Friday, December 27, 2013

My favorite video games of 2013

2013 was an odd year for the video game industry.  The major triple-A games saw varying levels of success, while the independent scene grew and innovated more than ever.  We went through a strange version of growing pains, as we waited for the PS4 and Xbox One to launch.  I bought both consoles, and have been enjoying them for different reasons.  However, I also got a new gaming laptop earlier in the year, and I played more on the PC than ever before.  But what excited me most was that more developers made a conscious effort to tell worthwhile stories, in new and different ways.  Of everything I played in 2013, here were my favorites!

(Disclaimer -- There are plenty of games I didn't get to put time into, so this list isn't meant to be all-inclusive.  I'm not a professional critic!  The format(s) I played on are in parentheses, although some games are available on more formats than what I have listed.  Also, this list is my personal opinion, and does not represent my employer.)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon (X360) -- An 80's action film re-skin of my favorite game of 2012.  Having a button dedicated for flipping the bird?  Genius.

Gears of War: Judgment (X360) -- People Can Fly took some risks with the campaign (focusing on Baird, bite-sized level sections with optional challenges built in) that I thought worked pretty well.  I also had fun with the Battlefield 'Rush'-like game mode Overrun (even if the maps felt a little too small for it), and I liked playing as some of the higher-powered Locust characters.

Killzone: Mercenary (Vita) -- The best looking handheld shooter to date, and plays pretty well too.  It gives me hope for what the Vita is capable of accomplishing.

Outlast (PC) -- I like when games set goals and accomplish them.  This game has one goal:  Scaring the living crap out of you.  And it's super effective!  I don't think I have even a full hour into it, and I will more than likely not finish it.

Payday 2 (PC) -- A big improvement over the original in terms of friendly AI and mission variety.  It's still better to play with a group of people who know what they're doing, but fortunately there's a strong community around it (and they're largely noob-friendly), so you shouldn't ever have to play alone.

Rise of the Triad (PC) -- Unabashedly old-school corridor twitch shooter.  I never played the 90s original, but I played enough Wolfenstein and Doom to where I enjoyed this quite a bit.

My favorite games of 2013:

15.  Splinter Cell: Blacklist (X360 / PC) -- The stealth aspect of the series has all but been removed, and that disappoints me.  However, as a straight action game, it's still pretty good.  My favorite multiplayer game mode (Spies vs. Mercs) came back, but it felt more like a cover band than the brilliant original from Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory.  However, the co-op levels are the real star of the multiplayer, and make it worth recommending.

14.  Surgeon Simulator 2013 (PC) -- Nothing I played this year had me laughing more.  The bad-on-purpose controls are a thing of beauty.  Probably the best $10 I spent this year.

13.  The Swapper (PC) -- A deceptively simple puzzle game on paper, but it gets brutally hard about half-way through.  I still haven't finished it because I'm trying to avoid cheats / FAQs, but I'm hoping some time away will help me come at it fresh again.

12.  Killzone: Shadow Fall (PS4) -- One of the better console launch shooters since the first Halo.  Jaw-dropping graphics, a respectable story (stay after the credits!), and an enjoyable multiplayer suite (even if it feels a little slow when compared to other FPS).  Multiple batches of free DLC will be coming next year, so I'll keep coming back to it.

11.  Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PS4) -- A major improvement over the last installment.  They took what was best about part 3 (the boats!), removed all of the nagging tutorials, and just hand you the keys and say 'Have fun!'  I have minor complaints about some scripting and bugs in some missions, but it's nothing that we haven't dealt with in previous games in the series.  I can't wait to get back on the seas and start pillaging again.

10.  The Stanley Parable (PC) -- Poor Stanley.  Trapped in a game.  Or ... is it a game?  Is it a story?  Is Stanley me?  Where did my coworkers go?  If you love GLaDOS and her irreverent sense of humor, you should download the demo (which is a completely separate experience) and see if it's up your alley.

 9.  Grand Theft Auto V (X360) -- This is what a very talented group of developers can do when they have access to an almost unlimited amount of time and resources.  Was it worth the wait?  From a technical standpoint, yes.  It's massive, and runs as stable as any open-world game on a console to date.  However, we get three playable characters, yet not one of them is even remotely sympathetic.  Each is a step back from Nico in part IV, and I found myself not wanting to spend time with any of them.  Also, the online mode was hugely ambitious, but by the time they got it working properly, I'd moved on to something else.

 8.  Saint's Row IV (PC) -- GTA V wants to be a Michael Mann film.  Saint's Row IV wants to be Billy Madison.  When it comes to interactive entertainment, sometimes it's more fun to light bags of dog poop on fire and leave them on Old Man Clemens' porch.

 7.  Gone Home (PC) -- More of an interactive short story than a game, but it invokes real and honest emotions.  It's only two hours long, but it's something everyone should experience, and the less you know about it before you start, the better.

 6.  Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS) -- The most relaxing game I've ever played.  It's hard to explain to people who haven't tried it.  Either you get it or you don't.  I got it, and put literally hundreds of hours into digging up fossils, fishing, catching bugs, selling things at the shops, etc.  I finally walked away from it a couple of weeks ago, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about turning it back on so I can make snowmen.

 5.  Battlefield 4 (PC, XB1) -- An improvement over the previous game in many ways.  More destructibility, more vehicles, better overall map design, and more variety in the weapons and gameplay options.  It makes Battlefield 3 look like a beta for this game.  So why is it only #5?  The constant connectivity / server issues that plague each version make it hard to defend.  At least one game website went back and lowered their review scores because of these issues.  I still enjoy the game, and I'll be putting more time into it on multiple formats, but I really hope they fix the online stability.

 4.  Tomb Raider (X360, PC) -- An almost perfect reboot of a once-great franchise.  The campaign is long and yet almost never loses its pacing, and the graphics are outstanding.  I did get tired of the quick-time-events ("Press X to Not Die"), but fortunately there are less of them the further you get into the game.  They've announced a next-gen version coming in early 2014, and it may have me buying a third version of it.

 3.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (PC) -- I started to type a synopsis of what this game is about, and then I deleted it.  Just play it.  Take some time to get used to the 'two player co-op on one controller' setup, and let it draw you in.  You won't regret it.  The comparisons to 'Ico' and 'Journey' are valid in a lot of ways, and the last 30 minutes are some of the best in any game I've ever played.

 2.  Bioshock Infinite (X360, PC) -- Irrational Games had a tough path in front of them:  Meet or exceed the expectations set by the greatness of the first Bioshock.  I think they were successful.  It's not perfect though.  The gameplay is a little lacking (not much weapon variety, fewer 'Plasmid' powers than before), and the final 'boss' battle felt like a victim of a couple of bad decisions made late in development.  However, the setting and graphics are one-of-a-kind and instantly iconic.  The skyhook makes getting around in the levels unlike anything else you've ever played.  And then there's the story, which will have you scratching your head for 99% of the game, and then that last 1% drops on you and you feel like you stood up too fast, and have to instantly get on the internet to find out just what took place.  It was a real head rush of a game, even if the gameplay didn't innovate as much as I'd hoped it would.

 1.  The Last of Us (PS3) -- I avoided the hype as much as possible.  I tried to look at it as 'just another post-apocalyptic game'.  But I knew Naughty Dog would deliver.  And deliver they did.  They're the best triple-A developer in the business, hands down.  They understand their tools and craft better than anyone else, and while their graphics are some of the best you'll ever see on a console, they put more attention into their scripts and performances than any other.  But I still wasn't fully prepared.  If the Uncharted series are game versions of the Indiana Jones films, then this is Cormac McCarthy's The Road:  Bleak, unforgiving, and relentless.  The lengthy campaign stays impressive through almost 20 hours of gameplay, with only one or two very minor missteps, and you remain constantly in fear for Joel and Ellie's lives.  The human touches that Naughty Dog bring to the game make it even more impressive.  Early on, the two characters keep their distance in combat, but as the game progresses and Ellie grows to trust Joel more, she starts to huddle close to Joel when they're hiding, using him as protection.  And then there's the subtle way that Joel looks at his broken watch in some cutscenes, as if he's remembering a simpler time.  Most games have yet to nail this level of humanity in their characters, but Naughty Dog makes it look easy.

A lot has been said about the ending.  Some loved it, and others hated it.  I won't spoil it here, but I will say that I didn't like it at first.  Then I slept on it, and I realized that there was no other ending that made sense for the characters.  I can't say I loved it, but it's just 'right' for them.  In the final chapter, you'll be doing things with the lead character that you may not agree with.  However, much like a book or a movie, you ultimately have no control over what the character does.  It's a story, and you're experiencing it.  Whether or not the ending is emotionally satisfying to the player, it's emotionally honest to the characters, and that's what matters most.

I'll be the first to admit that not every video game is "art".  However, this game is incontrovertible proof that games CAN be art.  To even attempt to debate the question now is laughable.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

My favorite albums of 2013

2012 was a great year for music, and yet somehow, 2013 topped it in many ways.  A lot of new bands surprised me, and quite a few bands made comebacks that were above and beyond any expectations I had.  Here were my favorites:

15.  Cult of Luna -- Vertikal.  When Isis called it a day, I was pretty bummed out. However, I wouldn't have been as bummed if I'd have known there were bands like this who could fill that gap.
  -- Favorite Track:  In Awe Of

14.  Portal -- Vexovoid.  The sound of pure evil.  Their previous albums had the production and the theatrics, but this new album brings some memorable riffs that I didn't think they had in them.
  -- Favorite Track:  Kilter

13.  Scale the Summit -- The Migration.  Virtuoso instrumental guitar work.  These guys are consistently amazing.
  -- Favorite Track:  The Traveler

12.  Altar of Plagues -- Teethed Glory and Injuries.  This industrial black metal album took time to grow on me.  It's not an easy listen at first, but it was worth the extra effort to push through the 'idea' of what it should be and to actually appreciate it for what it is.
  -- Favorite Track:  God Alone

11.  Gorguts -- Colored Sands.  A great comeback album from a death metal band that has always been better than their name lets on.
  -- Favorite Track:  Colored Sands

10.  My Bloody Valentine -- mbv.  Speaking of comebacks, it took 22 years for this one to release, but it lived up to my lofty expectations.  No other art-rock band sounds quite like they do.  Not then, and not now.
  -- Favorite Track:  Who Sees You

 9.  The Ocean -- Pelagial.  The most consistent listen in their catalog, and the purest vision of who they are as songwriters.  Call them prog-rock, or post-metal, or alternative ... they're all those things and more.
  -- Favorite Track:  Mesopelagic: Into the Uncanny

 8.  Karnivool -- Asymmetry.  "Australia's Tool" steps away a tiny bit from the easy Tool comparisons.  While not as immediately listenable as their last album (Sound Awake), it still rewards repeated listens.
  -- Favorite Track:  We Are

 7.  Carcass -- Surgical Steel.  Another comeback from a seminal death metal band, and this one washes away the poor aftertaste of their 'final' album (Swansong).  Can't wait to see them tour next spring!
  -- Favorite Track:  Captive Bolt Pistol

 6.  Dillinger Escape Plan -- One Of Us Is The Killer.  After a couple of inconsistent albums that saw them struggling to find a middle ground between poppy spaz-rock and the math-metal genre they helped create, they've finally found the sweet spot.  Their best since Miss Machine.
  -- Favorite Track:  One Of Us Is The Killer

 5.  Spiritual Beggars -- Earth Blues.  The 70's never died!  Their previous albums didn't feel as playful as this one, and it's all the better for it.  Fuzzy production with lots of Hammond organ and cowbell.  Great for long highway drives.
  -- Favorite Track:  Turn the Tide / Legends Collapse

 4.  Alice In Chains -- The Devil Put Dinosaurs Here.  Either I've finally put Layne Staley to rest in my mind, or this is the best full-length album they've released since Dirt.
  -- Favorite Track:  Hollow

 3.  Amorphis -- Circle.  I first heard this Finnish band on their breakout folk metal album "Tales From The Thousand Lakes" in 1994, but I lost track of them when they started experimenting with different genres like electronica.  However, if they have other albums that are as instantly catchy as this, I have a lot of homework to do.   Great sing-along choruses and radio-friendly production?  I'm surprised they aren't more popular.
  -- Favorite Tracks:  The Wanderer / Hopeless Days

 2.  Tesseract -- Altered State.  One of the bands that helped create the 'djent' genre goes through yet another vocalist change, and redefines their feel without losing what makes them who they are.  I still miss Daniel, as his ability to float between aggressive and angelic vocals was inimitable, but Ashe is still a definite improvement over Elliot.  This band continues to get bigger, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're headlining a major metal festival by the time their next album releases. 
  -- Favorite Tracks:  Nocturne / Retrospect

 1.  Deafheaven -- Sunbather.  Someone described this band to me as 'putting black metal, post-rock, and shoegaze in a blender".  What a horrible idea, right?  Then I heard Sunbather, and they've been a mainstay in my ears ever since.  I'm a sucker for bands that can combine beauty with brutality, and Deafheaven might be the best at this since Opeth stopped being a 'metal' band.  The shrill vocals feel oppressive, but the warmth of the production and songwriting draw you in.  It just WORKS.
  -- Favorite Track:  Sunbather

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Authority Zero -- The Tipping Point.  Consistently catchy.
  -- Favorite Track:  Undivided

Black Dahlia Murder -- Everblack.  The AC/DC of death metal.
  -- Favorite Track:  Every Rope a Noose

Cloudkicker -- Subsume.  The best one-man instrumental prog band out there today.
  -- Favorite Track:  He would be riding on the subway...

Clutch -- Earth Rocker.  Who doesn't like this band by now?
  -- Favorite Track:  D.C. Sound Attack

Editors -- The Weight of Your Love.  British indie-rock that doesn't sound like it's trying too hard.
  -- Favorite Tracks:  Sugar / A Ton of Love

Living Sacrifice -- Ghost Thief.  Christian metallers' triumphant comeback album.
  -- Favorite Track:  Ghost Thief

Queens of the Stone Age -- Like Clockwork.  Something about this record feels 'off', and I like that about it.
  -- Favorite Track:  I Sat By The Ocean

Ulcerate -- Vermis.  Not as good as their last album, but still soul-crushingly heavy.
  -- Favorite Track:  Vermis

White Moth Black Butterfly -- One Thousand Wings.  Former Tesseract vocalist brings soul to a Massive Attack-like rock group, with surprising results.
  -- Favorite Tracks:  Ties of Grace / Omen

My not-so-scientific predictions for 2014:
  -- February releases from both Behemoth and Cynic will dominate my ears for most of the year, and both will end up high on my 2014 list.
  -- The new album from Skyharbor will release in the fall, and will be my #2.  I didn't hear their 2012 debut (Blinding White Noise) until this year, but they have my full attention now.
  -- The new album from Anathema will release in the summer, and will be my #1 for the third straight release of theirs.

My favorite movies of 2013

So here we are.  Another year gone!  And for the first time since the blog began in 2004, I'm not doing an actual 'top films' list.  I saw 50 films that were released this year, which is up from last year's 36, but there are still SO many I didn't get to see.  On top of that, I can't say I saw 10 films that I enjoyed enough to recommend.  That doesn't mean this year sucked for film; perhaps I was watching the wrong ones!  But when a TV show put every film I saw to shame, it makes doing a year-end list a moot point in my eyes.  Having said that, here are a few movies I saw this year (in alphabetical order) that deserve some praise:

Captain Phillips -- Greengrass turns down the 'shaky cam' and turns up the tension.  Over two hours just flew by.  Even though I knew how it was going to end, it was still very enjoyable.  The final few minutes were improvised on the set, but might be the most powerful moments in the film.

Gravity -- The best technical exercise I've seen in years.  The opening shot is marvelous (even if it's a little too dependent on CGI trickery).  I still think that Children of Men is Cuaron's best film, but this might be the most intense 90 minutes I've spent in a theater.

This Is The End -- My favorite 'dumb comedy' of the year.  The stars play amped-up parodies of themselves, and you can't help but laugh at how much fun they have with the script and setting.

Upstream Color -- Arthouse for the sake of arthouse.  Hard to recommend to anyone other than the nerdiest of film nerds.  The plot is almost impenetrable, but boy is it beautiful.  I'd be scared to see what Carruth could accomplish with a real Hollywood budget.  It's no Primer, but I still couldn't take my eyes off of it.

Warm Bodies -- One of the better mainstream teen comedies I've seen in a while, and it managed to do something a little different with the zombie genre too.  It possesses a gory heart of gold, and was a lot better than the trailers let on.

Films from 2013 that I still really want to see (in alphabetical order):

12 Years A Slave
The Act of Killing
All Is Lost
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club
Fruitvale Station
Inside Llewyn Davis

Safe Prediction for 2014 -- The Raid 2 will kick every single ass.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rethinking "Rehab" at T+7 years

On October 30, 2006, Amy Winehouse released what would be her seminal album, Back to Black. It remains, to this day, her best-known work, and an excellent case can be made that it is her best artistic work. Listening to the album today provides some context for our current great female Brit vocalist, the slightly less slender, equally bluesy Adele. The undeniable, inescapable prime meridian in Back to Black is not actually its title track (although "Back to Black" remains an excellent work, every bit as simultaneously familiar and groundbreaking now as in 2006), but rather "Rehab." For our purposes, it suffices to summarize "Rehab" simply: the song explains in detail why Amy Winehouse will not be going to rehab. It is equally important to preserve the song, for a moment, in the cultural context in which it was released. In 2006, there were some rumors that Winehouse might have a more than passing familiarity with the sort of reality enhancing substances commonly enjoyed by members of the artistic class. If you bought the album, you probably also knew somebody who knew somebody who had been to a Winehouse performance that she allegedly (1) arrived extremely late to, (2) left before the natural conclusion of, (3) did not seem to be in her right mind during, or (4) some or all of 1 through 3. And so “Rehab” was consumed in the contemporary cultural context that Winehouse likely had a recreational drug habit that rated somewhere between “heavy recreational” and “marginally serious.” And in that context, her fans were all too happy to accept, agree with, and sing harmoniously along with her litany of reasons why she neither needed nor would be accepting any trips to Hazelden. Of course, the problem with this story is that, like a Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet historio-romantic vehicle, we all know how the story actually ends. We know now that the story ends with Winehouse’s dead body being removed from her London apartment following an overdose that had become essentially a foregone conclusion for more than year before the actual event. Perhaps the only surprise was that it was alcohol, and not one of its more powerful cousins, that ultimately caused her death. And knowing what we know perfects the question: do we now feel differently about the song than we did back in 2006? Should we feel differently? Answering that question takes us inescapably into the discussion of how we consume, in every sense of the word, celebrity in our post-post-post-modern culture. Any fan of “The Real Housewives of….” ought to be solidly of the view that our enjoyment of “Rehab” should be in no way diminished or adjusted solely because we happen to be rooting for the destruction of its author. Celebrity, thusly viewed, is like ink: we use it for its purpose, understanding that in using it, we exhaust its vessel, which is discarded when it holds nothing more that we want. Understanding that point of view requires neither approbation nor censure; this is simply how some people feel. What is more interesting is exploring the mindset of those who feel repulsed by the notion that we should be okay with using and discarding our celebrities. After all, they would have us understand, these are human beings! How could we be so careless? A hundred arguments could be made on either side, and other writers have made them with greater or lesser skill. Rather than exploring what ought to be, let us take a moment to acknowledge what is. At the moment, our culture of celebrity rewards the fleeting, fast-burning, and destined for impact. That is the world of the actual, even if some may not believe it is ideal. But if we step back to 2006, we might also find reason to judge ourselves a bit more harshly than we’d like. It’s not as if Winehouse met her end by falling drunkenly in front of a bus. She eventually died in exactly the way many of her fans (at either end of the scale of engagement) realized she might. It was neither unforeseen nor unforeseeable. Any slightly informed listener humming along to “Rehab” in 2008 could have told you there was a better-than-passing possibility that Winehouse would be joining the ranks of Hendrix or Cobain. And if that didn’t diminish our enjoyment of the song then, then what right do we have to feign indignance and say it bothers us now? All that has happened is the occurrence of what we had good reason to expect would occur. If we were truly such good Samaritans, shouldn’t we have tut-tutted the song during the Bush years? And of course, with only a few exceptions, we didn’t. We were unconsciously ready to consume that celebrity, for as long as the ink still flowed. In the end, the aforementioned “Real Housewives” viewers may simply be the most enlightened of us all. They have achieved enough self-awareness to admit where they stand. If we insist now on a cultural rethinking of “Rehab,” it may have more to do with trying to convince ourselves that we aren’t the people we are, than with making any improvements going forward. Rationalizing our actions can be the most powerful addiction of all.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Only four episodes of Breaking Bad left


Not sure what else to say about tonight's episode, other than I now see light at the end of the tunnel.  It makes perfect sense to have Jesse squaring off against Walter in the final reel, so to speak.  But as is typical with this show, it'll happen in a way that none of us could possibly predict.  I almost wish we didn't have the flash forwards of his 52nd b-day at Denny's, and his return to the house for the ricin.  Right now, I'm feeling that the less I know, the better.

I fucking love this fucking show so fucking much.  I'm going to cry when it's over.  And it'll be that selfish cry from a funeral of a dead relative that I care more about my loss than their death.  It's gonna be ugly.  

OR, more likely, I'll be completely numb when it's over, in utter disbelief.  And it'll hit me when I wake up the next morning:  "There will never be another 'new' episode of Breaking Bad to look forward to".  And I'll try to console myself by saying, "New Sherlocks coming up soon!", as if that will make up for it.  As much as I'll want it to, it won't.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Reflections on More than a Decade of GTA III

In December of 2001, one of my friends from law school came back to Minneapolis because his girlfriend (also a law school classmate) was in a wedding.  Who gets married in Minneapolis in December is another question, but the important thing was, my friend wasn't in the wedding, and didn't know these people.  So, he was free from obligations, whereas his girlfriend was the maid of honor.  He planned to spend the time catching up with his friends in the Twin Cities, and I was lucky enough that he started by visiting me.  The rest of his friends didn't end up getting so lucky...

When John showed up at my apartment, he had two things with him that I hadn't seen before: a PS2 and a copy of GTA 3.  What happened over the next four days was both awesome and really depressing.  John didn't spend time catching up with his many friends back in the Twin Cities.  Because he and I sat in the living room and played GTA 3.  For four days straight.  Just passing the controller back and forth when we died, and taking turns running missions and killing people and playing taxi and baseball batting hookers and laughing when the people in Chinatown said "is it dragon breath?"  And it's not like we were two stoned college sophomores.  We were 25 year old adult lawyers who had real jobs.

Several months ago, I was thrilled to find out that Rockstar released GTA 3 as an Ipad game (hint hint), and spent a few hours playing it (some controls customization is needed, otherwise the game works great).  It then dawned on me that, since I have a PS2 and a copy of the game, I could just play the game for real.  Which I did.  Blending my reflections from those snowy days in my apartment living room with my recent views on the game, here's what I've come up with.

First, you really can't overstate the impact GTA 3 had when it first came out.  I bought a PS2 the day after John left.  Just to I could play the game.  Maybe there were other quasi-sandbox games that came out first, but GTA 3 was the first time general, non-hard-core gamers like me saw a game where you could just do....whatever the hell you wanted to do.  AND PEOPLE DID.  There were people who just played freaking taxi.  People rode the subway just to stare out the window at the animated city flashing by.  And if you find someone who says they never stood on the balcony at Kenji's Casino and sniped people until the helicopter showed up, and then RPG'd helicopters until the army showed up, well...they're either lying or they've never truly lived.  Here's the thing: us mere civilians never even knew a game could be this way.  All the games we knew had a point.  Hell, the point for most games we've played was either Go Right or Go Up.  When the bad guys steal your girlfriend at the beginning of Double Dragon, it had never occurred to us that the right reaction might be to go into the store next door and steal some shit, then jump down into the sewers and see how many rats we could kill.  No.  The Game Was A Mission.  You Played The Game By Doing the Mission.  Now you get GTA 3.  And, like the world's nicest dungeon master, GTA 3 just said: what do you want to do today?  Mind = blown.

Second, GTA 3 gets something really basic and fundamental right that so many games spend so much money getting wrong: I am not looking for realistic physics in my shoot-em-up game.  If you have the ability, go spend a half-hour playing GTA 3.  And pay attention to how the fast cars handle (the Yakuza Stinger is my favorite go-to car for missions, because it's fast as hell and it can take a LOT of abuse).  Put mildly, the physics engine for car performance isn't realistic at all.  But it IS awesome as hell.  The only way you can screw up when driving is if you try to drive like a normal human being.  You'll turn right into the wall on the inside of that curve.  But, if you floor it, wait for the last minute, then jam on the parking break and slam into the turn, you'll breeze right through.  Worst case scenario, you'll smack the rear panel on the outside of the turn, which will help you complete the turn properly.  If I wanted realistic driving physics, I'd go with GT 3 (or 5 or 7 or whatever).  Not a game where you lob molotov cocktails at drug-addicted maniacs who are running towards you with bombs strapped to their chests.

Third, music.  Music.  Oh man.  Jump in a car, and the first thing you check is: what's on the radio?  Ain't listening to that Double Clef FM classical music bullshit.  Where's Game FM?  GTA 3 has Royce da 5-9 rapping on it.  It's not just that the music became such an imbedded part of the game, it's that (once again) the notion that you were in control of a full musical palate and could choose how the game sounded was....just....not something we had ever considered before.  It's not that I hated the music to Super Mario Bros. (even after Dane Cook pointed out that the lyrics to the World 1-2 music are "Penis penis penis......penis penis penis....") (also, admit that you just sang that in your head in turn).  But choice itself is a powerful aphrodisiac.  And it led to this: you would get in your car HOPING that the radio was set for a particular station, and HOPING that a particular song would be on.  In a fake car.  In a fake world.  In a fucking shooing game.  Developers talk about immersion.  How's that for immersion?

Now, GTA 3 also features some of the most embarassingly performed voice overs in history.  By talented artists!  Michael Madsen has to physically wince when he hears some of his lines as Tony.  Joe Pantoliano does a solid job.  Kyle MacLaughlin does an awesome job.  And Robert Logia is Robert Logia.

Look, I'd stick around and write more, but I gotta go.  It's been almost an hour since I last played GTA 3, and my hands are shaking.  Stay cool.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Lord Bling's Top Games of 2012

2012 was a great year to be a gamer!  So many big releases lived up to (or exceeded) expectations, and many smaller titles surprised me too.  Ranking this year's list was tough, especially picking a #1.  Too much goodness!  So let's get to it.  Links will go to random retail sites, and the listed format is where I played each game.

(Disclaimer: While I work in the video game industry, I'm not a professional critic. There are plenty of games I didn't get to play, so this list isn't meant to be all-inclusive.  Also, these are just my personal opinions, and are not representative of my employer.)

Honorable Mentions (in alphabetical order):

Binary Domain (X360) -- Cover-based shooters are a dime a dozen these days, but this one was better than most. Very good story, well-written characters, and the squad 'trust' system was a nice addition.

Black Mesa (PC) -- This free mod was over seven years in the making, but worth the wait.  No matter how many times you may have played through the original Half-Life, they tweaked just enough to make it feel fresh.  Mod DB even named it 'Mod of the Year', topping the mighty Day Z. 

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (PC) -- If it ain't broke, don't fix it!  A respectable update to a classic.  Gun games never get old.

Diablo 3 (PC) -- Series veterans had a lot of complaints, but as a noob, I found a lot to like. Now if they'd only add PvP...

Hotline Miami (PC) -- Super Meat Boy combined with an 80's serial killer movie. Original and disturbing.  With tighter controls, it could've ended up in my top 15.

Plague Inc. (iOS) -- I don't usually get into simulation games, but this one grabbed me.  Infect the world!

Spec Ops: The Line (PC) -- The story dares to ask questions about the nature of war and how it affects the human psyche.  A war-torn Dubai makes for an unforgettable setting, and the squad mechanic works surprisingly well.

Treasures of Montezuma Blitz (PS Vita) -- Addictive free-to-play puzzle game has caught a lot of my free time this year. It launched slowly, but patches improved it immensely. If you have a Vita, you should be playing this.

Top 15 List

15.  The Darkness II (X360) --  I was a big fan of the original. It had one of the better stories you'll find in this generation.  I didn't know what to think when they announced a sequel, from a different developer, and in a cel-shaded graphic style, but they did a commendable job.  It looks and plays great, and the story is solid (if not quite as strong as the first game).

14.  Sonic & All-Star Racing Transformed (X360) -- Even better than the past few Mario Karts.  Nice variety in the gameplay for the driving, boating, and flying sections.  A good amount of depth in the campaign, and full online support on all platforms. You don't have to be a Sega fan to enjoy it either!

13.  Trials: Evolution (X360) -- 'More Trials' is really all they had to deliver, and that's what we got.  It kept me up well past bedtime for weeks.  The controls are still satisfying, and the challenge of the later levels is still heart-explodingly difficult.  

12.  Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (X360) -- I liked this more than the previous two Advanced Warfighters.  While it doesn't have much in common with the original Ghost Recon games, the pacing is better and it's much more polished.  The multiplayer doesn't reinvent the wheel, but the three squad classes have a nice variety and balance.

11.  Dishonored (X360) -- An exceptional blend of Thief and Bioshock.  The story was good up until the final act.  One of the better debuts this year, and I'm very interested to see what they'll do in the inevitable follow-up.

10.  Halo 4 (X360) -- Halo Reach was a respectable swan song for Bungie, but I think this debut from 343 Industries is the better game.  The story was the best since the original, and the graphics prove that the Xbox 360 still has some tricks up its sleeve.  

9.  XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC) -- I have never liked turn-based strategy games.  And yet, I really like this turn-based strategy game a lot.  It helps that it's squad-based, and that they don't have you micromanaging every little detail.  I haven't put nearly as much time into this as I'd like, but that won't last long.

8.  Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (X360) -- The best game Treyarch has ever made, and definitely the craziest.  Futuristic weapons (wrist-fired grenades, weapon sights that see through walls), a 'play-as-the-bad-guy' cut scene that turns into a machete massacre, a floating ocean city, 80's flashbacks of firing RPGs from horseback, Michael Rooker with spikey hair .... it's unapologetically insane, and the most fun I've had with a CoD game in five years.

7.  Forza Horizon (X360) -- I haven't been drawn into a racing game since Test Drive Unlimited and Burnout Paradise.  Both of those were huge open-world games that were more arcade than simulation.  This game is more sim than either of those, but is forgiving enough.  It's relaxing to just drive around and see the sights, and when you want to actually race, it's a challenge but not punishing.  (*FYI:  I didn't get to play Need for Speed: Most Wanted, but reviews say it's a lot like Burnout Paradise (same devs) so that one may have ended up near this slot too).

6.  Mark of the Ninja (X360) -- The best pure stealth game I've played in years.  Playing it felt like the developers spoke to me beforehand, because they somehow knew what I've always wanted in a game like this.  The Tenchu games came close, but this is true Ninja Heaven.

5.  Journey (PS3) -- Probably the best $15 you can spend this year.  It contains not a single word of dialog, and yet inspires more emotion than almost every other game I've ever played. Until Fumito Ueda can finally deliver The Last Guardian, I'll be playing through this again.

4.  Mass Effect 3 (X360) -- Even though the story juggled the ball a bit near the goal line, the sheer level of scope and imagination on display is undeniable.  In these three games, Bioware accomplished something that we may never see again in this industry.  They even added a PvE multiplayer mode, and it was a lot more fun than anyone expected.  

3.  The Walking Dead (PC) -- If video games ever expand into a larger art form, we may look back on this as one of the turning points.  Even though it's more of an interactive novel than a traditional game, Lee and Clementine are the most 'real' characters in any game I've ever played.  Struggling for their survival will have you making moral choices that you'll think twice about, and then you'll second-guess those choices after the fact.  By the end of the final episode, I was an emotional wreck.  This game had me excited for what this medium can eventually become.

2.  Borderlands 2 (X360) -- The first Borderlands was a revelation, and scratched an FPS/RPG hybrid itch most didn't know they had.  While the sequel doesn't take many risks, it delivered an even better experience than the first.  The minor tweaks made to the user interface, the quest delivery, the skill trees, the NPC dialog, the hub world -- all were improvements.  The levels feel bigger, and the score from the always-amazing Jesper Kyd was great too.  The 'True Vault Hunter' mode and the upcoming DLC guarantee I'll be playing this well into the next year.

DRUM ROLL.........

1.  Far Cry 3 (X360) -- I punched a shark in the face.

Just when I thought I was burned out on open-world games, this one delivered more 'holy crap' moments and genuine laughs than anything else I played this year.  It made me feel like the star of an action movie.  The first two Far Cry games were ambitious but uneven.  This one corrects all the wrongs, and has a blast doing it.

The tagline of 'Skyrim with guns' isn't too far off.  While there are many ways to get around the massive island (cars, jeeps, jet skis, patrol boats, ziplines, hang gliders, wingsuits), exploring on foot while hunting was just as much fun.  The "L.A. trust-funder turns into jungle mercenary" story is enjoyable (especially by normal shooter standards, even if it starts to tail off near the end), and the voice acting is stellar.  The side missions are varied too, and are short enough to not overstay their welcome.  

The AI is fairly random, which leads to some memorable moments. Sometimes while trying to capture a base, I spotted a caged animal inside.  You can shoot the cage door lock and let the animal out, and it will distract the bad guys.  At one point, I was observing a base through my camera when a black bear came out of the jungle and started attacking everyone.  Instead of firing at them, I just watched as they screamed in horror and tried to kill it, and failed.  The bear ripped every one of them apart, and then I got credit for capturing the base.  I was in the right place at the right time.  And I couldn't stop laughing.

Besides a lengthy campaign, and tons of post-game exploration and side missions, there is also a decent co-op campaign, a full competitive multiplayer, and a map editor.  It's not all perfect though.  The graphics on Xbox aren't as sharp as I'd like, but I suppose it's a fair trade for drawing such a huge open map.  The multiplayer feels a little floaty when compared to other AAA shooters.  However, I think the biggest omission is not being able to start a "New Game Plus" and carry your unlocked perks and weapons over into a new game.  But, these are all minor complaints in my book.  It's the most fun I had with a game this year.

Also, did I mention that I punched a shark in the face?  Top that, 2013.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lord Bling's Top 15 Albums of 2012

I usually do a Top Ten album list, but it's been a really good year for the music I listen to, so I figured I'd expand it to 15.  Like usual, if you're not into metal, a good part of this list won't pertain to you, but stick around and you might find a few surprises.

(Band names link to Wikipedia.  Album names link to Amazon.)

15.  Storm Corrosion -- self-titled.  The prog-rock super group brought it mellow and dark.  Nothing like Opeth or Porcupine Tree, but fans of both will appreciate it.  Great for overcast weather.  Favorite Song (and possibly best video of the year?): Drag Ropes

14.  Converge -- All We Love We Leave Behind. How does these guys still do it?  Over 20 years of consistently great (and more importantly, relevant) hardcore?  They continue to amaze me.  Favorite Song:  Sadness Comes Home

13.  Toadies -- Play.Rock.Music.  Gritty southern rock is a consistent listen throughout.  Their strongest overall album since Hell Below Stars Above.  Favorite Song: We Burned the City Down

12.  Testament -- Dark Roots of Earth.  A band that deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the Big Four.  They're still writing music that's better than anything those four bands have released in years.  Favorite Song: Native Blood

11.  Napalm Death -- Utilitarian.  Having grown up with this band, I'd kind of grown out of them in the past decade. Then I saw the album was on sale for $5 on Amazon and I bought it, and I'm really glad I did.  In fact, it has me wondering what I've missed over the past decade.  Favorite Song: Errors in the Signals

10.  Deftones -- Koi No Yokan. This one didn't grab me as instantly as their last two, but it's still a strong record.  I'm glad they're still plugging away, and hopefully Chi can make it back to them someday.  Favorite Song: Entombed

9.  Sylosis -- Monolith.  Probably their best overall album, even if it lacks a true 'home run' song like Empyreal.  If you're a fan of Lamb of God, this will be your new favorite band.  Favorite Song: What Dwells Within

8.  Periphery -- II: This Time It's Personal.  Not as strong as their debut, but that one came from out of nowhere so expectations were higher here. The technical prowess is there (of course), but the biggest gain has to be Spencer's vocals.  He really upped his game, and pulls it all off live too.  Favorite Song: Scarlet

7.  Car Bomb -- w^w^^w^w.  Left for dead years ago, these math metal survivors returned with an album so important, it could not be ignored.  This is the kind of music Dillinger Escape Plan used to make, before they started listening to the hype about themselves.  Favorite Songs: Finish It / Lower the Blade

6.  7 Horns 7 Eyes -- Throes of Absolution.  The only debut album on my list comes from a Christian prog/tech/death band.  Wholly deserving of all the praise it received in the metal underground in the months leading up to its release.  I can't wait to see what they do for an encore.  Favorite Song: Cycle of Self

5.  Pig Destroyer -- Book Burner.  Their best album since Prowler in the Yard.  Don't listen to this band while you're driving, or you'll end up with a few speeding tickets.  Favorite Song (and a close second for best video of the year): The Diplomat

4.  The Faceless -- Autotheism.  This one took a long time to grow on me.  While the tech-death parts still exist, they injected a lot of Between the Buried and Me / Devin Townsend-like progressive rock into the songwriting.  This may have upset some of their long-time fans, but I actually think it works better than anything else they've ever written.  Favorite Song: Emancipate

3.  The Devin Townsend Project -- Epicloud.  While not as poppy as his 'Dev Leppard' comments hinted, it still brings enough 'catchy' to warrant the tag.  His lyrics have become more hopeful over the years, but without being too 'soft'.  This is his finest solo album since Infinity.  Favorite Songs: Liberation / Grace

2.  Cattle Decapitation -- Monolith of Inhumanity.  A concept album about how humanity is slowly killing itself, set to music that sounds like the end of the world.  Travis Ryan has proven himself to be the best vocalist in extreme music today, by combining guttural and melodic in a way that only Mike Patton could have dreamed of.  Metal album of the year.  Favorite Song: Your Disposal

1.  Anathema -- Weather Systems.  They've done it again.  Last year, they released "We're Here Because We're Here" in the US, and I named the 'Pink Floyd-on-downers' prog-rock record my top pick of 2011.  Now we get this, which is more subtle, but reveals itself to be the better record with repeated listens.  Their lyrics continue to revolve around dealing with the loss of loved ones, and the last thoughts people have before passing on.  It has moments of darkness, but still manages to feel hopeful, and extracts emotions out of me unlike any other band I've ever heard.  Favorite Songs: Untouchable Pts 1 & 2 / Lightning Song / The Lost Child

"I've never seen a light that's so bright
The light that shines behind your eyes
I had to let you go
To the setting sun
I had to let you go
To find your way back home"