Spider-Man Miles Morales PC:

Once the exclusive domain of PlayStation console platform, another key Sony title has made its way to PC, this time the spin-off from Insomniac’s rather great Spider-Man, Miles Morales.

Miles Morales was introduced to gamers through Spider-Man and in this standalone title, new Spider-Man Miles must thwart an evil tech-driven gang called the Underground (funded by a meglomaniac businessman) causing havoc in New York after Peter Parker goes on holiday to Europe. Miles finds he has some powers that his friend Peter doesn’t, namely a powerful electrically charged venom blast that can send shockwaves through foes.

As with the previous Spider-Man game, this PC port has been trusted to the safe hands of Nixxes and its a goodie, but I did experience some technical issues.

This will be more of a technical review, seeing how well one of Sony’s flagship games plays on a few generations old graphics card but is listed as the recommended PC specifications.

Sony says the PC version offers raytracing, unlocked frame rates, support for nVidia DLSS 3 and DLSS 2 and DLAA. The game supports upscaling technologies AMD FSR 2.1, Intel XeSS and IGTI. It also supports ultra-wide monitors.


Will my PC run it OK?

Amazingly, my ageing AMD RX580 GPU meets the recommended specs for 60 FPS at 1080p resolution. I know this won’t always be the case moving forward.

All graphical presets were set to medium (with low shadows) and I had the latest AMD’s software drivers. I also used AMD’s inbuilt metric tool to measure average frame rate, GPU and VRAM clock speeds, system RAM usage, GPU power draw, GPU temperature and CPU load. On average, I was seeing 60 frames per second.

I probably could have pushed the graphical presets higher, risking a drop in frame rates, but in a game that relies so heavily on fast-twitch movement and aerial acrobatics, I’m quite comfortable with medium presets and a rock solid 60 FPS.

Perched atop a crane in Harlem, snow flurries fluttering around and cars moving below, the frame rate was sitting above 60, using 11Gb of RAM and 80% to 100% GPU utilisation (and I could hear it, although my PC has since had a good dusting as there was quite a bit of dust on system and GPU fans). GPU temp was sitting around 66degC.

Swinging around the city, performing acrobatics the frame rate fluctuates from the mid 60s down to 48 FPS. In combat, even facing off against 7 or 8 enemies, frame rate hovered around the mid-60s. Nixxes have done an impressive job here. The odd time frame rates dropped to the mid-40s for a few seconds when there were a lot of pedestrians on screen.

The AMD 580 isn’t ray tracing capable so things like reflections in windows looked extremely low resolution and rough, however, I can live with that for higher frame rates.


A few technical hiccups, though

It wasn’t all plain sailing, though, and caveat: Much of what happened could well have been to do with my graphics card which was working underload a lot of the time.

About two and a half hours in, textures suddenly glitched (wall textures and spider man glitched out) and at one point there was a pixellated shadow of Spider-Man floating to the left of the main character. It got so bad I had to restart from the most recent checkpoint – which caused my system to lock up then crash. I experienced one other crash in my play through.

I definitely feel that I was pushing the limits with the RX580 – and have been for the past few PC game releases. While still a capable card, I feel you’ll need something like a RTX2079 or AMD equivalent as a minimum to get the most of our Spider-Man Miles Morales – and PC games moving forward.


Final verdict

Spider-Man Miles Morales was a great game on PlayStation and it’s a great game here on PC, despite the technical glitches I had.

I know some people bemoan the fact that once exclusive PS titles are now coming to PC but I see it as nothing but a positive. It introduces PC players to much-loved PlayStation franchises and that can only be a good thing, right?

God of War Ragnarok review

Ragnarok is almost upon us, well, the game from Santa Monica Studio, that is, telling the continuing adventures of constantly angry Spartan Kratos and his son Atreus. Available on both PlayStation 5 and 4, Aussie legend Dylan Burns joins me on the virtual couch for a chat about Kratos’ latest outing with no longer a boy Atreus.

Gerard: So almost five years since the most recent God of War, Ragnarok is almost upon us and, man, I’ve got so many thoughts in my head that I’m just about to explode, Dylan, and I want to be very careful that I don’t spoil anything as there are some definitely spoilerific moments as the game progresses. 

As of writing, I’ve sunk in close to 20 hours into Ragnarok (main quest line, a few side quests, a bit of exploring) and I have to say the first hour has a few big set pieces that set the tone for the rest of the game. Combat feels like the first game and I’ve noticed more variety in enemy types this time around, too, which was a complaint from the first game. 

I’ve always been a fan of Christopher Judge’s Kratos, too:  His deep gravelly tones just fit the character so perfectly but  it’s clear that while GOW 2018 was mainly Kratos’ story, Ragnarok is definitely Atreus’ as he and his father make sense of the events from the first game and how Atreus fits into the grand scheme of things. Atreus is much more grown up now: He’s definitely no “Boy” anymore (and I think I’ve only heard Kratos mutter it once the entire time I’ve been playing. Anyway, what are your opening thoughts, Dylan? I want to discuss what we can in more depth so let’s get a discussion going. 

Dylan: Sony’s prestige titles have, in the last handful of titles, dealt with the handover between generations. In Uncharted, we saw an apparent end to Nathan Drake’s adventuring days, while in The Last of Us Part II we experienced a brutal account of the cycle of violence. Here, in Ragnarok, similar themes abound, with Atreus visibly older and struggling beneath the weight of his uncertain past and looming destiny. God of War Ragnarok is, I think, about trust, or more specifically, the lack of it. Pasts are murky and secrets abound, with promises made against the weight of secrecy, which in turn causes friction between the frustrated characters present. And let’s get something of a spoiler out the way here – Ragnarok is not about Kratos. It is about companionship, growing up and legacy. Throughout the campaign, there is a shift in perspective as you play across both Kratos and Atreus, taking on various companions in discrete jaunts that bring to mind the loyalty missions of Mass Effect 2. 

Indeed, it is not until far into the game that the overall picture of the plot starts to become clear, and even then there is the constant expectation of the rug being pulled out from underneath. I do agree that the game is bigger, but only in the sense that it required God of War to build on this – literally. Throughout the game, you will revisit areas from that title, both directly and as vista, standing on a cliff overlooking familiar areas now afflicted by Fimbulwinter, a consequence of Baldur’s demise and portent of Ragnarok itself. Of course, it wouldn’t be very interesting to play through an entire game of snow and ice, so it is established early that Fimbulwinter affects each realm differently. So, snow for Midgard yet earthquakes and greenhouse gases for Svartalfheim. And yes, this is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, especially with clearly upgraded motion capture of performances and meaty, impactful animations. It definitely has an exuding sense of Sony polish. How have you found the moment-to-moment game play, Gerard?

Gerard: I always enjoyed the visceral combat from the first game, where you could chain moves together – be it with your trusty axe or the iconic blades of chaos – culminating in a brutal finishing move that would often tear a foe in half. The familiar combat is here in Ragnarok and like the last game, Kratos can command his companion to attack enemies as well, often softening them with magic arrows. I set the game’s difficulty at what I would consider its “normal” setting but I have to admit I had to drop the difficulty down a bit during a particularly troublesome combat encounter. I was constantly left bloody and beaten so I think maybe the combat is a bit more unforgiving in more challenging difficulty settings. Combat aside, part of the charm of the last GOW game was the exploration: Searching down branching paths for hidden chests and sarcophagus that contain wonderful treasures that impart magical abilities for your armour and weapons. So it is with Ragnarok: Those magical chests abound and while some of the game’s elemental puzzles stumped me for a bit (especially one which requires magic to break through barriers) I stuck with it and was rewarded handsomely. You mentioned standing on cliffs overlooking familiar vistas and I’ve been blown away by the visuals of the game as it has progressed: The vibrant colours of Vannaheim are a stark contrast to the snowy plains of Midgard. I’m also impressed by the scale of the world: There is a lot more verticality this time around. Back to is the RPG-like progression where you upgrade skill trees and unlock abilities. How have you found that aspect this time around, Dylan?

Dylan:  Honestly, I felt all that half of the systems in the last game were unneeded and only served hardcore players – those who wanted to track down and beat all the Valkyries. So to see that they’ve effectively doubled down on this aspect in Ragnarok is a bit of a let down. After so many hours, I’m still confused about relic slots and charms and what not. There are special moves that I unlocked only hours in that I’ve never used because I don’t know the combinations required and thus they are not built into muscle memory. But, you know, all that is there if you really want to customise. Different sets of armour that buff health or luck or runic (whatever that is). As for upgrade trees, I often find myself with about 10k unspent XP and just unlock everything available and forget about it. 

Like you, I found the combat a real challenge and, due to mainlining for review, quite exhausting. Although nothing wrong with it, per se, I still feel that this aspect of the game is not for me, and so I bumped it down to Easy. I much preferred the exploration and puzzles and must say that the game employs almost perfect pacing in this regard. The moment one aspect feels a bit too heavy, it’s followed by fifteen minutes of exploration or looting or a massive, level-spanning machine puzzle. If you are a hardcore player, well there are some goddamn hard fights here, thankfully mostly optional. Go for it, I don’t have the time!

One thing I did want to touch on is the choices made in representing Norse gods. Odin’s West Wing actor cameo was quite a distraction for me, yet I am quite into Thor as a grumparse giant-killer with perhaps more depth to him – especially considering how friendly his daughter is. He must have a soft side. There is a lot of dialogue here with a lot of characters and I found myself rolling my eyes a bit at the convenience of them all sitting down for a meal and a ten minute chat about the next move. I dunno – I guess there’s no easier way to do things, but quite often a character’s actions juxtapose their somewhat fast change from, say, foe to ally, with almost dual personalities between their early and late game states. Again, this might be due to me playing it so intensely in a short period. And I must admit that each companion is fleshed out a lot on their side missions, which can take many hours if you explore deeply for every chest, secret and collectible. The constant dialogue reminded me of the excellent job done in the recent Guardians of the Galaxy game.

Gerard: I kind of like the customisation with the levelling up system and have to admit I was quite pedantic in selecting armour and stats that would make my Kratos the most powerful he could be, depending on the circumstances. I still died a few times at the hands of stronger foes but I still strove to equip Kratos and his companions with the right tools for the job. Talking of Thor and Odin, I was pleasantly surprised with Thor as he wasn’t what I was expecting, but like you it seems I found Odin a little jarring. I agree that playing for a review like we have hasn’t allowed me enough time to go through at my own pace nor perhaps contemplate enough the nuances of the relationships in play here. I have still explored a fair bit while keeping to the main storyline but I would have liked to have explored some of the words a little deeper, gone off the beaten track a little more. One character I am pleased to see the return of is Freya and her character development, especially after the events of the previous GOW and how things ended there, and I think this is clearly down to the wonderful voice and motion capture work. These characters seem more alive and human than before.

Make no mistake, though, this is a deep, deep narrative that spans many locations and contains a lot of moving parts and if I had one criticism it would be that it was almost overwhelming at times, given the layers of complexity and nuance of Kratos and Atreus’ evolving relationship. 

Dylan: This is a big, big game. Character shifts will lock you into a couple of hours and usually an entire new area or realm, and this happens constantly after the opening five or so hours. There is a lot of weight put on your engagement with intense combat encounters and I have to say that my interest did wane towards the latter parts. There’s only so many hours I can spam R1 and R2 before yearning for retirement from finger duty. But again, I am aware that many will be super keen for 30 hours of this, so I am just speaking for myself.

However, I was drawn into the way that almost every character, no matter how seemingly minor, was given enough time and interaction to really deepen their histories and motivations. Some of these were actually more interesting than Kratos himself, who, while definitely still an imposing physical presence for the entire time, has taken a passenger’s role in this adventure.

As to my main complaint of bloated menus, buffs, and upgrades, at least it’s possible to mostly ignore the RPG and upgrade stuff if you just play on easy, which makes my criticism of what is quite a messy user interface somewhat soluble inside the larger experience. It is, however, quite laughable to have a brand new weapon show up three-quarters through with its own brand new tech tree. Almost as if there’s an entire team focused on a spreadsheet regarding player engagement and excitement with the skill menu. Better introduce a new thrill right there! How about more charm slots? Why not?!

Gerard: Kratos is very much a secondary figure to Atreus in this latest outing and I think that is the natural progression of the series, given Kratos’ history. You can only focus on an angry Spartan for so long! Yes, some of the incessant combat grows weary after a while and it’s long but for me it’s the deep character development that is keeping me wanting to keep going, wanting to see what the end game is.  Ragnarok is a natural progression of the events from 2018 GOW, offering familiar combat and experiences while broadening things on a much grander scale, both in terms of narrative and character and world building. Final thoughts, Dylan?

Dylan: It is, in all senses, more God of War. Santa Monica Studio has taken the expansive foundations of that title and built Howl’s Castle atop it, offering more of everything without perhaps taking enough of an editing sweep during the renovation. It’s cliched to say, but if you loved 2018’s offering, then nothing is going to stop you from absolutely devouring what is here. That sense of scope and quality that we have come to enjoy from Sony’s flagship titles is certainly abundant here. It is generous beyond what is necessary, with entire swathes of game play that would have taken months of work that you breeze through in moments. I think I would have enjoyed a narrower experience, but again I do feel a bit on the peripheral now with the expectation of engagement and challenge in such titles, and as such I think it will hit with resounding approval from the fan base.

Uncharted Legacy of Thieves Collection: Swashbuckling adventuring on PC

Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is one of the most celebrated on the PlayStation console – and now two of the games from the series have come to PC, and it’s about time.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and The Lost Legacy. A Thief’s End, which appeared on the PlayStation 4 in 2016, sees series hero Nathan Drake and his brother Sam searching for the lost treasure of pirate Henry Avery while The Lost Legacy (PS4 in 2017) is a standalone expansion to A Thief’s End and has mercenary Nadine Ross and explorer Chloe Fraser searching for the lost tusk of Ganesh.

A Thief’s End and The Lost Legacy are two of my favourite entries in the Uncharted series but it does seem strange that Sony decided to introduce PC gamers to Naughty Dog’s excellent adventuring series with the last two games in the series.

Most recently, PlayStation games appearing on PC have been ported over by Sony-owned Dutch powerhouse studio Nixxes Software, but not this time: Developer Iron Galaxy is responsible for bringing Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves collection to PC, and I had my reservations. Well, I’m pleased to say they’ve done a sterling job.

The recommend PC for 30 frames per second at 1080p is an Intel i7-4770 or AMD Ryzen 5 1500X CPU, nVidia GTX 1060 (6GB) or AMD RX570 (4GB) GPU and 16Gb of memory. The game takes up around 110Gb of space, too. My PC falls between the recommended and the performance specifications and is let down in the GPU department by a – here we go – AMD RX580 GPU.

The advanced graphics settings defaulted to ultra quality with enhanced character models but after experiencing a fair bit of slow down in A Thief’s End’s opening boat sequence (frame rates averaged around 50FPS but dropped as low as 10FPS at one point) I dropped the graphical fidelity down to high. There’s a nice slider within the advanced graphics menu that shows you how much VRAM all those visual bells and whistles will use. At high quality all round the system was using around 5500Gb of VRAM. I have an 8GB card so there was plenty of head room.

I also turned off locked 30 FPS and turned on the on-screen performance counter which showed how many FPS I was getting at various points throughout the game.
There doesn’t seem to be any ray tracing here but one thing I noticed when first playing the game was an on-screen message saying “Building Shaders”. PlayStation actually recommends that players with PCs that have a CPU with 6 cores or less, to wait until the shader library is totally compiled before playing.

I was ensured my GPU was running the latest AMD Adrenaline drivers (22.10.1). I could have played using mouse & keyboard but I played it with a controller.

At time of writing this, I had sunk almost 30 hours into both games, most of it on The Lost Legacy. As is an almost given these days, the game’s have an excellent in-built photo mode, which I used to capture the images in this review.

So how does this latest PlayStation title play on PC, and especially a PC using a GPU that – and I’m sorry but I keep banging on about this – is several generations old but still a remarkable piece of silicon? Please note this is generally a review about how it plays on PC: It’s not a review of the game play.

It performs bloody remarkably, thank you very much, and gives me hope that there is still a little life left in the old RX580 yet. Remember, we’re talking about a several generations old card, here (and granted games that came out on console xx years ago), but I was averaging close to constant 60 frames per second on both games using the High graphics preset. It was reaching as high as the low 100s during cutscenes, too. Remarkable.

I experienced the occasional stutter during heavy moments but it was nothing that impacted game play and and only had one crash early on in the game that forced a complete system reboot.

Visually, the game is stunning, with minute details on the characters faces pin sharp and environmental details just a joy. If you have a super grunty PC, you’ll be smiling as you play this, especially The Lost Legacy with has some amazing locations and jaw-dropping set pieces as Nadine and Chole traipse around India.

Game play-wise, A Thief’s End and The Lost Legacy are just as good on PC as they were on console, with the PC version offering 4K resolution, ultra-wide monitor support, and adjustable texture and model quality, anisotropic filtering, shadows, reflections, and ambient occlusion.

Of the two games, I prefer The Lost Legacy over A Thief’s End but I think it’s because of the chemistry between the two female leads Chloe and Nadine. It’s also smartly written with an engaging narrative and enough action to keep you wanting to push through to the end.

In my opinion, seeing more PlayStation titles appear on PC is only a good thing and I’m happy to report that despite my reservations, this collection is another one well worth adding to the library. It’ll cost you $NZ89.95 which, for two lengthy titles, is pretty damn good value, I reckon.

There’s one thing all these PlayStation games coming to PC have made me realise, though, especially given that later this year Insomniac’s Spiderman Miles Morales coming to PC, is this: I just that one of these days I’ll be pushing my luck with the AMD RX580 GPU – but that’s not this week.

Not long in the future, though, I might need to make an appointment with the Home Office and put the case for a graphics card upgrade, right?

Verdict: Highly recommended.

Return to Monkey Island: A welcome return of a point-and-click classic

I’ve always been a fan of point-and-click adventure games, right from the early days when I started playing video games.

Among my favourites, though, were the adventure games from Lucasarts: Grim Fandando, Full Throttle, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle. In fact, I still own disc-copies of Grim Fandango and Full Throttle and have lost count of how many digital copies of those games and others from Lucasarts I own on multiple platforms and how many times I’ve played them over the years.

The creative geniuses behind my favourite Lucasarts games were people like Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer, with Gilbert the brains behind the Monkey Island series.

It’s been 13 years since the last Monkey Island game – Telltale’s Tales of Monkey Island – and Ron Gilbert and Dave Grossman are behind the welcome return to the adventures of mild-mannered pirate Guybrush Threepwood and his zombie ghost pirate nemesis Le Chuck. Fittingly, it was released on International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Arrrrrrrrr, me hearties!

Return to Monkey Island picks up after the events of Monkey Island 2 and is played through a series of flashbacks told by Guybrush to his young, impressionable wannabe pirate son. It’s full of familiar locations and characters that fans of the series will instantly recognise – Le Chuck, former Governor of Melee Island Elaine, Stan S Stansman, the crazy armed ship salesman, Cobb – but the game play has been tweaked for a modern age.

The way you interact with people and objects has changed quite significantly from previous games as now rather than selecting “how” you interact with objects it’s all contextual, offering left (and sometimes right clicks), depending on the circumstances. For example, at the Melee Island museum, you can left click to ask the museum curator about the parrot standing guard over a display case and you can also right click to talk to the parrot. It’s a much more streamlined process now, although having to decide “how” to interact with objects in the original games did lead to some interesting conversations.

The game play is the same as it always has been: Guybrush has to talk to characters and explore locations in his quest to return to Monkey Island to discover its ultimate secret. As before, he’ll need to solve puzzles to find the secret.

For example, early in the game he must get a mop but the chef won’t let him borrow his so he is told he must craft it himself. However, he has to make it from a particular type of wood found only deep in a hidden forest but he first has to find out what type of wood it is then find out how to navigate the winding paths of the forest. Puzzles invariably involve multiple steps and multiple trips to and from locations, often involving combing various objects with each other to finally complete the task.

It’s fair to say that back in the day some of more difficult puzzles in the Monkey Island games were, well, quite infuriating (the pulley puzzle, anyone?) so with Return to Monkey Island Gilbert and Grossman have introduced two modes: Casual and hardcore, with the latter providing more puzzles and harder puzzles.

There’s also a handy “To Do” list which keeps track of all the multiple tasks at hand and another nice touch for newcomers to the series is Guybrush’s Scrapbook, which has Guybrush narrate key points of what happened in the past to get everyone up to speed.

Perhaps the biggest game play element is the new hint book, which acts like hint lines of the 80s where you rang a number to get clues on how to solve certain puzzles – except you don’t have to pay a cent! The hint book gently nudges players in the right direction if they’re stuck on a puzzle and while adventure game purists will likely balk at this inclusion, grumbling “Back in our day …” personally, I think it’s a good option, especially for newcomers to a series that has been notorious for its complex and often obtuse puzzles. I see the hint book as a gentle way of getting players back on the right track without taking anything away from the narrative.

While some puzzles had me scratching my head from time to time, there was nothing that made me want to scream at my PC and couldn’t be solved without a little lateral thinking and looking at the items in Guybrush’s inventory. Of course, you’ve always got the hint book if you get stuck …

OK, let’s talk about the visuals.

When Return to Monkey Island was first revealed by Gilbert, the outspoken element of the Internet was quite vocal on its opinion of the game’s visual style and while I’ll say I’m still not completely taken with the graphical look, it is growing on me the more I play it. That said, the series has looked horrendous in the past (I’m looking at you, Telltale games …)

Personally, I would have loved Return to Monkey Island to have used the same pixellated graphical style of Gilbert’s recent point-and-click adventure Thimbleweed Park. I just love that throw back to the games of old, especially when it comes to Lucasarts adventure games. That said, the new visual look did grow on me the more I played it.

I also have to mention the soundtrack, which uses the talents of longtime Lucasarts collaborators Michael Land, Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian, and it’s unmistakably Monkey Island, transporting me back to the earlier games as soon as the first few notes played in the menu screen.

According to Steam, from start to rolling end credits was 14 hours, which seems pretty good, although I suspect the ending will polarise gamers. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.

Return to Monkey Island succeeds most because it serves up a whole heap of nostalgia for old-time gamers like myself but has painted it with a modern brush so as to make it accessible for newcomers to the series, intrigued to know why the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood were so loved by a generation of gamers, like myself.

It’s definitely been worth the wait to Return to Monkey Island after all these years. Highly recommended, me hearties.

Interview: Zwift Academy graduate and pro cyclist Ella Harris

Pro cyclist Ella Harris training using Zwift.

Zwift, the global online fitness platform for cyclists, has launched a revamped Zwift Academy Road cycling program, designed to help every cyclist find their strength and go further in a four-week crash course. 

I did a review of the virtual training platform last year, paired up with a smart resistance Tacx trainer, and found it to be a solid workout during the gloomy winter months.

Zwift’s Academy Road programme first launched in 2016 and the four-week crash-course cycling programme is designed to help cyclists of all levels increase their strength and skills, with an added talent identification aspect. Top contenders around the world get the opportunity to face off, with two pro-cycling contracts with the UCI Women’s World Tour Team Canyon/Sram Racing and UCI Pro Team Alpecin-Deceuninck up for grabs.

Registration for Zwift Academy opened on August 15, with events beginning on September 12, and ending on October 9, 2022. New Zealand cyclist Ella Harris gained a professional cycling contract from taking part in the event, garnering a spot with Canyon/Sram. She has been with the team since 2019.

Ella took time out of her busy schedule to talk to me about her life as a professional cyclist and offers some top advice for those taking part in the Zwift Academy.

Hi, Ella. Thanks so much for taking the time to virtually chat to me about the Zwift Academy. It seems appropriate to be talking about a virtual training tool over email! OK, you won your pro contract with Women’s Worldpro team Canyon-Sram after taking part in the Zwift Academy, do you still pinch yourself about that? How surreal was it that you secured a pro contract through Zwift Academy? Did you think taking part would lead you to gain a spot on a pro cycling team?

Ella: Thanks for getting in touch to chat! To be completely honest, it’s one of those things that isn’t quite as prominent in my mind as it was a couple of years ago! I do think that it is very important to keep reminding myself about how I got to this position though, because doing so definitely gives me a sense of gratitude and motivation on days when I’m not quite so enthusiastic about riding my bike.

When I reflect upon all the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had, and the life that I’ve been able to lead because of the Zwift Academy, it still seems very much unbelievable and almost a fairytale story. I don’t really like to imagine how my life would have been if I hadn’t won the Zwift Academy, because the past four years have been simply fantastic despite the challenges. When I entered the Zwift Academy, I did so with the aim of competing for the professional contract, but I never thought I would actually win it because it seemed like such a pipeline dream and a longshot.

To actually win the academy was insane, because it was something that I had worked towards for months and a professional contract was something that I thought I’d be working towards for years, so to suddenly have all my professional ambitions suddenly fulfilled was amazing. 

How have you found life as a professional cyclist for such a high-profile women’s team? How is your season looking this year?

It’s been a truly wonderful four years on Canyon//SRAM and I’ve learnt a lot about myself, all things top-level cycling and also had my eyes opened to a whole world outside of little NZ! I’ve been able to meet many cool people, see some amazing places, live quite an enjoyable lifestyle and experience my chosen sport at its highest level.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing as I’ve been plagued by serious injury more than most which has often hampered my performance level, but the positives have mostly still out-weighed the negatives.

Despite this, I feel as if I’ve found my feet in the World Tour peloton and now have a solid foundation of race experience and knowledge, which has been satisfying to continually build with every race alongside teammates who always inspire me to be better. 

While it’s hard to compare a virtual training platform to riding and racing your bike on a real road, what are the key differences between the two? How has Zwift made you a better cyclist?

This is a ‘how long is a piece of string’ question – I would say that the only real similarities are the pedaling and physical exertion!

Riding on Zwift places different pressures on the body compared to outdoors, which I think makes it generally harder for every intensity. Compared to the road, sufficient ventilation can be difficult to achieve, certain muscles can endure a greater load due to a lack of change in position, and mentally riding inside can be a little more tedious! I think the biggest benefit of riding in Zwift that I’ve found is that it provides an excellent way of performing very specific intervals or efforts without the worry of interruptions or finding a suitable location, two difficulties that can often arise outdoors.

On Zwift, all the variables can be controlled and all that one needs to worry about is digging deep and hitting the numbers. Because of this, I’ve been able to execute some really tough and tricky sessions on Zwift that my coach has masterfully created, which I simply couldn’t have replicated quite as beneficially outside. 

You’ve ridden a Commonwealth games and major women’s events around the world and your first ever pro win was at the Women’s Herald Sun tour. How did that feel to achieve that win?

Yes, thanks to the Zwift Academy granting me access into a professional team, I’ve been able to get some solid results and be recognised by the New Zealand cycling federation for selection into some really cool events such as the World Championships and recently the Commonwealth Games.

I was also riding for the NZ National team at the Women’s Herald Sun tour, and it was certainly incredible to get that win at the time. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to double up on that one yet so I’ve almost put it to the back of my mind and now want to achieve something greater in Europe, so that I have a new accolade that people can rattle off. 

Do you have a particular type of race discipline that you favour most: time trials? climbs? sprints? Or are you a bit of an all-rounder?

I like to think that I’m quite a versatile and all-round type of rider, but I’m yet to find the type of race that really suits me the best. I consider myself to be an all-terrain vehicle because I can go well in the flats and get over most climbs, and am quite stubborn so I can hang in when the going gets tough.

My favourite type of race is one with either long climbs and twisty descents in the likes of Spain, or a very attiritional and tough race in the Belgium/ Dutch hills where the strongest riders come to the fore. Abysmal weather is an additional bonus! The only thing I definitely can’t do is sprint – I have zero fast twitch muscle fibres in my body.

The Zwift Academy starts this month, running until early October: What are your top tips for cyclists wanting to take part?

Firstly, it’s very important to have a good Zwift set-up so you’re able to get the best out of yourself and not be hindered. You need very good ventilation through fans or extremely cold outdoor temperatures floating through the windows, so that your performance isn’t affected by overheating and your body can maintain an optimal core temperature.

Music is a definite must for me when it comes to providing extra motivation and a distraction from the pain, so be sure to organise an uplifting playlist on Spotify.

Secondly, the sessions are designed to be tough and push your limits, so it’s critical to prepare well through having adequate rest beforehand and not trying to cram them all in back to back. And thirdly, on that note, have a good breakfast or pre-workout meal! You can’t do your best without a decent portion of carbs onboard. You only get out what you’re able or wanting to put in, so be sure to prepare for the sessions well and mentally be ready to get out of your physical comfort zone – the satisfaction through completing the session will be more than worth it.

Lastly, any advice for anyone keen to follow in your footsteps and become a professional cyclist?

The biggest thing that I’ve come to realise is that you shouldn’t take things too seriously too soon, because cycling is an incredibly demanding sport and profession.

I personally believe that young riders especially should temper their enthusiasm and resist the desire to perhaps get a power meter or train out of their skin with an intensive coaching programme, because there’ll be plenty of time to do that in due course!

To me, the best approach is to enjoy time on the bike, participate in local events/ groups and challenge yourself through relaxed fun such as Strava KOMs or fast bunch rides, which will already bring about gradual progress and improvements without the extra pressure of numbers and strict intensive efforts to adhere to.

I see far more value in finishing school and enjoying an appropriate life balance, rather than placing far too much emphasis on sport which could affect motivation and prospects further down the line. The time will come when it seems right to invest in better equipment, focus more heavily on structured training and also begin to monitor other variables such as nutrition and sleep, but the more relaxed style should be maximised before this It can be a long journey to even reach the radar of a more notable team or cycling opportunity, so pace your mental and physical efforts to limit the potential burnout. 

The Last of Us: Part 1 review: A discussion

Joel, from The Last of Us Part 1, capturing using the game’s photo mode.

PlayStation released the original The Last of Us, from developer Naughty Dog (Uncharted, Crash Bandicoot), in 2013, telling the story of Joel and Ellie, two unlikely people thrust together in a post-apocalyptic America, stricken with a pandemic caused by a mutating fungus that turns its victims into shambling, zombies.

The game was critically acclaimed, becoming one of the best-selling video games of all time, selling over 1.3 million units in its first week and 17 million by April 2018. It garnered numerous awards and in 2014, a remastered version was released for the PlayStation 4, followed by The Last of Us 2 in 2020. I sat down with game writing colleague Dylan Burns for a virtual chat about our time with the newly remade The Last of Us Part 1, which is out on PlayStation 5, on 2 September.

Dylan: I’ve played through The Last of Us many times. It must be five or six. I have the trophy for Survivor+ on both the PS3 and PS4 version. It’s safe to say that I’ve had a lot of The Last of Us in my life. Consequently, I found it difficult to find much enthusiasm for this remake. I thus entered my time with Part 1 feeling cynical. Why does this need to exist? Are we just going to remake games every handful of years from now on? And while I can’t say that I will actually finish Part 1 (I have played the opening few hours to get a sense of the changes), I have come around to an appreciation of the effort that has gone into this remake. I can confidently say that this is an essential purchase for anyone who owns a PS5 and has not yet played The Last of Us. Such players may be few and far between, but Naughty Dog’s market research must have shown they exist. Whether or not it’s worth triple-dipping for existing fans is a tougher nut to crack. 

The thing is, my memories of what The Last of Us is, and how it looked to me as I played it, are so ingrained that it does not matter whether it ran at 60fps or with real time reflections or updated character models and animation. The core gameplay is solid regardless of the foliage density. All that said, I could not help but be impressed at the sense of intimacy that comes from the higher framerate, improved lighting and reflections, and even the more subtle aspects such as tweaked camera shakes and changed angles during story scenes. There is no doubt that this is a labour of love and for that a lot can be forgiven. What this remake does is pull it into line with The Last of Us 2, creating a title that feels like it was released for this year, and allowing players to experience both Part 1 and 2 in a seamless way. What are your thoughts, Gerard? Were you a cynic like me, or did this come as something you have been looking forward to?

Gerard: My relationship with The Last of Us is a little different from yours, Dylan, as I haven’t played it as many times as you have. I  played through the original on my PlayStation 3 and still have fond memories of that play through. I’ve always loved the games and worlds Naughty Dog  have created and I felt that The Last of Us was a step up  in terms of the narrative and world building and it was, frankly, quite brutal in its depiction of life in a world decimated by a viral plague. 

For some reason, I didn’t go anywhere near the remastered PS4 version nor did I play The Last of Us 2. I don’t actually know why that was, if I’m being honest: I really need to get around to it. So, I actually went into this PS5 version with no preconceived expectations on what it would be like and so far what I’ve played has impressed me. 

As I progressed through the new version and heard the unmistakable guitar soundtrack, I had faint recollections of my first play through flooding back. I don’t want to spoil it for any PlayStation gamer who hasn’t played it but the game impressed me back then and so far I’m loving what I’m seeing.

It’s as you said, Dylan, this remake has brought the original game more in line with current games, at least visually from what I’ve played so far.  I’m not far enough through yet to gauge whether the gameplay has improved significantly but visually, yeah, it’s a massive improvement. It’s little things that I’m noticing the most: Like explosions and facial animations and character models. I also noticed how much more realistic something as simple as the burning barn not far from the start of the game is: It looks like a burning building, which is a vast improvement on the original which was clearly hampered by the technology of the time.

As you said earlier, it could be a little harder to convince those who have played it several times already to fork out for it again, but from what I’ve played through at time of writing shows a lot of work has gone into this remake, especially in those little quality of quality of life aspects, as well as visual improvements, of course. Can you see yourself playing this through to the end again?

Dylan: Honestly, probably not right now. Having played the opening hours of Part 1, I’ve now got in my mind the thought of one day replaying both games on PS5, but I’m net yet removed enough from the harrowing nature of TLoU2 and its unavoidable connection with the whole COVID pandemic to feel ready to do so. I can, however, see myself being pushed over the edge to include Part 1 whenever I do have the time and headspace to do so, when before I likely would have just rolled with replaying Part 2.

There’s also the fact that there have been even more tweaks to parts of the game that I deeply enjoy, such as the photo mode. I have a collection of snaps from the original that I treasure as documentation of my time with the game, and I can see myself getting hooked all over again with the added lighting options and just higher fidelity to frame and capture.

The accessibility options are also deep and customisable, and while not something made for me specifically, I often enjoy testing them out just to see if they help or enhance my experience. The addition of spoken description for each story scene, as well as all the other visual tweaks available for all manner of players, means that a whole new audience of previously locked-out gamers will be able to experience this. I think this is what draws me away from cynicism, because they didn’t need to add such broad accessibility. It is obviously respectful to people of all abilities and for such an iconic title to spend the time and effort on embracing those with perceptual hurdles  into this world will hopefully mean that other large studios hold this stuff up as mandatory for their own titles, and then build on it.

Tess from The Last of Us Part 1, captured using photo mode.

Gerard: The more I play, the more tiny little details I’m picking up. Things like more life-like facial animations and more “human” looking humans and more nuanced lighting that impacts much more on the game world than the original ever did. It has also reminded me how brutal the combat was too, especially the stealth kills. Also, if anything, this new version of The Last of Us has made me now want to play The Last of Us 2 even more. It has also reminded me what great world builders and storytellers Naughty Dog is. Sure, this is a brutal and harrowing tale set in a brutal world but it’s realised so well.

Dylan: I still don’t think this was needed, but the quality of what is here cannot be denied. I’m just wondering about the whole ‘full price’ situation. I cannot recommend people plonk down $125 for this, but there’s little doubt that sales will roll around and if you wait a while, it will easily be worth the $36 or whatever that EB games sell it for. Even the $98 ‘discount’ at Amazon is enough to tighten the bargain drawstrings and put your fingers in your ears for a few months.

Gerard: You raise a really good point, Dylan, on whether the game is worth full price, especially for those who have already played it in some form. I did a quick check of New Zealand prices and they range from $NZ108 right up to $139 so you’d have to be an extremely dedicated PlayStation fan to pay full price for a game that you’ve already played before, perhaps several times. That said, if you’re new to PlayStation and have never played The Last of Us Part 1 before, this would be the ideal entry point for newcomers.

Dylan: I think what you mentioned before has to be highlighted, though – how it is making you feel like you want to finish it and then move on to Part 2. This has to be one of the benefits of this approach, regardless of the obvious grasp at a resurgence in popularity as the television show hits (I still think everything we’ve seen of that looks pretty awful, to be honest). And, again, I also have to give Naughty Dog credit at pushing so hard for inclusive features. If nothing else, this is the main thing to be championed here, I feel.

A big thanks to PlayStation New Zealand and Australia for the early review code.

Spider-Man Remastered PC: Web-slinging masterpiece

PC gamers, rejoice: You can now play one of the best superhero video games around with Insomniac’s Spider-Man Remastered swinging its way onto PC this month.

Spider-Man Remastered was first released on PlayStation 5 in 2020, an updated version of Insomniac’s 2018 PlayStation 4 game. The PC port has been handled by Nixxes Software, a 20-year-old Dutch company re-knowned for its magic touch when it comes to taking console titles and porting them to PC.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man sees the titular superhero have to save New York from Mister Negative, a crime-lord who threatens to release a deadly virus upon the city. As Spider-Man battles Mister Negative and his plans, Spider-Man also faces off against a number of well-known enemies from comic book lore – Scorpion, Rhino, Electro – while also tackling the personal issues facing his civilian identity, Peter Parker.

Sony, clearly impressed by the work that Nixxes was capable of, bought the company in July 2021 and as well as Spider-Man Remastered, Nixxes has been responsible for the PC ports of Deus Ex Human Mankind Divided, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Marvel’s Avengers and Rise of the Tomb Raider.

The PC version of Spider-Man Remastered promises increased graphics performance using dedicated Tensor Core AI processors found only on GeForce RTX GPUs, nVidia DLAA (Deep Learning Anti-Aliasing), an AI-based anti-aliasing mode for GeForce RTX gamers, a wide range of display ratios, including ultra-wide 21:9, panoramic 32:9, and nVidia Surround multi-monitor setups as well as graphical features such as SSAO (Screen Space Ambient Occlusion), texture filtering, LoD quality, shadows, and more. 

It also comes with the City That Never Sleeps additional downloadable content which features three missions (The Heist, Turf Wars and Silver Lining) and the now obligatory – and welcome – photo mode (I’ve posted some of my best images at the bottom of this post).

I played Spider-Man Remastered on a PC that while a good performer on the CPU front (it has a 11th generation Intel i5 11600K) it isn’t packing a modern generation GPU like one of nVidia’s RTX series cards. Sadly, I’m still running an AMD RX580 with 8GB of VRAM, so to say I was a little nervous was an understatement. My monitor is an LG 27GL650F running at 1080p 144hz.

However, dear reader, I am pleased to announce that Nixxes has done sterling work with Spider-Man Remastered as I experienced an almost dream play through of the game, using the high graphics preset across the board (Recommended hardware and automatically selected by the game), returning stable frame rates and only delivering one crash that forced me to restart the game.

The game auto-detected the High graphical settings preset for my AMD RX580 GPU.

I am surprised my RX580 performed so well, to be honest, as I expected it to be like a slideshow at times, with the ageing silicon hampering my enjoyment of the game – but it didn’t. That said, my workhorse GPU can’t trace rays so I couldn’t test out the ray tracing goodness, unfortunately, so if there any GPU companies or PR people that feel like being generous and would like to send me a nice shiny graphics card to test out so I can experience the game how it was meant to be with all the graphical bells and whistles, you can reach me at gamejunkienz@gamejunkienz…

OK, back to the game.

Traversing New York as the web-slinging crime fighter is just as enjoyable on PC as it was when I played the game on my PlayStation 5.

While I could have used mouse and keyboard, it just felt more comfortable using a PS5 Dualsense controller and developer Insomniac has really nailed the sensation of skimming between buildings by a web strand, and it’s probably on par with the excellent swinging mechanic found in Activision’s Spider-man for the Nintendo GameCube.

Footage captured from my PC play through of Spider-Man Remastered (high settings). Captured using Microsoft’s Xbox Gamebar for PC.

According to FRAPs, doing fairly pedestrian tasks like wandering around Doctor Octavius’ laboratory delivered frame rates in the high 90s, while in combat and general game play frame rates tended to hover close to 60 frames per second, dropping to the mid-50s at times.

The lowest I saw the frame rate drop was into the mid-30s but only for a few moments. I experienced the odd stutter from time to time while web-swinging but nothing that affected enjoyment and I’m sure if I had dropped graphical settings to medium frame rates would have been even higher.

AMD’s own Adrenalin software monitoring program advised an average frame rate of 58.1 frames per second (using the latest 22.5.1 drivers.)

Not content with that I also monitored performance with Xbox’s PC game bar, which saw GPU usage dropping to as low as 27% during less strenuous moments, going all the way up to 100% utilisation during heavy combat (and the GPU’s fans sounded like they were working hard, too)I. The CPU was clocking in at around 4.10Ghz most of the time.

There’s no new content here just for PC: This is the same game that console players got to enjoy a couple of years ago and if you’re a completionist there is a shitload of collectibles and side tasks to keep you busy while you’re not giving the smack down to crime syndicates and bad guys (backpacks, missing pigeons, photos at landmarks, science laboratories).

You can probably tell by now that in my humble opinion this is an absolutely brilliant port of an absolutely brilliant PlayStation game. Along with the Batman Arkham series, this could quite possibly be one of the best superhero video games of all time and despite having played this before on PS5, I enjoyed the chance to play through it again.

Once again, Nixxes has shown it is masters of its craft and the fact that more PC players can now play some of the best games from PlayStation consoles is nothing but good for the industry. With the RX580, textures on Spider-Man himself and other key characters (not NPCs) were crisp and detailed, especially his suits (as you can see in a couple of the images below), and I didn’t experience any environmental pop-in as I swung around the city.

To be honest, the only thing I want to know from Insomniac, Nixxes & PlayStation right now is … how long do we PC players have to wait to see Spider-Man Miles Morales on PC as I need as much advance notice as possible to ensure I have a new GPU that can trace all them sweet, sweet rays …

A selection of photos using the game’s photo mode

A big thank you to PlayStation NZ for the early review copy of Spider-Man Remastered. At time of writing this review I had put 30 hours into the game, completed 70% of the main story, done several side missions and collected multiple backpacks.

PlayStation Plus: Subscription-based gaming library

For the past couple of months, thanks to PlayStation NZ, I’ve had the chance to check out the Deluxe tier of the revamped PlayStation Plus, which launched here in late June.

PS+ is now made up of three tiers: Essential (pretty much the original PlayStation Plus), Extra and Deluxe, with Deluxe differing from the other two in that it features timed demos of selected games, access to classic games from a variety of PlayStation formats (PlayStation 1, 2 and PSP) a catalogue of old and more recently released games and access to some of the best selling PlayStation 4 games of all time.

In essence, it’s PlayStation’s answer to Xbox’s phenomenally successful Gamepass subscription service. It comes with some caveats in our region as we (and our Australian mates) don’t get access to the PS3 library and game streaming functionality that other regions do. This means no Killzone 2 or 3, no inFamous, no Motorstorm Apocalypse and no Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction.

The Deluxe tier will set you back $NZ24.95 a month, while the Extra and Essential will set you back $21.95 and $13.95, respectively.

I have to say that over the past month, the service has grown on me, especially with the games added to the service in the past day or so for Deluxe and Extra subscribers, including indie cat game Stray and just about every Assassin’s Creed game known to man.

Since the revamped service launched in our region, I’ve played games from the Deluxe tier’s game catalogue and its classics section. Much like Gamepass when I first started using it, I’ve found myself playing games that I likely wouldn’t have bought outright but have taken the risk because they’re part of a subscription service and I can delete it if I hate it for no major loss.

Case in point: The Tour de France is currently on so I downloaded Tour de France 2021 and have tootled around with that; I’m toying with golf (I’m not very good) so I’ve been plying the fairways of Augusta in PGA 2K 22 and I’ve done some laps in the most recent Formula 1 game.

They’re not necessarily games I would buy outright so Netflix-like game subscription services like this let me download, play, then delete to my heart’s content all for the cost of a monthly subscription price and without the outlay of paying full price for a game that potentially I may grow tired of but be stuck with. In that respect, the service is a winner.

However (and there is always a however), I feel that the classics section in our region has huge room for improvement. It only has 85 games and personally, not of them are classics in my eyes.

For example, we have no gems like Monkey Island 2 Special Edition, Enslaved Odyssey to the West, God of War 2, the original Red Dead Redemption, The Force Unleashed and the Sam & Max series. Here was a chance for PlayStation to showcase some of its all-time classics to a new generation of gamer and in our region, I can’t help but feel that it’s fallen short a little. Hopefully, the selection will expand and grow as the service matures.

I had great fun replaying God of War 3, thanks to the Remastered version, and it’s as I remember it being (and the remastered version here looks much nicer, too) but sadly, some of the classic titles like Ape Escape 1 are less than smooth experiences, having been made for consoles that came out generations ago and don’t always play nice with the modern PlayStation 5.

Jax and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, for example, downloaded and fired up but just refused to let me play it, failing to acknowledge any button presses. I never got passed the “Press start” screen. I don’t know if it was just me having issues but it was frustrating, to say the least.

One game that I was very pleased to see on the service was Red Dead Redemption 2, a PlayStation 4 game that for some reason continually refuses to install on my PS5 using the game disc. While the game is visually no different from the PS4 version – this isn’t a remaster, after all – it’s great being able to play it on PS5 with what seem quicker load times.

Final verdict

When PlayStation launched the new PlayStation Plus in our region at the end of June I was, honestly, a little underwhelmed by what was initially on offer but as this month’s new additions have shown, they service can only get better as it matures and new games are added to the roster.

For someone who has just picked up their first PlayStation, the new PS+ represents pretty darn good value while they get a feel for what’s available, but for gamers who have been part of the PlayStation family since the early days, and have played many PS games over the years, I can see then perhaps doing what I do with Xbox’s Gamepass: Stop and start when the mood takes me and new games appear that pique my interest.

Oh, and if you get the chance to play Stray, do it. It’s charming, touching and delightful – and I’m a dog person through and through.

Media Design School Bright Awards 2022

Many, many years ago, when I was in my late teens, I studied art at high school, hoping for a career in graphic design. Much of my teenage years was spent poring through graphic novels and comic books like 2000AD, admiring the art of Brian Bolland, Steve Dillon and Cam Kennedy.

For a variety of reasons, the dream to become a graphic designer never came to be and I became a journalist instead but over the years, I’ve always enjoyed stretching my artistic urges with Procreate on my iPad & last year I completed a beginners stone carving night course.

I’m a strong advocate for artistic talent, which is why I’m happy to give a little plug to the Media Design School of New Zealand’s Bright Awards.

The Bright Award is a nationwide creative arts competition designed specifically for high school students in years 10, 11 and 12. Winners receive a $1000 cash prize to continue pursuing their creative careers and a $3000 award for their school. Entries are in the categories of graphic design, photography, gaming, animation and web & interactive.

Entries open on August 10 and are open until October 7. You can find out more about the competition here at the Media Design School’s Bright Awards page.

WIN WITH GAMEJUNKIENZ & PRICESPY

It’s been light for new games recently but the Force is strong with Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga as it was the most popular game for April and May, according to PriceSpy.

Lightsabres at the ready, jedi!

Rounding out the top five games for the two months were Spider Man Miles Morales (PlayStation 4/PS5), Nintendo Switch Sports (Nintendo Switch), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo Switch) and Nintendo Ring Fit Adventure (Nintendo Switch).

Liisa Matinvesi-Bassett, New Zealand country manager for PriceSpy, says “In the midst of a global cost of living crisis, it seems gamers are opting to shop more wisely when it comes to the games they are looking to buy – with three out of the five most-clicked on games across April and May being older releases spanning from 2017 to 2020.”

“It’s always impressive to see just how many fans both LEGO and Star Wars have. So, when these two popular brands do collaborate (not to mention launch a game that’s also available to play across multi-platforms), they often attract a phenomenal level of attention and interest,” says Matinvesi-Bassett.

“A surprising result across the top five was Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales for the PS5 and PS4, which placed an impressive second in the top five rank.  And unlike the top ranking game, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales first launched in November 2020 – going to show, it’s not always ‘newness’ that attracts the attention of gamers.”

WIN WIN WIN

PriceSpy has teamed up with GamejunkieNZ to offer one lucky reader the chance to win two of the most-popular games from April and May on the platform of your choice. To enter the giveaway, email gamejunkienz@gmail.com and tell me what game you’re looking forward to in the coming 12 months.

*Only open to New Zealand residents. One entry per email address. Competition closes 20 June, 2022. Winner will be picked by random draw.