Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Chat with Stickmen Studios' CEO Wil McLellan

Wil McLellan is not exactly your average CEO. In fact, Stickmen Studios is not your average company either, it is in fact one of New Zealand’s few game development studios. Wil managed to take some precious time out of his day to sit down and chat about Stickmen Studios and New Zealand’s place in the global gaming industry.

Established in 2006 before opening their studio in Christchurch two years later Stickmen was formed after Wil and two friends decided, “Yeah we can probably make a game in our spare time”. After speaking to people in the industry they decided to formally establish the company and see where it would take them. What followed was years of tireless research that consumed many evenings and weekends. “And then the real hard work started”. Eighty and one hundred hour weeks became the norm as they experienced just how much of a challenge the gaming industry is. What was once a hobby now became his life.

Wil and his team gained experience by working with partner companies to create Flash and iPhone games. Working with kiwi-games portal company Cerebral Fix, two games for the iPhone were produced: the retro Swarm and the family-orientated Love, Share, Nurture – both available for purchase. However, Stickmen’s big projects-focus on the home console developing titles for WiiWare and, as of June this year, the PlayStation Network.

He explains that while Stickmen could have simply chosen to pursue franchised products with an already established audience it is simply not how the company operates, “Our real drive is to make original IP”. Despite opting for a business model with significant high risk Wil is confident in Stickmen’s ability to create high calibre games. By building titles from the ground up it allows for the emergence of innovative and exciting material, something which links into their goal to create breakthrough gaming. Take their soon-to-be-released WiiWare title ‘Dragon Master Spell Caster’ for example, a fully 3D titles to be made available for download on Nintendo’s console – by no means a small feat for a first-time project. Wil is particularly proud of the dragon-fighting gameplay because in a lot of games missiles and magic rarely, if ever, make contact mid-air, “We really liked the idea that when magic collides it does something magical”. So what would happen if, say, a fireball collided with an ice-based attack? Steam of course. And what about an earth versus lightning magic? You’ll just have to find out when the game is released. As their first complete project Wil admits that Dragon Master will provide Stickmen a significant learning curve “You’ve just got to learn how it’s done first time round and that always takes time”. And it’s from these lessons, he predicts, that Stickmen will grow as a company and learn to create subsequent games with greater efficiency and quality.

Speaking of which, Dragon Master is not their only project in the works: two additional WiiWare titles codenamed ‘Project I’ and ‘Project F’ are also in development. While admitting that he cannot reveal anything significant about these games, a quick gander at their website reveals a few details. ‘Project I’ appears to be a side-scrolling puzzle-adventure featuring cute cartoon-style graphics while ‘Project F’ hints at an addictive fantasy-based experience. While remaining very tight-lipped on these projects the head-honcho of Stickmen promises that both are original IPs that again contribute towards their breakthrough gaming mantra in their own unique ways. Stickmen, Wil enthuses, does not want to be held down to a single genre of gaming, claiming that the studio does not want to follow the herd. This is clearly evident in the range of projects thus far: Dragon Master is a 3D dragon flying game, while ‘Project I’ and ‘Project F’ are respectively puzzle-adventure and “strategically-based”. However, Wil teases, there is yet another project in the works that may be released before ‘Project F’. While remaining very quiet on any details he promises that this mystery project continues to carry on a “very different look and feel” to their other products, promising only that further information will be revealed come-November.

“We don’t want to be predictable”, Wil says, and tells me that he is particularly proud of Stickmen because the team are not part of a machine per se. In a writing meeting, for example, everyone gets to put their ten cents in, resulting in a team unified by something that is their shared creation: “I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s certainly a very enjoyable way to work”.
With so many projects on the go and such an inviting space for employees to stretch their creative muscle, one would think that game development would be a popular career in New Zealand – a nation that prides itself on innovation. Unfortunately this is not the case. Wil points out that countries like Scotland and Canada, who respectively employ 11,000 and 14,000 people in the industry, earn their economies billions of dollars. While New Zealand’s few hundred game industry folk bring in a just a few million per year. A pretty embarrassing statistic, Wil laments, undoubtedly not helped by the lack of opportunities available to those wanting to get into the industry itself despite having the right qualifications. Those who miss out on the very limited positions in NZ’s gaming industry end up working for corporate IT or, as was the case of one of Stickmen’s developers, getting qualified then stacking shelves whilst trying to get into gaming. And then of course there’s the ever-occurring brain-drain: the exodus of talented and qualified kiwis overseas to pursue careers that are simply not available in their own country.

What is New Zealand doing to prevent this loss of talent? Aside from companies like Stickmen and Wellington’s Sidhe Interactive doing whatever they can, it seems very little. While very grateful to the support provided by WINZ (Work & Income New Zealand) and FRST (The Foundation of Science, Research and Technology), Wil still believes the central government could do more. “What I would like to see is some more government support for the industry” Wil declares, just like the recent support and subsequent rise of New Zealand’s movie industry. He holds a lot of respect for the Kiwi movie-makers who have proved that New Zealand is a great place to make films, but now he wants to prove that this is the case with our gaming industry. Pointing to the success of Shatter, Sidhe’s critically acclaimed downloadable game on the PlayStation Network, Wil claims that this is proof that New Zealand is more than capable of making great games.

So what could the government be doing to support our gaming industry? By providing a small investment and a few incentives similar to those offered by other countries, Wil predicts we could see an exciting growth similar to that of our movie industry. In fact, New Zealand game development has the potential to become as powerful, if not more so, than our world renowned movie industry. The explosion of gaming’s popularity thanks to the emergence of casual gaming in recent years has led to some statistics putting the industry growth rate at twice that of television and movies – proving that gaming is no longer a restricted medium. While joking that 95% of statistics are made-up, Wil still points out that the while the film and television grows at 5% per year, gaming rockets along at a whopping 10.5% a year – thus proving that it is no longer a restricted medium and the perfect place for investment.

So where to now for the New Zealand game industry? Will our government answer the phone and provide support to some of our most creative minds fighting to prove New Zealand’s place in the global industry? Or will companies like Stickmen continue to prove themselves through tireless innovation just as they have been doing so since they established themselves as one of the country’s very few game development studios? As more titles are released and announced it is plain to see that so long as Stickmen keep to their goal of delivering breakthrough gaming, New Zealand is sure to increasingly feature on the world stage. And who knows maybe in a few years we will proudly be seeing a kiwi presence at the E3 Expo in LA.

Transcription of Interview with Stickmen Studios' CEO Wil McLellan

Stickmen’s goal, your internet site claims, is “breakthrough gaming”. Has this always been the case since Stickmen was formed in 2006? And how do you aim to maintain this goal?

It has always been the case, we didn’t want to make a company that followed a more traditional model which is I guess doing lots of projects for other people. Most of our projects we fund ourselves and as such we get to work on our own ideas, so our real drive is to make new original IP. It’s a real hard model to do because you’ve got to fund the whole thing yourself but it’s a real exciting one because the guys are creating genuinely new games. However, this model is high risk, because the newer the game concept, the more untried and untested it is, whereas if you take a well-loved franchise and put it out there there’s already a following. But we do like this approach because it was this desire to create new innovative and exciting entertainment that is behind Stickmen. Hence the first project Dragon Master [Spell Caster] is an original very bold project.

Breakthrough for Dragon Master is that it is one of the first fully 3D titles made for WiiWare so we really pushed the boundary there as a brand new studio. Another component we added into that particular product that was breakthrough: unlike a lot of games where the characters’ offensive weapons were like missiles, it doesn’t matter if they were like weapons or magic, they just fly past each other. Well we really liked the idea that when magic collided it does something magical. So in that particular title when a fireball hits an ice bolt it will turn into steam, and if you then hit that with an earth bolt something else will happen, and with a lightning bolt something else will happen, so you get all these magical combinations going on that players can then use to their advantage. So we went for a couple of breakthroughs there: one which was involving your characters magic; the other was the full 3D for our first WiiWare project, I don’t know if it was unique but it was certainly an ambitious move for a new studio.

We are working hard to ensure that all the games that we are currently working on at the moment have a new angle or breakthrough in them. What we didn’t want to do was follow the herd. We want to make original titles that will excite and entertain, which is a real challenge but it’s what why we’re into games.

Speaking of Dragon Master Spell Caster: when will that be available for release?

It’s in final stages of testing at the moment. With it being our first project we’re learning all the technical processes you have to go through.

Yeah I guess it would be a funny use of the word I know, testing time for you guys seeing as this is your first IP. This is your first real go at it, so it’d be quite important for you guys.

Dragon Master Spell Caster is our first complete project so you’ve just got to learn how it’s done first time round and that always takes time. Obviously what you hope is that the second one is faster and a lot smoother, and the third one and the fourth one... and you get better at it. It’s like anything I guess: provided you learn from your mistakes, the more you do it the better you get.

So tell me about ‘Project I’ and ‘Project F’, how will these contribute to ‘breakthrough gaming’.

Unfortunately I can’t say too much about the projects, but what I can say about them is that they’re both again original products. I can also say that we will be announcing a third project which will probably beat ‘Project F’ to market, and that one we’re just keeping really tightly under-wraps at the moment which is a very exciting collaboration that we’re doing. I’ll be releasing details in November. They [Projects I and F] do follow the lines of breakthrough and I think the exciting thing about them is that each one is very different. It’s not as if we’ve set up and just said “alright we’re just going to make one type of game”. Whilst there is a lot of merit in that because you create a fantastic asset base and you get a lot of experience making them, what we’re really trying to do is test what we can get out there that’s new and innovative and exciting and keeps pushing the boundaries. So for example Project I – as it is codenamed – is very, very different when you see the concept art shots on our website, from Dragon Master Spell Caster which is a 3D dragon flying game casting spells. Project I interestingly, even though it looks 2D, has actually been made using some 3D assets that have been rendered to made to look 2D. The actual gameplay behind it is very puzzle-based even though it looks like a platformer. So we hope people will be really blown away when they actually do get to play it and everything comes together; with a great story, humour, interesting sort of puzzles and challenges and really a fantastic main character. Actually there are two main characters which have a great dynamic and we hope that people will really enjoy some of the banter that goes on between them. So we’re trying to create something that people can sample for the first time and get excited about. Project F is going to be a little way off development. That’s actually looking more into the fantasy genre, and it will be a more strategically-based product. And there’s this new product that we’re actually bringing out which is substantially through development at the moment but we’ll be releasing details about it in November, and again: very different look and feel from all of them.
We want people to be excited about the products that are coming out. Regarding what’s coming out next; we don’t want to be predictable, and I think that’s why a lot of the guys really enjoy working here because everybody gets a shot at pitching their ideas, it’s not like they’re part of a big machine. I mean when we work on a project the whole team pitches in and gets involved in the storyline, it’s not just the writers. So in a writing meeting we’ll have the programmers, the artists, the animators, the sound guys, the music guys, the compliance guys, the usability, the testers. They’re really one team and so the project becomes theirs – it’s very much their creation. I think that’s actually quite exciting because you don’t just get artists who only want to do the art, they do want to have some say in the characters, the development, the story; the same with the programmers, it’s just the same with everyone. I don’t know if it’s unique, but it’s certainly a very enjoyable way to work.

I’ve noticed that you guys have recently gained development status for Sony’s PlayStation 3 and for the PlayStation Network. This could be too early to ask you this but how will this compare to developing for the Wii due to the power differences between the machines. Would you guys also be aiming to pursue a different audience because of the Wii is obviously more aimed towards the more casual markets whereas the PlayStation is going towards the more blockbuster feel of these big powerhouses. Are you guys chasing after a new market or are you simply trying to do something different?

That’s a good question because as you correctly say a lot of the consoles are directed at different audiences. What we are looking to do is to have the option to move the products across onto platforms where appropriate because gaming isn’t standing still, the markets are evolving. The PlayStation is a very exciting platform for us and obviously our guys are looking forward to learning about it and getting hands-on. I think it will be nice for people to experience our products in different ways as well because we can obviously customise them to suit those platforms. Why did we do it? It boils down to the fact that if you’re going to have a really good opportunity moving forward then it pays to have as many open doors as possible.
In the global scheme of things NZ game developers have never really featured globally until earlier this year when Sidhe released Shatter. Do you think kiwi developers like Stickmen Studios will increasingly step into the spotlight, and thus get NZ as a game development base out into the global industry?

The NZ gaming industry is really just limited to a handful of players. There’s some embarrassing stats which are like Scotland employs 11,000 people in the industry, Canada employs 14,000, New Zealand: probably a couple of hundred people. That’s a real loss for New Zealand because these other countries are receiving literally billions of dollars a year towards their economy, New Zealand’s making a few million. And the real sad thing is that New Zealand is a great innovative country: there’s kids leaving university with the right qualifications and they’ve got nowhere to go. They’ve got a handful of organisations and if they don’t get the jobs there they have to leave the country or, as we found one of our lead developers, one of our great guys with a first-class degree, stacking shelves because there wasn’t an industry to employ him. They kind of jump out after education and go “Great I want to get a job!” and it’s either do you want to join corporate web design or graphic design? “No, I want to get into gaming” right well here’s a couple of companies to apply at and if they don’t have a job you can either join the queue and get a temporary part-time job or leave the country, or go into the corporate world and do a different career. So in regards to are we going to step out there: very, very much so. We have grown dramatically and that’s because there’s a lot of people around really, really keen to get into this industry. And Sidhe, who we work with very closely, they’re really driving the industry, trying to help people get out there, enormously helpful to me personally and to the company. Mario and the guys are excellent, so we are going to do everything we can to support that. And it goes without saying that if we get products out there we promote them correctly and publish them correctly then news will spread that people are actually making games in New Zealand. What I would like to see is some more government support for the industry. New Zealand’s embraced the movie industry because a few people did things the hard way and total respect to those guys. They’ve shown New Zealand can be a great place for movie-making, and Mario’s showing that you can make good games here. I mean Shatter is superb, it’s been very hard for New Zealand, or anyone in New Zealand, to achieve that. The incentives that are offered to studios opening up in New Zealand are non-existent when you compare to those in Scotland and Canada. So I think the answer to your question is two-fold. One is: yes absolutely, we’re going to do what we can to raise the profile of gaming in New Zealand and to show that it’s a fantastic place to make games. And why that is, is because you’ve got an educated population, a very attractive exchange rate, the games made in New Zealand are almost 100% export product; and you’ve got a Western culture so there’s no language-barrier when working with Europe and America which are two of the major markets. So you’ve got several enormous strengths and almost no companies here doing it. I really think the piece that’s missing is for the government to sort of sit back and go okay yeah this has got real potential and we should get behind this and see where it goes, because for an absolute miniscule investment and some incentives they could really develop a very exciting industry.

I agree because gaming is such a new form of entertainment people aren’t really catching onto how potentially powerful the industry is.

Well some industry statistics show now that gaming is growing at twice the speed of TVs and movies, it’s not bigger than TVs and movies. But you can look at stats all over the place, you can’t really hang your hat on any particular statistic because what’s the old joke: 95% of statistics are made up. But there are those out there that seem to show it at around $60billion a year at the moment, but that’s due to grow $100billion soon because it’s growing at 10.5%, allegedly, per year, whereas I think TVs and movies are growing at 5% a year so it’s growing at twice the speed. That’s because it’s not seen as a restricted medium anymore. Lots of different people are starting to game, casual gaming now, if not the majority of casual gamers are female. You’ve got a number of different platforms: iPhones, DS, PSP, all the WiiWare, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, PC. There all these different ways of playing games and also the type of gaming is changing. The actual casual game market ranges from maybe 7 to 70 in all sexes because you’ve got things like Brain Training coming out and Wii Fit. So traditional non-gamers, or non-traditional people, are moving into and getting into games, they’re getting engaged, so it’s an enormously exciting market.

What, for you, makes a great game? Is it the fun factor, the immersion, or are you one of these high-brow types that argues that gaming can technically be viewed as a legitimate form of art because it is an expression?

I wouldn’t say I’m high-brow. I do believe that all the guys that work for us are artists: whether they’re a programmer or if they work in the art core because it is very creative, they’re using the tools available to them to make something new and exciting and I really do believe that it’s art. However I do believe that every game should be designed for the purpose that it is intended. So for example there are very different types of games: you’ve got the sort of AAA games where you might expect to sit and play it for say eighty hours in six hour sessions. I enjoy those games as well and there are some cracking ones out there, but then there are the casual games as well: which [appeals to] people sitting on the bus wanting a ten minute experience. My key sort of games test is does it make me smile, is there a moment in there where I get a bit of a smile or a laugh? It doesn’t mean that it necessarily has to be funny but it needs to be a sense of achievement or there needs to be a sense of immersion – these are the things that you are mentioning. I mean, overall people need to put the game down and get a sense of enjoyment. It comes down to the whole experience that you take away from it has to be enjoyable, and the way that you deliver that depends on the platform and the type of game that you’re making.

How did you get into gaming yourself?

I’ve been gaming for twenty, twenty-five years. I got involved in the arcades when there weren’t home consoles. I remember the very first Atari console with the...I don’t remember what the game was but it was basically two wooden blocks and you bounce a square block between them.


Yeah it might have been Pong. And I remember sitting on my Gran’s kitchen floor playing against my sister on that game. And that was just enjoyable and addictive and very, very simplistic and really the game mechanic was just fantastic. So I got into gaming from a very, very early age so when the arcades started opening up with the games there, got very into those. I remember the very first multiplayer games like Gauntlet which would have queues of people at the arcade queuing up just to a get a game on a 4-player game and it was absolutely superb. And then the home consoles and PCs started to open up. So I’ve been into gaming all the way through. It’s superb when you look back and see how gaming is evolving and how it’s becoming more appealing to everybody. It’s really sort of breaking the mould of gaming. Even the term ‘gaming’ these days, when you look at the introduction of edu-gaming products, the boundaries are being smashed. But it’s great to look back. It was really nice because my sort of background, and then I went into university, got a job and I got into corporate IT. And then when I was over in New Zealand I had met these other software developers and sort of started a company in our spare time, working evenings and weekends and thought eventually “Right, well are we crazy? Better check now”. That’s when I talked to a few people in the industry who were all very, very helpful who said “Actually you guys have got some reasonably good ideas about a business here” and they were very supportive and we took a step, left the corporate world, branched out on our own. It was one of the really exciting things for me when after working really hard in New Zealand and building the studio to go out and meet my heroes in the gaming world and actually chat to people. Talking to some of the big names and thinking “Wow I used to play your games and here I am actually talking to you”. The guys who made the original Ghosts’n’Goblins, Commando – I mean these are the sort of old ZX Spectrum and arcade games. These companies are now huge, and these guys just sort of sit there and go “yeah I did the artwork for that game”. And now we get to do that ourselves and you realise just how hard it is, but you also experience the joy of creating something that’s genuinely new and that’s what we’re working to do.

So that hobby-on-the-side you had, was that the beginnings of Stickmen?

The company started literally just through a conversation with two friends and we decided “Yeah we can probably make a game in our spare time and see what we can do”, and that evolved into something where we thought we might have something to actually go at here. Through meeting a lot of different people in the industry we thought we could actually form a company. And obviously we formed the company and then kept on doing research for a couple of years on exactly what’s smart, what’s not smart, meeting people, learning from their lessons, and then we opened the studio a couple of years later. So it was a couple of years of really hard work, evenings and weekends. And then the real hard work started, because then you go into your sort of eighty, hundred hour weeks and you realise just what a big challenge the industry is. It changes from then that hobby into your life, it really takes over.

Despite the massive technological advancements achieved in this current generation such as hyper-realistic graphics and blockbuster experiences, do you think that gamers could be distracted from what makes a game genuinely good?

I think a good game will never rely on fancy graphics. Because gamers are smart enough to figure that out in the first few seconds: if it doesn’t play well then it doesn’t sell well. There’s lots of examples of games out there that look amazing and the screen shots are fantastic but it falls over once people have played it. So I think the most important thing in games, and it sounds obvious, is gameplay. It really has to be an enjoyable experience and to do that you need to understand what people want from the experience, in your market, and design your gameplay mechanic around that, and if you can enhance that by making it look great with great graphics then that’s fantastic. Obviously there’s genres like FPS that are really enhanced by fantastic graphics, but then there are other games out there that are still classics like Tetris, the new Bejewelled and things like that that have nothing like those types of graphics but they’re enormously popular because they are delivering what people want from that experience and doing it really, really well. So I think a game that tries to cover itself up with fancy graphics will fall on its face, but a good game can be enhanced by nice graphics.

Your site says that Stickmen have done PC gaming as well, what projects have you done for the PC and have you guys done applications for, say, iPhones etc in the past?

We have worked with our business partners and done a couple of iPhone games. Working with partners such as Cerebral Fix, we’ve done two games with them called Swarm and Love Share Nurture, which are two very different games. Swarm is a retro arcade game and that’s actually out now. Love Share Nurture is actually a family game which is matching animal noises and cute pictures to words, which is designed for parents to play with their young kids. It’s a very fun little application where children can have fun with pictures and hear the noises and match it – it’s a great learning experience. So we’ve worked with our business partners there to deliver those products. We’ve also worked with partners on a number of Flash game projects for PC. We haven’t released any commercial, what I’d class as mainstream PC games but we’ve only been around a short time and have been focussed on console. We’ve got three main WiiWare titles in development and they’re really occupying the majority of our time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The N Word

What I am to talk about in this column today can be boiled down to one word. The N word has a lot of history and heritage which commands not only respect and courtesy but also to some fear and a sense of longing for days long past.

I am talking, of course, about Nintendo. And you thought I was going to say something bad.

Nintendo is to gaming what laughtracks are to bad 80s sitcoms, it has always been there and whether contemporary gamers like to admit it or not Nintendo’s prevailing legacy will always remind us of how to make sense of an industry that has matured into a mainstream form of entertainment in the last few years. The big N has been around since the stone-ages of gaming with the Nintendo Famicon in 1984 and has arguably been at the forefront of the industry healthily holding its own with the heavyweights Sony and Microsoft. In the last generation of gaming consoles Nintendo have taken a remarkably different direction that has proven to be commercially successful on a ridiculous scale, but has also resulted in a feeling of alienation for certain core gamers.

The Nintendo Wii and the handheld DS both incorporate technology that until recently could not be matched by their competitors: the use of two screens and controls incorporating a stylus pen of the DS and the motion controlled waggling of the Wii have allowed Nintendo almost unmatched access to the casual gaming market. However in the wake of the recent E3 conference in LA the Nintendo appear is increasingly looking stale – the Wii’s motion controls (albeit enhanced by the Motion Plus) appears to be outclassed by Sony’s showcase of similar hardware for the PS3 and the announcement of a new Metroid and Super Mario Galaxy barely seemed enough to steal the show from Sony and Microsoft. However all is not lost for the company that at one time defined console gaming, a DS title turned so many heads that it became for some the game of the show.

Scribblenauts sees the player controlling Maxwell whose task on every one of the 220 levels is to collect stars by using the stylus to spell out objects to spawn. Sounds simple enough right? The beauty of Scribblenauts lies in the sheer amount of objects, both inanimate and very much alive, available to you. For example you could spawn a ladder to climb up a tree to get that star, alternatively you could burn the tree down with a flamethrower...or flagging that completely you could spawn a time machine to travel back to medieval times whereupon you can summon a Kraken to terrorise the poor folk.

Save for my Pokemon days, I have never been a fan of Nintendo – Sony and Microsoft have always captured my attention with their pretty lights and loud noises – but if Scribblenauts has taught me anything it’s that one game’s charm can far surpass another’s action. It’s the possibilities that games like Scribblenauts presents to the gamer, whether they be casual or a seasoned COD4 vet, that defines the current generation of gaming. Gaming is currently going through a transformation hardware and software wise that allows the player to increasingly express themselves, titles like Little Big Planet and Spore too are evidence to this, that fits well with the social networking of Facebook and Twitter.

The reason for me writing this particular blog is to raise the question: After being in the game for so long will Nintendo’s focus on the casual gamer be the end of them? By the time the next generation of consoles roll out will the Wii’s successor even stand a chance now that it is increasingly probable that both Sony and Microsoft will incorporate motion sensing technology? Or will Nintendo focus exclusively on the casual market, further alienating their core gamers?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

'Sold Out' - Blindspott

In their ten years together West Auckland’s favourite sons, Blindspott, have had an impressive career. After releasing their debut self-titled album to critical and commercial acclaim the band capitalised by selling out shows in Japan and Indonesia before returning their focus to our shores for their follow-up release. In short, they enjoyed one hell of a career, and one that will always be remembered in New Zealand music. ‘Sold Out’ is Blindspott’s thank you to their fans who have supported them unconditionally and wholeheartedly throughout their ten year, two album career.

This CD/DVD package is a must for any Blindspott fan, acting as a sort of Greatest Hits with a great mix of their biggest songs of their two albums – Blindspott and End the Silence. The selection of songs, while being a steady mix of their two studio releases, wisely pays more attention to their debut which showcases the band’s own recognition of what made them a powerhouse of music that could sell out any venue in the country.

As well as the show caught live on the CD and DVD for fans’ oral and visual pleasure, a selection of clips provided by the band showcase their antics on the road ranging from pranks and drunken mischief to interviews of the band by the band. While the DVD itself is great value it’s only let down by the fact that Shelton forgot how to use a microphone, resulting in the viewer at times straining to hear what is being said before being blasted by a wall of noise when the DVD abruptly cuts to a screaming bourbon-fuelled crowd.

Apart from some questionable sound levels and editing in the bonus section of the DVD, Blindspott’s ‘Sold Out’ is a superb CD/DVD compilation that showcases the band’s live intensity. While officially claiming that the existence of this package was not confirmed until the night of the show, it was clear that Blindspott’s final official performance was going to be special – ‘Sold Out’ is evidence to this.

4.5 stars

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Feel Cream – Peaches

Feminists, as their stereotype dictates, are the evil side of the male lesbian vision. Thanks to the rise of feminism in the last century male chauvinism has more or less become impotent as chicks get fat and get piercings that announce to the world “I hate penises and I’ll eat yours if you look at me funny”. However as much as I personally dislike active feminists they have made a great addition to the music industry by blurring boundaries in their music and performance. Enter Merrill Beth Nisker, or as many know her as: Peaches

For almost fifteen years Peaches has been a notable force in the electronica scene with her music and stage antics blurring the line between gender identities with a large dose of sexual energy thrown in for good measure. I Feel Cream is a more tender offering that long-time Peaches fans may feel a tad uneasy about, in particular ‘Lose You’ and the title track ‘I Feel Cream’ which bring about a new side to the teaches of Peaches while also incorporating a newfound melodic groove.

However this album is far from soft, Peaches still retains the same bite that she has become renowned for which is evident in the opener ‘Serpentine (i don’t give a...)’ and ‘Trick Or Treat’ featuring the charming lyric “Never go to bed without a piece of raw meat”. Also present in the album is a strong hip-hop influence, taking its rawest form in ‘Billionaire’ where Shunda K, of Yo Majesty fame, joins in to turn the tables of gender dominance and sexuality on its head.
With this being a Peaches record there are some truly pumping electro songs that’ll get anyone’s ass on the floor, of particular mention is the peculiar Freudian themed ‘Mommy Complex’ and the bass-heavy ‘Take You On’.

The fifth album of her influential career I Feel Cream sees a slightly new direction in Peaches music while still retaining the same bite that she has become well known for, resulting in a great introduction to anyone who is in the need for some teaches of Peaches.

3.5 stars

All The Stupid Smiling Faces – The Insurgents

As a late-comer to the Indie genre I have to admit I was sketchy about reviewing an album labelled indie-pop. I was afraid if I listened to it from a subjective point of view then I would not like it and thus incur the wrath of the nuveau-chic indie darlings that this town holds so close to its creative heart. But an amazing thing happened, I realised that there is some Indie music that I like, and it’s all thanks to The Insurgents’ debut All The Stupid Smiling Faces.

Scattered throughout the record there are hints of inspiration from the Checks, The Kaiser Cheifs and other contemporary indie-rock success stories, but in saying that this album is far from a carbon-copy of other bands. The Insurgents have this great musical quality that allows them to effectively collect together different styles together to create a special breed of indie that is effectively theirs. This ranges from the juxtaposing vocals of album opener ‘Rather Be Dead’ and ‘Feeling Put Out’ to the slow-burning ‘None Of Us Are Getting Out Alive’. However the true strength of The Insurgents lies in their ability to make music to dance to in that special indie fashion – that style that those op-shop obsessed indie chicks dance like, you know what I mean. Bad descriptions this album is laden with great dancey tunes to bop along to most notably ‘Pop Sensation’ and the great closing track ‘Ezi Luvas 69’. Though I have to say the track that stands out most has got to be ‘Playing Guitars’ that, despite starting off like a certain cringe-worthy pop song ripped from an 80s teen movie, actually becomes a great song with a definite charm that builds into a great closing chorus.

As stubborn as I was in resisting the Indie genre’s grip upon the local music industry The Insurgents’ have effectively swayed my opinion with their great charm, convincing me that New Zealand’s indie scene isn’t all just too-alternative-for-you kids with little talent in their suede boots. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to board myself in my flat before the indie hoards come to claim my soul for that last little comment.

4.5 stars

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Big Gary's-A-Palooza '09

To those hapless bastards with their heads under the sand Big Gary’s-A-Palooza is the unofficial re-orientation week party for Canterbury that is quickly gathering enough momentum to rival even Otago’s mighty Agnew Street keg party. Following the tradition set down by last year, copious amounts of homebrew flowed with vessels ranging from the strange (toy hip flasks) to the downright stupendous (2-litre Just Juice bottles anyone?) as well as a DJ being set up in the living room of the to-be-trashed Big Gary’s flat. With an ‘Attending’ facebook count of around 300 that eventuated to pack out the entire property save the driveway it was obvious that the frontlawn would suffer. However smart planning proved to save the day with carpet strewn about which (mostly) kept punters’ shoes clean and lessened the damage. Speaking of damage the inclusion of a large bonfire provided adequate warmth before antics took hold of the revellers and a competition to see who could jump said-bonfire. Only a brave-few took part in this competition of might (or stupidity, you decide) before the stakes were raised significantly with the addition of couches and a former park bench. The bonfire was probably the main event of the night as it held many functions: warmth, entertainment, and unfortunately the parties demise. This was due to the fact that once the couches were introduced enough flame and smoke was introduced to land a 747…or, as was the case, the attention of the authorities. After staring dumbfounded at the dying flames the community firefighters took to the flames before, some time later, the Goodafterble Constanoons made their gracious appearance forcing attendees onto the cold hard street of Riccarton Rd – cue Semisonic’s ‘Closing Time’.

Altogether Big Gary’s A-Palooza ’09 lived up to last year’s glory while pushing the boundaries of bonfire and attendance, in fact so well was said attendance that there was a constant theme of 3 degrees of separation present with everyone seeming to know someone…who further knew someone. Despite all the glory that was the bonfire this Sasquash believes that thanks to the premature addition of all the couches at once from the pack mentality of certain individuals the party warranted the attention of authorities too early than would have normally occurred. Regardless, Big Gary’s A-Palooza turned out to be everything that was expected: an epic night that will be remembered as arguably the biggest party of the year.

4 stars

By Sammy the Sociable Sasquatch

Interview with Mel Parsons

Your debut album Over My Shoulder has been praised almost universally by critics across the land for its traditional take on folk and an underestimated charm no doubt brought about by, among other things, your refusal to mask your kiwi accent. What are your thoughts on kiwi musicians putting on American accents?

Well it’s funny aye, I don’t know if it’s so much put on as it’s so much of what we hear and what we’re influenced by just sounds like that so that’s just what you naturally go to. I think some of my stuff is a bit like that but it’s a hard one I don’t think anyone sets out to go “Hey guys we’re totally not from NZ” . But yeah it’s an interesting one for sure. I don’t know, I can’t think of any. I try not to think about it I guess whatever comes out comes out, if it sounds a bit kiwi then sweet as and if it doesn’t then that’s the influences. I guess that we all just about universally just grew up listening to it you know it’s kind of what we know.

You lyrics focus on love, loss and heartbreak, was expressing these feelings through music a type of therapy for you?

Yea definitely I think it’s an outlet for sure you know song writing in general and lyrics and yea sometimes what comes out can be umm what’s a good word for it (laughs) ... it’s definitely a way to get the bad stuff out I suppose. In my normal life I’m a pretty happy person sometimes in my lyrics (laughs) I can get a little bit down. I think music is a therapeutic thing for both sides, for me as a writer it’s pretty therapeutic and hopefully for listeners too. And people I don’t know listen to it when they’re sad or whatever you know. Like you know everyone has a heartbreak album aye whenever we’re really gutted about something we put it on.

So going back to the album what was it like to have the help and support from the big names of David Long (of The Mutton Birds, but also produced Fur Patrol’s Pet), Don McGlashan (The Plague, The Mutton Birds) and Neil Watson for the record?

It was pretty awesome actually I was really lucky to have both those guys helping out. Don McGlashan was great, he was the person that hooked me up with David Long in the first place and Don was just a (crackle of ski radio) sorry that’s just my hut radio going (laughs) umm yea Don was just a go-to guy I suppose he was just there supporting. I mean because he’s been doing it for so long and he knows, I mean it wasn’t new to him and it was for me making an album and stuff it was awesome actually and David Long was just the same you know he’s just he’s got super ears and he’s just a cool guy and it was just awesome. And Neil was just amazing and is a good friend of mine for a long time so yea I am pretty chuffed really with the people that turned up to play.

And how did you come across the Rhythm Kings from Welly, so you going from Westport up to Auckland did you kind of come across them along the way up or?

The Rhythm Kings: I suppose the base of them was Shaun Elley who I actually went to music school with ten years ago in Nelson and we had sort of played together on and off so we had always wanted to get together at some point. We finally got the opportunity and he’s now based in Wellington and he’s just been around the jazz school in that scene up there. The other guys Aaron Stuart the bass player and Ennon Keys, they’re both friends of Shaun’s and musical colleagues I suppose you’d say and so yea I kind of got into that Welly musical scene through Shaun.

So far this year you’ve been a pretty busy girl: your album was released in March jostling with a large amount of kiwi releases leading up to NZ music month and even taking part in Kiwi FM’s 31 Bands in a Box as well as the Redbull Sessions. How was that?.

That’s funny that Band in a Box it’s a tiny, tiny studio (laughs) and the Redbull Sessions one was awesome just in a sense that it’s got a really cool set up like they’ve got a huge studio and we’ve got the whole band in the room with a bunch of backup singers.

And I’ve noticed with this upcoming August/October tour you’re mainly doing small bars particularly through of small town Otago and Canterbury and also going up to the Nelson Arts Festival. Do you feel that these more intimate the gigs and the audiences that they attract do you think that they better suit who you’re aiming your music at or is your music more broad based.

Yea probably a bit of both really I mean for sure those smaller venues have a real charm and a nice ambience that it’s hard to get in big places and you know I’m not a rock band really and I’m not a huge reggae act, but there’s definitely advantages to the smaller places, like often the Nelson shows are the bigger venues. But this wee tour it’s kind of like a, because I’m down here skiing for the winter so it’s shit you know (laughs) I have to work as well completely skive off for the winter. I guess it was a bit: there are some cool places I want to go, like I want to go to Oamaru and I love Wanaka, I’m a skier so it was a bit of both. We don’t have the full line up, it’s just myself and Aron the bass player and Neil on guitar, it’s more of a broken down acoustic kind of set than the full monty.

I see on youtube you’ve got a video for Darlin Darlin, that’s a cool video, it’s got the whole 1940s/1950s periods leading up to the 1970s when the Dad comes home and sees just so many kids it’s not funny. Was Darlin Darlin written with this kind of thing in mind?

No not really, the video was made by a guy called Murray Keen who he does lots of stuff but he directs Outrageous Fortune and bits and pieces of TV and film in New Zealand. The whole concept and everything was all his, he pitched the idea and I was like “cool sounds great let’s go for it”. It was pretty full on but it was really quite different from where the song came from but I think that’s fine, I suppose I try not to take myself too seriously it’s like you know it’s a song and what people get out of it people get out of it. I think it’s kind of nice to have a video, and you know it’s a piss-take it’s supposed to be a bit comedy really.

You grew up banging and plucking on your mum’s musical instruments, was your mum a performer like you in her day?

No my mum and my grandmother played the piano just for enjoyment I suppose but never too seriously. Mum was very into us getting into music we had this big table with all these different instruments so that when you’re kids you can march round the house banging and yea there was always music at home. We all played the piano from when we were quite young and I was crap at the piano but never mind (laughs).

So when did you pick up the old guitar?

Umm when I was about 14 I just stumbled across it and it’s funny because as you are when you start off with something you’re pretty average, like quite bad, but there was still something in it that still kind of grabbed me and that was it I just couldn’t put it down (laughs).

So what inspired you to make your move up to Auckland, the home of hustle and bustle, when you grew up just outside of Cape Foulwind a town I’ve been told is well known for its rugged beauty and sealions?

Well I went right through high school on the coast and it was an experience (laughs). Nah I can’t complain it was all good and I spent a year in Nelson at the music school and I took a year off sort of teaching and you know went around Australia bumming around as you do and just did stuff that you do and I wanted to go to music school in Auckland. I think it was 2001 just put my life into my van and drove up. I spent a year at MAINZ the music and audio institute, it was a super good place actually, it was definitely my best, it’s the place I recommend people to go. And then I spent a couple of years over at Auckland Uni after being transferred over there which was interesting you know great and all that but I still think MAINZ is a bit more real and practical.

So where were you first based, and where are you subsequently based when you return, to Auckland? With your sound I imagine that you’d be sort of Muriwai, Piha or Bethells, somewhere very surfy out west to suit your music, or are you more city based?

Actually to be honest I’m more of a city girl but all those places that you mentioned I love it out there but I think that they have a lot of similarities to where I grew up like that wild west coasty kind of stuff but yeah when I’m in Auckland, because I’m usually there for a few months at a time, usually somewhere pretty close to the city. I used to live in Parnell which is the antithesis to the West Coast. But where I’m based that’s a sort of interesting question sometimes it’s out the back of my Hilux (laughs) – I’m trying to steer away from the clich├ęs but they just keep on coming. But I suppose that since we’ve put the album out I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Wellington putting out the album and back and forwards and then of course there’s the ski season down here for 4 months or so. But yea a lot of my friends, my musical colleagues, are in Auckland so yea I guess I get around a little bit (laughs) – I’m desperately trying not to grow up really.

So while you were at Auckland Uni you were doing a Bachelor of Performing Arts, I understand that you’re a very spur of the moment type of musician. Was this quite a bit of a clash, like with the academic study there’s a process of dividing a song into parts etc.

Yea absolutely, it was interesting the theory the technical stuff behind it but where my music comes from is sort of probably more intuitive like just kind of blank out everything and whatever comes, comes out you know. I definitely think you can get too caught up in all the technical bits and pieces, and that can take away the special thing. I found that while I was at university the analysis was fascinating on that level but at the same time trying to be creative but I don’t think I really agree with forcing creativity, I think if it’s there it’s there, if you can do it it’s cool but if you’re not it’s not worth trying to squeeze something out. I think the potential for things to become really contrived is there with that kind of thing, but having said that that’s the way some people write and some people write some amazing songs from the really theoretical point of view. I guess for me it doesn’t really get me going.

Mel Parsons is performing at Lyttelton Harbour Light Theatre on the Friday the 7th of August. Doors open at 7.30pm. Tickets available from ‘What’s On’, and door sales.

Monday, June 22, 2009

UFC 2009 Undisputed (PS3/360)

At the turn of the millennium the world began to change: generation Y came into maturity leaving disgruntled baby-boomers nigh on retirement, animal-orientated flues got bored and started to take a jab at humans, and the West realised that flashy reliance on credit wasn’t such a good idea. This effected many countries the world over, however curiously enough it effected a certain form of entertainment which ill-defined itself as a sport – Wrestling. WWE – formerly WWF until a few panda bears got confused and started knocking out patrons with chairs – has fallen from its flashy grace and since been replaced by the more realistic and downright brutal form of uber masculinity and man-love known as the UFC, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As the sport gained momentum stateside it proved inevitable that it would follow in the footsteps of its glam-loving cousin (WWE if you haven’t been following) and hence games were made...but these were, in a word, crap. But now enter THQ and Yukes Media Creations, who you may remember made the WWF games so popular back in their heyday, to save the day giving gamers UFC 2009 Undisputed.

THQ’s past work on wrestling games pays dividends in UFC’s favour: the control scheme – while at first overwhelming in its complexity incorporating the use of nigh every button available – is very responsive and produces some savage bouts when used accurately. Obviously aware that such complicated controls may lead to casual players to be turned away the game automatically gives new gamers the option to immediately teach you how to fight via a lengthy but ultimately useful tutorial. With many games the tutorial will only last 15 minutes maximum, UFC2009 on the other hand throws so much information at you that while it is possible to breeze through the tutorial within 15 minutes the player is almost guaranteed to forget something basic like how to clinch – don’t giggle, it’s an actual move. In UFC2009 the player will be throwing punches and kicks, performing take-downs or throwing their opponents down to the ground where they can further punish them by going human-pretzel on their ass, forcing them into submission. The point that I am ever so slowly getting to is that UFC2009 gives the player so many ways to fight that the controls feel jumbled and very confusing. For example to perform a take-down (a glorified tackle to the ground) you have to hold down the left trigger while pushing the right analogue stick toward the opponent before rotating the same stick to complete the move. This may not seem like a major gripe, but it surely would have been far more logical to apply the exact same scheme to the left analogue stick – which is assigned to moving the player’s chosen meat-bag around the ring. Suplexes and other throws from the arts of judo, BJJ and wrestling can also be performed but the truth of the matter is that by simply focusing on the simple task of knocking the sense out of your burly opponent by way of boxing, kickboxing and Muay Thai will yield a win far more quickly – and with a lot less hassle. In fact not only is it easier to go into each round fists and feet flying, but when you do win it looks so much more spectacular. By navigating your way past your opponents blocks – which are controlled by the right trigger and shoulder buttons for low and high respectively – your blows whittle down their unseen stamina leading to the moment when you do land that king hit when all goes slow-mo and the camera zooms in on them as they fall like a tree sending a mouth-guard laced with blood to the ground about a foot from said metaphorical tree. While it is good to see that THQ have put in the effort to squeeze in the complexity and range of moves into the game itself it is unfortunate that most of the wins that I clocked up came down to first round TKO’s, something that is doubly wasteful when each fight is supposed to last five rounds.

Along with the normal exhibition mode UFC2009 holds a create-a-fighter option which you inevitably use to carve up a piece of meat in your own image for use in the game’s career mode. The tools presented allow for the creation of a baby-faced 7-foot heavyweight or a vertically-challenged lightweight axe murderer with the possible nicknames of ‘The Claw’ or ‘El Turro’ among others. While it provides an adequate package the game’s allowance of up to one hundred possible fighters feels a bit overkill unless you want to recreate all of your favourite action and sit-com stars duke it out – finally, an opportunity to see Chuck Norris roundhouse that wanker Matt LeBlanc’s head off!

The vast majority of time invested in UFC2009 by any player will be in the in depth career mode in which you create a fighter, or choose from pre-made nobodies, and lead them to glory in televised-style fight-nights bludgeoning your way to gain the belt of their weight class, of which are light, welter, middle, light-heavy and heavyweight. In between bouts you can participate in practise fights with you sparring partner in order to gain skill points to assign to the offensive/defensive aspects of the game’s different general fighting styles. In addition to this you can train to build up your stamina, strength and speed as well as flicking through annoying UFC newsletters and other emails whose text is too small to read anyway. Regardless whether you win or lose you gain reputation points that go towards training camp invites and sponsorships from UFC’s most renowned gyms which give you the opportunity to learn new combos as well as add to your fighter’s attributes that would normally be attained via training and sparring. Outside of the quest for fame in a virtual world of glitz and shiners UFC2009 also holds a mode particularly tailored for the hardcore UFC nuts out there in ‘Classic Fights’ where if the player can finish famous bouts in the way that they did in reality they will be rewarded with unlockables.

Visually, UFC2009 looks great: cuts show up realistically and fighters’ faces contort in pain, and in between rounds the fighters look properly exhausted and drenched in sweat, however once you get outside the octagon everything else looks a bit bland. The crowd and fellow fighters in your home gym look dull and robot-like while curiously enough the ring-girls have more pixels in their bouncing boobs than in their faces – Dead or Alive fans rejoice! The audio does a great job building up the testosterone with angst-ridden hard rock and nu-metal accompanying the menu screens and enthusiastic crowds and the ecstatic commentary providing great weight to the energetic atmosphere of the octagon. The combination of great visuals and sound that really sells UFC2009 to the player, a ferocious no-holds barred vibe is constantly present when slugging away inside the octagon which is intensified when the game picks up on the brutal smack of a knock-out blow.

While the sheer diversity of the controls results in a steep learning curve that will probably turn away newcomers and non-fans UFC 2009 Undisputed feels and looks like a Mixed Martial Arts game should – brutal and oozing with testosterone. By blending diverse fighting styles with proper fight-night atmosphere UFC 2009 Undisputed is something that will surely satisfy any fan of the sport. WWE eat your panda-fearing heart out.


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (PS3, 360) - Activision

Comics and gaming are two things that would seem like they would be as successful as salt and vinegar, however it has only been recently when game developers have actually got the feel right.

Released in tandem with the new film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine puts the gamer in the admantium soaked bones of the Hollywood-friendly Wolverine as he seeks out his former comrades in a mission of revenge and redemption – I think. The reason for this unfaithful recollection of the plot is that despite some very well done cut scenes that effectively copy the composition of the comics the story is not what makes this game unique.

What does make this game great however are the (mostly) smooth gameplay and the sheer bloodlust generated from slicing an enemy into two before digging you claws into his buddy's face. The controls are simple enough for any gamer to pick up quickly with heavy and light attacks as well as throws and spearheaded leaps that can be put together to create some brutal combos. On top of this Wolverine can also do the token double jump and block/deflect foes’ attacks creating an all-round varied and solid fighting control scheme as well as handily having the ability of regenerative health. The more creatively you slice the cannon fodder of foes you collect what the game refers to as Rage that can be used to unleash Wolverine’s impressive Rage abilities that are unlocked as the game progresses. For example, simply slicing and dicing someone to bits will only give you one or two rage points, but if you throw them into another foe/off a cliff or even into a sharp spike, you will get a hell of a lot more. In addition to this there is a slight RPG element in the use of experience points earned for defeating foes and nabbing collectable items – such as dog tags. Aside from simple gratification levelling up grants you ability points that you can assign to boosting your health, the effectiveness of certain attacks as well as boosting the damage dealt by your shiny claws. As well as upgradeable abilities the game also includes what it calls Mutagens, these are power-ups hidden throughout the game-world that, when equipped, grant the player extra bonuses to damage resistance, extra experience from foes and extra Rage among others.

Activision, thankfully, have realised that Wolverine’s claws are really, really sharp. So when you take out an enemy they do not always simply flop to the ground in a random pre-rendered animation – they can be decapitated. In fact, so often does this happen that within the first ten minutes it soon becomes apparent with the amount of blood, flying limbs and curdling screams of pain that this game is R18. This therefore makes X-Men Origins: Wolverine one of the goriest superhero games out there today – something that will surely quench any player’s bloodlust.

It isn’t all just mindless hack and slash fun, aside from the normal cannon fodder soldiers you will have to employ some level of tactics in order to effectively take down stronger foes who range from machete-wielding African natives (oh so tastefully racist) to robots who fire lasers and missiles. The range of foes throughout the game keeps the game fresh and stops it from falling into a trap of boring hackuntilyourarmsfalloff gameplay, and then there are the bosses. There is certainly no shortage of boss fights in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which is good because once you get past the simple ones at the beginning of the game you will come across some absurdly epic and fun matches that provide a great challenge. The most memorable of which had to be an epic fight with a Sentinel that climaxed with Wolverine skydive-chasing the mech monster through the air while avoiding its debris.

As great as the gameplay is it will feel instantly familiar to anyone who has played any of the God of War games on the PlayStation, so much so that it can detract from the X-Men comic book charm. Games’ protagonists wield a pair of really sharp things (claws versus the Blades of Chaos), both games are total gore fests warranting age restrictions and both operate on similar semi-RPG levelling and skill systems. The result of this is that despite X-Men Origins: Wolverine being arguably the best of the movie tie-ins, it largely feels like God of War in a different skin and therefore falls just short of effectively standing on its own to non-comic-loving gamers. It is because of this that brings me to the conclusion that non-X-Men-loving PS3 owners should refrain from buying this, saving it for a rental and instead buy any of the two previous God of Wars until the next comes out after more light is shed on it following E3 in June.
3.5 stars

Friday, May 22, 2009

21st Century Breakdown - Green Day

2004 was a significant year for Green Day: with the release of American Idiot it was clear that one of the biggest punk acts had chosen a new direction strongly influenced by pop-punk energies combined with a grand, almost progressive, musical score theme that was reminiscent of rock opera. Now, five years later, Green Day offers us the follow-up to their newfound style that might as well be a second album for what feels like a completely new band.

21st Century Breakdown is not the album that old school Green Day fans are looking out for, it is, in fact, a strong continuation of their new direction that favours the more melodic and anthem-based songs that American Idiot introduced. While not nearly as progressive at times 21st Century Breakdown remains to prove that Green Day have matured into what can only possibly be described as one of the most unique pop-rock bands churning out anthems today. The songs ‘Christian’s Inferno’, ‘Horseshoes and Handgrenades’ and ‘American Eulogy’ provide energetic guitar driven pop-rock anthems that are sure to please their more angst-ridden and pop-loving audiences, while the sorrow of ‘Restless Heart Syndrome’ provides a great contrast. The pop-epics of ‘Holiday’ and ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ make a return with ’21 Guns’, the My Chemical Romance-inspired ‘Viva La Gloria’, and closing track ‘See the Light’ reinforcing that Green Day have found a new direction that suits. Numerous times throughout the album there are catchy tinges of early rock’n’roll pop (‘Last of the American Girls’, ‘Static Age’, etc) that would not be out of place at American high school proms whilst being contrasted by the likes of ‘Peacemaker’ with its fast-tempo acoustic guitar that oddly would suit a stage production. In fact the album’s subject matter would almost certainly provide enough material for some kind of musical with its (albeit pop-infused) commentary on the state of Western society at the beginning of a new century – hence the album’s name.

While hardcore Green Day fans of old will not appreciate the continuation of American Idiot’s pop-rock anthems, 21st Century Breakdown is an album that will grow on listeners who are not initially hooked by the melodies and altogether proves that Green Day have found a winning formula.
4 stars

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Race Pro (360) - Atari

Only a few years ago there were just two players on the race-sim battleground conveniently opposing one another: Xbox’s Forza Motorsport and PlayStation’s Gran Turismo. These two titles provided stunning visuals and an immense range of licensed cars. But now it seems that the big players in the gaming industry are clueing on to the fact that these games are not only infuriatingly difficult to master but are also a lot of fun. Cue Atari, offering 360 owners another exclusive in the form of the imaginatively titled Race Pro.

Gameplay-wise Race Pro feels dated and arcade – something a current-gen simulation should not be. There are two major faults that haunt this game’s claim to simulation: the first is that in a straight line your car will be the quickest on the track no matter what; the second is that unlike what Granny Turismo’s licence tests and Forza teaches you the racing line can be ignored in favour of driving aggressively. A lot is borrowed from the gospel of Forza featuring a default race-line with turn-notices a la every-rally-game-ever-made, adjustable difficulty in the form of driving assists and almost the exact same rotatable camera controls. In fact the only aspects of Race Pro that make it stand out from the race-sim giants is that every car in the game is an actual race car that belongs on the track (no whipping your Corona around Road America here) and hidden away in the options menu are adjustable steering, throttle, brake sensitivities as well as other mindless technical jargon. The latter feature could be the only significant selling point of this game, as only perfectionist mechanics and wannabe motorsport fanatics would actually care about this.

To further your career as a Race Pro you race in championships for teams who initially require you to beat a set time on a particular circuit in their car before you can purchase their contract at a discounted rate. Upon completion of championships not only are you rewarded credits per-race but also trophy-car versions of you team’s motor, after a few completed contracts per class (normally two) the next class is unlocked granting access to more contracts with faster cars and some more tracks. Back in the days of the original TOCA games this may have been acceptable, warranting no complaints, but in this day and age this method of progression proves linear and is a repetitive grind. Other offline modes include Single Race, Championship (which is essentially a few Single Races thrown together), Hot Seat (offline multiplayer), Time Attack and Open Practice all of which involve simply selecting a track, a car and gunning it – something that, again, brings nothing new to the racing table. Online, however the game box boasts “extensive” Xbox Live races against 12 other budding Race Pros. While this is a pretty major promise, and the most intriguing out of the features boasted, when logging on Xbox Live to test this out I found at most six opponents to take on – far from extensive.

One of the great things about race-sims is that the graphics are very pretty: trees and buildings reflect with stunning detail off the cars and the lighting effects of the sun and street lights serve as great distractions when hurtling down a straight at 200km/h. This is probably where Race Pro most notably drops the ball though. While some effort has gone into the car models and the realistic depiction of the race tracks it all comes off sub-par compared with the graphics of, well, damn near every game offered on the current generation consoles bar the Wii. So bland are the visuals that the game appears as if it belongs on the original Xbox or even on the aging fact even the original Forza and Gran Turismo 4 were far more pretty.

Lastly, there is practically no soundtrack in this game aside from a Scottish voice out of no-where congratulating you on finishing and telling you off for doing something wrong. While Atari may have intentionally done this in order to gain the full race-day immersion, again, all that results is a feeling that the game is unfinished.

While there are not that many race-sims available to gamers the very high standard of quality in those available makes it very difficult for any newcomer to stand a chance at keeping toe to toe with the big boys. Unfortunately due to mundane graphics, grinding career progression and very little in the way of a unique experience Race Pro falls behind the behemoths of the racing genre. If you own a 360 and you are looking for a racing sim buy Forza 2 or GRID and avoid this like the plague.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Halo Wars (360) - Ensemble Studios

As the flag-ship game for the 360 it is not surprising that Halo developers Ensemble are pushing the franchise to new limits in order for it to seep into everyday gaming culture, which has largely been successful thanks to the franchises three critically acclaimed games. Now, in what is a very interesting step, the latest offering in the Halo franchise is not first-person shooter but a real-time strategy.
It is a well known fact in the global gaming community that if there is one genre of gaming that consoles have continually failed to get right it is strategy: this is because a PC’s keyboard plays a monumentally important role in a l337 term known as ‘micro-management’; however a console controller is obviously hampered by its lack of buttons. Ensemble have addressed this problem by allowing you to cycle through different types of units using the left and right triggers and by using the shoulder buttons to select local (on screen) and all units. While this is a good idea Halo Wars still manages to lag behind its PC brethren due to the fact that you cannot arrange your units into specific squads for further micro-management. The use of the left, right and down buttons on the game pad serves the use of quickly jumping you to selected units and map events but thanks to the lack of a mouse allowing you to freely click on the mini-map itself results in a general feeling of restriction. While this may seem like a minor quarrel it can make a big difference later on in the campaign with the difficulty cranked up or on a fairly hectic skirmish when you are multi-tasking between constructing units and managing those already in the thick of battle.
Halo Wars is set 20 years prior to the events of the first Halo game (referred to as ‘The Halo Incident’) pitting you in control of UNSC forces as they valiantly struggle against the fittingly evil Covenant alliance. One of the main selling points for the 360-fanboys in la la land will be the opportunity to control armies of American-accent-totting UNSC forces or even switch sides in a skirmish to take control of a few Hunters, Banshees and the formidable Scarab. While both goodies and baddies hold forces of adequate variety that can be upgraded through research, not to mention that in Skirmish mode each general holds specific unique units; there is a persistent feeling of limitation. This is largely down to the limited visual and artistic differences between certain units; even with the ability to zoom in controlled through the right analogue stick it is difficult to tell them apart. This was particularly a pain when in one mission I continually found myself sending useless artillery tanks into the thick of battle mistaking them for something far more useful (and short range). The result: a certain Mr Cracka screaming at the aforementioned artillery in frustration, cursing the fact that they were almost identical in appearance to the more useful Scorpion tanks. This leads me conveniently to another issue I found with the game play: despite the presence of an adequate range of units to combine into an army it was all too easy to fall back onto the old amateur tactic of tank rushing. With this lack of strategy consistently employable throughout the game’s campaign save one or two missions it kind of defeats the purpose of a strategy game, and results in the fact that Halo Wars is not something that the die-hard RTS fans out there should be rushing out to play but instead serves as a good introduction to the genre itself.
All up Halo Wars is an interesting new take on the 360’s ‘killer app’ that provides a control scheme that, for once, actually works for a console RTS and is a fun game to play because of this. Unfortunately due to the simplicity in the units’ range and the dumbed-down difficulty thanks to the lack of strategy actually required, Halo Wars is a game that should only really be bought by the hardiest of Xbox fan-boys or those wanting an introduction to the strategy genre.

3.5 stars

Monday, March 23, 2009

Interview with Angelo Munro from the Bleeders

This is an interview I conducted and wrote exclusively for the club that I run, TrueRockSoc. I decided against submitting it into CANTA as I wanted some exclusive content for the club blog.

So tell us, what has been going on in The Bleeder’s camp? It’s been a while since we heard anything from you guys following last year’s self-titled album.

Yeah, I guess last year we did a couple of tours to support the record, and then took a break for 6 weeks before moving to Toronto in January where we are now based for next year. We have played a little bit..but looking to tour a lot more towards the U.S. summer. Also some writing towards a new album is a bit of a focus right now.

As arguably one of the most recognisable figures in the NZ music scene do you feel some kind of celebrity status or is our wee country too small to even consider yourself as a celebrity?

Haha not at all! I'm recognisable if you like what we do and you know the band, but I definately don't get harrased in the supermarket which I like. I am definately not a celebrity, I hate that shit. Manu that's a celeberity! He is the man!

Many bands head West to boost their careers but have been largely unsuccessful in doing so (Shihad case-in-point), is the North American hardcore scene very supportive for you boys?

Well you know...NZ is always easy to point out about bands trying overseas and beeing unsuccessfull, but Shihad for instance, they weren't a failure by any stretch of the imagination. The population over here is a hell of a lot more, so expectations are higher. If you get signed to say a major like they were and you sell like 80,000 CDs per se...they see that as failure here. So you get dropped. Reports come back to NZ that they were dropped and its seen as a failure here too. But in the meantime they have probably got a nice small fanbase and can come here and play club tour to 200-300 people per night (or more, I'm not exactly sure what they do) and to do that in a country on the other side of the world from your home is amazing!

So to me...anything's a bonus. If we stayed in NZ for 2009 it would of gotten stale for us. So we are here, and we are grateful for anything. If we come home next year and can say we toured the States and Canada multiple times and have a CD out here with several thousand buying it I will die a happy man!

And far so good for the Canadians. USA is yet to see Bleeders as of yet. Maybe in a few months!

Tell us about Deadboy Records, you’ve signed on False Start and other emerging hardcore bands.

Yeah false start have done 2 CDs on my label, they were on board very early and have been my top seller for sure! I got like 6 bands on my roster its fun. It's more of a hobby for me, but at the same time I can help bands get their CDs out and keep the costs low you its cool. My label is very diverse, from emo/pop to brutal hardcore shit... like In Dread Response.

What’s your thoughts on NZ music month? Do we need it or should our local music always be able to support itself without the aid of mass-marketing?

I don't really care either way, I used to think there's no point shoving it down peoples throats. But you band has had great support over the years and had shit pretty easy. So nz music month gives some bands that are under the radar a bit more exposure!

The Bleeders are known for their determined touring and intense live performances, care to share any horror stories from the road?

Bro we dont have anything to tell..seriously!

Finally, when can we expect to see you back in NZ? We’ve been missing our favourite hardcore act!

Next year for sure. We hope to record a new album later this year or early next year, and come home to tour it. Or...we may just come back to live. We have definately not claimed we are here no talking about us failing please if we do just the 1 year! Haha!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

No Line On the Horizon - U2

It’s been five years since U2’s last studio effort, a big gap for a band who in their almost 30 year career have released eleven previous records. In this time they have written some great music, but it seems with No Line On the Horizon they may have dropped the ball.

I shouldn’t be all too negative about this album, there are some great songs on it. A nice cushy love song can be found in ‘Magnificent’ and the single ‘Get On Your Boots’ is pretty groovy, deserving the amount of radio attention it’s been getting lately. The same should be said about the opener ‘No Line on the Horizon’ as well, but it is unfortunately ruined by the fact that it is repeated as a closing track with minor musical alterations and different lyrics. Normally this can work if it acts as a kind of closing credits function only lasting a minute or so, but it is an entire song in itself which paints a pretty lazy picture.

What is interesting is that a lot of the songs are based in the perspective of some poor soul suffering through war and poverty or even a journalist covering these global issues. This would normally make for some pretty interesting lyrics but unfortunately they end up resembling those of an accountant for the Green Party, of particular note is ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ with the lyrics “Child drinking dirty water from the river bank/ Soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank” and so on…you get my point. Talking about lyrics there is a significant lack of such with too many choruses relying on the “Oh-oh ooohhh-ooooooh oh” style of speak resulting in the aforementioned laziness.

My biggest beef with U2’s No Line On the Horizon is the fact that it’s very linear; none of the songs really stand out and more or less just blend together. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad album, but it seems to me that U2 are starting to lose their way.

2.5 stars

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Parappa the Rappa: Killzone 2 (PS3)

I am always sketchy about games that receive mountains of hype by faceless marketing departments in the lead up to their releases. Sure, the game looks pretty and we are promised oh so much for forking out the hundred or so from our already thin wallets for it, but most of the time these games turn out to be unpolished and uninspired. However, Killzone 2 has done the improbable by actually matching its own hype with stellar visuals and some of the most intense firefights in recent memory.

The plot of Killzone 2 is not exactly gripping, but then again it cannot be called garbage. All you really need to know is that the evil Helghast Empire is now on the defensive back-foot after the American accent-toting Interplanetary Strategic Alliance managed to repel their invasion of the planet colony Vekta from the first Killzone. As soon as you pick up the game you are thrown into the invasion of the planet Helghan in a D-Day inspired scenario crash-landing on a beach…if you could call it that. Helghan is far from a holiday resort with some genuinely menacing environments on offer adding nicely to the dark tone of war given off by the game; this is complemented further by the enemies sporting glowing red eyes and evil English accents wheezing through post-apocalyptic helmets and gas masks.

Combat is exciting and intense providing a great challenge throughout the game to the degree that you never get to the point of partaking in a spot of controller-discuss. The controls feel spot-on with great responsiveness while retaining the feeling of your character’s weight. By sticking with bullets over lasers, Killzone 2 avoids Halo’s fantastical sci-fi approach to weaponry in favour of raw grit, the result of which is a far more believable experience reminiscent of shooters like Battlefield and Call of Duty. However in saying that special mention has to go to the electricity spewing gun and grenades that prove to be very useful for mechanical foes and provide humour in hearing your more fleshy enemies’ garbled screams. Killzone 2’s gamble with the inclusion of a cover mechanic pays off allowing you to reload and (briefly) plan your next move without becoming Swiss cheese. The game even makes use of the largely useless Sixaxis motion control system by using it to turn valves and plant C4 charges. While most of the time this feels well designed, there are a few moments when going from staunchly firing your gun to flailing and twisting your controller in the midst of battle makes you feel like a bit of a dork.

Outside of the main campaign, there is further evidence of Killzone 2’s greatness by the inclusion of a great online multiplayer with some great maps and modes. The set up of multiplayer is superb in that you do not necessarily have to stick with the bog-standard death match. Once an objective is completed, the game assigns a new mode seamlessly through radio commands, the result of which can have you scrambling around the map completing search and destroy-style missions for a few minutes before smoothly changing to hiding in a corner while your teammates protect you from being popped in assassination missions. Even if you do not have access to the internet, the team at Guerrilla have included a Skirmish mode teaming you up with and against teams of bots playing multiplayer missions which adds a lot of replay value to an otherwise linear game.

While the original Killzone on the PS2 was average, Guerrilla have finally got the formula right with a superb shooter that gives the 360’s heavyweights Gears and Halo a real run for their money and effectively puts the PS3 back on the FPS map.

4.5 stars

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Brant Bjork and the Bros at Al's Bar

Whenever a well renowned international rock act comes to Christchurch one would expect them to be perform in the town hall, Westpac or some other decent venue. However, what would be the case for the more underground rock acts of the, say, Palm Desert stoner era? Al's Bar is the only choice; a bar that holds local and underground live rock true to its gritty young heart and intimate atmosphere. And what better underground act than the legendary Brant Bjork who made his name as the stickman for desert/stoner rock pioneers Kyuss (the members of whom included Josh Homme).

Arrivingto the gig after a few late beers and an even later bus this reviewer unfortunately missed all but the final two songs of supporting act Second Gear Grind (UC represent!). However SGG proved they were more than worthy to support the a stoner rock legend with heavy bass and guitar driven rock led superbly by vocalist S.Bell's strong vocals showcasing their influence by the band that made Bjork famous but also combining it with a more metal-like sound reminiscent of sludge rock and metal. For the entirity of their epic songs (and I'm sure their set for that matter) they had the crowd grooving in such a way that only stoner rock fans can - heavy nodding and side swaying...the cool way.

Almost straight off the bat Bjork and his support band The Bros established themselves as all about the music launching straight into it; no arsing around, just pure unadulterated rock'n'motherfucking'roll. Bjork retained the perfect stoner rock look dressed (to put it bluntly) like a bum keeping his attention to the lazy rock and was aided greatly by heavy bass of the Bros' bassist and their baritone axeman Max Roddings. In fact so heavy was the grooves of the set that when I briefly ventured out of the mosh pit (if you could call it that) to break the seal that the entire mens toilets were shaking with a force that could only be compared to a dragon farting. As this gig was part of Brant Bjork's tour for his 2008 album 'Punk Rock Guilt' there were a few songs featured in the set, but due to my aforementioned lack of knowledge of his music I can't really tell you what they were. What I can tell you however was that the songs all reeked of dirty desert rock goodness that is so very under-appreciated in this day-and-age of bland Chad Kroegerness...but I'll save a further explanation of this for another day.

By the time Bjork and the Bros wrapped up their set of heavy grooves and amp'd tunes I was re-hooked on the stoner rock vibe and keen to grab a copy of their latest album, this would not be the case however. Due to the fact that this was a bar there was no chance of getting money out, so I've now resided to the fact that when Studylink comes through it will be right on the top of the list of things to claim as part of course related costs - I'm a Mass Coms's gotta count for something right? But as far as Wednesday nights go, proclaimed Bjork midset, the night was about as close to a Thursday as you could get, and that coming from an underground legend in my books is pretty darn good.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Parappa the Rappa: Skate 2 CANTA review

In 2007 EA Blackbox's Skate stole the heavyweight championship belt off the ailing Tony Hawkes franchise for the skateboarding genre by focusing not on arcade-like craziness but instead on realism and a revolutionary 'flickit' control scheme. Skate 2 has finally arrived with much hype expanding the tricks to twice the amount of the original, as well as a redesigned city and the ability to hop off your board to move objects around to create your own line anywhere in the game. Along with these features Skate 2 still very much feels like the first game, encouraging you to explore New San Vanelona to find hidden spots to destroy (or 'Kill') and complete a very wide range of challenges.

Like most games nowadays there is a plot, but really it's just your average quest for skater of the year theme which quickly takes a back seat. The only important thing about the plot that links with the gameplay is that while you were in prison (yeah, weird I know) a natural disaster occured and a corporation known as MungoCorp rebuilt the city but have capped many a skate spot and have infested the city with security guards. This ties into the gameplay loosely by setting you challenges revolving around avoiding said-guards and uncapping spots to make them accessible to you and other skaters, but that's really it. While the story may be weak, everything else is solid.

Blackbox have taken a leaf or ten out of the Tony Hawkes franchise's book by allowing you to hitch a ride on cars by way of skitching and giving you the ability to abandon your board to run around like a nice normal person. The reason for the latter is so that you can walk up stairs and even grab onto certain objects to move around to create you own line. While this is a brilliant idea and can really liven up a dull line the off-board controls feel stiff and wooden (think old-school Tomb Raider bad) compared to how Tony Hawkes Underground managed to pull it off. The result is an at times frustrating experience that feels like it was tapped on at the last minute, and is ultimately pretty disappointing seeing as this was one of Skate 2's main selling points. Another leaf that has been taken out of the Tony Hawkes game bible is the inclusion of bonelesses, no complies, footplants and handplants resulting in a more diverse trick book, albeit at times difficult to pull off. Speaking of tricks, the flickit system of course remains, assigning the left analogue stick to controlling your body and the right for your board, but has been expanded to include fingerflips as well as more grabs and grinds.

Skate 2, like its predecessor, is not a very easy game to play and has a fairly steep learning curve in respect to getting used to the controls, however since there are no stats to assign, your skater's limitation is down to your own mastery of said controls. At times this will leave you wanting to hurl your controller through a window/TV/annoying flatmate's face, but the immense satisfaction of finally pulling off a killer line or trick is worth every painstaking moment.

The signature low camera angle of Skate remains giving you the perspective of your cameraman buddy Reda (who looks remarkably like last year's VP Amedeus Rainbow) which results in an at-first annoying but ultimately realistic view focusing not on your skater but rather your tricks. However if you do find yourself pining for the Tony Hawkes' camera angle Skate 2 has included the option to do so. One thing does have to be said about the characters though, the dialogue is littered with 'sick', 'buttery' and 'dude' to such a point that I wonder if all skaters actually talk like such douches (ummm hi CUBA).
It has to be said that it is very fortunate for us students that Skate 2 has been released this early in the year so far away from assignments and exams. The sheer amount of hours you can easily sink into just screwing around New San Van completing some excrutiatingly hard challenges, making skate videos using the very flexible replay editor and even taking it online to kick some n00b ass is epic. The game even caters for the players who totally suck at skateboarding by expanding the original's Hall of Meat rewarding you for hurting yourself in certain ways. This of course results in further procrastination by throwing yourself off stupidly high buildings and dams just to see how many bones in your rag doll body you can break in one go.

While it may have failed to live upto all its promises effectively, Skate 2 is still a superb game that has the potential to destroy your social life (in a good way) and is a must have if you have ever been a fan of skating.