Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lord Bling's Top Ten Games of 2011

This has been an interesting year for video games.  Some titles that I'd feverishly anticipated ended up disappointing.  Some I thought would suck ended up impressing.  And a couple weren't very good at launch, but improved with patches.  While many on the list may not be in my rotation a year from now, I'd put this year's top 3 up against the top 3 from any other year.  But enough setup ... let's get into it:

10.  Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare 3.  MW2 was my #1 two years ago, and Black Ops was #3 last year.  My, how the mighty hath fallen.  Considering over half of Infinity Ward left the company (and it took four other dev teams to help finish it), it's practically a surprise that it ended up on my list at all.  But I have to say, the campaign tied up the plot threads fairly well (even if the gameplay is just Michael Bay on speed).  CoD Elite was a failure for weeks after launch, but the free version is actually pretty robust.  As for the multiplayer .... I'm severely disappointed.  Over the years, they've turned a solid fast-paced tactical shooter into Quake.  All of the maps are tight, run-and-gun close-corridor death traps.  This makes sniper rifles mostly worthless, and they had to nerf the range on the shotguns (or else that's all anyone would use, because you're rarely looking further than 15 feet ahead before you hit a barrier of some kind).  Kill Confirmed is a fun new game play mode, but the concept was stolen directly from Crysis 2 earlier this year.  All of these things aside, it's still as polished as any shooter you'll ever find, and it's still the top-selling game of this year so they're doing something right.  I just don't consider myself much of a fan of the franchise anymore.

9.  Crysis 2.  When I bought this game, I expected a gorgeous sci-fi shooter.  That's what I got.  But I didn't expect to enjoy the single-player campaign as much as I did.  I even got some time into the multiplayer.  Well, I did when EA's servers let me.  The MP was pretty much broken at launch, and when you could get into a game, the client-side hit detection was completely lop-sided.  Subsequent patches have improved it, but it's not a great experience.  Maximum Armor is a waste, and the unlock progression is a very slow grind.  Still, the campaign is worth the price of admission.  The pacing is almost perfect, and the set pieces are amazing.

8.  Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.  Speaking of set pieces, here's a franchise that lives and breathes them.  No matter where Nathan Drake is in the world, expect everything to go tits-up and you'll be racing to escape a crashing airplane, a sinking ocean liner, etc.  They also included some multi-segmented MP maps, which felt different from everything else I've played this year.  So why isn't the game higher on this list?  Part 2 was #2 in 2009.  Unfortunately, this one doesn't live up to the gold standard of that game.  The campaign's story and dialogue aren't nearly as sharp, and weakly ties the set pieces together.  The aiming and shooting mechanic was tweaked, and now it felt a lot sloppier (Naughty Dog has since patched this, but I haven't replayed any of the campaign since).  Worst of all, I wasn't really rooting for Nathan in this one.  His motivation is largely selfish and stupid.  But wow, those set pieces.

7.  Assassin's Creed:  Revelations.  A franchise that has steadily improved over the last two iterations finally runs out of gameplay innovations.  AC2 perfected the exploration, tightened the combat, and deepened the story.  AC: Brotherhood added assassin's guild trainees you could call on to assist you, had a whiz-bang of a cliffhanger ending, and created a one-of-a-kind multiplayer experience.  I guess after the last two games, I was expecting another round of miracles.  Instead, we got a hookblade and ziplines, and a Den Defense mini-game (which is like a really bad and unbalanced version of Plants vs. Zombies).  The story ties a lot of threads together, but is still weaker.  The setting (Constantinople) isn't nearly as compelling or varied as Rome.  MP is improved and deepened, but still has a very high learning curve (and upper-level players have strong perks unlocked which throw off the balance).  But the game was improved so much up to this point that it still is a lot of fun to play, and free running in a Renaissance setting still hasn't gotten old.  But Ubisoft, please:  For the next one?  No more Den Defense.

6.  Gears of War 3.  Serious improvements all around here.  Four-player co-op (which the series has begged for since the beginning).  Dedicated servers for multiplayer (no more Host Shotgun rampages!).  An improved story that ties up many loose ends (although I could've done without the entire 4th chapter .... sorry Ice-T).  And the new bad-guy version of Horde mode (called Beast) is fun.  Being a Berserker and smashing through people got a lot of laughs out of me.  I haven't played it in a while, as the overuse of shotguns is still annoying, but I feel like I got my money's worth already.

5.  Jetpack Joyride.  An iOS game in my top five.  Yes, I did.  Don't look at me like that!  Have you played it?  If so, you wouldn't judge.  I've put over 20 hours into this stupid little 99 cent game.  I say 'stupid' because it's extremely simple.  One-tap gameplay, and that's it.  But somehow I can't quell the desire to get a better score (or more coins).  It's perfect for mobile gaming.  Tiny bite-sized experiences, with that 'one more quick one' that keeps pulling you back.  If you have an iPhone, you need to download it.  If you don't find yourself as hooked as I was, you're only out 99 cents.

4.  Dead Island.  Hands down, this is the biggest surprise on my list.  It's buggy, the combat feels unpolished, and a couple of the boss battles were uninspired.  But I'll be damned if I didn't put about 30 hours into it.  In a first-person RPG, the right atmosphere means everything.  This game brings it.  I felt like I was really on this island, struggling to survive and help those who were less fortunate.  There's no humor or tongue-in-cheek references; it's a bleak affair, right up into the final cutscene.  The co-op could use a little improving (it's no Borderlands), but it was playable and held some promise.  I hope we see a sequel of some kind, and that they have enough time to give it more polish.

3.  Portal 2.  Expectations can be a bitch.  When The Orange Box was released, Portal was the sleeper hit of the year, and for good reason.  The first-person puzzle gameplay was one-of-a-kind, and the writing was whip-smart and laugh-out-loud funny.  It not only told a compelling story, but did so in about two hours.  So here comes a sequel, which is around six  to eight hours long, and adds a meaty 2-player co-op mode.  And people still flooded Metacritic user reviews to complain.  "It's too short!  It's not worth $60!"  Wrong wrong wrong wrong WRONG.  They added to an already deep and rich universe, with new gameplay mechanics that somehow don't break what had been established previously.  That alone is worth celebrating.  And then there's Wheatley, the best character in a video game in a long damned time.  I had very high expectations for this game, and it met every single one of them.

2.  Battlefield 3.  Let's get it out of the way right at the start:  This game was never going to out-sell Call of Duty.  Why?  Because A) the gameplay isn't simple enough to appeal to the masses, and B) those of us who play EA shooters online know their servers will be trashed at launch.  They even ran a beta which they claimed was meant to be a server stress test.  And sure enough, this game was unplayable on Xbox on Day 1.  It's a good thing I also bought it on PC!  That's right, I gave EA over $100 for this game.  And I have zero regrets.  Yeah, the campaign is a Call of Duty knock-off, but by the time the last two levels were over, I found myself with a slight appreciation for the way the story was handled.  The co-op grind to unlock weapons?  Not cool.  But the multiplayer.  The sweet, sweet multiplayer.  The only thing I miss from Bad Company 2 is the buildings you can bring down, killing everyone inside.  But this was meant to be a full sequel to Battlefield 2, not the Bad Company games.  I will be playing this game long into 2012.  In fact, I could sell all of my other games and not miss them this year.  Well, all but one....

1.  The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim.  This is the most immersive video game I have ever played.  It should come with a warning label:  "May cause a lack of sleep, decreased interest in bathing and eating, and a marked decline in contact with the outside world."  It's not a game you pick up and play for 30 minutes or an hour.  It's a game that becomes the world you live in, and the real world becomes a nuisance that is keeping you from Skyrim.  Shortly after it launched, I had a conversation with a coworker that I ended like this:  "What did I do last night?  Oh, nothing much, just KILLED A DRAGON BY SHOUTING AT IT."  How does anything in real life compete with that?

I haven't had the time lately to play the game like I want to, so I have been avoiding it.  Maybe part of me is even scared of it.  The world is just too big, and there is too much to explore and see and do and loot.  It's daunting.  The developers say there is up to 300 hours of content in the game.  Three HUNDRED.  I put about 100 hours into Fallout 3, and I put about 130 into Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Those were two of my favorite games of this generation.  And yet, at this time next year, I will probably have both of those combined on this, and I still won't see everything the game has to offer.

It's not flawless, but no game of this size and scope is.  However, the drawbacks are so small in comparison to what you get.  In fact, at the moment I can only think of one real negative:  I'm not playing it right now.

Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):

-- Batman:  Arkham City.  This could've ended up on my top ten, but didn't for one main reason:  It didn't really add anything to the original besides a bigger environment.  Still a solid game though, and has polish to spare.
-- Brink.  I bought this game on sale, even after reading some rough reviews.  I wanted to like it, but the maps were lackluster, and the feel of the weapons was off (recoil was terrible).  Then later in the year, Steam had it on sale for $5 on PC.  I bought it, and then realized they'd patched it.  The weapons now feel much better, and the new maps are pretty solid.  Worth a look if you find it cheap; just don't expect a good single-player experience.
-- L.A. Noire.  I have a love / hate relationship with this game.  I really had to slog through the last few hours of this game, but when it was over, I was glad I'd played through it.  Part of what I didn't like was the lead character was unsympathetic, but looking back, I have to admit that he was compelling all the same.  And the motion-capture?  Ground-breaking.
-- Renegade Ops.  A fun throw-back to the 80's drive-and-shoot arcade games.  Four-player co-op online is a blast.  It's not a deep game, but it's only $15.  (Full disclosure:  I work for the publisher that released this.)
-- Saints Row: The Third.  I just got this game about a week ago, so perhaps it would've ended up higher on the list had I had more time with it.  But after about 90 minutes or so, I'm already enjoying it more than the first two.  It's completely over-the-top and zany, and it knows it and has fun with it.  I mean, they start you off with a purple dildo baseball bat.  I stand corrected; THIS is my Game of the Year!  Okay, maybe not, but I gotta give 'em credit for going the insane route.

Biggest Disappointments (in alphabetical order):

-- Dead Space 2.  The first game was a great survival horror experience.  Then we get this, which is 99% action and almost no suspense.  They also took away most of the ammo, so you're forced to use kinesis to throw objects at bad guys when you get cornered.  And you will get cornered a lot.  Plus, the story was a huge step down from the first.  And then there's the unnecessary multiplayer.  Some liked this game, but I miss the suspense and pacing of the original.
-- Rage.  What a beautiful game.  What boring gameplay.  It could've been Doom meets Fallout, but instead ended up being a bunch of lame fetch-and-carry missions.  It launched two months ago and is already below $20.  I'm sure id Software will have plenty of success with the engine, but that doesn't get me my $60 back.
-- Test Drive Unlimited 2.  The original was an innovative overachiever, streaming the entire island of Oahu for you to drive on.  It also was the first racing game I can remember that had on-the-fly, drop-in / drop-out multiplayer.  I put over 40 hours into it.  But the sequel fails to improve upon the original in any way.  The voice acting is laughable, and the character models are PS1-quality.

Well, that's it for the top ten lists for 2011.  Have a great holiday break, and we'll see you again in the year where it all ends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lord Bling's Top Ten Albums of 2011

It was a very good year for metal, but the top spot came from out of nowhere.

10.  Scale the Summit -- The Collective.  Instrumetal.  I hate the word, but that's exactly what it is.  I really liked their debut, but this one feels like it will stay with me longer.  And the production?  Top-notch.  Favorite Track -- Whales

9.  Mastodon -- The Hunter.  Their last album made the top of my list in 2009.  Perhaps it was a bit pretentious, but they had never been more ambitious.  When it worked, it really worked.  So it was impossible not to compare their new album to it.  It's more of a step backward in scope, and more inconsistent.  But it's still got some great jams on it.  Favorite Track -- Stargasm

8.  Crowbar -- Sever the Wicked Hand.  Their first album in six years also happens to be one of their best.  No experimental song structures or covers, just a really good sludgy hard rock album.  Favorite Track -- Liquid Sky and Black Earth

7.  Animals as Leaders -- Weightless.  More instrumetal!  I've written about Tosin Abasi twice on this site in the last year, and for good reason.  He's the most talented guitar player in metal today.  And that probably makes him the most talented guitar player on the planet.  This record isn't as shreddy as his debut, but it's probably more tasteful and inspired.  Years from now, I'll still reach for his debut first, but this one deserves to follow it.  Favorite Track -- Isolated Incidents

6.  Opeth -- Heritage.  The two-decade long transformation from death metal to prog-rock is now complete.  Gone are the growling vocals.  Gone are the 15-minute long songs.  Stripped down, jazzy, and something your parents might actually like.  And that's not meant to be an insult.  Having said that, I still miss the Watershed / Ghost Reveries style of prog-death, but Akerfeldt's talent and craftsmanship cannot be denied.  Favorite Track -- I Feel the Dark

5.  Anthrax -- Worship Music.  Finally, a true follow-up to Persistence of Time.  I like John Bush's voice, and I like some of the songs they wrote with him, but it just didn't feel like "Anthrax".  Now with Joey Belladonna back for the long haul, they sound re-energized.  A couple of riffs may sound recycled from older stuff ('Fight 'Em Till You Can't' is an awful lot like 'Gridlock'), but no matter.  Of the Big Four, they're the band that's still writing and recording the strongest material.  Favorite Track -- The Devil You Know

4.  Amon Amarth -- Surtur Rising.  This band has perfected their sound, no doubt.  With Odin On Our Side was the beginning of their ascent (and still my favorite of theirs), but this one is a close second.  I think the songwriting is tighter than their last one too.  And on top of all of that, they even stepped out and wrote a song that wasn't about Norse mythology.  Favorite Track -- Slaves of Fear

3.  Decapitated -- Carnival is Forever.  This Polish death band was starting to climb the ranks a while back, but then their insanely-talented drummer (and brother of the guitarist and chief songwriter) Vitek died in a bus accident.  They disbanded for a couple of years, but then Vogg decided they needed to continue, since it's what his brother would've wanted.  It's also what the fans wanted, and they deliver their most focused album yet.  Favorite Track -- Homo Sum

2.  TesseracT -- One.  A good vocalist can make or break a band.  This is true in most genres, but not quite as much in metal .... until now.  This album defies so many metal rules, and gets away with it.  The vocalist could probably go on American Idol and make the finals.  There isn't a single guitar solo on the entire album.  The lyrics aren't about death or evil demons.  But it's all about the hooks, and this album is full of them.  Think of what Meshuggah would sound like if Jeff Buckley were their vocalist.  It shouldn't work, but oh does it ever.  It's just too bad that they now have a new vocalist.  Favorite Track -- Concealing Fate Pt 1: Acceptance

1.  Anathema -- We're Here Because We're Here.  Buy this album.  Find a quiet corner where you will be undisturbed for an hour.  Put on a good pair of headphones.  Listen.

Released in the UK last year, it finally saw an official release here in the U.S. last April.  While they started in the early 90s as a doom metal band, they no longer feel bound to any specific genre.  If Pink Floyd were raised on trip-hop and prog-rock, this is what it would sound like.  The lyrics are as hopeful as any album I've ever owned.  It is beauty stacked on top of beauty.

A great work of art can change the way you look at the world.  When I play this album, I feel that there might still be hope for the human race.
Favorite Track -- Thin Air

P.S. -- With all the metal on the list this year, you might be wondering where the new Devin Townsend Project album is.  The readers on voted it the best metal album of the year, but I found it to be overproduced and lacking.  It pains me to say it, as someone who absolutely loves Devy's work.
P.P.S -- I also didn't include the new Cynic EP because well ... it's not a full album.  But if you've followed them over the years as I have, you have no excuse for not buying it.

Lord Bling's Top Movies of 2011

I added up the films I saw this year: 41. Pathetic. I count 57 from 2010 (although a few were seen this year).  Considering I used to see around 100, that's pretty weak. Granted, it was my job to watch movies for quite some time, but still. I don't feel like a true Top Ten list will be justifiable, since there's so much I haven't seen yet. But of what I have seen, here are my favorites (in alphabetical order):

50/50.  A perfect blend of comedy and drama.

Bridesmaids. A female 40 Year Old Virgin? It's close. The pacing is a little off at times and it feels long, but its heart is in the right place and there are plenty of laughs.

Captain America. Almost as good as the first Iron Man movie. Almost.  It has me really excited for the Avengers movie, so I'm sure it'll probably suck.

Crazy Stupid Love. Above-average script (even if the final reel is a little groan-worthy). However, good casting makes all the difference.

Hobo with a Shotgun.  A wonderful homage to the 80s action-gore genre.  Feels like the best Troma film ever made.

Horrible Bosses. One of the better raunchy comedies in some time. It knows what it is, and it isn't afraid to be just that. Charlie Day is flawless.

The Killer Elite.  This one surprised me.  The trailers made it look like another dumb Statham vehicle, but Deniro and Owen are well cast and believable.  Similar to The Bank Job, in that it has a lot more going on in it than you'd think.

Melancholia.  One of Lars von Trier's most mature works.  If you don't know who he is, you probably won't like this movie.  I didn't give a shit about the characters, but I was still drawn into the story.

Moneyball.  The Social Sports Network?  Same screenwriter, and same arms-length handling of the characters.  An appreciation for baseball will help.

The Tree of Life. Terrance Malick makes a movie about every decade.  If you're not a fan of his, you'll think this film has a similar run time.  Consider yourself warned.

Picking one out of the bunch, I'd say 50/50 was the best.  However, each of them are films I could see myself watching a second time.

Other films from this year that I enjoyed (i.e. "Honorable Mentions"):

The Ides of March
Our Idiot Brother
Source Code

Something all of those have in common?  Good rentals, but not enough in them to warrant a repeat view.

Music and Video Game lists coming soon.....

Sunday, December 18, 2011

GTFO 2011

Fuck you, 2011. You're the year I lost the last bit of faith I had in our government, you made a Bible-thumper the quarterback of my favorite team, and you took away the best pet I've ever known. I'm about to leave you for that hot chick, 2012. She might be super-hot if the Mayans were right, but we won't know until a year from now.

Speaking of 'super', I made a new Battlefield 3 video last night. I think it's super, thanks for asking!

I'm technically on vacation next week, but in between replying to ad-hoc work e-mails, prepping the house for the holidays, and Skyrim, I'll be writing up my year-end Top Ten lists. They'll be posted before Christmas this year, lucky you!