Don’t Call It…: Return of the Fisher King

Another piece on comebacks, this time in the world of console-and-televisual games. It’s a bit more tangentially related to the hip-hop orientated posts which will bookend it, but no less violent or sweary. Sam Fisher. Like stealth gaming’s Eminem, every apparent retirement means another inevitable self-reinventing comeback. After a four year hiatus, and at least one return to the drawing board, Conviction brings back everyone’s favourite grumpy killing machine. Except, he’s not so silent these days. Following the apparent death of his daughter, Sam’s not feeling so subtle. As he tracks down whoever is responsible through fairgrounds, industrial warehouses and (in flashback) war-torn Iraq, he leaves a trail of snapped necks and exploded craniums. Oh yes. Out go the extensive gadgets and meticulous planning. In come brutal close-quarter murdering and its reward, the ‘Mark & Kill’ system, which allows Fisher to get off two or three insta-kill shots from the hip faster than the unholy spawn of Clint Eastwood and Sonic the Hedgehog. Everything is designed to streamline your stealth experience. The new ‘last known position’ system, which leaves a white outline in the place enemies makes it easier to keep track of cat-and-mouse chases. It’s also a step towards the removal of the cluttered HUD, as Conviction tries to put everything on screen. This is a double-edged sword. Replacing the increasingly over-complicated feed of information (light meters, noise meters, doing-a-jig meters) of yesteryear by simply jumping into black-and-white when you’re hidden is a neat idea. In theory. In practice, it can be headache-inducing or, worse, just plain unconvincing. Coming back into full-colour mode shows these ‘hidden’ spots to be quite reasonably-illuminated corners. The flashbacks and objectives projected onto walls, however, are a brilliant idea. They’re Conviction at its most beautiful, and should be copied immediately. But this isn’t a particularly beautiful game: it’s too busy with manly grunting for that. The delicate interplay of light and shadow, growing in sophistication with each instalment, is gone. There’s certainly no more gawping at thin slits of light crawling across your body, or the slowly-rotating silhouette of a fan. Without the strength of its convictions to create deep dark shadows, there’s little contrast, and little hiding rough-edges. Meanwhile, the men you’re trying to knock off shout increasingly hyperbolic threats. “We’re gonna find you Fisher!” “You’re supposed to be a soldier, Fisher, not some little girl!” “How about I take your mother out on a date, Fisher?!?” It used to be that the snatches of dialogue you’d catch felt like spying on your enemies. But that little voyeuristic thrill is swept away in the deafening scream. God, I feel like an old man. I know I keep leaning on the it aten’t the way I remember it argument, but this is quite self-consciously a comeback. The weight that carries means you can’t help but compare it to what came before. There’s the scent of a few failed attempts during that time in the wilderness, and of looking over its shoulder at the competition (the looming bat-shaped shadow of Arkham Asylum, the sweat-marks left by Call of Duty). After nearly annual releases, there were four long years between this and the last Splinter Cell game. That can’t help but build expectations: just look back at my 2009 preview for proof of that. In the hip-hop examples I’ve been looking at, the comeback pushes against the tension of all that time away to build tension, raise the stakes. All a long-delayed game has to push against is the fans. And so I end up focusing on how much complexity it has shed, reaching for options that aren’t there anymore like a phantom limb. The myriad of buttons and moves you’d only use twice was part of the joy of Splinter Cell. But, it is a Proper Stealth Game. It’s been a while since we saw one of those, following the death of last decade’s stealth boom. I just wish it would remember that, realise what used to make it so special, and just quiet down a little. But then, isn’t that how it always is when one of your favourites comes back from the dead?

Don’t Call It…: Coming Home, Needing a Doctor

The first part of what I might pretentiously position as a series of interconnected essays on the idea of comebacks. The connections are mostly thematic and tangential, and they’ll be jumping across various media, so you don’t need to read them all to appreciate the others but if you enjoy this, then watch this space… Two prolific hip-hop stars. Two big comebacks. One girl, Skylar Gray, singing the suspiciously similar dreamy hooks over the raps. An almost exactly symmetrical structure. So, what’s the difference? …Well, Diddy is the pretender to the comeback throne here, his entire career having happened in the time since Dre last released an album*. Dre is the master of the extended semi-retirement, using the vast spaces between music in a way that shows up even the most teasing post-rock soundscapes. Chronic 2001 came out, confusingly enough, in 1999. It’s now 2011. Accordingly, the Doctor cranks it all up to maximum hyperbole. The video – which manages to make Coming Home’s marching across warn-torn deserts look understated – tells you all you need to know. Dre, literally resurrected from the dead. The message is clear: He can rebuild his career. He has the technology. And form admirably matches content: the song is one long build-up, to our hero finally waking up: “It literally feels like a lifetime ago”. In the depths of the labs of Aftermath, Inc., Dre sits up, to the accompaniment of a hopeful series of bleeeeeeps from the previously flat-lined ECG, to take his rightful place as the recipient of the final verse. It’s faintly underwhelming when it does come, though. The Good Doctor is far more physically imposing – again, see the video, which answers some of the questions about exactly what Dre has been up to for the last decade by showing off his body’s transformation into a slab of pure Terminator muscle – than his voice ever really manages. Diddy is much more successful. The central gimmick, essentially Mr. Combs providing his reviews of a few well-know songs could come off as cheap, but it works. “I hear the Tears of A Clown; I hate that song”. It’s a much more distinctive reintroduction to the reawakened superstar. It’s catchier, more aggressive, cuts much more cleanly through the misty chorus, and provides a nice structural finish, where Diddy finally lands on a song he loves and makes him feel strong, to turn everything around. But for all his successes, Diddy’s company is less strong. The ‘Dirty Money’ suffix** means the addition of two women, whose contribution to the song is indistinct at best. By his side, Dre has got his trusty sidekick: Eminem plays the desperate Igor of the song, summoning his master. He swore he had Dre’s back, a decade back, in a drug-driven declaration of emotion on What’s The Difference?. So here he is, sitting in the booth, crying, surrounded by candles and pentagrams and stolen medical equipment. It’s a little embarrassing: Eminem has never been his best when being directly emotionally raw. He’s much better as the trickster, making jokes and threats in equal measure, so that the odd earnest moment catches you off guard. (Again, see that bit from What’s The Difference, which is weirdly genuinely sweet, considering it comes wrapped up in a bit of violent misogyny.) Nevertheless, he sets up the turmoil and conflict perfectly, enabling the Doctor’s return to have mythical status. The stakes are high, both artists strive to convince us. They’ve both lost people, children are invoked, the music industry is against them. The threat has to be there for the comeback to work, even if it that means manufacturing it. And Dre’s verse cuts off, mid-sentence, just to let you know he’ll be back, again. *For the purposes of this, I will be ignoring the lives of both figures as producers, choosing instead to mythologise their vocal appearances. We all have our weaknesses, I guess…**I’m aware that it is technically a group of whom Diddy is only part. But from what I can tell, at least, that seems to be in the way that any rap artist’s handle is an umbrella term for the multi-armed circus of performers than orbit every production.