Saturday, January 25, 2014

Oculus Rift: More Than Just Fun and Flirty Eyewear

Yesterday was pretty cool. I made some oven pizza, got frivolous on Amazon, and, thanks to a friend of a friend, was able to try out the new Oculus Rift. For those of you who don't know, the Oculus is basically our biggest step toward virtual reality. And dang, it'

Check out those curves. So streamlined.
You strap it on, put on headphones and grab a controller - simple (?) as that. At the moment, the Oculus is in the development stage, so there aren't many games or uses for it yet; but I assume they're coming, just like a few aesthetic and functional improvements to the device. The few demos I tried and others I watched my friends play were impressive enough to get us acquainted with the device.

The Oculus is like Six Flags, in that roller coasters are a good way to get acclimated. While my friends rode through some very simple demos, I partook in a rather complicated Mayan temple, Indiana Jones-esque ride. It was a great demonstration of how the Oculus worked: Bend over the railing to look down into the abyss, look behind you at one point to find the boulder from Raiders chasing after you, stuff like that.

Next was not only a good use of the Rift, but a solid idea for an indie game. It was a first-person four-player shooter that by yourself. Walk into the arena (a very massive box with a Mirror's Edge feel), shoot floating cubes to get points, and then do it all again. But each time after, you take the perspective of a different version of your first character, and then you play the arena while your first "self" goes through a recording of your first go. It's a nice idea, and it's one that's more fun than a usual tech demo.

Speaking of absolute tech demos, I watched a friend play through a game with one objective: sit in an office and keep both control keys pressed down on your virtual laptop. It sounds simple until the Oculus throws up the illusion of flies buzzing around your head, knives falling just next to your "arms," a spider crawling up your arm and into your head, and, uh, a raptor. It's all very sound-heavy, showing the vital importance of having a decent headset.

I saw both a horror demo and a skydiving demo, but neither was as impressive as the last demo I played: a detailed re-creation of the "DK Mountain" track from Mario Kart: Double Dash!!. I was completely taken aback when I jumped "inside" the Mushroom Kingdom. The other Oculus games were interesting, but nothing else popped like the familiar music and the distinctive designs of the track. I was happy to find there wasn't a time limit or other racers, because I had an amazing time just taking in everything around me. And listening to the music. Dancing took place.

Unfortunately, despite how fun some of the demos were, the Oculus Rift feels less like a complete console and more like the first step toward a complete experience. To reach that comprehensive idea, a few things need to happen first. First off is the screen inside the Oculus headset. The one I used was of a considerably low resolution and was easily smudged, which take the focus off the game and can even be headache inducing. Speaking of focus, the headset can be difficult to position so it's actually in focus. Again, headaches. Lastly, I think the Rift would strongly benefit from getting rid of the wires. When you're constantly turning around and moving, stuff gets tangled.

My roommate asked me if the Oculus was the future of gaming. It's not. It's a future of gaming. There's huge potential here for experimental gaming, and I'm really excited to see what happens.

But for real though, Nintendo. Let's see some Oculus Mario Kart. Get on that.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The "Things I Really Liked That Happened to Come Out In 2013" List

Happy 2014, everyone! It's a time for new beginnings, new goals, and the realization that probably nothing will be different in your life just because the calendar changed. And since that's way too much happiness for my taste, I'd like to immediately remind you of the past year's heartbreaks and regrets, with my list of things I really liked that happened to come out in 2013. Keep in mind, this is not a "Top X" list, because this is not Buzzfeed and I actually respect my readers. I also had no way to consume EVERY PIECE OF CONTENT in the past 365 days, so my list is in no way definitive.

I'm going to post these periodically, starting with the medium I have the least authority to judge and going from there. Remember, these are alphabetical order, except for the last item on the list, which is my favorite for the year.

Attack on Titan
If you're like me, you don't watch much anime. So much of it is way too out there for me to follow, and it gets just as convoluted and referential as a Rick Remender comic. Yet, I thought I'd give Attack on Titan a try, simply because I had free time once and wanted to try something new. I'm so glad I did. Even though I'm just over halfway done with Attack, I'm happy to give it a solid recommendation. It's a really cool premise that's just original enough for me not to have seen it before. It could use a bit more action, but if you're looking for an accessible anime that isn't too long and will keep your attention, you could do worse than this giant monster fighting epic. You can also watch it now for free, so that's cool too.

Breaking Bad
May it rest in peace. Breaking Bad was one of those shows where you could binge watch all five seasons or anticipate it week after week and enjoy it just the same. And this final season was...fantastic. There's no point in trying to tiptoe around spoilers when describing those last eight episodes, so if you haven't seen this show yet, do that now. Otherwise, you're missing out on one of the most masterfully crafted series in history, and definitely the best one I've ever seen.

Orange is the New Black
This one doesn't have the epic feel of the last two, but it can be just as compelling. It's a Netflix-produced and -distributed comedy/drama about the hierarchy of a women's correctional facility. I know that doesn't sound like the coolest thing ever, but it turns out to be well worth your time. This was one of the shows that crept up on me; I never thought about how much I enjoyed it until I realized I was nine episodes in. If you have some time over the holiday break, you could do much worse than Orange is the New Black.

Favorite of 2013: Arrow
The first season of Arrow was something of a guilty pleasure. It didn't have the best actors or the highest production value or the most intricate stories. But it had a good enough onscreen realizations of the DC Comics characters to keep me watching, and I'm so glad I did. Season 2 has really come into its own, and it's grown into this legitimately great series. This is the show I anticipate every week. This is the show I drop everything to watch on Wednesday nights. This is my show. So shut up already about its awful ad campaign.

Knowing your audience?
I have to say, I was a little disappointed with this year's music. Sure, plenty of it was okay, but very little of it stood out to me as truly profound stuff. Way too much of it relished in the trends of 2013, like songs that gave artist credit to arrangers rather than performers; and let's not forget all the songs that begin quietly but then ramp up with the help of a bass drum
Again, I wasn't able to listen to every single album from 2013, but apps like Spotify do much of the heavy lifting.

Lorde, Pure Heroine

Even if you're tired by now of the radio's obsession with "AND WE'LL NEVER BE ROOOOOYAAAAALS," please give this album a try. Lorde's eccentric voice is enough of a draw already, but the vulnerability and accessibility of her lyrics are really refreshing when compared to the other material pop music is pumping out. And Lorde herself just seems to not give a crap, so that's cool.

Standout song: "Team"

Favorite of 2013: Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City

If Pure Heroine was about embracing the grounded reality of the teenage years, Modern Vampires is about growing up. Even though Vampire Weekend's previous two albums are among my favorites, at times they seemed a bit juvenile, focusing on the struggles of being a wealthy college kid from New England. It's nice to see the band "come of age," in a sense, and watch their horizons expand. And it's some of the most beautifully (yes, that's specifically the word I'd like to use) written music I've heard from a band in some time. Not "inventive" or "avant garde," but beautiful.

Standout song: "Hannah Hunt"

Anti Album of the Year: Kanye West, Yeezus

Yes, I know I'm not the go-to expert for rap or hip-hop (people tell me they're different things). However, when an album receives heavy attention - like album of the year attention - I look up from my indie record that's much cooler than yours. This year, that album was Yeezus. And boy did it suck. Yes, I know Kanye is a blithering idiot whose rapping skills are debatable, but I was willing to give this one a listen. It's a mind-numbing slog that all starts to blend together after a while. Everything is distorted to oblivion, and the lyricism all revolves around the tired notion of, "Man, I sure feel sorry for Kanye West - he has it rough." If you have an hour of your life you'd like to waste, Yeezus should do the trick.

Standout song: This uncomfortable joke

Batman's origin story is like an oral folktale. It's been passed down and retold so many times in so many different ways that it changes somewhat, but its main message stays the same. I groaned a little at the thought of DC reissuing the Dark Knight's beginnings again with "Zero Year"; but I was very pleasantly surprised to find it didn't suck. In fact, it's quite good. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have used 2013 (with a little help from DC's love of events) to present Batman's first year of crime fighting in a fresh new way. Snyder's thoughtful writing gets to really shine in this series; he makes "Zero Year" less about the moments of Batman becoming Batman and more about Bruce Wayne figuring out how to introduce Batman into Gotham City, which I loved. And not enough can be said about Capullo, whose cartoonish-yet-gruesome pencils perfectly match the tone of this series.

East of West
Jonathan Hickman loves world building. He clearly takes time to develop a rich cast of characters and a world in which they can play. This can sometimes be a fault, as seen in this year's Infinity event he did for Marvel. The event required audiences to have read the main event books as well as Hickman's entire runs on both Avengers and New Avengers. Unfortunately, I simply didn't have the money to buy all these books, and so I had to miss out. But all this is why I'm so glad East of West exists. Instead of readers needing a thorough knowledge of the Marvel Universe and three different series, they can just pick up one brand new title and be introduced to an incredible story with beautiful art by Nick Dragotta. The plot is about the three of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse trying to track down and kill Death, all taking place in a futuristic America in an alternate timeline where no one really won the Civl War. It has both Western and Sci-Fi - I'm sorry, am I losing you? I promise it's not as hard to remember as it sounds. Being a new title, East of West dips its readers' feet into its waters at just the right pace to tell one of the most creative tales of the year. And at $10, you'd be stupid not to pick it up.

Favorite of 2013: The Wake
Another Scott Snyder book, I know. Where Batman showcased his ability to write with an existing character, The Wake exhibits Snyder's creativity. The book is about...well, it''s about mermaids. But think less of Ariel and Ursula and more of The Cabin in the Woods. These are killer creatures with an awesome design if you're into monsters and the like, and it's all done with Sean Murphy's jagged, intense artwork. If there's one thing I love more than the concept, it's the presentation. Most of The Wake's story is told like an action-horror movie, not unlike John Carpenter's The Thing. Scientists go underwater to examine a creature, the creature isn't happy, and things go badly. That's not to say the book is predictable by any means. But the last page makes a genre flip that really took me by surprise. Again, this one's only 10 bucks. I promise, it's really friggin' cool.

Consistently Great Series I Hope You Haven't Forgotten About Yet:

Green Arrow
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Andrea Sorrentino

Written by  Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Fiona Staples

Written by Matt Fraction
Art by David Aja, Francesco Francavilla
and Matt Hollingsworth
Uncanny Avengers
Written by Rick Remender
Art by John Cassaday, Daniel Acuna
and Steve McNiven

Gone Home
If I'm being honest, I was not as impressed with Gone Home as other people. It's way too short at just a couple hours (yes, I dug through everything I could find), especially considering the $20 price, which seems like a bit much, and the presentation of the story might let you leave a few stones unturned. But in discussions of games as legitimate and unique storytelling devices, this should be at the top of the list. Everything in Gone Home complements the story - level design, aesthetics, game progression - everything. It's unfortunate that with that statement I can't really say more about the plot, because spoilers are an issue. But I can say I appreciate how this story was presented. Scattered documents and audio diaries let you piece together how events in this family went down, as opposed to the game outright telling you. While it wasn't the most fun I had all year, Gone Home is a big step forward for game narratives.

Grand Theft Auto V
I hope my previous post about this game didn't sound too negative. Yeah, GTAV has a lot of issues with storytelling: unlikeable characters, odd shifts in tone, misplaced cynicism, lack of respect of women, etc. But, if you're willing to look past these missteps, GTAV is one amazing game. The story itself is a great crime epic. The missions are almost always consistently great and are a perfect level of insane. Oh yeah, and the world is damn impressive. It's massive, sprawling, varied, engaging and a bunch of other cool adjectives. Am I rambling? Probably, but you should definitely give this one a few dozen hours of your time.

Lego Marvel Superheroes
I know the Lego games receive flak for their less-than-stellar gameplay. It's mostly running from one area to the other while punching the scenery and picking up money. Even so, I've loved these games since the very first Lego Star Wars, for which I'd wake up an hour early to get in a level before school. So it delights me to know that the games keep expanding with more and more detail. Marvel Superheroes is the biggest yet, with some ungodly number of characters and some ungodly number of side missions and collectibles. While the "Find studs to unlock characters to reveal more characters you need studs for" game loop isn't that complicated, it's scarily addicting. The other night, a buddy and I played this for nine hours - 7 pm to 4 am. Nine. Hours. And this series is keeping couch co-op alive, so that's awesome too.

Rogue Legacy
Like Lego Marvel Superheroes, Rogue Legacy is a great example of how a great game loop realized by tight controls and rewarding gameplay can, by their powers combined, form an awesome experience. You pick a character with weird, quirky traits that affect the gameplay just enough. You fight monsters and pick up gold. You die. You buy upgrades and new equipment. Then you do it all over again. And it's amazing. Even though it doesn't have a deep, nuanced story or doesn't push the medium forward in some new, edgy way, Rogue Legacy is simply one of the most fun games I've played in a while. It's a great way to achieve that "gamer zen" you hear about from time to time.

Favorite of 2013: Bioshock Infinite
Ken Levine, you magnificent beast. I couldn't even begin to suggest how this game came together, with it being one of the most creative and revolutionary outings in modern gaming (yeah, give me at least one groan-worthy statement). The narrative is fascinating, original, detailed, fleshed out to an insane degree, and it all comes to life through superb voice acting from Troy Baker and Courtnee Draper. It's beautiful: graphics are crisp and the art direction stands alone. It's use of music is fantastic, and at times it creatively catches you off guard. And it's fun. I love the swashbuckle-y action, the inclusion of the skyhooks and the unique vigor powers. But Infinite's take on the adventure epic and, eventually, games in general is my favorite game story of the past year. I don't really want to talk more about it other than to say that if you have yet to play Bioshock Infinite, you should go change that. I'll leave you with one of Infinite's great songs and my personal favorite use of a song in a video game:

With all the time I wasted putting off the last part of this list, I actually had time to come up with some sort of structure for it. So here are my five favorite movies of the year, in order.

Frozen's ad campaign could've done better. Before the movie's release, very little of the advertising helped convey what made Frozen unique, and it appeared to be just another cookie cutter product off the family animation assembly line. But, if you haven't heard by now, Frozen is pretty great. The animation is solid (if not just a little uncreative), the voice cast performs well, and the soundtrack - it's a good soundtrack. Songs have a nice Broadway feel to complement the singers (Idina Menzel is a standout, with solid props going to Josh Gad as well). Yet, even with how good the soundtrack is, one of my favorite aspects of Frozen is what it does with its story. What begins as a woman's quest to get her sister back evolves into something of an examination and update of Disney's princess formula. It's a good step forward for the genre as well as one of the most enjoyable movies from the past holiday season.

The World's End
Edgar Wright is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors. I love the emphasis he puts on editing and effects (both practical and animated), and his direction of action sequences in Scott Pilgrim and now The World's End has to be seen to be believed. It's this along with the expert acting and solid script that make the movie great. The Simon Pegg-Nick Frost duo has never been better. Frost gives everyone a nice change of pace from his usual slacker role by trading places with Pegg's straight man. And this is easily some of Pegg's best work. His role is a very grounded and raw one, and he gives the emotional depth that many other comedies are sorely lacking. And The World's End is really funny. It's a comedy, so I guess I should say that too.

American Hustle does right what many other movies fail to do: tell an extensive story that never loses steam or the interest of the audience. As long as you have a decently resilient bladder, the blink-and-you-might-miss-it type of storytelling is really rewarding, even on Hustle's generous runtime. David O. Russell's previous two films showed that he's an excellent director of actors, and that skill shows its face here. Each character is distinct and memorable, and they're all met with strong offerings by Hustle's small but talented cast. It's a shame not many people saw this when it debuted, because this is easily one of the best movies of the year. And it won Best Comedy at the Golden Globes, so good job or whatever.

The Wolf of Wall Street
If you've ever wondered what makes a great director, watch The Wolf of Wall Street. This movie has a very strong style and vision, all carried out by Martin Scorsese, the guy with the eyebrows. Only he could make a three-hour movie that leaves you wanting more (It's like the anti-Her). That all comes from Wolf's theme of excess - too many drugs, too many hookers, too many no-no words. Everything about the movie burns an image in your mind as well. This is one of those I saw a couple weeks ago that I'm still thinking about. But that might be from the...interesting imagery and colorful language Wolf relishes in. But hey, morals aren't everything.

Favorite of 2013: Pacific Rim
Only release of the year that made me clap and cheer during the movie. 10/10. Would recommend.

So cool.