Sunday, 28 November 2010

ALBUM REVIEW: A_Rival - 8-Bit Pimp

If you leave aside the brilliant Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, video games and hip-hop don’t often go together. Now, as you’ve probably guessed from that introductory line – or if the title of the album wasn’t a big enough give away – 8-Bit Pimp from A_Rival combines the fields of Hip-Hop with the 8-Bit sounds of NES games. And do you know what? It actually works.

OK, so you’re going to have to be pretty clued up about video games in both their current and retro forms to truly appreciate A_Rivals’ rhymes but you can’t deny the Californian is a talented wordsmith. As you’d expect, the subjects covered throughout 8-Bit Pimp are based around video games and geek culture, and if you’re a gamer you’ll love a lot of the rhymes and references: I knew he had me hooked in the prelude to Show Me Girl in which A_Rival is trying and failing to impress a girl after mentioning video games. Let’s just say given my day job, it’s something that truly reached out to me (making it probably the first time Hip-Hop has directly reached out to me).

The whole concept may sound quite gimmicky, but music infused with sounds which wouldn’t sound out of place in Super Mario Bros, The Legend of Zelda or Megaman actually sounds really good. In fact later tracks on the album, including Higher, with a more electro-house feel are really enhanced by the input of 8-Bit sounds. Imagine Pendulum but with much geekier influences and you’ll be about right when it comes to how some of the latter parts of 8-Bit Pimp sound.

A_Rival shows a true passion for video games and geek quirks and culture throughout 8-Bit Pimp and therefore it probably isn’t for everyone. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t know their Mario from their Luigi or their Sonic from their Knuckles then you’re not going to ‘get’ most of A_Rivals’ lyrics. However, if you’re into discovering strange new sounds, then 8-bit infused hip-hop comes highly recommended.

Essentially, if you’re the sort of person who enjoyed Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, then you’ll love it.

Released 22/11/10 through bandcamp

(Originally written for Gobshout)

SINGLE REVIEW: David E Sugar - Flea Market

I got a bit of a surprise when first listening to 'Flea Market.' The artist is on Rob Da Bank’s Sunday Best Label, so for the single to be acoustic electro pop was unexpected to say the least.

Still that doesn’t mean that 'Flea Market' isn’t a decent single, but neither is it particularly outstanding. It provides what most successful electro pop does in having a nice, but not memorable, beat which will have you tapping your toes but not much else.

'Flea Market' is following the pattern that has brought success the likes of Vampire Weekend –with the single seemingly having a fair share of influence from both the New Yorkers vocal and instrumental style – in that it’s pleasant enough but inoffensive. Some would say bland.

Fortunately, 'Flea Market' also comes with the brilliant 'Medicine' which offers the electronic sounds expected from the title single. The electronic dance beats can easily get the listener moving and it’s easy to see Medicine being big on the electro club scene. Sure, the lyrics aren’t exactly deep, but who actually listens to electro for the words anyway? You’ll want to strut your stuff on the dance floor over singing anyway.

The single also comes with not one, not two but five remixes of 'Flea Market'. Again, these all make the original track sound much more like something you’d expect from Rob Da Bank’s label. They’re rather groovy.

The title track of 'Flea Market' might not be that outstanding, but the B-Side 'Medicine' and the sheer amount of remixes make David E Sugar’s single worth a listen. It’s only 99p, so why not give it a go?

Released through Sunday Best on 15/11/10

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Friday, 29 October 2010

REVIEW: WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011

Smackdown vs Raw 2011 logo

It must be tough working as a developer on a yearly franchise. They know that they’ve made important changes to the game, but the tweaks might be so subtle that gamers don’t recognise that this is the case. This year however, Yuke’s have made a special effort to ensure that Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 works differently to previous games in the franchise. The controls have been tweaked, Career Mode has been replaced by an all inclusive WWE Universe, and there have been changes to the Road to Wrestlemania story mode. The good news is that these changes are generally positive, and Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 will likely be a welcome addition to any WWE fans game collection.

The biggest change in gameplay is the new physics system that has been introduced for WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011. Objects now react more realistically in a variety of situations. No longer will that table just be moved out the way by unseen forces if your Superstar performs a move near it. Your opponent (Or indeed you) could end up going straight through the table as it smashes into little pieces. Other ‘foreign objects’ also act more realistically in WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011. Ladders for example will lean against the ropes, against the ring, and a variety of other places allowing you pull off a wide variety extreme moves. The new physics system certainly makes WWE Smackdown vs. Raw feel more realistic – if you can call pro-wrestling that! – and special match types are a lot more fun as a result.

Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 Image 1

Yuke’s have also made changes to specific match types for WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 with Hell in a Cell in particular the most improved. The ‘demonic structure’ is now a full replica of its television counterpart. Now there is more than one persons worth of space between the ring and the cage, and weapons can be pulled out from under the ring for even more carnage. Of course, you can still get out of the cage in – this time by smashing your opponent through it – and unleash further mayhem outside and on top of it.

Ladder Matches have also changed for WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011, but they still prove somewhat frustrating. You don’t need to spend as long wrestling with the belt/briefcase/prize of choice above the ring, but your opponents need to practically unconscious to give you enough time to do so. Ladder match AI can sometimes go awry as I saw in a Triple Threat match between myself, Vladimir Kozlov and Chris Jericho. My Superstar was out for the count, Kozlov was trying to grab the briefcase and Jericho just stood there and let him do it! Still the AI of WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 generally works well overall – if less so in Tag Team Matches – but seasoned players will need to ramp the difficulty up to Hard or even Legend for a proper challenge.

Perhaps the most significant change for WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is the introduction of the WWE Universe. The WWE Universe essentially combines Exhibition Matches and a Career Mode into one and the game will react according to how you play. The outcomes of matches will change rankings, determine future matches on the in-game schedule (though you can change or just simulate these if you’re not interested) and will create alliances and enemies for superstars. Of course, titles can change hands too but the challenger needs to be high enough up the rankings when a Pay-per-view comes along in order to do so.

WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2011 Hell in a Cell

Naturally, with this being the WWE rivalries and interference play roles in WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 and they’ll develop you play matches in the WWE Universe. For example, playing a match as Matt Hardy vs CM Punk ended up with Drew McIntyre attempting to interfere, leading in turn to Big Show running down to the ring in order to even the odds. Matt Hardy and Big Show’s relationship improved because of this and they could eventually go on to form a tag team. Relationships between superstars plays a big part in deciding what cut scenes occurring before, during and after matches in WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011. Enemies could assault you on their way to the ring, or after a match. In turn your allies could run to your aid, or even betray you . It’s all rather unpredictable but that’s what makes the WWE entertaining, and it’s a welcome addition to WWE Smackdown. vs. Raw 2011.

This year, Yuke’s have also made changes to the Road to Wrestlemania story mode for WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2011. The biggest one of these is the fact your chosen Superstar can walk around back stage, interacting with other Superstars and performing mini challenges are essentially RPG elements. Completing matches, partaking in backstage ‘events’ (i.e. fights in the locker room) and finding hidden objects all give your Superstar experience points, which you can use to upgrade stats. It’s an interesting new system and it works quite well, but sometimes wandering between one end of the backstage area to the other in order to try and find someone to talk to (or pummel) can get tiresome. The lip syncing is completely off too which takes away from the ‘real’ life of a Superstar.

However, the actual stories in the WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 more than make up for the occasional lack of depth in the backstage area. There are five different Roads to Wrestlemania on offer each following a particular Superstar. You can choose John Cena (Yes, again.), Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Christian or a Vs. The Undertaker story. The last one allows you to play as one of four pre-determined Superstars, or one you’ve created yourself, as they try to end The Undertakers legendary Wrestlemania winning streak. Personally, my favourite Road to Wrestlemania story was Christians’ as it made me feel as I was watching WWE in 1999 all over again.

WWE Smackdown vs Raw 2011 Royal Rumble

One odd thing about Christians’ story however is that it takes place on the ECW brand which was cancelled all the way back in February this year. There are also storylines that involve wrestlers who aren’t even on the books of the WWE anymore, and of course there are plenty of Superstars who’ve appeared this year that aren’t on the games already impressive roster. It’s a small annoyance, but one that could frustrate hardcore WWE fans.

Naturally, if you think someone deserves to be in WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 you can always attempt to add them yourself using the create a wrestler tool. This feature remains mostly unchanged from last year, but you can still expect thousands of fan created Superstars to appear online for download. The option to create a finisher has also been tweaked for WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 allowing you more freedom as to how you beat down your opponents.

Overall, Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is an improvement over the previous irritations of the series. The improved physics of the weapons and combination of exhibition matches and a career mode into ‘The WWE Universe’ works well and makes every match played an interesting and enjoyable experience, even if they are occasionally let down by AI issues. Meanwhile, the Road to Wrestlemania storylines remain as enjoyable as ever, but the introduction of the RPG elements lacks some depth. Aside from that and a few other minor issues, WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 a highly enjoyable game and is a must for any WWE Fan, and highly recommended as an enjoyable fighter for anyone else.


WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 is available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 from 29th October 2010

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Arcania: A Gothic Tale (aka Gothic IV)

Arcania: A Gothic Tale is the latest game in the Gothic series, now under the stewardship of new developer Spellbound.

If you want your Arcania: A Gothic Tale review to be short but sweet, here it is: The game looks good, but is let down by repetitive quests, some graphical glitches and poor, poor voice acting. Seriously, the dialogue often sounds terrible but you'll get to a point where you can enjoy it in an ironic way. Still, it's a pleasant enough, if incredibly generic fantasy RPG adventure. So where does our story begin?

Arcania begins with our nameless hero working as a shepherd on a little Island. Life is going quite well for our chappy, who's planning to propose to his girlfriend. Of course, if everyone lived happily ever, Arcania probably wouldn't be much of a game. So, as you can probably guess, bad things happen that means our man heads out into the world seeking revenge.

Now then, what is the best way to get revenge in an RPG fantasy? Why, it's by carrying out lots of menial tasks and goblin bashing of course! The people of Gothic IV are perhaps the laziest and most demanding people you'll ever see in an RPG. You name an item and they want it collected. Naturally, they're far too bone idle to do it for themselves so our nameless hero is sent to various forests, caves and dungeons in order to pick mushrooms, retrieve lost boxes of money, and lots of other dull tasks. Of course, any loot you find on the way is yours, which is nice. Unfortunately this doesn't make up for the somewhat repetitive nature of the quests.

Naturally you can't travel from point A to point B without any problems occurring. On your travels you'll have to beat the crap out of a familiar list of RPG enemies including Orcs, Goblins, the undead, and various types of large lizards. Combat is simple enough with left click used to swing your choice of stabbing implement - or magic spell - while right click is used to block and evade. It's simple but effective, so much so that the combat can occasionally feel too easy. This hack, slash, avoid, counter routine can therefore begin to feel repetitive. Noticing a repetitive theme here yet?

The people of Arcania: A Gothic Tale also feel rather familiar. There are two reasons for this. The first is that most of the characters confirm to usual RPG stereotypes such as Kings, mages, and plenty of common townsfolk. The second is that Arcania's population seem to share about four faces between them. A lot of important named characters share the same faces which can make understanding who they are or what role they're playing somewhat difficult! It doesn't help that the graphics occasionally glitch and you therefore find yourself talking to someone without a head.

Speaking of graphics, the game world generally looks amazing with realistic weather and lighting effects. Arcania: A Gothic Tale is a beautiful looking game - especially when you're exploring the wilderness - but is let down by noticeable issues. Shrubbery will regularly just disappear right in front of you, which is to be expected in most games. However, when an entire temple on a hill disappears then that's an issue. These glitches don't occur that regularly but it's obvious when they do.
That all said, if you can ignore the glitches, Arcania: A Gothic Tale isn't a bad RPG but it isn't a great one either. Its simple nature may put off veterans of the genre, but Arcania does provide a somewhat entertaining, if somewhat generic RPG adventure in the 16 hours or so it'll take you to finish the story.

Perhaps you could invest in Arcania: A Gothic Tale if you need an action RPG to fill the time between now and the release of Fable III on PC. That said, I can't help but compare Gothic IV to the similar - and far superior - Divinity 2: Ego Draconis. The latter offers up more goblin bashing action in a world that's less repetitive, more fun when it comes to combat, and is just as pretty.

However, if you're a die-hard dungeon crawler, or a fan of the series, then you can do worse than invest in Arcania: A Gothic Tale despite the fact it doesn't live up to its potential. Just be prepared to do a lot of quests that involve picking up fruit and vegetables. However, if those sorts of quests are your thing, then Arcania: A Gothic Tale is very much the game for you!

(Originally written for Game-Debate)

Monday, 11 October 2010

Review: Lionheart: Kings' Crusade

The thing with real time strategy games is that there often doesn't seem to be too much strategy involved. Confused? Let me explain. Most RTS titles will give the player a set of objectives to complete, based around the old capture this, defend that and the kill those guys philosophy we all know and love. When it gets to that third part, it's entirely possible to be victorious even if there's only one poor soldier left standing! A new army will then magically appear from nowhere for the next battle.

This isn't the case for Lionheart: Kings' Crusade. It follows on from its predecessor King Arthur The Wargame in requiring the player to actually keep their units alive. Why? Well firstly, the more battles a unit comes through, the more powerful it'll get. Meanwhile, if the unit is lost then it's gone forever and you'll have to fork out large amounts of cash to replace it. See, it's worth thinking about strategy, and this clever take on the RTS genre makes Lionheart: Kings' Crusade an enjoyable, if challenging experience.

Neocore Games latest title moves forward from the Dark Age setting of King Arthur the Wargame to the Crusades of the 12th century. Naturally, you may have already guessed that Lionheart: Kings' Crusade puts you in the boots of Richard the Lionheart, the famed King of England. He may not have been able to speak English, but King Richard was certainly pretty good at killing foreigners and it's your goal to conquer the Holy Land. Then you can play the campaign from the Saracens view, assuming the role of Saladin the Great and driving those awful Christians out of your homeland. Getting the opportunity to play as both sides is rather rare in an RTS and Lionheart: Kings' Crusade therefore gets a tick.

Initially, Lionheart: Kings' Crusade appears to play like a Total War game with units counter-balancing each other in a rock, paper, scissors fashion. For example, light infantry units are weak against the long distance fire of archers; archers are vulnerable to cavalry charges, while cavalry can easily be dispatched by spearmen. Morale, weather conditions, time of day and terrain type all play a factor in battles which can make victory - be it through defending an objective, capturing territory, or simply wiping out enemy forces - quite challenging.

As mentioned above, you need to be especially careful when managing troops on the battlefield because if a unit is lost, it's gone for good. This is a problem for two reasons, firstly replacing lost units costs money and you'll often find yourself with not enough funds to do this. Secondly, keeping units alive opens up an RPG style levelling up system which allows you to increase their stats and equip them with special items and abilities to make them more effective on the battlefield. These veteran units can become quite the force, so you'll spend a lot of time deciding on a strategy designed to keep as many of your troops alive as possible.

On the subject of strategy, Lionheart: Kings' Crusade will often offer you a variety of different battle plans to complete missions. When playing the Crusaders campaign, these different strategies come from four different factions - The French, the Holy Roman Empire, The Templar's and The Papal Court. Not only do these different strategies offer you huge amounts of replayability, but selecting a faction's strategy will raise your fame with them. Higher fame with a faction will bring specific perks such as new units and unique heroes becoming available to your army, plus other benefits such as being able to recruit higher level troops. The Saracens meanwhile use a more traditional tech tree.

You can also increase the Crusaders fame with factions through the optional unique scenarios that appear on the world map as you make your way through the 15 territories. Scenarios can be diplomatic which involve you making a decision favouring one faction or another, or they can involve fighting extra battles. Of course, of these different types of scenario provide benefits in the form of money, troops and items, and it's up to you to decide which one will be more beneficial to your style of play. It's unlikely you'll get fame for every faction up to its maximum, which offers yet more incentives for replaying Lionheart: Kings' Crusade in their more difficult campaign.

The game however, isn't without one or two drawbacks. The need to keep your units alive may prove overly difficult for those new to the RTS genre, and that's even on normal difficulty. The AI also seems to suffer from a few minor niggles that are slightly detrimental to the gameplay. There are scenarios in which the computer is only reactive to your actions, which means in theory you could leave your troops standing in their starting formation on the map without the AI actually bothering to do anything. In addition to this, zooming right into the heart of a battle demonstrates that the AI does have a few path finding issues, with surplus troops just wandering back and forth while others are fighting in close combat. Fortunately, these minor issues don't take too much away from the overall experience of Lionheart: Kings' Crusade.

Neocore have certainly produced an impressive RTS/RPG hybrid here which provides an enjoyable challenge. Lionheart: Kings' Crusade is also a massive game, providing excellent value for money. Completing both single player campaigns and the additional ‘scenario' battles could easily result in up to 30 hours of gameplay, and that's before replaying missions with the different strategies on offer. Lionheart: Kings' Crusade offers a different, but very enjoyable, alternative to the traditional RTS format, and is highly recommended to hardcore fans and newcomers to the genre alike.


(Originally written for Game-Debate)

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Twilight Sad - The Wrong Car EP

Almost exactly one year after the release of their second album, Forget the Night Ahead, The Twilight Sad return with The Wrong Car. This four track EP marks something of a watershed for the four piece from Kilsyth, with it being the bands first release since the departure of bassist Craig Orzel earlier this year.

The good news is that Orzel’s departure hasn’t been negative for the band, with The Wrong Car demonstrating that The Twilight Sad are still very capable of producing their distinctive, powerful sound.

begin with its title track of the same name which very much follows in the footsteps of previous releases by the band. A quiet, piano only introduction sounds ominous as it slowly builds up to the distinctive Caledonian brogue of vocalist James Graham. The dark, brooding themes give this opening track a similar sound to 'The Room', and the vocals, guitars, drums and piano all hold together very well; an extremely impressive feat for a track that is seven and a half minutes long.

As you can probably guess from the title of track number two, 'Throw Yourself In The Water Again', is also on the thematically darker side, with lyrics including ‘I’m dancing over your grave’ consolidating this. But that doesn’t stop it showing off the bands heavier, rockier side with some excellent work on the guitar and drums from Andy MacFarlane and Mark Devine. The only downside is that this powerful instrumental work occasionally drowns out the distinctive vocals of James Graham.

The remaining two tracks on The Wrong Car are remixes, with the first being a stripped down version of 'The Room' remixed by Mogwai. The piano and drums of the excellent original track have been stripped away leaving the foreboding lyrics backed by just an electronic beat. It somehow works, with the haunting themes of 'The Room' still being highly prominent. That said, it doesn’t quite work as well as the original track.

An Errors remix of 'Reflection on the Television' closes the Wrong Car EP and although it’s still a good tune, it’s arguably the weakest of the four tracks. It has heavier electronic beats than 'The Room' and it’s easy to see this being played in certain trendier bars (you know the types I mean).

The Twilight Sad
are currently working on a new album, and if The Wrong Car is a sign of things to come, it’ll be another cracker.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Dragon Age: Origins - Witch Hunt

Morrigan is arguably one of the most interesting and intriguing characters (not to mention hot...there, I said it) that features in Bioware's excellent RPG Dragon Age: Origins. Witch Hunt is the game's final episode of downloadable content and gives us a little insight - though arguably far from enough - into what Morrigan did after Origins epic finale.

Be aware that if you haven't finished Dragon Age: Origins, this review of Witch Hunt contain massive spoilers, so don't read on beyond here!

Witch Hunt takes place two and a half years after the events of Dragon Age: Origins, with Fereldan at peace. Morrigan disappeared after the final battle, but rumours suggest she's returned to her home in the Southern Wilderness...

Witch Hunt begins with you creating a character, with the option of importing your Grey Warden from Dragon Age: Origins - or expansion pack Awakening - or creating a new high level Warden. For me, choosing Elissa - my level 31 human rogue - was an obvious choice, especially as she'd formed a friendly relationship with Morrigan in Origins.

Witch Hunt begins outside Flemeth's Hut in the Korcari Wilds where your Warden arrives with a companion from Dragon Age: Origins - your faithful Marabi war hound. You're quickly joined by two more companions. The first is Arianne a female Dalish Warrior who claims Morrigan has stolen a precious artefact from her clan. The second is Finn, a bookish young mage from the Circle of Magi whose knowledge of ancient artefacts' proves helpful in the search for Morrigan. You'll also meet or hear references to characters from both Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening.

Witch Hunt follows a format that will feel very familiar to anyone who played Dragon Age: Origins. The party fights their way through new dungeons in familiar locations collecting plenty of loot on the way. It's enjoyable enough, with some new types of enemy thrown in for good measure, but may prove too easy for Dragon Age veterans. This is especially so if you're character is around the level 30 mark they'll be if you've played Awakening. Even Witch Hunt's final boss - a Varatell, which also features in the Dragon Age 2 trailer - wasn't difficult to beat.

Following the battle, you'll confront Morrigan who seems to ask more questions than she answers. This final meeting feels more like a prelude to Dragon Age 2 than anything else, which will be frustrating to anyone that buys Witch Hunt looking for answers.

The DLC is also frustratingly short, and can be finished in less than two hours. You may feel somewhat disappointed after spending 560 BioWare points (£4.33) for a game that can be finished in just one short sitting.

Wicth Hunt is a decent enough episode of DLC for Dragon Age: Origins but, will leave you feeling short-changed. Not just because the game is so short, but because Witch Hunt really just does feel like it's bridging a gap between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2.

Somehow, even more questions are posed than answered in Witch Hunt, ultimately leaving it as an unsatisfying ending to the Dragon Age: Origins story.


(Originally written for Game-Debate)

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Victoria II - Putting the Grand into Grand Strategy since 1836

"So you'll basically be imposing virtual colonial oppression"


That's the conversation that occurred when I told a friend that I was reviewing Victoria II, the Grand Strategy sequel from Paradox to 2003's Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. The good news for hardcore Grand Strategy players is Victoria II is a massive improvement over the original. The bad news for everyone else is that it's a massively in depth title which could leave it inaccessible to the casual strategy fan. However, stick with it and Victoria II provides an extremely satisfying experience... and yes, yes you can impose virtual colonial oppression.

In Victoria II, you to take control of a state in 1836 with the ultimate aim of securing a place amongst the Great Powers at the end of the games one hundred year time frame.

Of course, this isn't going to be a simple task, with the balance of power in the Grand Theatre of Europe, War in the Americas, unrest in the Empires, industrialisation, political uprisings and keeping your population content just some of the issues that stand in the way. Essentially, Victoria II gives you the chance to change history. Want to turn Belgium into the world's greatest power? You can try, although it won't be easy.

Thankfully there's a series of tutorials (and a 108 page manual!) to explain the very basics of Victoria II for the beginner. Essentially, the basic goal is to increase the prestige of your chosen nation through industrialisation, military might, political decision making and in some instances, specific goals. For example, playing as a state on the Italian Peninsula will present you with the goal of unifying all of Italy. Achieve this and Victoria II will hand you a bag full of prestige points. Alas, you don't get any extra points if you achieve it before 1871.

Of course, warfare is an essential part of any strategy game, and in the volatile world of the 19th century wars happen a lot. However, you can't just go marching your troops into neighbours territory without reason - before declaring war you need to set war goals. These can range from the relatively honourable ‘Free People' to the purely power driven ‘Conquest.' Achieve your war goals and you'll see your prestige raised, fail and prestige drops. Win or lose, declaring war raises your nations infamy and Great Powers don't appreciate the rise of an aggressive nation.

I discovered this to my detriment while playing as Sardina-Piedmont, my infamy rating had slowly risen over the years thanks to annexing smaller Italian States, Morocco (there's the colonial oppression) and the Italian populated area of Lombardy from Austria. These exploits, combined with some prestige increasing research areas and political decisions eventually raised Sardina-Piedmont to Great Power status. Unfortunately, my infamy score meant that almost every other Great Power - included the UK, France, The Ottoman Empire and Prussia, declared war to ‘contain' Sardina-Piedmontian aggression. The results were not pretty. Perhaps if the Infamy score hadn't been hidden in the Diplomacy menus, I would have been less gung ho.

This occurred many, many hours into the game and yet I was still learning things through trial and error. If you're new to Grand Strategy, you may want to play a couple of ‘trial run' games of Victoria II in order to find your feet.

Outside of warfare, industrialisation and politics also provide the player with interesting challenges and especially so later on in the game. Do you oppress Liberal uprisings or let them continue? When do you allow free and open elections? And what do you say to voters in the run up to polling day? Almost every political decision you make has repercussions that could be felt immediately, or make come back to haunt you years later. Sometimes it seems that revolts take place a bit too often after around 1860, but you could argue that this is an attempt by Paradox to mirror the revolutionary feelings that were reverberating throughout Europe at the time.

Unlike its predecessor, Victoria II isn't subject to historical determinants - or to put it another way, you're not being forced to play history as if it's straight from a textbook. For example, the wars of Italian Unification won't just start because that's the year they did in the real world: Victoria II allows the choices made by both your state and others in the world to change history. You'll see states that have never actually existed (For example, my very own Piedmontian Morocco) appear on the world map, while fictional wars between Great Powers are quite common. If the history of my game of Victoria II were true, Russia invaded North West England in the 1850's.

This unpredictability, combined with the amount of decisions and possible scenarios that could occur, make Victoria II an utterly addictive experience. Can I walk into Parma unopposed? Will I suffer the wrath of Austria if send troops into Tuscany? How can I take the Two Scillies? I asked all of these questions while playing Victoria II. I even dreamed about possible decisions in the game. I enjoyed learning about the theatre of Europe while doing my A Levels, but dreaming about it was something that didn't happen!

When something can have that much influence over your mind, it has to be good.) Victoria II goes to show that even if this day and age, a game doesn't have to look good to play well. (It had to be mentioned somewhere that it looks very basic indeed)

Victoria II is an excellent Grand Strategy game, and highly recommended for veterans of the genre. The more casual strategy fan may have to put many, many hours into Victoria II before getting a real grasp of how the game works, but the experience is ultimately worth it. Essentially, if you enjoy history and you enjoy strategy games you should definitely look into Victoria II.
Now someone be a good chap and bring me some port, I've got a state to run.


Green Man Festival - Sunday

Sunday – the final full day of the Green Man Festival – started in much the same way as Saturday; with the screaming child in the tent next to mine waking me up far earlier than I ever wanted, especially unwelcome as I’d been up ‘til almost four the night before. On the plus side, for the first time over the entire weekend it was actually sunny in the Brecon Beacons!

This meant that for the first time we could actually eat our breakfast outside and enjoy the sunshine. One can only wonder if the mood of the festival would have been lifted if the weather had been nice and sunny for the entire weekend. That said, would the good weather have been appreciated so much if there hadn’t been seemingly endless downpours for most of the Green Man festival weekend? Probably not, nevertheless the shorts were finally given their first run out of the weekend and we made the short (ish) journey to the main festival site, to the Literature Tent to be precise.

The Literature and Comedy tent was definitely one of the best parts of the Green Man festival. Offerings over the weekend had included some excellent comedy in the form of Robin Ince and a fascinating talk from Stuart Maconie & David Quantick. Mr Quantick was back again, this time in conversation with music journalist Neil Taylor whose book – Document and Eyewitness – is a history of the Rough Trade record label. The talk provided an interesting insight into Rough Trade during the 1980’s, and of course The Smiths were discussed. The talk certainly has made be consider buying the book, especially considering the amount of time I spent in Rough Trade East when I lived in East London.

Speaking of sceney spots in the nations capital, a mention must go to the girl sitting behind me before the talk began who can only be described as Camden Girl. Camden Girl was speaking to another girl about how great it was to live in Camden, with every single sentence contained ‘like’ multiple times. It actually drove me mad. In fact it wasn’t just me, with my colleague Sam passing his phone over to me. It simply read:

“How many times has she said like?”

If we’d consumed two fingers of alcohol every time she said like, it’s likely we’d have been smashed very quickly. I bet Camden Girl works in Graphic Design.

Following the Neil Taylor talk in the Literature tent, a wander around the festival site ended at the Chai Wallah tent where an unscheduled – according to the Green Man Festival programme – instrumental beat boxing session by Vid Warren had just begun. Yes, instrumental beat boxing being performed by a bloke in a sharp suit...and it was fantastic! Beat boxing is fun enough on its own, but combine it with a harmonica or a recorder and it’s even better. Top marks for the lad, it was a unique performance...and that was before he was helped out by a girl playing her own nose.

The quirky but excellent vibe continued with the Bluegrass musical stylings of The Whiskey Drifters...from Bristol here in the UK. Now no Sunday afternoon will seem complete without a hoedown, though in future I’d prefer to be in possession of a Texas Ten Gallon and a six-shooter just to complete the scene. If that could be traded for the bloke in just a grass skirt that was dancing awfully close to me, it’d be well appreciated.

Unfortunately, despite the time only being around 4 p.m. this is where my personal experience of upbeat, high tempo music at Green Man Festival ends. Why? Because after a quick trip to the tent to stock up on the remainder of our booze, the Main Stage was the chosen spot for live music and the music was mainly folk, downbeat or both.

Laura Marling is obviously a talented musician, but her set was a bit on the disappointing side... a bit wet as one of my colleagues put it. There wasn’t really energy, with everything being a bit melancholy. Of course, this is her style but for a large crowd at a festival you wanted a bit more flair.

Mumford & Sons
were up next and for some reason they drew the biggest crowd. Now this particular part of this review is going to be incredibly biased because I can’t stand Mumford. Maybe it’s because their single Little Lion Man was just so incredibly overplayed last year, or perhaps it’s because they seem to stand for everything I despise. It seems most of the Green Man festival goers disagreed with me on those points though, as large groups of them dispersed after the set was over.

Personally, the best thing I saw during Mumford & Sons set was the beautiful red haired girl who was working at the Moroccan food outlet near the main stage. She was stunning. I almost went all Mark Corrigan from Peep Show and proclaimed her to be the one. Thankfully, despite the cider inside me, I didn’t. It’s probably a good thing I’m not an impulsive person...

Green Man Festival surely couldn’t go a whole day without rain, and this proved to be the case when the heavens opened up on Sunday evening. Being rained on doesn’t exactly make a person feel happy, but what makes them even less happy still is having to listen to less-than-happy music. Unfortunately, Tindersticks were the next band on stage and they were very, very dour. Imagine a more folky, more depressed, Scottish version of Radiohead and you’d be able right. Staying awake during their set was actually a struggle.

The closing act on the Green Man Festival Main Stage was the incredibly talented Joanna Newsom who played her harp beautifully. Unfortunately, the combination of the rain, the tiredness and the previous bands downbeat songs meant both myself and my companions decided that we’d had enough about two thirds the way through her set. Again, like Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom is talented but perhaps not for the Main Stage of a festival...or maybe I’m missing the point of Green Man all together. On the plus side, Miss Newsom is very, very attractive (misogyny + 1)

Nonetheless, the Sunday night felt like an incredible let down compared to the energetic performances of Billy Bragg and The Flaming Lips the evening before. Hell, if I was in charge then Billy Bragg would have closed the festival. I really wanted to stay up until the early hours to see Milton Jones and Steve Hughes in the Comedy Tent. Unfortunately, the evenings performances had been so downbeat, I was struggling to stay awake – and this was only at 11 pm. There’d be no partying in the mud on the final night of Green Man Festival, but at least with the family in the tent next to me having left, I’d get a decent nights sleep!

Of course, the whole experience of Green Man was very enjoyable. It’s just a crying shame that I couldn’t get more into the music of the Sunday night. Of course, not everything at a festival is going to be to everyone’s tastes and there’s no doubt some Green Man festival goers who enjoyed Laura Marling and Tindersticks...or even Mumford & Sons who may not have enjoyed Metronomy, DJ Yoda or dancing in the mud until the early hours of the morning. I’d definitely go back to Green Man next year if I got the opportunity.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Green Man Festival - Saturday

Saturday morning at Green Man started far too early for my liking, after being woken up my a bawling brat of a child in a nearby tent. The little bastard did this very early every morning until he got the attention he craved.

This seems to be an appropriate time to rant about the number of kids at Green Man Festival. There were loads of children, more of them than I’ve seen at every festival before and it was unnerving and frustrating in equal measure. Unnerving because with so many small children running around the site during the day it was incredibly difficult to relax – there were far too many times where walking into the path of a running child was far too close for comfort. No doubt if one of the little buggers had ran into me it would have been my fault, and not the parents that were letting their kids run wild! In less of a Daily Mail style rant, the number of kids at the festival was annoying because they’re so loud! They were too loud early in the morning, too loud when bands were playing and just generally shouted all the time. Oh, and the worse thing? Lots of kids around meant swearing had to be kept to a minimum.

And now enough ranting and back to our regular programme.

The morning was spent mainly inside our largest tent while we waited for my companion Mr Duke to return from his trek to Crickhowell. The local village was actually very helpfully sign posted from the exit of the Green Man site – there was to be no aimless wandering (a la 2000 Trees) at this festival. Our colleague triumphantly returned from his quest with gifts in the form of food, some local alcoholic beverages and a pair of wellies for me. These were the exact same brand of Wellington boot as were being sold at the festival, but almost half the price. Take that festival merchants, you capitalist bastards! We had lunch, drank our local alcoholic beverages and set out to see some bands.

After spending far too much time trying to figure out which stage to go to, we finally settled on the Far Out Stage. Settled is used in its most precise term here with camping chairs being set up in order to watch the bands. (I know, I know it was so rock and roll)

Egyptian Hip Hop
rather disappointingly didn’t consist of Hip Hop at all, and I don’t think they were even from Egypt. That’s all I remember about them so they can’t have been awful but not exactly top shelf either then. Next up were Voice of the Seven Thunders who unfortunately weren’t particularly entertaining either and their generic emo riffs quickly faded to the back of my mind while I became more interested in keeping tabs on the Cardiff City score (a 4-0 win over Peterborough by the way).

After a bit of a wait, next came the act I most wanted to see at Green Man in the form of Billy Bragg. The Bard of Barking was absolutely brilliant, and I’ve never seen one man and a guitar hold a crowd so well. Almost every song came with a story or a message, with one of many highlights being when Bragg spoke about the V Festival that was also happening across the very same weekend. Apparently, it was wet there and Paul Weller was getting “pissed on;"
you may be thinking, well weren’t you wet too Mr Palmer? But you’d be wrong, the Saturday night in the Brecon Beacons was actually dry.

Bragg sang many of his biggest songs including the excellent 'Sexuality' and a stirring finale in the form of a singalong to 'A New England'. There are no bad things to say about this set by Billy- for me it was the highlight of the entire weekend. I’ll admit this might have something to do with Bragg’s political leanings – similar to those of myself - being evident throughout his set but the man also puts on one hell of a show. Awesome, awesome stuff.

After Billy Bragg, we made our way across to the Comedy Tent which was more or less dead. Why? Well, a certain The Flaming Lips were playing the main stage.

If there was ever a demonstration of how two different musical acts could be so different, yet still mesmerise a crowd then Billy Bragg and The Flaming Lips'
surely demonstrate this. While Bragg captivated the audience with his powerful lyrics alone, The Flaming Lips made sure everyone was watching the stage through lights, confetti, videos, giant balloons and a large variety of other weird and wonderful things. It was all strangely relaxing and they certainly put on a powerful performance with tracks from across their career Thus we left during an encore of 'Do You Realize' to track down some beats.

As you may recall if you read my review, Metronomy played a good set at 2000 Trees, but at Green Man it was even better. The band is far more suited to a nighttime set with flashing lights and excellent videos accompanying their electro-pop in the darkness. Perhaps it was because this crowd had consumed far more intoxicating substances than those at 2000 Trees, or perhaps it was just because they were dancing more, but the atmosphere during this gig inside the Far Out tent was fantastic. I was buzzing afterwards and was up for a bit of a dance and therefore headed to one of the oddest club nights you’ll ever read about.

Well, I say club the DJ set took place outside the Green Man Pub in what had essentially become a muddy bog – and provided possibly the closest anyone could get to dancing in a trench during World War I.

The set consisted entirely of cover songs, even if some areas of my own musical ignorance were shamefully revealed. For example, I had no idea that I 'Fought the Law' was a cover of Sonny Curtis and the Crickets, or that 'Step On' by The Happy Mondays wasn’t an original (though the combination of cagoules and The Happy Mondays still made it feel like Manchester in 1992 all over again...just because would have been six years old and living in Cardiff doesn’t mean I wasn’t there, man).

The drinks kept flowing and the songs kept coming and there I was using my wellies to their full advantage by skanking in the mud (partially to win a bet) ‘til way past 3 a.m. on Sunday morning. If there’s a better way to end an excellent day at a festival then I don’t want to hear about it.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Green Man Festival - Thursday & Friday

This three part review of The Green Man Festival , which took place across the 20th,21st and 22nd of August, is going to begin with a slight (re: large) tangent but it’s OK because it’s entirely relevant.

The long, Thursday evening journey from Milton Keynes to the Brecon Beacons - avoiding the toll on the Severn Bridge- took my companions (Mr Jonathan Burns & Mr Samuel Duke) and I down the A40. While passing through Gloucestershire, we drove across a junction with signs for a village called Shipton. This was the very same crossroad Mr Duke and I had crossed during our wander away from the 2000 Trees festival site earlier this summer. Incidentally, you can read my review of July’s 2000 Trees Festival right here. So, enough with the filler and blatant self promotion and onward to a three part review of Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons.

After a treacherous night time journey through the Welsh hills, we arrived at the Green Man festival site near the village of Crickenwell at around 10p.m. We trudged through to what seemed to be the very end of the camping area, set up our tents then headed straight to a pub in the main festival site to escape the rain – a good decision as it was absolutely pissing it down and set the tone for the rest of a very, very wet weekend. Some nice pints of 8% proof cider were exactly what we needed...then again, 8% cider is a good idea in any situation. It certainly helped me fall asleep in a tent that had already shown itself to be not exactly waterproof.

This fact was confirmed after I awoke on Friday, the first day of the festival proper. It was pouring with rain, again – it is the Brecon Beacons after all – so the morning was mainly spent inside Mr Burns tent, while trying to figure out who we wanted to see and what we wanted to do. That and eating, and generally complaining about the weather

“Damn you and your country”

Apparently, It was my fault it was raining in my homeland and later on it’d be my fault if anything caught fire. The Welsh rains eventually subsided and we finally dared to go out and explore the festival site, quickly making our way to the main stage and stumbled upon our first band of Green Man, Spencer McGarry Season.
This band and its many, many members appeared to be weird jazz/folk combo and the music was quite interesting. Unfortunately they were let down by some flat sounding vocals, but the Spencer McGarry Season provided a decent enough start to a weekend of music...

Note: we stands for myself and my companions, I don’t have a royal like superiority complex. Not yet anyway...

There was of course more to the Green Man Festival site than the main stage, including Einstein’s Garden which, as expected, was full of that new fangled science. I saw a man talk about snakes, which was quite interesting. After all this new knowledge, it was only right to go and kill brain cells by visiting the Green Man Pub...while sheltering from even more rain. Can you spot the theme yet? The water from the skies let off a bit but unfortunately a walk round the shops in this let up didn’t provide me with the waterproof trousers I’d failed to bring. Rain soaked jeans for the day, smooth...

We then wandered to the far out stage and saw The Hundred in the Hands (who incidentally are being played on 6 Music as I type this.) The electro dance duo from New York were pretty good, so a thumbs up from me there. It was after this the rain actually stopped (for awhile) so it was used for an excuse to have another wander around before going to the Literature Tent to see Stuart Maconie and David Quantick.

If you don’t know who these guys are then you should probably hang your head in shame; Maconie and Quantick are two very experienced music journalists (among other things) and the talk was very interesting. The pair provided a fantastic insight into the world of music journalism and in the process made me do two things. The first was to actually take notes about who I saw at Green Man Festival, the second was to be slightly jealous of how easy it was to get a paid job as a music journalist back in the day. The only downside was when some wanker in a green wig appeared at the back of the crowd and started heckling for fuck knows what reason. On the plus side, the twat did get a verbal pummelling from the tag team of Maconie. The talk was definitely one of the highlights of Green Man.

You may have noticed that this review of Green Man doesn’t contain many reviews of live music so far, and that’s not going to change anytime soon as most of Friday evening was spent inside the Comedy Tent (really just the Literature tent again but with a different name). The undoubted highlight of the evening was the angry, but hilarious Robin Ince who was absolutely bloody-fantastic and the best comedian I’ve seen in ages. I was in stitches the entire time. It seems nothing is funnier than philosophy mixed with anger.

Other notable comedy acts included the surreal Tom Bell and the geeky musical styling’s of Owen Niblock – the only person I’ve ever seen play a mini guitar like thing with a dildo. The well deserved crown for the worst comedy act I saw that evening goes to a Cardinal Burns, who were shit. I didn’t laugh once, every “sketch” relied on the same unfunny jokes being repeated again and again. It was half hour of my life I’ll never get back and was perhaps the worst thing I could have seen after the excellent Robin Ince. A packed tent has never emptied so fast and after seeing this absolute shite it was almost midnight so we went in search of some tunes.

We found these tunes with a DJ playing by the Green Man pub where we drank and we drank so we could forget Cardinal Burns. It certainly did the trick before heading over to Far Out After Dark and catching DJ Yoda who’s set of musical and video mash ups was absolutely brilliant. I was spaced out by watching the videos so who knows what anyone on pills felt like. Hextatic and DJ Cheeba also provided good sets but it’d gotten to 3 in the morning and it was time to call it a night after sitting around a campfire.

But would I sleep well? Would I bollocks. Find out why in the Green Man review part two, coming tomorrow

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Monday, 9 August 2010

2000 Trees Festival - Saturday

The Saturday morning weather was excellent so waking up in a field near Cheltenham was a rather pleasant experience. The bands weren’t to start for at least another two hours so one of my companions and I went for an aimless ramble across the Gloucestershire countryside in the hope of finding a pub. We failed. We ended up in a village called Shipton with absolutely nothing in it – and it started to rain.

The weather had thankfully improved by the time we’d found our way back to the main stage, but unfortunately the mid card bands were repeating the pattern of the day before – there were a number of below par emo bands that all seemed minimal on the vocals. Somewhat fed up, we headed back to the tent and it turned out this was an good decision. Why? Well, a band called Urusen was camping near us, and having played the Leaf Lounge earlier in the day they played an impromptu gig by their tents. They played some very pleasant, relaxing folk music – a stark contrast to the bands on the main stage – and it was very much appreciate by the campers in the surrounding area. Thankfully, they also had promotional business cards which has enabled me to tell you about them.

A return to the main stage followed with an impressive Sonic Boom Six providing something very different to anything I’d seen that weekend. After their set the winner of the 2000 Trees costume competition was announced, and it was a bloke dressed as a giraffe. Just in case you found that last sentence confusing, no I wasn’t on drugs, but the festival organisers had encouraged the punters to dress up as animals. So over the weekend I saw various cats, dogs, birds, bears, bees, and a wide variety of other animals. They gave the festival a unique feel, I give it that.

Now, having looked at the line up, I’ve realised I’m a very bad music journalist. A music journalist at a festival is supposed to watch and review bands. I however, spent hours the of Saturday evening drinking cider and chatting to strangers while sitting outside the bar by the Leaf Lounge. I therefore can’t give you any information on Johnny Flynn, 65daysofstatic, or Bombay Bicycle Club. If drinking cider rather than doing that makes me a bad person, then so be it!

As enjoyable as the sweet, sweet, cider was. It wasn’t going to stop me from seeing The Subways and as usual they provided a brilliant energetic performance. Guitarist Billy Lunn and Bassist Charlotte Cooper showed off their multitasking skills as they bounced all over the stage while playing their instruments and providing vocals. It was a fantastic performance that really had the crowd coming alive – especially when hits Oh Yeah! and Rock & Roll Queen from their 2005 (feel old) album Young for Eternity. The crowd were loving it so much I needed to dive back to avoid getting sucked into the extensive mosh pit.

Now, I’ve seen The Subways many times before so I’m familiar with Billy’s stage climbing antics in that he’ll climb up an amp before jumping off stage into the crowd. This time, however, he took this to the extreme by scaling what must have been at least 30 foot up the stage supports then falling back into the crowd. To my surprise, he didn’t die and was back on stage shortly afterwards. The man has balls, I give him that. As with Frank Turner, this was the first time The Subways had headlined a festival and they also seemed genuinely touched by the support they received. Hopefully they’ll be releasing a new album before the end of the year – don’t take that as fact by the way, that’s just my humble opinion! They were excellent and thoroughly deserved the rapturous applause they received.

The final big event of 2000 Trees was a silent disco. The huge, huge, queue for headphones put me off joining with this but it was still possible to know exactly what was being played because the crowd was singing along. I personally, ended my festival Saturday night drinking the local plonk while part of a crowd watching some bloke play his guitar and joining in singing whatever he played.

Overall, 2000 Trees was extremely enjoyable, the small size provided it with an excellent atmosphere and despite a few disappointing bands, both the headliners and some bands that were new to me pulled enough out of the bag to make it a success. Plus, as 2000 Trees is an eco-festival it provided me with a nice warm feeling...or that could have just been from the whole not washing and wearing the same t-shirt for two days....

Oh well, only 51 weeks left until 2000 Trees 2011.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

2000 Trees Festival - Friday

When you consider that I’m bit of a music journalist, it’s shameful I hadn’t been to a full on multi day music festival since Reading 2006. Thankfully this changed over the weekend of the 16th and 17th of July when I went to 2000 Trees. With a capacity of just 2500, this festival at a farm in the Gloucestershire countryside turned out to be a good way to get myself back into the festival scene.

As soon as my “crew” and I turned up at Upcote Farm – with 1970’s German funk blasting from the car CD player – I knew I was at a festival. That may sound obvious, you know, what with all the people and parked cars, but of course also started to rain. Ah muddy fields how I’d missed thee...still, tents were erected more easily than expected and we headed to the main festival site.

Well, I say festival site. With the small capacity it’s obviously a smaller than average site, so despite camping in one of the furthest spots from the main stage, it still only took five minutes to walk there. Very welcome indeed.

Right, let’s start talking about the bands

There were three stages, The Tree House main stage, The Leaf Lounge and The Green House. I first found myself wandering into the second of these and watching The David Goo Variety Band, and they were very good actually. They could perhaps be described as a British Gogo Bordello, complete with two vocalists, a violin, guitars and a keyboard. The songs all had stories to go with them and the whole outfit was very lively, quite possibly mad. It’s an all important thumbs up from me.

After watching my first band of the weekend, I then didn’t see any more for hours. Why not I hear you ask? Well, the lure of the Nature walk was just too much. Yep, 2000 Trees has a very pleasant Nature Walk which goes out into the countryside and woodland around the farm. You feel so at one with nature when you’re walking through a field....clutching a can of cider.

It was back to the festival site for the early evening, and after sampling the delightful local Badgers Bottom plonk, I made my way to the main stage. The fact I don’t remember anything significant for any of the mid-card bands that played in the occasionally sunny whether that evening probably speaks volumes. No, I wasn’t drunk; it just seemed that many of them were generic LostProphets style bands. You’d probably enjoy them if you liked LostProphets, mind.

Things vastly improved with Metromony, the penultimate act of the evening. Some might label them as Bloc Party influenced electro infused indie pop but they played a variety of bouncy, energetic tunes which were pleasing on the ear and had the crowds moving their feet. The undoubted highlight was A Thing For Me, which with its simple lyrics had even those unfamiliar with Metromony singing along.

Frank Turner
was the headline act of the Friday and he didn’t disappoint. He played old tunes, tracks from his latest album – Poetry of the Deed – and a sing-along to his newest track. Frank was certainly crowd pleasing and they held onto his every word when he told stories about the songs. It was the first time Frank Turner had headlined a festival and he genuinely seemed touched by the occasion – He’s come along away since the time I paid £2 to see him in a bar when I was at university. My only gripe is that given the current political climate, he didn’t play Thatcher Fucked the Kids.

So, the bands may have stopped playing on the stages at 11 but that wasn’t the end of the night of course – this is a festival after all and the bars were open ‘til well into the early hours. Now despite Frank Turner and Metromony both being very good, my favourite was a cover band that played by the campfire. I had no idea who they were at the time, but a little internet digging tells me they were Thrill Collins.

This fantastically named trio are a Skiffle band that played cover songs from the 1980’s and 1990’s. Highlights included Chris De Burgh’s Lady in Red, The Backstreet Boys’ Everybody, Human League’s Don’t You Want Me and The Cure’s Lovecats. They were brilliant – imagine a modern day, trendier, Wurzels and you’ll be about right.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Puzzle Agent

We all know about pilots for Television programmes: some take off massively, some get a couple of series, some never again see the light of day. With computer games arguably being higher ‘risk' than a TV show, it's somewhat surprising that this concept hasn't been applied to them...until now.

Telltale Games, known predominantly for episodic titles like Sam & Max, have launched a Pilot Programme "as a means of cultivating fresh creative ideas and fostering innovation" Or to put it simply, to introduce tasters of new titles and see if they have the potential to become full episodic games. The first pilot is Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. Is it good enough to warrant follow up titles? or will it be consigned to the dustbin of history? Let's find out...

First of all, what is Puzzle Agent? Well, with Telltale Games being involved it's not surprising that it's a point and click adventure. This time however, you won't be finding the fruit basket, combining it with the telescope then using it to distract the clown so you can grab the spanner. No, Puzzle Agent does exactly what it says on the tin, well box, distribution download description. Nelson Tethers - for he is our puzzle agent - advances through the story by solving brainteasers such as mazes, puzzles, logic and riddles. The game has quite obviously been inspired by the Nintendo DS Professor Layton series.

These puzzles range from the easy to the positively perplexing. The really tough ones can get quite frustrating... it isn't a game you want to play while tired. The game will offer hints if you're stuck but using them will reduce your score. Yes, score. Each puzzle is marked out of ten, with the score depending on how well you do. All of the puzzles you solve can be solved again but there isn't much point really. Why do back and solve a brainteaser when you already know the answer? However, on the whole the puzzles are enjoyable even if they can be very taxing on the brain.

But Puzzle Agent isn't just about brainteasers - after all if it was it'd be a puzzle book! - it's a computer game and it has a plot that is both comic and, in places, rather creepy. You play as Nelson Tethers, the lead...and er, only...agent in the FBI Department of Puzzles. You're sent to the small Minnesota town of Scroggins to find out why the factory has stopped producing Erasers. This sounds unimportant, but these particular eraser are used by The President of the USA! So you're on the case and fast.

The story is genuinely mysterious and engaging as Nelson Tethers travels round the town, investigating what's happened. The rather odd townsfolk love puzzles so while questioning them you'll be solving puzzles in order to get answers. Graphically Puzzle Agent is drawn in a distinctive 2D style which, while the most part looks good, can look very rough in cut scene close ups...the again Puzzle Agent probably wasn't designed to be played on a monitor with a 1920 x 1080 resolution! This is even more evident when iPhone and iPad releases are on the way.

So does Puzzle Agent have enough to become a fully fledged episodic series of games? Yes, it does. The puzzles may need a little work first, but the visual style, the voice work and the engaging nature of the three to four hour story shows a lot of promise so it'd be surprising if we don't see Nelson Tether again.

That, and the fact it has a totally open ending that leaves many questions unanswered. Don't leave us hanging Telltale!

(Originally written for Game-Debate)

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Dan Sartain - Doin' Anything I Say

If you’re not familiar with the work of Dan Sartain, you may be rather pleasantly surprised by his latest single ‘Doin’ Anything I Say’ Why? Because it’s by far the most classically rock and roll thing I’ve reviewed for Gobshout. As much as I enjoy a bit of the old indie tuneage, it’s good to hear some proper rocking out courtsey of the man from Birmingham, Alabama.

The rock and roll riffs of Doin’ Anything I Say kick in after a drum heavy introduction and they actually seem to make up most of the track. However, this is no bad thing because Sartain plays so well and the guitar solos are a joy to listen to.

The few vocals there are simple yet catchy with “doin’ anything I say” forming the key part of the chorus. Their lo-fi style contrast well with the rockabilly riffs and if they were to be compared to anything it would be favourably to the vocal style of Hot Hot Heat.

There’s really not that much else to say about this release from the Americans latest album Dan Sartain Lives other than the fact that, apparently, ‘Doin’ Anything I Say’ is popular among American sportsmen.

Expect it to appear on Sky Sports montages shortly.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Breton - Sharing Notes EP

Music as ‘art’ is very much the in thing now right? Especially if you just so happen to live in certain parts of East London (assuming that nothing’s changed since I moved away).

There are people who believe giving the impression of being ‘arty’ is as important as the music. Breton is a “creative force of musicians” that this reviewer gets the impression are being arty for the sake of it.

The blurb that came with their second E.P. – part of a trilogy apparently – Sharing Notes doesn’t really quash this theory either;

“The physical copy of this E.P. will come mounted on a handmade circuit board with a list of components and directions which, when followed, creates a fully working synth”

Right, ok... let’s hope the music on this six track E.P. makes up for this general air of pretentiousness. Oh...

Within ten seconds of The Well there's a distinct feel of Audio Bullys. It’s a synth based, industrial electronic track that actually has a somewhat creepy vibe to it. Unfortunately, the track consists of the same melody throughout and it gets dull quite quickly. Not a good start.

Penultimate starts off bouncier than the opening track, but unfortunately quickly degrades into an only electronic and beeping number with some pretty bleak vocals. You start to get the impression that Breton are being ‘experimental’ and artistic for the sake of it.

The title track of the E.P., Sharing Notes, goes someway to redeeming the outfits credibility, with the almost orchestral arrangement combined with the heavy bass actually sound quite good. It’s a shame the muttered, moody spoken word lyrics – no doubt said while looking ‘cool’ – occasionally get drowned out by the bass.

The EP gets a well needed injection of adrenaline with Episodes with his high tempo vocals, beats, beeps and synths. If you had to play a track from Sharing Notes in a bar it’d probably be this one.... you could probably only get away with it in Shoreditch, mind. It’s a shame the momentum of Episodes doesn’t continue into the 1:26 long Watertight which only really provides more bleak lyrics to an electronic arrangement. 15x closes the 16 minute long E.P., and to be honest it just sounds too similar to the rest of the record.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, if Breton had released Episodes as a single than this would be getting a rather positive review. Unfortunately, Sharing Notes is a six track E.P. which just isn’t very engaging or creative. Yes, it’s good to be experimental and perhaps it’s good to be artistic and ‘different’ too, but when you take that risk, the result has to be good.

This isn’t good. Breton, you may keep your home-made synth instructions.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Two Door Cinema Club - Come Back Home

There are two things that can seemingly happen to an artist than features in a list of artists to watch out for. They either achieve massive success a la Florence and The Machine, or they seemingly disappear into relative obscurity like VV Brown.

So, after featuring on the BBC sound of 2010 list, does Come Back Home give any indication as to which way Two Door Cinema Club will go?

Well, these three lads from Bangor, Northern Island can have their musical style best described as electro indie-rock – an arguably oversubscribed area these days with many, many artists jockeying for chart positions. Come Back Home is a decent track, but it could very well get squeezed by more established artists.

After a short, chilled out introduction, the track kicks off properly with the somewhat predictable combination of guitar, bass and synths. That isn’t to say the beat isn’t catchy – it is, thanks to the bass of Kevin Baird – but it’s just so very familiar. If you were listening to an instrumental version of Come Back Home, you could easily mistake it for something by Reverend and The Makers.

The whole combination of the vocals of Alex Trimble, combined with guitar, bass and synths just comes across as so generic. This isn’t really helped out by the repetitive lyrics:

“So now your own, won’t you come back home, to see you your not that kind, to the strength to find another way” is repeated throughout the track, and despite the key changes, the vocals and lyrics of Come Back Home seem bland. The three remixes on this release just see these lyrics repeated even more.

So, if you like electro indie-rock, there’s nothing to say that you won’t like single number four from Tourist History, but with so many artists producing similar music, you may just end up ignoring Two Door Cinema Club.

If they want to be anything but electro pop also-rans, then album number two will need a reinvention of style in order to distinguish themselves from the competition. If they don’t then despite their decent sound, it’ll be music Room 101 for them.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Sam and Max: Devils Playhouse 3 - They Stole Max's Brain

After Episodes 1 and 2, Telltale Games’ episodic Sam And Max Season 3: The Devils Playhouse continues, with Episode 3: They Stole Max’s Brain. Can you guess what the main premise behind this one is? Yes, after an ill timed bathroom break, Sam returns to find ‘they’ stole Max’s brain! He therefore sets out to find how who’s done this to his buddy and kick arse. Sam’s anger sees our favourite six foot talking dog lose his usual calm demeanour and go all film noir detective on us.

The games first act sees Sam questioning suspects about the whereabouts of Max’s brain. This is done by attempting to make your suspect drop their guard with a well-timed option from a dialogue tree consisting of threaten, hurry up, you’re lying and noir. Noir is the best of the bunch with Sam spouting a dark, questioning Film Noir style piece of dialogue. Naturally, this being Sam and Max, all of this dialogue is witty. The only problem with it is if you need to interrogate suspects more than once, hearing the same dialogue gets tedious.

Sam’s interrogations take him to the Museum of Mostly Natural History, which is exhibiting Treasures of the Forgotten Pharaoh. The Pharaoh just happens to be that of Sammun-Mak, whose tomb featured in Episode 2: The Tomb of Sammun-Mak. Who’d have thought it! There are no more interrogations from this point, with They Stole Max’s Brain following the traditional adventure game pattern from here on in – exploration, (genuinely amusing) conversations with other characters and deciphering how to use items in order to solve puzzles.

Like many, many other adventure games, the solutions to puzzles can seem farfetched, but this is Sam and Max so insanity is to be expected. However, help is at hand thanks to a hints system that will aid novice adventure gamers, or journalists that have review deadlines to meet. *cough* Moving on, Max – who mainly features this time around as a brain in a jar – has his familiar collection of toy’s. Rhinoplasty can still be used to change Max into items to key items while Future Vision can provide extra clues with solving puzzles. Like The Doctor and his Sonic Screwdriver, Max’s toys appear to aid in any situation – this may disappoint veteran adventurers.

It is possible to play They Stole Max’s Brain without having played The Penal Zone and The Tomb of Sammun-Mak, but this isn’t recommended. After all, this is part of a story stretched across a series so there are concepts, characters and even jokes that will confuse a new player, even with the help of notes about the cast in Sam’s suspect list. That said it’s still entirely possible to enjoy this episode in its own right thanks to the wicked humour. Six foot cockroach and security guard Sal really steals the show.

They Stole Max’s Brain is a highly entertaining – and nice looking - adventure game that any Sam and Max fans will love thanks to the duo’s trademark zany humour. The three to four hour episode can still very much be played as a standalone game, even if you’re new to the series, but playing the previous episodes of the series beforehand is highly recommended. However, don’t expect many questions to be answered by Episode 3 of a five part series. If anything, even more questions are raised and especially by the cliff hanger ending. Will they be answered in Episode 4: Beyond The Alley Of The Dolls?

Not bloody likely!

(Originally written for Game-Debate)

Friday, 2 July 2010

Broken Bells - The Ghost Inside

It’s summer! As I write this it’s boiling hot and there are thousands of people in a field near Glastonbury enjoying great music and the great weather. Maybe some of you dear readers are there right now (You lucky gits...) but when you return you’ll no doubt want some summery sounds to remind you of the good times. The Ghost Inside by Broken Bells could very well provide you with this fix.

You may not have heard of the American Broken Bells, who only released their debut self titled album in March this year. However, you will have heard of the bands two members: They are James Mercer of The Shins and Brian Burton – aka music producer Danger Mouse.

As soon as The Ghost Inside starts, it’s evident to anyone who heard anything by Gnarls Barkley (And who didn’t) that Danger Mouse is involved as the funky beats give it right away. The bass is heavy, the riff is simple but combined they make an incredibly catchy tune. This is especially so with the instrumental b-side, which for some reason I feel would fit in well with the cut scene introduction of Grand Theft Auto IV. Or maybe that’s just me being a massive geek.

Moving on, the vocals are mostly very high pitched – we’re talking Scissor Sisters style high here – but it goes perfectly with the funky beat of the track. A key change towards the end of the track sees Mercer take over the vocal duties.

The Ghost Inside is funky and fun, a great track to play during a summer evening barbeque.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Friday, 18 June 2010

Kele - Tenderoni

The solo project is that thing that allows members of a band to do their own thing – the things they can’t get away with doing within the entity of the group. That’s certainly what Kele Okereke (formerly?) of Bloc Party has done with his first solo single, Tenderoni.

It’s much different to what I was expecting, despite being highly aware of how Bloc Party have changed their sound from the guitar led indie-rock of Silent Alarm to the more electronic sound of Intimacy during the five years between them. Tenderoni has a much harder, industrial, beat driven sound.

In a way, it could just represent the next natural sound for Kele (yes, he’s dropped his surname) music as the sounds of Bloc Party singles like Flux and One More Chance did move in this sort of direction, but not THIS far.

The combination of industrial bass and beats give it a very dirty feel, even grimy. You can see this being played into the early hours inside various dark underground East End bars and clubs, and it's very easy to dance to.

Of course, with Kele providing the vocals, they are the same style as you’d find in a Bloc Party track. Slightly angst driven themes are still massively prevalent and even if you hadn’t heard this track before, you’d be able to tell that it’s one of Kele’s thanks to his distinct vocal style.

This is a good , if experimental, track and it’ll be very interesting to see what the Kele’s debut solo album – The Boxer – sounds like when it’s released on June 21st. This sounds promising, but ultimately, people will be asking if Kele’s solo work will be as popular as his work with Bloc Party.

The honest answer is it’s too early to tell. Tenderoni may not appeal to those who see Silent Alarm as Bloc Party’s greatest work, but Kele’s expansion into electronic and industrial sounds could open him up to new audiences.

The bottom line is that if you only enjoyed Silent Alarm, then you probably won’t like this. On the other hand however, if you loved Intimacy then Tenderoni may very well be for you.

(Originally written for Gobshout)