Pumping up the jam

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Meet Warframe’s Octavia, the most unique and fun class I’ve had the pleasure to play in any video game ever. This may sound like hyperbole, but I’m serious.

After finishing the great Octavia’s Anthem quest I set my mind on farming the three required blueprints to actually build this frame. With a bit of luck I’d already managed to do so by Tuesday, but since building frame components takes 12 hours and a frame proper three days it wasn’t until late Saturday that I could finally take her out for a spin.

As the quest strongly suggests she’s all about music. Her abilities’ descriptions confirm as much:

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Click to enlarge for better readability

To make it easier to tell them apart and also stay within established Warframe-lingo I’ll just call them by numbers, so 1 is Mallet, 2 is Resonator, 3 is Metronome and 4 is Amp.

So what does all this actually look and sound like? Let’s see.

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Your 1 drops a little ball to where you’re aiming. It’s indestructible and stays there until its duration expires or you recast it elsewhere. Enemies within its range (depicted by a pulsating sound wave as seen here behind me) attack it and have their damage reflected back to them. This is doubly great because not only does it draw enemy fire away from you, it kills even the strongest foes with ease as it’s their own damage that kills them, not yours. I assume this doesn’t work on bosses though.

In terms of music and visuals it emanates a drum beat, and those volume bars coming out of the ability’s center point pump rhythmically to it.

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The 2 by itself is nothing to write home about. This ball just rolls around seemingly at random and makes enemies run after it. It plays a bass line, other than that it’s not of much use like this. Combine it with 1 though…

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Cast 1 then 2, and the beat latches onto the ball. Disco ball for the win! Now it makes the baddies follow and shoot it, thus killing themselves, and covers a larger area since it’s moving. This might not always be desired as it sometimes leaves your immediate vicinity before all foes are dead, but it works great for clearing out a level in front of you while you’re still looting or scanning stuff. The drum beat and bass line play in unison when doing this.

The 3 plays the song’s melody. It isn’t screenshot-worthy because it just makes some lines appear on the ground moving towards you, one for each note. This is supposed to help you find your rhythm, because you indeed have to crouch, jump, fire or melee to the beat (to the melody, to be precise) in order to activate the various buffs. It’s very worth it to do so; who doesn’t like to have speed and damage buffs running while being invisible at the same time?

The 4 does exactly what it says in the discription. It gives your team and your 1 a damage buff, and the louder it is around you the stronger the buff. Shooting and slashing do count into it (I think), but to get the most out of it just activate all of Octavia’s abilities at once and enjoy the show.

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While listening to the complete song in all its glory

Let me tell you, if you have any love for music this is pure joy. When I play this frame my face starts to hurt quickly because I’m grinning the whole time.

It also changes the way the game is played quite a bit. I imagine that if you can make her abilities strong enough you actually don’t need to bring a gun to most missions anymore. Of the frames I have at my disposal right now she’s arguably the strongest by quite a margin.

But this ain’t everything yet. No, I’ve saved the best bit for last.

A couple of times now I’ve mentioned “the song”. It’s the music you hear during Octavia’s Anthem, and it’s quite nice. But this is only the default song the mandachord, Octavia’s instrument, can play. You can actually compose your own!

Warframe_Octavia7

Holy crap, so Digital Extremes release a new frame (in 2017 that is), and not only do they give her a really great set of abilities and unique way to play, they also give us this? For free? In my opinion this is above and beyond what a good F2P title can do for its players. Thank you DE, and take note everyone else!

Anyway, as you can see the notes you can scribe are divided into three categories for your abilities. Your 1 has three different notes (bass drum, snare or clap, hi-hat), while your 2 and 3 get five notes each. Unfortunately this means that you can’t use the full musical scale. For bass line and melody the notes you can use are D, F, G, A and C, from low to high, so just short of one octave in range (ironic, what with her name being Octavia and all). The game doesn’t tell you this, by the way, I had to figure it out myself. You also can’t change the tempo (about 115 BPM), the meter (4/4) and the song length (four bars) after which it repeats.

This means that you can’t compose or replicate just any song (like I had so much fun and success with in APB Reloaded), at least not perfectly. But as it turns out many known, catchy tunes are indeed so simple that you can make it work.

As a big football fan my first idea, for example, was of course Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400 (the part you’ll probably rercognize starts at 0:41).

Except for one note I was able to recreate this pretty well I think. I obviously chose a passage with beat and everything, namely the four bars starting at 1:29. Now I get to hear “my” football hymn whenever the Rolling Disco Ball of Death shreds everything. The mandachord-screenshot above shows the first bar and a bit of the second, but if you play the game and would like to have the whole thing just send a whisper to Mailvaltar.

For it to sound just right I bought a couple of additional instruments for platinum though, so I guess it’s technically not quite correct that they gave us everything related to Octavia for free. However 50 platinum for a set of instruments (one drums, one bass and one melody) isn’t all that much, and I was more than happy to give DE a bit of support for this truly awesome frame (and game).

Now, if you dislike looter shooters in general this probably isn’t enough to make you like Warframe – especially as it takes a good while to unlock her – but if you do like this kind of game and also love music you really owe it to yourself to experience this.

Wrapping up Blaugust 2019

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And just like that another month of August is almost over again. Time flies if you’re having fun, as the saying goes.

Counting this one I made it to 15 posts this time around. Quite a step backwards from last year’s 31, but since I wasn’t sure if I’d even manage to pen this many I’m pretty happy nonetheless.

From the second week onwards all I’ve been talking about is Warframe, and I expect that trend to continue for a while because I’m still having loads of fun. Since we’ve just returned from our vacation I didn’t have time to check out my new frames yet, which I’ll do right after finishing this post.

Or maybe not. Turns out I was wrong when I predicted it might take the folks at Digital Extremes a good while to introduce a playable version of the shawzin. In fact they’ve just released a meaty content update that already delivered it to us, alongside other goodies like a brand new frame, new weapons etc.

I’ve only tested it for like two minutes, but I dig it a lot. It sounds like a shamisen, which of course fits the game’s space-ninja theme perfectly. You can either strum about freely or try to record whole songs. There are also some pre-built songs you can play along to.

WarframeHero
It’s basically Guitar Hero in space, what’s not to like?

It’s activated via an emote, which I had at my disposal right away since I’d already bought the decoration before. Nice! They’ve also released some colour variations, according to its description one of them even sounds differently. I’ll wait for a video of it to pop up before buying though.

Apart from playing Warframe I also look forward to reading all those posts my fellow bloggers have undoubtedly written during the final stretch of Blaugust. I guess there are at least a hundred new pieces that I very much want to read, not counting the catching up I have to do over at Massively OP.

First I’d like to once more say thank you to all mentors and participants of Blaugust, and of course to our host Belghast. It’s been a blast just like last year, and I hope I’ll be reading all your blogs for a long time to come. Also a big welcome to everyone who’s started just now. I think you’ll find that this is a great community all year round. I know I’m happy to be a part of it. Cheers!

Stay awhile and listen: Forces of the Northern Night

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I’m not a huge fan of live albums in general. Being an extreme creature of habit, once I’m accustomed to a piece of music I like it just the way it is and don’t want it any different. Live music is by nature almost always different, and when it isn’t there’s no real point to it unless you’re there when it happens and it’s all about savouring the performance.

There are exceptions though, and this is one of them.

While Dimmu Borgir were always frowned upon by many ‘true’ black metal believers I instantly became a fan of theirs when I listened to their album Stormblåst in ’96. What really blew me away was their next release, Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, which remains one of my most beloved albums to this day. My favourite music genres have always been metal and classical (symphonic) music. To me Enthrone was, at the time, the best and most sophisticated symbiosis of those two. For that to work a great sound is needed, and it didn’t disappoint in this regard either.

Since then they’ve constantly refined their style, which I would call Symphonic Black Metal. For the recording of their album Death Cult Armageddon they used a real orchestra, the Prague Philharmonics, for the first time. This again elevated their compositions and sound to a whole new level.

In 2011 they collaborated with Kringkastingsorkestret, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and Choir, for a live show in Oslo. With Forces of the Northern Night they released the recording of that concert as well as the same show with different orchestra and choir at Wacken Open Air 2012. I highly recommend the earbook, which consists of two Blu-rays, two DVDs, four Audio CDs and lots of large format pictures. At Nuclear Blast Germany it’s heavily discounted, I assume that the Blu-rays and DVDs aren’t region free though.

The CDs are fine, with great sound and a good song selection. The video discs are where it’s at though. Watching them is obviously not as great as it would have been to see it live in Oslo or at Wacken, but it’s pretty close. The picture quality is superb, as is the 5.1 audio mix. They didn’t make the mistake (as is sadly often the case with surround mixes of rock and metal music) to route bassdrum, snare drum and vocals to the center speaker. Everything that’s ‘metal’ comes from the much more powerful main stereo speakers here, orchestra and choir are spread out over all front speakers and the crowd ambiance comes from behind. Perfect!

The stage setting is well thought out and I’m very pleased that neither camera work nor editing are as hectic as many other metal releases I’ve seen.

I’ve not watched the Wacken gig yet, but the Oslo show is already enough for me to rate this release 10/10.

Song recommendations: Progenies of the Great Apocalypse (I’d buy it again for this song alone), Vredesbyrd, Gateways.

Stay awhile and listen: Dark Funeral – Where Shadows Forever Reign

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During the nineties some of my friends were super into old school black metal. They swore by Darkthrone, Immortal, Mayhem, Burzum and also ‘newer’ bands like Dark Funeral.

My stance on that kind of music was that I’d probably have liked it too if only the sound had been better. Much better, in most cases.

I often imagined the production process of those albums like this: the musicians were set up in the deep end of a giant cave, a single microphone was placed at the cave’s exit and a mono tape recorder was used to record it. Exaggerated, sure, but I find the mental image funny and some recordings were indeed that abysmal.

Seriously, listen to this, or this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty great music (if you like the genre, that is), but it sounds horrible to my ears. Of course this wasn’t just a result of low budget and/or inability of the sound engineers. I don’t know why, but somehow it had become an essential part of being a ‘true’ black metal band to have a sound like this.

For that reason I never really followed the genre too closely, and also didn’t take notice when those bands released new albums.

Release new albums they did though, and thankfully the sound evolved along the way. A while ago a good friend strongly recommended Dark Funeral’s latest album to me, Where Shadows Forever Reign. Since I know that I can usually follow his recommendations blindly (thanks buddy!) I bought it.

And boy, is this a great album! It has a good mix of full speed blast-beat and mid-tempo songs, great melodies and the variation/combination of screams and grunts adds another layer of variety.

The sound is the cherry on the cake though. It’s clear, crisp and powerful. You can clearly discern every single note, every drum and cymbal, every hushed voice. And yet, the dark, cold and sinister atmosphere needed for this kind of music hasn’t suffered in the slightest.

I think wanting to achieve this atmosphere at all costs was the main reason for the (to me) bad black metal sounds of the past. Technical possibilities and engineering skills have finally risen up to the challenge, it seems.

Song recommendations: Unchain My Soul, Beast Above Man, The Eternal Eclipse.

Player-made music in MMOs

Music is very important to me. I love music since I was little. I became a musician myself relatively late though, I started playing the guitar when I was sixteen. A couple years later the drums became my main instrument.

Although I’m not the most creative person when it comes to composing music, expressing myself through music has been a part of my life for a very long time.

So you can imagine my excitement when Star Wars Galaxies came along in 2003 with a pretty sophisticated system for player-made music.

It didn’t actually allow players to compose music themselves though. Instead it had eight (I think) songs to choose from at launch, and five instruments to play them. Among those songs was the Mos Eisley cantina song of course, but also a couple of new compositions. Each instrument had up to eight musical variations, called Flourishes, for each song. For every bar of music one of those could be chosen while playing. Additionally some lightshow effects could be triggered every now and then.

This was already pretty nice when playing alone, but it was obvious that the system had the potential for greatness when played as a group.

Hence I didn’t hesitate for long to start looking for a band. I found two guys looking to start a new band on my server, Gorath, on one of the german SWG forums. We met ingame and talked about our ideas and visions and decided we were a good match.

We started meeting regularly to practice. We experimented with different combinations of instruments for the various songs, and which Flourishes sounded good together. We even practiced solos for single instruments, which meant all other musicians had to use one or more ‘Pause’-commands at the right time. Since this was before voice chat had become a common thing we had to coordinate our efforts via ingame-chat, which was trickier than it probably sounds.

Practicing a vocal composition in the sunshine of Corellia.

When we felt that we were good enough to play in front of an audience we started looking for opportunities. Since Gorath had a pretty large and lively roleplaying community that didn’t take long. Soon we were booked for our first gig, at a player wedding no less.

SWG Wedding 1
Playing the song ‘Ceremonial’ as a substitute for the Wedding March while Groom and guests wait for the Bride.

It was great. I have to admit that the roleplaying stuff was a bit over the top for me, I’m just not into these things. But being there and playing for an audience of real players, being cheered at and asked for encores was a gaming experience I’ll never forget.

SWG Wedding 2
Rocking the wedding party in a guild hall…
SWG Wedding 3
…and on the beach at night followed by fireworks.

We were joined by additional musicians and a couple of dancers over time, rehearsed even more sophisticated shows and wore more elaborate stage outfits. I wouldn’t say that we were the best or most famous band on Gorath, but we were definitely playing in the top league. It was a fantastic time.

SWG Enabran Tain
Entertaining the crowd at a local crimelord’s palace. We were very glad that he liked it…

After I quit SWG I had to wait for about six years until I played a game with player-made music again. This game was All Points Bulletin (the reboot, APB Reloaded, that went live some time after the original game tanked is still running and I play it from time to time). A MIDI-like editor can be used here to compose 5-second long themes or whole songs.

Recreating Marilyn Manson’s title theme from the first Resident Evil movie.

I never saw a reason to do whole songs because the game supports using one’s own music library to be played by car stereos ingame anyway. Also the available sound libraries aren’t really that great.

The themes are where it’s at though! Every character can equip such a theme, and whenever you kill someone it gets played to your victim. If the game bestows the MVP title upon you at the end of a match it’s even played once to all players on both sides.

Because people are people I don’t really have to point out that there are lots of folks who use a theme that’s basically just noise and as annoying as (in)humanly possible. Fortunately blocking a player is but a few klicks away, and then you don’t hear that player’s themes anymore.

However there are also many players who want to have a nice, high quality theme that suits their style or taste, so a talented theme-maker has not only lots of potential customers but can also earn quite a sum with his craft. I made millions of ingame Dollars selling the themes I made, I even did a couple on request.

It feels really great to receive a whisper after killing someone and not be called a cheater/dickhead/whatever for a change, instead getting: ‘WOW what an awesome theme, did you make it yourself?’.

The third and until now last game with player-made music I played was ArcheAge. Here a somewhat peculiar notation system is used to compose songs. It takes some time and effort getting used to. Apparently it’s taken from an earlier game, Mabinogi, which I never played.

Composed music is written down on special paper that has to be crafted first, and these song sheets are then used to play the song with an equipped instrument. They can also be traded or sold. The amount of notes that fit on one sheet are determined by your Artistry skill. Songs can have up to three voices, which is kinda cool because you can make even wind instruments play three notes at the same time this way.

Playing a pretty cool looking and sounding lute on my balcony.

The important thing that’s missing though, at least in the EU/NA version of the game, is band support. Playing all alone is quite nice when you have some good sheets and a couple of instruments on hand, but playing with a band would be a world of difference (see SWG above).

Lord of the Rings Online seems to have a very good system with bands and everything. There are even big festivals, like this one just a couple weeks ago. I’ve never played LotRO though, so I can’t speak from my own experience about it.

Now, I fully realize that there are without a doubt many players who couldn’t care less about player-made music in their MMOs. So every developer team has to weigh the cost-benefit ratio when deciding if their game needs something like that. There are also games where it just wouldn’t fit thematically of course.

Generally speaking though, if you want to make a game that’s more than just a treadmill of quests, gear and combat, instead offering a rich and varied virtual world to explore and experience, a good system for player-made music can be a massive enrichment and a real asset to your game.

Stay awhile and listen: Killing Joke – Pylon

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Completely out of the blue a co-worker asked me the other day if I knew Killing Joke. I had heard the name before, but hadn’t consciously listened to any of their music, although they’re around since 1979.

He showed me the video of Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell, the title song of their 2006-released album. For reasons I cannot easily explain I fell in love with it right away. Normally I tend to like music with a lot of variation, so the rather simplistic song structure could have very well put me off. But somehow the atmosphere created by the soundscape of guitars, synthesizer and Jaz Coleman’s raspy voice pulled me in.

I started to investigate about them, and found that they initially made relatively mainstream pop music, albeit with guitars and real drums. Later their sound became more rough and Rock-influenced (a good bit of Punk’s also in there). They changed their style more than once during the years, yet always sounded unmistakably like Killing Joke.

I bought the aforementioned Hosannas From The Basements Of Hell, as well as their latest album Pylon, which came out in 2015, and was not disappointed.

While Hosannas is great, I like Pylon even more. Compared to Hosannas it’s a bit smoother and more mainstream again, but still rough around the edges. Most importantly, not a single song of theirs feels trivial and irrelevant to me, which a whole lot of today’s mainstream music unfortunately does.

Song recommendations: Euphoria, War On Freedom, New Cold War.

Thanks Frank, great stuff! It had been a while since I ‘discovered’ new great music to enjoy, so this came at a perfect point in time.