Looking back over the two decades plus since I first started listening to metal, it’s interesting to see how my methods of discovering new bands and albums has changed over time.
My sister introduced me to metal (Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeth, Judas Priest) via her A-Level Chemistry classmates, then friends I made at school recommended other bands (Anthrax, Slayer). Next was reading magazine reviews in Kerrang! (Carcass, Sepultura and Entombed) and Terrorizer (Death, Morbid Angel, Dissection, My Dying Bride) and watching music videos on Headbanger’s Ball (Type O Negative, Paradise Lost, Corrosion of Conformity, Kreator) and Noisy Mothers (Strapping Young Lad), and then new friends at university made more recommendations (Vader, Meshuggah, Gorguts, Anata).
At some point the Internet became a thing, and so I turned to metal review sites such as Digital Metal (now defunct – all hail the Wayback Machine) and Metal Review (now Last Rites); more recently places like From the Dust Returned, No Clean Singing, Angry Metal Guy, Teeth of the Divine and Sputnikmusic.
If you were thinking that those sites provide more than enough metal to be getting on with each year, you’d be absolutely right, and yet I find myself still hunting down more new music, specifically albums that I might have missed due to ignorance or a lack of interest at the time.
So, here are five albums that I’ve only “discovered” in the last few years thanks to Autothrall or Angry Metal Guy. I left out albums if I was already familiar with a particular band and already owned another album by that band (so Samael’s Ceremony of Opposites didn’t make the cut since I already own Passage, but I gave Tiamat a pass because I was familiar with them, despite not buying an album) and tried to cover a variety of genres. Some of these choices are obscure whilst some are heralded classics that I never got on with when they first came to my attention. Sometimes you just need someone to badger you about a band/album before the recommendation eventually takes hold.
Artillery – By Inheritance (1989)
Technical thrash of the highest calibre, combining headbanging riffs with a distinctive sound that is tinged with Eastern melodies. The wailing vocals let down the music in my opinion, but the music compensates more than enough. Thrash to me is signified by rhythmic acrobatics and shredding solos, so 1:03 of “Khomaniac” gets me every time, along with the intro to “Beneath the Clay (R.I.P.)”, the intro lead to “Bombfood” and indeed all of the leads and solos. If “Khomaniac” doesn’t get you headbanging, then nothing will.
Powermad – Absolute Power (1989)
If you’ve seen David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, you might recognise the first track “Slaughterhouse” as it’s the song that plays in the club scene at the start of the film and it’s on the soundtrack. I remember liking the track a lot but mainly for the great build-up at the start and didn’t go any further than that. Angry Metal Guy did a retrospective review and it turns out that Autothrall rated it pretty highly too which was all the prompting I needed. I had a listen and it’s an absolute corker – a solid thrash foundation with excellent melodies, harmonies and leads, a bit like Megadeth but without a rubbish douchebag vocalist.
Tiamat – Wildhoney (1994)
To give you an idea, Grymm at Angry Metal Guy described the album as being dark metal akin to The Gathering, Moonspell and Samael. I remember hearing a radio edit of this song, either as a video or on a Terrorizer cover CD and liking it a lot but feeling that it wasn’t heavy enough (which is what I thought about The Gathering, even though I loved Moonspell’s Irreligious and Samael’s Passage at the time. Go figure. I’ve since grown to love The Gathering). My tastes have since changed – one might even say “matured” – and now I think that the whole album is beautiful. Tasteful synths add atmosphere, the infrequent leads add colour without dominating the song and there is a great balance between the heavy distorted guitars and acoustic guitar sections. Each song flows into the next with motifs passed on, leading to an ensemble that makes for a superb album.
Unmoored – Indefinite Soul-Extension (2003)
In spite of his contribution to a ridiculous number of metal bands, Christian Ävestam is almost always cited as being the ex-vocalist of another decent but far less interesting band. I would prefer it if he were known for his original and best band, Unmoored, where he first combined “high and low growls, with clean vocals”. The band’s third album is progressive death metal, which means it falls into that awkward sub-genre all bands are dumped in when they feature clean guitars and clean vocals in addition to the standard death metal. I described the band to a like-minded colleague as being akin to At the Gates but with more brutality (the grinding palm-muted chords in “Commit to the Fire”), blasting (the opening track “Unspeakable Grief”), clean vocals (dotted throughout, but last track “Final State Part III [Posthumous Writings]” is sung entirely clean) and synths (“Spit Forth from Failure”). Hmmm. So not much like At the Gates at all…
In amongst the riffage, a point that I’d like to highlight is how smoothly the band transitions between different riff and vocal styles, as that is something which many progressive death metal bands try and fail at doing well. For more coherent thoughts on the album, Autothrall enthused about it a great deal.
Funeral – From These Wounds (2006)
I picked up this album on the strength another Angry Metal Guy retrospective review and listening to some tracks on YouTube. Vocals are an airy melodic croon for the most part, with occasional low-register Pete Steele-esque baritone moments in songs like “Red Moon”. Keyboards are scattered throughout each song, and there are strong dynamic shifts conveyed through riff style – “softer” sections are conveyed by strummed chord progressions whilst the heavy moments are signified by palm-muted chords. It’s slow and mournful music to listen to, and has a definite Type O Negative and My Dying Bride vibe to it. It’s more dark than doom to these ears, but have a listen and decide for yourself.
One of the many things that I started writing about and never finished was my favourite albums from 2013, so here it is a year after the fact. *facepalm*
The ordering of this list was mildly arbitrary until the last three which are probably the albums I’ve listened to most in 2013. Although I’ve changed my mind about both Obliteration and Carcass over the course of 2014 (to the point where both would have made it into the top ten), I’ve preserved the list as it was when I scribbled down some notes last, ahem the year before last. I’ve attempted to write something coherent about each album, but I’ve included full album streams where possible so the best thing to do is to ignore the writing, listen to the music and make up your own mind.
- Carcass – Surgical Steel
- Aosoth – IV: An Arrow in Heart
- Obliteration – Black Death Horizon
- Suffocation – Pinnacle of Bedlam
- Vulture Industries – The Tower
- Gorguts – Colored Sands
Top Ten of 2013
10. <code> – Augur Nox
I only became aware of <code> this year, despite having listened to the guitarist’s other projects Binah and Blutvial. The push to listen to <code> came off the back of an Arcturus binge and the knowledge (at the time) that Arcturus weren’t recording new material. <code> can be described as avant-garde, which is shorthand for “this band is kind of black metal, but also includes a tonne of other genres and sounds a bit like Arcturus”. To be fair, not many bands are able to sound like Arcturus without coming across as massively wanky (Arcturus being a victim of their own success and out-there-ness). Whilst Vulture Industries have a vocalist to match Garm and ICS Vortex, but not quite the songwriting, <code> has all of the necessary elements: a superb singer who can flip from black metal screech to operatic vocal acrobatics, epic songwriting and the riffs to back it all up.
9. Hail of Bullets – III: The Rommel Chronicles
Towards the end of the scale is where I had the most trouble picking albums. Suffocation had released possibly their best post-reformation album, Carcass had released a new album eighteen years after Swansong, I discovered the avant-garde metal of <code>, not to mention the long awaited “Colored Sands” from Gorguts following 2004’s “From Wisdom to Hate”. Then I heard III. I’ve been aware of Hail of Bullets since its inception, liking individual songs here and there but not entire albums nor even an entire EP. It’s a common assertion in metal that adding double-kick drumming improves even the blandest of riffs. A corollary assertion is that adding Martin Van Drunen improves any death metal record, however boring the riffs (Asphyx being a prime example, because the band otherwise bores me to tears). III however crushes right out of the gate and doesn’t let up until the final song. The transition between old-school death metal and the slow doomy moments is much smoother than before and doesn’t take me out of the music as previous albums were wont to do. It’s not original, it’s not on a par with classic albums of the early 90s and doesn’t set off on its own path like latter-era Bloodbath – it is simply well written old school death metal that pays homage to classic Swedish death metal with modern production values.
8. Satan – Life Sentence
After releasing two NWOBHM albums in the 80s, Satan split up before reforming thirty odd years later with a comeback album written and recorded as if no time had passed at all other than better production. Not a throwback or a homage, but a band continuing with their established legacy with an album that is packed with twin-guitar harmonies, gallop riffs and of course dramatic vocal stylings. It’s the best traditional metal album I’ve heard since Pharaoh’s Be Gone in 2007, so if this style floats your boat then you really need to check this out.
7. Voivod – Target Earth
Voivod were one of those legendary bands that I’d known about for years, even so far as buying a few of the band’s late 90s albums, but I have never truly “got” them. Then I saw the band at Bloodstock in August 2013, having listened to the expected classics alongside songs from the new album (sadly there was no rendition “Batman”) and it all just suddenly clicked. I went out to get copies of Killing Technology and Dimension Hatröss and also Target Earth. Daniel Mongrain (aka Chewy, currently of Martyr and formerly of Gorguts) acquits himself incredibly well, filling the gap left by the untimely loss of founding guitarist Denis D’Amour with music that pays homage to Voivod’s classic output whilst etching out his own place in the band with more technical leads and flourishes. Space thrash for the win!
6. Nero Di Marte – S/T
A combination of Gojira, Gorguts and Ulcerate, combining the accessibility of the first with the twisted atonal riffing of the latter pair, plus vocals that sound quite strikingly similar to Joe Duplantier. Whilst the riffs are convoluted and arranged in complex structures, the band is far more listenable than Ulcerate and Gorguts and so the album comes highly recommended for anyone who likes or wants to like Gorguts or Ulcerate but has bounced off them in the past.
5. Trials – In the Shadow of Swords
A new challenger approaches! Reviewed by Angry Metal Guy at the very end of the year as an apologetic and retrospective inclusion for his own best of 2013 list, Trials plays a style of modern metal (is that even a thing?) that is mainly thrash with occasional groove nods and hints of metalcore. Trivium hints at Gojira with the stomping chorus riff of “Believers in Black”, Trivium in the mix of brutal and clean vocals (perhaps an unfortunate comparison as the vocalist really does evoke Matt Heafy on a few songs), and even the technical melodic death metal of Darkane. A stunning second album from a criminally unsigned band. Get it now via Bandcamp!
4. Svart Crown – Profane
Purveyors of the style of blackened death metal epitomised by the mighty Immolation, Svart Crown have since carved out their own niche. Atonal melodies and fill-heavy drumming punctuates the black-tinged death metal riffs and rasping vocals. There’s a brief interlude towards the end of the album, but otherwise Profane is an unrelentingly aggressive bludgeoning. My only concern is that the album is so immediately listenable that I wonder about whether it will have staying power.
3. Sulphur Aeon – Swallowed by the Ocean’s Tide
Like many of the albums on this list, I am thankful to autothrall and the From the Dust Returned blog for bringing Swallowed by the Ocean’ss Tide to my attention. Hailing from Germany, a country predominatly known for thrash and power metal, Sulphur Aeon play a fairly brutal style of melodic death metal but with a gloriously filthy guitar sound more redolent of death/doom bands such as Incantation or Disma. The profusion of melody combined with that tone make for an initially uncomfortable listen, but give it time and it’ll work its dark magic on you. There is a slight fall-off in awesomeness as the album progresses, but overall it’s a quality release and I look forward to hearing more hymns to the Ancient Ones from this band. Also, just look at that beautiful artwork!
2. Byzantine – S/T
Now the choice between two and one on this list was tough. Byzantine became one of my favourite bands after reading a review on a now-defunct metal blog extolling the virtues of the band’s second album And They Shall Take Up Serpents. I’d actually listened to the band’s first album “The Fundamental Concept” before but ignored it due to a rather overt Meshuggah influence (if only I knew what was to come with the advent of djent as an actual sub-genre). So in 2006 I checked out the sophomore album. Holy shit dude. Holy shit. The first song alone has more great riffs in it than most bands manage in an entire album, but that’s just one of many excellent songs. The solos are melodic and tasteful, yet shred where shred is required. The band split after the release of their third album due to piss-poor promotion from Prosthetic Records. Needing to actually feed their families, the band split up and moved on.
A few years back, the band reformed for some reunion gigs (minus lead guitarist Tony Rohrbough), then set up a Kickstarter to found a new album, this time with Tony on board. I wanted it so badly I paid them the maximum reward ($100 got me a signed copy of the album, a tab book, a signed poster and a shot glass fact fans. I’m a fucking mug) and it got funded! Woo! Playing groove metal, with a strong thrash foundation, the emphasis of this band is on riffs. Riff after riff after motherfucking riff. Riffs that summon the dark ones who possess you and make you headbang uncontrollably until you actually give yourself a brain haemorrage (that actually happened to a guy at a Motorhead gig incidentally). Not quite matching the heights of And They Shall Take Up Serpents, but definitely on par with Oblivion Beckons. A great album, but one just pipped by….
1. Extol – S/T (no really, another self-titled bloody album)
I’ve been listening to Extol since the release of Synergy in 2003 (acquiring sample tracks via Napster!), then back tracking to Undeceived and Burial, but even then my appreciation was limited to individual songs. It wasn’t until The Blueprint Dives in 2006 that I really got into the band (curiously, both original guitarists had left by this point, so the band featured two completely new guys and the music style was very different and yet familiar), then of course the band split up. Again. It’s like I jinx these people or something.
Andy Synn’s retrospective of the band in 2011 made me revisit those earlier albums, and he later blogged that Extol were making noises about a documentary which hinted at a reunion and then the new eponymous album. The band has crossed genres with abandon, from the black metal of Burial, to the progressive black/death of Undeceived to progressive thrash of Synergy and the less heavy, more poppy Blueprint Dives.
The new album covers absolutely all of these bases, a summing up of the band’s history and a statement for the future, a band that has managed to create a distinctive, recognisable style of extreme metal, and a comeback album that isn’t a retread. Released back in March, even then I knew that it wouldn’t be beaten.
Best album of 2013 not released in 2013:
- Klabautamann – Merkur
Another one to chalk up to autothrall. I found a review of Merkur whilst trawling through a list of albums awarded the “Epic Win” rating and realised I’d stumbled on a hitherto unknown classic. One of Germany’s best kept secrets for sure and something that will appeal to fans of Emperor and Enslaved alike.
England, 1966. American screenwriter Shane Carter has arrived in search of work and approaches Hammer Film Productions. Beset by competitors and subject to a waning interest in horror, Hammer needs new blood and so commissions Carter to produce a script in just five days, instructing him to set the story on a train and to include Hammer’s trademarks, “an exotic setting, young lovers, fearsome creatures, a dire warning, rituals and curses, and dreadful consequences.” (p16).
Carter accepts the challenge and sets his story in the fictional country of Carpathia (a stand-in for Romania) during the Great War. Four people board the Arkangel in order to flee the approaching front line, ignorant of the train’s final destination and the horrors within – the roguish cad Nicholas, the village girl Isabella, the vicar Tom and his wife Miranda. Each in turn will be tested by the train and those that fail will be damned to ride the train all the way to Hell itself.
Your enjoyment of Hell Train will greatly depend on your familiarity with Hammer Horror films and tolerance for homage. In the main story aboard the Arkangel, Fowler deftly employs Hammer’s archetypical characters and the aforementioned trademarks with verve, briefly sketching out each of the principal characters’ backgrounds, motivations and flaws before throwing them under the train (quite literally in one instance). Keeping the plot moving along briskly through the use of short, punchy chapters punctuated by cliffhangers, the fun comes from seeing what horrors Fowler will unleash next, rather than out of curiosity as to how each character will endure their tests.
It’s not a huge spoiler to state that Nicholas learns to care for people other than himself, Miranda is consumed by her greed and Tom’s faith is exposed as hypocrisy. Isabella is the one character who gets an interesting arc, a minor deviation in Fowler’s homage, noting via the voice of Carter that “Hammer had relegated their female leads to scream-and-faint roles for too long [..] he wanted his leading ladies to be as indelible as the men.” (p165). Thus in spite of being the ‘ignorant’ peasant girl, Isabella is the only one who survives her own test without aid and who ultimately saves the day.
The healthy dose of gore employed in the form of some very gruesome deaths at the hands (and mouths) of ghouls, succubi, war-crazed soldiers and ravenous insects is tempered by the occasional present-day interlude focusing on Carter as he searches for inspiration, embarks on a fling with assistant and muse Emma Winters, and meets Hammer’s most illustrious stars. Despite being a fundamental part of Hell Train‘s structure, lampshaded by Fowler as a “portmanteau approach with a traditional script, and add[ing] a wraparound framework set in the present day” (p167), these interludes are a very abrupt shift in feel and serve as unwelcome distractions from the far more compelling train-bound thread.
I’m torn about Hell Train, because it is clear that I do not have the prerequisite depth of knowledge to truly appreciate what Fowler has achieved. So, as originally stated, it comes down to your familiarity with Hammer’s film output. Fans will lap this tale up whilst those less familiar may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.
In a relatively short space of time Peter F Hamilton has established himself as one of today’s bestselling British SF authors, due in no small part to the Night’s Dawn trilogy. This success has given him the freedom to explore new territories, and his latest novel marks an admirable departure from his usual fare. Unfortunately enough, Misspent Youth isn’t very good.
Misspent Youth tells the story of an aged scientist, Jeff Baker, who is chosen as the first recipient of a newly developed rejuvenation treatment. Baker’s work on data storage technology led to the creation of the Internet’s successor, the Datasphere, and so he is considered to be worthy of the extravagent expense that is entailed. After eighteen months in a German clinic, Baker emerges as a seventy year old man in a twenty year old’s body and is determined to make the most of his regained vitality. His teenage son, Tim, bears the brunt of his inconsiderate actions and must deal with the consequences of Baker’s wish-fulfillment. Set against the background of a federal Europe under threat from separatist terrorists, the Baker family’s upheavals may have further reaching consequences than anyone could have predicted.
Using the perspectives of both Tim and Jeff to narrate the story, with occasional interludes from Tim’s girlfriend Annabelle, Hamilton contrasts the angst of Tim’s teenage years with the hedonism of Jeff’s second youth. Jeff has been there and done that before, and this time around he is fully intent on enjoying himself without the crutch of inexperience. Tim has no such wisdom to his name and so lurches from crisis to crisis as he desperately strives to be accepted as one of the guys. In the initial stages this works quite well and it’s enjoyable to watch Tim adapt in the wake of the havoc wreacked by Jeff and to empathise with his concerns, even if they are of the teen soap variety.
In comparison, the character of Jeff does not bear up so well in the face of close scrutiny. Jeff’s reaction to his new found youth is limited to alienating his old friends and sleeping with every woman he meets, including many of Tim’s classmates, who are as one-dimensional and devoid of substance as Jeff himself. His attempt to rejoin the scientific community and continue his research is sketched out almost as an afterthought, whilst his musings over his earlier success imply that science is more about luck than hard work and dedication and so there’s no point to it once you’ve made your money. The description of Jeff’s life after rejuvenation centers wholly around sex and only scratches the surface of what could have been achieved with the premise of a man in search of a new purpose to his extended life. After a few chapters of Jeff’s exploits, it becomes clear that the plot is going to center around Jeff and Tim falling out and their reconcilation. Other than the lurid sex scenes, this pretty much sums up the entire story.
One of the advantages of using a near-future setting is that less effort is diverted towards the worldbuilding and so one can concentrate on the characters and the story. This does not mean that the background can lack credibility in any way and this is the case here and it is doubly so when the characters and story lack depth. Hamilton’s vision of a United Europe domineering over an isolationist United States just does not ring true and is largely in the background until the closing chapters of the book. The characters opposed to the United Europe, such as Tim, merely regurgitate nationalistic rhetoric commonly heard today and no effort is made to show the flip side of the coin. Hence readers must endure a polemic diatribe on the evils of a European Union that is frankly insulting.
If this was truly intended as a social comedy, then Hamilton wasted countless opportunities to show up Jeff’s outmoded way of thinking and social graces amongst the younger generation. The only interesting fact about Baker is the real reason why he refused to patent the data crystal technology, though it is well in keeping with his character. As a result, even when Baker starts to change his ways, one is sceptical of his motives and a special effort is required to feel any sympathy for him when things all start to go wrong. Misspent Youth might have been salvaged if the story had been told in its entirety from Tim’s perspective. This would have meant losing the viewpoint of Tim’s girlfriend, including the hilarious moment where a romantic encounter between Tim and Annabelle is shown from both sides, but as this is the only highlight of her contributions it would have been a bearable sacrifice to make.
To give Hamilton his due, he is trying out new areas and this is to be applauded in a time where authors are more comfortable finding themselves a niche and plundering it for all its worth rather than take any chances. It’s just a shame that he attempted to write a character drama and neglected to create a cast of people that the reader can empathise with. A leash on the polemic ranting about the evils of the European Union would also have been useful.
At 368 pages, Misspent Youth is practically a short story by Hamilton’s usual standards but this should be viewed as a positive aspect. It’s all over very quickly, with Hamilton’s fluid writing making strangely compelling reading, though more in the manner of watching a train wreck than due to any inherent tension or an unpredictable plot. Hamilton has done far better than this in the past and one hopes that his next book will mark a return to form, whether in the far reaches of space or somewhere else.
This review first appeared in The Alien Online (March, 2003)
A friend once remarked that late-era Nevermore is death metal in all but vocal style. Clean singing combined with death metal riffing is a form of extreme metal that has crossover appeal, albeit one that has remained relatively unexplored. Blistering.com suggests that this is because “few can figure out how to do it properly” and I have to agree with this assertion. Even the progressive death metal masters Opeth saved clean vocals for clean/acoustic guitar passages, which is all the more disappointing when “The Lotus Eater” (from Watershed) demonstrated that Mikael Åkerfeldt was capable of the more jarring mix of clean vocals with full-on death metal. At least until he disappeared up the prog arse of the Universe with Heritage but that’s a rant for another time.
Meanwhile Sweden’s Desultor has taken this potential and run with it, producing an accomplished debut album that skilfully layers traditional heavy metal vocals atop pummelling riffs and blast-beats. The earlier Nevermore citation wasn’t an idle one as vocalist/guitarist Markus Joha evokes Warrel Dane on numerous occasions, such as during the chorus of “Another World”, with a hint of Fracture‘s Paal Strand  in the background. The vocals aren’t always an unqualified success, such as the shrieks that wobble all over “Black Monday” without hitting a proper note until the pre-chorus, but by and large Joha utilises his range to great effect. There are occasional snarls that will help those coming to Desultor from a more brutal background, but his clean vocals are front and centre as both the biggest selling point of the band and the greatest potential hurdle to overcome. I have to admit that it took me a great deal less time to adjust to the idea as I have no issues with clean singing, despite mainly listening to death metal these days, and I’ve also listened a lot to the rather excellent Satan’s Host album By The Hands of the Devil (which can only be described as power black metal and comes highly recommended).
Elsewhere the riffing doesn’t let up at any point, smoothly shifting between aggressive thrash, melodic death and black metal tropes. Tremolo picking is mostly used, along with Gothenberg-esque palm-muted pedal riffs and the odd chord progression. It’s not overtly technical but then it’s not all that varied. Whilst he’s not on the same level as Nevermore’s former guitar god Jeff Loomis, Joha’s soloing is both tasteful and melodic, which is more than can often be said for the excessive guitar acrobatics of most power metal. Michael Ibrahim’s drumming is tightly in step with the music, providing a solid foundation for the rhythm guitar work, albeit confined to two modes of playing: a fast double-kick assault and blast-beat battery. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but I would have preferred either a wider range of basic patterns or more creative fills.
At 34 minutes, Masters of Hate doesn’t outstay its welcome and is refreshingly free of bloat, but I remain unsure as to whether an album this immediate will have staying power. There is little in the way of intricacies to be teased out with repeated listens, and if one ignores the short but largely redundant instrumentals, there are only eight proper songs that mainly sit in the three to four minute range.
That said, this is a great debut and will appeal to any fans of progressive death metal, or indeed those who enjoy death metal music but can’t be having with grunted/growled vocals. Here’s hoping Desultor find their niche and go on to bigger and better things.
 Blistering cites Communic‘s Oddleif Stensland, a band which I’m not all that familiar but both Communic and Fracture hail from Norway.
With over two years of development time, unbridled hype from producer Cliff Bleszinski, and a number of zeroes usually associated with Hollywood blockbusters attached to the budget, expectations were high for a bigger and better sequel. After all, the original was a massive hit on the 360 and the cover-and-shoot core mechanic made a refreshing change from the glut of first-person-shooters that threatened to drown the console in a sea of gaming excrement; for the most part, Epic have succeeded in making a worthy successor to Gears of War.
Playing like a console version of a Michael Bay SF film, Gears of War 2 sees you assuming control of Marcus Fenix again in the war against the Locust. Following the events of the first game, the attempt to wipe out the alien Locust horde has failed and the remaining COG forces are under siege in Jacinto, the last human stronghold. Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad are ordered to mount a major offensive to take the battle to the Locust and… wait, who plays these games for the story? The important questions are these: is it still all grey, is the friendly AI better, is chainsawing enemies in half just as fun as it was before, and did anyone fix those irritating-to-the-point-of-controller-defenestration multiplayer glitches? (No, mostly, yes, yes, yes).
One of the major criticisms levelled at the original game was that it was too grey. Grey streets, grey skies, grey caverns, grey character models, grey everything, and when compared to the positively psychedelic Halo 3, Gears of War looked very drab indeed. This is not a criticism that can be applied to the sequel. The graphics are simply astounding, featuring sprawling gothic palaces, epic outdoor landscapes full of autumnal colours, and underground lakes of the almost fluorescent yellow Immulsion fuel. It’s one of those games where you can spend an age wandering around, staring in awe at the attention to detail, which is a good thing because in the early stages of the game you’ll find yourself in a number of situations where there is simply nothing to shoot at.
In Epic’s efforts change the game’s linear progression of walking-bit-shooting-bit-walking-bit-on-rails-bit-walking-bit-shooting-bit-repeat-until-abrupt-end-boss, they seem to have missed the point that the game was all about those confined, shoot-outs where you had to advance from cover to cover, flank and create cross-fires, and not the set-pieces. The opening hospital siege nails the feel of the first game perfectly, as does the final two acts, but in between the pace goes up and down like yo-yo. Those colourful wide landscapes? Wide and colourful they may be, but they are part of a long on-rails level where every so often you get to shoot things whilst marvelling at all the pretty. The vehicle section is better than the original’s – for one you can move and shoot at the same time – but goes on forever, there are too many on-rails sequences, and the final boss makes Raam look like a masterpiece of game design.
Luckily it’s not all bad. On the friendly AI front, there has been a vast improvement. In the original’s Kryll levels, where one had to stay in lighted areas to avoid being killed, computer-controlled Dom would invariably wander into a dark area and get torn to shreds, necessitating a restart and some choice curses at the appalling AI. Alternatively, in certain pitched battles, your entire team would get downed in the first ten seconds leaving you to finish off all the bad guys. Dom now takes cover properly and is capable of proper support. In fact, he’s so much better that if you hang around for too long admiring the scenery, Dom will mop up for you. This is good, because he’s no longer a complete liability, but also bad as it occasionally feels like the AI is doing all the work and you’re just standing around for show. Don’t worry though, there are still moments of complete ineptitude where Dom will get stuck in cover or refuse to budge, leaving you to struggle on alone to the next checkpoint. Huzzah!
Whilst not exactly an essential part of the original game, the ability to chainsaw an enemy in half was hilarious. It’s still just as fun as it’s always been, though now when two Lancer-wielding characters going for a chainsaw kill at the same time, they will clash in a duel and have to hammer the B button until one wins. Or you can cheat and get a teammate to chainsaw your opponent in the back which will automatically win the duel, compared to before when you’d have to wait until you’d been sawn in half before your teammate could engage. Not only are you able to chainsaw someone from behind (starting from the groin up!), there is now a whole series of unique executions. Instead of simply curb-stomping a downed enemy, you can now punch their face in, kick their head off, or use specific execution weapons which have their own animations (it’s a crying shame that Epic took out what would would been the ultimate in humiliation – ripping the enemy’s arm off and beating him to death with it). Hmm. This is probably the point where one should be made aware that this game features graphic violence and bad language, and is thus unsuitable for minors. Just so you know.
Alternatively, you can pick up a downed enemy and use him as a “meatshield”, wielding a pistol in your other hand. This is the first of many additions to your armoury. Others include the Mulcher heavy machine gun, a flame-thrower (more fun to use than its Halo 3 equivalent), the Boomshield (a metal shield carried by melee Boomers that can be planted in the ground to serve as cover) and the mortar, which rains parabolic-instant-death from the sky. There’s also the ink grenade which can be used to make an area of cover unusable, and all grenade types can now be tagged to walls to act like claymore mines.
The original game had multi-player added as an afterthought, but proved so popular with gamers that Epic resolved to patch as many glitches as possible. However, a number remained unresolved and all of these appear to have been fixed for the sequel. The “shotgun roll”, where rolling effectively makes you impervious to gunfire, is out, and the horrific advantage enjoyed by a match’s host has been mitigated. Unfortunately,the new weapons that work perfectly well in single-player unbalance multi-player quite badly. The mulcher is able to mow down entire teams with ease, and the mortar is as powerful as the Hammer of Dawn but without the warning beeps telling you to dodge or get under cover. Being able to grenade tag walls is fine in principle, except this can be mercilessly exploited by teams placing grenades on the inner doorway of a room with one entrance and just waiting for the opposing team to rush in [there was also the joy of smoke grenades knocking you over but this was later taken out]. It’s an incredibly unsportsmanlike way of playing, but years of Live experience have taught me that no one plays fair unless forced to do so.
Making criteria for the new achievements applicable across any game type is a good thing as it will remove the tendency for idiots in ranked (now referred to as “public”) matches to screw their team over. However it does give lazy people the opportunity to rack up most of them by setting up matches with the newly included bot players. Bot difficulty can be set between the game’s standard difficulty levels of Casual, Normal, Hardcore and Insane, and are useful for training or for a quick match, but the AI is….variable to say the least. A hardcore bot will be stupid enough to stand out in the razorhail on the Hail level and effectively commit suicide, whereas a bot on Insane might do exactly the same one round and in the next take out the last two members of a team using only a pistol. AI has a long way to go before it can offer the same challenge as a human player, but it’s getting there. Slowly.
Game type-wise, the existing complement of Warzone, Execution and Annex gets three new additions. The first is Submission (or Meatflag), which is similar to a standard capture-the-flag type game – two teams have to compete for a single flag and bring the flag back to their base. Except the flag is a computer-controlled human who must be downed before he can be picked up as a meatshield and carried to your base. Next is Wingman, where five teams of two compete to be the first to fifteen kills and is about as chaotic as you imagine it would be. Then Guardian, a kind of VIP-type game where one member of the team is the leader and must be executed by the opposition to win the round, and finally, the simply awesome Horde mode.
Horde mode is a co-operative multi-player game where you and up to four friends take on up to fifty waves of increasingly difficult Locust. A common tactic is to find a spot with few access points that be easily defended, then settle in and let them come. Initially, you can flank enemies and make runs for ammunition and weapons easily, but on later waves, breaking off from the group is suicidal. The tension slowly mounts up as ammunition becomes scarce and you have to weigh up the risks of making a run for ammo run or a dropped weapon for a better chance at surviving the next wave. Horde mode can be played on any of the multi-player maps and at any of the game’s five difficulty settings. Getting to Wave 50 on Normal alone will take some seriously co-ordinated effort (and possibly an exploit or two of the map’s layout), so it’s a crying shame that the achievement for surviving all fifty waves can be gained on any difficulty and no such achievement exists for the Insane level (it would have been ridiculous though. To give you an idea, I assembled a crack team of skilled players to give wave 50 on Insane a go and we lasted all of 38 seconds with zero kills. On our second attempt, we managed to inflict some damage before being wiped out again). When the single-player campaign has been done to death and playing randoms on Xbox Live becomes tiresome, Horde mode will keep you coming back for more.
If that wasn’t enough for you, downloadable content is available right now in the form of updates of the most popular multiplayer maps of the original, with the added bonus of being absolutely free. Even if you weren’t a fan of the original, Gears Of War 2 gets far more right than it gets wrong, and Horde mode alone constitutes one of the best multiplayer experiences you’ll have this year. A worthy sequel to the original and one of the best games released this year.
This review first appeared in slightly different form on the Herts & Essex Observer website (December 2008)
Nominally a first-person-shooter, Condemned 2 could be more accurately described as a first-person-mystery-survival-horror-homeless-person-beat-em-up-with-occasional-gunplay. Which just goes to show that accurate description acronyms don’t roll off the tongue as easily as FPS.
As former Serial Crimes Unit investigator and now homeless alcoholic Ethan Thomas, you are press-ganged by the SCU into hunting the killer of your former colleague, Malcolm Vanhorn. This generally involves exploring dimly-lit buildings armed only with a torch, and soiling your underwear every time a homeless guy jumps out and proceeds to bludgeon you to death with a rusty pipe, which has much in common with survival horror games such as Resident Evil (replacing ‘homeless guy’ with ‘brain munching zombie’).
Every once in a while, you come across a body or a blood trail that must be examined using your array of forensic gadgetry that includes a UV lamp and a sound spectrometer. Multiple choice questions are asked that must be answered based on your examination of the crime scene. Whilst this occasionally requires more knowledge that can be reasonably expected of a non-CSI addict, this is a surprisingly fun part of the game. Accurate assessments are rewarded with upgrades such as brass knuckles for additional melee damage, or a flak jacket for protection against bullets, though irritatingly there is no opportunity to retry a failed investigation short of restarting the level.
Guns do feature, but ammunition is often limited and soon you’ll have to fall back to Condemned 2‘s main violence dispensing mechanic – melee combat. Melee techniques are now de rigeur in FPS games, usually consisting of a single attack. Condemned 2 however features a complex system involving left or right punches, kicks, blocks, and devastating combos that can be used to stun, knock down or finish off an opponent with a Mortal Kombat-esque fatality. In addition, a wide variety of weapons can be picked up and wielded or thrown, ranging from bricks and baseball bats to more esoteric choices such as prosthetic arms and even toilet seats.
The learning curve is steep and even seasoned gamers may find themselves dying frequently until they become accustomed to the timing necessary to block and counter-attack effectively. There is an unfortunate level of inconsistency in the amount of effort required to down an enemy – some glass-jawed enemies can only take a couple of punches, whilst others seem to shrug off attacks from a sword! Nevertheless, the hand-to-hand combat is visceral and strangely enjoyable, as is the addition of “environmental kills” as quick time events, whereby Ethan can finish off an enemy by throwing them head-first into a television or through a window.
There is a palpable feeling of tension as you explore the urban decay of Ethan’s nameless city, and the game’s developers use every opportunity they can to freak out a player, from having monsters hanging on the ceiling that grab you, to enemies rushing you from behind an unexplored door in a seemingly empty room. This is one of those games where having the lights on could be considered acceptable.
Naturally multi-player gametypes are included, playable online via the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live, and supporting up to eight players. The usual suspects of Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are present and correct, as well as Bum Rush in which a team of SCU agents have to defend against the Influenced (ie the enraged homeless guys) for as long as possible. The fourth gametype is Crime Scene which again pits the SCU agents against the Influenced. The Influenced have to hide two cases of evidence which the SCU agents must find and scan before their time limit runs out. Unfortunately, latency makes a mockery of the combat system to the point where blocking becomes meaningless and the entire multiplayer aspect feels it’s been crowbarred into a perfectly adequate single-player game.
All in all, this is a highly enjoyable game. Well, assuming one gets used to the combat system, is prepared to forgive the overly cryptic puzzles that crop up every so often, doesn’t mind not being able to jump (which leads to some absurb situations where progress is blocked by a one-foot high cardboard box), and can accept the frankly bonkers SF angle that the game takes in the last few levels. That might sound overly critical, but Condemned 2 could have been a truly excellent game rather than just very good. A word to the wise: the playable demo available on Xbox Live is not a good indication of the game as a whole. Try renting the game first if you weren’t convinced, as it does get a lot better when the investigations kick in.
This review originally appeared in slightly modified form in the Herts & Essex Observer (May, 2008)