Monday, May 28, 2012

London Music: Happy Mondays, Black Market Karma, SULK

I'm back after a fantastic holiday in London, England, where I passed the time with some good friends, drank a few pints, and saw many, many fascinating things. Amongst them were a few bands. The first were The Inspiral Carpets and The Happy Mondays at the O2 Brixton Academy on May 11th. The crowd was lively, but well behaved, and the bands sounded great. Although the Mondays were the headliners --- and were excellent, mind you --- I felt that The Carpets put in a stronger performance. There's something about Clint Boon's Farfisa that just gets everyone rocking. I couldn't find a decent clip of The Carpets, so here's one of The Mondays perfroming Step On

The following evening I saw Black Market Karma at Paper Dress Vintage, a dress shop that doubles as a bar and band venue during the evening; the band was set up in the front window, facing the back of the store. It seemed like an odd, and very small, venue to me. The crowd was quite small, too (maybe 50 people), but that didn't seem to deter the band --- whose average age is around 18 --- because they put in an excellent performance. They played 5 or 6 songs, and then quickly packed up and departed. Check out the band's bio here, and click on "free downloads" for a code to download their 4 song EP All That I've Made and their full-length album Comatose. Both are great, and I can't wait for the new one, Cocoon, due out in late-June.

Around a week later I saw SULK at The Purple Turtle in Camden. Unlike the Paper Dress Vintage it was a proper band venue, with a stage and everything. Unfortunately, the crowd was quite small, but, like Black Market Karma, the band wasn't put off by that, and showed us all why they've created such a big buzz around England. They played 8 songs and quickly packed up because they had to vacate the stage for the next band. My friends and I left shortly after that; we had seen what we had wanted to see, and went away happy. SULK is a great band, and I'm sure they are going to be huge.
I'm going to post two videos here. The first is a tune called "Marian Shrine" which was done with a slightly different line-up and under the band's former name, The Ruling Class. It is songs like this one which garner them comparisons to The Stone Roses. It has a cool groove and some great guitar work. The second song, "Wishes", was, I believe, their first single under the name SULK. This one has a stronger pop influence, but retains that late-80s/early-90s Manchester feel, similar to that of The Charlatans.

This is great stuff, and I'm glad I was witness to it. The world needs more music like this to save it from the likes of Nickelback, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West.

I did manage to take some (blurry) photos at the SULK gig, and I'll try to get them up with my next post. Until then, enjoy the tunes, and share them with others.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Game Update

The games I've been playing over the past four and a half weeks or so.

Medal of Honor (PS3)

For me this was a competent, yet uninspired shooter. I played through it in around 5 hours and couldn't shake the feeling that I had done it all before. It was a bit glitchy in parts and, in Jeff Gerstmann's words "intensely scripted". And those scripted events, I believe, took too much control from me, the player, and dampened the intensity of what should have been a more exciting shooter. Mind you, there were some good firefights that were nicely enhanced by the excellent gun sounds (and the weighty, powerful feel to them) but ultimately they all fell flat.
I did enjoy the headshot indicator, the very effective slide-to-cover mechanic, and the ambiguous ending, but, overall, I was underwhelmed, if that's a word. According to a co-worker of mine, though, the multi-player is quite good, but that's something I don't intend to discover for myself.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (PS3)

In most post-apocalyptic scenarios ruined cities are grey, dusty, and dirty piles of rubble. This game, though, envisions a ruined New York, 150 years into the future, as a city being reclaimed by nature. It is bright, lush, and vivid with foliage and flora; a nice change from the usual depressing environments.

It took me a while to play through Enslaved because I'm not a big fan of, nor am I particularly good at, melee combat and boss battles. I really dislike being surround by 5 or 6 enemies and being expected to eliminate all of them with ducking, dodging, and myriad button combos. So, I die several times before I figure out how to get through the situation. As for boss battles, well, I think they are a weak and lazy way to resolve conflict --- and I suck at them. The button combos and combat in Enslaved are pretty straight-forward, but, I'm an impatient man, and I just wanted to get through the fighting so I could see the rest of the story. That impatience resulted in many deaths and much wasted time.

I did have a great time with the climbing and platforming, and with the interaction between the two protagonists Trip and Monkey. As the story and game progressed I could see that Trip's connection to Monkey became less of an enslavement and more of a mutually beneficial romantic, and practical, connection; but there was also the suggestion that they had become too mutually dependant. (The pitfalls of human relationships, I guess). All of this, of course, is symbolic of the relationship between the enslaved and the enslaver that is discovered at the end of the game. Did Trip make the right choice? I think she did, but we may never find out what the developer (Ninja Theory) thought because, apparently, Enslaved didn't sell enough to warrant a sequel.

Catherine (PS3)

This is certainly unlike any other game I've ever played. It's weird, quirky, and, at times, just plain creepy.
Although I am enjoying the puzzles, I haven't been back to the game since I entered the sixth night of Vincent's ordeal (some three weeks ago). I find some of the interactive parts to be a little dull and I feel the story makes assumptions about how men and women view relationships to justify Vincent's nightmares. According to the story, all men are ambitionless, weak liars and cheaters while women are emasculating bitches who want to trap men in soul-sucking, unfulfilling relationships. A bit simplistic, if you ask me. And walking Vincent around the bar to talk to the other patrons is not at all enlightening.

Vincent's nightmares, which contain the puzzles, are, I must admit, pretty cool, though. They each contain a horrifying representation of Vincent's --- and, by extension, every man's --- fears. (I think my favourite has to be The Immoral Beast, which to me is the vagina dentata of myth and psychology.) Vincent must reach the top of the puzzle before it collapses or before he is killed by whatever nightmarish vision is pursuing him. The puzzles collapse more quickly and the monster pursuing him becomes more violent and faster with successive nightmares. It is this requirement to think and move more quickly that gets me every time. I dawdle too much as I try to figure out how and where to move the blocks necessary to proceed; death is frequent (and sometimes intentional).

Before each nightmare, Vincent is asked a relationship question, and the answer the player chooses is compared to how other players have answered. So far, I'm on the good (or blue) side of the answers. So, I'm anxious to finish the game, just to see how I compare overall with other players, and to see whether I get the good ending or the bad ending. I am also dreading having to go back into the remaining puzzles to experience more nightmares and virtual deaths --- but I guess that's what relationships are all about.

Dead Island (PS3)

I was surprised by how much I liked this game because, as I pointed out above, I'm not a big fan of melee combat; this game is all melee combat with mostly improvised, homemade weapons. It totally works, though. Having assault rifles, machine guns, and shotguns woud make this game too much of a cakewalk. The scarcity of firearms fits the setting too, and forces the player to be more cautious about his actions.
Also, the kick and melee combo, for me at least, balances the combat and makes it easier for me to manage large groups of enemies. I'm still cautious, and I try to avoid combat when I can, but when I am forced into a fight, I am more confident here than I would be in any other game.

That confidence extends when I modify weapons and level up my skills. My current favourite weapon is a fully upgraded machete with an electrical mod (a couple of batteries and wires). A perfectly placed strike on an enemy knocks him to the ground with an overpowering electrical shock. I still need a few more parts for the sticky bomb mod, which will be wonderful to use against stronger enemies like the Thug, the Ram, and the Floater.

The story is pretty simple --- mysterious infection overruns island, chaos ensues, survivors try to escape --- but the game is mostly about the fun of the combat and the reward provided by mission completion. And the combat itself is rewarding. There is nothing quite as satisfying as slicing off the limbs of a Walker; or beheading an Infected with a single strike of a machete; or taking down an enemy with several stabs to the face with a simple kitchen knife. When those weapons are upgraded and modified the fun gets even better.

The game was clearly designed for co-op, but I've been playing through it as a single, and it still is quite cool. Playing as a single makes for some weird cutscenes, too. They always show the four main characters deciding what to do about their current situation, but when they end, I'm alone again, fighting enemies without any help. (Hey, where'd my dudes go?) Also, I've been sticking to the main story missions, just to save myself a little time. Too many side missions will distract me and, eventually, bore me right out of the game. I'm hoping I can go back to some of those after I finish the game because I want to explore more of the island and do some more zombie killin'. That should be soon, as I am just about to make my way to the final section of the game.

After I have finished Catherine and Dead Island, I have two more games to start and finish. This weekend I bought Sniper Elite: V2 (PS3) and Dragon Age: Origins (PS3). I loved the original Sniper Elite, and I enjoyed the demo for V2. So, I don't think I'll be disappointed by this version. Dragon Age is not my usual type of game, but it was only $10, and I'm curious about it.
So, I'll have a little bit of sniping and slashing to do in the next few weeks. I'll let you know how it all came out.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

A sad day

Man, was I shocked and saddened by the death of Adam Yauch, co-founder of the Beastie Boys, hip-hop innovator, activist, film-maker, producer, and all-around good guy, at the young age of 47. In the words of EZ-Mode forum member Strider, "Fuck Cancer".

I spent much of yesterday evening watching Beastie Boys videos. Here are some of my favs.

Finally, this kick-ass version of Sabotage. I remember watching the original broadcast of this performance and being blown away by it. It's still amazing.

Rest in peace, Adam. You will be, and, indeed already are, greatly missed.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Our Video-Game Trials

Everyone on my XBL friends list played that masochistic motorcycle-platformer Trials HD way back in August 2009, and they all raved about it. I played the demo and immediately recognised it as the excellent game they said it was, but also as one I would not enjoy. There were some parts of that demo that I played over and over and over and over again. I knew that if I couldn't get through a simple demo, I would most certainly be subjecting myself to hours of anger, frustration, and creative cursing with the full game. So, I didn't download  it, and just enjoyed reading my friends' postings about it on the EZ-Mode forums.

Now, there is Trials Evolution, and once again, everyone but me is playing it. The basics of Trials are still there, but developer RedLynx has taken the puzzles out of the confines of the factory and into the great outdoors. It looks great and (deceptively) enjoyable. Still, it is definitely something I would not be happy to play, and this GiantBomb Quicklook, in which Brad Shoemaker and Ryan Davis subject themselves to the unlockable extreme tracks, vividly illustrates why.

The video is both frustrating and hilarious to watch, and makes me wonder why we gamers subject ourselves to such things. I remember playing Halo and Halo 2 on Legendary difficulty, and taking a week to complete each of them. In particular, the battle against five waves of grunts and dual plasma-rifle-wielding Elites in the first hangar (skip to 2:48 of the video) of the Cairo Station mission, of Halo 2, kicked my ass all over the place, innumerable times. After much rage and graphic, colourful language, I finally got through it, and felt a great deal of relief (and even accomplishment) for having done so.

To this day, though, I still wonder why I did it, because I recall I didn't actually have any fun. I love those two games, and still play them from time to time, but damn are they tough on Legendary. Did I have something to prove? If so, what., exactly, was that? I certainly didn't learn anything from those difficult experiences either, as I went on in later years to play Call of Duty 2, Call of Duty 3, and Call of Duty 4 --- including the infamous Mile High Club achievement --- on Veteran through many expletive and anger filled hours. I'm proud of those achievements, but, as with Halo and Halo 2, I still wonder why I put myself through them. Where is the value in raising my blood pressure or taking myself to the point of throwing the controller across the room?

These days I am less likely to subject myself to the kind of insanity you see in the above video. With the exception of any Halo game, which I always play on Heroic, I will play a game either on easy or normal, and I will always shut a game down if I find myself getting angry or frustrated while repeating and re-repeating the same mistakes. I want to enjoy the games that I play, and remember them with fondness instead of resentment or ambivalence. That's why I won't buy Trials Evolution, and will again enjoy just reading about it or watching videos of much better players play it.