Remember the Titans


The two biggest games of the first quarter of the year, Titanfall and Dark Souls II, came out on the same day, but that’s about all they have in common. The latter is a punishing, largely singleplayer quest that pits you against crushing challenges that are so intense, they create almost as Stockholm syndrome-esque sense of joy when they are overcome. Titanfall, on the other hand, is multiplayer-only and it just wants you to feel awesome as often as possible. That’s kind of a refreshing change of pace in this day and age.

The modern online multiplayer FPS is all about progression; whether it’s gun upgrades and perks in Call of Duty or cooler looking armor in Halo, you’re always playing for more than just winning the match. Titanfall has that aspect to it too, but it’s extremely scaled back compared to those games. There aren’t too many weapons, attachments, and perks to unlock. A battle in this game isn’t a means to an end, at least not that end. No, here you’re playing for the pure satisfaction of all the cool things you can do right off that bat – like drop a giant mech on someone’s head from space.

Like so many next gen experiences, Titanfall‘s about the asymmetry. You play as a pilot and will spend your time split between running around on foot and within your titan, the massive mech that is your one and only friend. As a pilot you are extremely agile, you can run on and up walls gracefully and easily. In a titan you are lumbering and slow, but capable of bursts of speed and, you know, crushing people with your feet. It’s a great, delicately balanced approach to gameplay that gives you enough options to change your approach, but never feel outgunned. A pilot is capable of taking down or avoiding a titan, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that many people actually prefer letting their titan fend for itself.

AI is a bigger part of Titanfall than any other online FPS this side of Left 4 Dead. For one, when you call your titan down from space (the titanfall) you don’t have to get in it. Instead, you can tell it to follow you around or guard a specific location, which it will with gusto. This comes in handy, because although the game is just six-on-six, each map is also full of AI controlled enemies. These bots serve essentially the same function as creeps in a MOBA game; they’re fodder for you to kill to rack up points. I love this idea, as it makes the battlefield seem more chaotic and it provides something to focus on if you’re just getting dominated by the other team. Plus, they run around yelling about how great and dangerous pilots are. Like I said, this game wants you to feel good.

That carries over to pilot loadouts as well. One of the first guns you get is a smart pistol, a gun that locks onto enemies. It’s great for taking out packs of grunts, but requires a few seconds to get a bead on other players. That means anyone who takes the smart pistol is free to run around mowing down bots, but only the really skilled will be able to use it effectively against humans. Every other gun in this game feels just as carefully balanced, with enough advantages and tradeoffs that I am actively using all five pilot and titan custom loadouts when I play. There isn’t a lot to choose from, with basically just one of each type of gun and only three titan chassises, but that’s less limiting when everything seems useful.

Honestly, my biggest disappointment with Titanfall is the campaign, which is probably just because of my own unfair expectations. I didn’t know much about it going in, only that it would be part of the multiplayer and this was the long-in-development game from the a bunch of the people who brought us Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a game with a wonderful, memorable campaign. As it turns out, the campaign is little more than some multiplayer matches with contextual voiceovers. The story plays out the same way regardless of winning each match, which is the most troubling aspect of this venture. In a game that is so much about empowering the player, here I was left feeling powerless. The whole mode ended up seeming like a vestige of older game design.

Outside of the campaign, there are two team death match modes, one which gives you points for killing anything, another which only rewards pilot kills. There’s a domination mode and capture the flag for those who like objectives. And then there’s Last Titan Standing, a mode in which every player gets one titan and one life, and teams compete to destroy each others’ titans. None of it is groundbreaking, but it feels different and exciting thanks to the simple fact that there haven’t been other games that focused on man-on-machine combat. With 15 maps and the promise of future DLC, this seems like a great package for the Call of Duty crowd.

But what about the outsiders? Personally, I’ve never really, really gotten into an online competitive FPS. I dabbled in Battlefield 1942 and a few of the Halos, but never really committed to a game like a lot of people do. I’ve had a lot of fun with Titanfall over the last week, and I want to keep playing it. The matchmaking seems kind of shitty right now, but that will get fixed. Will this be the FPS that finally gets me? I hope so. If not, I’ll still be optimistic about Titanfall 2.

Rebirth Reversed

St. Vincent – St. Vincent

The new St. Vincent album is pretty great.  Though it somehow manages to be great in a pretty boring kind of way.  I guess what I mean by that is the self-titled St. Vincent isn’t really a noticeable leap forward for singer/songwriter Annie Clark, in that it mainly sees her continuing to hone the same glitched-out art-rock sound that she displayed on 2011’s Strange Mercy.  Nonetheless, I think at this point Clark is such a unique and confident performer that I’d say it’s great just to hear her doin’ her thing, even if we already have a pretty good idea of what that thing is.

I suppose the biggest difference this time around is that Annie Clark seems like she’s in a bit more of a stable headspace than she was three years ago.  We don’t get quite as many of the emotional freak-outs (lyrically or sonically) that we saw on Strange Mercy, and overall the album sounds a bit more stream-lined.  Still, this doesn’t mean the album’s vibe is at all complacent, as there’s a constant questioning of the indistinguishable line between technology and reality that seems to run through a lot of the lyrics.  Which is more than apt subject matter for a performer who appears to be cultivating the look of some sort of sci-fi supervillain.

Even with all the conceptual artsy mumbo jumbo that seems to be attaching itself to St. Vincent these days, it’s nice to see that the songs on St. Vincent are usually quite personal and deeply felt.  “Birth In Reverse” has a mundane day-in-the-life quality despite it’s stomping pop melodies, while “Prince Johnny” feels like some sort of ode to a long-lost friend.  Then there’s my favorite track, the album-closing “Severed Crossed Fingers”, which would probably come off as paranoid and uncomfortable if it wasn’t so effortlessly beautiful.

Favorite Tracks: “Birth In Reverse”, “Digital Witness”, “Severed Cross Fingers”

Morning Glory

Beck – Morning Phase

As Mildly Pleased’s resident Beck fan and someone who has gone on the record that Sea Change is one of Beck’s best albums, it’s pretty difficult to contain the glee I have for Beck’s first album in six years. I knew it was coming, I had a sense of the vibe he was going for because of all the singles that he’s put out in the interim since Modern Guilt, but I was a little concerned that Beck maybe didn’t have any more albums in him. After all, his last major release was a songbook he intends to never record.

Not that Beck hasn’t done neat things since 2008. I enjoyed his contributions to the video game Sound Shapes, particularly the song “Cities,” which I wish he would actually release as a real song. He also did that “Sound and Vision” cover thing last year, which is either awesome or extremely pretentious, I’m not quite sure. And then there are all the singles that have popped up in my Rdio feed since 2013, a few of which didn’t even make it onto Morning Phase. I liked those too. Basically, Beck’s done enough to keep people like me interested over a gap long enough that some fans probably did lose interest.

But this album rewards long-time Beck fans. The first track on Morning Phase, “Morning,” is clearly evocative of “Golden Age,” one of the simplest, and best, songs he ever recorded. There are highs and lows as the album continues, but I’ve found it a consistent source of aural entertainment for a couple weeks already. Now into his 40s, Beck’s days of rap rock are long over. Despite the title, I doubt this album is representative of Beck in any sort of a funk like he was on Sea Change – this is no phase. And that’s great, because I like what he’s doing. I just hope he keeps actually, you know, recording it and making it available.

Favorite Tracks: “Morning,” “Blue Moon,” “Waking Light”

The People’s Albums: #39 II

II by Boyz II Men seems like an album that should’ve flown completely under my radar, especially considering I was around five when it came out.  And yet I can think of three different childhood memories that were directly related to this album.  The first involves a sketch from ‘90s Nickelodeon series All That, in which a young Kenan Thompson argues with another Boyz II Men fan that II was the band’s debut (which of course it wasn’t).  The other memory also came from ‘90s sketch comedy, as I remember a certain SNL TV Funhouse sketch in which the X-Presidents all performed their own rendition of “I’ll Make Love To You”.

Then my most personal connection to this album was that my mom owned it on cassette tape.  Now, I don’t think my mom was actually into Boyz II Men, but I think she saw it at a garage sale and since we had just bought a new van that had a tape deck in the stereo, I think she figured “Ah, why not?”.  Which is really strange to think that there was a not-so-distant time where being able to listen to an album in your own car was still such a novelty that people would be willing to listen to something that they were kind of indifferent towards.  Or maybe my mom just thought this’d be the kind of thing my sister and I would enjoy.  Either way, I don’t have any recollection of actually listening to it, so how about we make up for lost time?

Album: II
Artist: Boyz II Men
Release Date: August 30, 1994
Copies Sold In The U.S.: 12 Million

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Miyazaki Month: Ponyo

Ponyo (2008)

Nothing can stop Miyazaki Month! Not even the fact that the actual month ended last Friday. I’m sad to say I don’t know when I’ll see The Wind Rises, but I can at least give you Ponyo. After years of staring at the Ponyo poster on my friend and fellow blogger Sean’s bedroom wall, in high school, I finally sat down and watched it. Why did it take me so long to watch it? Maybe the fact that it looked like a movie for babies. I mean, a movie about a cutesy fish who turns into a girl and befriends a little boy? It sounds like it’s dying to become a line of plush dolls. Fortunately, Ponyo is more than childlike whimsy (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s a film driven by poignant moments and among the most striking hand-drawn animation I’ve ever seen.

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Lego My Movie-O

The Lego Movie

It seems like the logical next step. The Lego Company had already conquered the fun-for-everyone toy market. They had already turned every franchise under the sun into somewhat positively received video games. It was time to make a movie. But man, that’s a pretty tricky next step. After all, how could you possibly make Lego, on its own, into a movie and not have it feel like a 90 minute commercial? By making the movie about attacking the core conceit behind the product.

Soon-to-be biggest movie star in the word Chris Pratt stars as Emmet, the plainest and most ordinary minifig in the whole Lego world. He’s happy living by the rules and laws set in place by President Business (Will Ferrell) until he meets Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) and accidentally finds himself on the run when he gets Piece of Resistance stuck on his back. As he learns about President Business’ nefarious plans, he also discovers that you don’t have to follow the rules as he meets up with the master builders, including Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) and Batman (Will Arnett).

That, to me, is the weirdest part of the movie. Lego’s entire business model is selling pre-packaged kits. The only reason I made original things is because I would build things, they’d break, and we’d throw the pieces into a communal Lego bin. When I went to the store to buy Legos, it was to buy specific kits, not just a collection of assorted bricks. I mean hell, look at what gets marketed, it’s always the kits. Even the video games are all about cross-marketing a franchise and Lego. People buy Lego Star Wars, not Let’s Go Build, You Know, Whatever, with Legos.

In effect, The Lego Movie is telling kids not to go buy more Lego kits, but to go home and build something new out of what they’ve already got. And that’s a really neat message for a movie like this to have – it’s kind of the same message Toy Story had. That the whole narrative is kind of invalidated by some bold, and perhaps poor, narrative choices in the last act doesn’t take away from that. And to be honest, it doesn’t invalidate how fun the rest of the movie is either.

Let me be clear, this is some fast-paced shit. Kids these days, they want a fucking ride. There is always a lot going on the screen, keeping every moment exciting and colorful and maybe a little overstimulated. I’m not really sure how much of this is stop-motion and how much is CG, but I can say the movie looks really good. I guess that’s a testament to the work done here that I can’t see the difference. The Lego Movie is action-packed and when they’re not racing, fighting, or exploding, you can bet they’re making jokes.

Probably my greatest personal joy watching The Lego Movie is its sense of humor. There are a lot of pop culture references, all of which I got, which seems kind of weird since I wouldn’t place myself exactly in the target demographic for this movie, but whatever. But there’s a lot more to the comedy than that, and I especially enjoyed the gags that pointed out the reality of the story being played out by toys. What can I say, this was the most fun I’ve had with Legos since Lego Rock Band.