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Assassin’s Creed 3 – Video Game Review

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I’m a huge Assassin’s Creed fan. I played the first one and absolutely loved it. It had repetitive gameplay, yes, but the setting and the mission design of the main assassinations made the game shine above anything I had played in a while. Yet the flaws were there, and there was certainly room for improvement. AC2 came out and it blew me away. It was easily one of of the best games I’d ever played, and one of the few games I ever played through over and over again. The story was better, the main character was full of personality, the gameplay made just running around the city doing nothing ridiculously fun… It was an amazing game. Brotherhood came out and introduced the concept of recruiting assassins, leveling them up and sending them to missions around the world. It made them better back-up for when you were in trouble and they generated some income to help you purchase goods and buildings (though I still struggle with the design decision to make you able to purchase the Colosseum for a fortune and have it make as much revenue as a blacksmith). The story was good, the setting was good… It introduced optional objectives for full synch, which were half fun, half frustration (I will always hate timed missions). Then Revelations came out and for all the good that it was to place it in Constantinople/Istambul, it competent, if not strong, storyline, with some god-awful design choices (tower defense… seriously? And if you capture a templar tower you better get your awareness meter down in a couple of minutes or your own tower will be attacked… After a while I just gave up trying to capture them). Yet Revelations’ biggest weakness was that if you have more than a couple brain cells and you’re up to date with what’s happening in the world, it didn’t really reveal anything. There was a big cutscene that was meant to shock you and show you how what you do as Desmond will decide the fate of the human race (more on that later…), yet there were hints of the big revelation right up to the end of Assassin’s Creed 1. You had mostly pieced the puzzled together by now, and treating it as a surprise was kind of insulting to the player. The only high note of the game was that Ezio was still an amazing character, even as an old man, and the glimpses of Altair’s life and the bond that Ezio feels between his life and Altair’s amounts to some of the most touching moments in my AC history.

So now we have Assassin’s Creed 3. We have a new character, Connor. We have a new setting, the American Revolution. We have the conclusion to Desmond’s story. What do we have, in the end? The biggest mess of a game I played all year. What I write from this point forward is an means to try to explain just how baffling this game is, just how divided I was with my feelings for it.

First of all, the start of the game, where many people are complaining that it’s slow… That’s, honestly, the least of my problems. If anything, I wish it actually took its time in telling you the story in AC fashion. It doesn’t… The story begins and you’re controlling not Connor, but his father Haythan. The suave attitude that made so many reviewers love him for will only become present later in the game, where he seems to lighten up and take things less seriously. In the first few hours, he’s an arrogant man behaving as though the world could only hope to reach his feet. You don’t get any insight into why he’s doing things (they’re setting up for a plot twist, you see) and you are recruiting a bunch of men who appear the very image of virtue. A group of men who are all in their 20’s yet appear to be at least forty five… (apparently making two different skins for characters, in their youth and as old men, is too much work). The recruiting job is told through several sequences that provide you with little to no free running chances. You’re in the tavern (you’re there a lot, in the first few hours of the game), in the middle of Boston, and you walk out to find yourself in the middle of the countryside. There’s too much Animus white light pulling you away from being compelled by a story you are witnessing unfold, yet are in significantly less control than any other AC game while experiencing it. And when the reveal happens… Wow… It shocks you if you hadn’t already puzzled out the many hints, or bothered to read the database page for Connor’s mother (Last few paragraphs… They give it all away.)

Then the game actually begins, 6-7 hours into it, controlling Connor as a child, playing hide and seek, hunting… Until his mother dies in an attack on her village (it’s not really that surprising, at least not enough to make this a spoiler), and the shock reveal of who’s behind the attack is once again ruined by her Animus database page, revealing information that will only be known to you, in-game, on the 85% completion mark. Then you grow up and run off to find the Assassins so they can train you… Do you search Boston, hostile to an indian man, forging friendships with open-minded individuals who help you find the Assassins? No, you stumble for awhile in the forest and the first place you go just happens to be where you’re supposed to be. You meet Achilles, a black man, an Assassin and he becomes your mentor. The forming of a bond is implied, but never actually showed. Achilles almost never leaves the Manor you find him in, and does little else but complain that you aren’t doing enough. He apparently trained you, but you never see any of that… He shows you the clothes of the first Assassin in the americas, but in my game I only got them after the end credits (maybe it was a bug…)

From then on you meet a bunch of characters, that if you’re not American (as is my case) you will only know a few in any depth, some only by name, and a whole lot of them not at all. And that’s one of the game’s greatest flaws… Connor is apparently deeply involved what happens to the revolution, yet major moments occur because he has someone to kill while the battle of Bunker Hill is taking place. Besides Paul Revere, and maybe Sam Adams, no one asks you to do anything. You’re not an precious asset to the revolution… At the siege of Charlestown you perform a feat that would be amazing if it wasn’t so downplayed by the Colonial General. He’s surprised that you pulled it off (by your own volition, mind you, he didn’t ask for your help), but treats as you’re just some crazy guy… Not like a tool that could severely shift the balance of the war, which, by the way, never once feels like it was anything but a walk in the park for the patriots. Lafayette is perhaps the only one that treats you as a friend (a feeling which Connor does not respond to), yet he is only seen, briefly, three or four times in the game. The assassins that you recruit (a pale shadow of the brotherhood mechanic) feel indistinguishable from each other. Connor forms no relationship with anyone, and that passive nature makes him the worst main character in an Assassin’s Creed franchise. He reacts to the world around him, never showing an ounce of personality (you know, unshakeable convictions or distinguishable traces that are there no matter what happens) and at the same time never reacting to the progression of his mission. Every line is delivered with the same passionless tone. He doesn’t stutter, he isn’t afraid, he isn’t mad out of his mind at something. He finds out something (the second reveal I mentioned earlier) and shows no reaction to it. He responds angrily, yet not even raising his voice, and it doesn’t seem to affect his view of the world, the revolution…

It is perhaps the biggest let-down of the game: It does not reflect Connor’s story. Now, that may seem paradoxal, given what I just said, but that is simply the case: Connor is simply a tool to tell the story of the American Revolutionary War. Assassin’s Creed (remember when they actually had a Creed?) I, II, Brotherhood and Revelations (yes, even Revelations) all gave you a historical context and a protagonist whose tale was set in the same timeframe. That’s it. Historical events were found within Altair’s and Ezio’s storylines. Historical events ARE Connor’s storyline. The Revolutionary cause is the same as Connor’s, and never will the two be apart (even when ample cause is given for them to be so).  Characters drove Ezio’s storyline forward, while events drive Connor’s.

It’s also worth noting that it’s supposed to be interesting that he’s half English, half Native American, yet whereas I heard it meant he wasn’t fully accepted in both societies, that isn’t really the case with this game. It makes no difference that he’s Native American… It means that you can have a hunting bow and an axe for weapons, but he doesn’t control them in any way, shape or form, differently from Ezio. Maybe it’s stereotypical of me to want an animalistic (shamanist, even?) influence on his fighting style, but for crying out loud give me something to make him special, to make this new character feel unique. That his dialogue made him sound like Hayden Christensen in Episode II did not help either.

Nothing in this game feels unique, in fact, or even remotely interesting. And I don’t mean the colonial cities, which as expected are wooden two, maybe three, stories tall buildings that after an initial interest all feel bland and the same. New York is more interesting than Boston, but only slightly so. It has more brick buildings than wood ones… and that’s something, perhaps. Nothing excites you… The story’s greatest flaw is that there is no sense of importance in any of it. The signing of the Declaration of Independence is a minute long cutscene with Ben Franklin (the second time you see him in the game and he doesn’t even talk to you in it) lacking any sense of gravity, it isn’t handled in a way that shows you: pay attention, this is an important moment. You could actually miss the fact that what had just happened in front of you was the most famous moment in the American Revolution. That’s unforgivable, and a really poor design choice. Meeting Washington for the first time?

“And this is our Commander, George Washington…”

“Hey, how’s it going… I have to talk to Lee over there.”

Of course the dialogue isn’t exactly like that, but it’s enough for you to understand my point. Thomas Jefferson? Not in the game. John Adams? Not in the game. Ben Franklin? Such a small participation that you’d think Ubisoft would give up and add a baloon next to him saying “Hey kids! It’s Ben Franklin!”, since it doesn’t reveal anything about the man other than “Look how quirky he is!” His point is to introduce the page collecting system and give you a quick one liner during the signing of the Declaration of Independence. That’s it!

And the whole point of placing the game in the American Revolution was to make a case that no side is completely wrong, and that both have their fair share of wrong deeds. It shows us that to the British, it’s about people not wanting to pay taxes (something that Shaun, Desmond’s ally, constantly talks about), and to the Americans, it’s about wanting to rule themselves, even though coloring these notions with ideals of liberty and equality (you’re not present when these important notions were being discussed in the Congress), yet forgetting that it’s only for those who are white and land owners. It is meant to show us in turn, that the Templars are not completely wrong. Except anyone with the tiniest bit of moral compass would tell you that it really doesn’t matter that the Templars might have noble goals, they still behave like cartoon villains, missing only pointy mustaches (talk about a personality shift). “I only wanted to protect the Natives!” And you do that by pointing guns at their leadership? “I only aimed to bring peace?” By massacring the rebel militia? The game is filled with moments where deeds and their reported intentions just don’t add up, which means that instead of showing us a history of ambiguous moral dilemmas, it shows us one hell of an inconsistent storyline.

So… Is there anything good about the game? Well, yes. Combat is more fluid, and while the parkour is buggy as hell (being stuck trying to ‘run up’ a foot long crate during a chase scene is no fun at all) tree running is fun if only somewhat linear (there is literally one right path among most trees). Hunting could be fun if that’s your thing (I love animals, so I flinched every time I had to kill something). The homestead mechanics are awesome and the people you meet and help, perhaps because you interact with them more than any other character in the game, are the closest things to relationships Connor has throughout the game. That you don’t get any money from missions, not even when you win a brawler tournament, is irritating at times, but you’ll never find yourself without money, even more so after you get the huntress into your homestead… which kind of sucked. It came to a point where selling ship masts made less money to you than selling deer pelts. The crafting is, therefore, significantly broken in that regard, and after a while I only sold the pelts and crafted items to help me in my missions, like a new sword or an improved pistol (even though you really don’t need them). I also crafted every single invention, and I have no clue as to why I did it.

There are a lot of side missions to do in this game, to the point I spent one of the few days it took me to finish this game doing nothing but side missions and collecting feathers and almanaque pages. Three points in that regard: 1) Almanaque pages are a waste of your time, and chasing after them asks of you parkour skills that the game doesn’t give you (still got them all, for some reason); 2) Feathers are not only a waste (the reward is the same lame clothes Connor has in the beggining of his adventure), but also personally an exercise in self loathing… Many times I asked myself (why the hell am I chasing feathers in a virtual world… I could be studying); 3)This game feels short… Before you scream at me that it took me close to fifty hours to beat it, I want to clarify that I am pulling this notion out of ‘you know where’ and I have no empyrical data on how long the game is. My point is simple: I went through everything. I went after every chest, every feather every almanaque page, every fort, every naval encounter, EVERYTHING! Yet now it feels to me (again, it’s only a feeling) that the main storyline, the stuff that you do that is actually meant to carry the story forward is really sparse. I can’t help but feel that if I only went to the main story missions I would have finished this game in something like 8-10 hours, and that’s cheating a little since after the earlier portion of the game every story mission is as far away from the previous as possible, forcing you to cross the terrain.

One of the things you can do in the game, though, is naval combat, and it made me want to ask Ubisoft to remake Sid Meier’s Pirates only so I could play this game all year long. It is really fun. In fact, it’s probably the best part of the game. While the notion of balancing two types of cannons, the sails and the wind direction may seem too much for a console game, it works beautifully. You’ll adjust your sails when you want more maneuverability, you’ll change the type of ammo you’re using according to the necessity (normal, heated, chain or grape shot), you’ll fight giant waves in huge storms… On the naval combat itself, it’s perfect. The Captain Kidd missions are even more fun, with different environments to explore, and non-frustrating chase sequences (surprise!), The only issue I have with naval combat is with the damned checkpoints (a problem in both naval and regular missions). Let me give you an example: In a mission you’re to draw an English Man-o-war by taking out seven smaller British ships… After you do that, you fight the Man-o-war and two Frigates… if you die during the fight with the Man-o-war, you have to fight the smaller ships all over again. Don’t get me wrong, they’re easy to beat, but why not have a checkpoint in the middle of the mission? It’s even worse when at the start of a mission you’re supposed to look for an English ship at a really slow speeed until you reach an area. Get desynched in the area? You’re back to the slow mechanic… An example of that on a normal mission? Your first assassination as Connor is that of a man at his house, atop a cliff. You’re on the other side of the river to that cliff. You can’t be detected. You kill six or seven soldiers on the way to the top, and if you get detected as you’re about reach his house, the game will take you back to the other side of the river… Perhaps twenty minutes before you started the mission (if you’re sneaking around).

The checkpoint problem is made worse by the ridiculous ‘optional’ objectives. Near the start, you’re playing Haytham, and you have to infiltrate a fort, eavesdrop on two guys walking around the fort without being detected, all the while completing two ‘optional’ objectives: Do it non-lethaly (I’d have no problem with that if Haytham wasn’t killing people all over Boston without a second thought), and sabotage two of the fort’s guns. Fail at any point in that mission and you’re back before the two even started talking. The final mission, though, of Connor’s storyline is where the two problems (checkpoints and optional objectives) meet in all their frustrating glory. You have to chase someone through the harbor… Yes, that’s the climatic end mission for Connor. Remember when in AC2 you went to the Vatican, to Rome, inside the Sistine Chapel to try and kill the corrupt Pope? Or at the end of Ezio’s journey at Revelations, and the moments at Masyaf? In here, you chase a guy across the same harbor you’ve passed through twenty times before, with no checkpoints and two optional objectives: do not let him further away from you than 50 meters (or feet? don’t remember), and, I kid you not, DON’T SHOVE ANYONE… That’s the optional objective. If an explosion knocked a guy into your path and he flew into your direction… “You shoved him! Failed…” That mission, the last one, is also the least fun mission of the game. For starters, as I mentioned, it aims at nothing. For crying out loud, it’s supposed to be the climax of Connor’s tale, and I can name a dozen missions that are more epic than that. Second, it’s really short, maybe five minutes, yet it took me about an hour to beat it, because a) there’s no checkpoint; and b) there’s only one way to beat it. Choice in how to handle the situation? Nope. To avoid the explosion, you need to vault over the barrels, to get past a line of guys firing at you, you need to step over a crate of fishes… Only one right path in which everything that you do slightly wrong results in desynch…

[Sigh...]

That’s it… That’s what makes the experience of playing this game utterly confusing and a mess in your own mind if you try to make any sense of some of the design choices. I started this game thinking it would warrant an 8.0, then it bogged down to a 7.0, then you start having fun with Connor and you’re back at 8.0, 8.5… Then things start to come together and the rating in your head goes down, and down until you just want to finish the game and get things over with. Then the end happens (the actual ending, with Desmond), and it’s probably the worst ending of a video game I’ve ever played. Worse than Mass Effect 3? Yes. Now, doing the most I can to avoid spoilers, this is a punch to the face of any AC fan… We were promised the resolution to Desmond’s tale… Yet it offers as much resolution as guy taping a black ‘The End’ cardboard over your TV screen. It ends… for someone. It answers no questions, even more so if you’ve read the e-mails that you get when you’re off the Animus, the image of what will happen when the vault is opened is already within your mind. That makes three in-game ‘OMG’ moments that the game does its absolute best to ruin it for you beforehand.

Every negative review I’ve read so far tells you of how bugs and lack of polish ruined this game… Frankly, that’s the least that’s wrong with it, as in a couple of months and a few patches, they’ll be gone. It does show you that there was close to no testing period with this game, as I can’t imagine anything less than 95% of people who made it to the end didn’t passionately hate the ‘resolution’. Bugs and polishing can be fixed, hell even the checkpoint problems can be fixed, but an unconvincing story, with unrealistic motives, a character as bland as they come, uninspiring settings (why not the French Revolution? The rise of Napoleon?), these things cannot be fixed with a mere patch. This game reminded me of the Star Wars prequels: a long time spent developing the world, the setting and not nearly enough time in giving me dialogue that would make me give a crap about the characters. It is, like the prequels, horribly directed, and staged. With gravitas in expositional dialogues instead of dramatically set cutscenes. To me, to the type of gamer that I am, focused on the story, on the characters, this game (4.0/10.0) is as much of a let-down as they come. If you’re in for the parkour, for the kills… maybe this game is for you. Who am I kidding, most of you will buy this game, if for nothing else to get some resolution to the story you’ve been following for the past six years, but I warn you: I was really disappointed, and you just might be too.

P.S.: Benedict Arnold DLC: Don’t bother.

Orphaned Land – The Road to Or Shalem DVD Review

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There are very few bands out there that can mix originality and passion, even within the progressive specter of modern rock/metal music. The songs of Steven Wilson, Opeth, Devin Townsend, Riverside… They are all filled with great ideas, beautiful movements and imaginative lyrics. I love these bands, I really do. Opeth’s Still Life is my favorite album ever. Riverside is an amazing Polish band that apparently seems incapable of producing a bad album. Steven Wilson and Devin Townsend are mad scientists, taking prog rock as far as it can go. Yet, to me, one band stands pretty much alone… not above, not below, but quite firmly apart from this group: Orphaned Land.

Now I first discovered Orphaned Land when a friend recommended an album called ‘Mabool: The Story of the Three sons of Seven’ to me. It seemed strange, very different from what I was accustomed to listening, and it had a religious conotation that, to an atheist like myself, seemed off-putting. Originally I did not care for the album. The band spoke of themes I didn’t care for, picking a piece of religious mythos I’m particularly baffled that it could ever be considered true (the Diluvium and the Ark), and the Eastern elements in the songs weren’t something I was particularly into. I was 18 at the time, and I was probably a bit too immature to absorb an album like that in the first listen. Yet, over time (and to my defense not that much time) I stopped listening to my musical prejudices, to my atheist bend, and just listened to the music. I started paying it serious attention when I notice just how much craft was within that album… How many instruments were being played, how many languages were being spoken, the care with which the core concept (however anathema to my personal beliefs) was handled, and just the amount of heart was put into each song… My mind went ‘Holy ****, I’m walking into a different territory here…’, and I’m glad to say that I’ve been a die-hard fan ever since.

That to me is what sets Orphaned Land apart from the rest: Their heart is within every chord and beat of every song of every album they’ve ever released. It’s a very difficult notion to describe, yet ‘The Road to Or Shalem’, their simply amazing live DVD, will do a pretty good job in clarifying my point. I will not go into a song-by-song review here. It’s not the point… This is less of a ‘Listen to your favorite songs!’ concert and more of a ‘Come and enjoy an amazing experience!’ event, and in that I have a few points I want to make:

- Every note is hit with perfection, and the band and guest musicians (which include Steven Wilson) do a fantastic job in creating a tapestry of sound that completely envelops the entire audience and you, watching at home. Kobi Fahri’s vocals are great (both growling and singing) and he is a ridiculously charismatic frontman; Schlomit Levi’s vocals are fantastic; Yossi Sassi is quite possibly the happiest guitar player in the world (he smiles throughout the performance) and Matan Shmuely delivers a fine performace on drums and backing growling vocals, even though he appears to be constipated half the time. (Disclosure: Yes, I had to go to Wikipedia to spell their names correctly)

- My favorite guitar piece by Orphaned Land is ‘The Storm Still Rages Inside’. It has an epic, atmospheric and long guitar solo that in this DVD was turned into a short accoustic piece. I still enjoyed the song, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit bummed by it. Still, it didn’t take anything away from my enjoyment of the whole show, just thought it was worth a mention.

- Guest vocals by Steven Wilson (a bit on ‘M.I.?’ and playing ‘The Beloved’s Cry’ solo), Tomer Jones (Israeli death metal vocalist) and Yossi Sassi’s dad. Really. And it’s all fantastic. And I may even be a bit biased towards Yossi’s dad, Mr. David, by the sheer happiness that he seemed to be feeling in being on stage next to his son.

- Really wish bands would start putting subtitles in DVD releases. I don’t mean when Kobi is talking to the crowd, which is subtitled, but the actual song lyrics. I know most songs from Mabool by heart, but I, a 25 year-old Brazilian man, really am only able to sing the chorus to Nora el Nora and Sapari, and some songs not at all. Subtitles would help even with songs completely in English.

In the end, I can perhaps clarify my point by describing my experience: I bought this DVD together with the deluxe edition of Steven Wilson’s ‘Get All You Deserve’. Watching Steven Wilson’s opus, I was greeted by amazing musicianship, fantastically creative songs and a great appreciation of Prog Rock as a genre. Watching ‘The Road to Or Shalem’, I was jumping up and down in my room, not caring about my dog looking at me like I was crazy, singing Nora el Nora while not caring that I don’t believe a word of what that song is saying… I just didn’t care. I was enthralled by the songs. You see a crowd go crazy and you understand why because Orphaned Land is doing more than creative songs. It’s more than creativity for creativity’s sake. In this DVD you see that Orphaned Land is not about exploring the limits of metal, it’s about songs that fully represent what they are, what they believe in. Their heart, their identity is present within each individual song. If you know and like Orphaned Land you owe yourself to pick up this DVD set, for it is the best representation of everything this band stands for. If you’ve never heard of Orphaned Land, this is perhaps the perfect place to start. It shows you a band at the top of their game, presenting songs that have substance as well as form.

I cannot recommend this enough. ‘The Road to Or Shalem’ (10/10) is a perfect DVD from an absolutely perfect live performance, quite possibly the best I’ve ever seen. Their new Album can’t come soon enough.

‘Heritage’ by Opeth – CD Review

Ok… After struggling with myself if I should or should not write about this album until I stop feeling so strongly about it, yet, since every time I log onto YouTube I seem to find a discussion between ‘true fans’ on either side of hating/loving it, I thought I might as well give it a go now. Hell, it’s been over a year.

To get the main point out of the way: I hate this album.

Yep. I hate it. I hate it with every fiber of my being, and the following paragraphs will serve as a means to try to articulate my reasons for doing so. If this sounds more like an overly long rant than a review, my apologies beforehand.

First of all, a personal background: I’ve been an Opeth fan since ‘Ghost Reveries’, and before anyone tries to label me as a newcomer, and someone who doesn’t ‘understand’ Opeth’s true sound, I want to clarify that I’m 25 years old (in 2012) and while I would never deem myself an expert in 1970’s prog music, or even as knowledgeable a metal fan as some, I’m a guy who went after every single Opeth album since first spending the 50 bucks (in local, Brazilian currency) to get their 2005 album, when I was 18. I went from a casual fan to an avid worshiper after I bought ‘Still Life’ (to this day the only album I own three copies of), and probably not a day goes by without some Opeth song being played in my PC or my iPod. I own every single CD and DVD to have reached Brazilian shores, no mean feat living in a country which seems intent on loving horrible music (god, I hate samba…).

So what made me love Opeth in the first place? Well to put it simply whenever someone told me I was getting too old to still like metal, I told them to listen to Opeth, particularly ‘Still Life’ and ‘My Arms Your Hearse’. I called Opeth ‘Metal for grownups’. Just as I would call my love for Blind Guardian as ‘Metal for the fantasy/sci-fi loving kid still within me’. Every Opeth album was dense, thick with layers not only in terms of their musicianship, but also in terms of their lyrics. ‘My Arms, Your Hearse’ is an album structured in a way that the lyrics of every song ends with the title of the next song, meanwhile going through the year’s seasons in a perfect circle. It’s a story about a ghost haunting the woman he loved when still alive. The lyrics were powerful, and the songs were equally powerful because there seemed to be something behind them, a driving force carrying the album to momentous moment after momentous moment. ‘Still Life’ is one of the few albums I call absolutely perfect. Sure, many claim ‘Blackwater Park’ to be Opeth’s best, and in terms of the quality of each song it’s an argument I can’t disagree with, but the sheer brilliance of the concept in ‘Still Life’ make it a personal favorite of mine that has yet to be topped by any other CD, from any other band. In ‘Still Life’, Mikael and the band weren’t content with delivering a concept through simple narrative terms. You don’t just say ‘I love you but I can’t be with you’, you say ‘Endlessly gazing in nocturnal prime, She spoke of her vices and broke the rhyme, But baffled herself with the final line, My promise is made but my heart is thine’. Opeth weren’t content with saying: ‘And as I died I saw Melinda behind me’, they would rather say ‘Cloak-captured sighs of relief, As the primal touch brought me back, And the last sight I did see is still here, Beckoning right behind me’. You may say that it’s not about the lyrics, and that the rhythm of the song it’s more important, but to me, these kinds of lyrics put a power behind each of the songs. And in each Opeth album, I could feel them striving for perfection. Trying their hardest to surpass each previous album.

To me, Opeth are now trying their utmost not to surpass but to deviate from each album. I understand the feeling of not wanting to play the same thing for the rest of their lives, but it kind of breaks my heart reading an Opeth interview with Mikael saying that he now can’t listen to ‘Orchid’ and ‘Morningrise’. Even more so because ‘Forest of October’ is still one of my favorite Opeth tracks and ‘The Night and the Silent Water’, while somewhat crude, is a deeply emotional song about Mikael trying to cope with the death of his grandfather. That is without mentioning the absolutely beautiful ‘To Bid You Farewell’, which brought a hardcore metalhead friend of mine to tears (and I rightly mocked him for it). Does the need to experiment really surpass all that?

Still, that wouldn’t make me hate an Opeth album… I understand the need to experiment. And I wouldn’t fault Opeth if they had released an amazing outing of their own brand of 70’s prog. If it had the Opeth feel, the Opeth drive, the haunting beauty of the songs that made them a force to be reckoned with in the metal world, I would have loved every minute and given this album a perfect score. My main problem is that it’s no such thing. When I saw the video to ‘The Devil’s Orchid’ I was excited, I liked the feel of it… It made me wonder what else was in the album, because never had Opeth released the strongest song of the album as a single (you can make a case for ‘The Grand Conjuration’, but let’s face it whoever directed that video butchered the song)… Their best songs aren’t made to be appreciated by the mainstream media. ‘Still Life’ and ‘Blackwater Park’s riffs are downright weird and off-putting to most who listen to them. Yet, after listening to the album, I can say that, for me, ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ is the best track in it. It is for certain the most ‘active’ (am I a heretic if I say ‘lively’?), apart from ‘Slither’, which I get is an homage to Dio, but has no place being in the main tracklist… I mean, it’s a ‘happy’ song… Happy! In an Opeth album! ‘I Feel the Dark’ is the only other song of the album that I actually like, and, I swear to you, is also the first time in my many (many) listens to Opeth where midway through the song I had thought the CD had skipped to another track. Then there’s the middle sludge of ‘Nepenthe/Haxprocess/Famine’ which is just a big pile of mediocre songs that fail to have any identifying characteristics… anything that made them stand out from the rest. ‘The Lines in My Hand’ is another good song, because it actually feels ‘evil’ without being heavy (remember when Opeth could do that?). ‘Folklore’ is perhaps the only song that I could safely say wouldn’t feel out of place within a King Crimson album. It still doesn’t make it a particularly good Opeth song…

Am I referencing a bit too much their past stuff? Yes… probably. Yet that’s the greatest irony with this album: it’s called ‘Heritage’, and it completely neglects Opeth’s own history, its own record of amazing efforts. The greats will always be compared not with other bands they are competing against, but against their own greatest albums. If ‘The Who’ put out a CD with recordings of Daltrey and Townsend farting into instruments it would still be vastly superior to most bands on the top 20 lists. But would it hold up against their older stuff? And I am saddened that this is probably more than just an experiment. An attempt to make something different before going back to their roots. You don’t release an experiment and at the same time remove every single song with any growling in it from your setlist. That’s a punch in the face to the fans, in my opinion. And I know they’ve gone back and added songs like ‘Deliverance’ and ‘The Grand Conjuration’ to their most recent shows, but I’m pretty sure it had more to do with people yelling ‘Play some f****** metal!’ in every show they did, and less to do with a desire to play these songs.

So this is why I hate the album, right?

No… I hate it because it represented a split of minds to Opeth fans. I understand liking this CD, I really do. And even though I think it’s madness to say it’s their best album yet (seriously? better than BWP and Still Life?), I can at least respect that opinion. What I don’t understand is how can quite a number of Opeth fans have become self-important idiots who are apt to label themselves ‘true fans’. And while it happens in both sides of the discussion (you’re only a true fan if you a)hate it; or b)love it), it is far more present on the part of those who like it, and treat it as an artistic masterpiece. And as much as I love Still Life and Blackwater Park, you would not see me calling them ‘Art’, for the simple reason that to me ‘Art’ is a word representing an abstract ideal, an ideal that means so many different things it makes it ultimately meaningless. So before anyone tells me that I’m not a true fan, or that I just don’t understand what Opeth is really about, think it through… Really think it through: Are the songs in ‘Heritage’ better than the ones in ‘Orchid’? In ‘Morningrise’? In ‘My Arms, Your Hearse’? In ‘Still Life’? In ‘Blackwater Park’? In ‘Deliverance’? In ‘Damnation’? In ‘Ghost Reveries’? Even in ‘Watershed’?

If you said yes and you truly enjoy this for the songs, if you truly prefer this new side of Opeth, congrats. I wish I could be like that. I hope you are mature enough to consider your taste for what it is: a preference. Not better or superior to anyone else’s. If you’re anything like me and you said no to every single question, and you still think ‘Heritage’ is brilliant because of its boldness and artistic vision, consider that, at most, all of these things are secondary to good songs, and since this is Opeth we are talking about, our standards should be higher. (4.0/10.0)

‘The Alexandria Link’, by Steve Berry – Book Review

 

And ‘BAM!’ this review starts, without set-up or context… The ‘S’ has hit the ‘F’ and something must be done.

Are you lost yet?

I normally try to start reviews with an overview of the plot, a means to give potential new readers an idea of what’s going on. I could say that this book is about Cotton Malone, trying to get his son back from kidnappers while solving a worldwide conspiracy around the lost Library of Alexandria. This is a thin description, and does not describe the full scope of your reading experience, but it’s still possibly more than you’d have when reading the first few pages of ‘The Alexanria Link’, by Steve Berry, if you didn’t bother to read the blurb.

As a first-time reader of Berry and the adventures of Cotton Malone (I’m aware that this is not the first in the series), it’s somewhat off-putting to see no backstory, no context being fed to me before throwing me into a global-spanning adventure and expecting me to care. His son is missing! O-Okay… Who is he? Now, in a normal book we would have seen Cotton Malone working inside his bookstore, wondering about his son’s well-being, thinking about his past experiences, his relationship with his ex-wife… One might grow a little something called empathy for the main character.

Do we get this? No. We get a man opening his door to find his ex-wife raving about their lost child (acting like the most irritating woman in the world until she, well, stops), and from there starts the action. Should I get less of this character development because I’m starting from book 2? Not unless you’re telling me that character-building relies solely on past adventures, which is what this book seems to aim towards. There’s very little inner monologue within this book, most of it being limited to reactions to what happens around the character. We don’t get quirks, manias or anything to give characters distinctive personalities. Cotton Malone doesn’t solve problems HIS way. He solves them the way they must be solved. There is no moment where you go: This is just like Coton Malone… This is just like Stephanie…

I kept waiting to see motivation from characters. At first Malone needs to get his son back… which he does, really early in the book. After that, I kept reading and being interested in the underlying backstory (which is what drives the book forward, not the personal plight of characters), but wondering just why was Malone still after the Library of Alexandria. Wouldn’t he be better off at digging deeper into the organization which took his son, or wondering what the American government’s involvement is? While the events were interesting, I couldn’t help but think that they were happening because the plot recquired them to. A better linking between the three main plots (Malone, Stephanie and Henrik Thorvaldsen) could have solved this, as it would offer deeper motivation for Malone to carry on, knowing that others were doing their part… Nope. That doesn’t happen. He must go on with his quest because he’s the only one who can solve it. Why he’s the only one I have no idea, since the first part of the puzzle requires him the whipping effort of Googling key-words (I kid you not).

Adressing something I read in one of the reviews of this book, but that I think is worth a mention: This book is not in any way anti-semitical, or biased. It is not pro-palestinian. The only thing it mentions is that an exclusive right to the land by virtue of the “Word of God” alone is not good enough to exempt you from judgement. If anything I found it more anti-religious in general than against any particular sect. It shows jewish individuals and the Israeli government behaving like bastards throughout the book (though Henrik Thorvaldsen, argueably the most likeable character of the book, is a jewish man), yet it also shows pretty much every government it portraits as bastards. In fact I think it was one of its weaknesses. There is never the reliable good guy who serves as an anchor against all that is wrong. Double-crossings occur left and right, which reminded me of the Conspiracy Theory episode of Community (go watch that if you haven’t seen it), and it is eventually tiresome. ‘Character A’ is a double-crosser until you talk to him, and you realise it is in fact ‘Character B’, then you talk to be and realise it is C, or it just might be A again… It goes on and on.

I will not get into the historical accuracy of this book, as I’m not the most knowledgeable man on the subject. The theory which represents the central plot device is interesting, backed by interesting concepts and proofs, be they real or not (what is fact and what is fiction is explained by the author after the book ends). I wasn’t expecting a work of deep historial accuracy, I was expecting a gripping read. Did I get it?

For the final third of the book: yeah… When the book enters home stretch, it picks up the pace and the motivations, the clunky unbelievable dialogue, either goes away or you stop caring about it. I was too engrossed to tell which was the case. The overall experience wasn’t in any way impressive, but amusing enough to warrant a read, and entertaining enough that I will look for more of Berry’s work. I mean, ‘The Alexandria Link’ (5.0/10.0) is book two of Malone’s series. Certainly many of the book’s shortcomings were pointed out by beta readers or editors, so the following books must be better, right?

Right?

‘Sons of Dorn’, by Chris Roberson – Book Review

I would never call myself an expert in Warhammer 40k lore. In fact, most of what I know of the universe comes from novels from Black Library. So when I saw a book about the Imperial Fists (one of the most notable first founding chapters) I had to pick it up and read, to get a deeper insight into the workings of the chapter of primarch Rogal Dorn. Did I get it? Some of it, I guess, but the lore presented within ‘Sons of Dorn’ is really, really thin.

It starts somewhat in the same manner as that of ‘Space Wolf’, by William King. A recruitment mission from the Imperial Fists picks up a group of youngsters, three particularly among them Jean-Robur Du Queste, Zatori Zan, and Taloc s’Tonan, each from a different warring faction of the same planet. Yet there is more: Du Queste killed Zatori’s master, and Zatori killed Taloc’s father. Yes. It is that convenient… And the fact that there is animosity between the three will be brought up again and again throughout the novel, and that will be the limits of character development we will get from the three.

From that set up, the book just follows a ridiculously predictable path. Outbreaks of rage on the practice ground? You have it! Meet the nobles of Vernalis, a besieged planet? Of course they’re worshipping the ruinous powers! A Chaos attack happens somewhere else in the sector… Who will defend Vernalis? Well, the scouts we’re reading about, of course… It goes to the extent where a major plot occurence, which is set as to blow you away by it, is mentioned in the suspicions of Captain Talos nearly a quarter of the book prior to it. The book makes no effort to surprise you, and it suffers for it.

And yet to me, with what I intended to get out of this book, this lack of ambition is not even its biggest flaw. What let me down was just how generic the Imperial Fists chapter is described as… The Space Wolves have a personality, the Ultramarines have a personality, the Salamanders, the Dark Angels, the Blood Angels, the Blood Ravens, the Black Templars… There is something unique to each of them. From this book’s perspective, there is very little unique about the Imperial Fists. You do not see something of the training of a Imperial Fist, you see something of the training of a Space Marine, of an Astartes. It is a generic book in almost every sense…

I wish I could get more from this book, but I didn’t. I finished an Imperial Fist novel which is a first for me (wish I could read more of them), but I couldn’t help but feel I had gotten more out of reading the Lexicanum page (the WH40k wiki) than out of this book. It’s far from a vital read. Feel free to skip this one (4.0/10.0).

‘Angels of Darkness’, by Gav Thorpe – Book Review

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The Dark Angels are the chosen, the first Legion of Astartes, the sons of the Lion. Or are they? Yes, they are… Or are they?

Anyway, it’s very hard to review a book I had this many mixed feelings about. My only other reading experience with Gav Thorpe’s writing had been Malekith, a book I enjoyed but found it uneven (with page-turning moments followed by dull moments that made me want to take a nap), yet in this book the writing is fine, the action finely crafted and the dialogue intense. Yet I finished reading this book and only one thought came to mind: What the hell did I just gain from this?

Normally I read a book from the Black Library and get either inspiring tales filled with blood-and-bullets fun or deeply touching tales of heresy, anti-heroes that you just can’t help to cheer for. This book has neither, but while that in and of itself is no flaw, it presented me with something of an odd read. This book is structured in two POVs: The questioning of Astelan, one of the Fallen, follower of Luther and betrayer of his primarch, the Lion; and the tale of his interrogator, Boreas, Chaplain of a small company of Dark Angels, years after the events of the previous POV.

A dialogue-based POV and an action-based POV, one chapter of one, then one chapter of the other. It felt clear to me that the superior part was that of Astelan. His tale is far more interesting than that of Boreas, by the simple fact that there is a thin lining linking the action pieces of Boreas’ tale with any sort of central plot. Orks attack, the Dark Angels go and defend. A riot! Boreas goes to check it out, an action sequence which leads to three more, two filled with action that are essentially for nothing at all (they attack a ship and a base and find nothing but a ‘your next destination is here!’ piece of information) and one filled with desperation and a sense of foreboding that has one of the most unsatisfying conclusions I’ve read in a book.

And that’s ultimately the problem. I have nothing against books that don’t always go according to plan, but make me care about the characters I’m supposed to be rooting for. I felt sort of a connection to Astelan, and there is little mistery to what will happen to him (though there is a twist to that, which felt utterly incomprehensible to me), but to Boreas and his crew? I found that I was rooting for the Dark Angels against the Fallen. That’s it, that’s what drove me forward. There was no sense of connection resembling what I felt for Ragnar when reading Space Wolf, or the empathy I feel for Dan Abnett’s Ibram Gaunt. I wasn’t expecting a book of Abnett’s caliber, but at least making me care about what happens with the protagonist is something of a must for me. I read each of the parts of the ‘Tale of Boreas’ wanting to find out more from Astelan.

That would merit a seven in my ratings, but ultimately the Tale of Astelan, the most important part of the book, which promised to reveal to me a big secret revealed very little, actually. In the end (SPOILERS here, but I don’t know…), the big secret that the Dark Angels were trying to hide from the Imperium was that their primarch was secretive and so are they. Seriously… Their secret, and what shatters Boreas conviction after his conversation with Astelan, is that they are secretive and thus have many secrets… Oh, and a ‘knowledge is power’ part and what comes after it… Make of that what you will because I couldn’t see the logic behind that.

Build-up from Astelan, something of a build-up from Boreas, and in the end all I had was a underwhelming pay-off. Writing good enough, premise good enough, execution: something of a mess that could do with more ambition from the author (though I understand if he felt restrained by WH40k canon). What I felt for ‘Angels of Darkness’ (4.0/10.0)? Nothing. Nothing at all.

‘Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner’, by Robert Fabbri – Book Review

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I will start by saying this was one of my most anticipated releases in quite some time. Having read ‘Tribune of Rome’ I couldn’t wait to read more of this great story, this great sequence of events being described so aptly by Robert Fabbri. It took some time for me to be familiar with the characters once again, since I read the first book a while ago, but once I started seeing familiar characters, the mood was set and I could enjoy fully what was an excellent ride from this wonderful new author.

To me the biggest compliment one could ever make about the writing of the book is for it to seem effortless (though I’m sure it was anything but). To be clear: if I’m not even paying attention to how much the book’s writing is affecting me, then it’s doing its job properly. It’s somewhat easier to do in historical fiction than it is in other genres, like fantasy or sci-fi, where the writing is needed to give the book its otherworldly feel. I’m enjoying the book more if the writing is just driving me forward, if I’m just engaged to the characters’ fate. That is what happened while I was reading this book, as it did when I was reading the first. I wasn’t paying that much attention to the writing, but to the characters and the setting. This was a major accomplishment of the first book and it carries on to the second.

Now, storywise this is a very different book from the first one. While the first one was a crescent of action culminating in excellent Roman Legion warfare, this book is much more about intrigue. Yes, if you’ve read the first book and was blown away by the amount of intrigue in Roman society, this book takes that to a whole new degree, where the political climate of Rome is as tense as ever and a still young Vespasian (he’s in his early twenties in this book) must traverse the political landmines all around him. I can’t be the only one that’s read this book and thought: Wow, if it were me in that situation I’d have been dead. You need to walk a fine line in Roman politics, and I was constantly thinking about just how much over my head the whole situation would be. And you know what: the situation is equally over Vespasian’s head, and that great. It gives us a sense of: this is a real character: not perfect, with flaws that could be, and are, exploited by his enemies. There’s no easy way out, no simple overcoming of obstacles: and that’s just great. It does disappoint a bit that Vespasian isn’t in the Legion anymore, but some action sequences in this book owe nothing to those on the first. The description of a sea battle about halfway through the book was enough to leave me on the edge of my figurative seat (since I was reading it in bed), and the infiltrating of a Getae fortress in the beggining of the book is one of the high points of the series so far.

Yet in its second half is where, for me, the book really shined. Fabbri does a good enough job to make you equally enthralled by Roman politics as you would be by Roman legions. When the political build up of two novels climaxes into, not action sequences, but really smart political moves you are right there with the characters: engrossed, involved and somewhat sickened. Fabbri does not gloss over the backlash of political upheaval. The end of the book left me with so many mixed feelings… It tells us: Roman politics and society were fascinating, but equally disturbing.

Is it perfect? No. Historical purists will feel aggrieved at some of the liberties taken for the purpose of letting the reader follow the major events in Rome at a time when Vespasian was not a big figure. But that is just it: The book is very clear that Vespasian is a pawn, a good one at that, but a pawn nonetheless. He is over his head and just there for the ride, at times. And that’s perfect. I wouldn’t want him to be more participant than that. He’s not shaping Roman politics, he’s witnessing it, and that’s the perfect tone for historical fiction.

If you like historical fiction, there’s no reason not to like this book. ‘Vespasian: Rome’s Executioner‘ (10.0/10.0) is a wonderful read and a nice sequel to in my opinion last year’s greatest debut.

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