nowListening: California by blink-182

All lyrics and music by blink-182, not me. Clearly.

Growing up, my mom was a big fan of heavy metal and grunge rock, while my dad mostly listened to country. I think there’s a degree to which we inherit tastes from our parents—like most things—so for a long time I listened to what they listened to. I didn’t strike out on my own into the musical world until I was 11 or 12. I could write countless pages about the countless hours I spent with a Walkman or a radio, mostly listening for something I recognized, until I started to recognize new songs, things I hadn’t inherited from anyone else. This was somewhere around 15 years ago now, but one thing I remember vividly is that my first actual favorite band ended up being blink-182.

I don’t remember the first time I heard them, or probably any of the earliest times. I know I heard of them long before I heard them; one day in 6th grade a lot of my classmates were giggling and making a general hullabaloo about the whole nudity thing. What ended up sticking with me was their music. I remember how catchy “What’s My Age Again?” was, and how I always listened to it on low volume or with headphones, because I knew my parents wouldn’t like the lyrics. I remember falling in love with their more serious-ish songs like “Dammit” and “Adam’s Song,” more catchy tunes with “The Rock Show” and “All the Small Things,” and mostly I remember how “Stay Together for the Kids” immediately became one of my favorite songs of all time.

Despite all this, I didn’t own any of their albums until I was in high school, when a friend burned me a copy of their untitled album. I knew “Feeling This” and “I Miss You” from the radio, and eventually I’d fall in love with the album as a whole. If I had to pick an album that was the most important to me in the formative years of my musical tastes, this would be it.

It didn’t take long before the infamous hiatus, and while I enjoyed both Angels & Airwaves and +44, none of their work meant as much to me as untitled did. Needless to say I was thrilled when the band reunited, and I love Neighborhoods for what it is. The second split didn’t hurt as badly, especially since it didn’t take long at all for the band to start playing shows with Matt Skiba in place of Tom DeLonge. I was never a huge fan of Alkaline Trio, though I did enjoy quite a few of their songs, but I’ve always loved Skiba’s voice, so this was exciting. It all paid off for me when the band released “Bored to Death.”

I pre-ordered California as soon as I was able to, and I’ve played little else since putting it on my iPod.

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“Cynical” works as a fun opener, with Mark Hoppus dropping the band’s classic angst-ridden lyrics before being interrupted by Travis Barker’s famous drumming; the man is easily one of the best drummers of all time. Following is about a minute of (literally) unapologetic pop-punk, as Matt Skiba furiously belts out “What’s the point of saying sorry now? Not sorry, not sorry, not sorry, I’m not sorry.”

“Bored to Death” was a fantastic way to introduce the band’s new sound, with Skiba and Hoppus trading off verses and choruses.

Save your breath, I’m nearly
Bored to death and fading fast.
Life is too short to last long.
Back on Earth, I’m broken
Lost and cold and fading fast.
Life is too short to last long.

—blink-182, “Bored to Death”

Hoppus takes over for a cleverly worded bridge, and then Travis Barker drives the song home. By now it’s clear that Matt Skiba is a good fit for the band. His voice doesn’t contrast with Hoppus’s as much as Tom DeLonge’s does, but his guitarwork is right at home for blink-182.

Track three, “She’s Out of Her Mind” is another piece of classic pop-punk, with a catchy pre-chorus declaring “She’s a-a-a-antisocial, a-a-a-she’s an angel.” In the second verse, Matt Skiba proves he can provide a more classic blink-sounding flat vocal style as well as his louder, more melodious singing. After this is “Los Angeles,” easily the darkest song on the album. Barker brings his hip-hop drum style while Mark Hoppus and Matt Skiba set each other up for vocals, tossing the song’s lines back and forth until Skiba takes over, leaving Hoppus to tunefully shout out some “ohs” that hit a spot most instruments wouldn’t do justice.

“Sober” provides an interesting contrast to “Los Angeles,” being far more light-hearted and playful. It’s catchy as hell, with a thick chorus of vocals shouting out some of the words to the pre-chorus sections. “I can do bad, and you can do better” is a good example of the kind of fun, simple, yet clever lines found throughout the record.

All 15 seconds of “Built This Pool” were released well before the album. It’s a joke song, and if I had to pick one track to cut, it would be this one. It’s cute and classic blink humor, but it’s the kind of thing that probably made a lot more sense in the studio than out, and for some reason just sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s that it’s the only track that doesn’t feature vocals from both singers, or just that the tone is off; it’s more of a joke than “Sober” and far too casual for the next track, “No Future.”

Speaking of: This one is fun. Barker’s drumming is on point, and while some of the lyrics are sort of mashed into their rhythm, this song has the perfect balance of playful and serious. The random bass note before the first chorus always catches my ear, and Skiba’s verse is insanely good; it’s not the best writing ever, but he pours his soul into singing these lines.

She said that it’s too late to try,
Someday I’ll smile and say goodbye.
Every night that you fight every demon in sight,
Sleeping on the floor.
Wide awake from the dream with a shake and a scream,
Hope for so much more.

—blink-182, “No Future”

The song leads well into California‘s major ballad, “Home is Such a Lonely Place.” I’m a sucker for ballads, and this is a good one. Its surprisingly simple lyrics get the job done without trying too hard, with lines like “I hold on tight, but not enough to hold you back” and “Wish I could slow down time, but not enough to slow you down” reflecting the desire to keep someone close forever, but realizing they need their own space to grow and move.

“Kings of the Weekend” is probably my least favorite song on the album. I just don’t care for the lyrics, though musically it’s solid, in particular the riffs following each chorus. “Teenage Satellites” is one of the bigger-sounding songs, with the now-classic blink space theme going on. Hoppus smoothly cruises through the first verse and provides sturdy backing vocals throughout, while Skiba dominates the choruses and owns the second verse. I absolutely adore his voice, especially when he’s crooning lines like “Then you kissed me like a storm at sea / Like I’m the only one you’ll ever need.”

After this is “Left Alone,” which starts with more spacey-sounding keys before being taken over by a flowing, melodic guitar section and Barker’s intense drumming. This quickly became one of my favorite songs in blink history, let alone on this record. Hoppus and Skiba split the song 50-50 vocally, trading off lines of each verse. The pre-chorus finds Mark Hoppus frantically asking “Can you remember the last time” followed by a hardly-there Matt Skiba contributing a memory, and the whole thing comes off as a bittersweet mixture of fondness and frustration, boiling down to a simple question: “Are we halfway gone, or halfway there?”

Then the chorus explodes, with Matt Skiba belting out some of the heaviest, loudest, most intense singing I’ve ever heard from him. It sounds like nothing the band has done, yet an entirely natural progression from their untitled and Neighborhoods eras. Lines like “Break me down, I’m not afraid of you” become album highlights.

“Rabbit Hole” was the second full song released, and is much faster  than “Bored to Death.” It’s a fun tune, with Skiba’s verse lyrically playing with Hoppus’s, a simple and catchy chorus of “I won’t fall down the fucking rabbit hole,” and a great vocal chorus for the outro.

“San Diego” tones things down, beginning slowly with Mark Hoppus reminiscing, clearly about the band’s past. Oddly enough, Matt Skiba sings a majority of the song, but his voice fits the tone perfectly, keeping the song from sounding bitter or too serious. The bridge is one of the best moments on the record, and I’d be interested to know who wrote it, as it’s one of two moments on the whole album that sound more at home with Alkaline Trio than blink-182 (and I don’t mean this in a bad way).

I never needed to hear
All of the pain and the fear
Your secrets filled up my ears like the ocean blue.
I never wanted to know
How deep these cuts on you go
And like a river they flow to the ocean blue.

—blink-182, “San Diego”

“The Only Thing That Matters” is one of the fastest songs on the album, and among the most playful. It’s classic blink through and through, except the second verse, which is the second moment that, to me, smacks of Alkaline Trio, but with the casualness of blink-182.

“California” closes the album as the last full song. Matt Skiba is mostly in the background for this one, which is a softer, ballad-y tune covering the ups and downs of modern day California. It’s one that hits close to home for me, because I was born there, lived there for years, and visited several times. Barker’s drumming is clever as ever, but quiet, along with Skiba’s guitars, letting Mark Hoppus’s vocals take control of the tune.

Two little kids out on the lawn,
Once we had love, now it’s gone
Good things haven’t happened yet
I’m empty as a movie set,
It’s what I’ve always wanted.

—blink-182, “California”

The song slowly escalates toward the final chorus, where the trio play and sing their hearts out, bringing the album to a fitting close, if you don’t count the next joke song, “Brohemian Rhapsody,” which would’ve been better off as a hidden track. After the first listen, there isn’t much worth going back for, except maybe Skiba’s epic lead guitarwork.

California is a good record for introducing the band’s new sound. It’s not going to oust the untitled album as my favorite, but there are some unforgettable tracks here. Good luck getting me to ever shut up about how much I love “Left Alone.” It’ll be interesting to see where the band goes from here—these three re-inventing themselves with a more serious sound à la the untitled record would be a welcome direction, and it might be fun to see the band move on as a four-piece with Tom DeLonge back in the mix, if even just for a song or two. Whatever the case, this band has a lot of history, for me and in general, and I’m excited to hear what happens next.

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nowReading: The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard to assign a star rating to this one. On one hand, “it was amazing” is an understatement. On the other, “I liked it” is accurate.

The Dispossessed features sprawling moments of brilliance, pure genius word after word, big ideas delivered one after another. The book doesn’t preach; the characters and even some of the ideas are wrong or don’t pan out at times, it’s as critical of itself as everything it else it criticizes, which is quite a lot. It’s easy to say some of my favorite quotes going forward will have been discovered here. My mind was blown again and again.

It’s not a philosophy book but a work of fiction, and Le Guin has, as always, done a good job keeping the story in front of its moral. As far as her Hain books go, however, this one isn’t all that physically exciting. The page-turning comes from a yearning to take in all of the ideas happening, while the actions of the characters are sometimes downright boring. There are (in my copy at least) an unfortunate amount of typos, and certain areas where the writing itself feels like a rough draft. Some things read more as a summary of events than actual events, there are a lot of lists given, and the chapters are too long for their own good. The decision to split each chapter between past and present is smart, but the chapters are so long it can be difficult to remember where the last time frame left off. Shorter chapters would’ve been easily accomplished without breaking the pattern. Too often things are explained as soon as or even right after they’re relevant to a conversation or action; Chekhov’s gun kept firing before it was hung on the wall or, sometimes, even assembled. More things are placed exactly as they should be than not, but the ones that weren’t are noticeable.

It’s a long read, and sometimes a hard one. There’s a lot to take in. Lots of philosophy, lots of symbolism (the last line blew me away). Less physical action yet more lore than any other Ekumen book, it’s possibly the most important in the series, as well as being an important work of American literature.

It’s amazing. I love the book, even if I only like the story.

View all my reviews

nowPlaying: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer/reviewer at cubed3.com. The reviews I post here on my blog are original and don’t necessarily reflect the views of that site.

Screenshots were taken by me, using the 3DS software and Nintendo’s Miiverse connectivity. All content in them is obviously Nintendo’s, not mine.

Allow me to play the Song of Time and take you a little way back along my timeline.

When I was a little kid, sometimes I would sit and watch my uncle play an old game on his NES, The Legend of Zelda. Try as he might, he just couldn’t find the entrance to the 7th dungeon. I tried to help in whatever way I could, which, looking back, probably wasn’t much. This was before the internet, before walkthroughs and GameFAQs and what have you. I don’t think we ever found that dungeon. Not back then, anyway.

Flash forward a few years. I have an NES (and even a Super Nintendo!) of my own. Nintendo has recently released their brand-new system, the Nintendo 64. While at the grocery store with my parents, I found a Nintendo kiosk with a playable game called The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. I remember thinking “Hey, they made a third Zelda!” (Much later I would come to learn this was actually the latest in a whole series of them.) I tried to play it, but I didn’t know how to work the controller, and I couldn’t get Link to jump. I thought it was strange, and I gave up and left to catch up with my family.

More time went by. I Got a Nintendo 64 for Christmas, and eventually I had my own copy of Ocarina of Time.  As far as fiction goes, there isn’t a lot in this world that I can easily say “changed my life” but this is one of them. Everything I thought I knew about video games, everything I thought I knew about fiction was turned upside down. New fields sprawled out before me, all thanks to an elf-looking kid in a green tunic.

Then came the next console game in the series, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. This time I was ready and waiting.

It was a long wait.

All the Time

I got the game, but it required a new accessory, the Expansion Pak. We couldn’t quite afford it, but the local video store did have them available for rent. So I played the game a little bit at a time, each a few weeks or months apart, until I finally got an Expansion Pak.

This game changed things as much as Ocarina did. Ocarina of Time invited me to a world I could play in. Majora’s Mask brought me to one that desperately needed saving; every NPC wandering the streets of Termina had their own fate that I could track over the course of three in-game days, a time loop that required attention and timing to get right.

The game became my favorite in the series, and still is. The series is dear to me, but no game after this one made me care so much. Sure, Midna is one of my favorite characters ever, and Wind Waker and Skyward Sword re-defined the titular Princess Zelda, but on the whole, NPCs and side quests are entirely skippable. The sense of urgency is gone, the trippy, otherworldly location of Termina remains unmatched.

While I eagerly await the next game in the series (which will hopefully arrive this year), the long-speculated Majora’s Mask 3D remake came out recently, and of course I showed up at midnight to pick up a copy.

Overall, the game has stood up to time well. Seeing these characters brought back to life is wonderful, and once again I find myself lost in that three-day time loop, struggling to help characters I know aren’t real, but boy oh boy does it feel like seeing an old friend from my childhood again.

A Band

Certain parts have been dumbed down or made easier, but they aren’t forced on you, and enough of the game has changed to keep things interesting. After all these years, the Kafei and Anju sidequest remains probably my favorite sidequest in video game history, and a certain moment toward the end, before the final boss, is as beautiful and breathtaking as it was the first time I experienced it.

Still, a certain sense of regret came from how much I already knew how to do. part of the game’s legend is in the mystery, in living each three-day cycle over and over, taking note of what happens, where, and when, until you can finally put things right. That doesn’t happen so much on subsequent playthroughs. There’s nothing to be done for it; a poster on reddit once said something to the effect of “If I could, I’d erase my memory of Breaking Bad so I could enjoy it for the first time again.” I would, too! But while I was at it, I’d throw a round of Majora’s Mask in there.

I don’t know where this series is going. I’m not even sure I know where I want it to go. But if, in the future, Nintendo decided to give Majora’s Mask a spiritual successor (the way they made A Link Between Worlds a spiritual successor to A Link to the Past), I’d welcome it. You know what they say: Whenever there is a meeting, a parting is sure to follow. However, that parting need not last forever.

nowReading: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The time has finally come. A journey of a few years, which began with me picking up a magazine lying around in the bathroom, has come to a close. Well, a rest stop, at least. I’ve finished reading The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.

(Those wondering what in the world I’m babbling about will find the answer here and here, but the short version is this book’s title caught me by surprise, roped me in, and forced me to sit down and read.)

As I do with most of my reviews, I want to get the bad out of the way before I focus on the good. What can I say? I like to end on a high note. To make a long story short, which is to do absolutely no justice to the complexity that comes from reading a novel, the book didn’t quite live up to the hype I created upon seeing its title. It reads almost like a first draft; lots of lists, lots of descriptions, things are a little sloppy. Characters will drop everything they’re doing and give their entire species’ life story, often times for no apparent reason. Other times, important things happening directly to our main character, September, are glossed over in a sentence or two. Everything is more or less there, but some things feel like they’re in the wrong order, or given the wrong priority. There were also a few typos, and things appearing out of nowhere that probably should’ve been mentioned sooner than they happen.

Another issue I had was in how convenient certain things were. It was like September was never in any sort of danger or peril—a magical person or item would always bail her out at the last second. The real danger of the story, and one that threatens all of Fairyland, isn’t made present until over halfway through the book. In the end it becomes clear why this was intentional, but I’m not convinced it was always justified.

This leads to the main issue I had with it: The first half to two-thirds of the story are a little boring. It reads like a history of Fairyland and Fairyland-Below, but not so much like a story about a girl who has just been spirited away to the underworld of a fantasy dreamscape.

When it does finally pick up, it’s relentless! I couldn’t put it down, I read the last third or so of the book in two sittings, stopping only to sleep. That last bit is as wonderful and magical and heartwrenching as the majority of the first book was.

This leads me to my last comment: It’s worth it, and not just for the third act. Even when giving off random lists or colorful descriptions of things that don’t really matter, there’s so much heart and spirit in the writing. Characters’ histories are interesting and wonderful, even if they’re not immediately important to the story. I wonder if this would have been better as a novella, and if it were accompanied by an actual history book regarding Fairyland, I would pick that up in a heartbeat. But again, to make a long story short: Even when it’s bad, it’s good.

I also found a lot of joy in reading the book’s two afterwords, and, if I might be so bold (and I might; this is my blog and I’ll do what I want!) I would say they are as important to aspiring writers as Stephen King’s On Writing and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. They’re not as much about the how of writing but do a fantastic job detailing the why, and as far as I’m concerned, they’re required reading for anyone who takes writing seriously.

On the whole, it’s a good book, even if it could’ve used a little more polish.

On to the next one!

nowPlaying: Alien: Isolation

Full disclosure: I’m a staff writer at Cubed3. The reviews I post here on my blog don’t reflect the opinions of Cubed3 and are written on my own time.

All pictures taken by me using the PS4’s share features.

The horror genre is very close to me, and nothing has ever scared me as deeply or profoundly as the titular creatures from the Alien franchise.

I couldn’t tell you when the first time I saw Alien was, but I know it was a long time ago. I’m sure I watched it with my parents, and most likely, my dad had me cover my eyes every time the alien appeared. (Looking back, I wonder if I imagined things far worse than what appears in the movie. More likely, this is the one series that I couldn’t.)

H. R. Giger’s iconic aliens have a beauty and an aesthetic that remains unmatched. No reboot or redesign has ever been needed (or, as far as I know, so much as wanted); the aliens are as ethereal and frightening today as they were when they were first brought to life by designer H. R. Giger, writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, director Ridley Scott, and actor Bolaji Badejo. Nothing has ever starred in more of my nightmares, and those are always the worst; I’ve had dreams where the creatures are only mentioned and they’ve caused me to wake up sweating and afraid.

As connected as I was to the films growing up, I never really played any of the games. As a big fan of Borderlands, I was excited to hear that Gearbox Software would be making a video game set in the Alien world: Aliens: Colonial Marines. Then the game actually came out, along with a firestorm of controversy, finger-pointing, and disappointed gamers.

I eventually rented the game after a few patches and updates had dropped, and it was more or less playable. While a few parts were fun in their own right, it wasn’t exactly the Alien experience I was hoping for.

Along came Alien: Isolation. Sega took a big risk in even planning another Alien game so soon after the disaster of Colonial Marines, but it’s one that paid off. Just by looking at the game, you can tell it’s something special.

Alien: Isolation

The game looks like something right out of the movie. Just about everything aboard Sevastopol is faithfully recreated, from the clunky, 70’s-inspired vision of future technology to the oddly invasive manual input, like huge levers and parts of the ship that have to be physically cut away to gain access to certain areas.

The concept of the game is an immediate winner for me: Set on a space station called Sevastopol, Alien: Isolation ditches the more action-oriented concepts behind the previous game in favor of the more subtle horror the first film had.

I was so excited to get into this game, but playing in a dark room with headphones was almost too much. Here was the creature from my nightmares, presented to me in an interactive format like never before. At times I found myself hiding just to catch my breath, afraid to move like when I first played Outlast. In some ways, Alien: Isolation almost feels like an Alien mod for that game.

And, as much as I loved the game at first, things quickly went south. By the fifth mission, I was getting tired of rushing from locker to locker, wasting most of the game just hiding. It seemed like as soon as I lost the alien, it was right on my tail again, and I could spend an hour just traversing a hallway.

Alien: Isolation
Not to mention dying again and again. And again.

The game’s fifth mission almost sank the ship. Taking place in Sevastopol’s medical bay, which is a huge, multi-room area, it seemed absurd that the alien would follow me from chamber to chamber, hallway to hallway, supposedly unsure I was there but somehow miraculously always within a few yards of me. The motion tracker seemed like it was toying with me—at one point I watched the alien enter a room across from me, and I pulled it out only to see the thing tell me the alien was somewhere behind me. It was clear the game’s mechanics weren’t quite up to the task with its presentation. This culminated in nearly two hours of winding my way along this hall, only to have the alien come down from the vents overhead right as I was about to reach the door that led to the end of the mission. I quickly ducked under a table to wait for it to leave, and watched as the alien rounded a corner only to somehow spot me, despite absolutely no input on my part, and return from around the corner and kill me. And this was on easy mode!

At that point I swore I was done with the game, but I couldn’t keep myself away from it. It felt like I had come too far to just give up. It was personal now: That alien had to die. No way was it getting the best of me.

I went in with a new mindset. I decided the game was most likely not as logic-based as I was assuming, and it appears I was right. For example, the ambient noises aren’t always the alien, and even when they are, they aren’t often indicative of its position. A noise to the left doesn’t mean the alien is over there. The same was true for distant footsteps; as soon as the alien rounds a corner, there’s a good chance he’s not even there anymore. Assuming he’s prowling that same hallway is an exercise in futility, and a great invitation to spend the rest of Amanda Ripley’s life in a locker.

Alien: Isolation
Get used to this view.

 

I still died a time or two in the medical bay, but this new philosophy proved fruitful, and I made decent progress through the game. The cat-and-mouse bits still caused me anxiety, and sometimes were more annoying than they were frightening, but I was having fun again, and a lot of it.

The game changes pace once the player gets the flamethrower. No longer entirely defenseless, the alien still can’t be killed, but it can be scared off, so long as you see it before it sees you.

On the whole, this might be the most frightening video game I’ve ever played. I found myself dreading it, hoping each thing I had to do would be the last. There are very few ways for the alien to “get” you, only a few death animations, and while they’re very well done (and expertly touch on the franchise’s body horror elements) they also become repetitive. Still, I was constantly afraid of the alien, especially at times when my flamethrower ammunition was dwindling.

I had an odd determination to finish the game, akin to facing my fears. Alien: Isolation is well-crafted and gave me the perfect opportunity to do that. Xenomorphs have always been indestructible to me, especially in my nightmares, and I respect how much effort was put into this game to recreate that aspect of them.

Alien: Isolation
Oh dear.

Alien: Isolation has its flaws. Sometimes it seems like the writers had no idea where to take the story next, so they just borrowed scenarios straight from the films. I appreciate longer games, but this one has a very select few enemies and ways of dealing with them, so more diversity in mission objectives, enemies, or avoidance techniques would’ve done it justice. On the whole it was fun, terrifying, and gorgeous. Unfortunately, the ending seems like it looked great on paper, but passes by as a ten-second long cinema, and just looked weird and unfulfilling.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play this game again. I think once was enough. That weird ending did leave things wide open for a sequel, and I’m conflicted about that. I’d love to see this team expand on their ideas, but I’d prefer to see them do it with a new story instead of painfully dragging out the one they have. If nothing else, Alien: Isolation proves that there is a treasure trove of storytelling and scares to be had in this franchise, something that hasn’t been successfully tapped into in a very long time. In a lot of ways, this game is a true successor to the films, and is better than most of them. The last thing I want is for it to careen down the same path that brought us the likes of Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem and Colonial Marines.

nowReading: Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Following is my review of Still Life With Woodpecker by Tom Robbins. You can read more of my book reviews on my Goodreads page.

Line after line is clever, funny, tragic, or some insane mixture of the three. I had no idea where the story would lead me next, but I’ve seldom been so excited to find out. It’s interesting how relevant the book is over thirty years after it was first published, yet so ahead of its time in other ways.

Still Life With Woodpecker transcends the boundaries of its pages in a fashion similar to House of Leaves, where the physical appearance of the book is itself a reflection of the themes found within. This, however, is more of a comedy (though both books boast a good deal of philosophy).

I was reminded of Wes Anderson’s movies and of Arrested Development; things seem ridiculous at first glance but are actually carefully-placed, often sparks lit to ignite later fires. The ones in Still Life With Woodpecker just happen to have dynamite at their ends.

nowListening: Hope by Manchester Orchestra

Hey guys! I haven’t posted here in a while; I’ve been pretty busy with my NaNoWriMo project. I’m almost finished with that, and you can follow my progress here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/crackedthesky/novels/novel-704342/stats

In the meantime, here’s a nowListening post I’ve been meaning to get to.

In this world of streaming music, digital downloads, physical copies becoming collector’s items, and bands touring nearly nonstop to compensate, it often feels like surprises are hard to come by. Still, now and then an artist finds a new way to shake things up, if even for a moment.

One of my favorite bands, Manchester Orchestra, did just that in September, when they suddenly and immediately released a new album called Hope.

Hope is a re-imagining of their previous album, Cope. Most of the songs are now quiet, stripped-down and acoustic, but Hope still has some curveballs to throw. Lyrically, some songs are word-for-word the same, and others have kept hardly anything intact. Musically, the songs are re-arranged, sometimes transposed to other instruments, shaken up and moved around, sometimes all but unrecognizable.

Manchester Orchestra Hope

The cover art is a stark contrast to the simple black-and-white, text-only cover of Cope. At the time I criticized it, but in retrospect, it makes sense paired alongside Hope, and serves as an immediate admission that the two albums are going to be very different.

The songs appear in the same order with the same titles as on Cope, starting off with “Top Notch”. This was one of the heavier songs on Cope, but its Hope counterpart is an acoustic, palm-muted rendition of the song that sets the tone for the album to follow. The chorus, a once-shouted “All that I know, there’s no way to fix it” is instead melodically droned out, giving it a haunting, lingering vibe that carries the song to its close.

“Choose You” offers the first major lyrical diversion from Cope. In my post about that album, I mentioned this song had one of my favorite opening lines, and much to my surprise, the same rings true for Hope, even with the lyrics changed:

Cope version:

The invention of the ship was the invention of the shipwreck
I tried to find out who I was by jumping off the deck

Hope version:

The intention of your trip was to intentionally wreck
I tried to talk you off the ledge but pushed you off the deck

—Manchester Orchestra, “Choose You”

Following this is “Girl Harbor”. The Hope version is a slow, acoustic version of the song, and a bridge that was one of my favorite moments on all of Cope serves the same purpose on Hope, but with an entirely different sound. On Hope, Andy Hull reminds us that he can sing, with the accompanying music suddenly dropping to a single guitar while he belts out line after line, his voice confident and controlled as it wavers between notes.

“Girl Harbor” by Manchester Orchestra.

“The Mansion” calms things down, remaining the sort of trippy, spaced-out rock song it was on Cope. Afterward is “The Ocean” which is almost unrecognizable; the lyrics haven’t changed, but the main guitar riffs are instead rendered on a piano while Andy Hull softly sings lines that were loud and explosive on Cope.

“Every Stone” echoes “The Ocean” with a keyboard replacing the main guitar, and continues the quieter tone Hope has carried for several tracks in a row. “All That I Really Wanted” shifts the focus back to the acoustic guitar and sticks with it through much of the song, while more layers of more instruments are added as the tune carries on, making it reminiscent of something from Andy Hull’s side project, Right Away Great Captain!

“Trees” is a darker song on both albums. There’s something creepy about it, but the Hope version dials this up all the way, even in the lyrics:

Pick from the bloodline tree,
It’s green with envy.
It’s okay to lose a limb
When they get too heavy.

—Manchester Orchestra, “Trees”

Following this is “Indentions”. Probably the fastest-paced song on Hope, its main riff sounds like a palm-muted rendition of one that appears only briefly at the end of the Cope version. I always loved the riff on Cope, and I’m glad to see it come back so prominently on Hope.

“See It Again” diverges the most from its Cope counterpart. On Cope, the song is driven by heavy drum beats and palm-muted guitars during the verses while it explodes for each chorus, reflecting the frustration the narrator appears to be experiencing in the song’s lyrics. On Hope, there are no guitars or drums; there are no instruments at all. The song’s lyrics are almost entirely different, sung along to a vocal chorus, making the song into a shiver-inducing church hymn.

The album, like the one before it, closes with a song called “Cope”. This version is set to two clean electric guitars, reverberating each note and giving it a grungy, echo-y tone.

All in all, Hope is a beast of a different flavor. It’s experimental in its sound, delivery, and creation; Andy Hull said in an interview that the band had wanted to do an alternate recording of their previous album, Simple Math, but never found the time. I wouldn’t mind seeing them repeat the idea for future records, or even going back and doing the same for previous ones.

nowPlaying: The Last of Us Remastered

As previously mentioned, these nowPlaying posts are going to be rare from now on. I’m a staff writer at Cubed3, where I post news and occasional reviews. The reviews I post directly to my blog are done on my own time and don’t reflect the views of Cubed3.

This review won’t be spoiler-free. I’ll try to leave the biggest things out, but if you intend to play this game knowing next to nothing about it (as I did and heavily suggest you should), please don’t read on. The Last of Us is an experience I don’t want to rob you of. Go ahead, I won’t mind if you stop reading.

All screenshots taken by me, using the PS4’s share feature.

Growing up, I had a Sega Genesis and a Super Nintendo. I always liked the Nintendo more, but even then, part of me understood that great games can’t be confined to a single platform. This is true now more than ever.

The downside of this truth is that most people can’t afford every gaming platform available at any given time, at which point marketing takes over, with various game companies trying to sway gamers to buy their device.

The last generation of gaming found me with a Wii (I’ll always opt for Nintendo first; I need my Zelda and Super Smash). That part was easy. Picking between the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 was more difficult. The PS2 had won handily a generation before—Kingdom Hearts and Shadow of the Colossus had seen to that. The idea of a third Kingdom Hearts and another masterpiece from Team Ico sold me on the PS3, but when neither came to fruition, I sold it, eventually picking up an Xbox 360 for series like Halo and Left 4 Dead.

Toward the end of the PS3’s lifespan, a game called The Last of Us showed up on my radar. I watched a few trailers, looked into gameplay videos, read the previews; it was pretty clear that The Last of Us was always going to be the one that got away. Here, finally, was the PS3’s killer app. It definitely wasn’t too little, but it was certainly too late.

I wasn’t concerned. Pretty much everyone knew a PS4 port was imminent, and it was only a matter of waiting. So I waited, and I avoided all spoilers from the game. (This wasn’t difficult to do, and I suspect the game’s fans are a large reason for this, so to them I extend my thanks for not spoiling the game for those of us who didn’t get to play it the first time around.) Finally, Sony released The Last of Us Remastered for PS4.

Going in, I knew almost nothing about the game, other than it was a post-apocalyptic adventure/survival game. The very first cutscene made me uneasy: The game opens with a little girl, who we soon learn is the daughter of the main character, Joel. I had seen pictures, trailers, the cover of the game—this was not the same little girl I saw on those. Joel was accounted for, but his daughter, Sarah? Nowhere to be found. Not good.

Then the game’s first major roundhouse-kick-to-the-feels comes when the cutscene ends and control reverts to the player. I found myself not playing as Joel, but as Sarah. Oh boy. Sarah wakes in the middle of the night to a series of strange occurrences, all the while looking for her father.

"Oh, this is bad."
“Oh, this is bad.”

It doesn’t take long for events to careen out of control. It also doesn’t take long for the game to inspire awe. There’s an unparalleled sense of realism in the game’s opening, whether it’s wandering the house half-asleep as Sarah, or switching to Joel, carrying the wounded child through a crowd of people all pushing and shoving to escape the frenzied infected among them. The characters have a sense of weight to them, like they actually interact with the digital game world presented on the screen. Everything feels real. This is something I didn’t quite notice until I played The Last of Us. Most games are games, no matter how intuitive their controls. The Last of Us feels more like I’m using a controller to tell an actual person somewhere what to do, and he immediately does it. I wish I could explain this better.

The opening isn’t physically difficult. You really only have to keep moving forward. It’s what you can feel yourself moving toward that makes each step harder than the last, that nagging feeling that this little girl you’re trying to save is not the girl you see with Joel in all of the promotional material. And then you find out why, and the game cuts to its opening credits.

I could tell it was going to be a heavy story before I even played it, but the opening scene, which culminates in something I knew was coming, was still hard to digest. I could only imagine what else was going to happen in the game, how far it could take me, how heavy it could become. This didn’t turn me off in the slightest; I was ready to press on.

The game’s realism only gets better. Using a health pack during the tutorial resulted in an actual bandage that stayed on Joel for the rest of the playable portion. More of that realism. Characters change and develop, they interact with each other and the world around them. You craft new items to use, you get ammo (very little of it) and scavenge houses. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Somehow, I did. It felt like I scoured every inch of the game world, yet I found something like 40% of the game’s hidden collectibles by the time it was through. The world is bigger than it seems, the post-apocalypse holds many secrets.

Tess helps Ellie and Joel climb onto a platform.
Tess helps Ellie and Joel climb onto a platform.

Little by little, more game mechanics revealed themselves: Placing ladders, throwing bricks and bottles to distract enemies, sneaking, swimming, climbing, helping others climb, moving furniture; the possibilities seemed endless. A lot of work went into this game, but this is all superficial. This is just the presentation. I’ve always cared more about the story.

That same depth extends beyond the gameplay. The story unfolds little by little, characters come and go and leave their mark on the world. I was surprised to see that Joel and the girl from the cover, Ellie, get off on the wrong foot. The way wrong foot, as in she-tries-to-stab-him-and-he-can’t-wait-to-get-rid-of-her wrong foot. There’s little left to the imagination here; you know what the characters feel. You can hear it in their voices, you can see it in their eyes. You’ve probably heard plenty about what an amazing job the actors have done, but words don’t do it justice. I’ve never seen performances like this in a video game.

It was particularly weird for me because (hipster mode activate!) I was a fan of Troy Baker long before he was the main character in every video game ever, back when he was Action Bastard in Shin-Chan, back when he was Excalibur on Soul Eater. It wasn’t until he voiced the Joker in Batman: Arkham Origins that I realized he was capable of so much more than I’d heard, and even that performance pales in comparison to his role as Joel in The Last of Us. Of equal talent is Ashley Johnson, who at the time I recognized only as Gretchen from Recess, portraying Ellie.

Ellie is a character that could’ve gone so wrong. A single mistake with this character would’ve sunk the whole ship; while you play as Joel, Ellie is the character most important to the story. If she had been annoying, if she had been portrayed wrong, if she had been in any way unlikable or unbelievable, the whole game would’ve dropped to a level that could hardly be described as more than just solid. It’s only because I loved the character that the story makes sense, it’s only because I dreaded seeing the credits and knowing my time with Ellie (and thus, this story) was almost over that every victory in the game was also a defeat, that every minute of playtime was an experience I could never have again.

Ellie in the midst of a harsh scolding from Joel.
Ellie in the midst of a harsh scolding from Joel.

A talented supporting cast moves the game forward. There’s Bill, the lovable asshole who likes tripwires and talking to himself. There’s Tess, the brains to Joel’s brawn, and clearly the only reason he’s still going in this world. Marlene, the leader of the enigmatic Fireflies, is charismatic where Joel is on autopilot. There’s even Ish, a character you meet only through handwritten notes he left behind, but whom you grow to love and know and feel for when his world eventually falls apart around him.

This isn’t to say the game is perfect. The infected, while interesting, are underused. The vast majority of your enemies are uninfected people who are just so deliciously evil, you can’t help but laugh as you blow their heads off. Now and then they’ll say things that project them as real people with their own motives, but there just isn’t as much thought given to these characters. They exist to be fodder for Joel’s gun, and most of their dialogue comes across as a tacked on “feel for me, damn it!” that tries to push itself on you, whereas the rest of the game invites you into whatever emotion it’s trying to convey.

Bricks can be thrown to lure enemies away—Or strike them directly.
Bricks can be thrown to lure enemies away—Or strike them directly.

There is an exception to this rule in one of the game’s later protagonists. While what he does is cliché and easy to spot from far off, you can’t help but like the guy, almost even understand him, and that’s a kind of horror all on its own.

All of this pushes you toward an endgame that’s never quite what you think it is. The goal posts keep moving, the objective keeps changing, until the game reaches its climax.

Here I’ll split my post onto another page. If you haven’t finished the game, don’t read past here. I’m going into full spoiler mode, because a lot of things happen at the end, and I want to give my own interpretation of what they are, and welcome discussion from those who might not agree. If you’re aware of the game’s ending, feel free to continue to the next page.

nowPlaying: P.T.

I try to make my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, but there is an aspect to this game that can’t be ignored, yet I don’t want to spoil. For that reason, I’ll include the spoilery parts under a “read more” link for those who aren’t aware of what P.T. really is.

All screenshots were taken by me using the Playstation 4’s share feature.

Last week, at Sony’s Gamescom conference, they debuted a trailer for a new horror game called P.T. The playable demo for P.T. launched immediately after, available for download on the Playstation 4 store.

As it turns out, P.T. was harboring a huge secret that only took the internet about an hour to figure out, after which news broke everywhere. I went into P.T. after reading the headlines, so I knew what I was working toward. I did not, however, have any idea what I’d be working through.

P.T. Intro
The opening shot of P.T.

P.T. is a horror game. You’ve probably seen my thoughts on the horror genre in video games on this blog before (if not, I touch on them in my Outlast review here). In short, all of the horror classics have either gone on hiatus, or have shifted genres until they’re not really horror games anymore. Many indie games have come forward to fill the gap, but a lot of them are too short for their own good (and let’s be honest, a lot of them are also ripoffs of Slender).

P.T. pays homage to recent works of indie horror. Played from a first-person perspective, you wake up in a grungy basement, complete with cokcroaches. The basement has only one exit, so you take it, and find yourself in a hallway.

Immediately noticeable are the game’s stunning graphics. While the anti-aliasing is almost nonexistent and screen tearing is present at times, the lighting sets the mood. Things are perfectly reflected in the hallway’s polished floor, the lights bounce shadows down the hall as they would in real life. It looks like a real hallway.

The first hallway you find yourself in. It won't be the last time you see it.
The first hallway you find yourself in. It won’t be the last time you see it.

Walking down the hallway reveals a messy house. Food and empty beer cans litter the floors and counters, cockroaches scurry across all surfaces. Rain hits the windows from outside, a rusty hanging light groans as it swings back and forth in the foyer.

There’s a radio near the front door that blasts a news report about a father who snapped and killed his family. He’s the latest in a rash of similar events. The report is staticky but audible. When it’s done, you try the front door and the hall door. Both are locked. There’s one more door, down a set of stairs, leading to the basement. Yes, the basement you just came from.

So you try that door. You swing it open, and beyond you find the same dirty hallway, the same lights and cockroaches and rain. It’s a sight you’ll want to get used to, because every trip through that door leads back into the same hallway.

From here, the ambiance takes over. Musical cues and sound effects become just as important as the lighting. Playing with headphones is a must, and this hallway comes to life.

P.T. is a psychological adventure, so I’m not going to spoil all of the fun things that happen along the way. There are many puzzles to solve, most of them extremely difficult. This is not an understatement; the game’s creator recently said he wanted this thing to take at least a week to solve, and require teamwork from people around the world. This is evident as flashes of text in multiple languages pop up on the screen, and the events that play out are randomized—how one person solves a puzzle can be completely different from how another person solves it. If you ever played video games before internet guides existed, you might remember your friends at school swearing that if you do some quirky thing or another, something special will happen. “Stand right here, spin around three times, press A-B-A-B-X-X-Y-Y and you get the ultimate weapon!”

P.T. conjures echoes of that, with people on the internet swearing by certain events that produce no results for others who try them. The psychological creepiness of this game extends far beyond the game itself.

There’s another aspect to the horror of this game. It doesn’t take many trips through the ever-looping hallway before your character begins to be followed, and then directly haunted by an ethereal being. This creature will persist through the rest of the demo, and can get you at any time. Sometimes she’s harmless, other times she kills you, sending you back to the basement (but with all of your progress intact). Oh, and don’t make the mistake of feeling safe on the pause screen.

When this clock strikes midnight, all bets are off.
When this clock strikes midnight, all bets are off.

Atmosphere is the main source of scares in P.T., which is exactly what the horror genre needs. It can be frightening to see a horde of creatures approaching you, it can impose a sense of impending doom that makes you sweat as you try to off the nearest ones or simply run away successfully, but I think it’s more frightening if a game manages to give you that sense of impending doom without any visible cues at all. “Something’s going to get me pretty soon” is always trumped by “Something’s going to get me and I have no idea what, how, or when.” P.T.‘s essence is the latter.

Keeping with its psychological undertones, P.T. is more than it seems. Beating the game unlocks a post-game trailer that reveals all. If you want to unlock it yourself (and have somehow avoided all of the news spoiling it), you should stop reading here. Otherwise, feel free to press on to the next page.

nowPlaying: Destiny (Alpha)

The following screenshots and impressions were created during the Destiny Alpha phase, and may not reflect final game decisions. The game enters its beta phase on July 17th, 2014.

I won’t go into detail about the way the Halo franchise changed video games. I’m assuming anyone reading this who has even a passing knowledge of video game history probably noticed it. Keeping it to a minimum, Halo redefined online multiplayer, paving the way for first-person-shooters for years to come. On the campaign front, it didn’t have the most original story (which isn’t to say it had the most unoriginal story either; the game was perfectly average in that department).

Behind the first three Halo games was a studio called Bungie. Bungie wasn’t new to the video game world, and while they saw moderate success in games like Marathon and Oni, it was Halo that established the studio as one of the most prominent developers in the industry. Bungie’s work on Halo would end with a game called Halo: Reach, a prequel to the series.

Some fans of the series found the changes to Halo: Reach’s multiplayer unwelcome. I don’t hate it, but it’s a different experience from Halo 3. With that said, Reach is my favorite game in the series for its campaign. Creating my own Spartan made the story a lot more personal, and the emotional impact of the game is present from the beginning: The first Halo game begins with the human race becoming nearly extinct. Halo: Reach takes place before that. You know from the gate it isn’t going to end well, yet every comrade who falls along the way takes its toll on you as a player, until that final moment when you provide cover fire so the humans, along with one Master Chief, can escape Reach. A post-credits scene puts you in control of your Spartan one last time, and ends only when your health is depleted and you’re overcome by enemy forces.

I found Halo: Reach impressive in terms of graphics and story, with a solid multiplayer component as its backbone. After Reach, Bungie could’ve done a lot of things. For a long time, fans of the studio waited to see what they would come up with next. After a few years of little to go on besides industry leaks, Bungie’s next game was revealed in 2013: Destiny.

For a lot of us, having Bungie behind the game is the only hype we need. Others aren’t so easily convinced, and early screenshots and videos showed what almost looks like a Halo skin for Borderlands. That in itself isn’t a terrible premise for a game, but compared to Halo, it was hard to see Destiny as an industry-changing juggernaut.

That changed during E3 2014, when Bungie unveiled a pre-release Alpha phase, inviting PS4 owners to play a small part of the game before the upcoming Beta phase. Anyone with a PS4 could sign up, and I made sure I was among them.

“It’s just a game,” I thought over and over again in the days before I received my invite via email. On the one hand, what if it sucked? If the game were terrible, it would easily become the biggest flop in video game history.

But what if Bungie really could pull another Halo?

Sometimes a work of art is more than its medium. Some movies are more than movies, some paintings are more than paintings, some songs are more than songs. The same can be said for video games: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Shadow of the Colossus, and Half-Life 2 come to mind. Halo was close; if not for the lackluster story that seemed tacked-on in comparison to the multiplayer element, it would be there. (Halo: Reach had the opposite problem: A fantastic campaign with a multiplayer element that wasn’t quite up to snuff compared to its predecessors.)

The pre-release information on Destiny sure made this seem possible. Bungie promised a world in which single-player and multi-player aren’t two incompatible selections on a main menu, but a perfectly blended media through which an epic work of science fiction would be told. But promises are wind; I was told I could step on a flower in Fable and it would butterfly-effect my entire game, I was told I could approach anyone in Skyrim and ask them to go on a quest with me. Neither ended up being true, and those things seem easy compared to what Bungie had promised with Destiny.

I signed in. I created a character. I wished there were more customization options; it seemed like I had a choice between five or six faces and maybe ten hairstyles I was willing to use. The only customizable part of your Guardian is their head. You can pick a gender and one of three species, and change those parts of the head I mentioned, but it’s all but in vain: Your character will almost always be wearing a helmet. Some customization in terms of body size and proportions would’ve added to the immersion. But this is all superficial, a tiny part of the game.

The Destiny Alpha threw me right into the story, on what I surmise is chapter 3. Out of how many, who knows. I was dropped into a map many times larger than the largest Halo map, my Ghost (a robotic companion voiced by Peter Dinklage) gave me a few clues on what to do, and then I was on my own.

The game's layout and style will be immediately familiar to fans of Halo.
The game’s layout and style will be immediately familiar to fans of Halo.

Well, not quite. Two other people were dropped into the world right next to me. The three of us set off, unfortunately in different directions. This is likely to become one of the biggest criticisms of the game, I think. Much of the game revolves around the idea of forming teams of three players, but unless you’re playing with friends or get matched with people willing to cooperate, you might as well be playing alone.

Not that playing alone detracts from the game. It certainly didn’t for me. It was always interesting to be exploring on my own and run across another person (or several) who were engaged in a fierce battle, drop what I was doing and help out, and then go on my way. It’s also nice when you’re in a pinch, expecting to be taken out any second, and then three or four Guardians show up out of nowhere and turn the tide of battle.

Exploration was fun. There are always things to do, whether it’s fight enemies, collect items from the environment (there was only one type of collectible I noticed, I’m hoping there are more in the final build of the game), or just summon your vehicle (which could use a more specific name, in my opinion) and ride around the terrain.

This story mission offers only a peek into what’s going on: There are two factions of aliens fighting each other and you. As a Guardian, your job is to defend the last living humans.

The story has a lot of potential, and Bungie appears to have circumvented one of the biggest problems you’ll find in gaming. When a game mixes single-player and multi-player elements, it’s difficult for any player to feel special. There are games like those from Bethesda, where your character is special and no other human-controlled player ever enters your game. There are others like Pokemon, where your character is special and you can play with others only in a select mode in which they’re little more than passing strangers, a step above NPCs. Then there are games where you play with as many people as you want and nobody is special, or NPCs refer to you as though you are when you’re really not; there are a thousand other “chosen ones” running around next to you.

In Destiny, there isn’t just one Guardian. There are many of them, so the presence of other players makes sense. When you enter an area that would make your character unique, the game un-loads other players. They see cinemas and events on their screen, but they don’t see you, and vice versa. This makes you feel like you’re not alone in the world, but that your character is actually a person experiencing things other people aren’t. It’s very interesting, and I’m excited to see just how crazy the story gets.

The game itself is immediately familiar to anyone who has played Halo. That “Borderlands with a Halo skin” analogy works to an extent, but only insomuch as the game’s controls. I never felt like I was playing Halo or Borderlands; it was clear I was playing something new.

Something else stood out from the beginning, this one negative. It’s almost hard for me to type this, but Peter Dinklage’s voice acting is… sub-par. It’s actually shocking. I love the guy on Game of Thrones, and I know he can voice act, so I don’t know what’s going on. I keep hoping there’s some logical reason behind how bored he sounds (he is, after all, playing a robot; but there’s monotone robotic voice, and then there’s actor-is-half-asleep voice, and Destiny very abrasively has the latter). There are a few possibilities. I was dropped into the game on chapter three, so maybe the beginning offers some kind of explanation for the droning, unexcited tones Ghost speaks in. It’s also the Alpha build, and the playable part of the game was shown over a year ago, so it could also be a sort of rough draft. There is also the possibility that Dinklage, his voice director, or some combination of people involved just plain dropped the ball. In the end it’s no dealbreaker, but I was very excited to play through an entire game with Dinklage’s inimitable voice accompanying me, and the Alpha defeated much of that excitement.

UPDATE: After playing the Beta, it’s clear that the Alpha included a very rough version of Ghost’s voice. The Beta includes re-recorded and enhanced vocal effects to give ghost a more mechanical sound. The flat audio from the Alpha appears to have been a deliberate choice after all, and the end result is much better. I’ve left my original complaints in the article to reflect my reaction to the Alpha, but the Beta has very much cleared all of my doubts about this part of the game. Props to Bungie and Peter Dinklage; I love the character already.

Once the story mission was finished, I was taken to an overworld menu. Here it’s clear what Bungie is doing in terms of gameplay. You select a planet, then a part of a planet, and then you’re given three choices in missions: Story, Explore, and Strike. Story missions progress the main story behind the game. Exploration drops you into the area and lets you roam, but it’s also full of little blinking boxes that, when found and activated, give you sub-missions, such as defeating a certain type of enemy, scouting an area, or finding supplies. Strike missions are sort of a mix between the two, and require teams of three to complete a more linear series of goals.

Aside from those three modes is The Crucible, which is the player-vs-player mode. This will again be familiar to fans of Halo: Two teams compete in deathmatch, capture-the-flag, or various other modes.

The Crucible loading screen. Each ship represents a different player on the same team, and while they all appear the same in this screenshot, your ship is customizable and will appear so on such screens.
The Crucible loading screen. Each ship represents a different player on the same team, and while they all appear the same in this screenshot, your ship is customizable and will appear so on such screens.

Where it differs from Halo (and just about every other FPS) is that it doesn’t take your things away. You aren’t given a carbon-copied mannequin to play as; you get your Guardian, complete with their armor, weapons, special abilities, everything.

This is a concept I’m sure every FPS player has thought about, and one that usually looks better on paper. After all, when you have a game as customizable as Destiny, where each player has different weapons, armor, and abilities, how do you create a fair fight?

I can’t answer that, but somehow, Bungie pulled it off. I never felt like I was being overpowered or that I was dominating; almost every match came down to the wire. Neither team was ever far ahead of the other, victory was never squarely in my grasp. The matches were fast-paced and fun. Since I was never sure I was going to win or lose, I found myself not even caring, and just playing the game. I don’t know of any other game that does that for me. And this is just one PVP mode; there are a handful, but only one was available during the Alpha.

A standard PVP results screen.
A standard PVP results screen.

There’s also the Tower, which is the hub of humanity. To my surprise, when you enter the Tower, the game switches to third-person mode. This is the only area (in the Alpha, at least) in which your character doesn’t wear their helmet.

The tower, with my character sans helmet in the foreground.
The tower, with my character sans helmet in the foreground.

The Tower is full of NPCs that run shops, give missions, manage items, and deliver mail. It’s an interesting area, though the third-person controls are a little rusty (think Fallout 3 as compared to Skyrim), and I couldn’t shake the feeling that the Tower is, essentially, a main menu that makes you walk to each selection.

On the flip side of that, other players popped in and out of the Tower, and a few emotions were available, such as waving and dancing. This led to a lot of humorous shenanigans between players, and makes the Tower a worthy addition to the game. At one point I found a guy sitting on the edge of a skyscraper looking out at the Traveler, that iconic gigantic white orb at the core of Destiny’s story. I sat my character next to him, and a third guy joined us. After a little sightseeing, the three of us stood and danced for a while, after which the two of them jumped to their in-game deaths. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard at something in a video game.

Enjoying a night at the Tower.
Enjoying a night at the Tower.

 

Also, dancing.
Also, dancing.

It’s that inter-personal connectivity that makes Destiny what it is. You’re playing alone and with others at the same time. It’s easy to see why the game took so long to complete; everything just works. Playing the Alpha was everything I thought it would be: It’s like when you’re younger and you have all of these awesome ideas for a video game, and as you get older you realize how impossible it all was, how so many different nuances and elements couldn’t possibly work together. Destiny has the potential to be that game you always wanted to make, and Bungie made it work together. I don’t know how, I don’t want to know. I’ve never played a game like this, and I can’t wait to see the finished product, and what the projected sequels have to offer.

The Destiny beta begins on July 17th for Sony consoles. I play on PS4, where my username is crackedthesky. Feel free to add me and play along in the beta.