Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Big Payoff

About two weeks ago, I had put an order from a prominent import side for Play-Yan Micro, the Nintendo produced but Japan-only media-player attachment for the Game Boy Advance, which also coincidentally works with the DS. I had discussed this in length in this 2005 posting.

At around the same time, two other friends and myself in Final Fantasy XI began working on missions for one of the new (rare/exclusive) items, the Yigit Turban. For those who have not played the game, something that is rare and exclusive means you can only have one of the items and its exclusivity means once that particular item has dropped into the inventory of a player, it is theirs to keep. It cannot be sold or traded.

Thirdly, Civilization IV: Warlords the expansion pack to last year's Civilization IV had gone gold earlier in the month and was on its way to stores, on Wednesday, according to Futureshop.

The confluence of these three seemingly unrelated events was to set up for a pay-off of epic proportions. Well, ok, if you’re not me, it’s probably a bit trivial and not so epic, but it was a great day to be me this past Tuesday.

The week however did not start off so promisingly. Before the big payoff was the big bust. As I got home from work on Monday, I received a little slip from the postal service in my mailbox indicating I had a package. Unfortunately, the mailperson had not checked off if it the package was for Monday or if I had to go the next day to pick it up. Feeling certain I had received the package, I went to the post office to pick up the package with about half an hour to spare before the post office closed. About a dozen other people it seems also decided to show up at around the same time to do their postal business and what was supposed to be a quick entry and exit resulted in over twenty minutes of waiting, only to be told the package was not in and that it would arrive the next day.

My night would only get worse. Monday July the 24th was also the day Square-Enix patched Final Fantasy XI, adding new spells and abilities and adjusting several things, including the missions we were doing. Deeming it easier than originally anticipated, Square-Enix had decided to adjust downwards the points rewarded for completing the missions we were working on. As my friends and I proceeded to the mission, a sense of forboding came over us. We know they would be tweaking with the mission rewards and we wondered if ours were affected.

The mission went badly. We wiped, as in wiped-out (a FFXI slang for everyone in a party or alliance dying). But some quick last minute heroics saved the day. The Paladin used a re-raise item before dying, which allowed him to revive himself and raise me and the 3rd player. With the clock running, we had to complete it as fast as we could and in the end, we completed our assigned mission with only seconds to spare.

And then came the big disappointment. The adjusted points meant we did not have enough points (of the required 20,000) to trade-in and obtain our items. I came 7 points short of 20,000. Our plans were in ruins, but there was tomorrow, Tuesday.

And Tuesday came. After work, I went to the post office to pick up the package from the import store. Surprise, there was no line this time and with enough time to spare, I rushed off to Electronics Boutique to pick up an advanced copy of Civilization IV: Warlords which was supposed to be released in Canada on Wednesday but Ebgames managed to have early copies in stock.

As I worked to test out the Play-Yan Micro and have the first MP4 encoded files to play on it, it was time to complete our final mission before the item and unlike Monday, everything went smoothly and minutes after entering the arena for our mission, we stared the exit on the other end. As I rushed my avatar to the appointed place to collect my reward I could only think of how great the day was. I had gotten three things I’ve been waiting for and wanting in one day.

Tuesday was a great day indeed. And needless to say, I did not get much sleep that night.

P.S. This wasn’t released on Tuesday but I wish it was. A new and even more awesome Final Fantasy III trailer with a remix of the original FF III theme re-arranged by Nobuo Uematsu himself.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Art of Animation

When a piece of art, a movie, or a composition connects with you, there’s that electric moment of first contact. It is at the moment when you catch a glimpse of a film or hear the first notes of an artistic work and for a brief moment you feel pure bliss. The sensation is unfiltered and genuine. For that fraction of a second, you’re unjaded and become a kid again.

I had that electric moment when I watched the trailer to Makoto Shinkai’s latest project, 5 Centimeters Per Second. Click here to watch the trailer on youtube. Higher quality versions of the trailer can be found on the official website.

The trailer explains little, but as is common in Japanese dramatic works, it offers glimpses of ideas, emotions and quotes that connect with the story. The quotes which appeared in the trailer are translated below.

"Do you Know?"
"The Speed at Which Cherry Blossoms Fall…"
"5 centimeters per second."
"At What Speed Must I live…"
"…to be able to see you again."

The director’s notes translated courtesy of Daike at Makoto Shinkai Fan Web is edited for length and the English is polished.

"Byousoku 5 Centimeters (Speed of 5 Centimeters per Second)" is a serial short consisting of 3 independent works. The story at its core is about a boy set in Japan from the first half of the 1990s to the present day.

Sci-Fi or fantasy elements do not appear in this work. Our daily life rarely includes dramas, dramatic treachery or sudden revelations. Nevertheless, the world is filled with flavor and beauty and it is worth living.

We try to depict such an aspect of real life through this film...

-Makoto Shinkai

I am a big fan of Makoto Shinkai’s work and I have watched his first two commercial works, the short film, Voices of a Distant Star (reviewed here on my movie blog) and his feature film Beyond The Clouds also known as The Promised Place in our Early Days.

Shinkai came to prominence in the Japanese animation community in 1999 as an independent filmmaker. His first short She and Her Cat, youtube linked below, was a one-man project which he completed during his spare time off work at a major video game company. The short went on to win many animation awards in Japan and attracted the attention of a Japanese animation company CoMix Wave, the entity currently funding all of his projects.

What makes Shinkai’s films so watchable and endearing is the warmth of his subjects. They are young people with good intentions trying to live life the best they can in an often chaotic world. A common theme in his work is War and its impact on the young protagonists. His stories impart a nostalgic sense of yearning for a simpler time. They try to capture the purity and the good things found in the human experience. She and Her Cat explored the life of a cat and his owner, a young woman, through the eyes of her pet cat in the span of a year. Voices of a Distant Star dealt with a very simple high school love story while The Promised Place in our Early Days delved into the subject of 3 friends, a childhood promise made between them, and the aftermath of their lives when they go their separate ways.

Makoto Shinkai's [She and Her Cat] -Short-

Monday, July 10, 2006

Total War: Rome

One of the pleasures of picking up well-received PC games a year after its release is the ability to pick up their ‘Gold Editions’ which usually include the 1st expansion and a patched vanilla game and a substantial discount.

This is what I did with Rome: Total War. I’ve seen it on the shelves for some time, often retailing for as much as $60.00 Canadian last year. This past Wednesday, I walk into our local Future Shop with a mission to find this game. And luckily enough for me, there was one copy of the game left, and it was the Gold Edition, with the Barbarian Invasion included expansion for considerably less than the full priced versions of the vanilla game I saw on store shelves last year.

I’m no stranger to the Total War franchise. I had downloaded an early demo of Shogun: Total War several years ago and was impressed with its engine. In fact, when I bought my new computer in 2003, the first game I bought for it was Shogun, then already deeply discounted. Ultimately, Shogun: Total War was graphically impressive but slightly clunky, and it was still largely a twitch based RTS type strategy game with a glorified turn based campaign map tacked on.

Rome is a vastly improved game. The campaign scenario is a fleshed out turn based strategy game in the vein of Risk or Sid Meier’s Civilization games, while the individual battles themselves are in real-time. The player are then given the option to either auto-resolve battles or to fight them out and similarly on the macro side of empire management, players can also choose to automate all their cities and focus only on moving armies and fighting. This gives players a range of choice on how to manage their factions in the campaign game.

No game has married the strategic scale of a turn-based game with the tactical nature of RTS games as well as Rome: Total War has done. As someone who enjoyed games like StarCraft more for its co-operative play, rather than the frantic nature of a typical RTS death match game, I really appreciate the real-time strategy battles in this game. Fast movement is replaced with realistic movement. There is even a pause button for players to pause the game and give their individual units commands. And the real-time battles themselves play out realistically. Ordering a unit of Centurions to march from the left flank of my battle line to the right will take time, even if they are running at full speed.

Further more, unlike your typical history based RTS games such as the Rise of Nations and Age of Empires games, the separation between a campaign map and a tactical battle map also separates economic (macro) empire management from tactical battle management. Fighting a battle then having to zoom across the map to ‘home base’ to move idle workers to a logging point is a non-issue in Rome. I could only wish more RTS games masquerading as history simulations should take note.

The realism injected into the battles result in very well paced battles and the tactical nature of the fight itself is enhanced. Instead of degenerating into a mass of units dying, there is still a lot of management that can be done even when the bulk of two armies clash. Rarely do I find myself struggling to command my units, as is usually the case with most RTS games, when there are too many units to manage and too much going on.
Supported by an impressive 3-D engine and an epic Hans Zimmer inspired soundtrack by composer Jeff van Dyck, the battles themselves become a kind of beautiful cinematic experience of battle formations, clashing melee units and cavalry charges. Students of history will appreciate this game for giving them a view and control into one of the great epochs of history, despite some obvious deviations from history.