Thursday, April 29, 2010

DJ Hero: Domination Mix Pack Review

Everyone reading this blog knows how much I love DJ Hero. Everyone. Especially if you've seen me play, and how I have without hesitation, downloaded each DLC pack without hesitation. But after the Eminem vs. Jay-Z pack, I'd assumed they were going to rest on their laurels for a while.

Color me surprised when Freestyle Games and Activision announced that there would be ANOTHER DJ Hero content pack released this month! Sure, the game doesn't exactly have a Rock Band level of DLC saturation, but the fact that Activision continues to support the game, despite the steep price and despite the (typical for a new IP) sales numbers, they keep putting them out. So far, they've been of an extremely high quality, not only in the choice of songs themselves, but in the amazing ways they've been arranged, and the technique required to master them. But does the newly released Domination pack keep up the tradition of unique, unconventional gameplay that DJ Hero is known for, or is it finally time for their first DLC disaster?

DJ Hero Domination Mix Pack (Add-On Content)
For: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Wii (PSN Release : May 11)
Price: 640 MS Points, 300 Wii Points, $7.99 Playstation Network
Released 4/29/2009

For starters, it's clear why they've called this the "Domination" pack, because of each of the three mixes; Beat juggles (arranged versions) of Red Mist VIP (Danny Byrd), and Wolfgang's 5th Symphony (Wolfgang Garter), and a mashup of Sandstorm (Darude) vs. Higher State of Consciousness (Josh Wink) are what's being served, and they're all going to kick your ass. Each song in this pack hosts not only a daunting length, but they all use just about every advanced technique in the game in some fashion to create a pack obviously tailored towards people who think they're the shit in this game. You'll be humbled by the time you're done, trust me.

Now to the mixes! (Ratings for each mix are out of 5, and were played on Expert difficulty.)

Red Mist VIP is the first of three mixes, a DnB/Hip-Hop song that starts off slow, gets more challenging with a tempo increase, then slows down again. It's almost like an introduction to the patterns you'll experience for the rest of the pack in terms of difficulty, like scratching amidst crossfade spikes(!!) and stretches of 2 to 3 button simultaneous taps . While it's almost completely unexciting as a mix (personally, I think it sounds too close to the original), gameplay wise, it's an above average challenge that's good for a warmup, or even honing technique. (Rating: 3/5)

Wolfgang Gartier's 5th Symphony ditches the easy introduction and immediately kicks off with frenzied crossfading and rhythmic scratching eerily reminiscent of the Groundhog (Noisia) beat juggle from the climax setlist of the original game. Hard hitting and bombastic, it's a very technical song that starts off slowly, just like the original, then completely descends into a madness that'll have you employing every technique in the game to great effect. Unpredictable crossfades, spikes, changes in tempo, believe me when I say this song had it all, and then some, It also holds the honor of being the first DLC song I didn't 5 star on a sightread, because it was just TOO MUCH, especially during the last 1/3 of the song. Easily the hardest song in the pack, and one that'll even have the most seasoned of players break a sweat. (Rating: 5/5)

The crown jewel in this pack however, is a high energy, thumping mashup of Sandstorm and Higher State of Consciousness. Aside from being a GREAT listen (I really had to stop myself from moving my shoulders, it was messing me up!), it's also a blast to play as well. It nails that perfect balance of scratching and crossfading that forces a rhythm into your hands that soon spreads to your entire body. Well placed taps, rapid multiple button scratches in succession, and minimal use of samples make for a song that not only sounds great, but feels great as well. Anyone whose ever played "Paper Planes vs. Looking At Me" from the original knows exactly what I mean by this. When balanced right, a song can feel so intuitive that the directional arrows on scratches are irrelevant because you're already moving to the beat on your own. This is it. (Rating: 5/5)

As a whole, I was very satisfied with the DJ Hero Domination Pack. The mixes are challenging, well laid out, and the fans that have been clamoring for more House/DnB in the game will be happy as well. If you're an advanced DJ Hero fan who cannot wait for the sequel to get his fix, then this content is a no brainer for you. Intermediate players may want to think twice before jumping in, though lowering the difficulty does (and will) make the experience less of a trip through DJing hell. If you've fallen off the wagon and have grown tired, this may not win you back, as it's more of the same, but with elevated difficulty. I really do have to say that the mixes again are exremely well done, and I can only hope that Freestyle continues to raise the bar even higher moving forward. To answer my question from earlier; it most certainly does keep up the series tradition of great music and unique gameplay.

(This article's also on!)

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

In defense of Infinity Ward..

So Infinity Ward has been hemorrhaging employees for the past month or so, and it’s something that not only makes me wonder about the future of Call of Duty, but more importantly, what's to become of Infinity Ward themselves. Chewing through the constant name calling, litigation, and drama over the past two weeks, the fact is that not only has the renowned studio lost its co-founders, but it has also lost a suite of other employees, including but not limited to a number of its key designers, animators, artists, and programmers, many of who had been with the company for a number of years.

In short, and to provide a hyperbolic statement, a great deal of the talent that made the CoD series what it was over the past 9 or so years is gone.

Which is strange, because I don't think ANYONE saw this coming. Generally, in gaming, we watch the rise and fall of many a franchise, and a developer buckling under the pressure of their publisher/owner is nothing new. After all, we watched Halo experience lapses in quality while Bungie worked directly under Microsoft, and the same happened to the Call of Duty series after the success of the second game. However, the way Infinity Ward consistently put out great content, I never would've thought there was an undercurrent of dissent brewing.

Then again, how could there NOT have been? The more I thought about it, the more it made sense.

It’s bad enough that the studio had to deal with Activision’s policies. CoD being as popular as it was, meant it had to fall into the Activision business model of releasing one every year. But, we would’ve thought that the fact that developer Treyarch had to bear the burden would be the end of it. I mean, I did. As long as IW didn't have to spread themselves thin annually and could continue making a great product, I had no problem buying a CoD every other year, and avoiding the inevitable mobile/handheld versions. It seemed like a nice arrangement, but of course, as is the case with Activision, that simply isn’t enough. I mean, why have a bi-annual series capable of garnering over 310 million in sales in a single day when you can poach it to high hell and destroy consumer faith in the brand?

It's a good question to ask, because reportedly, Activision is planning for a Call of Duty MMO, is currently considering premium, subscription based pricing for CoD’s multiplayer, and then there’s the the “3rd person action title” in development under the CoD name by their new studio Sledgehammer Games, set to release at an unspecified date. That's a lot of ambitious plans for a franchise, and they all leave an especially sour taste considering that they didn't even come from the mouths of anyone who actually developed the game.

When thought about carefully, can you really blame Jason West and Frank Zampella for wanting creative control of their award winning franchise back? If this writer didn’t know any better, I’d say they sensed a destruction of their franchise similar to what Activision managed to do to Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero. I saw it coming the minute IW tried to distance themselves from the CoD brand by simply calling the title “Modern Warfare 2”. They were aware of the wildly fluctuating level of quality between titles, and didn’t want their work to be lumped in, or confused with Treyarch’s. As you can see, it didn’t eactly work out as planned, and the Call of Dutybrand was slapped onto MW2 regardless. But anyone paying at least a little bit of attention could see that things are getting a little out of control with the brand, overpriced DLC not withstanding.

So the fact that the two founders were meeting with other publishers does not surprise me. The fact that they're trying to retain some control of the "Modern Warfare" brand in addition to unpaid royalties for Modern Warfare 2 with their lawsuit does not surprise me. If you're no longer in a position where you can decide the fate of your creation, AND you aren't being compensated fully for your hard work, isn't it about time to leave? The truth of the matter is, Call of Duty has grown too large for creative sentiment, and now, it solely speaks to corporate whim. I know I'm not the only one that thinks MW2's lack of multiplayer features on PC (dedicated servers, lean, console, mods, etc) was a decision imposed on them and not one they personally made. In fact, I'm pretty sure that splitting their fanbase and starting a mini-internet uprising against their highly anticipated follow-up title wasn't in the original design specs.

Now they're gone, and honestly, it's a shame that this even had to happen at all. When Microsoft realized that Bungie was about to eat itself away from the inside due to the burden of their acquisition, they backed off. Microsoft owns Halo and could've said good riddance, but they knew there couldn't be Halo without Bungie. So they gave them their independence. These two were forced to take it. Now they've formed a new studio (with EA of all people!) called Respawn Entertainment, with the added bonus of retaining control of any intellectual property they create. No one really knows where the other defectors of Infinity Ward have gone, but it'd be hard to imagine that they aren't going to be signing up with them at some point in the future. I hope they do, because I know they're going to make some amazing games, FPS or otherwise.

Activision may not be worried about the future of Call of Duty in light of this, as they still have 90 or so members of the team left, but they ought to be. I'm sure that all the remaining members are very talented, but arrogance that Call of Duty can survive without the key people who made it great was a hubris they committed when they made the mistake of separating Harmonix from Guitar Hero. Treyarch in my opinion can barely hold the mantle of CoD without riding on IW's innovations, and if rumors that about the next game can be believed, they're going back to Vietnam, and subsequently, the crutch of WW2 (groan) for the next installment. While there isn't any doubt in my mind that Call of Duty is going to keep making Activision money regardless (my baffled reaction to the masses that enjoy World at War outside of Nazi Zombies still stands), to see them lose a great deal of that established userbase to EA and Respawn would put a smile on my face. Think about that, it's the year 2010, and I'm rooting for EA, while Activision seems to now be in control of that Death Star hovering over the industry.

My, how times have changed.

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Monday, April 19, 2010

This actually happened.

Poor Sonic. It wouldn't be so tragic (or hilarious) if it weren't so TRUE..

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Captain Obvious.


I'm just sayin'.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Ashes to Ashes..

That is a female COG soldier. End statement.

Sera looks to be in complete ruin. Ashes cover the city, the remaining few silhouettes of it's populace match the surroundings. Dom has a beard. Their suits seem to have undergone a bit of a redesign, apparently everyone's as confident as Cole now.

Or they can't afford to be bulky anymore, what with new gorgon-esque Locust running around.

They're all fighting together. Marcus, Cole, Baird, Dom, and this new mystery woman. Glad to see everyone's around. Brothers to the end. Heh..

Wait, you're still reading this? C'mon. This is Gears of War 3 we're talking about here. Premiere trailer's after the jump, baby. Woo!

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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hindsight - Bioshock 2

Hindsight is the name of a group of editorials (among other things) that I'm working on for Chocolate Lemon, where I revisit a title I've mined considerably, and offer not a review, but some retroactive thoughts on what I'd experienced. Hope you enjoy :)

[[[ SPOILERS abound. I may seem to be selective in the details I go into, but trust me when I say reading this will ruin Bioshock 2's story for you if you have yet to experience it. ]]]

I was originally one of those people who didn’t welcome Bioshock 2 with open arms. I wondered why the game even existed, why it needed multiplayer, and most importantly, why anyone thought it’d be a good idea to have us as gamers revisit Rapture a second time around. I’d personally felt that what added to the infinite wonder that was Rapture was the contrast of how finite the reality was; Even though you become swept up in discovering a new world, the presence of your objective and the rapidly deteriorating surroundings meant the experience wouldn’t last. To me, it meant the experience was one to be savored, and savor it I did.

A preemptive run of the original game a week before release reaffirmed this sentiment in my mind. What reason was there to return to Rapture, if at all? At its conclusion, it didn’t seem like Rapture would last another 10 days, let alone another 10 years.

So my second tour of Rapture was a bit…skeptical, to say the least. The game did waste no time trying to lure me in with that surreal view of a pre-civil war Rapture, and even the subsequent first person suicide was a shock that, while not completely in the same vein as the plane crash, still shocked me and drew me in. However, as soon as I had control, having been tasked with finding Eleanor, my Little Sister, I spent much of my time wandering around aimlessly. A bit of wandering, some shattered glass and the ocean floor later, my worst fears were realized--I simply wasn't wowed. I wasn't really blown away, though I was impressed, but it honestly just felt like more of the same. This was a Rapture I'd seen and heard before. From a gameplay perspective, that’s great. From a storytelling one, in a game where story is the driving force, not so much so. After seeing it to its conclusion, I was singing a very different tune, and I’m very glad I didn’t let the first hour or so dissuade me, because what I experienced later on took me completely by surprise.

Unexpectedly, the locations struck a chord with me. During my tour I had seen the Atlantic Express, an old railway that ran through Rapture before single person bathyspheres became popular, giving the metropolis a sense of history and progression it didn’t have before. Ryan Amusements, a theme park turned propaganda machine made me uneasy in showing just how far its namesake Andrew Ryan would go in promoting his vision. The poor district of Pauper’s Drop, the slums where diners and jazz bars thrived in light of Ryan’s “tyranny” fascinated me as well. There was so much going on in Rapture, so much that the first game couldn’t possibly have captured, that in revisiting it all from a different perspective, I gained a new appreciation for the underwater city. Akin to discovering Ryan’s trophy room in Hephaestus from the first game, a similar feeling of dread overcame me when arrived at Persephone, a detention center where Ryan would send his detractors and dissidents. It took a bit of time, but I regained that familiar feeling the first area failed to inspire—the feeling of discovery, of putting together pieces. I was exploring the parts of Rapture that have been long forgotten, even by the residents themselves, and the city felt a lot richer because of it.

It was the same for the characters, main or otherwise. As a protagonist with a clean slate and snubbed memory, it’s just as easy to step into Delta’s shoes as it was to step into Jack’s, and the story behind his origins, while not on the level of the introspective mind f*** Jack had, was still interesting in its own way. As an accomplice, I grew fond of Sinclair, even while knowing of his true intentions behind helping me. Others like Stanley Poole (who is responsible for many of the central characters misfortune), religious/Lamb fanatic Simon Wales, the maniacal Gil Alexander (aka Alex the Great, a man turned monster) all take turns standing in your way while displaying their eccentricities. Surprisingly, each of them were twisted and memorable in ways I didn’t expect, and seeing that many of their lives were in my hands, my encounters with them (particularly Gil Alexander’s) stuck with me long after their time in the spotlight was done.

Of course, I’d also found a new antagonist to despise in Sofia Lamb. While her collectivist ideology initially seemed like a welcome relief from Ryan’s objectivist policies, her true motives in the cultish “Rapture Family” and her altruistic philosophy painted her as a much more sinister villain than Ryan in my eyes. Having taken control of Rapture in Ryan’s wake, she uses her power not only to brainwash the remnants of Rapture into her own personal army, but to also attempt conditioning her daughter into what she believes is the perfect human being; one who is devoted to the common good, with no will of their own. The more I found out about her, the more I realized just how corrupt she was in contrast--where Ryan had become a despot in response to his vision of Utopia spiraling out of his control due to his failures, Lamb came to Rapture with the intent of gathering followers and imposing a new order under the guise of family, and succeeded.

There were two defining moments of the experience to me though, ones that elevate the sequel in my mind to the level of, if not beyond the original. No, neither of them have anything to do with gameplay. (Though it is easily one of the best sequel-to-sequel gameplay updates I've ever seen..)

The first was when I rescued a sister without it being my prime objective for doing so, and I still can’t pinpoint what it was exactly. It might’ve been when she looked at me after defeating her protector and said “Daddy….is that you?” It might've been the moments when I was forced to defend her while she completed her tasks. Might’ve even been the playful moments with her on my shoulder, hearing her taunt my enemies while I fought. There was a different dynamic at play here, and I felt it. These little girls weren’t just a source of ADAM, or a barometer for my moral compass as in the first. They trusted me. They saw me as their father, a protector, and the more of them I came into contact with, the deeper that bond grew in my eyes. I wanted to help them, they wanted to help me, and no one, not even Lamb’s new Big Sisters could keep me from my task. I wouldn’t allow it. Finding out later on that my decisions towards them affected Eleanor and her eventual outlook on life attached even more in terms of gravitas.

The second was the Little Sister sequence towards the end. If the Big Daddy sequence at the end of the original served to communicate the hopeless drudgery of their protector roles, the brilliant Little Sister sequence in the second revealed to me just how brainwashed these tortured little girls were. Rapture became as pristine as a young girl’s bedroom, complete with drapes and toys strewn about. Grotesque splicers became upscale masquerade ball attendees, and when they fell asleep, angels appeared for me to collect, surrounded by butterflies. Blood spatter became rose petals. The Big Daddy was exalted from a grotesque overseer trapped in a diving suit to a knight in shining armor, complete with sculptures illustrating my actions in-game. It was just as shocking when I was jolted out of the fever dream and saw Rapture for what it really was.

It all did eventually come to an end though, and when it did, culminating in an incredible final push by the Rapture Family, I was given a very fuzzy, yet satisfying ending. It didn’t feel like a copout, as the first one did, and I really felt like what I’d done influenced the outcome for the better. On the other end of the spectrum, playing again as an evil character filled me with a sense of dread, and I truly felt like a bastard. Pressing Y to harvest was infinitely more difficult this time around. The girls were afraid of me, the prejudice, fear and hatred against me in Rapture justified. Worst of all, my ruthless, unforgiving behavior had done something to Eleanor that even I didn’t see coming. Sometimes a bad ending can carry a sort of guilty pleasure to it, a bit of a malevolent glee from being a dick, but not here. I was morose by the time the credits rolled.

It’s very funny how things change. I was one of the game’s biggest detractors, and it took two playthroughs just to absorb what 2K marin had accomplished with Bioshock 2. No, it doesn’t fire on the same exact cylinders as the first, and no, the twist doesn’t carry the exact same weight. To expect it to was admittedly a bit much to begin with, but this isn’t an excuse in their favor. The truth is, the story is surprising in different ways, its central antagonist is more of a presence, arguably more sinister in her goals and ideals, and your choices, while seemingly insignificant and ancillary at first glance, carry an immeasurable weight as the game reaches its conclusion.

I came away more than satisfied.

Still don’t care about the multiplayer though, heh.

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Thursday, April 1, 2010

April Fools?...No.

It's art. But I'm sure you were thinking something crazy for a split-second.


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