Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Zrbo's 5 Favorite Songs Of The Year

Can you guess which one isn't from 2011?

Here we are again folks, the end of another year means it's time to start rolling out the 'best-of' lists. Let's take a walk down memory lane to see what songs I most enjoyed from the past year. These might not necessarily be the best songs of the year, just the ones I found myself listening to again and again. I guarantee at least one surprise.

Lady Gaga - "The Edge of Glory"

Ok, so I like Lady Gaga, can you really fault me? After all, I was somewhat obsessed with Madonna about a decade ago, and since Lady Gaga is basically the modern day equivalent (though don't tell that to Gaga apparently) you can see why I might like her. Though I didn't find her newest album to be as good as I had hoped, I've still managed to find myself liking at least a few of the new songs, The Edge of Glory being one. I first heard this song when Lady Gaga performed it on American Idol while wearing some sort of amazonian inspired headdress while perched on top of a giant wall making love to some dancer/model before committing mock suicide (sounds about right). The song starts innocently enough, but really gets good once she starts ratcheting up the intensity with "I'm on the edge with you.. with you... WITH YOU!!!". Throw in some deliciously 80s sax courtesy of the late Clarence Clemons right before he passed away, and you have a great little pop song. Surprisingly, this isn't really one of my favorite LG videos, I prefer to just listen to it, but here's the fairly tame video for your viewing pleasure.

Michael McCann - "Icarus"

It's well established here that I'm a big videogame fan, so here's the obligatory videogame bit. Taken from this year's Deus Ex: Human Revolution, sequel to one of the greatest games of all time, Icarus is just a fantastic bit of cyberpunk inspired music that still manages to send chills down my spine every time I hear it. The music just oozes style, perfectly fitting the technological dystopia of the near future found in the game. It might also help that I'm currently reading Snow Crash. Best part - I haven't even gotten around to playing the game yet.

Sergio Mendes - "Alibis"

I mean this completely un-ironically. Ever since fellow blogger Little Earl posted this song in his 80s mix tape series I've had this song inexplicably stuck in my noggin. Sure, it's definitely not from 2011, but it doesn't mean that a 25+ year old gem can't sneak it's way onto the list. It's just deliciously infectious without needing all that signal processing that's meant to get your attention, and Joe Pizzulo's voice is so, so smooth. To top it off, this video is such a great relic from a different time. I've constantly found myself singing this song out loud as I go about my daily business. Damn, I might have to go listen to it again right now.

VNV Nation - "Space & Time"

It's a year in which a new VNV Nation came out; ergo, a VNV track must appear in my list. The lead off track from VNV Nation's album Automatic, this song is so very quintessentially VNV while also managing to be something very different. There's the inclusion of electro-harpsichords, Ronan Harris' voice is more 'punchier' than ever (it sounds like he's eating that opening line), and there's even the vaguest hint of something approaching dubstep during the break (without delving into it so much as to sound like he's riding the fad). All in all, a great track from a great album.

And the winner is...(drumroll)...

Within Temptation - "Faster"

When I first heard this song earlier this year I literally (not figuratively) stopped in disbelief at what I was hearing. This was Within Temptation, the same symphonic metal band I had heard back in the early 2000s when I was living in Germany - the band that had that hokey looking Pagan-metal aesthetic? I wasn't even aware they were still around. The only song of theirs I still listened to was their cover of Kate Bush's Running up that Hill (also with the hokey Pagan-metal aesthetic). Now here they were with a video that actually looked professionally made and sounded good - really good.

A little Internet research later I learned that not only is Within Temptation still around, but they've become the biggest musical export out of the Netherlands (what does that say about a country's music when their most popular band does metal - imagine them nestled up there on the chart next to Beyonce and Kanye).

Apparently in the intervening years since I left Europe they've been working hard, pushing out a slew of albums. Their latest album, The Unforgiving, is actually pretty damn good. They took their sound in a more mainstream direction, something that I think works greatly to their benefit. It's also a dreaded concept album with characters and a plot, complete with an entire comic book (sorry, graphic novel) series penned by some actual known guys in the biz. I've watched the entire accompanying short film that goes along with the album and it isn't terribly good. But this song, Faster, just rocks my socks off.

Sounding like it should be featured during the credits of some Jerry Bruckheimer film accompanied by explosions, Faster not only rocks, but the video looks good too. Lead singer Sharon den Adel is just an amazing bombshell to look at (can you believe she just finished two back-to-back pregnancies?), with gorgeous eyes the likes which haven't been seen since Susanna Hoffs from the Bangles. Where on earlier albums her voice could occasionally sound shrill (waif metal? - did I just invent a new genre?), here she sounds much more confident and sultry. You can't even detect a hint of a Dutch accent, almost like she's been taking vocal lessons from a country music artist.

An energizing rocker all around, this one is great to listen to while driving, though a little dangerous. It's my top pick for 2011.


Rebecca Black - Friday: It's like an anti-song parody of everything wrong with pop music nowadays, yet it's somehow stupidly infectious.

VNV Nation - Streamline: I initially thought this song was a bit of filler, but it's grown on me more than any other song on Automatic. Everything after the first chorus is sheer bliss.

Within Temptation - Sinead: Here's WT doing what's essentially a dance song, far removed from anything metal. I love the concept for this video - they're the band playing in the nightclub where a scene from the album's story is taking place.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Beatles: Rock Band Review

The Beatles were inarguably ahead of their time. As fellow blogger Little Earl used to remind me often, nearly all modern pop music has it's roots in what The Beatles did. Psychadelia? Check. Hard Rock? Check. Electronica? Check. Perhaps the only thing The Beatles didn't invent was dubstep. Indeed, they really forged new musical ground that continues to be explored to this day. It's too bad then that The Beatles: Rock Band comes well after it's time. That is meant as a great compliment - let me explain.

The videogame genre that's come to be known as the "music rhythm" genre began with the original Guitar Hero back in 2005. It soon developed a cult following, and with the release of Guitar Hero II a year later, seemed to explode in popularity. It became the party game, with friends lining up to take their turn on a plastic guitar. Through this plastic guitar with brightly colored buttons, players were expected to play along with a song by hitting the corresponding colored buttons as they were shown on screen. It was an elaborate karaoke of sorts, providing the thrill of being a guitar god without having to actually deal with the incredible difficulty of actually having to master true guitarmanship.

Soon a competitor came along in the form of Rock Band. Now people could play as a whole band, with plastic guitars, basses, drum kits, and microphones. Rock Band was definitely a step forward and took itself ever so slightly more serious than the Guitar Hero series. It was also around this time that the music rhythm genre began to become oversaturated. More and more versions kept being knocked out to bring in more cash: Guitar Hero 80s edition, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (complete with virtual G&R Slash as a playable character), Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Guitar Hero: Van Halen. These were all quick cash-ins, usually with little to no input by the featured artists, often featuring songs that supposedly 'inspired' the artist (seriously, a Foo Fighters song in Guitar Hero: Metallica, WTF!?).

Finally, in 2009, came word that The Beatles had given the Rock Band franchise permission to do a Rock Band version of The Beatles. Only this time things would be different, the surviving Beatles (and Yoko, don't forget Yoko) would have direct control on what was to be featured and how it all would be presented. They even went so far as to insist that their name be featured before the familiar Rock Band title, and thus we ended up with the magnificent The Beatles: Rock Band.

It's such a terrible shame then that The Beatles: Rock Band (TB:RB) was one of the last specific-band music games to come out. If only it had been the first, all the other titles would have benefited greatly, because the design of TB:RB is fantastic. Everything about the game screams quality.

The art style is superb, with cartoony looking versions of the fab four that have a somewhat whimsical look about them, apparently crafted under strict guidance from Apple Corps. (actually the whole game seems to have been strictly overseen by them, whoever 'they' are). The presentation is fantastic, taking you on a chronological journey, starting you off playing in the Cavern Club, to the Ed Sullivan show and all places inbetween, ending up on the roof of the Apple Corps. rooftop. For songs recorded at Abbey Road the game has added in "dreamscape" venues, with abstract whimsical nods to various songs (watch this to get what I mean).

This chronological progression really lets you see how the band progressed musically. The songs performed in the Cavern Club feel much more raw and live than the later tracks performed at Abbey Road studios which feel much more processed and musically dense. This is all helped by the various photos and short movies that you unlock as you progress. Some, if not most of these short movies are never before seen snippets and outtakes from various performances, movies, and interviews, though Little Earl would have to be the final judge on just how rare these really are.

TB:RB feels more than just a game, it's like an interactive history lesson that lets you play along. I feel like I actually learned stuff about The Beatles that I didn't previously know (like how the white album doesn't have more than two songs in a row sung by any given member). Ok, it's not going to wow a true afficianado, but for someone uneducated in Beatles lore, it offers a terrific overview of what The Beatles were about.

 It's like an interactive history lesson that let's you play along

There's all sorts of little details that make this package work. Like when you pick a song to play, in the first few seconds before the song plays there's audio of the band warming up to play the song, with perhaps a few practice chords or John muttering to someone to turn an amp up. Or how between each musical venue a short montage plays showing you some famous scenes and audio snippets to show what the band was up to. Perhaps the most impressive is the opening to the game, with an amazingly done montage that takes you through the full gamut of The Beatles (seriously, I could watch this a hundred times and still enjoy it).

Overall The Beatles: Rock Band is superb package. I haven't even yet mentioned that the game supports not only the typical Rock Band staples such as guitar, bass, and drums, but the game allows for two microphones to be hooked up for vocal harmonies. My only disappointment with this game is that I wish it had been even more of a history lesson. As it is there's only something like eight short movies that you can unlock, I would have been fine with twice as much. But really, there's not much to complain about. It's just such as shame that this game came out  in late 2009 after the music rhythm genre had already reached saturation, which resulted in poor sales. If this had come out earlier it could have laid the foundation for all sorts of music-games-as-history-lessons. Imagine a Pink Floyd: Rock Band, or Nirvana: Rock Band. Instead the only thing to come out since is... Green Day: Rock Band, ugh. Well, one can dream, but in the meantime I've gotta get back to my game and see if I can earn my 5 stars on Helter Skelter.  5/5 Zrbo points.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Better Late than Never: Zrbo's Favorite Game of 2009

This post was originally going to update my list of favorite games of 2009 when I discovered that I had never actually made a post detailing those games. So think of this as a lost post that should have been posted a year and a half ago... if I had actually gotten around to playing my now favorite game of 2009 back then.

And the winner is... Demon's Souls! Ah, Demon's Souls, how did I not notice you back when you arrived to critical acclaim at the tail end of 2009? Even my go-to videogame review site, Gamespot, gave it the 2009 Game of the Year award and I still paid little-to-no attention to this wonderful, wonderful gem of a game.

Perhaps I didn't pay much attention to (or chose to ignore) Demon's Souls because of the reviews. The reviews were all extremely positive, but they all said the same thing: that the game is brutally difficult. And it is. Make no mistake, this is not some videogame-as-art kind of game, this is truly a gamer's game.

What makes the game so difficult? Well, to begin with, Demon's Souls eschews many facets of modern game design that have become the norm. Take the simple concept of the checkpoint. In most games the game is constantly saving your progress in the background, so that when you die you lose a few minutes of time and are usually placed near the beginning of the encounter that got you killed. Demon's Souls dumps this concept and makes it so that if you die you have to start the ENTIRE level over again, with all the enemies back in place. Not only that, but the game punishes you further by cutting your life bar in half when you die and by making you lose all of the souls (i.e., experience points) you've acquired unless you make it back to the place where you died and touch your bloodstain on the ground to retrieve your collected souls.

While that's usually the most cited reason for difficulty in Demon's Souls, there's certainly other ways the developer's have gone out of their way to make life difficult. Get this: the game does not include a pause option - as in you can't stop the game. Enemies will often be waiting in hiding and you can't see them until it's too late. If you do manage to survive to the end of the level and make it to the boss, you will find an absolutely cunning foe that requires all the skills you've learned to stay alive. And if you die during the boss fight, well it's back to the beginning of the level again.

So why would anyone go through with this torture? Well, for starters, the gameplay is just fantastic. Your character always responds to each press of the button, and the flow of combat, block, thrust, parry, block, stab, is so well honed and refined. What makes it so rewarding is that when you mess up and die from an attack it's always your error. Rarely will you have the problem of "WTF, I hit the button and my character didn't respond!". The combat mechanics work, and work well. It's just such a pleasure to engage in combat, learning all the subtle nuances of blocking, parrying, and swinging a sword around.

Another reason why the game is so fantastic is the multiplayer system. It's not however your typical multiplayer system. In Demon's Souls you play in your own world, but you can see the ghosts of other people playing in their world. This helps alleviate the lonely eerieness and sense of isolation as you wander around imposing castles, caves, and the like. Seeing someone's ghost running around gives you a sense of comfort knowing that someone else in a parallel world is going through the same tribulations.

The game makes a really wonderful use of these ghosts through the use of bloodstains. Occasionally you will stumble upon a bloodstain on the ground. When you touch it a red ghost pops up and reenacts the last few moments of another player's life so you can see how they died (watch this for an example). This is extremely useful in such an unforgivingly brutal world. You approach a blind corner, see a bloodstain on the ground and decide to touch it. A red ghost appears, runs around the blind corner, and then moments later comes running back only to keel over and die. That lets you know that there's something waiting around the corner. It's an absolutely brilliant mechanic, in that it can forewarn you about something without having the developer's resort to a sign or an NPC saying "hey you need to be careful ahead".

In addition to the bloodstain feature is a system in which other players can leave short messages scrawled on the ground that give you hints as to what to expect. It might say "Beware of the enemy ambush ahead" giving you yet another leg up. Coupled with this a recommendation system where you can recommend a message if you find it useful. The more people who recommend a message, the more likely it is to remain there, and every time someone recommends one of your messages you get a small health boost. It's an ingeniously wonderful system.

I haven't even begun to talk about the game world itself. It's a bleak, imposing world that marries elements of horror with traditional fantasy/Tolkien tropes. All the names have a decidedly Eastern European flavor to them (Boletaria, Vingard, etc.), plus there's a bit of Lovecraftian horror going on (such as the final boss known as 'the Great Old One' who looks suspiciously Cthulhu-esque). The various bosses have equally imposing names: The Adjudicator, Dirty Colossus, Maneater, Maiden Astraea, The Old Hero. The design of the various castles and settings really does evoke a sort of foggy-streets-of-Prague-at-night feeling. Overall, it's a wonderfully terrific atmosphere that further adds to the feeling of misery and gloom.

So, there you have it. Demon's Souls is a fantastic game that ignores traditional game mechanisms while bringing some wonderfully new mechanics along. When you finally manage to make your way through a forbidding castle, careful every step of the way, and manage to defeat the boss at the end, the game truly makes you feel a sense of accomplishment few other games can achieve. It's not hard for me to say that Demon's Souls is not only my favorite game of 2009, but one of my favorite games of all time.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Heavy Rain (Quantic Dream, 2010)

I'm here to review Heavy Rain, a game for the Playstation 3 I just finished playing and one that I'm not sure exactly what to say about. To begin with, it's been marketed as a new type of videogame storytelling, one where your actions in the game influence the outcome of events in ways never thought possible before in videogaming. The makers call it, perhaps somewhat pretentiously, "interactive cinema". To add weight to this lofty ambition, the developers, Quantic Dream, have gone all out in the CGI department, using motion capture to create highly detailed characters that at times look almost real (check out the original E3 2006 demo). It's all quite a large feat, and Quantic Dream, well, they kind of pull it off, but not quite.

Remember in the past when people thought up the idea of interactive movies, where the audience would be watching a film, and when prompted, decide what a character should do next by pressing a button and inputting their choice? Except no one wanted to do this - you go to the movies to be immersed and entertained, not asked what you want the protagonist to do next. Well, this interactivity is at the crux of Heavy Rain, and it actually manages to work, perhaps because the player is the sole decision maker. In this sense it vaguely resembles an old Choose-your-own-adventure book.

Heavy Rain is a murder/mystery story revolving around a handful of characters, each with their own motivations and desires, on the hunt for the elusive 'Origami Killer'. The killer kidnaps children who are then found dead a few days later drowned in water holding an origami figure in their hands. It makes for a great setup, and the characters are fairly believable and fit the story well. The story opens with a prologue with you playing as the main protagonist Ethan, a father of two children. One day one of your boys gets killed due to some slight negligence on Ethan's part. The game then shifts forward a few years where we find Ethan has become a distraught wreck, divorced from his wife, living in regret over his first son's death. Soon, his second son gets kidnapped by the Origami Killer, setting in motion the events of the game.

It's an intriguing story, as Ethan's desire to find his boy is made all the more urgent considering he's already lost one of his children. Other playable characters include a comely journalist, an aging private investigator, and an FBI agent.

The other aspect that makes the game unique is the control scheme. Done away with are standard button mapping concepts such as "Hit A to jump", instead each action your character performs is determined by an onscreen prompt that guides you in how to perform a specific action. While difficult to explain in text, it works ingeniously well as the button presses become proportionally difficult to the task at hand. It also adds a sense of bonding with each character that doesn't usually occur in a game,

Heavy Rain has many terrific moments. Playing as Ethan, the Origami Killer begins sending you messages. These messages outline tasks Ethan must do if he wishes to save his son. Some are straight out of the Saw series of movies (though it should be noted that the game is primarily a whodunnit and not a horror flick), and since you are carrying out the action using approximate button presses, it makes the action that much more visceral and exciting. In one of my favorite sequences, Ethan is told by the killer that he must drive for five miles going the wrong way on the freeway. It's an intensely exciting experience, one that had me jumping out of my seat as I struggled to keep control of the car and not hit any oncoming traffic (watch it here).

This leads into the next interesting mechanic that Heavy Rain offers. Your characters can die. And you don't get to start the scene over. So if one of the characters doesn't make it, their plotline is finished, they won't have anything else to contribute to the rest of the game. This ties in neatly with the choose-your-own-adventure feel of the game, leading to branching stories and scenes that may or may not occur depending on your actions. Luckily I managed to keep everyone alive and got an appropriately rewarding ending, though it should be noted that none of the endings are considered 'the right' or 'best' ending.

However, the game has many, many faults. To begin with, it's a slow start. The first third of the game is a bore, as you learn the basics of the control scheme through such mundane tasks as brushing your teeth or making a sandwich.

Second, Quantic Dream is a French company and they used all French voice actors. Sure, many of them have terrific American accents, but frequently the French accent slips through, ruining the sense that I'm supposed to be a grizzled P.I. in Philadelphia. This is most notable with the character Lauren and Ethan's two sons, who just sound so, so, French.

The game suffers from some pretty large plotholes as well. A major recurring plot point that strongly suggests Ethan has something to do with his own child's kidnapping is glaringly never resolved. Near the end of the game, once the plot begins to come together, you'll find that suddenly characters who have never met suddenly know each other. This is a major distraction from an otherwise intriguing story.

My final grievance comes from the fact that the identity of the Origami Killer always remains the same. I was under the impression that depending on how you played, the identity of the Killer would be different, that way each playthrough would be truly unique. Alas, this is not so, and it somewhat undermines the fundemental idea that your actions determine the outcome. Additionally, the actual final identity of the Killer is a bit of a cop-out and a let down.

So what do I really think of the game? I loved the control scheme, and I enjoyed the branching narratives and different ways the action can be played out in each scene. I would love to see another game like this made with the same controls and choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling, but one done with voice actors who actually sounded like they were supposed to, and one where the plot made more sense. There's a lot of potential here to create more engaging, meaningful stories, someone just needs to figure out how to make it all work.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Zrbo's Favorite Games of 2010, Part 3

Mass Effect 2 (Bioware)
Here it is, my final favorite game of 2010. Mass Effect 2 is a sequel to 2007's Mass Effect. Developed by Bioware, the Mass Effect universe is perhaps one of the most original and exciting new sci-fi universes to emerge out of the videogame soup in the past few years, one entirely devoid of Space Marines. The universe of Mass Effect is a highly developed one where complex relationships between various characters and species helps to create a truly believable universe.

The Mass Effect series is interesting in that often your character is given choices which can dramatically effect events later in the game. The sequel takes this even further by taking your save file from the original Mass Effect (considering you completed it) and carrying over that file to the new game, along with all the choices you made.

I thought this was a fascinating feat, as so many little decisions (and big ones) you made in the first game have relevance in the sequel. For example, without giving too much away, you have the choice in the first game to sacrifice one of your overly aggressive teammates. In the sequel there's an entire plotline, quite an important one at that, that revolves around this character. In my first game I let the teammate live, but in a different game if I had let him die then this entire plotline would not have been there for me to explore in the sequel, or at least it would have been dramatically different. This is part of what makes the Mass Effect games so interesting, each game is entirely your own game, no one else's Mass Effect universe looks quite the same as your own due to a culmination of your decisions.

Another aspect of what makes the Mass Effect universe interesting is that, unlike in much sci-f where humans are the dominant species exploring the universe (think Star Trek), here humanity has arrived late to the party while other spacefaring races have had several hundred, if not thousands, of years to grow, develop, and conquer. This means that there are all sorts of technologies, fueds, and relationships that are available for exploration.

What puts this universe a step ahead of other sci-fi is how just how well these ideas have been thought out. The original Mass Effect (and also featured in the sequel) featured an in-game codex, essentially an encyclopedia, of everything relating to the universe. Not only is each codex entry expertly written, but the explanations are all plausibly scientific for nearly every conceivable facet of space-travel. To top it off they gave these entries narration, so that you can listen to them being read. The voice actor they choice delivers the information so well that it actually made it a joy to listen to all of the scientific rationale for how space ships have gravity or can travel faster-than-light (example here).

So what makes Mass Effect 2 fall short for my game of the year? To understand that we have to look at the changes that were made between the two games. The biggest difference is that the combat has been completely overhauled from the first game. It's much more exciting and visceral now. The designers also stripped away most of the inventory management, and the exploration of individual planets. Basically Bioware stripped the game almost entirely of it's role-playing game elements. I don't mean this in the literal sense, you are definitely still "playing a role", but all those other elements that make up RPGs, such as inventory and stat management have been almost completely removed.

While this does streamline the combat and the overall feel of the game, I felt that as a consequence the developers were left with no way of resolving conflict outside of combat. So now instead of being able to influence some outcome through wits, you are now left with just the option of shooting your way through various encounters. The game focuses now more on action than on cerebral choices.

Which leads to my second point. Many of the choices in the first game felt more complex, more meaningful. For example, near the end of the first game you have to choose the two teammates who will accompany you on the mission. Later you get separated and have to make the decision to stay with one to help fight off the approaching enemy or go rescue the other from certain death. Either way somebody dies, and it can be a tough, tough decision to make. In Mass Effect 2 the decisions just don't seem to have the same impact. They come across more like "Do you want to eat a burrito or a taco?" (ok, not really, but you get my point). There's just something lacking in the emotional investment you have when making these decisions. Now this could all be rectified depending on how these decisions play out in the conclusion when Mass Effect 3 ships (this year supposedly), but for the time being I was left feeling a wee bit disappointed.

There's a few other issues I have with the game that don't need a lot of detail but I'll rattle them off here quickly. Some of the new teammates are brilliantly conceived, such as your lizard-man doctor Mordin (who you can get to sing a little Gilbert & Sullivan if you know how). Others, such as Thane or the Justicar are not as well thought out and on my second playthrough I realized just how downright silly/cartoony some of these characters came across.

There was a part where I arrived at a spaceport and there were literally four minor characters from the first game all standing in the same area who all said virtually the same thing ("Hey remember me, you rescued me way back at the beginning of the first game, it's great to run into you again!"). This gave me a bit of that "small-universe" feeling, not only do I just happen to bump into this person out of the billions of people in the entire galaxy, but there just happens to be three other people who I know all standing around in the same area? I was definitely reminded here that I was merely playing a game at this moment.

My final grievance is with the story itself. The game was billed as the dark second chapter of the Mass Effect story (the developers pretty much called it the 'Empire Strikes Back' of the story), but almost the entirety of the game was devoted to waltzing around the galaxy recruiting new teammates, with a short 'final confrontation' at the end. I also found the beginning of the game puzzling, you basically get killed right at the beginning of the game and then are brought back to life by a shadowy pro-human group (led by 'The Illusive Man' pictured above and voiced terrifically by Martin Sheen). It seemed to me one big contrivance/excuse to 'reboot' your character. The whole thing felt a little off to me. It would be like if the infamous part where Vader tells Luke he's his father happened at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, rather than the end of Empire. If the writers wanted to do this, why didn't they have you die at the end of the first game?

So there you have it. No one game gets my vote for game of the year, but all three games together, Halo: Reach, Limbo, and Mass Effect 2, form a pretty good core of great games. Now, I promised honorable mentions, so here they are:

Red Dead Redemption - This was practically every other reviewer's game of the year. It's by the makers of Grand Theft Auto but instead of taking place in a modern day city, it takes place in the Wild West. With a huge world to explore it captured the mood of all your favorite westerns and let you play as the cowboy. It had a truly great atmosphere but I just cannot forgive the actual gameplay, which was just awful in my opinion. Sorry, but this is a game, and for it to be considered good you gotta give me good gameplay.

Alan Wake - A psychological thriller about a horror novel writer who, in the middle of a bout of writer's block, decides to vacation with his wife in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Part Twin Peaks, part Stephen King novel, the game does not try to hide its inspirations (King is mentioned in the opening line of the game). It was a pretty good game, and the narration by Alan Wake is excellent, but I never felt spooked or particularly 'psychologically thrilled'.

Bioshock 2 - The original Bioshock is one of my favorite games of this console generation. The sequel takes the Ayn Rand objectivist dystopia of the first game and now has it run by a collectivism-worshipping psychiatrist. The gameplay was great and it was fun to visit the underwater ruins of Rapture again, but the game was completely unnecessary, the first game told a complete story, there was no need for a sequel.

That's it for this time, see you in a year!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Zrbo's Favorite Games of 2010, Part 2

Limbo (Playdead Studios)
My second contender for my not-quite-game-of-the-year is Limbo, a downloadable game from the Danish studio 'Playdead Studios', a most fitting name for a game about a young boy trying to survive somewhere between life and death.

You play as a young boy who wakes up alone in a black-and-white forest. You are looking for your sister. There's something other-wordly about the place you are in... like you are in some sort of limbo. The game uses no text to explain anything to you, there's no dialogue, and the sound design is utterly superb in that there's virtually no music, with the game relying only on natural-sounding effects, such as the sound of rushing water or the wind rustling in the trees. Only later in the game does a little music pick up, and when it does, you hardly even notice the change.

This all contributes to the superb atmosphere of the game. The entire experience is done in black-and-white with a film grain effect to give it the impression you're watching some old Ingmar Bergman film (and yes, I can say that now that Little Earl has shown me the Seventh Seal). There's a certain creepiness as the young boy makes his way across a black-and-white landscape, never uttering a word. Just shades of black, white, and gray. For a look at the game check out this video here.

At it's heart Limbo is a puzzle platforming game, requiring you to figure out how to proceed as you move on. And the game punishes mistakes with a grizzly death. Didn't see that bear trap lying in the grass in front of you? BAM, the little boy dies. Luckily the game never sets you too far back, so dying becomes not only a learning experience, but also serves up a morbid pleasure in seeing just how the little boy will meet his fate.

In many ways the game is similar to 2008's Braid, which reviewers loved, and if you recall, I absolutely hated. But where Braid was told through obnoxious overwrought text, telling a story so vague that is was indecipherable (was it about loss? the trials of love? nuclear weapons?), Limbo gets its strength from its outright minimalism. There's no dialogue, no terribly written poetry to read, just a boy in a black-and-white world with a gigantic spider coming his way.

And it's amazing how much the game accomplishes without any of the usual storytelling means. The only discernible feature of the boy is his eyes. These little white dots add a certain character to the boy, and when confused by a puzzle the boy might shift his eyes towards something helpful or useful, such as rope hanging above that the player might not otherwise have noticed. They're very much like when cartoon characters turn off the lights and we can only see the whites of their eyes.

So why isn't this my game of the year? It's difficult to pinpoint exactly. It could be that the game is short and doesn't feel as big or meaty as the other two contenders on my list. Also, the ending is just a tad bit weak. As the Gamespot review notes in it's only criticism, it "ends abruptly". Just a slightly longer coda and this might have been my game of the year. Hell, I'll at least give it my "best downloadable game of the year". Limbo is available for the Xbox 360.

Next time I'll finish off my favorite games of 2010 with a look at my final pick as well as a few honorable mentions.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Zrbo's Favorite Games of 2010, Part 1

Welcome and make yourself comfortable as I bring you my favorite games of 2010. You'll notice I didn't say "Game of the Year" as while I played many games this past year, some of them great and not so much, I couldn't whittle my choices down to one game I thought was the best or most represented what the year was about. Instead I've chosen my three favorite games of the year. I greatly enjoyed each of my three selections but I found each one had certain flaws that I just couldn't look past, which I'll discuss as I move through each selection. I'll start with one for now, with the other two in subsequent posts. So, sit back, relax, and enjoy!

Halo: Reach (Bungie Studios)
In case you didn't know, the Halo series of games are some of my favorite. The original Halo: Combat Evolved pretty much made me a convert to console gaming, something I completely avoided throughout the better part of the 90s, preferring to stick with PC games, most notably Diablo 2 and the venerable Starcraft. Halo changed all that for me as it showed that a shooter could be played with a controller instead of keyboard and mouse, plus it had great mechanics, and was a delightfully whimsical blend of sci-fi tropes from the past 30 years (Larry Niven's Ringworld combined with Giger's Aliens, Schwarzenegger's Predators, holographic AI buddy Cortana looks like she's from Tron, and my favorite character 343 Guilty Spark is like C-3PO is he went insane and became murderous).

The Halo trilogy, opening in medias res as our hero 'Master Chief' escapes from the surprise attack on the human stronghold 'Reach', tells the tale of Master Chief and humankind's struggle to overcome the alien religious conglomerate known as 'the Covenant', only to discover in the process the parasitic alien life form referred to only as 'the Flood', ultimately defeating both in Halo 3. I loved Halo 3 and thought it had an utterly appropriate ending to a series that came to define console shooters (and did I mention how I'm convinced the special ending (@7:00) you get by finishing the game on the highest difficulty is a nod towards the end of The Beatles' A Day in the Life?).

So when Bungie announced they were doing one more Halo game I was a bit shocked, though simultaneously delighted. I was intrigued as this time Bungie decided to make a prequel, with the game taking place during the fall of Reach. This is something fans had been clamoring for for a while, as the only account of the fall of Reach was in book form, sanctioned by Bungie as official canon. I especially loved the initial reveal trailer for Halo: Reach, with it's almost 9/11-meets-Hindenburg disaster sense of confusion and dread.

So how is the game? Well, Bungie have finally perfected their craft, with the overall gameplay feeling butter smooth. The weapons are a delight to use, and the artificial intelligence of the enemies is hands down some of the best in any game. The graphics have been improved, the options expanded, and Bungie have added in a progression system to make the addictive multiplayer even more so. From a pure gameplay standpoint, this is my favorite game of the year. From the story standpoint, not so much.

Bungie have never been very good storytellers. The story suffers from some poor writing, poor character development, and for the hardcore fans, they basically retconned the entire story of the book, causing the fan forums to explode in anger. The last part didn't matter as much to me as I never read the books, but still, I have no idea why Bungie changed the story so much when previously they've been so particular about making sure the story kept its logical integrity (there's even a mysterious 'Halo Bible' Bungie consults to make sure nothing contradicts anything previously established). I did however enjoy the ending, as we got to see a few characters we hadn't seen since the original Halo, and I loved how the final scene (@1:27) is the original opening from Halo.

Actually, my main gripe is with some of the presentation and options Bungie mysteriously left out. It's a little too much to go into here, but I do miss the old version of Firefight, and why they removed the Lowball gametype is a mystery to me. Mainly, Bungie promised the most comprehensive Halo possible, complete with all the bells and whistles from previous games but with MORE. Funny though how I feel that there's fewer options than in Halo 3.

In the end I suppose it doesn't matter, because as long as the gameplay is good (and it is very, very good) I will keep coming back to it (according to my Bungie.net profile I've already logged more than six and a half days of continuous play). At the same time I'm glad that Bungie have signed off on the Halo franchise, giving control to Microsoft's newly minted 343 Industries.

Stay tuned next time as I reveal my second favorite game of the year, a black and white game that features no words and almost no music.