Games

The Hypocritical Cynicism of 'Battlefield 3'

Battlefield 3 is neither a cynical war story, nor a heroic one. By failing to take a stand either way, it stumbles along with a painfully inconsistent tone.

Thid discussion contains spoilers for Battlefield 3.

It’s good for a war game to be cynical; in fact it’s necessary. How else can you mow down hundreds of people with a machine gun and blow up global landmarks with glee? Cynicism and pessimism are -- and always will be -- inherent to war games (at least, as long as they continue to follow their current template), so it’s in such a game's best interest to just go with that flow, embrace a cynical view of the world, war, and soldiers. Otherwise, you might end up like Battlefield 3.

EA’s and DICE’s latest offering wants to be cynical, it wants to tell a modern military story with an anti-hero fighting impossible odds, but it also wants to be a tale of heroism. It wants the good guys to win in the end without resorting to their own kind of terrorism, like the protagonists (not heroes) of the Modern Warfare trilogy. But by failing to take a stand either way, the story of Battlefield 3 stumbles in every important scene and becomes so inconsistent in tone that it’s more jarring than the shaky first-person camera that provides the player's perspective.

The opening of the game establishes a heroic tone. Staff Sergeant Henry Blackburn jumps onto a train from a bridge, barely managing to stay on when he lands. He crashes through a window, kills a bad guy (Why is he a bad guy? Because he has a gun, silly.), takes that opponent's gun, and fights his way to the front of the train. All by himself. He even seemingly gets shot at point blank range but still manages to climb on top of the train for a second time. It’s clear that this guy is strong, capable, driven, and well-trained. His lack of support implies that there’s no backup coming, so whatever bad thing is about to happen on this train, he’s the only one that can stop it. This is the James Bond-ian hero at his finest moment: alone, with all the world relying on him.

But then the tutorial sequence ends, and we watch a cut scene that flashes back to Blackburn being questioned by two men from Homeland Security. Blackburn professes his innocence, but they don’t seem to care. While it’s not unusual for a renegade hero to get into a conflict with his supposed allies, it is unusual for said renegade hero to actually be stopped by his supposed allies, and that’s what happens. Blackburn is handcuffed to a chair, forced to answer inane questions that stretch back to before this whole ordeal began, and this makes him look weak. The game suddenly becomes a drama about how red tape can stop the hero from being heroic. At this point, Battlefield 3 is not an action movie, and Blackburn is obviously not James Bond. He’s just a kid getting chewed out while trying to excuse his bad behavior.

Within the first 30 minutes, the game evokes two completely different tones. This would be fine if the differences complemented each other, but the premises of these two scenes are in constant conflict with one another. Blackburn’s submissiveness in the interrogation undermines his lone wolf heroics on the train, and those lone wolf heroics undermine his submissiveness during the interrogation. The man from the train wouldn’t stop to tell his life story to a couple of bums from Homeland Security, and the shy guy handcuffed to the table couldn’t single-handedly stop a train full of terrorists. One minute the game is telling us that soldiers can achieve anything; the next minute it’s saying that they too can get tangled in frustrating red tape.

This happens several times over the course of the game. The heroics inherent in the gameplay conflict with the cynicism of the cut scenes, resulting in a story with no consistent tone or theme.

Partway through, you take on the role of a new character, Sergeant Jonathan Miller, a tank operator. These are the requisite vehicle missions for this modern military FPS. You drive around in a tank and blow up bad guys. A lot of bad guys. These missions portray you as an even more dangerous force than Blackburn. Your tank is a weapon of utter power, crushing and destroying anything in its path. It’s cathartic, it’s exciting, and it all comes to a jarring, screeching halt: You’re tasked with covering Blackburn as he and his team escape from a building surrounded by enemies. As soon as they escape, your tank is overwhelmed by foot soldiers and Miller is taken prisoner. In the following cut scene, he’s executed by terrorists on camera.

This is the most awkward and forced tonal shift in Battlefield 3. It goes from cathartic power fantasy to pitch-black drama in a way that breaks the game’s narrative logic and its mechanical logic.

The previously levels established that your tank is a powerful weapon, so to have it overwhelmed by mere men is just absurd, especially since they’re not even wearing any kind of armor. What’s worse is that DICE seemed to realize this. Once the men start charging at the tank they become invincible. You’re in the tank’s turret, gunning down enemies as Blackburn flies away in a helicopter, and suddenly the guys you’re shooting at aren’t dying. The fact that DICE has to break the game’s own mechanical logic in order to get this scene to play out the way that they wanted is a testament to just how poorly constructed this sequence of events is. Miller’s execution wants to be shocking, it wants to imbue the player with a righteous anger, it wants to portray one of the most cynical, inglorious ends that a soldier could possibly face on the battlefield, but since it’s preceded by such an outlandish event, his on-screen murder ends up feeling disgustingly exploitative rather than dramatic.

The final level has Blackburn finally escaping from the interrogation room in order to stop the terrorists on his own. You get some help from a fellow teammate, and together they chase down the main guy. Your teammate gets killed in the process, but you succeed in preventing New York from being nuked. This ending tries to redeem the submissive version of Blackburn by showing how that version of the character transitions into the badass who took on a train in the prologue, and it mostly works. The protagonist rises to the occasion and saves the day, allowing the game to end on an unmistakably positive note.

At least, that’s what would happen if the game actually ended there. Instead it keeps going with a weirdly dark epilogue. Your Russian compatriot is sitting at a table in a dark room, writing about these past events as if they were all some horrible secret. But he did nothing wrong. He helped an American soldier prevent a terrorist from setting off a nuke in New York and framing Russia for the attack. This guy should be a national hero. Then there’s a knock on the door and the scene ends. The whole cut scene has a bizarrely ominous tone, as if the conflict is still somehow going on, as if the knock on the door is meant to imply that he’s going to die. It’s a pointless ending meant to lend some kind of cynical gravitas to the story, even through all the important plot points were wrapped up in a nicely heroic fashion by Blackburn during the previous level.

Battlefield 3 is a game with an identity crisis. Part of it wants to be a dark exploration of war a la Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and part of it wants to be an idealized action movie a la Modern Warfare 2. At least that latter franchise understood that a game should be consistent in tone, even if that tone changes game to game (and the third entry did manage to bring those two disparate tones together into something that was surprisingly coherent -- but more on that in another post). Battlefield 3 is just one game that tries to do too much and ends up falling short in every way.

 

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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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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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