Razer Blade Pro and some Kenchy Wallpaper

I splurged out on a beasty yet beautiful Razer Blade Pro late last year with the intent of using it as a catalyst for more 3D creative work as well as gaming when time allowed. Here is the machine sitting on my work desk (not really setup ideally) - brought it in to do some more Unity work and UE4 tutes.

So, what do I think of the RBP machine almost 2 month along now:

  • Design and Styling > This is a superbly pretty machine, it is clean and refined in much the same way as the classy gear from Microsoft and Apple. We have a chiselled black body which is so understated for a gaming machine that it really does stand out. Yes the keys are all glowy but it otherwise looks like just a cool machine. That said it is well and truly in the 17" laptop category, it is very thin and pretty light for this scale of device which is appealing. That said you shouldnt confuse this for a super-portable device - it is just more portable than other machines sporting this much firepower hidden within. Check their site to see more of how pretty it is: https://www2.razerzone.com/au-en/gaming-systems/razer-blade-pro
  • Grunt and Performance > One of the key reasons to grab a machine like this is the performance. Wielding specs like these doesn't leave you wanting for much [Overclocked i7-7820HK, 32GB 2667Mhz DDR4, 1TB SSD RAID 0 (2x 512GB PCIE M.2 SSD), 17.3inch THX Certified 4K UHD G-Sync with Touch, Geforce GTX 1080-8GB, Killer DoubleShot Pro (E2500 GBLAN, Wireless AC 1535, BT4.1, HDCAM, Thunderbolt 3, 3.49kg, Win10 Home, Ultra Low Profile Mechanical Keyboard Powered by Razer Chroma] It is certainly a treat being able to run things in 4K on Ultra - they just look so so pretty. I dont always run things that high, but the hardware certainly takes on gaming with no problem at all. With other tasks it is coping super well with a suite of applications running like a charm from Unity and UE4 to 3dsMax, zBrush and the Adobe suite.
  • Heating and Cooling > One of the things that all gaming laptops need to handle is HEAT, Razer may well have put some serious R&D into the cooling system hidden inside this slim body - but that is still far from enough to keep things cool. I run the machine propped up to get more air underneath and even run a fan beside me to help with that airflow. The laptop has only the two teensie fans, which compared to its larger cousins from other manufacturers is nothing. Sooo it DOES GET HOT! Hot enough to make the keyboard hard to use and several areas of the laptop too hot to touch. My measures (props and fans) are working though...
  • Screen, Speakers and Keyboard > The 4K screen is pretty nice, though I do adjust the settings on it for different things to get colours that I like. It is big and bright and just so nice to use for everything that I often ignore my external screen. The speakers are actually really good - use them lots when I don't have my fancy wireless Razer headset on. The groovy mechanical keyboard takes a little getting used to - but it is really nice to use. I freely admit that my gaming skills are so awful that the added benefit that a mechanical keyboard might bring is completely lost on me. Oh there is also the mousepad - which is off to the right hand side of the keyboard. This definitely takes some learning, your hands just move to the middle below the spacebar automatically (plus sorry you left handers).
  • Ports and More > There is a good array of ports around the machine, though having things like HDMI and USBC on the right hand side does feel a bit annoying with my mouse on that side as well. Warranty is one thing that I haven't tested yet, but it is a return to base kind of deal and that acts as a big deterrent for actually getting things fixed. For example I have the TOUCH on the screen turned off at the moment as I had a few times where it was going off all on its own - not worth the effort to send it away for that fix...
  • Thoughts and Recommendations > Ok, so if you just scrolled past all of that to here, what do I think. First up, I do really like this machine - it is overflowing with style and grunt and I am a proud owner of this beastie. That said it has a litany of real issues which are worth calling out: Really Expensive; Gets very hot under gaming load; No onsite warranty; Very noisy fans while gaming; Touch-screen issue etc. So where does that leave us - I do recommend the machine, but in this space the machines from Alienware and particularly Metabox are worth a close look if you are shopping!
So, what about this Wallpaper business then? I did this Pool Party Tahm Kench design in 2016 and it made me happy seeing it again - so I made some changes/fixes to get it to a Wallpaper for the machine :)
Tahm Kench is one of the champions from League of Legends (for those not in the know).
Here is the actual image if you would like a sunburnt river god on your desktop too...

Netflix Stranger Things

I freely admit to be quite late to the Netflix bandwagon, but now that I am there I am really happy with all the viewing that is to be had, even if the Australian selection is limited. Some of the shows I have been enjoying include Blacklist, Continuum, Daredevil, Orphan Black and a heap of documentaries. But my favourite so far by quite a margin is Stranger Things

The show is compact (just 8 episodes) and sticks to what it is doing without losing focus. The 80s feel is superb and really takes me back while also just giving the show a feel that plays into what it is building for us. The characters are good and the plotlines are worth following - a great piece of tv!

There are 80s cinematic references throughout, but one of the things I liked most was seeing the kids playing Dungeons and Dragons and even using D&D for exposition - super!

Lets finish this little slice of fandom with a look at the wonderful poster by Kyle Lambert who brought this style to life with these characters. He walks us through some of the thinking and process on his Behance page - using ProCreate on his iPad Pro first then finalising everything in Photoshop at higher res.


Batman Cartoon and a Movie

I am not sure why I drew this, it just sort of fell into existence while I was doodling on my machine. So I neatened it up a little and made it into a little cartoon of sorts. So here is a squat unimpressed little Batman!

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I guess I could write something at the end of this midget post about the Batman vs Superman movie I finally got to see recently (the extended blu-ray version). There are lots of pieces of the whole that are quite fun and could be really cool. I didn't think the whole hung together at all well though - it is like 20 trailers all cut together from different movies to try and make it into one. There are characters, ideas, shots, sequences and more that each could have been really awesome if they were fleshed out - alas the movie just flits onto the next thing and thus leaves everything unresolved and left wanting...

The gallery shows how stunning the visuals are - good inspiration for many an RPG could come from any one of these pics: http://batmanvsuperman.dccomics.com/gallery.php
And it does make for an epic trailer:


Mad Max

I really loved Mad Max Fury Road in the cinema and while it was still fun at home on BluRay it lacked some of the grandeur of the giant screen. What a fascinating film it is, such a simple plot that is a few hours of incredible car chase with moments of emotional or expositional breathing space slotted in - yet it works oh so well. The cinematics, stunts, colour, music - just a wonderful piece of action and emotion on the big screen.

We actually had Peter Pound, one of the principle artists, in to do a guest lecture for one of the courses here at UNSW Built Environment recently. It was great to not only see the original drawings but to get a better glimpse behind the scenes. As he works principally using traditional media, each revision of the design for say the War Rig was a new drawing - and a beautiful drawing at that.

Peter Pound Concept Piece

Some links to cool things:
Mad Max Fury Road Official Site
Art of VFX Article
WIRED VFX Article
WETA Workshop Article

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After watching again I am a little more inspired to try the Apocalypse World game in its original setting - the book is superb. Would give us as players a chance to delve deeply into our own version of this style of world, to see how humanity and individuals might deal with such the hardships of such a time...


Wolf Among Us

I got a little distracted and only just completed Telltale Game's The Wolf Among Us. This was a pretty intense type of gaming where it was about decisions and quick ones that ramped up the tension and made all those choices scary. I am not sure if everyone playing regrets lots of the spur-of-the-moment decisions but I certainly did  (super fun to play this way though). I dont think I ended up with that much consistency in my play, I was much much tougher on people at the start of the game figuring that was who I was playing and these fables needed a tough hand. Every time a character said 'they will remember this' though I got more mellow except with those I thought really were the really bad guys...

All up a pretty excellent game and experience that was all about the story with enough 'game' to keep the emotional and physical investment high. The artwork, music voices and esp the writing are all top notch - now to get back to their Walking Dead...

Aleco247's wallpaper for TWAU

Contrast and Independent Gaming

I really enjoyed playing Brothers - a Tale of Two Sons a little while ago, seeing how much clever storytelling a small studio could build into a game like this. Add to that the clever mechanics of puzzle solving using both brothers at once (use a controller) and it was hugely satisfying.

Hoping to get something similar (while home sick and feeling miserable) I decided to give Contrast a try and it was also pretty wonderful. The mechanics of popping in and out of shadow form to solve all the puzzles was really clever, but this notion was wound up in the story playing out at the same time. We are slowly given more and more clues as to what is going on in this odd world which is flashed out by some nice audio and music that reminds me a little of Telltale's games or Limbo or Brothers.

Here is the trailer but I would actually recommend not watching it until after you play the game if you can, it only has very minor spoilers but those are mini clues for things if you end up remembering them.

Anyhow, I do recommend Contrast as long as you don't get too frustrated by the puzzles, they do require some manual dexterity as well as the solving part.

The game was built in Unreal Engine and I am now more tempted than ever to craft a proto-game or experience of some sort in the engine using one of the many ideas floating around my sketchbooks and such. Here are a few of concept sketches and ingame art plus a screenshot from the site as well - lovely stuff:

I admit to not having played that many of these smaller games, but I should definitely do more! Maybe Darkesk Dungeon after I finish my Telltale Games and then watch some more of Jesse and the rest of his Canadian little gang working on Viking Squad (twitch dev stream


Dragon Age Inquisition - fin

Bioware certainly pulled out all the stops on their latest epic (hopefully no spoilers in this post to speak of).

For me, Dragon Age Inquisition was 115 hours of character development, grand story, lore and combat. I pretty much played the game with the emphasis in that order, so I would do character quests before the main story, would put both of these ahead of delving deeper into the lore and all its secondary questing with my dedication to combat coming last.
While I had lots of fun with my dwarven tempest rogue slicing through the enemy with his dual daggers, I only played on Normal which meant I could get through most combats without controlling anyone or touching my potions even (dragons being the exception).

I have posted on the game previously and it kept me entertained for over 100 hours which is great. The game probably does a wonderful job of catering to a variety of players, those who like exploring right into every zone, who like crafting, who like completing all those side quests, who like min-maxing combat, who like reading all the books and lore you find along the way, who like the whole romance side or who just want a big sweeping story. The problem is that the game presents all of these things and leaves us as players to prioritise them - thus I am left with high levels of satisfaction in some areas while feeling less inspired by others.
I think I would have enjoyed it more if there were half the zones but I had completed the story in those zones, as it was I kind of half completed each zone as I was in there for other reasons. There were strong MMO-like aspects where I collected a zillion quests which I don't complete for people and 'time' wasnt a factor for them - the world just waits for me to get around to them. I loved the War Room - it made me feel that what we were doing was BIG, but then I would go out and adventure - collecting Elf-Weed, defeating a bandit, delivering letters etc.

Since I hadn't played the other Dragon Age games (I know, how hopeless is that) there was much that didn't have weight for me that would have for other players. I did really like exploring the main characters though, they were all more complex and more interesting than they first appeared and their quests exposed their flaws. As fun as these were, the open-world nature of them meant that their quests didn't weave together in any way, that they didn't lead to anything larger. I do love that there was so so so so much effort put into the writing for a game though, writing at multiple levels - huzzah!

I found it really interesting chatting to other players about the differences in how they played, the choices they made, the differences in their worlds to mine and so forth. All up it is a gorgeous game with a huge heart which tries to satisfy so many players. Here are a few screenshots of me zipping around the place having a ball, plus a video of some DLC:


Grunty Ghosts

Our first suite of the MSI Ghost Pro GS60 4K machines are out and being used by some of the research and teaching staff around the Built Environment. We decided to deploy a set of these after seeing how much grunt MSI had packed into a thin and light laptop. We have users who need enough firepower (including GPU) to run the latest game engines, model large structures and visualise cities.

I have been using one of the machines as my primary device for a few weeks now and can at least comment on a few things.

Form & Design
The MSI machines I often thought of as being very utilitarian, their chassis designs were boxy and inelegant. The GS60 surprised me, being actually quite acceptable with its no-fuss black look in a simple design (I wonder how fancy the gold version looks). The most striking think is the Steelseries keyboard and the groovy gaming lights (which you can configure to be very flashy or more subtle to suit your personality). I actually have my lights slowly pulsing between green and yellow (with the brightness down).
Perhaps it is just the total thinness and lightness that feels so good here, esp when you see what is packed inside. At just under 2kg this 15" machine is a joy compared to the big 17" GPU workstation laptops or monster gaming rigs.

Graphics & Resolutions
This was my first experience with a 4K screen at 3840x2160 and it does look lovely. But then we have to fully enter the world of screen scaling and a weird and annoying world it is too. Many applications can play nicely with scaling, able to adjust the interface size and other things to accommodate super high pixel density like this on a 15" display. Alas some don't understand screen scaling and so their interface become microscopic. These arent obscure apps either, The Adobe Creative Cloud apps and the Origin launcher are the first two that spring to mind. Switching resolutions and screen scaling settings isnt simple either (requiring a logoff) and these issues are compounded if you connect an external display. If you have a nice 4K second monitor then you may be ok, if you have a 1920x1080 monitor then running both high and low res combined with screen scaling is no fun. Sooo what most of us are doing now is just running at 1920x1080 on the GS60 (exactly half the res and at 100% scaling so it is as crisp as possible) - this seems to work like a treat for now.
The colours and visual look of the display itself is good, though there is a large bezel that would have been nicer filled with more screen.
The mighty NVIDIA GTX970M under the hood can only be beaten by the 980M or various dual card configs, none of which you will find in a form factor like this (Notebookcheck benchmarks). With our games and game engines we tend to run at Full HD resolution and then push up the quality rather than trying to run at the 4K res - things look so so pretty.

Speed & Heat
When we push the machine with the realtime engines or game like Inquisition things do get hot, but not as badly as I was expecting based on other reviews. The extra fans kick in and the machine is noisier but it continues to run nicely for me.

So where does that leave us? This is one super little machine, to have something delivering this sort of speed in this form factor is a treat now. Interestingly (and tangentially) there are still lots of folk who love their Apple kit. No question there is lots to love there, gorgeously crafted machines, a tight ecosystem of apps and so much brand loyalty. But our computers are the physical enabler of some wonderful pieces of software and it is the software array for the Built Environment disciplines and beyond that makes the Windows platform so potent for us. With primary tools including Revit, Rhino/Grasshopper, Unreal Engine, 3ds Max, ArcGIS, Lumion, Solidworks, Catia and an armada of technical applications to boot - having hardware that can deliver these things to us nicely is key.

For a more comprehensive review of the MSI GS60 4K, check out Florian Wimmer's review on NotebookCheck


Dragon Age Inquisition - first part

The idea of a story and character driven epic fantasy game is hugely appealing and daunting all at the same time. I decided that I was going to dive in and see everything that Dragon Age Inquisition had to offer and to abandon any ideas of playing the previous two games first - just let all that history and lore be part of my learning this latest Bioware extravaganza.

Ok, no spoilers here at all, just some of the choices and fun things I have experienced thus far. Character creation was lots of fun, making my dwarf with his super moustache with the intent to be a Tempest Dwarf get-into-the-thick-of-things and lead-from-the'front kind of hero. I tried quite a bunch of looks for myself trying to match the voices provided as well - which was already awesome!

Venturing out into the world, it is a pretty pretty place with the swaying trees, the skittish wildlife, the rolling ocean, the people chatting, the warm sun streaming through the windows, the rain falling, the crunchy snow and the gloomy caverns. My screenshots don't convey how immersive the world is really and being a single player game the changes that happen in the course of the adventure are permanent - actions and choices matter.

One of the chief reasons for me in playing the game is the hugely rich world which is completely overflowing with histories, factions, theology, historical figures, legends, creatures, notable people geography, beliefs, magical theory and plenty of politics. Layered over this are the characters which we interact with as part of the game, some can join your adventures directly others you talk to often. All these characters are interesting in some way, representing a viewpoint in the world, contrasting in their perspective or offering a new set of quests etc. Then there is the main story itself, this is a game where we are the protagonist in a big sweeping story and that is a fun thing to be an active participant in.

So my Inquisitor is level 11 and has his Tempest specialisation now - lots of damage output from me that's for sure. While I really should swap my party around much more to get all the character interactions, my loyalty is too high and I almost always can be seen with Cassandra, Vivienne and Solas in tow.
I will just mention a few other things before winding up this up. I find it awkward (not using a controller) that I have to run everywhere, this makes me look a bit loony in small rooms racing up to talk to people. There are plenty of elements out in the wilderness (maybe because of shared assets) that look as though the game wants me to find a way up a particular mountain but I just cant get up there! The problem of wondering if any of the main NPCs have new dialog choices means running around to them all lots of the time and basically having a tiny meaningless conversation with each of them regularly.

The game is spectacular in many ways and I am loving the long conversations with fellow players about the game and the different approaches or choices. The scope of creating the vast library of conversations and actual spoken dialog is remarkable. So far, highly recommended if you like a deep world of character driven stories, now to play some more...

ps. the horse riding is wonderful!!


X-Wing Storage

One of the things that Fantasy Flight doesnt give us with the X-Wing miniatures game is a storage solution. Even the starter set box doesnt hold the models we get and soon we are all looking for a way to bring these gorgeous starfighters to the table (along with an asteroid field's worth of tokens and other bits.

There are cool foam solutions, some with inserts specifically for the game, others just using foam storage cases like the ones used for camera lenses etc. I thought some sort of tackle-box might work and then saw this post by Winchell Chung where he is using a nice 3-tier storage box from Bunnings under the Tactix brand. This unit looks great as it keeps the models horizontal during transit and the compartments can accommodate the various sized ships and components.

Alas when I went to Bunnings today they didnt have this baby anywhere to be seen, so after much indecision I wound up with some of the Tactix 2 PC Storage Box Sets. These have some decent interior adaptability with the larger boxes great for the models and the smaller ones doing a nice job of counters, cards and dice.
Everything I have fit in 2 sets quite easily (2 starters, x-wing, a-wing, falcon, tie advanced) - plenty of room in some of the sections still. The set was in the 'storage' section while there were other options in the toolbox section - this set doesnt show up on their website at all though...

I like that the smaller boxes will be able to sit by the table to hold counters etc and everything being transparent will make it easy to find things. I could probably use another one or maybe two to allow for some more expansions and plus separate more of the components. At least they were nice and cheap at $7 a set - though I will still have to put them in a small bag of some sort to carry them about.


Star Wars X-Wing

First more completish game of Star Wars X-Wing over the weekend. Once again my power over the dice plucked victory from what was certain doom as my rebels used every shred of the Force at their disposal.
We played without any upgrades but had an Outer Rim Smuggler (YT-300), a Green Squadron Pilot (A-Wing) and a Red Squadron Pilot (X-Wing) vs an Academy Pilot (Tie Fighter), a Storm Squadron Pilot (Tie Advanced) and a Delta Squadron Pilot (Tie Defender). In the short game the rebels just could hit their nimbler opponents for quite a while and their x-wing fell. But then as both sides traded minor hits things were looking bleak for the rebels before the tide turned and turned quickly. In a flurry of super-accurate shooting without giving the ties a chance to defend the Defender and Advanced were blown from the sky. The little academy pilot fled but ploughed into an asteroid...

These twp photos show that final end with the Tie Fighter pursued by the rebels...
I had a great time, seeing the ships zipping around the battlefield, and seeing the differences between them already playing out even without named pilots or specific upgrades was great. Having the Star Wars music on in the background is very cool and we could even use a soundboard if we want to inject that as well (rather than our human made sound effects that is).
I liked that I got in the way of my own maneuvers, that I skipped past asteroids and managed to line things up for a shot. I think teams are the fun way to play having seen this much and it seems very suited to quick after-work skirmishes or even lunch-time dogfights.

I am really looking forward to more games now and even expanding the ship and card options when things are on sale etc. Everything is just sooo tempting and the X-Wing Wikia is a good source of info on the cards and ships and more. I will need to invest in a better way to store all the ships tokens and cards though, maybe a tackle or toolbox is the way to go. If it wasnt obvious I loved the first few goes of this little game and am really looking forward to more. Plus it really does look wonderful both on the shelf and the tabletop.

Here is the how to play video from Fantasy Flight and the stellar reviews and playthroughs from a suite of awesome web folk:


The Note 3

When it came time to get my phone upgrade after having a loan Samsung Galaxy S4 there were a few choices. Going back to the world of the iPhone really wasnt one of them, despite the wonderful app-world that the Apple devices have going for them. I did have a peek at going for a Windows8 phone and would have relished the experiment, but in practice I wasnt really keen enough to live without native support for things like Hangouts.

So then it was down to really two choices, the newer flagship Samsung Galaxy S5 and the pen-powered Galaxy Note 3. I already had other stylus enabled devices so it was a tricky choice as I wondered if having a pen on a little screen was going to work. Plus the screen on the Note 3 was HUGE as far as a phone was concerned and I was nervous about my pocket.

I made the call that the Note 3 was a more forward looking device and having tech like the pen was just too much to pass up. Having used the Note 3 for a few weeks there is alot to love. The huge screen is a joy to use for everything, reading in the Kindle app is great and general web browsing etc is fun. That size hurts for one-handed use, making it hugely impractical - you have to kind of balance the phone on your hand rather than gripping it. There is a 'one handed' mode in there somewhere that shrinks the screen down but I havent tried that yet.

The Pen is actually really nice to use on the device and it is a very nice size for little sketches. Here is my test set of drawings using the Sketchbook app featuring Superman, Lex and a Mouse. I think if you have any inclination to doodle or sketch something and you can fit this baby in your pocket then the Note3 is wonderful.


Into Darkness

Yesterday we headed into the darkness armed with our 3D glasses and tickets to the Entertainment Quarter Hoyts IMAX screening of Star Trek Into Darkness. Because I love to have cool films on DVD/BluRay I just don't go and see much at the cinema to save cash. But I was so impressed - now I am a little torn as that $26 delivers a pretty epic experience. JJ delivered for us with an action romp through the perils of the Star Trek universe - was it a big commentary on American politics - who knows - but the plot was fun to see unfold with around characters we love. There were predictable pieces of course, but that works for Star Trek, and enough twists and surprises to keep us engaged.

The trailers before the film are an absolute treat for me as I have a soft spot for a good trailer. No question the Into Darkness trailer was one of the triggers for us gathering together for the film. The fact that we got together for lunch beforehand for pizza and a board game (team Flash Duel which was super fun) was another part of the lure.
The Man of Steel trailer gave me chills, can it really be that good. Other things like Pacific Rim, After Earth and such look like delivering for us.

As with the first film in this new rebooted Star Trek universe, things are different, but the cast we have for our principle characters who are all human apart from half a Spock and a few nameless extras is stellar. The 3D was wonderful, they showcased it a few times for effect, but for the most part was just part of the experience. Even the first part of the credits at the end were a 3D visual treat as we zoom around the galaxy to a host of weird and wonderful worlds. The sound in that cinema is big, loud and visceral, Giacchino's soundtrack and the wonderfully trekky sound effects are a treat. The CG effects were top shelf - fully integrated with the live action - there are no cardboard boulders here.

All up a pretty intense Star Trek experience that stays focused on these signature characters in the context of a violent and dangerous space opera.

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While we are here, how good does Romeo and Juliet look:


The Hobbit

Peter Jackson and the crew crafted some of the greatest films of all time in his treatment of the Lord of the Rings, bringing Tolkien's tale and world to life for us all. So with the decision to make the hobbit films came much enthusiasm from fans everywhere. So the first of the films to grace our screens is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and while it can be seen in 3D in 48 frames per second quality, I saw it with the family in a very basic 2D cinema.

I admit I had very high expectations and while some of those expectations were met, alas there was much to be confused or disappointed by as well. Maybe the intent was to bind this film into the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but in many ways it felt more like rehashing instead. Right from the intro we are presented with a sameness - merging it with the other films so much it all but vanishes. Also, while there are things that must remain from the book, I thought the writers from the LotR films did a super job of changing things from the books to improve the films - here in the Hobbit perhaps they should have done more. Yes, giant Eagles are cool once, certainly twice, here for the third time, not so much without adding something more to their appearance. The method used to intro the film, again was just too much of the same, there must have been another way to bring us into this world again without using the same story telling idea.

[The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey promo imagery vis the official site]

The film suffered from an identity issue, many films mix light hearted even comedic sequences with real drama and action, this creates the places to breathe and gives a beat to a piece of cinema. Here however we don't get this, we get confusion. In the Fellowship of the Ring the happy home of the Hobbits is presented with a real function, to highlight the contrast that is the world of men and the darkness that is coming. This not only gives us the audience a sense of what will be lost if evil prevails, but allows our heroic Hobbits to think back on their happy lives and where there place in the world should be. Alas in The Hobbit movie, we get a watered down version of this followed by the intro of the Dwarves which aren't that contrasted - they are jolly fellows really - even though they are frustrating for Bilbo. They don't seem that hardly done by, the reason for the quest isn't conveyed well enough to us to get behind the group.

The Dwarves are confusing as well, sometimes they possess super-hero-comic like prowess, tossing plates or hordes of goblins around but at other times they are clumsy and helpless as in the second encounter with the warg goblins or against the trolls. This made them hard to bond with, are they silly cartoon characters or are they something we should try to invest in emotionally.

[The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey promo imagery vis the official site]

Splitting up the film as it was with a 'come back for more' ending also made the whole film fall flatter than it might have, as a setup movie there might have been no choice, but we should have had something epic resolved at this mid-point which then leads into an even greater challenge. The action sequences that are the staple of the film are a confusing bunch as well, are we meant to care about these characters, they are often silly with no fear for our heroes. Even the Trolls are amusing rather than dangerous, it feels like Bilbo just needed to pad out the conversation for a few minutes and hey presto the sun comes up and all is well.

That was all a bit ranty, there is quality here of course - the special effects, costumes, attention to world detail and musical score are all gorgeous. While these elements could be what saves the film in my head, they aren't anything new either, matching the wonders from the Lord of the Rings films. The HobbitBlog site has some super production videos that give a glimpse of how vast an undertaking it is to craft a film of this scale and visual quality. In Vid #9 you get a feel for the insane number of talented people all doing their part, even the musicians playing on the soundtrack just play straight off the music - inspired. There are other CG articles of course - this one on herocomplex has some nice visuals of the Goblin King.

There were things I did like of course, Radagast the Brown was great fun with his racing about the forest and slightly disturbed mental state. Even if the film missed the mark on a bunch of things, making cinema on this scale is still remarkable and I hope people keep at it. Final remark, Rivendell feels truly special, magical and remarkable in LotR - mainly because of the reactions of the characters, they imparted that special sense to us, in the Hobbit it was much less so somehow ... oh well.

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Check out the new article on CGSociety on the CG for the film, from teh 48fps, to Gollum and multiple sets.


Microsoft Surface Love Hate

OK, I have been playing on and off with one of the new Microsoft Surface RT tabletty laptopy doodads for a week or so and have been having a very mixed experience.

When I ordered the machine there were only black keyboards, so I have the standard machine with the quite clever latch on keyboard that protects the screen very nicely and works as a keyboard quite well while lending a softer more tactile feel to the device. I still would have liked a funky coloured keyboard though.
Anyhow, the hardware itself is nice, with the much trumpeted kick stand and a small array of ports including a USB. One of the key benefits here is that we have Windows 8 running on the tablet - yes only the RT version in this case which does impose a suite of limitations (see later), but it is here and running. I still applaud Microsoft for trying to unite our devices in this way, but having the RT version feels limited. We get a preview version of office 2013 (well parts of it) which means we can run actual Word and Excel.
So there are positives and some of the metro apps are starting to look good.

[Promo Surface RT image via the Microsoft site]

OK, time to burn my way through a raft of frustrations then.

SPEED
The ARM processor in the RT version of the Surface just isnt up to the task of giving me the Win 8 functionality needed. My basic notes doc which for this year was at 50,000 words is barely useable and even if I hack off 3/4 of it it still isnt a nice experience.

APPS
Yes, the whole point of the RT version is to hold us to the metro Win8 apps - that may be ok down the track, but right now that means no dropbox, Lync, Outlook and a score of other helpful things that I have running nicely enough on my HP 2760p.
The apps we do get are a little flat in many places as well - the MAIL app has some nice things but is a far cry from Outlook or the GMail interfaces. The onsceen keyboard is nice - but gets in the way of some actions such as entering a WiFi password...

OTHER
Some things feel very 'version 1'. The rotation sensor is very sensitive and I keep needing to re-orient the discplay. Sometimes the brightness is way too low or it takes too long to sense that a change is needed. I fail to find settings for things much of the time - configs and interfaces are different for each metro app and system prefs are harder to navigate through than ever (maybe I should just be searching).
The dual Metro/Desktop interface thing is still awkward - at least app switching should ignore this differentiation as that would help unify the experience. Why would I switch to Desktop to get to an application running there?

Soooo, here we have a device with plenty of potential but lots of issues for now, I am really hoping the PRO version is exactly what we all really want - alas it is still 'coming soon'. The real selling point of Win8 on a tablet is the application richness of Windows (including Office, Adobe, Autodesk etc) so the RT Surface fails to claim that territory - bring on the PRO. I do like the picture unlock - that is a nice addition and as the metro apps mature my start screen is looking more and more interesting. I will keep going with this baby for a while yet though, see if I can find workarounds for the speed and application holes.


Small World

With Tuesday GAMENIGHT being super fun over the last few months, I thought it was worth a mini review of Small World that has dominated our play sessions - we just cant stop. Days of Wonder are something of a board game powerhouse at the moment and mighty Small World is one of the reasons for that success. TableTop was my first exposure to this game of light hearted brutal conquest and that is one of the fascinating qualities the game has - somehow it stays light hearted and friendly despite the onslaughts that might be taking place.

We are now playing with all the expansions in play (above ground) except for the Necromancer Island, so that makes for a dizzying array of race and power combinations and with the zany event cards there is so much replayability as well as strategic complexity. As always BoardGameGeek has all the info you could ever want on the game and a slew of other reviews and images.

We have played games with from 2 to 6 players and the game works very well, even with the extra person (just added to the 5 player board, no special rules used). I adore all the table-talk as people try to think through who is winning, who might be going to win and who needs to be controlled, all while trying to collect points for yourself - very social the way we play.

[Small World promo pic from the Days of Wonder site]

Even though the box might say the game takes 80 mins, I think all of our games have been over 120 or 150 minutes - but lotsa fun minutes in there. Even though the game is all cardboard, the artwork is full of character and creates all manner of 'roleplaying' opportunities around the table. I love the surprises as some strange race combo under an odd circumstance way out-performs our expectations.
I am glad there are the little storage pockets for the zillions of counters, saves us on the setup and packup time.

All up, Small World is a wonderful game, esp with more players - the friendlier the group the more fun as the social elements come into the playing of the game.


The Pirates! Band of Misfits

The simply splendid work of the Aardman stop motion gang continues with their latest epic The Pirates! Band of Misfits. Watching on DVD today is a pretty jaw dropping, trying to imagine just how they manage to create all the incredible elements that come together to make something that isnt just fun, but a work of creative art.

There are a set of behind-the-scenes special features (plus a few more on my JB HiFi version) which take us into the various worlds of the voice actors, the model maker, animators, sound, music and more. Films are grand ventures in teamwork and this is no exception, with a whole crew of people bringing their own individual brialliances together just so we can be entertained.

These are some of the official images and production shots (via CinemaBlend) that show off the production values and design talent.

[The Pirates! Band of Misfits images via CinemaBlend]

The film is overflowing with little details, from the characters and sets and ships - to a myriad of side jokes and set elements that flavour each sequence. Whether we get a zany name for a local pub in the background of a shot, or a painting on the stairs - there is detail (funny detail) everywhere which goes to enhance the character of the film at every turn.

The DailyMail article has some more great images from the production as well as the finished product:

[The Pirates! Band of Misfits images via the DailyMail]


Guild Wars 2 - Second Look

After my first look at Guild Wars 2 where some of the promises werent met, yet we had some real promise it is time to look at just how gorgeous this game is, not just aesthetically but more about the superb game mechanics they have given us. I will tell this little tale with another sweeping set of screenshots showing some of the things that really do make this another step forward in MMO design.

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Lets start here with my Norn Warrior, rifle on her back looking just so nice by the glow of a nearby fire at the camp of a group of Lionguard preparing to head off on an attack on the Svanir which I will be helping with. This one event I have done a heap of time now, seeing that many players come from all around when the announcement comes then the final boss and the long fight to bring him down.
While these experiences are only for the first 16 levels of the game, if they translate into the same or even better things at higher level I cant wait. The 'personal story' does make you feel quite heroic and pivotal, maybe I will get a statue like this of me.
I thought this screenshot of the warrior heal was funny, complete head explosion!
The character creation and logic of the classes is so fun, that creating a new hero is fun and with all the Norn Warriors about, I thought the Elementalist might be interesting. Here is Meridice looking the part in a tavern in her fire stance. You can see in the corner the open heart which shows there is a location based quest here which is all part of completing a zone/map.
The event system may not alter the world in a big way, but they are dynamic and while regular not predictable (at least not by me). For common events, you know the Minotaurs will stampede soon enough, but not know when. This quest shows a veteran mob that was the only target of this little event - certainly would have been too tough for me alone, but people come from nearby to help out and together we can take it down.
The idea that all these players are cooperating and helping each other when not grouped up for mutual benefit is a real revelation. Helping someone can only be to their benefit, loot, experience and completion are all independent of people helping each other. So there is no kill-stealing or loot sharing/rolling and completign a 'collection quest' is a shared endeavour, the more people that help the easier it is.
That said the events seem to scale quite cleverly, dont ask me how, in the rare times there arent many players taking on an event, it is still quite achievable.
Soon after the event above, the children were out playing (hurling snowballs) but then there is the call for them all to run inside and they do. This is the start of the rampaging bears event. This time I think it was just the two of us dealing with the waves of angry bears.
If you do get beaten up, you arent dead yet and from the ground you can keep helping your friends with limited abilities. Anyone can help you up in this state or if you actually perish and with all classes having at least personal heals there doesnt seem to be any need to want for specific roles to be filled (yet).
Here you can see the gold award for helping on the event and the Norn kids running out to play again. So there are some changes in the world relating to events, sometimes some merchants wont be there until we complete the event to recapture their little keep, but once we do they just stand there in the classical MMO way.
Let me reiterate just how awesome the game design is that helping other people and joining in these events without any formal organisation is. This is quite an achievement and for me at least ranks this game in the highest order.
To emphasise the point further, even the resource gathering nodes are for all, If I take a node, so can the next person, here two of us are chopping down a little tree.
Just a quick shot of where my little Elementalists skills are upto. This shows the different abilities available for each weapon for each school of magic in this case, so I need to unlock all 5 weapon skills for each school for the staff, then again for daggers in various combos of main and off-hand use. Add to this the class progression tree, Slot Skills which go in numbers 6-0 at the bottom and there is plenty to evolve into and then customise even before you get to Trait specialisation.
There is the main 'daily' quest that gets you to take on a variety of creatures, harvest, do events and so forth, then you get this nice little chest of goodies - another incentive to participate.
This is a little thing, but I like it - see here how the characters stand on the undulating terrain - nice huh. This shows a bunch of us around the armour repair guy in this area - looking good.
The other important thing to see here is that people have their power scaled down to the appropriate level throughout the world. So you can see here Ingrid is being scaled down to lev 11. This means you can hang in an area doing events, hang out with friends of different levels and also have a nice experience of the content without things becoming too easy.
I have to admit I have only ventured into WorldvWorld once and at that time the fight was so far from where I was that I didnt see any action at all. I love the idea of whole servers coming together to take on other servers, but will reserve judgement for another time. The combat system is quite dynamic though, so I can see it suiting PvP very well. The pic below shows how Sea of Sorrows was fairing at this particular time.
One of the current issues is trying to get people to agree on which server people will be (tricky when lots of them are full)
There are so many other little things that are worth a mention, that you can teleport to all the waypoints you have visited, that you can email trade supplies directly to your bank from anywhere (2 clicks) and then access the bank from any trade station. You can one-click 'sell junk' to a merchant and even scavenge materials from gear you dont want or 'trophy' drops from mobs.
Anyhow, may as well finish with Meridice looking pretty (surrounded by crafting stations)
Verdict = Remarkable!

GW2 Intro

I didnt really expect to find myself in there playing Guild Wars 2, there on the prelaunch weekend with zillions of other people - but somehow that is where I was. The kids and I created three mighty Norn and set out to explore the new world of Tyria.

First up, yes it was kinda mental with the business of the websites and servers etc, but considering it was the first day, things actually went far better than I expected. Once inside the game the first piece of joy is the wonderful character creation system, even inside one race/profession/sex combo there is a vast array of options to tinker with. If you are anything like me, you will have spent so much time in this part, that the game will time-out on you and just mercilessly hurl you back to the start screen where you can start all over again. That may sound like a complaint, but it really isnt, I only really looked around in the Norn, and the girls are gorgeous and the guys are mighty. (check this thread on duguild for images of all the race/class combos)

Once you get into the game, it really assumes you know how to play games of this type, so the tutorials/tips are about the differences in GW2 rather than how to play. The world looks stunning on a nice graphics sub-system and that really adds to the thrill, so it was with hair waving and my short skirt I headed out to see if this was really going to be different to other MMOs.

A few screenshots of the character creation and the world with Meridoom in Ferguson’s Crossing.
GW2 Race Selection screenshot

GW2 Male Norn Profession Selection screenshot

GW2 Female Norn Warrior tattoo selection screenshot

GW2 Female Norn hair selection screenshot

GW2 Meridoom snowy peaks screenshot

GW2 Meridoom Norn settlement screenshot

GW2 Meridoom forest screenshot

GW2 Meridoom dance move screenshot

GW2 Meridoom battle screenshot
One of the key things in the leadup for this title was the idea that they were moving away from the characters and creatures in the world being static, standing around or moving on a path without purpose. This is perhaps the single element of the MMO space that for me is in most need of fixing and GW2 promised some salvation. Alas, that was just wishful thinking, if there is a difference here it is very subtle indeed - as far as I can tell it all works in exactly the same way as any other modern MMO. Yes there are little events like the invading Centaurs, but that just comes around every so often and whether we join in the event or not doesnt seem to alter the zone in any perceptible way. Maybe because there were so many people that all the events were completed, but that didnt stop them coming in the same way each time in the same spot.

There are still hordes of 'locals' just standing around doing nothing, occasionally there will be a nice surprise as an NPC will race up to you because they have something to tell you, but those are rare.
This is a major bummer really as this was the thing I was most looking forward to seeing...

The combat is pretty fun and frantic with everyone joining in the fray and the abilities come thick and fast as you try out different weapon combos. Much like The Secret World, a great deal of your options come from your weapon type choices. The PVPside (World_v_World) wasnt alive while I was in there, no doubt they want to get everything settled before they kick off the first round.

Anyhow, from our first forays it is a fun game, not as revolutionary as they made out, but fun for us Norn of Ferguson’s Crossing. More detailed look at this game to come after more playtime...


The Lorax

One of my favourite movies is the stunning realisation of the imagined worlds of Dr Seuss' Horton Hears a Who. So when the Despicable Me gang took on The Lorax - we were destined to have something nifty emerge. While this lovely little film may not live up to the lofty heights of these ancestors there is plenty to like and it certainly carries its message with grace.

The ability to bring the zany worlds of Dr Seuss to life with 3D CG films like this is beautiful, the wonky architecture, the odd proportions and all the fur and fluffybits. Combine that with the animation and sound that goes well beyond where the illustrations left off and we are fully transported into this world to ride the emotions and the meaning behind the poetic words.

[The Lorax imagery via the official site]

Apart from the main message about our environment and rampant consumerism, there are other threads here that are quite clever. I like the Gran character, showing how cool and wily a grandparent can be (esp with Betty White voicing here).

Have a look at these few pieces of Craig Elliot concept art for the film, beautifully capturing some of the original art essence while expanding and filling in the detail - love the buildings.

[The Lorax concept art by Craig Elliot via his site]

Oh and I want one of Ted's one wheeler scooter motorbike thingoes...