Monday, November 17, 2008

In Which We Merely Say That Time Will Tell

In between sitting out the remainder of a full-time job (split by watching the bottom line tick over and applying judicious amounts of certain peripheral-based rhythm games), and helping putting together an updated framework and fresh content for an altogether more noble endeavour, there's also the growing pressure of finding oneself a punchline for a lack of written output, referred to in passing and in social networking status updates. At least now I know how Meiks feels. 

But my text having migrated, as it were, here we are. 

And here we all are, in the thrall of a National-led government that has – shock and horror – apparently thought about voter representation, and not merely cementing a 51% share of the House and going about business. Time will tell, of course, whether any promises are kept, whether the long-awaited tax cuts will materialise or indeed be a responsible act, or whether the inclusion of the Maori Party in the Nat/Act/UF melange was more than insurance for 2011; all the same, on Sunday afternoon I felt a sudden warmth to see the Maori Party holding ministerial roles for Maori Affairs and the Community and Voluntary Sector. This was quickly stemmed when Tariana Turia giggled her way through the well-staged press conference. (But at least Turia didn't have the perma-smug mask that Key seems to have made his own.) She was, however, looking for all the world as if she'd got more than she expected out of Key, a man with a homestead so grandiose there are apparently serious talks about building a new outhouse for the Diplomatic Protection Squad. According to the SST, the DPS is currently squatting in a caravan while they wince at the nearby market rents – one can only hope they've got an awning ready for those brief Parnell showers. And maybe a swing tennis set in case it's sunny out. 

It's good to see in the Maori Party / National agreement, though, that the larger electorates will finally get funding for more support staff. Consider, if you will, the extra time and effort it takes to co-ordinate any kind of resources for Te Tai Tonga (147,000 square km) compared to Epsom (22 sq km). And it only took a year and a half for that particular Goulter report recommendation to go through. 

I do hope, finally, that I'm not the only one who's feeling the unease of seeing a segment of the mainstream media fawn over the new PM-designate, self-made millionaire or no. Sure, it's an easy angle on a rather beige man, but I'd really rather be told that JK reheats his cups of teain the microwave than see helicopter shots of his poolhouse. Somewhat distastefully, just a couple of days ago, passive TV news viewers saw Parnell featured as a flourishing suburb despite the much-editorialised hard times. A healthily made-up lady in a dairy, barely missing her soundbite cue, mentioned the dozens of champagne bottles she'd gotten through in the leafy suburb. One local real estate functionary, more on the ball, referred to a recent $9m house sale as proof that the economy wasn't in such bad shape. Suffice it to say that these people, the PM-dez among them, will not be the first ones feeling the crunch. And suffice, once more, to say that these people are not our people. Call it tall poppy syndrome in a selfish meritocracy, but I'd rather hold back my praise until Key improves day-to-day life for anyone other than the Parnell Players. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Two Thousand And Eleven

In an interview on Radio One this morning, incoming National List MP, failed Dunedin North candidate, and lover of short skirts Michael Woodhouse said that "the campaign for 20011 begins now". That the newly elected politician is showing such long-term fervour can only be constructive for the people of Dunedin. Woodhouse has also said he will set-up 'clinics' on the University of Otago campus for students to bring their concerns to him. He has also hinted - perhaps naiively - that he wants to push for editorial space in student magazine. What is a concern is that this long-term drive doesn't seem to be, in public at least, reciprocated by the Opposition Elect.

It wasn't foreshadowed, but it came as no surprise that Helen Clark stood down as leader of the Labour Party on Election Night. It showed her willingness to speed up the wound-licking process and get on with recovery. It's also no surprise that Phil Goff was announced as her successor. Recently in the United States Presidential race we saw the complementary partners approach at play in the selection of Vice-Presidential wannabes. A young black man chose an old white crank. An old white crank chose a retarded 'Hockey Mom'. The idea is to choose a running mate that provides properties that you lack, to broaden your potential support-base. What little speculation there was centred around people like David Cunliffe, to balance the left-right factions of the party, but two white men from Auckland was considered too narrow an image. Lianne Dalziel is female, Christchurch-based, and has a union background, with an almost creepy resemblance to Sarah Palin to combat the 'sick of her teeth' crowd. Instead, Labour went with Annette King.

It's not much of an ideological stretch to see King/Goff at the helm of the National Party, quite frankly. Touch on criminals? Why, it was Phil Goff as Justice Minister that made Legal Aid a loan, and introduced unqualified Court Registrars as defendants first point of contact within the court system, encouraging them to plead guilty in a nation-wide efficiency drive. Goff has already launched into apology mode - and I guess we now get to see where he and Clark differed in opinion.

This then leaves the centre-left hoping for either of two outcomes: this is a caretaker Labour leadership, priming someone like Cunliffe for 2014, or the Greens grow some left wings and eat into the traditional Labour support the way National pandered to their centrists this year. Over time this could leave the left without one major party, which is fine unless MMP gets biffed out over the next few years. Campaigning now for 2014 seems a bit defeatist, however realistic it may be, and Labour is asking a lot of it's traditional support base's patience if this is the case. Let us not forget the damage done between 1990 and 1996, damage not entirely undone by 2008.

Elsewhere, John Key's negotiations for forming a government may set an MMP record. Without the meandering of Winston Peter's, and associated re-arranging of baubles, National want this done in time for Key to swan off to Peru for APEC (can't wait to see his smug face beaming out of traditional Peruvian garb), and they have let everyone know this it would seem. The Maori Party, Act and United Future had all met with Key by early this week. The real question was how Tariana Turia was going to be able to uphold their noble proclamations of direct democracy. 'We will take any agreement to Maoridom, and let them decide' was always the angle. What Maoridom got this week were rushed hour-long meetings that refused to discuss the content of the deal, and simply asked for blind support from the masses.

Ok, so they have no choice. The options for the Maori Party as of Sunday was nothing at all, or next to nothing with the Nats, so it's a bit of a no-brainer. And, considering the furore over the Foreshore and Seabed that spawned the party in the first place, going with Labour is no less of a sellout than getting into bed with Key, Hide, Dunne and Co. On that note, why do National have such a hard-on for Peter Dunne? They don't need him for numbers, or for ideology, and if he sat in the middle of nowhere he could indeed fade into nothing over 3-6 years which is surely good news for everyone. What bothers me about the Maori Party ramming through its consultation process to get John to Peru is that for short-term gains, and the possibility of scrapping the dole, their long term survival could be toast if National sell out the middle and lower classes - which include a large section of Maori Party voters I would imagine - like they did in the 1990s.

To lighten the mood pre-weekend, I am now off to fight old art matrons for finger food at the opening of Rita Angus: Life and Vision, 140 works - originally curated for Te Papa in Wellington - showing at the DPAG. Curator Jill Trevelyan will present a floor talk on the whole thing from 3pm tomorrow. If that's not enough for your monocle, you can check out the Royal New Zealand Ballet production of Don Quixote at the Regent Theatre this Saturday/Sunday, if you're in Dunedin.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

It's Not Just Politics.

So, apologies to some, and a relief to others I'm sure. But the fallout from the weekend has been the catalyst for driving me headfirst into more immersive distractions. At very different ends of the sonic scale, two men tucked in the fringes of the music community have provided more solace than most.

Matt Middleton is an institution in Dunedin, and a man who bears the burden that comes with the man/myth/legend status and for good reason. He's spent good tracts of time as a fairly comprehensive and compulsive bridge burner, a man who seemed hellbent on sub-conscious self-destruction. In his early twenties he landed a release on the already fading but still notorious Flying Nun imprint, as Crude, the most prolific / noted of Middleton's monikers I suppose, and 1997's Inner City Guitar Perspectives was a compilation culled from earlier cassette releases. Two years later, Middleton's trash-rock / swampfest / garage trio The Aesthetics had their debut LP My Right To Riches issued by Thurston Moore's label Ecstatic Peace. Kansas-based label Mental Telemetry (now Invisible Generation) - home of Six Organs of Admittance, The Magic Carpathians and fellow Dunedin headfucks The Futurians - have also lent support to a swag of Crude/Aesthetics releases half way around the world. So how, more than a decade on from being dumped on the doorstep of New Zealand's self-styled indie/lo-fi godfather label, is this man still so unremarked upon?

Because this is Matt Middleton who wouldn't bother getting on the plane to go to gigs. The man who would tear a sign down and throw it through the window of the casino restaurant. The man who knocked himself unconscious mid-set by smashing his head into his microphone. The truth and the legend blur constantly, of course, but the end result is that the myth is the prominent lens through which people see and read him, and sadly that often means that people don't take the time to listen to his music, which is truly sad, because by 2008 the man and the music have matured to the point that this truly feels like a pivotal point in the Middleton ouevre. More than in any time I can remember, he is attacking the music with a fury that finally fits the searing stomp-skronk-wail-riot of the sonic vision.

A one man vaudevillain, crooning demented lounge ballads over thumping electro freakouts, and taking charge of the saxophone like it's some kind of man possessed, needing to be tamed and tamed it shall be.

It is easy to forget when people are making music that doesn't fit into handy three and a half minute blocks, stacked mile high; music that eschews form in favour of function, that sets about digging cavities into your frontal lobe so you never have the option of returning to a life like you led before you heard, frontal assaults on the mind and body, that the whole often obscures the musicality that flourishes within it. Crude's jazz background, a clarinet player initially, is what holds it together, stitching anarchic improvisations together literally by a thread. It is also the real flourish behind him, pausing hesitantly, hovering over a fret board, then lurching suddenly into scratchy trills that pierce the swampy depths below. It's not always easy listening music, and don't expect to be let off lightly either by the production of the music or the live performing of it, this is stuff you need to digest, but thanks to the way Middleton can so effortlessly cast you under his fidgety spell, the challenge soon gives way to a spatial-temporal realignment before your very eyes and ears, taking you to a jaded post-apocalyptic overpass, howling at the moon to no avail.

Crude is Crude, but Crude is also The Aesthetics. Often unfairly labelled simply as a Crude band, they belong to two very different spaces. The trashy regurgitation of Motor City rock n roll filtered through the rising pretense of New York No Wave - live at least, references to The Contortions finally seem valid again, thankfully - sets The Aesthetics apart from the future worlds Crude inhabits. But Middleton is an auteur, and while it is negligent to deny the impact of the list of past influences and band mates, there's no denying that the scope of the sound can still be boiled down to one man. Same goes for the far more infrequent works of jazz-freak rogues Anomie Ensemble.



Matt Middleton is a small man who makes a lot of noise. Auckland composer Warwick Blair could not be closer to the polar opposite of this. An imposing figure, dressed largely in black with a formidable paw for the shaking. For such a giant of a man, Blair's compositions have deftness and subtlety that are astonishing. Much like Middleton, you are also unlikely to see his music videos pop up on C4, or on the radio. His projects are highly conceptual, and seem more at home in a gallery space than at a pub. He is comfortable with the term composer being substituted for songwriter. His latest epic, Stars was written with a gallery space in mind, and it made it's full length debut here in Dunedin a few weeks back. Simply, it was one of the most stunning, and more importantly immersive, musical experiences I have ever had. In short, it's an ambient composition that plays uninterrupted for 24 hours, but around the room is an accompanying ambient film by astronomer/artist Paul Moss, in real time: clouds and rainbows during the day, starscapes at night. The stars are a bit too static, says Blair. It's a work in progress. At the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Blair played his 24 hour opus from 4pm on a Saturday to 4pm on a Sunday. The gallery remained open all night, and you could come and go as you pleased. I went back six times.

Hearing Warwick Blair talk about his music you could be forgiven for thinking it was the work of a man more interested in the programming than in the songwriting. The day is broken into eight movements, each exactly three hours long. Then, each three hour section is broken into eight movements, each 22.5 minutes long. Somewhere roughly in the middle of each of these drops the central motif. I use the word drop rather lightly here. Echoing digital percussion rings out clear over lush rolling ambience, more hypnotic perhaps than engaging. And then, out of nowhere, comes the incredible haunting voice of classical Indian singer Sandhya Rao Badakere, sitting on a pile of cushions in the middle of the room. You can't even see her breathing, but the voice that comes out of her belongs to another world and another time. And then her twenty-two and a half minutes are up, and she is gone again. Not before a dislocatingly human hack out in the foyer.

For logistical reasons, it is difficult for Stars to be presented in its entirety, although a four-hour preview version has been produced in Wellington. It's not something you can digest in one sitting, a la Warhol's Empire, but it is a truly beautiful treasure, in a time when it is more difficult than ever to use the term sincerely. If you missed it, don't worry, he is bringing it back to the Dunedin Fringe Festival next year, and an expanded version (with screens on the roof and ceiling) will be showing at Galatos in Auckland for the Fringe early next year. It gets better. After this is an eight stanza opera - ruminations on love, death, sex, drugs, dance etc - with a jazz singer, two opera singers and a folkie, with three multi-instrumentalists. The 'Dance' section is a tempo-mapped remake of New Order's 'Blue Monday', the biggest selling 12" single of all time.

Escapism, pure and simple. Don't take on an empty stomach, and if problems persist, consult a physician. In times like this sometimes only prescription medicine can numb the pain.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Electile Dysfunction: Numb Notes On A Long Weekend

Well there you have it.

The moment all filthy pinko lefties had been denial about for the last couple of years has come to fruition, and the wonderful world of democracy has delivered our country, in the midst of the turbulent economic situation worldwide, into the hands - as David Slack has noted - of a champion gambler, who celebrates his victory in a gambling emporium. The victory was more emphatic than most dared conjure, but from the perspective of any potential social conscience over the next six years, and that's rather optimistic, it would have been good if they got the numbers on their own. For all his rhetoric about Helen Clark pulling together a "five-headed beast" to run the country, it looks like John is set this week to cobble together a centre-right Frankenstein of his own.

Speaking of which, they didn't thaw out Sir Roger long enough before his televised address on Saturday night, and his eyes took on a glow that burned the colour of Chicago. Perhaps a little less freezer time, and a little more time in Rodner's tanning booth might be in order. Structural changes must be made. Their only real policy seemed to be Sir Rog as Minister of Finance, but have backed down as a potential coalition partner, and will instead offer support on confidence and supply. Hide and maybe Heather Roy will get Ministerial portfolios, but won't be sitting around the Cabinet table. Don't think you're safe, yet. Douglas would make a fine head of the so-called Razor Gang Key has pledged to hack through the civil service. Or chairing a Select Committee or two, if he can stay awake that long. He really makes John McCain seem quite spritely. They get five MPs in total, including the terrifying Sensible Sentencing Trust advocate David Garrett, and Rodney Hide is drumming up a storm, taking their 3.72% support as a serious mandate for reform. This from a party that couldn't even get more votes than Winston Peters. The Nats get 59 seats, and Act's support takes that to 64, which is enough to govern, but not enough for Key. He has openly courted Peter Dunne, and the Maori Party, which could eventually make it 70 on their side to 52 against. Decisive indeed.

Drawing is as many of the minor parties as he can gives Key frightening leverage, and a fantastic way of evading responsibility for the more unpopular reforms that could be on the way. They have the mandate to move in more of a neo-liberal economic direction than they would dare institute themselves, and blame it on Act, and then push the moral conservative angle if it suits them and dump the blame on the doorstep of Peter Dunne. If they wanted to start locking up prostitutes again, or give us our right to bash our kids, there's nothing stopping them. They can call them policy concessions, rather than party policy. Not that National's justice programme isn't worrying enough on it's own. It plans to give judges discretion to sentence a violent offender to life in prison without parole, for a first offence, if the crime is "heinous" enough. Further, second offenders for violent crime (which includes theft in Key's initial proposal but as with most policy was a bit vague and non-committal), will also be no longer eligible for parole. Anyone who is arrested for a crime that could carry a maximum penalty of jail time will also be forced to submit DNA to a crime register. That includes the crime of being in possession of spotting knives, of all things. Whether or not it is destroyed when and if you are cleared is unclear. Having been screened for DNA myself in the past, for 'elimination purposes', they aren't that good at keeping you informed about what's going on. Hell, they didn't even tell me when they no longer considered me a rapist.

So, have we formed a coalition police state wrapped in the robes of the religious right? I am preparing for the worst, but it doesn't seem necessary to get angry for it's own sake. But we have to be careful and make sure we actively resist the New Right regime should the worst eventuate. Active Opposition to the Government has to start now. This is day one of the 2011 campaign.

Under Clark and Cullen's management, this country has seen nine years of economic stability, until very recently, and they can hardly be held responsible for that. On top of that, it has been a great season of progressive reform: the success of KiwiSaver, the establishment of a centrally owned bank in KiwiBank, the right for same-sex and secular couples to recognised Civil Unions, the legalisation and regulation of prostitution, the removal of the excuse of reasonable force in child abuse cases, the 'clean slate bill' wiping your criminal record for ancient minor offences, the banning of smoking cigarettes in bars/clubs/restaurants/schools/offices, the reacquisition of the national rail system, the unbundling of Telecom's monopolistic practices, finally establishing a systemic working solution to the national climate change responsibility, the Working For Families scheme offering necessary relief to stay-at-home parents, nationalising the compensation industry and removing the interest charged on student loans for active students and graduates living in New Zealand make up a short but breathless list.

It hasn't all been bread and roses, as they say, and seeing as Phil Goff's meddling in the Justice Dept is some of the ugliest, it is ominous that he is being tipped as the replacement for Labour's outgoing leader. Labour seem to be making a push to the centre. It's no small sign that they put forward Clare Curran (from P.R) rather than Don Pryde (EPMU - President - who eventually fought the losing battle against Bill English in Clutha-Southland) in the safety of David Benson-Pope's empty Dunedin South seat. They are looking to the future, and that doesn't seem to include their working class roots as much as many would like, with some consolation coming from the oft-tipped Andrew Little (EPMU - National Secretary) to fill the shoes of Labour Party President Mike Williams. With the advent of a slightly diluted version of Wayne Mapp's notorious 90-Day Probation Policy just around the corner, giving employers of twenty employees or less the right to fire workers without recourse to Personal Grievance claims, the centre-left could use some gnashing Union Teeth.

There is new blood in Labour's ranks, despite the carnage, but the centre-left, inside and outside of politics, needs to be far more active in the next three years. History suggests National will get at least a couple of terms in, but it isn't unachievable for Labour to revive itself in 2011 to the same degree National did in 2005. And the Greens, sadly, learned that fighting a Presidential campaign without a personality to lead it can only get you so far, even if you have the best billboards and t-shirts. The Greens need profilic representatives, or candidates at least, to bring them the attention they will need to push on past being simply the 'best of the rest'. The real challenge is who will step up in the Beehive and challenge the New Right? Clark and Cullen may or not be around the full term, and like his politics or not, you have to admit having Winston Peters around would have been useful for sheer antagonism. I mean, Trevor Mallard can't do it all himself.

So, a sombre and sobering result for the nation, perhaps. Or a call to arms for the socially aware, most optimistically. Disaffected liberals are the centre-left's biggest enemy, and frustratingly, it would seem, some of the most difficult people to mobilise. The lack of voter numbers in Auckland Central, for example, let a 28 year-old middle manager with no political experience waltz into one of the most crucial seats in the country. What will it take to get the cool kids to vote? Bomber Bradbury for Auckland Central in 2011? Perhaps for the Greens? It might well take someone with their own television channel at their disposal to break the conservative grip over the news media. When the media scrum tried to get at Key, who needed a team of SIS thugs at his own party HQ, it seemed to be the first time they were prepared to question their idol. Wait until the King has been crowned, and then it's safe to find out his glaring inadequacies. Their self-made prophecy came true, because nobody doubted them.

Through it all, I suppose, it may be bad news for bureaucrats, but it could be boom times for punditry and satire. The latter of these could prove to be a useful mode of engaging a tough and media savvy demographic the way that Neo-Liberalism seems to make the 20 and 30-something Commerce grads wet. Gateway politics, maybe?

I promise more optimistic distractions next time, but in the meantime, the most retarded band promo, in a hilariously feline way, is right there for you to stare blankly at.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Review: Fable 2

Lionhead Studios

Xbox 360

In 2004, Peter Molyneaux and the team at Lionhead Studios made some massive promises, and while the original Fable was an enjoyable action-RPG, the promised ‘anything and everything’ just failed to deliver – you could make the villagers like you, but once you’d done it once to see their reactions, there wasn’t really a pay-off to doing so. Changing your status from good to evil was a fun gimmick, but it didn’t add terribly much to the gameplay, beyond accessing certain quests.

Four years and many more promises later, Molyneaux still wants you to feel "very f***ing cool" when you’re playing Fable 2, he’s added a dog as your companion, removed stats from the different clothing you can wear, updated the graphics, and, for some odd reason, really screwed up the game’s menus. But it’s still an engrossing game, despite the flaws – you’ll hit the walls on the much-vaunted person-to-person interactions pretty quickly, but it’s fun while it lasts.


Set 500 years after the first game, Fable 2 sees the player set course on a classic revenge mission, to right the wrongs done against you (and your family) in the game's opening scenes. In doing this, you'll have to assemble a kind of dream team of Heroes - corresponding to the three experience trees the game offers - Skill, Will, and Strength. Seeing other Heroes fit into these categories did make me wonder where my Hero fit in, and it might have been interesting to see your Hero take the role of one of the three, but I suppose there's more to be gained by letting players alter their specialities than locking them in early on.

Molyneaux apparently made a point of removing the stat bonuses from clothes, which is an interesting design choice – after all, clothes should just be about appearance bonuses, and not good or evil – but as far as I can tell (sixteen hours into the game, my Albion-wide property portfolio all but complete), there just isn't a big enough range of outfits to justify Molyneaux's decision. Lucky, then, that you can dye your clothes any colour you want - provided you've found or bought the right dye. (There's even a goth Achievement, which you get after you dye your hair and all your clothes black, as well as putting on black makeup in a beauty shop.)

Another hyped design choice is the addition of a dog to accompany the player throughout (almost) the entire game, and this one really pays off – there's a real emotional bond with the dog, for all that it can't do much more than bark when there's treasure nearby, and attack enemies when they're on the ground. There's even a subset of emotions available to let your dog know just what you think of it, and a rubber ball you can throw for the dog, although the options available are slightly more complex than necessary, given the dog's reactions.

And that's just one more oddball thing about Fable 2 – for all of its supposed complexity, it still feels incredibly dumbed-down. It's an odd dichotomy; a lot of work obviously went into the game, and there's a lot happening behind the scenes, I'm sure, but binary choices (good/evil, corrupt / pure, male/female, rich/poor etc) are barely choices at all, because they don't result in any kind of real change in the world – at least not a change that matters, or one that alters the main storyline. Your 'relationships' with NPCs carry no emotional heft, even after you've 'married' or 'slept with them', and it's simple to reset their opinions of you by giving gifts, hitting them or simply throwing gold around willy-nilly. Yes, you can buy a pub, give the beer away for free and get everyone in town drunk, but it's the equivalent of turning on the disaster mode in Sim City, for all it means to you. And while at least there is a choice, all it really offers is a reason to play through the game one more time. And once you've gone through the game as a saintly man, or a downright evil woman (my first two characters – and what does that say about me?) I don't see a great reason to play it again. (Although that may change once online multiplayer is patched up, so watch this space for an update.)


The main storyline will last a good ten to twelve hours, after which you’re free to run around in the world you’ve saved (or doomed), buy property, run businesses in a very stripped-down fashion (you’re pretty much limited to raising or lowering prices), get married (as often as you like), have children (as many as you like), and work as a bartender, woodchopper or blacksmith. (Well, I say ‘work’, but it’s more like a rhythm game with only one button – when the dot is next to the green zone, press A, rinse, repeat, ad infinitum, ad nauseaum, or ad repetitive strain injury-um.)

Of course, all of these sidelines are available while you’re polishing off the main quest as well, but I found that they simply served to unnecessarily complicate the game. Yes, Fable 2 has a rather large variety of gametypes and play styles, but the game focuses on the same types as its predecessor – story-driven action-RPG, and the open-ended world sim, and they’re best taken separately.

Also available at any point are the pub games, which were released separately on Xbox Live, and let you merge a Pub Games patron with your Fable 2 hero to win or lose massive amounts of gold. Of the three, there’s really only one that’s worth playing – Tower of Fortune. Spinnerbox is pure chance, whereas Keystone is too involved for casual gamers or anyone looking for a diversion. Better, and more profitable, to put your idle Fable hours into the jobs, where there’s at least a modicum of skill required. Short of getting all of the Achievements in the game, I don’t see a reason to play these games at all. Harsh words, but true.

I have a few proper gripes, and they’re mostly to do with the game being rushed out the door to meet its shipping deadlines. It ships without online multiplayer, and you’ll have to patch the game as soon as you get it to enable the feature. At the start of the game the splash page loads in at least four separate chunks, leaving quarter of the screen black while the rest of the data catches up. Also, if you’re too rushed with your button-pressing to get the game up and running, you can actually stall the ‘load game’ progress, and freeze your system, necessitating a quick restart.


Once you’re in the game, you’ll find that menus load tortuously slowly – it’s not as crippling as the menus in the recent Force Unleashed, but when you’re trying to get to a couple of potions quickly, the load times are infuriating. Buying items is a bit of a trial as well, as there doesn’t seem to be a way to compare the traders’ weapons with those currently equipped, or even to see how may of a particular item you currently own. It seems bizarre that only Japanese RPG-makers (and Bethesda) can get the inventory management system right, but I haven’t seen a European RPG with a decent menu / inventory system yet. Still, if the game can be patched to allow multiplayer from day one, surely Lionhead can fix the other problems as well. Right?

Last on my gripes list – why can you buy potions that give you experience points? It’s fine if they’re limited to prizes or gifts from loved ones, but being able to buy experience? It’s all a little too close to in-game gold-farming for my liking.

Fable 2 is still stretching Molyneaux’s vision of a medieval world sim, and if you buy into Lionhead’s (typically European RPG) idiosyncrasies, you’ll find a solid timesink of a game. RPG fans won’t necessarily appreciate the menu oddities, but they’ll find a compelling storyline, slick graphics, satisfying magic and combat, and a faithful canine companion. And did I mention the lambskin condoms, designed to avoid unwanted pregnancies and 'social diseases'? They’re just weird.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Wipeout HD

Sony Liverpool

PSN

First things first: while it is brilliant, Wipeout HD isn’t a new game – it’s essentially a high-def conglomeration of the well-received PSP title Wipeout Pure and its sequel Pulse. It features the same vehicles and teams as the handheld games, and even the licensed soundtrack has the same mix of dubstep, drum ‘n’ bass and techno. Where HD shines, though, is in recreating and recompiling the two games in full high definition – 1080p, screaming past your eyes at 60 frames per second. It’s a gear junkie’s dream: simultaneous justification for hardware investment and supplier of bragging rights – the gaming equivalent of BBC’s Planet Earth, or Dark Side of the Moon in blistering stereo sound.

So it looks good. But there’s more to the game than just its visuals – there’s also the small matters of gameplay, enjoyment and Wipeout’s traditional punishment of newcomers.

As with most games designed in-house for the PS3, Wipeout HD supports the Sixaxis’ accelerometer controls. Unfortunately, as with most non-Nintendo games supporting motion control, the additional control method offers very little of substance to the actual game – simply put, you’ll be racing so fast that the very slight delay in the accelerometer’s controls will outweigh its coolness factor. That said, though, once you become familiar with the easiest tracks, steering by leaning into the corners is really quite fun.

Newcomers to futuristic hovercraft racing (and surely there’s someone out there who’s never tried it) can turn on the new ‘pilot assist’ feature, which basically forces the craft away from the edges of the track. Past the first two or three events, however, the helpful robots or magnets or whatever the hell they are become a hassle – you’ll want to cut some corners closely to pick up certain weapons or speed boosts, and getting a weak nudge away from the wall often hinders more than it helps.

As mentioned above, HD offers much the same as its PSP predecessors, right down to the track selection – Chenghou Project, Sol 2, Vineta K, Sebenco Climb, Anulpha Pass and Ubermall are in the mix from Pure, and the fantastic Moa Therma and Metropia from Pulse round out the eight available tracks. While the tracks have the same layout, and can still be played in both directions (with slight alterations), the transition to high-def really makes them shine. Zone races, in particular, are a visual treat – textures are stripped from the levels you race through, replaced with fluorescent colours, and your aim is simply to survive through as many ‘zones’ as possible, as colours change and your vehicle inexorably increases its speed well beyond the capability of mere human reflexes. Unlike the other modes, where you effectively choose your own skill level before the race starts, zone events are increasingly challenging; and, being able to survive longer and longer as your skill level increases is correspondingly satisfying.

Wipeout HD clocks in at $33.90 – great value for such a range of content, even if you’d played through both of the PSP games before. And since the PSP games had such great downloadable content options (new packs with extra tracks and vehicles were made available to PSP owners every six months after the games’ release date), there’s a great chance that even more content will be added to the title over the next few months.

Despite its obvious roots in the handheld genre, Wipeout HD feels more like the spiritual successor to the three games released on the original PlayStation – it’s not every day that a game comes out so perfectly suited to a hardware platform that it can define a console. As Wipeout 2097 flooded the market and became a given purchase for PSOne owners, so should Wipeout HD – and, at the low price point afforded only to downloadable content, why would it not?

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

LucasArts

PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, PS2 (and stripped-down versions for PSP, DS, iPhone)

Many Bothans died to bring you this review. Well, it was just one, but in my defense, he was being kind of a dick.

Released to a collective fangasm – the equivalent of millions of voices whimpering in pleasure as one – The Force Unleashed fills in the blanks between the old (good) trilogy, and the new (shinier, less good) Star Wars trilogy. You take the role of ‘Starkiller’, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice – through the course of the game you’ll hunt down numerous rogue Jedi knights, kill hundreds of storm troopers, bash a few wookies over the head, and – of course – fall in love in the cheesiest possible manner. So it’s par for the LucasArts course, then.


After a couple of decades of an ever-expanding Expanded Universe (EU), every possible gap after the original trilogy has been filled in. (Did you ever wonder what Han Solo and Princess Leia’s children would be like? Turns out they were force-sensitive twins, one of whom – Jacen – got broody, fell to the Dark Side, changed his name to Darth Caedus and was killed by his sister Jaina in a dramatic sequence worthy of Days of Our Lives.) But while the animated Clone Wars films filled the gap between episodes two and three, there’s a correspondingly large gap – say, 18 or 19 years – between episodes three and four, just begging for a George Lucas-approved plot filler.

I’ve often wondered just what happened to eliminate the Jedi who survived the Clone Wars. Could Vader really have hunted them all down himself? How would he have balanced all that Jedi-hunting with the effort required to keep his black robo-suit nice and shiny? These are the things that keep me up at night. And this is one reason why The Force Unleashed is one of the best releases this year, on any console.

Gamers like acting out through vicarious violent games, and Unleashed supplies plenty of fodder for your force lightning throughout – since Vader wants to keep knowledge of his new apprentice secret from his own master, you’re given carte blanche, and simply instructed to kill everyone you run into, storm troopers and rebel scum included.

While the force isn’t exactly ‘unleashed’, Starkiller is an incredibly satisfying character to play from the very first level. Picking up crates, explosives, droids and TIE fighters at the press of a button never gets old, and flinging them towards your enemies for maximum ‘splosiveness is a heck of a lot of fun. Even if the targeting system for choosing the right barrel isn’t exactly accurate, the auto-targeting of enemies is flawless.


Not quite so flawless are the controls, however – Starkiller’s steps don’t map onto his movements, it’s all too easy to fall off cliffs in the middle of (epic) lightsaber battles, and no angled surfaces in the game offer any kind of purchase for your character’s feet, which pushes the game into punishing platformer territory. But it’s a testament to the power of the IP and the game’s original story that even these nearly crippling issues don’t mar the experience.

Graphically, Unleashed delivers a stunning show for the major consoles – the PS3 and 360 versions are really slick, showcasing textures with fine details, impressively long draw distances and a solid framerate. Due to the Wii effectively being one-and-a-half GameCubes duct-taped together, the Wii version suffers a little in terms of its graphics, although being able to use the Wiimote’s motion controls for lightsaber battles makes up for these losses.

Since it’s a banner title, Unleashed has also been released on all currently active consoles, including the DS and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the iPhone. Neither of these handhelds can offer the same graphical fidelity as the top-end consoles, but both still offer something different. The DS version, put together by developer n-Space, runs in full (blocky) 3D, while also using its touchscreen and stylus for force powers. Clocking in at around two hours all up, the iPhone version offers a much shorter game, but it’s correspondingly cheaper – around $15 to $20, compared to $80 for the DS version, and upwards of $100 for the flashier consoles.


Taking hardware limitations into consideration, in each different port The Force Unleashed’s art direction is utterly brilliant – like the films, it hits the visual high notes. However, unlike the films (and episodes one through three, I’m looking at you), Unleashed avoids most of the lazy plot holes and head-slapping pratfalls. If there were ever a post-Timothy Zahn argument for someone (anyone?) other than George Lucas to write stories set in the modern Star Wars universe, Unleashed is convincing evidence indeed.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Review: PixelJunk Eden

Q-Games

PS3 (PSN)

PixelJunk Eden is the third PSN title released for the in-name-only PixelJunk series, and it’s another new direction for the Japanese developer Q-Games. PixelJunk Racers was a mediocre puzzle-slash-slotcar racer, PixelJunk Monsters was a critically acclaimed tower-defence and strategic resource-management game, and Eden – well, it’s an entirely new take on the burgeoning swing-em-up platformer genre.

You control a small creature called a grimp, and by using the three basic movements – gripping, jumping and swinging – you work your way through the levels in search of the 50 lost ‘Spectra’, which are scattered throughout the levels. As you’d expect, though, the Spectra aren’t easy to find: they’re often located at the highest points of the levels, meaning you’ll have to grow your own platforms to reach them. And that’s where the game starts to get interesting.

From a gripping position, you can make your grimp swing in circles on its silk strand simply by rotating the left analogue stick. This is pretty fun in itself, although the strand breaks relatively easily, and you’ll only last five or six full rotations before the silk snaps and you go flying off at whatever tangent you happened to be on. While spinning, though, you can catch the floating ‘Pollen Prowlers’, which explode in little puffs of pollen. Catching more than one Prowler on a single silk thread increases the available pollen; and, once you’ve hit at least five, you can also pick up oscillator crystals, which keep your grimp ‘in tune’, and give you more time in the level.

Pollen is the most valuable resource in the game, and the more you can get, either by catching the Prowlers or defeating the enemies in the level, the more platforms you’ll awaken. If you’re close enough to a seedpod when you’re catching pollen, it’ll get swept into the pod, and once it’s collected enough, you’ll be able to germinate the seed, and grow another flower, a patch of grass, or something that looks suspiciously like a turgid sea tulip. The constant cycle of germination, the omnipresence of pollen gametes in the gardens, and the grimp’s role as a vector for the pollen all add up to a pretty fertile experience. There’s a lot of ‘flowering’ going on – let’s leave it at that.

Once you’ve impregnated enough seeds and sprouted enough tumescent plants to reach the Spectra, you can unlock even more plants in your home garden, the titular Eden. These new plants let you climb, jump and swing your way to the entrances of more difficult levels, each of which has five additional Spectra to find.

Keeping your ‘oscillator’ ‘in tune’ is a major problem with the game, and one that almost breaks the experience. From being a relaxing platformer with fine-tuned jumps, Eden suddenly shifts to a nagging race against time, with the constant threat of failing a level. Once you’ve mastered the art of predicting the waves of the world’s fluid medium, jumping ahead of your target and timing your spins for maximum pollen and crystal collecting, though, the time limit becomes less of a problem as you work your way through the gardens.

This is a blessing, really, because the next big issue crops up as you’re working your way through. Each level has five available Spectra to collect, and for some reason you can’t get any more than one new Spectra each time you play through a level. At least for your first play through the game, this means that four out of five runs through any particular level are redundant, as the seedpods reset each time you revisit the level. That would have been fine, if slightly irritating, for the first garden you visit – heavy-handed simplicity as a training tool isn’t a new concept – but for it to happen in every single garden? It should have gone without saying, but level (and time) redundancy is never a good feature to enforce on players.

The game’s issues aren’t insurmountable; they’re just annoying. Perhaps a tighter editorial cycle near the end of the game’s development would have resulted in something more user-friendly. The obvious comparison to make is with thatgamecompany’s flOw, although it’s more of a conceptual frame of reference than any concrete similarities between the two. flOw, after all, went through the travails of being developed for the web before it went anywhere near a PlayStation console.

But where flOw could put the unsuspecting gamer to sleep, Eden demands your attention. Jumps are easily missed in the early stages of the game, and while you can still correct your course slightly mid-fall, it’s often difficult to reach the very top of the level again, particularly if you haven’t woken all of the seeds below you. Eden’s driving technotrance background music also helps keep the tempo going, and it changes in each level, as do the primary colours of the level.

All three games in the PixelJunk series hit different genres, which is a bit of a surprise, given most developers’ tendencies to stick with proven hits. What Q-Games offers, though, are fresh takes on proven genres, all wrapped up in clean and bright HD textures, packaged for sale for a bargain ($15.50) through a distribution network that doesn’t rely on the gaming equivalent of food miles, extra plastic packaging, or dealing with the multifarious behind-the-counter grimps at videogame stores. And that works just fine for me.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Soul Calibur IV

Project Soul

PS3, Xbox 360

In each instalment, Soul Calibur tends more and more towards the boob physics-based gameplay made infamous by Tecmo’s Dead or Alive franchise, and Soul Calibur IV is falling further and further into that same rut. As a fighting simulator, though, it still shines, despite the sheer improbability of many of the featured characters. But that’s hardly the point of the game.

Now, I’m not entirely sure what it would be like to be Nightmare, the Azure Knight who’s been fully corrupted by the evil spirit of the Soul Edge sword, but after playing SCIV, I have some idea how he’d react in a fight. So it’s less of a fighting sim (à la Virtua Fighter) than a collective orgasm for fans of the series, a fruitful (frightful?) mélange of improbable characters, fighting styles and costumes, all regurgitated in the caustic bile of Soul Calibur’s storyline. Look it up online – it’s utterly ridiculous and, in the best tradition of fighting games, entirely irrelevant to all aspects of the gameplay.

The Soul Calibur series has always been friendly to button-mashers, and it’s still very accessible for newcomers to the genre. SCIV is slightly more balanced, allowing guard breaks as well as a new function called ‘Soul Crush’, which punishes players who rely on ‘turtling’ – using a guard defence for too long.

There are 18 characters available to unlock, for feats as simple as beating certain sub-bosses, completing the story mode with other characters, or simply earning enough credits in the character creation mode. That mode, incidentally, is slightly improved from its appearance in SCIII, and allows for an amazing variety of homemade fighters complete with stat-adjusting accessories – whether the newly minted fighters look slightly different from their appearance in the game, or strikingly similar to Ronald McDonald, there’s a lot of scope for creativity.

Fans of the Soul Calibur series will appreciate the latest installment, although that’s a redundant statement, akin to saying that if you like anything, you’ll like something that’s almost exactly the same. As far as current-gen fighters, though, SCIV is probably the best available title in the genre, at least until Tekken 6 stumbles its way onto the PS3 at the end of next year. Fans of either series would do well to pick up SCIV either as a rental or at retail, as its distinctive use of weapons – and now, destructible armour – results in one of the most complete fighting games on the market. And with the added bonus of fighting as Darth Vader (only on PS3) or Yoda (360), as well as The Force Unleashed’s Secret Apprentice, the answer to an age-old question – who would win in a fight between a lightsaber and Soul Edge? – will be able to be answered.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Too Human

Silicon Knights

Xbox 360

Games that hide their bare-bones mechanics with flashy graphics, 2.0 shaders and pixel mapping rarely offer genuine appeal to anyone not running PC benchmark programs to six decimal places. In the locked-down hardware world of home consoles, however, even the questionable lure of FPS tests is denied to most users. It’s particularly interesting, then, that critically successful console games are those that manage to cloak basic gameplay, appealing directly to the hindbrain, with the trappings of a greater narrative.

Puzzle Quest, in its myriad iterations, took a popular jewel-matching pastime (à la Bejeweled), and built around it a gripping, if utterly clichéd, storyline. With Puzzle Quest, what had previously been a bare-bones three-in-a-row swap-and-match ‘genre’ – notable only for its ability to distract even the most hardened paper-shufflers – was suddenly clad with the comprehensive sum of all thing RPG, including methods to dramatically alter and subvert the pure luck and statistics on which the gem-matching game-type was built. The ludological component was still the same, for all intents and purposes, but with a dose of added player control and a pinch of narrative, the game became a compelling addiction.

Your typical hack-and-slash RPG isn’t typically bereft of narrative value, however, and Too Human doesn’t go against type. Developers Silicon Knights reimagined the Norse gods as cybernetically enhanced humans, their technology sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from magic. Players control Baldur, as he fights off the hordes of mecha that threaten the world of Midgard. There’s probably a moral buried somewhere in the game about using increasingly sophisticated technology to defeat highly complex mechanical enemies, but it’s glossed over easily enough. The story simply works, although it’s plagued by pacing issues, a distractingly disjointed chronology and a tendency to confuse the hell out of anyone not paying full attention to the cutscenes. Its end-sequence is almost without par in terms of narrative value, even if it all turned a little Halo 2, in terms of setting the scene for the next instalment.

Too Human also gets the loot equation exactly right, with so many increasingly powerful items that it’s impossible to obtain in a single pass through the game. (It might seem to be a negative point, but gambling against the probability of getting your class’s best item is like pure meth to RPG fiends.) Items and weapons fall back on classic Diablo nominalism, which is a familiar touch – you count on weapons with the same prefix or suffix having the same add-on effects, with runes modifying your items much in the same way Diablo II’s gems worked with socketed items. And the myriad branches on your character’s skill tree? There are so many, it’s more like Ygrrdrasil, the World Tree. (Mythical high five!)

The game’s major departure from its genre, to my eyes, is its abandonment of button-mashing attack controls in favour of a dual analogue stick approach. It’s probably too late to remap players’ brains from using the left analogue stick to control movement, and that’s fine, but Silicon Knights have offered a convincing argument for remapping the right analogue stick to player attacks. After all, there’s no need to continually press a button if you want to continue an attack when pushing in one direction will work just as well. The approach also works when switching between the enemies swarming all around Baldur, and is particularly useful if you happen to be using a weapon with a knockback effect. The right trigger on the controller fires projectile weapons, although these are generally too slow and too weak to do much more than put an enemy off-balance for a few seconds while it runs towards you.

Given that the stunningly simple control change requires a lot of concentration while players adjust to it, it’s disappointing that the automatic camera control is so distracting, and there’s little independent control available in the middle of the action sequences, bar an auto-centre button. Players who simply need to have independent camera control should probably pass on the game, but they’ll be missing out on what could be a watershed moment for hack-and-slash RPGs. Too Human – it’s Geometry Wars meets Diablo meets Lawnmower Man. What more could you ask for?

(You could ask that a scant ten minutes into your second playthrough, your 360 console doesn’t decide to overheat, resulting in it being unusable for more than six minutes at a time. Too Human was the straw that broke my beige plastic camel’s back, and while that doesn’t count against the game itself, it’s stunningly disappointing that the hardware it’s exclusively released upon is still dramatically unstable. I’m currently hoping that future installments of the Too Human series will be released cross-platform, although by the time it takes Silicon Knights to make another full game, Microsoft Customer Support may well have come through with a refurbished console to last me another few months.)

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Braid

Number None, Inc.

XBLA, PC

Controlling a character as he jumps through complicated levels, bounces on his enemies’ heads, and tries to rescue a generically cute princess in a castle is an all-too-familiar trope for gamers. While Braid, released for digital distribution on Xbox Live Arcade and PC a couple of weeks ago, seems to start off retreading this familiar ground, almost every one of seven short worlds you play through adds a new gameplay mechanic, as a complex story unfurls.

Initially, you’ll need to cope with the idea that Tim, your character, can rewind time – all the way back to the start of the level if you want – in order to reattempt particularly difficult jumps or timed sequences. (Think a more difficult Super Mario World with Prince of Persia’s time-based mechanics.) Now, that’s all well and good, and a less involved (and dedicated) developer than Jonathan Blow, who spent five years working on the title, would have stopped there. Once you reach the second major world, though, you’re introduced to the concept of time-immune objects, which manifest as objects whose state takes precedence over their position. For example – you can fall down into a pit to collect a time-immune key, then rewind time to ‘jump’ out of the pit, key (whose state becomes ‘held’ as soon as you touch it) safely in tow.

There are also levels where time runs relative to your horizontal position on screen – instead of rewinding time, all you have to do is move back to the left of the screen. If I’m being honest, while fun, this is one of the cheaper mechanics of the game – your rewind function is reduced to just what it was in the Prince of Persia series; a way to ameliorate the (sometimes extreme) difficulty.

Most difficult to wrap your head around, though, are the levels where your ‘future shadow’ re-enacts the movement and actions just prior to your last rewind. It’s confusing as all hell, but the satisfaction when you deliberately kill your character, rewind, then watch as your shadow dies and you make the most of the resulting position of your enemies is very rewarding (if equally difficult to explain in this medium).

In later levels, as you near the (hidden) denouement, time simply begins to run in reverse, and it takes several attempts to reach the desired end-state. Once you’re there, though, you’ll experience a huge twist in the final level, where the (by then) simple ability to rewind time tells more of the story than any of your character’s actions can.

While gameplay is key to Braid’s success, the art direction of the game also stands out – painted (frame by frame, in the case of the character design) by artist David Hellman (A Lesson Is Learned But The Damage Is Irreversible), the distinctive and organic painted backgrounds complement the structured mechanics of the game, and several layers of parallax scrolling really play up the developer’s and designer’s love of classic 2D platformers.

It’s rare that you’ll find a videogame that actively tries to hide its true story from you, or one with such an obviously unreliable narrator. Once you start looking for hidden aspects of the game, though, you’ll be rewarded, albeit with subtle inferences that all is not as it seems. The patterned flags that fall as you cross each level’s finishing lines at the end of each level correspond to nautical symbols for ‘stop’, ‘negative’, and ‘danger’, for example, and even the tomes that tell Tim’s backstory as you progress through the game get insidiously complicated. To add yet more shades of grey, some of these tomes are objectively discussing with Tim’s story, some are very subjective, and some are completely hidden from view, their contents ridiculously indistinct.

One thing is clear – the Princess you’re chasing after represents something more than a person, but the muddled and obscurantist narration confuses the matter somewhat. Shades of the Manhattan Project, theories about time travel, and reflections of love and loss abound, and while you’re likely to be left with more questions than answers after finishing the game, that’s usually the mark of a good piece of art, in any medium.

The idea of a plain old platformer raising questions about time, space, love and death – all at once – hadn’t seemed possible before I’d played Braid. After playing it, I can’t seem to shake the in-game feeling of security at being able to rewind my mistakes, and the real-life feeling of being incredibly unsettled by the game’s unfolding story. Suffice it to say that the game’s a must-play, and even at 1200 Microsoft points ($20), it’s comparable in narrative scope (and in time investment) to an emotionally charged film. Braid’s much like the fan favourite Portal, in that sense. In the same way, though, you’ll end the game wanting much more, and that’s something that just can’t (or won’t) be delivered. Braid is one of the best releases on XBLA this year, and its only shortcoming is its story – like Portal, since it wraps itself up so well at the end (or is that the beginning?) of the game, there’s little chance we’ll see downloadable extra levels or a sequel in the future.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Ninja Gaiden II

Team Ninja

Xbox 360

Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden: Sigma were both hard; the diamond-coated disc kind of hard that made me snap controllers due to utter frustration at my own lack of skill. I knew, though, that I was the weak link. Practise makes perfect, as twitch gamers well know, timing is everything, and there’s a lot to be said for repetitive tasks in terms of building muscle memory. (Also, to paraphrase my patron saint Neal Stephenson, I knew that if I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard, I could still become the baddest motherfucker in the video-gaming world.)

Ninja Gaiden II, though, is a different sort of hard; the kind that kicks players in the teeth for no good reason. It’s ironic, I suppose, because the actual fighting is much easier than it has been in previous games – scroll techniques are easier to pick up and chain together, enemies seem to have more obvious weaknesses and it’s almost a joy to run through the environments. ‘Almost’ being the operative word here – the game’s graphics, while pretty in that overly smooth current-gen way, aren’t a huge step forward from previous titles, combat can freeze for a second or so when enemies are engaged in close-quarters and projectile combat at the same time, and the game’s camera actively discourages players from continuing. So we’re back to gaming’s version of the camera obscura. Le sigh.

Also obscuring the prospect of a fun experience is the game’s plot, although that’s never been the highest selling point of the series. This episode, set one year after the events of Ninja Gaiden, sees ninja Ryu Hayabusa jet around the world, trying to stop the Black Spider Ninjas from summoning the ancient Archfiend Vazdah. Of course, the Black Spider clan need the Demon Statue kept in the Dragon Ninja village – Ryu’s hometown. What follows is more an attempt to juggle the disparate plot elements than any logical progression of events, but as long as it ends with a climactic battle on top of an erupting Mt Fuji, the fanboys will still be happy. More discerning ludonarrative critics would probably disagree, but said critics are unlikely to have got past the first couple of hours of gameplay, marred as it is by the indelibly poor camera control.

A lack of options to change the control scheme really compound the matter – depending on where Ryu is in a level, the camera will swing wildly to show him at his most ‘cinematic’ angle, with no apparent thought given to the shocking disconnect this shift in viewpoint engenders in the player. As a result, the camera restricts player movement and combat equally. To be fair, there is a button to centre the viewpoint behind Ryu’s head, but I’d hazard a guess that most people would be too busy dealing with hordes of lookalike evil ninjas to spare a regular button press to centre the camera.

Although frenetic and actually enjoyable at times, Ninja Gaiden II will likely be remembered as one more casualty of the shift towards cinematic games (or interactive cinema?) – one more flagstone on the road towards that golden future of gaming. (Which should kick in at any point now, right?)

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Ecochrome

JAPAN Studio

PSP, PS3 (download only)

In their very nature, third-person games have a major hindrance – the camera positioning, relative to the character you’re controlling. Some games (Mario 64, Gears of War) manage this relatively well by minimising camera clipping, locking the camera close to the main character, and effectively hiding the problem; for others (Ninja Gaiden II, Sonic Heroes) the shifting, impossible-to-control viewpoint simply negates any positive gameplay aspects the games may have had. An actively obscuring camera obscura, if you want to (re)coin a term.

Ecochrome, a recent release for PSP and the Playstation Network, demands a literal paradigm shift from the player, although it’s one that isn’t difficult to grasp. Initially, there’s the disconnect from the on-screen character – it’s not under your direct control, instead continuing to follow its path as far as it can. Like The Trials of Topoq or Super Monkey Ball, you’re aiming to move an object (in this case, literally a mannequin) through several goals (echoes), until you reach the end-point of the level. Unlike those two games, however, Ecochrome’s movement constraints are determined not just by the objects around you, but also by the camera’s perspective of the level.

For example, if there’s a hole blocking the Walker’s path, you can simply shift the camera so that the hole is hidden – using the game’s ‘law of perspective absence’, the hole simply ceases to exist while the camera holds its position. The ‘law of perspective presence’ means that if a gap between two pathways is blocked from your view, and appears to be connected, it is. Similarly, if two separate pathways seem to be touching, they are, and the Walker can cross between them. Finally, the Walker falls and jumps according to the camera’s two-dimensional interpretation of the 3D levels – he’ll land on whatever appears to be beneath him, and jump up to whatever appears to be above him.

The above five ‘laws’ of the game generally hold true, but controlling the camera so minutely – swinging your perspective to a pixel-perfect point where paths converge – is actually pretty difficult, albeit less so with the PS3’s thumbsticks than the PSP’s nubbly analog stick. Individual results may vary, of course, but some of the later levels are so mind-bendingly difficult (on either hardware platform) that you’ll be perfectly happy to blame the controller.

You could equally blame the repetitive music, I suppose. Sound design really isn’t a strong point, with discordant and unsettling classical music looping again and again. Not that it doesn’t suit the game – you’re likely to make the Walker fall off the edge of the level often enough that a looping track seems entirely appropriate. The lack of alternative music is disappointing for a black-and-white game streaming off a UMD or hard drive, but there’s always a volume control if it gets too much.

Take-home message? Ecochrome is a Reutersvärd-meets-Escher feverdream, at times infuriating, but packed full of so many different levels that you’ll easily overlook the fact that it’s compromised of almost pure theory.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

Hothead Games

Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Mac, Linux

Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve spent the past decade building up a hobby of writing and drawing comics into a self-sustainable business, with legions of fans worldwide waiting for your biweekly updates on penny-arcade.com. You have the power to ‘wang’ all but the biggest corporate servers, with a link, faint praise and a casual flick of the wrist. After the cataclysmic failure of the E3 convention to simply do right by gamers, you start your own convention, by gamers, for gamers, and by following the cardinal rule of ‘not being a dick’, end up with the premiere gaming expo in North America. Oh, and you’ve also kicked into gear a charity for sick children, raising millions of dollars worldwide by harnessing the bountiful goodwill of gamers sick and tired of being characterised in the media as violent misfits. So what’s next?

If you’re Mike ‘Gabe’ Krahulik and Jerry ‘Tycho’ Holkins, you hook up with Ron Gilbert (of Monkey Island fame) and Hothead Games, and design your own episodic RPG game with the longest title imaginable, all set in a Lovecraftian-cum-steampunk world. It’s the stuff a certain subset of dreams are made of – and as if to prove that a) cross-platform releases are entirely plausible, if not the best idea since sliced bread, and b) we are living in the future, Hothead released the game simultaneously for three different home computer operating systems and the Xbox 360’s Live Arcade store. Any day now, they’ll come up with a downloadable flying car. Probably.

Episode One of On the Rain-slick Precipice of Darkness kicks off with a rather basic character creation system, which lets you choose a gender, gives you a few choices of skin and hair colour, as well as a limited number of wardrobe options. It’s actually a disappointing beginning to the game, but the restrictions are likely to cover up for the fact that, somehow, your 3D character is also transmuted to a perfect rendition of Krahulik’s drawings, for use in the 2D cutscenes. Particularly for fans of Krahulik’s online offerings, seeing your avatar come to life in these interstitial comics more than makes up for any shortcomings of the creation.

The game kicks off with your character’s house being destroyed by a gigantic steam-powered Fruit Fucker, which Krahulik’s and Holkins’ alter-egos Gabe and Tycho have been tracking. Armed only with a simple rake, you team up with the two detectives, and quickly find yourself embroiled in a world where the twin evils of mimes and Cthulhu are hilariously conflated, where hobos with shiny hair rule supreme, and where evil clowns, barbershop quartets and sexually vigourous juicers run amok on the streets of New Arcadia.

Holkins and Krahulik are obviously trying to cram a lot in here, and it’s not really until you reach the end of the game that you realise just how much humour is packed into a scant three environments. While Penny Arcades’s humour can be a hit-and-miss affair, there’s no single line of dialogue that Holkins hasn’t tweaked to a sharp edge. Similarly, Krahulik’s skill and flair are obvious throughout, in both the level and character designs.

When it comes to gameplay, Precipice is basically an adventure game (get item A, use it on / give it to NPC B) with solid turn-based battle mechanics. Each of the three characters you control have three gauges, which fill at different rates – the items gauge fills first (useful if you need to heal an ally or throw a cheap grenade), followed by the attack gauge (each character has a different attack to complement different enemy weaknesses), and then the special attack gauge. Special attacks, while effective, try to incorporate minigame elements to decide on the exact amount of damage done to your enemies, but these aren’t challenging enough, and waiting a long time to see the same attack animations gets boring after a while – it’s more satisfying to use your normal attacks and finish off that roving barbershop quartet faster.

Despite its minor flaws (and brevity, although 6-8 hours of gameplay for $30 isn’t such a bad deal), Penny Arcade Adventures is definitely onto a good thing. Later episodes can only improve the already-solid battle system, and as long as Holkins continues his Lovecraft pastiche and reveals the origins of the so-far unexplained Fruit Fucker Prime, the story will lead the way. Overall, it’s a great start to what’s likely to be a classic series, and with such a strong focus on equalising different gaming platforms and emphasising the end of the bricks-and-mortar retail experience, it’s also a sign of things to come for gaming.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Burnout: Paradise

Criterion Games

PS3, Xbox 360

After Burnout: Revenge was ported to the 360 mid-way through last year, adding a couple of HD splash screens, a pinch of native 720p resolution and healthy dose of shinier-than-thou next-gen attitude, there must have been a sense in the Criterion offices that the franchise had reached its logical conclusion – after four solid hits, there wasn’t much more the developers could do, working in the same framework. So what’s next? A series reboot, of course.

Burnout: Paradise keeps the gist of the series – missions in the game include typically shiny graphics, a near-overwhelming motion blur effect, the now-standard arcadey racing through busy traffic, and vehicular combat.

Since January, when Paradise was first launched, the game has actually changed considerably. In any other console cycle, this simply wouldn’t have been possible. Now, however, developers can release patches and updates to any title, just by making the game ‘phone home’ through the player’s broadband connection as it starts up. (This would be also a nifty but intrusive anti-piracy measure, should home consoles be plagued by counterfeit discs.) It also means that developers can still meet shipping dates without getting all the features nailed down, and in extreme cases, developers can be more sanguine about releasing buggy games – if it can be fixed with a quick patch, what’s the big deal?

Recent software updates to Paradise (oddly named ‘Bogart’, ‘Cagney’, ‘Davis’ and ‘Eastwood’ – collectively known as ‘Freeburn 2.0’) have resulted in the addition of motorcycles, day / night cycles and any number of online bug corrections, sequencing errors and gameplay balance tweaks. In a way, it’s a confluence of increased online play and the democratisation of gaming – developers Criterion have truckloads of data from ranked matches to sift through, and anyone who whines loud enough about the game’s balance on forums is likely to have their complaint checked out.

Now, a non-updated retail version of Paradise doesn’t have bugs per se, but the 180-degree handbrake turn away from the series’ common fallbacks has resulted in a few shortcomings, one of which still hasn’t been addressed through software updates. Instead of being based around individual missions, everything now takes place in one huge city, meaning that players have to drive around to find missions. Failing a mission means that you have to retrace your steps (or follow the smoking trail of wreckage, if you will) to the start of the mission – there’s no quick ‘retry’ option. For a series whose original appeal lay in its quick accessible nature, the biggest barrier to new and returning players is its fancy new feature – and it’s a big enough problem to make the game border on tedious. Paradise City is fascinating and exciting at times, but it’s as if the developers stopped halfway through making a sandbox game, and are periodically patching the thing to recreate their initial vision.

Driving something straight out of Back to the Future doesn't hurt, of course.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Review: Race Driver: GRID

Codemasters

PS3, Xbox 360, PC, DS

When you’re framing the concept of an ideal racing game, there’s a fine line between the pixel-perfect windscreen wiper simulations of Gran Turismo and the Burnout series’ lightning bolt from the arcade gods. Whatever shortcomings Race Driver: GRID may have, it toes that line throughout, taking enough positive attributes from each extreme to make a complete driving experience. Without getting bogged down in collecting seven hundred makes and models or causing as much damage as possible to innocent civilian vehicles, GRID just works admirably as both a racing and team management game. Although, for a driving game, it sure does have a pedestrian title.

GRID follows in the footsteps of the crowd favourite TOCA Race Driver series, and uses a very similar graphics engine to stablemate DiRT (which, incidentally, is the reason there are no off-road tracks left in GRID – they all got shipped off to a different game). Developers Codemasters rewrote parts of their Neon engine from scratch for GRID’s Ego engine, paying particular attention to the already-solid damage modelling. Unlike GT5: Prologue, which refused to show a single scratch on your car, even if you drove off a cliff, GRID’s damage shows every single ding, dent or scrape, and even minor damage to your car will impact its performance. Another feature that will appeal to literal-minded gamers is persistent damage modelling, meaning that the bumper bar you shed on the first lap will continue to be a hazard for you and the computer-controlled drivers each time you pass it. (Given the time penalty inherent in hitting a wall and getting back up to speed, though, there’s no question of tactically spreading debris across the course to gain an advantage in the race.)

Upon starting the game, you’re thrown head-first into a race, and told not to concern yourself with placing, and only to finish. Once you cross the line, though, you’re given a worse car – a beaten-up Mustang, and told to go and seek your fortune. It’s a common enough method of starting up, although it has an air of the ‘abilitease’ about it – start the player off with a souped-up monster for the smallest possible amount of time, and then reduce them to a shell of their former selves. Despite this, the effort involved in building up a car, reputation, and (later) a racing team are among the most fun parts of the game – it’s kind of like Super Burnout: RPG.

The cars handle very smoothly on the courses, and feel slightly less fine-tuned than those in Gran Turismo, although there’s still a hell of a learning curve. This difficulty is ameliorated somewhat by the addition of the new ‘Flashback’ feature, effectively letting you rewind the action after any crashes serious mishaps, and take control again from the point you screwed up. It’s as if all game developers these days liked the 3D Prince of Persia games so much that they’re shoehorning in a ‘mulligan’ feature wherever possible, regardless of genre expectations or plot. Why call it a flashback when the point of racing games is immediacy, and the rest of the game is based, necessarily, around forward motion? Braid (reviewed here) plays with and subverts this concept, but GRID seems to just throw the feature in to flatten out the rapidly spiking difficulty curve. Accessibility isn’t usually a concern of racing game devs, though, and while inexperienced gamers may appreciate a do-over, the inclusion of flashbacks comes across as surprisingly patronising, if occasionally useful.

There are fifty events to complete in the single-player game, ranging from the hilly streets of San Francisco (complete with a shiny muscle car, a la Steve McQueen), drift tournaments in Japan, Touge events that will see you measuring your performance in microseconds, a Le Mans 24 endurance mode, and, to wean players off Burnout (as if Paradise hadn’t already done that), you can even take part in some very satisfying demolition derbies.

Visually, GRID again toes the line between current-gen versions of GT and Burnout on the major consoles, while still offering moments of level design and art direction that catch players’ breath – in particular, the glowing, hypnotic night-time levels in Japan and the crisply defined open-wheel street levels in Germany spring to mind as magnificently designed and laid-out set-pieces.

In comparison to the morass of menus in GT5, navigation through GRID’s options is incredibly straightforward. Want to buy a new car for your team? It’s only ever a couple of button presses away, and the only real clanger in the process is the branded eBay Motors screen – easy enough for New Zealand audiences to ignore, perhaps, but the hefty product placement still mars the (otherwise independent and accomplished) game.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]