21 June 2013

One Solstice Night, Pt 4

For a few years already it has been my tradition to stay up till dawn on the shortest night of the year, watching movies and having a few drinks — and naturally blogging it all. The actual moment of the solstice won't be until 7:58 am on Friday (my time), by which time I'll be (hopefully) fast asleep. But tonight is the nearest night to it, so it should do fine for my purposes.

I have a variety of different liqueurs, which I plan to sample. And for entertainment — as it happens, I just today received by post Within Temptation's Black Symphony concert DVD. Perfect timing.

22:51 - Sunset. First drink of the night is cherry liqueur and coke. Not bad, vaguely like Dr Pepper. I'm not a huge fan of liqueurs in general, really, at least not straight up, but in mixed drinks some can add a bit of nice flavour. Time to start the concert!

23:20 - Time for another drink. This time something a little more exotic: sea-buckthorn liqueur (that's 'tyrni' for my Finnish followers) with orange soda. OK... the liqueur is fairly mild over the orange... (I hate sea-buckthorn berries, really, but in liqueur form it is... well, sweet enough to be palatable.) Meanwhile, Black Symphony is pretty epic. A two hour concert with orchestra and choir on stage! Only complaint thus far is that the editing isn't quite perfect — too many gimmicky effects.

23:45 - Chocolate liqueur and coke. Weird, but drinkable.

0:30 - Burrito time! And some coffee...

1:00 - Angels on stilts? WTF? Nope, I'm not that drunk, it really happened...

1:20 - Sometimes I wonder what the point of encores is... It's little more than a formality these days. Like, are we supposed to be surprised they come back on stage?

1:40 - That may have just been the most confetti I've ever seen in a concert video... Yeah, so, it's finished, and I quite enjoyed it. I don't have a lot of metal on DVD, basically only Nightwish's End of an Era, which I love.

2:00 - It's a cloudy night, so it's actually relatively dark. If it was clear, the sky would still be clearly blue and rapidly getting lighter... Time for another drink, I think. Still got a peach flavoured liqueur to sample. Think I'll try it with the orange soda.

2:10 - Yeah, it's drinkable, though I've had better. Watching DVD extras now. You know what this box has? A whole second concert on a bonus DVD! But that I'll watch some other day...

2:25 - Dutch is kinda weird. Just sayin'. (23 million native speakers? Wow, who knew... And it's such a tiny country...)

3:00 - A little breath of air — and taking out some rubbish. Yeah, chores in the middle of the night. What's the world coming to... Saw a bat.

3:15 - Last drink of the night, I think. Another cherry and coke.

3:35 - Watching a Mario Marathon test stream for a moment. The event starts tomorrow. It's always awesome. And, you know, for charity.

3:55 - Sunrise. Well, that was a fairly relaxed and pleasant night. Off to bed now. Busy day tomorrow. I'll be so dead... *yawn*

17 June 2013

Expanding Fandom: The Mass Effect Paraphernalia Post

Right, so over the previous winter and spring I finally played the Mass Effect trilogy for the first time (and naturally blogged about it — see the 'Mass Effect' label for posts on each game).

Not only are they pretty entertaining games, the sci-fi universe they're set in is pretty fascinating as well, and obviously has a lot of potential for more than just the original three games. And of course the games' creators at BioWare are aware of this as well. There are several novels, comic books etc. out there. This summer I've been collecting a few of these items. I guess this proves that in the relatively short time since I first started playing the games I've become a fairly big fan of the franchise...

I already wrote about the anime movie Paragon Lost. It was a... decent work, although it pales in comparison with the games.

Probably most significant for me are the comic books. I bought the four trade paperbacks published thus far. And... they're actually pretty good. I found them generally more interesting and true to the games' feel than Paragon Lost. The art is (mostly) decent, as are the stories, mostly by Mac Walters, one of the main writers of the game trilogy. The stories tie in heavily with the games (and I wouldn't necessarily recommend the comics to anyone who hasn't played them yet).

As some of you may know, I'm a big music fan, and also a fan of game soundtracks, so naturally these were also on my list of items to acquire. Alas, much to my confusion and disappointment I could only find a soundtrack album of the first game. But I naturally bought it, and it's pretty good. The music is mostly pretty synth heavy, influenced by the likes of 80s sci-fi movies. (I must complain a little about the liner notes though, namely the ambiguity of the credits. The cover lists several composers who contributed to the album, but nowhere is it clarified who composed which track. In this age where people mostly listen to music on computers and other devices I think it is important to have accurate metadata in music files, but how can I tag them if the publishers don't provide me with accurate information?)

Lastly, I bought the book The Art of the Mass Effect Universe. This is a pretty nice looking large volume containing primarily concept art from making the games, with little notes written by the creators. Now, what I really would have liked was a source book about the universe (the people, technology, places etc.) in print form. This is largely because I've been contemplating running a tabletop RPG adventure set in the universe. The art book isn't quite such a thing — the text is more 'making of' commentary than proper guide material. But at the very least it should be a nice visual reference to use at the table, if I ever get around to running that game (even though the book's not perfect in this respect — it lacks images of few important species, for instance, and also contains some early sketches that differ radically from what ended up in the games).

In the meanwhile, I just started my second playthrough of the games. It's rare for me to replay games this soon (heck, it's not that often I get around to replaying games at all), but I do seem to be a little obsessed right now...

14 June 2013

The Black Mages

Recently I blogged about an old game soundtrack favourite I finally added to my CD collection. Well, here's another one.

When I discovered Final Fantasy in the late 90's, there was no going back. The unique flair of Japanese fantasy, both in games and in anime and manga, were a huge influence on me – as was the music. Nobuo Uematsu's Final Fantasy soundtracks were not only utterly addictive, but also a big influence on my musical experiments of the time (for which check out, for example, this blog post).

Cut to 2003. A small group of composers working for Square Enix decide to record an album of rock arrangements of Final Fantasy tunes. The group came to be known as The Black Mages. Uematsu himself produced the album, and also played keyboards in live shows and on the two subsequent albums. The tracks on the first, eponymous, album were all battle themes, which goes well with the chosen style. The sequels would branch out a little more stylistically, and add vocals on a few tracks, but mostly remained true to the style of the original.

For me it was love at first sight. Or hearing. Whatever. These tunes and rock instruments are simply a perfect match. Wikipedia labels the style as 'progressive metal'. I guess it may contain such elements, but to me, well, soundtrack music is a thing of its own, shaped as much by context as instrumentation. (Though of course I enjoy progressive metal as well!)

But, once again, Japanese video game soundtracks aren't exactly available on every corner here, so it took me a long while to get around to actually consider buying them. But now, at last, I have all three CDs in my collection. They weren't quite as pricey as the Silent Hill 2 soundtrack I bought recently, but still pricier than most CDs I buy... Certainly worth it, though.

11 June 2013

Maybe There Is Hope After All (Being a Brief E3 Commentary)

It's E3 time again, and I've now watched the streams of the main press events.

I was dreading the event, perhaps a little more than usual now that the next generation is looming on the horizon. The things we've been hearing lately, particularly about Xbox One, have been... disturbing, to say the least.

I have little respect for either Microsoft or EA, both big hulking corporations with little respect for us small consumers. Some EA products I have to reluctantly buy, seeing as how they've published some actually good games. Microsoft I tend to avoid as much as I possibly can. And yes, Sony is, of course, just another big corporation, but one has to play with something. I've been a PlayStation gamer since the days of the original PlayStation, so naturally it was Sony's event that most interested me.

So... I won't go too deep into my personal background here, but suffice to say I've never been the wealthiest guy around, having spent much of my years as a student with little income. Without cheap second hand games I would have missed out on a lot of classic moments of gaming history. But the issue goes much deeper than my personal economics. I believe strongly that if I pay a significant sum of money for something, I'm supposed to own it, and be able to do whatever I please with it, including lending it, giving it away or selling it on.

So when Sony announced PS4 would not have restrictions on used games, it was music to my ears. Nor will there be any always on or 'phone home' requirement, which would have been, obviously, ridiculous and pointless. All-in-all, the impression I got from Sony's presentation was that, DRM-wise, the console doesn't seem significantly worse than it's predecessor.

Of course game distribution is moving heavily online these days, which is something I do not like at all. I much prefer getting my hands on an actual physical item. I very much hope physical games will still be around for a long time to come (otherwise the promises of no used game restrictions would be pretty meaningless).

As I said, I have little respect for Microsoft personally, but I do sincerely hope that Xbox fans will take a stand against the crap the company's trying to shove down their throats. While I may be loath to say anything good about the 'enemy', any commercial field does need a little competition (and it looks like Nintendo can hardly offer any these days). But deliberate trampling of user rights is not something anyone should accept.

For me, though, it's looking strongly like PS4 will be a compulsory investment some day in the future...

Overall, looking at the games presented over all the major press events, I did get the feeling that the emphasis was a little more on the 'core' than casual gaming, which has been dominating the scene way too much in recent years. This is, of course, is great. There may have not been that many games that I was personally particularly interested in, but overall I was left with a surprisingly positive feeling about the future of games. I just hope the big publishers and tech companies don't fuck it up by introducing more oppressive measures...

10 June 2013

A Sneak to the Past... in HD

Let's start with a little history...

There were a few years sometime around the turn of the millennium when I was pretty much exclusively playing Japanese console RPGs (especially the Final Fantasy series). I just loved the characters and the storytelling in those games. This was also around the same time I was really getting into anime and manga. The cool, imaginative, over-the-top style of fantasy from the east was something new and refreshing compared to the western fantasy I grew up with, and right up my proverbial ally.

The other games I was seeing around me at that time period simply failed to interest me. It all seemed to be western RTS and FPS stuff, maybe some childish platformers and moronic sports games on the console side... They didn't seem nearly as cool as JRPGs, nor did they seem to have much potential for strong storytelling, which was very important to me. But one game changed all that and taught me to appreciate the action adventure genre as well.

That game was Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. A friend borrowed it to me. I'd seen, like, the intro sequence and thought it looked intriguing enough to give this action thingy a shot. And I loved it. I was very impressed by the story. It was like watching an awesome sci-fi action movie. And the gameplay was unlike anything I'd ever played before. (For the uninitiated, it's a third person action adventure where you play an operative infiltrating an enemy occupied facility. Emphasis is on stealth and sneaking around enemies rather than open violence. The slogan of the series is 'tactical espionage action'.) I liked it enough to soon buy a copy of my own and replay it.

Of course it was still a Japanese game. It would take me many more years to accept that westerners could possibly also make interesting games. But that's a whole other story...

Naturally I played the first Metal Gear Solid, too, and when Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater came out in 2005 it was the first game I ever pre-ordered (although in the end the store failed to notify me of the game's arrival and I received it several days late, but whatever). This prequel took the game in a brave new direction by moving the action from near future interiors to a 1960s wilderness setting. While it doesn't quite have a similar place in my heart as MGS2, it definitely featured some interesting gameplay elements, and also proved to be surprisingly important in terms of the plot of the overall series.

But let's finally cut to the present...

The Metal Gear Solid HD Collection was released for the PS3 last year, featuring ports of the PS2 games MGS2 and MGS3, along with the more recent PSP title Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. I'm usually pretty reluctant to buy re-releases of games I already have, but this collection contained one game I hadn't played yet (since I don't have a PSP) and the games were also 'remastered' to feature widescreen HD graphics, which naturally makes them look a great deal better on modern TVs.

I finally got around to buying the collection this summer. I started with replaying MGS2, and late last night I finished MGS3. And yes, they're still pretty cool. It took maybe a little while getting into the swing of things after spending the spring playing games Portal and Mass Effect (particularly in the case of MGS2, which lacks the camera control which has become pretty standard in modern 3D games). Of course one must wonder whether part of the appeal of these games is simple nostalgia. Certain elements (particularly some aspects of the controls) can feel maybe a tiny bit dated... But the story and characters are still pretty darn cool, and the games still look and sound pretty good too, especially with the new HD facelift.

Apart from the increased resolution the games are pretty much identical to the originals, or more precisely the MGS2: Substance and MGS3: Subsistence special editions, including much of the bonus content from them (such as the improved camera control for MGS3 and the two original 2D Metal Gear games). All in all there's plenty of classic gaming here for the price of one game.

I have yet to play Peace Walker. I'll surely write about it once I get around to it. And the time is long overdue to replay MGS4 as well...

4 June 2013

Into the Electric Castle

I seem to be blogging a lot about music recently. That's mostly because I had a little spending money, for a change, that was not earmarked for any bigger investment, so I guess I went just slightly overboard ordering CDs online... There is so much music out there that I love and would like to own, but money is, alas, finite. So whenever I can I try to buy as many CDs as possible...

Ayreon... for many years it was a name I occasionally encountered, haunting the periphery of the metal world that I was discovering, but never got around to looking into it. Until, like, a year ago. I first saw some videos promoting Arjen Lucassen's solo album Lost in the New Real. And I instantly loved the sound. I couldn't believe I hadn't discovered it years before.

I have been a fan of progressive rock for a long time, particularly listening to the likes of Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant. Arjen's work rekindled that interest in me. It's funny that I've mostly encountered him through the metal scene, even though much of his work is not really metal at all, but better described as prog rock.

Lucassen's best known project is of course Ayreon. Calling it a band isn't quite right – it's Arjen Lucassen, together with a large variety of guest singers and musicians. The albums are mostly sci-fi themed concept albums, sometimes described as 'rock operas', due to the variety of singers featured, portraying different characters.

I've been slowly adding to my collection of Ayreon CDs. Today I finally had a chance to sit down and listen through Into the Electric Castle again, this time complete with booklet in hand. This is my favourite of all the Ayreon albums. It is, in a nutshell, perfect. The music is awe-inspiring, the story cool. Simple enough to work well as a music album (not the easiest medium for storytelling) and be easy to follow, yet compelling, entertaining and imaginative. Right up my proverbial ally in every way.

There's a new Ayreon album in the works. Can't wait to hear it...

3 June 2013

Terror in the Depths of the Fog

I think I first encountered the Silent Hill series when I saw a trailer for Silent Hill 2 included with another game. (Maybe Metal Gear Solid 2?) This would have been sometime in the early years of the 21st century. I thought the trailer looked intriguing, but I wasn't sure about the gameplay. At that point I was still pretty new to action games, having for many years focussed mostly on RPGs. (Metal Gear Solid 2 was one of the first that showed me action games could also be truly awesome.)

Anyway, eventually I guess I ran into a cheap enough copy of Silent Hill 2 and decided to give it a chance (I don't remember exactly how this came about, since we are talking about, like, a decade ago). And it made a huge impression on me. Though the action may have been a little on the clumsy side, I really, really loved the atmosphere and aesthetics of the game.

And a huge part of the aesthetics was of course the sound of the game, created by Akira Yamaoka. It was like no game I'd heard before. Ambient, atmospheric noise, interspersed with melancholy melodies... It was both creepy and beautiful at the same time, in a weird and wonderful way.

As much as I love video game music, I've never really bought many soundtracks. Largely because, well, they're not exactly available on every corner. In recent years ordering stuff online has gotten much easier, but even so a lot of the soundtracks I'm most interested in are relatively rare and expensive... So I've had to settle for listening online. ('Cause naturally pretty much anything you can think of someone will have put online somewhere...)

But I finally decided the time was right to buy the soundtrack of Silent Hill 2. This, more than any Final Fantasy or Metal Gear Solid or any other game series I love, had become the soundtrack I most wanted to own and treasure. (Which is saying a lot.) I ordered it online, and at long last received it today. It cost a pretty penny, indeed (like, twice the price of a normal CD, at least). But I think it was worth it.

I'm listening to the soundtrack now, through headphones, as twilight falls on a quiet summer's evening. Because this, if anything, is music for night time. Despite the darkness and creepiness, I actually find it quite relaxing. Just sit back, at the end of the day, in a dark room, and enjoy...