Thursday, 29 December 2011

Explorations In The Dark

Over the years, I've enjoyed many hundreds of hours playing the Thief series of games, by the mighty Looking Glass Studios (may they rest in peace).  Thief is an excellent immersive simulation from a collection of technically-gifted and highly imaginative game developers.

Initially released in 1998, Thief re-defined first-person viewpoint games to a vast degree, with its genre-creating "stealth" element.  The player's position in the game world actually mattered, which it rarely did in games past.  A light gem, on your screen at all times, would begin black and become increasingly brighter as you moved further away from darker, shadowed areas of the gameworld.

Sneaking around and snagging loot, avoiding guards and critters, is all well and good, but Thief had one other ace up its sleeve: the "missions" in which this gameplay took place were often HUGE.  A single mission could take the form of scoping out a mansion, or a museum, or a church... and the church's grounds, and a network of caves / crypts underneath... and the adjoining sewer system.  Or you could find yourself in a sizeable section of a dark-ages-themed city.  The diversity of situations, places, events and Stuff To Do in Thief is another string to its bow.  One moment you could be running from guards, or sneaking past them, scouting city roof-tops for vantage points of entry, raiding old crypts, desecrated tombs, or avoiding shambling unholy entities in defiled cemetaries, chapels.

In opposition to the extensive dumbing-down and "over-tutorialisation" of today's games, there are no quest arrows, there are no waypoints.  You are given objectives, you MIGHT have a map, and you are placed in a position within the mission gameworld and allowed to go where you wish, and do as you please.  Looking Glass never insulted the player's intelligence, this was another of their games that gave you a ton of things to do, and allowed you to discover and explore at your leisure, learning the game "system" as you progressed.  Sadly, no-one cares to produce a game that does such things any more.

I'm simplifying the game mechanics for the purposes of brevity so please check out Wikipedia for a more detailed run-down on the series. The point of this post is that, while the gameplay in Thief still holds up, 13 years on, the visuals are rather lacking technically (though not artistically).  Not that I'm personally bothered about this, but amongst other reasons (and the lack of legally-released source code for Thief's "Dark Engine"), this is why fans have taken it upon themselves to release their own Thief...

The Dark Mod is a free "add-on" package for Doom 3, which aims to re-create the Thief experience from the ground up, using the now open-sourced, and more modern graphics id tech 4 engine.  And it thoroughly succeeds.  It does not currently feature a campaign of missions, rather it is a "tool set" of materials that one may use to create and play missions.  Thankfully many fans have already created a good amount of missions in the few years since its release.  Hot on the heels of update 1.07, which adds yet more superb content, here's some thoughts on a few of the missions I've been playing:

Winter Harvest by Shadowhide

Winter Harvest
(image from The Dark Fate)
I'll begin with something out of the ordinary.  There is little loot, not a huge amount of sneaking, and the setting is quite unusual.  A snowy forest, surrounded by mountains, is the locale for this particular mission.  While Winter Harvest does suffer a touch from rather unpolished storytelling - you're plonked into a house on a snowy peak and told to "go find something valuable" - the resulting journey makes up for it.

Not that there aren't dark cathedrals, twisted pagans, huge spiders, and well-stocked castle libraries to plunder and explore, but the dense winter forest one finds oneself in is an usual locale, and certainly not unwelcome.  It's pleasant to have some friendly AI that chats to the player, also.  There is a curious lack of readables, which some may find disappointing, and a few "doors that aren't doors" (side rooms with a few extra bits of loot would have been nice), but this is recommended nevertheless.  Solid thumbs up.

Caduceus Of St. Alban by Bikerdude

Caduceus Of St. Alban
(image from The Dark Fate)
Caduceus encapsulates aspects of Thief's gameplay and provides a classic experience, distilled into a small but fully-formed gameworld.

You are tasked to retrieve a sacred relic from a Builder outpost.  So this is out-and-out classic sneaking all the way.  Many methods of entry and egress, many floors to explore (also various ways to reach them), and towering heights to visit.  Some interesting readables, solid texturing and a successful atmosphere make this a must play.  Shame there isn't more of it.

Flakebridge Monastery by Jesps

Flakebridge Monastery
(image from The Dark Fate)
One aspect of Thief that many champion is its occasional, and highly successful, dips into horror.  Far more effective than any Resident Evil game, a trip through a down-trodden, wardended-off corner of The City, or a long-forgotten Builder chapel full of haunted undead makes for a fascinatingly chilling experience.  Keep in mind that neither Thief nor The Dark Mod emphasise combat so you're better off avoiding these monstrosities wherever possible.

I'm pleased to say that, finally, The Dark Mod has an exemplary example of undead lootery in Flakebridge Monastery.  A sizeable mission, with a very well fleshed-out gameworld: the player will visit a bell tower, the guard and guest quarters, an infested kitchen, and a very dangerously haunted chapel.  They all connect in a coherent manner, and finding your way between them is half the challenge!  There's a bit of roof-top shenanigans too, which feels deliciously dangerous.

My only complaint would be that the crypt section was disappointingly small, and could stand to have far more dangers present for the player to over-come.  Otherwise, this is my favourite TDM mission so far and a fantastic few hours of skulking were had playing it.

The Transaction by Sotha

The Transaction
(image from The Dark Fate)
Continuing the saga of Thomas Porter, having stolen an arcane tome and risked life and limb (as one does) for the thing, Sotha returns us to a more well-trodden locale with another take on a City mission.  With some huge twists.

There is little scope for exploration, few side-quests (but there IS a great one in there, that's one distressed damsel), but this matters less when one considers the plot.  There are suprises aplenty, some good readables, and even some purposeful - as opposed to gratuituous - combat (one of The Dark Mod's weakest areas, and the team would do well to overhaul the combat and make it closer to Thief's).

Small cutscenes are used to great effect, and the city area - small though it is - is rendered with good texturing, modelling and some well-placed puddles, torches, convincing weather effects.  Just a shame so little of it is explorable: there are rather too many unuseable doors.

Still, it's absolutely worth playing - though start with Mandrasola, it's the first in the series - and carves out another niche of stealth role play excellence that The Dark Mod provides so well.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Autechre 2010: 28th Century Music Now

The following are two reviews I composed for Autechre's last two album releases, initially posted over at discogs (along with quite a few more about other artists and albums).  

A belated Merry Christmas, and happy new year, to you for reading. :)   Here's to a productive 2012.


After pandering to the pseudo-intellectual cretins in their fan-base for the last 10 bloody years, Autechre have FINALLY written an album that is listenable. Because, on Oversteps, they are writing melodies again. And they're really fucking good ones at times. Gone, thankfully, also are the endless cockwaving drum/glitch bollocks of Draft and Untilted. And most of the tunes on Oversteps sound like fully fleshed ideas, not experiments in collage a-la Quaristice.

Oversteps sounds like a natural continuation of EP7 only with even more complex drum rhythms (thankfully not the headache-inducing pummeling fanboy-wank that is LCC and the like) and pristine production: the FM sounds cleaner and crisper. The rhythms are more intriguing, and the melodies they employ here are developed to a far greater degree than even the best LP5 or EP7 had to offer. I'm hearing shades of Tangerine Dream, Telex, Vangelis, and Moskwa TV in this album, so that's a pretty good start. Oh, and it's not MINIMAL either, thankfully.

Ilanders is effectively Robot-Jazz. Its "structure" is little more than that of a trad-jazz jam, opening and closing with the main theme and exploring it from every angle in between. I'm no jazz fan, but the idea is sound. The underlying rhythm is some concotion of electro crossed with breaks and hip-hop. The roiling pads underneath the crunchy FM drums and plinking melodies are a welcome return after the last 10 years. Proof that Sean and Rob can write them!

Treale is where they take the whole "reform, redevelop, destroy, then reform again" ethic on their melodies about as far as they ever have. This is 100% composition right here, computer-aided or not. I find it hits my personal "melodic threshold" at times, like a lot of jazz tunes tend to, but I would still have the interlocking FM tones of Treale than ANY of the 7+ minute drum wank exercises of Confield, Draft or Untilted. Nice that they stick to a fairly simple hip-hop/big-beat style rhythm and let the synths "be complex" for a change. Well done, lads!

Known(1) is a mess. Oversteps is - on every other track - a brooding aural dystopia, somewhat meditative and atmospheric with the bare hint of malignancy, but Known(1) is totally at odds with this vibe, coming across more as a twisted EP7 outtake with extra-trashy FM tweaking thrown in. They over-do the out-of-tuned'ness on this one. Thankfully it's the only track that is sub-par.

See On See is just arpeggiated bliss, with a bass-line continuously morphing underneath some lovely higher-octave tones. Call it a requiem, it's beautiful. I haven't said that about an Autechre song since Drane! Os veix3 and O=0 contain some of the most emotionally resonant and melancholic melodic phrases I've heard from Ae, as well as some fascinating key changes in the latter. st epreo has a less distinct hook than other tunes, and is more drum-focused, but it doesn't fall into the Untilted trap of endless clatter. d-sho qub has an infectious, slightly-shuffled "fast hip-hop" rhythm and it's hard not to love those hugely satisfying, crunchy snares blasting away under more very memorable synth lines, coming across "happier" here (love the way it devolves into vocal choruses, too!). The album finishes on the more minimalistically-composed Yuop, which gradually develops into lots of noisy pads and synth "wibbles". It works well as a closer.

As an aside, I find it hilarious that some people complain that there's been some blatant use of plugin patches from Tassman and Reaktor. If this is true, so what? Ae love FM, and if it works, just fucking use it. I can't be the only one that's lived through the naughties' endless sound exploration and gradual detachment from conventional composition techniques (ANYTHING from Mille Plateaux Records, for example), and find that 90% of it is barely interesting for a few listens, then just gets boring. It may be "exploring new sonic frontiers", but ultimately, focusing upon sound creation and texture as opposed to melody, often leaves you with music that is forgettable, for-occasion, aural wallpaper. That is never a problem on Oversteps.

Sean and Rob do a FAR better job of exploring melancholic, detached alienation on Oversteps using MELODIES than they do pissing about with drums and stepping on Venetian Snares' toes (Draft, Untilted, Confield). If you have any interest in challenging electronic music, you want to hear this. If you like Ae but found their previous albums lacking for any reason, believe me: you must hear this. If you spooge copiously over FM synthesis, then I'm surprised you're reading this and not listening to the bloody thing already. If you'd like to hear the "genre" of IDM broken and completely destroyed, well that's probably some personal issues you might need to work out, but don't let that stop you from trying Oversteps. Heck, I'm no "fan" of Autechre OR IDM, and I've fallen completely in love with this album. It's hard to at first, this is Autechre, not Arovane (who, melodically, came across as more of a romantic) but this is Sean and Rob showing their 100% robotic, programmed, circuit-driven souls. And I wouldn't want it any other way. Not perfect - ditch Known(1) - but bloody close. 10/10.

P.S. Oversteps makes for a superb alternative soundtrack to System Shock. :)

Move Of Ten

Move Of Ten has put to rest fears that Autechre were committed to the high-functioning-autistic-beats of their mid-naughties records, they're now following a more melodic and textural direction, at least for now. Though you wouldn't think it on first listen, MOT is bookended by two pieces that are little more than designed to "please the fans": Etchogon-S and Cep puiqMX.

Etchogon has a pretty standard - by Ae "standards" - glitch-hop-on-smack rhythm, occasionally allowing in some prickly synth bleeps that never really form a solid hook. The drums, bass and synths develop and fall away in typical "pseudo-random" Autechre fashion. With Cep puiqMX, the story is very similar: noisey glitched beats, punctuated by vacuous, reverb-plastered single-chord synth blasts. It's the usual LCC-style near-self-parodying concoction of endlessly glitched beats and almost nothing melodic. Both tracks will induce major hard-ons in elitists and IDM producers but thankfully, that isn't the case with the rest of the EP.

nth Dafuseder.b is one of the big hitters on Move Of Ten. After the initial shock of the shameless stealing of d-sho qub's drum patterns, cool little repeated "rhodes" style keys play while drenched in reverb, and the occasional appearance of a BOC-ish "flute" synth plays some surprisingly twee melodies. Shocking, Ae are clearly going soft! OMGWTFBBQ tehy stol BOC-synths! (Note how it makes for a better "BOC tune" than anything on Campfire Headphase... CONSPIRACY!)

no border switches between almost-4/4 and some amalgam of big-beat and dubstep, bursts of noise produce the rhythmic backing to more distant, emotive FM pads and stabs. Not as sucessful as similar pieces on Oversteps, but that dark, emotionally-detached feeling prevails and is still enticing. pce freeze 2.8i has a truly addictive "electro-big-beat" rhythm, with huge drums underpinning a properly solid filter-shaped synth hook that continues to morph, occasionally descending into noise. The spontaneous clickery of the end with one final shout of the riff is a great way to conclude.

4/4 Autechre is good. y7 has a melange of dark synthery around that incessant 4/4 pulse. Oh and two words: AUTECHRE ACID! There's definitely a kinda-303 synth part squelching away here and there. No, there's no hook, but I'm not looking for one when everything else in the track makes up for a great "electronic jam". Later they drop the bomb that is M62. Wow, is this Ae really doing 4/4 again? Sell-outs! Okay now the fanbois have gone crying, let's enjoy some ae-trance! Put the usual multi-layered FM synth stabs and pads to the most basic of electronic rhythms, and it is just as enjoyable as glitch-hop, hip-step, or whatever you'd call Ae's more "traditional" rhythms. It's another dark synth and texture jam across 6 minutes, with continuously morphing synths, joined later by some pads. Then around the 4th minute it all breaks down to the kick and one synth, and stays more "minimalistic" until the end. Pretty simple structurally - by Ae standards - but completely enjoyable and accessible! Yes, Ae fanboys, I just used the word "accessible" again in an Autechre review! Punch that disagree button with all your elitist, self-righteous might!

iris was a pupil is solid evidence that these tracks are taken from Oversteps sessions. It has very similar metallic FM synths to redfall and see on see, drenched in reverb, with some more squelchy FM/303-type sounds bouncing around the edges playing counter melodies, until it becomes much darker around the 2-minute mark. The synth riffery doesn't stick quite as well as most of the Oversteps tunes, though. No don't say it, it's not an out-ta*SLAP*...

Many songs feel less structured than Oversteps pieces, and more like jams. No bad thing, though, since most don't last much past 5 or 6 minutes. I don't require hooks, just interesting stuff going on beyond spastic drumming! There's definitely much more than that going on during Move Of Ten's 40+ minutes. Finally, I'm just so pleased to say that Ae are stepping away from autism-stroking drums for a while. By keeping them simple(r) and instead going nuts with t
he textures and synths, Autechre are going for exactly the opposite of the composing approach they took on Untilted and Draft. And it's TREMENDOUSLY more invigorating and enjoyable as a result. B+ or 8/10.