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.

Logitech g923 racing wheel & pedals review

Logitech’s g923 racing wheel and pedals

It was perfect timing that gaming peripheral company Logitech got in touch a few weeks ago asking if wanted to review its g923 racing wheel and pedal set.

I was midway through Netflix’s Formula 1 Drive to Survive – so I jumped at the chance to channel my inner Valterri Bottas or Daniel Ricciardo from the comfort of my own home.

The g923 has been out since around last year and offers what Logitech calls TrueForce, it’s force feedback solution, and is designed for racers. It’s been endorsed by McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris, too.

I tested the 923 wheel and pedals on both PlayStation 5 and on PC and a nice feature of using it on PC is that you can configure the setup using Logitech’s G Hub software. It lets you tweak wheel and pedal sensitivity and remap control buttons. The wheel is comfortable to grip, with a nice leather finish, and it has a nice weight to it as you manhandle a race car around the track.

The wheel itself attaches to a desktop – I don’t have a dedicated rig so clamped it to the keyboard tray of my computer desk – using two clamps that are hand tightened by a screw mechanism either side of the unit. Despite my reservations that the plastic J-shaped clamps wouldn’t be up to the task of a heavy workload, the wheel remained securely attached during my testing.

The anodised aluminum pedals are solid, too, with a nice feel in my socked feet when you press down on them: The brake pedal uses a stiffer spring than the other two and it’s part of a solid unit, too: The base has anti-slip prongs on the underside so it doesn’t slip on carpeted surfaces.

Build quality overall is excellent, and a nice touch is the cable routing channels on the underside so you can at least have some sort of cable management going on. If I had any complaint, it would be that the cables themselves looked a little cheap, given the high-end cost of the wheel. Braided cables would have been a nice touch. Interestingly, the view from the back of the unit looks like the front of a car with its mesh grill and headlamps.

I tested the g923 on Dirt 5, a trial version of Grid Legends and Forza Horizon 5 on PC, and with Gran Turismo on PlayStation 5.

Logitech’s Trueforce feedback system means it transmits what is happening onscreen through the wheel through vibration, meaning you can feel every vibration as you cross a rumble strip, mount a pavement or smash unintentionally through a fence or barrier. It really does bring a new dimension to racing games and while it isn’t enabled with every game it worked well with Forza Horizon 5.

As someone who has always used a standard controller for all my games, using a dedicated wheel gave me much more precise control of car. Driving felt more nuanced, more precise. The gear paddles have a nice tactile feel to them with an audible “click” when you depress them.

Frankly, the g923 wheel took my virtual driving to a new level (although, I had to tweak the in-game force feedback setting in FH5 or else the wheel went berserk and was uncontrollable). Combined with the pedal set, I felt like my driving game had improved dramatically and going back to a controller will be a massive step backwards. Using a wheel made the experience more immersive.

Surprisingly, my wife, who isn’t a gamer at all despite living with me for 30 years, asked to have a go with the g923 after she saw me racing in FH5. She took great delight in driving a jeep around the storm-ravaged desert plains during a story mission.

She declared the experience great fun – and it is: Driving just feels so much more intuitive and natural using a wheel rather than a controller. Gear changes feel fluid, steering is responsive, it’s just a few more pleasant experience.

So, the g923 is a great wheel and pedal set but there’s one sticking point for me and that’s the price: Here in New Zealand, Logitech has the RRP for the g923 as $NZ699 – that’s a fair chunk of change to fork out if you’re just an occasional driving game player. This is a piece of kit for serious simmers where driving games are your passion.

Final thoughts

Look, I’m no driving wheel expert but from the week or so I had with my time with the G923 I’ve been left impressed. It has let me tackle racing games with a higher level of control to using a standard controller, and that’s a good thing.

The G923 might not be suitable for really, really experienced racing sim players – and I don’t know how it compares to previous Logitech wheels, such as the g29 which seems to be fairly familiar to the g923 – but for car game afficionados wanting to lift their driving game with a good quality wheel and pedal combination, this unit could be the hardware they’re looking for.

Given the price, though, if it were me, I’d wait for a sale. According to Pricespy, on the day I checked prices, the g923 ranged from $NZ569 right up to $699. It would pay to shop around.

Have I convinced myself that I need a dedicated wheel and pedal set? Not yet but, to be honest, I bought a Thrustmaster flight stick for Microsoft Flight Sim after playing it for a while so only time will tell if I do the same thing for racing games.

Thanks to Logitech ANZ for sending the g923 racing wheel & pedals for me to look at.

TREK TO YOMI REVIEW: CINEMATIC SAMURAI

Shinto mythology describes Yomi as the Japanese word for land of the dead. It is said to be where the dead go to dwell and apparently rot indefinitely. It’s comparable to Hell or Hades and it’s here that much of Flying Wild Hogs’ and Leonard Menchiari’s samurai hack ‘n slash game Trek to Yomi takes place.

“Once one has eaten at the hearth of Yomi it is impossible to return to the land of the living,”. One site told me as I was researching the meaning of Yomi.

Trek to Yomi (published by indie darling Devolver Digital) begins with a flashback where we meet young samurai Hiroki training with his sensi. It’s a good introductory sequence that introduces you to the basic combat that will become crucial as you progress. Hiroki’s arsenal includes fast upward slashes with his katana and slower paced but more deadly downward strikes. As the adventure continues, Hiroki gains access to a bow and arrow, throwing knives and a handheld canon.

Trek to Yomi

Suddenly, there’s a commotion outside. Hiroki’s sensei grabs a spear, tells his ward to stay where he is and runs off to fight bandits invading the village. Hiroki, of course, doesn’t listen and runs off in search of his master only to see him slaughtered before his eyes by the bandit leader. Hiroki’s village is burned to the ground, along with its inhabitants, he vows to avenge them and his love Aiko. Hiroki must venture into the underworld of Yomi to avenge those he loved. 

Stunning visual style

Right off the bat, Trek to Yomi has a stunning visual style, with game play taking place across a 2.5D plane. It has an old black and white film grain that is reminiscent of the samurai films of old from Akira Kurosawa. Sometimes the camera will pull back, revealing sweeping rice fields, cascading waterfalls and mountain backdrops. Several times I just sat back and took in the view before me. With Hiroki often silhouetted in the foreground with the sun shining through trees with falling leaves. It really is stunning in its presentation.

Adding to the immersion is the dialogue is in full Japanese, really adding to the atmosphere of being drawn into a Japanese samurai movie of the 1950s. 

When Hiroki explores the game world it’s in 2.5D, meaning he can move left and right, forward and backwards, exploring. When combat is activated the perspective shifts to a flat 2D plane with Hiroki having to fight foes coming from his left and right.

Trek to Yomi

Hiroki faces off against a variety of foes, some armoured, some brandishing long spears, others gruesome apparitions of their former selves. Most can dispatch with simple slashing moves. As things progress, more complex moves are unlocked, but to be honest, I found it a struggle at times for my old man gamer brain to remember some of the more complex combinations. Instead tending to block, parry, thrust, slash and roll when confronted with a handful of enemies all at once. That said, being on a 2D plan means enemies only attack you one at a time from the left or right, though.

Straddling the realms

There are three difficulty modes: Kabuki (Story), Bushido (Normal) and Ronin (Hard) . I used throwing knives, portable cannon and bow & arrow quite a bit to clear out enemies when things got a little hectic. Small shrines dotted about the game world act as save points, refilling your health and stamina meters.

At about the halfway mark, perhaps slightly after, the game takes a dramatic and supernatural turn. With Hiroki suddenly finding himself wandering the creepy realm of Yomi, it’s pathways piled high with human skulls and mutant villagers inhabiting its houses. It’s in Yomi that Hiroki begins his descent into seeming madness to avenge those he vowed to protect. What follows is Hiroki banishing the spirits of the bandits he killed when they were alive and ultimately facing off against the bandit leader who slayed his sensei and vowed to kill you when you were a child.

Trek to Yomi

It’s in Yomi that the game takes a tonal shift towards a much darker narrative (throwing a few easy-to-solve environmental puzzles into the mix as well) but deep down I think the overall arc here is asking what price will you pay to avenge those you loved the most?

Life, death and the trek to Yomi

Trek to Yomi really surprised me in that it wasn’t a game that was on my radar until a game play video dropped into my inbox from Devolver Digital’s Australian PR team. I shouldn’t have been surprised: It’s from Devolver Digital, a publisher who delivers on its often quirky indie titles.

While Trek to Yomi starts off as what seems a traditional “hack ‘n slash” it soon takes an intriguing turn, stepping things up a notch with Japanese notion of the land of the dead that plays a fitting backdrop to a game that explores, life, death and everything that straddles them both.

Highly recommended.

HP Omen 16 gaming laptop: Gaming power

HP’s Omen gaming laptops have always been solid performers when it comes to gaming hardware.

I’ve always been a fan of its gaming line-up and after spending time with its Omen 16 laptop, I’m even more of a fan of the hardware.

The review model I had was packed with an Intel 11th Gen i7-11800H (@2.3FHz) CPU, 32Gb of RAM, an nVidia GeForce RTX3070 laptop GPU (8Gb memory), a 1Tb SSD, a 16-inch 144Hz 1080p panel, Bang & Olufsen speakers and is running Windows 11.

The Omen 16 has a chonky 200w charger that ensures enough power to the innards and the Omen 16 really does look smart, with a great build quality and an appearance that doesn’t outlandishly scream: “I’M A GAMING MACHINE, EVERYONE.” It’s subtle in its design.

Connection-wise, on the the left side we have the power socket, a hinged ethernet port, USB-A 3.0, HDMI, USB-C with thunderbolt, a mini display port, the headphone jack and an SD card reader. The right hand side has two USB 3.0 ports.

Primarily aimed at the gaming market, the Omen 16 has a huge mesh grill on the underside of the chassis, letting you catch a glimpse of the substantial cooling system. Raised rubber feet mean the cooling fans have plenty of airflow and ventilation to keep things cool. It’s hefty in the hand but passes the backpack test.

HP is known for cramming it’s laptops with bloatware – and sadly, there’s a fair bit of it here in the Omen 16. I counted no less than eight HP programs (not including the HP specific Gaming Hub software) plus perennial bloatware antivirus McAfee and a trial for ExpressVPN. McAfee was the most annoying of the bloatware with it’s constant nagging but thankfully its reminders can be disabled. Frankly, the amount of bloatware is too much, HP.

System boot up from cold to the load screen was 14 seconds thanks to the SSD with Intel’s Opthane software and showcasing its gaming credentials HP’s Gaming Hub software lets you tweak the hardware to eek as much performance out as you can or change the lighting under the keys.

For example, you can under volt the system – where you reduce the CPUs core voltage without reducing the CPU’s performance) – meaning less power consumption and heat. There’s also balanced or performance modes, and an in-build graphics switcher so you can flick between the integrated graphics and the discrete RTX3070 GPU to ensure you’re getting the best graphical power when you need it the most.

Right, onto the bench marking. Let’s play some games on this thing.

I tested the Omen 16 with bench marking tools Cinebench, Catzilla, Heaven and 3D Mark (Timespy & Firestrike) and using the in-built benchmark tools in Batman Arkham Knight, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I also played God of War and RDR 2 a fair bit because, well, I just like those two games a lot.

As you can see, 3D Mark’s Firestrike demo returned a score of 18.063 and Timespy a score of 1112, and Tomb Raider returned an average frame rate of 123 frames per second with nVidia’s DLSS set to Quality mode and using DirectX 12. Unfortunately, I don’t have my bench mark images for RDR 2 or God of War as I, ahem, accidentally deleted them from a USB stick when I was clearing out unwanted data – and I’ve already sent the laptop back.

Suffice to say, it performed nicely with Red Dead Redemption with a mix of quality settings, same for God of War, although I noticed periodic slow down in the latter sections of the game, especially when there were a lot of enemies on screen. It didn’t last long but it was noticeable.

I also felt that performance dipped a little when on battery power (the system seems throttles a little to conserve battery life) but that’s to be expected. As I do with all laptops that are desktop replacements, I’d recommend to keep it plugged into mains power when you are gaming. This isn’t one for extended gaming sessions at the cafe if you’ve left your charger at home!

Look, HP’s Omen 16 does what it says on the box – and it does it very, very well. In fact, it’s probably the best performing gaming laptop I’ve reviewed on this blog.

It’s well built, has good battery life, has a good screen and performances extremely well with any game I threw its way. HP also tells me that the Omen 16 uses recycled plastic for the key caps, recycled metal and ocean-bound plastic for the speaker enclosure.

That said, it’s not cheap but decent gaming laptops never seem to be, right? The Omen 16 starts from $NZ4,699, depending on whether you go for an Intel CPU or AMD processor, and the review configuration – if I’ve read things correctly – would set you back about $NZ5499. That’s a fair chunk of change.

However, if I was looking for a more portable gaming machine to replace my desktop PC – which I partially rebuilt last year with a new motherboard and Intel 11th Gen i5 CPU – I wouldn’t hesitate to put the HP Omen 16 at the top of my list.

Interview: NZ Retro Magazine’ s Karl “After” Burnett

Former NZ TV actor Karl Burnett has long had a love of retro video games – he was introduced to Invaders on the Fountain Force 2 machine when he was a child – so he decided to publish New Zealand’s only print magazine dedicated to retro video gaming. The first issue was printed this month and I caught up with Karl “After” Burnett to talk about the process of creating a print magazine and what he thinks is the greatest retro game of all time.

Tell me about your video game background. You mentioned you were an avid reader of Computer and Video Games magazine back in the day (as an owner of a ZX Spectrum I pored over Crash! Magazine) but what was the console/games machine that sparked the video game interest for you? Was there a specific video game that just blew your mind?

It was when I got home one day, possibly from school or kindy, when I heard blips and beeps coming from the lounge. The door was shut and dad led the way, saying “do you know what that is?” I replied “video games”. To this day I don’t know how I knew that as Invaders, the game that my sister was playing on that brand new Fountain Force 2, was the first game I’d ever seen.

How did that interest develop over the years? Have you always had a fondness for “retro” games specifically or have you delved into modern games but always been drawn back to the old-skool gaming experience?

I always kept up with modern gaming. Until the Xbox360 I had owned every console of every generation. I wasn’t blown away by that generation as developers were taking far fewer risks with creativity. There were very few games that I wanted to play. I did love Grand Theft Auto V.

After that I got an Xbox One and again, there’s not a heap of stuff I like playing. I picked up GT7 recently for the PS4 Pro and I’m enjoying that (apart from the weird mobile game aspects etc) but I also picked up Elden Ring and it’s just too complicated for my old brain. I’m not a fan of crafting or messing about in inventories – leveling up and that sort of thing. I know it’s an RPG but those elements have all snuck into action games these days. I just prefer the purity and simplicity of retro games – I mean, gathering crap to make a spear that’s just going to break isn’t fun in my book. Tomb Raider really annoyed me with all that stuff. Even Transformers Devastation, as good as it was, had weapon crafting. Why!?!

What was the catalyst to create NZ Retro magazine? What was the light bulb moment that prompted you to go “Yeah, I want to publish a magazine about retro video games”?

I was writing for the UK magazine Sega Powered and I really enjoyed it. I’d toyed with the idea of creating a magazine a couple of times in the past. One was a new car magazine named The Wheel Deal, which I thankfully decided to put online instead, and the other was a retro gaming magazine that just never happened. So I decided to finally give it a go.

Walk me through the process. You’ve got a background in writing but was producing the magazine a more monumental task than you anticipated? Did you ever get to the point of asking yourself “What the hell am I doing?” and go back to whatever it was you were doing before?

I had a pretty good idea what to expect, from working full time in magazine publishing in the past. I’d done plenty of design work as a game developer, so I knew I could make it look semi decent too. There were some hurdles on the last day caused by my lack of knowledge on the printing side but nothing major until after I’d shipped issue one and the printer closed its doors.

When did you decide Kickstarter was the way to go to fund the magazine? Were you surprised at the support you received or did you think there was enough love for retro games that it was a sure thing?

I’d actually funded the first couple of issues myself. The Kickstarter was to help with the next couple of issues – I hadn’t done a great job of selling advertising! I was blown away by the amount of support. I thought there’s be enough people to sustain it but it was good to know I was right!

Launching a new magazine in the current climate was a big risk for you (I see printer Ovato has closed due to paper shortages etc). Was that at the forefront of your mind during the whole process? 

I didn’t actually see it as much of a risk, more a last chance. I’d pulled out of university as I realised halfway through my degree that programming computers is only fun if it’s done for fun. I decided I didn’t want to be a coder and I’d quit a great job to go and study. There were no suitable jobs around and I really wanted to be writing again, so I thought I might as well give it a go. I knew  that niche magazines were taking off around the world – especially retro gaming ones – and there were none in New Zealand so I filled the void. A lot of people in various Facebook retro groups I belong to voiced that they wanted it, too.

What are you most happy about with the magazine? The foreword by Julian “Jaz” RIgnall? The poster art by Trevor “Smila” Storey? The fact that you actually got the magazine out and to supporters?

Jaz was pretty much the biggest influence on my writing and I doubt I’d be doing this if it wasn’t for his work back in the day. So yeah, having him in the mag was awesome. Trevor’s art is great too – he’ll be doing plenty more for NZ Retro. But the be great thing was the magazine itself. It turned out really well. There are a few small things I’ve changed since but over all I’m really proud of it.

What does the future hold for NZ Retro magazine? Are we likely to see any love in future issues for classics like Westworld’s Blade Runner or Lucasarts masterpieces like like Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Monkey Island or Day of the Tentacle?

I LOVE point and click adventures. They were the story driven games of their time. I suppose some did have crafting, though! And inventories! How ironic. I’ll definitely cover them as I get better and faster at making the magazine as those types of games take a lot of time to play for review.

What is the greatest retro game of all time?

Tempest 2000 on Atari Jaguar or Need For Speed on 3DO. The greatest game ever made in my opinion is GTAV.

Disclaimer: I was a backer of the first issue of NZ Retro and it’s a bloody fine magazine. If you’d like to find out more about NZ Retro, you can visit its webstore at http://www.nzretro.com or subscribe to future issues via Patreon: patreon.com/nzretro