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Oct. 15th, 2008

DRM, the peg-legged boogie-man and the PC Industry's Self Immolation

It was always going to happen. DRM's the hot topic in the world of PC gaming these days, and sooner or later I was going to try my hand at tackling it. Long story short, my opinion is the same as any right minded PC gamer. It's doing far more harm than good, doing nothing more than to affect the legitimate consumer and certainly not stem piracy. 

The first and most damning aspect - it does. Not. Work. Spore was pirately more than any other game I can think of - somewhere in the region of half a million people downloaded it, despite having measures to supposedly stop it from happening. A lot of those downloads were in protest of the DRM measures. So in effect, it has had the opposite result. I guess the only thing we can take heart in knowing is that the shareholders will very most likely be connecting the dots when what could be the biggest thing outside of World of Warcraft doesn't bring results... all because of DRM. Like the consumer, I guess we can only hope they vote with their wallets.

Second. It's cliched to hell, but you simply cannot stress it enough. It only affects the legitimate consumer. So honestly. EA, Ubisoft. Tell us. What's the point? What is the point when it does not work, and it drives away sales?

Lets turn to the devil themselves, EA's John Riccitiello:

"We're still working out the kinks. We implemented a form of DRM and it's something that 99.8 percent of users wouldn't notice. But for the other .2 percent, it became an issue and a number of them launched a cabal online to protest against it."

Kinks? The whole damn concept is one black-hole of a kink. And it's drawing PC gaming into its event horizon. 99.8% who don't notice? I'm sure they'll notice when their title fails to install in a few years time - right when the company will likely be loosing interest in supporting said title. My favourite bit though is "a number of them launched a cabal online to protest against it". A cabal?! So we're somehow now an occult body plotting PC gaming's downfall or something? Actually conciously considering where we invest our money; being conscientious consumers apparently makes us some kind of feverant zealots? Thanks Johnny. I hope you're enjoying the hundreds of pounds I've probably given you over the years.

Next, he adds, "I personally don't like DRM. It interrupts the user experience. We would like to get around that. But there is this problem called piracy out there." I simply do not understand the man if he acknowledges it has problems. EA is made up of some very smart business people. They basically define the model for commercial gaming enterprise. But somewhere a long the line, their think tanks have failed them miserably here. It's really quite pathetic.

Thus, I reach the most important part of my rant. DRM and the crusade against the pirate boogie man is going to drammatically harm the industry if it keeps up. I'm not going to deny it: The industry is probably driven more by sales than any other mainstream media form.
The only way they make money is by shifting copies. Again, our friends the shareholders will be thinking with their wallets here. Why on earth are they going to invest in an industry where its executives will blindly drive away sales with intrusive DRM?

And it's not just the publishers. Once respected figureheads of PC gaming - Cliffy B of Epic and Peter Molyneux and the like are equally to blame. By abandoning the PC as a platform simply based on the arguement that piracy is "rampant" in the PC market, their doom and gloom is likely to cause an exodus to the consoles. And you know the worse thing? That's going to damage the quality of gaming too. I hate to generalise and all... but honestly, console games, especially FPS's are becoming criminally generic. There should be laws against the development of "Halo-killers".

In summary of the bad then:

1) It doesn't work!
2) The consumer gets a bad deal...
3) While the pirate enjoys it DRM free. And free. And before us consumers.
4) The doom and gloom of developers could have more serious ramifications for the industry than piracy itself.
5) It apparently makes me some kind of Cabalist.

This is however, not to say that it's all bad. In fact, I would say quite the opposite. At least with Cliffy B content to keep his hulking cardboard cutout heroes on the 360, we might actually see the good developers shining through.

Secondly, there are other avenues of light. Steam is fast becoming my new love affair. It's got a perfect balance between price, community features, excellent download rates... and it does help stem piracy, and certainly eliminates zero day piracy, which is by and large the most damaging form of it. Noticably may I add, the 360 version of Fallout 3 couldn't make that same claim, while the PC version is joyously DRM free and still well away from pirate bay.

Third, the indie PC games industry is making some huge strides these days - Hinterlands, Multiwinia, World of Goo are triple AAA titles in every respect. We don't need EA or Ubisoft for this kind of excellence.

Lastly, I can't help but find it ironic that low or superior DRM titles such as those by Stardock and Valve are better supported, and that support is not something the pirate can easily attain either. So we're being rewarded for paying, and we get a better deal on the whole aswell.

Anyway. I'm done rambling for now.

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Oct. 9th, 2008

Oh the irony...

So it appears Fallout 3 has been pirated already. A quick glance at Piratebay will reveal that Fallout 3 has already fallen to the pirates. It seems Beth's stance on light DRM has been proven... entirely correct. Because it's the 360 version that's been leaked a day after having gone gold. Where there is something to be had for free, people will take it. I hope publishers and developers take this experience to heart. Similarly, I noticed Brothers in Arms was available on torrent networks for the 360 last week with no PC torrent in sight. Granted the PC version was delayed a week, but I think it just goes to show that piracy is not a PC only phenomenon, and should not be treated as such.

Elsewhere in Fallout land, NMA has predictably began judging Fallout 3 through videos of the pirated copy on the internet already. All I can say is, shut the hell up and stop judging it from videos and play it yourselves. At least wait for some quality journalism to cover it. Some people...

Oct. 5th, 2008

In Defense of Deus Ex 3...

"Detailed" knowledge of Deus Ex 3 has been floating around the airwaves for but a matter of days, and already the elite are in uproar. It's the first press details of Fallout 3 all over again. I consider myself part of the elite; those gamers who've been gaming for over a decade and a half at least, and constantly lament the good old days. And Deus Ex was probably part of the best old days by all means. But it's time to move on. Deus Ex was brilliant, but not perfect. It was stunningly well designed, yet many design features are laughable by todays standards. It's time to move on.

What made Deus Ex great? For me it was the detailed, deep and all but realistic plot. It was about the excellent dialogue and thought provoking philosophy that drove its characters. It was the way you could fine-tune your character for any number of roles, from tanking in with a GEP gun, to hyper-pacifism. It was about the enormous variety of approaches to any one situation. It was about the trenchcoat and shades; future agent chique.

And to me, from what little information we have, I do genuinely believe Deus Ex 3 is on track.

From a gameplay perspective:

Auto-Healing: Admittedly, I was shocked at first. Genuinely shocked. But think it through - you're a frickin cyborg guys. Some form of auto-repair makes sense compared to magic health kits. And we know nothing about how it works otherwise - what's to say that you can't upgrade it via stats or augmentations. What if it's simply just one of the ways you can customise your character?

New stealth: Again, a little concerned at first. Honestly though, have you ever actually tried to use shadows in the name of stealth? It's not really that easy. Moving quickly behind cover, or blending into your environment (by that I mean, the people around you). That's real stealth. As big a fan I am of Thief, the shadow mechanic is basically unique to Thief - given Garrett is actually trained in the art of melding with shadows if you actually read into the backstory. It just doesn't seem right in other games in my opinion. Especially the likes of Deus Ex with its claims to comparitive realism.

The augmentations: They sound bloody fantastic. They are perfect additions to any cyborg secret agent's armory. Personal bungee jump? Smashing through walls? I don't know about any of you guys, but those are exactly the kinds of tools you'd want for alternative routes, snatch operations or avoiding fire fights. Remember we're not dealing with the Nano-augs of Deus Ex 1 or 2. These are mechanical bio-augs. The kind Agent Navarre or Hermann had in Deus Ex. They're going to be a bit more in your face. Granted, they do have to be done right, the martial arts aug, and the "claymore" aug sound almost like insta-win buttons. Hopefully they'll be a bit more complex than that.

"Personal marksmanship skills": Good frankly. I hated it in the first game. Hopefully you won't simply be able to pick up certain weapons and be able to use them right away, but I hate statistic based aiming in first person games. Total immersion breaker. Good. I don't care how much you prefer statistic based aiming, I hate it. Besides. If you want to go through the game guns blazing, it might as well be fun.

That's basically all we know for gameplay.

Art/Setting Direction

I've read a fair few comments by people on the art/setting direction concerned that it looks too futuristic for a prequel - that Deus Ex's todays world 50 years down the line look seems to have been abandoned. Yes it has. And it's for the best - our world today already looks more futuristic than that of Deus Ex to be quite honest (have you seen the likes of Dubai?). It's also perfectly clear that the best games are distinct in their aesthetic - Bioshock, Fallout, Half-Life 2 or Thief for example. All are very distinct with their design, and it suits their backstory entirely. Deus Ex is a world embroiled with the Illuminati and the Knights Templar and references to Da Vinci and all kinds of dusty old philosophers. Surely it should be gifted with design suitable for its grand plot overtones? I think so.

Also, we know for a fact that in the 25 years between 2027 (presuming Deus Ex 3 ends in the same year it starts) and 2052, the US had gone through civil war, massive earthquakes and general social distress. Societies go backwards as well as fowards. And for all those who want their hobo fires and hookers back, we've already been told that Shanghai is a two tier world of rich on the top and poor in the slums below. Don't worry. The grime will be there. The social commentary, will be there.

The Bottom Line

Basically, I think it's important to stress that these are very, very early days. We simply don't know enough about the game to make any true judgement as I see it. What we do know is that yes, they will make some changes, and no, not everyone will like them. That's the problem with doing a sequel/prequel. We know that it's got an incredibly strong aesthetic direction, and one quite distinct from anything else out there. 

Myself, I can't wait to find out more.

Oct. 3rd, 2008

Max Payne - Retrospective Part 2

Here's part 2 of my Max Payne retrospective. I'll warn you all now, it's a long one, and there's a good few spoilers in here.


 Max Payne 2

It's pretty rare for games to truly score points when it comes to emotion – besides raging over bugs perhaps. Max Payne 2 however achieves them in spades. Max Payne, the first game was by all accounts a depressingly emotional experience, and indeed, it's the backdrop of the broken protagonist destroyed by the Valkyre conspiracy he brought down in the previous game. But Max Payne 2 eclipsed this – it's a stony hearted gamer that could play through without at least one or two moments where it's more than just a game. You care about these characters.

So, where were we? Max may well have lined the pockets of a fair few funeral directors in his previous escapade, but contrary to his statements in the game, they were not all dead. Thus, the scene is set for another path of total destruction across Noir York when Max chances across the woman he thought dead, Mona Sax, at the scene of an attack by a mysterious group of armed “cleaners” who are gradually revealed as part of a civil war within the group responsible for the previous game's conspiracy. For all his attempts to escape his past, fate has another course planned.


The story telling techniques for the most part are identical to Max Payne; though arguably this time are supported by a far stronger set of voice overs, including the return of James McCaffrey as the excellent voice of Max. This time round however, each of the characters is as strongly developed as Max, particularly Mona who takes the centre stage alongside him, also becoming a playable character in some excellent sequences during the game – more on those later. All the voice work perfectly compliments the emotional heights of the plot and script.


The Max of the first game was driven by a singular goal: Revenge. Revenge on those responsible for the drug that destroyed his life and love. Though spectacularly well developed compared to most characters, his character in Max Payne 2 is given a life of its own; Max searches desperately for a sense of his own life. The bullet hole where his wife and child once belonged could never be resolved by revenge alone. Desperation clouds his judgement, but is the adrenaline that keeps him going. His love for Mona is both the cure and cancer. In seeking her love, he dooms himself to his fate.


Mona is similarly well developed: Possibly one of gamings great, underrated female protagonists. Unlike Max, Mona understands everything that is going on; and hers is the last and most tragic conspiracy to be revealed: That she must kill Max. Yet like Max, she seeks love, and escape from the world of violence and cloaked daggers that surrounds them both. She's also incredibly well presented; she's sexy (oh so, very sexy), but not an overt objective desire. Max, and I myself, saw the allure in her tragedy; the escape from the brutal reality of the story doomed to fall.


The betrayal in game is one of veritable Darth Vader proportions. When it finally hits, suddenly everything falls into place. It makes sense right back to the very moment you met them in the first game. Vlad Lem is in the right place, at the right time, every time. But he's so innocuous, and apparently external to the power play that his true position within the conspiracy seems impossible, and until you are told the truth, unthinkable. His dialogue is the big give away, yet the wool over your eyes. The best gaming comparison is perhaps Atlas in Bioshock, only it's “Max! My dearest friend” as opposed to “Would you kindly...” that acts as the dagger always an inch behind you. And more so than with Atlas, to have Vlad turn on me genuinely wrenches.


Supported by a cast of such multi-dimensional characters, the plot was always going to excel. It took what made Max Payne great in terms of plot – memorable lines, characters, and twists, and adds levels of complexity which truly compares with any great film or piece of literature. Max's desperate crawl to salvation is depressing, but utterly compelling. The final result – with everyone really dead this time bar Max and the stalwart Jim Bravura seems destined to occur: For Max to find real happiness at the end of it all was always fated to fail. The betrayal, Max's desperate search for love and resolution, and the final collapse of everything good or bad in his life at the end is above and beyond, one of the finest and heart wrenching climaxes in gaming.


For all my somewhat pretentious, somewhat self-indulgent rambling, I suppose I've not said much about the game itself yet. I could quite simply say that it improved on what made the original great. And it does. But there's a lot of nice features that did this. First up would be the physics. Anyone who played Max Payne 2 all 5 years ago will remember that first hood that you encounter – bullets ripping through him, body jerking realistically with the impact of each round, collapsing into a stack of utensils, which also proceed to fall apart around him, in slow motion. It's a gaming memory that always sticks. And developers still haven't really got physics quite this right in a game to date in my opinion. Yes. Even Half-Life 2. The key thing is the degree of clutter littering basically every level. The original allowed for carnage of an unprecedented scale on the environments, but with Havok physics, the sequel allowed you to absolutely tear a room to pieces. It's that aspect of Max Payne 2 that gave it an aura of realism that I don't think has been quite bettered in many respects.


Next, a major improvement as I see it, is vastly superior level design. It still suffered from the numerous locked door issues Max Payne did, but this time round it's not quite so noticeable, and the environments feel far more realistic and less forced. And there's some excellent highlights – examples including racing around a construction yard taking down snipers pinning Max down as Mona for one, or desperately trying to reach the bottom floor of a rich apartment block in another. Another particularly interesting and entertaining area is Mona's amusement park hide out that is excellently visited and revisited, gradually falling further and further apart with each one. Finally, Enemies aren't quite as likely to seemingly drop from nowhere – and there's a lot more audio cues when they are just around corners, resulting in less quicksaving headaches than before.


There's some other tweaks: Bullet time is improved; controls are even more intuitive – allowing you to stay on the floor firing after a dive for example, as well as giving you a secondary attack for melee blows or grenade throwing. A slew of new weapons, including the infinitely fun MP5 further add to the action and far superior AI both challenges and impresses. I also love your ability to knock enemies over with a dive or by throwing yourself through a door they're behind, adding more tactical options to the mix. The result of all these little and large improvements are quite simply, some even more spectacular gun fights that really are as intense as any bleeding edge release.


On the whole, Max Payne 2 was not only a solid sequel, adding more refined mechanics and technical enhancements, but somehow also managed to improve on the originals already excellent storytelling. This leads me thus onto the final part of my retrospective look at the Max Payne.


Where it goes from here.


The plot:

Here is the major headache that any next instalment will encounter: They are all dead. Literally, the only characters from either game still alive now are Max and Jim Bravura, unless of course they decide that the Dead on Arrival ending where Mona lives becomes canon. Not a good idea. I'm not going to speculate what could be. I'm just going to hope that whoever in charge of the script has got some bloody good skill, and I wish them every luck with it, since I do think part of Max Payne 2's strength was its ability to do away with introducing too many new characters – which would prevent the development of those returning. It'll be tough to find a new angle.

What needs to stay:

Max's narration; his constant nihilism and perchance for metaphor is essential. His greatest asset in winning the player over is his narrative excellence. I don't think any would-be developer could forget this one.

Intuitive controls as per both games are essential.

Keep the violence as gritty and unrelenting as the first two – I worry slightly given Rockstar's general relegation of violence to humour. In Max Payne, it's far more mature than that. It's not sadistic in the way it is in the likes of GTA or Manhunt. Maybe I'm generalising with regards Rockstar, but it is a slight concern to me.

Self awareness – Max Payne 2 didn't have too much time for it, but it was a highlight of the original. More of this would be excellent, and I think it's something that Rockstar tend to be effective with in games.

In general, I have to say I wish Rockstar all the luck in getting this one right. It'll be tough by all means, but my affection for the series is too great to want it to end where it has. And something will (probably) have to make up for the movie. I'm not judging it yet by any means, but it's a game-to-film. Hoping for a miracle is perhaps a little rash.

Sep. 30th, 2008

Max Payne - Retrospective Part 1

My opponent stands opposite me in a corridor of rusting cargo containers, we're both frantically reloading for the next volley. He's ahead of me by a split second and looses the first shot. As the barrel of his gun flashes, hot lead flies towards me, I dive to the right at the last moment. In slow motion precision, I make my move. A single shot to the head, and it's over. Crimson splashes in contrast to the bright white snow, the hired goon's corpse twists in agony to the floor. Such are the moments of ballistic tension that Max Payne pulls off better than any game to date.

So why a retrospective, and why now? Well, first up, it's on Steam at criminally low prices, and I managed to score it and its sequel for £6.40 during one of Steam's excellent bargain weekends. Secondly, the Mark Wahlberg starring film based on the license is set to hit cinemas later this month, and finally, news of a Rockstar produced sequel in the works appears to be picking up.

Released in 2001 after a somewhat protracted development period, Max Payne told the story of its titular protagonist; from the death of his wife at the hands of designer drug pumped junkies to the moment he finally takes the finger off the trigger, an obscenely high body count of mobsters and sinister corporate power players dead in his wake. Film noir and graphic novel sensibilities, laden with Max's relentless narration of metaphor barrage drive the story, while slow motion gun-fu creates some of the most spectacular shoot-outs gracing gaming history. It was a grim, angst and death ridden tale of blood, betrayal and bullets. All to the setting of New York's worst snow storm in history.

Max Payne's story is perhaps unparalleled in gaming. The crucial plot points are unveiled through graphic novel style slides; oozing with Max's biting sardonic wit. Excellently, you can review the story so far at any time by hitting F1, which is essential given the twists and turns in the plot. Max's crusade against those responsible for his wife's murder is a domino trail of death, destruction and desperation, each shot fired bringing Max closer to the truth, a new twist and adversary rearing themselves just as Max works his way up the syndicate. It's a genuinely tragic tale. Max is constantly haunted by his loved one's deaths; survivors guilt from this and the ever growing body count eating away at his sanity. Max is supported by a cast of superbly written characters; Lupino for example, a mob boss gone mad on power and drugs turns his gothic mess of a club into an occult den. The trail of letters, phone calls and dialogue leading up to Max's encounters with the characters builds them up in a way which I think has only been matched by Bioshock's audiotape expose'.



The dialogue is deliciously self aware: The dream sequences, though suffering from serious deficits in the level design department, contain one of my favourite pieces of dialogue in any game ever: Max realising first he's trapped in a graphic novel. Second that he's in a video game. Throughout – hoods talking about how cool bullet time would be for example, or Max thanking you for taking out the speaker spewing cheesy music in a lift - such touches are masterful strokes of humour, and demonstrate critical awareness of its own art that lift it above the tired machismo dominating lesser games dialogue. Simply put, Max Payne's narrative depth and intricacy alone quite rightly raises it to the heights of gaming aristocracy.


Max's brief critical evaluation of the game mechanics don't quite do it justice, yet sums them up perfectly. Max spends a lot of time shooting, diving and causing spectacular explosions, in glorious slow motion, yet repetitive this may be, it never seems to get old. Diving round the corner, duel Ingrams blazing is only matched in gaming coolness by landing an M79 round smack in the middle of a bunch of suits, limbs flailing. In slow motion. Environmental damage, despite being pre-Havok is similarly entertaining. Bullets that don't connect with hoods bleed plaster from walls or shatter glass. And at the end of a fight, you can't but help to revel in the field of death you've caused. You'll reduce Noir York's snow white back alleys to a mess of corpses and casings; early on, a bank becomes strewn with battle scars and blood.

The control mechanics feel superb, they feel right. I don't think there's a third person shooter out there that manages to quite strike such a chord. I still feel to this day that no other third person shooter can best Max Payne in the perfect balance of kinetic finesse and total control. Max is right; you really do control his every step.

There are some minor detractions – some dodgy level design can infuriate for example. Some of the locations do feel somewhat forced; a maze of locked doors haunts some levels, and you do get the sense that the developers tried to squeeze as many corridors as they could out of some locations, leading some bafflingly unorthodox ways of getting around them. What do you mean the lift is out of order? They all seem to be. Why can't I just take the fire exit? Enemy placement can infuriate, and you're often given no warning as to when you're going to come across gun toting hoodlums – and thanks to Max's relative fragility, you do find yourself coming to rely on endless quick saving a little too often. It's no chore to look past these issues when there's so much brilliance to Max Payne however. You just can't give up on it when the narrative is this good, the set pieces so precisely balanced and brilliant.

Max Payne nearly 7 years on is still a game any true gamer simply must have played at least once. It's a benchmark in story telling, in games as art. Developers could certainly do a lot worse than to take cues from Max Payne's strong sense of aesthetic flair, story telling and explosive action. If you didn't play them before, they'll prove as playable as any modern title. If you did, now is the perfect time to revisit them.

I'll bring the second half of my Max Payne retrospective soon enough, as I'm now playing through the sequel. I'll also spend some time looking to the future of the series with Rockstar, and what they need to get right in my opinion.



Sep. 23rd, 2008

Clear Sky Review

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, the prequel (sequel?) to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Clear Sky was a rare gem of a game. The original concept; the sprawling radioactive, physically psychotic wasteland replete with factions, reactive, concious AI and terrifying mutants was half-realised, yet proved easily one of – if not the most atmospheric shooter of 2007, even against the likes of Bioshock or the Orange Box.


Clear Sky from the outset has be purported as the salve to SoC's many sores, yet somewhere along the line, it has clearly fallen short, and feels antiquated even compared to its predecessor. The story, which just about held together in the previous game, is disjointed and unsatisfying; and there are obvious gaps in it, especially towards the gut wrenchingly awful final act. There are some moments where you will genuinely feel as if GSC just didn't bother implementing scenes that are written into the story, and as a consequence, the pacing is just totally ruined. Characters range from the believable if poorly scripted to the detestable. The dialogue just does not fit with the bleak atmosphere of the game's setting.

 Don't want to kill this guy's scripter?
You're a better man than I.

The faction wars, so proudly advertised throughout the game's development consistently disappoint, the AI tripping over itself as well as hundreds of other faction squads that constantly spawn. The Zone too has taken a hit, and the unstable, volatile world promised has become little more than a tour of the wastes, with dangerous areas clearly marked out on the tragic new PDA, and anomalies relegated to (admittedly fascinating looking) spots quite outside of the areas you're most likely to traverse. The balancing is atrocious, bouncing from absurdly hard; throwing situations where your equipment and hard earned cash is stolen or where Zeus himself is targeting you with a machine gun; then suddenly, the game hands you a bullet proof suit and weapons so powerful you'll find yourself taking on whole bases solo. One moment you'll be on the verge of death via hordes of enemies, the next you'll be giggling as you take down a helicopter with a shotgun. This game was simply not play tested to any degree of modern quality.


The game has its moments, and re-entering the Zone is a genuine thrill at times, with some excellent locations, but there's not enough. Combat occasionally excels, and the ballistics model makes for some brilliant ranged combat. Then the AI hurls a heat-seeking grenade your way. Clear Sky just cannot excel long enough to impress. In a way I can't help but feel I played through to the end just out of loyalty to the series.


It's half-finished, and without enough goodness to make up for the shortfalls. With the leviathan figures of Fallout 3 and Far-Cry 2 on the horizon it's soon to become a gaming dinosaur as well I suspect. Looking back on SoC too in hindsight, you can't help but feel that GSC almost got lucky with producing such a game. I can't help but wonder if GSC's ambitious release time scale doomed Clear Sky from the get go. By all means buy it if you truly can't get enough of the zone, as I couldn't. But after this, I think you'll find yourself jaded as to GSC's ability to carry the series in the future. Unless of course they take on some of the excellent modding community who kept the first game engaging for me right up until the release of Clear Sky.


Score: A disappointing 65%


Sep. 12th, 2008

Spore Review

  Will Wright is possibly the closest gaming can get to a god. Other's have come close, but normally let themselves down at one point or another. Black and White 2 comes to mind. Peter Molyneux, you muppet. Will Wright has never really had this kind of failure; he's kept that aura of brilliance and mystique that keeps them up there between Buddha and Jesus. And like and kind of prophet or deity, he has those who perhaps don't quite see the products of his vision in the way he does. Only some will like the Sims, but no-one will deny its impact for example. Thus, Spore has for its protracted development been a different game for anyone who has read previews or watched videos of its pregnancy. The ultimate result of this, is that upon its release, a lot of people are going to be disappointed. And this does in no way affect what is a fundamentally innovative and engaging game.


    Depending on what you were expecting from the game, each stage - or maybe all – will come off as being banally simplistic or utterly brilliant. The first, the Cell stage plays out like Pac Man with spikes in primordial soup. Its brilliance lies in its fluidity. In order to advance, it's kill or be killed. Eat or be eaten. This is survival at its most basic; apt for the stage of evolution it represents. On the downside, there is a limited number of combinations – but then again, how many variations on it can you really get when you're dealing with such tiny, simplistic organisms? It's a stylised, simple, streamlined introduction to the game. Great so far.


    The next stage, the Creature stage was a disappointment for me. I was personally hoping for a more detailed ecosystem – less like a set of cat-walks for peoples creations; however excellent some of them are. For me, the problem in this stage was not a fundamental lack of complexity, since I think any huge amount more of controls or tasks would have been overkill for a game with such an open target audience, but it lacks depth. It would have been excellent to see flocks of peoples herbivores interacting with one another, with carnivores skulking the plains. Instead the creatures for the most part simply sit at their nests, waiting for me to sing to them or slap them in the face till they fall over. Over and over and over. The interface is way too much like every other game too – it felt hard trying to express a creature when its personality comes down to a choice of buttons. I'm not going to defend this stage as being part of Wills vision, I truly did think it was awful. It – or rather the nature of the rest of the game – does somewhat redeem itself by show casing some genuinely brilliant player created creatures in game. Particularly the puppet master. Easily my favourite creature so far.


    Okay. Next. The Tribal stage. A marked improvement, and for me, it's a satisfying departure from the overly interface ridden creature stage. Here your tribe's personality is governed by actions rather than tool bars, and it feels on the whole a lot more natural. Watching your tribe of frogs holding other frogs attempt to take down a giant beer tankard is infinitely amusing too. It's also genuinely interesting how your creature's attributes govern the way your creatures go about their tasks. You gave them wings? They'll glide about. Stealth masters? They'll manoeuvre themselves into position carefully before striking or raiding the enemy. Where before the creature stage manifested its procedural generation features in fairly basic terms, quite simply dictating what weapons or social tools a creature had, the tribal stage takes the creature and its attributes, and gives it personality. Brilliant.


    Once again however, the Civilisation stage is a bit of a mixed bag. All the developments in the previous stage is reduced to simply dictating which superpower you are assigned on the get go, and the type of “attack power” the units of your first are assigned. Imagine a world where the whole of human development produced nothing more significant than a single invention by which the whole of civilisation is determined. That's essentially what you're given. On the other hand, you are given chance to define your creations in new ways of expression. The building and unit tools, like the creature tools, offer immense variety. Using these tools you make up for the lack of depth of involving game mechanics, by simply creating your own societies. I'm particularly proud of my aforementioned Tall Frog race. Between the various editors, I've created a society where by the rich are literally carried by the poor. The poverty stricken class are mostly paid by the rich to carry them about. As a consequence the rich have evolved differently; their legs having withered and become incapable of carrying them. Their buildings are similar; the administrative centre being “Tall Street”. Their houses? High rise blocks of flats where the rich live in penthouses, the poor in squalor below. Now tell me a game where you have the kind of power to let your imagination fly?


    Finally, we reach the Space stage. I've complained throughout till now that the game tends to throw out all your development in the previous stage in introducing the new. The space stage is no exception. But it simply does not matter. The universe is vast. Skipping from planet to planet, collecting equipment, you unlock the potential to let your imagination run wild in creating designer societies and planets. There's restrictions – planets have to be terra-formed in order to attain the correct “terrascore” to support increasingly higher numbers of life forms, but once you get the hang of this, it becomes a joy in itself. There are balancing issues; and the empires you build, thanks to some disturbingly high numbers of attacks (I've since downloaded mods to lessen this), it can be a pain to administer, and just enjoying the sandbox style features can be hard as a result. The level of depth in this stage entirely makes up for it though. Creating an empire in one game allows you to visit them in another – maybe even reduce them into the ground if you can bring yourself to destroy your children..


    What I would say of Spore, is that it is not for the unimaginative. I would say that those looking for a game with complexity and depth all the way through will simply not find it if they don't know how to fully appreciate the tools at your disposal with regards the editors and various community functions – and I'm sure many of those I've heard being critical at it are those who never actually bought it, thus lacking these features. Many will also find some of the stages as I did, somewhat lacking. But honestly, you simply cannot appreciate the game if you do not appreciate what the game's vision really is: To give the player the tools to create their own societies from the Cell to Space. If you can, you will love it, despite some distractingly disappointing stages or balance issues.

Score: 89%

The Tall Frog race.

With full command of the editor's toolset, you can build a massive variety of creations. Such as my giant walking beerbottle, and recreation of the Mobile Oppression Palace of Futurama fame.

For anyone interested, my Sporepedia account name is "StalinsGhost"

May. 9th, 2008

Nine Inch Nails : Ghosts I-IV Review

Lazy I know, but I've not got round to doing any new reviews the past couple of days due to uni commitments, so I thought I'd post my old Nine Inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV review I'd done on Facebook up on the blog. Also started reading Asimovs Foundation series, so that'll probably be something I'll be reviewing in the weeks to come.

Nine inch Nails - Ghosts I-IV

Nine Inch Nail's last release Year Zero was a failure for Trent Reznor. Undoubtedly a good album, the label's marketing sickened Trent to the core; fans being forced to pirate or pay far more than the average price in many stores; Its viral marketing campaign and complex themes and concepts being perhaps somewhat overlooked in the face of industry profits. It was surely with this in mind that Reznor has decided to not only finally reject his label, but come out with his most challenging release yet.

Ghosts was released on the 2nd of March with as much warning as a news update a couple of weeks ago informing us... of an "update". While I was sure we'd probably have a release; and one with a unique marketing strategy too, I certainly expected something perhaps less grand, and more simply a continuation of the Year Zero project (though I imagine many will be looking for links all the same.) The basics of the release are simple yet grander and more positively pretencious than any of Trent's work yet. 36 songs, 9 totally for free - and officially uploaded to those nasty "industry damaging" torrent sites; the rest for $5 online, $10 plus shipping and handling with a physical copy; $75 for a veritable treasure trove of different formats with various other bonus items; and finally a now sold out $300 collectors edition with all kinds of extras signed by the man himself. This is quite simply the most important digital distribution release to date. Radiohead may have started it off, but Trent is doing the important part; carrying this revolution in music through to the future.

So. The music. First off the bat, it's all instrumental. No potential for Trent's quite regularly somewhat uninspiring lyrics then. What it does instead is take the hauntingly beautiful soundscapes that have been desperately trying to break out of Trent's work for years now. It's got all the staples of previous Nine inch Nails. Fuzzed out synth bass; chilling guitar noise; electronic meandering; biting drums. It's all there. The more instrumental songs of Year Zero were perhaps but a taste of things to come; or the unborn child well over due.

It's quite hard to say what the good songs are in a way, particularly given the lack of titles; though this for me separates it from the popular musical mindset. The songs truely feel like a a drifting expanse of sound. Trent describes it as music for "daydreams", with a strong emphasis on visual aesthetic in the music, and it shows. And it's brilliant. Freed from the conventions of popular demand, open to explore, with variety and excellence of production, Ghosts is a dark, beautiful, and atmospheric.

The production is consistent and excellent; a testament the team assembled. I definitely hear the effect Alan Moulder has had on the album; a regularly under-rated producer, who I've always felt deserves far more acclaim. You can certainly feel the dynamism of this very different kind of band. Nine inch Nails has consistently found itself in a peculiar position with regards to its division between live and studio performance, and listening to this and Year Zero, it is clear that the production team is getting more and more consistent yet evolutionary with each release. It's a band who has well and truely forgotten all the usual conventions.

The download comes with high quality images - essentially the stuff of album artwork, that I presume comes with the physical releases. And they are beautiful; perfectly summing up the tone of the music song by song; each image corresponding in fact to a song. Like the music, they have a strong sense of isolated beauty. Taking a look at the images as you listen certainly gives it a coherency of vision and assortment; each track an identity of its own. It's clever, powerful, and a refreshing break from the need for lyrics to give music character.

With this music in mind, it is absolutely clear that ditching the label was the best move Trent Reznor has ever made. Pitching this idea to label executives would have been deliciously impossible. You can imagine the bosses crying for lyrical hooks, or talking multiple releases, or demanding that radio friendly hit. Trent and the studio team have done something special here. Not everyone will like it. Anyone with a strong opinion on the role of music as art should seriously consider the implications of it to the industry. Musically I have to say, while unique and brilliant, it perhaps doesn't cover ground explored by other electronic artists, but none of these will quite capture peoples imagination like this most revolutionary release.

Buy this. If you care about music, buy this. If you like to think you have anything resembling taste in music, buy this. It's more important than any other big name release so far this year. This is what music is about.

It costs less than a London pint anyway.

May. 6th, 2008

Nine Inch Nails : The Slip - Review

Nine Inch Nails - The Slip

    Trent Reznor truely is a man on a mission; and one that he has deftly maneuvered his way throughout, giving the music industry labels the Slip they so rightly deserve. His last release,  Ghosts I-IV was a truely inspiring move for the maverick musician: Where other artists have been dabbling in digital distribution, most notably Radiohead as the ostensible mainline flagship for the truely independent  distribution method, none have come nearly as close as Reznor has to defining what it means for art, artist and admirer alike.

    Ghosts was incredibly artistic, spontaneous and utterly spectacular; and importantly did not find itself marred by the monetary unpleasantries that accompanies nearly every other music release in the industry. It was all about the fans, and the Slip not only continues this tradition but perhaps even eclipses it. This is the most fundementally important move in the industry, coming from the same source as before, and within mere months of his last revolutionary release. The new single for example, "Discipline", was distributed to the airwaves within a day of completion. It's unprecedented. It's reached the top tiers of musical charts without selling a single copy. The logistics of distribution have changed forever.

    Moving on from the ramifications to the industry, lets consider the art itself. The Slip is admittedly perhaps less so musically innovative that the last work, but is what I consider the perfect summary of what Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor are about. Sonically it sums up Nine Inch Nails excellently, and has a mix of songs encompassing the various sounds that have pervaded its career. The opening tracks slam home the message immediately, "1,000,000" giving us the loud thumping fuzz bass Nine Inch Nails have honed over the years. The "naturalistic" drumming production is a particular aspect most fans have highlighted, though I feel it is perhaps only its positioning within the opening of the album that belies rapid fire electronic snap of the pacy, punchy "Letting You". "Discipline"  and "Echoplex" hark back to the dark pop buzz of Pretty Hate Machine; while the subtle touches and nuances that augmented Year Zero so excellently doing so here; they're smooth, rolling; you'll actually want to get up and move to them. 

    At the point, the album does seem to lose its coherency somewhat; the pace and movement is lost in favour of the haunting ambience made Ghosts so awe inspiring. It doesn't quite work here. It's a little jilting; having gotten amped up, the reduction feels disjointed. At the same time, I don't think the songs are particularly inferior; but I would be happier sliding them up the playlist to join their progenitors earlier in the discography. This said, "The Four of Us are Dying" is probably my favourite song on the album; having settled down after the awkward placement represented by "Lights in the Sky" and "Corona Radiata", "The Four of Us are Dying" represents Trent at his best; abandoning more conventional song structure and manipulating noise; stretching it and playing with it to create an ethereal, arcane soundscape. Closing with "Demon Seed", it perhaps, ultimately ends slightly uninspiringly; perhaps a little too repetitive, while lacking the punch of the earlier tracks, while not really capturing any of the other sounds available in any interesting fashion.

    Ultimately, musically it's nothing Nine Inch Nails' fans will not have heard before; it's actually a refreshing take on an introductionary or greatest hits album perhaps; giving fans a taste of the various landscapes one can expect from their other albums. It suffers accordingly to one who listens to it as a whole since it lacks a coherent movement between style and composition. There are some great songs on there; highlights being "The Four of Us are Dying", "1,000,000" or "Letting You".  In terms of art and industry though, this is proof that Reznor truely is one of the driving forces of change, and quite simply a top class guy who cares about his fans. Sure he may have already made enough money for it not to be an issue, but at least he's earned it right? This isn't about music as a product. It's about music as an art form.

Download the album free, legally, under the creative commons license at: www.nin.com