Bored of the Formula

The rigidness of game reviews is beginning to get to me.

This very post is a result of two things that recently occurred to me. The first was mentioning to one of my contributing Platform writers that seeing the obligatory “graphics comment” in reviews was driving me up the wall. The second was then going home and hearing Alex Navarro express how he was fed up with the formula of game reviews on the Giant Bombcast.

When you’ve read, edited and analysed as many reviews as I have in the last 18 months you soon reach a point where you yearn to escape the cliqued formulas and restrictive structures that have been drilled in over the years.

Amongst all this, I’ve also got a fear that if (or maybe when) I do make it onto a games publication I will find set of formulaic criteria that must be met for all reviews horrible. Criteria that will make my job hell and possibly make me loath to continue it. I don’t wish to find myself in that situation.

But, I will admit that having a formula has its advantages. For one thing it allows critics to develop a routine, which is often crucial for working under pressure with so many frequent deadlines (I certainly know I would have coped less well with the torrent of material I’ve edited and written this year if I was at least sticking to some formulae). It’s also familiar to audiences, who grow to understand the structure and feel relaxed reading a publication of consistent style.

Nevertheless, for game reviews, I’m sick of it.

One thing I’ve always loved about reviews of games, or any artistic work, is when a confident writer makes a point using a bit of well placed humour or an in-jokes specifically aimed at their audience. I’m content with some of my effort this year to keep my write-ups lively and I think it’s something I nailed with a couple of my openings (read: “Finish the fight? Bungie doesn’t seem to want to.”). However, I’m still having a tough time breaking the bonds of old in the subsequent paragraphs, to go to off on strange tangents that intrigue the reader and leave them just as informed and satisfied at the end.

This is why I’ve enjoying reading more experimental, and at times openly subjective, reviews of late from alternative sources. I’m not in favour of Ben Croshaw’s (better known as ‘Yahtzee’, of The Escapist fame) jaded, every-game-under-the-sun-sucks-in-my-opinion approach, but there have been a couple thoroughly interesting independent sites I’ve come across, like Game People.

It’s mostly been stuff from the Guardian Gamesblog writers, the odd Giant Bomb piece (for experts and layman) and Edge.

Half the time I can’t tell whether Edge are publishing game reviews or cultural theorems, which I quite like. Their treatment is less be-all-and-end-all than exclusive mags and today’s commercial video game sites, assessing games in a colloquial, yet grownup, fashion. Still, for all their intellectual charms, I must be careful not to unconsciously validate their style as the only or best way to analysis games for grownups.

So in an effort to continue expanding my writing repertoire, I’ve been checking out reviews from outside the games media. Music journalism (which I still think is not for me) has surprised me the most. Q Magazine’s band of well spoken music sceptics craft some absorbing articles, and though some can be difficult to make sense of (particularly for a noob to music culture like myself), they are musings are more about personal experience and what the music feels like or conjures up.

I’ve tried my hand at a few music reviews this year, which have a distinctly more opinionated tone about them. But they also feel much freer and open to more verbal language and made-up words to describe to the reader my thoughts on a piece of music.

Exploring different writing styles outside of the game space is already proving beneficial, and will give me new angles that I can then apply to game reviews.

In the coming months, I hope I can put the dreaded necessity of the ‘technical’ features paragraph behind me, in flavour of critique that is more unexpected but just as informative and judgmental.

Nier-ly Bonkers

According to Nier’s tag line, “nothing is as it seems.” And the thought that’s been put into its three-part web comic sure amounts to nothing. Nier is a new RPG from Square Enix, and in a decisive move it’s actually got two versions – one produced for its native Japanese audience (Nier Replicant), the other for Western gamers (Nier Gestalt). The comic was produced by WildStorm (Written by Ricardo Sanchez and art by Carlos D’Anda, Pop Mhan and Eduardo Nuñez) and should reveal the “unexplained back stories of Nier, Yonah, Kaińe and Grimoire Weiss.” But after reading all three I can tell you that not only do I know very little, if anything, about the game itself, the comic has pretty much crushed my thoughts of picking up the game.

From what I can gather, Nier seems to be set in a post-post-future world and things seem kind of cyclical, so there are hi-tech robots amid ancient villages. Weird. But the main source of calamity is something known as “black scrawl disease” which appears to have killed off most of the world’s inhabitants. In the first comic we see a scientist going to inhumane lengths to discover a possible cure. Nier’s daughter, Yonah, is also missing and he’s on a hunt to find her with the busty and very foul-mouthed, Kaińe, and the wise-ass magic book, Grimoire Weiss.

What’s disappointing about the Nier comic is it doesn’t make any effort to connect with the characters. It makes a big point of basing its three comics around three separate stories told by the trio of heroes. Yet they are so short and nonspecific that they end up leaving you indifferent about what Nier is. Is it a search to cure a worldwide plague? Is it a hack-and-slash with a potty-mouthed scantily clad vixen with worse dialogue than Killzone 2’s Rico? Or is it a heartfelt tale about a father’s love for his daughter? I don’t know. Even if the game attempts to explain all this, it will likely be just as divisive as this horrible excuse for a marketing effort. Square may have tailored Nier for the West but so far it’s looking nowhere near exciting.

Luther: Maverick Detective

This May BBC One’s newest production, Luther, hit the small screen. DCI John Luther is a maverick detective working the shifty, dangerous streets of modern London. He was suspended after a case where a serial killer met their end in a factory, not by his hand but with him present. Six months later, Luther is back and trouble is already brewing.

The show first came to my attention some weeks ago after seeing leader actor, Idris Elba, famous for his role as Stringer Bell in The Wire, on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. On the talk show, Elba described the show as “gritty,” and boy did he mean it. The first episode has an intellectual child prodigy, Alice Morgan, kill her own parents, destroy the evidence and then report that her parents have been ‘murdered’. The ensuing scenes between Luther and Alice are just glorious drama. The cold, unblinking stare of Ruth Wilson would scare many a hardened thug.

More than anything, though, this is Elba’s show. His performance has been unexpected and thoroughly transfixing in the first three episodes. Exuding a clear confidence and thinking two steps ahead of the villains, Luther is the one the rest of his team look up to, even if he is downright mad himself – episode two’s end scene saw him at gunpoint and forced into Russian roulette with a crazed Iraq War veteran.

I’ve only seen clips of The Wire and heard about it from friends, but I think I may have to give it a look now that I’ve seen Elba in action. He’s also starting in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics’ Thor as Heimdall next year, so that may be more reason for me to make an effort there too.

Luther is a contemporary British cop drama at its best. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen anything as good as this come directly from BBC Productions (a lot are created and made by external production companies). It’s got a US level of quality to it, from the practical effects to its titles. Incidentally, Massive Attack’s ‘Paradise Circus’ was a great choice of music that really mirror’s the show’s dark tone. And when the script and performances are this good, I can’t help but grab my knee-length detective’s jacket and follow the investigations. Shaft is good, but I’m afraid he ain’t got nothing on Luther.

A Walk through the Valley of the Damned

Biblical works have always been a source of controversy. It could be the depiction of a saint, a misinterpretation of a religious text or even simply opening a forum for debate on an important religious issue. Someone, somewhere, is bound to be offended.

So EA set themselves an uphill battle right from the start when they green lit Visceral Games’ interactive interpretation of literary classic, The Divine Comedy. The game itself is a bloody and violent affair, as one would expect for a subject matter that sees Dante deceasing through Hell. Working off of the pretence that “bad news is good news,” EA’s marketing department wasted no time in organising a bevy of bogus protestors at E3 2009 and inviting everyone to “Go to Hell” with launch campaign that caused a bit of a stir.

As with Dead Space before it, EA also commissioned an anime tie-in and a six-part miniseries to accompany Dante’s Inferno when it hit the shelves in March this year. I’ve not had a chance to experience the remorseless torment with the game, but I have locked horns with the comic.

Having not read Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, I was apprehensive about how even a small part of it would be condensed to just six issues with any real meaning. But even if the story is too hasty, the art will keep your eyes lingering over pages to take in the decaying scenes. Diego Latorre has captured a feeling of dark Renaissance with his art. Nothing is stable, everything is distorted, deranged and dissolute. For its subject matter, it is pleasant to see panels that capture the divine tragedy at its heart in a way that sets a faint tone for the reader’s own imagination while still bringing the nightmarish human traits to bear.

That said, the moments when Dante slays the oversized residents and gatekeepers of each Circle of Hell is an outlandish concept that becomes no easier to picture after seeing the comic’s interpretations. If you’ve little experience of The Divine Comedy, such as myself, Dante’s Inferno fulfils expectations for a quest of punishment and strife, with clever dialogue from the master-of-all-lies and flashbacks that reveal more of Dante’s sins with each issue. It will hardly drag you to Hell, but it will introduce you to a poem that enthusiasts of biblical fiction (ie Dan Brown lovers) will certainly be interested in discovering more fully.

Informants, Hitmen and Creepy Collectors

For a prequel comic that had its one major plot point deliberately rendered worthless by Mass Effect 2’s promotional previews, you’ll be lucky if anything in Mass Effect: Redemption keeps you guessing for long.

Written by Mass Effect 2’s lead writer, Mac Walter, the story here follows Liara (a blue Asari female with biotic abilities) who is on a mission to recover the remains of Commander Shepard’s body. She travels to the Omega station to meet Feron, an information trader who claims to know the whereabouts of Shepard’s body. No sooner has Liara arrived on the space station when she finds herself the target of mercenaries, as the Shadow Broker, pro-human group Cerberus and the reclusive xenophobes, the Collectors, fight over their human cargo.

At four issues, Mass Effect: Redemption was never going to be the next Scott Pilgrim, but you would expect it to at least provide a brief entertaining run-around. While there’s plenty of buffing and double-crossing, its story arc is predictable and the payoff is, of course, an invitation to find out more by playing Mass Effect 2. But, Feron’s agenda adds some deceit to the plot, and finding out more about him and his part in events is the series’ strongest point.

Art-wise, the miniseries wears its origin’s colours, but would benefit from an even more pronounced, less bright art style. Omar Francia has represented the world of Mass Effect in the same colourful, dirt free way that so many of Dark Horse’s sci-fi comics are. And something about the way he draws some of the aliens and their facial expressions just doesn’t seem right proportionally at times.

Mass Effect: Redemption is a mediocre effort for a franchise that has already spawned a rich expanded universe. I almost wish they had just made the comic’s events playable in the game. Then maybe they could have spent time making a more unexpected comic and left the search and rescue mission to the player.

Psychosis of the Modern Soldier

Whoever thought making a Modern Warfare 2 comic was a good idea needs to adjust their night vision goggles.

At the present time of writing it is mid May, and recent adversities caused by a variety of close people in my life have brought on a recall of this grim, utterly torturous tale.

The comic is told from the perspective of a hard-ass codenamed ‘Ghost’, who also happens to wear a skull in tribute to an old squad mate of his, Simon Riley. The story of how that squad mate was driven to madness is what this miniseries brings to light. Now, I’ve haven’t played Modern Warfare 2, heck I haven’t even played Call of Duty 4, but from what I’ve heard Infinity Ward’s efforts to go hyper-real provide a thrilling adrenaline rush, but presents a seriously warped view of the real world conflicts it is trying to satire.

So it is a real shock – and I mean that – when you open up Modern Warfare 2: Ghost to be led down a slow, callous hellhole with each instalment. It’s addressing some serious psychological pressures that its birth parent doesn’t dare tread near – probably because the act of killing someone in reality is at odds with the point of a commercial first-person shooter.

And it’s amazing just how grotesque and vivid it all is. There are scenes of torture where the captured soldier is hanging from his damaged ribs. There are mind games where his sadistic captor is whispering in his ear, promising everything will be alright. There are allusions to forceful sexual pleasure that later catalysis a rapist, self-serving nature in the man. It’s deep, dark, dirty, self-destructive stuff… and I don’t like it.

When I read the video game comics I buy these days I’m always searching hard to justify whether it was a money-making marketing effort or – just maybe – something of real substance. Unsurprisingly, the Modern Warfare 2 comic fits the former. More to the point, however, I seriously doubt many of its devoted followers would truly understand the gravity of what is inadvertently implied with the production of this ‘mature’ comic. People are out in the world dying for real, being tricked and twisting by heartless demons and the fat cats are going to make money by mediating these stories to the masses.

Even if the actual creators, David Lapham and Kevin West, meant well with their representation of a soldier’s life, this is way too serious to be trivialised by the Modern Warfare brand.

Jellyfish in a Microwavable Bottle

It’s now been two months since the long-awaited release of Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach album. I’ve been playing it through track-by-track almost every day without fail. Since my premier listen, many of the tracks have begun to impart the layers of depth and diversity I was so hopeful of. ‘Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach’, featuring Snoop Dogg and Hypnotic Brass, is one such example of a track that pricked my ears up when I first heard it, but has now moved into the realm of instant-body-shaker. The moment the trippy double-double starts in the second half, I can’t help but bop along to it like a hyperactive woodpecker.

I went to see Gorillaz live at the Camden Roundhouse less than two weeks ago, and that, too, was a gravity-defying night of elation.

Today ‘Superfast Jellyfish’ was the second single from the album to be released for digital download. This track became one of my immediate favourites. De La Soul provide the comedic rap (the lyrics ‘we be the colours of the mad and the wicked, we be bad when we brick it’ are now totally ingrained in my musical cortex) and the Fallout 3-like, retro opener is actually sampled from an advert for Swanson’s microwavable frozen breakfast sandwiches. It’s great to see the track out for single release. I will, of course, be supporting it, but I do wish the band would release the official remixes and some new B-sides along with it. Perhaps I’ll talk more about the Phase Three B-sides and remixes in a future post. In the meantime, I think you’ve got time for a hot, home-cooked breakfast…

Gorillaz Live @ London Roundhouse

Ever since Gorillaz smuggled their way into my mind and sparked my imagination forevermore, I had always dreamt of seeing them live in concert. I’d missed seeing the band’s super limited, one week only Manchester Opera House shows in 2005, so ever since then I vowed to see them live should they ever return to the gig scene.

Yesterday on Friday, 30 April, my wish finally came true when a good friend and I saw Gorillaz live for the very first time! The gig took place at the Camden Roundhouse in London. I’d been their once before to see an Indian adaptation of Midsummer Summer Night’s Dream, but the iconic building has traditionally been more of a music venue. It was refurbished in 2006 and the BBC Electric Proms have also been held there for the last four years.

In the past, I’ve never been much of a gig goer but that’s slowly beginning to change having met so many different people at uni, and also now having the freedom of an adult. My dad used to come to gigs at the Roundhouse when he was a teenager, so it feels great to have started my own live music experience at a place as historic and downright cool as the Roundhouse. That said, it’s not that I’ve never seen a band play live before, I’ve just never paid for the dedicated experience of a music gig.

Just to get this opportunity I had to maliciously planned things well in advance. I’d booked the tickets over a month ago, in the special Sub Division (formerly G-Club) pre-sale. But seeing as I’m all the way in Nottingham, I also had to run down to the station and buy advanced train tickets for the journey.

I had been seriously worried that something might go wrong and I would be denied the chance to see my musical heroes in the flesh. But, thankfully, it didn’t. I caught my national rail train, arrived in London and stopped by my grandparents, before dropping my bags off at home and grabbing some lunch. I met up with my friend by happy chance in the lift area of Chalk Farm tube station – the station is buried 21ft underground and so requires a lift shaft to bring passengers up to its narrow, ground level entrance.

Once inside the Roundhouse, I realised I’d have to get used to outrageous London ents prices again (£3 for the cloakroom and £4.70 for a half-pint? You’re having a laugh!). We still had to wait a further hour before the band finally took the stage.

Nevertheless, it was well worth the patience. The gig itself was AMAZING, everything I’d hope seeing them live would be. They had special guests galore with De La Soul, Little Dragon, Kano, Bashy, Hypnotic Brass, Mos Def and, best of all, soul legend Booby Womack to name just a fraction of the line-up. Damon Albarn was their leading the band with all the brilliance of a maestro in his element, and Paul Simonon and Mick Jones (from The Clash) took the charisma level up 10 notches. Cass Browne was also there on drums and the supporting musicians, orchestra and backing singers all put on an incredible performance.

The best moments for me were ‘Dirty Harry’ which featured Bootie Brown, hearing Hypnotic Brass on their Plastic Beach tracks and an unique live version of ‘Broken’, and Bobby Womack nearly leaving me in tears with his solo on ‘Cloud of Unknowing’. Just beautiful. (Read more in my live review for Platform.)

And for future reference here’s the full setlist for the gig that night: Orchestral Intro, Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach, Last Living Souls, O Green World, On Melancholy Hill, Kids With Guns, Stylo, Rhinestone Eyes, Broken, Empire Ants, Dirty Harry, White Flag, Superfast Jellyfish, DARE, Glitter Freeze, El Mañana, Cloud Of Unknowing, Sweepstakes, To Binge, Feel Good Inc, Clint Eastwood.

Seeing Gorillaz live for the first time ever was a wildly exciting experience. The best musical act I’ve seen live and featuring such diverse talents. An unforgettable night and something I hope to experience again in some other place. Now that I’ve made the play myself, I’ve caught the bug for live music and I love it.