Monday, September 30, 2013

Fringe (2008-2013)


Fringe takes about two full seasons before it gets really good. Admittedly, it's asking a lot to expect viewers to stick around that long. I can't think of too many shows that run for 30+ mediocre hours before really hitting their stride and becoming awesome. I'd like to say that's because I don't usually stay with mediocre shows that long, but, really, it's because that just doesn't happen. But I honestly do feel Fringe is one of those rare shows where the investment pays off. And, since this is a show that has already concluded its five-season run, you can bear with that first season-and-a-half with my assurance (whether or not that instills you with confidence) that it will improve. I certainly can't make the same guarantee with something current, like Revolution, a mediocre-at-best show that might become good if it makes it to a third season (though it would seriously surprise me if either of those things happened).

Clearly modeled after The X-Files, Fringe is a science fiction show about a division of the FBI dedicated to investigating cases of the paranormal. It is, for the most part, a "case of the week" show, although there are also season-spanning story arcs, and eventually it becomes more serialized. The procedural aspect is what makes the show sometimes a drag for me, as I tend to prefer serialized shows that allow their characters to really grow and change, and where each week's episode feels consequential because it's contributing to the momentum of a larger story. It's that sense of reward for being a loyal week-to-week viewer (which I am), as opposed to a show where I could skip an episode and not feel I had missed anything (or, worse, where I could watch an episode and not feel I had gotten anything out of it). And this is even more so a problem when going through shows at an accelerated pace. I don't know why anyone would ever binge-watch a strictly procedural show devoid of cliffhangers, but Fringe has enough overarching threads running through each season to entice viewers to keep tuning in expectantly for the next development, only to find that standing in the way is another mostly standalone case. Consumed in lengthy multi-episode sessions (which is how I did it), Fringe can feel full of filler, even though, in fact, the "filler" episodes weren't originally filler, because the show was originally conceived of and designed as a procedural. And, indeed, some of the standalone episodes are quite good. In fact, I would say that the very best episode in the series is largely a standalone episode. (I won't even bother specifying which episode, because if you've seen Fringe, then you surely know which episode I'm talking about, and if you haven't, then you will know immediately once you get to that episode.)

There are also, of course, plenty of weak standalone stories in Fringe, and the majority of them are just mediocre television, the only really neat aspect being that most of the cases have some basis in real science and can actually be mildly instructive. I confess, for most of the first two seasons, Fringe was a show I had on in the background while multitasking, rather than something I gave my full attention.

What eventually elevates Fringe to "really good" status is not a single great standalone episode but the longer arcs that, again, pay off in ways that The X-Files, among other shows, never did. A lot of serialized shows center around a single hook, introduced at the outset—a goal or destination for the characters, a fated union or confrontation, or the answer to a mystery—which an entire season or even series then builds toward. I can think of very few shows where that long-awaited moment has ever lived up to all the buildup. Actually, I think most such shows get canceled in the middle of still stringing viewers along with that "raise two new questions with every answer" nonsense. Fringe actually doesn't begin with a central mystery. It presents a few ultimately insignificant mysteries right off the bat, but it's not until near the end of the first season that it teases something potentially really cool, which is—SPOILER—the existence of an alternate universe, complete with alternate versions of most of the main characters. Then, it's not until the end of the second season that the show finally takes viewers into that other universe, but, when it happens, the moment really is, for once, as cool as the teases suggested.

When the third season fully runs with the parallel dimensions premise, that's when Fringe finally becomes more than an X-Files clone and finds it own unique high concept as a story exploring both sides of a spy game waged between mirror universes. Having episodes alternate between universes is clever, but the best part is seeing the actors play alternate versions of their characters. I've mentioned before that one of my favorite aspects of The Vampire Diaries is how Nina Dobrev manages to play two different characters and make each distinctly compelling. It's the same on Fringe, where Anna Torv, after developing one character over the course of two seasons, is given the chance to play an alternate version of that character, and she runs with that opportunity to establish the alternate as a distinct character, with her own personality and mannerisms, who is completely compelling in her own right.

With its third season, Fringe even feels like a show at last made whole by the addition of the alternate universe and alternate characters, as some of the alternates feel like the main characters' latent other halves. Torv, as Agent Olivia Dunham, is a brilliant and relentless detective, but, emotionally guarded, she seems to need her job even more than it needs her. John Noble, as Doctor Walter Bishop, is a mad scientist of considerable genius, but who often trails off into goofy non sequiturs about drugs and sweets. In the early goings, Olivia can come across cold, while Walter's antics can be a little too out there and tiresome. Flip over to their alternates, however, and "Fauxlivia" is freer, more vivacious than Olivia, even carrying herself with a more relaxed and open posture, while "Walternate" is a dignified, even imposing leader of men. Not only do you realize how versatile these actors are but it's an insightful observation on how people are more layered than what we see on the surface and how they present themselves, as the story explores how and why these characters might choose differently which layers of themselves to push to the fore.

It's also around this point that the show becomes considerably more serialized, although the breakdown is not as clean as "this number of standalone episodes versus that number of mythology episodes per season." Rather, the "case of the week" episodes come to include more and more time devoted to advancing the characters' relationships, which, in concert with the really cool alternate universe angle, provide the hook that eventually elevates Fringe far beyond its initial procedural trappings.

On The X-Files, the Mulder-and-Scully romance was really of tertiary importance, and yet it always loomed awkwardly as a threat to the integrity of that show's formula. Fringe is, from the outset, more direct and honest about where it wants to take its characters. The story is surprisingly high on romance and sentimentality, and it works because, even when the writing skates the line between heartfelt and manipulative, the actors perform with sincerity and always hit the right notes. As with the show as a whole, the characters take some time to grow on you, but the leads eventually prove themselves worth rooting for. By the end, I had an atypically strong emotional investment in their fates, not just tuning in to see cool twists but in hopes of a well-earned happy ending. Part of that probably does have to do with the fact that nothing ever comes easy for these characters, as the story only gets progressively darker and heavier.

No, it's not high art. Fringe was created by J.J. Abrams, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman—the same creative team behind the rebooted Star Trek film series. Abrams was probably more involved with Fringe than he was with Lost, as he was still writing Fringe episodes as late as the second season premiere. Orci and Kurtzman were minimally involved past the conception, with Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman being the day-to-day showrunners. But Fringe certainly feels of a breed with the new Star Trek, as here too we get the sense that this is a team of yayhoos that can churn out a cool scene or a neat twist but who aren't exactly aspiring to craft literature. As fun as the story becomes, it's also consistently sketchy, in the sense that questions are constantly being raised that the writers simply never address. These aren't mysteries, but rather instances, where, if you really care to question a given premise, you'll realize that it simply doesn't make sense. For example, the alternate universe is decades more technologically advanced than ours, but why is that the case? Where was the divergence, and, given the butterfly effect, why didn't the divergence yield two universes even more disparate than they are? But, no, there never is a reason given. We're asked to just accept it as part of the premise and then enjoy the ride from there. The ride is enjoyable, but, even so, there are tons of unanswered questions just like this throughout the course of the show, and they do bug me. On top of that, there are also the intended mysteries that aren't satisfactorily resolved, either because of production issues (e.g. guest actors' schedules) or because they're clearly just making things up as they go along. Even in the near-miraculous instances when things do come together quite intricately, these guys are not afraid to push the reset button a la Star Trek (2009) and callously wipe out tons of history from a series, which is kind of really irritating to me (not to mention it raises serious existential and moral questions that seem to have sailed right over the writers' heads).

But the mythology, however sketchy, is interesting to explore, and the show is executed with a wealth of inventive ideas. Composer Chris Tilton, who, like Michael Giacchino, paid his dues doing video game music, also bestows the score with an emotional depth that adds a lot of weight to this entertaining ride. And the plot twists are both cool and quite ballsy. The half-length final season, a go-for-broke sprint, even seems to take a page from the darkest chapter of Dollhouse, of all shows. (Speaking of which, it's hard to believe, but, with Fringe being contemporaneous with, albeit longer-lived than, both Dollhouse and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fox actually had three of the more cult science fiction shows of recent years running at the same time.) Fringe is flawed, but, once it finds its rhythm, it becomes a captivating, unique, and unexpectedly affecting show that is well worth spending 100 episodes with (or at least 70).

Oh, one warning, if you're planning to watch the whole series for the first time: On Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, there is a "bonus" episode, "Unearthed," that plays after the first season finale. On Netflix, I believe it is positioned right after the season finale, and, on Amazon Instant Video, it is found in the middle of the second season. Aside from being the worst episode in the entire series, it actually takes place in the middle of the first season, and placing it in season 2 presents glaring continuity errors. There's a weird story behind the production of this episode—basically, Fox ordered 23 episodes to fill 22 slots in the season 1 schedule, so the production team filmed "Unearthed" as an extra episode and left it to Fox to air whenever—and it originally aired on TV as a special during the second season, but if you plan to watch it at all, I would recommend you schedule it after episode 18, "Midnight." It's a bad episode to begin with, but if you watch it in the Netflix order, it will more than likely not only confuse you but royally piss you off. At least, that was my unfortunate experience.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Feed Me Diamonds" (MNDR, Feed Me Diamonds, 2012)

In a baffling story last week, DJ Alex C. debuted a new song and accompanying music video, "Feed Me Diamonds" (featuring Lisa Rowe), released through Kontor Records. The problem is that the song is actually MNDR's, but Alex C. and Kontor haven't credited MNDR, and, according to Amanda Warner (AKA MNDR), she isn't receiving any royalties. In other words, they basically plagiarized MNDR's work. It's enough to get Warner, normally one of the coolest (like, chillest) people on the Internet, pretty upset.

It always astounds me when people who should be professionals somehow delude themselves into thinking they can get away with this sort of thing, but what's especially bizarre in this case is that Alex Christensen (AKA Jasper Forks (AKA Alex C.)) is actually a fairly well-known and successful dance music producer in Germany, and Kontor, although its ghetto website seems all kinds of shady to me, has been associated with some legit acts. Lisa Rowe, featured vocalist on the Alex C. version, is a still-aspiring artist, and the only one who has so far publicly responded to the plagiarism claims, basically by saying on Twitter that she doesn't know anything. I'm willing to believe her, since she's essentially nobody, and it's entirely within the realm of possibility that she just accepted a job without asking too many questions. But you'd think Alex C. and Kontor would know better. If they're going to play the "just accepted a job without asking too many questions" defense, that's really no more an excuse at their level than knowingly plagiarizing.

What makes me sad about this whole affair is that Warner, although she already has a following and can be plenty proud of what she's achieved so far, is herself still at a level where, as an artist, she could really benefit from any bit of positive buzz or kudos. Alex C. (or whoever the hell is behind this—I'll say that one really suspicious element of the video is that all of Christensen's appearances seem like they could have been spliced in from old footage of him) might have credited MNDR for this song he obviously appreciated enough to cover, but instead he just stole it and passed it off as his own. I'm guessing the YouTube video won't stay up much longer, as the sham has been quickly exposed, but it has already generated hundreds of thousands of views and many positive comments by clueless Germans. They've been selling the song on German iTunes and Amazon. One wannabe DJ has even uploaded his own remix of, ugh, "Alex C.'s 'Feed Me Diamonds'" to YouTube.

Well, the story is still developing, so, who knows, maybe there could be some really crazy twist yet to be revealed (like, maybe someone on MNDR's team did sign off on this, but they failed to loop her in on it). In the meantime, I'll just take this moment to share MNDR's original (and, frankly, vastly superior) version of "Feed Me Diamonds":

[soundcloud url="" params="" width=" 100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

Plus, a bonus video, courtesy of Sarah Laird & Good Company, of MNDR performing the song live with a string ensemble on the Late Show with David Letterman:

As someone who, at one point, worked with gemstones (like, professionally), I often wondered, while snapping myself awake from workplace drowsiness, what would happen if someone were to swallow a diamond. The mineral forms at temperatures that would melt a human being whole, so I wouldn't imagine there's anything inside the human body strong enough to break it down. Would the stone then just tear its way through one's digestive system? That, in fact, was MNDR's inspiration in writing the song, as she explained to Spin ("MNDR Breaks Down 'Feed Me Diamonds,'" August 13, 2012):
It's an homage to Marina Abramovíc. It's weird to use the word inspire. I wish I could another one. But she's really important to me, and a really important artist. I was going through a really tough time, a really dark time personally. I was really broke and hungry, and I had dysentery. Everything was the worst I could expect or experience. She claimed that her father, who was an important political figure in Yugoslavia, was assassinated by being fed diamonds. I read about it more and that was a way to overthrow tyrannical kings, to make it look like natural causes, because when you eat diamonds, your digestive system will shred and you bleed out. This album isn't a happy go lucky pop record and it captures a lot of emotional moments in my life. Politically and emotionally, this one really brought it all together.

I'm thinking maybe it was diamond dust that was snuck into these people's food, if indeed these stories are true at all. I don't think, in most cases, a cut and faceted diamond stone actually would do damage if swallowed. It wouldn't break down either, but it would remain intact through the digestive process and eventually come out the other end. (And, given that these rocks are worth far more than I got paid at that job, I'm sure, if any employee ever swallowed a diamond, the company would have locked them in and waited for that to happen.) We've seen that scenario play out before with wedding rings on multiple sitcoms, albeit I think it's usually a dog that swallows the diamond on those shows. Diamond dust could do some damage, however, since it would still be stronger than anything inside the digestive system, and, being so fine, it would be like countless tiny blades, as opposed to one polished stone with few points.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

OneRepublic & Sara Bareilles - Open Air Theatre at SDSU, September 14, 2013


I'm not a huge fan of Sara Bareilles. I like a couple of her songs, and I find her generally inoffensive. Multiple friends of mine were going (each separately) to see her show at the Open Air Theatre at San Diego State University, however, which hasn't ever happened before. That made it practically the biggest show of the year, as far as my world was concerned, so how could I not attend?

Truly, no other artist is so broadly appealing across all my social circles as Sara Bareilles. Well, actually, not so much my social circles as the wide political and religious spectrum that my collective acquaintances span. I know people from the moderate right to the far left who all adore Sara. My far right acquaintances have never heard of her or anything else in popular culture, and there's maybe a gap in the moderate left, and then there are those actively apolitical agnostics who are basically impossible to account for. But, subtract the geezers and the hipsters, and almost every other privileged member of the middle class at least kind of likes Sara Bareilles, as I do. I think conservative types appreciate her mature vocals and adult contemporary sound. The truly committed liberals, meanwhile, tend not to have the free time to cultivate sophisticated tastes for the arts, and, among pop artists, perhaps they find Sara appealing for her lyrics in such hits as "Love Song" and "King of Anything," which give off the image of a strong-willed and independent woman. Basically, she's inoffensive to all.

I generalize, of course, which is terrible of me. But the appeal of Sara Bareilles does genuinely intrigue me. As a performer, she is a great vocalist and pianist, and her show reminded me how really good many of her songs are. As a personality, she's not quirky, charismatic, or cool. Honestly, that mature voice of hers is deceptive, because the actual content of her songs and her personality, if you pay attention, are not very far removed at all from the likes of Taylor Swift. Between songs, nearly everything out of her mouth focused on the same topic, which is also what most of her signature songs are about: her various douche bag exes who have done her wrong. Going by her fan base, maybe one could think of Sara Bareilles as "Taylor Swift for grownups." But, really, that's oxymoronic; she's more just Taylor Swift with an older voice, except that Taylor Swift is also a much bigger and more entertaining character (not that I've ever had the pleasure of seeing Taylor Swift live, but I bet it would be pretty cool).

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the show well enough. The highlight was Sara's performance of "I Choose You," a song that speaks positively of romance. Introducing the song, she asked the audience, "Who here is really stoked about the person they came with?" and got a huge response. Then, she asked, "Who here can't stand the person they came with?" and got an even more enthusiastic response. But the biggest applause came when some guy near the front proposed to his girl during the song. Sara didn't seem to be in on it—she reacted with an expletive while pointing it out mid-song—but she managed to incorporate "She said yes" as an impromptu lyric that proved the perfect ending to the song.

YouTube user jediknight77 captured the moment quite marvelously:


Oh, I also saw OneRepublic perform. It was a double-header, you see, so, after Sara finished her set, OneRepublic came on and did theirs. I'm less a fan of OneRepublic than I am of Sara Bareilles.

It's a tricky thing with male groups. If you look over the acts I've covered, you may notice that most of them have centered around female vocalists. Not that I need to defend that, but I'll say that, as I see it, male artists just have a lot more going against them. There are the indie rock groups, the hip-hop acts, and the country artists, and then everything else kind of falls into the "sissy music" category. (Well, the banjo people are a yet separate phenomenon, but they're often mixed-gendered, and I don't know how much longer that can last anyway.) Not all of that sissy music is bad, by my measure, but the point is that that's a pejorative that, for obvious reasons, a female artist with the same style of music wouldn't have to contend with (though a male fan of theirs might). Even a wildly successful male artist, such as Adam Levine of Maroon 5, can't really command respect from a masculine audience the way that any top female artist can inspire female listeners. Maroon 5 does have enormous appeal with the opposite gender, probably even to an extent that no female artist can comparably claim male fans simply by being sexy, so maybe it is ultimately still easier being a dude in the music industry. It's only an uphill battle for them to get on my rotation. I'm a heterosexual male, and Maroon 5 doesn't do anything for me. It's just another male pop rock band with a frontman I would never aspire to be like.

And, even while acknowledging that a lot of that pansy music is worthwhile, I must say, that line between something halfway hip, like Muse or The Killers, and something way lame, like Train or Matchbox 20, is really quite razor thin. When OneRepublic first broke through to the mainstream, by way of a Timbaland remix of their single "Apologize," I think they were right on that line. Two albums later, they're clearly now on the wrong side of Fun., which has displaced OneRepublic as that line of "they're not quite cool, but I don't think less of you for owning a song or two of theirs."

But, hey, I'll admit to having liked "Apologize," as well as their later, similar song, "Secrets." It's all subjective anyway, and what I found was that, despite my assessment that OneRepublic isn't cool, they still maintain a huge following—both genders, all ages, and at least two ethnicities (white and Asian)—which showed up in force to cheer them at this concert. And it wasn't a bad show, by any means. Like most pop rock, their songs are, at worst, maybe just a little obnoxious but never really painful. And theirs was one of the higher-production shows I've ever been to, with lots of running video in the background, as well as confetti and pyrotechnics.

Friday, September 13, 2013


It amuses me how, when we dream, we often don't just dream in discrete narratives or about how tomorrow or the next day might go, but sometimes we'll dream entire alternate lives for ourselves, complete with false memories of past events that never actually transpired. For example, I dreamed I was at a party, and, as I was speaking with an old friend, I reflected on a brief stint I'd had as a major league baseball player for the San Diego Padres.

For some reason, I had had a contract with the Padres, although I had not anticipated ever taking the field for them. But then, one day, the manager called me up, saying he needed me to hit. As he explained, there was someone in the crowd that night that we needed to impress. In order to secure something of theirs in support of something of ours, we needed to sell them on the viability of our something, and the only way to do that would be to demonstrate our slugging. At the time, the Padres were a team known to have a strong pitching rotation, but we were losers because we didn't have anyone who could hit worth spit. That's why the manager now needed my bat in order to show that we could hit for power.

"Their best regular hitter at the time was Kouzmanoff," I explained. "So I was immediately stronger than anyone they had."

Yeah, in the dream, I was apparently, at some point, physically stronger than Kevin Kouzmanoff. Even in the dream, however, the way I explained it, it was as though I was only realizing the details as I was telling the story. I didn't at first remember having been a meaningful contributor to the team; it was only as I reviewed the facts, remembered that Kouzmanoff was the Padres' best hitter (only in the dream history, not real life), and that Kouzmanoff sucked (true enough, both in the dream and in real life), that I came to the retrospective realization that I must have been carrying the offense for that brief stint that I was on the team.

Anyway, as the story went, I got the call late in the game, the manager explained the situation to me, and I was brought in to pinch hit. Then, on the first pitch, first swing of my first major league at-bat, I knocked it out of the park. And the rest was history.... Except, it wasn't.

Even in sleep and in dream, during which my faculty of reason was suspended, I retained sense enough to be incredulous at my own memory. Something didn't add up, and I wasn't even thinking about all those unspecified "somethings" that were allegedly at stake leading up to my at-bat. But if I really did play for the San Diego Padres, even if it was only for a game or two, why wasn't I more famous? Why was I having to explain this story to my friend, as if he wouldn't already have known it? If the manager really did recognize my power far above anyone in the regular lineup, why wasn't I called up sooner? If I really was good enough to carry the team's offense for a while, why did my career end so quickly and unceremoniously? How did it end at all? Try as I might, I couldn't remember. And if I really did hit a home run in the major leagues, why wasn't it the proudest moment of my life? Because it certainly didn't feel that way; it felt like an obscure bit of personal trivia that I trotted out for parties.

Was it all a dream, I wondered, not realizing, of course, that even that question was being posed within a dream. No, I thought, I knew well enough the difference between a dream and a memory, and I wouldn't have spent those last several minutes detailing an accomplishment that wasn't real. Unless... my very memory and mind were unraveling, which was not just a possibility but the sensation that I was faced with, as I couldn't make sense of the events of my own life.

No, I thought to myself, if it really happened, and I still needed to believe that it had, then there must have been some record of it. It must have been in the local news, and I must have kept a copy of the story in the paper. Indeed, I seemed to recall that I had, and so I raced home and dug through my keepsakes.

I found it quickly enough. There, on the front page of the sports section, read the headline, as if it had been only yesterday: "Hot shot skylopper hits shot out."

What the hell is a skylopper? But, no, I didn't ask that question.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Resident Evil 6 - Jake Campaign (Capcom, 2012)

Resident Evil 6 - Jake

Newcomer Jake Muller's campaign in Resident Evil 6 is, at least in the marketing, distinguished by two gimmicks: 1) a persistent antagonist that pursues players throughout the game, and 2) Jake's penchant for hand-to-hand combat, powered by his superhuman abilities. In practice, neither of these ideas is very well-realized, but Jake's mode still manages to be the most interesting and varied experience in Resident Evil 6.

Much as the Leon campaign was meant to evoke the classic survival horror gameplay of the original Resident Evil, Jake's campaign frequently channels Resident Evil 3: Nemesis in its inclusion of a recurring and seemingly unstoppable enemy that hunts the players relentlessly. And, much as the Leon campaign actually felt almost nothing like the game it was meant to evoke, the chase segments throughout Jake's campaign never really resemble the experience of running from Nemesis in Resident Evil 3. What made Nemesis so effective a feature in Resident Evil 3 was very much tied into the core survival horror design of the early games, where, instead of progressing mission-to-mission in a one-way linear fashion, you would explore a single maze-like environment for the entire story, with only limited direction on what path to take. The emphasis was more on adventure than on action, but the added twist in Resident Evil 3 was that, as you made your own way through the environment, there was a chance that the fearsome Nemesis might arrive in pursuit without warning, instilling panic to interrupt the normally mild pace of your exploration, perhaps even at locations you had already passed by previously without incident, subverting old assumptions about when an area could be designated clear and safe.

In Resident Evil 6, the action, no matter the campaign, always abides by mission-based shooter conventions. You always know once a room is clear and you are safe, and you'll usually have a pretty good idea when the next action sequence will commence—most likely, it will be triggered by opening a door or stepping forward into a space that appears conspicuously staged for something to go down. The scripted chase sequences in the Jake campaign are no different. The triggers are the same as for any other action sequence, so you always know when one might be coming. It's never startling or unexpected, as crossing paths with Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 could be. And, when it happens in Resident Evil 6, the arrival of the "Ustanak" (sort of a "Nemesis 2.0") is always further punctuated by some attention-grabbing cut scene, allowing you ample time to brace yourself for what you know you'll have to do next, which is run like hell. Furthermore, in the context of a mission-based campaign, the chase sequences in Resident Evil 6 can't change how you approach the entire game in the way the inclusion of Nemesis did in Resident Evil 3. Sure, running from Ustanak is a different experience from exchanging fire with a squad of grunts in the Chris campaign, but the game also includes vehicular stages and other on-rails segments. Like those other novelty stages, the finite chase sequences, rather than being transformative like the ever-present Nemesis, just offer the occasional change of pace between stretches of more conventional action gameplay. It's also stupid that, during the chase sequences, the characters will insist that they must not be caught by the Ustanak (and, indeed, failure to outrun it results in an instant death and game over), but then there will be other times when the characters will decide to stand and fight the Ustanak, and, during these boss battles, it will be far less deadly, no longer able to perform one-hit kills. No explanation is ever given for why it might be holding back at times; it's just the game arbitrarily deciding that Ustanak will be sometimes invincible and other times merely tough.

The other signature feature of the Jake campaign is Jake's superhuman prowess in hand-to-hand combat. Cut scenes show him taking out groups of enemies with just punches and kicks, but, once into gameplay, Resident Evil 6 remains very far from being a competent brawler. Jake possesses more and better melee moves than the characters in the other campaigns (Jake's partner, Sherry Birkin, meanwhile, wields a stun rod, which is functionally equivalent to, albeit more limited than, his advanced hand-to-hand), but the experience is no more sophisticated than the melee combat in the Chris and Leon campaigns. There is little finesse involved; you just mash away and rely on the crude auto-targeting to clear crowds. Against most of the same enemy types as faced in the Chris campaign, I did find myself going hand-to-hand far more frequently in the Jake campaign, but I don't know that that was exactly a wise choice on my part, as I also died a lot more while playing as Jake.

Despite its failures, I still found the Jake campaign the most interesting in Resident Evil 6. Not as tedious as the Leon campaign, and not as monotonous as the Chris, Jake's game features the most variety. The largest portion of the action resembles the shooter gameplay of the Chris campaign, but there are also the aforementioned chase sequences, some vehicular stages, and a lengthy stage where Jake is unarmed but for his fists. There's even a pretty great stealth stage, where you must sneak around and hide in dumpsters to avoid being found by the Ustanak. Scrambling toward that dumpster after tripping an alarm, then peeking out through the crack beneath the lid, to watch as the Ustanak hovers seemingly interminably about your hiding place, before finally it moves on, evidently unaware of your location—for me, that ranks among the tensest moments in the series.

But, above all else, what makes the Jake campaign more engaging than Chris and Leon's is, surprisingly, the characters. In the other modes, Piers and Helena come across as underdeveloped sidekicks to Chris and Leon. Helena has some sob story involving her sister, and then afterward becomes this uncomfortable third wheel, while Leon chases after/flirts with Ada Wong. Piers is just some generic white guy soldier, about whom we never really learn anything. Sherry Birkin, however, is Jake's legitimate equal and co-protagonist. Their relationship is the driving force in the story, and the two of them, perhaps because they are much younger than Chris and Leon, seem more vital, more invested, more conflicted, and overall more multi-dimensional. They're not classic characters, by any means, and the story is still incomprehensible nonsense. But at least these characters give you something more to latch on to than just Chris's muscles or Leon's hair.

Having already played through two full-length campaigns of Resident Evil 6, I wasn't sure, going into Jake's story, whether I'd be able to stomach any more. Surprisingly, this third trip was the most enjoyable for me. Part of it may be that, 10+ hours with the Resident Evil 6 mechanics later, something just finally clicked. There was more recycled content this time around. Whereas Chris and Leon's campaigns only briefly intersect at one point, Jake crosses paths with both of them. Yet even those sections I found more enjoyable this time, at least partly because I knew better what I was doing. I still feel the action is on the sloppy and shallow side, and the game is unequivocally the worst of the modern (post-Resident Evil 4) installments in the series. But, on the strength of the Jake campaign, I'm happy to upgrade Resident Evil 6 from a game I might before have actively advised against playing to one that I would now rate as "pretty decent."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Resident Evil 6 - Chris Campaign (Capcom, 2012)

Resident Evil 6 - Chris

Whereas the Leon campaign in Resident Evil 6 was intended to evoke the series' 32-bit survival horror roots, the Chris campaign reflects the shift, ever since Resident Evil 4, toward action as the prime element. Chris's campaign, in fact, doesn't actually feel very much like even Resident Evil 4 or 5, as it carries the series considerably deeper into full-blown shooter territory. Well, maybe more like half-blown, as the end result is quite the trade down from Resident Evil 5's unique, albeit quirky, identity within the action game landscape to now the mediocre and generic third-person shooter that Resident Evil 6 offers in its Chris campaign.

Mechanically, Resident Evil 6 adds to the series several standard shooter functions, which were also available in the Leon campaign, but which are vastly more relevant in the Chris campaign. You can move while shooting now, roll to evade attacks, take cover, and also perform a Gears of War-style "roadie run." These are all important in the Chris campaign, because, unlike in Leon's game, where the most prevalent enemy was the classic lurching zombie, Chris Redfield and his partner, Piers Nivans, face foes that are, more often than not, packing firearms, which includes automatics and sniper rifles. Players encountered the occasional gun-toting B.O.W. (Bio Organic Weapon) in previous games, but here at last we arrive at the point where Resident Evil becomes an experience primarily composed of firefights.

That doesn't have to be a bad thing. I'm not one of those people who cries "betrayal" simply because a property I've enjoyed ventures into a different direction from what it used to be that I enjoyed. I liked the earlier survival horror games (really a subset of the adventure genre), and I also liked the more recent action installments. The only things they had in common that Resident Evil 6 lacks was the level of quality. Resident Evil 6 is not, unfortunately, a very good shooter. It's not the worst thing ever, but, keeping in mind I don't wade too deeply into the obscure recesses of the genre, it does rank closer to the bottom than to the top among those I've personally played. In some ways, it reminds me of Square Enix's Dirge of Cerberus: Final Fantasy VII (2006) for the PS2, which was similarly a mercenary attempt by a Japanese developer to appeal to the larger Western market with an ultimately asinine take on a genre that they understood was successful here but which they themselves had no palate for. It feels like a shooter developed by people who don't even play many shooters, let alone make them.

The Chris campaign consists of a lot of repetitive room-clearing gameplay, where enemies, either already waiting in place for you or emerging seemingly out of nowhere, mostly stand there and soak up the bullets you unload into them. Eventually, after I don't know how many bullets (gone are the days of having to count and conserve your number of shots, but it feels like a lot), your target will go down, either to disintegrate into ash or annoyingly reemerge as a stronger, mutated form, which, again, mostly just stands and shoots or advances toward you in a linear fashion while absorbing bullets. On the normal difficulty, the game is not especially hard or especially easy, but it's always more frustrating than challenging. Chris and Piers hit the ground hard any time they get shot, which feels not only annoying but also unfair when you find yourself targeted by multiple deadeye snipers while simultaneously getting swarmed by guys on the ground distracting you from getting a bead on the snipers. Getting through most firefights, however, doesn't take a lot of skill or tactics, just a lot of patience and bullets. One oddity, I suppose, of Resident Evil 6 is that, whereas, in other shooters, your sidearm is typically a last resort, the handgun remains, even in the Chris campaign, your primary weapon. This is especially so when you play as Piers, who never even gets an automatic weapon. This doesn't mean much in practice, because there's not a lot of precision aiming in this game.

It's hard to quantify, but, regarding the feel of this game, the action just doesn't "make sense" in the way that Resident Evil 5 did. When I consider the 2-D action games of my childhood, the well-made ones always had responsive controls and felt very tight and consistent. An enemy might surprise you the first time you faced it, but, once you familiarized yourself with all its moves, winning the game became simply a matter of reading patterns, maintaining focus, and honing your manual skill. When you lost, you understood why. It was because your reflexes were a touch slow, or because you lost track of the pattern and responded incorrectly. The old games "made sense" in that way, and I felt that Resident Evil 5 had a lot of that same arcade DNA in its design. Its pace was measured and deliberate. Enemies always behaved in a consistent manner, and, once you learned to read and react to their animations, they would never betray your expectations. Resident Evil 6, on the other hand, feels like most shooters today, in that the action feels much more nebulous. There probably are patterns you can learn (although a lot of the better modern shooters purposely eschew arcade-style pattern-based gameplay as too simplistic or unrealistic), but the game never requires or encourages you to do so. It's much more efficient to just spray your way through the roughly 5-10 hours that the campaign lasts, all the while never looking back. The gameplay consequently never feels very rewarding, because it almost never evolves beyond you performing the bare minimum action of any shooter, which is to aim at the body and pull the trigger.

Well, actually, one other quirk of the Chris campaign is that the player characters' melee attacks, already super-juiced in the Leon campaign, are even more so here. The more evolved B.O.W.s that Chris and Piers face are more resilient than the zombies in Leon's game, but they also tend to be less numerous, which means that Chris and Piers can more often clear an entire room with just melee attacks without running out of stamina. Since the shooting action is so clumsy in this game, it is often more effective just to melee everything. It is not any more fun that way, however, since you're just spamming the melee button.

I'll say that one thing this campaign has over most other shooters is that it's actually kind of empowering taking on the roles of two admittedly conventional yet charmingly guileless, never crude or amoral action heroes as Chris and Piers. The stars of Resident Evil have never been the most outstanding in the pantheon of video game characters, and newcomer Piers is maybe the most blandly generic player character in series history (until a cheap yet memorable twist late in the story), but at least they have more personality than the average point-of-view character in a shooter. Soap MacTavish, star of Activision's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007) eventually becomes a cool character, but not until the sequels, when he becomes the player character's AI-controlled commanding officer. In the first game, where you actually spend most of your time playing as Soap, he's just your typical faceless, voiceless first-person shooter protagonist. Chris and Piers, meanwhile, bring not just skills but also their convictions and badass attitudes to the story, and this rare male-male partnership (I believe the only other times this has happened in series history have been short sections in Resident Evil: Revelations (2012)) makes for an extra testosterone-heavy play session.

Compared to the Leon campaign, the Chris campaign feels more generic. On the other hand, if you're playing cooperatively with another person, it's a more streamlined and therefore better co-op experience than the Leon campaign can offer. Also, despite the whole game's many failures, it is nonetheless worth admiring once again just how much Capcom put into this project. The Chris and Leon campaigns converge for only one brief section. Disappointingly, that means Chris and Leon never actually meet in any playable segment, but it's also impressive that, within a single release, here are two full-length campaigns with virtually no recycled content. Quantity does not make up for lack of quality, but it's not that Capcom wasn't trying or that it spread itself too thin. The game is just held back by some rotten mechanics at its core.

The Chris campaign is, as I said, a generic and mediocre third-person shooter. It's serviceable, not terrible, but, for a franchise with such a strong history, that's disappointing enough. Remove the name and the incomprehensibly zany story, and there wouldn't be anything to distinguish this from any among dozens of other forgettable second-rate shooters.