Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The 1-2-3-4 Shoreditch Festival @ Shoreditch Park 26/07/09

"Summer" Festival Fun in East London

It must definitely be festival season. In the days leading up to The 1-2-3-4 Shoreditch Now Music Festival all weather reports suggested that the last Sunday of July would be a nice sunny day. It was overcast, it was raining and it was windy. However, this didn't stop the crowds flocking to Shoreditch park to see the double barrel head liners of the Converse Music Stage - The Rakes and Patrick Wolf.

Following an afternoon of live music, Patrick Wolf arrived on-stage shortly after 19:00 when the rain was perhaps at his worst. The singer's appearance in a rather flamboyant outfit – Birdlike comes to mind – certainly cheered up the waiting crowd. The feathers were quickly removed revealing an equally flamboyant black and white Union Jack one piece that revealed a sun painted on his chest.

'Enough about clothes!' I hear you cry, 'What about the music?' Well, once Wolf was playing it was definitely his music that did the talking. He has a great voice, and is an accomplished musician – perhaps demonstrated the most with the Violin during 'Damaris' Other highlights included 'The Bachelor' and 'The Libertine'

Patrick Wolf is an excellent showman and there's arguably an influence from Morrissey in his demeanour and stage presence Almost every song was introduced with a story about what it meant. The crowd seemed to hang on his every word during each of these tales – well aside from one person who felt the need to throw a can of beer at Wolf while he was explaining The Bachelor. This didn't go down well at all and Wolf had some strong – if tongue in cheek – words for the aggressor. The crowd loved it. Patrick Wolf was extremely impressive he certainly has the potential to go far.

Despite the persistent rain, the crowd remained in a jovial mood thanks to the entertainment thanks to the DJ's while waiting for The Rakes to appear. Perhaps surprisingly, front man Alan Donohue wasn't as sharply dressed as usual wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a jacket. This was probably a good thing as it's rather easier to cause on stage mayhem in casual wear than it is in a suit. The rest of the band were sharply dressed – as always – and they opened with 'You're In It' from their latest album 'Klang' with it's punchy lyrics - You're exceptional at being sexual, it's just a ritual that women do to get men” - it set the tone for the rest of the set.

The Rakes played tracks from each of their three albums with a raw, punky sound - Donahue was certainly a lot shoutier than he was in the recording studio. He likes talking to the crowd between tracks and he likes to bother the other members of the band during songs – the chemistry between them was evident during the show. And of course it isn't a Rakes gig if Donahue doesn't partake in some rather entertaining robot dancing.

The gig will have certainly pleased the faithful with fan favourites such as '22 Grand Job' and 'The World Was A Mess But His Hair Was Perfect' The crowd managed to take 'Violent' quite literally with the particularly manic mosh pit that erupted (Not a good place to be when you're a reviewer clutching a notebook and pen...)

There was essentially something for everyone and the band showed that they still have the energy of 'Capture/Release' while on-stage. They also seemed genuinely appreciative that fans turned out to see them with Alan giving a lot of thumbs ups and saying many thank you's. They ended with a powerful rendition of 'Strasbourg' the opening track from their first album.

The only disappointment was that there was no encore. However the crowd dispersed very quickly – probably in order to get out of the rain – so it was understandable.

A quick mention must go to Polly Scattergood who played earlier in the afternoon. For such a tiny lady she has a powerful voice that was well suited to her brand of psychedelic electro-synth pop. Keep an eye on her.

The 1-2-3-4 was certainly a fun experience for music lovers – it's just a shame that the weather wasn't kind. Oh well, maybe the sun will shine on Shoreditch Park next year.

(Published on Gobshout July 27th 2009)

Friday, 17 July 2009

'Droplitz' review for Game-Debate

Droplitz is an utterly charming puzzle game. It's simple, but challenging, premise and some adorable imagery make this an absolute pleasure to play – especially if you ever wanted to be on the Crystal Maze during the 1990's! That's what the premise of this puzzler very much reminded me of. If you actually know what I'm on about, you should be able to see where I'm coming from. Or maybe I'm just mad. Either way Droplitz provides a pleasant and even addictive experience.

The aim of the game is to create 'paths' for the droplitz of liquid from the top of the board to the containers at the bottom. The board is made up of a number of pieces that contain different sections of pathways – straights, corners and junctions.

To get the droplitz (or droplets for you fans of spelling and grammar out there!) through to the bottom of the board you need to rotate the different pieces in order to make a path for them – it sounds simple but this is definitely one for the thinking gamer! Hopefully now you see why I believe this concept wouldn't look out of place in a Crystal Maze puzzle room.

Successful pathways mean points. You can maximize points by using junction pieces to split droplitz and direct more of them down even more paths. The more droplitz you collect, the more points you get and you'll also unlock different boards to play on. Lose your supply of droplitz however and it's game over. - the game will offer hints when you're struggling but you'll still need to think a bit.

You'll always be looking to create new routes as your completed pathways don't stay around for very long – they eventually disappear and the pieces are replaced with new ones. A disappearing pathway can change the entire dynamic of the board as when a piece disappears at the bottom of the board all of those above it will drop down a level – think Tetris and you'll get the idea.

For such a simple game, a lot of effort has gone into making it look good. As you play through each board the theme will change every so often and it's very pleasing on the eye. From the dark browns and greens of the forest theme to the bright red's and pinks of the love theme each design is a joy to look at. Each theme is also very well complemented by the images around the board that float across the screen and the charming music. These three factors combined actually make playing Droplitz a rather soothing experience.

There are however some minor issues that can make Droplitz slightly frustrating on occasion. Firstly, when a path had been made you can't rotate any of the pieces within it. This caused some mild annoyance when I wanted to rotate pieces in order to connect them to more paths but was prevented from doing so. My second mild annoyance was caused by the game getting challenging very quickly! The music and background images in Droplitz do soothe the mind but the process of making paths quickly enough can be difficult. Finally, luck does play it's part in the game. Sometimes pieces will drop and you'll have no idea where to make a path. That said, there are other times where it's immediately obvious what to do. These are only minor issues and don't take much from the overall pleasing experience.

Droplitz is a solid puzzle game that will certainly add something different to your collection. If you're a fan of games that require a bit of thinking – or if you ever wanted to go on the Crystal Maze, you should certainly think about picking this up.

(Originally written for and published on Game-Debate on July 13th 2009)

Blur live at Hyde Park review for Gobshout

Well, it was definitely worth the wait. After the hiatus, the rumours and perhaps pressure, Blur are back and are arguably better than ever. From opening with 'She's so High' all the way through to closing with 'The Universal', Blur's homecoming gig could have been labelled a greatest hits concert – and it was excellent throughout.

The massive Hyde Park crowd was excited enough after the first song but it completely erupted when 'Girls and Boys' followed immediately afterwards. The fact it was played with more energy than ever just made it even better.

The boozy laddyness of earlier singles like 'There's no other way' and 'Jubilee' soon made way for slower tracks like 'Beetlebum' and 'Out of Time' – the only song to feature from the Graham Coxon-less Think Tank album.

Coxon took up his position as lead vocalist during fan favourite 'Coffee & TV' which sadly didn't feature any milk carton's whatsoever! However, Coxon's ability as arguably the most technically proficient guitarist of his generation more than made up for it. As front man however, Damon Albarn was the star of the show. He ran about the stage like a mad man during high tempo songs while still being sincere for tracks like 'Tender'.

This was one of the highlights of the night and it went on for a good ten minutes – at one point no instruments were being played and it was just thousands of people singing the words. Fantastic.

The pace was picked up immediately with the oom pah pah of 'Country House' with Damon once again full of energy – maybe TOO much energy. He dropped and broke a microphone before Oily Water and used a megaphone to sing it instead.

The undoubted highlight of the night was an excellent rendition of the classic 'Parklife' complete with with rowdy vocals from Phil Daniels. As with Girls and Boys the track had more energy than it ever had before and was better for it.

The band closed the pre-encore part of the show with calm tracks 'End of a Century', 'To the End', and 'This is a Low'. The middle one of these was complimented perfectly by the backing band which excellently supported Blur throughout the show.

But of course the show wasn't to end there; classic tracks 'Popscene', 'Advert' and 'Song 2' all made an appearance. When Dave Rowntree bashed out an extended version of the 'Song 2' intro the crowd knew what was coming. I have never, ever seen an audience erupt so massively about a single song and Blur played it brilliantly.

After a second encore the band closed with 'The Universal'. The boys seemed genuinely touched to be playing again and we're left to wonder what will happen next. Could there be a new album in the pipeline perhaps? The band certainly seemed to enjoy playing to such a big crowd and even after all these years they have electric on stage chemistry. If they wanted, Blur could probably produce one of their best albums yet. Will it happen? We'll have to wait and see but they showed that they still have the passion for it while playing the massive Hyde Park show.

(Orginally published on Gobshout on July 6th 2009)

'Light of Altair' review for Game-Debate

Light of Altair is a Science Fiction management sim produced by Independent games studio SaintXi. The game mainly consists of building colony's on other worlds while trying not only to make them profitable but keeping your citizens happy. In some scenarios you'll also need to carefully plan battle strategy as you're drawn into wars with other factions competing for influence throughout the galaxy after the usual Nuclear war on earth in the not to distant future.

Competition for resources led the nations on earth to war and in Light of Altair you fill the role of a commander in charge of building colonies throughout the solar system and beyond.

There are a number of different factions in competition for resources and power. These factions are based on regions of the world, which certainly have a '1984' Orwellian feeling about them. Throughout the different scenarios you'll be playing as or competing with all of these factions. SaintXi have managed to make an ever so simple idea into a very absorbing and addictive game.

Light of Altair appears to have taken much influence from games like the Civilization series. It's a point and click affair in which your canvas isn't one large flat surface, but a spherical planet (or planets) with limited space. It's therefore crucial to choose a good spot with enough space and resources to build up each colony if they're to be successful. You point and click where to build solar panels or power stations to provide energy, Hydrophonics or farms to provide food for your people and then there's the more advanced structures like star ports, industrial centres and research centres. All of these pop up instantly in beautiful 3D on the planets surface – it's very satisfying to see your planet (or moon) go from a featureless rock, or at least one without any buildings, to a thriving colony.

In order to this not only do you have to compete for space with other factions, you also have to secure a balance between making your colonies profitable and keeping your citizens happy. Not only do happy citizens pay more taxes but they'll also *ahem* do the horizontal space mash and increase your population. That's assuming you don't make citizens unhappy by building too many industrial buildings or by not providing enough food supplies. As you progress further into the game, you can spend hours thinking about what to put where and completely lose track of time.

It's therefore probably a good thing that Light of Altair follows a series of missions. Each scenario is based around various economic and military goals. For example, in one mission you're first task as commander is to make sure your population reaches a certain number before another faction. On another mission your first task is to research the power stations. Basically each mission moves forward as certain goals are completed.

As you get further into Light of Altair the missions get more complicated, especially when war with other factions is involved. There are two basic ship classes – attack and defence. Attack for well...attacking other worlds and defence well defending your own. You can't create an unlimited amount of ships – you can only power as many as you have the fuel for. The amount of fuel you have depends on how many 'Fuelsynth stations' you have throughout your colonies. Sounds simple enough, but these stations drain power and make citizens unhappy – so war isn't completely removed from the economics. I've digressed....but this is purely because everything in the game is interlinked and will keep you thinking. Anyway back to the war...

You get to design your ships by choosing it's attack and defensive capabilities. However once you've sent them to do your bidding all control is handed over to the game. You'll be briefly taken out of the colony building mode into a cinematic galactic battle. Unfortunately you don't have any control over the battle which is a shame – while playing Light of Altair you're in control of most other things so it's a shame this isn't mirrored in the combat. On the plus side this means you can focus your attentions on your goals.

There are 16 missions in total,and depending on your strategy each can take up to two or three hours – an amazing life span especially when you consider this is an independent production and the guys at SaintXi should really be applauded for this. With this much game time the price tag of £11.99 on Steam really makes Light of Altair a bargain - You won't have to feel guilty about spending money on computer games during the recession! It's a quirky management game that's easy to get into and incredibly addictive. If you're a fan of the management or strategy genres, you really should own Light of Altair.

(Orginally written and published for Game-Debate on June 21 2009)

'Space Rangers 2 - Reboot' review for Game-Debate

Space Rangers 2 contains an extremely open universe in which you're given the opportunity to create your own path. You fill the space boots of a space ranger and it's your job to carry out various missions, or on the other hand, live the life of a space pirate in this game that spans multiple genres.

But before going to to review the game properly let's have a little history lesson shall we? ….or is that future lesson?

Space Rangers 2 begins in the year 3300, 200 years after the events of the the original. The galaxy is now being threatened by a mysterious enemy known as The Dominator's. These powerful robots are taking over worlds and destroying ships and ultimately it's up to you to help stop them. If you choose to...

You begin the game by customising your character – Fighter, Merchant and Pirate are among the classes you can choose from. You also need to choose one of five different races – one is human, the others are alien. Your choices will determine how others throughout the galaxy perceive you to begin with.

Once you've passed basic training and you're in your ship it's entirely your choice what to do. You decide where you want to go and what missions to take. Missions are generally found by speaking to representatives at a planet's government building. The quests are varied, for example you could be entrusted to transport certain cargo to another planet before a certain date. Or you'll need to escort certain ships from one place to another. You can even choose combat missions which involve dealing with enemies at a certain location. Sounds a lot like an RPG doesn't it? And indeed Space Rangers is largely a role playing game (in space, don't forget that) but there are also other aspects that feature prominently.

So you've agreed to wipe out an enemy base on the ground have you? It'll be some Real Time Strategy for you then ranger. You'll be beamed down to the planet surface and it's your responsibility to take control of units in a real time 3D environment. The RTS element isn't particularly taxing but it's fun none the less and adds some extra variety to the game. Like everything in Space Rangers, this mode is completely optional, so if you'd rather not do it then you don't have to.

Another genre that's featured in Space Rangers is the old school text adventure. You can end up in certain situations where it's like being in one of those books. You make your choices and have to deal with the consequences. (Which can involve horrible deaths by the way, so be careful!) These text adventures are usually optional, however sometimes you are dragged into them.

For example, I was travelling between systems and was ordered to land on a planet by enemies where I was then thrown in prison. The aim of the game was to then make it through the prison sentence safely. Of course if it hadn't been for the small fleet of enemy craft I wouldn't have gone anyway – and this is where one problem comes in – combat.

Combat can become extremely difficult, even impossible, if you're not strong enough. You could end up flying through a certain area of space and without warning you'll get attacked by a small army. I ended up getting my ship blown up on a number of occasions just because I didn't have the power to take them on...or indeed lacked the speed to get away. This can be frustrating. The best thing in this situation is to just remember where the enemy fleets are and avoid that area until you've levelled up and have the equipment – or a fleet of your own – to deal with it. The only other minor negative I came across was that some of text has been lost in translation, but this doesn't really detract from the experience.

The game itself Is pleasing to look at. It may be mainly in 2D but the colours make it very easy on the eye. A nice touch is that the planets and space stations move as they orbit stars. The in game music is good too.

Overall, Space Rangers 2 is a pleasing gaming experience. It's great how the developers, Elemental Games, have given the player so much choice. It's possible to get addicted to this just through the exploration alone, while the universe changes around you.. This game is certainly recommended for anyone who enjoys RPG's but wants to play one that's a bit different – and that's in a good way. The reboot expansion pack adds even more variety to the experience. So gather your things Ranger, your galaxy needs you!

(Originally written for and published on Game-Debate on May 31 2009)

'And Yet It Moves' review for Game-Debate

If you were gaming at any point before or during the mid 90's it's very likely you will have played at least one 2D platformer. Probably having aligned yourself to a particular game during the great console war of the time. If you were a SEGA person this would have been Sonic the Hedgehog, while a Nintendo gamer would have been playing Super Mario. Those die hard fans of the PC would argue that there was even a third option, Dizzy the Egg.

We all know the format. Get from one end of the level to the other by running, jumping and generally avoiding anything that can cause death. You may enjoy your 3D graphics and your action adventures but in our hearts we probably all still enjoy the delights of an easily accessible, 2D adventure.

This is where 'And Yet It Moves' (AYIM) comes in.

The game began life as a university Computer Science project, which ended up winning awards at various independent game events. From this success the guys behind AYIM decided to work on a full version of the game and now it's available for you to play.

What's it all about then?

Well, as mentioned, it's a 2D platformer, but it's a bit different to the norm – you could say it turns the genre upside down, which it does quite literally. Not only do you run and jump but by pushing the directional keys you can rotate the level by 90 degrees at a time. This mechanic adds a novel puzzle element to the game – the ability is useful and often essential.

Think that cliff face is too high to jump down? Why not rotate the world round so you can simply walk down it? Simple ay? Well it is to begin with, but AYIM gets increasingly difficult as you progress further into the game.

Here in the real world, gravity of course makes things move downwards. It's why we don't go floating off to an early death in space when we jump. AYIM uses this idea, the fact that gravity causes things to fall (not the space death thing), during some of the puzzles. You'll need to rotate the world around in order to feed monkeys, light fires and in one case even escape from a strange hamster beast. These challenges do involve a bit of thinking while still being good fun.

However, when you reach the later stages of AYIM the game often crosses the fine line between challenging and frustrating. You'll often see your little paper man being ripped apart after being squashed, falling too far or being set on fire because you haven't quite correctly timed that jump or rotation. There are plenty of checkpoints and unlimited lives, so at least you don't have to play through entire levels again and again just because of a small mistake. Still, trying that jump for the 5th time and dying, again, can be annoying.

The beautiful graphics more than make up for any frustrations: the worlds are put together with a unique paper collage style. Each image, be it an object, plant or animal has been taken directly from a photograph and the result is very easy on the eye. There are so many pleasing colours that each world is a joy to play through. Both the ambient sound of each level and the music are also charming. The clicks and the pops occasionally made me think of Doug (a Nickelodeon cartoon from the 1990's for those that don't know him.)

One minor criticism is that there is no story linking the levels together into a cohesive whole. You are just making sure your little paper man makes it to the end of the level. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because it's the graphics and gameplay are the main focus of AYIM. However, I would have been interested to see an over-arcing story pulling everything together.

The game is a bit on the short side with a completion time of about six hours. However there are reasons for replaying. Once you have completed a level you have the option of playing it in competition mode. This is essentially a time trial mode where you can upload your score to online leaderboards. There are also achievements to complete offering up plenty of scope for replay, and you may want to do this anyway just to look at all the pretty colours again. It's certainly worth the $14.95 Gamersgate price tag.

And Yet It Moves is a fun game to play, with the rotation element definitely making the game unique. Casual platformers may be happier sticking to a more traditional game, but if you like your games challenging this should certainly be in your collection.

The icing on the cake is that this is an independent production, so you get a warm, fuzzy feeling when you buy it.

(Orginally written for Game-Debate and published on 14/05/09)

'Mount & Blade' review for Game-Debate

Do you like quests? Do you like fighting with medieval weaponry? And do you like beards? If there answer to any of these questions is 'Yes. Yes I do' then Mount & Blade may very well be the game for you.

You may be thinking 'How do you know what I like' To which my response is I don't – but as a reviewer I can make wild general assumptions about you. You may also be thinking 'Why do I want to play another RPG?' This one I can answer by saying Mount & Blade has tried to bring a different angle to the genre.

The company behind the game, Taleworlds, have tried to make their world more realistic than others in the market. While in World of Warcraft the player will encounter elves, dwarfs and all sorts of other mystical beings, M&B's world of Calradia is home to just humans – mostly with interesting facial hair.

The game begins with the player creating their own in game character. You give yourself a background by filling in some blanks. For example your parents were BLANKs and at the age of 18 you left home to BLANK. This back story doesn't really affect the game aside from tweaking your characters starting stats a little. You then move onto the fun of deciding what you're character looks like. There are a lot of tabs to change how he or she looks but it doesn't really make much difference. Especially if like me, you cover your characters face with a stylish hair and beard combo. You then name your plucky young hero and tweak some abilities before they're dumped into Calradia – a Medieval world with a number of warring nations.

Interestingly there is no story. Your characters destiny is entirely in your hands. You start off on the world map and you choose where you go. The in game world is massive and there are plenty of castles, towns and villages where you find quests. Most of these are simple to begin with – for example you will get told to deliver a letter to another castle or be asked to provide a village with specific items. Other tasks include collecting taxes from villagers or trying to get Lords to repay debt. Unfortunately with the latter you can't just use violence to get your way – it's a case of trying to persuade them to pay the money. If you want you can join one of the various kingdoms and earn your glory in war. Or if you're more of a economist than a warrior you can make your fortune through trade. Essentially there are quests here to cater for all sorts of different tastes.

Whatever quests you choose to accept you can't just transport yourself to where you need to be to do it. You need to travel across the world map on horseback and if you're not careful this can be dangerous. Various bands of thugs and criminals roam the lands and will come after you given half a chance. Here it's useful to have your own band of merry men – usually recruited in taverns - to try and even the odds.

The on foot combat mechanics are excellent and largely come down to timing. Block by right clicking, attack by left clicking and use the keys to move around. It's simple, and very satisfying. Of course if there are more enemies it gets more difficult. However you can train at a number of training areas on the map and even test your skills in battle arenas – while earning yourself a bit of coinage at the same time.

The horseback combat however is a bit more difficult – in fact it's a lot more difficult. I found I was just running towards the enemy sword arm flailing wilding in an attempt to chop them up. It's extremely difficult which is unfortunate because a lot of the time you are on a horse – unless it gets killed. Obviously. Never fear you can use your hard earned money to buy a new one – along with various types of equipment that will make it harder for your enemies to down you. Which is something you definitely want isn't it? Unless you LIKE the idea of being captured by bandits.

One drawback about Mount & Blade is that the graphics engine looks very dated – think Half Life – but of course this doesn't make it a bad game. The open nature of the game world makes it very addictive. I found myself continually wanting to travel to the next town just to see what was there. The townspeople don't exactly offer riveting conversation but what else can you really expect from NPC's in an RPG! They also don't have voices – the dialogue is entirely text based but the excellent musical score makes up for this.

At the end of the day, it's not the other characters that make this game – its you. And if you're looking for an open ended traditional role playing game, with some unique traits, then Mount & Blade should definitely be in your collection.

(Originally written and published for Game-Debate on 04/05/09)