Thursday, 26 May 2011

REVIEW: Portal 2

From the ashes of Half Life 2 came a weird creature called Portal that created quite a stir and ended up having a rather large, cult following. It was an attachment with The Orange Box which went on to sell millions and Portal itself had apparently revolutionised the puzzle genre in a way that hadn't been seen since perhaps Tetris. Now Portal 2 is here - so what's all the fuss about?

Truth be told I never got into Portal. In fact I never got into Half Life 2, I never really got into Counterstrike and I never even completed Half Life. However, such was the excitement for Portal 2 and that I kept being repeatedly told that I would enjoy it that I thought I'd give this game a go.

Essentially, it's beauty is in it's complexity in simplicity. Even though all you do is point, shoot and occasionally jump, it becomes a joy to solve each and every puzzle and the reason why is because of the physics involved with using portals. You have a gun that shoots two different portals, an orange one and a blue one, and that's it. You can only shoot them onto certain surfaces, but when you do you can walk through them. That's the entire game. However, where you place them and how you get to certain places is the trick and once you've figured it out you can't help but feel the satisfaction that you were able to figure out something that was actually very complicated.

If you get to a certain height for instance and put a portal beneath you, with a second portal in the distance which happens to be at a 45 degree angle then when you fall into the portal, it will launch you in the air on the other side of the room. This might not make sense, but this is probably one of the simplest tricks you have to learn how to use in order to continue through the game. Along the way there are buttons, holo-bridges, mini turret robots and different liquids that let you bounce, speed up and more. All you need to know is nothing is there on accident, everything has a purpose. Including the little blocks that really do help.

It's extremely well thought out and makes the puzzle solving enjoyable without being too easy yet not frustrating either - a hard line to manage and one that Portal 2 successfully pulls off. However, my problem is that it actually relies too heavily on the puzzle solving and, as a full game, I thought it fell rather short of delivering a fully packaged experience.

Firstly, the plot carries on from the first Portal (I think) and so everything that was once bright, white and shiny has been slightly ruined. Stephen Merchant plays the robot helping you out and provides the laughs, but in a sense his voice is so unique that you can't help but think of his face rather than the robot. At the same time, his voice acting, especially near the end is laughable for different reasons and even though it's meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek in his very self-aware way, it takes away from the immersive experience of the game. The graphics are also somewhat dated and it just feels like a PC game from about 5 years ago. The sound is almost awful at times, often a signature riff is heard when you're doing different things to do with the puzzle but  it sounded cheap and farcical. The plot of merely trying to escape is simple enough, but you'd rather just solve the puzzles and Portal 2 knows this. So it does have a story, but it's always trying to move you on to the next puzzle, which is probably a good thing.

I enjoyed this game, but thought that so much time had been spent developing the puzzles that by adding a nice, whole story they thought they could sell it as a full game when I thought it was rather short. The co-op was something I dabbled with, and would work well if with the right person but I can imagine it could get very frustrating very fast. Overall, the puzzle element was amazing and well worth it, but as a gaming experience I'd rather there just be a whole load of levels as I really wasn't bothered about the story. Great, simple and a whole lot of fun but it's not one of the best games I've ever played - I enjoyed it as much as I enjoy sitting down with a book of sudokus - which might give me a whole heap of satisfaction but doesn't necessarily make it one of my favourite books.

Great fun, but smash it out over a few days and move on.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, 20 May 2011

NEWS: First Look At Tom Hardy As Bane In Dark Knight Rises

Here it is! The first look at the absolutely huge Tom Hardy as Bane. If you thought he was big in Bronson, this shows that the man can really bulk up

Sunday, 15 May 2011

REVIEW: Wild Beasts - Smother

After one of my favourite albums of all time, the Mercury nominated Two Dancers, Wild Beasts return with their third highly-anticipated album Smother. Is it the big spectacle we were expecting? Well, not quite.

Firstly, it somehow feels more personal with Hayden Thorpe taking over most of the vocal duties in a more softer, genteel approach than what people might be more used to. This isn't a Summer album, instead it feels like you're in a snowy lonely cabin reminiscing of better times and that girl who caught your eye. The melancholy seeps through like happy gas leaving you in a meditative, self-aware state that is hard to put down in words.

Album opener Lion's Share sets the scene for the more clean, open, honest and remarkably different sound from Wild Beasts that steps away from those lingering distorted guitars, to a more progressive sound that isn't as instantly fetching. This isn't to say it's not as good as Two Dancers, it's just different. Bed of Nails has a Talk Talk inspired backdrop that uses a lot of toms and continues the rather subtle emotion and repressed anxiety that Wild Beasts have directed their sound towards. It's in Deeper that we see the full beauty of why they have chosen this. I couldn't help but think this reminded me of when Tears For Fears took a similar direction with Songs From The Big Chair, a very strange comparison perhaps but slightly apt. It's longing, without the signature reverb, makes you feel like you're in the room with them, that they are speaking directly to you, and feels that perhaps it's slightly under-produced, something that only a great producer can achieve.

This means that this is one hell of an atmospheric record, something not to listen to lightly and has a deep, raw tranquillity that a song like Loop The Loop pulls up from the bottom of the soul to make a rather light, easy on the ears result that might be a bit too bongo heavy (which can be said for the whole record really), but leaves me in a strange mood that I can't quite put my finger on. It could be perhaps the rather direct lyrics of pain, passion, beauty, death and a lot of sex - this is Wild Beasts after all. Plaything symbolises the sexual element in more blatant terms but it's boiled down appreciation for the sound of music is unparalleled. Fleming takes over in Invisible and I'd have to say, I find him a lot more impressive than Thorpe, not because of talent, or because he sounds like a crying Tom Smith or Morrissey, but it has an almost operatic quality that Thorpe's slightly emotive whining Antony Hegarty sound can sometimes lack. However, Invisible is a bit of a 'skipper' and it's when next track, and released single, Albatross comes up that you realise that this isn't an album of singles, perhaps like Two Dancers, but an album that must be listened to as a whole. Invisible was a pre-cursor to Albatross and so on and so forth. It requires dedication, not that it's hard work, but it's something that deserves respect and attention, which you can't really say about much other music out there.

Reach A Bit Further returns to that Eighties New Wave drum sound and has a chorus that I can't help but well up for. People forget that the vocal melodies Wild Beasts are able to pull off are exquisite and pulls me in with a love for this album that at a first listen, I never would have thought about. It certainly grows on you and I've found myself looking forward to playing this album on my commute, of being transported to this world that Wild Beasts have created. It might be the My Bloody Valentine sound of next track Burning that gets me going, I just can't help but feel they have taken bits from a lot of bands that I have always loved and made a literal work of art. End Come Too Soon is a rather spot-on title, it's a slow burner that builds up much like a Sigur Ros track that might teeter on a dirge, but for a song that lasts 7 minutes, it feels like it runs away rather quickly and leaving us somewhat ungratified.

People forget that Wild Beasts are perfect songwriters, every single note is accounted for, meticulously sweated over for hours and yet sounds so effortlessly pleasing. They lead the way for not only musicians in the UK but also the world in what real music is about - their brave talented ballsy music isn't made for anyone but themselves, which is the way it should be. They clearly feel very strongly about their music and what might be something very different from Two Dancers but still so beautiful in a different way, shows just what these boys can do.

The only problems I had is that even though this is a different kettle of fish than Two Dancers, I am more than likely to return to their previous album than I am this. It's an incredible album from one of our best bands, but for people to give it full marks might be too over-zealous, after all I think this is a band that I wish to develop, grow and get better and I don't want to think they have peaked already. Smother is a more relaxed affair with a sombre touch but I still feel it's lacking in that hard hitting punch that an audience want, but then it's not what the audience wants that matters. I was never expecting another Two Dancers, I wasn't expecting this either, but people have to be honest and admit that this just doesn't reach the heady heights of it's predecessor but then I feel like it was never supposed to. Those who write for the top papers, magazines etc. will wet themselves over this record, but these were the guys that dismissed Two Dancers until it got a Mercury nomination, the same people who listened to it going 'Isn't that the Santander advert?', the same people that think it's cool to love a band like this. They should be honest and say that this album isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea but thank God it's mine, and I don't want another Two Dancers, but I just hope their next offering goes in another direction as well because I think they've got Smother's sound covered.

Rating: 8/10