Song of the Day: Strike Anywhere – To The World

Although more effort is required, this is much better than trying to find songs on blip.fm to share, because I can just pull something out of my library, upload it to my web space and post it with a few comments.

Exit English was a really solid album, and it’s unfortunate that nothing Strike Anywhere has done since has been nearly as interesting. To The World is a great song to get yourself up and moving in the morning, and that’s exactly what I intend to do when I finish this post.

I haven’t decided whether I like using the one-line slim music player or the larger version that allows me to show off the album art, but since Exit English has cool art, it’s an easy decision to make for today.

Enjoy!

Music: demos vs. final products and the effects of live tracking

Note: it took almost an entire day of figuring out how to embed the little Flash music player you’ll see at the bottom of this post. I am really bad at the Internet.

Most bands these days go through a meticulous recording process where each member plays their part of a given song by themselves, with a producer listening to the whole thing and helping correct imperfections. By the time a consumer hears the final product, she or he is not hearing the 4-minute single-take the song sounds like, but instead a piecewise cut-and-paste of the best bits of many takes. This is part of why sometimes there are bands that sound a lot better on their album than they do when you see them live.

But there’s also the flip side of this. Many bands sound even better than their albums live, in part because they have a lot more freedom to play their songs the way they want. This isn’t to take anything away from producers, who can make or break an album, but some artists are just too good at what they do to be boxed in by a traditional recording process that emphasizes clinical perfection rather than visceral energy.

Enter live tracking. In this recording process, each band member records the whole song in one sitting, often together with the rest of the band. The result is a lot more organic, but can magnify the same imperfections that make for a disappointing concert experience.

I have a couple of examples that highlight the difference. By the time a band enters the studio, they’ve often recorded demos of some or all of the songs they intend to put on an album. By definition, demos are recorded more cheaply and quickly than final album cuts, and one way to significantly cut down on recording time is to track everyone live at once.

To illustrate all of this, I have two examples. The first is Picture Perfect Wannabe, a song by Denver Harbor. It was first recorded for the Extended Play EP, and is not technically a demo, but was clearly recorded in a hurry by a band just starting out and shopping for a label (the only version you can buy these days is an import version released years later). They found a home at Universal and re-recorded the song for Scenic a year later. Note how different the drums, especially, sound. In Extended PlayIlan Rubin’s fills are very dynamic and really help propel the song forward. In the Scenic version, most of those fills are either completely missing or hollow shells of their former selves. This is arguably more in fitting with the theme of the song, which deals with how so many generic artists constantly steal from more successful peers in an effort to appeal to the masses, but as a big fan of Extended Play as a whole, and especially that song, I found Scenic’s version to be limp and anemic in comparison.

The second example is by Against Me!. Before recording Searching for a Former Clarity, they made a bunch of demos, many of which would eventually be re-recorded for Clarity. In this case I think the additional layers and timing differences actually make the final album version superior. I’ll admit that I didn’t like it as much the first time I heard it, but it grew on me over time.

Review: Mass Effect 2/Bayonetta

With the obligatory first post out of the way, I feel like I should have some real content beyond “here’s the plan,” to I’m going to start things off proper with a video game review. If you know me, you know that I’m an incurable nerd, and playing video games is just one of those things that I can’t get away from. My dad once said something along the lines of “I quit smoking pot when I was 20—when are you going to stop playing video games?” I have no idea, Dad, but chances are it’s not going to be anytime soon.

For a long time, I’ve felt like when I read reviews for games (which I always do before I buy them) I’m influenced by the scores they get. When a game scores above, say, 9.0, I almost feel a need to justify that as I’m playing the game and ignore the little flaws that I might otherwise find annoying and deal-breaking. But two recent counterexamples of this have forced me rethink this idea.

Bayonetta came out shortly after the new year, the first in a long line of games that were supposed to come out during the holiday season but got pushed back for whatever reason. IGN gave it an extremely glowing 9.5 review, basically calling it an early candidate for game of the year.

I enjoyed the game enough to finish it, but I don’t agree with this assessment at all.

Beyond the fact that I’m not all that great at its style of combo-based gameplay (think Devil May Cry or God of War), everything about the game aside from said gameplay felt like it was polished but never really finished. For example, the game has these ridiculous, over-the-top (which is still putting it mildly) cutscenes that take about as long to watch as you spend playing the game. This worked well enough for Metal Gear Solid 4 because said cutscenes were consistently entertaining and always moved the story forward, even if “forward” sometimes meant moving into some pretty bizarre territory.

Here, though, not only are the cutscenes fully weird, but a large number of them are semi-static. Film reels will appear around a scene and the characters will talk but not move, with occasional subtle camera angle changes. Each frame in the reel provides a new pose for the characters or a completely changed camera angle, but there’s no animation between each frame, like developer Platinum Games ran out of time/money to fill everything in.

Normally, cutscenes aren’t really an integral part of the game, so this wouldn’t be a big deal, but it sticks out so much because you spend a lot of time watching them, and the fully rendered cinematics are significantly more entertaining to watch than a bunch of static characters yelling and posing at each other.

The music in the game deserves special mention for being the absolute worst part of the package. There are only a few tracks, and they’re repeated over and over again, to the point where I had to stream my own music just to make it stop.

As I said, I’m not all that good at actually playing this sort of game, and it makes sure to remind me at every opportunity. Each level in the game consists mostly of a series of arenas where you beat down enemies as quickly as possible but also with as much flourish as you can muster. If you vary your weapons and combos, the game gives you credit for that at the end of each section, rating how you played from platinum down to bronze in a number of categories. At the end of the level, all of your scores are aggregated and you’re given a rating for how you did as a whole.

With just a few exceptions, I did really really poorly on every level, causing a character in the game to say something like “oh, come on!” as it presented me with the lowest possible rating. I’m OK with being kind of bad at the game, but it seemed to be discouraging me from moving on, which is a little obnoxious.

Also obnoxious is the hypersexualization of the game’s protagonist. Not only does she wear a skintight suit and has proportions that would make most models kill themselves (director Hideki Kamiya has been quoted as saying she’s his “ideal woman”) but she wears high heels, is constantly sucking on a little lollipop and when it comes time to take down the game’s giant bosses, her clothes literally come off (with strategic strands of hair keeping these scenes from being truly risqué) and her hair turns into massive demons that take care of her dirty work. Really.

There are weapons to collect, moves to unlock, additional outfits and all the usual trappings this type of game comes with, but to get everything you need to play the game multiple times on harder difficulties. Some people consider that a plus, because it’s direct encouragement to replay it a few times, but considering how much of a slog normal was for me, I’m not really impressed that the game wants me to keep playing it so it can laugh at me even harder for doing even worse than I did before. No thanks.

Mass Effect 2, on the other hand, almost lived up to the lofty expectations the reviews set for it, but there was one element in particular that I found completely lacking: choice.

But let’s back up. The 2 in the title should make it obvious that ME2 is a sequel to, well, Mass Effect. That game came out two years ago and, despite some flaws, sucked me in and refused to let go until I was done. The gameplay was fun, the story was memorable and the world created was believable and organic as much as sci-fi RPGs can be. I have a funny habit of always being the good guy in RPGs when forced to make decisions and interacting with non-player characters, and this was no exception.

These decisions were always supposed to have implications for the two planned sequels, and while I was consistently reminded of the choices I made, most of those reminders came merely in the form of emails sent to me about how much a certain character appreciated what I did for them two years ago. A few characters actually show up on the planets you visit and you get to interact with them a little more, but it’s all relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. The game’s numerous loading screens kept reminding me that some of my decisions in ME2 may have serious implications for ME3, and I can’t help but question whether that will really be the case.

Granted, it’s hard to tell a story that’s both on rails and heading to a set conclusion but also allows the player freedom to make decisions that affect the nuances of that story. BioWare should be applauded for their commendable effort, but if you read IGN’s review, they talk about how “personal” the game becomes because it remembers your decisions. I was really excited about this aspect of the game, but came away feeling like I’d been had.

As far as the gameplay goes, if you’ve played the first game you basically know what to expect (if you haven’t, it’s basically a squad-based third-person shooter with RPG stats and some handy abilities like being able to make your enemies float helplessly tacked on.)  This time, though, everything has been streamlined. I usually cringe when I hear the phrase “dumbed-down” so I won’t use it here, but there’s certainly a case to be made here that BioWare thought players needed their hands to be held a little more tightly for the sequel.

The first game had weapons, upgrades and armor galore, to the point that by the end of the game, it was a pretty serious chore sifting through everything so you could equip the right doodads to keep your characters from dying too quickly. The inventory system used to try to make sense of all this crap was generally maligned because it was so poorly organized.

Apparently all BioWare heard out of that debacle was “this inventory thing is hard” because it’s been completely scrapped in ME2. Instead, you simply buy upgrades either for yourself or your squad, and they’re all automatically applied. I only came across a couple of variations of each weapon and would genuinely think I’d missed something if not for the fact that my character was a powerhouse by the end of the game. There are a bunch of “heavy weapons” to help you blow up bosses better, but I tend to only pull those out when I really need them, and you can only carry one with you into battle, so I mostly stuck with the mini-nuke, which decimated anything I shot it at. Seeing the mini mushroom cloud and hearing the roar of a small nuclear weapon was great fun, sure, but using most of the same weaponry from beginning to end made combat feel a little stale after a while.

As far as length goes, ME2 is about twice as long as the first game, and it went by incredibly fast. In fact, I felt like the plot was moving too quickly until I suddenly realized that I’d put 20 hours in already, a feeling I also got from Dragon Age: Origins, another BioWare creation. Clearly these guys know a thing or two about immersion.

The writing and acting of the story are consistently great, which is helped by having an A-list voice cast as far as video games go. The dialogue tree that lets you choose from thoughts (which play out a little differently when they’re actually spoken) just before the end of the current voice clip creates a great flow and makes having hours of conversations with your team members (a hallmark of all RPGs, but especially BioWare’s) easier to deal with. It should be noted, though, that there are a few characters that I basically ignored the whole game, because the damn thing was long enough without sitting through absolutely EVERYTHING.

I just clicked the “Preview” button and this thing is getting insanely long, so I guess that means I should wrap it up. Bayonetta is definitely worth playing if you like your action games with a healthy dose of button mashing and/or combo memorization. Since it’s essentially a spiritual sequel to Devil May Cry, chances are if you like that series you won’t find much to complain about here, at least in terms of the core gameplay. Mass Effect 2 is easier to recommend, though I’d suggest playing its predecessor first if you haven’t already to experience the entire overarching story.

Once More, With Feeling…

I’ve started blogs before, but they’ve never worked out.

I can almost see you cocking your head sideways and going “you have?” The problem is always that I come up with a good post or two to start, but never have any follow through because I’m bad at remembering to do things. This is the same reason why traditionally I don’t post much on Facebook, though having an app on my phone (along with feeling like I should be using it) has helped with that considerably.

In any case, since Tumblr is integrated with Facebook, chances are at least a few people who follow me will click on my posts periodically and see what I’m up to/rambling about, which may or may not make me more accountable in my posting habits.

My intent is to make this blog about the things I’m into and/or thinking about, whether it’s music, movies, TV, gadgets, games, or anything else of interest to me. The name references the fact that this is going to be a pretty schizophrenic affair, and I fully understand that the reviews and opinions I write probably won’t be seen by or affect many people. And that’s fine, this is really just an excuse for me to write, something I haven’t done a whole lot since I graduated from college. If I’m lucky, maybe a few of you out there will get a little bit of entertainment value out of it, and if not, well, that’s life.