Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Seven Albums of 2009

I feel I don’t write enough album reviews here, I don’t get round to the new music when it comes out and then kind of miss the boat a bit. Christmas/New Year is the perfect time to catch up and here are seven albums that came out this year that I’ve had in heavy rotation. In no particular order:


John Mayer - Battle Studies

Most are aware of my borderline obsession with the discography of John Mayer. Battle Studies came out this year with the difficult task of providing a followup to his previous album Continuum. More of a sidestep back to his pop roots, with a California rock edge, the album lyrically wears it's heart on its sleeve and does nothing drastic or challenging. However it's production and application are so flawless, as a fan I couldn't be happier.

Passion Pit - Manners

I'm not a massive indie/electronica fan, and after accidentally seeing Crystal Castles live and forever regretting it I wrote off the new popular genre. Passion Pit's incredibly accomplished debut album was recommended to me by a close friend so I thought I’d try it. I find an accessibility in the fact the group are a whole band rather than two guys on synths, and that their music is structured like more regular/pop music (Chorus/Verse/Bridge etc). Combined it makes a really great listen.

Norah Jones – The Fall
It’s Gonna Be

Where John Mayer took a sidestep back, Norah Jones made a leap forward. I love when artists go in a new direction and completely pull it off, which is what The Fall does. It’s bassy, Lo-Fi sound completely complements her voice when you think it wouldn’t, and the songs themselves are a refreshing addition to her already excellent songbook.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

French band Phoenix are another example of a band who constantly move in new directions to great success for every one of their albums. Teaming up again with the producer of their first album ‘United’, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix drives through its 33 minute duration, which although seems short makes you feel like you’re hearing nothing but the strongest songs they initially wrote, leaving you utterly satisfied.

Mayer Hawthorne – A Strange Arrangement
Maybe So, Maybe No

A Strange Arrangement’s throwback to the 60s and 70s soul scene was such a surprising and excellent end to the Summer when it came out mid-August. With a vocal style somewhat -reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield, it’s weird to think Hawthorne comes from a background in hip-hop. The album literally came out of nowhere and did a quite quick circuit of the internet when it first came out. In interview Hawthorne described how although the sound is reminiscent of old soul records he hopes it also pushes forward to more modern hip-hop. I personally disagree but it doesn’t stop the album from being highly recommended.

Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Boat Behind

The video for boat behind (linked above) essentially embodies how you should listen to any album by Kings of Convenience. Their latest album has been a good while coming, no doubt due to the many musical pies band member Erland Oye has his fingers in. The album is very true to their style, but it’s apparent how tight the duo are, and how they take being just a pair as nothing but an advantage.

Stephen Kellogg & The S6xers – The Bear
Oh Adeline

Stephen Kellogg is one of my favourite songwriters, and it amazes me how the albums he puts out get better and better. Despite this the band have yet to be successful enough for me to find a studio version of Oh Adeline (linked above). The song really lets the melody, vocals, and quality of the writing stand out. If I had a disc changer, this would make the cut.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Machinarium - Do Flash Skills Result In Great Games?

Flash games are the bains of our bored, dead time on the internet. Whatever the menial task that we should be performing, we always fall across that one link that asks us to perform an even more degrading activity that when completed, we hold nothing but pure regret towards. Machinarium, is an adventure game that despite being developed and built solely in Flash, is not a use of time that you will equate with regret. Machinarium is the first full game release by independent Czech team ‘Aminata Design ‘, who though at first appear foremost a game studio, also seem to lead a double life as a design studio, based mainly in flash websites. The experience and skill the team have with the Flash platform is undeniable from their portfolio alone, but is the transition from mini-games and web layouts, to an immersive gaming narrative a successful one?

On the surface Machinarium’s narrative is generic in the context of most adventure games. A robot dumped in a scrap yard travels back to his home city in order to save it from peril, humorously solving quirky puzzles along the way in a point and click engine. It may sound unoriginal, but the simplicity, and even naivety of the narrative comes across as refreshing and charming amongst today’s Modern Warfaring and Uncharting. The atmosphere of the game breathes an innocence that is oddly captivating as opposed to frustrating. Part of the success of this comes from the absence of character dialogue in telling the story. Instead, speech bubbles and thought clouds lead the player through the back story leading up to the game’s opening. The real success however, is probably the comfortability of the games point and click enginge, which is familiar enough to let other factors of the game stand out. A stalemate somewhat lies here though, as it can’t be helped to think that the game could feel like something a lot greater, if it’s controls weren’t so similar to everything else.

Although the familiarity in the gameplay and the story could be enough to turn a player off to Machinarium, it’s saving grace lies in the presentation. Although the game isn’t in fact that long, the high level of detail in all of the beautifully hand drawn artwork is reminiscent of a children’s story book, or concept artwork from a Tim Burton film. Background artwork and interactive animation is seamless to the point of immersion, and the fact that the player has to at times spend a fair amount of time on the one screen solving it’s puzzle is made up for as they get lost in the detail. The accompanying soundtrack, composed in-house, is incredibly befitting of the game’s artwork and story, with a slight electronic twist on Terry S. Taylor’s soundtrack to claymation cult classic ‘The Neverhood’.

At its price point (12.50GBP 20$ 14Eur) there is more than enough in the Machinarium package. As an experience it provides everything you would want from it, keeping Adventure gamers very content. The artwork and soundtrack give that little bit extra, which if absent, there’s no doubt the praise of this review would be somewhat dampened. Aminata have proven themselves incredibly capable of making a Flash game that isn’t an utter waste of time, and playing it safe for their first full game was probably a good move. However, matching the originality of their art style with their own take on the controls and mechanics would have possibly produced something that would cause up a more significant storm and certify their place on the Adventure Games Developer map. Though achieving this whilst maintaining the charm and simplicity that makes the Machinarium so successful, is most certainly easier said than done.

Original Nidzumi Post:

Tales of Monkey Island - Power Pirates Included

Despite their fairly niche market, point and click adventure games have always been classed highly amongst enthusiasts. Some titles have even debatably broken into the ‘mature’ games category in terms of plot, such as Broken Sword and Beneath a Steel Sky. Although groups such as the developers of the SCUMMVM emulator have built bridges to widen the audience base of these games, the last few platform generations have seen a notable push toward console gaming, and the days of point-and-click have been somewhat lost.

All however is not in vain, as Telltale games have now moved on from Sam & Max to a revival of the Monkey Island franchise. ‘Tales of Monkey Island’ is being delivered to both PC and Wii as an episodic title as is Telltale’s MO. Although unlike predecessors, each episode is no longer standalone but a continuous adventure simply split into five monthly chapters.

The game opens with Guybrush Threepwood (mighty pirate) back at the helm with his wife Elaine beside him, battling the forces of the evil pirate LeChuck. Although it sounds like the same old thing, the originality comes from the fact that the opening holds resemblance to the finale of previous Monkey Island games. It’s nice to see Telltale do something original and tell you their own story and not simply replicating the game with slightly different puzzles. To delve too much into the plot would spoil the experience you have with it. Needless to say the tone is pitch perfect for a Monkey Island game and it’s apparent that Telltale have spent a lot of time studying the older titles in the series in effort to attain the same quality.

As immersive as the narrative and humor is, something has to be said for the few things that pull the player out of the experience. Some of the puzzles are a little un-intuitive, though I hasten to add only a few. Thankfully, less so than original point and click titles due to general human decency and a really well implemented hint system. However there were times of impatience where a FAQ had to be loaded, only to then make me feel like an idiot when reading the solution.

On the more technical side the control system should be mentioned. Unlike regular point and click games where simply clicking the desired destination was enough, the system in place involves clicking and then dragging the mouse in the direction of travel. WASD/Arrow keys are also available, and about ten minutes with it should be sufficient to stop the player walking into everything. Thinking about it though, it should play very well on the Wii, and remove the awkward precision of clicking constantly on the ground and instead just holding down A and moving the Wii remote left and right.

The visuals of the game would be best described as ‘animated caricature’, somewhat resembling the art style of Monkey Island 3, but in 3D. Also coming out on the Wii it’s obvious that the game isn’t going to give it’s jungle environment the same fidelity and realism seen in Uncharted, but it doesn’t need it. Anything more than what’s been delivered would simply distract from the story, and if anything make the nature of the gameplay harder, as the more detail makes it harder to find the items you need to solve things.

Some negativity has arisen from the fact that the player pays for all five episodes before playing at all. The principal of this is apparent, but when the quality of the first episode is so high, and the promise of four more months of content that can be nothing less but equal in quality. You can’t be anything but satisfied.

The first two episodes in the Tales of Monkey Island series are available to play now and Telltale are the perfect match of developer to continue the franchise. Their iteration of the series is both loyal and original, with enough to immensely satisfy fans of the old games, whilst also grab in a brand new audience who missed it first time round.

Original Nidzumi Post:

Why Isn't Everyone Playing Quake Live?

Internet browsers have come leaps and bounds in the last few years in terms of being a gaming platform. Often delivering the experience in the form of a flash arcade clone or an in-depth RPG requiring a 50MB client before being able to play it. Quake Live is seemingly a significant jump, offering a full, graphically capable, online multiplayer first person shooter for no price at all. To add greater insult to injury it’s all delivered in a 5MB browser plugin. Too good to be true?

The grounding of the game is Quake III Arena. Though understand grounding as meaning the entire game. Take everything you remember about playing Q3A, and simply apply it to a streamlined browser experience. Everything has been rebuilt from the ground up, with levels being heavily based off of original and the more popular user created maps from the original release in 1999, as well as a boastful variety of seven game modes. There is also matchmaking in place, partly chosen when you decide upon your difficulty level during the training level, and in part decided upon by your performance during gameplay.

Both matchmaking and amount of modes will likely be tweaked and increased as the game currently remains in the state of being an open Beta (August 2009). Also set to change upon final release is support for both Mac and Linux, something that is meant to drop tomorrow.

Q3A was previously my only exposure to the Quake franchise. A friend at school convinced the IT technician it was a good idea to install it across the school network, and the beginning of lunch became something that somewhat resembled the opening of Black Friday as too many people rushed in to the available twenty PCs.

My experience with Quake Live is somewhat similar to that video, however without fear of being crushed or bullied by someone older than you. What does remain the same, is the eternal feeling of having my ass handed to me every time I fail miserably in front of every other player in the game. Any delusions of grandeur I once had in which I tell myself how good I am at online First Person Shooters are gone.

This aside Quake Live is still consistently fun, and incredibly addictive as you find yourself saying that you need just one more fifteen minutes of fragging. It’s something far too good to miss out on. The fact that it’s free also makes it something pointless to miss out on. It’s just a shame that their hand might be forced into making a paid option for the game but for the time being everyone should try it at least once.

Original Nidzumi Post:

EyePet - Technical Flare and Frustration

Love them or hate them, virtual pets certainly hold their benefits over the real thing. A single, one off investment that doesn’t include an array of accessories that you’d rather not own. There’s also an absence of defecation across a carpet when you arrive back home for the evening. Perhaps even the ability to make your pet fight with your other friend’s pet and have it not be illegal.

Nintendo has easily had the greatest and most successful market share in the virtual pet genre, with games such as Nintendogs soaring high in sales charts for surprising lengths of time. Despite this, it’s nice to see other consoles try and provide some competition; EyePet is Sony’s answer.

EyePet is made different from other pet simulations through its use of ‘augmented reality’, whereby the user creates interactive 3D objects on-screen through the manoeuvrings of objects in the real world, all recognized by the Playstation Eye. EyePet makes full use of a plastic card with a paw print as its object of interaction. On screen however, it’s not simply a card, it’s a drinks bottle, it’s a showerhead and it’s even a trampoline.

Despite showcasing this new interactive technology, the software has a really nice focus on the characters presented, of which there are two. The EyePet, and a by-the-book stereotypical white lab coat Professor, aptly known as ‘The Professor’.

Unfortunately the same praise cannot be said for the initial setup of the equipment, where endless time was spent adjusting the Playstation Eye, clearing space in the room, and fiddling with the lights to achieve optimum settings.

The real game opens as the Professor guides you through the game’s tutorial stages and challenges. Here you’ll be introduced to EyePet through a Jurassic Park-esque sequence involving a hatching egg, if albeit without the onslaught of prehistoric beasts.

Once up and running you’ll finally start to look after you’re EyePet. This would be too boring though, so instead a ‘Pet Plan’ has been put together to keep both parties interested. The plan consists of a sizeable series of challenges timetabled out over fifteen days, all based around the main interactive controls of the game, which then develop in order to showcase the ‘augmented reality’ technology further.

The game encourages players to interact with their EyePet in as many ways as possible, with activities such as drawing and even singing. Tasks as mundane as cleaning and feeding also become very involved, hands-on experiences.

The technicalities of the game are both the strongest and weakest points of the experience though. When successful, I genuinely found some of the different ways I was asked to interact and play with my EyePet entertaining and rewarding. The amount of activities, and subsequent mileage, you’ll get out of the game is undoubtedly impressive for a simple pet simulation. This is also seemingly the game’s Achilles’ heel though, as some of the technicalities simply don’t hold up when put into practice.

Once through the basics, every mechanic introduced had me battle with its workings for a time long enough for a child to get frustrated and walk away. These issues could well have been to do with the tough lighting and floor space situation in my room, and the fact that I’m not the size of a six year-old, but if honest this seems like poor planning in development. It’s unrealistic to assume everyone is going to have the ample floor space and supply of suitable lighting to play this game.

The devil’s advocate would note that ‘tough luck your game fails to play the way it should when using it in the wrong conditions’, however this brings out the paramount frustration with the software. The provision of instruction when attempting challenges is essentially absent. When working, the software will happily guide players through the necessary motions. When not working, the software remains utterly silent and I find myself flailing around my floor, fiddling with lighting conditions, and being removed from the experience.

Apart from once playing a demo of Creatures 2, and also once owning a Digimon, this reviewer has to admit ignorance in this genre of games. Then again this could almost certainly be seen as the same mindset of a parent looking for a form of interactive ‘edutainment’ for their child. The interactivity that comes from the Playstation Eye, mixed with the cute face of the game’s protagonist on the box, are almost certainly the game’s strongest selling points. Promise of further interactivity from other games that use the Playstation Eye make the thirty-five pound investment (bundled with Playstation Eye and Magic Card) a great deal, and certainly a notably cheaper one than brand new A-list titles seeing release this season.

As the optimum play conditions were absent from this particular EyePet experience, it’s hard to determine how seamlessly flowing and accessible the title truly is. When it was working, the time invested was rewarding. It was honestly, surprising easy to forget that the objects on screen weren’t really near you. Almost an impressive technical showcase, and if purchasing for young children, definitely expect them to ask for your assistance during a few of the technically quirky tasks.

Original review posting at Nidzumi found here: