Things of 2008

In the run up to the new year, I’ve decided that I’ll look back on some of the music, TV, films and games of 2008 (or at least, stuff I heard/watched/played in 2008, even if they weren’t released then).

Assassin’s Creed

A curious one, this. I mean, I enjoyed it – I still enjoy loading it up, and making full use of the incredible engine UbiSoft created. There are, quite frankly, few experiences in a game comparable to scaling a 100-foot steeple, perching atop a cross, looking around an entire city, and swan-diving into a haybale below. The sense of vertigo you can get from this game is probably only matched by ye olde Dark Forces series, but I don’t know if anyone even remembers any of those games before they morphed into the Jedi Knight series. Probably not.

Anyway: yes. Incredible engine UbiSoft cooked up for this – huge cities, lovingly rendered, with no loading times as you run and leap around. Too bad they seemed to forget how to make a game to go with it. For the first… 3 hours or so, this is the one of greatest games you’ve ever played. Assassinations, horseback chases through a vast kingdom, swordfights that look as good as an old Errol Flynn movie… and the free-running. Oh, the free-running: you control Altair as he goes scarpering up a wall using any handhold he can find, leaping from building to building, feeling like that guy out of that District 13 film.

Then the fourth hour hits. You realise you’ve been doing the exact same thing for three hours, and nothing’s changing. It’s not getting harder, it’s not getting more interesting (more on the plot in a minute, guy), and it’s all starting to blend into much of a muchness. The developers, quite simply, had one great idea, and then utterly killed it by using it 900 times in a row.

The plot, I’m sorry to say, is probably the biggest disappointment the game stuffs down your craw, being, as it is, a load of old rubbish. It’s as if, during a particularly nervous board meeting, someone decided that a game set in the Middle Ages – dealing with the conflict of religions and the abuse of power by those highly placed within those institutions – wasn’t working as an analogy for today’s tense climate, or as a game world in and of itself. Therefore, they decided, in what can only be described as an epileptic fit of uncompromising stupidity, that a tacked-on, overarching sci-fi storyline was the only way to go, and in the process, completely ruined whatever kind of immersiveness they might have otherwise created. Then, as if to show everyone just how truly clueless they are as storytellers, they filled the game up with unskippable, interminably long, drab, boring, stupid, flappy, stupid cutscenes. Idiots.

But that engine. Having finished the game inside a couple of days, I still find myself going back to it on occasion, completely disregarding the main storyline missions, and just running around the cities, seeing how high, how far, how fast I can go. And it’s affected my brain in “real life”, too: I can’t pass by an old church, or any tall building really, without looking for a way Altair could scale it, and imagining the view I’d have from on top. (Haybales to fall into seem in inconveniently short supply, however.) This is, most likely, down to the sheer repetitiveness of the game, more than anything else, but when it comes right down to it, it’s hard to deny the spectacle the game can deliver. Much like S.T.A.L.K.E.R – which I’ll be discussing soon – the true worth of the game isn’t in the missions, or the storyline, or even the characters: it’s the world it all happens in. Architecurally, structurally, and mechanically, this game is so far beyond most others that it’s almost discouraging – I wish more games had the incredible vistas and cityscapes this game provides. Unfortunately, dynamically and creatively, this game falters far too often.

I’m still gonna end up climbing that church in Akre tonight though. And in the game!

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Half-Life 2: Episode 2

This game killed me.

Most games do, of course. But not like this game did. Episode 2 made me feel more alive than any other game (or movie, for that matter) ever has, then delivered the most gutwrenching, heartbreaking denouement you could possibly imagine. I presume there are countless people out there who couldn’t conceive of a mere computer game stirring up such a strong, nuanced emotional reaction. Philistines, the lot of them, and I say to them: play this game. When Valve created the Half-Life series – at least retrospectively – they didn’t create a hodge-podge of stories tenuously linked by the fact that you’re assuming the role of Gordon Freeman in each game. No, they crafted a universe, filled with characters who are imbued with genuine humanity. This is a world where you spend hours hunting the enemy (and what glorious gaming that is), then get just as excited when you sit down for a cup of coffee with an old friend, and he tells you he’s proud of you (and in the game).

There’s not enough I can say about how Valve have married superb shooting mechanics to a story that’s as close as we’ve come to interactive cinema. For a game that’s so empowering – nothing has come close to matching the pure, innovative destruction that the Gravity Gun can wreak – it’s striking how powerless this game can make you feel. From being pinned down as Alyx gets attacked at the start of the game to the devastating finish as you’re pinned against a wall, watching the Combine Advisors destroy everything you thought you could count on in a game… Put it this way: most games struggle to create an emotional connection between you and the character you’re playing as. Episode 2 makes you care about your character, Alyx Vance, Eli Vance, and approximate 48 other characters. Even the G-Man, the not-quite-human being who is partially in control of proceedings (possibly), manages to garner something resembling sympathy through a great cinematic.

But even putting aside the stunning story this game tells, the underlying game is spectacular. Once you’ve cleared the ant lion caves at the start of the game, which are the weakest section, you can forget the claustrophobic feeling you might have got from Half-Life 2 and the first episode. Episode 2 opens out into sprawling roads and countryside, subtly leading you through the destruction that’s been wrought upon the world outside City 17. The source engine holds up suprisingly well in the wake of games like Crysis and Bioshock – the distracting shininess of Bioshock is pleasantly absent, for example. And despite a lack of any legitimately new weapons, the last battle of the game does introduce a new way of using your gravity gun to take down Striders.

And what an excellent battle it is: as freeform as Half-Life has dared to be thus far, it’s an incredibly exciting sequence, and you’ll doubt the game could top it. Except: it does, and it does it without making (or letting, natch) you fire a single shot. And the end of the game will kill you, like it killed me. Except this time, not in the game.

If it seems like this entire article has been an exercise in hyperbole, understand that it’s been months since I finished this game, and I still can’t get the ending out of my head. Merle Dandridge (the voice behind the beautiful pixels of Alyx) and the expert animators at Valve will have you grief-stricken. But that ending wouldn’t be nearly as impactful if the rest of the game wasn’t as masterful as it is – and it’s surprisingly light hearted for a lot of it. Racing Dog to the rebel compound, having Magnusson reference the microwave from the first Half-Life, the sly faces Alyx throws your way throughout… It’s a wondrous monument to hold aloft as an example of what’s possible with the medium, both in gameplay and storytelling capacities, and I’m waiting for Episode 3 to bring me back to life, as only Half-Life can.

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Drive By Truckers – Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

I skilfully avoided being among the doubters that DBT could recover from Jason Isbell’s departure by not becoming a fan until late last year, and making this my second album of theirs following the ubiquitous Southern Rock Opera, thereby making the Isbell records my last purchases. So with fresh eyes and ears, and a hint of wild “new favourite band” enthusiasm (sorry, Pearl Jam), I can without hesitation declare this my album of 2008. From open to close, this album held my attention and my affection. Of course, it also confirmed my suspicions that Mike Cooley is the baddest piece of work on this planet, with his incredible songwriting streak (from 72 through to Ghost To Most, I don’t believe he’s written a bad song) still intact. John Neff makes admirable contribtions on the pedal steel, replacing the more extravagant lead lines of Isbell, and Patterson Hood and Cooley pick up most of the slack on the songwriting front. I say most, because 3 of the incredible 19 songs on this album come from Isbell’s ex-wife, DBT bassist Shonna Tucker. Two of the three, I’m Sorry Huston and The Purgatory Line, are among the very best on the record, so it turns out she’s no slouch. For a band to recover from a potentially career-ending member loss (fnarrr!), to come back with a 19 song opus that stands as one of your very best is an admirable feat. To do so while also being some of the funniest songwriters for a serious band (check out Cooley’s second verse in 3 Dimes Down) is even better.

The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

But you can’t talk humour in music without mentioning DBT’s recent tour-mates, The Hold Steady. And more specifically, Craig Finn. The Hold Steady were a revelation for me: I figured there was no way I was going to like a hipster indie band with a lead singer who looks like he could easily slot into The Editors without anyone noticing. Turns out, they’re one of the greatest, no-nonsense rock n roll bands of the 21st century. Coming on like a Springsteen with louder guitars and a more caustic sense of humour, Finn spouts astoundingly literary, absurdly funny and often incredibly inspiring stories over chugging bar rock and insanely fun guitar solos from Tad Kubler. Underneath the veneer of good time rock lies a slightly darkened heart, though. Stay Positive deals with a party band growing old, and slightly world weary. “Raise a toast to St Joe Strummer, I think he might have been our only decent teacher” urges Finn in opener, Constructive Summer. Lord, I’m Discouraged features some of the most beautifully sad lyrics you’re likely to find on a rock record, telling the story of a girl Finn loves from afar descending into a druggy, addicted mess. “I’m almost busted, but I bought back the jewelry she sold.” The songs ends with one of the most heartcrushing lines ever to feature in a power ballad, and I won’t ruin it here, but dammit, it gets me every time. Of course, the overwrought sentiment of the song is either solidified or absolutely ruined, depending on whether you’re right or wrong, by a ridiculously over-the-top, Slash-worthy guitar solo, played – wouldn’t ya know it – on a double-neck guitar. And this isn’t even their best album.

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V For Vendetta

Believe it or believe it not, I’m not, and never have been, a political activist, much less a radical one. But if I was to take up arms against the government, I’d like to think I’d be quite cerebral in my remonstrations. For example, to protest the upcoming second vote on Lisbon, I’d probably explode Dublin Castle, then read a Milton poem that in some very allegorical way, explains why I did it (boredom). Also, I’d do it while wearing a rather fetching hat, and potentially a Salvador Dali mask to conceal my identity. People would hopefully be taken by my uncompromising morals, mixed with my intelligence and off-kilter wit, and join with me in overthrowing our ruthless leaders and claiming back our country through senseless violence and meaningless classical literature references.

Of course, a much more likely outcome is that people would write me off as a complete lunatic, and hand me over to the authorities at the first available opportunity, doubtlessly concerned by my apparent lack of basic comprehension – less a freedom fighter, more an utter nutter who blows up stuff, then reads poetry, conclusively proving myself insane. My handsome hat/Dali mask ensemble would soon give way to a straitjacket/padded walls combo, and my “poetry readings” would likely be replaced by incoherent mumblings as I rock slowly back and forth, curled up in the corner of my cell, having covinced myself that I am, in fact, Jesus Christ – Superstar.

Which is to say, don’t come to V For Vendetta looking for a stellar storyline or biting political commentary. It’s a wish fulfilment tale at best, taking the best bits from Orwell’s 1984, and tossing them into a broth with a typically-dark-for-an-“adult”-graphic-novel-adaptation superhero movie. The titular V – the hero/anti-hero/superhero of the piece – wears a Guy Fawkes mask as he makes countless allusions to the November 5th protests (gunpowder, treason and plot, etc.) and generally makes a big old fuss about Big Brother government. Apparently, if we “read into” the movie, this is to show how, by wearing a face that is not his own, V stops being a man with an idea (presumably, his idea is “take the country back into the hands of the people”, and not “wear a funny mask while stabbing people up good-o”), and becomes the idea itself. It’s all very self-important and delusional, and really isn’t as smart as it wants to be, or thinks it is, but it’s a fine piece of popcorn cinema, nonetheless. I did find myself getting rather stirred up by the images of the British Parliament being exploded in spectacular fashion, but that’s probably more to do with being Irish – and therefore genetically predisposed to hating the English government – than the film being particularly inspiring.

“Remember remember, the 5th of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot,

There is no reason, why gunpowder treason,

Should ever be forgot…

Forgetta, forgetta, in V For Vendetta,

The chance of intelligent plot,

But give it a shot, man, cos Natalie Portman,

Sometimes looks reasonably hot.”

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John Mayer – Where The Light Is

I woke up today to the incredibly awful sensation of bile rising up my throat. Once I got beyond the sheer hideousness of the situation, I came to a wonderful realisation: this bile-tasting hardship indubitably qualifies me to sing the blues. John Mayer, on the other hand, has probably never endured such a horrible encounter, for his music displays no obvious downtroddenness or depression – he’s so middle-class, one wonders if he even knows what “downtroddenness” means (but he probably knows if it’s a real word or not, unlike me). He wasn’t born under a bad sign – he was born under a maternity ward sign.

Nevertheless, he done good on his last few albums – Try! and Continuum were jolly good blues-pop-soul-rock gubbins, and Where The Light Is continues that trend. I never really believe that Mayer is feeling the blues as much as he’s feeling an incredible amount of gratitude to people like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Clapton for informing his playing so much, and to Pino Palladino and Steve Jordan for increasing his muso credibility, but it works for him. I don’t like his personality – the “I did this all for myself, and now all I need is LOVVVEEEE” speech in the middle of his great cover of Hendrix’s Bold As Love nigh on ruins the entire song via poxiness – but his guitar madskillz save the day every time, along with his great songwriting.

So a mixed bag really: great music, being played by a barely tolerable man-boy, who somehow convinced Jennifer Aniston to fall in love with him. And he’s singing the blues. What a jerk.

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Prince of Persia

Well, despite many critics’ reservations (the wonderful and lovely John Walker, for example), I thoroughly enjoyed this game. I try not to be one of those people who see graphics the way babies see dangling car keys, but I couldn’t help rolling around giggling and cooing at who lovely UbiSoft managed to make this game look. It’s simply astonishing, and everyone should see it in motion at some point in their lives, especially some of the huge – and I can’t stress this enough: HUGE – vistas it provides for your visua-tainment. I’ll repeat this for effect: this game is utterly, ravishingly beautiful.

Much like – segue! – Elika, the princess who’s your alternately bickering and grateful companion for the entire game. Look past the Portman/Knightley-esque model, which is quite delightful in and of itself – and into her character and usefulness. She’s charming to a fault, a noble and selfless girl, who lost her mother, her city and now is in danger of losing everything else, forced by chance to team up with an arrogant and rogueish thief (the somewhat titular non-Prince of non-Persia). She’ll show you where to go, help you move around the enormous platforming sections, and join in during combat at the press of a single putton. She’ll even pull you out of any mortal danger you find yourself in, fully eliminating the constant platform-game (and real-life, I suppose) bugbear of death. On top of all of this, she is perhaps the best-implemented AI buddy in a game thus far – she never once gets in the way or annoys the player. Elika: every gamer who knows you, loves you. As for the non-Prince (henceforth known as the Prince, for brevity and clarity)… well, he’s not the Sands of Time’s Prince, that’s for sure. Americanised and pretty immature, I nevertheless found myself warming to him over time. They aimed for a Han Solo-like nonchalance and humour, and almost hit it – the problem being that Han Solo lives in Space, not in Ancient Persia. For every time I found myself liking him as a fairy-tale thief-made-good, I wanted to punch the writers in the throat for making a Persian thief say “Stop staring at my ass.” Idiots.

The story is wonderful for the most part: setting wrongs right, saving the world, the usual Disney-movie stuff (which is a compliment in this case – think Aladdin rather than Snow White). It gives you the choice to ignore the story for the most part, but you’d be a fool to do that, since that’s where the heart of the game is. The frostiness between Elika and the Prince at the start, the slow thawing of relations, the flirting, and the guarded love that emerges… This is a love story, wearing Arabian Nights trousers, which are slightly soiled by American high-school mentality poo. Nevertheless, the story is mainly there to serve the gameplay, which is probably the most divisive element of this game. Chief among the problems people have is the difficulty level: the platforming is “too easy”, the combat is “too easy”, and you “can’t die”. The latter is true, and wonderful. The first two complaints have merit, I guess, but only if you come to the game looking for a challenge. I personally came to it looking for a story, an experience, and I got that in easy, non-frustrating spades. If I wanted to pull my hair out as I play one section of a game over and over and over and over again, I got Trials 2 for Christmas too, so I’d just play that instead.

A word must be said about Prince of Persia’s score. Composed once again by the Sands of Time trilogy’s Stuart Chatwood, it’s marvelous, magical even. That moment where you’re running along a wall, leaping diagonally to a beam, bouncing to a flag pole and flinging yourself in tandem with Elika to another wall, leaping up to a crevice, and jumping backwards to another platform, just as the main theme soars in triumph, is pure bliss. There are a lot of moments where it really does feel like you’re playing an honest-to-goodness fairytale, full of bold, wondrous colour and genuine good-vs-evil. And there just isn’t enough of that in today’s dark, anti-hero gaming world.

A sticking point: the ending is lip-chewingly off-key. After spending the entire game fighting for something, to be forced to undo it, even if it goes against your grain, feels like a little bit of a cheat. On top of that, it doesn’t fit with the simple tale of good and evil the rest of the game told – at least, not without an as-yet-unconfirmed sequel to deal with the consequences – and kind of leaves the game on a sour note. But it’d be folly to dwell on the last five or ten minutes, because there’s much, much more good than bad here. I mean…

This.

And: this.

So. Prince of Persia: No Subtitle. It’s probably not as good as Sands of Time, which was one of those games that comes along once in a blue moon, where story, gameplay and everything just fall into place perfectly. But it’s certainly superior to Warrior Within and The Two Thrones, by sheer weight of not featuring a dark, cool-cos-I’m-evil lead character. And cos it has colour beyond “mottled brown”. UbiSoft Montreal: make a sequel to this game, even if it bankrupts you. It’s sure to sell at least as much as Sands of Time, and this game really needs a sequel far more than Sands of Time did. Also, if you could make sure the sequel doesn’t ruin everything Prince of Persia stands for like what Warrior Within did, that’d be nice.

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The Gutter Twins – Saturnalia

If the American education system really wants to educate the kids about drug abuse, they should capitalise on the “What Would Jesus Do?” fad that is/was popular with the cool kids/cultist freaks. Think about it: a learning program called “What Drugs Would Jesus Do?” For example: he probably loved marijuana – he was a spaced-out, free-loving hippy most of the time, he was known to get paranoid (the “Peter, you’ll betray me three times” speech is a dead giveaway), and the fish/loaves miracle means he’d be great to have around come munchies time. On the flip side, he’s unlikely to have been big into heroin or cocaine: not because he didn’t want to get absolutely off-his-face high, but because they were probably really expensive back then, and he was slumming it with the fisherfolk, while Pontius Pilate snorted his way into history. Maybe if Jesus had smoked some crack and shot up a couple of times, he’d have had a longer career.

Fittingly, two men who’ve spent much of their long careers smoking crack and/or shooting up are Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli – the Gutter Twins. Indeed, if there was ever an advertisement for the career-boosting effects drugs can have, these men should be first and foremost among the proponents. Although reportedly clean through the recording and subsequent touring of Saturnalia, the songs are irrefutably informed by the duo’s long history of drug use. Which is not to say that it’s an album full of Tomorrow Never Knows. No, these are far darker than they are trippy, more detailing the hellish lows of using than the trippy highs. Nevertheless, there’s a pleasing pop twinge to some of the songs: God’s Children moves from circular verses into an almost bright-sounding chorus (albeit with lyrics about suicide), and The Body is a soft-spoken experiment with trip-hop drums that comes off beautifully. But mostly, this album is constrained by darkness, while looking for the light.

So nothing too surprising then. But even though it’s Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli making another album chock-full of slow, dark rock songs, you smile, and be grateful that they’ve lasted long enough to talk about their addictions in the past tense, rather than letting their demons consign them to the past tense. Unlike that drugged-up loser, Jesus.

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Portal
Aw, heck, anyone who has even a passing interest in this game has heard it, and if it doesn’t convince you of the genius of this game (written by the excellent Erik Wolpaw), then nothing will.

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Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls + National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets
Okay, I’ll start with Indiana Jones, because it’s the better of the two. It was one of the most anticipated movies of 2008, and turned out to be something of a damp squib. Allow me to put as much effort into my review of it as George Lucas put into crafting the story: “This movie is nothing more than average. Disappointing, like a cake you found that turned out to be stale.”
As for National Treasure 2… well, I loved the first one. But I’ve tried writing this review of the second one three times now, and I can’t find a good way to describe how dull and rote it is. Perhaps it’s fitting that I can’t find the inspiration to write a decent review for a deeply uninspiring film. Nyeh.
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Kings of Leon – Only By The Night
Kings of Leon played a show about 30 minutes from my house a couple of weeks ago. Apart from a brief flurry of excitement when tickets went on sale (and sold out within seconds), it passed me by without me really caring all that much. It’s not that I don’t like Kings of Leon – I do. I liked them enough to pre-order this very album from Play.com. It’s just that since their music started being used over football highlight reels and ads and stuff like that, they’ve attracted the exact kind of fans I don’t want to attend concerts with. You know the kind: they call each other names like “Ger-O” and “Johnzer”, get tremendously drunk on cheap, warm lager before the show starts, and spend the entire gig shouting at each other and high fiving and throwing up on each other’s throats. And I hate them. Even after Because of the Times broke the Kings even further into the mainstream in 2007, I held out hope that echoey, spacey epics like Knocked Up and Arizona might put some of those fans off the band. No such luck – tracks like Fans and My Party kept them happy, and more on board than ever.
Unfortunately for Kings fans that don’t fall into the category of “soccer hooligans”, Only By The Night was an album full of My Partys. Not literally, of course – that would be stupid. But this record consisted of 11 perfecctly pitched pop songs, never really stretching beyond 4 minutes. As anyone who heard the lead single Sex on Fire (and that’s basically everybody) knows, this isn’t strictly a bad thing. Kings of Leon know how to write a knock-out pop single, and Caleb sings like he never sang before on this album. It just seemed like such a disappointment that they went for the popularity-consolidating, 40-minute pop record, when this was their perfect opportunity to take even more of the moderate artistic risks they took on BOTT. Ah well… I guess not every band I like can be completely under the radar.
My Morning Jacket – Evil Urges
Speaking of bands being under the radar, My Morning Jacket are the kind of band that could never, ever conceivably be above radar. They’re just too… unique. They started as a lonely, folksy indie band, grew into a powerful southern rock band, morphed into a pop-tinged rock band, and now suddenly take a left turn into guitar-based electro-funk. If that sounds like a lot of genre-obsessed gibberish, that’s because MMJ have become impossible to pigeonhole, so you pretty much just have to make up stuff as you go along when you try to describe them. Very few bands could sound like the meanest rock ‘n roll band in town, a 60’s pop-rock band and a German funk-metal band on the same record, never mind doing it with Prince and Moody Blues references thrown in.
That said, I just couldn’t get into this album like I got into their earlier ones. At Dawn was a masterstroke of subdued folk and beautiful rock; It Still Moves was, for all intents and purposes an alernately rollicking and moving paean to The Band; Z had the crashing dynamics of Gideon and Dondante. Evil Urges never comes together into a solid statement… it’s just My Morning Jacket trying different sounds for a bit. Which isn’t to say it’s a bad record – just an unfocused one, better listened to in sections than as a whole. The first three songs sit together fairly cohesively. I’m Amazed through Look At You work as a throwback to seventies pop music. Aliminium Park and Remnants rock like MMJ of old, and Smoking From Shooting and Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt 2 work as a sequel to Z. It’s just… it’s like a collection of EPs, rather than a single LP.

Also: their Irish gig went through different stages of “happening” before they cancelled due to Jim James falling off stage a few weeks before they were due in Ireland. So boo to that.

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3 Responses to Things of 2008

  1. Pingback: Prince of Persia: A Semi-Retraction « Mister Hands

  2. Pingback: My Morning Jacket: Okonokos « Mister Hands

  3. Pingback: Still to Come… « Mister Hands

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