Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Florence And The Machine - Ceremonials [album review]

Released in November 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Rolling Stone magazine recently called Florence Welch, Florence And The Machine's lead singer, "the Stevie Nicks of the Twilight generation". The London-based musician's witchy woman fashion sense definitely takes cues from Nicks, but her weird, goth-pop music owes more of a debt to Kate Bush, Siouxsie And The Banshees, and Tori Amos. If none of the aforementioned artists are your cup of tea, then note that I only appreciate a handful of Nicks songs, enjoyed Amos for a couple of albums back in the 90s, and have never remotely liked Bush or Siouxsie And The Banshees...and yet I've found Ceremonials to be an outstanding collection of songs that I keep returning to.
Ceremonials contains twelve songs on the regular album and the deluxe version includes three additional new tracks - most impressively, all but one of those is downright excellent (the deluxe version also has five more acoustic and demo versions of various album tracks). Welch's voice is an enchantingly odd combination of soaring power that occasionally also hits some slightly flat spots, but it's all just part of the quirky, unpredictable nature of her art. Her musical backing is an album production geek's wet dream, as there are a wealth of instrumental and vocal layers presented throughout the recording. Ceremonials whips up a highly atmospheric soundscape that places much more emphasis on instruments like harps, bells and chimes, keyboards, and elements like orchestral grandness and heavily layered vocals, than guitars. Combined with Welch's darkly spiritual lyrics, all of this might sound like a New Age musical recipe you'd want no part of - know that it is not (also note that I'm no fan of Yanni, John Tesh, or Enya). A couple of weeks ago, Welch released her third album, MTV Unplugged - A Live Album. Aside from reminding me that you know you're way behind on your reviews when artists are already releasing bloody follow-ups to the previous album you haven't gotten around to writing about yet, it made me appreciate Ceremonials even more. The live release is good and all (a well-written song usually translates regardless of how it's presented), but the stripped down Unplugged format really diminishes the grandiose scope of the material drawn from Ceremonials and Welch's debut Lungs album.
Based on the artfully ambitious, engagingly eccentric, intelligent, and soulful qualities demonstrated on Ceremonials, as well as being a confident and visually dynamic live act, Florence Welch is one of the few new artists that an old fart like me thinks bears watching.
Best tracks: Take your pick, because there's plenty to choose from. The gorgeous water-themed ballad "Never Let Me Go" is arguably the album's high point; "Shake It Out", "Breaking Down", "All This And Heaven Too", and "Lover To Lover" are Ceremonial's poppiest songs; for something a little more haunting and epic there's "Only If For The Night", deluxe edition track "Strangeness And Charm", plus the percussion-heavy "No Light, No Light", "Heartlines", and "Spectrum".
Weakest tracks: Only the plodding and dirgelike "Seven Devils" really warrants a track skip.
Rating: A

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Grey [film review]

Released theatrically in January; available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video-on-demand next month
Stop me if you've heard this one before: Liam Neeson plays the role of a character under great duress in a movie thriller. The Grey is his third such winter-released film in as many years, following the respectable Taken and the shabby Unknown. Along with recent roles in schlocky fare like the reboots of both Clash Of The Titans (and its sequel) and The A-Team, as well as next month's awful looking Hasbro board game-inspired Battleship, Neeson is a long way from meaty roles like Oskar Schindler nowadays.
Neeson's presence in The Grey does elevate it from what would likely be a completely forgettable movie to at least something that qualifies as a decent way to entertain yourself for a couple of hours. He plays John Ottway, a skilled sniper working at an Alaskan oil drilling site who protects the workers from wild animals (mostly wolves). On a vacation leave, the small plane carrying Ottway and a bunch of his roughneck, dregs of society co-workers crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, killing all but a handful. At that point, the movie's predominant man-versus-nature theme kicks in, as the Ottway-led group of survivors battle the harsh elements and an encroaching pack of very aggressive wolves, without the aid of any weapons. It's a good thing that Ottway is, you know, a wolf expert and all - that's quite handy, considering the circumstances.
Co-screenwriters Joe Carnahan (who also directs) and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (on whose short story the film is based) manage to impart a moderate level of dimension to Neeson's character, making Ottway a troubled loner hung up on a past relationship with a mysterious woman who appears in numerous dream scenes. These scenes, where Neeson's character is deeply wounded from his separation from the woman, made me feel extremely uncomfortable, quite frankly, as I couldn't help but see the glaringly obvious parallel to the actor's relatively recent loss of his wife, actress Natasha Richardson. While the Ottway character is somewhat fleshed out, the same can't be said of the supporting cast. That core group, consisting of about a half dozen characters with Dermot Mulroney as the only "name" in the bunch, register as paper-thin, doing little more than incessantly squawking at one another throughout the movie. The Grey's other main problems lie in the visual department. First, the wolves shown are frequently of the CGI variety, and not terribly convincing CGI, either. Some scenes show just their eyes glowing in the dark as they close in on the survivors, which amusingly brought to mind the Jawas from Star Wars, as opposed to the terror that Carnahan intended. Secondly, the director really doesn't seem to get much out of the impressive scenery in Alberta and British Columbia, where the film was shot. When the last third of the film presents more opportunities to capture some of that area's natural beauty, Carnahan demonstrates a surprisingly deficient flair for the visual. Lastly, in an age where the on-screen plane crash has had the bar raised with gripping scenes in Fearless, Knowing, Cast Away, and TV's Lost (just to name a few), the crash sequence in The Grey is a completely underwhelming experience, almost feeling like an afterthought. That's mostly attributable to the film's small budget, though, at a relatively small $25 million.
There's other "nitpicky" reasons why this mediocre and aptly named film drops the ball, such as characters walking around in sub-zero temperatures with their skin needlessly exposed, a character's apparent immunity from the effects of hypothermia, the far-fetched territorial and overly confrontational behaviour of the wolves, and the ridiculous ending. That Neeson makes it (barely) watchable is a testament to his reliable talent.
Rating: C

Friday, April 20, 2012

Anthrax - Worship Music [album review]

Released in September 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Thrash metal veterans Anthrax have a more dysfunctional history with lead singers than Van Halen, which is saying something. Follow closely now: original vocalist Neil Turbin lasted one album before being replaced in 1984 by Joey Belladonna, who sang on four albums until being fired in 1992 and being replaced by John Bush, who also did four albums with them before quitting in 2005, partly because he wasn't into the rest of the band's idea of an Anthrax tour featuring himself and a returning Belladonna splitting vocal duties. So, Belladonna stays until quitting in 2007, with unknown Dan Nelson then stepping into the frontman position for a couple of years until either quitting or being fired (it's now the subject of litigation between the two sides). In a bind due to concert contractual obligations, Anthrax approach Bush (who is not on great terms with the band) to help them out, which he does for shows in 2009 and 2010. Bush is unwilling to recommit to the band on a longer basis, so Anthrax, who have a fully recorded album in the can with Nelson's vocals that they obviously can't release, go back to Belladonna out of sheer desperation and he reluctantly signs on again, recutting the vocals for what is finally the band's tenth studio album, Worship Music.
The road to Anthrax's first album of original material in eight years may have been messy, but Worship Music shows little signs of the distracting drama that's played out, displaying a consistent potency throughout its one hour running time. Even when the album hits a relative sag about three quarters of the way through, the material is still solid, from the early Anthrax years-sounding "The Giant", to the jam-packed "Judas Priest" (yes, it's inspired by the metal legends), to the slower paced "Crawl". Six of the album's eleven full-fledged songs (three more tracks act as instrumental song intros) are first-rate, including "The Devil You Know", "Revolution Screams", and a cover of "New Noise" from hardcore punk band Refused (in the odd form of that annoying and obsolete 90s fad, the end-of-album hidden track). This stellar group of six also includes the groove-heavy "The Constant", "I'm Alive", and "In The End", which lyrically plays homage to a couple of late metal heavyweights in singer Ronnie James Dio and Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell. The slow build of "I'm Alive" involves a beefy stationary guitar riff and hymnal vocals that flow into a simplistic song structure. It's one of only two songs on the album that sticks to a set tempo, making for somewhat of a nice contrast to the rest of the album, which is mostly filled with tracks that adhere to the thrash metal staple of complex arrangements and varying time signatures. One example of that would be the magnificent "In The End" - it's another slow builder that rides a simplistic guitar riff, only this one fiercely shifts gears to double speed mid-song before returning to its original tempo. The instrumental cello lead-in of "Hymn 1" also effectively enhances the nearly seven minute song's epic quality. Falling somewhere between the album's best material and the relatively weaker songs are the excellent "Earth On Hell" and the zombie-themed "Fight 'Em 'Til You Can't".
An unfortunate by-product of the near-extinction of physical music releases is the reduced emphasis on album artwork, so when an album comes along that bucks this unfortunate trend I think it bears mentioning. Worship Music's CD packaging contains some of the most appealing visuals I've seen on an album in ages, using a vibrant orange and black colour scheme that makes the great photography from Ross Halfin and artwork from Alex Ross absolutely pop. Ross' work, in particular, really impresses with striking front and back album covers (the latter incorporates the album's religious-themed imagery into it). Even the illustration on an inner cover of the gatefold packaging showing each band member fighting with a zombiefied version of themselves is badass, and I'm someone who was always turned off by the band's overly cartoonish persona back in the 80s. And for the religious folk, settle down and don't read too much into that band logo on the cover with the reconfigured pentagram featuring an "A" - it's more for visual effect than anything to do with the band actually being involved in devil worship, playing more on the symbol's visual role in metal history...and it's also an effective tool when it comes to pissing off the religious right.
As I tend to mention in most of my album reviews from metal bands, the musicianship here from guitarists Scott Ian and Rob Caggiano, bassist Frank Bello, and drummer Charlie Benante is outstanding (Benante's creative and gut-rattling drumming throughout Anthrax's career establish him as one of the best in the genre). That I liked Belladonna's singing so much came as a very pleasant surprise - I actually preferred the John Bush-era of the band more, but Belladonna singing this material is simply a perfect fit. There seems to be more of a melodic flair on this album than the band has demonstrated in the past, notably through Belladonna's vocals and the increased usage of background vocal harmonies. It's not a radical change from what the band's fans are used to, mind you...more likely, it's just a subtle effort to broaden their mainstream appeal. That shouldn't be confused with the group selling out, though - Worship Music is as aggressively heavy as any of their previous work, if not heavier. The album's first week sales in the U.S. totalled 28,000 - not earth-shattering, but significantly better than the mere 10,000 that their last studio release (2003's We've Come For You All) sold in its debut week. An additional boost no doubt came from Anthrax's participation in the high profile "Big 4" live shows with Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer.
Not unlike the current David Lee Roth/Van Halen relationship, I wouldn't place a wager on Belladonna's latest Anthrax tenure having an extended future - history strongly suggests their acrimonious and complicated relationship won't allow it. In this interview, Belladonna states "I wasn't their first choice to come back into this thing", which aren't exactly inspiring words. Hopefully I'm proven wrong, because it's a pretty sweet thing when a band uncorks their best album a full three decades into their career, as Anthrax have done here.
Rating: A

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Keith Moon asked to play at closing ceremonies of London Olympics...

In the department of "you're a little late", Rolling Stone's website had a story last week that they picked up from a UK publication:
Organizers of the upcoming London Olympics approached The Who's manager to inquire about having Keith Moon play at an Olympics event, despite the drummer being dead for nearly 34 years, the Sunday Times reports.

"I emailed back saying Keith now resides in Golders Green crematorium, having lived up to the Who's anthemic line 'I hope I die before I get old'," the band's longtime manager, Bill Curbishley, told the Times. "If they have a round table, some glasses and candles, we might contact him."

Moon died in 1978 at the age of 32 from an an accidental overdose of prescription pills. The Olympics organizers wanted the late drummer to take part in the Symphony of Rock, a celebration of British pop culture that will be part of the Games' closing ceremony on August 12th.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Metallica's Kirk Hammett struggles to learn "Jump In The Fire"...

I rarely repost any of the endless stream of humourous videos found on the interwebs, but this one literally had me doubled over a few times while watching it. Some clever editing of footage taken from the Some Kind Of Monster sessions and a fake "bad guitar" track make it appear as if Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett can't get a handle on the main riff from "Jump In The Fire" off the group's Kill 'Em All album, despite the best efforts of James Hetfield.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

SuperHeavy - SuperHeavy [album review]

Released in September 2011 (part of an ongoing series of reviews covering older releases from the past year that "fell through the cracks")
Mick Jagger, former Eurythmic Dave Stewart, soul singer Joss Stone, Damian Marley (son of Bob), and Indian film composer A.R. Rahman make up SuperHeavy, who released their self-titled debut album last year to what seemed like little fanfare. The supergroup project was conceived as an experiment to see what the results would be if musicians from different genres came together to write and record. As a Rolling Stones fan, my only interest in this venture was because of Jagger's participation; even still, my expectations were considerably low, based on the fact that Jagger hasn't been part of a truly good filler-free album (Stones or otherwise) since his 1993 solo effort, Wandering Spirit. Unfortunately, SuperHeavy extends that drought and adds credence to Keith Richards' dismissals of Jagger's non-Stones musical output in Life, his 2010 autobiography.
Predictably, the album's biggest issue is that it shoots far too wide for its own good, mixing pop, rock, blues, electronic beats, Indian music, and Carribean rhythms into one very sloppy musical stew (and that's sometimes all within just one song). Opening tracks "SuperHeavy" and "Unbelievable" are most emblematic of this and set up the listener for the next hour or so of scattershot musical ideas and undercooked songwriting. The former drives a one-dimensional dancehall reggae progression into the ground, while the latter features four lead vocalists and sounds like second-rate solo Jagger or Stones material. Jagger, who's dabbled in reggae sounds since the 70s, doesn't embarrass himself with his vocal contributions on the songs that most root themselves in island rhythms: "Beautiful People" gets along fine for a little while with a solid chorus before Marley knocks it off the rails, the middling "Rock Me Gently" runs for far too long at six minutes (which feels like an eternity when it comes to reggae music, considering how repetitive it can be), and "Miracle Worker" gets bogged down with poor lyrics that actually include the line "You're a miracle worker, a surgeon of love". Rahman's musical influence is the least dominant on the album, save for "Satyameva Jayathe", which is sung almost entirely (oh, joy) in Sanskrit. "I Can't Take It No More" is the most straight-up rock song, mixing heavy guitars with a horn section, but it's completely generic and done no favours by Stone's ridiculously out of place f-bomb drop in the intro.
SuperHeavy features precious little in the way of songs that invite repeat listens - I counted just two tracks as candidates. "Never Gonna Change", by far the most Stones-like track with its slow, country-blues swagger comes close, but ultimately feels like a bit of a pale "Wild Horses" imitation. Perhaps it registered as more listenable because the sound was more familiar than the rest of the material and that it's also the only song on the album with a singular, uncluttered vocal presentation - Jagger sings 100% of the lead lines. The appropriately titled "Energy" is probably the best song, injecting a shot of life to the album with an energetic tempo, lively guitars, and some nasty harmonica riffs from Jagger. That said, it does tread dangerously close to sounding like a Black Eyed Peas song.
How much you enjoy SuperHeavy will be directly tied to how much you enjoy (or can at least tolerate) the singing of Jagger, Stone, and Marley. I've been obviously clear on my level of Jagger fandom in this review; Stone has a powerful voice that is no doubt soulful - the over-the-top vocal flourishes she regularly resorts to are not my thing, though; and my enjoyment of reggae music admittedly begins and ends with Bob Marley, so the in-your-face Jamaican patois from his son tends to grate quickly (and I'm half Jamaican). The group wrote and recorded 29 songs in 10 days and considering the poor showing here, it begs the question: just how bad is that unreleased material? Apparently, the running times on some of those tracks clock in individually at over an there's a shudder-worthy prospect. SuperHeavy is an interesting experiment, but their debut's ambition outstrips its execution.
Rating: E

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Hit So Hard [film review]

Limited theatrical release in select North American cities and available through video-on-demand starting April 13th; scheduled for DVD and Blu-ray release in June
Screened a few weeks back as part of Toronto's Canadian Music Week film program, Hit So Hard (subtitled The Life & Near Death Story Of Patty Schemel) explores the former Hole drummer's career and struggles with addiction, set partially against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the Seattle grunge scene. Director P. David Ebersole combines interviews with Schemel filmed over a period of several years with archival footage, much of it shot by the drummer herself. Ebersole also features extensive interviews with Schemel's former Hole bandmates Courtney Love (lead singer/guitarist), Melissa Auf der Maur (bassist), and Eric Erlandson (guitarist). The entertaining interview segments with the notoriously unpredictable Love show her at various points talking with her mouth full, sitting with her legs splayed over the arms of the chair she's in, and generally just coming across as a train wreck. These portions scream out for Love to get her own feature-length documentary treatment.
Devout Hole fans will likely find much to enjoy in the wealth of behind-the-scenes footage of the band, most of which has never been seen before. For the rest of us, however, it isn't terribly revealing, offering up the standard music visual document of mundane life in the recording studio and on the road in a variety of bus, backstage, and hotel room settings (there's also some decent live footage). One of the subjects Schemel's video camera captured is Kurt Cobain; she stayed at the residence he and Love shared for an extended period, and we see the Nirvana frontman in some private moments with his newborn daughter, as well as singing and playing an acoustic guitar during a brief snippet. These scenes aren't particularly interesting and will only hold some value for Nirvana disciples.
Schemel joined Hole in 1992 and spent six years with the group, playing only on their lauded Live Through This album. The sections discussing the difficult recording sessions for its followup, Celebrity Skin, are some of the film's most interesting, as we find out that all of Schemel's parts were replaced by a studio drummer (although she is credited in the album's liner notes). Despite battling a drug addiction at the time, Schemel maintains her playing was fine and that producer Michael Beinhorn played head games with her, ultimately turning the rest of the band against her (Beinhorn has a history of difficulties working with drummers). Erlandson, Auf der Maur, and Love all agree that working with Beinhorn was an unpleasant experience and now regret their decision not to show more support for their bandmate, who eventually quit. At a question-and-answer session following a Hit So Hard screening last year, Love said Beinhorn was "still a Nazi fuck" after curiously working with him again on Nobody's Daughter, the 2010 Hole album that didn't include Erlandson, Auf der Maur, or Schemel (read my review here). After leaving the band, Schemel descended further into drug addiction, unable to heed the cautionary tales of friends Cobain and original Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff (who fatally overdosed a couple of months after Cobain's suicide). By the end of the 90s, Schemel's heroin, crystal meth, and crack habits had left her homeless and turning tricks for drug money.
I found it interesting that whether by choice or not, Ebersole's film doesn't include any interviews with either of the surviving members of Nirvana, nor anyone from the other two biggest 90s Seattle bands, Soundgarden or Pearl Jam. A small collection of other 90s alt-rock contemporaries are interviewed, including Veruca Salt's Nina Gordon, Luscious Jackson's Kate Schellenbach, and Roddy Bottum from Faith No More and Imperial Teen. Ebersole also expands the doc's focal point to probe the role of women drummers in rock history, although the fact that two of the principals interviewed are the drummers from The Go-Go's and The Bangles doesn't add much musical credibility to the discussion, quite frankly. In my eyes, a glaringly obvious omission to any discussion of women in rock, particularly because they're actually from Seattle, are Heart's Ann and Nancy Wilson. Through Schemel's own experience as a lesbian in the music industry, Ebersole also briefly explores the history of gay women in rock and the adversity they've faced.
The documentary's biggest negative is that it fails to present a fully-formed picture of the drummer's post-Hole life. Schemel recounts calling Love for financial help while homeless, but there's no sense or indication from the interviews with Love, Erlandson, or Auf der Maur of whether or not any of them currently have a relationship with her. They all speak warmly and caringly of Schemel; Auf der Maur, in particular, was quite close with her during their time in the band, and it would have been nice if Ebersole had defined this crucial element. One of the things I enjoyed about the movie was that it didn't deliver a seen-it-before ending where Schemel makes a triumphant return to the music business. We see her sober, happily married, and fulfilled with a newfound career in the dog care business. As Ebersole tells it, Schemel essentially abandoned any serious pursuits in the music industry after getting her life straightened out, occasionally playing in a band with her brother and acting as a drum instructor/mentor to young women. Upon further research, however, I found that the director egregiously failed to include the facts that Schemel actually recorded with Juliette And The Licks (the punk band featuring actress Juliette Lewis), toured with Imperial Teen, and collaborated with Love a couple more times: in a short-lived band called Bastard and again on Love's 2004 America's Sweetheart solo album. On the latter, Schemel co-wrote five songs (incorrectly listed as ten songwriting credits on the album's Wikipedia page) and contributed drum tracks to the project.
Schemel's story should make for a more compelling viewing experience than Hit So Hard delivers. The highly likeable musician's colourful and harrowing tale make her a primo documentary subject, but the film's incompleteness undermines the end result.
Rating: C+

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Shins - Port Of Morrow [album review]

Released in March
My very limited knowledge of The Shins prior to watching them on Saturday Night Live a few weeks back was that they were the object of affection from Natalie Portman's character in the movie Garden State, where she proclaimed the band would "change your life, I swear". Their music in the film failed to have any such life-changing impact on me and other than thinking their name was pretty awful, I never paid much more attention, relegating them to the bin of undesirable hipster music that normally clashes with my own musical sensibilities (The Black Keys have recently taken up permanent residence there).
The Shins' first SNL performance was "Simple Song", the first single from their new Port Of Morrow album. I was immediately drawn in by its ultra-hooky melodies, even while being completely turned off by the band's dull performance style and massively unappealing visual aspect (as this photo demonstrates). Other than animated drummer Joe Plummer (I like the ones that really attack their kits), there seemed to be a real lack of stage presence and showmanship, combined with a drab wardrobe style that demonstrated the fashion sensibilities of a high school guidance counsellor. And I don't know what the deal was with keyboardist Richard Swift's creepy playground flasher look - that trench coat and the Phil Lynott-style coif need a rethink. This aesthetic deficiency would also appear to extend to The Shins' album art, as you can clearly tell by the butt-ugly Port Of Morrow cover; the covers for Shins album one, two, and three are no better. Am I being overly shallow about all of this? Probably, but pardon me for expecting a little more in a rock group's visual presentation.
So now that I've mostly crapped all over this Portland-based band, consisting of an almost entirely new lineup after frontman and lead singer/guitarist James Mercer fired the rest of the previous members, is their first album in five years any good? Not really. "Simple Song" is a stark anomaly on an otherwise mostly forgettable collection of songs that are rooted in a late 60s-era pop sensibility heavy on melodies; despite that influence, though, they also still manage to somehow feel mopey and depressing. I actually found the "Simple Song" versus-the-rest-of-the-album juxtaposition pretty fascinating - Mercer's great voice, a lively drum performance, some killer hooks, and an interestingly wonky keyboard line over the verses add up to one of the best songs I've heard in the past year, with a sound that instantly reminded me of The Who's poppier side circa the late 70s/early 80s. After that, however, the pickings are extremely slim, with only the catchy "No Way Down" and the ambitious "It's Only Life" making it to even a "decent" categorization. Album opener "The Rifle's Spiral" has more of an edge than most of the rest of the material, but can't fight its way past a one-dimensional song structure and "Bait And Switch" has a bossa nova/Santana feel that just feels out of place. Everything else on the album is slow, dreary pop-folk that should please the shoegazer crowd.
Next album around, I'll sample what The Shins are selling, based purely on the strength of that one great track. Unfortunately, the rest of Port Of Morrow works as little more than a great justification for illegal downloading.
Rating: D-

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 [video game review]

Released in November 2011
I've never done a video game review on MediaboyMusings, but Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (available for all gaming consoles and PCs) is certainly as good a place as any to start. The first-person shooter is the eighth installment in the Call Of Duty franchise, with the previous two outings (Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Call Of Duty: Black Ops) attaining record-setting sales numbers. Modern Warfare 3 is no exception - upon its release last November, it sold a staggering 6.5 million copies within 24 hours in just the UK and America. At around $60 a pop, you do the math. Within 16 days, it had grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, making it the biggest launch of an entertainment product ever (the third year in a row a Call Of Duty game has broken that record).
Such commercial success allows for one of the games' most notable attributes: top of the line production values. Like its predecessors, Modern Warfare 3 just looks staggering, taking full advantage of the powerful hardware currently available (I played it on a PlayStation 3). The game developers' attention to visual detail proved to be a perpetual source of amazement for me - the stunning graphics, including painstaking dedication to ensuring aspects like shadows and lighting look realistic, make the environments you explore truly feel immersive. The opening level of the game finds you navigating through the streets of an under-attack New York City and I found myself repeatedly just looking up in the sky and marvelling at the site of seemingly millions of pieces of paper and debris blowing between skyscrapers. The second half of the "Return To Sender" level is another visual impresser, as the player has to fight through a nasty Somalian sandstorm. There's so much happening onscreen at times throughout this game that I was surprised I didn't run into frame rate issues more than a couple of times over its course. Normally, a video game's storyline is at the bottom of a list of things I look for in a good game, meaning I almost always skip the non-participatory cutscenes between levels, but the plot-revealing cinematics were so impressive here I ended up watching every second.
Modern Warfare 3's plot, should you care, revolves around a U.S. war with Russia - essentially, it's World War 3. Not unlike the other Call Of Duty entries, the story is overstuffed to the point where it's difficult to follow, although the globe-trotting locales the story delivers you to does contribute to an admirable epic quality that is now a hallmark of the series' games.
The game's audio is almost equally extraordinary: the talented voice cast includes Hollywood actors like Timothy Olyphant, Tobey Maguire, Idris Elba, Bruce Greenwood, and William Fichtner, while the rich sound effects add significantly to the playing experience, amping up the sense of urgency and realism. On a couple of levels, I got an immense amount of satisfaction calling in air strikes that hit the ground with so much force that it truly feels like the rumble emanates throughout your whole body. Brian Tyler's expansive score also impressed so much that I even kept the music at the same volume as the rest of the game's audio while playing - that's something else I usually never do while playing a video game.
On a gameplay level, Modern Warfare 3 allows for a seamless transition from the game controller scheme employed in previous editions from the series, making for a "hit the ground running" entry to the game for most, without the learning curve annoyance of figuring out what controller button does what. The action-packed levels are well laid out, with enemy artificial intelligence set at a decent level, and the harder difficulty settings are highly challenging and provide the most realistic war zone experience (it usually takes just a couple of enemy bullets to kill you on the hardest "Veteran" setting). The single player campaign, traditionally a bit of a punching bag in the game series for its tendency to be too short, provided a good 14 or 15 hours of fun for me. Gamers bragging and whining that they got through the campaign in a mere 4 hours clearly aren't playing on its more challenging levels, labouring over the collection of "trophies" (awarded for specific accomplishments), or taking the time to appreciate the game's aesthetic virtues. "Special Ops" mode, the best thing about Modern Warfare 2 for me, makes a welcome return after taking a hiatus on Black Ops and being replaced with the half-assed "Zombies" mode (Black Ops was released between Modern Warfare 2 and Modern Warfare 3). "Special Ops" has been expanded, adding the excellent "Survival" mode (where endless waves of enemies come after you) to the "Missions" mode that gives you 16 different mini-missions to complete; both can be played solo or with another player online. The bulk of the almost 90 hours I spent playing Modern Warfare 3 came in "Special Ops" - in my opinion, it's the best thing about these games and the replay value is immense. Speaking of replay value, probably the biggest draw to these games for a majority of gamers is the hugely popular online multiplayer component. It's not remotely my thing, though - the few times I tried it with this game only reinforced my dislike of the mode's hyper-paced speed and the rampant unpredictability of other "live" players, most of whom take to multiplayer novices like me with a predatory fervour (and immature, annoying trash talk). I will say that if multiplayer is to your liking then there's plenty of depth to this mode to keep you busy for an unhealthy amount of time. I'd consider myself a fairly solid Modern Warfare 3 player in terms of skill demonstrated in both "Special Ops" and campaign modes - I completed the campaign on the hardest level and collected 85% the game's trophies, which felt like fairly respectable accomplishments. None of that seemed to carry much currency in multiplayer, however, where I took an absolute pounding time and time again. One sequence of games played on a team with my sister and niece was a particularly head-slapping lesson in humility.
I'm far from what you'd call a "hard core gamer", but I have been playing video games fairly steadily for a good 30+ years now and Modern Warfare 3 is unquestionably the best gaming experience I've ever participated in, trumping my previously best experience with Modern Warfare 2. It's an extremely strong comeback for the franchise after the disappointing Black Ops, so here's hoping the mountains of cash that Modern Warfare 3's software publisher, Activision, is sitting on translates into an equally stellar effort with the assumed next biggest entertainment product ever.
Rating: A+