Reviews

Transformers: War for Cybertron

That's right, no Shia LaBeouf, no Megan Fox, and only the most recognizable of the transformers (meaning no insulting caricatures and no testicle-bots).


Transformers: War for Cybertron

Publisher: Activision
Players: 1-16
Price: $59.99
Platform: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3, PC, Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: High Moon
Release Date: 2010-06-22

Thanks to and because of Michael Bay's cinematic monstrosities that just so happen to feature hyperrealistic depictions of the iconic characters, the Transformers are bona fide icons of "cool" in 2010. If you like Bay's movies, you acknowledge that simply watching the robots is typically the best part of those movies. If you don't, part of the reason for your disdain toward the current incarnation of the robots is almost always the high regard with which you hold the original cartoons. Regardless of the differing opinions, the Transformers are a part of pop culture in a way that they haven't been since the mid-'80s.

Big, giant robots that can turn into cars and trucks and planes and tanks are kinda badass. That's all there is to it.

As such, it shouldn't take much to turn a game featuring the big, giant robots into an entertaining experience. Honestly, even a poor game turns decent when you get to control a Transformer, and a decent game turns fun. Thanks partially to the fact that it's not tied down to a specific movie, Transformers: War for Cybertron is a decent game. And it's seriously fun.

The design of the game can leave you reeling at first glance. The highly recognizable Unreal Engine and the over-the-shoulder perspective ensure that Gears of War will be the first reference that comes to mind. The lack of a distinct cover system other than "get behind this crate and wait for the shooting to stop" gives it more of a Halo feel gameplay-wise, however, and the "progress to a checkpoint amidst heavy gunfire from respawning baddies" thing that never fails to frustrate the hell out of the Call of Duty rookie makes a few appearances as well. Competitive multiplayer play actually owes a lot to Call of Duty (as does, I suppose, just about any decent multiplayer experience since Modern Warfare), with its ranking system and prestige options, while a now-standard "horde"-style mode (à la Gears of War 2) is included as well. It's a hodgepodge of successful shooter mechanics, pulled at will depending on the whims of the developers.

And it works. This is what's fascinating.

Given that the human world is nowhere to be seen -- that's right, no Shia LaBeouf, no Megan Fox, and only the most recognizable of the transformers (meaning no insulting caricatures and no testicle-bots) -- part of the reason that it works is simply the refreshing, decidedly retro window onto the Transformers that we are given. Michael Bay's, uh, "innovations" are nowhere to be seen, and that's refreshing enough in 2010 to give this game a head start on any of the current generation's other Transformers games so far.

This particular theory of the game's success is particularly appealing when you start to notice the game's flaws. The level design in the campaign is particularly appalling at times, usually consisting of giant rooms in which you defeat wave after wave of enemies connected by tunnels in which you refuel your ammo and your health. It's a very, very repetitive mechanic, entirely bereft of puzzle solving or exploration (aside from the "collectible hunt" of two of the achievements), and while the levels seem incredibly long at first, the realization that they are only so because some excuse is made to throw group after group after group of enemies at you in a single room makes it feel like a cheat. It even features the even-less-fun cousin of the escort mission: the "keep the sitting duck alive" mission. This is not a fun mission. Developers: never ever do this, ever again.

Still, any character will only go so far in an average game, and War for Cybertron is actually pulling an audience with the sort of devotion usually reserved for all of the games that it pulls all of its most notable traits from. The control feels perfectly adequate, the buttons are mapped in a way that makes you feel like you've played this game before, and the multiplayer competition is skilled and passionate, but that's still typically not enough to separate a game from the pack.

It could well be a simple matter of timing. We are in a summer during which we are awaiting the next iterations of the major franchises -- the hype trains for Halo: Reach, Gears of War 3, and Call of Duty: Black Ops have just started rolling, and gamers are more than happy to play something new in that vein until those huge releases finally arrive. It's a change of pace from the slowly-growing-stale stalwarts that have dominated online play since they arrived. It's a stopgap, a perfectly timed release that capitalizes on a fantastic known quantity of a universe to appeal to the fickle taste of the so-called "core gamer".

I'm almost ashamed that it works, but it does. Transformers: War for Cybertron, despite doing almost everything it does in an utterly average way, is a fun diversion that'll keep multiplayer gamers busy until the next big thing arrives. At the very least, it's the best way to inhabit the Transformer of your choice on the current generation of consoles.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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