Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Portal 2 has toys

You: "Have you heard?!? Stephen Merchant is to have a starring role in Portal 2!!"
Me: "Orly? That's all very exciting, but I am trying to play angry birds"
You: "and they've announced loads of weird new tools and game elements.."
Me: "WHAT!! SHOW ME!!"

Yes, of infinitely more interest to the average British gamer than Merchant's continued domination of the quirky English accent with naturalistically awkward delivery market, is the reveal of the mind bendingly awesome toys we'll be playing with next year, which isn't that far away any more. It's gubbins galore in this sequel to the instant classic first person puzzler - a pant shreddingly exciting development, or bowel janglingly bad sign? Portal was special because of its simplicity and had little need of frill or pomp; a couple of portals, a few turrets and a vat of acid was plenty, so should we be worried? Of course not you silly goose, this is VALVE we're talking about, all will be well. More than well, if these typically cheery Aperture Science videos are aught to go by.

Come, come see the rest.. you monsters...

Bouncy blue goo, should work nicely with the slippy red goo, but larks o lordy, what a mess we're making.

The Excursion funnel hurts my mind just watching. This game is going to be confusing.

The Thermal Discouragement Beam; this is a euphemism for "laser"

Bouncing madness

This one sucks.. the walls.. off the walls..

Oh and, go on then, Stephen Merchant as Wheatley. I have no problem at all with using him, I find him an amusing and highly talented chap and besides, it's always nice to see English robots. Still, it's a bit of a departure for Valve to use such a well known talent - although perhaps outside of the UK, and the reach of those terrible Barclays adverts, he remains sufficiently unique for the average gamer. We'll see. Watched them all now? Ok good, now go back and read all the brilliant tiny small print on them - such as the back-story behind repulsion gel, as Aperture Science's second attempt at a dietetic pudding replacement..

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Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Treehouse Review: Predators

"The sequel the original deserved" hailed exec producer Rodriguez and director Nimrod Antal. Did it, really? Why, what had it done? What did that most beloved of Arnie classics really do to deserve this shonky squib of a quasi-remake of a movie? I’m not sure, but I do understand what they meant - Predator does deserve a sequel of suitable largesse. Predator 2, for all it's 80’s charm and Danny Glover, wasn't exactly what fans were expecting, and the less said about the cross pollination with the Alien universe the better. But sadly we’ll have to keep waiting for this mystical holy grail of monster-mashery, as this drab little number, which Rodriguez professed to contain “everything he would want to see in a Predator film” is a mildly entertaining romp, but little more, and certainly never reaches the dizzy heights of the original.

Adrien Brody (wait, wat?!) heads up a cast of roughnecks and ne'er do wells all dropped into the same situation, being, falling through the sky above a dense forest with various weapons of choice strapped to them. Initially no one knows what the hell is going on – each remembers a light, then awaking falling. What is clear is their similarities. Each is a stone cold killer of some form or another, either snatched from a warzone or maximum security prisons – there’s Brody with his big arms and gun. There’s Danny Trejo with his big knives and guns, there’s Alice Braga with her big ol' rifle, and various other people with either big guns or big attitudes – including the silent be-suited yakuza and the mouthy death row inmate – who unfairly doesn’t have any guns. Oh and there’s also a friendly family doctor. What on earth is he doing there eh? Well in a deeply obvious ‘twist’ we find out later.

Suspicion of kidnapping initially falls on each other and there follows lots of shouting and general pointing of various guns. Eventually they hit upon the idea that they should have a look around – so they do, grumbling and bitching about who’s toughest the whole while. We of course know the truth, and the little band of campers quickly catch up, that they are in fact in an Alien rainforest and about to be hunted by the most famous trophy collector(s) of all, the fearsome Predator(s). Well three in fact, hence the titular plural. Forget the notion of hundreds of the blighters though, three is the magic number (although we see another chap later on, so its 4 tops) the shot you may have seen in the trailer where Brody's body is lit up by countless little laser sights is simply not in this film – a shockingly misleading deception.

So comes to pass what you might expect, we get some predator style 1st person shots and the group quickly start losing members. Hunters themselves, the gang quickly recognise the tactics being deployed against them – we see packs of unconvincing predator dogs used to flush them out, wounded/dead comrades being used to unsuccessfully lure in more of the group, and eventually a full on showdown reveals the band of predators hunting them – a rather uninspiring bunch – they’re predators, what do you want? I don't know, heaven forbid this might bring something new to the table. After momentarily escaping them by jumping off a waterfall (hey just like Arnie!) the group get picked up by none other than Lawrence Fishbourne – who has been here on the planetoid for several years evading capture, going slightly mad and apparently eating all the pies. The guys is FAT now and it’s a little embarrassing to have to even mention it, but he’s supposed to have been hiding in a wrecked spaceship for years eating space rats, so seriously, why is the guy so fat?! Fail. Forced from hiding, in a blindingly stupid and incongruous move by Fishburne, who's supposedly evaded capture all these years but can't keep hidden in the presence of a film crew, what's left of the group move into endgame, and take on those alien sumbitches.

There’s nothing in Predators that’s overtly awful. The action is fun, the visuals are on the whole pleasing, the characters are diverse and interesting in a cardboard cutout kind of way, and each competently portrayed by the ensemble cast. Problems start at the top - Brody never convinces as the tough guy lead – his beefy arms which he must be very proud of, simply cannot do enough to detract from his adowable widdle face and you can't shake the feeling that he's wandered in from some less explosive movie by mistake. The rest of the crew are just not given enough to do to be interesting, or cared about, and like ten pin bowling pins simply wait to be cut in half. The loveable grunts of the original, this bunch are not. One sequence sees the yakuza chap, who has luckily found a samurai sword, engage in a little mono a mono action with one of the Pred-gang, in a nod to the fight we never saw between Billy the tracker and the original Pred, and this sequence is a winner if a little pointless, 'scuse the pun.

On the whole we’re left feeling this about the whole affair; was there any actual point to that? It’s not fun enough to satisfy your action craving. It’s not bloody enough to sate your gore hound. It just sits there on its haunches, beaming its little tri-laser sight into your eyes, until it decides to stop. At times it feels like a remake - what with having the same soundtrack, and scenes reflecting the original, but this just serves to highlight the lack of originality, and while it may reflect the original, the scene you're watching is never superior. Where are the quotable quotes? The mystery? The fear? The totally pointless inclusion of the mysterious doctor character is actually saved as a kind of surprise twist – look away if you really don’t want to know – turns out, he's a serial killer! And decides the final reel of the movie is a good time to start killing his companions, although they're almost certainly his only hope of survival. Hm, that makes complete sense, and nicely illustrates how misguided the creators were in uncovering where the horror lies in a Predator movie. You get the feeling the writers were scrabbling around trying to find the meat left on the bones of what was a fairly sound concept, but instead found only the gristle. Not the essential addition to the universe we were hoping then, but really, in the shadow of such great company, so much a product of its age, is that ever really going to happen? Tough to recommend on it's own merits, but worthy of a rent if there’s nowt on the telly.

Treehouse rating

2 out of 5


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Monday, 23 August 2010

Treehouse Mini Review: Limbo

Another demo that leads to an instant purchase – Limbo is a 2D platform puzzler like many others – guide the character across the landscape avoiding the traps and pitfalls. What makes Limbo uniquely irresistible is its delightfully melancholic presentation. A beautifully minimalist, grainy art-house black and white landscape is yours to traverse, as you, a nameless silhouette of a boy, awake in a dark and murky forest – all deep shade and eerie mist. Like crossing some macabre children's book dreamscape, the woods gradually introduce you to the game’s wicked intentions, and devilish sense of humour.

Here, physics are king with its rules all closely observed (except when they’re not) and the boy’s fragile little body, in its little schoolboy shorts, proves easy prey for the spiky pits, the powerful beartraps, the tumbling rocks and any one of 4 million other ways you can meet your demise here. Death comes hard and fast- the gore (which can be turned off) is surprising initially but is simply a logical conclusion of the world. Fall on a spike, there you stay, all spiked and dead. Each death is silently contemplated for a few moments before a nicely reactive checkpoint system means you never have to retrace a section or jump prior to the one you just died on.

As the game progresses from wood to cave to mountain to factory floor, the tricks and traps become ever more fiendish and a lot of trial and error becomes necessary – so determined are Playdead to separate your head from your shoulders. Leaping through one set of apparent death traps will usually lead you straight into the arms of another – but these tricks are so mischievous, so cheeky you can’t help but smile as you fall to a horrific death for the umpteenth time. The demo itself climaxes with a huge spider you’ve bothered previously picking you up as you struggle helplessly tangled in its web – even the language employed to make you buy the game is irresistible – Push x to “Abandon the boy”. Who could be so cold?

The why’s and the wherefore’s of the world are never revealed. This is Limbo, in it you will encounter others like yourself, suspicious and unfriendly. Also the bodies of several others, which can be put to good use several grisly puzzles. We do find a special someone by the end, but whether or not it is your sister, as the marketing blurb will have you believe, is academic. Music is minimal, the sound of your feet crunching through the undergrowth and wind in the trees suffice as part of a rich and evocative soundscape.

The boy himself is a joy to handle – not used that line for a while – he has a real sense of weight and movement and scrambling up ledges or leaping from chains to safety he sometimes seems to control himself unbidden, so responsive are his twitchy little feet. Comparisons with Braid are an obvious start, but aside from the 2D and platforming, little else here is similar. Emotionally, its closer to Shadow of the Colossus – the sense of isolation and desperation is immense.

At 1200 MS points for a little under 6 hours play, Limbo may seem pricey – but it is 6 hours of pure platforming joy that’s fun to revisit. You will simply not be able to put it down until you've reached wherever it is you're trying to get to. It’s also a great play for new/lapsed gamers so simple are the controls and captivating the presentation. Go on, give it a whirl.

Treehouse Rating: 4 out of 5

Plays like a dream

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Sunday, 22 August 2010

Horror Corner: Splice

Playing God is generally frowned upon. Whether it’s the raised eyebrows of the neighbours, or the total annihilation of the planet, in movies the outcome is fairly consistently never beneficial, no matter how noble the intention. So it is with Splice, the gloopy bio-horror from Cube director, Vincenzo Natali. While searching for a new protein that can fight disease and secure vast wealth for their shadowy, but oddly low on security bio-engineering company, rockstar bio-chemists Sarah Polley and Adrien Brody set about creating a new life form, a splice of animal and human DNA. And wouldn't you know it, things don’t go to plan, but where they do go will have you choking on your popcorn in this brilliant B-movie with brains.

So yes, rockstar bio-chemists. Don’t tend to see a lot of them on the whole, but then this wacky couple aren't your average white coat nerds, and with their bijou apartment, covered in Japanese manga and toys, and sporting a neat line in achingly hip outfits, these two are well deserving of their Rolling Stone Magazine cover. But behind closed doors, all is not well. Sarah has parent issues in a back story of abuse only hinted at and Adrien is alone in wanting to expand their family. Things aren't all rosy at work either – after a major breakthrough in creating a pair of “new” creatures – Fred and Ginger – the pair are ordered to start harvesting the slug-like monsters so they can actually start making some money out of them. But these cute little balls of fat are a mere precursor to the potential the tech keeps hidden. Polley is convinced to include human DNA in the splice is the key to ending all major disease, but of course this would be playing God slightly more than just using lots of animals to make blobby beanbags, and so their French paymaster gives ‘em a slap with no dinner, and says a firm ‘non’.

Undeterred, and rather naughtily, the ker-azy pair set about their task in secret. After some good ol' fashioned montage of the many, many failed attempts, a breakthrough, hurrah, a successful genetic cocktail of animal and human DNA is developed over Chinese takeaway. But what’s this, to Brody’s ineffective whining, Polley runs off with the goop and actually injects it into the company’s mecha-womb – “don’t you want to be sure we've done it?” she opines – Broody Brody, shrugs - ok , wasn't doing anything else this weekend anyway.

And so the thing grows, and things kick off proper. From the moment of it’s birth, ‘Splice’ is rather more forthcoming about its intentions - this is pure, if not simple horror. Initially a purely cgi creation, the creature at first resembles some kind of hairless monkey bird, terrified and cute it hooks you in with its sweet little face – some might say, I would have stamped on it. But as the movie progresses and Dren as she is named, grows to maturity, things get increasingly disturbing. As soon as she’s given a little dress and starts to resemble a little girl, a feeling in the pit of your stomach grows suggesting the wrong-ness that’s coming. Polley and Brody attempt to keep up the pretence of scientific study, but we and they know, this is their baby that never was.

Of course, if you’re going to play god, much like playing with fire, you’re going to get some kind of injury. And so it follows. As Dren grows up she becomes increasingly more difficult to hide from the rest of the company (precisely why no one ever visits the lab upstairs is somewhat of a mystery) so the little scamp is relocated, first to the basement, then Polley’s childhood farm, aptly the site of her own torment. Dren grows up and out, and displays remarkable cognitive ability, and a rather less laudable interest in Brody. Increasingly restless and curious about the outside world and its inhabitants, she become increasingly rebellious and rude to her parents, just like a typical teenager really. Lest we forget she’s bred from various animal DNA her fast athletic grace and deadly tail stinger frequently remind us we need to be rather more scared of Dren than her would be parents are. Needless to say things don’t go well, especially for the cat.

Don’t expect a Species clone – this is no monster slasher flick – much more is the focus on the personal relationship aspects, and the moral implications of their actions – so cavalier are they towards the creation of life that they bear the full weight of the consequences when things do inevitably go south. There are some lovely moments – so unpredictable is the creature and its motives, we spend much of the film in a cold sweat at what might happen – and when some things do actually happen, they are so unthinkable you wont know whether to laugh or scream- one in particular is so cringe worthy, it must rank as the most awkward moment in cinema – in a good way. At other times, possibly in a bid to make up for a perceived slow pace, Natali rather over eggs the pudding – one episode during a press conference is so over the top I initially thought it must be a dream sequence – but no, there’s fallout, it actually happens. The final act is also a little wobbly – David Hewlett's ineffective boss character is such a pushover he doesn't feel convincing, and Dren herself in her final incarnation feels somewhat wasted, although the grisly dénouement is satisfyingly disturbing.

Missteps aside, the overall tone of Splice is near pitch perfect – it gives you the creeping fears as many competing niggles and worries are thrown into the mix and spliced together – fear of the unknown, of science, that some mad corporation is in all likelihood doing this as we speak – but on a personal level there’s the angst of raising children and how as offshoots of our makeup we’re directly responsible for their development and actions. The acting is top notch throughout, Brody in particular wringing convincing emotion from his wuss-bag character, he needs do some serious acting to sell some of his actions, which amazingly, he does! The creature itself is also a remarkable piece of work, rarely less than utterly convincing, it’s a real achievement of live action, makeup and cgi effect that as a whole is deeply unsettling - Delphine Chaneac delivers a chilling turn as the matured creature, as unpredictable and schizophrenic as your evil pet cat.

Splice remains firmly in the b-movie camp of course, it wont be picking up any Palme D'ors any time soon, but as schlocky monsteriffic entertainment, you could do a lot worse. Full of wrong-ness and unspeakable taboos, this is a damning indictment against science and indeed, having children! If you were erring on the whole pro-creation thing, Splice may put you off parenthood for good.

Treehouse Rating:

3 out of 5

What's the worst that could happen?

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Saturday, 21 August 2010

You got Russian History in my Tetris

Well, the Summer's been long and busy, so now I sheepishly creep back into my tree house to turn the lights off and start consuming some media. The poor place is looking a bit run down, wallpaper peeling, windows besmirched with grime, the bird-feeder's empty and there's a suspicious squirrelly smell about the place. Lets get cracking filling this place with light and noise again, hooray!

To kick us off, behold a fairly extraordinary piece of video setting the entirety of Russian history to the sounds of Tetris. Viewed from the perspective of a humble worker, the man who arranges the blocks will hammer the tune into your brain in no time flat. With fabulous animation and some lovely acting, its an all round winner - you can check out more comedy tunes from the 2 man band, Pig with the face of a Boy at their website. Go and say hello! Now, where can I purchase some squirrel remover? I am the man who is scrubbing the blocks lalala...

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