Monday, 12 April 2010

Videogame Review: Prince of Persia

(Originally written for IGN)
Okay, I'm gonna get this out of the way first; this game is gorgeous. The cell-shaded wonderland that this game conjures is jaw-dropping from the moment you start playing until the moment you finish. The Assassin's Creed engine has shown once again how well it can create sensational graphics, and the art direction is probably the best I've seen all year. The animation is smooth and natural looking, even when performing the most outlandish feats. The soundtrack compliments this perfectly; epic orchestral deluges which create a magnificent atmosphere.

Shame about everything else.

I'm a huge fan of the previous generation of this franchise; the fast, fluid platforming and combat that allowed instant usability but much room for experimentation and the likeable, fleshed out characters. On top of this, the sands of time system allowed challenge in the puzzles themselves and allowed the game to be forgiving yet tense and reliant on skill; I often found myself grasping for the rewind button in games I played afterwards. This Prince of Persia has replaced all of these with idiotic, uninspired gameplay mechanics which actively detract from the game.

First off, the platforming, while the strongest point of the game, is flawed on a few very basic levels. Firstly, the nimbleness and speed of the original prince's freerunning is usurped by leaden wall-scrambling and repetitive tasks which become dull after not much time. The new prince's parkour stuff is controled solely by the jump button, and the lack of a freerun button grates; the game misinterprets your commands sometimes, which, while uncommon, can sour your opinion of it given the life-or-death situations this occurs in.

Well, I say "life-or-death", but that's a slight misstatement. You cannot die in this game. You see, at all times you're accompanied by Elika, an obligatorily busty mage/sidekick/annoyingly-forced-feeling love interest who saves you whenever you're in a potentially deadly situation and transports you back to the last safe place. An obvious attempt to recreate the brilliant sands of time rewind function of the original trilogy, this system couldn't have missed the point more if they'd actively tried. Whereas the rewind allowed you to correct mistakes as they happened, never breaking flow and allowing for quick resuming of gameplay should you misstep, the new system drags you back to the beginning of the section and forces you to do what you just did again. Considering that some sections can be very challenging to finish, relying on a painfully unforgiving game engine, that "again" often becomes "again and again and again and again and again". In a game where instant death is this close at all times, this means that the pace of the game remains sluggish and dull.

Speaking of sluggish and dull, remember when you first powered up the largely-underrated PoP: Warrior Within and found that the awkward combat of PoP: Sands of Time had been replaced with a slick, fun and at-all-times badass system which flatters the player's every button press with sheer awesomeness? Me too. Unfortunately Ubisoft don't, and have instead put in place a hugely frustrating mess of a combat system which never fails to infuriate. Fighting in this game is entirely based on duels. Or rather, on quick-time events. You see, the block button in this game seems to be less about defense and more about holding your sword differently if you think it looks cooler. All the enemies have unblockable moves which they use with gleeful frequency, relying on the kind of reflex test which punish the player whenever possible. And since you don't have a health bar, whether you are hit by a blockable attack or block it will still merely result in slight knock-back, all in all making you wonder why they bothered with blocking at all when they could have been dealing with the animation issues. The Prince is robbed of all his agility and speed during these fights, choosing instead to either plod around like a retarded tortoise or utilise an evading system which doesn't actually evade attacks.

To top it off, all enemies, including horribly overused bosses, initially use the same tactics and to an extent the same moves, resulting in total monotony. When one boss started to use a DIFFERENT TACTIC, where they'd go into a stance where only one type of attack is effective, I almost cheered. Then they all started using it. And it would have become dull too, until they changed the one-attack to the Elika attack. You see, Elika is also used in combat by lobbing her at the enemy, or at least can be. I never did if I could avoid it. The attack has a delay while she leaps onto your shoulders, and this should, for the sake of balance, be okay, were she a ranged weapon, as a launched attack bloody well should be. She's not; in fact despite being able to fly, she is incredibly fussy about how far away you have to be from the enemy to use her. This means that that delay, when used in a close-range attack, makes her damn near useless. To top it all off, she can be attacked while attacking, which disables her for a while (read: about fifteen seconds, more if you're too far away, and this feature retains the truly mystifying definition of "too far away"). In a boss fight where this is a compulsory attack, the term "dick move" feels somewhat inadequate.

And the motivation for enduring this crap should be the story. The generic, predictable story; evil force spreads across land, generic grizzled badass takes it upon himself to somehow stop it. Even the "twist" is about as unexpected as gravity. The characters are terrible; Elika in particular is utterly schizophrenic; bitchy (possibly meant to be seen as a strong female character, which reveals so much about Ubisoft's idea of independant women) at first, then without warning flirty and vulnerable is a way so shoehorned in for the sake of romance that it's painful. The prince himself is best described as an utter dick, without the redeeming qualities of the equally arrogant original prince. The bosses are the only ones with character, character which remains agonizingly unexplored. The voice acting is jarringly done by none-more-yank americans, something which blighted Assassin's Creed despite only one character possessing it; here they ALL do, which, when combined with the horrible performances and terrible writing, throws you out of the experience every time a character opens his or her mouth.

I appreciate that I've compared this too much to the old games - it's still bad on its own merits - but it is very obviously trying to be PoP: Sands of Time. The "corruption" takes the place of the Sands, the visuals try to be like it, and Elika is like a completely unlikeable Farah. They even give you unlockable skins to make the main characters resemble SoT Prince and Farah, which felt a little like demanding that a new girlfriend gets the same haircut and clothes as your ex. They're claiming to have moved away from the originals, but don't have the guts to follow through with it.

This is a bad game. Not really bad, but below average in a way that a big-budget game has no right to be.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Defeater - Lost Ground EP

Christ, any hardcore reviews I post on here are going to be fucking predictable. Last December I posted how Dead Swans' last release is the best UK hardcore album ever, as well as how that's not much of a statement. You see, I can count the notable UK hardcore bands on fingers alone, and I'd be hard pushed to use more than one hand. Fuck, the only reason Public Disturbance are notable is because two of their members would go on to be in Lostprophets. The UK has practically no hardcore punk lineage - sure, bands like The Ruts provided inspiration to the liked of Black Flag and Minor Threat, but there's no real trace of the sound that would go on to define American punk for years. So let's make a bigger statement: the best US hardcore band of the last ten years is Defeater.

Now, given my long-standing love-in with This Is Hell, those words seem weird to me, but I've given it a lot of thought, and honestly, fuck This Is Hell. Fuck The Hope Conspiracy. Again, fucking blasphemy. It feels good. Let's do this again. Fuck Comeback Kid.

Wait. Stop.

No. Fuck Comeback Kid. Comeback Kid are great, but Defeater? Defeater are never going to be remembered as one of the great alternative bands ever, but they will be better than nine out of ten of them. Defeater don't have promise, because having promise implies that Defeater are not quite there yet. Well I fucking well hope they are, because the other bands in the USHC scene deserve at least a little bit of a chance to catch up.

The thing which sets Defeater apart are - and once again, I feel bad for bringing something as um-music-related up - the lyrics. You see, Defeater are storytellers. Their albums are concept albums, but not in the traditional '70s arena rock sense. Hardcore lyrics have always told stories - and make no mistake, the tales in Defeater's work may not be their stories, but they are someone's. Lost Ground tells of an African American man who, in memory of a mother who died at 42 and a father who was a soldier, joins up to the army to fight in World War II. He is wounded, and his friends all killed. Wracked with survivor's guilt, he returns hope to a world with no place for him. He becomes destitute and alcoholic, and dies alone. Every lyric is heartbreaking, every line is a tragedy in and of itself - the tale will stay with you. If any vocal mode was created to get across the anger, dejection, sorrow and injustice of such a tragic story, it's the roar of a hardcore vocalist.

And the emotion that this story lends the band shows. The real skill of the lyrics is in the details; the parallel drawn between the patriarchal machismo of traditional Americana and patriotism with the harsh reality of war that American culture tries so hard to hide is the order of the day for the first few songs, with the rest linking the contrast between the American military ideal - the soldier fighting heroically for his country - with the American military reality - lower-class young men wounded and traumatised or worse, crippled physically and emotionally for life, their lives ending destitute. Defeater's unique efforts in their lyric writing give their songs meaning beyond being mosh fodder, but make them the ones who tell the tales that need to be told, even if people don't want to hear them.

But beyond the vocals, Defeater excel equally. There are about four different drumbeats in hardcore which everyone uses, so listening to them can become wearing, but holy shit Defeater's drummer actually does new things with hardcore drums. The guitars, likewise, display musical range and dynamicism which far outstrips every one of Defeater's contemporaries. There is light and shade in their music, there are harsh, brutal pummelings that segue out of tense, muted and stunningly musically dynamic rest sections and back in again. The riffs constantly have a rough, vicious beauty to them, where the heartbreaking melodies of the guitars are born from violent, distorted riffing and the thunderous crashing drums. The bass is superlative, providing a grounded, central groove over which every other element of the music is overlaid. And what's more, the music tells the story too. The first track "The Red, White and Blues matches the protagonist's fear and inner tension with hyperactive hardcore at its best, and contrasts it with the simpler, more emotive sections which revolve around his memories of his mother and his idolisation of the father he has to hear about from his mom. on the final track, the story of the protagonist's last days of life spent busking on the streets, blues solos embelish the tale, evoking the frustration and sorrow of the African American community which drove them to create the genre, and a painful image of an old black beggar playing these solos on an ancient acoustic guitar on the streets of New York City. This is how you write music - and Defeater are operating on an entirely different intellectual level to their contemporaries.

Honestly, I don't think it's too late to call it. This is better than Anaal Nathrakh's In the Constellation of the Black Widow. This poky little EP from a band no-one's really heard of was and is the best record of 2009. This was and is the best hardcore record of the last ten years. Defeater are never going to get the praise they deserve, so they're going to have to settle for this; their Lost Ground EP is my favourite hardcore release ever.

Winds of Plague - Decimate The Weak

I don't even know why I review metalcore and deathcore anymore. I'm probably never going to review Architects, so essentially anything else in metalcore is shadows and dust, signifying nothing except that Sturgeon's Law might finally be applicable to metal, but fuck it, there must be some bands out there who can do the genre right - As I Lay Dying's template defining, Between the Buried and Me's utter fucking lunacy, Devil Sold His Soul's damn-near-everything.

Deathcore, similarly, has some bands which actually stick by the very simple starting template and do it well, but they're all from the period where deathcore was only just starting, since every band made since consists almost entirely of creatively dead scene kids. You want a checklist of potentially good deathcore? Here we go. Did they form in 2006 or earlier? [  ] Do they routinely wear merch from "proper" death metal bands? [  ] Do they actually sound like they've been influenced by first-wave metalcore and death metal, as opposed to second-wave metalcore and other deathcore bands? [  ] Do they, god forbid, actually introduce an innovative element? [   ] And all of these boxes are ticked by Winds of Plague. Perhaps Decimate the Weak will interest me.

"Decimate" is one of those words which is very rarely used correctly, like "disinterested" (which means "unbiased" or "without vested interest") or "crescendo" (It's the BUILD UP PEOPLE, NOT THE CLIMAX ITSELF). It's like how people who want to seem more cultured than they are think that "star-crossed lovers" means something other than "utterly doomed, totally fucked-by-fate lovers". Basically everyone takes it to mean "Destroy", "maim" or "obliterate", but what it actually means - and I've only ever seen Doctor Who use it correctly - is "to destroy one tenth of something". This is ironic for me, because it was only during the first tenth of this album that I thought I might like it, because up to that point, it was actually pretty good. Forget deathcore, this is symphonic, epic metalcore. The prominent keyboards (handled MUCH better than Abigail Williams' keyboard sections) built a bombastic atmosphere counterbalanced by the midrange screams of...ugh...Johnny Plague. The guitars break from metalcore convention by actually having leads and solos. Take note metalcore kiddies; leads and solos are AWESOME. USE THEM. If you're not talented enough to do so, you're in the wrong game. The melodic work is great, with the instruments playing off of one another ease, working in perfectly locked harmony. And, my god, how refreshing is it to hear a metalcore band who doesn't sound exactly like At The Gates? The first proper song reaches the quarter mark, and the song softens, and then stops.

Then a pig-squeal adorned breakdown begins.

And we were doing so well.

If I remember correctly, when I first heard that bit I actually shouted "WHAT THE FUCK?" at my computer screen. Seriously, I've never heard such an out of place, unneeded breakdown EVER. I don't mind breakdowns, but I didn't want the song I liked to stop like that, let alone turn into the song it now was.

The rest of the album was soured for me. This band is superb when it's doing its power-metalcore thing, and its integration of keyboards into their sound is superb - and indeed, exactly how it should be done. It is, however, far too eager to jump at the opportunity to abandon that for the sake of doing what all their contemporaries are doing - dull breakdowns. Sometimes, and I have to stress sometimes, the keyboards save the breakdowns from utter monotony, which is a credit to how good they are, but they're the only thing doing anything interesting on this album.

That's not to say that the other elements are bad. The guitars are fantastic when they're not content to just chug, and have some superb riffs and leads in there. The opening riff of "Decimate the Weak" (the song) is almost Nile-esque. But they're dull! The drums are exemplary deathcore drumming, but that's part of the problem - they're an utterly standard example of deathcore drumming. They're dull! And the bass? I'm amazed they even have a bassist. I actually want to hear a remaster of this were the bass guitar is removed. I doubt anyone would ever be able to tell. I wish more people would have the guts Pig Destroyer do and just get rid of a bassist if you're not going to use one.

This is by no means terrible - I've heard worse deathcore. There are some REALLY good parts here, but their willingness to abandon those parts is just frustrating, and that frustration with them overshadows their good elements. Pick it up if you have the patience I don't and you could have a lot of fun with this album - but I can't do any more pig squeals and chugging.