Saturday, December 27, 2014

My ten favorite concerts of 2014

I did a blog entry like this last year, and I suspect this'll be my last time writing one. The simple explanation is that I just don't think I'll be going to enough concerts in 2015 to justify another list like this. At this point, I've seen the vast majority of my favorite bands live and have recently either cancelled or entirely skipped many shows that I would've attended without hesitation. Comes with adulthood; I'm just busier and less energetic these days. So let's take a look back at what will probably be the last notable year of a very important and very memorable phase of my life.

10. Jack White @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

Anyone who's still despairing over the breakup of the White Stripes probably hasn't seen Jack's solo act and doesn't realize how much better off he is with full creative control. Over the last few years, he's been touring with top-shelf musicians who gel so smoothly with the guy that he plays every show without a setlist, picking songs on the fly and simply expecting his band to follow his lead. I'm torn on both his new music and his off-stage shenanigans, but he's reliably one of the best guitarists on the planet, and his shows still lean heavily on enough on classic input from both White Stripes and the Raconteurs that even if his live act wasn't an emergent thrill to watch, it'd still be a delight to listen to. The only disappointment of the set was the lack of a Dead Weather team-up, since his bandmate, Alison Mosshart, was also on the festival's roster under her primary project, the Kills. (Standout: a riveting end-of-set rendition of "Icky Thump," which he didn't play the first time I saw him.)

9. Neutral Milk Hotel @ Union Transfer (1/30)

A few years ago, the idea of seeing Neutral Milk Hotel's music performed live in any sort of authentic capacity was absurd. Two miraculous things happened. First, lead singer Jeff Mangum returned to the concert scene for an extensive solo tour, performing his music for the many fans who either weren't old enough to experience it in the late '90s or were simply happy to see the guy back. Then, out of nowhere, the full band got back together. I was lucky enough to attend their very first reunion show in Baltimore last year, but sadly, the sound at the venue was awful. This year, they played at Union Transfer, my favorite venue. As much as I loved Mangum's solo shows (two of which I went to), nothing compares to hearing this material performed with a full band. Like a good indie fan, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea ranks among my favorite albums of all time, and being around for a reunion like this is a privilege I never thought I'd have.

8. TV on the Radio @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

The first day of GovBall had the one-two punch of Phoenix and Outkast playing back-to-back on the main stage, which meant that the crowds elsewhere were pretty thin. That probably sucked for the artists themselves, but it was great for me, as I had no trouble securing a spot front and center for my first majorly anticipated set of the festival, TV on the Radio. I'd already seen them once at FreeFest a few years ago, and they still hold their spot as one of the tightest, most confident bands performing today. My only real gripe with their show is that they generally seem to stick to the same set of songs, and a few of my favorite tracks from Dear Science and Return to Cookie Mountain seeming destined never to be performed on stage again. Nevertheless, they're exhilarating. I missed the chance to see them in a proper club later in the year, so their dominating GovBall performance will have to do.

7. The Knife @ Terminal 5 (4/30)

The weirdest show of 2014 for me and probably anyone else who attended it. The Knife's music has always been political, but my image of them had been dark and moody, and not, as my concertgoing buddy described them, "like a gay West Side Story." She wasn't being facetious: Band co-founder Olof Dreijer has basically admitted that their Shaking the Habitual tour was essentially a pride celebration, albeit performed in front of groups of people who had never attended anything like this and probably just came to hear music. The often sexually-charged dance choreography took such center stage that some of the music was even blatantly prerecorded, which defied expectations for better or worse... but one way or another, this was a performance, and one unlike any other I saw this year. MVP: Light Asylum's Shannon Funchess, whom I'd previously seen sing backup for LCD Soundsystem's final show, and who joined The Knife for their first proper North American tour after only three prior concerts on the continent.

6. The Strokes @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/7)

To be honest, the Strokes are one of those live bands, the kind that sound excellent but don't diverge from their studio work in any way. From a performance standout, a live setting adds nothing. This set makes my list for pure event status, however. It had been years since their last show, they'd never toured for their most recent album (Comedown Machine), and they were headlining a festival in their hometown. The turnout was unreal and the energy level was through the roof, to the point that GovBall's medical staff wheeled dozens of people away throughout the course of the show and security spent the whole thing frantically spraying surviving fans with crates and crate of water bottles. It was full-on Beatlemania, and while it was one of the most exhausting concerts of my life (not helped by the fact that I'd been camping the stage since the festival gates opened and was unable to sit for essentially the entire day), it was also one of the craziest.

5. Death from Above 1979 @ Union Transfer (11/29)

I was actually supposed to see Death from Above 1979 twice last year: once at GovBall, and again at an afterparty the same weekend. For reasons still unclear, the band cancelled both appearances, and my dreams of seeing the long-defunct two-piece were shattered until they finally releases their follow-up album and announced a proper tour. That the crowd was off the chain goes without saying (this was the first time I've ever seen a blow-up sex doll being flung around at a show), but the band itself sounded fantastic, bolstering both classics and new material with extended and often tantalizing intros. The only letdown of the night was the omission of "Black History Month," but that makes me all the more hopeful that there's a next time. Just crossing my fingers that it doesn't take another decade.

4. Damon Albarn @ Governors Ball 2014 (6/6)

Poor Damon wound up being scheduled against Outkast, which meant that there was absolutely nobody there; I approached the stage while he was beginning his second song (having just seen TV on the Radio across the field) and I wound up maybe eight rows back. He didn't seem phased. In fact, he rewarded his most devoted fans with a rare treat when he brought De La Soul on-stage to play an authentic rendition of "Feel Good Inc.," which may just have been my single favorite concert moment of the year. Beyond that, his backing band aptly clarified why his ticket prices have been so high and the show was heavy on Gorillaz hits both expected and unexpected. Would have been nice to hear more Blur material (this was around the time he retired "This Is a Low," one of my favorite songs of his), but what a cheerful, energetic and unforgettable performance this guy turned out. The highlight of an altogether great festival for me.

3. Kishi Bashi @ Mauch Chunk Opera House (8/16)

It was essentially happenstance that I saw Kishi Bashi live. He was playing in the middle of nowhere, one town over from someone I was dating (whom I've since become official with!), and I suggested it essentially as a convenient activity, even though I was already a fan of the guy. His live show was great in every way that a show can be great. He's both a wonderful singer and a spectacular violinist, and his band was equally capable. Notable for a relatively unknown artist, he played for nearly two hours, thanks to both a lengthy setlist and heaping dose of enthusiastic stage banter, much of it unique to this specific show: comments about the town, jokes about the various quirks of the venue (like a weird smoke machine that fired up at rude moments), and numerous interactions with audience members, including a couple that got engaged at the show. I can't imagine anyone seeing Kishi Bashi and not becoming a lifelong fan. He's incredible.

2. Slowdive @ Union Transfer (10/23)

This is a great time to be a shoegaze fan, with so many notable reunions happening seemingly out of the blue lately. Last year, I was fortunate enough to catch My Bloody Valentine, and I've already got a ticket for Ride's first tour in two decades. This year, the star player was Slowdive. I'm a bit embarrassed to say that my fandom of theirs is a somewhat recent occurrence, but it isn't going anywhere, thanks in part to this absolutely spellbinding show. Of course the music is fantastic (seriously, if you're into shoegaze and swelling guitar work altogether, don't wait on this band like I did), but the visual element of the show left my eyes feeling the same way that my ears did: overwhelmed in the best possible way. They hit every end of the spectrum: sometimes unbelievably heavy, sometimes catchy, sometimes tranquil, and always beautiful. They were away for two decades and it's amazing how little was lost. 

1. Arcade Fire @ Barclays Center (8/22)

This was overdue. I saw Arcade Fire on their tour for The Suburbs, but I was a mile from the stage. I sought to rectify that earlier this year when I got a pit ticket for their Reflektor run, but I had to drop out, no thanks to my unwillingness to take my newly-purchased car through snow (which I still believe was the smart decision). So when I made a final attempt to see Arcade Fire properly, I went through hell to ensure that the experience was as good as it could possibly be. I worked until 3am the night before, and only a couple of hours after my shift ended, I jumped on a train to New York, reached Brooklyn by late morning, and spent the rest of the day with a friend of mine crazy enough to accompany as the first two people in line for the show. I slept when I could (on the ride up and in the streets), drank a power shot right before entry, and snagged a front-row spot.

It was 100% worth it. Even putting aside the fact that Arcade Fire are absolutely one of the best bands in the business, it was a night of unforgettable moments. I bumped into, and shook hands with, Spike Jonze. I saw Buster Poindexter lead a rendition of "Hot Hot Hot." I got to hear Win Butler sing the opening few lyrics of LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends," my favorite song. I shook hands with Win when he walked down the barricade and thanked fans at the end of the show. I got to see some of the greatest songs ever written performed with the enthusiasm and production values fully justifying a near-hundred-dollar ticket, and it was worth every penny. There's really no other show that could top this list. It's an all-timer.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Spec Ops: The Line is better than you think it is (a spoiler-filled discussion)

I've been meaning to write this article for almost two years now. I played Spec Ops: The Line around the time it was first released, and it had a profound impact on me in ways I've been hesitant to describe. My original review skirted around spoiler territory as well as it could, and I know that I managed to convince a few people to play the game. That's great, of course, but it also means I've never had the chance to truly discuss why it is that I so deeply admire this game. So, tonight, I'm going to do that, and I'm going to do it for people who have already played Spec Ops from beginning to end. I've already done the service of selling the game, so now I'd like to explain to people who have already bought it why, in my opinion, it's better than they realize.

If you have not played the game, you can read my original review here or, if you trust me enough, just go out and play it cold.

This article contains massive spoilers and is intended only for people who have already completed Spec Ops: The Line. If you haven't finished the game, do not read any further. I'm not joking here. The scene that I'm about to discuss involves a moral choice being made under pressure. If you know about the situation and are mentally prepared for it, you'll miss out on the reactionary element of this sequence that made it so powerful for me. I'm serious. Stop reading if you have yet to complete Spec Ops, even if you think you don't care about spoilers, and even if you don't plan on playing the game. It might wind up in your collection someday, and you might find eight free hours in which to play it, and you might have a profound moment ruined forever.

Now then. The scene in Spec Ops that has sparked the most controversy is a midway turning point in which Walker and company fire upon an enemy encampment with white phosphorous and then discover that the soldiers had been sheltering innocent civilians. While there's a lot to take away from this scene - since there's no other way to progress through the campaign, many have argued that this reveal is a cheap guilt tactic - it's not what I want to discuss. No, the scene that I want to discuss is an incident in which I most certainly did have a choice.

Let me set it up, just as a refresher, because of course you would not be reading this if you haven't already seen this for yourself. You're near the end of the campaign. Walker and company just invaded the radio tower, killed that annoying DJ, and then tore the whole building down in a turret sequence that's supposed to be exhilarating until you realize what a maniac you've turned into. Their helicopter crashes in the ensuing chase and Walker becomes separated from his two squadmates, Adams and Lugo. He locates Adams easily enough, but as the two communicate with Lugo over the radio, they learn that he's being surrounded by some kind of mob. Walker and Adams rush to help him, and they discover that he's been hung by the locals of Dubai. They shoot the rope, but it's too late. Lugo is dead.

Now the crowd turns to you. They have you surrounded and there's no reason to believe that they don't want you just as dead as Lugo is. Adams knows this. He has his gun at the ready and is begging Walker to give him the word. Walker gets up and readies his own gun. And then control is handed back over to the player.

As far as I can tell, there are four possible reactions to this scene. The first is to do nothing, which results in you getting killed by the mob, so that choice gets the boot right away. The second is to fire above the civilians' heads, which effectively scares them away and avoids any further death on either side of the conflict. The third possible reaction is self-defense: You don't want to kill these people, but you're under pressure and they've just murdered your teammate, so you're not really left with much choice. Unfortunate, but also understandable.

I didn't do any of these things. I went with the fourth option, which was to raise my gun, open fire, and not stop until every civilian in front of me was dead. I wasn't doing it out of self-defense. I was doing it out of revenge. I had forgotten that Walker's original mission was to observe the situation and report back. I hadn't realized that Walker's failed attempts to save Dubai were all the direct result of him disobeying orders and trying to be the hero he wasn't. I'd grown increasingly frustrated that the situation in Dubai only seemed to be growing worse the longer I stayed, in spite of everything I thought I was doing to protect its citizens. I was frustrated that American soldiers were turning on me, that CIA agents were trying to bury the mess, and that locals seemed to regard me as the villain.

I played most of Spec Ops in a single sitting, and experiencing a game in such a manner can leave you physically and mentally drained, as I'm sure any gamer can relate to. I was even playing it on the highest difficulty available at the outset, which made the experience an often frustrating grind. As has been said, Spec Ops isn't actually a great third-person shooter, nor is it even really supposed to be. It's not supposed to be fun or rewarding. It's supposed to be exhausting. It's supposed to be wearying. It's supposed to be maddening. As Walker's stamina decreased, so did mine. I'd fallen into the mindset that if this is a video game, I must be the hero. So why were my efforts failing? Why was I putting myself through this only to be rewarded with anguish and misery?

Lugo's death was the tipping point. From an outsider's perspective, there was plenty of moral grey. Lugo was lynched, yes, but from the civilians' point of view, the three of us were responsible for essentially dooming the entire city, regardless of what state it was in before we'd arrived. But I didn't see it that way. I saw my heroics being rewarded with the senseless torture and murder of my friend. When I was surrounded by a mob of civilians ready to pounce on me, I was not scared. I was angry.

And so I killed all of them. Not to save my own life, but because I wanted them dead. I mowed down dozens of them. When I finally stopped shooting, I spotted a couple of wounded civilians trying to crawl away. I thought to myself that I'd wasted enough assault rifle ammo, and that I should probably save the rest of it for any more soldiers I might bump into around the corner. So I pulled out my sidearm and shot the wounded civilians in the head with that instead.

And then, as I was walking away, I felt absolutely sick to my stomach.

I've done terrible things in games before. I've killed people who didn't deserve it and in some cases condemned entire civilizations to doom. But in every other case, it had simply been role-playing. I was in character. When I play Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and choose the path of the Dark Side, and when I'm robbing shopkeepers and Force choking innocents, it never occurs to me that such behavior is in any way a reflection of my true nature as a human being, because that's ridiculous. Star Wars is fantasy and we know that from square one. We're presented with dialog options and are afforded all the time in the world to make choices. Hell, in most cases, you're just trying to maintain a consistent character; an inherent flaw in many games with moral choices is that they don't allow for much middle ground. You're either sickeningly sweet or cartoonishly evil. It's silly. It's unrealistic. It's "just a game."

What scares me about my reaction to Spec Ops is that it wasn't a conscious choice. It was instinctive. I just underlined every possible way in which this sequence can play out, but developer Yager doesn't. They place you in a tense situation and give you no time to reflect, to examine your options. These people just killed your friend and now they have you surrounded. Act.

And what's truly profound about this sequence isn't how I reacted, but why. You could kill these people and feel totally justified for doing so simply considering the knowledge that you were in mortal danger, and no, firing over everyone's heads wouldn't occur to everyone on the spot. Killing out of self-defense is okay. But that's not why I killed these people. I killed them because I wanted them dead. I killed them because I felt wronged. I killed them because I was a monster.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Spec Ops is revolutionary. Countless movies and memoirs have told us that "war is hell," that violence is senseless, and that people are driven to madness over it. And while those of us sitting on our sofas and sipping coffee will never truly understand what that's like, video games, as an interactive medium, bring us closer than we ever have before. I fought Walker's battles. I had a personal stake in his "mission," self-appointed or otherwise. I experienced the ongoing frustration of seeing my hard work backfire tremendously. And I spent hours and hours working alongside Lugo, growing to like him as a person. I was emotionally wracked over his death and I committed an atrocity over it, as I'd been driven to do. As cliché as it sounds, Spec Ops really did awaken a darkness in me that I didn't realize was there.

Obviously, I know many have
walked away with different reactions to Spec Ops, and more will follow. As I've said, some people will never even see this particular sequence play out the way I did. Spec Ops really is the sort of experience that everyone will take something slightly different away from. That's art.

[This article was inspired by a recent suggestion I made on Twitter that Spec Ops: The Line is perhaps the greatest game of the last ten years. No one agreed, which is to be expected, and to be honest, I'm not sure that I agree with it, either. But I might someday. The more I think about this game, the more appreciation I have for it. Two years have passed and nothing has slowed.]

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Dark Souls II boss battle scorecard

Before Dark Souls II was released on PC this past Friday, I'd already finished the game twice on Xbox 360 (once on New Game +). It'd be madness to purchase the game again and beat it a third time just for the privilege of playing it at 60fps in 1080p, especially since I wasn't all that crazy about Dark Souls II in the first place, right? Absolute insanity.

So, yes, my third playthrough went swimmingly, completed in just over nine hours (a testament to how quickly these Souls games go when you actually know what you're doing and where you're going). I was considering doing a double dip review of the PC version to complement my first write-up, and that's still on the table, but for now, I thought I'd have a little fun and assemble a scorecard for the game's bosses, much like I once did for the first Dark Souls. This playthrough marked me finally encountering and killing Darklurker, meaning I've officially fought everything on this list.

Since I've completed the game three times, including once on NG+, there will be a slight point deduction for any boss that I never died against. 'Cause, y'know, these games are supposed to be hard. (Pictured above: Looking Glass Knight.)

The Last Giant
          +5 for having an anus for a face
          +10 for breaking off his own arm and hitting you with it
          +3 for not being terribly far from the nearest checkpoint
          +5 for being an all-around good starter boss
          -3 for taking so long
                    total: 20

The Pursuer
          +5 for being optional
          +2 for being a big armored guy; I'm sure that won't get old
          -5 for showing up earlier in the level and terrorizing unsuspecting players
          +1 for reappearing in the Smelter Demon arena later on
          -1 for not dropping many souls for that battle
          +12 for being shuttled around everywhere by a giant bird
          +3 for guarding the shortcut into the Lost Bastille
          +3 and the Drangleic Armor set, which kicks ass
          -10 for the impale attack
          +5 for being extremely vulnerable to ballista fire
          +6 for letting players troll each other with the ballistas
                    score: 21

          -8 for boss I never died against
          +3 for that trick with the rising platforms
          +2 for at least setting up shop in a pretty area
          +5 for being a guy who apparently rides dragons
          +1 for showing up early and therefore not feeling redundant
                    score: 3

Old Dragonslayer
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +5 for being optional
          +6 for being Ornstein!
          -3 because that's lazy
          +2 for guarding the Tower Shield, which I used a lot
                    score: 2

Flexile Sentry
          -8 for boss I never died against 
          +5 for being optional (technically)
          +6 for being a two-headed pirate bastard
          -4 for that annoying switch hunt required to summon the ship
                    score: -1

Ruin Sentinels
          +5 for being optional
          +5 for only being optional if you explore thoroughly
          -10 for making me fight three of these damn things
          +3 because at least you can fight the first one solo
          -4 for shield-throwing
          +5 because the shield-throwing renders them lower on defenses
          -8 for being guarded by something like a dozen quick soldiers
          -5 for showing up later in Drangleic Castle and being annoying
                    score: -9

Belfry Gargoyles
          +5 for being optional
          -3 for being a repeat of the Bell Gargoyle fight from the first game
          -10 which everybody freaking hated
          -10 for there being five of them this time
          -12 which you'll fight simultaneously if you're not quick enough
          -12 for constant invasions in the area directly preceding this
                    score: -42

Lost Sinner
          +8 for the bug crawling out of the eye socket
          -2 because this is where I started to get sick of bipedal armored guys
          -3 for being insanely quick
          -6 for making me wade past a bunch of exploding zombies to get here
          -10 for summoning two phantoms mid-fight on NG+
          -1 for being an underwhelming Great Soul holder, all things considered
                    score: -14

The Skeleton Lords
          -3 for being more a collection of small enemies than a boss
          -5 for those damned skeleton wheel guys
          +1 I don't hate this boss
                    score: -7

Executioner's Chariot
          +5 for being optional
          -6 for sure as hell seeming mandatory
          -7 for the stupid skeletons
          -8 because the stupid skeletons respawn
          +4 because at least you can kill the necromancers
          -10 for getting run over basically meaning an instant death
          -10 for having two phases
          -12 for the hassle it takes to get back every time you die
          -30 for not even guarding anything interesting
                    score: -74

Covetous Demon
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +8 for looking like Jabba the Hutt
                    score: 0

Mytha, the Baneful Queen
          -20 for the battle being set in a pool of poisonous water
          +5 because at least you can drain the water
          -5 because no one would figure that out without help
          +9 for attacking by throwing her own head, which is awesome
          -2 for regenerating health while standing in the poison pool
                    score: -13

Smelter Demon
          +5 for being optional
          -3 for being another damn armored guy
          -5 for burning players who stand too close
          +5 for guarding a handy checkpoint
          +3 for being a good point of reference for locating Zweihander
          -1 in memory of players everywhere with low fire defense
                    score: 4

Old Iron King
          +5 for basically being a Balrog
          -5 because a big goat demon rising out of lava is kinda clichéd
          +8 for the massive, creepy idol immediately preceding this fight
          -10 for just standing there and pounding the ground like a goof
          +6 for having a hand beam
          -6 for having a hand beam
                    score: -2

Royal Rat Authority
          +5 for being optional
          -3 for being more a collection of small enemies than a boss
          +10 for being the weirdest boss of the Souls series
          -7 for the constant status afflictions
          -5 for the actual boss not showing up immediately
          -5 for the "grey spirit" invasion nonsense preceding this fight
                    score: -5

The Rotten
          +10 for being made of bodies
          +8 for the genuinely intriguing intro cutscene
          +5 because you can chop his arms off
          +10 because he'll still swing at you with the stumps, adorably
          -6 for the grab attack
          -4 for the fire pits
          +20 for being a social reject and a big, lovable doofus
                    score: 43

Scorpioness Najka
          +5 for boobs
          -6 for boobs with no nipples
          +8 for being a giant scorpion lady
          +8 because she's got a friend called the "Manscoprion"
          -10 for that burrow attack
          +5 because you can chop her limbs off
          -4 for the toxic attacks
                    score: 6

Prowling Magus and Congregation
          -8 for boss I never died against
          -3 for being more a collection of small enemies than a boss
          +1 pity point for being statistically the game's least-killed enemy
                    score: -10

Royal Rat Vanguard
          +5 for being optional
          -10 just rehashing the Sif fight
          -20 and removing everything that was cool about it
          -15 for the charge attack
          -10 for having rat cronies
          -10 who give you toxic
          +7for being a rat so massive it looks like a dog
          +12 for the bonfire being extremely close
                    score: -41

The Duke's Dear Freja
          +20 for being a giant two-headed spider that shoots lasers
          +10 for the title "Duke's Dear"
          -5 for the little spiders
          -10 who respawn
          +8 for having one of the game's few cool "lairs"
          +12 for the neat little dragon memory it's guarding
          +9 for surprising you at an earlier spot on NG+
                    score: 44

Twin Dragonriders
          -5 for just being a repeat of an earlier boss
          -10 and now there are two of them
          +14 because you can trick one into knocking his buddy down
          -8 for no nearby checkpoints
          +3 because they still ride dragons
                    score: -6

Looking Glass Knight
          -5 for being another damn armored guy
          +10 for being the best battle against an armored guy in the game
          +20 for the gorgeous location and weather effects
          +6 for the pretty shield
          -6 which he uses to summon phantoms into the battle
          +25 for summoning lightning from the sky like freaking Thor
                    score: 50

Demon of Song
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +16 for being a giant foreskin frog
          -8 for no nearby checkpoints
          -9 for being preceded by the most annoying section in the game
          +10 because at least you can listen to some lovely singing
                    score: 1

Velstadt, the Royal Aegis
          -6 for being another damn armored guy
          -8 for attacking so quickly with such a heavy weapon
          +12 for guarding the most poignant scene in the game
          -5 for being guarded by a roomful of those respawning bell ghost things
          +3 for helpfully standing still while powering up
                    score: -4

Guardian Dragon
          +25 for the prettiest boss arena in the game
          +25 for guarding the prettiest level in the game
          -20 for coming after Aldia's Keep, which is awful
          -8 for no nearby checkpoints
          +15 for being a good, old-fashioned fire-breathing dragon battle
          -1 for being a drake but calling itself a dragon
                    score: 36

Giant Lord
          -5 for basically just being a repeat of the Last Giant
          +18 for being the centerpiece of the best grinding spot of the game
          +5 for being protected by a massive rolling head
          -6 because this whole endgame stretch feels pretty rushed
          -7 for that downward swing attack
          -3 for excessive splash damage
          +5 for guarding a Giant Soul, which makes the Vendrick fight easier
                    score: 7

Throne Watcher and Throne Defender
          -8 for boss I never died against
          +8 actually, scratch that; I think I ran off the cliff once
          -10 for being more armored guys
          -12 for confusing me into thinking I was done with this area
          -20 because seriously, why was this boss even necessary?
          +6 for each showing some devotion after the other falls
                    score: -36

          -10 for the curse nodes
          +11 because the curse nodes can be destroyed
          -16 because the curse effect is insanely powerful on NG+
          +8 for being made of skeletons
          -9 because why did Vendrick marry someone who's made of skeletons?
          -5 for generic "you've proven yourself, now die" speech
          -7 because most of her attacks miss if you're up close
          -10 for being an all-around disappointing final boss
                    score: -38

Ancient Dragon
          +5 for being optional
          -15 for the outrageously difficult trek back every time you die
          -10 for the instakill area-of-effect attack
          -8 for an extremely limited moveset, all things considered
          +20 because the Gower Ring of Protection makes this fight a joke
          +12 for being surrounded by bloodstains from other players, like a boss
          +5 for guarding a Giant Soul, which makes the Vendrick fight easier
          +2 for setting up shop in a gorgeous area
                    score: 11
          +5 for being optional
          -14 for basically being impossible if you don't know the trick
          +15 because it's satisfying once you do know the trick
          -18 for making me fight a bunch of those damn anus-faced giants
          +20 for providing the game's most poignant image
          -25 because it honestly would have been cooler if you didn't fight him
                    score: -17

          +5 for being optional
          -8 for the ridiculous hoops you need to jump through to fight it
          -30 for making you waste a Human Effigy every time you fight it
          -5 for the fireballs
          -5 for the lasers
          -5 for the smoke bomb
          -20 for splitting into two halfway through the fight
          +10 because the first half of the fight is simple enough
          -3 for existing to make strength build players cry
                    score: -61

And here are the results:

31. Executioner's Chariot (-74)
30. Darklurker (-61)
29. Belfry Gargoyles (-42)
28. Royal Rat Vanguard (-41)
27. Nashandra (-38)
26. Throne Watcher and Throne Defender (-36)
25. Vendrick (-17)
24. Lost Sinner (-14)
23. Mytha, the Baneful Queen (-13)
22. Prowling Magus and Congregation (-10)
21. Ruin Sentinels (-9)
20. The Skeleton Lords (-7)
19. Twin Dragonriders (-6)
18. Royal Rat Authority (-5)
17. Velstadt, the Royal Aegis (-4)
16. Old Iron King (-2)
15. Flexile Sentry (-1)
14. Covetous Demon (0)
13. Demon of Song (1)
12. Old Dragonslayer (2)
11. Dragonrider (3)
10. Smelter Demon (4)
9. Scorpioness Najka (6)
8. Giant Lord (7)
7. Ancient Dragon (11)
6. The Last Giant (20)
5. The Pursuer (21)
4. Guardian Dragon (36)
3. The Rotten (43)
2. The Duke's Dear Freja (44)
1. Looking Glass Knight (50)

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Thoughts on my second Dark Souls playthrough; also, I reviewed Infamous: Second Son (PS4)

If you've been following the transformative experience I've been having with Dark Souls over the past couple of months and think it's all very peculiar, well, just imagine how it must feel to be me. At the beginning of the year, I was on record naming Dark Souls the least amount of fun I've ever had playing a game, and now, just a couple of days ago, I told a colleague that it's well on its way to becoming one of my all-time favorites. And, really, that's just me being honest with myself.

In case anyone's wondering whether or not this'll inspire another rewrite, know that my newly-updated Dark Souls review stands. It's shoddy in some ways, downright broken in others, and full of design decisions that infuriate me. I think a 7/10 is more than reasonable, and I'm in no rush to recommend the game to anyone who isn't 100% committed to unearthing its many wonders. On the other hand, though, not only did I storm through the game in only four days, but as of this weekend, I've just beaten it again.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, Dark Souls II, which was mechanically superior but ultimately forgettable, left me with a thirst to revisit the entry that truly entranced me. Secondly, now that I'm fully familiar with Lordran's layout, I was eager to test out some shortcuts and see just how quickly I could clear this thing without the mega-skills of a YouTube speedrunner. Thirdly, and most importantly, I wanted to check out the Artorias of the Abyss DLC, which you can't access until you're more than halfway through the game, anyway, and if I get that far, I might as well see Dark Souls through to the end. Again.

Since I've already written a rather thorough and (to my mind) reasonably well-organized review of Dark Souls, I think I've earned the right to express further thoughts by medium of lazy bullet points. I'd like to say that the following will be the last you hear from me about Dark Souls, but then I said that last time, too.

• This time, I managed to complete the game in only 20 hours, compared to the 50 it took me on my first run. I killed all of the bosses (including Gwyndolin, which I missed the first time) and completed all of the DLC. It's amazing how much more quickly the game moves once you actually know the world and can actually anticipate what the game is going to throw at you.

• I played it on PC this time. I'd heard that it was an awful port, and my goodness was that the truth. The mouse and keyboard controls are utterly broken (though why anyone would want to play Dark Souls with anything other than a standard controller is beyond me), and even when you bump the resolution in the options menu up to 1920x1080... it just stays at its native 720p. Thankfully, there's a relatively famous mod that fixes the latter problem, and the game looks considerably crisper than its console counterparts when you use it. Still, ugh.

• I'm punching myself for missing Artorias of the Abyss the first time, because it's fantastic. The four new bosses (Sanctuary Guardian, Artorias, Kalameet and Manus) are all among the best of the series, and some of the new areas are unnervingly creepy. The fact that the DLC is set hundreds of years prior to the other events of Dark Souls had me thinking that it'd be, I don't know, a grander and more optimistic period for Lordran, but as it turns out, this world was always terrifying, lonely and miserable. The only thing I don't like about Artorias of the Abyss is that its first area is a repeat of Darkroot Garden, which is one of the base game's least memorable areas. Otherwise, terrific.

• Also, the means to actually access the DLC are annoyingly convoluted. You need to interact with a specific NPC who was already available in the base game, and then return to that area with an unremarkable item dropped by a seemingly random enemy found in the Duke's Archives, accessible only after you finish Anor Londo and obtain the Lordvessel. I realize that obtuse design choices are kind of From Software's thing, but this is content that people are paying extra for, guys.

• I was able to bypass large chunks of the game through some sequence-breaking shortcuts that I learned about in this video. Specifically, I was able to skip pretty much all of the Catacombs and the Duke's Archives, though in the latter case, I found myself a bit under-leveled when I actually had to fight the boss. Also, while this wasn't an unintended shortcut on the developers' part, I used the back door into Blighttown (the one in the Valley of Drakes) to effectively negate most of that level and essentially jump straight to Quelaag's Domain. This also would have allowed me to skip the Depths entirely, but I did that anyway because I wanted to fight the Gaping Dragon again.

• I didn't summon any NPCs for assistance on my first run, but I did so for the Bell Gargoyle and Quelaag fights this time, because screw it.

• My greatest accomplishment on this run was defeating Ornstein and Smough on my first attempt without summoning help. Like I said, it's amazing how much more smoothly this game flows when you already know its dirty tricks.

• My absolute least-favorite parts of the game are as follows: the long trek back to Seath's lair every time you want to fight him; having to wade through poisonous water in order to fight Quelaag; the Bed of Chaos battle, which isn't "difficult" so much as it's just poorly-constructed and completely out of place; important bonfires in Sen's Fortress and Lost Izalith being tucked away in places you'd basically never find without help; the camera flipouts during the Centipede Demon battle.

• Some random joys that were new to me on this playthrough: actually knowing where to get Havel's armor set before the endgame; jumping over and killing the giant at the top of Sen's Fortress who's dropping the boulders through the ceiling; provoking Gwydolin into casting night upon Anor Londo and removing all of the enemies from the area; figuring out that the shortcut out of Blighttown can be used to get into Blighttown; shooting the Hellkite's tail and getting the Drake Sword immediately; noticing that ceiling of Lost Izalith is the same structure that can be seen from the entrance to Demon Ruins; fighting Kalameet.

One more thing...

I reviewed Infamous: Second Son this week. I really, really thought that this would be PlayStation 4's killer app, but instead it's just the shadow of a once-mighty giant, a superhero sandbox game that feels underwhelmingly ordinary now that superhero sandbox games are kind of a regular thing. It's also not a very interesting game to talk about, so I'm going to stop now.

I've been playing two games recently. The first is Luftrausers, which has a unique control scheme and not much else going for it. It applies Asteroids-style pivot-and-propel movement physics to an environment with actual gravity, which gives the game a unique feel, but as an arena-based bullet hell frenzy, it's both bland and entirely too hectic for a control scheme that demands a great deal of effort from players. The other game is Strider, which I'm kind of loving. It's basically a Metroid clone that clones Metroid well, and I'd recommend it if that sort of thing is an easy sell for you (as it is for me). Review hopefully incoming.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Three new reviews and a brief summary of a game that made me physically ill

Let's just do this in chronological order, then, yeah?

You know how the passersby are always getting their heads in a whirl about review scores while the critics themselves argue that the scores are beside the point? Here's why: Cloudbuilt. I impulsively bought it last weekend based on a colleague's praises and this video, wherein TotalBiscuit dismisses his ability to critique the game fairly due to the fact that he's embarrassingly crap at it. I kind of had the same experience - I eventually hit a wall wherein I was physically incapable of performing the feats that the game was asking me to perform. I wound up giving it a 6/10. What does that mean? Nothing. I don't like Cloudbuilt because it's beyond me, but it's also kind of spectacular if you happen to hit within its target audience (that being the speedrunners).

My review is here. And since I don't want you to see the score and immediately dismiss Cloudbuilt outright, I'll also point you toward Joe's more official review, which went up at precisely the same time and complements mine nicely. Different sides of the same coin, these are.

Even if you decide that Cloudbuilt isn't for you, though, I'd still urge you to check the game's soundtrack, which is absolutely extraordinary, as some presumably savvy and sophisticated individual is quoted saying right on that page. Seriously: If you know me, then you're well aware of my adoration for music, so when I say that I literally cannot recall the last time that I purchase a video game soundtrack for casual, anytime-anywhere listens, that should clue you in on just how special Jacob Lincke's work here is. In particular, the track "Aerial Walkways" is perhaps the sole reason I was able to stomach one especially nasty segment of the game.

The second review of mine posted this week was for a game called The Castle Doctrine over at GameCritics (in what I certainly hope will not be the last thing I write for those guys). Gonna be honest, here - the reviews I've done for GameCritics tend to be written long before they actually go live, which means, in this case, that I barely even remember anything about the game in question. It's an intriguing but ultimately kind of disastrous idea, a game that, and I quote, "asks too much of the player and offers too little in return." To do anything in The Castle Doctrine means putting all of your hard work thus far on the line, and for what? To push your way up the leaderboards and make yourself a bigger target, thus putting all of your hard work thus far on the line? It's a game in which the only possible outcome is to lose, unfairly and with nothing gained.

On the other hand, though, I can at least respect the fact that it's original. I believe that video games are art, and as such, the games historically most apt to offend me are the ones most artistically empty, cynical nonsense like Too Human and Knack that could very well have been made by machines for all of the inspiration that they house. The Castle Doctrine at least attempts something new, and while it fails, I admire the risk. Although the creator is reportedly kind of a buffoon, so maybe I should stay my tongue there.

Finally, I've at long last gotten around to reviewing Titanfall, after Dark Souls II devoured all of my time during that particular release week. I absolutely love the game, as expected from the considerable amount of time I spent with a beta a month or so back. You can read my thoughts here, and I do very much hope that I'm not overselling it. I know some people are upset about Titanfall's lack of a single-player campaign, but I've already gotten a couple dozens hours out of this thing and I can already tell you that it'll be my multiplayer title of choice for the foreseeable future. It's a big toy box full of awesome things, to heavily simplify the message.

I should have a review for Infamous: Second Son done by the end of the weekend. I have a weird compulsion in superhero sandbox games to do everything, even when the game in question is on PS4 and I couldn't care less about trophies. Since there's actual purpose behind the side quests in Infamous games (clearing out the city), catching spies, spraying stencil art and basically doing anything other than the standard story missions has been the order of business so far. My save file tells me that I'm at 75% completion, and that's without even having found the third set of powers yet. I don't know what it is with me and these games.

It's not even that great, honestly. Especially coming after Titanfall, the controls feel sluggish, and 30 frames per second is kind of the pits these days, eh? Superhero sandbox games are an easy sell for me, but they're also open to some potential pitfalls that Second Son embraces with big, beefy arms. I loved the first Infamous, but now, following titles like Just Cause 2 and Saints Row IV, the series just isn't tight or exciting enough to propel itself beyond the status of being typical genre fare: passable, sufficient, diverting, fine. I'm glad that my PS4 is finally getting use, but a killer app this ain't.

By the way, I also checked out TxK on Vita over the weekend, as per the recommendation of... someone. I don't know. I keep a list of 2014 releases I still need to check out - because I'm serious about pursuing this as an active line of work and that means being an expert - and TxK made it on there. It's unique because, with no history of epilepsy or motion sickness, this is the first game that I am physically unable to play. Some combination of the tunneled perspective, rapidly changing colors and techno-trance music is just too much for my body to handle, because picked up nausea and a raging headache after maybe 30 seconds with the game.

TxK seems cool, and I don't hold the developers responsible for this; like I said, this is unusual for me. Unfortunately, this means that I'll have to permanently cross TxK off my list. It's gotten good reception otherwise, but if you're interested, be warned about that.