Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Friday, January 4, 2013

Top 5 Comics of 2012


I probably buy too many comics, but I can’t help myself. I’ve been a fan of the medium since I was a kid buying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles books. Every time I’m in a comic book store I get so enticed by everything I see. Sometimes it’s the art, other times it’s the writing, often it’s both. I’ll take a chance on almost any book and more often than not I get roped in for the long haul. I did try to cut down a little bit in 2012, but then Brian Wood decided to come out with several new titles, and there was a Marvel crossover that I couldn’t miss due to it’s major involvement of the X-Men and it’s promise to potentially reverse one of the biggest X-universe plot twists of the last decade. All this along with the random new titles I pick up and the fact that I’ve gotten into several Star Wars books now, has me spending a lot of time and money on my comic book habit. I enjoy it though and there are honestly a lot of quality books in the market today. As long as I’m being entertained I guess I can’t complain and these 5 are some of the comics that have entertained me most this past year.

1. Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
I never got into Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughan’s much lauded 2002-2008 running monthly book. Even still, I always recognized his talent and when I heard about Saga and saw Fiona Staple’s brilliant artwork I knew it was a book I’d want to be picking up. Saga is a science fiction epic that’s part Romeo and Juliet, part Star Wars, and entirely captivating. Saga tells the story of Hazel, a child born to parents whose worlds are at war with each other. The tale to this point is told by Hazel in 3rd person from some point in the future, as her parents attempt to flee the forces who see their union and offspring as an abomination. Vaughan’s writing is natural and succinct and his characters feel remarkably three dimensional without ever overstating themselves. Fiona Staples art is a wonder to behold, capturing gestures and emotion with spare, balanced line work and brilliant washes of bold color. Out of 2012’s new books this is the one that overall has impressed me the most on all fronts.

2. Conan the Barbarian by Brian Wood and various artists
I’ve been a fan of Brian Wood’s since Channel Zero way back when I was in college and since the end of his relationship with DC/Vertigo last year he’s been busy putting a lot of new work into the field. I should start off by saying that I’ve never been a fan of Conan, but neither have I ever held any ill will toward the property. Pre-war sci-fi and fantasy has always been an area that I’ve never really warmed to and (despite mainly being known due to to movies from the 80’s) Conan as a property falls into this category. Brian Wood is one of very few writers that I will follow to any book however and based on his excellent medieval Norse-themed book Northlanders I figured I had a good read on what I could expect from a Conan book. In Conan the Barbarian Wood uses his Northlanders experience to color his writing, but approaches the character and the world of Hyboria from a direction tailored specifically to them. The end result combines Wood’s expertise with tone and depth of character with Robert Howard’s pulp mythology in a way that satisfies and strengthens both.

3. Wolverine and the X-Men by Jason Aaron and various artists
At it’s heart, X-Men comics are about two things: 1)A persecuted minority that seeks to protect a world that hates and fears them and 2)Teenagers with newly developed super powers going to a school where they can be educated in peace and learn how to control their abilities. Wolverine and the X-Men focuses mainly on the later and concentrates of the lighter, but also more outrageous aspects of the setup in featuring both heroes and villains with bizarre powers. The whole thing takes on an almost Joss Whedon-esque feeling as it recalls both the absurdity and seriousness of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Teen mutants find themselves navigating the rigors of high school while simultaneously saving the world, all before study hall. The end result is incredibly fun and easily one of the best things to happen to the X-Men (and Wolverine) in a long time.

4. Hawkeye by Matt Fraction and David Aja
Nobody ever says they’re a Hawkeye fan. In his own words he's "an orphan raised by carnies, fighting with a stick and string from the paleolithic era." A comic about Hawkeye’s life when he’s not with the Avengers should be about as successful as Baywatch: Nights but (perhaps knowing this) Fraction manages to make Hawkeye off duty, more interesting than he has any right to be. Armed not just with arrows, but with wit and guile, Fraction and Aja illustrate Hawkeye’s extra-Avenger actions in brilliant fashion as he deals with both the absurd and mundane. All of a sudden a character that most people previously couldn’t have cared less about becomes part Spiderman, part James Bond, and part Robinhood, all wrapped in a slick package by Fraction’s excellent dialog and Aja’s uncluttered, expressive visuals.

5. The Unwritten by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
Not a new comic for 2012, but one that is still going despite what seems to be the culling of DC’s Vertigo label. Unwritten has been one of my favorite books ever since I picked it up on a whim several years ago. If there is any one book that can claim to have picked up the mantle of Sandman and be worthy of it, this is it. Following the misadventures of Tom Wilson as he unravels the secret truth about the nature of story and his own mysterious origins, Unwritten glories in the world of narratives much in the same way Sandman often did. In 2012 Carey and Gross stepped up their game in a big way both in publishing what I believe will serve as the climatic arc to the overall story, but also 6 additional support stories (featuring different artists) that filled in a lot of the blanks we had been left with to that point. As 2013 dawns, Unwritten marches boldly into it’s next chapter and with the stakes higher than ever I find myself eagerly awaiting each issue and whatever revelations may be held within their pages.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Top 5 Games of 2012


2012 was a decent year for games if not a slow year for games. We seem to have settled into a bi-yearly cycle for the release of numerous major blockbusters and this past year was the off year for those releases. A look ahead at 2013 has a number of high profile titles slated to launch before the end of FY12 and are very likely to be the last such titles we see during this console cycle with the all-but-confirmed announcement and launch of at least one next gen console likely to happen before the end of the year.

While the crop of titles was smaller this year the quality was high and innovation still strong. 2012 was the year of crowd funding, with several recognizable developers utilizing Kickstarter to great effect in getting their next projects funded. This however, along with the continued strengthening of the indie games scene, has done nothing to heal the divide between various gamer factions. Forums and comment sections on gaming sites all over the internet have been constantly embroiled in idealogical shouting matches of mainstream vs indie vs old school.

It seems that gaming has finally developed a very vocal elitist class that claims to abhor modern mainstream marketing techniques such as DLC and F2P/MTX while championing niche throwback titles and bold anti-publisher actions by developers. While its an interesting conversation to be sure, several things remain to be seen:


  1. Will these elitist gamers put their money where their mouths are and withdraw support from mainstream triple-A developers and publishers?
  2. Are the numbers of these gamers as large as they seem or are they just loud?
  3. Are these gamers willing to support smaller, less cutting edge games, that look poorer, but meet their exacting aesthetic requirements or will they expect the same type of experience that big developers require millions of dollars and thus a broad audience to support?

I tend of believe that most of these people are all talk and while I want a Baldur’s Gate style throwback RPG and a massive open-ended space sim too, I don’t realistically expect these things to look and feel the same as a game that has a much broader appeal. It’s going to be interesting to see as some of these crowd funded projects begin bearing fruit how the elitist gamer community and the non-funding audience responds and what that may mean for all strata of development going forward.

Enough industry talk though. These are my Top 5 favorite games of 2012:


1. Mass Effect 3 by BioWare
Controversy surrounding the original version of the ending aside, Mass Effect 3 concluded the epic trilogy in a truly triumphant fashion. Taking some of the best aspects of ME1 and 2 and adding a few new tricks of it’s own, ME3 was a solid, enjoyable experience from start to finish. The game and the story didn’t let off the throttle for one moment and the stakes were always high. Not since the Baldur’s Gate series had I felt such affection for a group of characters in a video game both due to their excellently written dialog and personalities, but also due to the decisions I had made for and with them throughout each game. ME3 ended Commander Shepard’s story in grand style and has thusly earned a place of honor in my collection.


2. The Walking Dead by Telltale Games
After a couple lackluster titles with Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and yes … Law and Order, Telltale came back in a big way in 2012 with the first 5-part series of adventure games based on The Walking Dead comics. I always tell people that The Walking Dead comic is not about zombies, it’s about people and there just happen to be zombies in it. The Walking Dead game apes its source material perfectly in this respect with the zombies mainly being a device to put people into desperate situations and to force the player to make hard decisions. And boy will you make some hard decisions in The Walking Dead. It’s not always a choice between good and bad either, often it there is no good choice and more often than not the consequences will catch up to you in the end. It’s hard to talk in specifics about The Walking Dead without spoiling a game that’s full of honestly surprising twists. Suffice it to say that every element of this game from the art style, the game design, the cinematics, the writing, acting, and sound all come together to create an emotional tour-de-force that everyone should play at least once.

3. Far Cry 3 by Ubisoft Montreal
Like films that only play in New York and LA in the last week of the year in order to squeak by for Oscar consideration, Far Cry 3 launched at the beginning of December and immediately made an impact on numerous game critics. The thing here is that even if it had launched earlier I’m betting it would have made just as big an impact on many people’s year end considerations. The format is simple enough: Assassin’s Creed 2 meets Far Cry 2 and it’s a combination that works very well. What pushes this title above and beyond however is the main characters (like the brilliantly acted antagonist Vaas) and the story subtext. On the surface this is a very clear cut story of an outsiders getting into trouble abroad and going native to get out again. Far Cry 3 plays subtly with metaphor and allegory however making it’s beauty much more than skin deep. Add into this mix a protagonist that actually grows as a characters (not a common occurrence in this genre) and you've got something unique and refreshing on display here.


4. XCom: Enemy Unknown by Firaxis
The original XCom and it’s few immediate expansions/spin-offs are classics held in the highest regard by PC gamers over a certain age. Sadly in the decade+ since the last traditional XCom game, no one has been able to continue the tradition in a satisfying manner. When Firaxis announced that there were taking a stab at the franchise the PC gaming world breathed a sigh of relief. This new XCom is both homage and a much-needed modern update to the franchise and brings all the core elements one who has played the original would expect, but with modern trappings and manicuring. The end result is a product that new and old XCom fans can both get excited about.


5. FTL by Subset Games
Somehow 2012 ended up being the year of the spaceship crew simulation with games like Artemis, Spaceteam, and FTL each offering their own interpretation of managing the perils and teamwork required to pilot a sci-fi craft through space. FTL is simple to play, but difficult to master as it simulates operating a space craft on the run from an enemy fleet. The simulation is straightforward enough: players choose a craft and on each turn they plot their course through the galaxy. At each stop there is a chance of running into enemies, friends, plunder, or nothing at all making each jump a potential risk. In order to improve one’s chances however qualified captains need to upgrade their ship’s systems and purchase new equipment and that requires scrap gained from successfully navigating these chance encounters. While this is all straightforward enough, players will ultimately have to face the mothership of the enemy fleet, a multi encounter battle that’s seriously hard even on easy difficulty settings. It’s this difficulty that drives the deeper elements of the game and even as the player crashes and burns they’re already thinking of how best to outfit their ship for another go.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Top 5 Films of 2012


I say it every year, but this time I mean it “what a shite year for movies”. I honestly don’t know what the problem is anymore because it’s not just Hollywood, even the independent films were lacking this year. Are there no good scripts out there? Is the creative talent pool running dry? Have we run out of things to say?

Overall I didn’t see as many movies as I should have in 2012 and so far 2013’s movie-going outlook appears to be slim as well. Of the movies I did see I don’t recall being blown away by anything. A good litmus test of how much impact a movie has made with me is whether I decide that I need to own it on home video or not and there were precious few movies in 2012 that I felt met that criteria. Even among my Top 5 there are few I feel I need to own although I’d certainly be interested in seeing them all again.

1. Argo
Brilliant casting, brilliant script, brilliant directing; Argo hit all the right marks. This is a film that could have been plodding and arduous or extremely overwrought, but Affleck and crew found the perfect pitch with which to make this story feel both historically accurate and dramatically compelling. The final half hour of this film was the most tense I’ve felt in a movie theater in quite some time and I loved every minute of it. I’m glad that Affleck recently confirmed that he is not planning on running for senate anytime soon, because as a director I think he’s really coming into his own if Argo is any indication.

2. The Cabin in the Woods
I’m not one of those Joss Whedon apologists. I love Firefly, but Buffy never did it for me and Dollhouse (while I enjoyed it) fell flat in many respects. I say this so you understand that I can view Whedon’s work objectively unlike say ... Bruce Willis, who can do no wrong in my eyes. When it comes to horror I’m more a fan of the meta aspects than I am the genre tropes. I like Romero’s work because of his social commentary. I like Evil Dead 2 and From Dusk Till Dawn because of their gratuitous, almost satirical gore and genre exploitation. The Cabin in the Woods is the ultimate meta horror film, but if it were just the script that served to sell it then it wouldn’t have worked. Instead, every aspect of this movie comes together like clockwork in order to sell the story and serve the meta-narrative with a payoff that is totally worth the price of admission.

3. Wreck-It Ralph
Based on several of the critic’s reviews of this film I have to assume that if you don’t have a history with or affinity arcade gaming then much of this film’s charm misses the mark. As someone with an extensive gaming background, this movie hit the sweet spot for me both in terms of subject, art direction, script, and acting. Yes, the cameo’s and inside jokes were clever and entertaining, but I felt the film did a great job of being more than just gamer kitsch and in telling a classic tale in a modern trapping of overcoming adversity while being true to oneself.

4. Chronicle
The trailers for this film almost ruined it for me. It really wasn’t the film’s fault either, rather it was the fact of there having been several “moody teenagers with super powers” movies over the last few years that were nothing more than excuses to hook young, beautiful actors up to wires and try to catch a crossover dude-brah and comic geek audience. It wasn’t until I looked past the “yo bro, I can fly!” surface layer of Chronicle that I realized there was something of substance there. While this isn’t a complex movie and the found footage/faux documentary style (while appropriate) was stretched to the limits of believability, the message and the execution remains un-muddled and works in the film’s favor. The end result is a distilled, but successful version of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira a modern classic using super powers as a metaphor for adolescence and the difficulties of responsibility associated with becoming an adult.

5. The Master
Out of all the films that I saw in 2012 this is the one that I’ve probably thought about the most after leaving the theater. This is a heavy, layered piece of art that is worthy of both discussion and repeated viewing. The Master is what an art house film should be. This is the kind of movie that asks a lot of the audience both while they are in the theater and after they leave. Most audiences don’t like to have to work that hard for a film and for those people there is still a compelling narrative, expertly acted and directed, although somewhat cryptic in its resolution. For the braver moviegoer, The Master rewards deeper inspection and dissection and provides a wealth of detail and subtext to be explored.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 5 Albums of 2012


Mainstream, indie, and even the indie-mainstream have been bereft of good, major releases this year. When the best that outlets like Paste and Pitchfork can muster are albums by Best Coast, Beach House, Tame Impala, Alt-J, and the Lumineers, it’s obvious that we’ve been dealt a poor hand in terms of new music on the national level.

Overall it feels like the indie-mainstream in particular is waiting for a new movement. The Arcade Fire sound-alikes (which used to be Modest Mouse sound-alikes) have finally worn out their welcome. New Grass (or Banjo-core as I prefer to call it) never had the ability to sustain more than a few bands at a time and with Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, and the Lumineers on the scene, that quota has been filled. Like the generic “techno” outbreak in the mid-late 90’s, dubstep isn’t ever going to catch fire in a big enough way nationally and anyway, most of what people are calling dubstep isn’t really dubstep to begin with. And finally, the wispy synth-ish indie-pop movement (see: Alt-J, Tame Impala, and especially M83) isn’t worth taking a second look at and won’t last very long unless something changes.

The airwaves are bored and I couldn’t have picked a better year to dive head first into the Austin local music scene. In 2012 four out of five of my top picks come from artists local to the Austin, TX area. For several of these groups this will be the 3rd or 4th time I’m writing critically about their albums, having covered them for OVRLD earlier in the year. Given that fact, I ask you to forgive me if my blurbs about those albums seems lifted from my previous articles.


1. Balcones by Zlam Dunk
While never intended to be the band’s swan song, “Balcones” nonetheless performs admirably in this regard. Having recently called it quits, Zlam Dunk’s 2012 EP saw the group maturing, both instrumentally and lyrically. While still offering a unique blend of technique and danceable punk grooves, the absence of their debut’s synths along with the return of Charlie Day’s impassioned, raspy vocals create a more personal, introspective space on Balcones. There is a definite theme of coming into adulthood and striking out on one’s own here and while it leaves the EP feeling darker than Zlam Dunk’s previous work, it’s all the more powerful for it.

For fans of: At the Drive-In, Q and Not U, Cinemechanica


2. Lessons on Love, Sharing, and Hygiene by The Capitalist Kids
Austin’s prolific political punks came back this year with their 3rd full length and it may just be their best yet. Here’s the kicker though: it’s full of love songs! “Lessons on Love…” skates gracefully between political snark, finger-pointing anthems, and blisteringly fast ballads in a way that few bands could accomplish. The Capitalist Kids manage to find the goldilocks zone with every song in providing politics without being preachy and love songs without the sap. If you can’t get your toes tapping to this album then you may be a robot or possibly a Republican.

For fans of: Bad Religion, Screeching Weasel, Green Day


3. Arab Spring by Literature
I think it’s safe to call this album Austin’s sleeper hit of 2012. “Arab Spring came out of nowhere early in the year and this first full-length LP by Austin’s Literature has subsequently ended up on the “best of” lists of many major local outlets. Literature play a lo-fi, punkish brand of jangle-pop that’s both catchy and playful. Never overproduced, but laden with poppy hooks, Arab Spring skirts the line between old-school punk and pop like a tightrope walker. The end result is an incredibly catchy collection of songs with a very genuine, DIY feel.


For fans of: Polaris (the band that did the songs for Pete and Pete), Vampire Weekend, Talking Heads


4. All Our False Starts by Pswingset
For me to compare an album to the mid-Atlantic post-punk music scenes of the late 90’s/early 00’s is high praise indeed and in my mind Pswingset’s debut LP “All Our False Starts” is worthy of no less. This album is full of the kind of jangly, technical, minor-key, post-punk music that scored much of my 20’s and continues to be a favorite. There’s a moodiness to All Our False Starts that while subtly reminiscent of mid-late 90’s emo, is at once more mature and less affected. The end result as presented on this LP is both gripping and chill.

For fans of: Shudder to Think, Bats and Mice, Sunny Day Real Estate


5. Fang Island by Fang Island
Despite being my #2 most listened to album of 2012, Fang Island’s self-titled sophomore release has to come in at #5 on this list simply for the fact that it’s actually a 2010 release. Fang Island is not your typical instrumental rock band. For one thing, they often have lyrics (though if their 2012 release “Major proves anything it’s that they’re more interesting without them.) For another thing, this is the most positive, feel-good instrumental music you’ll ever hear. Where most instrumental bands tend to lean towards meandering, building epics, Fang Island aim to play fast, loud, and fun. This self-titled album is the perfect demonstration of what these guys do best and though it’s a quick listen that just means there’s plenty of time to hit “repeat”.


For Fans of: People who fall within the middle of a venn diagram of pop punk and post rock

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Greetings from the Rook Islands


I've managed to spend about 27 hours in the world of Ubisoft's Far Cry 3 up to this point and just when I thought the game had shown me all it had to offer, it pulled something new out of it's bag of tricks. Far Cry 3 drops you off on the Rook Islands as Jason Brody, some rich, young douche bag who has unwittingly gotten himself captured (along with his rich, young douche bag friends) by south Asian pirates/slavers/drug runners. Jason escapes his captors and with the help of an oppressed native population, begins a journey to rescue his friends and retake the islands. All the while Jason actually grows as a character, which while a foreign concept to most FPS games, is par for the course in a game like Assassin's Creed, which Far Cry 3 draws heavily from in more ways than one.

The game play format for Far Cry 3 will be familiar to anyone who has played through Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed games. The player is dropped onto a map that is largely covered by a "fog of war" and that can only be removed by climbing towers in order to get a bird's-eye view of the area. Each uncovered map section has various side missions and activities that are available once uncovered and after a few hours of play it's easy for even the casual player to have tried each of these activities. For the average player I assume the pacing is rather even as the main story takes them from one island section to the next and frequently offers breaks wherein side missions can be obtained and animals can be hunted to craft new equipment. For the hardcore explorer type like myself, I spent much of my first 20 hours uncovering every section of the northern Rook island, liberating every pirate-held camp, and crafting every item available. To say that I've been playing this game "methodically" would be an understatement. The only thing that forced me to move the main story along was the fact that large sections of the RPG-style skill trees are locked by mission completion. You would think even the main mission would be boring to me by this point (having bought, fired, and customized every non-unlockable gun in the game) but I love the AC-style of open world game and as an explorer I'm a huge meta-gamer too. I would often partake in the game's existing challenges such as liberating a camp (killing all the bad guys) without being seen, heard, or having an alarm raised, but I also created my own challenges such as doing to the above using only the bow and arrow. Still (truth be told) by hour 24 I was starting to hit a bit of a wall.

With the southern island locked to me and naught but a few relics left to uncover on the northern island I finally set about progressing the rest of the main storyline. I was on the set of missions that take you to "Badtown" on the eastern half of the northern island, which had some interesting objectives beyond just killing pirates such as using a flame thrower to burn pot fields. Novelty aside, I was still just doing "shoot the bad guy" missions and each mission was more or less a self-contained experience. It was the next set of 3 or 4 missions that acted a shot in arm for me however. Having found that one of Jason's friends had been sold to a ne'er-do-well in the aforementioned Badtown, I embarked on a set of missions to bargain for his freedom. The bad guy wanted me to obtain some ancient knife that had been lost on the island centuries before by a Chinese conqueror. What followed was a chain of missions that (while still having the Assassin's Creed meets FPS feel) threw a heaping portion of Uncharted into the mix as well. I was still killing the occasional pirate, but I was doing so in cave systems and ruins that opened up to entirely new set pieces ranging from the rusted skeleton of a WWII-era boat, to an overgrown subterranean temple-like structure. The experience of this very interconnected mission chain reinvigorated my game play experience, both reminding me that I had only scratched the surface of the game's main story, but also showing me that Far Cry 3 still had new challenges and experiences in store for me. For a game that I'm already quite fond of, I find myself looking forward to the next 20+ hours with renewed vigor.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Thoughts on The Secret World

I've put about 3 hours into The Secret World free weekend now and I think that's about all I need to invest. When I asked some other developers what they thought of The Secret World I got back an answer that I've heard before in regards to other games: "well, it has some interesting systems." For game developers this is roughly the equivalent of "well, she has a nice personality" in dating. You want to be nice, because there are redeeming qualities, but it's just not the total package.

My take on The Secret World is that I can see what they're trying to do, but ultimately I don't find much of what's going on compelling. I dig the idea of the horror angle and I want to become engrossed in it, but (at least early on) those aspects of The Secret World are just too thin for me to grab onto. There may be later areas of the game that better sell the otherwordly aspects I'm looking for, but there's little early on that sells the "secret" angle of The Secret World and that Lovecraftian idea of strange things being just on the periphery at all times is what I came here for. When it comes to MMO's I'm an admittedly tough audience. I think the genre is stagnating by following expectations of WoW-like subscription numbers and fear or misunderstanding of new business models and lack of innovation is the price we're paying. When push comes to shove, The Secret World just doesn't innovate in a way that gets me excited to play and while that's my take, I do have to admit that it's a solid game and I'm sure there's an audience out there for it, just not me.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Thoughts: Moonrise Kingdom


Does anyone else feel like Wes Anderson is just going through the motions these days? Moonrise Kingdom was good, but it just felt like it was a paint-by-numbers version of how to make a Wes Anderson movie:
  • Wide-angle shots ... check
  • Cross-section cutaway sets ... check
  • Symmetrical compositions ... check
  • Vibrant, deliberate color palette ... check
  • Semi-detached yet resonant dialogue delivery ... check
  • Looks/sounds/feels like it's set in the the mid 60's whether it actually is or not ... check
  • Slow motion scene set to music that punctuates turning point in the plot or a major character moment ... check
This isn't the first time I've been critical of Anderson. The first time I saw both The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited I didn't think I liked either of them very much, but as time went on and the movies sank in, I grew to appreciate them a great deal. I don't expect Anderson to ever make a film as brilliant and resonant as The Royal Tennenbaums again (you'd have to be a robot not to be moved by that film), but I kinda feel like he's just phoning it in on Moonrise Kingdom.

Maybe it's that the film isn't for me, maybe it's a movie for tweens, but I never connected with any of the characters and so the film just became for me a series of Wes Anderson directed scenes that (while amusing) had little impact. The only character I really felt anything for was Ed Norton's scout master and only then because he got to a point where he had something to prove. The bare scraps of plot for all the other characters never really go anywhere, but I don't end up caring because I was never properly introduced to them to begin with. Even two leads and their apparently star-crossed young love are neither properly introduced nor built upon in any meaningful way.

In the end, Moonrise Kingdom feels like a Wes Anderson picture puzzle. All the pieces are there and they fit together to make pleasing enough image, but it's not something you're going to frame and put on your wall. When you're done with Moonrise Kingdom you'll forget about it and move onto something else. Maybe Anderson has gotten too wrapped up in his own style or maybe Owen Wilson (who was not involved with the writing of this film as he has been on past Anderson projects) is a bigger part of the Wes Anderson equation than I previously gave him credit for. In either case, Moonrise Kingdom was entertaining, but forgettable in the long run.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Quick Thoughts - Prometheus

I'll have my final E3 report up later, but I wanted to give some quick thoughts on Prometheus while they're still fresh in my mind.


Ultimately, you should go see this movie, but realize that while the production is magnificent, the same cannot be said of the script. If you are willing to comb through the details of the film in search of rumored symbolic elements then you may have a better opinion of this film, but regardless those elements do not excuse the script for it's flaws.

It's a well-made movie though and more head-scratching than disappointing. It should make for a very interesting Blu-Ray, assuming it gets the proper bonus features.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

This One Time at Bandcamp.com: Markov

Continuing our journey through my recent bandcamp.com discoveries we have:

This Quiet by Markov
Bandcamp: markov.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @thisismarkov

This was another album that I really dug after finding it on Bandcamp. With tags invoking the likes of Hot Snakes and Refused the bar was set pretty high, but in the end Markov deliver an album worthy of worshiping at the feet of those hardcore gods. To put it plainly, Markov's "This Quiet" is an exercise in the application of raw energy to audio. Clever vocals complement well-crafted songs and tight playing as Markov explore a variable sonic landscape, clearly not satisfied with belaboring the same riffs and rhythms over and over. Songs like "Lucky Me" accentuate the loud-quiet fury of influences like the aforementioned Refused while "Jaws of Life" and "Debaters" recall the undulating rhythm of Hot Snakes and Drive Like Jehu. For all the pride and skill with which Markov pay tribute to their sonic patrons they do plenty on this album to develop their own sound and it never comes off sounding like mimicry, instead what you get on This Quiet is a whirlwind blend of razor sharp riffs and tight compositions hurtling around like a kid in a circle pit. When all is said and done This Quiet is an energetic, aggressive, and anthemic album with plenty to reward repeated listening. I'll be looking forward to more from Markov if at all possible.

Next: Edge of Collapse by Bad Chapters

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This One Time At Bandcamp.com: Zlam Dunk

A couple weeks ago I posted about how I had decided to search bandcamp.com in order to discover some local Austin punk bands. You see, while I love all kinds of music, if you were to ask me what kind of music is my favorite I would say punk. What does "punk" mean though? To many, that is a loaded question and the answer really varies from person to person. For some "punk" is something that happened in the 70's when bands like The Ramones, The Clash, and The Sex Pistols railed against the excesses of 70's rock, disco, prog, and glam, and produced a stripped down, hard-edged, uncompromising soundtrack for those unsatisfied with the status quo. For others "punk" is something that doesn't even take hold until the 80's with bands like Bad Religion, the Dead Milkmen, and the Descendents coming onto the scene. For others still "punk" refers almost exclusively to hardcore punk, a louder, more aggressive form of music pioneered by the likes of Bad Brains, Black Flag, and Minor Threat. There a people who think garage bands are punk, that Green Day is punk, that emo music is punk, and that the 80's "New Wave" was punk. They're all right. They're all wrong. Fuck it! Who cares?

While it may be impossible to define whether something is punk or not punk, depending on who you talk to, I know what I consider to be punk. My personal preferences lean distinctively towards the hardcore branch of the punk family tree and encompass many of its offshoots. Since moving here and before beginning my search on Bandcamp, a number of Austin and Texas punk bands had been brought to my attention. These bands were actually a major impetus in my search as there seemed to be a common thread running between all of them: a certain garage rock like style and presentation. You can hear it in bands like The Marked Men and Bad Sports, that lo-fi garage-rock/protopunk sound that recalls punk music from the early days of the 70's. While certainly not bad, it wasn't what I was looking for and after hearing so much in that vein, I began to wonder if there was any punk music being produced in Austin that had a bit more of a hardcore bent or at least didn't ascribe to the extreme lo-fi aesthetic that seemed to be so prominent.

It didn't take me long on Bandcamp to find several bands that fit the bill for me in various ways and now, after having spent a couple weeks with these albums I'd like to give you my thoughts:

Noble Ancestry by Zlam Dunk
Bandcamp: zlamdunk.bandcamp.com
Twitter: @Zlam_Dunk

Of my recently acquired albums, this is probably my favorite. Noble Ancestry turned out to be exactly the kind of music I love: something different, but still somewhat familiar. Zlam Dunk play a tight, relentless brand of post-hardcore that's as technically impressive as it is danceable. While the album leads off with the anthemic "Vice" the tempo quickly shifts into territory that can only be described as dance music for hardcore kids. With the one-two punch of "Tomorrow in Twenty-Million Years" and "Midnight Runners" - a duo of songs whose driving beats, frenetic picking, and scorching synth practically beg you to move your body - Zlam Dunk recall for me the later works of DC's Q and Not U albeit with a bit more of an edge a la At the Drive-In and Fugazi or even Athens Georgia's Cinemechanica. When all is said and done Noble Ancestry is a well rounded experience with a lot of talent, power, and creativity on display. The band's next release, "Balcones", is due out on May 3rd.

Next: This Quiet by Markov ...

Friday, March 23, 2012

Top Albums of 2011 - Honorable Mention

I hate to do this, but I need to retroactively give Quiet Company's "We Are All Where We Belong" an honorable mention for my Top Albums of 2011. I didn't pick this album up until last month, but had I grabbed it when it was released in late 2011, I have no doubt that I would have included it in my Top 5.

We Are All Where We Belong by Quiet Company
Spotify: Quiet Company – We Are All Where We Belong
Twitter: @quietcompanytx
Band Website: www.quietcompanymusic.com/

At it's core, We Are All Where We Belong is a concept album about a crisis of faith. It's an album by and about someone for whom religion was once a central tenet and who (upon becoming a father) begins to question those tenets in examining how best to prepare his child for life. Two themes that seem to be at play are first: the questioning of one's faith and the reasoning behind one's devotion to a faith; "devotion" (especially when a person has been indoctrinated from childhood) so often being a result of routine and tradition more so than any personal conclusions a person has come to. The second theme at play is the age old desire of a parent to provide their child a better life than the one they had. In We Are All Where We Belong this manifests in a desire by the author to spare his child from the indoctrination and eventual crisis of faith that the author himself has gone through. With the band's previous albums having been seen by many to be "Christian Rock" to the point of having been released by a label known for publishing Christian music, the ideological shift in We Are All Where We Belong is a bold, but sincere effort that makes an indelible mark on the music itself.

I've said before that sincerity in art is one of the things I think separates "mainstream" music from everything else. When one makes art due to the unquenchable need to create versus the desire to simply produce another consumer product, the results often reflect that. We Are All Where We Belong is easily one of the most sincere albums of 2011. It's difficult not to feel for Taylor Muse as the album maps out an emotional journey complete with peaks and valleys, hopes and fears, certainty and doubt. As one might assume, musings on the afterlife (or lack thereof) play a prominent role in several songs, but none so prominently as "Everything Louder Than Everything Else". In what I perceive to be the climax of this album (and easily my favorite track at the moment) Taylor Muse begs "Don't lay me down / I don't ever want to die / I've had to good a time / I really like it here" only to come to the conclusion "But when I go, there will probably be / no angels singing / no harps ringing / no pearly gates / no devil's flames / just nothing nothing nothing nothing". The song ends with a heartfelt lament, a sincere plea by the man who has forsaken what he no longer believes for the harsh truth he believes he was "protected" from all his life: "Don't let me go / I'm not prepared / I'm so damn scared / That I'm almost there". It's beautiful and haunting. It strikes right to the core of me and I absolutely love it.

I've said so much about the themes and the lyrics of this album that one might think I have nothing to say about the music, this however is not the case. The skill and depth on offer in this album is simply brilliant. As someone who tries to follow the local scene and who even pays attention to the lesser known opening acts at a show, I definitely hear a lot of music that isn't quite ready for prime time. Quiet Company is not one of those bands. You could take nearly any of these tracks, put them on national radio tomorrow and people would instantly think they'd missed something ... "Why haven't I heard of this band before?"

I'm probably the worst person to try and describe what certain acts sound like in terms of what other bands they're reminiscent of. The goal of such an exercise is to mention related artists that most people will know and those tend to be the bands I don't listen to much. All I can say is that it's great rock music, full of guitars, horns, keyboards, drums, soaring vocals and strings, and produced to within an inch of it's life. It's not so cynical as to be the kind of thing Pitchfork gets on board with, but if you peruse the pages of Paste you're on the right track. Just check it out already.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Music Review: Office of Future Plans

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of J Robbin’s work both as a musician and a producer. Like so many things punk I came to his career later in life (later being my mid 20’s) with Channels being my first introduction and the tip of a very large iceberg of music I would later wish I had been listening to all along. My younger self certainly had the mentality for punk, but I was never as into the style of music as I was other things. It wasn’t until just after college that I finally woke up to punk in a big way. Since hearing Channels though I’ve worked my way backwards through J’s career and continue to revisit his music frequently. As you can imagine, when I heard that he had formed a new band with Office of Future Plans, I was excited to hear the results. The official release is this Tuesday (11/22) but since I ordered the vinyl edition of the album I got to download the tracks as soon as my order shipped this past week. Since adding those tracks to my iPod Wednesday, this album has lived in my car on repeat. I’ve probably listened to OFP’s self-titled debut a good 5 or 6 times at this point and “no”, I’m not tired of it yet.

This will easily be one of my top ten albums of the year, but don't just take my word for it,  you should definitely check it out over at Dischord Records’ site and hear some of it for yourself. Anyway, let’s start at the beginning:

Salamander
In describing this album to my friend Mark over Facebook I mentioned that Darren Zentek’s drums were the first thing you heard and it really sets the tone. You see, Mark is a big Fahrenheit 454 fan from back in the day and thus a big fan of Darren’s. The mistake I made was in thinking that this song actually started out with a drum intro, which it does not. Here’s the thing, while not a factual statement, it is at least somewhat “true”. The drums in this song have such an impact that it really does set the tone, not just for the song but for an entire album. Simply speaking, this song comes on like a freight train. I expected good things from this release, but Salamander blew me away in every way possible. It’s an ensemble song that sees every element played to full effect from the aforementioned drums to J’s token minor key strumming.

Lorelei
Here’s what gets me about this band; it’s the intricacy of the arrangements on some of these songs. Just listen to what’s going on here, especially during the chorus. This is a group of musicians at the top of their game and exhibiting virtuosity that is unfortunately absent from more celebrated bands.

Harden Your Heart
As an introduction to OFP on the 7” of the same name this song was probably a perfect choice. If there is one song that sounds most like what we’ve come to expect from J. Robbins it’s this one. There are shades of Jawbox, Burning Airlines, and Channels throughout this song. Gordon Withers being the sole out of place element, but to the point where it almost becomes a mission statement: This is J. Robbins doing what he does best, but it’s also something completely new and you’re going to love it!

Ambitious Wrists
This is the song I had stuck in my head this morning and another example (like Harden Your Heart) of a song that definitely has those expected touches of J’s former bands, but ultimately emerges as a venture unto itself. The staccato of the verse sections recall Channels for me in a big way, thanks in no small part to Darren’s drums of course. Once again, this song breaks from my initial expectations with a driving, melodic chorus and a great bridge that continues to express just how qualified these musicians are.

The Loyal Opposition
This song takes me back to the beginning of the album after a brief trip to J. Robbins nostalgia territory. This is a song that sounds uniquely OFP to me and it’s just catchy and fun.

Your Several Selves
I have to admit, I liked this song better acoustic. Having heard this recorded at an acoustic set by J and Gordon from a year or so ago I’m still getting used to this as a full band song. The bridge just doesn’t work for me for some reason, but like the full album version of Channel’s Chivaree vs the EP version I’m willing to bet I come around to liking this newer recording more in the end.

Abandon
And this is the song I had stuck in my head as I was leaving the coffee shop this morning. The album definitely takes a mellower turn at Your Several Selves and continues with this wonderfully layered meandering stream of a track. This is a track that simply could not exist without Gordon Withers. The cello and J’s vocals intertwine here in a beautiful way.

You’re Not Alone
“Your monkey mind/all “fight or flight” may be one of my favorite lyrics on this album. There’s something clever, but deep about it.

The Beautiful Barricades
Still kinda mellow, but getting back into rocking territory with this song. I don’t know if it’s just the lyrics or if it’s something happening in concert with the music, but there’s a kind of anxiety or a sense of impending action going on in this song. I think I need to lyrics for this one to really get the full effect, because I feel like it’s more than just what I hear on the surface.

FEMA Coffins
This is what really I mean about a return to rocking territory and it's probably the most punk of all the songs on the release. This is another one that I really want the lyrics to. First off, the name “FEMA Coffins” has to be the best track title I’ve heard all year, talk about “loaded”. This is definitely a song about the times we’re living in, there’s a defiant anxiety in this song that recalls the panicked frenzy of Channels’ “To the New Mandarins” for me.

Dumb it Down
This almost reminds me of late era Jawbox. Maybe it’s just J’s impassioned growls, maybe it’s the refrain of “Dumb it down for me”, but it feels angst-y to me, but with that same punk defiance we just heard in FEMA Coffins.

Riddle Me This
I don’t what to say about this song at all. It’s not bad, but it’s different than everything else we’ve heard up to this point. Somehow it just feels like a bonus track to me. This song would totally feel at home popping in randomly after 5 minutes of silence following Dumb it Down. A strange, but interesting end to a great album.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Human Revolution


WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS FOR DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION

Anyone who knows me knows that the original Deus Ex is one of my two favorite video games of all time, the other being the original Legend of Zelda. In the last 11 years I have played Deus Ex from start to finish at least 9 times and each time I’ve discovered something new about the game. Never before and never since have I played a game that so perfectly matched an intelligently written and poignant science fiction story that introduced concepts worthy of philosophical and social discussion beyond the bounds of the game world with the kind of guided (yet still open ended) game play that rewards player’s decisions through more than just trinkets and score increases. Deus Ex should not only be considered a model for modern game development and how to provide players with a wealth of choices while still managing narrative direction and overall scope, but also a model for how to tell a smart science fiction story in the digital age.

I won’t get into details here, but as most who are familiar with Deus Ex know, the sequel (Deus Ex: Invisible War) failed to even come close to the greatness of the original title. While it wasn’t a total loss from a sales standpoint, the perception of Deus Ex as a property had been soured and if the world had ended without another title in the series, there would be few regrets. Enter Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a prequel to the series under development by an entirely different team, nearly a decade removed from the original and in a gaming landscape that had all but left games with the depth of the original Deux Ex behind.

Initially I was skeptical, we all were, but as I saw more of the game and heard more from the developers it seemed that the crew at Eidos Montreal might just be able to pull off a title worthy of the Deus Ex moniker. Having recently completed my first play through of the game, I have to say that they succeeded on almost all fronts and even the parts that I have complaints about are still far in advance of Invisible War.

The first and easiest thing to talk about when examining Human Revolution is the game play. On this front, the developers absolutely nailed it to such a degree that if you were to remake the original Deus Ex using Human Revolution’s systems (mod makers: hint, hint), there would be very little you’d have to excuse. Playing the game on the PC I had few complaints (after a mouse lag patch and adjusting my FOV from 70 to 90) and the addition of cover mechanics and 3rd person camera cutaway take downs (console gaming staples for the current generation) both felt completely natural. In fact the cover system turned out to be a much more welcome addition than I had anticipated and in addition to fitting in well with the combat, I felt it added a LOT to the stealth game. Missing is the skill system and health management from the original Deus Ex, the former having been removed complete and the latter replaced by a more modern wait-and-heal system. To be fair, I miss neither system. Sure, the skill system made the original Deus Ex more of an RPG, but curtailing my shooting skills based on skill points always felt odd for an FPS. Granted they could have found more ways to convert the old skill system over to options in the augmentation system, but really … it’s a small complaint. As far as the health system goes, I can take it or leave it. The debate here actually has nothing to do with Deus Ex and more to do with old health bars vs. new health bars. These days I just expect to heal up if I can stand still long enough. It doesn’t phase me at all in Human Revolution, but I’m a quick save whore anyway so when push comes to shove, I just reload.  Beyond these minor differences I feel like I get virtually the same amount of depth from the game play of Human Revolution as I did from the original title. My only complaint might be with some of the level design. The city areas in general are fantastic, with tons of secrets to uncover for the industrious explorer, but the actual mission areas almost made it too easy for me to get around. I felt like the various stealth, hacking, and run-and-gun options were usually rather obvious. If you want to stealth past an area, look for a vent, if you want to hack, find a computer. I feel like the original game had a little more variety. Still this is a minor complaint.

If I have one major complaint with Human Revolution (and in the grand scheme it’s still minor compared to Invisible War) it’s the story. The main storyline never really managed to hook me as a player and I feel like this is a failure on two fronts. The first failure is in attaching me to the story and the characters. I never feel there is any reason to care about any of the characters I run across and it’s not for the game’s lack of trying. They immediately try to get you to care about the character of Megan Reed by mentioning the player character (Adam Jensen)’s relationship with her, but this is not a relationship the player takes part in at all. Almost as soon as we meet Dr. Reed, she’s taken out of the picture and when she shows up again later, Jensen’s reaction makes sense, but I don’t feel it as a player. I feel like the original Deus Ex did a much better job of endearing me to various characters. The very first conversation in the game with the player character (JC Denton)’s brother Paul allows you to play out a big brother/little brother dynamic and forces you to either take Paul’s non-violent posture or actively side against it. This dymanic plays out several times over with other characters as well. The original Deus Ex is always subtly asking you to make choices based on other character’s personal agendas and motivations. The most interesting character in Human Revolution is Frank Pritchard, the asshole IT guy who you find talking in your ear most of the game, but who you only physically interact with once. Had they enhanced the relationship with some of the other characters (specifically David Sarif, Hugh Darrow, Ben Taggart, and Megan Reed) to make those characters more than just exposition devices, the story decisions I had to make late in the game may have held more weight. Another HUGE missed opportunity exists with the 3 mercenaries you encounter at the very beginning of the game and who show up successively throughout. These are your core rivals from the start, the object of either your justice or revenge. Then only time you ever hear from them however is right before you kick their asses. Granted the situation is somewhat different in that these 3 are antagonists from the start, but the original Deus Ex’s Gunter Schultz and Anna Navarre are much better developed villains and because of this, the interactions with them as Deus Ex’s story unfolds carry much more weight.

The second failing of the story is that it throws too many links at you without fully developing them. The original Deus Ex unfolds very naturally with the Grey Death plague initially taking center stage and eventually implicating FEMA, MJ12, the Illuminati, and ultimately Bob Page as the ultimate villain. Human Revolution throws information your way, but rarely asks you to comment on it. When Human Revolution does ask for your opinion, the resulting comments feel more like flavor text than character building. In the end, the story of Human Revolution is almost a comedy of errors that more or less culminates with you cleaning up one man’s misguided mistake as opposed to thwarting an international conspiracy. The real problem, is that the international conspiracy angle is present, but largely undeveloped. It’s to the point where the final boss of the game is a key player in this conspiracy, but until that final battle you have little idea of her ambitions leading up to it. When I got to Area 51 in the original Deus Ex I knew what Bob Page wanted to do and I was there to stop him. In the process of doing so I was given several options for exactly how to accomplish this by various characters I had connected with earlier in the game. These connections along with the fact that the story had been preaching to me in regards to these various viewpoints throughout the game and that the options were physical paths for me to take and not simply and button to press, all contributed to the weight of that final decision. While I am prepared for the choices at the end of Human Revolution to a certain degree, they feel weak not only because I have little connection with the people involved, but also because the game doesn’t make me do anything different to achieve these objectives. You get to the end of the game and push one of four buttons after which you see a bunch of stock footage with some vaguely philosophical voiceover.

I suppose one of the difficulties of making a prequel, especially as (and for) a game that relies so heavily on player choice to determine the outcome of it’s narrative, is ending it in a way that is both interesting and yet doesn’t encroach upon the sanctity of the pre-existing property and it’s world. It’s actually because of this that I feel Human Revolution really dropped the story ball at the end. The Illuminati are the one major thread (besides augmentations themselves) that carries between both games. Throughout the game we are treated to notes, and broadcasts speaking about characters from the first game that we know to be involved with the Illuminati. At this point in time, these people are very much pulling the strings, but by the time we get to the original Deus Ex there has been a schism within their ranks that ultimately creates the situation whereby Bob Page becomes the core villain. While I can see that they didn’t want to associate the two games too closely in order to avoid certain pitfalls, I think this is an aspect they could have played with a bit more, especially considering how much the Illuminati figures into Human Revolution’s end game.

Regardless of these concerns, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is not only an excellent game, but a worthy successor to the original title and one that I hope gets expanded upon with future DLC and hopefully does a bit more to bridge the gap between the world of 2027 and 2052.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Zero of Time

I’ve recently started playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time some 10+ years out of sync with the rest of the world. This isn’t the first time I’ve attempted to play Ocarina, but it’s the first time I intend to finish. When The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker launched back in 2003 I attempted to play the GC version of Ocarina that I got as a promotional item. What I discovered, much to my shock was that Ocarina of Time was a frustrating mess. I got maybe a third of the way through the game and stopped, not for any specific reason, but because it didn’t captivate me enough to continue despite being a core Zelda game.

For years I’ve heard nothing but praises for Ocarina of Time. There are many that herald it as their favorite Zelda game and my only explanation for this is the same I give for the preponderance of people who claim Final Fantasy 7 as their favorite of that series: Ocarina was the first Zelda game for an entire generation of gamers. Having been alive and playing through most of the commercial history of gaming, I don’t really experience this effect so much with games. I’ve certainly had it happen with music, where my first exposure to a band is one of their later albums and it ends up being my favorite. Regardless of that effect, if Ocarina is the favorite Zelda game of an entire generation, they’ve really lowered their expectations compared to mine.

Now let’s be frank, the basics of Ocarina are the same as any other Zelda game and at that level there is nothing out of sync in this title with other games in the series. The general thrust of any Zelda game is that you explore a large overworld area and delve into a series of puzzling dungeons that require you to unlock access to a special item in order to be find and defeat the end boss. It’s the very model of a purely item-based progression. The more you put into a Zelda game, the more you get out of it. Feeling a little weak? Go exploring and find new ways to get more hearts on your life bar. Stuck as to how to get ahead? Find new ways to use the last item you received from a dungeon and explore the new areas that open up. It’s a great format that has stood the test of time and almost never gets old in any permutation. So why am I so unimpressed with Ocarina?

The first problem may just be a problem for me. I grew up a console gamer in the days of D-Pads and two-button controls. Just before the N64 and PS1 came to prominence, I made the switch to being primarily a PC Gamer. The first real 3D games I played were on a PC and therefore, my mind is wired for mouse controls … smooth, reactive mouse controls. If you put me anywhere near an analog stick I’m going to have trouble, but I’ve learned to manage it. For 3rd person games I don’t tend to have much trouble these days, but I’ve learned that controlling a 1st person game with anything but a keyboard and mouse will lead to broken controllers and endless rage. That being said, Ocarina shouldn’t be a huge problem for me as it’s mainly a 3rd person game. Sadly this is not the case. I’ll chalk it up to the newness of the system for which Ocarina was developed and the lack of consideration in the controller for proper camera control (as displayed among most Japanese developers in my experience) but controlling Link in Ocarina makes me want to hurt someone. First off, there is no such thing as precise movement in the game. Every twitch of my controller sends Link careening in one direction or another and often way off whatever mark I want him to hit. Secondly, the camera fails to follow where I’m looking, which would be almost forgivable except that it does so in such an extreme manner. I understand that I’m not always going to want to be looking where my character is looking, but the camera in Ocarina lags so far behind that I’m constantly hitting the target button to face it forwards again. At the very least the designers should have realized that when I’m moving forward I’m going to want to see where I’m going and that the camera should behave with less elasticity in that situation. Granted, I eventually got used to the controls, but I was a good 1/3 to ½ of the way through the game when I did.

My second problem is the tone of much of the game and the way it keeps butting in to “help” me. Yes, a lot of this is just hate for Navi, a useful but ultimately intrusive game system/plot device that’s constantly interrupting me with inane tidbits and hints about things I’ve already figured out. Beyond that though the tone of the early game especially is far too childish for my liking; or rather it’s childish without being fleshed out. There’s a definite appreciation for and attempt to emulate the works of Hiyao Miyazaki in the early sections of the game. The character design, the themes, everything is owed to Miyazaki’s masterful animations, but there’s just not enough meat here to bring it to life in the way a Miyazaki film does. I get these boring fragments of clich├ęd and all-to-obvious exposition from almost everyone I speak to. I feel as if every sentence should culminate with “wink, wink” in acknowledgement of the overly cartoonish way that the story is being handed to me on a plate. This isn’t to say that I need a grim and gritty Zelda game with tons of prose or extended cut scenes, but either say less or say more in a better way. Additionally, the overall story has never thrilled me. Ocarina is essentially a rehashing of Link to the Past, which rehashed, but greatly expanded upon the original Legend of Zelda. I realize that Zelda games and their stories are formulaic, but as someone who has been exploring Hyrule for 25 years, I like it when things are changed up a bit. This is likely why I thoroughly enjoyed Link’s Awakening and The Wind Waker especially so taking the time-tested formula and giving it an interesting spin; at least geographically.

I suppose my final gripe about the game is how confined the overworld feels. Without any exaggeration, the overworld in Ocarina of Time is composed primarily of several linear levels with various secrets that can be uncovered. Compared to the original Zelda, which throws you to the wolves in a completely open world, Link to the Past which does a similar thing albeit with more story, and Wind Waker with its vast ocean, Ocarina may as well be on rails.

It may pain me to say it, but as I’m nearly done with the game now, I have to admit that Ocarina isn’t all bad. The expected item based progression (while dulled due to the linear nature of the world building) is as compelling as it’s been for 25 years. I find it confusing how other open world and sandbox games don’t try to emulate this. The Zelda style of item progression (also on display in the Metroid-Vania style of games) is incredibly compelling as it only requires very little of the player, but baits them with so much more should they choose to put in the extra effort. Typical open world games just give you more missions for playing the game, a Zelda game does that while also enticing you with abilities and tools that will make that added game play more interesting and fun. Additionally many of the dungeons in Ocarina of Time are (once you get past the control issues) as thoughtful as ever, with boss fights that are both familiar and innovative at the same time. And once you get past the early sections of the game, there’s far less hand-holding and frolicking and while the story is nowhere near as powerful as it tries to be, it’s still marginally compelling.

Anyway, that’s my take on the game at ¾ of the way through. It could change in the final couple dungeons of the game, but I doubt it. Maybe it isn’t the worst Zelda game of all time (and “bad” for Zelda is still miles ahead of most game) but if Ocarina was your first exposure to Zelda, you really owe it to yourself to play the original game, Link to the Past, and Link’s Awakening. Despite 25 years and numerous technological improvements, the original Legend of Zelda still remains one of my two favorite games of all time and unlike many older games it still holds up in my mind as both fun and challenging.

Summer project update: Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about my summer project. In fact most of this post was written at Houndstooth this past 4th of July and while I finished writing it at home today, I did spend some time at Dolce Vita earlier.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Choose Your Own Adventure

I just spent the last couple of hours reviewing local Austin businesses on Google Hotpot in an effort to win a contest and as I was doing so I decided I needed an appropriately awesome, but mellow selection of background music. I started off with Radiohead's latest "The King of Limbs"; still enigmatic, but growing on me like all Radiohead albums do. I then moved on to The Octopus Project's latest "Hexadecagon"; synth heavy post rock for the win. And ultimately was moved to put on some tracks from what appears to be the 2011-acquired album I've listened to the most so far this year "Choose Your Own Adventure" by Torgo!.


I bought this album on a whim a few months ago after hearing a couple tracks on the listening station at Waterloo Records. I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about it, but it sounded different and fairly progressive, so I decided to give it a try. "Abandonware" the album's first track immediately calls to mind hipster darlings Vampire Weekend, but as the album progresses it's clear that while there may be some similar influences (Peter Gabriel?) these bands have taken totally different directions. Abandonware is followed by a couple of fairly weak tracks and the instrumental "The Dig" before the 10 minute "The Archaeologist" (a song about the Indiana Jones movies) comes on and Choose Your Own Adventure really gets rolling. Lyrically the album is full of these really geeky, but adorable references to things like the aforementioned Dr. Jones and video gaming. Instrumentally there is really a lot of skill present in these recordings, with a lot of layering and a very professional sound throughout. The end result is definitely something progressive, but come at from a new angle by a new generation. While I tend to skip the first third or half of the album when listening, the experience has overall grown from simply being this quirky album about video games that I bought to a genuinely engaging audio experience. I'm interested to see what these guys do going forward.

If you're looking for something different, definitely check them out. I believe they put out their own album and they're local to Texas so you probably won't find it in your local store (unless that happens to be Waterloo), but you can hear and buy their tracks from their site, so go give them a listen.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bulletstorm - First Impression

Ok, so the first 15-20 minutes of Bulletstorm are fantastically, utterly, unbearably awful, but 5 minutes after that you completely forget about it. Why is it awful?

First, it features the same, tired, tutorial-shoehorned-into-the-story device as just about every game these days, but I can overlook that.

Second, there's way too much talking in an attempt to interest me in a group of 2-dimensional characters and their back story. Talk is cheap, let's start blowing things up.

Third, they keep taking control of the camera away from me. There's no reason that nearly all those cinematic sequences couldn't be done with me still in control. It's just jarring (especially on a PC where there is no controller rumble to occupy my grip) to be in the middle of controlling the game and then suddenly not.

That being said, Bulletstorm does away with this pretty quickly and once you start the game proper it's all standard dumb fire FPS action. So far I'm loving it.