Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Audioslave: Revelations - The Definitive Review (also available in HD)

Audioslave is the result of Rage Against The Machine losing their vocalist and joining up with Chris Cornell, the lead singer of such bands as "Soundgarden" and "Chris Cornell".  They were originally called "Civilian", then they split up and got back together about 50 times and wrote about 500 songs, and some other stuff happened and then they released the album "Audioslave" in 2002.  Many criticized the album for sounding like "Rage Against The Garden" or "Sound Against the Machine" or "SoundMachine" or "Rage Soundgarden The Cornell" or "RaSoge Agoundainst ThGare Machdenine".  3 years later, they released an album that didn't seem like it took 3 years to make.  1 year later they released this, because they wanted to be like Led Zeppelin.

This album is heavier than the last one, because it goes back to its roots, but it's also a whole new and more cohesive sound.  Did you know they had never toured together before making the first album?  Wow!  This is the album they always wanted to make.  It's like Led Zeppelin meets Earth, Wind, and Fire.  (For like half of one song.)

01. Revelations
It starts with the kind of acoustic/picked guitar thing you'd hear on 
Out Of Exile.  I like this song, but I don't like how Chris Cornell sounds like he's eating a lemon when he pronounces "Revelashiiiiiiiians".

02. One And The Same
Is it "And" or "In"?  Make up your minds.  This is a fast and funky song with wakkachika guitars.  Chris assumes a little too much in this song; since when are blood and rain one in the same?  Or one and the same?  AAGH make up your minds

03. Sound of a Gun
This is another one of those Rage Against Sounds of The Garden Machine songs, sort of.  The bridge of this song was heard in "Drown Me Slowly" on the previous album.  Whoa, time travel.  Actually, I guess they just wrote them at the same time.  Deceitful varmints.  This song would be better if every time Chris Cornell said "sound of a gun" you heard a gunshot sound.  I guess you could just listen to it in Harlem and get the same effect.

04. Until We Fall
In this song, Chris Cornell reveals two things:
1) he's black, and
2) he's tired of it.
Talk about Revelations!

05. Original Fire
This song is good, except pretty much everyone's in agreement that the guitar solo sounds like Donald Duck yelling profanities and is completely out of place.

06. Broken City
This song is about Cornell's frustration with Legos.

07. Somedays
Despite the grammatically incorrect title, this is a really cool song.  Unless you're allergic to people saying "Some days" more than two times in one chorus.

08. Shape of Things to Come
I sat through this whole song waiting to find out what the shape of things to come is, and I never did.  It starts off sounding like "Out of Exile", therefore I declare the whole song unoriginal.  How did you think you could get away with that, you hypocrites?

09. Jewel of the Summertime
If you play this song in the Wintertime, the RATM guys will come to your house naked wearing tape over their mouths, so be careful.

10. Wide Awake

11. Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye

This song is about Chris Cornell being a dog.  The annoying thing about this song is that it fades out right when Tom Morello starts playing the Batman theme.  Maybe they were worried about lawsuits.

12. Moth
This song is about Chris Cornell being a moth.

Audioslave: A Look Back

Look, guys.  I like Audioslave.  I really do.  I mean, I didn't grow up with Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine, so I can't put myself in the shoes of someone who did.  I only knew some of their songs, enough to comprehend what this supergroup meant on a basic level.  Looking back on their bodies of work, I can start to understand why people had such a violent negative reaction to Audioslave.  But I think if you approach their music from as fresh a perspective as possible -- which, to some extent, simply "won't work" for some people, and I get that -- you gotta appreciate at least some of what they did.  It was simple, unassuming rock music bolstered by the undeniable instrumental talents of the Rage guys and the also-undeniable (if perhaps a bit worn) vocal talent of Chris Cornell.  (Rumor has it he lost some of his voice to cigarettes, but has regained it since; I'm not sure if there's any truth to that.)  Combining the two styles was a more intriguing idea than most supergroups -- which generally combine rock with rock and result in rock -- and they delivered on the concept.  They didn't exceed expectations, but those expectations were pretty awesome.

While they obviously weren't lacking in talent, perhaps what they did lack was "spark".  The classic supergroup problem, I suppose; there's so much mutual professional respect in the room that nobody feels specifically motivated to contribute their own ideas or challenge each other's ideas.  There was clearly a general motivation to make music, but I get the impression that each band member was on autopilot, waiting for one of the other guys to take the lead, occasionally coming up with a breakthrough idea.  That said, these guys on autopilot still do some pretty great work.

Their sonic palette wasn't incredibly diverse, and their primary song formula wore itself a bit thin by the end of the first album.  They mixed it up a little on the other two albums, but perhaps not as much as they should have.  To be fair, I feel like Rage Against The Machine was on the verge of running out of ideas when they broke up, too.  Let's just say variety has never been Tom Morello's strongest point.  I don't know if either band would've been able to sustain a fourth album.

At this point you're probably wondering exactly what I'm introducing here.  Well, I'm going to do a brief rundown of each of Audioslave's albums.  I'm starting with the last one, Revelations, because I actually did a write-up of it four years ago on my MySpace blog. Remember those?  Basically I'm abandoning ship and re-posting whatever I want to keep around.  Because screw that place.  The other day I was checking Facebook on my phone and I accidentally clicked the MySpace link and I was like "aaaaaaaaaaah, what happened to Facebook, why does it look so terrib--OH, I clicked MySpace by accident, never mind."

So part 1 of this series will be posted immediately after this.  The format for these write-ups is semi-humorous, half-serious and not even close to professional.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Chronicles of Zucker: The Coco, The Chin, and the Closet

I was trying to think of some kind of complicated metaphor for the Conan O'Brien scandal, something involving the story of King Solomon and the baby custody case, but I don't think anyone needs that at this point.  Most of us know and understand the situation well enough.  So I'm just gonna rant a little.

Am I angry at Jay Leno?  Sort of.  I don't know how angry I can be, because I don't know the complete truth of the situation.  If Jay Leno is a behind-the-scenes mastermind who pushed Conan off the air, I'm very angry at him.  If he is exactly who he says he is, I'm still a bit angry at him.  So he doesn't come out of this looking very good either way.

Conan O'Brien made a tough decision: he left the Tonight Show when NBC threatened to move it past midnight, because he respects the legacy of the brand.  He refused to go along with NBC's plan.  One has to wonder what would've happened if Jay Leno refused as well.  I would love it if NBC rewarded Conan's humility by thinking up another plan that would let him keep the Tonight Show at 11:35, but I understand that they're a business and they're going to do whatever is most profitable at the moment.  But what that says to me is that Jay should've done the same thing, instead of just going along with NBC's idea, as if he doesn't understand their motivations or Conan's motivations.  We all know NBC was desperate to keep him around.  What were they gonna do, fire him?  Then they'd presumably have gotten Conan to stay on board.  Of course, Leno apparently would've had a bigger payout... but that's NBC's problem, not his.

I guess what it comes down to is, nobody expects a big corporation like NBC to do what's best for the art.  It's the unspoken duty of their hired artists to butt heads with management and say, "No, you can't do this, it makes short-term business sense but it's infringing upon the art, here's why" and reach a compromise that's still profitable without killing too much of the art.  But I guess Jay Leno just isn't what most of us would call an artist.

But then again, enough about Jay Leno.  He's not the ultimate villain here.  He may be a villain, but the real villain is Jeff Zucker and any other NBC execs who were with him on this.  See, this whole situation came about because of a lack of trust.  A few years ago, Zucker was afraid that Conan wasn't going to stick around when his Late Night contract expired, because other networks were making him offers.  So he promised him the Tonight Show in 2009.  We all thought Jay Leno was okay with this, but apparently he didn't really want to retire.

Now, right here we can already see the massive lack of foresight on Zucker's part.  He was afraid that Conan would go to another network and create competition... so he released Jay Leno before he was done with television.  And then, unsurprisingly, he became afraid that Jay Leno would go to another network and create competition.  So that's when he came up with the plan to give Jay Leno a new show on NBC at 10 PM; a decision that was unanimously mocked when it was first announced, then mocked again, and again.  And it turned out exactly as badly as everybody predicted.  His ratings plummeted, dragging down the ratings of the local news and the Tonight Show as well.  Affiliates threatened to revolt, and the rest is history.

I'm stopping the story there because it's the crucial juncture of the problem.  Because NBC had no faith that Conan would stick around, they created a Leno vs. Conan situation where there never should've been one.  They were both talk show hosts on the same network.  It doesn't make sense that they were competing with each other.  It doesn't make sense that Jay Leno was waiting in the wings to take back the Tonight Show.

It doesn't make sense that Jay Leno's successor is Jay Leno.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Unreality Check

Unreal.  It's a game, it's a franchise, it's an engine that's always being "heavily modified".  These days, the latter is what you're most likely to hear about, even though an Unreal Tournament game was released a mere two years ago.  And according to the latest interviews, we're not going to see another Unreal game for at least a few years.  So what happened?

Back in the pre-Half-Life era, post-Doom, it was all about Unreal vs. Quake.  (Or Quake 2, to be more precise.)  They were really the only fully 3D first-person shooters around at the time.  Whereas Quake played basically like a high-tech Doom (not that that's a bad thing), Unreal was one of the first forays into truly "narrative" FPS gameplay, an attempt to break from the anthologic episode/level format that was sort of accidentally popularized by Doom.  Level breaks were signified only by loading screens that would pop up during the player's otherwise uninterrupted exploration of the game world, and scripted events spiced up the run-and-gun gameplay with some memorable moments.

Then, as we all know, Half-Life came along a few months later and refined this game style to an art.  Almost as if in fear, both the Unreal and Quake franchises opted for multiplayer-only installments: Quake 3 Arena and Unreal Tournament.  It wasn't until later that we'd see more story-based installments: Unreal 2 in 2003 and Quake 4 in 2005.  Unreal 2 wasn't received too well, although I haven't played it myself, so I can't comment.  Unreal Tournament, however, has had 3 sequels (2 of which are actually acknowledged), and those are what I'll be talking about.

With the exception of Unreal Tournament 2004, each installment of the UT franchise has showcased a different version of the Unreal engine.  But wait, why the anomaly?  Because Unreal Tournament 2003 was, by most accounts, a disappointment.  It introduced some very impressive graphical enhancements and terrain support, but there were no radically new modes, the map selection was underwhelming, the lightning gun was way less cool than the sniper rifle, and above all, it just didn't "feel" right.  (More on that later.)  Epic quickly rectified this by releasing Unreal Tournament 2004, which literally included everything in UT2003 plus almost an entire game's worth of additional maps, vehicular combat, and the return of the real sniper rifle.  It was received very well.

The tail end of 2007 brought us another installment of the franchise: Unreal Tournament 3.  (Note the implicit erasure of UT2003 from history.)  To date, it's the only Unreal game to use the Unreal 3 Engine.  And despite the game being generally well-received by most critics and fans of the franchise, the online community is dwindling at best.  Judging from Epic's comments, it looks like it's going to be the last Unreal game for quite some time.  So what went wrong?

Facing Worlds: UT version Facing Worlds: UT3 version
Facing Worlds: before and after. I dunno man, isn't outer space cooler than China?

On the whole, people seemed to be satisfied with UT3.  The gameplay style felt closer to that of the original, but with the added benefits of UT2004's vehicular combat, various refinements to the weapons, and obviously better graphics.  But somehow, as great as everything appeared to be on the surface, the game just didn't completely... feel right.  Yes, I know I already said the gameplay style was closer to that of the original; but still, something was amiss.  I know, in my head, that the game is extremely fun.  But despite my best efforts to support the game and help its community to thrive, I am stricken by a strange lack of desire to play it.  It could be any number of things, but I can't help but wonder if the key factor here is actually the art direction.

Most people underestimate the impact of art direction on a game's enjoyability.  There are two extremes that usually dominate the discussion: those who are mainly concerned with high-tech graphics that look "realistic" and the "serious gamers" who try to counteract that by saying "It doesn't matter what it looks like, as long as it plays well."  Well, you know how it is with extremes: neither one is completely right.  It's easy to thumb our noses at those "uncultured plebians" who only care about awesome graphics, pointing out games like Tetris that are still loads of fun despite their primitive rendering capabilities.  But let's not confuse graphics with art direction.  Both impact what a game "looks like", in different ways.  There's no way you can claim that the original Unreal Tournament has better graphics than UT3, obviously.  But I'm quite free to claim that it has better art direction, and I will do so now.  It does.

There are lots of little things I prefer about UT's design compared to UT3's: the taller, slimmer characters, the more vibrant color pallette, the dominance of sci-fi elements in the architecture (how much cooler is the original "asteroid" version of Facing Worlds than UT3's pseudo-Chinese thingamabob?), and the more upbeat, memorable music.  But that's all very subjective.  A more objective way of putting it would be: simplicity.  Unreal Engine 3 is obviously capable of looking every bit as good as the original Unreal engine, and then some.  But as crazy as this sounds, the maps almost seem to have too much work put into them.  The deluxe edition of UT3 came with an artbook.  Think about that; an artbook.  It has beautiful sketches of the various alien worlds the maps are based on.  This sounds like a positive thing, but think about what kind of game we're talking about here.  Unreal Tournament is all about high-speed, turbo-charged multiplayer brawls, and yet here's Epic trying to create authentic beautiful alien worlds with detailed rock formations and stuff.  It's like building a room for your baby to play in and then filling it with fine china.  The main problem with Unreal Tournament 3's art direction isn't that it's particularly unappealing, but that it's ill-suited to the gameplay.  It isn't conducive to pure, action-packed fun.

Unreal Tournament character Unreal Tournament 3 character
Steroids build muscles, not character.

Here's what I want to see from Unreal Tournament 4, assuming it's ever made:

  • Simpler character models.  Enough muscles-within-muscles and intricate gold-encrusted ancient carvings on people's shoulder pads.  High-res textures are awesome, but give our eyes a break here.
  • MORE character models and a much greater degree of in-game player customization, without necessarily needing to use mods.  This would be facilitated by the previous one.
  • Ditto for the map designs.  A game like this needs to come with as many maps as possible (with the assumed quality control) and they need to be as recognizable and memorizable as possible, since you'll ideally be playing them many, many times over.  I suppose there's a limit point at which there would be "too many" maps, but I don't think they're even close to it yet.
  • Social networking and persistent stat tracking.  I have a feeling they'll come up with this idea without my intervention, but it's clearly the way things are going these days, and I think "the multiplayer FPS of the future" just plain has to have it.  I don't want them to go "class-based" or anything like that, but simply having an online character profile is nice and encourages play, even if every character is virtually identical.
  • Either abandon story mode entirely or make it like UT2004's sport-style mode, just trying to maintain your career through a bunch of matches.  (A "tournament" you say?!)  The storyline/cutscene framework they built around UT3's single-player mode was quite clearly a waste of resources.  It's just a bunch of maps, and nobody wants it to be anything more.
  • Bring back the upbeat music.  This is more of a personal taste issue, but I think a lot of people would agree.  More low-key, dramatic music might be appropriate for the epic team-based terrain maps, but for Deathmatch we just need awesome music to blow people up to.

Anyway, yeah.  Just a few ideas.  I think it appropriate to close by pointing to two other blogs that just so happened to coincide with this entry, which I mostly wrote a few weeks ago.  Yahtzee's past two Extra Puncutation columns have dealt with overcomplicated character design, and he links to a Jack Monahan blog that actually goes into the whole Unreal Tournament thing.  He points out the rather damning fact that in UT3's team-based modes, the character models actually have a red or blue "glow" superimposed over them to make it more obvious who's who -- despite the fact that, like in the previous UT games, the characters' armor textures are color-coded as well.  It's kind of laughable when you think about it.  It really seems like a tacit admission of design failure.