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Son of Makuta's blog

8:35 PM on 10.16.2011

[NVGR] 8 of the Most Wonderful Songs I Know

I like music. Most people do, really. My tastes tend to lie somewhat outside what you might hear on the radio, but that's largely coincidental, and fortunately still contains a whole load of marvellous music. Average Joe just might not have heard much of it. Which, I have to say, is a shame. Perhaps as a result, and partly inspired by the great work of the guys over at Stereotoid, I've been feeling tempted to start putting up lists of 'X songs that best fit this criterion'. Whether or not this becomes any sort of series - I wouldn't bet on it - I couldn't resist putting up this particular list.

These eight songs are among the most fascinating and gorgeous pieces of music I've ever heard. (I'm no expert on classical music; I only really listen to it in movies and games.) I've included Grooveshark links for most of them rather than YouTube, as many of them are poorly represented on the latter for some reason, with only crap-quality live recordings to go on. Grooveshark's great, anyway.

Some dudes. See immediately below.

8. Long Road Out of Eden - The Eagles
Something of an epic, this is a recent song from a classic band. A slow and meditative piece, it charts the emotions of an American soldier as he first dreams about, then returns to, his homeland, and compares the idealised version of life the soldier held in his head - to fight for - with the harsh, commercialised reality that greets him on his return. It's quiet, reflective and sad, a moving combination, and the understated melodies have a captivating quality about them even without the sublimely written lyrics. Throw on some headphones and check it out when you have ten minutes of not much ambient noise.

7. Blow Your Mind - Jamiroquai
And now for something completely different (already?). A funky, upbeat acid jazz tune about a sexy lady. Sounds simple enough. But it's full of glorious instrumentation - a succession of half-melody half-solo parts on a variety of instruments - and just has this amazing feel to it. You can dance to it or relax to it in equal measure; despite having a fairly quick tempo, there's something unhurried about it. Most of it lacks any sort of lyrics (the 'part 2' mentioned in the link is purely instrumental). The bass groove is just that - groovy - and Nick Van Gelder's drums are played with his trademark light, intelligent touch.

6. Subdivisions - Rush
Rush are gods. No doubt about that. Subdivisions is from a period in time where they apparently loved them some synths like nobody's business. Layered and tasteful, Subdivisions' synth sound perfectly complements the rest of the instruments, fitting neatly into Rush's unmistakable aesthetic. The intro draws you in, gradually constructing the song around you, and 16 bars in you're completely hooked. It's mesmeric. The lyrics are a little bit weird, a little bit complex, and even that serves to enrapture you. If you haven't heard it, you're probably thinking I'm going a bit mad here, but music can have a powerful effect on a person. Subdivisions is that kind of music.

Subdivisions' single artwork fits it rather well.

5. Paradise Lost - Symphony X
Ahh, progressive metal. Such delights you bring us. Paradise Lost, from the (amazing) album of the same name, is an epic biblical love ballad thing, written and performed by the sort of band who make every fourth bar of their main piano progression 7/8 instead of 6/8 because they can. And you know what? That extra note makes all the difference. Unlike your average ballad, Paradise Lost has a real sense of motion and emotion to it, and the two play off one another, sweeping you up and away with it. It gradually gets fuller and fuller as it goes on, with Michael Romeo's masterful guitar playing slowly coming in alongside a fantastic vocal line, and yes, it has a massive-yet-tender solo a few minutes in. Symphony X are masters of texture and depth in their songs (more on this in a moment), and almost every part of this piece is a complex, layered mesh of sounds and instruments. On top of that, Russell Allen's singing is incredible, and he delivers feeling in every moment. Marvellous is what this song is.

4. What Breaks a Heart - Joe Satriani
Instrumentals are funny things. The writer gives you a clue as to what it's about in the title and you extrapolate from there. Considering that it contains zero words, What Breaks a Heart is remarkably moving. Satriani, virtuoso guitarist that he is, expresses more with his guitar lines than many others could hope to achieve using lyrics, strings, anything really. To me at least, What Breaks a Heart charts the cyclical rise and fall of a love life - loneliness or ambivalence, excitement upon meeting someone, the elation on discovering your feelings are mutual, the sudden panic as it falls apart - then back to loneliness again, and the whole thing goes round in a circle. I've spent a lot of time falling for unreachable or uninterested women, as have many of us, so while I never got to the elation part until a year ago, I can certainly relate to the way this sort of thing repeats itself over and over again, and the effect it can have on one's heart. Bravo, Joe, you legendary man.

3. Journey to the Ocean - Cold Fusion
Cold Fusion are a strange band. As far as I can tell, there are only two members, at least one of whom is female and occasionally sings in a wispy, wistful sort of voice. One plays guitar and the other plays piano, and they compose some incredible music. Like What Breaks a Heart, this song - Journey to the Ocean - is in fact an instrumental, and a stunning one at that. You can hear the waves in it - really hear them, sense the rolling tide, and feel snatches of wonder at the sights that befall the journeyers as they're carried into nature's great unknown. You worry as the skies cloud over and night brings the storms, and smile as the sun rises over a calm sea at the song's beautiful conclusion.

Cold Fusion's album, Pathways.

2. Communion and the Oracle - Symphony X
What? These guys again? Well, it turns out they're fantastic at writing really wonderful music. Communion and the Oracle makes no sense whatsoever. It's off a concept album about Atlantis, and I have no idea what most of the lyrics are going on about. That doesn't stop it from being amazing, though. Remember how I mentioned that Paradise Lost had a masterfully assembled texture? Communion and the Oracle goes beyond even that, blending in snatches of orchestral or classical music, moving smoothly from relaxed quiet sections to moving, rolling melodies to stirring epic sections that can raise the hair on your arms if you listen to them too hard. Like Journey to the Ocean, it sounds like the sea - except this time we're under the water, and the song's texture sounds like depth and shoals of fish. It's a completely engrossing effect, and gets stronger the more you experience it. Sometimes, in the stirring parts, it switches to a more human emphasis, with the lyrics talking about uniting nations. So someone is joining forces underwater. Maybe. Either way, pretty much any part of it can be relaxing, deep and meaningful, or epic depending on how you're listening to it, and that's a fantastic achievement, well worthy of a top-3 spot here.

And yet somehow, it still can't beat...

1. The Rain Song - Led Zeppelin
Let's take a step back. We've had a succession of complex, involved pieces, each one skilfully composed and perfectly pitched, expressing something indefinable and beautiful with each glorious phrase. The Rain Song is not that sort of song; it's simpler, quieter, less ambitious. It's largely based around a couple of guitars relaxedly playing mellow chords and the odd note in between, later on throwing in some strings and an understated piano to fill out the sound. You don't hear any drums for the first half of it. It's a love song. And it's beautiful.

Try and listen to it when it's quiet. For best effect, lie back on your own in a tent in the Lake District at midnight when it's raining, use good headphones, and experience the most tranquil moment of your life. It worked for me, and that's not hyperbole - it genuinely was the most tranquil feeling I've ever had. Of all these songs, The Rain Song is the only one that makes me want to simultaneously smile and cry a little bit. Well done, Led Zeppelin. 16 years before I was even born, you managed to make a song that would push all of my internal buttons. :)

Seems I'm not the only one, either.

*composes self*

That felt like a journey. If you stuck with me, well, thanks! Do share your opinions. I'd be very interested to see what other people thought of my music. :)   read

7:25 AM on 08.17.2010

Teh Bias: Making War and Love

I've long since disliked romantic subplots in my visual media. You know the ones I'm talking about. The only woman in the movie inevitably falls for and subsequently ends up snogging the musclebound, macho hero. Variations in theme, genre and the significance of said romance to the plot make surprisingly little difference; the relationship will fluctuate in a suitably dramatic way if the film demands it, but they always kiss and make up at the end anyway, a process I've always found slightly painful to watch. I've observed the pattern even in films that are supposed to be about romance.

I find these plots at the very least tiresome. They're predictable, samey, and usually add nothing to the film, in the case of the action movies I gravitate towards. A pretence at character development or relevance can be added by having the woman soften the hero's hardened heart somewhat, allowing him to make the right decision in Act Three, as if men are completely embittered or immoral if they're not in committed relationships.

I'm not saying that romance in movies shouldn't happen. The dynamic between Peck and Sosa in the new A-Team movie is great and adds a few extra tangles to the plot, for example, and Inception uses the complex history between Cobb and his wife to immense depth and effect. These relationships, however, stray a little outside the typical action movie love interest system, the latter more than the former, and for every Wash-and-Zoe, there's a Peter-Parker-and-Mary-Jane to turn your affections sour.

I'm sure Kirsten Dunst is actually a wonderful person, but I couldn't help wishing Pete had only made enough web for one here.

A related point, which I'll tie in later, is character development. As I mentioned, few action movies have much by way of subtle or interesting character arcs. People shoot at/beat up people until someone wins, and I'm not complaining. It's nice to deactivate one's brain for a while and watch pretty colours and explosions. I can't deny, though, that the best movies (of any genre) are the intelligent ones, and it's a little saddening to see so many films fall happily into the same trap of beauty soothing the savage beast, or - if the male lead is young - the inept, socially awkward nerd getting the girl, providing a piece of almost tooth-grindingly unsubtle wish fulfilment for the audience.

So, now that my bias has been explained, let's jump into what - just last night - broke my cynicism and pointed out to me that this kind of out-of-nowhere attachment leading to desperate pre-final-battle passion (and/or the celebratory kiss afterwards, of course) can, in fact, work. And work very well, character development and all. This wasn't even a movie; it was a game. Mass Effect.

You've all heard about Mass Effect's sex scene controversy. In fact, according to the Mass Effect wiki, you can get your rocks off with several of the game's characters. I finished the game for the first time last night, having only been aware of the infamous lesbian alien close encounter (of the fourth base kind, I guess?) with Liara, a team-mate of yours notable for being blue and having tentacles instead of hair. Features that Aayla Secura has long since proven not to restrict a man's libido, but I digress.

When I heard of Shepard's seductive prowess in the first place, I didn't think that it would involve actual romance, much less do a proper job of it. Games don't tend to include much character development at all. The interactive equivalent of the action movie - the AAA first-person shooter - tends to involve a satisfying setting and plot arc, but not much by way of characterisation, or even dialogue other than your support character/immediate superior giving you orders. In a way, I suppose this might be more true to life than the expectation that intense events lead to immediate and tangible changes to one's personality. Games like RTSs are even colder, told from the superior's perspective. And in racing or fighting games, who honestly cares? I'm yet to delve into RPGs in a major way, and most of the indie games I own happen not to be the deep artsy ones (World of Goo is probably the closest, and that has no characters at all. Well, maybe one), so perhaps my expectations of how much depth the game would involve in its inter-character relationships were shallower than they might otherwise have been, but the point still stands.

Not pictured: human emotion. For that matter, not pictured: humans.

My character, one Commander Vaderette Shepard, started the game a ruthless and somewhat feared war veteran. Slightly bitter and willing to fiercely defend her actions, she was military through and through, but had little respect for bureaucracy or politics. Harsh and occasionally abrasive, she rarely showed kindness to those she didn't know well or fully trust. In short, she was every inch the badass action hero, complete with a plethora of guns and the skills to use them.

Once I discovered you could chat to your teammates on board the Normandy, I started doing it as much as possible. Then, at one point close to the conclusion of the game, Shepard was talking to Liara when the asari shyly confessed that her initial interest in Shepard due to the visions the Prothean beacon had planted in the commander's mind had grown into something more emotional, something deeper. Then the game asked me what I thought about it. While I hadn't initially envisioned Vaderette Shepard as someone who formed deep emotional attachments that easily, you can't be mean to Liara. It's like kicking a puppy. Plus, of course, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I reciprocated, and Vaderette and Liara had a little heart-to-heart before the dialogue options ran dry for the moment.

The next mission started, and I took Wrex and Garrus for a spin in the Mako, deciding to use some of the other characters instead of my standard Liara/Tali layout. Shooting geth is relatively mindless and my thoughts drifted. It wasn't long before I realised that the game had in fact been continually setting Shepard - or rather, me - up to fall in love with Liara from the very moment we encountered her.

Even her default expression looks a bit worried and vulnerable.

Liara's the last of your six compadres to join your team. She's not military at all; she's a scientist, with her main area of research the study of the ancient, long-extinct Prothean civilisation. When you meet her, she's trapped behind a force field that triggered when she entered an area, sealing her inside. A true damsel in distress. She isn't the only one you rescue - Tali is fighting off thugs when you find her - but she's the only one that's completely helpless, separated from you by some physical barrier (here an energy field rather than distance or the captivity of an arch-enemy), reliant on you to save her.

Once on the ship, she starts offering her support, attempting to decipher Shepard's visions with the mind-melding abilities of the asari and her knowledge of the Protheans. Right off the bat, the game puts Shepard emotionally close to her in a sense. Liara is gentle, and doesn't hold any strong opinions or bitterness. While she's probably not the most straight-up likeable character - that would be Garrus, or perhaps Kaidan once you get to know him, in my opinion - you grow fond of her in a way you don't find with the others. The game even takes pains to make you feel protective of her. In combat, she has no martial skills, instead focusing entirely on her biotic talents. When she mind-melds with Shepard, she feels herself drained and exhausted afterwards, going to the medical bay to lie down. Despite Shepard's badassery, the game appealed directly to my own (completely soft) heart, and made it pretty much impossible for me to maintain the harshness in Liara's direction.

It's interesting to consider how she contrasts with Tali. Tali, too, requires saving, has no real merit as a gunfighter, and as a quarian, is shunned by many of the people she might meet and is far away from the place she's called home for most of her life. You never get the idea that she needs protecting, though. Perhaps it's the mask that distances her from you, as you don't see her face; perhaps it's her occasionally-acid tongue and air of being unafraid to confront situations or ask awkward questions. Liara, on the other hand, continually seems harmless or vulnerable despite the game never explicitly stating either.

So perhaps beauty, or at least blue skin and tentacle hair, can soothe Shepard's savage heart after all. Oddly, it didn't end there. I started feeling strangely attentive to Liara, even going so far as to sometimes choose another character over her for a mission so as to keep her out of harm's way (which is a silly idea, as I think my teammate deaths for the playthrough totalled a mighty one, when Garrus wandered into some crossfire when I wasn't looking; Mass Effect is supremely easy on lower difficulty). Moreover, a certain plot choice that occurred on Virmire left me feeling suddenly a lot more appreciative of my teammates in general, especially Kaidan, and I started changing who I had with me from mission to mission just to spend time with the ones I didn't use often. I couldn't bring myself to be mean to any of them any more, not just Liara. Vaderette had found herself some friends. I (spoiler, highlight to read) let the Council die, because fuck politics, and there was no way I was going to be civil to that douchebag Udina, but on board the Normandy, the abrasiveness was gone.

BFFs 4eva. Wait, what, you can seduce him in ME2?!

To put it bluntly, this is genius. The game carefully crafts character development in a situation where you control your character's opinions and actions by appealing directly to you, the player. You make your plot-changing choices during the game based on your opinions of the situations and the characters involved, not because killing the puppies gives you 20% more gold. As an example (another white-text spoiler), I saved Wrex on Virmire because Shepard and I got on well with him in a weird sort of way, and I chose Kaidan over Ashley because Ashley's kind of a racist and Kaidan's just some guy who gets headaches and puts up with having a temperamental Spectre for a commanding officer but never complains. I decided Liara's affection for Shepard was mutually returned because the game had made me fond of her as well, to the point where I didn't want to upset her by refusing. You can't get audience involvement this deep in movies, or even novels; you just can't. When the game ended, I felt quite sad; sad that I wouldn't be able to continue adventuring the galaxy with my newfound friends (and alien love interest).

I guess there's always the DLC. And Mass Effect 2. I'm buying that ASAP.

So, there you have it: the tale of how Bioware overturned my preconceptions of romance in the fictional media, and made it relevant and engaging to me in a way I can safely say I've never experienced before through any medium. Who would've thought that watching a spaceborne secret agent falling in love with a blue monogendered psychic alien who temporarily disappeared every time I pressed the pause button could feel so... real?   read

7:05 PM on 08.06.2010

A Reply to Jim: Casual Gaming

This was (and still is) a comment I posted in reply to one of the Jimquisition videos, but it turned out to be big enough that I thought I might as well make it worth the time it presumably took to type and throw it up here, with a slight re-edit. You can, and should if you haven't seen it, watch the video here.


In contrast to homicidalmutantmonkey, I do have an uber-computer (or at least a gaming laptop) and a lot of games. Yet I wouldn\'t say I\'m a hardcore gamer. I\'m definitely into games, but I do it by waiting until big-budget titles show up on Steam or Gamestation\'s preowned shelves for hardly anything, snap them up and enjoy them. I don\'t always enjoy them for hours at a stretch, though. There are only two games I\'ve played end-to-end: Portal (which is short and wonderful) and Transformers War for Cybertron (I was really bored with nothing else to do, and it\'s a fantastic game anyway). It\'s safe to say that about half of my games, maybe more, are incomplete or even unstarted. I'll get around to them at some point; there's no rush.

So, I don\'t spend £40 on each game I own, nor do I play them obsessively. By definition, pretty much, I\'m casual. The game I play the most is itself a semi-casual game, the wonderfully addictive Audiosurf (second and third at the moment are Soul Calibur 2, which I\'m awful at but very interested in, and Supreme Commander 2, which is definitely not casual).

That established, I\'ll say that while I appreciated the argument you made, Jim, I think it did have some flaws. The examples you chose, for example. Are you - a professional game reviewer no less - really going to claim, even in rant mode, that the Final Fantasy series or Dragon Age are experiences equivalent to FarmVille? Dragon Age (if Mass Effect is any indication) is deep, cinematic, shifting itself to fit your playstyle and moral choices. It and the other Bioware RPGs broke boundaries in gaming with the inclusion of sex scenes, particularly the homosexual ones, and its clever, high-budget conversation system. As for Final Fantasy, well, people still talk about the plots and characters of FF7 and FF8 (in particular) to this day. I\'ve never played any of the games but I could name you several characters from FF7-FF10.

The difference between these games (and many others) and the simple Facebook games is vast. Sure, at an extremely basic level it\'s just a form of non-constructive entertainment (here \'non-constructive\' meaning that any gains or skills acquired by engaging in the activity in question are only any use when performing said activity, i.e. playing FPSs makes you better at FPSs but not much else). However, you can lump everything from movies to novels to sitting and talking with your friends into this category, and like these other things, you can learn from \'real\' games. Some of them have sweeping storylines, poignant points to make or thought-provoking themes. Others have immersive visuals that sweep you away into a made-up world that you can not just imagine, but see with your own eyes, interact with, be a major part of. I don\'t think FarmVille can really compare to the visceral triumph of outmanoeuvring and defeating twenty enemy soldiers in Crysis, captaining your own ship on vital galactic missions in Mass Effect, commanding giant legions of robotic war machines in Supreme Commander, losing yourself in a haunting afterlife in Limbo, driving at high speed through a war-torn machine-planet in Transformers: WfC... you get the point.

FarmVille itself is a bit of a skewed example, too. Casual gaming doesn\'t just include microtransaction-powered Zynga games. It includes things like Wii Sports and Brain Training, full-priced games for consoles you have to spend money to buy, just like a \'hardcore\' gamer pays to buy FPSs and RPGs. On the other end of the scale, anyone can pick up and play Battleforge, Exteel or Dragonica for absolutely nothing, and many more games besides. (I adore Battleforge, actually.) And everyone plays and loves PopCap games.

While - as I mentioned - I liked your points, Jim, I think you\'ve vastly exaggerated the gulf between hardcore and casual gaming. The only real difference is that casual gamers play different games, and usually spend less time dedicated to them (Facebook is procrastination most of the time, whereas you can\'t play Crysis at work or on a smartphone while waiting for the bus). There\'s also the fact that most casual gamers wouldn\'t know what on earth to do if you gave them a \'proper\' game, because let\'s face it, games are complicated. I\'ve never owned a console and as a result I can barely move and aim simultaneously if I try to play a shooter using a joypad.

I think, myself, that this is the main source of any derision or cries of stupidity. That, and a sense of slight disgust that most of the gaming community would probably admit to feeling, aimed at the large amounts of \'casual\' shovelware produced primarily for Nintendo\'s systems. These games milk the touchscreen and motion sensing for all they\'re worth to provide basic, accessible gameplay, selling to people who don\'t care about or notice things like bloom and moral choice systems. It\'s evidently a formula that works, and it\'s a valid one I suppose. But, even as someone who doesn\'t own a Wii, I\'m personally disappointed to see that this appears to be Nintendo\'s focus rather than on using and perfecting their motion controls for more complex gameplay, allowing developers to spend far less time and money on graphics and concentrate on other aspects of their software. Seriously, why has it taken this long for Zelda: Skyward Sword to exist?

That, in my opinion, is the root of the problem. And for what it\'s worth, while your main counterargument - spending less money on games - is a worthy pursuit by all means, I think anyone who pays for something like Wii Sports Resort is at the very least wasting their money...   read

4:57 PM on 07.11.2010

DLC: The Downside

So I've had a go at Transformers: War for Cybertron, and I love it. It's tight, versatile, fun, and the first game ever where I want to melee someone when I also have the option to shoot them (this includes games which revolve around melee). Kudos to High Moon for making what is, in essence, a bloody brilliant game. I'm almost certainly going to buy it, and I'm looking forward to having a shot at the multiplayer.

But hang on. It only has six PvP maps?

Unreal Tournament 3 has 15-or-so deathmatch maps and 30, 40, possibly even more, for the other game modes combined. Granted, I don't actually like most of them, but still. UT2004 has over a hundred in total, plus another, oh, well over fifty and possibly over another hundred in Community Bonus Packs, ChaosUT maps and other random downloads. My UT2004 install is actually so bloated with mods I acquired on whims that it weighs in at over twelve gigabytes (original size: about five and a half). While I hate to go all "in my day", it seems that you got a lot more content for your purchase in the past.

You see before you the greatest multiplayer map ever made.

Now. I'm sure TWfC's maps are big, beautiful and well-designed, like the single-player ones. In fact, Cybertron is fantastically brought to life in the game, but that's not the point I'm trying to make. Several modern (and rather interesting) games, such as Modern Warfare 2, have short singleplayer campaigns in favour of selling themselves as multiplayer experiences, and with the way multiplayer is presented today, I find myself somewhat put off. The advent of DLC has left me notably shaky about buying modern games for their multiplayer components, especially when I already have the entire Unreal series and TF2.

TF2 is the model multiplayer game, isn't it? Constantly tweaked and expanded by its parent company, well-loved to an almost meme-like degree within the gaming community, instantly recognisable and an absolute blast to play. It's also very cheap, considering the sheer amount of content you get for the price. With games like this in existence, never mind sitting on my hard drive, it's hard to countenance the idea of buying a game at £30 - or even using my normal tactic of waiting until I find it on sale or preowned and picking it up for £10-15 - and then paying extra (probably about a fiver) for every couple of new maps and characters they release.

DLC delivered this way has a couple of problems. The obvious one is that the game becomes less and less justifiable as a purchase. Getting the most out of it requires spending more money over time, almost like a subscription. I'm not personally bothered about additional character models, and balance changes can be implemented via patches. In my opinion, the most important thing required to keep a multiplayer game fresh and interesting is a healthy supply of maps, whether that's by introduction of new ones over time or massive variety in the game itself.

A picture of something I mentioned earlier to break up the text. Oddly, the bit they're standing in seems shaped like the back corner of Reflection from UT3.

A small digression to emphasise the point. Map design is everything in multiplayer, whether it's tactical control point combat or simple deathmatching. Not only is it difficult - it has to complement the playstyle and weapon balance of the game, as well as providing an interesting and reasonably varied combat experience - but the replayability of a game hinges mightily on how good its maps are, and their number. For example, I don't play UT3 that often because I don't like its maps that much, even though it has the best feel, weapon balance and graphics of the series. If a game only has six maps but they're all fantastic, it might well survive, but a 100% awesome map rate isn't particularly likely. On top of that, of course, it helps to have a variety of maps simply so that people don't learn them all inside-out within ten hours of play, which makes the learning curve steeper for other players who join the game further down the line.

This isn't a problem at all if the DLC is free. Putting huge effort into supplementing a game's single-player with a vast variety of multiplayer maps pre-release is only going to waste money and time if the game doesn't take off too well. It also helps earn goodwill for the publishers/developers involved, and can help generate more sales of the original game in future. It can, however, raise worries of funding for the work it takes to make this content, and that of course is where the idea of paid DLC comes in.

Returning to my original point, then, paying for a game in full knowledge that you'll be expected to pay more in order to make the game continue to be interesting feels, for me, a little like I'm being cheated. I think Dragon Age had this problem particularly badly, where an NPC would offer you a quest that you couldn't actually take on unless you paid EA a fiver. That's not only irritating and unfair, it's an immersion-breaker to boot. For shame.

Look, see? Penny Arcade (and everyone else) agree with me.

Another, perhaps subtler, problem with paid DLC is that it runs a risk of dividing the community somewhat. Depending on the game's matchmaking system, the idea that some people might not be able to participate in other people's games (and vice versa, if they've bought different DLC packs) or join certain servers is a bit offputting. In a system where players host single matches rather than playing on servers, for the few days immediately following a DLC release, it's going to be difficult for those who didn't buy the packs to find games on the original maps, as everyone's trying out the new ones. In a free content model, this doesn't apply at all, as everybody's going to get the new stuff.

Perhaps the worst kind of paid DLC is that which allows players to gain advantages over opponents, by granting new and superior abilities or weaponry. I don't know of any specific examples of this happening, but I can foresee it. This sort of thing tends to upset everybody who didn't buy the overpowered stuff, and can turn a community sour quite easily. Microtransaction-powered MMOs can fall into the same trap, too.

It's a shame, really. You can certainly see why paid DLC exists, and can't really fault the developers for creating it; they have to make money somehow, after all, and they still have to get paid even when they're making free content. For a smaller, publisher-dependent developer (i.e. not Valve), it may be the only real option, especially in today's recession. But it does have a lot of downsides, and I personally would be a lot happier about plunking down a significant amount of money on a game with a pretty short single-player and a new, yet-to-be-expanded multiplayer experience if I knew that I wouldn't have to pay for it to be expanded either.   read

11:46 AM on 07.06.2010

Split/Second: a review

Imagine if racing was directed by Michael Bay, and you've a rough approximation of what Split/Second: Velocity looks like. Shiny sports cars and humvee-sized jeep things drifting and colliding through environments laboriously constructed and rigged to explode, and I don't just mean red barrels with convenient flame decals on them (there's a game mode where those fall off the back of trucks). Since yesterday, I've blown up a power plant cooling chimney, brought down an air control tower, dropped a bridge (and a freeway overpass) on various unfortunate opponents, derailed a freight train, dodged fighter jets on the listing deck of an aircraft carrier, and been flattened by the disintegrating engine of a flaming passenger aircraft making an emergency landing.

I mean, sure, you respawn, but still.

Developed by Black Rock Studios, the unnecessarily punctuated Split/Second: Velocity is this new racing game you've probably heard of. And it's great. The single-player (I'm about half way through) occasionally induces great frustration and will certainly continue to do so in future, and the console-designed UI and menus are almost as annoying, but the actual racing and its various game modes are packed with both adrenalin and neat new ideas. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's flawless - the nuanced drifting/cornering system could be a little more intuitive and perhaps consistent between vehicles, and the game's habit of splashing pyrotechnics and smoke everywhere occasionally leads to you dying to something you just didn't see - but I would certainly call it brilliant, or good old 'awesome'.

Cars + 'Splosions =

The main part of any racing game is the actual racing, and here, SSV doesn't disappoint. The feature around which the game is based is the range of destructible, destructive environments in which it takes place. Essentially, the game has powerups, but these are inlaid into the track itself rather than being collectibles. You activate the attacks by spending power, which is gained through drifting, drafting (basically tailgating people), jumps, and narrowly avoiding death from other people's attacks. The focus on these mechanics is nothing new, but the shift from collectible weaponry to environmental makes a major difference to how the game plays.

The levels are gloriously huge, and full of stuff that blows up - permanently. Many power-plays (what the game calls these attacks) are one-use, leaving permanent burning wreckage or rubble scattered around the landscape. Trucks which explode and tumble out into the middle of the road are present in most of the tracks, and are a good example. Some of them are so apocalyptic that they actually change the layout of the track. These route changes are, for me, the best thing about Split/Second. Not only is the landscape and powerup layout slightly different from race to race (as you will or won't be able to use certain power plays at certain times), but the entire track itself can differ. Most races seem to have two route changes, usually one near (or right at) the start and one half to two-thirds of the way through. These require a large amount of power to trigger, but can unavoidably kill several enemy racers at once AND often make the race exponentially more awesome. Great examples are the air control tower in the airport level, which opens up a runway that - the next lap round - plays host to a crashing jumbo jet for you to dodge, and the one in the Docks level that collapses a structure and turns it into a huge ramp that lands you on the deck of an aircraft carrier, where you then have to avoid fighter jets sliding down the tilted surface and into the water below. Apparently, there's a track where you get to blow up an entire dam.

Pictured: Not a dam. We destroyed the dam.

Another point in favour of the level/powerup design is the way it keeps the race tense and together. It's rare to get very far ahead or very far behind, and there are sneaky ways to catch up. Once you're at the rear of the pack, you can drift and draft all you want without anyone attacking you, store up a massive amount of power, then kill four competitors at once with a route change. (This has yet to fail to pull me out of a bad situation, for what it's worth.) Level-two power plays, which also take up a full bar of power, are another good option here. Conversely, while you're in front, it's harder to gain power (due to the absence of drafting) and you've nothing to spend it on besides changing routes or opening shortcuts. Split/Second doesn't allow you to trigger power plays without a target, which does prevent you from doing it by accident, I suppose. It doesn't feel like a restriction, in any case.

While you are in front, you get another kind of cinematic experience altogether: the wild escape. Explosions detonate all around you as enemies (inevitably right behind you) target you with power plays. You dodge, drift and generally try to get the hell away as fast as possible. I've heard it likened to the Millennium Falcon's escape of the Death Star, blazing towards space while detonations ripple around it. Often, you don't see the explosions at all, just hear the sound, feel your car skid from the shockwave, and get a splatter of smoky dirt across your screen.

Details, Details

The car handling seems to be solid underneath, but it's very hard to master. With many cars, it's difficult to steer at all without needing to drift; this varies widely from car to car. Once you're in the drift, then a whole new problem opens up: how to stop (and as a corollary, how to stop in such a way that you don't get overtaken by five guys or careen headlong into a building full of TNT). Again, different vehicles handle in massively different ways, with some drifting and driving straight almost on an on-off switch, while others fishtail around like Warthogs on an ice rink, seesawing wildly while you swear and frantically tap buttons in a futile attempt to get them back under control. (You can tell that this has lost me races.) So far, of the 15-ish cars I have access to, I only really use one of them. I'll have a go at the others in an environment other than the story mode, but mostly I try each one, decide it's too hard to steer properly and go back to the Cobretti GT RS, which is supposed to be hard to steer, but it seems to fit well with the way I've been playing so far. One of the Detonator events put me behind the wheel of a Cobretti Slipstream, which I loved, but haven't unlocked yet. The cars are made-up, but styled heavily after existing cars - the GT-RS, for example, seems based off a Ferrari F430. (Apparently this random site agrees with me.)

Details matter, and Split/Second has some details that I'm very pleased with. The cars you drive are made of tough stuff; tough enough that the states of 'intact' and 'dead' are binary. You can survive most crashes, unless they're at high speed; clipping walls and dying isn't as much of a risk as it was when I tried out Burnout. Driving into random crap on the road (small barriers, lamp posts, mesh gates, wreckage, etc) in most cases won't even slow you down, and never does you harm; instead it scatters before you as you plough through it. These two things are a godsend. They place the emphasis of destruction properly and mean you don't have to be too afraid of, say, shoving other racers out of the way or using walls as impromptu brakes when you're drifting. Fun times. The cars don't differ much in speed, just the way they handle and perform, which is also good; it allows you the choice of the full gamut of vehicles, but it seems they've managed to give each one its own unique feel, which you've generally got an idea of after drifting round your first corner.

The game has a nicely minimal in-game HUD, with not even a speedometer. It's the menus that grind my gears.

But Wait, There's More...

And after all that! It has other game modes, too. I'll try and make this brief. There are, I think, five game modes other than the standard race. Survival has you racing around a simple circuit dodging explosive barrels that tumble from the back of trucks, scoring points each time you overtake one, and trying to accumulate as many points as possible before the timer runs out. Of the various modes, I think this is the weakest, for the simple reason that the explosions from the barrels (and the NPC drivers around you cannoning into them) make it impossible to see the barrels beyond them. Generally, when you die in Survival, it's because you couldn't see. It also has a problem in that it plays up a small kink in the game's collision detection that kills you if a hazard juuuuust clips the upper rear of your vehicle, which of course is generally empty space as the bounding box rises above the car boot, meaning you can die to things that you're pretty sure you correctly dodged; in Survival, bouncing barrels can go straight over you, then intersect the air above your taillights by a pixel and kill you (it's happened a few times to me so far).

Air Strike and Air Revenge are perhaps the most unusual, and surprisingly fun, if sometimes frustrating. You drive around a track, and as you do so, an attack helicopter fires missiles at you. Markers highlight the targeted positions. You avoid them to score points; three direct hits and you're out. Air Revenge times you rather than giving you lives; here, as you dodge (as well as drift and jump) you gain power, and can use this power to reflect the missiles back at the helicopter, damaging it. While certain tracks can make this a tooth-grinding task, Air Strike isn't necessarily as hard nor as un-fun as it sounds, and surviving for a long time, racking up points, does make you feel pretty skilled. Not seeing the markers is occasionally a problem, but the game is kind enough to highlight their position through terrain - it's ones you hadn't noticed that then get obscured by explosions once you get near them, or ones around corners, that are problematic. What normally kills you in Air Strike, though, is explosions blowing you into other incoming missiles.

Right behind this car is a missile-firing helicopter, four wrecks, and a train bridge blowing up. Honestly.

Elimination is vicious. It's a race, but after a minute, the car in last place is permanently taken out, and the same again every 20 seconds until there's only one left. It's a lot harder than a race, because you can't cruise in last place and wait for a good opportunity to play catch-up; you need to stay near or at the front of the pack the whole time. One untimely power play or collision can take you out of the race. It's much harder, and consequently much more adrenalin-filled, but also a whole lot more frustrating in the story mode.

Detonator has you trying to beat set times on a track lap while power plays go off ahead of you. It's mostly a way to show off the best a track has to offer. It's also very difficult to beat the 'first place' record - I haven't managed to do so yet, although I think I've achieved second place on all of the ones I've done so far. It's kind of relaxing compared to the other modes; it's also cinematic, as the power plays that detonate tend to be the big, cataclysmic ones and the level-unique ones, rather than the ubiquitous bomb-dropping helicopters and such like. It'd be a great way to practice levels if it didn't judge your performance when you finished the lap.

To sum up: Split/Second makes a lot of innovations, and most of them work extremely well. It feels polished and tight, and its replay value is very high (as the race is never really the same twice). It goes straight for the adrenalin centre of your brain, and never lets up. It does have a few, generally minor, flaws, and the UI makes me want to punch it sometimes, but it's damn fun. Also, an entire dam.   read

1:54 PM on 07.05.2010

All Your Boss

“Pixels to pixels, stats to stats…”

The priest’s words washed over Bowser along with the rest of the congregation. Like them, he paid the funeral speech little heed. It was one too many deaths in a long, bloody, seemingly unbreakable chain. Granted, a particularly heartbreaking death, one which reverberated through the bosses’ small, loose-knit community like the shockwaves of a type-three ground pound attack.

Bowser raised his gaze, and fixed it upon the tall tombstone at the head of the grave. He was too far away to read the writing, but the carven wing once again destroyed his hopes that this was, somehow, some horrible mistake. Shining, graceful, climactic, Sephiroth had been a shining exemplar amidst the numbers, someone all young bosses aspired to be. Mooks and grunts across genres would have killed for the chance to serve under him. And he had been Bowser's friend.

Someone else was speaking, a new voice extolling the virtues of the recently deceased; Sephiroth’s sequel-sister, Ultimecia. Her voice shook with emotion as she delivered a moving obituary. Bowser half-listened, consumed with a slowly rising wrath. He himself had barely escaped death at the hands of Mario time and again. Countless times. When would the fool learn? Peach had no affection for the fat plumber, hadn’t had in a long time. Couldn’t the idiot just accept this was part of the normal way of things? Bowser was sick of living in castles filled with magma pits and death traps. Peach, though she looked rather nice by firelight, wanted to live somewhere light and airy, with a kitchen-garden perhaps. Bowser couldn’t blame her. He wanted much the same thing. Okay, maybe with just one or two deathtraps, but they’d be in a shed next to the garage, put there for old times’ sake. Then the two of them could settle down; no more castles, no more villainous fortresses.

Something had to be done. It really did. Legions of goombas and koopas had failed to even slow Mario down; that infernal man never gave up. And try as he might, Bowser could never take him out; it was as if Mario knew exactly what he was going to do at all times, evading each and every attack by a bare whisper. Luckily, Mario seemed to believe the finest method of attack was to jump on your opponent’s head time and again, and so Bowser mostly only suffered migraines. It was bad enough.
The funeral ended. Slowly, the crowd of mourners dispersed, a throng of everything from gun-toting assassins to giant furred beasts. Someone called Bowser’s name, and he turned, starting suddenly. An enormous, dragonlike visage hung in the air behind him.

“Robotnik wants to speak to you,” Hydra said. “He’s where my right head is. Are you coming to the literary society meet this Thursday?”

Life moves on, I suppose, Bowser thought. “I’ll be there,” he said wearily, moving off in the direction of one of the titanic creature’s other heads. “Thanks.”

“No problem. See you then. Also –” Hydra lowered its voice sympathetically – “I know he meant a lot to you. Take it easy, okay?”

Bowser nodded briefly, not wanting to discuss his attachment to Sephiroth any longer. The two had been childhood friends, and had even studied at the same university – Bowser doing Fortress Architecture, which was how he’d met his castle-inhabiting Princess in the first place, and Sephiroth doing a joint course in Dramatic Flair and Evil Nemesising… even then, he’d always been a high flyer. They’d eventually parted ways, as Time has its way with even the greatest of friendships, and gone on to careers in different genres, contact slowly dwindling between them. The separation had pained Bowser more than he liked to admit. More than anything, he wished he’d had the motivation to write to Sephiroth one more time – maybe meet up, reminisce about the old times. Ha, like that one night out in the Pit, where Seph got so drunk that he –

“Bowser.” It was a statement more than a greeting. Bowser and Robotnik didn’t normally get on all that well, despite having very similar work situations – frequent headaches and all. Robotnik was too obsessed with his scientific studies to have ever learnt how to communicate properly with people, and was known for his inability to check whether Bowser was around before making lewd comments about his wife. I guess I have to tolerate the man for now, Bowser thought. I can deal with this maturely and move on.

“What is it, Doctor?”

“It is time something was done on this matter. I know you were close to Sephiroth and hope you agree with me on this.”

Bowser nodded, irritated at the doctor’s brush-off mention of the deep bond he and the One-Winged Angel – as he was already being referred to – had once shared. “As a matter of fact, yes, I think it was time we stood up to these Characters properly. How though, I don’t know.”

“It is simple, when you think about it.” Robotnik stroked his massage, clearly excited about this idea. Probably another wacko gadget that didn’t work, Bowser thought grumpily. “We ally.”


“We team up. A character may be able to take on any of us one-on-one and survive, but there’s no way that either of our respective nemeses is going to run into you, me in a vehicle, Hydra and that bloke over there with a sniper rifle, and still come back for more. I’ve spoken to some others about this already, and they agree with me. If I get enough interest, I’ll go public with it and we can beat these eggheads down. Are you in?”

Bowser considered. Gradually, he warmed to the idea. This didn’t sound like a harebrained scheme at all, actually. As long as Robotnik didn’t spend the whole time trying to eye Peach up, it would be worth joining forces – especially with a couple of other bosses too – to give Mario the definitive message that things between him and Peach had been over years and years ago. ‘The princess is in another castle’, indeed. Never got the hint, did he…?

Back to the matter at hand. Bowser cleared his throat. “It… it could well work,” he admitted, surprised to be actually saying this to Robotnik. It wasn’t something that happened often.

Robotnik nodded energetically. “Thanks. I’ll send you a departmental memo or something to arrange a join-up, even if this doesn’t go public. That blue sonofahedgehog is going down hard.”   read

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