nightmarish. Sickening. And apparently not with the intention of merely grossing you out, but supported by a wholly more intellectual and meaningful raison d’etre. Turns out I needn’t have been too worried. While it is unarguably bold, disturbing, shocking and at times pretty hard to watch, once past it's obvious horrific charms it turns out the central conceit it pins its eventual resolution on is in fact the hardest part to stomach. Getting there though means embarking on an exceptionally well crafted and grisly journey, and if the film is anything, it is above all surprising, so should you wish to maximise the impact of such surprises and avoid some small, early spoilers, I suggest you certainly don't continue reading..

In a run down part of town, a young girl staggers screaming into the street and runs for her life, she has it seems been cruelly tortured. A grainy newsreel picks up the story; the discovery of the slaughterhouse where she was imprisoned, the clues as to her ordeal, and the inability of the police to locate her tormentors. The girl, Lucie, is put into care, and again we are shown grainy footage of her distrustful life there, and the emerging careful friendship between her and another girl, Anna. Lucie is clearly disturbed by her traumatic experience, and we quickly see that she is prone to self harm, although she claims that she's not responsible for the wounds. Weight is given to the claim, when she is attacked in the night by a screeching, wild haired figure, that does a grand job of putting the willies up you. So far so normal, everything’s in the traditional horror mould.

Skip forward 15 years. Oh yes, don’t read this bit if you don’t want a nasty surprise ruined. 15 years later, a lovely French family sit at breakfast chatting away when the doorbell rings, and without so much as a bonjour, in bursts Lucie with a shotgun and blows them all away. I make light of it, because I am still shaking with the shock of this sequence. Truly masterful, this I did not see coming. She systematically, and with great difficulty and remorse, takes out the four of them, kids and all, in an apparent bid for revenge for her childhood imprisonment and torture. But how can this suburban family possibly be responsible for the horrors that has left Lucie so scarred? Well, they're dead now, so we better watch where this goes..

The thing about revenge movies, is that the act of vengeance is usually the climax of the film. Here it happens in the first 20 minutes, and I was guilty of fretting about where it was going to go next, when I should have just rolled with it and trusted that a satisfying story was going to come my way, which it did. A wholly unpredictable and far reaching story, that intertwines several horror traditions and dumps the bloody mess in the viewer’s lap.

Mylène Jampanoï’s Lucie is continually tormented by the nightmarish, hideous figure of a dead girl, who Grudge-like, twists and contorts around the place, brutally attacking her at every opportunity in eye wateringly graphic scenes of razor blade abuse. Morjana Alaoui is the doting childhood friend Anna who goes out of her way to protect Lucie from herself and others, and sets about helping her with the fallout of her gun spree, which via some twists you almost certainly didn't see coming takes her on a personal journey that is as horrific as it is thought provoking. The film certainly stays with you, and not just because of the grisly depicitons of violence.

The cast are fairly exceptional; both of our “heroines” turn in consistently amazing performance throughout what must have been an extremely demanding gig. The supporting cast are all excellent, providing menace, pity, and stark realism in just the right measures. Special kudos goes to Isabelle Chasse, billed as "the creature" for giving me nightmares all week. The effects, this is a horror film after all, are superbly executed. The violence is hyper real and very difficult to watch. The makeup effects are disturbing and at times upsetting, even when bordering on the fantastical.

The film is boldly brilliant, and very much unlike obvious candidates for comparison like Saw or Hostel. This is not such a movie, because here the violence truly isn't designed to simply tickle your voyeuristic fancy. The true motive for the cruelty and torment on display is revealed in the final act, and while the premise itself is a little far-fetched and a touch Gallic in its conviction, the realisation that a higher purpose has been at work causes some much bigger horizons for what it’s all been about to open up. Alas, so do a few inconsistencies and questions where the ethos doesn’t quite mesh with some of the extraordinary horrors we’ve seen along the way, and it’s here and in the very final revelatory scenes that it stumbles.

It's bound to be a Marmite movie - loved and reviled in equal measure, for many will see nothing more than the torture porn of its contemporaries, and it contains scenes of such intensity, that even horror lovers may find it a bit beyond the pale - it's certainly not for the faint-hearted. But ultimately this is, while at times shocking, a thoroughly fearless and above all, modern horror movie that speaks volumes about director Pascal Laugier, who despite no longer being attached to the upcoming Hellraiser remake, is certainly a figure to watch in horror.

Treehouse rating


Disturbingly good

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Tuesday, 2 June 2009

E3 Update: Modern Warfare 2

Did someone mention Modern Warfare 2? Oh right it was me. We've seen the trailers, but now feast your eyes on the glorious gameplay footage, fresh from the stage at E3. Looks like they've stuck to the winning formula and delivered the trademark, and presumably patented "awesomeness" that was the mantra of COD4. The vid demonstrates some nicely paced tension/action, all played out in the glorious Ice fields of Hoth, and a Return of the Jedi speeder chase thrown in for good measure. Although that could be For your eyes only too.

Also nice to see the return of the SAS, those cheeky cockney muppets, although hardly surprising, being as they are the finest military outfit in the world. It would seem you, the silly-named "Roach" are now under the tutelage of er, yourself, being Captain "Soap" Mactavish as played by you in the first game, when you also had a silly name. How Zen. Between the pair of them, there's some serious havoc on display here, and this is just a taster. Must keep an eye out for the multiplayer beta. Roll on November.

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Monday, 1 June 2009

E3 Update: Project Natal

Sadly, Treehouse budgets preclude us from jetting to E3 to cover press conferences in person, so we have to make do with live video feeds and reading smart alecy girls' typed updates. Microsoft were first up this year, and have dropped a couple of bombshells. In amid the Beatles, more Halo, game play footage of Modern Warfare 2 and Metal Gear Solid coming to Xbox, was a fairly extraordinary piece on the motion capture camera everyone's been poo pooing. This was clearly the crown jewels in the display, as Steven Spielberg and Peter Molyneux were wheeled out to wax lyrical about it, and some bloke named Kudo (Tsunoda- lead designer) who couldnt resist taking a few pops at Nintendo's lame waggle approach to inclusivity.

Project Natal (working title, for 'tis but a prototype) consists of what must be a fairly spiffy camera, capable of facial recognition, body motion capture, voice recognition, object recognition - blah blah blah, big whoop, whats new? - the presentation kicked off with a Nintendo style video of people playing various games, martial arts, racing, quiz games, all by just moving their bodies. Right, bit suspicious, although the motion capture looks impressive. Still cant be real. Oh look, they're navigating menus Minority Report style, and chatting on the video screen. Also, voice controlling movies - now that is handy, but hardly revolutionary.

Next up, after a potentially diastrous start in which Kudo's avatar spazzed around like a double jointed gymnast (lotta lights onstage huh Kudo?), an onstage demonstration of some tech demos; a block smashing game where a girl bounces around kicking punching and heading balls down a corridor. Hmm interesting; plausibility, rising.. Next a painting game where the guy paints a landscape with elephant. Not too interesting in itself (but clearly fun) but it's here I noticed how closely the movements were being replicated; as the guy just stood talking to the audience, the avatar onscreen mimicked precisely. Full body motion capture, with real subtlety of movement. Ooh.

Next up, Molyneux, and the part of the demo that puts this in the almost creepy folder. Lionhead have had Natal for a couple of months, and have come up with an AI boy, Milo, that the player can interact with. Using the facial and voice recognition, the creepy kid looks at the demonstrator's face, reacts with emotion to what she says while having a seemingly proper conversation, "throws" objects to her, is passed a drawing. Er, really, its a bit creepy. She then plays with the water in the river Milo lives by, her reflection shimmerring realistically in the surface as she sloshes the water about. That sir, is pretty freaking amazing.

Whether or not this will turn out to be what it appears to be, we'll know in the next few days as fortunate journos with their deep deep pockets get to try it out, and lord knows, we can't trust Peter "ZOMG" Molyneux. If it turns out to not be a fancy pants eye toy, and does do what it suggests though, well, I'm not one for hyperbole, but it could literally change the entire world forever. Or just be a ton of fun. One of those.

Image courtesy of (pinched from) Kotaku

Check after the break for some early videos.

The cheesy "product vision". Hmmm, really?

And Milo. Imagine Fallout 3 with NPCs with this tech.

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