For those of you about to thrash, we salute you. After years of hard work, Punk-o-Matic 2 has stomped onto the scene. While it takes a few more sips from the simulation cup than its predecessor and offers a tremendous amount of venues to play at and other things to do, at its core, it's still more of a music composition tool than anything else. Via a lengthy in-game tutorial, you'll learn how to compose songs for the band of your dream to play by choosing various tracks, notes, and more. Featuring multiple instruments to play, different difficulties to destroy your digits, and a whole lot of customisation, Punk-o-Matic 2 is here to rock your world. Provided you have the skill and patience to learn the ropes.
If composition isn't your bag, whether because the process is too involved or, like me, you've been expressly forbidden by your loved ones to try making "music", the good news is that you have other options. If you have the cash, you can attend concerts and learn cover songs to play instead. Choose your instrument, your difficulty setting, and awa-aaaay we go. Rather than playing with the homerow, Punk-o-Matic 2 plays with the [Q], [W], [E], [A], [S], and [D] in a radial fashion, with you tapping the appropriate key to hit the note at the right time. This actually works very well once you've made the adjustment in your brain, and winds up feeling a lot more natural.
There's also an enormous amount of customisation at your fingertips as far as your band goes. You can change each member's personality to build the sullen, Robert Smith tribute band of your dreams, and buy any number of bits of clothing, facial characteristics, and tattoos to put the sad icing on your Goth-y, death metal cake.
Analysis: I've always had a sort of love/hate relationship with any sort of rhythm game, in that I love them unconditionally, and they hate me for putting my grubby little untalented hands all over their controls. This feeling is exacerbated with Punk-o-Matic 2, which is so much more complicated than other music sims that it's essentially in a class of its own. Which is not, of course, to say that Punk-o-Matic 2 is impossible unless you're some sort of Jack Black idealized rock god. It just takes some getting used to. It's the path to that plateau of semi-competence that can be frustrating for, shall we say, the less rhythmically inclined gamers as opposed to the musicians that appear to be the game's target audience. Because of this, it really does feel like an elaborate composition toy rather than a fully fleshed out game.
Chances are, you're not going to be able to just pick up and play Punk-o-Matic 2 like a superstar, since the level of complexity involved requires familiarizing yourself with the controls. The tutorial actually does a good job of explaining them, but it's far too easy to get overwhelmed and frightened off when it starts spitting out notes and technical terms at you. I wouldn't call this a fault, however. If you have been waiting for something to set your creative juices flowing, this just might be the device for you. Provided those juices are punk rock flavoured. I... don't know what that would taste like. Probably angry and sweaty.
While it may require a lot of effort to become good at it, Punk-o-Matic 2 is easily one of the best music simulators out there. Once you learn the ropes, it offers a lot of variety, and despite an occasionally juvenile sense of humour, the quality here is top notch.
While the first Punk-o-matic was essentially a sequencer, letting casual users mix-and-match music loops with the confidence that anything they try will sound okay, its sequel is a little more demanding. You can pick which key, and often which octave, your riffs are in this time around, and you can even use the "manual" riffs to write new riffs one beat at a time. Knowledge of guitar really helps to understand all the options available, and already I can tell that the non-musicians are looking for the exits. I recommend that non-musicians stick to one key and use the "special" riffs in most cases, for a more casual experience. I also recommend the tutorial, even for musicians.
After you have written a song or two (or imported a few from the "cover list"), you can try it out in the music game segment, either by hitting the practice button — to play without worrying about upsetting your fans with your inept performance — or the "city pamphlet" — where you can select venues to play your songs and enhance your cred in the punk underground. You use the keyboard to play along, and you can also jam with a fellow human thrasher. You synchronize your keystrokes with the little golden balls that pop up in the corner of the screen, and while this is supposed to also synchronize with the music, I found that even on my late-model computer-box it wasn't quite so, which made the harder difficulties almost impossible.
The sheer number of riffs at your disposal, and the flexibility you have in combining them, allows for the creation of just about anything you can imagine in the punk idiom (it also makes for some pretty steep loading times, so be forewarned). I often found myself wishing that some tool was available, only to find that it was, and I just hadn't been looking in the right place. Need to copy a riff or set of riffs? Use either the selection tool or the repeat tool. Want to duplicate a track in another instrument? Use the sync tool. I recommend looking at all the tools available, because the breadth of what is possible is quite remarkable, especially for a free Flash game.
A few small complaints: Sometimes it seems that the instruments don't entirely mesh, especially if you are using a lot of the shorter "manual" riffs. Some of the "special" riffs don't sound like they belong in the key they are supposed to, though you can often get what you want by experimenting with different keys. I wish there were a better way to audition riffs: you can test them by clicking and holding, but often the game confuses this for clicking to select.
Though the music gameplay is slightly off, and the music editor might be too daunting for some casual players, Punk-o-matic-2 is still a remarkable tool for online musical creativity. One last feature is the ability to share music. Use the Get Data button to get a long code that you can copy. You can then share that code with friends, who can use the Load Data button to paste that code and load your song. I'm sure the JIG community can create and share some great stuff.
UPDATE: As of February 8th, 2010, Punk-o-Matic 2 has received a substantial update that includes numerous lag and bug fixes, and incorporates feedback from the community to add features such as "Free Mode". Free Mode allows you to play without worrying about fans or your career, play any song and venue, and tag advantage of all the customization options, all for free!