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Friday, December 09, 2005

 
Civilization IV: A Review

If you have any family members or loved ones that you have no particular need or desire to see again for several months, then Civilization IV is quite possibly the perfect gift for them. The fourth edition of the turn-based strategy classic
is updated once again, and quite frankly, I'm as hooked as ever. Despite moving to a new game publisher, very little of the major ideas behind the game have been changed, but fundamentals have been enhanced in several important ways. For instance:

No more "spearmen killing tanks". Units are more rigorously classified and have different strengths and weaknesses so that even an army of medieval units isn't going to dent your expensive Modern Armor any more. The Age of Empires-esque unit-promotion style works well too, with elite squads of defenders, attackers, guerrillas, and even medics possible.

The endless patchwork of roads is no longer necessary. They no longer serve any function but transport, so you don't have to endlessly clutter your map with them. In the same vein, tiles are much more versatile, with more customization of production through improvements. Want some more shields? Build a workshop. More commerce? A village. More food? You get the idea.

Resources are more evenly distributed, and don't disappear on you, at least not that I've seen. No more incidents where you suddenly lose your oil in the middle of a war and have your tanks fizzle out.

Research is more fluid with multiple paths, although in practice, most research techs are no brainers, especially at the beginning.

City combat is more streamlined as well, with bombardment absolutely crucial now. Unless you have complete superiority, some catapults, cannons or bombers are going to be required to whittle down a city.

Another major addition is religion, which mainly adds to the diplomacy of the game. Although no religion is functionally different than another, civilizations with the same one will tend to band together. Ignore this at your peril. Religion is also the primary way to keep citizens happy, with stabs at multiculturalism even encouraged in late game play.

Specialists have changed from a luxury to a nearly required game strategy in this version, with a tremendous amount of increased production possible and the added wrinkle of Great People. Introduced in Civ III as a way to hurry wonders, more tasks have been granted to them, from the spread of religions, commerce, science and more. I'd go so far as to say that creating Great People is probably the most important aspect to the game now, and can completely turn the tide of a game.

Much has been made of the move to 3-D graphics for the game. It's probably necessary in an updating-the-game-for-new-audiences way, it actually adds very little and can actually make the maps more difficult to see at time, which some units looking too much alike. However, it's a slick design that will inevitably see improvement for Civ V. That's just how this series has worked. Moreover, the basic cycle of research/build/conquer has not been altered and the "one more turn" addiction of this game remains.


Friday, October 07, 2005

 

#1) The White Stripes - Elephant (2003)

When Jack and Meg White released Red Blood Cells and jumped to the top of the "new garage rock" scene, few had any idea of what they had in store as a follow-up. The sheer number of gimmicks they seemed to have (colour scheme, no bass guitar, the whole she'-my-sister/she's-my-wife thing) lead many to believe that these guys would be a flash in the pan. They couldn't have been more wrong.

Elephant kept most of the gimmickry of the previous releases, but turned it on its head, in service of the stripped down blues rock sound that Jack was going for (I'll leave Meg aside for this, as her simplistic drumming serves its purpose beautifully, but leaves little else to comment on). Seven Nation Army (which teases us with what seems like an opening bass line, but is actually a heavily pedalled down guitar) opens the album with a blistering and savage rip on the fame that the Whites received from Red Blood Cells, with Jack threatening to quit music and head to Kansas to be a farmer. It's an interesting mission statement to say the least.

The strength of this album is its incredible diversity, with Jack showcasing an almost limitless range of styles; his voice soars into Freddie Mercury falsetto in There's No Home For You Here, a cruel poison pen letter to an old flame. He find room in a Burt Bacharach song for a blazing solo, and throws down to challenge for Jimi Hendrix's throne in Ball And Biscuit. It's a visceral experience listening to this album, as it careens from song to song showing off just what White is capable of. It's as close a thing as a virtuoso performance over an entire album that we're going to get, and that it's combined with real songs (dedicated in the liner notes to “the death of the sweetheart), and not just noodling makes it that much better. For that, it's the best thing I've heard all decade.


Tuesday, September 27, 2005

 

#2) Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

The story of how this album came to be, with Wilco getting dropped from their label, releasing it to the internet, getting picked up by a subsidiary of that same label and having it outsell their previous catalog several times over, is the stuff of legend now. However, it's easy to forget in this legend just how damn good this album is. Although Wilco and frontman Jeff Tweedy were one of the bands at the forefront of the supposed "alt-country" movement, they largely throw off those reins here, creating a heavily layered and lyrically dense (three years later, I still have no clue what an "American aquarium drinker" is) album that manages to encapsulate everything that was missing from music. Standout tracks here include "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart", which sounds in its opening measures like nothing so much as a carnival trying to wind itself up, and, well… you pick more tracks, since there's not a single wasted one on this album.


Monday, September 19, 2005

 

#3) Sam Roberts - We Were Born in a Flame (2004)

It's an interesting phenomenon that the genre of Americana has fallen to the side in recent years in the United States at the same time that its colder, more polite counterpart Canadiana, has shot to new heights in Canada. Leading the forefront of this movement in Canada is Sam Roberts, who burst onto the scene like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Che Guevera.

It would be a mistake to label this album a concept album, although it does play like a soundtrack to a life in progress, and is filled with the kind of songs a budding rock star might write just before he hits it big. He's "too young to feel so old", "waiting for someone to blow up this town" and doesn't want "to be a dead end on the family tree", all signs of someone who knows he should be doing something important, but doesn't know exactly what.

For now, that's writing kickass rock songs, although saving the world is probably somewhere on his list. Roberts builds most of his songs around a deceptively simple bass line, borrowing at times from funk and reggae (as on his biggest hit here, Brother Down). Mostly though, it's just passionate, honest and straight-ahead catchy rock songs that carry the day. When he tells us in On the Run that he "would die for rock and roll", well, you start to worry that that's not an idle threat. After you're finished this album, you almost wonder what rock would do without him.


Tuesday, September 06, 2005

 

#4) Radiohead - Hail to the Thief (2003)

It's become somewhat vogue to bash Radiohead over the course of their last few albums, oh say, since Kid A, when they went off the track of traditional rock into the recently uncharted territory of prog rock. Sure Thom Yorke is pretentious. Sure, the band is in danger of going up its own arse (they're British) musically. But you know what? They still frickin' rock. On 2003's Hail to the Thief, they made the most of their looping, complex compositions and often impenetrable lyrics to create a masterpiece. Like most heavily layered albums, it's extremely rewarding on successive listens, and it's rare I don't discover a new texture to go with their overarching melodies… but then it's probably boring pseudo-intellectual proclamations like from rock critics that turned you off Radiohead in the first place, right? OK, just listen to the crashing chorus of 2+2=5, or the thumping dance rock of Myxomatosis (and just forget about the fact that it's titled after a fatal disease in rabbits) and tell me Radiohead still doesn't know how to rock. In a half decade of rock that has been highlighted by every band copying ever other band, Radiohead stand alone in pushing envelopes.


Monday, August 22, 2005

 

#5) Aimee Mann - Lost in Space (2002)

When I was preparing this list, I debated long and hard about which of her two early decade albums would go on this list. In the end, I took the coward’s way out, putting both in my top ten, with this one faring better than Bachelor No. 2 to me. More polished musically and lyrically, Lost in Space covers a lot of the same territory as Mann’s previous works, but there’s just something about some of these songs that haunts, from the tragic-romantic refrain of High on Sunday 51 "Baby, let me be your heroin" to the sick-of-it-all This is How it Goes. And to think she was very nearly chased completely out of the music business.


Monday, August 15, 2005

 

#6) Pilate-Caught By the Window (2004)

Being in the Canadian music market has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, there's entire genres-worth of bands to fill out your music collection with; on the downside, often, no one's ever heard of them. Pilate is such a case, and I'm firmly convinced that if these guys could fake an English accent, they'd be bigger than Coldplay. Sharing a sound with the best of Brit-pop bands such as the aforementioned Coldplay, Travis, Radiohead and others and lead-singer Todd Clark at times becoming a dead-ringer for Bono, you could accuse them of being followers, that is, if they didn't write such brilliant hooks and honesty heartfelt lyrics (heavy on the obsession and desperation). Clark's vocals, in addition to echoing U2's frontman, also push into one of the strongest falsettos since Freddie Mercury, but still have the power to find a low growl when he needs it. Combine this with haunting melodies and not a single track of filler, and you have one of the best bands and albums you've never heard of.


     


 
 

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