Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Deus Ex: Human Revolution Jumps the Shark.

I was more excited for Deus Ex: Human Revolution than I’ve been about a game for a while. It’s not because I played the original, as I wasn’t even a PC gamer until I discovered KOTOR in 2004, and even then I was only a casual player, more interested in what I wanted to play than what everyone else was playing. I don’t know if I ever will play the original, for that matter. It’s something I’ve wanted to do, but the gameplay – having to hold crouch, having to lean out of cover etc – plus some compatibility issues have always stopped me getting any further than Liberty Island. 

So I was pretty keen. Here was Eidos Montreal’s chance to create not just a flagship game for their company, but a flagship action-RPG with features the classics could only dream about. Does it live up to my expectations, as well as the positive talk from both fans and reviewers?

Let’s find out in another The Good, The Bad, The Ugly review.

The Good.

Strong Opening – This intro got me pumped. It’s one of those slow, first person, on-rails kinda openings which leads into the tutorial, and it feels perfect. When the attack on Sarif Industries begins you’ll find yourself nodding in excitement and thinking “this is going to kick ass”.

Good Gameplay – for the most part. Stealth works well once you get used to how it functions, and shooting your way through the game is certainly a viable option so long as you maintain a big arsenal to compensate for often limited ammo. The choice between the two playing styles does offer more than varying experience points, meaning there’s plenty of replayability. There are always varying paths in levels too, so in the main sections of the areas you’ll never be forced to expose yourself or kill a guard unless you want to. It works, and it works well, though you’ll likely end up travelling all the paths anyway to make sure you haven’t missed any pickups.

Makes You Feel Badass – I played a non-lethal game, and yet there were still moments that left me feeling pretty cool as I sat there, pressing buttons on me keyboard. The best was when I had to take out five guys who were spread out on a level of Hengsha directly below me. I jumped down, the impact stunning two of the guys who were close together as well as one who was knocked unconscious immediately. As they tried to recover, I tasered one of the other guys and then took down the last guy standing from behind. The two who were stunned almost made it back to their feet when I ran over and took both of them down at the same time. Awesome.

Shut up, I’m posing.

Fantastic Art Design – In the not too distant future, there is no day. I don’t know why, I suppose a trenchcoat and sunglasses installed into your face just don’t look as cool in the daylight. DX’s art design – most notably, its lighting – more than compensates for the fact that at least 75% of this game takes place in big, dark cities. It’s not very pretty, but the atmosphere is sensational.

Soundtrack – The theme track for DXHR is brilliant, and both fans of Mass Effect 2 and Mirror’s Edge will hear familiar sounds throughout. Overall, it provides a dynamic scope for the game that the visuals can’t supply. The voice acting is very good too, with Adam often reminding me of Timothy Oliphant (though it is actually Elias Toufexis). The voices actors for both Sarif (Stephen Shellen) and tech-head Pritchard (Andreas Apergis) are just as good.

Quick Saving – I shouldn’t even need to add this to the list, but the fact that I’ve played a few similar games recently with no quick save feature means that this game should be recognised for adding such an obviously necessary option.

The Bad.

Buggy – Infuriatingly so. At one point I finished part of a sidequest that gave me the option to remain unseen in enemy territory in order to gain extra experience. I did so, and then travelled to the other side of the map to do the last part of the quest. That took me about twenty minutes. Just as I returned to the street the game told me I had failed the optional part of my sidequest, then the sidequest as a whole, and then it crashed on me. 

The guard is facing Adam, but unless I let go of the mouse button he won't be able to see me. That's not how people work, Eidos.
I had crashes when I tried to look at items in my inventory and lockups in the menus too. There were times where the camera kept resetting in line with Adam as I was waiting to taser someone next to a doorway, meaning I couldn’t shoot, and I got caught like that several times. There’s also a sidequest that never updates, so most people will likely give up on it unless they traverse every bit of the map again. Overall, the game does not offer a smooth experience, and as a result I walked away from it many times in sheer frustration.

The Last Third of the Game – ...What happened? The game loses all focus and purpose, in the end feeling more like Left 4 Dead than an action-RPG. Major sidequests or elements of main quests are just abandoned, meaning there’s no resolution to be had for anything. Gameplay, story, in fact everything about this game just becomes irrelevant.

The Plot goes AWOL – It never really has clear vision anyway, but the sporadic plot just surrenders by game’s end. To write a list of all the themes I thought the game was trying to relay before forgetting about them completely would make this review way too long, so suffice it to say that I have no idea what point the developer’s wanted to impart in DXHR, and that sucks.

Just an example of some of the awesome imagery that never actually makes it to the game.
The Ending is a Joke – You don’t have to leave a prequel open for a sequel, you fools! The ending of the game offers a fantastic choice based entirely on a player’s viewpoint; one that will define the entire Deus Ex world! You make your choice and...philosophising cutscene that leads into credits.

 Push the button, Frank. (This video features the horrendous ending of the game. Don't watch if you don't want it spoiled.)

What? What! What happened to all the characters? What was the point of the game? This isn’t an ending; it’s more like showing up to a party to find it’s already over. I was incredibly disappointed, to the point where I have left this review unwritten for nearly a week post-game so that I could keep it objective.

The Cutscenes – The worst cutscene/in-game quality I have ever seen. The in-game engine would have offered seriously better cutscenes, because the horrendous colour banding detracts from the cool yellow/black filter that’s used to make things look much more like you expect when starting the game. Square Enix distributed the game, so why couldn’t they get Square Enix to implement the cutscenes? The game would have been much more attractive visually for it.

The Bosses – Everyone complains about the bosses, so I will too. Only one of the four bosses offers players the ability to fight using the techniques used in any play style. The others require you to pull out a gun and just shoot until the enemy is dead. It’s boring, the boss characters serve no purpose beyond being poor, unimaginative red herrings, and the last boss...I don’t even understand how that happened. Deus Ex just jumped the shark.

 Don’t ask me why he’s dressed up as your fifth grade science project.

Most people know that the reason the boss battles are like this is because they were outsourced. The President of G.R.I.P Entertainment, the company that produced the fights, says he’s a real big fan of shooters. No shit.

The AI – I throw a ten gallon drum at a guy. He searches everywhere for me except the obvious choice: the path from which the drum came. I stand on the walkway above a large computer room. The guard goes and stands in a corner, looking at the wall. Enough said.

Limited Edition DLC is Ludicrous – The limited edition DLC has you rescuing Tong’s son, and it is added to the main plot unnecessarily. It’s also added in the same area as two of the sidequests, so you could finish all these missions at once within about twenty minutes. Not only is it offensive to make people pay extra for this kind of thing, but it doesn’t even need to be in the game. Funnily enough, Tong’s son makes a cameo in the game regardless of whether you have this mission pack, which has confused a lot of people due to the context of his appearance.

Experience for Some, Not for Others – For instance, you can hack a computer or enter a found password. You don’t get experience for using the password, even though the process of finding it in the first place is just as difficult as hacking. As a result, you’ll often feel forced to take certain actions at certain times.

Batteries – Most aug-based actions require batteries to operate. You start with two and can purchase more as augs, but only the first one ever recharges. I could have added this to one of the points below, but it severely hampers your options in game, especially if you run out of the electro-muesli bars that recharge batteries.

 And why don’t people look at each other when they’re talking anymore? It’s just rude.

The Ugly.

Stealth is Annoying – Most reviewers make a point that the game is really designed for players to take a stealthy course. That may be true, but they don’t make it easy on stealth players. Some augs, such as taking down an opponent through a wall, don’t offer non-lethal options. Sure, it’s still good to have in order to find hidden caches, but its practicality does not extend into the main game. 

Whoops, sorry. Suppose I don't know my own strength.
Furthermore, and this is the one that bothered me most, enemies are impossibly quick to go hostile. I played a game where I would stealth as close as possible to an enemy before hitting them with a taser, since I had the previously mentioned issue with the resetting camera. There were times where I’d go invisible and wait for guards to come to me before tasering. As soon as I pressed the attack button though, they would go hostile, so even though I was invisible and the taser was headed straight for their groin I wouldn’t get the bonus experience for going through the mission unseen. It’s still a fun option to take, but it has its downsides. 

Twists are Pretty Obvious – I don’t know much about the Deus Ex universe, but that didn’t stop me from assuming that Adam was named symbolically. I was right. I expected an intelligent story, but I think Eidos Montreal was too interested in philosophising a lot of the time.

Characters are Bland – Adam is a classic raspy-voiced badass, Pritchard is the tech-guy who thinks brains are always better than brawn, Sarif is the shady boss who can’t see beyond his wants. The voice actors do a great job with these characters, and there are some subtle touches (the broken mirror in Adam’s apartment) that offer brilliant depth, but they never really stand out.

Proof that character's can be obscure while their impact in a game is boringly obvious.

Things Happen...Just Not Onscreen – People get their augmentations stolen, but we only really read of that in e-mails. There are riots in Hengsha, but the only difference is there are cops on the street while you go about your regular missions. It provides atmosphere and depth to the game, but a lot of these events are much more interesting than the main plot. 

Useless Augmentations – There’s an augmentation that tells the player how much chance they have of successfully hacking something. The game already tells you this, so why anyone would waste time on that is beyond me. You can also have a counter that tells you how long guards will continue searching for you when on alert, but it’s not like you have a time limit to meet anyway. Overall, you’ll have more points to upgrade augs than you’ll ever want, and that’s no fun in a game centred around them.

 Adam Jensen is Kratos: God of War.

This game took four years to make, and they should have taken five. It’s good, but ultimately feels barebones, and I simply can’t understand why it is getting such high scores when it so many issues and a third act that brings to ruin everything that had me thinking the game was great beforehand. The game’s producer says that he “wishes” Eidos Montreal will be able to make a sequel, which sounds to me like that even though the game is selling well and getting good reviews there’s something people don’t like about the fact that it has taken four years to make a game that should have been much more.

That said, it’s certainly worth at least a hire. My expectations were high, and while the gameplay met them for the most part the plot certainly didn’t. If story doesn’t mean much to you in a game you may end up loving Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and I wouldn’t blame you, but either way a major game has failed to live up to expectations once again.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Dragon Age 2 - The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

or Why Gaming Snobs Need to Calm the Hell Down.

I love Bioware games, yet it has taken me this long to play Dragon Age 2. It’s true that I was as outraged as anyone when EA announced the release of the game. “Dragon Age: Origins was your best selling game in a decade so you rush out a sequel that changes the core elements that brought people to the series in the first place?” Eventually I got used to the idea, even with all the pretentious ramblings about how Bioware had fallen hard and that the game ‘offers players no choice but to be gay’ because they thought the female companions were annoying. Yep, that really happened.

So yes, I have finished the game. I can be a little pompous, sure, but I only dislike something when I know I dislike it, not because I assume I will. So what are my thoughts? Dive into my first ‘The Good, The Bad, The Ugly’ review and find out.

Readers, meet Elizabeth Hawke.

The Good.

Story - A lot of the complaints surrounding the game are based on the fact that your party runs around maybe 20-25 locations the entire game. While this is undoubtedly a negative, the positive that results from it is a solid and compelling story that could not have been told in an epic tale like that of the Hero of Ferelden’s. The Champion is a Ferelden refugee, not some Grey Warden or prince, so the troubled yet safe streets are the only place where such a story can be set. Even when it is not at the forefront of the game, the trouble between the templars and mages of Kirkwall is omnipresent. Some of the events this leads to are absolutely thrilling, but what the plot can sometimes lack in style can be found in the human drama. Dragon Age 2 is a tale of prosecution, paranoia and greed. Whichever side you take, the tragedy of the situation rings through, and it is hard to forget that both sides have their positives and negatives. Though not as effortlessly told as other Bioware plots due to the claustrophobic setting, it still offers moments of greatness that the wider-scale premise of Origins lacked.

Characters – Dragon Age 2 is spent entirely in the island city of Kirkwall. As a result, characters are not so much developed as heroes fighting for a cause, but as humans struggling to live in a land rife with turmoil. Their flaws feel intrinsic rather than designed as plot points, and as such DA2 offers some of Bioware’s richest characters yet. Group chat is constant throughout the game as you travel around the sections of the city, the best of which bring out traits otherwise veiled by the years that pass between the three acts of the game. What is most exciting is the value of choice when it comes to companions, but more on that later. Supporting characters are strong, but many can easily be forgotten due to the fact that you interact with all of them within such limited confines. Unfortunately, many don’t get the send off they deserve (though it’s not as bad as KOTOR 2), not even the Champion, and as a result some plot points are left gaping. One companion didn’t even show up for me in the final battle for some reason. Nevertheless, Bioware has once again delivered compelling and relatable characters that make the game a pleasure to play. I have heard so many complaints from players that they didn’t like particular characters, and that the game is mediocre for this very reason. Ha! However, none of these complaints are quite as stupid as this one, where one moron says that Dragon Age 2 is a bad game because there’s a gay character and no ‘No Homosexuality’ checkbox in the options.

Speaking of which, I was sixty hours in to Origins when the game decided that my Warden was gay and had Zevran come on to him. While it certainly did detract from the game for me – I’d spent sixty hours developing a character and the game had just taken over for me! – I felt neither offended nor betrayed like that dolt.

 Look, Zevran, you're a real nice guy...please don't kill me in my sleep.

Decisions – The consequence of decision is more important than ever in Dragon Age 2, and that’s saying a lot with Bioware’s history. It is hard not to let the intimate story and struggling characters implant beliefs in you, beliefs that can overcome a player’s considerations of party dynamics before making a decision that could result in a character leaving your party for good. There is a turning point in the third act that fuels the climax, and making the decision that results from it was the single hardest decision I’ve ever made in a game. When the majority of choices are made to define your character, it can stun a player when they reach a point where a decision must be made that will have a far great impact than crafting your character’s personality. There is a negative to the decision making in Dragon Age 2 though, which will be discussed later.

Gear – I will probably take the most criticism for this comment, but I really liked the fact that character’s clothing is pre-determined. There is not much worse than having a threatening or inspiring character marred by a strange assortment of armour just so they are effective in combat. Some costumes change as the game progresses, some stay the same, but the likes of Varric’s unbuttoned shirt and Sebastian’s Chantry armour define the characters much better than a chunky helmet on top of a mage’s dress. This is especially true here, where many items look exactly the same.

Cameos – Cameos are bittersweet in Dragon Age 2. Besides a familiar face most people seem to actually dislike from Dragon Age: Awakenings, as well as two support characters from Origins whose stories are never resolved, most cameos offer little but a tease to ties in future games. That doesn’t change the fact that I was extremely excited when teaming up with Grey Wardens in Lowtown. Beyond that there isn’t much to say. A certain character from Origins, who I had run into during a sidequest, aided my party in the final battle, but I don’t understand why they were even there. Nevertheless, these moments offer good value while they last, and short cameos are better than none at all, correct?

Fighting Mechanics – Though the demo left me feeling like I’d never get used to the fighting system in Dragon Age 2, it didn’t take me long to realise when playing the game proper that battles work exactly the same as they did in Origins. I have heard complaints that the game was made for consoles, and so the PC version (which I played) had a substandard version of the system. What a joke! If anything, the game flows better than Origins. Health and mana/stamina icons on the side of the quickbar keep things moving, so that pausing is more of a tactical option rather than an entirely necessary one. By mid-game I had my system down to the point where I was pausing only when something caused me to change my tactics (like blood-mages suddenly knocking out two of my companions in a couple of seconds), no matter what party members I had. This is definitely an improvement, even without the option of an isometric camera.

 Plus, it's as ridiculously bloody as ever.

Tech Tree
– Glorious. Class skills such as lockpicking and DPS are now mapped to stat points, which would understandably annoy some hardcore-RPG fans, but makes screwing up a character’s function a lot harder. In Origins I had to stop my first playthrough at the Proving in Orzammar because my Grey Warden simply could not handle the final fight. It’s my fault for deciding I wanted a particular character and dismissing the effectiveness of them in a game. Stat points make it much easier to create the character you want without having to concern yourself with not being able to contend with enemies later in the game. Talents trees also help here. There’s nothing quite like starting out and instantly being able to determine what talents you wish your characters to have and how you will get them there. It’s simple but effective, without making spending skill points a shallow task.

See? Nice and simple.

Sound Design – I think I am safe in saying Bioware have hit a highpoint in sound design when it comes to Dragon Age 2. From a crackling fireball to the Florence & the Machine song that closes the game, sound offers value and variety where repetitive level design can’t. The voice acting is as strong as ever.

The Bad.

Difficulty – There is often complaint that the game is too easy on normal and too difficult on hard. This isn’t what I necessarily agree with, though it can be true for seasoned RPG players. The real problem with the difficulty though is that it is uneven. The act two boss is extremely hard (I almost changed difficulty settings just to get through it since there was nowhere to swap my healer in before the fight), especially since some players will have the option to duel them rather than charge in with an entire party, while the end fight (M, for those who have played it, after having to fight O anyway) didn’t cause me any trouble at all. In fact, I think there were one or two times when some unknown source healed my entire party, even though none of them had any less than 50% of their health. The good news is that if players want a challenge there are still some out there. Revenants are back; you just have to go looking for them, but unlike in Origins once you find them you must fight them.

Bugs - I played version 1.3 of the game, yet still faced a few bugs. Two were meaningless – for one I completed the quest before it appeared in my log and the other gave me a sidequest that wouldn’t update, hence I couldn’t finish it – but the other, a companion quest, annoyed me. The bug has existed since the first release of the game, and causes the final two cutscenes related to the quest to play before the quest is even made available. I only experienced one of them though, so I didn’t even get to see what the companion would say as a result of the quest being completed. This wasn’t helped by the fact that this third act companion quest should not have even happened, since a decision I made in the character’s second act quest meant that they did not have an important item which was key to the whole event.

Textures - Characters look great. Environments look good, just not in conversations where they tend to appear as flat and ugly. Equipment looks terrible. Swords were a garbled mess, clothing was anything but dynamic, and a few times item effects were blocky. It was enough that I never got over it, even though graphic quality is not a primary concern for me when I play a game.

 Look at that statue. Unforgivable.

The Ugly.

Pacing – While the story and characters are great in Dragon Age 2, the pacing is certainly not. It’s easy to forget who characters are, while some crucial characters don’t even make an appearance or receive a reference until late in the game. There’s a key moment that impacts the Champion personally near the end of act 2, but when it happened I had to force myself to care. It has no resounding value. The worst part though is that there are three story arcs in the game – the Deep Roads, the Qunari, and the feud between mages and templars – yet the most important of them receives the least attention. The first takes up a whole act, yet even the game gives up on it eventually, since in act 2 the impact is nothing more than a potential change of home base and a companion quest. The Qunari are something special, and their change of appearances certainly pairs well with their philosophies and brutality, but once it reaches its conclusion they are all but forgotten. The reason pacing can’t be considered bad, however, is because the sense of time does wonders for the relationships between all characters in the game. In Origins your companions were all together facing the same situations. They would tell you more about themselves as the game progressed, but what the player learned were revelations, not changes. Dragon Age 2 is different. The lives of companions and NPCs are impacted by elements other than the Champion’s presence, so there’s always a feeling of uncertainty, no matter how friendly a character may have seemed when you met them three years ago.

 The Qunari have had a facelift, and it looks good on them.

Taking Sides – This is my biggest gripe with the game. As you’re playing Dragon Age 2, you’ll feel like you need to take a side in the escalating conflict between mages and templars. Occasionally quests will require you to do so...and yet it never seems to make a difference. I played as a mage and I supported the mages (though not blood magic), yet I was often forced to fight mages regardless. I can’t comprehend why. Spoiler (highlight to read): Why was I forced to fight the head of the Circle of Mages, and why couldn't I try to stop him from using blood magic? By the end I felt there was the side of the mages, the side of the templars, and the side of the Champion. There are points like the major event near the end of the game where the side your Champion has taken prior in quests and with companions should have changed the way it plays out, yet it doesn’t. This was one of the killers of the game for me. The reason I don’t consider it objectively bad though is because not every player will experience the game like this. Hell, even the Champion in the announcement trailer was a blood mage. I imagine for most that things line up for them regardless, or that they see some of the tragic downfalls of characters as part of the dramatic tension. Yes, they are, but that doesn’t make me feel any less like my Champion was alienated.

 Even the Hawke featured in the announcement trailer was a blood mage. I don't get that.

Locations – While it’s understandable that the Champion’s story takes place over the same few locations in Kirkwall it does get a little stale. There’s little more Bioware could do though, short of closing off more locations between acts. I think that would have only made things worse. All the same, it never felt like a grind to retread old territory, and the map made travel time all but vanish.
Money – Why is it that in the games where money is virtually valueless that it’s easiest to obtain? I did not buy a single thing in Dragon Age 2 besides runes, though I certainly could have used the gold in Origins. Still, I certainly didn’t have as much as I did in Mass Effect.

And so the game ends. Varric’s tale is over and we see or hear nothing more about the Champion and their companions. What we do get though is a glimpse of what Dragon Age 3 will hold. Both the Hero of Ferelden and Grey Warden are missing, the Imperium , Ferelden and Orlais are preparing for war, and though it has been confirmed that the third game in the series will yet again see a new protagonist, there is little doubt that we will be seeing our past characters in action, at least in some form. Of course the Grey Warden in Origins never spoke, but the way Hawke was designed in Dragon Age 2 means that from the chosen dialogue options the Champion could certainly hold a conversation without player-aid in which their personality would, at least, closely match what we’d expect. It shall be interesting to see.

 I hope he is the one telling the story of Dragon Age 3 too. Varric kicks ass.

So is the game good? Certainly. Is it great? There are moments of greatness in Dragon Age 2, definitely, but I don’t believe it’s quite what any of us had hoped for. The ending is disappointing, but so was the ending for Dragon Age: Origins. There were so many complaints ( is a good place to start) but most of them seem to be from buffoons who haven’t even played the game. They just want to complain that what the game offers is not what they wanted. Gamers are the most fickle people around, though I don’t disagree with every issue brought up. On a side note, the fact that people suggest gamers play Neverwinter Nights 2 instead is ridiculous. I found that game clunky and the camera impossible to control.

I recommend giving it a try. There's no risk in it, so long as you go in knowing what you're getting is not Dragon Age: Origins 2.

What I would have done better: Oh, EA, you screwed up big time. You know how all the whining is stopped before it is even begins? A simple name change. Calling this Dragon Age: Bloodlines or Dragon Age: Annulment, something like that, and following it up with a more expansive, true-to-form sequel entitled Dragon Age 2 means people know this as a game related to but not directly connected with Dragon Age: Origins. That way they don’t complain when you change everything.

Edit: Thought I'd add this for those interested in seeing just how fast battle in Dragon Age 2 is compared to Dragon Age: Origins.

Note that Morrigan has been killed by the dwarf to the left there who holds a melee weapon. Look how far away I took her in an attempt to block, only to have it fail! This never once happened in Dragon Age 2. Also notice her head gear and think back to my point about gear. (She's got the axe and shield because that battle ran so long her mana ran out. I did not play with Morrigan using an axe and shield.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Due Date - We're Well Past It.

Leave your comfort zone, and expect a sour aftertaste.

American comedies can be hard to watch. With these films there may be some clever writing and good performances, but more likely pratfalls, stupid humour and bodily functions. Although Due Date’s director had success due to the former with The Hangover, this film is more like his more his films steeped in the latter, like Old School and Starsky & Hutch.

A run in with amateur actor Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis – The Hangover) sees soon-to-be-father Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr. – Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) kicked off his flight home and banned from the friendly skies. Left without his wallet and luggage, he is forced to hitch a ride with Ethan in order to make it back to LA for the birth of his child.*

*Read: An insufferable, socially retarded Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis – The Hangover) spends what feels like an eternity on a road trip with violent, child beating asshole Peter Highman (Robert Downey Jr. – Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang) in which the two vie to deliver the least funny line in a film that is anything but humorous.

I don’t know who to hate more. Ethan is a clich├ęd comedy-moron who isn’t as goofy as he is embarrassing to watch. Peter’s constant reminders for him to go to the bathroom before getting back in the car aren’t even slightly funny the first time, and the sub-plot that focuses on the scattering of his father’s ashes does little more than pad a film and result in a single joke that can be seen coming from its inception. 

 Ah, now I understand why he's not funny.

Then there’s Peter, or should I say Robert Downey Jr.? The man is a great actor but he’s spent way too long playing smug, well-to-do characters. Though it is easy to be empathetic early on for this man, so desperate is he to go home and be with his wife when she gives birth, these feelings soon dissipate when he punches a young boy in the stomach. 

Peter Highman would make a good father.

The fact that he even gets in the car with Ethan is the least believable part in this film. If any of us met a guy like Ethan, we’d assume he was psychotic and stay as far away from him as possible. After all he has been through, Peter is way too quick to jump into the passenger seat.

The film tries really hard to be both humorous and dramatic, yet fails undeniably at both. It tries hard to instil moments of tension between the characters here and there that are more than just the quirky events you’d expect in such a film, but most fade away within a minute of being revealed.  This is especially evident just before the film’s climax in a scene atop the Grand Canyon (which references a much, much better film) where Ethan’s true lunacy is revealed. In the end it does nothing but remind us how reprehensible these characters are.

This is a film to be avoided, even if you tend to have faith in the cast and crew behind it. I watched Due Date solely on the belief that Downey Jr. can make anything enjoyable. He certainly proved me wrong here. 

P.S. Sorry it's been so long since my last review. It's been a crazy year.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Six Best Albums of 2010

I'm not going to spend too much time writing an introduction to this list. Suffice it to say that this contrasts highly with any lists I constructed in 2009, whether I was aware of the bands or not. This is due to a couple of reasons:

- Soundwave Festival. From blatant recycling across the lineup in 2009 to a group of bands I had no interest or knowledge of in 2010, I realised that the only thing that remained appealing to me about Soundwave Festival were the friends I had made through it. Hence I started looking at the lineups of other festivals, and many of these albums came to me as a result of this.

- The generosity of Dylan in exposing people to every album he thinks they will enjoy or will allow them to stretch their taste. 

- Seeing a few bands I really like perform mediocre gigs.

And here...we...go:

1. Ef - Mourning Golden Morning

The lighting of the torch at the 2030 Olympics in Sweden was a little surreal.

Swedish band Ef's third album was about as illusive as information on the band itself, which is rather remarkable. Mourning Golden Morning's sound is as diverse as it is recognisable, with hints of greats such as Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, The Appleseed Cast and Eluvium left resonating in the deeply emotional and seemless folds that define every track. The ability to pick every reference eventually works against the album, however, and after a few listens you will return to these better bands. Don't let this turn you off it though. While Mourning Golden Morning lasts, and it does in doses, it is a sensational experience worthy of your time. 

What I would have done better: Less links to music listeners will be going back to a week after first giving this a spin.

5. Jonsi - Go

Artwork inspired from a deleted scene in Zatoichi where Jonsi falls victim to the title character.

It's easy to eternally associate a band's frontman with everything the band offers us, and this is especially so with the foreign and ethereal music by Icelandic legends Sigur Ros. And while Jonsi's debut away from Sigur Ros, Riceboy Sleeps, definitely took a step away from the expected sound thanks to its folky, atmospheric tones Go offers us a more familiar sound with added assets that truly define Jonsi's step away from the band that first brought him to our attention. If you think of Sigur Ros as the film Ikiru - dark, and simplistic yet striking - then Jonsi is the film Hero - bright, bold and beautiful in its complexity and depth. The range of instruments and styles (I never thought I'd find myself jumping up and down with a smile on my face to a song written by this guy) on every track results in the truly unique experience everyone expected with this album.

What I would have done better: Removed that Ikiru/Hero comparison. I know it's pretentious, but that is truly the way I see it, ok? Jeez.

4. Beach House - Teen Dream

You think the artwork is subtle? Wait until you hear the songs.

Bloody hell, this album is repetitive! So why is it so damn addictive? The more you listen the more you will realise that Teen Dream isn't repetitive, it's simple. But in being simple Victoria Legrand and Alex Scully have created such a subtle yet resonant album that embeds itself into your mind like you wouldn't expect. Tracks like Norway and Lover of Mine are deceptively vivid, and what may sound like melancholy opens up to profound beauty that will enrapture you with every listen.

What I would have done better: Some more diversity would have been nice. Everytime I play Teen Dream for people they inevitably make a comment that every song sounds the same.

3. Blonde Redhead - Penny Sparkle

Open up, open up some happiness.

Here is a band from the days when shoegaze was on it's way out and Elizabeth Fraser was still revered as the voice of God. Here is a band that could easily be called the best on its label, even one which releases such treasures as Ariel Pink, Bon Iver and The National. When a band has released eight albums I think you stop debating which is their best, but still my attraction to this album was immediate and severe. To call it a monument to my music gods is dismissing the fact that Penny Sparkle is not only a breath of fresh air but a fun album that can appeal to many tastes. Even if you don't get nostalgic for the shoegaze and dream pop of the 1990's like I do this is worth a few listens.

What I would have done better: Guest vocals! This album begs for it, especially on some of the outstanding tracks such as My Plants Are Dead.

2. Menomena - Mines

 Back on Earth anything that even resembled the Na'vi was met with resentment.

It's been a long time since I've listened to an album featuring tracks that feel so subtly interwoven that it's like you're watching a film and can't wait to see how everything develops. I got that feeling from Mines. Beyond that it is hard to explain why it is my second favourite album of the year. Everything works so well, from the basic acoustic guitar rifts, to the heartfelt but often scathing lyrics, and Danny Seim's crackling voice. This is a great indie chill-out album worthy of your attention.

What I would have done better: Sometimes I just wish Menomena would play something a little heavier. I think they'd be good at it.

1. Los Campesinos! Romance is Boring

I don't really get this. I don't care.

Wow. Not only is this my favourite album of 2010, but my favourite album of all time. Welsh band Los Campesinos! deliver on all fronts like every indie kid with an acoustic guitar wish they could. There are so many features to a single song: catchiness, complexity, brilliant vocal combinations, witty and intelligent lyrics, and overall the feeling that you're listening to a band of equally talented and respected musicians, not just a vocalist with backing instruments. It's hard not to just go fanboy on this, but Romance is Boring was the only album I listened to in my car for months and months. No other album I listened to this year even compared, and that's why every time you pass me in my car you'll see me singing out 

"Please just let me be the one who keeps track of the freckles and the moles on your back!"

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Six Most Disappointing Albums of 2010

I listened to more albums in 2010 than I ever have thanks mostly to the recommendations of friends and a few significant changes in my overall taste. As I write this though I wonder if my change in taste is a result of the disappointment the next six releases brought. Though none of these are actually bad releases - unlike with films I usually don't make big risks with music I expect to be crap - there were definitive elements in all that left me wishing I was listening to something else.

6. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Ready to Start? I was hoping you'd just give up now. (Kidding, Kidding.)

Where do you think you're going? Hear me out! The Suburbs is not on this list because it reached number one on the Billboard Top 200, nor because it was a bad album. The Suburbs is the sixth most disappointing album of the year because every song makes 'No Cars Go' sound dark. It was the distinct mood and varying style that Arcade Fire harnessed that made their first two albums masterpieces, so what was the point of making a concept album that will only limit the genius these men and women have displayed in the past? Eventually the band was going to disappoint at least one of their fans, and it was probably going to be me. Ask anyone who has had a conversation with me about music. The album grows on me more and more with every listen though, so will it retain its position for long? Well yes, of course.

What I would have changed: Forget the concept album basis. You want to make songs about the suburbs? Write them like the four Neighbourhood songs on Funeral. Neighbourhood #1 was nothing short of a godsend.

5. Omni - Minus the Bear

Omni: the Latin word for 'all'. Ironic.

This choice would be higher on the list if I didn't actually find it appealing for the first few months after release. Hell, I even listened to it in my car. But where The Suburbs grows on me with each listen I lose interest in Omni every time I recall something the album is obviously lacking which the band has shown works time and time again previously. Minus the Bear are one of my favourite bands for several reasons: a dancy, addictive math-rock beat with strong poetic and thematic lyrics, as well as the sensual vocals of Jake Snider. All of these things were abandoned on this album, and I can tell you why. Omni is a record released by a band who are playing more festivals and larger shows. All previous albums and EPs have an intimate, exciting atmosphere which is lost to all but the biggest fans in a crowded and buzzing location. The song 'Into the Mirror' is the album's only redeeming feature in my ears now, featuring a sliver of the heart that drew people to Minus the Bear in the first place thanks to guest vocals by Rachel Flotard of Visqueen. To anyone who wants to check out Minus the Bear: start with any album but this one. Please.

What I would have done better: It's simple. They should have kept with the style they are loved for. Songs about sex and passionate atmosphere are what Minus the Bear were born to do.

4. Band of Horses - Infinite Arms

Omni? Infinite Arms? Maybe it's these titles that are making me expect too much from these albums.

You either love or hate Band of Horses' southern-rock/folk style. To you it's probably relaxing or monotonous. Well Infinite Arms breaks the being an exaccerbated example of why this is. The result? I have not been able to get into Infinite Arms in the slightest. What's interesting is that the album was Grammy nominated, and their most commercially successful album yet, so surely there must be some appealing factor that I'm missing, right? Personally, I think Band of Horses have gone down the same road with Infinite Arms as former member Mat Brooke has with Grand Archive's ultimately boring release 'Keep in Mind Frankenstein'. Whether it's good music or not it is completely forgettable, which is not what I felt about their first two albums. I assume a lot of fans will dispute my choice here, but it's on the list because quite a while after I purchased it I still found myself asking whether I'd actually listened to it yet or not. It took too long to remember I had.

What I would have done better: Change it up a little bit more. This relates to every album they've released. I know they can do it, but why haven't they?

3. Gaslight Anthem - American Slang

I know some American slang that relates to how I felt after listening to this: underwhelmed.

Another choice that isn't going to sit well with a lot of people, American Slang sees Gaslight Anthem shift from their punk origins to a more blues-inspired theme. While there are standout songs - The Diamond Church Street Choir being the best of them - overall it doesn't quite work for me. Gaslight Anthem's appeal can be best explained via the distinction on their first album, Sink or Swim, between punk-heavy songs and folky tunes. It was a perfect blend that inspired images of The Boss and other great artists, but that flavour is missing on American Slang. I don't listen to it very much at all, where Sink or Swim and The '59 Sound are still on heavy rotation. This felt like the obvious path for Gaslight Anthem, but the result was rather underwhelming.

What I would have changed: The boys were bound to release such a 'bluesy' album eventually, but such a radical shift was uncalled for.

2. Lydia - Assailants

I don't think I'm wrong when I say that scavenger on the cover is meant to be Universal Records.

Lydia were a perfect example of why little bands don't suit big labels. This December, It's One More Then I'm Free was a phenomenal debut featuring production value long forgotten thanks to the loudness war, and Illuminate was heartfelt, catchy and overall an exciting evolution for the band. Then they were signed to Universal. First the band's female presence (and voice) Mindy White left, followed shortly by the departure of guitarist Steve McGraw. When they finally released this long anticipated really didn't add up to any more than Illuminate b-sides. The album was exceptionally short and it was clear the band had lost their passion thanks to label interference. I can't blame them, and I look forward to what all band members are set to release in the future, but this was still an exceptional disappointment.

What I would have done better: I can't blame them for moving on to Universal Records, but I wish they hadn't. 

1. Wintersleep - New Inheritors

I know I sure inherited discontent for the band after this forgettable album.

This mediocre, repetitive, uninspired release came as such a shock that I forgot it existed after my first listen for close to six months. It insulted my very soul. 2007's Welcome to the Night Sky is an awe-inspiring album, and due to its varied style, meticulous production value and strong lyrics it is one of my favourite and most listened to records ever. The main problem is that every song here sounds the same, and in a way that is nothing short of infuriating thanks to short verses leading on to choruses that are usually formed by having the band sing the name of the song again and again. When Wintersleep made the transition from their intimate, whispered sound in 'untitled' to the broader and more complex songs of Welcome to the Night Sky a lot of fans became hostile and said the band were taking a wrong turn. I think they predicted New Inheritors. From this point on I'll just pretend the album doesn't exist, and instead start hoping that the inevitable failure of this record doesn't mean they won't release a follow up. I am disappointed.

What I would have done better: Welcome to the Night Sky pt.2. The band showed they didn't need traditional structure or a specfic sound to create a fantastic album, so why does New Inheritors exist?

Last year wasn't all bad, however. Check in over the next couple of days for a list of the six albums of 2010 that are on high repeat at my place.