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Welcome Back to the West
By oneshotstop
Posted on 08/01/16
The only thing that stops the dust is the rain. It’s a sweet reprieve, but there is no middle ground. The land is either as dry as the Betty Ford clinic, or as wet as the ocean floor. Everything can be seen from the ridge overlooking Armadillo as John Marston gently bounces along atop...


Hawk_one Hawk_one's Blog
The art of reviewing: Sequels
Posted on Tuesday, May 13 2008 @ 21:12:05 PST

Probably my final entry in this little series.

So anyway, before getting to the meat, let's make it clear that I'm not discussing the merits of sequels, but about how to write a review about them. Now, there are basically two arche-types of sequels (with some games falling somehow in between).

First, we have the "true" sequel, in which you'll most likely need to have played the first game in the series, as it will follow up on the plot, the characters, the core gameplay, the graphic style, etc. Now, this kind of sequel is more or less in the minority (and hardly ever going beyond a trilogy), because a game is usually a big investement in time and money, and making a game that forces the player to have played another game before is pretty damn risky. Kingdom Hearts 2 is one of such few "true" sequels, and it could take this risk because unless you had already played KH1, you most likely wouldn't be openminded to the Disney/Square combo anyway.

Still, these games exist, and frankly, this is the easiest kind of sequel to review. See, just make sure to mention the fact that you need to have played the previous installment in the first paragraph, and then you can go on and talk about what new this part of the series brings to the table. I think I did this well enough with Kingdom Hearts 2, where I also made sure to go over the basics once again just to make certain everyone would follow .

However, most sequels are instead what I would call "franchise sequels". Everything from the main Zelda games and  Final Fantasy's numbered series, to the sports titles, racing games á Gran Turismo, etc.

And here is the real rub of the issue: When I've played one game in a franchise series, and then move on to the next, the pitfall is that while the sequel might be better in every way, I still won't enjoy it and/or play it as much as the first game. So, how shall I approach my review of the sequel, then?

With some luck, it's a Final Fantasy game. You can say what you want about the series, but the fact is, ever since VII, they've tried to make enough changes to the core gameplay that it's really like a fresh entry in the genre (unlike, say the Suikoden series, which I guess with some confidence hasn't changed its formula substantially since the first game. I mean, the graphics in Suikoden V are from the PS1 era half the time). Reviewing FF XII was relatively easy, considering how substantially different it was from FF X, which in turn was very different from FF IX. Heck, even FF X-2 - a true sequel - was so different from X that I could easily review it on its own merits (though those merits were mostly about being really weird...). I still had to talk about how it fits into the series, of course, but by and large it was fairly easy to write.

Most game sequels aren't changing that much, though, and now I'll tell you a secret: In my review of Gran Turismo 4, I stopped playing the game long before getting anywhere near finished (I think at about 28%) But I realised that this was partially because I'd already played the crap out of GT3 (played through to 99% -twice-, and also a bit more than that). I also realised that if I had started with the fourth installment, I'd probably have played the crap out of that instead.

Since the GT series is the kind of series where a fresh gamer will most likely pick the latest number in the series when he gets into the gameshop, I decided to write it as if I had only played GT3 moderately (so I could note the improvements from that game) and then criticise and grade GT4 as if that was the game I had played the crap out of. Adding a warning near the end (maybe it should have been at the top instead...) that you might have had enough if you've played the previous games to death already, I felt I had done my part. This approach naturally won't cut it on every kind of sequel, but for the kind of game series where new gamers will only pick up the latest game in the series, I don't think you'll lose any integrity using this approach, as long as you have at least played the game enough to have an informed opinion of the changes from the last one.

I took a completely different approach to Guitar Hero 2, though. It wasn't deliberate of me when I wrote it, but in hindsight, I won't change that it's basically assuming you've played the first one. Like KH2, GH2 was a game that I am really sure was bought almost entirely by
the ones that had already bought GH1, or at least played it. At least, this was true until they released GH2 on the 360, but my review covers the PS2 version anyway, so there.

But, there's another point to looking at the GH2 review with regards to sequels. See, certain game series somehow reach a certain status (the first GH game certainly reached it quickly), and therefore, each new game in the series will be held to a much higher standard than usual. And that much higher standard can cause a bit of "reverse fanboy syndrome".

Basically, what happens when I play a new game in a series I really have a passion for, every little flaw in the game seems to just stick out like a sore thumb. Enter The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The review you see is actually the second one I wrote. The first one, I focused almost entirely on the times I was disappointed, forgetting the times I was also entirely captivated the way the Zelda games usually manage to get me. If you think that entry looks negative, you should have seen the first one.

Basically, the balance of reviewing sequels is in how much you can review it on its own merits, and how much you should talk about how it fits into the series. And certain game series are very, very hard to review in a vacuum. I think the late controversy of GR's official Grand Theft Auto 4 review is a prime example of this.

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The art of reviewing: Aural pleasure
Posted on Sunday, February 3 2008 @ 21:05:26 PST

Since nobody was interested in hearing about how I'm invited to the opera and then later will appear on national radio, I suppose I'll just continue talking about the different aspects of my reviews. And of course, having recently talked about opera music, it's only natural that I now get to everything that has to do with sound.

Music first. Now, apart from specific music games like Guitar Hero and Rez (which will not be discussed in this particular article, by the way), music will often be one of the aspects of a game that gets the least attention, ending up in the second last paragraph for most people's reviews. Which to me is a pity. See, if the music is hardly ever mentioned, then it probably "does its job" as far as most people are concerned. And I find that if it only does that, then it has actually failed a bit. Mind you, I've got five years of experience with local and student radio. I don't collect music as much as most people, but when I listen to it, I pay good attention.

And i believe that game music should have me pay attention, especially when we're talking about plot elements. Without spoiling too much (especially since it was early in the game), I mentioned the scene of Black Mages falling from the sky in Final Fantasy IX, because that's exactly the thing I want from my game.

Apart from the game scores commanding attention (except when it's more fitting to have it stay in the background), my usual music genre preferences usually don't apply as such. The very thing that has made Nobuo Uematsu - hey, you didn't think I'd write this article without mentioning him, did you? - so goddamn famous in the video game world is that he understands so very well that music isn't about putting in rock or opera for the sake of being rock or opera. You put in rock (or opera) if that's what the scene as a whole demands. Or a simple piano score. Or ukulele. Or a cheesy love song. Do it right, and you get away with plenty that I'd otherwise never listen to, like the opening songs in Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2. "Sanctuary" in particular is somehow just right for that opening FMV, no matter how cheesy it might be on its own.

A final word about music is that I turn into a green giant of rage if you don't loop your tracks properly. Yes, that still happens, believe it or not. Listen to the music in Mos Eisly's bar in LEGO STAR WARS: The Complete Saga for the latest grievous example of bad looping. Or don't, it's a pretty bad game overall.

Of course, games that are completely without any plot - like car games or skating games etc. - won't receive that much critical attention from my ears. Those type of games tend to have a selectable soundtrack in any case, and they're almost bound to have at least a few songs I enjoy listening to. Unless I'm turning music off because I need to be able to hear the engine sound so that I know when to change gears.

However, speaking of sound effects, that is something I hardly ever mention. That is probably because it's almost impossible to go actually wrong with sound effects these days, and unlike music, I believe indeed that it should be heard, but not noticed (if you know what I mean). Suikoden V managed to be noticed with its horrible alternate menu sound effect sets (I'm convinced at least one sound effect was made by scraping a fork against a blackboard), but since those effects were indeed an alternative to the perfectly normal default sounds, I didn't bother mentioning it. There were so many other things wrong with this potentially good game anyway.

And then there is voice acting.  I don't think I need to talk too much about it, because I think we all know how incessantly annoying - sometimes even enraging - bad voice acting in itself can be. However, I'd like to touch upon a subject that is often overlooked: That the game developers forget to make it not sound like they're in a radio studio.

Again, I didn't mention it because there are several other, larger issues with the game, but Dragon Quest VIII: JotCK contains an especially aggravating example of this. In the Monster Arena mini-game, there is an announcer that does a slightly less-than-adequate job to introduce the combatants. But much worse than that is that it doesn't sound like he's in an arena at all. There should be echoes from the walls, there should be the acoustics of a large arena in stone. Instead, it sounds exactly like he's sitting in a completely sound-proof studio reading his lines with as much enthusiasm as his paycheck motivated him to.

And trust me, it's not hard to add those echo and reverb and "big hall" or "outside" effects. Even the smallest local radio station has the kind of equipment necessary to fake this. It takes ten seconds to put on those effects before starting the reading. There's simply no excuse to sound like you're inside a small, stuffed, wooden box (which is what recording rooms generally are) in this world where voice effect machines are so readily available. Well, unless the character is in fact stuffed inside a box in some scene Then it's OK to sound like that, of course. But it should still sound muffled when the camera's located outside the box.

In any case, bad voice acting is, I'm afraid, still so common in certain types of games (games in fantasy settings, to be exact), that for example doing what Zelda does - text only, with each person having their own personal sounds, like a sigh or a well-placed "Hmmm" - actually seems to me to be a better choice. But then again, I'm an avid reader.

To be fair, I do sometimes grant the voice actors a small favour, in that I also notice if they are being made to say something incredibly stupid. It's probably hard to put in the effort when your role seems to consist of repeatedly crying out the hero's name a lot for no good reason, or reading lines so cliché-filled that you almost feel like a voice prostitute for taking the job.

So to summarise, I almost always pay attention to the music and the voice acting, but might even pay more attention to the former. Which is why quite a few of my reviews tend to talk about music fairly early on. Heck, music can very well affect the grade I give a game, but you should be aware that I play games as much or more for the experience than for the challenge it might give me. If you're not that kind of gamer, then you can safely skip whatever I have to say about this or that game's soundtrack.

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I'm going to the opera!
Posted on Saturday, January 19 2008 @ 04:21:15 PST

Alright, clean those glasses of yours (assuming you're not wearing contact lenses), because this is something you should in fact read about. And it will be -very- relevant to video gaming.

It started some months back. I was listening to a satire show on P2, which is one of the three national public radio channels in Norway. Sort of like BBC. Afterwards, I just let the radio stay on in the background while reading some Terry Pratchett, but then suddenly something caught my ear.

It was some sort of "weekly commentary" thingie, and the journalist in question - called Nina Krohn - was talking about how it seems a bit paradoxical that opera is looked upon as so very elitistic, when back in the days, you would also have opera playing for the masses (not in the same theatres as the operas played for nobility and royalty, though). And those operas were usually about drinking, whoring, and other party activities. And people would drink and sing and fool around in the corners and vomit and all that kind of stuff. To put it in US terms, it would be your average sophomore party.

Now, the commentary was interesting enough in itself, but it seemed to me that this Nina was one that might be open to a thought I've been having for some time, and I promptly sat down and wrote her an email. It was long and in Norwegian, but I'll rewrite most of it here:

"Hello. You don't know me, but I listened to your commentary. It got me thinking, because there's something I've been thinking about when it comes to opera.

I believe, that in today's media world, the worst place to introduce opera to a new audience is the opera house.

I mean, you can't simply just decide on a whim to attend to an opera. You have to prepare for it and read about it in advance, because the opera itself won't make much sense as such. While opera scores are emotional powerhouses, that doesn't help unless you know what they're supposed to be emotional about. And then you do read the plots, they seem almost insultingly simple. Because often, they are there merely to provide the backdrop for the arias.

Now, the opera scene isn't the only place you can find opera, but the other places do have their problems. Opera scores on the radio, for instance, is almost exclusively for those who already like and know opera. Those who can tell the subtle nuances of one famous soprano from another, like a wine taster can taste the tiny differences between wines that for him makes a huge impact. When your average radio listener turns on the radio, he's more wont to listen to (if it's a decent station) good rock bands that are instantly reckognisable. Nobody's ever going to confuse AC/DC with Guns'n Roses if they just actively listens to either band at least once. Listening to a bunch of people who all sounds the same just isn't my idea of fun.

And as for broadcasting opera acts on television, it doesn't really make much difference from opera on stage. The other way to add opera in television is to incorporate it into f.ex. a movie, but the problem is, an opera aria is not easily put in the background. It demands, if it's to be there at all, to be as important as the visuals, and that limits its options of what kind of movies and series it can be incorporated into.

However, there is one medium left, where opera can be presented to a new audience, and with less limitations than with movies.

I'm talking about video games. And perhaps it's easier to provide examples than to simply try and explain. (Note: For both these examples, I provided links to videos on Youtube. I imagine that if you haven't in fact seen any of those videos, you're more than capable of finding them yourselves)

First off, we have the opening to Final Fantasy VIII. Yes, the score - called "Liberi Fatali" - is more of a choir aria than real opera, but I think it's close enough. Video games as a whole has a completely different pacing than movies, and that gives them the option to make opening scenes like this. Or in the middle of the game for that matter.

And then, we have the opening of Gran Turismo 4. This is a racing game, without any plot whatsoever. None. You drive cars in races, and that's it. And yet, the opening movie sees fit to include an opera aria that's not only written specifically for this game (by another Japanes composer), but also, when released for the US/European market, translated into Italian. And it is nothing less than perfect for the scene. The way the camera moves around the car slowly with the sceneries gradually fading into each other, I don't think any other kind of music could have completed that scene as well as this aria.

Not only does the second video show how opera fits together with video games as a means to make a powerful sound to complete an already strong visual - which is what opera should be about - but the movie also highlights another issue with opera: That it's often segregated from other music genres. But here, halfway through, the movie changes into a more standard "car game opening movie", and the music seamlessly shifts into rock music.

That is no accident. In fact, it's rather common in Japan to have several genres of music fit into one game, because the philosophy seems to be that it's all about what fits the scene rather than "this game is going to only have rock music". The composer of the music for the first clip is called Nobuo Uematsu, and he is possibly the most well-known Japanese composer. And he couldn't care less about sticking it to one genre. Epic choir and symphony, mushy love songs, simple (yet powerful) piano scores, flamenco tunes, heavy metal, silly tunes, scores where the ukulele is the main instrument... He'll incorporate all of this into one single game if he feels that's the best way.

So, there you have it. From someone who is not in any way a music expert, but who do enjoy playing video games, and who do enjoy good music in video games.

With regards."

So, I sent this email to Nina Krohn. And her reply was more than I could ever hope for. She found it incredibly interesting. So interesting, in fact, that not only would she invite me to our brand new Bjoervika opera house once it's opening (a couple of months from now on), but she'd also like to bring some recording equipment, and then we would have a chat afterwards about all those things I said in that letter. And then broadcast this interview on national radio! Just how awesome is that, huh?!?

And don't forget, this is not only frickin' cool in itself, but it's also a chance to get some positive publicity about video games, where the focus isn't on how an anecdote about someone playing Grand Theft Auto before killing his classmates means all violence should be banned.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I need to put on Gran Turismo 4 just to listen to that beautiful opening aria...

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The art of reviewing: Review themes
Posted on Friday, December 14 2007 @ 00:42:06 PST

The fourth entry in the longwinded egotrip blog series that is supposed to justify my longwinded egotrip reviews.

Anyway, in addition to relaying my opinion of a game, I am also often tempted to make a "theme" in order to spice i...   read more...

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The art of reviewing: Opinion
Posted on Monday, December 3 2007 @ 11:28:36 PST

So, the third installment of my silly little series. And this time, we're going to touch upon something that will get the gamer blood boiling: opinion.

This is probably one of the major sources of conflict between gamers, though frankly i...   read more...

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The art of reviewing: The graphics
Posted on Sunday, December 2 2007 @ 14:57:52 PST

Damn, I\'m really in a writing mood today, am I not?

Yeah, graphics. For better or worse, a game does need them, and your enjoyment of the game will be affected by it. But in order to make a good review of the graphics, I think it\'s impor...   read more...

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The art of reviewing: The plot
Posted on Sunday, December 2 2007 @ 08:49:51 PST

Yeah, I talk a lot about reviews in my blog. Hey, it's what this site is mainly about, isn't it? So I figure that if any of you are interested, I might as well talk about how I personally deal with the different aspects of a game when I'm to review i...   read more...

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A small victory
Posted on Tuesday, November 20 2007 @ 02:46:13 PST

So... When I was the tender age of 12 or thereabouts, my uncle introduced me to the concept of First Person Shooters, with the hottest new game in the PC world: Wolfenstein 3D. And it didn't take. In fact, it did much the opposite. And throughout the...   read more...

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Jak and Jak 2
Posted on Wednesday, September 12 2007 @ 21:38:21 PST

Now, unlike other older games I\'ve reviewed, Jak and Daxter, and Jak 2 are recently bought and played, and I have, also recently, become a bit uncomfortable with fully reviewing such games. I usually buy such games for the nostalgia factor, or in th...   read more...

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Mystical Ninja: Starring Goemon
Posted on Friday, January 5 2007 @ 08:40:10 PST

Just popping in to say I can't remember this game well enough to make a full review out of it. I remember it being slightly entertaining, but also very annoying at some parts, especially some of the minigames (the don't let the balloon pop game is HA...   read more...

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