Tuesday, May 31, 2005

You Said it Begins with 'U'


Back in the olden days there was this guy called John Romero. He was famous for making the original Doom game, and on the strength of this he was for some time in the mid-90s referred to as the rockstar of the gaming industry. He drove a Ferrari, he had long hair, and rumour had it he had even made it with a girl! Around this time he split with id software (the developers of Doom), and started up his own company called Ion Storm.

Ion Storms flagship game was called Daikatana, and after years and years of development, and numerous engine changes, the game was finally released to critical scorn and popular mockery (all I remember about it myself is that the black dude was called Superfly Johnson). Not long after that they got closed down by their parent company. They're still around, but with basically a whole new bunch of people running the show. The new incarnation has made a few good releases, most notably Thief 3, which is a damn fine game in my opinion.

The original incarnation of the company is famous for just one game, Deus Ex, which did pretty well for itself. One of their other releases, Anachronox, was just as good (actually better in my opinion) but has sadly faded into obscurity while Deus Ex has gone on to spawn one sequel already with another in development.

Anachronox is a Final Fantasy style RPG created for the PC with a western audience in mind. It fixes two of the common flaws in Japanese style RPGs, which are the constant random battles and the incomprehensible storylines. It's powered by a heavily modified version of the Quake 2 engine (which was ancient even when this game was released), so it looks pretty terrible by todays standards. Even so the art design is very good and makes up for the old technology behind it (plus it's a real relief to play a game that doesn't take half an hour to load). After playing it for a little while, you don't even notice the blocky graphics anymore, except when trying to figure out what kind of emotions the characters distorted features are trying to convey.

The gameplay is OK, but not great. It's modeled on the Final Fantasy games, but lacks a lot of the behind the scenes complexity of those games, and also has a very small game world when compared to them (there's a reason for that, which I'll mention in a minute). Having said that, it's still a decent effort and pretty enjoyable to play, if you bear in mind that RPGs of all shape and form inevitably require at least a small amount of tedious dungeon crawling.

Where it really shines is the writing. It has an original plot (still suffering a tiny bit from Final Fantasy Nonsense syndrome, but never mind), a well designed world with a gritty, noirish mood, and plenty of interesting, well thought out characters (a bit of a rarity in games of any genre). It's also damn funny (also a rare attribute for a game).

What makes it fall down is that it was never really finished. The original game was very buggy, but a few patches have been released to fix most of them, the most recent being 'unofficial', i.e. done by the programmers in their own time after the product had been discontinued by the publisher, proving that a lot of genuine care and attention went into making this game. The other problem is that the programmers decided the game was too big for them to finish it all in time (maybe they knew their company was destined for failure), so they made half the game and planned to release a sequel, Anachronox Prime, that would complete the story. Sadly, the sequel was never started and will now never be made, leaving us with a cool story that ends on a massive cliffhanger, a bunch of character arcs suspended in midair, and a whole lot of unanswered mysteries that we'll never get the answers to.

But it's a pretty cool game despite all that, one that deserves to be better remembered than it is. It took me a bloody long time to finish it, even with (or perhaps because of) the big arsed walkthrough that pointed out every little detail hidden in the game. Now that it's over with I can get out of my moderately old-school gaming binge and get back to finishing some of the other more recent games I bought and never finished. Wait... what's that... over on the other side of my desk... it looks like... an old second hand copy of Arcanum!?! No... NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

My Shit Smells Much Better than Yours

System of a Down – Mezmerize

I'm a big fan of System's first three albums, and after their kick arse show at the Big Day Out earlier this year, I was really looking forward to hearing this one. Unfortunately in this case high expectations have bought high disappointment.

After a few listens I've grown to appreciate about half the songs, but it's still quite easily the weakest of all their albums. Why is it that whenever a band says “Our songwriting has really improved so much while working on this album!” it means the new album going to stink?

Judging from the singles preceding the album release I was expecting a bit of a return to the quirky chaotic style of their first album, but the music is really just more of the same as 'Toxicity'. Most of the songs are capable enough, but they lack the spark of their previous albums. A few tracks are a bit crap though, and the album as a whole doesn't seem to fit together that well.

The real weak point is the lyrics. System have never been that great with their lyrics but this album is a particular low light. Most of the songs only have about four lines which are repeated over and over, and they're usually not very good, e.g. “Everybody, everybody, everybody living now. Everybody, everybody, everybody sucks.”, and it drags down a few otherwise good tracks.

The most annoying thing about it is that it's part of a two CD set, with the second one 'Hypnotise' being released later this year. Seeing as the first part is barely over half an hour in length, unless 'Hypnotise' is significantly longer the conceit of releasing the songs over two discs is pretty cheeky.

Having said that, there are a couple of songs that are quite good. The single 'Cigaro' is great, and the closing track 'Lost in Hollywood' is a sad soft track (a bit of a departure for them), and is the only track that lives up to the standard they've set with their older albums.

C+ System of a Down, we know you can try harder!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Back in the Olden Days, Again

Just finished Sonic 2 the other day. Back when it first came out I never managed to finish the game with all the chaos emeralds, so I never saw the special ending. Playing it again as part of the Mega Drive collection for the PS2 I remembered why, the end is fucking hard, especially that final boss. I have no idea how I ever had enough patience to perfect the timing needed to kill it without the benefit of save games.

As it turns out the extra ending was almost identical to the normal one, causing me to exclaim “I waited ten years for this?” But never mind, it's still a damn good game, with near perfect difficulty balance, plenty of interesting level design and some of the most compelling platform gameplay I've ever found. And that last boss is tough enough to create a real sense of achievement when you finish it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

A... Vicious Enemy...? Armed... to the Teeth....?

General Patton Vs. The X-Ecutioners

If you've heard of the X-Ecutioners before, it's most likely because you've seen the video for their song from a couple of years back where they team up with Linkin Park to create some terrible nu-metal. These guys are a group of crazy hip-hop decks wizards, and fortunately this year they found a less commercial but much more interesting choice of collaborators in Mike Patton.

Patton has created most of the music for the album in the form of lots of short samples, and then sent it to the X-Ecutioners to be mixed and arranged and scratched to pieces. The result is a lively album of your typical Patton style screaming, guitar thrashing and experimental jazz somehow cajoled into becoming hip-hop, and although it's easy to be skeptical of the concept, it works very well.

The songs range from more or less straight forward hip-hop (with Patton delivering Faith No More style rap vocals) to schizophrenic thirty second sound collages, with a wide range of interesting blends of the two approaches bridging the gap. It's surprisingly accessible and easy to listen to for such an experimental album. Clever choices of samples from war and kung-fu movies add a lot of humour to the album, which has a nicely understated anti-war theme.

By the last track it's starting to get a little old, but even that one earns a few points for sampling Kraftwerk's 'The Robots'. I don't think they could generate another albums worth out of this idea, but taken on its own this album is some brilliant upbeat fun.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

True Weeping is Yet to Come

Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – The Good Son

Many months ago I bought the new Nick Cave double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus, and at the time I said that while I thought it was a good album, I kept putting it aside to listen to Slipknot again. For the record, I found myself listening to Nick Cave more and more as time went on, and am still getting more out of it every time I do, while Slipknot got old quite fast, and now languishes near the bottom of the CD pile.

So I went out to buy myself some more Nick Cave. Now normally when I try and get into an established artist who has a few albums out, I make a mental list of all their singles that I'm familiar with and buy the album which has them all on it. Unfortunately all the Nick Cave songs I like are on different albums, so I just picked this one which had my favorite, 'The Weeping Song'.

Like the double album, it's all moody, piano driven ballads, only a lot more downbeat this time. Cave's lyrics are always great, and while the words to 'The Weeping Song' are a particular highlight, the rest of the album doesn't live up to it until the last track, 'Lucy'. His singing is not nearly as accomplished as it is in his later stuff, but I think that works for him in a 'tortured artist venting his soul' kind of way. Plus Blixa Bargeld from Einsturzende Neubauten does some nice backup vocals. As for the music, it's good but lacks the intensity of the double album, and there's a kind of scattered samey quality to it that turns me off a bit. Of course, this could turn out to be another grower...

Saturday, May 21, 2005

By Popular Demand...

What happens when Pirate Pride Week and Ninja Respect Month occur at the same time.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Billy Corgan Has a Blog

He's pretty much just telling his life story. Fascinating stuff if you like the Smashing Pumpkins.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Across the Face of the World

by Russell Kirkpatrick

(Book one of 'Fire of Heaven')

So in the prologue we are introduced to the Big Evil Dark Lord, who rambles on a lot about stuff that we don't quite understand, but seems foreboding and lets us know what kind of fantasy novel we are reading. Then the first chapter abruptly transitions to a tiny village in the far upper left corner of the big map, where we meet our protagonist Leith, a naïve young man who appears to be nothing out of the ordinary. Before long he leaves on an Epic Journey, in the company of a grumpy old man who turns out to be more than he seems, the bumbling village mayor who may have been somebody's limp idea of comic relief, and Leith's unrequited love interest who they are forced to bring along by chance, against their better wishes.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it's probably because at some point in the past you've read a terrible generic epic fantasy novel. Kirkpatrick seems to have based his series on the mother of all generic epic fantasy series', Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. The title of his series 'Fire of Heaven' is very similar to the name of one of Jordan's novels 'The Fires of Heaven', plus even by the end of the first book you can see he's actively planning to turn the story into a huge sprawling out of control mess that will go on forever, Jordan styles.

While Jordan has his good points (or at least he used to), Kirkpatrick's writing has little to recommend it. His prose is dull and boring, the characters are one dimensional and generic, and the plot is a tired retread of the same old story I must have read a dozen times in my adolescent years.

There's very little magic in this book, (that's magic in the literal sense). It's unusual for a fantasy novel, but it can work out well, as it did in George Martin's 'A Game of Thrones', but when there's so little else of interest going on, it might've been a good idea to add it in. Definitely needs way more frozen zombies.

The point of difference to this series is that the author is a geographer and has put a great deal of effort into the maps and into thinking about the climate and terrain of his world. And to be fair, this has resulted in a lot of detailed, evocative descriptions of the natural landscape in the story, but unfortunately giving the passive world so much character only emphasizes how little personality his actual characters have.

The world history and backstory are particularly generic. There's an evil immortal planning to conquer the world, and there's a long dead civilisation which used to wield powerful magic. If there are any interesting twists coming up in the story, he should have at least hinted at them before the end of the first book, because I'm definitely not buying the second.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The French Revolution

by Christopher Hibbert

It's always good to read a history book that's entertaining and not too difficult to read. This one focuses on the important figures at the time of the Revolution and describes their personalities in detail. Its only real flaws are that, in typical old-school British historian style, it assumes you understand basic French, and that it gets very confusing trying to keep track of the minor characters who are always popping in and out of the narrative.

As for the subject matter itself, it's always a bit sobering to be reminded of the savage and bloodthirsty acts carried out in the name of freedom and reason during the French Revolution. It's also curious to note how readily the mob was ready to execute one leader and elect another once the Revolution was underway. I guess once they guillotined the king, ending over 1000 years of monarchy in Europe, the mob weren't likely to take any kind of authority very seriously after that.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

O Readers! I Require Guidance!

So there's shitloads of game blogs about, and I've found a fair few I like. There's a few good booklogs too, but I've had little joy finding any interesting music blogs. A bit of searching turned up this guy, but nothing else (except for Blabbermouth, which is good, but not actually a blog). Now I'm familiar with Sasha Frere Jones, blissblog and the others like them, but they don't interest me much. I'm looking for blogs about metal, industrial, and whatever the fuck Fantomas and Dillinger Escape Plan could be classed as.

Does anyone have any recommendations?

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Awith Ateetha!

Nine Inch Nails – With Teeth

“It won't take me another five years to put out my next album.” - Trent Reznor, 1999

Six years later, I find myself lined up outside the record store at midnight on a Sunday in order to be one of the first in the world to buy the new Nine Inch Nails album. Back when I was an angsty teenager, NIN was pretty much my favorite thing in the whole world. I even loved The Fragile, which was a commercial disappointment, but then, I've never been afraid of difficult music. However over the years those albums have sunk deeper towards the bottom of my big pile of CDs, partly because of over-familiarity with them, but also because my tastes have slowly changed over that time. I wasn't sure if the new album really had much chance of living up to its forerunners, especially considering all I had to go on at that stage was its stupid name and the catchy but super-cheese single 'The Hand that Feeds'.

Fortunately it's turned out to be not too shabby! I'd still rate The Fragile and The Downward Spiral higher, but With Teeth is not a disappointment when compared to them. Let's have a big geeky NIN fanboy track by track look at it...

All the Love in the World: The opening track starts us out in familiar Fragile-style territory, with Trent's 'I'm the most miserable person in the world' crooning coming in over subdued drum and bass lines. Before long we get a nice piano riff and lots of ambient weirdness joining it. Despite the similar textures to stuff off The Fragile, it's a much more catchy accessible song than anything off that album. After listening to a few minutes of this I was wearing a big grin and remembering how much I used to love this stuff. Then there's a sudden shift in style, the piano changes to big obvious chords and we get a solid four on the floor drum beat, and too my horror, Trent starts singing in a high pitched 80s style. Fortunately once I got over the surprise I came to like that bit too.

You Know What You Are: Very loud and very angry, it would have fitted in well on The Downward Spiral or maybe even Broken. I can imagine lots of guitars being smashed onstage when they play this one. The line 'You'd better take a good look because I'm full of shit' sounds very Marilyn Manson, I wonder if that's intentional or not?

The Collector: Still heavy, but with a slower, stuttering beat. I like the lyrics, it's a bit of a different take on his normal themes. I didn't like this one much on the first listen (except for the kooky piano bit at the end), but it's grown on me a lot since then.

The Hand that Feeds: Not my favorite track, but listenable. The synth solo near the end is cool. It's probably a good live track.

Love is not Enough: Slow, angsty and heavy. Hasn't grabbed me at all so far.

Everyday is Exactly the Same: Very very catchy, and much more upbeat than your usual NIN song. Of course the lyrics are still miserable as hell, but I can see this one making a good single. Is that a melodic reference to The Downward Spiral at the beginning?

With Teeth: Another slow, heavy depressing song. I didn't like this at all the first time I heard it, especially the overblown vocals, but it's grown a little on me too. And the quiet piano break in the middle is very nice.

Only: In dramatic contrast to the last track, this one has a big cheesy disco bass line and superficially upbeat vocals. Although it doesn't quite match up to Closer in the lyrics department, like that song it blends catchy dance aspects with menacing distortion and twisted subject matter to great effect.

Getting Smaller: Described by Trent as 'a Velvet Revolver song', this one is almost straight ahead rock, driven by some absolutely killer guitar riffs. The lyrics are good too, with some nice subtextual politics (I particularly get a kick out of the flip-flop line for some reason).

Sunspots: It starts out in a similar vein as With Teeth and Love is not Enough, and I was ready to dislike it for the same reasons until it hit the chorus, which diverts it to a different mood, sad and resigned rather than frustrated and raging. There's one of the nicest musical moments on the album about halfway through, when what Meathead describes as the vacuum cleaner comes in.

The Line Begins to Blur: This one starts out frustrated and angry again with a heavy, stuttering beat, but turns pretty for the choruses. Actually, pretty is the wrong word, while the vocals are soft and sad, and the ambient noise in the background is relaxed, the string's melodies are off-kilter and weird, giving it a real spacey vibe. I like this one quite a lot, but it's had a head start in impressing me, seeing as it was leaked to the internet some time ago.

Beside You in Time: A nice droning wall of noise greats us on this track. Before long the drums come in, and the droning pulses in and out in opposite phase to the drums. It sounds really cool and, if I may permit my self a bit of wankery, almost like an aural expression of the 'bleedthrough' idea that was Trent's original concept for the album. It's the least conventional track on the album and, probably not coincidentally, my favorite track too.

Right Where it Belongs: An album closer very much in the vein of 'Hurt', but lacking the emotional intensity of that song. It's still very pretty though, and makes a nice, sad end to the album...

Home: ...or at least it would, if they hadn't tacked a bonus track on the end. I suspect that the decision to do so on the Australian release wasn't Trent's, since the album is clearly meant to end with the previous track. At any rate, it's a decent song, fitting in pretty easily with the rest of the album.

All in all, good job Trent. Hopefully he'll tour here soon, and won't take seven years to put out his next album.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Back in the Olden Days

Sonic Mega Collection Plus

Having fond memories of the original Sonic the Hedgehog on the Mega Drive, all those years ago, I was pleased when a new Sonic game was released for the PS2 last year. Upon learning of it, I got out my walker and hobbled down to the mall, but when I got to the game store I was shocked by what I saw. The driving games were all about illegal street races instead of Formula1 racing, the kids were all excited about a new game where the object was to have sex with prostitutes and kill them afterward, there wasn't a point and click adventure game to be seen and there was more shelf space devoted to anime box sets than to PC games. I complained about all this to the salesgirl but she didn't seem interested. “Why aren't I being served by a man?” I asked, “Back in my day, we would have been too scared to go into the games shop if we saw a girl in there, but now they actually employ women here!” After I made a complaint to the manager I was out of there and back home to enjoy my new game, Sonic Heroes.

And what a big load of crap it was. Maybe it's just my cataracts and arthritis, but the controls were almost impossible to use properly, a very bad flaw considering that the level design is based on a 'small island surrounded by a bottomless pit' philosophy. Even if you battle with it long enough to get half-way competent and progress through a few levels, you will be subjected to an inane annoying plot derived from the dire anime spin-off tv series. The story of the original Sonic was along the lines of 'you're a blue hedgehog and you have to beat the crap out of some poor ginga bastard in a flying machine'. That was all the plot we got and that was all we needed, back in the old days! Nowadays Sonic has an evil twin and a pink girlfriend hedgehog. After honestly trying to appreciate the damn thing, I wrote it off as a waste of $120 and chucked it in the corner, muttering “The kids today and the rap music...”

Fortunately, this year they released the Sonic Mega Collection Plus, all the original Mega Drive and Master System Sonic games ported to the PS2. Absolutely no changes have been made to them, right down to preserving the bugs and slowdowns. They have however added a save/load option, which is good for those of us without the time to return to the competence levels of our 12-hour gaming binge early teenage years. For some reason the saves and loads take an especially long time, but that's the only flaw in an otherwise nicely put together package.

As for the games themselves, they're all just as good as I remember. (Except for Sonic3d Blast, which I never played the first time around deservedly and is almost as big a load of rubbish as Sonic Heroes.) I had a brief go at the Master System games, but looking at the primitive graphics felt like poking needles in my eyes compared to the lush goodness of the Mega Drive's 16bit power. Now I can finally sit back and enjoy my senescence without being exposed to the scary outside world and the disrespectful youth.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Profound Question of the Day

Why is it that whenever the guy on Lost has a flashback to being a washed up former rock star junkie, I get the irresistible urge to pick up the guitar?

Game Over, You Win

Irony is a Dead Scene – The Dillinger Escape Plan

A four song EP from a few years back, when they still had Mike Patton doing vocals for them. Like their latest release 'Miss Machine', it's mostly high volume metal with throat gouging vocals, the twist being the erratic, inconstant rhythms.

Mike Patton's vocals are great as usual, although I think their new guy suits the music a little better. The music is not as polished as 'Miss Machine's either. Part of it is cheaper production, and part of it is that the music is not quite as ambitious and inspired, it seems like they're still figuring out what they're capable of.

I got a bit of a giggle out of some of the song titles, 'When Good Dogs do Bad Things'. And I also liked 'Hollywood Squares'. Patton's lyrics usually evoke the grotesque and unsettling, and I can think of few things more so than the most horrifically banal half hour of television ever inflicted upon my eyes. It's also got a cool analog cover of Aphex Twin's 'Come to Daddy'.

Arrhythmia is so much more interesting than atonality to me at the moment.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Sin City, Volumes 2, 3, and 4

by Frank Miller

So the trailer for the Sin City movie looked pretty cool, and it's received very good reviews, so I thought I should check out the books it's based on before I see it.

The movie trailer kind of gave me the impression that it was an SF story (possibly because of the yellow guy), but it's not at all. Instead it's just dark bleak noir, set in a fictional city filled with scumbags, lowlifes, and of course, beautiful women.

Volume two is probably the one I liked best. It's a fairly basic noir set-up, a guy with a past, and a blonde with a problem, and a supporting cast of lost souls. The other two volumes continue in a similar vein, but don't quite match the stylishness of the first. But of course, they were still well worth reading.

The art is just great, entirely done in black and white with occasional spots of colour. It's moody and evocative and I'm glad they've kept the idea for the movie. And I can't mention the art without noting that these stories always revolve around women, inevitably impossibly beautiful women wearing sexy clothes, and Miller draws them with a particular passion. And when I say passion, I don't mean that in a snickering sarcastic way. It might be kinky and gratuitous, but it's damn good art. I've certainly never seen comic book superheroines look half this good.

More of these will no doubt find their way into my possession at some stage, and I'm really looking forward to the movie too.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Lets Just Fuck Our Brains Out (My Love)

Error – Error

Error is the side project of Atticus Ross, the guy behind 12 Rounds and Trent Reznor's number one lackey (and it also features the vocalist from Dillinger Escape Plan). God knows what's happened to 12 Rounds (Trent says he's not sure if their new album is ever coming out, presumably it's something to do with Nothing Records being defunct), so maybe it'll end up turning from a side project to a main project. And that wouldn't be a terrible thing. 12 Rounds are pretty great, but Error measures up pretty well.

The music is heavily distorted drill and bass in the style of Aphex Twin at their most feral, or a more accessible Atari Teenage Riot. Greg Puciato's vocals are quite different to his style on Dillinger Escape Plan, although that could be just extra distortion and processing. You can understand the lyrics a lot better on Error, even though they're mostly quite silly they're very catchy and memorable.

This album is only a 15 minute long EP, but it works well as a short blast of high energy anger. I'll be looking forward to a full LP from these guys at some stage.