Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Slipknot and the Perception of Taste

On the recommendation of a chum, I am going to attempt a post about something other than games, as apparently such things exist (who knew?). Here, I shall examine the social consequences of listening to a particular type of music.

Habitually, I am at best a sometime music listener. As far as I am concerned, this operates in my favour, as I only listen to music I actually want to listen to, rather than music everyone else does. I have a particular taste for rock, but I will happily lend an ear to any artist that I take a liking to. Most recently, this has been the oft-maligned metal band, Slipknot. Having heard and enjoyed a couple of tracks from their third album, The Subliminal Verses, I elected to make a purchase. I should perhaps explain that I only ever purchase full albums, as I feel this helps to broaden my taste- I regard downloading single tracks as a mite on the philistine side.

Having now listened to the album in its entirety, I quite like the intensity of the songs and the grim nihilism of the lyrics (a stark contrast with most chart toppers), but I am aware that I, overweight nerdy teen, am not the standard listener profile. Indeed, I realise that my newly acquired penchant for this band may alter people's perceptions of myself. The question I now ask is why?

Why should a person's musical taste affect other people's thoughts about them? I am all too aware that many people regard bands such as Slipknot and the like as "just noise". I do not think this is because of the actual music- I think many of Slipknot's nine members are rather talented musicians, except perhaps the chap who is commissioned to hit beer drums with a baseball bat- but a collective perception of such music as being for big hairy blokes wearing hoodies and swearing. In my experience, people rarely listen to such bands, loitering on the edge of the mainstream, before passing judgement upon them. Although there is a particular liking for heavy riffs and half-screamed vocals, there is, contrary to popular belief, a tune, and the sound is (to me at least) rather pleasing, but I only know this because I was willing to give them a chance. Most people would not, as they percieve music as not a matter of personal taste, but too often as an indicator of the social circles within which one moves, an accessory rather than an interest. I feel that this should not be the case. In fact, I fear that people are missing out, not just on Slipknot, but on a whole world of music, that they percieve not to be for them. So, to both my readers- I urge you, broaden your horizons, give bands you've never heard a chance! And listen to Duality, it's quite good.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Dawn of War II Single-player Impressions

I tend not to be very good at RTS games. I feel that I don't have the attention span for the basebuilding and resource management necessary in the typical empire-builder, and as a result am crushed by whatever enemies confront me. The nuances of large scale combat similarly escape me, as I see that I have brought far too few units, or too few of the type I need, or too many of the wrong type, to the battlefield. Superweapons are little comfort, for as a huge fan of mutually assured destruction I tend to proliferate rather than annihilate. My foes, however, have no such reservations, and gleefully rain nukes/vacuum imploders/virus bombs onto my (poorly built) base.

Conversely, I seem to have something of an affinity for small-scale strategy. In Team Fortress 2 and Call of Duty 4, I have a sort of mental heads-up display, denoting enemy team positions, flanking routes, the opposing team members to watch out for and such, and do my best to help with team organisation (no easy task in the wilds of a public server). Setting up lethal crossfires in Socom: Tactical Strike came very naturally to me.

With this in mind, coupled with a lingering love of the Warhammer 40000 universe, I hotly anticipated Relic's newly released Dawn of War II. Here was promised the near-complete obliteration of basebuilding. Here was promised small numbers of small squads, gaining experience and attaining wargear as they progress, using cover and special abilities to engage enemies. Here was promised, in other words, exactly the sort of small scale, intense strategy that I crave.

Upon completing the Steam download, I promptly loaded up. Watching the opening movie, the anticipation grew. Presented with the main menu, with its display of a Space Marine, with the classic chainsword in hand, surveying the field before him, I felt a little pang of joy, an unfamiliar sensation for my grim mind. I selected start new campaign, and was prompted to enter a name for my Force Commander. Often in these matters I go for comedy value (Big Steve of Vault 101 can testify to this.) Not here. This man was to be my representative in the battles to come. The Space Marines under his command deserved a properly named leader. I named him Crucius, for the pain he would inflict on the enemies of the Emperor. And so, with a Deathadder for my chainsword, I dropped into the battlefield.

First of all, the game plays very nicely. As promised, basebuilding is all but nonexistent. You select the squads to drop onto the field before combat and they are who arrive. Occasionally you must build turrets or capture structures, but there is no actual unit production. The squads available to you are based around a named squad leader. These leaders level up as they are used in combat, with each having different specialisations- a versatile Tactical Squad, heavy-weapons wielding Devastators, Assault Marines with jetpacks and close combat weaponry, and stealthy Scouts. Only 4 of these can be taken on missions, including the commander, giving something of a tactical element before the battle even begins in your choice of squads. Personally, I usually have the tactical squad attack while the Devastators set up, before jumping the Assault Marines into the fracas, along with the commander, but there is a huge amount of choice in tactics used. These squads gain experience and level up as they are used in combat, allowing them to gain new traits and abilities, but the real point of interest is wargear.

Wargear is equipment obtained through missions. Your choice of wargear is what really generates attachment to the units, and what can give an edge in combat. You will regularly have to choose between different items, depending on what role you allocate to each squad, and on the mission objectives. Frequently, I pore over the wargear selection screen, allocating the kit for maximum effectiveness; some items of wargear are unique, and as such offer some sort of bonus along with a little backstory regarding the reason you should be excited about carrying this relic into battle. This is particularly intersting for a fanboy like myself, but I'm sure will hold some degree of interest for a novice to the world.

The campaign is lengthy- I have put in over 15 hours playtime since release, and am still in the thick of it on Sergeant (the second hardest) difficulty. Story is as per usual as far as these games are concerned, obviously particularly appealing to fans of Warhammer 40000, but not unintelligible to other individuals either. Interestingly, as is becoming common with RTS games, cooperative campaign is available. Only briefly have I played this, but the deal seems to be different players control different squads- player one controls the commander, while player two operates the tactical squad etcetera. This should make for interesting play, but as mentioned, I have but dipped a toe here.

Multiplayer impressions coming soon.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Why Call of Duty: World at War Doesn't Compare

I would like to make this very clear from the beginning- I loved Infinity Ward's Call of Duty 4:Modern Warfare. Everything about it was wonderful- the single player campaign was brilliantly put together from start to finish, and as for the multiplayer, well, I'm sure everyone and their companion cube has played and loved it, not least me and mine, who were hooked on it and played almost nothing else for several months after its release. It did almost everything right. And precisely because of this perfection, I was loath from the beginning to pick up its successor, Treyarch's World at War. I knew from the first press releases that it would lack its elder brother's brilliance, that the tanks would imbalance the mutiplayer and that the singleplayer would lose its sparkle. This was enough to prevent me from making a purchase, that is, until Christmas rolled around again.
The spirit of the season must have lifted some of my leaden cynicism, for I thought to myself: "Well, it's had favourable reviews across the board, and my friends who do have it say it's good, so why not?" As a result, on Christmas morning, there sat a copy of Treyarch's latest. Eagerly, I set about the playing of it. Which was fun. Really. For a little while, anyway. Before I realised that all my gripes and suspicions were confirmed. Since I've just noticed the toolbar at the top of the post composer, shall we have a numbered list of its shortcomings? Oooh, let's!
  1. Singleplayer- As I have already said, Modern Warfare's single player mode was marvellous. It wasn't just the bread and butter gameplay (which was mostly fairly standard- but highly polished- FPS fare), but the entire atmosphere of it, and how well it pulled off such a variety of scenarios. Defending an immobilised tank from legions of Kalashnikov-brandishing terrorist types into the night felt authentic, but so did creeping through the irradited countryside around Chernobyl hunting an arms dealer. There was a genuine feeling of being there. Immersive, in a word. This is, unfortunately, missing from World at War. The missions feel bland by comparison, not least because many were basically rehashes. COD4's lovely Chernobyl sniper mission, wherein you and an amusingly accented Scottish (yay!) captain sneak about with rifles evading superior numbers of foes rather than engaging directly in the bleak environment of the abandoned town of Pripypat has become, well, you and an amusingly accented Russian captain sneaking about with rifles attempting to avoid superior numbers of foes in the bleak abandoned town of Stalingrad. The seat of the gunner of an AC-130 gunship in COD4 where you sat blasting away at people below has become the seat of the gunner of a Black Cat flying boat, blasting away at boats. It feels a little lazy, if truth be told.
  2. Multiplayer- This was undoubtedly the jewel in COD4's already splendid crown. Tight controls, well-designed maps and wonderfully balanced weapons combined for a multiplayer experience that was so good that my friends list was always full of people playing it even six months after release. The offspring has tried to mess with the formula, however, and things have gone awry. The change of setting back to WWII has meant that the beastly assault rifles have died something of a death due to not really having been born, but they haven't been properly replaced. The new rifles lack the punch to rival the submachine guns, which are at least as lethal as their modern-day counterparts. I was going to suggest people would complain that "I'm just a n00b and can't use the rifles" , but I don't suppose anyone's actually reading this. At any rate, in COD4 I had a great love for the M14, the single shot assault rifle, so that can go out the window. These guns are not merely ill-suited to me but poorly balanced. The maps too have lost the design flair. COD4 had such well placed sightlines and corners and balconies and such that playing was always intense. World at War's offerings are less so. They are too big for a start, but they seem poorly designed too. Houses may have windows that seem like they should be useful but offer little advantage, there are no places from where to watch some streets and churches have pointlessly high spires. The whole experience, theoretically superior to COD4's, failed to hold my attention for more than a couple of hours in total. The Nazi Zombies mode is amusing, but really it's not as good as Left 4 Dead, so there's no real reason for me to play it.
It occurs to me that that was not really a list, but I'm new to this blogging lark, gimme a break.