Those of you who frequent the Meatspace Forums will notice a change in the look of the forum. This wasn’t due to a problem I had with the old look, but was instead due to the need for me to upgrade the software to the latest version. In addition to massive spamming of the blog entries, I’ve been getting over a hundred spam accounts a week there. While the Wordpress plugin, “Akismet” captures most of the blog postings (my worst day had over 5,000 spam comments to my blog), the automated bot accounts are a true drag to clean out. I’ve just updated the software to the most current version in order to take advantage of some of the anti-spam features - we’ll see how things go.
If you are using the forums, the new “default” view is the “XBOX” theme, which I’ve spent the better part of the day modifying (I had intended to do a review for Code 46, but such is life - that will be coming tomorrow probably).
You can change your view by going to your profile link (at the top of the page) and selecting the “Board style” pull-down menu.
Please post in the sticky thread if you have suggestions for changes.
Better yet, if you’re a graphics person and want to help customize some of the buttons and stuff, let me know!
If you have any problems posting to the meatspace, please post here, and I’ll fix it.
Overview – Good luck in finding a copy! Once upon a time, Renaissance was one of my most anticipated movies of 2006. Originally released in France on March 15th, I eagerly awaited its September release in the US. My anticipation was heightened in that I was even contacted by Miramax representatives as part of a pre-hype blitz. So imagine my surprise when its release in the US only comprised a few select cities – unfortunately my city didn’t make the cut (thanks Miramax!). Similar to so many other good, but foreign science fiction and fantasy flicks, instead of getting a nice theatrical viewing, I was yet again forced wait and then later buy an import (or pirated – sometimes you just aren’t sure) DVD off of eBay. If you are in the US and are interested in seeing Renaissance, chances are you’re in the same boat. One would have hoped that a movie as visually stunning as Renaissance would have been at least able to quality for a DVD release, but clearly something larger is going on here as many other foreign genre films are in the same boat.
The Setting: In the year 2054, mega-corporations are all-powerful, with tentacles in all aspects of life. The divisions between rich (megacorps) and poor are greater than ever. Paris has grown in layers, with high-tech buildings pushing every further into the sky. Although the city is sleek and stylish, most people live a pathetic existence. In Paris, the Avalon Corporation rules the cityscapes. The police force is not immune from their pressures, and often become their lackeys.
The Story: When a promising young biogeneticist named Ilona (voiced by Romala Garai) from the Avalon Corporation is kidnapped, detective Barthélémy Karas (Daniel Craig) and his team are brought in to investigate. As Karas interviews all the key players, it becomes clear that this isn’t a simple missing person case, as the details of the disappearance become increasingly more bizarre and complicated. The Avalon corporation president, Dellenback (Jonathan Pryce), not known for his loyalty to his workers, is extremely interested in her return. Ilona’s bioengineering mentor has a strange past, and stopped doing research after an accident from 2006. Karas befriends Ilona’s older sister, Bislane (Catherine McCormack), who tells of a stolen book.
Similar to Howard Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” (1946), Karas spirals back and forth between the key players as more clues are provided. Karas uncovers a darker side of the Avalon Corporation, and of Ilona’s mentor, Dellenback. Furthermore, it appears that the secret to immortality has been discovered, and is tied to Ilona herself. As Karas and Bislane continue searching for Ilona, the list of enemies grows. The key players are getting offed, Karas is booted from the force, and is now in fear of his life. Worse, they are discovering that humanity itself may be at risk if Ilona is found.
The Characters: It’s not a stretch to say that virtually every character in Renaissance comes “cookie cutter” from the old noir movies, with a nice slice of traditional cyberpunk thrown in the mix. From the honest but jaded crusty cop with a soft spot to the megalomaniac mega-corporation leader, to the shady friend the cop goes to when he needs a favor to the femme fatale; don’t expect freshness, because it isn’t coming. Like the old noirs, everyone in Renaissance is flawed; everyone is gray – which does make for an interesting contrast when transposed on such stark black and white animation.
The Atmosphere: While the story falls short, the look of Renaissance fully original and is flat-out amazing. If Renaissance is best described as style over substance, the style really comes STRONG to the party. Stark black and whites dominate virtually every shot. Shadows are in abundance, and usually highlight the main action points. Gray is used sparingly, and is usually applied to change the mood of the scene. To its credit, Volckman succeeds at creating a near-future world that is deeply flawed but not overly futuristic. The cityscapes are incredibly detailed, and give the impression that there are always a bevy of interesting happenings occurring. A transparent glass-like substance is now used to make walkways above and below the roads – this more than anything creates a sleek, near-future ambience. The stark black and white look of Renaissance works well both in the daylight and evening shots, both having shadows prominently placed in virtually every frame.
Traditional cyberpunk conventions are often applied, including huge billboards of beautiful women that extol the virtues of the Avalon Corporation. Avalon fills the role of the dominating mega-corporation that owns and controls virtually everything in Paris. Nothing is beyond their grasp. The police are on their payroll, and the entire city appears to be under surveillance. Immortality, derived through advances in bioengineering (initially undertaken by a Japanese scientist) is the dominating technology intended to challenge God’s position over humanity.
Similarities with Sin City: Volckman stated he was interested in creating a visual feel similar to what one might get when looking at a painting. In terms of what was produced, yes, the look is definitely similar, but Renaissance is not copying Sin City. Although Sin City came out first, Renaissance started its production far before Sin City. In terms of look, Renaissance really does match very closely with the Sin City graphic novels – more so than Sin City in fact. But while it also is a neo-noir, the dialogue and mood of Renaissance is far more like a corporate espionage version of a standard 40s detective noir (think “The Big Sleep” with corporations instead of the mob), whereas Sin City had more of a hyper-real, over-the-top neo-noir feel.
The Animation: Using an innovative motion-capture to rotoscope approach, where 24 cameras are used when shooting the actors, Volckman was able to work on the framing and viewpoint well after the shoot was complete, and then paint on the black and white animation. Unlike Linklater’s rotoscoping, where the actors’ faces and body appear to be constantly shifting, the level of precision used in Renaissance is significantly higher. When moving, the sprite’s actions are incredibly human-looking. There is a slight lag though when they first take action – a noticeable lag that’s slower than you would expect a person’s actions to be.
The Technology: While the basic story for Renaissance is straight cyberpunk neo-noir, the technology options provided are numerous and fairly interesting. Most visually arresting was the Holodeck sphere prison where Ilona is kept. Karas had a very advanced cybernetic eye implant that allowed him to identify people through solid objects – it also was able to be hacked by Avalon, the Mega-corporation. Computers are slick, now often just the size of a pen with a virtual display that arises upon command. Biotechnological modifications are in vogue, although not at the level of Ghost in the Shell. Similar to Motoko’s invisibility suit, the goons at Avalon have similar suits, although they look more like the soldiers in Jin-Roh than they do the hawt, naked Motoko. Holograms are now used in combination with pictures to remember people and events – in some cases, holograms interact with their human counterparts.
Do you Want to Live Forever? One thesis of Renaissance is the notion that immortality, if invented, would destroy humanity. Not a lot of backing is provided for this idea, but the idea put forward is that this irrevocable change in the hands of a mega-corporation would provide a method of control so powerful that society would no longer function. This is all the more interesting in that some are predicting that humanity will have the equivalent of immortality within the next 50 years. If this comes to pass, will the possibility of immortality be distributed evenly or will this be a tool of domination similar to in Renaissance?
The Bottom Line: Although the story and characters are not original, the animation and overall cinematography is both innovative and outstanding, and should not be missed. There is truly something unique in the look here that you just won’t find anywhere else. The voice and motion acting are more than passable and Nicholas Dodd’s score provides a wonderful combination of a 007 espionage flick with the haunting eeriness of the score from Stargate. As icing on the cake, the science, technology and architecture exhibited in Renaissance will make you think. It may be hard to find, but it’s well worth the time spent looking for it.
Overview: In the annals of cheesy time travel movies, few are known better than Timecop, which cleared over 100 million in world wide box office gross. Starring martial arts star, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Timecop has decent but low-budget FX, a fairly shallow notion of science and time quandaries, but does provide a face-paced cyberpunk action-thriller with decent amounts of butt-kicking and gun fighting. Like many of his movies, Van Damme plays more than one version of himself – in this case, he plays himself 10 years into the future.
The Story: In the near future (2004), time travel has now become possible. Unfortunately, there is a very real danger that going back in time will alter the present. To protect against potential abuse, a special police outfit called the “Time Enforcement Commission” is established to monitor and enforce time travel concerns. Max Walker (Van Damme) is selected for an interview to join. Unfortunately, events in the future have already changed his current circumstances, which lead to the death of his wife, Melissa (Mia Sara).
Ten years into the future, Max, still working at the Time Enforcement Commission, goes back in time to stop his former partner from attempting to splurge on low-price stocks in 1929 that will be worth a fortune in the future. In stopping his partner, Max uncovers a larger plot of time travel tampering that implicates a sitting Senator of the United States (Ron Silver). As Max starts to investigate, the bad guys begin significant tampering with the timeline. Upon return from one of Max’s fact finding trips, he sees that the future has been significantly altered, and the police force is being decommissioned.
Max convinces his former friend (the time altering apparently has affected their friendship) and police Commander, Eugene (Bruce McGill), to send him back in time to fix the damage done to the timeline. In doing so, Max has an opportunity to go back and save his wife. Things come to a head when Max and the Senator meet face to face (both current and future versions of each).
The Action: The reason you want to watch Timecop is primarily for the fast-paced action sequences. We get lots of Van Damme kicking, along with a nice smattering of gunfights, all in interesting locations. As a downside, only one or two of the bad guys put up a decent fight. So many of the action scenes involve Van Damme just wailing on “red shirt” henchmen.
The FX: The FX for Time Cop worked at the time, but now look somewhat dated. There are quite a number of time portal effects, along with a few burning and “people plasma” shots sprinkled throughout. The set designs are pretty decent, most notably the time portal device, which has a nice dirty, low-tech feel to it. Still, I wish they had done more with the time travel machine, which looks and works like a rocket version of Back to the Future’s flux capacitor.
The Acting: Considering this is a Van Damme movie, the acting is somewhat better than expected. Van Damme is his same self, which is to say “rather wooden.” But Mia Sara, Ron Silver and Bruce McGill turn in decent performances – certainly decent enough to work with the fast pacing.
Problems with Time: Timecop really can’t be used to spark interesting discussions on time travel. The questions with how and why things work are too numerous and problematic to engage in interesting discussions. Somehow, they are able to determine if someone has violated time, and can go and stop them, but they don’t seem to be able to go to the same place more than once – why? The same two people cannot occupy the same space – why? What happens if a guy is 80 years older and goes back an visits himself as a small child? Virtually none of the same cells will remain from the child – certainly no skin cells (nor would they for 10 years out, as was the case for the poor Senator) – so how does this constitute occupying the same space? When Max Walker spends the day jumping through time, the future is modified – and he seems to have lost 10 years worth of memories. What happened to the version of Max that lived those 10 years? Did he disappear, or has he simply not gotten home from work yet? One gets the sense that Max is just jumping alternate versions of the present – each one that he created – but the ideas are too shallow to make any real sense of this.
Bad Guys Have Limited Imagination: Like many bad guys, the imagination of the evil doers in Timecop is severely limited. Time travel is used to go back and engage in bank heists, make stock purchases that pay out 70 years in the future, and so forth. If one really had this technology cornered, it seems that there would be far better ways to generate income. With just an ounce of imagination, one could come up with a myriad of more interesting ways of generating power and influence than petty crime. What about a recorded interview with Jesus Christ? One would think this might generate lots more power and income than knocking off a confederate wagon train shipping small quantities of gold. Instead, the extent of Senator McComb’s ambition is to get rich, kill off potential enemies and then steal the presidential election.
The Bottom Line: Timecop is an enjoyable movie assuming you turn your brain off prior to watching. This approach generally works as the fast-paced nature of the movie serves to stop you from noticing too many issues. The action is good and the FX are passable, so if you want to kick back and enjoy some Hollywood martial arts wrapped up in a cyberpunk time travel flick, give it a go. I will say though that the quality of the DVD is horrid - so much so that I’m docking a star from my review. It’s got a lousy transfer, no extras, and is in full screen only. Common Universal – fix this!
Kovacs in the Meatspace ran across this gem: Variety is reporting that Production I.G. has acquired rights from publisher Kodansha to sell feature anime “Ghost in the Shell,” for live-action remake:
TOKYO — Toon house Production I.G. has acquired rights from publisher Kodansha to sell feature toon “Ghost in the Shell,” for live-action remake, according to toon house sources.
Kodansha published the “Ghost in the Shell” manga by Masamune Shirow in 1989. Production I.G. then made it into a cult hit animated feature in 1995.
The toon house also produced the “Ghost in the Shell” feature follow-up “Innocence” and the animated TV series “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex,” both of which have been widely distribbed abroad.
Production I.G. will rep the original rights holders and rights users in negotiations with the Hollywood majors interested in remaking the toon as a live-action pic for the world market.
This is not a first for the toon house, which distributed “Innocence” abroad and negotiated with DreamWorks for a remake deal. It also is partnering with Cartoon Network to produce the TV toon series “IGPX.”
But the agent deal is unusual in Japan, where it is more common for TV networks, ad agencies and trading houses to rep local toons overseas.
Production I.G. has ample international experience, however. especially with “Ghost in the Shell.” The seminal toon, about the merging of humankind with the Internet bit stream, was instrumental in boosting interest in anime worldwide.
Notice it says “rights to sell.” This seems to mean we might be finding ourselves with a low-budget T&A version of GITS. While we might end up with something magical, I’m far more concerned about the possibilities for a disaster. Please, please, if there is a God, lets pray that Michael Bay is NOT a GITS fan!
Given the SciFi Channel’s development history, I don’t know if this is a terrific newsor terrifyingly horrid news, but the SciFi Channel, in working with Neal Stephenson and George Clooney, is going to be creating a 6-hour miniseries for the Diamond age.
SCI FI Channel unveiled a new slate of programs in development, which includes shows from executive producers George Clooney, Darren Star and Mark Burnett. SCI FI made the announcement Jan. 12 at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena, Calif.
Diamond Age, based on Neal Stephenson’s best-selling novel The Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, is a six-hour miniseries from Clooney and fellow executive producer Grant Heslov of Smokehouse Productions.
When a prominent member of society concludes that the futuristic civilization in which he lives is stifling creativity, he commissions an interactive book for his daughter that serves as a guide through a surreal alternate world. Stephenson will adapt his novel for the miniseries, the first time the Hugo and Nebula award winner has written for TV.
While the SciFi Channel has given us awe inspiring hits such as Battlestar Galactica (Is BSG cyberpunk? Hmm….), it’s also responsible for an unmitigated string of horrors stretching back through time. My current SciFi Channel production fear concerns how Jim Butcher’s most AWESOME book series will be translated this Sunday (the Dresden Files - opening episode this weekend). But this is a minor fear compared to the possibility of screwing up a Stephenson project. Sure, Stephenson is involved, but we know how often the writer’s screenplay gets modified (Gibson, anyone?). If this one gets hosed, the chances of Snow Crash ever being made drop precipitously. So in short…
Introduction: This review is not meant to convince you that Syndicate is a great game. It’s a release from the far past (13 years in computer gaming is an eternity), and should be treated as such when comparing to the games of today. Bullfrog managed to produce amazingly innovative titles (how about Dungeon Keeper, Magic Carpet and Populous?) and its shot at cyberpunk was nothing short of their other best-selling releases. Contemporary gamers may sneer at the antediluvian graphics and a soundtrack that’s easily put to shame by any polyphonic mobile phone ringtone, but a hardcore cyberpunk (or someone with a long history in gaming, dating back to the 8-bit machines and the peak of Amiga’s fame) will easily recognize a gem.
The Story: The 22nd century. Dark and bleak. Organized crime turned into business and politics as nation-states crumbled, one by one. You were not willing to become one of the helpless citizens sealed in stalag-like compounds, slaving for a “syndicate”, as the new powers were called. You started a syndicate of your own. Amassing illegaly raised funds, black-market specialists and military-class technology, you decided to get a piece of the cake that Earth became.
Such lust for power needs to be fed appropriately. You knew you couldn’t take on the whole world alone. You needed help. And there it came, with the astounding Leonardo device, turning common men and women into hi-tech combat machines that you control. Storing those who were not needed in deep-freeze, you assemble a lethal quartet, equip it with implants, weapons and non-lethal combat tech - and then you send them straight into enemy territory to perform a mission that will grant you what you crave most. Control.
But beware - other syndicates are more than willing to come in your way and bring you down to your knees. You’ll need all the money you can grab and all the tech you can either steal or develop in order to best them. Are you hard enough to crack the opposition?
The Game: Do not expect a complex and intricate plot to explore. This ain’t Blade Runner, choomba. You’ll need guns, lots of guns, and an attitude to match the armament. You’ll also need a working brain - nobody is going to fear an organization ran by a dimwit. Yes, this is another issue which makes games different from reality Wink.
You start with a company name (look for some cheats concerning this - only if you’re a cheater, of course…), a company logo (you can choose the design and the colour) and a single territory in Europe. Each territory is connected with a different mission. Once you acquire a territory, you can set its tax level to get funds. Be reasonable, you don’t want people to rebel against you - you’ll have to reclaim an area if there’s an unrest. Think “Godfather” Wink.
Syndicate puts a lot of emphasis on research. The funds you obtain should be promptly invested in the R&D department, where you are going to receive new guns (from uzis to lasers and miniguns), extra equipment (personal shields and so on) and, last but not least, new implants. You’ll need those to make your agents faster, more intelligent and resistant to enemy fire. The implants come in three versions, and you should focus on developing the more advanced ones as soon as possible - expect the difficulty of the missions to increase rapidly (OK, if you’re a hardcore gamer you’re clear them all with ease… but not everyone doesn’t have a life, right?).
Once you choose a mission, you can equip your team, buy some extra info about the assignment (or an enhanced map which doesn’t really do you any good - you shouldn’t expect a lot from sloppy intelligence behind enemy lines Wink) and send them to their de… success, of course. Seriously, you might lose an agent once in a while, but do not panic - you can always recruit new people.
The game offers an array of missions. You get to assassinate VIPs, rescue captured personnel, “persuade” civilians and scientists join your company “willingly” (no bloodshedding necessary - at least not from the ones you’ll be trying to convince to work for you), demolish buildings, or simply kill all opposing agents. Sometimes, using guns is not really necessary - sometimes it’s not even advised, especially when you have to sneak into a heavily guarded compound. Thanks to an ingenious device - the persuadetron - you can force others to join your agents as living shields, extra firepower or simply to snatch them away as new personnel (this way you can fill your cryo tanks at the HQ with new agents). The persuadetron is necessary in many missions, and it is extremely useful in almost all of them.
As you can see, the mission takes place in a isometric environment, which can sometimes obscure your field of view. You get to infiltrate cities full of civilians, policemen, enemy agents and vehicles (including APCs). The architecture is sort of “1984 meets Equilibrium”. You can feel the uneasiness of the surroundings, and the colours add a lot to the general feeling of the game.
Your team (which does not have to include 4 agents, by the way - if you feel you can pull off an assasination using just one guy - go for it!) can be controlled using a very simple and efficient interface. You also get a scanmap with friend/foe IDs and signals telling you where to head and what to do - as long as one of your agents carries a scanner module. You can order your agents to move independently (by clicking an agent in the team window and giving him/her orders) or as a group (the button between the two rows of agents allows you to group-select them). You can also manipulate the Intelligence, Perception and Adrenaline levels of an agent, allowing him/her to act when necessary - this is pretty handy when you want to set up a defensive perimeter or enter a building (your surveillance camera cannot penetrate walls).
If you want to pick something up, point the cursor at the object and it should change into a manipulator - click and it’s going to be picked up. Another hint you might find useful - sometimes you’ll need to pass a gate - vehicles are best for that. To board one, click on it while ordering agent(s). To unboard, click on it again. One final piece of advice - policemen won’t fire at unarmed people. So, if you don’t click on a weapon in your inventory, your agents will be considered civilians. Enemy agents, on the other hand, will easily recognize them regardless of their stance - avoid them, persuade them or dispose of them in some violent way. Remember, after a mission you’ll have to leave the area, so be prepared to escape when necessary.
The environment is well scripted (although you might find driving around a bit confusing at first - it takes some practice, just like in real life) - civilians will run if they notice anybody wielding a weapon, police officers will warn you and shoot if you don’t obey, enemy agents will engage you when you least expect it, and all will generally burn pretty nicely once you put your flamethrowers to work (yes, one of the massive attractions of that game in 1993 was the possibility of incincerating whole crowds). Have I already mentioned the fitting architecture? Some of my “wet cyberpunk dreams” were based on Syndicate’s levels Wink.
If you happen to fail a mission (failure is unacceptable! Wink), you can repeat it with no penalties (well, if you lose agents and/or pieces of equipment, don’t expect to find them be back at your home base). Of course, failing a mission doesn’t have to mean losing all the agents - it’s enough the person you were to extract dies.
Once you conquer the last remaining territories, you win - it’s as “simple” as that. At least until you choose to play the extension pack entitled Syndicate: American Revolt or the sequel: Syndicate Wars.
Why You Want to Play Syndicate: Cause it’s simply one of the genre-defining computer games. Back in 1993, Syndicate was all the rage when it came to showing others what cyberpunk was. Sure, there is no c-space and hackers, but does running a corporation/crime syndicate by means of controlling a bunch of highly lethal cyborgs roaming dark futuristic cities, killing and kidnapping people sound non-cyberpunk to you? The intro alone was enough to hook up many a gamer with the concept of cyberpunk.
It’s also one of the best pieces of computer gaming history, and if you are into stylish antiques, you should check it out Wink.
Availability: You can find it online for free, e.g. HERE. You need the DOSBox utility to run it under Windows (or an appropriate emulator, if you’re running any non-PC version). Pick it up, get it running and prove you’re tough enough to rule the future!
PS. Apparently, an open-source version of the game is in the works. Check the website here.