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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Audio Sadism: Metallica and Lou Reed - Lulu

DAMNIT.

NO.

WHY DID I DECIDE TO DO THIS. IT BURNS. I WOULD HONESTLY RATHER HAVE WEASELS RIP MY FLESH THAN LISTEN TO THIS ALBUM AGAIN.

But alas, I must review this... "album" out of self-hatred and because I said I would in the last AS post. So, without further ado...



First, let me get this out of the way to appease naysayers (if there are even any who try to defend this album): I did listen to this whole album. TWICE. When I put myself through these albums I always put aside any preexisting notion of album quality, listen with a fresh mind, and try to find the best of it. But, both listens turned up empty. You heard me right. There is not a SINGLE REDEEMING QUALITY to this album. NONE WHATSOEVER.

The production is alright, I guess. I mean, it's overproduced and clipped to hell because "METAL IS LOUD \m/", but at least you can hear the instruments well enough, except for the bass, but this is Metallica after all. The concept could have worked if done by a group of musicians competent enough to actually pull it off convincingly. The album is based off of a series of controversial plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind, and that in itself is loaded with potential! The stories are certainly dark and gritty, making it ripe for a metal concept album, and the play aspect makes it fitting for lengthy, progressive epics, recurring motifs, and other such thing. Hell, if this album were done by, say, Opeth, it'd be a masterpiece!

I can never not find a use for this picture.

But here's the thing: Metallica, with their collaboration with Lou Reed, are trying to be something they aren't. They're a thrash metal band, first and foremost (and a suffocatingly generic one at that); they simply aren't suited to the lengthy compositions that this type of subject material calls for. Before the album released, there was some possibility that Lou Reed, in all of his polarizing weirdness, might be able to bring the album past mediocrity, and if it did turn out to be shit, it'd certainly be spectacularly shitty. But, unfortunately, it seems like the bulk of the music was done by Metallica. Lou Reed's biggest contribution to this release is vocals. I know he's Lou Reed and he's supposed to be polarizing and avant-garde and all of that type of stuff, but here, he simply sounds like an old man, and that, combined with the lyrical content of the album, raises the album to new heights of disturbing mental imagery. Take the first track, Brandenburg Gate, and envision this: C-major tuned acoustic chords start the track off, and it all sounds swell, maybe even exciting, when SUDDENLY YOU GET AN OLD MAN STATING THAT "I WOULD CUT MY LEGS AND TITS OFF WHEN I THINK OF BORIS KARLOFF AND KINSKI"

And that's among the least cringeworthy of Lou Reed's vocal sections. 

For me, it's not the lyrical content itself, I mean it's certainly unnerving, but there's a difference between unnerving to get across the intended concept, and then there's creepy-perverted old dude unnerving. Maybe if these lines were done by a guest female singer or something, it'd be much improved. But nope, we're stuck with Lou Reed and James Hetfield doing this. With James Hetfield's backing vocals repeating "Small-town giiiiiiirrrrllll!" amidst Lou Reed's creepy old-dude vocals, you'd think that this was an elaborate joke on the fans. And let's not even delve into Hetfield's now-infamous outburst of "I am the table!" on The View. Special mention goes to Little Dog, the second track of disc two, for being pure, unadulterated WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS WHY IS THIS EVEN A THING.

And then there's the repetition. Oh, GODS, the repetition. On the fourth track, Mistress Dread, the first riff is an almost decent Metallica-caliber one, finally kicking the album into the long-awaited thrash metal experience that Metallica are known for! ...And then it keeps going. And going. For the rest of the song. Which also happens to be seven-minutes long. Later, the second-disc song Dragon seems to show some promise with the building-up of the central riff and the increasing heaviness and speed, but again, it's the same riff being repeated for 11 minutes, UNINTERRUPTED. It's literally the only riff in the song! There's verse-chorus-verse song structure with some repetition, and then there's second-wave black metal repetition, AND THEN THERE'S THIS. Sure, the repetition might not be as bad if the riffs were some really great ones, but these are among the most simplistic and generic riffs that Metallica has ever released. (Even by Metallica standards!) That, combined with Lou Reed's aforementioned creepy-old-guy vocals already negates 95% of anything this album had going for it. Case-in-point, the final track, Junior Dad. It's twenty minutes long, and at least ten of those minutes consist of a strings section playing the exact same chords. The orchestra apparently does perform throughout the album, but I barely noticed it, and it's a damn shame that they were consigned to THIS.

It's boring. It's pointless. It's poorly-executed. It's Lulu, the much-maligned collaboration between Metallica and Lou Reed, and rightfully so as I have borne witness to. Some concepts are better left to memory, for the sake of mankind. I'd say it deserves to be heard just for how much of an atrocity it is, but hearing this entire album is a fate I would wish on no man. If you want experimental Metallica, check the Load albums. If you want Metallica with an orchestra, check the S&M live performance. Spare your sanity and forget that this album exists. 



Gamers, Grow Up

People like to defend things they're fans of; local sports teams, bands, their favorite movies, and video games.  Some people can take this too far, and it's often in the realm of sports (see: riots).

What I want to focus on , is how we, as gamers, are taking things a little too far.  Not to a violent extent, but how we are perpetuation the perception that gamers are spoiled, whiny man-children  (or woman-children if you prefer).

I am an equal-opportunity judgement-passer.


Note, I'm sure this won't cover everyone, just a VERY vocal portion of the community.  

The first point I want to bring up is how DEFENSIVE gamers are as a group.  I have never seen a group of hobbyists make as much noise as gamers.  "HEY, LOOK AT ME, TAKE MY HOBBY SERIOUSLY, IT'S A LEGITIMATE THING!".  I would accept this behavior more if it was the '80s, or early '90s, but now?  Not so much.

The following numbers come from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA).  In 2009, entertainment software added $4.9 Billion dollars to the United States GDP (total country wealth).  In 2011, the video game industry pulled $25 billion dollars in revenue, with game software (games, DLC, social games, etc) accounted for $16 billion of that.

The point of these numbers are to state that yes, video games are a legitimate form of entertainment.  Yet time and time again, I see people posting things that just seem to be a cry for attention, for validation that yes, their hobby isn't about to be marginalized.  This is annoying to me, because they're helping perpetuate a stereotype that was started years ago.  Gamers are loud, obnoxious people who live in their parent's basement and is overly fanatical.

While this stereotype isn't fully true anymore, as a whole, gamers are very loud.  I have NEVER seen a post on Facebook that reads "I'm a real booker, I live many lives because the one I live isn't as exciting", or "Only a few PROUD Moviers will repost this".  You just don't see that!  I want the stigma that goes with calling yourself a gamer to go away as much as anyone, but it's not going to if we keep prancing about like petulant children who need to hear their own voice.  Hell, the only other entertainment industry where I see behavior like this is among some fans of professional wrestling!

Seriously guys?


To make matters worse, according to the ESA, the average gamer is age 30.  The Average age... is 30, and they've been playing for, on average, 12 years.

How is it that people who've grown up with gaming, still have this mindset?  This, I cannot fathom.  I thought people would have enough social graces to handle themselves like functioning human beings.  

Speaking of dysfunctional human beings, I'm being brought to point two.

Self-entitled fans.  

I'm talking about the fans that voted Electronic Arts the worst company in America in the Consumerist online survey 2 years in a row.  Apparently, a video game company is worse than businesses that have shady practices.

Worst company in America because...  A game didn't end the way you wanted?  They put always on DRM in Sim City?  Non-essential micro-transactions?  Seriously, that's what you're worked up about?  The fact that this survey was online-only doomed EA from the beginning, because only people who spend a lot of time on the internet would worry about this, and vote on it.  This made it ripe for gamers to abuse.  

These are the same types of people who will complain that they want a sequel to a game, but will turn on it if the game is too different from the original game, or if it's too similar.  If I recall correctly, I saw people griping at StarCraft II because some of the stuff was too similar to the original game, and others complaining because they changed too much, or that some units were gone.  

Yes Kobe, I agree.


There's a fine line between voicing your opinions, and being insufferable about it.  

Example.

Casual game are the scum of gaming, and the players shouldn't be considered real gamers.

Way to be an exclusionary jerk..


The biggest problem with this group is that they express outrage when somebody doesn't share their opinion.  Looking at the Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco, I pulled this exchange off of a Kotaku comments thread. Paraphrased of course, for brevity.  

Person A: I thought the ending fit [the game's theme].
Person B: Then clearly you haven't played the first two games.  Watch this video.
Person C: (to Person A) If you're gonna troll, at least be less obvious.

These people REFUSED to believe that anybody could like something that they despised.  This is why they target games like Call of Duty, Social Games, and almost anything EA does, because in their mind, it's the bane of gaming, and should be universally reviled.  If I went on there and said there's good reason for those games to exist, and that I like Madden, Final Fantasy XIII, and a few other games, they'd go frothing at the mouth and resort to ad hominem attacks.  These people consider those who like these games beneath them, as lesser gamers, or worse.  I've touched on the exclusionary nature of gaming before, so I won't cover it again.  

I will put this out there, I do frequent parts of the internet where this behavior is prominent, so your experience may vary.

That is what the internet has led us to.  Little room for civil discussion, lots of room for unwarranted personal attacks.  Honestly, I don't know how we can fix this vocal minority from perpetuating these negative connotations with the word 'gamer'.  Once people start treating games like movies, board games, and books, this problem should subside.  

As always, if I made an error, or something isn't clear, feel free to let me know.  If you disagree, also feel free to let me know.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hymne *post number here*: Of Updates and The Eighties

So I've been pretty much dead on the blog for a while. I've had some severely outdated-by-now posts I had in the making and may just get around to finishing... someday. But for the present, here's what I've been up to.

So a few days ago, I picked up the new Tomb Raider, and I've been really enjoying it. It's really well-done and actually quite immersive, dare I say, more so than Far Cry 3 (without mods, anyway). Speaking of Far Cry 3, I am becoming physically unable to contain my excitement for FC3: Blood Dragon, the gloriously 80s-styled stand alone game set for release on May 1st.

TRY AND TELL ME THAT THIS ISN'T GONNA BE GAME OF THE YEAR.

I've also been playing Psychonauts (finally!), and reveling in the cutesy-yet-disturbing (Fridge Horror, as the folks at TVTropes would call it) atmosphere. Aside from that, I've been busy with music and school. Not really much else to update on that front. Maybe another album review soon, if I can motivate myself sufficiently.

ALSO FAR CRY 3 BLOOD DRAGON AHHHHHHHHHHH


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Atmosphere and it's Meaning

I just recently finished playing Bioshock for the first time, and I gotta say, it's a pretty good game.  The combat felt a little clunky for the first part of the game, but that's probably because of design choice.  Clearly, the system was devised for a PC, and was ported to the console, which I played on.  Anyways, I'm not here to talk about Bioshock's control scheme, I'm here to talk about it's atmosphere.

"You could never find a use for a picture from NASA's site" says no one ever.


I'm going to attempt to spoil as little as possible, because I don't want people complaining about me ruining a 6 year old game.  Hell, I managed to make it this long without knowing anything about the game really, so these people do exist.

So how do we define the atmosphere?  In the vaguest of terms, it's everything added to the base outline of a game.  These are things that you usually don't interact with directly, the music, lighting, wall decorations, and in Bioshock's case, the Audio Recordings.  The cumulative effect of all these things can have a profound effect on the way you experience a game.  Hell, the random spots of old-timey music you hear while you explore the city of Rapture just adds to it.  When the game can make it's own mythology and setting feel alive, that's when you have good atmosphere.

We never talk about the atmosphere of really any genre besides ones that have either a gritty feel, or ones that have traces of the horror genre.  It can be hard to call a game like Psychonauts "atmospheric", even though it does a lot of the same things.  The music, setting, and imagery is all consistent with what the game sets out to be, but it doesn't carry the same weight as the world in Bioshock.

Brain Diving Catan!  I would play an expansion like this.



I think this issue may come from the fact that people started using "atmosphere" as a way to define horror games.  They wanted a word to explain a feeling of tension. Look back at Resident Evil 1.  The game was really bad in terms of controls, but everything about it was tense.  Look at Silent Hill 2, a game almost universally praised.  The fog added uncertainty, and made you paranoid.

Looking at this, we can redefine atmosphere as such: The feeling of "what the hell is going on here?".

Sure, games have uncertainty in them.  If they were predictable, you wouldn't want to play them.  games that have great atmosphere though, they affect you at a deeper level.  It becomes a morbid curiosity.  You want to know more about what's going on, but you're apprehensive about what's coming up next.  When you're in this state, everything becomes more effective.




Now there's one other game I want to mention (again).

No!  Not you!

The game is Vampires: The Masquerade Bloodlines.  I touched on this before in my last post, but I felt like it needed repeating here.  I think what helps draw me into it, personally, is the minimalistic background music when you're not in nightclubs, or around radios.  It's very simple, but haunting enough to keep you focused.  This game is like Bioshock in that it makes it's own world feel alive, in a sense.  You hear a radio DJ taking phone calls at night and you can read random emails that have no bearing on nothing whatsoever, but these things are important for world building, which, in turn, sucks you into that world.  

So, those are my thoughts on atmosphere in gaming.  I think the term gets used loosely a bit too much.  I feel like it's more akin to tension, but what do I know?  I just write on a random blog for fun.  Feel free to make your own interpretations of the word.





Monday, April 8, 2013

Album Review: Killswitch Engage - Disarm the Descent

The past few weeks I've felt like utter shit. I've lacked motivation for everything and anything, and it's kind of starting to scare me. So I did what every layman would do and I googled everything I was feeling. I was led to a page that talked about bipolar disorder, and surprisingly the symptoms match up pretty good. That particular website even let me take a test to determine my symptoms, and whether or not I should seek help. We won't talk about the results, because this is not the place for it. I just wanted to get it out of the way of why I haven't been active.


I lacked motivation but definitely not inspiration, and while I'm in higher spirits I want to let some of it shine through. A lot of things lately haven't been interesting at all to me. Music is even feeling less stimulating. It sounds silly, but I fucking love music. From metal to jazz, to rap and hip-hop to pop, I like a pretty broad range of music. It hurts to feel like I'm not enjoying it anymore. Music is essential to life. It's essential to everything. From as far back as I can remember, music has always been significant in my life. There's absolutely nothing like it.

What strikes me most is when I can listen to something and feel power from it, like a sudden surge of hope and confidence. The hair on my neck even stands up. You'd think I was seriously having an orgasm sometimes. A fucking awesome musical orgasm.

There's a vagina on that guitar.
So how does this tie in with Killswitch Engage's new album? Well, it doesn't sadly, which is a huge fucking disappointment to someone like me who has their Alive or Just Breathing album on repeat, almost every day, and has thoroughly enjoyed their side project Times of Grace. Not that I'm comparing, but something should be said about the fact that I'm still listening to those over Disarm the Descent. It's certainly not Killswitch's best work, but it is astonishingly better than their latest self titled album, which had a more radio-friendly sound rather than raw and aggressive. It features Jesse Leach on vocals, who appeared on the first two albums more than 10 years ago, and 2011's excellent Times of Grace's Hymn of a Broken Man. If anything the album should be classic.

Disarm the Descent starts off great, as any album should. The Hell in Me is pounding, and starts immediately so. Jesse's screams are brutally guttural. In fact, I would say he's at his best as far as technique goes. However, where Jesse's previous outings with the band literally made you think the guy was giving his heart and soul to sell you, here it is another story. There's something raw and heartfelt about the guy's lyrics and the way he sings and screams them on AOJB and their debut. Disarm the Descent lacks this soulfullness. Don't get me wrong, it's a great album and one of Killswitch's better ones, but knowing that it lacks something so intricate is enough to rate it down in my opinion.


Still, Disarm the Descent is great. It's still pretty fucking aggressive, and the chops are still there in spades. Beyond the Flames is a great song that shows that the guys can still make catchy music. The leading riff is toxic, and the chorus is uplifting and catchy as hell, along with The New Awakening and In Due Time showing more of Killswitch's relentless riffing. Jesse might lack emotion in his screams, but not in his singing, as it shows through the album, but does fall a bit flat and laughable in some songs.

All We Have is easily the weakest song on the album. The chorus feels forced. It's not catchy. It's not angry. It just doesn't fit on the album. The drums pound, the guitars are nice, but the lyrics feel like they would be better off on another song, or discarded completely. It lacks feeling and really makes the album lose cohesion.

However, after that is where the album regains its momentum, even if only slightly. You Don't Bleed For Me is absolutely fucking awesome. Again, it's a song that will make your hair stand up. It's fucking epic. The guitars gallop and there's double bass to be had. Jesse crushes the chorus. His singing is unmatched when done right. The Call and No End In Sight are your standard Killswitch affairs, and are both fast and energetic tracks, which is suddenly stopped abruptly with Always. Always is basically a ballad, and its lyrics are pretty mediocre. Compared to what Killswitch is capable of, this sounds like straight out of a 15 year old's diary. The chorus is so cheesy that I can't stand to listen to it. 

Time Will Not Remain is the last track on the standard edition, and what a way to end the album. The leading riff is soaring, and then the song kicks into overdrive. It's frantic, energetic, and when it's over you'll wish the album had more songs like it. That's one of the problems driving this album. It has the potential to be something special, but is marred by weird inconsistencies.

Nevertheless, Disarm the Descent is still a great album. It's nothing special, like AOJB was, but it is a great album for any metal fan. It's fucking catchy as all hell, and it does get better with every listen. I just wish there were more songs like A Tribute To The Fallen and You Don't Bleed For Me. It lacks a little soul and that raw, human emotion AOJB oozed, but that doesn't mean it is lifeless. Disarm the Descent is a great album and a nice return to form for Killswitch Engage.

Update: Since nobody seems to buy music anymore, listen to the whole album on youtube:



I apologize for the lack of humor. :P

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Thought Scouring And Dingy Santa Monica

So, this is another one of the "touch base" posts.  This time, I'm going to talk about two games I've been playing lately.  They're both games I've played before, and have just recently started replaying.

First and foremost...

PSYCHONAUTS.

This game came out in 2005, and was the first game of Tim Schafer's Double Fine Productions.  It was pretty much a commercial flop, but received fairly good reviews.

Alright, that's enough real world discussion about the game, let's get into why you play.  You play the role of Rasputin (also known as Raz) as he sneaks into a summer camp for psychic children.  The camp is run by the Psychonauts, a secret agency who's members are all powerful psychics.

On the surface, this game looks all cutsy and a bit artsy fartsy, and yeah, it kinda is.  Where this game really shines though, is the characterization.  Every character in the game has a backstory, and a personality.  Every camper, counselor, and secondary character all have their own quirks and behaviors.

Speaking of the counselors, the three you come across all seem like spy tropes you've seen before.  You got your calm, cool, collected guy, the party girl who've very capable, and then the strict militant type.  The interesting thing though is that each of these elite super-spies have locked up memories in their heads.  While poking about in their brains, you can find safes that hold repressed memories.  Crack them open, and you'll be allowed glimpses into their personal lives.  This could be anything from someone falling in love, to another developing a hatred of something due to it being present at the death of a relative.

That last line should kind of jump out of you.  This game is SURPRISINGLY dark at times.  There are nods to different disorders that affect people (split-personality, obsessive compulsive, etc), and while you're in their heads, you will have to face these compulsions head-on in order to help the person.

All of this crazy though is wrapped up in absolutely wonderful level design.  Building off the idea of investigating people's minds and psyches, each person views the world differently, so each level represents that.  You'll go from a dance party, to a level where you become the equivalent to Godzilla, and even an absolutely stunning level that looks like you're immersed in a velvet painting.

Painted Attire included.


The game is very heavily based around exploration and collectables.  In brains, you collect pieces of emotional baggage (reveals concept art and other images), mental figments (they raise your rank as a psychic), and mental cobwebs.  When not in someones' brain, you're picking up scavenger hunt items, arrowheads to spend at the store, and other items that boost your psychic rank.

A few negatives to list.  First off, as with most 3D platformers, there is some issues with the camera from time to time.  This makes landing tricky jumps a bit sketchy.  Some of the item hunting can really bother completionists, and the regular player as well.  There's a LOT of things to gather.  The end level is one of the hardest levels I've ever played in any game.  To the point of being unfair at times.  To break this level down: It starts you with a freaking escort mission.  Your escortee is dumber than a box of rocks (he is a child I suppose), and after each step of rescuing him, he flies off ahead of you... and takes damage... before you can get to him.  The next phase is a rail grinding portion that's not too difficult, but timing the jumps can be an issue.  The boss fights in this stage aren't even that bad.  But the section following the first boss fight is the part that gave me the most trouble.  There's precision platforming, while dodging bombs being thrown at you, and a raising water level that's an instant 'send you back to checkpoint' kill.

Luckily, I resisted doing this.


I will say that I did feel immense satisfaction in beating the tricky sections though.  It's a game I'd recommend to most people, if you can get past the dated appearance.  It is stylized, so it holds its own a bit, but you can definitely notice some issues. 


VAMPIRES THE MASQUERADE BLOODLINES

From one end of the spectrum, to the other.  This game is a FPRPG that's based off the tabletop "World of Darkness" gaming system, specifically off the Vampires the Masquerade expansion.  The game came out in 2004, with the Vampires the Masquerade gaming system dating back to 1991.  These are not your new wave of vampires.  

First and foremost, this game does one thing really really well.  The mood, setting, and ambiance of the game are fantastic.  The setting is grim, the characters are always thinking ahead, and the streets of California look dirty as hell.  The first thing you see when you start the game is an execution of your sire, that is the vampire who turned you.  This is done on a stage in front of dozens of other vampys, and done without remorse.  This sets the tone for how strict and underhanded the rules of this secret night society can be.  

A quick note.  This game is from 2004, and runs on an early version of the Source engine.  It does NOT hold up well with time, especially when it comes to combat.  In a game that's based on mixing urban legends with a fairly realistic setting, watching your opponent fly, spinning 10 feet after you punch them stretches things juuuuuust a little bit.  

So, back to the positives.  This game follows the actual tabletop game fairly closely, in terms of character creation and advancement.  You pick your clan (race of vampire), and then allocate your starting attribute points.  As you progress, you earn Experience points that you can spend on improving your skills, attributes, and powers.  It's very similar to the pen-and-paper game in that regard.  If someone has never played the tabletop game, this is a great way to get into it.  You get a basic introduction to how mechanics work, character creation and advancement, and the setting.  I'm all for more games like this, that make breaking into new ventures easier.  

The game has a Deus Ex like progression.  You can use your varying skills and abilities to complete your missions in various ways.  Some levels can be stealthed, while others you can go through punching everyone in the face, and others can be gotten through with diplomacy, threats, and other subterfuge.  Granted, you're not fully free to talk your way through everything, bu it's still pretty nice to have the options.  The unavoidable boss fights too mean that you need to at least focus slightly on offense in some capacity.  

He's made of Kool-Aid!


This game has a fair amount of replayability.  For me, the biggest reason to replay is the setting and the storyline.  I find it's just an enjoyable world to get involved in.  The game offers a few different endings (7 I think), different playable races and different playstyles.  Playing as the crazy Malkavian clan isn't recommended for your first playthrough though.  It can kind of spoil things.  This is another game that if you can get around the rough edges, you will probably enjoy yourself.

Almost every player of this game whom I've talked to knows what these words mean.

Ocean House Hotel.

For those who haven't gotten that far in the game, you're in for a treat.