Friday, December 25, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why Whisper Carelessly When You Can Let The Sax Can Do All The Talking? - Part I: Early Whispers

Blow along with me now:

Bwah Bwah-da-da-da Bwah-da-da ... Bwah-da-da-da Bwah-da-da ... Bwah-da-da-da-duh ... Bwah-da-da-da Da-da-da-da ...

Like the sirens calling Odysseus, like the Piper luring the children of Hamlin, there is a saxophone solo that snakes its way through the night, sliding deeper and deeper into the recesses of your subconscious being. It cannot be resisted. It can only be tamed.

The first notes soar into the air like a lithe swan, gliding and swerving in the dewy morning's mist, dipping and weaving ever so cautiously, then suddenly swooping down, down, down into the translucent water, like a soul without remorse, only to rise out of the liquid like a Phoenix burning in the desert sun.

One meditative afternoon, Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou found himself listening to early '80s Top 40 radio, observed the endless litany of saxophone solos, and thought, "Hmmm. You know, these are close, but no one's really ... mastered it. You know what I'm gonna do? I'm gonna do the ultimate saxophone solo."

"Careless Whisper" was born.

Even the title is elusive. No, it's not called "I'm Never Gonna Dance Again." I remember looking in a Billboard chart book in the '90s and seeing that Wham! (and/or George Michael - see Part II) had had a massive #1 hit in 1985 with a song called "Careless Whisper." "Wow," thought my ignorant younger self, "I wonder what 'Careless Whisper' sounds like. Sure was popular at the time. Maybe it just fell out of radio rotation." The phrase "careless whisper" is, of course, mentioned in the verse, but come on, that title was a pretty artsy-fartsy move.

"Careless Whisper" is the Doomed Love Affair Ballad to end all Doomed Love Affair ballads. It is the Anna Karenina of '80s pop songs, the Brief Encounter of Yuppie Rock, the Titanic of easy listening radio staples - even more so than the theme tune from Titanic! George doesn't give us all the juicy details, but I think it boils down to this: while involved with someone, he started fooling around with another girl (or guy?), things got serious, and now he's realized that the best course of action for all involved is to end it once and for all - on the dance floor. I don't see why his feet feel so guilty; I mean, they only danced together. Maybe his girlfriend's the brutally jealous type, you know, the kind who can't even watch her boyfriend dance with another girl. Something else I've always wondered: don't all those people in the ballroom hear George singing his aching ballad in the middle of the floor? Alternate theory: "Careless Whisper" is the story of a professional dancer at the height of his powers, whose jealous dancing partner smashes his foot with a club a la Tonya Harding, thus destroying the promise of a decades-long career.

Ever heard the early version of "Careless Whisper" produced by Jerry Wexler? Oh yes. The same Jerry Wexler who worked with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan, etc.? Turns out George Michael traveled to Muscle Shoals in Alabama to work specifically with Wexler, but Michael didn't like how the song came out and decided to re-record it himself. Well guess what? Thanks to the magic of YouTube, here's what "Careless Whisper" sounds like in an alternate universe. I have to say, probably because the final version has become so overexposed, I enjoy this early take. I'm into the Bernard Herrmann-esque string section, the lounge piano, the vocal double-tracking on unexpected lines, and even a couple of small lyrical changes ("But now it's never gonna be/That way"?), but the organ does come on a little strong under the last chorus. A few YouTube commentators claim this version could have never been a hit, but I think I would dispute that, if required to ever do so. What's funny is that, even at this stage, the saxophone solo was already set in stone, note for freaking note. It's like the sax solo existed before the song did. It's like the sax solo existed before time did.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Zrbo Reviews: Halo 5: Guardians (343 Industries, 2015)

It's been three years since Halo 4, the first Halo game not made by Halo creators Bungie. Handled now by Microsoft's internal game studio 343 Industries, Halo 5: Guardians is the debut Halo game for Microsoft's Xbox One game console. Considering the Halo franchise is the standard bearer for the Xbox brand as a whole, the game has a lot to prove.

Last time we were here when Halo 4 debuted it was the beginning of a new era for Halo. Halo 4 was the start of a new trilogy, helmed by a company that wasn't its creator (sound similar to another space opera soon to debut?). Halo 4 mainly succeeded by actually making an attempt to humanize its characters. Series hero Master Chief was finally given some actual thoughts and feelings and was left reeling at the end of Halo 4 (SPOILERS!) with the death of longtime AI companion Cortana.

Originally Cortana was a way for the game to allow for some dialogue in a game otherwise viewed from the perspective of a near mute cyborg. In contrast to Master Chief's gruffness, Cortana was plucky, chatty, and yes, attractive to the eyes. Halo 3 started hinting that perhaps there was something more to this relationship between a half-human cyborg and his AI companion. Halo 4 nearly gave us a love story, with Cortana sacrificing herself at the end in what amounted to a poignant scene of loss, or at least as poignant as you can get for a first person game primarily involving the shooting of aliens. Halo 4 was generally well received.
Who do you believe? Locke or Chief? Eh, it doesn't matter anyway.

In the build up to Halo 5: Guardians the marketing hinted at a story of the Chief going rogue. This seed began in Halo 4 with the Chief at one point defying orders. Presenting Chief as going rogue looked to put a fresh spin on the series. The marketing introduced a new character, Agent Locke, presenting a contrast to the Chief by hinting that there were going to be two sides to this story and that perhaps Chief wasn't as innocent as we thought he was. This was a great setup, basically causing us to question the hero we've always rooted for. What did Chief do to lose the trust of his bosses, and more importantly, the trust of the people who saw him as a hero?

Unfortunately, 343 Industries seems to have wasted this potential. The marketing was fairly misleading (IGN posted an article saying that the marketing outright lied to you). While Chief does defy orders during the course of the game, you could hardly say what he does constitutes as "going rogue". There's a lot of setup with very little payoff. Not only that, but 343 Industries went back to the well by delivering a campaign similar to Halo 2's, where the game was split between playing as two different characters. Here it's Master Chief and Spartan Locke. One of the gripes here is that the majority of the game you play as Locke while there's only a handful of levels where you play as the Chief. There's also a few levels that attempt to do something new where there's no actual gunplay, but just you walking around investigating and talking to people. While these levels are not unwelcome, on further playthroughs these levels can be completed in about 30 seconds. Considering we get to play so little as series star Master Chief, I wonder if the resources spent on these combat-less levels would have been better spent giving us at least one more level playing as the Chief.

The story's not terrible but it's incredibly easy to see where it's going by the end of the second level, and it never really deviates from that easy to spot trajectory. All in all, after the setup of Halo 4 it seems a lot of potential was squandered here, and that's what makes the story somewhat disappointing.

Multiplayer is where the fun is really at.

That all being said, the game nearly redeems itself by giving us arguably the best Halo gameplay we've ever had. If you want to play Halo online against other people, and this is where 98% of player's time is going to be spent anyways, Halo 5 can't be beat.

Halo 4's multiplayer gameplay missed the mark by chasing the tail of the Call of Duty series. Since Call of Duty 4's debut in 2007 (just months after the release of Halo 3, arguably the high point of the Halo series) the CoD formula has come to dominate mulitplayer online first person shooters. Halo 4 caved in to the CoD formula by providing loadouts, basically allowing players to choose their starting weapons and other various powers. While I could see how it seemed like a good idea at the time, in the end it just didn't quite work, with players leaving Halo 4 multiplayer behind faster than they've left previous Halo games.

Halo 5 rectifies this by going back to what made Halo fun. Gone are the Call of Duty style loadouts and perks. Now everyone begins with even starts - same weapons, same abilities, making it the game of skill that earned the series its fans. This is classic Halo, but 343 Industries has updated the Halo formula and brought it into the modern age. The weapons feels fantastic, and each feels unique.

A trend in recent first person shooters has been providing new movement options and new ways to get around the battlefield. Halo 5 follows this trend by adding the clamber mechanic. It essentially means you can climb over things, or grab onto ledges and pull yourself up. I've found that this mechanic works wonderfully, adding whole new ways to traverse maps and provides for new tactical options. Once I got the hang of it I could traverse maps like a master gymnast. This, combined with a few other new moves, such as sprinting, shoulder-charging, and the difficult-to-pull-off-yet-incredibly-satisfying-when-you-do ground pound maneuver, gives the classic Halo gameplay a much needed overhaul.

There's a few nitpicks I have. The new Warzone gametype, a mode that combines fighting other players as well as computer controlled enemies, can be a welcome change from the usual game modes but I've found that with the addition of more players on the battlefield (12v12, the largest a Halo game has ever had) things become a little too chaotic. I find Warzone fine as an occasional diversion, but not something I'm itching to play over and over.

The other nitpick is with the graphics, or maybe really it's the art direction. The graphics look pretty good for an Xbox One game, but maybe not as good as I would have hoped. Also, 343 Industries continues to over-complicate the armor you can choose for your character. Everything is overwrought and busy, nothing looks simple and clean. And worst of all, the armor all looks very plasticky. I've yet to find a piece of armor for my character (and you can collect literally hundreds) that looks good. If only they'd have gone back to Halo: Reach and followed how Bungie did the armor designs for that game.

Overall, what Halo 5: Guardians lacks in story, it more than makes up for it with the multiplayer gameplay. I personally can't get enough of it, with the conclusion of each match giving me that "one more game" feeling.

Zrbo points (campaign): 2.5/5
Zrbo points (multiplayer): 5/5