Thursday, December 30, 2010

BBC Sound of 2011 Long List

The BBC have just published their sound of 2011 long list some thoughts as I listen.

I'm impressed by Esben and the Witch as their name implies they sound like a dark fairytale. If their album keeps up this level of quality I can see it being on heavy rotation.
I'm a sucker for anything with a Dub Step flavour so I enjoyed Jamie Woon though his voice is a little commercial for my tastes, in the D&B/Dubstep category Nero excites me the most. It would be great to see an artist other than Pendulum getting some viscous breaks in the charts.
Daley is clearly a big talent, not the kind of thing I spend a lot of time listening to, but the world needs an alternative to Jamie T who can sing in tune. 

The Naked and Famous are perhaps a little too indebted to MGMT on the evidence of what I've heard, but there's always a place in my heart for sunny pop music. 

No clips on the BBC site but The Vaccines sound like a strange hybrid of Mumford and Sons and Interpol topped off with the fantastic baritone of Justin Young. I found a clip of them playing on Jools Holland you can check out. I'll eat my hat if these guys don't make it (Which naturally means they are doomed)

Warpaint are capable of dreamy loveliness, but Undertow sounds a little too much like a rewrite of Polly by Nirvana to my ears.

While Clare Maguire and Jessie J may well end up being huge they do nothing for me. 

I think Anna Calvi has the potential to produce a world class album. Jezebel is a curiosity, but  Moulinette is a wonderful track.

I'm not going to make any predictions of who will be the true breakthrough, but even the beeb picked Little Boots over Lady Gaga.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Humble Bundle 2 Reviews - Machinarium

The Humble Bundle 2 is available for another couple of days (Total at time of writing over $1.5!) They have recently added Steam access to the games and thrown in the games from the original bundle free of charge so there is even more reason to grab a copy if you haven't already.
The second review in the series is Machinarium which is an old skool point and click adventure in the style of Monkey Island and the like.
The game tells the tale of a little robot called Josef who has been dumped in the wilderness by gangsters who have kidnapped his girlfriend. You have to traverse across several screens full of puzzles and quests to get her back and thwart the evil robots.  
Like Braid what sets this apart from the crowd is the spectacular artistic direction and story telling.  Everything from the little touches in the animation (Like the way Josef slides down banisters, or dreams about his girlfriend when you leave him to his own devices ) to the wonderful scribbley line drawings that take the place of dialogue screams attention to detail. 
The puzzles are tricky, but satisfying when you complete them and in a genius move a full guide is always available but each page can only be accessed by playing a time consuming mini game meaning you only ever look when you really need to, 
I straight up loved this game. It's fairly short (I finished it in a couple of evenings of casual play) and has zero replay value, but both as a narrative and as a lateral thinking puzzle it has been one of my favourite games of the year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Humble Bundle 2 Reviews - Braid

For those of you who aren't familiar The Humble Bundle is a collection of games by top indie devs which are collected together and sold for a limited time as a pay what you like bundle with a proportion of the money going to charity. I bought the first bundle and was really pleased with it. All of the games were released for Mac. Windows and Linux, were totally DRM free and could be downloaded as many times as you like. After release several of the games were made open source and also made available to download via Steam.
The Humble Bundle 2 has just been released ( and I excitedly bought it on the first day (At time of writing it is available for another 5 days) .
I thought I would give a few thoughts on each game as I played it and the first up is Braid.
Braid is probably the most famous game in the bundle as it has already been a critically acclaimed hit on the Xbox arcade and PS3 where it has a 93% Metacritic score so you know you are in for something pretty special. The game is a simple platformer in the style of Mario, but what make it stand out are the fantastic graphics which look like a water colour painting and a superb orchestral soundtrack. 
The core mechanic of the game is based around the protagonist Tim's ability to rewind time. This is used to great effect as there is no need to have any kind of menu or HUD. All bad things (monsters, spikes, fire) are instant kills and you simply rewind time and try again if you fail so the screen is kept completely free of score, lives, etc. The time rewinding mechanic is used for some mind bending puzzles and is tightly tied into the plot which explores the idea that someone with power over time could erase all their mistakes and annoyances and if you could would be the right thing to do.
Braid is an excellent game and at £7.99 on PSN you could easily purchase the bundle for that price and enjoy the rest of the games as a bonus.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Daft Punk's Tron Legacy Soundtrack is Awesome

Spotify have had a preview sampler of the Daft Punk soundtrack for the Tron Legacy movie for the last couple of weeks and since the full version has come out I have listened to very little else. It is a glorious, electro orchestral tour de force. I can't think of many more perfect pairings for a film soundtrack and I'm impressed that Disney have had the stones and the vision to hand a triple A blockbuster to a couple of French guys who think they are robots. It bodes very well for the movie which I still fully expect to be impressive nonsense, but at least now it might be stylish impressive nonsense.

Check out this trailer featuring stand out track Derezzed 

Rotoscoped Insanity 

I'm a huge fan of the Rotoscoped insanity that is the origional Tron. It's a little bit all over the place, but I think alongside War Games it really stands up as one of the greatest geek films of all time. I can watch the primitive CGI scenes over and over again, but I love the neon glow most of all (which few people even to this day realise was painstakingly rotoscoped by hand).  
A weak point of the film was probably the Wendy Carlos soundtrack. It was quite reasonable to assume that the menacing synth work of Clockwork Orange might be carried across, but to me the soundtrack sits awkwardly and is quite conventional and in places cheesy. 

Even if Tron Legacy is a stinker the soundtrack will still take it's rightful place in my heart alongside the greatest sci-fi sound track of all time the Vangelis soundtrack for Blade Runner.

Friday, December 10, 2010

By most measures The Saboteur is a terrible game - So why did I play it to the end?

I'm not too picky with games. I have a Lovefilm subscription and due to the four point scale it's pretty much impossible to trust game reviews (with the possible exception of Ars and Edge) so I just tend to rent anything that looks interesting and send it back when I get bored. Sometimes I can't stand a game that everyone raves about (Modern Warfare 2) and occasionally I rather enjoy something that's generally considered to be junk (Excite Truck).
Space Invaders with Swastikas 
Despite having read dozens of books on WWII there have been no games on the subject that I have enjoyed as they all seem to side step the reality of war and degenerate into Space Invaders with swastikas.
The last game I rented was The Saboteur; Pandemic's swan song before going belly up. It's a fantastic concept for a game. Set in occupied Paris during WWII and loosely based on the real life story of William Grover-Williams winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix turned French resistance war hero. Perhaps this would be the first true war game. Unfortunately the game is so spectacularly mishandled it's reminds me of the episode of The Simpsons where Homer rewrites Mr Smith Goes to Washington as a bloodbath shootout
For no apparent reason the protagonist has been changed into a horrific Irish stereotype (genuine sample dialogue: "OIM BLOODY OIRISH!) who's only interests are drinking, smoking and shagging. Worst of all he openly doesn't give a toss about the plight of the French under the Nazis and is only fighting to get revenge on a German solider who killed his friend after they tried to steal his car in a tit for for tat dispute over a fixed race (I'm not kidding).
Not only is the main character a misogynistic. homophobic moral vacuum who lives in a brothel (complete with premium DLC to add computer boobies) the voice acting, plot and script are risible with accents that would make the cast of Allo Allo blush. The plot is so muddled that in 1940 the war doesn't seem to have started but three months later, the Nazis seem to have invented Nuclear Weapons, have highly advanced radar systems, conquered France (and rebuilt half of it)  and the French resistance is in full swing. 
All this and more is summed up nicely in Keza MacDonald's opinion piece for Eurogamer "Why I Hate... The Saboteur" (so I'm not going to talk any more about how offensive the plot is) which really got me thinking if it's so bloody terrible, why was I half way through it and why did I complete it last night?

Game Mechanic Bingo
It certainly isn't because of the focussed game play. At various points The Saboteur continually switches between third person shooter, stealth, racing game, parkour platformer, demolition sim and Nazi themed GTA. You can imagine someone at Insomniac pitching it as Metal Gear Solid meets Gran Turismo, meets Assassins Creed, meets Gears of War, meets Red Faction.
This unfortunately results in nothing being done very well. Despite playing a racing driver you only get to take part in five races in the whole game which aren't all that much fun (Imagine a racing game based on the GTA engine). Worse still stealth games rely on the guards being much stronger than you, but the shooter parts result in our hero having huge amounts of regenerating health and vast amounts of fire power so upon discovery you can often just run down the machine gun fire for a one hit neck break for a free Gestapo uniform shaped ticket back to stealth mode. 
The stealth model its self is somewhat broken relying on what is called a zone of suspicion which shows up on your map around Nazi property and locations of explosions or gunfire. This means the following are all possible: Driving a car down a busy road into a fuel dump but jumping out before the zone of suspicion will not register as a suspicious event, when walking up to a guard tower the lookout will loose interest when you are underneath because he can't see you meaning you can always blow them up in complete safety, and after driving a tank into a base and blowing most of it sky high you can jump out and switch off the alarm and everyone will assume it was a false alarm and go about their business despite half of the base being on fire. 
The map is so vast and so filled with German hardware and troops it seems like an impossible task to defeat them, but as on death anything you destroy stays that way and you always start at the nearest gun shop you quickly realise the war of attrition is in the other direction. A fool proof technique is to stock up on rockets, drive a car straight through the front gates of fortress blow up everything in sight, die wake up at the gun shop rinse and repeat. 
There are almost too many silly things list like the fact that there are no consequences of driving a car into civilians, or a wall at 100mph, or that in Germany everyone is still French and on your side, or the controls which share the same button for detonate and shoot making it easy to execute the perfect stealth sabotage then  randomly fire into the air in a room full of Nazis if you hold the button a microsecond too long, and worst crime of all the grenade button mapped to the (hair) trigger meaning you blow yourself up if you ever put the controller down without pausing.
So what's good about it?

The Joy Of Blowing Things Up
The first and most obvious thing is that blowing stuff up is fun. Covertly planting dynamite on tanks and anti-aircraft guns then watching your handy work as bits of burning metal ascend into the sky never really gets old and there's an awful lot of stuff to blow up. Gunplay is also solid and enjoyable with a good range of weapons on hand. 

Paris J'Taime
The real star of the show in this game is Paris. The city and surrounding countryside are lovingly rendered and you are often met by breathtaking cityscapes complete with iconic Parisian landmarks (Although it does have the amusing Team America tendency to put the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triumph right next to each other). Much has been made of the novel mechanic where the sense of hope in the populace is reflected with colour. Areas under German control are rendered in black and white with the only splashes of colour the red of blood, fire and Nazi symbols while areas in which the resistance have a foothold are in vivid colour. The game engine is solid and has some clever anti-aliasing on the PS3 which keep everything looking smooth not to mention it is one of the only action games I've played recently that hasn't crashed at the drop of a hat.
The sound track is also inspired with some excellent jazz tracks including Caravan and Feeling Good featuring extensively. 
I can't help imagining the turtle neck wearing art department despairing as the high fiving frat boys in the gameplay department filled their loving crafted city with strippers, cartoon Nazis. "Sweet Jumps" and a main character who will commit murder for a case of booze (I'm not kidding)

So Close and yet So Crass
All in all this game feels like a wasted opportunity. If the management at Pandemic had picked one or two gameplay mechanics and stuck to them the action could be much tighter and more fun. 
The second and more significant improvement would have been to send the entire script and voice teams on a day out and then move offices while they were away. It's a rare example of a game that could be remade without changing the engine, or graphics and easily be double the game with with the kind of charm and charisma displayed by the story teams at studios like Naughty Dog or Rockstar.
As it stands the best way to enjoy this game is to rent it and skip the cut scenes.