Saturday, 30 October 2010

2010: The Third Quarter - Comix

The Lone Batranger
I'm kind of falling out of keeping up to date with comics at the moment, diving instead into huge multiple book series either that can be grabbed on the cheap (most recently Morrison's New X-Men, about which I need to think further and maybe reread) or rereading stuff I've already got (Y: The Last Man, which probably has a post forthcoming). I don't know if this is a comment on the quality of comics at the moment, or on my lifestyle, but just some background on the choices below.

Neil Young's Greendale
Sometimes, the term graphic novel actually manages to hit a nail right on the head. Small immersive pockets of pure fiction. Okay, it's wrong because a work like Greendale isn't anywhere near the length of a novel. It is, in fact, about half a film in a length. To pick one, it's Donnie Darko minus the Lynch. But that breathtaking feeling of emerging the other side is exactly the same.

It makes sense, perhaps, to talk about it in these terms, comparing it to other media. After all, this was apparently a film already, as well as (obviously, I guess) a Neil Young album. But I know nothing about that, and nothing about Neil Young beyond ... Young Neil from Scott Pilgrim.

But the magic of the book - and magic is the word that I would hammer repeatedly and forcefully, were this a full-length review - is somehow novelistic. It's open ended. It's got the big stuff - the world - and the small stuff - being a teenager - all knitted together. It deals with the weird in a casual, magical-realism-ish way.
Right On, Brotha!
Most impressively, it makes an interesting story from subjects I'm not necessarily that interested in. The Bush administration and the mess that was '00s America got chewed up so thoroughly by the culture of that time that I'm not able to take it all that seriously. But that is intertwined with characters that are easy to care about, especially as illustrated in Cliff Chiang's ... okay, I have to say it again ... magical brushstrokes.

The story opens with a stock tragedy. The composition and colours and lines somehow make you immediately care about it. That's a perfect microcosm of this book, I reckon. I picked it up quite by accident, nonchalantly, and emerged an hour later breathless. Magic.

Batman & Robin/Return of Bruce Wayne
It's boring, because this was the centre-piece of my choices three months ago, but this has been undeniably the dominant force in my reading for a while now. And comics move slower, anyway. A 'Quarter', our chosen measure of time, contains 3 titles of a comic if you're lucky. I'd ban myself from talking about it, but for wanting to talk about it forever and forever like a man infected with a particularly chatty strain of the Joker virus.
Creepyyy
Morrison's run on Batman* has been interesting all through, but this is it finally reaching narrative maturity. All the plot threads are finally coming together, and answers to all the craziness that has been the last half-decade of Batman comics are promised. We're at the perfect point of any story like this, where ideas begin to crystallise and rush around your mind. In rollercoaster terms, we've just climbed that final ramp and can just about see the big drop.

If it all pays off - and it's difficult to pay off so much, and Morrison rarely manages fully satisfying endings, and working in an endless serialised story doesn't help - this will be possibly the greatest superhero story ever told. It's stunning in its scope and ambition.

But for now, all that doesn't matter, because it's the story and the mystery that keeps bringing me back. It's the thing I impatiently check the weekly listings for, every week. That's thanks to breathless cliffhangers and tightly-cut-together Big Moments, just as much as it is the trademark Morrison craziness. By the next time I write about this, it'll all be over and I'll have the scalpel to go at what it all means. See you there.
*For more on the idea of 'runs' in comics, see last Quarter.
Batman ... Defeated???

And that just about wraps everything up, by my reckoning. I'm leaving games out for now, as it's hard to be succinct about every game I want to talk about. They'll get their own pieces, in time. And besides, this has been the biggest one yet, I think. As if I haven't wasted enough of your time already...

Friday, 29 October 2010

2010: The Third Quarter - Musik

Sometimes, I think that famous British prudishness is misunderstood. It's not that we're scared to hear about sex - not the generation I know - it's just that we've heard it all before and it's not that shocking. I remember the weekend papers when Bionic came out. They all sang the same couple of tunes: yes, Christina likes sex, we get it / cor, Christina ain't half ripping off Lady Gaga.

Two months later, The Times published a 'demolishing' analysis of that Lady Gaga. The central thesis of which was: Gaga's not sexy enough. Which is ridiculous, of course. Pop doesn't have to be sexy. Gaga's the girl you never think to ask if she's ever had sex, let alone with who or what. Xtina is the girl at the party with nothing else to talk about. Songs as subtle as Sex for Breakfast, lyrics as nuanced as "when the morning comes/I know I will too". And so, naturally, the British press looked up her up and down, and shook their heads disapprovingly. Not with the horror of broken taboos, but with boredom.

And all this is true, and fair, and it whirrs around my head every time I stick the album on (which has been surprisingly often the last few months), but it doesn't matter.

Because the girl has some interesting friends, and she's brought them with her. The MIA song is the best MIA song of the year; Nicki Minaj infects Woohoo with Minaj-ness, and makes that ridiculous oversexualisation work. But most importantly, it just sounds gorgeous. Turned up loud enough, you can feel the shapes of the music. Of course, it all comes crashing down by the end, when the album strays into attempted seriousness, and the accompanying ballads.

But that first half: it might be shallow, it may lack nutrition, but it just sounds so good. Pop doesn't have to be sexy. This album isn't shocking and it isn't sexy. But, hey, this is pop music. Words don't matter, right?

I've never gotten Xiu Xiu before, but Miles 'Tails' Bradley informs me this is their Pop album. And, well... that title. That's all you need, really. That's pure Pop.

I played the title track to Liv one drunken Sunday afternoon, in endless rotation between California Gurls and Mystery Jets' Flash A Hungry Smile and it just fitted in perfectly. The overblown melodrama is giggle-worthy, to hear someone cutting all the indirect subtextual crap and just singing 'dear God I hate myself' as a chorus. But like the best Pop, it also manages to take you in, and make you feel it.

And then titles as light and friendly as Chocolate Makes You Happy encourage quiet giggles in a different way. But there's always something underneath, something savage with glinting eye. Pop.

Girl loves boy. Girl loves weed. Oh gosh how she loves both these things.

As many times as I listen to it, this album remains essentially a half-hour of just Boyfriend in my mind. Which isn't a bad thing, and is probably fitting, given that this is the musical equivalent of a stoner movie. But ... good, like.

Big Boi, Big Pimpin'
Guaranteed to add an extra 30% of swagger to whatever you're doing while it plays.

Grouped because they are each other's evil twin. Both are albums of pretty music that can be dialled down and left to settle into the background and the back of your mind.

The difference is that Serotonin makes that into a virtue. It's easy listening in the Belle & Sebastian sense, the kind where you spot your fingers creeping towards the volume dial, catch yourself singing along half-way through a song.

Whereas Suburbs is easy to forget. It's easy not to notice that it’s on. Occasionally something will snag your attention and you'll wake up, with no idea where you are in the album, or which songs have slipped by unnoticed.

The album occasionally hits on a typically great Arcade Fire lyric: “watching the end of the world on a badly compressed “ or a great song. Sprawl II is absolutely stellar, a contender for best Arcade Fire song. It's possibly telling, though, that it is the one song that doesn't sound like the others. It barely even sounds like Arcade Fire at all. With the Regine-led vocals and pulsing synths-y electro beat at its heart, it could almost be a Knife song. But to steal a line from my handsome comrade Mr Christopher Sparrow, the album is less than the sum of its parts, somehow.
We are young, we are tree
I like the album a lot more than on first listen. Being able to buy it for £1 helped a lot. A lot of people – some of whom I trust, many who I don’t – have raved about this album, and so I keep listening and waiting. I’m still waiting on a metamorphosis. Maybe it won't come, maybe it will, one day.

Whereas Serotonin comes on sexy straight away, muttering in your ear. It's a continuation of the Jets' journey into an imaginary universe where it was '80s pop still roams the earth, unchallenged. It's polished, crowd-pleasing stuff, with just enough Mystery Jets flair and eccentricity to keep it recognisable as, y'know, something the NME would talk about.

The passion's beginning to fade a little, I think, and it's possible our time together is coming to an end. Maybe by year's end I'll feel the opposite way about these two albums. We'll see.
Which is, of course, just great. It’s more Robyn, in a year full of Robyn (though not full enough: I’m indignant about the news that Part 3 is set to be half greatest-hits, with only five new songs).

Nevertheless, this is a brilliant way to do pop music. Releasing three albums a year means that 'the new Robyn release' becomes a viable thing, something to get exicited about in the way hoary old rockers chat up in the NME. The model has an essay in it, the music is just very, very good.
Earsplosion!

I know absolutely nothing about The Indelicates. I've had a few run-ins with their music before, loose mp3s sitting around, last.fm recommendations, the odd stray blog. But I've never dipped in fully. Releasing this album on a pay-what-you-want honesty box system was all I needed to tip me over.

And I'm glad it did. It's beautiful, in a kind of old-fashioned way. It's the kind of music you remember as a sweeping waltz, gentle. Then, when I actually try and put it on in the background, it violently reminds me just how wrong I was. Underneath the laced hem of that beautiful swaying dress is a knive-toed boot.

The first reference point is the back catalogue of Luke Haines, The Auteurs and Black Box Recorder. The second is: The early 20th Century. Empire. The lust and greed at the heart of society. The Victorians trying hard to sweep all that under the carpet, and the English earning that reputation we opened up talking about. The modern nostalgic longing. Keep Calm and Carry On. Stiff upper lips. Quivering flesh. Red wine - it is red wine, right? - dripping from marble. Oh, ignore Luke, he's just smashed.

The music itself is all sharp-edged polished surfaces: the kind you smash your skull on. It's just brilliant with a turn of phrase, full of clever little lyrics I want to scribble in every notebook I can get my hands on. Beautiful music, beautiful words, dirty subjects.

The album hasn't been something I naturally come back to. It's not the kind of thing I think, hey, at last a moment to myself! I can't wait to listen to The Indelicates. It's not working it's way into my head, at least not when I'm not listening to it. But what I'm realising, slowly, is this is making me feel the way Indie music used to. It sweeps over me and through me and I don't want songs to end and I'm ready to put the album on again straight after finishing.

It's love, in an odd subtle way. Indie love.
Swingers

Sunday, 24 October 2010

2010: The Third Quarter - Filmz

Toy Story 3
ToyStory3-6
It's been a remarkably strong few months in the cinema. I started to suspect that as I emerged from Toy Story, for my money the strongest entry in the series and quite possibly a goodbye to Pixar as we know it.

(I never exercised my theory in the below review, but looking at the schedule - Cars 2 next, then splintering off into a mix of unnecessary sequelitis, unpromising fantasy fiilms and even live-action - it seems like the beloved company is undergoing something of a sea change, and that we stood, in the brief moment between Up and this, at their high watermark. It feels like that beautiful 'wave speech' from Fear & Loathing.)
"Because Pixar have discovered the magical formula, now. The film consistently pulls on a visceral emotional response. Sometimes that's laughter, or warm nostalgia. Sometimes it's pure, big, colourful spectacle. Often it's trying to make you cry."
The review is the second part of a double-feature. Keeping the original confusion alive, it's probably best to read the Inception half first.

Inception
Inception consumed the public consciousness for a good month or so. It's settled down now, but I suspect, if picked at, those wounds will prove easy to reopen. I talked about it at length, because it's Inception and that's just what you do, here.
"It's a film about films, just in the sense that it's such a shining example of a film that understands films. Inception's basic premise, and the early reveals, are based around the most obvious narrative cliche in the world: ...and it was all a dream. The twist becomes not oh it was all a dream but rather, already knowing that's in the deck, will they play that card? And where?"
I would have liked to see it twice, in this year of double-dip cinema (Scott Pilgrim and Toy Story so far, undoubtedly going to see The Social Network again). My opinions never got tested, and I missed the chance to wail along with that score.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Girl, looks like this
The film I had to see twice:
"The hits that it lands are truly triumphant, though. The thing that struck me most second time was the music. It’s brilliant, and brilliantly used, and Edgar Wright’s description of the film as a musical with punches rings really true."
It didn't occur to me either time, but Scott Pilgrim is a pop-song of a film. Catchy bits get stuck in your head. It doesn't necessarily make 100% sense, but when it catches you, and you're dancing frantically in the moment, it's all you need.

And like any pop song, it needs to be heard more than once. Otherwise how would you know when to dance?

The Expendables
See, here's the problem with The Expendables: I wanted it to be one thing, though I knew it would never be that thing. Given its unique selling point is 'we have all the action stars', I hoped for a reflection on the genre and its heroes. Whenever the film lagged (and during a lot of the dialogue-heavy segments, or the exposition stuff, it really lagged), I couldn't help but figure out how that film would work. Jason Statham the representative of the Modern Action Hero, against the ridiculous colossi of Stallone & Schwarzenegger? Each character an amalgam of the characters that actor had played?

I wanted something simultaenously less serious and more intelligent. A post-modern wink of an action film.
The Lads
What I got instead, though, was occasional brilliance. A feeling augmented by the company and mindset I saw it in : we were the people laughing hardest in the cinema, perhaps the only people. The violence is ridiculous, and set up like a well-told, but silly joke.

The opening scene drags on too long, trying to pile on tension and real-world allusions. And then, BAM, the first shot is fired and a man is ripped in half, his torso flying across the screen followed by flowing red ribbons. The four of us laughed uncontrollable squealing, ribcage-rattling laughs. Crap dialogue. Rubbish attempts at emotion. Ultra-violence. It was the best comedy I've seen this year. When the lights went up, a couple sat in front of us turned round and smiled what I think was a sincere smile.

The film that could have been... this was our only shot at it. And that beautiful, strange film can never exist. But I did get to see a man take another man's head off with a throwing knife.

Shrek Forever After
Provider of undoubtedly the biggest face-palm moment of my blogging year, when I accidentally linked to the review in my Summer Without Games article (the most popular post this humble website's ever had) instead of the intended Mario Galaxy, presumably confusing the hell out of hundreds of readers. Sorry guys!
"Being honest, I didn't really want to like Shrek Forever After, or Shrek The Final Chapter, or whatever the hell it's calling itself. I'd heard bad things; I automatically mistrust franchises that stretch beyond trilogies, and I oppose Dreamworks' animated films on principle.

In return, Shrek did its very best to make this easy for me."
That's how the review in question starts. The rest is here.

Panique au Village
Panique on the streets in Birminghaaaam
Or, if I'm being a little less precious, A Town Called Panic. Absolutely the purest cinema experience I've had all year. Decided arbitrarily to go and see it based on a convenient showing time and use of the words 'parachuting cows' in the synopsis. It didn't fail to live up to that promise.

Full of wonky DIY inventiveness, the film is the greatest fountain of ideas I've experienced since Mario Galaxy 2. It's lovingly, obviously crafted in that Aardman way: you can almost see the hands moving the little plastic indians and animals around the screen. The film's a PG but I couldn't help but feel like a naughty child who'd snuck into a grown-up's screening: not quite knowing what they were seeing, but loving every rebellious, anarchic moment of it. I can't explain the joy of it properly but if you get a chance, I highly recommend seeing it, preferably with a sneaked-in bottle of wine as companion.

I give Panique au Village parachuting cows out of ten.

The Social Network
Still chewing on this one. Almost every conversation of the last two weeks has featured: "have you seen The Social Network yet?", but my follow-up is just 'well, it's really good...' I feel like seeing it two or three more times. At some point during that, no doubt an overlong post will come your way.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Number One, #7

This has been sitting in the drafts folder for a week and a half now, as various complications have conspired against it. Am avoiding this week's results, so to speak, to keep the purity of my opinions.
(EDIT: since checked and it's still Number One! Woo! Both because it keeps this relevant and it means all is still right with the world.
)

It's been harder and harder to find anything to say about the recent crop of #1s, and I've got more and more behind. Tinie Tempah? Bruno Mars? Alexandra Burke again? The top spot has been a success of sighs for a few months now and, with the X Factor machine revving up, the near future looks bleak. But then sometimes Pop does exactly what it's supposed to, and surprises you.

And so the song that was like a number one beamed in from an alternate, slightly better universe, is actually Number One.

CEE LO GREEN - F' YOU

That title is a bit contentious. Because the version actually listed on the official chart is Forget You. Which is precisely 40% less fun, thanks to that removed f-bomb.

Now, there's nothing wrong with censoring. It's understandable, and there's no other way this song could have conceivably gotten to #1. Regular readers might be aware that I'm partial to a bit of substition myself, in the interests of keeping the blog family-friendly (and for my own amusement).

Thing is, getting rid of the swear takes away some of the fun. Replacing it with 'forget' changes the song entirely.

1) It steps down the emotion of the song, from a desperate regretted-in-hindsight late night Livejournal entry* to a shrug of the shoulders.
2) It undermines the big silly idea at the centre of the song: a mash-up of squeaky-clean Motown pop and the foul-mouthed self-expression of modernity.
...But, ignoring my own subjective and (very) occasionally flawed opinions, the biggest problem is:
3) Tacking on an extra syllable makes it impossible to curse along with the radio.

That's just uncool. It says a lot, then, that running at 60% capacity, this is still the best Number One we've had since California Gurls, the song which kickstarted this semi-failed experiment. My reaction to finding out this had made #1 was to reflexively shout 'yes!' out loud. Take that, Take That! Forget you, X Factor!

(I was originally going to do a run down of the singles that have made it to #1 between this and the last time I did one of these, and why FU is better than every single one of them, but ultimately I just couldn't be bothered with them, it's been that drab. So I'll just explain why this is so great and leave the comparison to you, trusted reader.)

It takes a great gimmick and works it into a perfectly constructed slice of catchy Pop. Everything is built on a solid shoulder-shaking, finger-snapping foundation. Then it layers on the beautifully physical voice of Mr Green, dealing with a relateable sentiment: "I see you runnin' round town with the girl I love..." Then, bam!, in comes the first f-bomb, balanced exactly between you tell 'em! empathy and oh no he di'n't! funny. It's not that swearing is shocking or new, but the context - that classic pop sentiment, the sound of it all - is enough to leave your mouth agape on the first listen.

But just in case that didn't get your jaw to drop, inventive moment after moment is constructed around this. The harmonising backing singers, dropping the classic couplet "Oh sherbert she's a gold digga/Just thought you should know, fella.**" The way Cee Lo extends out the high-pitched "pity the fooooooool" that accompanies it. The bit where it builds to Cee Lo's voice, like hot tar, letting it all out seeming to worry about shape, while fitting perfectly to the rest of the song. Just how effortless it all seems...

That effortlessness makes the song hard to write about. Pulling back the curtain a bit, there's a reason it's taken me so long to get this blog finished. Perfect is the word that keeps cropping up and getting backspaced out. The whole thing is polished till it shines, but that makes it water-tight and impenetrable. I've listened to the song a couple of dozen times in an attempt to get in. The best thing I can say about it - the quality which makes it a perfect #1 - is that I still want to hear it again.


*Yes, I'm talking about The Social Network here, which I saw last night. Opinions forthcoming.
**An example of the aforementioned censorship, there.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

e-Motion: Kinect at Eurogamer Expo '10

The Green Eye of Death
Game shows! Huh! What are they good for?

...Playing around with exciting new games technology, apparently. In this case, Microsoft's 360 gadget Kinect, which easily wins this year's 'hardest name to accurately remember' award, having taken three attempts to type correctly and being mispronounced all weekend by my fellow attendees. But, then, silly names come with the territroy. Eh, Nintendo?

Kinect is Microsoft taking a long, hard look at the future of gaming and, to paraphrase Doc Brown, saying: where we're going, we don't need controllers. Which is an interesting step on, conceptually, from the Wii, going beyond the removal of those fiddly buttons and sticks that put off the older generations and just straight-up waving goodbye to everything.

What looks to be less of an interesting step forward is the games. On the show floor, you had:
-The One That's Definitely Not Wii Sports (Kinect Sports, which seems to be the only thing Rare are working on at the moment, oddly)
-The Proof-of-Concept Minigames One (Kinect Adventures)
-The Honest Guv It's Not Mario Kart Racing One (Kinect Joyride)
-...and a dancing game.

It's hardly inspirational, revolutionary stuff.
Kinect Adventures
Worse, there seemed to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the Kinect attractive. I didn't get to play Kinect Sports, but watching two people limply play table tennis it was pretty easy to see that removing the remotes from, let's be frank, Wii Tennis doesn't make it feel more natural. Having that weight in your hand helped people buy into the Wii experience. Meanwhile, the two Avatars (Mii-a-like cartoony representations of the player) flopped reluctantly along. It was, I suspect, an impressive use of the technology but it just served to reinforce the artificiality of the situation.

The dancing game (Dance Central, to be specific, as according to Wikipedia it's one of three dance games launching with the Kinect) suffered from the opposite problem. With one dancer representing both people busting moves in front of the camera, there didn't seem to be any visual representation of what either player was doing, or not doing. But, perhaps I'm being unfair. I didn't get to play either of these games myself. So let's move on to what I did get my hands on. Um. Not that, err, there was anything to put your hands on...

First: Kinect Joy Ride. It failed to play to any of the 'no controller' idea's strengths, a problem inherent in the Kinect racing genre. Having no physical object to grab meant that when your steering went wrong, you had no indication of why. Were you grabbing this imaginary wheel in the wrong place? Had you steered too far in one direction? Was it that little sidestep you took ten seconds ago? No idea. I won the race, but didn't come away feeling like I'd mastered anything.
Kinect JoyRide
Which leaves Kinect Adventures. Stepping forward as the Kinect's answer to Wii Play - which showed what could potentially be done with the technology in a series of (not very fun) minigames - it was surprisingly the best indication that this might all actually be worthwhile. To return to the eternal question of what makes the Kinect interesting, what its strengths are: it is as a gadget. That's how it's being sold, advertised in shop windows as Christmas' hottest gadget. It exists as something to be filed alongside the iPads and 3D TVs of the world.

The appeal is the idea of playing with sci-fi tech. The Minority Report feeling of flipping through menus floating in the air in front of you. So my first instinct was to play with it, see how it worked, and try to break it.

Adventures offered the best chance to do that, with minigames focused on bending your body in the style of that BBC-adopted Japanese gameshow where people have to jump through Tetris-block shaped holes. This meant being able to test the admittedly quite impressive tech - what happens if I lift my leg? Ooh! Now what if? Ahh! - which wasn't on show in any of the other games.
KinectAdventures
The minigames themselves weren't that brilliant but the novelty of testing the limits of something new can make up for that, as many early Wii games can attest. And so hilarity ensued: watching friends jump in the air and nearly batter a poor stranger over the head in the process. Some guy who decided to see if he could make his Avatar shoot a Nazi salute. Nearly falling over myself...

That is what the Kinect needs to be. It remains to be seen whether the developers are actually going to realise that.

(Likenesses of Mssrs David Inkpen and Geoff Maillard, esquire, used without any permission whatsoever. Sorry, guys.)

Friday, 8 October 2010

Eurogamer Expo '10: Look at us, we played some games!

ACBvsGOW
Gears of War 3
The one thing the first Gears of War realised - the one thing that raised it above all the ridiculous musclebound-homoerotic-dripping-sweat macho cliches it so loved - was that it is just as exciting to be shot at as it is to shoot.

Within six months, every shooting game had a cover system. By the second game, it felt less special, and so overblown spectacle and setpieces became the order of the day. Gears of War 3 was showing off its new Beast mode. Beast is an inversion of the old Horde mode, probably Gears of War 2's greatest contribution to the genre. It flips the core idea, placing a team of Locust baddie-monsters against wave after wave of wily humans.

And so Gear's precious vulnerability is replaced: at least in the version I played, the 'one death and you're out' mechanic is gone. The key thing, however, is the unlockable tree of characters. The longer you play, it opens up the option to play as a whole host of ridiculous monsters, from the mace-wielding Behemoth fella to the virtually indestructable Sonic-by-way-of-Predator Kantus. To call Beast mode asymmetrical is a powerful understatement. You are the destructive force tearing Gears' world apart.

Having sacrificed the one thing Gears has always done right, Beast Mode really needs to capture the just as rare sensation of being genuinely all-powerful. Which, sadly, it doesn't quite manage.

Nevertheless, and annoyingly counter to my argument, it was compelling. It aims for somewhere between all-powerful and battered-down - embodied in the way humans can hem the big all-powerful guys in with laser traps - and instead concentrates on being a tight, sharp game. There's clearly room for sharpened strategic playstyles there, for large amounts of variety within the same play session. I accept, grudgingly, that letting me stomp on puny humans might imbalance the game. But just where is the tension?

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
The Usual Suspects
You know those party games, where one person can kill everyone else by winking? Or the one where people have to try and guess who the secret killer is, doing the dirty while they've all got their eyes closed? Mafia or Werewolf or, relevantly, Assassin?

It's looking to be the year where people realise that would translate beautifully to videogames, and Brotherhood is the big-budget example. You've got one target, dressed in one of seven strikingly identifiable costumes. Your job, obviously, is to assassinate them. But those seven costumes populate the world hundreds of times over. The key is picking out exactly which one is your target and not just an AI clone.

Meanwhile, you are someone else's target, and they're trying to do the exact same thing as you. And so the game becomes trying to pick people off, while remaining invisible to your pursuer. Do you try to force someone's hand into revealing themselves, and risk giving yourself away? Do you concentrate on being the perfect AI and wait for the inevitable mistakes to happen around you?

Or, do you clamber up the nearest trellis and pelt it across the rooftops?

As previously mentioned, Brotherhood is the blockbuster iteration of the idea. That means turning up the thrills, adding gadgets and fast-paced chases to the simple beauty of the parlour game at its heart. It's just a little bit too easy to not play by the game's rules. During my numerous play-sessions, some people chose not to play along, and played the admittedly fine action game instead. The game's unique joy walks, by defintion, a razor's edge. Bring that to Xbox Live's infamous idiot-mentality, and you're looking at a beautiful system inevitably broken.

On the other hand, us boring patient thinker types have got SpyParty coming. And it is thrilling to realise you've just screwed up and throw caution to the wind. Giving up the pretence and just legging it over the aforementioned, beautifully-modelled rooftops. Slamming a door in a pursuers' face and knowing you've lost them. For now, at least.
Purty
One of the odd things, meeting games before they're quite ready, is playing backseat designer. Oh, if only they tweaked this, or took away that... The conversation on the way home, the next morning, was about just how Brotherhood could be improved. It needs to be smaller. It needs to drop the radar. It needs to penalise mis-kills, of innocents or non-target players. It needs to be one-death-and-you're-out.

So here we have two games that aim for an interesting extreme. In my head, I see them existing as a perfect caricature of an idea. Gears of War 3's Beast Mode living up to its name, throwing your foolish concepts of 'fairness' and 'balance' out of the window and laughing deeply, handing you the reins to an out-of-control overpowered war machine destroying all that lays before it.Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood multiplayer living up to its name: drawing a tense mano-y-mano duel out of a crowded plaza, forcing you to eye up the three richly dressed merchants as you finger the whetted knife and wondering, exactly which one is the man you've been paid to kill, narrowing it down to two, to one, squeezing your eyes tight as you squeeze the trigger and -- red, everywhere red, what happened? As your model ragdoll flops to the floor, you see the blade pulled from your ribs, the smile on the face of the pursuer you forgot all about.

...Instead, they aim to be good games. Balance and tightness over big stupid innovation. And no doubt, they will be. They'll be well-received, get 8s and 9s in all the right places, sell beautifully. But maybe we'll look at it, this healthy beautiful success, and remember - for one unjustifiably bitter moment - what it should have been.
Gears Big MF

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Scott Pilgrimfest, Vol 3: vs. The Soundtrack

So this summer - now, as we lay it sadly down to rest, the past summer - was nominally The Summer of Scott. Or, if you're fancying a really over-stretched pun on a rubbish song, The Summer of Scott-n-Knives*. The idea of Scott Pilgrim spread, with various success, into every medium I care about - or, at least, every medium I can write passably about - and every medium that was important to the source material. Comic book, film, videogame... It might seem a slight cheat to include music in that. It's just a soundtrack. But, as I chatted up my review of the film, the music is key. It is, after all, a musical with punches in.
I know this is technically the score. But I like blue.
The soundtrack has a weird Moebius-loop quality to it. Songs that inspired the Scott Pilgrim comics in the first place nonchalantly rub shoulders with songs from its fictional bands. There's music you might recognise from those little playlists at the back of the books. There are songs that named characters. There are songs by those characters. The whole thing makes a perfect soundtrack to reading the comics all over again. Comics which are both the reason it exists. and which exist because some of these songs...

Thinking too hard about it is like staring at the sun. So, in the grand tradition of Scott himself, let's not think too hard and just have fun.

Which is very, very easy. This is an album which features, after all, Plumtree's Scott Pilgrim, a song which I spent all summer lusting over. Existing only as an easy way to get hold of that song, at party-friendly quality, would be enough.

I've spent at least as much time listening to every other song as I have playing that on constant loop, however. The soundtrack comes off as an easy, assured mixtape. You couldn't necessarily tell the fake songs from the real songs: possibly because they are drawn from the exact same musical lineage, and share at least one boundary-blurring talent (Miss Emily Haines, providing vocals on both on The Clash at Demonhead's Black Sheep and Broken Social Scene's Anthems for A Seventeen Year-Old Girl).
Metric/CaD
There are songs I have absolutely no memory of being in the film, but feel right. They fit right into the film as it exists in my memory, a perfect flickering ideal playing in my head. More importantly, they fit perfectly into the album.

As do the fictional songs. Having proved themselves in the film, here they get to be comfortable in their own habitat. The elevation of Scott's being-rubbish-is-the-whole-point Ramona, into not only a catchy acoustic number but also a full-blown heartwrenching Beck song, is triumphant. Placing them one after the other on the soundtrack is just showing off.

You could hand this to someone with no prior knowledge and, if you didn't tell them it was a soundtrack, they probably wouldn't know. There's the odd talky bit (see: Crash & The Boys' 0:13 opus I Am So Sad, So Very Very Sad) but, hey, Surfer Rosa had those too. It just gives a sense of inclusivity, and helps it all come off as a very comfortable mixtape.

I've tried to avoid using the word 'compilation' throughout. That's because of how heartfelt this feels, a million miles from being a Now That's What I Call... collection of songs. It transcends being a soundtrack, even. But listening to this, partying to it in a living room with a huge Scott Pilgrim poster dominating one wall, makes me like the film more.
Seeya!

*Yeah. I know. Sorry.

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London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.