Saturday, February 21, 2009

Blade Runner (video game)

Platform: PC
Developers: Westwood Studios
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: November 21, 1997

Every now and then, you'll play a game that was way ahead of it's time. Something that pushes boundaries, but may be overlooked. Something very special.

One of those games is the PC Blade Runner, released a staggering fifteen years after the movie. True to form, just like it's film counterpart, it was something special, something ahead of the times, even if it was unfortunately overlooked.

Part of the reason it may have been overlooked is an unfortunate one. Remember the Adventure genre? Yeah, I didn't think so. Neither does anyone else. This is an Adventure game through and through; and the unfortunate truth is that by the time of this games release, the genre in general was slowly circling the drain. With the advent of 3D shooters such as Quake and the Doom's, things were becoming more frenzied. Most games began to rely on 3D accelerators to provide then state of the art imagery. There wasn't much room in gamers hearts for the old point and click adventures; everything from the Leisure Suit Larry's to the cult hit Sam & Max games slowly faded away.

Then, a bit late to the party when it came to the success of it's genre, came Blade Runner.

We'll start with the visuals; which when put into context is undeniably impressive. At a time when games were being released with taxing minimum system specs for the computers of the time, Westwood went a different route. They came up with their own modifications that allowed Blade Runner to use 3D visuals without need for an upgraded computer. It's modest minimum system specs meant that this was a game most anyone could play. It also resulted in 3D models for the characters, something no longer uncommon, but outright baffling with the minimum specs the game required to run. Unfortunately, they are not the most heavily detailed as a result; the minimalist pixilated models tended to clash to some degree with the flashy environments the characters found themselves in. Irregardless, it was remarkable technology that was ahead of it's time.

Thankfully, these models don't detract from what are some of the most stunning pre-rendered backgrounds for the time. When I went into this old game, I wasn't quite expecting what I got. Many locales recognizable from the film are recreated with loving detail, everything rain slicked and awash in blue light. Blimps will sail by in the sky, advertising the off-world colonies like in the movie, spinners soar by as you talk to the people on the ground. It's spectacular work; it's not everyday that an old game from a long time ago will impress irregardless of the amount of time that has passed.

In speaking of things being recreated with loving detail in the spirit of the movie, that extends to the characters. If you've ever watched the movie, some very recognizable faces will show up and converse with you. That's great enough on it's own, but it's a real treat when you realize that Westwood went out and got most of the original actors to voice their old roles. It helps with the immersion, helping you truly believe you are in the world the film introduced us to.

The story itself is strong as well; very strong. In this game, you do not play as the star of the movie as so many other movie licensed games do. In fact, this game's story runs parallel to the story of the movie in order not to mess with established cannon. This means that while you will not be playing as Deckard, the replicant hunting Blade Runner from the film, you might just catch a glimpse of him here or there if you're really looking, not to mention hear NPC's speak of his recent activities. All this is a nice treat, allowing the game to skirt around during the time the movie takes place in without ever disrupting it.

So with Deckard out, this leaves us with a new protagonist. A relatively new Blade Runner himself, Ray McCoy has been on the job a short time when the case that will change his life crops up. There has been a slaying at a pet shop; a group of replicants have slain all the pets in the store, which is as much of a travesty as killing a human in 2019 Los Angeles, where real animals are terribly rare and expensive compared to the artificials. Deckard has already set out on his task, Holden is in the hospital and Captain Bryant is away, leaving the investigation to you. From there, it's a hunt to discover if these people are truly replicants, who is a replicant and to track them down through the events of the game. Depending on how you play, Ray might find that he himself is not quite what he believes himself to be.

That's right, I said "depending on your actions". Based on how you approach situations, the lines of questioning you perform and the overall way you progress, the game will give you one of up to thirteen different endings. This was downright unheard of at the time; most games gave you a straight quest line from start to finish in this era, making it unique; as if a new adventure game in 1997 wasn't unique enough.

The gameplay itself is tried and true Adventure genre fare. Point and click; your character goes to that spot. Click on something, your character investigates. You gather clues as you go that help you progress through the storyline; depending on what you find and do, this can help determine your ending. There are also nice nods to the film in the gameplay, such as the Voight-Kampf machine used to detect replicants; you'll be using that in your quest just like old Deckard.

Combat also plays a role. It's not horribly varied, but it doesn't need to be. Combat is not a horribly large facet of the game in itself; there will be times when it is needed. Often, this will be how you take down a replicant; they simply do not go down without a fight and can kill you if you're not careful. It's a simple matter as well; you simply right click on your mouse to draw your gun, point at the target and shoot. On the plus side, if you need something with a bit more kick, you can buy stronger ammo not long into the game.

The sound is classic Blade Runner. The game replicates some of the spellbinding music Vangelis composed for the film, popping in at opportune times. It's not the full sound however; it was songs from the film generated through typical video game music formats of the time. Go out on the balcony of your apartment and you'll hear the unforgettable Blade Runner Blues. When the end titles crop up, the end titles theme of the film suitably flares through your speakers. Others will pop up from time to time as well. It's a comforting addition to the atmosphere on the whole; coupled with the voice acting, the games sound is top notch, especially for the time. Together this all makes one hell of a package with surprising replay value.

My Opinion: Play It

Monday, February 16, 2009

Fozzy (music CD)

Band Name: Fozzy
Music Genre: Heavy Metal
Release Date: October 24th, 2000

Anyone who pays attention to World Wrestling Entertainment at all probably knows who Chris Jericho is. A very talented wrestler, he's easily one of the better wrestlers they have, without a doubt. Not quite as many know about his love for rock and metal; not to mention the fact that he's frontman for his own band, Fozzy.

I'd heard of the band and I quite enjoyed a cover of Iron Maiden's "The Evil That Men Do" that Jericho did vocal work on for a Maiden tribute album, so I decided to check out his bands own work, starting with the first album.

To be honest, I've got mixed feelings when it comes to this album. This is from back in the days when Fozzy was more of a gimmick band than anything else, complete with it's own fictional backstory that the band was away in Japan for twenty some years being huge rock stars unknowing other bands had ripped off their songs. As such, much of the album consists of covers of popular metal songs from such talents as Motley Crue, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and so on. There are only two original song of Fozzy's own design on the album, the in-character explanation being that they were new and bands hadn't gotten the oppourtunity to rip them off yet.

Good cover songs generally have a few criterion that generally must be followed for them to be acceptable, much less any good. They need to keep the spirit of the originals in some way, keep to the same genre and put a new spin on it. Deviating from those general rules is subject for disaster; see Britney Spears mockery of a cover of "I Love Rock and Roll" for proof. Fozzy sticks to all three, thankfully, so it's a matter of whether the cover is of great quality. With this album, it's something of a half and half affair. A little more than half of them are good, while the other half range from decent to bad.

Chris Jericho's vocals are unique in their own ways; you're not going to mistake him for some other band leader like much of the rock of the 2000's have wrought. This is both good and bad; Fozzy covers songs from quite a few different bands on this album and Jericho's vocals don't quite work with some of them.

The album kicks off with a very strong rendition of Dio's "Stand Up and Shout". This particular cover is one of the better ones on the album, keeping to the original while sounding distinct thanks in part to Jericho's vocals. "Eat the Rich", a Krokus cover, is decent but somewhat unremarkable. The third cover is of Twisted Sister's "Stay Hungry"; this cover is one of the more enjoyable ones.

The fourth track, however, is probably the worst of the album. It truly highlights the problem I mentioned earlier moreso than anything else on the album. The track in question is a cover of Iron Maiden's "The Prisoner", a classic track from the Number of the Beast album whoms subject material is on a fantasic british television show known as, aptly enough, The Prisoner. Jericho's vocals just never click at all. It feels like the tones and pitches are too far off to be effective and the chorus, one of the best parts of the original, is just somewhat grating here, with the rest of the bandmates joining in instead of simply Jericho singing it. It's a very weird sounding cover of a classic; and not in the good way.

Number five is far, far better though. It's a cover of Motley Crues "Live Wire". This is arguably the finest cover on the album and the one most worth going out of your way to listen to. The guitarwork and instruments in general follow the original song fairly well, but it's Jericho's vocal work, which was a major strike against the last song, that works so much better with this song. It's quite possibly as good as the Motley Crue original in it's own way; high praise indeed.

The sixth track is the first of the two original songs on the album I mentioned earlier, "End of Days". It's definitely a style of Fozzy's all their own. All instruments in the song work together well along with Jericho's vocals, which feel so much more free here without needing to attempt to emulate another bands vocalist in some respects, such as the vocal range of a man like Bruce Dickinson. Listening to this song was probably the point where I was convinced to go looking into the two furthur albums so far; Fozzy moved towards more of their own material after this after all.

After that is a cover of an Ozzy Osbourne song, "Over the Mountain". It holds up well and Jericho does well here considering Ozzy songs aren't the easiest to cover well; they often don't quite sound right without Ozzy's distinct vocals. The next song, a cover of Scorpions "Blackout", is another matter entirely. This song divided me more than anything else on the album. There were parts I liked and parts I didn't. Like the earlier Maiden cover, it's Jericho's vocals that don't quite work as well. On regular verses, he does just fine for the most part, except that for the second line of each one he raises the pitch of his voice and it simply doesn't quite work. The way they did the chorus, however, is what ultimately nearly ruined the song; the way it was sang just sounded completely weird and offputting. It's an interesting listen, but I honestly cannot say it was a strong cover.

From there we go to the second original song, "Feel the Burn". This song is much heavier on the whole than End of Days. It works for the song though and it's an enjoyable listen, one which makes me glad Fozzy eventually went for creating more original material than covers. The album closes with a cover of Judas Priests "Riding on the Wind". To be honest, it's nothing to really write home about; the guitar work is strong and Jericho keeps up well enough, but it sounded like his vocals weren't quite as loud this time. It's still a decent cover though and not a bad way to cap things off.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

This album is a bit better than "middle of the road". Regardless, it's definitely more for fans of cover bands interested in hearing a take on classics with Chris Jericho on vocals. The original tracks are the highlight of the album along with the cover of Live Wire; all three are worth a listen at the very least. It's not a bad album, honestly, but I wouldn't highly recommend it as a purchase until you've at least listened to it and know if you'll like it or not.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Op/Ed: Hey Take Two? Try Originality For Better Sales.

Some interested in video games in any way may well have heard of this recently. For the benefit of those who haven't, there's a matter of a video game company, Take Two, whining recently. About what? They're mad over used game sales hurting new game sales.

I've got to be honest, this is a pretty funny thing to be mad about. Used games have always taken away from new game sales since they first popped up. Of course, the obvious problem here is that with the current sour economic times, used game sales are up. Of which I laugh at Take Two, because I'm not sure what they expect.

I mean, let's look at it objectively here. Video games are not priced like they used to be. Game companies can rationalize it all they want, but when they started raising the starting price for new games this was bound to happen. Fifty dollars used to be the standby price for a new video game and it was generally fair. Used for a good number of years. Then they raised it to sixty dollars; some games actually go for seventy dollars now. You think about that for a while; seventy dollars new for a game.

Considering the US economy is currently in the toilet, as it generally is every so often, that's a ridiculous price for video games. I'm sorry to tell these guys, but I'm one of those who refuse to pay it. I don't buy used, however; I don't like the prospect of getting software whoms condition is something of a wildcard and I'd rather have something brand new. But I do wait until the prices drop to at least thirty dollars. Others I can understand perfectly going for the used game route as this is simply getting too expensive for a hobby; I don't care how many goddamn hours of gameplay it gives you.

Then there's pirating, which has always been a legitimate problem in games. But the companies have been trying these intrusive DRM schemes lately that restrict your rights with the product you've purchased. Big surprise that piracy went up right? Apparently it's a huge surprise to these stupid companies. I like owning things, I don't like piracy and I enjoy the fact that purchasing a game rewards the developers for their hard work. But I can understand pirating something when things like this come into play. Just the idea that someone will try and tell you how many times you can install your property that you have purchased sickens me. I just skip the games entirely, myself. I want to play Spore pretty bad, for instance; but I've accepted that I never will, because I'm not allowing a company to tell me what I can do with my own games.

Is it any wonder why these people are losing money?

The sad part, there are plenty of things they can do. For one, the DRM schemes need to go. It's forcing a lot of people to either skip games or pirate them; people who would normally be legit customers. Let's face it; pirates are always going to be there. There will be no shutting them down. But this crap makes it all worse. One or two companies actually specifically skip DRM because they believe it makes piracy worse.

Another thing; they honestly need to take their freaking time with these games. Remember how great the Sonic series used to be? Notice how they suck right now? That's because Sega is determined to whore him out every Christmas. Now this is nothing new, but the difference is now Sonic games are 3D and those cannot be made and made good in less than a year. Notice Mario games are still fantastic? They take their time; Miyamoto even says that a good game will last but a bad game will be bad forever. Mario games still sell something like a bajillion copies when released. Cut the rushing. Seriously.

Oh, some originality would be nice too. I love sequels; really I do. But it's time game developers find something new. I'm not paying sixty dollars for another Devil May Cry that is basicaly the same as the now dirt cheap previous installments with better graphics. The reason the Final Fantasy series is so great is that they always try something different with each game, even if the core of the game is similar or the same. It's time for new properties and fresh ideas that we'd be willing to spend money on. Keep doing the sequels and all, but this hobby needs more original ideas badly.

For another thing, companies really need to start mining past genre's. Remember 2D action adventure titles? They can only be found on handhelds now. 2D basically took it's dying breaths with the Playstation, where some of the best 2D games actually came out. It's cheaper, still able to make great games and there's a damn market for it as Mega Man 9 and Bionic Commando Rearmed proves, so use it dammit! Making an epic 2D title with all the space of the next generation systems and the power would be fantastic. Remember Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and what it did with all the space of the Playstation? Exactly. Why has the Adventure genre gone completely to the side? There's demand for it; otherwise things like the new Sam & Max games wouldn't be so successful, much less other similar games. There's no excuse anymore, especially with delivery systems like X-Box Live Arcade, Playstation Network and Wii Shop. So freaking use it already!

Most of all, game companies need to stop whining. The ball's in their court. We pay for the high quality games we like, whether they're 2D or 3D. High budgets isn't going to always make a smash game; if they'd actually tried putting more love and effort into things they might get furthur. They're partly responsible for their high development costs and games failing. They're the ones that have the obligation to put out a product we want. We have no obligation to them.

The day they realize this is the day things turn for the better. Until thn, I'm going to laugh at companies like Take Two. Complaining about games being sold used. Seriously; that's pathetic.