Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lord Bling's favorite albums of 2010

Hey. Me again. You like music? Yeah? Me too! Let's talk about some. And when I say 'music', I don't mean what's 'popular' or 'American Idol worthy'. Let's talk about some lesser-known music that doesn't get much radio play. Let's talk about artists that can actually play instruments. There is a TON of music this year that I didn't get to hear, but of the stuff I did, here were my favorites:

10. 36 Crazyfists -- Collisions and Castaways. These guys have been plugging away for close to ten years now, opening for some bands that have no right to be bigger than them. Is it because Brock Lindow's voice is an acquired taste? When I first heard their debut album, it took a few listens to adjust, but now I think he's one of the stronger vocalists in alternative metal. This new album isn't quite as consistent as their last one, but it's very good nevertheless. I'm glad they're still plugging away.
Favorite Track -- 'Mercy and Grace'

9. The Mag Seven -- Black Feathers. Their last album made my list in 2009, and here they are again a year later, although this time there's even more variety in fewer songs. This EP flips from jazzy rock to reggae dub to punk, and yet it all holds together surprisingly well. They also have a surf-inspired cover of Black Flag's 'My War' that has to be heard to be believed. And then there's that amazing artwork by James O'Barr, who is regularly seen at their Dallas shows. I'm not sure where their next album will take us, but I can't wait to find out.
Favorite Track -- 'My War'

8. Far -- At Night We Live. Probably the most mainstream-sounding album on the list, this one smacked me from out of nowhere. These guys had a small measure of success ten years ago, and then broke up. Then one day, I get an e-mail from a friend saying, 'Did you know Far is back together? Their new album is good.' And good it is. In fact, I can say I like this record more than anything else they've released before it. Great vocal hooks, yet aggressive in just the right places. I never would've expected these guys to come back, much less put out something I would play as much as I have this album. I hope they stick around this time.
Favorite Track -- 'Give Me A Reason'

7. MC Frontalot -- Zero Day. What the hell? A rap album on this list? Well, it's 'nerdcore', but hey, rap is rap. I regularly read Penny Arcade, and Frontalot was mentioned there a few years ago (as he plays their PAX convention every year). As a result, I've been listening to his music for a couple of years now, but only the free stuff he posts on his website (and he's posted a LOT of it). Since he's been a Charity Case to his fan base for years, I figured it was time to show some love, so I bought his new one and I'm glad I did. It hasn't left my car since it released in April. By the way, if you have Netflix streaming, check out 'Nerdcore Rising', which is a documentary that follows him on his first national tour. It shows what the road is like for smaller bands, and how it's not very glamorous, but doing what you love can pay off in more ways than one. It's something every aspiring young musician should watch.
Favorite Track -- 'First World Problem'

6. The Contortionist -- Exoplanet. Finally, some fucking METAL! What an impressive major-label debut. They're a cross between the mathematic riffing of Meshuggah, the insane soloing of Necrophagist, and the occasional moments of beauty of early Hopesfall. Sometimes they mix all three in the same song, and on tracks like 'Flourish', if you appreciate the heavier side of music, it can give you goose bumps. As a whole, the album isn't as consistent as some other metal releases this year, but they have a ton of potential. This album got overlooked on most top metal lists for 2010, but I hope more people come around to it because they're very promising.
Favorite Track -- 'Flourish'

5. Deftones -- Diamond Eyes. Besides political leanings, this band is the one thing the regular contributors on this blog have in common. They got started when we were all in college, and their first two albums turned a lot of heads in the alternative rock and metal communities. Yet when other bands from that time either called it quits or release stagnant cash-grabs, these guys continue to compose solid records. I really liked their last one, and thought it was their best since Around the Fur. Now I have no choice but to repeat that same sentiment for this one.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Diamond Eyes', 'Sextape'

4. Misery Index -- Heirs to Thievery. This band is a prime example of how metal should be done. They write catchier riffs than most death bands. At times, they're faster than a lot of grindcore bands. Lyrically, they're more intelligent than most bands in any genre. And they made the album available to stream before it released, showing they know how to market themselves. Even though I like their previous releases, that stream was what sold me on the new one, and I ordered it the same day. Like The Red Chord last year, these guys stepped up and released their best album to date.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Fed to the Wolves', 'The Seventh Cavalry'

3. Ihsahn -- After. Black metal can be one of the cheesiest genres of music. Corpsepaint, Halloween outfits, and demonic lyrics that try WAY too hard. However, Emperor was one of the few black metal bands that I could appreciate. While they helped popularize the genre (and led to many less-talented imitators), they always had a little something more going on in their music. So when they broke up in 2001, I was disappointed. However, if I'd have known their front man was going to go on to release albums like this, I would've cheered their break up (blasphemy, I know)! The record is heavy, but not 'black metal'. Then in one song, you have to strain a little to make sure, but oh my god, is that a saxophone? Who the fuck puts that in a metal song? Is Ihsahn completely insane? Then a little later it comes further into the foreground, with a passage that's so mournfully beautiful you can't help but respect it. Then further listens, you can't imagine the album without it. Powerful and unexpected. 'After' came out in January, so some top ten metal lists forgot about it. Considering I've had that sax line in my head for almost 11 months now, I didn't have the option.
Favorite Track -- 'Undercurrent'

2. Periphery -- Periphery. Word of mouth and repetition. They work. I heard about this disc so many times on different metal websites, I finally gave in. A reviewer on Amazon called this album 'warm and fuzzy math metal', and I think that's pretty spot-on. They can flip between a song that could be a alternative rock radio hit, and then to a track that wouldn't sound out of place on a new Fredrik Thordendal solo project. And yet, it never loses its sense of cohesion. The guitar player is the driving force behind the project, and produced the album himself over a span of almost five years, switching vocalists in and out many times. I'm not entirely sold on the vocalist on the final album (and many on metal websites recommend an instrumental-only version that's on iTunes). His growling isn't very strong, but his clean vocals are very good, and that's enough for me. Besides, it's better than the alternative, which would be having a good death growl and then singing off-key. Regardless, it's not about the vocals; it's about the guitar work, which is stellar. Part prog-rock, part math-core, all amazing. I just hope it doesn't take another five years for the next record.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Jetpacks Was Yes!', 'Zyglrox'

1. The Ocean -- Heliocentric. It started innocently enough. 'Stream the new album from The Ocean!' I'd only heard of them a couple of times, but when a band feels strongly enough about a release to stream it beforehand, I'll always give it a listen. However, this may be the only streamed album that I immediately played again afterwards. They make so many interesting decisions that pay off for any open-minded listener. At times they sound like a more-orchestrated Isis, then they throw a couple of piano ballads at you (yes, you read that right). Yet, they're so good, I don't skip them. In fact, I don't skip anything on this record, and never have. I said 'open-minded listener' earlier because some fans of The Ocean's previous works aren't happy with 'Heliocentric'. I went back and picked up 'Precambrian' which is widely considered to be their magnum opus. It's a LOT heavier, so I get why some fans aren't happy, but it feels one-dimensional (especially since I heard it AFTER this one). I don't get how a fan can listen to this album and not appreciate it, even if it's vastly different. They're not trying to sell a million copies or guest-judge on some music game show; they're pushing themselves as artists. That's something I'll always support, even if I don't entirely like the end result. However, this end result is nothing short of incredible. You wanna know what was the capper? This band got me reading again. The lyrics on 'Heliocentric' draw from many different scientific and philosophical texts, asking questions about the birth of religion that beg for further contemplation. After doing some digging, I pulled the trigger on some book purchases. Because of this band, I've read Richard Dawkins and am currently getting through some Nietzsche. From someone who's had a video game controller glued to his hands for the past three years, that's quite an accomplishment. For all of these reasons, this was my favorite album of 2010.
Favorite Tracks -- 'Firmament', 'Metaphysics of the Hangman', 'The Origin of Species'

I was going to use this space to whine about how disappointed I was in the new Dillinger Escape Plan record, or how uninspired the new After the Burial sounds, but I won't do that(?). Instead, let's take the high road and talk about some upcoming 2011 releases that I can't wait for:

Pig Destroyer
Devin Townsend Project
Amon Amarth

And I look forward to being surprised by some unexpected albums too. I'd barely heard of The Ocean at the start of the year, and that ended up working out nicely...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Lord Bling's Top Ten Video Games of 2010

Just in time for the end of 2010, here is my top ten video game list for the year. Looking back at last year's list, I think I would've made one small change. At the time, I had no way of knowing that Activision would charge $15 for each downloadable map pack for Modern Warfare 2 (with 40% of each one being old content). Map packs up until that point were never more than $10, so the higher price and the old content put a bad taste in my mouth. I also had no way of knowing that Activision and Infinity Ward would have a soap-opera-like falling-out which is still taking place today. Whether it was directly or indirectly because of it, the level of technical support and online bug-squashing would not be comparable to Call of Duty 4. With this knowledge, I would have to say that Uncharted 2 was my favorite game of 2009. That's what makes these lists fun. It's a small snapshot in time of my favorite hobby. Speaking of time, I have to caveat this list by saying there are a few games that I regrettably didn't get the chance to play this year, so they were not considered for this list. Those games are:

-- Enslaved (I liked the demo, and Ninja Theory told a great story in Heavenly Sword)
-- Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit (Loved the original on PS1, and it got good reviews)
-- Alan Wake (I got a copy for Christmas, so I'll be diving into it soon)
-- Singularity (a highly overlooked title from the summer that got some Bioshock comparisons; it's on the way from GameFly now)
-- Gran Turismo 5 (Reviews were hit-or-miss, but you know what you're getting with this series, and what you're getting is a top-quality racing simulation)

Okay, so the caveats are out of the way. Let's dive into 2010!

10. Pinball FX2. I absolutely loved Pinball FX when it hit Xbox Live Arcade a few years ago, and the sequel is just as good. They gave a free table away if you download the game launcher, and free is awesome. They also put out a Marvel table 4-pack recently, and the tables are all fun, but very different from each other. The only negative I can put on this is a couple of tables (Rome, Biolab) have a female voice actor who's really bad, but I just stream my own music so it's not too distracting. Voice acting notwithstanding, this is the best video pinball simulation ever made, and will be sapping a LOT of my hours in 2011.

9. Halo: Reach. I had very low expectations for this game, because I didn't care for ODST. I liked what they were trying to do with the pacing, and the score was fantastic, but the hub world was beyond annoying and killed the entire experience for me. However, since this is Bungie's last Halo game, I figured it would be more of a love letter than an experiment. Fortunately, that's exactly what it is. The story isn't a surprise to anyone who's paid attention to the canon, but it was handled well, and has some nice ties back to the original game. I also liked the different loadout choices in multiplayer, as they enhanced it without radically changing the experience. It's not a shooter I'll 'reach' for very often, but I could still hop into a game right now and enjoy it.

8. Bayonetta. So THIS is what happens when a famous game creator goes to an S&M bar after taking a near-lethal dose of LSD. At least, that's how I imagine the first production meetings went. This game makes Devil May Cry look like digital Lunestra. There's a story, but like most Japanese action games, it's not worth paying attention to. How much story do you need to be ready to punch a god through a galaxy? The controls are tighter than the slots at the Vegas airport, and the level score leaderboards can really hook the perfectionist crowd. Even the end credits are different and brought a smile to my face. Full disclosure: I work for the publisher that made this. However, a good game is a good game.

7. Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Think of a survival horror game. Now take away all the weapons! Yeah, this game is INTENSE. They took the best parts of H.P. Lovecraft and made them interactive. It's not a run-and-gun like most other survival horror games, and it's all the better for it. The contrast between light and dark is what really makes it great. The longer you stay in the dark, the more insane your character becomes (and the screen fades in and out and sound is warped, as if it's happening inside your head). Staying in the light gains back sanity, but stay in it too long and evil beings might track you down. The sound design is flawless, and if you have a good pair of surround sound headphones, it will destroy you. I'm not kidding. During my last session, I heard something behind me, and I turned around and had this staring back at me. As you might understand, I can only play it in 20 or 30 minute increments before it becomes too much to handle. It may not have any replay value, but at $20 (or less if you catch it on a digital promotion), fans of intelligent horror will find it worth every penny.

6. Fallout: New Vegas. Yeah, it's 'Fallout 3' in Nevada. Yeah, it shipped buggier than an Alabama August. However, Fallout 3 may be my favorite game of this console generation, so being 'more of the same' is hardly a strike against it. The Vegas setting isn't as compelling as D.C., and aiming down the sights isn't as big of an improvement as I'd hoped. Still, it delivers on almost everything else. The weapon modification system is better than the 'blueprint' system in the last game, and the ammo creation is deeper anyone could've hoped. Also, the standing you'll have with different factions leads to a lot of second-guessing and 'what-ifs' before choosing quests. I haven't put nearly as much time into this game as I'd like, but I've been saving it for later, like a rich chocolaty desert.

5. Mass Effect 2. This is at or near the top of many other people's lists for 2010. However, because it's so story-driven, I don't find it has the replay value that other people think. I have a version of the story that I played, and to play it again for other endings feels like a 'choose your own adventure' book instead of a great role-playing game. Speaking of, in many places, the sequel feels more like a third-person shooter than an RPG. Having said all that, I can still put it this high on my list because it's THAT good. The graphics and audio are top-notch. The story is worth the price of admission alone, and being able to load your completed save from the first game and have it affect what happens in part 2? That's a real game-changer. They recently announced the final opus in the trilogy, and like many of my friends, I'll be there the day it releases with my sixty bucks in hand.

4. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. I didn't get to play Assassin's Creed 2 in time to make my Top Ten list last year. It was a shame, because I would've made room for it. The first game had potential but didn't quite deliver, but the sequel improved upon it in every major category. Now, a year later, we have another sequel, but it follows the same character from part 2 in the same country. Is it worth your time? If you played part 2, absolutely. The story picks up right where that one left off, and eventually takes you to Rome, which was teased at the end of part 2. Rome is a phenomenal setting, and the playable map is gigantic. A few of the later missions are too 'trial and error' for my tastes, but by that time, you'll be invested enough in the story to want to push through. Plus, if a mission is too hard, this time you have assassin recruits that you can summon to assist you. It gives the player a feeling of power that's quite addictive. The swordplay controls have been tweaked again, and are even better. Then there's the score, which is another masterpiece from Jesper Kyd. On top of all this, there's a new multiplayer mode, which is different from the 'shoot first, ask questions later' that we get in so many other games. Unfortunately, that part still needs some work. Many matches feel controlled by luck and random spawn points than skill, and the party system is iffy. Since this year's Splinter Cell lacked a true PvP mode, I was hoping this would take its place, but it's not ready for that. Still, as a first try, it's promising. If you found anything enjoyable about Assassin's Creed 2, you should pick this one up.

3. Call of Duty: Black Ops. This might be the biggest surprise on my list. Considering how much of a mess the last Treyarch CoD game was, Black Ops is a big improvement. The single-player campaign uses a flashback format, which brings a nice variety to the level design. The 'Nazi Zombie' mode is more complicated, and the 'War Room' level you get after you beat the campaign is full of lulz. Then we get to the competitive multiplayer, which is the true meat-and-potatoes of the series. At this point, I can't honestly say it's an improvement over Modern Warfare 2. Most of the maps are just big squares with lots of entry points. That, combined with the nerfing of long-scoped weapons, leads me to believe that Treyarch has zero-tolerance for snipe-campers. As someone who snipes in most first-person shooters, "I resemble that remark!" Still, there are some improvements. Having to buy weapons after you unlock them isn't ideal, but gaining XP and CoD cash is addictive, especially with the Contract system which can add a whole new level of pressure to games. Treyarch has done a commendable job of patching online glitches, and I would even say they've done better than Infinity Ward did with MW2. Then there is the Theater mode, which allows YouTube video uploading of any footage from your last week's worth of games that you choose. This is by far my favorite feature that came out of gaming in 2010, and I've waxed poetic about it already on this site. My YouTube account is filling up with great kills and funny moments, and I couldn't be happier. Activision announced the first downloadable map pack coming to Xbox in February, and it doesn't look like old content will be in this one, so I will probably be paying the $15 for them. If that's not a compliment, I don't know what is.

2. Red Dead Redemption. The haters were vocal about this one as soon as it was announced. "It's Grand Theft Horse!" "No one buys Western games!" True, and up until May 2010, true. Then this game finally shipped, and every other game that released that month felt the ripple effect from this juggernaut. The RAGE engine that made GTA IV look so pretty AND intentionally ugly works even more wonders here. The story, while lagging a bit in some of the Mexico levels, is still worthy of Peckinpah or Leone. The soundtrack is perfectly evocative of both the untamed West and Mexico. The multiplayer took what worked in GTA IV and added an improved level progression system. It's hard to say if this game is as good as GTA IV, but it mainly comes down to the player's taste. However, I can say that the last couple of hours in the single-player campaign are flawless. I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, but I'll just say that you won't expect to be doing what you're doing, but it makes perfect sense and adds a ton of gravitas to the final mission. Then they pull a switcharoo that will have your head spinning until the credits roll. I was so impressed with the ending that I kept playing afterwards until I got 100% completion. If a few hours in Mexico hadn't dragged, and if I'd spend more time with the multiplayer, this could've easily ended up at the top of my list this year.

1. Battlefield: Bad Company 2. When this game came out in March, I was quietly impressed, but didn't expect to spend a lot of time with it. Fast forward nine months, and it's the only game from the first half of the year that still gets regular play.

I've been a fan of the Battlefield series for a while. I really liked Battlefield 2 on the original Xbox. It was the first console game to bring sprawling maps and a variety of vehicles into a modern military shooter. It was a little buggy, but was unlike anything else out there, and got a LOT of my gaming time. The next console game in the series was Bad Company, and it was worthwhile. It introduced a level of environmental destructibility that hadn't been seen in a shooter since Red Faction. However, it released in the wake of Call of Duty 4, which flipped the script by bringing role-playing level progression to the shooter genre. All of a sudden, blowing a hole in a wall with a noob tube came in second to unlocking the next weapon or emblem.

As any regular reader of this blog can attest, I played Call of Duty 4 for two years straight. However, since then there's only one FPS that's had a comparably long shelf life, and that's Bad Company 2. The maps are enormous, and sniping across them feels amazing (especially since the gravity of the bullet is taken into effect). The advance-and-retreat style of play in Rush mode feels more like real war than any other game type in any other shooter out there. The enemy spotting system has completely changed the way I think in-game. I find myself pushing the back button while aiming at opponents in other shooters, then cussing at the developers of the other games for not having a tagging system. And then there's the four different character classes, which are as balanced as any shooter since Team Fortress 2. You're given as much XP for doing class-based team actions as you are for getting a kill, and sometimes even more so. The level progression system isn't as polished as some other games, but that also means the higher-level players aren't playing it for achievements or new weapons, but because it's THAT fun. DICE has done a great job of supporting the game with free content, and there's the Vietnam expansion that released last week, which will have me playing long into 2011.

What keeps me coming back to this game? Everything feels rewarding. Playing as an Assault class soldier and dropping ordinance for appreciative teammates who have been defending a position? Spawning as an Engineer and planting mines that destroy an incoming tank, or using your repair tool to fix an attack chopper while it's in-flight? Controlling a UAV mini-copter and slamming its blades into an opponent's face? Playing as a Medic and using defib paddles to revive a recently-deceased teammate? Being a sniper and calling in a mortar strike on a building that houses an objective, then watching the building collapse, taking out the objective and every opponent inside? Strapping explosives to a four-wheeler and driving it into a broken building full of bad guys, then leaping off at the last second and pressing the detonator? These are the most satisfying moments I had in gaming this year, and for that, Bad Company 2 deserves to be at the top of my list for 2010.

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in no particular order):

-- Vanquish -- It's a short ride, but a very fun one. Rocket-sliding up to a robot and flip-kicking it is just as fun as it sounds.
-- Metro 2033 -- While it's basically S.T.A.L.K.E.R. without the RPG elements, the graphics were immersive and the story was surprisingly affecting.
-- Super Meat Boy -- Comparable to N+ in terms of difficulty, but with a lot more personality. Some levels felt like the devs weren't playing fair, which is the only reason why it didn't squeak into the top ten.
-- Alpha Protocol -- With a little more polish and bug-squashing, this could've been a big hit. The story was solid, and some of the dialogue was laugh-out-loud funny. Steven Heck gets my vote for Gaming Character of the Year.
-- Limbo -- This year's Braid, without the rewinding. Minimalist graphic style works very well. If you don't hate spiders now, you will after playing it.

BONUS LIST -- MOST DISAPPOINTING (in no particular order)

-- Splinter Cell: Conviction -- In what felt like an attempt to gain more mainstream sales, they tried to make it a run-and-gun stealth game. They also took out the cult-garnering-yet-high-learning-curve Spies vs. Mercs mode from the multiplayer. As a humongous fan of the series, these were both very bad decisions. Let's hope they get Sam Fisher back on track in the next one.
-- Medal of Honor -- Devs who worked on the original Medal of Honor games left EA to form Infinity Ward, who made Call of Duty. Call of Duty became immensely bigger than Medal of Honor. Now was EA's chance to respond with a revamped modern-day game. They hired DICE to do the multiplayer, which got a lot of peoples' hopes up. What we ended up with was a spotty single-player campaign and a weak Battlefield-lite multiplayer with fewer character classes and no destructible environments.
-- Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days -- I'm one of the few people who defends the original Kane and Lynch. The controls were a little loose, the cover system wasn't very good, and the squad mechanic was worthless. However, the story was one of the best in this generation, and the longer version's ending was worth getting to. So I had a small level of enthusiasm for a sequel. I shouldn't have. The grainy YouTube video look of this one is cool for about five minutes, but doesn't replace the lack of plot, and the controls are still weak.
-- Just Cause 2 -- The most bug-filled game I played this year. It crashed so many times, I brought a broom into my game room so I didn't have to get up from my chair to reset my Xbox. Audio dropouts during cutscenes are so common, you'll think you're playing a silent movie. Then there's a save glitch that wiped out almost seven hours of gameplay. I don't know if they've fixed any of this stuff since then, but considering I paid full price for it back in March, I don't really care anymore.
-- Dead Rising 2 -- Another sequel to a promising game; another epic fail. Once again, the save system and mission structure get in the way of the fun. The multiplayer is only good for campaign cash farming. It's still surprising to me that someone can make such a beautiful looking game about killing zombies in unique ways and make it such a chore to play.
-- God of War 3 -- It looks great, sounds great, and plays great. So why is it down here instead of up higher? Simple: They turned Kratos, one of the greatest characters in video game history, into a one-dimensional rageaholic. You might think this is a minor complaint, but as video games become more and more of a story-telling medium, connection to the lead character is important (especially when it existed so strongly in past games). Fortunately, the PSP game that released this year (Ghost of Sparta) helped reinstall his pathos while still maintaining most of his anger.

Okay, I think that's enough lists for now. I'll post a similar one for music later this week, although it'll probably be a lot shorter. Have a great week everyone.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Top Ten things I learned from 'A Christmas Carol'

1: Ebenezer Scrooge started the War on Christmas.
2: Jacob Marley was way too uptight. He should've smoked a Bob Marley.
3: The Ghost Hunters would've had a field day at Scrooge's house.
4: The Milk of Human Kindness tastes best when drank from a pimp cup.
5: If you can't afford to feed your family properly, maybe it's time to stop rutting.
6: If you haven't had a raise in eight years, perhaps it's time to hit up
7: Poor people have more fun than rich people.
8: Scrooge's future is a lot like ours: No flying cars!
9: Seeing a tombstone with your name on it can be life-changing.
10: If England had universal health care in the 1800's, Tiny Tim wouldn't have needed Scrooge's trickle-down guilt money.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Top Ten lists upcoming

Hey everyone. Just thought I'd drop by to say I'm working on my Top Ten Games and Top Ten Albums of 2010 lists, and they'll be posted in the next week or so. I'm on vacation for a while, so I'll have the time to write 'em up. I just wish I had more time to update the blog as often as I used to.

On another note, I was gonna do a Top Films of 2010, but realized there's still so much I haven't seen this year, so I'm going to skip it. Sad, since I used to work in the film industry, but it is what it is. Having said that, I'll go ahead and say that I really enjoyed the following films (although they won't be winning any awards):

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Get Him to the Greek
The Expendables
Kick Ass

As far as award season goes, I'm guessing The Social Network and Inception will win the majority of them. Both are worth watching, but I didn't think either was 'great'. The Social Network was pretty good, but nowhere near as good as the critics are saying. Well made, well scripted and acted, but it was missing something. I think that something is Fincher's signature. Perhaps the story didn't call for it, but I still missed it. In the end, it was cold and held the viewer at arms length. That works for me in some films, but didn't in this one. Then there's Inception. Christopher Nolan has yet to make a film that wasn't spectacular to look at, but the plot isn't nearly as deep as some would have you believe. But I've already spoken at length about that one.

I'm hoping to catch a few films before the year is over:

Black Swan
True Grit
Tron: Legacy (even if just for the eye candy)
127 Hours

And I have a few in my Netflix queue I'm looking forward to seeing soon:

Exit Through the Gift Shop
The Kids are Alright
The American

Hope you're all doing well, and I'LL BE BACK.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The new Call of Duty from Treyarch is (GASP) actually good

I know, I know. I haven't posted any blog updates lately. Work has been crazy, and I've been catching up on some new video games. I've spent a lot of time with one in particular, even though if you told me a year ago that it'd be a 'Game of the Year' competitor, I wouldn't have believed you.

Call of Duty: Black Ops came out recently, and much to my surprise (and delight), it doesn't suck! In fact, it's actually pretty good. The multiplayer is more balanced than Modern Warfare 2, and the customization is deeper than any other console FPS. On top of all that, there's a 'Theater' mode where you can take screenshots from any point in any game you've played in the past seven days. You can download them from their website, and they're very high quality. This has become extremely addicting.

Here is a close-up of one of my assault rifles. Not only can you choose from a ton of different camo styles, but you can create your own emblem and have it put on your rifle, as well as having your clan tag carved into it.

Here is me shooting some fool point-blank in the chest with a shotgun:

I ran up behind this dude and shanked him like it was my first day in prison:

Theater mode also has the ability to make 30 second clips and upload them to the site. Then you can link your YouTube account to the site, and then videos automatically upload to YouTube. No longer do you have to explain that awesome kill to your friends, or that funny moment. You can show them, from any angle. More games need to have this function!

Here's me sneaking up behind a camper ... ERRRR, 'an opponent who is utilizing strategic placement', and shooting him in the head with an explosive crossbow bolt:

Here's me getting a lucky semtex stick kill on another camper:

Here's my fat ass falling on someone and killing him, then slicing up his Juggalo friend:

And finally, here's me team-killing our old friend Miles, and giving his corpse a close-up view of my crotch:

My problems with World at War were many, and I wasn't shy about making my feelings known. However, Treyarch was working on more than one game at the time. They were spread thin, and it showed. Black Ops was their only project for the past two years, and while it's not perfect, the improvements are major. Treyarch, my hat's off to you.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Get your asses out and VOTE

Okay peoples. Tuesday is Election Day. I don't care how you vote, just VOTE.

Don't say, "I'm too busy at work!" Every state requires employers to allow their employees time off to vote. State-by-state details are listed HERE.

Don't say, "I don't know where my polling location is!" Look it up HERE.

Don't say, "I don't know what I'd be voting on!" A quick Google search can fix that.

Don't say, "I'm not registered to vote!" Go HERE. It may not be too late. However, if it is too late for you to register in your state, then you waited too long and you're an asshole.

There. Unless you're an ex-con, undocumented worker, or an asshole, you're out of excuses. Vote.

P.S. I said I don't care how you vote? Okay, I have to make one exception. If you live in Delaware, and are voting for this woman:

"I dabbled into witchcraft. I never joined a coven. ... One of my first dates with a witch was on a satanic altar."

"It is not enough to be abstinent with other people, you also have to be be abstinent alone. The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery, so you can't masturbate without lust."

"American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains."

"Evolution is a myth. ... Why aren't monkeys still evolving into humans?"

... well, I guess go ahead and vote for her. It's a democracy, and I can't stop you. I just hope for humanity's sake that you're sterile.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How awesome would porn look on THIS?

Well, other than having balls fly at your face .... I bring to you, THE GREATEST TV EVER MADE (available to consumers so far)

Every time I go to Fry's, I walk by the 55'' version, and it stops me dead in my tracks. The picture quality is unmatched. However, I already have a 65'' Mitsubishi DLP in the living room, and I didn't want to downsize. Then I saw that price, and OMG, STICKER SHOCK set in. I'm gonna wait a while. Still, the long-term plan is to get this, and move the Mitsubishi into my game room. One of these days, it WILL happen.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Game Review: Dead Rising 2

Zombies. Who doesn't love 'em? The zombie movie has made a comeback in the past decade. A couple of them were pretty good, and they helped coax George A. Romero and his Harry Caray glasses out of retirement. There's a zombie TV series starting on AMC this month called 'The Walking Dead'. And, they're the perfect video game cannon fodder. Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 sold millions each, as well they should've. They're great games.

Another strong-selling zombie game is Dead Rising. Set in a shopping mall, your job is to find out what caused the undead outbreak, but you only have 72 hours to do so. It was a great setting for a zombie game (even if it's taken lock stock and barrel from a classic Romero film). Great graphics, especially for a launch-window game, with hundreds of zombies on screen at once. Tons of objects that can be used as weapons, and you can level up your character for multiple playthroughs. So why did I hate it?

The game did everything in its power to get in the way of the fun. They give you an open-world setting, but they restrict you with a timed mission structure. The missions are given to you via text, at the bottom of the screen, and almost always when you're in the middle of another mission. 90% of the gameplay is 'escort missions'. Just the word 'escort mission' is enough to make most gamers groan, and the ones in Dead Rising are no exception. They make sense in the scope of the game, but the survivor A.I. was terrible, and rarely fought for themselves or made any effort to keep up with you. And the biggest deal breaker for me? The save system is archaic and broken. You have to walk into a bathroom to save your progress. On the way to every bathroom are tons of zombies. If you're low on health and don't have any food to eat, you may not survive long enough to get to a bathroom, which means whatever progress you've made since the last save will be lost. After this happened a few times in a row, combined with everything else, I gave up on it.

The worst part of all of this? Before Dead Rising shipped, they released a demo on Xbox Live. In the demo, you had 30 minutes to go wild in the mall and kill zombies however you wanted. It was a blast! Playing the demo only set me up to be disappointed by the restrictive final product. But then Capcom announced Dead Rising 2 last year, and I felt optimistic.

Set in a small Vegas-like town, you're given the ability to combine two objects and create a new weapon. This replaces the ability to take pictures that was in the first game, which I rarely used. This got me (and a good amount of gamers) excited. Put a shotgun together with a pitchfork and create a 'boomstick'! Put a propane tank with a box of nails and create an IED! Put a coat hanger with a wheelchair and create a rolling abortion machine! Okay, so you can't make the last one, but trust me when I say the possibilities are almost endless. On top of the weapon system, and the new setting, I also assumed that they'd fix the broken save system and the mission delivery method. So how did they do?

I hate it.

While it takes place in a gambling town, most of your time will be spent where? In a shopping mall. That's right. Your safe house exits into a mall, which may as well be a copy / paste job from the first game.

The load times are atrocious. They were bad in the first game, but they're even worse here. The screen freezes up when you're trying to get to the main menu. Every time you walk through a door? Load screen. And you'll walk through doors a lot, so I hope you like loading screens! Every time you save the game, the screen freezes for almost 15 seconds. It makes you think your Xbox is crashing. Not good.

How do you get your missions? Via text, at the bottom of the screen, usually when you're in the middle of another mission. Again, you're fighting for your life against a horde of zombies, while escorting survivors (who admittedly have improved A.I.) and you have to 'answer your walkie-talkie' to hear about some other survivor you need to save. Wait, did I say 'hear'? I meant 'read'. Does someone at Capcom have a problem with voice acting? Other than cutscenes, there's hardly any of it in this game.

The save system? Still shitty. They give you three separate save slots instead of one, but you still have to run to a goddamned bathroom to save. Note to developers: It's 2010. Most games have aggressive auto-checkpoints, or are like Elder Scrolls IV or Fallout 3 (autosaves, and save at any point you want, into as many save slots as you want). Make an effort to keep up with the competition. If you make gamers work to save their progress, you failed as a developer.

Combining items to make new weapons? Yeah, it's pretty cool. However, you have to take these items to a 'maintenance room', so you can't just do it on the fly. This adds to the tedium that the game seems to relish.

They added online co-op, but it's limited and basic. They also added an online multiplayer mode, but it's stupid and feels tacked-on. It's a reality game show where contestants have to kill the most zombies. It ties into the beginning of the single-player campaign, but it's just a set of mini-games that make Fusion Frenzy 2 look like Mario Party. I like that you can carry over your prize money to the single-player, but it doesn't make the game modes fun. I had troubles finding a game, and I was playing on the first weekend after the game released.

I really wanted to like this game. I played for quite a few hours last weekend, but it just kept getting in the way of itself. If you're a fan of the first game, by all means, pick up a copy of Dead Rising 2. If you weren't a fan of the first, stay far, far away.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

I hate network TV, but I love 'House'

Hey kids. I haven't posted anything in a while, but not because I've been busy. I mean, yeah, I've been working and traveling a lot, but I've also been gaming a lot (my Xbox Live gamerscore is approaching six figures, and I got a new laptop and Steam has become an addiction). I've also been watching more TV. I typically just watch sports or McLaughlin Group, and I stay away from network TV. Well, except for one show in the summer: Big Brother. You can say it's trashy and worthless, or you could look past the surface and see it for what it is: A live 24-hour-a-day sociological and political science experiment. Granted, it's a guilty pleasure, but the way people manipulate each other is fascinating. However, other than Big Brother, I don't watch network TV. Dancing with the Stars, American Idol, and a ton of doctor and lawyer shows. Crap, crap, and more crap. Then I caught a couple of episodes of House, and realized I needed to make an exception. It was this line that got me:

A misanthropic atheist with a drug addiction who excels at manipulating people? Count me in. And that it's on Fox makes it even better. Sometimes it feels like they slipped one past the goalie, so to speak. Most episodes follow a specific pattern, but it's an enjoyable one, and sometimes you actually learn something about specific diseases. Most of the time, they fall into the 'Star Trek' trap of using a lot of big words in a hurry, but at least the words actually mean something here. It also doesn't hurt that the side characters are well-written and interesting. What can I say? I'm hooked.

Okay, gotta run. Team Fortress 2 is half-price on Steam this weekend, so a lot of people are playing.

EDIT: As if Ryan needed another reason to watch House, an episode from Season 4 called 'It's a Wonderful Lie' has the following exchange (posted from Wikipedia):

"In the clinic, House treats another female patient, called Melanie (Jennifer Hall), whom he initially diagnoses with strep throat. House notices that she has a necklace of Saint Nicholas, whom she describes as the patron saint of children. At the same time, he notices that she's had HIV tests every 3 months, and that Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of prostitutes. Since she isn't a child, he tells her that he's deduced that she is a prostitute, which causes her to smile in response. She later returns with pustules on her neck and chest. House asks if she does donkey shows, and when she says yes, he gives her a prescription for contagious ecthyma, a disease she has that can be caught from donkeys. She invites him to see the show, and says he might like it."

Saturday, August 28, 2010

August 28th-The Thing to Remember

As we all know, this day will forever be known for a great man. No not Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, or Fox News. This day belongs to Martin Luther King Jr. To co-opt a day, in the way Glen Beck has, shows you how little creativity is actually left within our news organizations and how much the right wing is struggling to keep hold of what little sanity they must have. Glen Beck is nothing more than a magician of the worst sort. He's the kid at the party that wants you to discover what has happened to the object in his hand, only after he places them behind his back for a few seconds. The people that are sucked in by him, and those like him, truly have me fearing for the future of my children. To Glen Beck I say this on behalf of everyone that recognizes that he picked this day, of all days, to hold his rally: Screw You!
I will now leave it to a man whose words carries more credence than mine.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fun with Words

When I'm mad, I tend to say more swear words than the average person. It led to a friend of mine creating a word about it, and he and a couple of others occasionally call me it when I'm yelling about getting spawn-camped online. I'm not going to post the word, but I'll say that it's listed as number 2, part 2 here. Hearing someone call me that word actually calms me down a bit, because it shows me how ridiculous I'm being, and how good I actually have it in this world.

However, this post isn't about the Holocaust or Xbox Live. I'm talking about the specific words I use when I cuss. I'm not too inventive when I work blue. I go to the fall-backs that feel really good when you spit them out. "Fuck!" That's a given. "Motherfucker!" Yeah, pretty much. "Fuckin' motherfuckers!" Wow, how original. "Faggot!" Wait, what?

I almost never use the word 'faggot'. I have gay friends, and to them, I imagine that it's like using the 'Dr. Laura word' around a black friend. I've used the word 'fag' around them a couple of times, which is kinda like saying 'Nigga' instead of the full N-word? But when I do, it's always in a playful manner, and they know it's not coming from a hateful place. I would never use it in public. And yet, sometimes in the heat of the moment in a game on Xbox Live, the word might shoot out. It feels good to say, really loud and angry, doesn't it? However, when I started thinking about it, I was pretty ashamed of myself, as I should be. 'John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory' is not a valid excuse.

Every other swear word I use has no real connotation to anything in real life. Calling someone a 'fucker'? I'm not picturing them fucking someone. It's just a word that feels good to say when you're mad. And I know that the people on the other end aren't fucking my mother either. At least, I highly doubt they are. The same is true about 'fag' or 'faggot'. I don't know if anyone on the other end is straight or gay, and I don't care, because it makes no difference to me. So I've made a conscious decision to no longer use the word 'fag' or 'faggot' as a swear word, or in anger. From now on, I'm replacing it with the word 'furry':

Furries deserve every ounce of our wrath. They're a waste of skin, which is ironic because they wish they didn't have skin in the first place. They're not misunderstood; they're just looking for attention. And let's add a level of clarification, before some furry finds this blog and posts something in the comment section: It doesn't matter if they're straight or gay. I don't care if a furry has sex with a man or a woman (or an actual animal, if they live in Wyoming). That is irrelevant.

Furries have nothing of value to contribute to our society. In fact, other than consoling with other furries, they don't even have anything to contribute to the online community, which is REALLY pathetic. Every other online community has their own memes. Eventually some make it out into the real world, and a few even find life with the general public. However, furries have the word 'yiff', Wile E. Coyote costumes, and brightly-colored pictures of humanimals with erections. There is no need for furries in our society, and if you disagree, you're a fucking furry fucker.

Please join me in this noble task. We can make the world a better place, one word at a time.

P.S. Come to think of it, I'm not going to use the word 'cocksucker' any more either. To call someone that is to infer that sucking cock is a bad thing. Personally, I'm a big fan of getting my cock sucked, so why should that word be used negatively? I guess if you're saying it to a straight man to imply that he's gay, then I understand, but that's still pretty shitty. If I were in prison and only saw dudes for years on end, I'd probably be begging to meet a cocksucker of any kind. So, I think I'm gonna replace that word with 'Juggalo'. It doesn't roll off the tongue quite as well, but I think it's worth the effort.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Fun with Photoshop

Over the past couple of years, I've played around with Photoshop, and have enjoyed the lulz it can bring. Here are a few of my favorites that haven't been posted on this site. Most of these aren't 'technical' but as long as they get a laugh or two, that's all that matters.

I made this one into a t-shirt for our friend Brandon:

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Monica Crowley is the cancer that is killing The McLaughlin Group

Monica Crowley MUST be stopped.

Really? The Republicans will win by default? With no strategy and no leader? I think they have the opportunity to gain some seats in the House, but let's not get cocky. She also makes no bones about saying 'We' when talking about the Republicans. She doesn't do this anywhere else, which shows how much she's in her comfort zone when she's on Fox News. And when will Fox News pull a 'WWE' and come out and admit that it's staged? It would be a lot more entertaining, and they could stop pretending they're a 'respected' news outlet. In fact, I could see Stone Cold Steve Austin as a regular on Hannity's 'Great American Panel':

Here is Crowley in 2008, arguing that Clinton should give his annual pension back, because he's already rich and is just cashing in on his presidency.

Rich people giving money back to the people? What a novel concept. And she argues that Nixon was better than Clinton, because he didn't want to be a burden on taxpayers? Anyone who trashes Bill Clinton by comparing him to Nixon should not be allowed back on television, EVER. By the way, she worked for Nixon in his later years. Big surprise. And she wrote two books about him. So, she made money off of his presidency. What a hypocrite.

The only reason Crowley is a regular on the McLaughlin Group is because she's slightly better looking than Tony Blankley. Otherwise, they may as well be the same person. They both have the same tired extreme right-wing takes, and they both have a history with the Washington Times, which up until last year, was run by the Moonies. She needs to get the boot from the McLaughlin Group. Eleanor Clift can be pretty bad about towing her party line, but at least she occasionally agrees with a fair point that someone on the right makes. This is also why I've come around a little bit on Pat Buchanan. He's become more of a right-leaning centrist as he's gotten older (just as McLaughlin has been a life-long Republican, but eventually morphed into more of a centrist). I don't care if people are liberal or conservative; I just appreciate when someone has the ability to look at a different point of view and occasionally see what they mean. Crowley is a lockstep conservative who never has anything of value to add to the show. The only time I can recall her agreeing with a Democrat was when Obama changed his view on off-shore drilling (right before the BP disaster). That was hardly stepping out of her comfort zone, and it was more of a backhanded compliment than anything else. She may as well be reading cue cards written by Michael Steele.

The McLaughlin Group is still my favorite show on television, but she is ruining it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Movie Review -- Inception

Christopher Nolan is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today. He exploded onto the scene in 2000 with Memento, a shockingly original puzzler about a short-term amnesiac trying to avenge his wife's death, and it told its tale backwards, in order to recreate the feeling in the viewer of not knowing what happened before. It was very effective, got robbed for the Best Editing Oscar, and still is a compelling view even ten years later. One of the biggest reasons that it remains so strong under repeated views is not just in the plot or editing, but in Guy Pierce's haunting performance. He elicits unexpected empathy for his character, even if Leonard Shelby is basically just a misdirected serial killer. It's one of my favorite films for all of those reasons, and it gained so much good will for Nolan that I've seen everything he's directed on opening weekend ever since. So, regardless of the critics' gushings for his later films, why is Memento still his greatest?

Insomnia was okay for a remake, and could be mistaken for a great film if you haven't seen the Scandinavian original it was based on (rent or Netflix it ASAP; it's dark as hell and gets better with repeated viewings). Batman Begins helped begin the 'franchise reboot' craze, but the performances were mostly flat (Katie Holmes, I'm looking squarely at you), and having Gordon drive the Batmobile almost ruined the entire third act for me. The Prestige was better than I thought it would be, but it still felt long and underwhelming. The Dark Knight is 3/4ths of a great film, but gets bogged down in some groan-worthy deus ex machina near the end. And now we have Inception.

I won't spend too much time with plot details, primarily to leave out spoilers, but also because it gets so complex, it would be easier to just cut-and-paste the entire script here. However, a quick synopsis of 'Heat meets The Matrix' will do. Or maybe 'Oceans 11 meets Nightmare on Elm Street 3'? Essentially, it's about people who go into the dreams of others and steal information, international corporate espionage, hot French women locked in basements, and dreidels.

The film is a technological marvel, as are all of Nolan's other films. It's brilliantly scripted, filmed, edited, and scored. Using dreams in film can be risky, because it's been done so many times before (some have made entire careers out of it), but Nolan partially avoids the 'Is it a Dream?' trap by coming out in the first 30 minutes and acknowledging the use of dreams-within-dreams. Those first 30 minutes are perfect, and explain with few words how dream hacking works, and how you can get around things. Then Nolan's script turns into about 60 minutes of solid exposition, but the editing and score help keep it moving at a snappy pace. Then comes the payoff in the last 60 minutes, and while you need a flowchart to keep up with it, somehow it all makes sense. And then we get to why I say Nolan 'PARTIALLY avoids the trap', which is due to the last few shots. Again, I won't get into spoilers, but I'll just say that part of me thinks it's the perfect ending, and the other part thinks it's a terrible cop-out. After you see it, think of Brazil, and how Gilliam made a commitment to an ending, even though you kinda get both. No 'dream' film I've seen since that one has been as strong, and that includes Inception.

Did I enjoy the film? Yes, I did. Nolan used his post-Dark Knight clout to tell the story exactly how he wanted to, with no studio interference. He spent almost ten years working on the script, mapping out all of the minor details, and it shows. It asks much of its audience, which is especially noble in the 'whiz-bang-boom' of the summer season. It has some good action set pieces (the weightless hallway scene is jaw-dropping), but they are not the reason the film exists. So, what is keeping this good film from being great? It's simple, actually: Nolan created a brilliant spreadsheet of a film, but with no sympathetic characters. DiCaprio has the only role that requires more than one emotion, and he came off as passable, but that's it. I'm not saying he's bad, but the film isn't better because of him. I find this to be the case in almost all of DiCaprio's works. What does it say when his best performance was in 'What's Eating Gilbert Grape'? He stole that film, and hasn't really carried anything since.

For me, a film can't be truly 'great' unless it makes some sort of personal connection to its audience. Inception isn't concerned with such things. It shows you sights and ideas you've never seen in a movie before, and its craft is impeccable. For those reasons alone, it's worth recommending. However, I hope Nolan will eventually create another sympathetic character like Leonard Shelby, or he'll cast an actor strong enough to go outside what's on the page and evoke emotion from his audience.

Some critics are hailing Inception as the next 'masterpiece', as they incorrectly did for The Dark Knight. Perhaps if it would've been released in the 'award season' of December and January, to higher expectations, it would've reviewed a little lower? However, the great news is that Nolan is only 39 years old, and still has a long career ahead of him. I have enough hope in his ability to where I'll go to his next film on opening weekend, no matter what. There aren't too many directors I can say that about right now.