Music restrospective: The Halo Series

The Halo games have always received high praise for their musical scores, and rightfully so. The first offering to the public for the second game's soundtrack did kind of reek of cross promotion bullshit, but I even felt the Incubus stuff was kind of okay... though it did not belong on something Halo related. The second volume of Halo 2's soundtrack melted away all the annoyance at mainstream bands plugging their selves via a video game, and took an interesting approach at conveying the soundtrack in a form that made it seem as though you were listening to the entirety of the game progress forwards.
 
What has made the music in the Halo games stick out from the very start, is that it always strives to be atypical. It manages to be epic sounding without feeling trite and boring. It manages to convey alien surroundings without sounding cheesy or too off the wall. What follows is a top ten list in no particular order of my personal favorites over the entire series.
 

10: Halo: Combat Evolved: Opening Suite

Part of what did such a great job selling the game to me when I first played Halo, was listening to this play as the game started up. At the start you see the structure of Halo on the title screen as the now famous "monk chant" begins, and as you work your way through the opening sequence, there's a real tension in how calm and quiet everything is at first, before of course all hell breaks loose.
 

9: Halo 2: Mausoleum Suite

Introducing the Arbiter in 2 was a bit of a weird twist. Introducing him in a level that quickly devolves into you fighting the Flood likely didn't help with that transition. What I found interesting about this particular segment in Halo 2, was not only were they trying to convey what it was like to fight this horrible parasite, but they also transitioned a lot between the themes of the Arbiter. It combined to give off a mixture of desolation and sorrow, unlike the last game, in which Flood levels usually still had more action packed music surrounding the moments of ambiance.

8: Halo 3: ODST: Overture

Again a track that sort of works as an introduction, there's a lot at play with ODST musically. The tones of the game vary wildly while playing as the Rookie, or experiencing the flash back moments as the other ODSTs in the squad. The overture for the game does a fantastic job of giving you a taste of the "film noir" vibe, while still getting you prepped for the story that is about to unfold.
 

7: Halo 3: The Storm

The suite of music that accompanied the Storm level in Halo 3 built to a fantastic pitch. You're on your way towards a big reveal, you encounter great variations on vehicle and infantry combat, and you're first introduced to the fighting the Scarab tank. The theme that often accompanies the big set piece moments tends to be a bit formulaic, but it's never better here, and it also plays heavily off the key musical theme for Halo 3 as well.
 

6: Halo 3: ODST: Neon Night

While it wasn't my favorite ambient track for Mombasa streets, I still love the more uptempo segment, and how willing it is to throw away all the conventions of a normal Halo soundtrack for something that is outright jazzy. I also just love the introduction to any of the Mombasa streets suites, as the return to the Rookie's prospective in the campaign was also an interesting look at a very isolated person in a very unlucky situation.
 

5: Halo: Combat Evolved: The Gun Pointed At the Head of the Universe

I really love a lot of the percussion heavy stuff in Halo. This I view as being one of the signature tracks for that particular style. It doesn't completely remove a lot of the alien elements that slither their way into a lot of the music you here while exploring Halo but it takes enough of them away to give you a feeling like you're making a lot of headway as this big badass cyborg. Songs like this always tend to play when you have a clear objective, and you're just mopping up small stragglers when it comes to opposition. The way both elements come together was always really encouraging to me.
 

4: Halo 2: Mombasa Suite

One of the original selling points to Halo 2 was the fact that you would be defending Earth from the Covenant. It's too bad that invasion lasted all of a few levels, but it was still a very different experience. Musically this shows as well. All of the strange ambiance you were seemingly perpetually bombarded with in the first game dissolved into something with a much more rigid structure. While ultimately this wouldn't be the last time the game would branch in this direction, it still made quite an impact on me at the time.
 

3: Halo: Combat Evolved: Rock Anthem for Saving the World

The name is pretty damn self explanatory.
 

2: Halo 3: ODST: The Light at the End

 This song pretty much exemplifies ODST for me. The desolation of the ruined city at night, how things seem to sound more tense as you get closer to the end, how it turns all the traditional ambient themes on their head for something really different. It's not only one of my favorite pieces of music from ODST, but one of my favorite pieces of Halo music period. It simply oozes with moodiness.
 

1: Halo 3: Halo Suite

There's a real sense of finality to this suite that I enjoyed. Right from the start you get the feeling that it doesn't matter what the Chief and the Arbiter strive for, that they are already as good as dead. It switches wildly between intense music for the firefights, and the somber tones of the story drawing to its conclusion, before finally giving way to the traditional epic finale. It was strange to hear the music for this part of the game. It almost seemed disjointed the first time I played through the game. But I've come to really appreciate how it all plays out for the conclusion of the story. 
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Super Quarian Ball

 So I was having a conversation with a couple of friends today, and Mass Effect 2 came up, because me and one of my buddies are huge fans of it, and like finding any excuse we can to talk about it.

For whatever reason, we start talking about the Quarians, and one of my friends who hasn’t paid much attention to the games asks what they do in regards to giving birth and protecting their young from infection. So we start filling him in about our lame and boring knowledge that Quarians have to live in bubbles when they’re children.

Then everything went off rails when the comparison was made to the fact that Quarian children basically live in hamster balls. I suggested that playgrounds for young Quarians basically consist of configurations of half pipes and tubes…

And that of course leads me to believe that there needs to be a Super Monkey ball style game featuring Quarians.

Think about it.
 

 You are sitting on a goldmine BioWare... A GOLDMINE!


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Breaking a Sonic fan.

After the announcement of Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, I feel I should go into a detailed breakdown as to why it is just impossible for me to give a shit about Sonic the Hedgehog anymore. There are two franchises that I used to cherish more than anything. Those would be Sonic the Hedgehog, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Suppose I could break down my hatred of what Activision’s done to Tony Hawk later, but for now, a look back on how I came to gave up on Sega’s flagship series.
 

Sonic The Hedgehog

The game that introduced me to video games. My house as a kid had a NES, but I never really fiddled around with it much. It was when we got a Sega Genesis and Sonic the Hedgehog that my love affair with gaming began. It was so goddamned amazing to see in motion, to control, to play. The music, the levels, it was just so damned amazing.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

Fuck, this is great! I love this whole damn thing, aside from maybe Metropolis Zone, fuck those exploding star fish robots. Mystic Cave Zone has the best music ever. Holy turd I can turn into SUPER SONIC. I can’t even see where I’m going, okay maybe I should avoid doing that. Getting Tails murdered in brutal ways is great!

Sonic CD

This is the best video game ever made.

Sonic The Hedgehog 3

Well… okay. This isn’t as good as the other games, but it’s alright. Those barrels are a real dick move. Oh… great, I can play as Tails now, man, fuck Tails.

Sonic & Knuckles

Not a big fan of Knuckles. These levels aren’t nearly as good as anything in any of the other Sonic games, but this is still okay, I guess.

The missing years

There was awhile where I owned a Sega Saturn, but stuff like NiGHTS and Sonic R didn’t really catch on with me, the most I ever did was rent both titles… only got to really further play both quite a few years down the line.

This calm though kind of reflected my own tastes for quite some time, though. For awhile I dropped out of gaming and started to focus on collectable card games in a big way. The only gaming I got done for quite a number of years was playing a shit ton of Pokemon on my Gameboy Color. But my brother’s had a Playstation way back when so I never completely forgot about gaming. I just wasn’t into it as much as I used to be.

And then the Dreamcast came around, and my old Sega fandom started to stir in me again. The console’s launch was near my birthday, and it was obviously what I wanted more than anything in the world that year. I had to wait a few days after the launch of the console, knowing that it was somewhere in my house, locked away waiting for me.

What made the wait somewhat bearable was the fact that I broke my left thumb two weeks before the console came out. The irony was quite painful. This wonderful console with a thumb stick, and the thumb I needed to use it was a twisted mangled husk. Well, not twisted and mangled, but for whatever reason, a broken thumb requires an entire arm cast, so playing with my Dreamcast on that fabled birthday took effort.

Sonic Adventure (the beginning of the end)

Man, for a brand new entry into the Sonic the Hedgehog series for this new super awesome powerful console, this game got off to a slow start. So there’s a puddle monster, and Sonic shows up, and I have to fight the puddle monster with a terrible fucking camera. But hey, now I finally get to the beach level, and that is pretty awesome!

Right away though, something was amiss. What made me think that? Sonic’s friends. So I tried out a couple of Tails’ levels, and those were… okay. The idea of flying to take short cuts to race something was interesting, even if it wasn’t that good. Then there’s Amy Rose… and Knuckles, and E-102 Gamma, and Big the fucking Cat. There’s like two hours of Sonic, and ten hours of bullshit. The Super Sonic level annoyed me as well. I was hoping that beating everything would unlock the ability to play as Super Sonic in normal levels, but no, there’s just a one level thing that provides resolution to the game’s laughably pathetic story.

But… it was okay, right?

Whatever, my Dreamcast kept me enthralled for many different reasons, and Sonic was never one of them. Instead it was stuff like Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Crazy Taxi, and many other classic stuff.

Sonic Adventure 2

WHEN THE FUCK DO I GET TO PLAY AS SONIC?! Tails is even more lame to play now, I hate emo-Sonic, this is awful, the music sucks, when do I fucking get to play as Sonic? Rail grinding is so fucking stupid.

As odd as it is to think about, the only reason I played as much of adventure 2 as I did, was that I had the GameCube version, and my kid sister really liked playing the battle mode stuff. That was okay I guess, but the main adventure only had like two levels worth replaying.

Sonic Advance 1, 2 and 3

Sonic Advance 1 did a lot to bolster my spirits. It felt like a really good Sonic game, and I could play as Sonic through the WHOLE game! The level design wasn’t that great, looking back, and the sound in the game was pretty fucking awful on the whole, but hey, it was alright.

The second game? Not so much. Too much focus on pointless speed and rail grinding type moments, every level was the exact opposite of fun to play.

Then the third game came out, and was pretty broken, and still not fun, and still had shitty levels and audio.

Sonic Heroes

This mechanic is pretty dumb, but this first level is… okay? The game keeps going downhill though, and man, if I have to suffer through ONE more cutscene, I will fucking stab my ears and eyes out. Once I beat this game, I never touched it again, and tried to quickly forget it existed.

Sonic Battle

Alright, this game is really awesome. It’s actually really flawed, kind of janky, and unbalanced as all hell, but as a multiplayer fighter, it was great. Having a bunch of people scrambling around on that beach level with crazy powers and attacks was insane, and the ability to pick where you respawned was actually quite clever.

The single player would have been way better if it wasn’t for the insipid story being shoved down my throat.
 

Sonic Rush

This game is too automated for its own good. The fact that they have to trap you into rooms to ever have a decent fight with the enemies should have said something, but they seemed like they wanted the focus to be purely on pushing a single button and winning the game. The soundtrack however, was goddamn amazing.
 

Sonic Rush Adventure

Someone must have told Sega that Sonic Rush was purely focus on playing the levels, and thus a whole gamut of annoying bullshit had to get thrown into this sequel. The soundtrack wasn't nearly as good, and when you finally got INTO the levels, they weren't nearly as good as the first game, which already weren't that great.

Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)

Oh my god. I paid money for this. I paid united states currency for this. This is the worst thing in the universe. If you subject enemy combatants to this game, it is considered a war crime. There is nothing to enjoy in this, it is the worst product Sega has ever made.

This game *loading… loading… loading…*

Sonic Unleashed

No. No more. You know what? I quit.
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The DJ Hero Rant

To begin, I think DJ Hero has been treated somewhat unfairly, initially. Activision and Harmonix have both pretty much beaten their respective music franchises into the ground rather than bring anything new to either of them. But that seems pretty understandable, actually, considering people demand downloadable content and the ability to play any song across any future iteration. This basically leaves both companies unable to do ANYTHING different or cool. DJ Hero when it first showed up seemed like it was just sort of further putting the nail in the coffin that is peripheral based music games. I think the skepticism was given further credibility when Activision came up with an absolutely moronic price for both the normal and limited edition SKUs for the game. 
 
Still, I had a great interest in the product from the start. I suspect that a lot of that has to do with Daft Punk not only contributing material to the game, but being playable characters and having a stage location of their own as well. But the real reason I was interested, was mostly because of the music featured. The Guitar Hero and Rock Band games have done very well for rock music, and their popularity has turned them into the MTV of this generation, where a band doesn’t just need a music video and iTunes to have a break out single, but having their music being playable also makes a big impact.

But the thing that always kind of got to me was that only existed for a single style of music. While I’ll consume pretty much any kind of music, most of my adoration goes to electronic stuff, and hip-hop, two styles of music that simply cannot be represented in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. As in it is simply impossible for either game to accommodate either to a decent degree.

ROBOT ROBOT ROBOT

That’s a good reason why I’ve really fallen in love with DJ Hero, but there’s a lot more to it as well.

Now that the game is sitting at a (somewhat) sane price for entry, I hope it starts to fare better, because as I’ve delved deeper into the game, I’ve really come to the conclusion that any initial skepticism is pretty undeserved.

Something that does stick out as a bit of an annoyance though, is the game does feel a lot like a “first generation” title. The menus aren’t handled too well, you can’t trick out a character of your own, and are instead given a rather odd and eclectic mix of characters to roll with, and beyond that, you just have the music tracks. Building set lists of your own to play is also kind of odd and poorly planned out with the UI, and it’s kind of annoying that you have to build a set list to play anything. You can’t just pick a song and roll with it.

But to get back to me throwing an almost creepy amount of love to the title, the part where you’re actually looking at the note highway, playing along with the music, is simply superb.

Actual DJ work is obviously nothing like what is presented in the game. I mean, the damn platter has colored buttons on it. But I don’t really see that as a valid argument against the game, considering that the only thing even remotely represented with some degree of accuracy in music games is drumming. But I guess I can kind of see where some pessimism comes from in this case, as the art of mastering a turn table is far more abstract, while the nature of music games is less so, and more about trying to recreate what has already been done.

But playing the game removes all of those concerns for me. The controller is mostly fine, and physically, the game evokes exactly what it needs to, in that it makes me feel really connected to the music. Slamming the cross fader side to side and listening to the individual tracks take and lose focus, and scratching and using the effects dial, it does just what Guitar Hero did way back when, in that while not at all representative of what you need to do to create such sounds in reality, the act of playing the game still makes you feel in some way that you are directly responsible for what is going on.

A lot of the credit needs to go out to the way Freestyle Games handled music in this game. Actually sitting behind a turn table isn’t really relevant to what it means to be a DJ these days, (in fact Daft Punk’s custom set up is slightly odd in the game because they don’t have turn tables on their deck) so the solution? Mashups. Sounds like a lame way for things to play out, as mashups are also pretty irrelevant at this point. But actually… a lot of the mashups featured in the game are pretty damn good.

There’s also some mixes that allow for a second player to use a guitar controller to play along with you… but these mixes are kind of all over the place, and it’s annoying in that the good ones can’t be played in a normal set list, you have to either play all guitar songs in a set, or just normal mixes. Also kind dumb is that you get an AI to play the guitar track even if you’re going solo, which reduces the reel estate you have on the screen, which is dumb, considering NO ONE IS THERE playing the guitar part of the mix.

There are some duds in the regular stuff as well though, and some mixes that are just too odd to work, but the majority of the mashups are pretty damn good. Notable stand outs include Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” versus the Gorillaz “Feel Good Inc,” Daft Punk’s “Television Rules the Nation” versus No Doubt’s “Hella Good,” and Rihanna’s “Disturbia” versus Kid Sister’s “Control.” Those are just a few of the choice tracks though. Pretty much anything involving Daft Punk is fantastic. Did I mention Daft Punk is in this game, and that you can play as them? Because Daft Punk is in this game, and you can play as them.

Something that also strikes me with this game, and its mashup nature, is simply how creative the team behind it is allowed to be. Obviously asking any artist to hand over their music to allow someone else to do whatever they want with it in their own product had to have been a hurdle, but with a game like this, the gameplay can be far more flexible than it can in a Guitar Hero or Rock Band title. In those games, the note highways have to represent a given song as well as they can, and they can’t change anything about the song. With DJ Hero, I imagine that if a mix isn’t strong enough, or appears too easy in the game when the music suggests a more fast paced tone, the developers are free to change the songs their selves to accommodate what they think should be represented in the game.

It’s an interesting advantage DJ Hero has over other music games. But it would still be crap if the mixes and gameplay sucked. That makes me really appreciate what a confusing game this must have been to work on. To take a very nebulous concept, and not only make it fun to play, but fun to listen to, seems like a very large uphill battle.

Another thing that strikes me, which EVERY music game should do now, without any excuse, is the entire game is in no fail mode. I could start playing on expert difficulty right now, and never have to worry about getting kicked out of a set list. Indeed, the entire game seems very encouraging all the time, while stuff like Guitar Hero and Rock Band for whatever reason always seem to strive to be as punitive as possible, demanding nothing less than perfection. Even the tutorial in the game is meant to make you feel empowered, with all of your lessons being very enthusiastically guided by Grand Master Flash.

HUMAN HUMAN HUMAN
Something I find disdainful about the current state of music games is stuff like failing out. It’s an entirely “video game” based convention that doesn’t belong in a genre that tries to preach about being open and casual. DJ Hero seems to be the first game to get this, as the game never has a condescending thought sputtered out to the player. Only got one star on a mix on easy mode? Who gives a shit? You still have tracks dropping in and out when you screw up, but I can forgive that, as it’s a tactile thing to feel when you’re trying to regain your footing in a track. Either way though, ifyou just crumble out of nowhere in the middle of a song, it’s nice to know I don’t have to replay the ENTIRE song over again, just to master one phase of it. 

Downloadable content may be an area where Rock Band succeeds, but I doubt a lot of DLC will end up rolling out for DJ Hero. It’s annoying (more annoying is how Activision has priced the current DLC for the game) but considering the nature of the game being all mashups, and significantly more work needing to go into each set list, I can kind of see why. I just hope the game doesn’t fall off the radar because of a lack of support.
 
All in all, DJ Hero has made me very obviously take back what I said about being really annoyed at the current state of music rhythm games. If anything, it’s given me a love and adoration for the genre that I haven’t had since the first Guitar Hero game came around. Any time something annoying pops up with the game, it instantly falls to the wayside, as I get into that tunnel vision like zombie mode of paying attention to nothing but the note highway, and the music.

Still sitting in that frame of mind, the idea of turning a concept as strange and odd as DJ Hero into a tangible thing, that not only manages to be playable, but fun, still strikes me retroactively as a really weird uphill battle. I would have loved to see what the years of development on this title were like, as in the end, the game comes together wonderfully.

Just too bad Activision’s in charge and fucked the game out of success with a horrific initial price. I guess I can always hope the sequel does better?

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