Friday, April 27, 2012

Splatterhouse (2010)

I've always been fascinated by what people consider a "bad game." As a guy who grew up watching shitty horror flicks interspersed with weird foreign movies on Cinemax and chasing down any music I could find in the pre-internet to pre-Napster era, usually by watching MTV after midnight (hey, it was suburban/rural Pennsylvania... we didn't get an "alternative rock" radio station until nu metal came along), I quickly learned that the best stuff wasn't necessarily the best-looking. To this day, I have as much love for something like Critters 3 or Cyborg 2 as I do bigger budget megaplex fare.

In the gaming world, I love tracking down the weird stuff. Buying a new copy of Deadly Premonition without having read a single thing about it or heard anything from anyone and diving into all it's terrible awesomeness has been a highlight for me in this generation of gaming. Grasshopper Manufacture's Shadows Of The Damned was a gleefully cheesy homage to B movies and cult horror classics mixed with a liberal dose of machismo that, despite some dated controls, was an absolute blast to play. It was also widely ignored by fans. There's also Atlus' demented dating sim from Hell/puzzle game Catherine. Hell, most of the games Atlus puts out have a wide streak of weirdness in them. And that's just off the top of my head. If you're willing to take a risk, there's plenty of rough diamonds out there to find.

That said, does Namco's remake of the gore classic Splatterhouse series fall into the category of "cheesy cult classic" the way the previously mentioned games do? Eh. Not really. But it's still worth playing.

Splatterhouse started as a blatant Friday The 13th rip-off done in the style of a side-scrolling beat-'em-up. It was cheap, crass, gory and tough. Like a lot of games of it's generation, the plot was largely incidental: boy meets girl, girl gets kidnapped by evil doctor, boy puts on cursed mask that turns him into a hulking monster and goes on a monster-killing rampage. It spanned a few different games that found their way to different systems with varying degrees of success. I have a lot of fond memories of smacking shambling monsters with a two-by-four but the series holds a sentimental place in my heart more for it's willingness to go for the gore in an age of very kid friendly platformers.

The remake stays the course with a fleshed out re-telling of the original story in the form of a 3rd person brawler. It's got boobs, blood and a surprisingly killer heavy metal soundtrack. On paper, it was a game designed perfectly for me. I mean, as a collectable, you pick up torn photos of your kidnapped girlfriend topless. Yes, goofballs like me were certainly the target audience.

Things got lost in the implementation, though. Most notably, combat. Most of it is a standard 3rd person brawling with a leveling system a la Devil May Cry or God Of War. However, weapons are rare and degrade quickly so you're going to be fist fighting through a majority of the game. Therein lies the problem. There's a wealth of different moves to buy but a lot of them seem superfluous and not as effective as I'd have liked. I found myself using the same five or six moves throughout the game.

Also problematic were the context-sensitive finishers. The game doesn't have a ton of enemy variety and all enemies have only a maximum of two finishers. Ripping a giant creature's asshole out might be worth a giggle the first couple of times but tedium sets in fast. By the time you hit the last third of the game, you've seen just about everything and merely repeat the same fights over and over again.

Creature design is so-so. Mostly they are variations of the enemy types you'd expect, right down to the evil clowns. Some of the enemies seem to be based on the original Splatterhouse designs and feel too generic. The levels also feel a bit too familiar: creepy mansion, creepy junkyard, creepy circus, etc.

The game picks up in other areas, though. The gore is fantastic. Without hyperbole, this is possibly the bloodiest game I've ever played. Everything is soaked in it. It's even the in-game currency for leveling up your character.

The biggest surprise was the story itself. Not necessarily the characters, they're very much archetypes. Rick, the hero, is metal nerd and a college student. Jennifer, the inexplicably hot girlfriend, is a screaming plot device with no personality. The villian, Dr. West, is a Lovecraft character dialed up to eleven. Though they were stuck using the thinly drawn characters from the original games, there was still room to play around with the characterizations to make things feel more interesting. Particularly Jennifer, who exists only to be kidnapped. They probably would have been better off making her either more nerdy hot (with the nude pictures you collect during the game showing a racier side of her) or a more righteous modern chick that doesn't enjoy being forced into a victim role. As a generic blond hottie, Jennifer is a character archetype better off updated for the times.

However, working within the confines of the original story, writer Gordon Rennie (a former writer for the legendary UK comic magazine 2000 A.D) improves on things admirably. The Terror Mask that saves Rick from a bloody death is given a gruff, profanity heavy personality (voiced by Jim Cummings, who you might remember as Darkwing Motherfucking Duck) that taunts and teases the freaked-out and panic-y Rick throughout the game. Because they are symbiotically connected, the Terror Mask can comb through the dark recesses of Rick's mind for all his dirty little secrets and happily uses that information to make Rick more and more miserable and, as a result, more pliable and easy to manipulate. The mask has it's own history and it's own reasons for saving Rick and fighting Dr. West. The interactions between the two are your primary source of dialogue and as the game reaches the conclusion, the roles have shifted a bit. Rick grows more comfortable in his new reality and the Terror Mask doesn't like it. They may need each other to survive but a stronger and more assertive Rick is detrimental to the Terror Mask's plans and they both know it.

There's also the obvious similarities between the goals of Rick and Dr. West. Ultimately, both just want their loved one back. When the game starts introducing elements of time travel, it all ties together neatly in a way I won't spoil other than to say that West's centuries long acts of hubris had damned him from the start. It's a neat and unexpected bit of nuance in a game you would not expect any nuance from. Naturally, West is now completely bugfuck and would rather invoke Lovecraftian Old Ones to destroy everything than live without his Leonora. And without a sequel to look forward to (as you'd expect, the game bombed pretty bad), the game broadly hints that Rick may end up going down the same path as West, starting the whole thing rolling all over again.

It's not Shakespeare, as the hoary old cliche goes, but in a game mostly about boobs and blood, it's a damn sight more thoughtful than you'd expect... and with the combat such a let-down, it's good to have something to look forward to.

When you're done with the single player, the game offers an arena mode that, honestly, isn't worth the time unless you're achievement hunting. The real bonus is that all of the previous Splatterhouse games are unlocked once you finish the game, allowing you to go back and re-live the magic of reducing monsters to mush in 2-D. (Of course, you could always skip ahead and just get the original Splatterhouse for your iPod/iPad as well.)

You can chalk up this remake as a noble failure. Maybe if it had an extra six months or a year in development it would have been a game worth remembering but for a niche title like this, that was probably never in the cards. Unless you're die hard about owning the original games, Splatterhouse is the definition of a "rental" but if you're looking for something a little obscure and rough around the edges, you could do a lot worse.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Controversy con't: The Defense Of The Endings (And Why They're Still Wrong)

Yeah, this is still a thing. Just to catch you up: BioWare has announced an Extended Cut DLC to be released this summer. As of this writing, it's only to contain additional cinematics for the purpose of providing "clarity and closure." No new gameplay, no new endings. So, basically, it's an epilogue. (Something that, frankly, should have been included from the beginning.) As with my previous entry, I'm spoiling the hell out of it for you so you'd best turn back now if you haven't played it yet.

It's gotten very hard to find intelligent conversation about this subject. Most gaming news sites found it easier to trash anyone up in arms about the ending then to diagnose WHY they were pissed. It began and ended with "whiny, entitled fanboys" and the real-world mechanics of changing the ending, not the actual content of it. Which is not only intellectually dishonest, it's not even attempting to address the problem.

Most people (usually people on Renegade/Destroy ending playthroughs... the only variation that allows you to succeed AND survive) seem to stick with the argument of "I liked it so I don't see what the problem is." Which, again, isn't addressing the issues. I maintain that anyone who stops to think about the ending's details will quickly notice that the whole thing falls apart the minute you question it... which is not something that should happen in good fiction.

As a group, the people at Demand A Better Ending... and Hold The Line have put together articles on top of articles as to exactly what it is about the ending they are so viscerally opposed to. They're certainly willing to talk about it intelligently and argue the points if anyone was willing to take the counter-point. This is why, I think, we've all grown to distrust gaming journalists. If you can't debate the substance of why someone is angry, it makes it seem as though you either can't or don't want to for any number of reasons ranging from a general aura of smug condescension (hellooooo, IGN) to wanting to maintain your relationship with the developer to (if you're conspiracy theory minded) an outright exchange of money. All three options hurt your credibility as a "journalist."

Just as an example: Joker's fleeing the battle. Why did he split off from the fight? How did he pick up your companions, especially the ones with you on the final assault? Why did he run for the relay? How did he know that the mass effect relays were going to be destroyed or what the consequences of that destruction would be? It's been in both is own and EDI's character arcs in the game that they were both committed to what was really a final suicide mission for the sake of the galaxy. Even if Joker wanted to chicken out, based on your conversations with her, EDI wouldn't let him. It only makes sense if you chose the Destroy ending because he's trying to save EDI... but that still asks the question of how he even knew what was going to happen in the first place.

Answer? Because it was a "cool" visual and got them to the final shot they wanted. No internal logic necessary. It was for the "Joker and EDI as Adam and Eve" Creation Myth final shot for the Control/Synthesis endings... or to highlight the consequences of being a "whatever it takes" style Renegade player in the Destroy ending. Joker, a physically frail character most likely unable to survive on an uninhabited garden planet, with EDI dead and only a couple of teammates and crew members and a trashed Normandy... all of them likely to die alone because you were willing to sacrifice whatever you had to to win. So, yeah, it didn't matter to them HOW it happened or WHY, just that it got them the ending they wanted.

This is why I'm pessimistic about the Extended Cut DLC. As great as the team of writers at BioWare are, they're going to have to take something inherently illogical and torture the logic until it makes some kind of sense. The ending, whether you believe it was entirely the work of Mac Walters and Casey Hudson or a genuine team effort, was designed to be obtuse and speculative, not to make sense. Working backwards to explain it will only further highlight the flaws.

A month into this protest, the notion of "artistic integrity" has been argued right into the ground. It was the first and most knee-jerk reaction of the people defending the endings and they've fought against that idea hard. The "artistic integrity" argument only works if the end product wasn't already compromised to begin with. Look at the list of promises BioWare gave us and what ultimately didn't make it into the game at the end. The only way it makes sense is if they didn't have the time to implement the things they wanted. It's not a coincidence that Mass Effect 3 released at the end of this year's second fiscal quarter. It's entirely logical, even inevitable, that EA wanted to bump their profits by releasing a tentpole series game right before the quarter wrapped up (March 31st). It's important to note this because it means that BioWare had to buckle under a hard deadline rather than simply claiming that it was their intention all along. And they certainly can't call EA out on it without some vicious consequences.

Also, original lead writer Drew Karpyshyn had an entirely different ending in mind for the series that was abandoned late into the development due to a leak. Which means what we got was a last second compromise and not a well-planned, entirely thought out finale. You can make the argument that it doesn't violate artistic integrity because the game hadn't been released yet but the point isn't to prove you wrong, just to prove that the notion is muddy at best. Claiming some sort of sacrosanct artistic notion is pure pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

We're not asking for a new endings/new Starchild choices because we're "whiny and entitled," we're doing it because we know that video games are the only form of media where it's possible. Comparing Mass Effect 3 to books and movies and TV is apples and oranges and bananas. You can't even compare it to other video games. In other games, we play until we hit a non-interactive cut-scene. The cut-scene expands the characters or changes the plot/setting and then we play until the next one happens. At the end of the game, we're told what the ending is and we can take it or leave it. Maybe it's a thrill ride and maybe it's a ponderous, intellectual dissertation but we're never given the illusion of control. Other games have had light, usually very simplistic "choices" that define which of a limited number of endings we get... but that's it. THIS is why we're upset. In a series of games about choice, it's taken from us at the last second. It was objectively bad writing and, being a video game, BioWare has the means to correct that to some degree.

The few, more nuanced, arguments in defense of the endings like to state that we were never SUPPOSED to have more choices at the end. Thematically, they argue, it was always going this way. This is false for the same reason that the Indoctrination Theory was always false: it assumes too much of BioWare. Yes, from a design perspective, it was always going to have essentially a Boss Fight or button press for a finale. But thematically? No, that doesn't scan.

The notion of Cosmicism and Pre-Determination, the idea that it was all some kind of inevitable Ragnarok event, were aspects of the series but never used as central themes the way "unity," friendship," and "sacrifice" were. What's more, the idea of pre-determination in the context of a video game about choice is outright silly and counter-productive. It actively invalidates the central premise. That's not a risky literary device, that's outright breaking the game. We have been trained from the minute we pick up a controller to believe that our actions in a virtual world effect the outcome... even if it's just shooting people until we reach the end of a stage. Going against that is not evidence that BioWare is playing on an intellectual level we never noticed, it's evidence of a fundamentally bad decision. The inherent lack of logic in Joker's actions, for example, is proof of that.

Even people who like the ending can admit that their implementation of the "synthetics vs. organics" argument was either flawed or an outright failure. For those of us who played as Paragons or Para-gades, the first thought in our heads was "but I united the fucking races!" The notion that it's been pre-determined that synthetics and organics will always be at war only fits during a Renegade playthrough. Because the Starchild doesn't deign to explain this fundamental flaw in his logic, it utterly takes us out of the game. Personally, I know that this was where the game lost me... which made everything that came after all the more unreal and false. I can suspend my disbelief for a Starchild taking the form of a child I feel guilty for not saving. That doesn't mean I can suspend it when he acts like a dumbass instead of an ancient synthetic StarGod.

Part of the argument is that it shouldn't matter that the Starchild doesn't explain himself. It's a VI without the ability to self-determinate. It's just going through it's programming. But if you are willing to accept that, why do the Reapers essentially give up when Shepard arrives? Why do they agree to allow themselves to be controlled or destroyed or to magically force the universe to integrate? If your presence is enough to make them give up and offer you three ways to save the universe, you should be able to reason with it for a fourth or fifth option by addressing their giant leaps of logic.

The casualties were always going to be high. A war without sacrifices would have felt even less logical than the one we got. Even if the mass relays didn't blow up and the Reapers just keeled over, you still have a crippled, nearly decimated galaxy... but one with hope. Not exactly a party-on-Endor "wub wub" ending, especially if you factor in the almost inevitable death of Shepard. Anyone being honest would admit that they were expecting or at least prepared for it.

The "you just want a happy ending" argument was always a facepalming over-simplification if ever there was one. What we always wanted, and what we were lead to expect coming off the first two games, was an entire range of endings from happy-ish to nihilistic. Achieving an ending where Shepard lives (without committing genocide) should have been very hard but not impossible to do. That's how you motivate people to continue playing the game: so they can see all of the different permutations of their choices and how those choices play out. That's what we got in the second game and we had every reason to expect it here.

If we're going by traditional literary trilogies, there's almost always some kind of epilogue or denouement to tie everything together. I've heard and read people defending the endings by saying, ostensibly, "well, they always end that way... don't you want something different?" Well, sure... if there's some kind of creative variation. The problem with ambiguous endings is that, in the wrong hands, they're an easy cheat and a time-saver. Instead of taking the time to tie everything up, you just cut to black. Clearly, this was not the right time for one. Yes, they are hopefully providing that in the Extended Cut DLC but why wasn't it planned from the outset?

An impressionistic ending at the end of a 15 to 20 hour game is fair... but at the end of a 100+ hour trilogy of games? There was no way people weren't going to get whiplash. Casey Hudson's attitude during the first press release about the furor over the endings didn't help either. He may have wanted the endings to provoke discussion but this is definitely not the kind of discussion you want your fans having. We're in this situation now because BioWare made a huge miscalculation about the kind of game people thought they were playing.

People wanted emotional catharsis and not ambiguity and Big Sci-Fi Concepts. This kind of disconnect from the writers is surprising considering how tightly plotted the series had been up until that point. The sense of ownership people have over their characters is only there because BioWare so successfully lead us to believe we had some illusion of control over the game. Under that light, it makes sense that people are demanding an entirely new ending. We're just playing out in real life what BioWare gave us in the game. This may be the ending the developers and writers have chosen but if it doesn't meet the standards they've previously set then you could argue that it was always going to end this way. Fans are angry because they've been genuinely mislead and lied to, not because we don't "get it."

More than a month after the games release, attitudes have cooled off a bit. That's lead to heads hardening and opinions crystallizing. I'm not expecting anyone to take these counter-arguments seriously. I'm just trying to push the argument forward and not just fall back on some facile statement of "entitlement."

Keelah se'lai.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

High On Fire - De Vermis Mysteriis

There's no lack of things in the world that we should be outraged about but, being a nerd, the things that make me angry tend to be frivolous and not a very big deal in the long run. Once or twice a year, I'll read a news article somewhere that High On Fire is going out on tour. There will be loud excitement for a half-minute because they are a tremendous live band and I never pass up an opportunity to... ah shit. They're near the bottom of a bill full of shitty metalcore/kindercore/nu nu-metal bands. Well, fuck that.

Given their history and their pedigree and the six albums worth of absolutely killer heavy metal, High On Fire should arguably be the biggest metal band in America. It's certainly not for a lack of trying. Frontman and guitarist Matt Pike was one-third of the legendary stoner doom behemoth Sleep and brings all of his weed-obsessed hesher awesomeness to High On Fire. The warrior imagery and triumphal riffage he brings cannot be fucked with. After three albums working together, Des Kensel and Jeff Matz are absolutely locked in as a rhythm section. The guys are also a hard touring band that's sure to come through your town once or twice a year. Musical trends may have moved more towards the giant pussies wearing girls' pants and asymmetrical haircuts but there's always been something honest and undeniable about H.O.F's no-bullshit approach to metal.

This iteration of the lineup, together since 2007's Death Is This Communion, is the tightest and gnarliest the band has ever been. Their previous album, Snakes For The Divine, is most memorable to me for it's opening track. The riff is just amazing.

There are other great tracks on it ("Frost Hammer," "Bastard Samurai") but that first track overshadows everything else for me. There's no such problem on De Vermis Mysteriis. There's a one-two-three-four punch of "Serums Of Liao," "Bloody Knuckles," the absolutely killer "Fertile Green," and "Madness Of An Architect"  before you get a chance to take a breath with the instrumental "Samsara."

In interviews, Matt Pike has talked about the record being a loose concept album posing the question "what if Jesus had a twin in the womb that had to die so Jesus could live... and what if that twin became a time traveler who found a scroll that teaches him how to make a serum which allows him to view his brother through the eyes of an ancestor and goes on a quest to see why he had become this religious figure that inspired all this war and bloodshed?" Which is fucking banana cakes crazy pants. It's also, like most metal albums, completely superfluous to your enjoyment of it. "Samsara" is the only point in the record where you'd have time to think about what's happening and when. "Spiritual Rights" kicks off the back half of the album with aplomb but leads into the sludgier, more ponderous "King Of Days." The end of the track highlights one of the biggest strengths of the album, the new found focus on the sound of Des Kensel's militaristic drums. Producer Kurt Ballou (metal uber-producer and member of punk mainstays Converge) gives those drumbeats an oomph that no previous producer has managed to coax. Whenever the songs open up enough to give Des the attention he deserves, it sounds fantastic. Hopefully future producers of the band will take note.

The second half of the record isn't as epic as the first but it's still rock solid. They lock into a steadier groove and ride it into the big, menacing closer "Warhorn." Jeff Matz's bass takes point over Pike's growling dissection of a battlefield. It's not the uppercut knockout the first half would lead you to expect but it's also never less than engaging.

If you get a chance to see High On Fire doing a headlining gig: take it. Or if you can put up with the prancing ninnies they seem to open for most of the time, go right ahead. The perpetually shirtless Matt Pike always makes for a compelling frontman and the band as a whole is tight as hell. It's always a good show. They may not be the biggest metal band in the world but I can think of few who are better.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Unsane - Wreck

If you aren't paying attention, the words people usually use to describe Unsane could either be taken as a pejorative or a compliment. You often hear them mention how they haven't changed much since their first full length more than twenty years ago. Same mix of wildly distorted bass, slide guitar, harmonica, and glass gargling shouts. Same monosyllabic song titles. Same blood-spattered cover artwork. The key elements are all still there, yeah, but they've long since been refined to an painfully sharp point. I can't think of another band that oozes menace the way Unsane does. Not in that bullshit "tough guy hardcore band" sense and definitely not in the "Hail Satan" sense either. It's street level, matter-of-fact, fatalistic, and without any macho posturing. Unsane doesn't have to threaten to kick your ass, they just do.

From their first couple wall of noise records to their crusty, grimy mid-period era to now, Unsane has taken it's chances mostly with their production. Since reforming after singer/guitarist Chris Spencer was jumped and badly beaten in Austria, each record has had a different sound. Blood Run was a solid batch of tunes let down by some muddy production that blunted the effect. Even with headphones on it felt like I was listening to the album from the back of a large room. They came back a couple years later with Visqueen, a desert island disc for me and an absolute epic. The bass tone they got on that record... Jesus, listening to it still feels like someone went directly into the pleasure center of my brain and pushed the button marked "wreck some shit." It helped that the songwriting lived up to the power of the musicians: "Against The Grain," "Last Man Standing," "This Stops At The River," "Only Pain"... the whole thing is fucking mammoth. And this year they released Wreck. Sonically, it sounds closest to their fan favorite album Occupational Hazard: very unfussy production that doesn't attempt to gussy up or smooth out any rough edges. The band has gotten so tight at this point, as musicians and as songwriters, that they don't need anything extraneous to get their point across. Take "No Chance," a highlight of the new record. All it takes is letting the guitar drop out for a second or two at the 2:40 mark to let the feedback go to give it that extra oomph. The song would have been great without it but it's just a small choice to change things up that gives it something extra. You wouldn't have heard that moment in their earlier albums and it speaks to the confidence they have in what they do.

That attitude carries over to the rest of the record. With everything so tight and ticking along like clockwork, there isn't a whole lot to complain about. "Rat" starts things off with a chorus where Spencer screams "so unclean" but my noise-damaged ears heard as "sour cream." I'm still trying to convince myself that he isn't actually saying that, which makes the song unintentionally funny. I'll get over it. "Decay," "No Chance," "Pigeon," and "Ghost" are all vintage Unsane songs. Bassist Dave Curran takes over on lead vocals for "Stuck," a song that slows things down a bit to give some space to Spencer's slide guitar. It's more of a break-up song than the "dangers of urban living" stuff they're known for. Spencer's barks and shouts have always seemed somehow resigned to the violence they portray but Curran's whiskey-and-cigarettes voice sounds more bitter and weary as he chastises himself and pleads with his pill-popping girlfriend. They cap things off with a cover of the mighty Flipper's "Ha Ha Ha" that makes great use of Spencer's cynical faux laugh. It's a bang up cover that doesn't disrespect the original in the least. Having Spencer laughing at you as the song dissolves into shredding feedback is just about the most appropriate way possible to end the album.

I don't think Unsane has it in them to make a bad record. Not in the way that some bands do. They're so locked in to their style and so comfortable playing within those bounds that the only really worry would be repeating themselves but, more than twenty years into their career, they've long ago proved too smart for that. There aren't many bands left doing noise rock the way Unsane do. Most of the time, bands are taking more of a college educated weird-beard-and-tight-pants hipster approach to the genre. That leaves Unsane to do what they've always done and done well: make well-constructed, unpretentious, menacing rock music that takes zero shit from anyone. And I'm damn thankful for it.