Archive for January, 2013

Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed In Blood (Music Review)

Signed and Sealed In Blood cover

Dropkick Murphys – Signed and Sealed In Blood

Maybe the best way to summarize Signed and Sealed In Blood is with “Jimmy Collins’ Wake”. A fun, life-affirming track that mixes the Dropkick Murphys’ love of Boston, punk, Irish culture, and sports, it’s definitely a good song. If you’d never heard the band before, you would probably be very impressed. But if you are already familiar with them, you’d know that they already have a couple superior songs about wakes, and at least one better one about baseball. That feeling persists throughout the album. In some ways, it’s to the band’s credit that their sound is so familiar now, but it’s still undeniable that Signed and Sealed is a consistently good album that just can’t escape the shadow of earlier songs.

It’s possible for the Murphys to escape this curse. 2011’s Going Out In Style was a rousing success, presenting punk as an inseparable part of their community-centered Irish roots. Signed and Sealed takes a turn to harder music, with less sincerity and more comfortable formulas. They have several compelling songs about hard drinking and fighting for what’s right, but their lifestyle seems less well-rounded without the expected ballads and traditional songs.

There are several high points: “Rose Tattoo” could have been the album’s slow ballad, but with the band unwilling to slow down, it becomes something new and surprising. “Out On The Town” experiments with a rawer punk sound than the Murphys have used in years, and “The Battle Rages On” is their most spirited call to battle since “The Gauntlet”. On the other hand, the gimmicky, mean-spirited Christmas song “The Season’s Upon Us” is a rare misfire from the band.

Don’t expect Signed and Sealed In Blood to be another Going Out In Style, but this band can’t fail to make good songs. Just ask yourself whether you’re excited about the prospect of hearing the Dropkick Murphys’ third-best song about a wake. If you are, and there’s nothing wrong with that, then you’ll enjoy this. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, though, there are better albums to start with.

Grade: B-

 
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Hundreds (iPhone Game Review)

HundredsThe most notable thing about the iPhone game Hundreds is its design sense. Simple but visually arresting, it just features black and gray circles on a white background, with the occasional burst of red. Items fade in or roll onto the screen after you win or lose a level, and the level select menu punctuates its whitespace with circular symbols that are labeled “statistics” but may as well be an artistic flair. The soundtrack, naturally, is simple looping music that always seems to mesh perfectly with whatever just happened on screen.

The gameplay has the same understated elegance, without even needing a tutorial. The first level has a single circle with a “0” in it. When you touch it, it grows and the number increases. It reaches “100”, and the level is complete. Future levels introduce multiple moving circles (generally in different shades of gray) that bounce around each other with a smooth Brownian motion. The goal is always to grow the circles until they total 100. The game continues to add new pieces with special abilities, but always with a simple internal logic. The only written instructions the game provides are “if they touch when red then you are dead”, a reference to the fact that the circles turn red as they are growing. The challenge lies in making them grow when there is space around them, and then stopping in time to let them bounce off each other safely.

HundredsThe game is at its best when it lets you enter a simple Zen-like state. With no time pressure, you can watch the circles bounce around harmlessly while waiting for the right time to increase one by a point or two. (SemiSecret Software, also the publisher of Canabalt, seems to have a thing for simple games that reward a relaxed mind.) However, most levels don’t let you do that. The game introduces other types of objects, including non-growing ones you can drag around yourself, ones that shrink down towards “0” when left alone, and ones that reset anything they touch back to “0” immediately. Some of those add a time pressure, especially the ones that stay red, forcing you to complete the level before they bump into anything. (New rules about “frozen” pieces add some exceptions, but that isn’t worth going in to here.) Suddenly that meditative gameplay goes out the window, and you need to outrace objects that will undo all your work.

The problem is that Hundreds is a very unforgiving game. Make one mistake with the dozens of items moving around the screen (while your own fingers are obscuring the view), and “you are dead”. Most levels are easy to complete – sometimes there is a trick or two to decide on, but this isn’t a “puzzle game” in the strict sense of having a precise solution. In fact, sometimes you’ll rush through several levels in just a few minutes. But others are very challenging. And those ones, with tight quarters and enemy pieces, are where the frustration appears. They demand near-perfection, and when you do finally win, the screen just fades away to an underwhelming “100”. Reaching that threshold doesn’t feel like an accomplishment in the way that crossing a finish line or clearing out enemies does. Most of the time, it wasn’t even obvious to me that I was about to win. Picture that: repeating the same actions, over and over, continually making it halfway to your goal, and then suddenly being told that you can move on. The level transitions have the same smooth, iconic design of the rest of the game, which makes it easy to keep going, but it doesn’t provide any visceral satisfaction either.

Hundreds is a well thought-out puzzle/action game that’s almost worth experiencing for its sense of style alone. However, it feels hollow beneath that. It’s also notable an an example of how a by-the-books game can fail to hold your interest.

Grade: C+

 

Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat (Music Review)

Playin' in Time With the Deadbeat cover

Slug Guts – Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat

Slug Guts performs sinister, testosterone-laden Australian post-punk in the vein of The Birthday Party. All their songs on Playin’ in Time With the Deadbeat are deep and echoey, as if it were recorded from the far side of a cellar. Or maybe a better description of the sound is that of a man yelling across an alley, while an advancing gang of thugs tries to get you to leave by brandishing musical instruments at you.

The vocals sometimes recall early, self-destructive Iggy Pop as much as The Birthday Party, and the lyrics are decipherable with a little effort. However, it doesn’t take much time to realize that those details aren’t very important. Just take the impression given by the song’s name (such as “Stranglin’ You Too”, “Order of Death”, or “Glory Holes”) and let that guide your interpretation of the loud, bass-heavy wall of sound that washes over you.

That’s not to say that the production is haphazard or low-budget, though. I think that Slug Guts captured the songs exactly as they wanted here, with a very rich sound that has a slightly overwhelming impact on the listener. It’s enjoyable, if a bit of an acquired taste. With the vocals obscured, don’t expect to distinguish the songs by their lyrics. The tracks are legitimately different, with no skimping on the songwriting, but that feeling they give off just doesn’t vary. The first few times you listen to this, you’ll wonder why they didn’t just save some time by writing two songs and repeating them over and over.

Fortunately, those differences in the songs do matter eventually. This is a solid, consistent (if maybe too consistent) album. Slug Guts can be a hard band to listen to, both figuratively (that dark, oppressive atmosphere) and literally (they actually hurt my ears if I’m not careful), but the more I listen, the more interested I am. I’m not going to say that Deadbeat is a completely successful album, but it’s an impressive showcase for this band’s potential. I hope they decide on a better way to present the vocals in the future, but the talent and confidence is already there.

Grade: B-

 

Max Brooks – World War Z (Book Review)

World War Z cover

Max Brooks – World War Z

One strange aspect of zombie fandom is people’s desire to take it seriously. You can’t talk about them for long before someone asks about your “zombie escape plan” or remarks on how defensible the place you’re currently standing is. No one takes this as far as Max Brooks, though. World War Z is his “oral history of the zombie war”, composed of interviews from people all around the world who survived the zombie apocalypse. Never once does the book admit that this is all fiction, or that Brooks isn’t really doing research for a United Nations report.

World War Z can be judged either by its quality as a zombie story or by how “realistically” he handles this hypothetical situation. His realism is impressive. I think he goes past the point where I care, but Brooks definitely thought this through carefully. He uses classic zombies, except that the infection spreads more slowly and humanity eventually wins. But this seems entirely plausible when the story’s scope is the entire world instead of a single town. It makes sense for the infection to incubate and travel like a disease, and it also makes sense that the combined might of the world would eventually be able to save a small number of people. The book covers many different ways nations could react and be changed, and includes perspectives from islands, frozen northern regions, and even the International Space Station. It truly is a global scope (other than a curious lack of African interviews), and the migration of people and armies is an important aspect that normal, caught-in-the-moment, zombie stories fail to catch.

I wish it had less of a militaristic focus, though. Obviously, the armies of the world played a big role in the battle, and even the civilian survivors tended to be good in a fight. But the most powerful stories generally come from the individuals who were caught up in scenes of horror, not the soldiers explaining tactics. This makes the first half of the book stronger, when people are still running around without plans. Once governments manage to reclaim certain areas, we hear only about how they handled the civilian population there, not what it was like to be one of those civilians. When one soldier mentions liberating communities that survived under siege for a year, I wanted one of those people to tell me how it was possible. And major environmental changes are mentioned repeatedly, but even though those may be a bigger long-term risk to humanity than the zombies were, no one takes much time to talk about them directly.

The writing sometimes breaks the illusion, as well. Too many people have perfectly-structured stories, with ironic twists or big reveals at the end. There are no unreliable narrators: If an interviewee wants to lie or dodge a question, the transcript will either note body language that makes the truth obvious, or the teller comes back to it at the moment that the explanation will have the maximum impact. You can tell yourself that Brooks only included the interviews with the best stories, and that the consistent style (which reads more like prose than conversation) comes from edits that he added in, but it’s still hard to pretend that this is not really a novel.

Fortunately, though, it is a very good novel. There are dozens of individual stories, most of which we only get pieces of, but they fit together to make something that really does feel like it has worldwide scope. Brooks takes advantage of the fact that we have internalized so many zombie stories that we can fill in the gaps after reading about a portion of someone’s experiences. By jumping around, he includes more scenes of panic and general inhumanity than a typical zombie story could handle, and by laying realistic groundwork in other sections, he makes those scenes matter. This has some powerful moments of zombie horror, and the structure of the book makes them pop up at unexpected times.

Don’t think that humanity’s (costly) victory makes this less of a zombie story, either. In the typical Romero tradition, mankind’s selfishness is what truly dooms us after the dead rise. Here, though, our capacity for cruel calculation saves us, and that’s more disturbing than the pleasant fiction that we pay for our sins. This story is dark, affecting, and surprisingly difficult to argue with.

World War Z is far from a perfect book, but its unusual format is interesting despite the flaws. Both as a zombie story and a meta-zombie story, it will stick with you.

Grade: B

 

Belated Comics First Looks

It’s difficult to time my First Look comic reviews right. Ideally, I’ll discuss them after the first few issues, but by the time I can group several related ones into an article, they may be older. I now have several comics that are overdue for a First Look. The only thing tying these together is that they are non-superhero (and non-DC/Marvel) comics that are bucking the trend of indies coming out as miniseries. Also, they’re all close to a year old. Better late than never, right?

(The other difficulty with my First Looks is predicting which comics will last so long that I shouldn’t wait for the end. For example, my early review of Snarked! ended up being two-thirds of the way through the series. Rather than writing a new review, I just added final thoughts to that article. I’ve made guesses here, such as thinking that Dark Horse’s latest Conan title can wait until the end for a review. Time will tell.)

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Hawaii (Game Review)

Hawaii box

Hawaii

Hawaii is an immediately attractive game, though it has more complexity than you’d expect from its colorful appearance. That’s actually a good combination, because it seems to be successful at bringing in casual players. For many people, the main barrier to learning a game’s rules is first becoming interested in it. From what I’ve seen, new players will be able to handle it, assuming a more dedicated gamer is there to handle the fiddly set-up. Even better, once the new players have tried this a few times, they’ll have learned enough advanced concepts to prepare them for other, better games. You see, Hawaii doesn’t stay interesting for long.

This is a worker placement game, though it obscures that by having you pick up tokens from spaces when you use them, rather than putting a worker figure there to mark it. This change makes sense in-game, as the tokens you take show the price of the action. In each of five rounds, when new tokens are put out, the costs of the different actions are randomized. The game tries to offer a varied setup partly with these changing prices, and partly by shuffling up the action spaces themselves at the start of each game. (Before taking an action, you pay to “move” from your last action tile to the next one, so their physical location matters.)

This variety does matter, but it’s too random to feel strategic. Turn order is also changeable, and sometimes there will be some great deals available to the first player or two. Other times, you’ll regret that you wasted resources in the previous round to let yourself go first this time. Since there are only five rounds in the game, randomly getting a good setup can be a huge factor. (Even worse, the number of times each action can be taken is also randomized. Some spaces allow two or three action tokens, others allow one or two, and a couple will have either zero or one. If an action turns out to be unavailable for the last rounds, it can derail all your plans.)

Hawaii play

The actions that you do sound interesting, and also feel thematic. Trying to put together your community on a Hawaiian island, you gather buildings and special tokens to create one or more villages. All tokens either give you abilities in-game or increase the score for their village at the end. However, villages only score if they extend past a certain marker on your gameboard. (Among other things, there is an action that moves that marker to make your job easier.) There are two currencies to keep track of, “feet” for moving around and “shells” to pay for actions. Cleverly, your base income actually drops each round (as the king sponsoring you expects you to become independent), and even with the special buildings you can add, it’s difficult to keep that income up. However, the “tribute” you want to send after each round keeps increasing.

All the pieces provide a lot of ways to score, but there aren’t that many different strategic paths to take. You have two main options in the game:  Do you focus on one huge village or try to get many past the scoring threshold, and how much effort should you put into the “boat” actions that give you resources but generally don’t build your villages? Otherwise, just take the best deals available at the moment. That is enough, barely, to build a game around, but with only five rounds of play, it feels slight.

Aesthetically appealing and offering some clever twists on worker placement rules, Hawaii is worth trying out. It loses its appeal before too long, though. I respect its potential as a “gateway game”, but I’m not very interested in playing it otherwise.

Grade: C+

 

Lance Armstrong and Game Theory

Lance Armstrong (from Wikipedia)

Lance Armstrong (from Wikipedia)

I play a lot of games, but don’t follow professional sports much. I’m just more interested in playing my own games than in watching others. I still think of sports as a category of gaming, though, which is why it always surprises me when the general public reacts in outrage to the participants treating it like that. The current controversy about Lance Armstrong’s doping is a perfect example.

Let’s put aside the questions about health risks and bad role models for the moment, and consider professional bicycling as a game. Because, as I point out from time to time on this blog, the flow of a game and effectiveness of various strategies is determined by the rules. If someone discovers a winning strategy that makes the game not “fun” to you, then you need to change the rules so that the aspects you want in the game become primary again. Sometimes, you need to consider not just “the rules”, but the entire system, in which “cheat but don’t get caught” can be a valid strategy to win millions of dollars.

It’s obvious that a lot of pro cyclists break the doping rules. And even before Armstrong, it was already obvious that a lot of them got away with it. Now that his seven Tour de France wins are thrown out, the only thing more shocking than the number of disqualified first-place finishers is the number that weren’t caught until after the fact. Does anyone have much faith that all the second- and third-place winners who eventually got their trophies were drug-free? Given all the evidence that people get away with it, it seems likely plenty of trophies have been taken away from one doper just to be given to another.

The popular perception is that doping in sports is a mistake made in a moment of weakness by someone who should know better. That may be accurate for teenagers trying testosterone, but it couldn’t be less true at the professional level. Consider Armstrong’s rigorous training regimen, his highly-trained support staff looking for any medical or scientific edge, and his own experience. Armstrong knew exactly what his performance was like both on and off drugs, and presumably had a better idea than we do about how his colleagues were using them and their chances of getting caught. Given all that, he (and a staff whose careers depended on his success) made the conscious decision that he was better off taking them.

Remember that. Lance Armstrong only doped up because even he wouldn’t have won otherwise. In a field like that, what chance does anyone else have? Oh, I’m sure there are entrants in the Tour de France who followed all the rules. You just haven’t heard of them. I wasn’t mad (or surprised) when the allegations against Armstrong came out, because I had assumed all along that the system was set up for dopers to win.

Professional cycling is long past the point where it’s become a joke, with so many disqualifications that it’s hard to take any victory seriously. The important thing to understand is that this is ingrained into the system. Cheating technology is way ahead of enforcement technology, and there’s no sign that this will change. The dwindling fanbase can either stick their heads in the sand and pretend that this isn’t the case, or they can look for changes that give them what they want.

Barring a new technology that catches all dopers, I can think of two options: Doping could be allowed. It’s not a magic shortcut, given that proper usage is as technical as the training and calculations that athletes make to maximize their results. And concerns about the health effects are hard to take seriously, when sports like boxing and (American) football are much more punishing to the body and brain than Armstrong’s tricks were. If you don’t like that, because you want role models and people who represent mankind’s drug-free potential, then that brings me to my second option: Stop looking for those heroes in competitions that make its winners rich. Amateur and hobbyist cyclists are the ones doing the things you care about, because they don’t have the same incentive to cheat. It all comes down to the structure of the game.