Monday, February 28, 2011

Mass Effect 2: Less Than A Year Late

If Dragon Age: Origins was the game that got me to re-think my stance on Bioware, and the original Mass Effect was the game that finally tipped me over the edge to being a full-fledged Bioware fanboy, then Mass Effect 2 is the game that makes me glad to be there.  It picked up where its predecessor left off, did a bunch more things right (and ME did plenty right on its own), and resulted in perhaps the best hybrid RPG ever.

Fans of the original, and of RPGs in general, will immediately notice that ME2 is less RPG-y than the original and than most of Bioware's earlier RPGs.  The inventory system was one of the few weaknesses in the original; at times, it felt more like we were playing Spreadsheet: The RPG.  Of course, whether to use Incendiary Ammo VII or Cryogenic Ammo VI would probably make such a slight sliver of difference to the gameplay that you'd really have to be looking for it to notice it, but let's face it: I spent far too long optimizing everyone's ammo upgrades on their tertiary weapons, and you did too.

ME2 doesn't waste time with those details.  Every character has a handful of weapons, of which they'll ever use two at the most.  Shepard's armor is customizable, but in a "hey, that's a cool bonus" sort of way as opposed to "I must squeeze every possible point of defense out of this."  And gone are the multitude of skills that you may or may not ever use; each character has three plus a bonus that's unlockable over the course of the game.  The result is something that doesn't feel exactly like an RPG, certainly less so than the first game did, but then again doesn't really sell itself as one or claim to be one.

All of those simplifications are things that could make the RPG purist whine, and fair enough to that.  (We still have the RPG-tastic Elder Scrolls series--and Bioware's own Dragon Age--to console us.)  But look at the other side of the coin: think of the pain that shooter purists must be feeling!  There's no barrel-aim acceleration, no "realistic" obstacles to hitting your target like your character's breathing or footsteps, and no fancy scopes or aiming reticules.  But as much as each of those is a sine qua non to a shooter person, they just represent inaccessibility to the rest of us.

So Mass Effect 2 manages to do something that's very rare indeed in the realm of game design: it hybridizes two genres to the satisfactions of all parties.  It strips down both genres and figures out what's fundamentally fun about each with little regard for attaching either side's sacred-cow strictures.  Then it combines all that fun into a game that turns out to be... fun.

The other thing that Mass Effect 2 does remarkably well is stray from the Bioware Path.  The in media res prologue is still there, and so is the climactic final "dungeon", but gone is the almost amusingly tried-and-true "here are four parallel tasks that you must accomplish and which take place in different corners of the world" formula that literally every other Bioware game has followed.  ME2 is stronger for pursuing its own identity.  There's no artificial unfolding of the plot and very little railroading; instead, the endgame is laid out plainly after only a few hours of gameplay, and you can choose whichever path you see fit to get there.

It's a trend in modern video gaming to make games a reflection of a story that you want to tell rather than what the developers want to tell, and no game out there accomplishes this better than ME2.  Although every playthrough of the game ends up in the same place, it's entirely up to you to get there, and your version of the game is the result of dozens of decisions that you make.  It's an engaging and ultimately more rewarding experience than playing through someone else's version of the game.

And it's that immersive storytelling that really sets Bioware apart from other game studios.  Bethesda builds worlds and lore better.  Nintendo is more prolific and has a virtual monopoly on classic franchises.  But if Bioware can make their trilogy's middle volume one of the best games in years, then consider me a fan.

Currently listening: The Valley, Eisley (review to follow!)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Birthday Cake

My old friends the Decemberists decided they'd play a show in Oakland for my birthday, which was really nice of them, except that 1) it's impossible to get my friends excited about the Decemberists, and 2) while I'm perfectly comfortable going to concerts alone, doing that on my birthday just seemed sort of depressing.  So, I decided on the next-best thing: go to see Cake (which I could motivate some friends to go to see) the day after my birthday.

Cake is one of those bands, like, say, Guster or the Juliana Theory, that I rarely think "yes, awesome, I need to listen to this band immediately."  But when I do listen to them, I always scold myself for not being more into them, because they are awesome.  Cake has been at this a long time--they're pushing two decades--and none of their albums represent much of a departure from any of their other albums, but there's something to be said for their consistency.

So Cake has never been at the top of my List Of Bands I Must See In Concert (it exists, and Death Cab for Cutie, Rilo Kiley, and the New Pornographers are all somewhere towards the front)... but now that I've seen them, I'm scolding myself for not putting them up there.  In a reflection of their albums, their show isn't one that blows you away and leaves you, slack-jawed, gazing at the stage at the Fillmore and unable to move.  Instead, it's a show full of really solid material that comes with just enough wry humor and audience participation to make you appreciate the hell out of the band.

(Another thing that makes me, at least, appreciate them is their extensive use of the trumpet.  Trumpeter Vince DiFiore doesn't play a lot of difficult parts, though he plays them really well.  It's when he launches into improv, something you don't get to hear a lot of on the albums, that's when you really start to understand how good he is--and how you're benefiting from seeing Cake live instead of just listening to them in your room.)

The band described their own show as playing two sets, but it felt more like a long set and a half, or like Cake was opening for themselves.  The first half of the show featured some reasonably well-known older material ("Frank Sinatra") and some tracks from their new album, but it wasn't until the second half of the post-intermission set that they launched into iconic Cake, including "Love You Madly," "Sheep Go to Heaven," and "Short Skirt Long Jacket," finally ending the encore with "The Distance".

It's always a nice touch when bands make the audience sing, and it's even better when the audience plays along.  The Cake-going crowd was game enough to provide background vocals on a few tracks, which was fun.  Cake took their audience participation a step further, giving away cool stuff in exchange for knowing the answers to obscure trivia questions, including the date that Gutenberg was credited for inventing the printing press (1440; the prize was a printed page, signed by the band, from a book that Cake put together) and the identity of a mysterious tree on the stage (lemon; the prize was the tree itself).

One thing that made Cake stand out even more: throughout that trivia contest, and throughout the entirety of the show, Cake worked hard to maintain an air of civility, humility, and courteousness.  It's a lesson that a lot of rock bands would benefit from taking to heart, and coupled with some excellent music, it made for a great (if slightly belated) birthday dessert.

Currently listening: "The Only Living Boy in New York," Simon and Garfunkel

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Black Swan: Not the Best Movie of 2010

Granted, I'm a bad choice of person to ask what the best movie of the year is.  (After all, I'm one of like six people in my demographic who still hasn't seen Inception.)  But I'm pretty sure that best movie is not Black Swan.

There's not much to be said for the plot of the movie.  As a character study of a slowly developing insanity, it's fine, but "protagonist seeks impossible goal and goes insane" has been done to death over the last five centuries.  Shakespeare did it with Hamlet, Cervantes with Don Quixote, Dostoevsky with Crime and Punishment, and Joseph Conrad with Heart of Darkness (probably the best "descent into madness" thriller out there).  Black Swan draws from this fertile ground of storytelling but doesn't leave much of its own impact.

And let's be honest: from the moment that Natalie Portman's character Nina explains the plot of Swan Lake for the first time, we all know what's going to happen in the end.  Portman's Nina--whose "White Swan" allegory couldn't be made more obvious if she wrote "white swan" on her forehead (naturally, with white marker)--is obviously destined to die by her own hand.  (Black Swan did do legions of theatergoers the service of informing them how stupid the plot of Swan Lake is: girl is transformed into a swan and ends up killing herself because the guy she's after falls in love with the wrong girl?  Whatever you say, Pyotr Ilyich.)

Thematically, amateur critics could have a field day throwing out allegations of "symbolism" with Swan's black-and-white drenched mise en scene.  But in order to be symbolic, the supposed symbol must actually symbolize something.  Any viewer could make the argument that any given black or white item had some deeper significance behind it.  For a handful of costume pieces and important props, that's of course the intention, but it would be possible to seek your own impossible goal and reach your own madness trying to assign a symbolic interpretation to everything that is white or black.  Sorry, but the black doorframes do not represent unrestrained passion.  They're just part of the black/white motif--and that's totally fine--but let them be doorframes and don't make them more than they need to be.

Finally, that Natalie Portman should be lauded as heavily as she has been for her performance is baffling.  She carries the role of Nina just fine, and her dancing skills are certainly legitimate and praise-worthy, but the problem is that her character is just not interesting.  That's not Natalie Portman's fault, of course, but it feels counter-intuitive to heap awards on acting out a character based on deer-in-the-headlights stares and a frailty that comes across less as fragile vulnerability and more as bland weakness.

Black Swan isn't terrible.  Vincent Cassel plays the manipulative, twisted-artist role to perfection (and pulling off a straight French ballet director should be award-worthy in its own right), and it's entertaining enough to sort through Nina's psyche to figure out which parts of the movie are real and which ones all in her head.  Where the movie succeeds most is in giving an unflinching look at dancer culture; with its pressures and infighting, it's easy to believe that this is the kind of thing that could drive Nina mad.

It's entertaining and probably worth seeing if you're up to the challenge of putting together a few pieces yourself, but Black Swan just doesn't pave enough new ground or come together in the right places to legitimately be the best movie of its year.

Currently listening: "Pretend You're Alive," Lovedrug