I love voice acting. Being heard and not seen permits an actor much more freedom to experiment, yet it also challenges them, as without the visual aspect of their performance, there is much more for them to convey with their voice. To me, listening to good voice acting, like listening to good music, is a euphoric experience. On the other hand, bad voice acting is something I find positively galling.
Now, as a part-time anime fan and a part-time video games fan, I find myself bombarded with bad voice acting on a perpetual basis. Maybe there is a shortage of money being channeled into this particular facet of production? Nevertheless, I quite regularly come across a performance that I feel is worthy of my praise, and perhaps for the fact that these are relatively scarce, I tend to get very vocal when I do.
Rather than ramble on incoherently, I shall focus my criticism on Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines, a game that has kept me busy for many nights lately, and while it has both amazed and grated me with the quality of its voice acting at times, I am pleased to announce that in general the quality is pretty good. As I fancy myself something of an optimist, I choose to concentrate on its strengths, and as such, will begin by listing my top three favourite actors/roles below.
Andy Milder as Prince Sebastian LaCroix
J. Grant Albrecht as Dr Alistair Grout
Karis Campbell as The Deb of Night
Prince Sebastian LaCroix
My choice of LaCroix did not come easy, as he is easily one of the characters I hate the most. But then, it is the very fact that I despise him so that prompted me to consider him. Why do I loathe him so? He is a pompous, cold-hearted, self-centred, backstabbing bureaucrat... and Andy Milder does a terrific job personifying those qualities, while still keeping the character believable.
While I doubt the player is ever expected to sympathize with the tyrant, we are nevertheless treated to a broader palette of LaCroix's emotions than any other character in the game – and delivered with point-blank precision across the board. His triumphant blusters, his fits of rage, his moments of weakness... We see him lose his composure and recollect his dignity, we see him quietly muse at the window of his office as he verbally justifies his actions, and not once does the actor miss the mark.
Oddly enough, I did hear Milder pronounce "can" as "kahn" once or twice in the Prince's ranting, but these are matters of accent mimicking, and who can speak with authority as to the accent of a vampire who has lived long enough to have served in Napoleon's ranks? This is something for which I would ridicule a bad performance, but there is so little else to fault with Milder's portrayal of the Camarilla boss that I can easily tolerate it.
Dr Alistair Grout
A close contender for the first place is J. Grant Albrecht as Alistair Grout. Unlike LaCroix, Grout never makes an appearance in Bloodlines. In fact, the entirety of his character built through a series of voice tapes that the player's character discovers in the Malkavian mansion. Even so, a combination of good writing and excellent voice direction makes what little material is available more than enough to leave a powerful impression in the listener's mind.
I will admit that I have a soft spot for dramatic acting, and for the portrayal of mentally unstable characters in particular. There is something to be said for an actor that can cast away his inhibitions and place himself in the shoes of someone who steadily loses his grip on reality, and it is just that that Albrecht does so well as the Malkavian primogen.
The writers intentionally gave Grout uncomfortably long sentences, and Albrecht speaks them as if they eminate from his own subconscious. The actor paces himself well, with Grout's ramblings becoming ever more urgent and frantic as he succumbs to the voices in his mind, yet reserving enough humanity to communicate a tenderness in his voice when Grout makes mention of his dear wife. In the final tape, Albrecht brings Grout's rantings to a terrifying climax as he delivers a portent of impending doom.
Five stars for Albrecht. Interestingly, this actor has a couple more roles in Bloodlines, each of them unique and well acted, though none of them reach such heights as his work for Grout.
The Deb of Night
It was a difficult choice, but I have decided to settle for Karis Campbell as the Deb of Night for third place. Campbell is commendable for her realistic portrayal of a radio hostess, and a good radio hostess at that. Perhaps the actress had prior experience in this line of work? While Deb as a character has a very limited range of emotions to express, her snappy comebacks, knowing witticisms and seductive tones are so well rendered that one might easily forget that they aren't listening to a real radio broadcast.
I am particularly fond of her exchange with the Tsimiche. Deb's voice is cool as cucumber soup, as is to be expected from one who has to deal with all sorts of perverted callers every night. Another favourite of mine is the conversation about what qualifies one as a writer; Campbell has good synergy with the other actors here, and again the end product might believably have come from a real live radio program (and again, this is as much a result of good acting as it is of good writing).
I do believe a special mention is in order for Grey DeLisle as Therese /Jeanette Voerman, if nothing else for how well she handled the duality of her role. Not only did she pull off two distinct voices for the two personalities that actually have a verbal showdown at one point (something that always intrigues me), but she also kept them close enough so that when the truth is revealed, the player can have no doubt that they have been coming from the same set of vocal cords all along.
John Di Maggio deserves mention for his portrayal of Smiling Jack, a character who does little more than crack jokes and explain things. I imagine the game's tutorials would be much less interesting were it not for the voice actor's comical take on his character. Phil LaMarr really pulls his weight as Fat Larry, whom I found to be the most entertaining merchant in the game. There are also some good performances by Neil Ross (as Gary), Nika Futterman (as Velvet) and Keone Young (as the Mandarin).
The Hall of Shame
The cast of Bloodlines is, sadly, not without its failures. Thankfully, most of these fall squarely into the category of "minor character" (and many seem to reside within Chinatown as well, though I will endeavour not to let actors with bad Asian accents overrun this section).
Allow me to start off with the worst offender, the "actress" for Yukie Ogami. I will try to stay focused on my criticism of the actress, though it must be said that, perhaps due to my own familiarity with Japanese, I consider the writing for this character particularly bad (in both languages). Her acting, if it can be termed such, is atrocious. I would not be surprised if it turns out the developers picked a random anime fan claiming to know something about Japanese pronunciation (which, in fact, she does not). And then there is that horrible buzz in all of Yukie's voice files, which I have trouble imagining why the sound team let it go to production.
You will note that none of the actors I have given positive mention do that terrible thing where they sound like they are (and most likely are) reading their lines for the first time. This is something that might not be obvious at the time of recording, where lines may be provided out of context, but it is usually very noticeable in the final product, where the intention behind the spoken words becomes obscured by misplaced emphasis, misleading intonation of voice, etc. This can be quite trying for those who wish to immerse themselves in the game world. Another bad habit among voice actors, I find, involves putting emphasis on almost every word. This happens perhaps especially among those that enjoy disguising their voices.
One actor who persistently makes both of these mistakes, is Michael Gough. In Bloodlines, he is the voice of the lone wolf Beckett – which is a shame, as Beckett is one of my favourite characters. (This is not the first time Gough voices my favourite character either; he also provided the voice of Tassadar in the original StarCraft.) Gough is good at changing his voice, I shall grant him that. This is well demonstrated within Bloodlines by his portrayal of another quite eccentric character, Stanley Gimble. Nevertheless, it seems Gough refuses to attach any sense of context to his lines, something he has failed to do since the days of the original Diablo (where he first voiced Cain the Elder).
Having highlighted the best and the worst, I am quite impressed with the quality of the voice work in Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines. This no doubt contributes to the rich atmosphere of the game that keeps many players enthralled even today. I hope this is a sign that the standards for voice acting in games are rising.
When I made my first blog post here (which also happened to be my first blog on any site ever), I thought I would do a series of entries, each about a different game franchise or a feature common separate games. That was almost a year ago, and obviously I never got that far. Instead, since I've been getting more and more into StarCraft II lately, I think I'll dedicate an entry to that. Before I go on, I would just like to note that I'm not a good player by any stretch of the imagination, and neither do I play that much, but everybody has to start somewhere, right?
First of all, I would like to introduce you all to my second cousin T0ng. Unlike me, he has never played the original StarCraft, but then my experience in that game is limited to casual Versus AI games, and T0ng has the benefit of having played a greater variety of other RTS games. Whereas I've played Protoss right from my days in the original, he jumped straight into Terran, and it wasn't long before he was comfortable with them, and I've found that we complement each other pretty well.
After T0ng and I practiced the hell out of Versus AI games in SC2, I decided to dedicate the measly remainder of my Practice League matches to testing our teamwork against other novice players before finally mustering the courage and breaking the barrier into the competitive scene. Just the other night, we had our five placement matches, and here's the gist of what happened.
This match, where we played a team of Protoss players on a lava map whose name escapes me at the moment, was quite an eye-opener for the two of us. Now, I have to confess... Before playing our placement matches, we agreed that we would lose all of them and get placed in Bronze League so that we can work our way up from the bottom. We would play a relaxed, defensive game and wait for the enemy to inevitably come and crush us – that was the plan. However, things did not turn out that way.
In the beginning, we had a few laughs when I chased the enemy's scout probe around with one of mine, but when I survived an early attack by an outnumbering force of Zealots by making surprisingly good use of my ramp, I started to become emotionally invested in the game. I was still working on getting my fourth Warp Gate up when the enemy pushed again, this time with a forward Pylon. T0ng and I fought back desperately and managed to destroy the Pylon, driving the enemy away. Now, my instincts told me to pursue, as we had a sizable combined army, but T0ng reminded me that we meant to ultimately lose the match, so we held back.
I was getting quite nervous at this point. Because there were no Xel'Naga towers near the centre of the map, I sent a probe to patrol the area, just to keep a lookout. When I saw the enemy expanding there, I told T0ng that we absolutely had to stop them from taking the middle, and we sent our forces in to engage them, completely abandoning our game plan. It was a massive battle, the likes of which I had only had in Versus AI games prior. The whole screen was full of Zealouts, Sentries, Stalkers, Marines, Marauders and Medivacs. When the dust cleared, the enemy was retreating with a couple of crippled Stalkers. Without another thought, we sent the remainder of our forces into the heart of their base, and before I could even establish a forward Pylon to speed up reinforcements, both of our enemies had surrendered. That was when my cousin and I burst into nervous laughter, both because we had exceeded our own expectations, and at our own stupidity of going all-out in a game we had meant to lose.
Matches 2 through 4
Worried that we might get placed into a league too strong for us if we kept this up, T0ng and I agreed to play a lot more risky in the four remaining games so that we don't end up winning by accident again. Of course, we knew there were opponents out there that could kick our asses even if we tried to win, but we didn't want to get fluked into Gold or Diamond something. Matches 2 and 3 I hardly remember because they were pretty straightforward. We went for early expansions, dove into battles we knew we couldn't win, that sort of thing.
Something amusing happened in the fourth match, though. I again messed up half-on-purpose by grabbing an early expansion and teching for Dark Templar, while T0ng seemed to go for his usual Marines and Marauder opener. We were playing a Terran and a Zerg that game, I remember. They broke through our defences and wiped our my expansion, though we still had some fight left in us. That's when one of the opponents typed, "GG". This kind of rubbed me the wrong way, the way they assumed the game was as good as over. They were probably right, but I still felt we could make a recovery. So I warped in my three Dark Templar and cut down about half the Roaches in my base before he noticed they were dying and burrowed. Up went a Photon Cannon, and the Roaches ran away crying.
We managed to survive quite a while this way, and with T0ng's backup we took down another Terran army, Siege Tanks and all, Scanner Sweep notwithstanding. I actually jokingly typed "GG" back at them, which probably seemed a lot funnier at the time because of my nerves. But when I found myself investing all of my resources in Dark Templar, I knew I was only fooling around. I had some fun playing hide and seek with the enemy's Infestors, but soon all I could do was slip through a couple of templar and kill the workers at one of his expansions as their overwhelming forces decimated my and T0ng's bases. We didn't feel too bad, though. We had intended to lose, after all.
Our final placement match was another curveball. We played a team of Protoss and Terran, but this Terran had some mean Banshee harassment tactics in store for us. We survived the first attack or two quite well, and thanks to my incorporation of Immortals into my army, we were able to take the middle of the map from them. This was, however, when the Banshees started raining bombs on our workers.
Having three Warp Gates at my disposal, and quickly building a fourth, I was fortunate enough to warp a detachment of Stalkers straight into the trouble zone and do some damage control. My expansion was close to my main base as well, which made it easier to chase off those pesky bombers. T0ng, however, was not as fortunate. He had lost all of his workers in the bombing run, and for some strange reason he had opted for a golden mineral deposit further away instead of a safer, closer expansion site. This expo was promptly discovered by the Protoss player's observer and demolished by his Stalker-heavy army. T0ng surrendered, and I felt the urge to follow suite. I had an army of eight Immortals with a reasonable accompaniment of Stalkers, Sentries and Zealots – the group that couldn't get to his expanion in time. I wanted to at least sick 'em on the enemy before quitting.
Well, I sent them to engage the Protoss opposition, and guess what? I completely wiped them out! In my panic, it had slipped my mind that Immortals make minced meat of Stalkers due to their damage bonus against armoured targets. Not only that, but their heavy shields also gave them protection against the Banshee's bombs. To my surprise, I was able to grab a third expansion and send them just enough reinforcements to demolish both opponents' bases. After a short game of cat-and-mouse, the enemy surrendered with a polite "GG", and I was greeted in the lobby by a raging T0ng, who was still convinced we had lost. I'll never forget the sound of his voice when I told him that we had actually won.
So in the end, T0ng and I were placed in Silver League. We haven't been able to get together and play since our placement yet, but I look forward to the new challenges that lie ahead of us. I have no idea what kind of opposition to expect in Silver, but even if we're "out of our league" here, I'm sure it's only a matter of time until the game moves us back to where we belong. For now, though, that's Division Tarsonis Foxtrot!
For many Sonic fans, the classic Mega Drive games remain the best in the franchise, and I readily count myself among these fans. That said, I have noted a tendency for Sonic 2 to rank above the others when fans are discussing their old favourites, a prospect which I found interesting, considering that, as much as I love that game myself, I have always placed it below Sonic 1 and Sonic 3 on my list. This realization beckoned me to launch an investigation into the reasons for my own preferences, and thus this wonderful little post was born.
Below is my ranking for the classic series entries Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. The latter two I have merged into a single entry, for I have always considered them to be a single game, and ever since the very first time I locked Sonic 3 onto my Sonic & Knuckles cartridge, I have yet to play either of them standalone again.
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles
Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
At first when I tried to puzzle out the reasons for this preference of mine, I tried to make a list of reasons for each game's placement. The fact is, I love each of these games dearly, from the music to the level design. Therefore, I thought it would be easier to break the bigger question into two smaller ones. Firstly, what is it that I love about Sonic 3 & Knuckles so much over the other games. Secondly, and perhaps more curiously, what makes me choose the original Sonic over Sonic 2?
Why do I love Sonic 3 & Knuckles so much?
This game, to my mind, is the ultimate evolution of the other two, and one of the main reasons for my frequent disappointment with later Sonic games is that they fail to extend upon Sonic 3&K the way it built on its predecessors.
First of all, something that many might take for granted is Tails's ability to fly. Even though this ability was demonstrated in Sonic 2 when the second player went too far off-screen, it only became available to the player in Sonic 3. The character was clearly designed with this behaviour in mind, so it seems only natural that this be implemented. Also, the ability to lift Sonic makes Tails a much greater asset when playing with a friend.
Another important factor that sets Sonic 3&K ahead of the others is the ingenuity that went into the shields; the flame shield, the water shield and the lightning shield. Perhaps I simply have a fondness for the classic elements, but I thought these were very well thought out. Every shield has a "passive" ability (the flame shield resists fire attacks, the water shield allows you to breathe under water, and the lightning shield resists lightning attacks and acts as a ring magnet) as well as an "active" ability (the flame shield propels you forward, the water shield lets you bounce and the lightning shield grants you a double jump). It is the attentive detail that went into these, such as the flame and lightning shields wearing off in water, that makes this feature astound and inspire. As a child, I used to always dream about wind shields and earth shields!
Perhaps one of the most obvious new features of Sonic 3&K is the facility to save your progress. This meant players no longer had to start over when they got tired, stumbled upon a bug or the power got interrupted. I was shocked to see this feature disappear in Sonic 3D Blast (which failed to even make this list for many reasons, but that's a different story altogether).
I'll be frank. I love Sonic 3's special stages. This is another example of a very clever and creative idea that sets this game apart from other entries into the series. The simple rules for turning blue spheres into red spheres and for changing a group of spheres into rings allowed players the option of either taking the easier route and simply going for the emerald, or putting their skills to the test in hunting for the way to gather the most rings from the formations presented them. It's pure logic, and boy do I love logic!
The addition of bonus stages (as opposed to special stages that rewarded the player with chaos emeralds) is another welcome innovation and added greatly to the fun factor of the game. My personal favourite is the Glowing Spheres stage, which is littered with goodies, and a special reward for those who make it to the top. The Gumball Machine stage was hard to score in, but you could always expect to walk away with at least a shield. The Slot Machine stage was a lot more risky, as one actually stood the chance to lose rings, so I used to only warp into these to grab a continue and be on my way.
Last but not least, the introduction of Knuckles as both an antagonist and later a playable character was a stroke of genius in and of itself. Not simply for the addition of an original character, which later sequels have demonstrated cannot redeem a game by itself (of course, in my opininion, character designs have become increasingly crappy of late, what with all the Sonic clones and such). No, as with most of Sonic 3's merits, Knuckles's strength lies in his design. In contrast to Robotnik, Knuckles is tailored to appear as if he is bound to the same constraints as Sonic and Tails, which makes him an ideal rival. Indeed, his showdown with Sonic in the Hidden Palace Zone is epic exactly because of this. Furthermore, as a playable character, Knuckles is denied the ability to fly with Tails, but with his own gliding and climbing skills, provides the player with a unique experience still.
What makes me choose the original Sonic over Sonic 2?
Verbalising the reasons I like Sonic 1 more than Sonic 2 is difficult, especially as I find that nostalgia plays a very prominent role here. I can safely say that the gap between Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 is not as large as the one between Sonic 1 and Sonic 3, and as I'll describe below, can be attributed mostly to trivialities.
First and foremost, let me address the nostalgia issue. Yes, this was the very first Sonic game, and one that set the standard for platform games to follow, including its own successors. It was the game that vivified the Mega Drive, and it was my very first game on this console. Therefore, I admit that I am biased in favour of this game. Nothing could ever take its place. However, I would expect the nostalgia to be present just as strongly in my fellow Sonic fans, many of whom appear to favour Sonic 2. Therefore, there must be other factors affecting my judgment.
Another reason might be the special stages. Disorientating as they may be, I found I prefer them to those of Sonic 2. The nature of Sonic 1's special stages allowed it more diversity than those in Sonic 2. In the latter game, the character runs down a speedway that is identical to every other in everything but colour, and with slight variations in bomb positioning. Not only did I find Sonic 2's special stages repetitive, but I also found them frustrating, as at times the runway would block the player's view, leaving them helpless. I remember purposely not warping from star posts because to me the game was more fun without them.
Not only that, but when I finally get all the Chaos Emeralds in Sonic 2, I am forced to play the game as Super Sonic whenever my rings reach 50. This makes some parts of the game easier and other parts more difficult, it's not very nice to Tails when you're having a second player, and worst of all, I have to listen to the same annoying tune all the time while I'm missing so much of the game's beautiful music. In Sonic 1, I can go for the emeralds without worrying about a stinking "reward" like this spoiling the game.
In retrospect, I think it's mostly the special stages that put me off Sonic 2. If it weren't for that and the nostalgia, I'd probably rank Sonic 1 and Sonic 2 together. Sonic 3, however, is simply such a vast improvement on its predecessors that I think it will be my favourite forever. So many ideas went into that game. In my opinion, throwing that away (like just about all the later games do) is like taking Sonic back to the Stone Age.