Saturday, April 17, 2021

Oddworld: Soulstorm Review – A NEGATIVE Batch Of Brew

Playing Oddworld: Soulstorm is as arduous as Abe’s quest to liberate his Mudoken brethren from slavery. Each step is a supreme test of patience as you methodically guide your followers through challenging hazards, sweating over the fact that one slip-up could unravel all your effort. If you enjoy putting up with that old-school challenge, you might love this journey. However, if you’re a newcomer or a fan that believes this style of platformer hasn’t aged very well, turn back now. Soulstorm doesn’t do enough to modernize the series’ tedious gameplay, and a litany of severe technical hiccups spoil Abe’s attempted comeback. A reimagining of Oddworld: Abe's Exoddus, Soulstorm’s gameplay remains largely the same: you recruit and guide followers through 2D platforming stages littered with dangers. As charming as the classic Oddworld games are, they can be frustratingly difficult and that hasn’t changed much in Soulstorm. Most Slig enemies and other hazards mow Abe down instantly, and I was infuriated by how little wiggle room I had to correct course when things went sideways. Abe drops so fast that it makes the health meter seem like a cruel tease. While playing Soulstorm, I often felt like I was walking on eggshells because of that high price of failure, retracing every step, re-recruiting every Mudokon, and carefully guiding them through a gauntlet of foes is soul-crushing when it all falls apart in seconds. Dying to unexpected perils, like being suddenly gunned down by off-screen enemies, feels cheap and happens way too often. A crafting system serves as Soulstorm’s biggest addition, but it doesn’t feel necessary. You must repeatedly gather the same ingredients every time you die (by searching lockers, trash cans, and fallen foes), which wore me down in a hurry after repeatedly replaying certain sections. The crafted tools themselves, like proximity mines, smoke screens, even a flamethrower, do add a welcomed element of flexibility and improvisation to gameplay. Dropping smoke screens to create hiding spots anywhere is nice, but I wished I didn’t have to make these items myself and grew tired of digging around the same spots over and over.   Even when Soulstorm’s difficulty eases up, the gameplay is bland. The action feels largely the same from previous games in the series, and that formula doesn’t evolve significantly beyond the first few hours. Even the more interesting sequences, like facing down a giant mech aboard a speeding train, are far too punishing to be fun. I’m glad that Abe controls better now (he even has a double jump), but the controls still have a mushy unresponsiveness that makes entertaining actions, like possessing Sligs, feel like a hassle. The controls also lead to additional deaths because Abe doesn’t act as swiftly as you need him to, especially during the ill-fitting, overly demanding combat arenas that pit you against waves of baddies while you try to protect fleeing Mudokens. Soulstorm would be a tough recommendation for anyone outside of diehard fans if it performed flawlessly, but I encountered several progress-sabotaging bugs (even after installing the big day-one patch) that should scare off even those players. When I died, Mudokens sometimes failed to respawn alongside me even though my tally indicated they were still alive and under my command. That meant I lost out on turning in followers that I’d spent ages trying to safely liberate, which negatively affected my overall quarma – a vital metric in determining which of the four endings you get.  Abe occasionally gets stuck in environmental geometry, forcing a restart. At one point, I fell into an infinite loop. One escape portal permanently vanished once I reached it, forcing me to abandon followers. A gun in a late-game turret sequence failed to shoot despite working fine in previous segments. After multiple restarts, I randomly discovered that clicking the right stick “fixed” the weapon for some reason, allowing it to fire. I spent over an hour trying to lead a large group of followers through a particularly challenging area, but once I opened the exit door an invisible wall prevented me from moving forward. I was forced to restart this entire, lengthy sequence twice before the exit worked properly. Soulstorm’s gameplay pushed my patience to its limits, but these bugs sent me over the edge and made me nervous every time I started a new level. “What on Earth is going to screw me over this time?” I regularly asked myself. Soulstorm’s faults are a shame because its narrative and presentation brought a smile to my face. Abe and his pals are goofy, delightful underdogs I couldn’t help but root for. The enjoyable story is packed with heart, and the cutscenes look great. I wanted to welcome Abe into a new generation of gaming with open arms, but Soulstorm fails to make a case for why its brand of cinematic platforming works today. In fact, Soulstorm only reaffirmed that Abe’s past adventures are best viewed with rose-colored glasses.
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    The most recent Google Arts & Culture exhibit enables you to explore days gone by history of electronic music

    If you have any interest at all in electronic music, you owe it to yourself to check out Google’s latest Arts & Culture exhibit. Music, Makers and Machines celebrates the history of the genre, highlighting the people, sounds and technologies that helped make electronic music what it is today. Google got help on the project from more than 50 international institutions, record labels and industry experts, including the Moogseum. [embedded content] One highlight is an entire section devoted to the early days of Dubstep. You’ll find short, written segments on artists like Burial and the subgenre's development complemented by photos and YouTube videos. You can even use Google Street View to explore the locations of long-closed but seminal clubs like Plastic People. Another compelling exhibit explores the role Black artists and musicians have played in pushing the boundaries of electronic music. That said, the highlight of the exhibit is an AR synth module that allows you to play around with five classic instruments, including the Roland CR-78 and Akai S900. Speaking of synths, Google has uploaded 3D models of some of the most iconic ones. You can check out Music, Makers and Machines online, as well as through the Google Arts & Culture app on Android and iOS.

    Ableton Live 11: The largest upgrades explained

    Ableton announced Live 11 in mid November and now it's finally here. The latest version of its incredibly popular DAW is out of beta and available to all. The list of new features in Live 11 is long and impressive: Comping; linked track editing; MPE support; expression editing; live tempo following; macro improvements; updated devices and soundpacks; five new devices, including a hybrid reverb and new pitch shifting plugin; chance tools; plus a host of improvements to Max for Live. That's in addition to lots of little interface tweaks and updates to Push support. I've been using the beta since it was announced back in November and while I haven't put every new feature through its paces, I can say unequivocally that Live 11 is a solid upgrade from 10 and well worth your time. Just know that Live 11 is a bit more resource intensive that Live 10. And Live 10 was a lot more resource intensive than Live 9. So if your machine was already struggling after the last big update, you might want to wait until you can upgrade your hardware too. Here's a quick overview of what's new and the standout features (to me). MPE Terrence O'Brien / Engadget Lets start with arguably the marquee feature — MPE support. Ableton Live is one of the last major DAWs to add support for MIDI polyphonic expression. Bitwig has it, Logic has it, even Garage band has it. That means instruments that respond to MPE like Arturia's Pigments and sonicLAB's Fundamental can be that much more expressive when paired with the right controller, like the Sensel Morph. I mention those two in particular because they've been my go-to testbeds for exploring MPE. (They also couldn't be more different from a sonic standpoint.) Ableton was smart enough to update a few of its stock instruments to support MPE too, like Wavetable and Sampler. You can find presets under "MPE Sounds" in the browser if you want to quickly dabble and explore. Ableton also included MPE Control and Expression Control devices, which you'll find under MIDI Effects. These let you decide how exactly you want various MPE functions to be used and map them quickly and easily. MPE Control also lets you take advantage of some of the tools available to you on an MPE controller, even if the instrument you're using doesn't support it. So, for example, you could fire up Ableton's Analog, tick a couple of boxes in MPE Control and slide your fingers around to trigger pitch bends and move the mod wheel. To be clear, you could always do this, but it's just a lot easier to get set up now. This might sound minor, but I think one of the barriers to adoption of MPE controllers is getting them to play nice with non-MPE software. I don't want to spend an hour building custom mapping for every virtual instrument. I want to connect my Morph or Roli and just have it work as expected. This is a big step in that direction. Especially since, in my experience, your settings will need a lot of fine tuning to make the most of MPE and this really simplifies the process. You can still take advantage of many of MPE's features even if you don't have a compatible controller by using Ableton's new expression editing tools. These allow you to dive in and manually tweak pitch bends, modulation and aftertouch on a per-note basis, just like you would any other automation lane. It's intuitive and simple, and might even convince a few more people to embrace MPE once they've gotten a taste of what it has to offer. Comping Ableton The other headlining feature, at least for me, is comping. This simply allows you to record multiple takes of the same section of a song without stopping and then combine the best parts easily. (I can already hear a bunch of purists screaming "that's cheating", but they're wrong.) Now, I'm fully willing to admit my technical skills as a musician are mediocre at best and I can be a bit sloppy, so just being able to record eight takes in a row without stopping is huge. Plus, this is a feature that many other DAWs have had for quite sometime, so Ableton is actually playing a bit of catch up here. And you can get creative with comping to create harsh glitchy juxtapositions or to just pullout the best parts of a jam. Comping works with both audio and MIDI too, so whether you're trying to nail a vocal, a guitar solo or a complicated chord progression with a VST there's something to be taken advantage of. And it's incredibly easy to use. Basically each take is a "clip" (that will make sense to existing Ableton users) and they're grouped as take lanes under the main track in arrangement view. You then simply drag markers back and forth to indicate where you want to switch between your takes. And then, if you want, you can bring those clipped bits over to session view so you can trigger them separately to create new variations and combinations. Linked track editing [embedded content] This is pretty straightforward, but it makes finetuning multi-tracked parts a breeze. You can link a bunch of tracks together and, whatever you do to one, is automatically applied to the others as well. This is great for cutting up and automating double-tracked rhythm guitar parts, or if you've got a melody being played on a piano and a synth at the same time, you just sync them up once, then start editing. This also makes Ableton a lot more flexible if you're using it to edit say a podcast, or working with video and audio simultaneously. Once you've got everything synced up properly, you just link the tracks so that any changes you make don't cause the tracks to become misaligned. And again, this works with MIDI as well as audio. In fact, you can link MIDI and audio tracks and edit them both at once. I'll sometimes use this as a way to pull out new musical ideas from a long jam. I'll record the MIDI and audio simultaneously, then go back and edit them as a linked track. The audio track gives me a preview of what the new part will sound like, and when I want to record the freshly pieced together melody without the harsh cuts, I have the MIDI ready to go. Inspired by Nature Terrence O'Brien / Engadget There's a number of new sounds and devices in Live 11, but few have captured my attention quite like the Inspired by Nature pack. These instruments and effects use physical and natural models to determine sounds, modulation and sequencing. The most straightforward of these is Bouncy Notes which drops a virtual ball when you play a note and as it bounces, that note repeats. But you can draw walls and obstacles inside the "sequencer" (if you can call it that) that deflect the balls, or alter things like the launch angle and speed to create generative patterns. Similarly Vector Delay uses a gravitational model and orbiting spheres to determine the parameters of a multitap delay. Terrence O'Brien / Engadget Then there's Emit, another bouncing ball / moving particle style device, but this one is a granular looper and synthesizer. It has so many controls and modulation options, that it can do everything from glitchy percussion loops, to atonal drones, to pretty plucked melodies, but all with a unique and slightly unpredictable bent. The 10,000-foot view is: you have particle emitters that fire either automatically as your track plays, or when triggered by MIDI. The particles then careen through the spectrogram of your sample. Honestly it's probably deep enough to get its own 1,000 word write up. Just be aware the Emit is quite resource intensive. So, I highly recommend you record your results as audio or at least freeze the track once you're done. Vector FM and Vector Grain function almost exactly like Vector Delay, except they rely on FM and granular synthesis respectively. Then there's Tree Tone which is a strange sort of generative resonator instrument that's built for drones and gentle random melodies. Probability and randomization

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