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Review: The Last of Us

Game: The Last of Us [PS3]
Recommended price: $30
Metacritic Score: 95
Completion Time: ~17 hours
Buy If You Like: Metal Gear Zombie, brilliant storytelling, good games

You can almost say the post-apoc was an improvement.

You can almost say the post-apoc was an improvement.

When it came down to a decision as to whether I should do an extremely late jump into this (now past) console generation, I really only had one question: did I want to play The Last of Us, or the Halo series? Despite ultimately choosing the PS3, I waited on purchasing The Last of Us for quite some time. This was the reason I bought this console, and I was a bit apprehensive about putting that $200+ decision to the test. After all, everyone raved about Bioshock Infinite at release and looked how that turned out for me. How could this Metacritic 95/9.1 game live up to the expectations I have levied upon it?

The answer is “Easily.”

The Last of Us (TLoU) is 3rd-person, stealth-emphasized cover-based shooter set twenty years into a “zombie” post-apocalypse. An outbreak of mind-destroying spores has nearly wiped out humanity, and the survivors are doing their best to stay alive in a world of infected bites, raiders, and mundane starvation. You play as Joel, a professional smuggler and hardened badass, who along with your partner Tess is looking to get even with a guy who robbed you both of a shipment of guns. After a series of close calls, Joel & Tess take up one last job: to smuggle a 14-year old girl out of the city and to a safe house.

The principal gameplay is exploring, sneaking, and killing from an over-the-shoulder perspective. While the environments are extremely linear and the number of enemy types fairly basic, I found the gameplay itself to never get dull. Supplies are almost always limited, so some real decisions will need to be made as to whether you take the time to sneak around and get some stealth kills versus lobbing a Molotov cocktail into that group of enemies right now. Compounding this, the human AI is brutal in its sensibility – enemies will fan out, attempt to flank you, send only one guy to investigate noises while the others watch, and so on.

There will be a lot of waist-high obstructions to crouch behind.

There will be a lot of waist-high obstructions to crouch behind.

About the only complaints I have about the combat side of things is the reverse difficulty curve and checkpoint system. Like many similar games, TLoU is harder in the beginning and only becomes progressively easier as time goes on. Part of that is familiarity with effective strategy, given how there aren’t a lot of new enemy types, and part of that is from access to more/better weapons. Indeed, facing human enemies became somewhat of a joke later on since they would frequently congregate in small groups at the beginning of encounters, which made it extremely easy to blow them all up at once with a nail bomb. And while I give Naughty Dog some credit for a truly seamless checkpoint system, it ends up doing some strange things to the difficulty insofar as discreet encounters only end up being ~5 minutes long.

For as fluid and exciting the combat system may be, where the game truly shines is everywhere else. The visual juxtaposition of ruined human civilization and a greenery of nature reclaiming the space filled me with sadness and wonder simultaneously; it feels like the most compelling combination between the movies I Am Legend and The Road. The musical score is amazing in its ambiance and willingness to not take over a scene. As for the voice acting, well, I never really noticed there being voice acting at all – it was just normal, natural dialog.

The overall narrative is likely the thing most everyone talks about when TLoU is brought up, and I can confirm that it is about as amazing as advertised. The weird thing is that there was not one particular moment in which I remember sitting there thinking “Wow, that’s some good videogame plot.” Instead, I felt permanently affixed to my screen, playing in five-hour increments, as each scene segued perfectly into the next and I eagerly devoured every little detail.

That queasy feeling you get when you realize you'd probably do the same thing.

That queasy feeling you get when you realize you’d probably do the same thing.

Now that I think about it, there actually were a few details in cut scenes in which my jaw dropped at the excellence of Naughty Dog’s craft. When Joel ever-so-briefly looked at his watch, for example, I was taken back to that first wink in Mass Effect when I understood, for the first time, how much farther gaming as a storytelling medium has evolved. These subtle-yet-significant gestures hold such a hidden depth of emotion that it boggles my mind that their meaning wasn’t as belabored in-game as I am doing right now. I mean, the gesture would be ruined if it called more attention to itself, but it is such a calculated risk that I’m surprised they did not.

Ultimately, The Last of Us is one of those shining examples of Games As Art that also happen to be extremely compelling to play. And unlike some other titles which overreach in their attempts to be narratively “deep” and complex – *cough* Bioshock Infinite *cough* – The Last of Us simply presents its case amongst gripping gameplay and, story told, drops the mic as the screen fades to black.

SimCity and Meta-Criticism

After a long period of reflection, I had originally decided to not join in on all the schadenfreude surrounding the SimCity debacle beyond my post two weeks ago. Not out of any moral sensibilities – heavens no! – but simply out of a lack of fucks given. That, and I certainly couldn’t keep up with the torrent of other blogger updates on the developing story, when it seemed some new embarrassment was revealed daily. Kotaku even had a SimCity Disaster Watch graphic created to handle all the articles.

At one point though, I was almost tempted to purchase SimCity myself out of a longing for gonzo journalism combined with the thought of a free EA game. Then I simply browsed EA’s catalog, realizing that unless they gave away Dead Space 3 (they did, dammit), I either had all the games or the value’s promotion was $20 max.

I do, however, want to commit to internet posterity my intense loathing regarding articles like this one from Time.com. These middle-road Apologist articles and their asinine, straw man arguments infuriate me to heights even EA cannot hope to surmount. Consider the following:

EA was never, ever obliged to make SimCity a single-player game, nor do these accusations (accurate or no) from modders that the existing code is just a few steps away from being a single-player game hold much water when it comes to EA’s obligations. So what if the game could have been a single-player game.

First, who said a single goddamned thing about obligation?

Look, I can follow the twisted derailment of thought that conjures forth the implied “obligation.” Someone stating that SimCity should have had a single-player mode is assuming a sort of game design high ground, harkening towards a moral edifice that does not strictly exist. Because the game should have been a certain way, Maxis/EA has an obligation to Comment out Line #22 in the code design a single-player mode. That’s where the implied obligation comes from, right?

If so, we live in a terribly nonsensical world, one immune to criticism or judgment of any kind. Did McDonald’s give you cold french fries? Too bad, because they aren’t obligated to give you hot ones. No complaining! Did you tell the waiter you wanted a medium-rare steak and they gave you well-done? The chef isn’t obligated to bend to your whims, knave! He or she is an artiste! Movie previews aren’t obligated to represent the actual feature film, and if you don’t like it, go back in time and don’t buy a ticket!

Of course, the author clearly is being pedantic here. The point most people are bringing up is that SimCity, both conceptually and literally, doesn’t need to be always-online. There is no requirement for it to be so, despite the rather flagrant falsehoods claimed by the development team and embarrassingly contradicted by the modding community and a Maxis insider. Maxis/EA has no obligation to accede to reason, of course, but they certainly invite the valid criticism that accompany such quests for profit at consumer expense.

Which segues nicely into this nonsense:

You can ask, you can even petition, but I’d like to think we’re not at the point where we’re now telling painters, musicians, writers and artists of whatever stripe — game designers included — what they have to do.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t shake your fist indignantly and shout “but games are art!” then hold game designers to a different standard.

This is truly an despicable appeal to diversion. “Stop complaining about game design direction, or else games won’t be art anymore!” First of all, there is nothing sacrosanct about art. Authors have editors. Directors have focus groups. Fundamentally, all art is an exchange, and every artist considers his or her audience when making a piece for presentation (even if they imagine it is an audience of just themselves). And this is besides the fact that these game companies are businesses selling a product for profit. Games can be artistic products, but these companies are selling them to consumers, not putting (selling?) them in museums.

The pernicious worm at the core of this abhorrent article is the same one I have seen in similar, depressingly frequent articles: an implicit admonition of criticism itself. “Stop complaining,” these authors say, “you are lucky the artists deign to create anything for you filthy plebs.” No, I deny your thinly-veiled nihilism. Gamers have a right to reject anti-consumerist design. Gamers have the right to call out poor gameplay. The gamers who made the SimCity franchise successful in the first place have a right to protest design they feel is taking said franchise in the wrong direction. Is EA/Maxis or any game maker obligated to do anything? Of course not. Does that make levied criticism illegitimate? Hell no.

You are always entitled to your own opinion, and people can judge for themselves whether it an opinion worthy of consideration. And it is my opinion that Time’s article of meta-criticism – and all articles in the same vein – are specious nonsense, and nihilistic besides. Nothing is beyond reproach, else it demonstrates a perfection impossible to manifest in a universe of subjective minds.

I can only hope that the next EA CEO coming in can spare the 5 minutes of his or her time to understand why the company continues topping the worst company in the world charts. A quick memo to Maxis authorizing an offline mode would pull the teeth out of this endless negative PR; a gaming policy of not monetizing every single pixel with endless online passes could even get gamers to forgive Origin (or maybe just running some goddamn sales).

Bam, done. You’re welcome, EA.

P.S. While writing this article, a friend of mine pops up on Steam chat saying that the Mass Effect 3 servers were down, meaning he couldn’t play the single-player DLC he legitimately purchased through Origin weeks ago. This is the world we live in, folks.

Review: Bastion

Game: Bastion
Recommended price: $15 (Full Price)
Metacritic Score: 88
Completion Time: ~6 hours
Buy If You Like: Extremely well designed, short works of action-RPG art.

Like LIMBO, another entry in the "Games As Art" category.

Much like LIMBO before it, Bastion puts me in the unfortunate position of having to tell you about an amazing game that concludes much too soon. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

On a superficial level, Bastion is a so-so Action RPG in the vein of Diablo meets Kingdom Hearts. You move your character around with WASD on an isometric field, and repeatedly Left-Click or Right-Click depending on which of the two selected weapons you want to use. There is also a dodge (Spacebar) and Block (Shift) button, the latter of which can straight up counter attacks completely if you press it at the right time. There are a bit more than a dozen enemy types, only a few of which require tactics other than simply shooting them with a ranged weapon or repeatedly mashing the melee button. You pick up orbs from killing/breaking things to use as currency for upgrades, leveling doesn’t change much beyond max HP and opening new passive ability slots, and… that’s about it.

By the way, the Mona Lisa is just a chick sitting in front of a river, Starry Night is just some swirls, Seurat liked making a lot of dots, Moonlight Sonata is some piano noises, etc etc.

How things are presented is incredibly important, and it is in this way that the designers of Bastion demonstrate a level of mastery that is damn near sublime. Bastion is a game with its own zeitgeist.

One of the first things people mention about Bastion is the narration by Logan Cunningham, who incredibly has never done voice-acting before. Before I played the game, I thought the concept of background narration a cute “gimmick.” By the end of Bastion, I had no idea how I would cope in games without it. The narration is so much more than a workaround for a silent protagonist and a lack of formal written dialog. Yes, it reacts to things you are doing on-screen – “Kid just rages for a while” (when just smashing objects), “And then the Kid falls to his death… I’m just playin’” (when you fall off the edge of the maps). But it solves a crucial problem endemic in most RPGs: how do you succinctly express emotion? Written dialog only takes you so far, and emotive character models generally do not work outside of LA Noir-esque settings, nevermind how that shackles you into a certain artistic style. Obviously Bastion is not the first game to use voice acting to “solve” the problem, but I am coming up at a loss as to what other game nailed it as hard as this one.

Seriously, Bastion has ruined other games for me, art-wise.

The other aspect that unfortunately does not seem to get as much press time are the visuals. It is somewhat difficult to truly appreciate it during gameplay, but this is the first time I have felt like I was playing a literal work of art since Saga Frontier 2. And it is just not that everything looks amazing; everything simply fits. For example, take a look at any of the screenshots. Do you ever really notice the background? In the entire time I was playing, I recognized that there were edges I could fall off of, and yet never once was I distracted by what that abyss consisted of. That doesn’t happen by accident. Also, the elegance that is the ground flying up to form your path is the sort of design epiphany that solves a more mundane problem (how to prevent the player from seeing their isometric path) in a way that makes the game as a whole better. In other words, it felt like an integral part of the experience rather than arbitrary.

Finally, I would be remiss to not mention the amazing soundtrack. It fades in and out at all the right moments, and is of a quality far beyond what one would expect in a $15 indie game. Part Western, part Eastern, part hip-hop, trip-hop, blues, techno and altogether perfect for what it is. I would not go so far as to buy the $10 soundtrack – typically, battle music isn’t what I look for when I want to relax/browse the web – but you might want to check out Build That Wall (Zia’s Theme) and Mother, I’m Here (Zulf’s Theme) and the hybridized Setting Sail, Coming Home (End Theme). Even if you never actually play the game, those three songs alone will likely make their way to the top of your playlist. Mother, I’m Here in particular so perfectly channels a moment in the game, that it creates a feedback loop with your memory of the experience (which includes the song) that results, at least for me, a reaction far beyond what I actually felt at the time. I literally have not experienced this feeling from a videogame song since Chrono Trigger, FF7, and Xenogears.

Honestly, the only thing stopping this game from rocketing its way towards my Top 5 game list is its six hour duration. That is not to say it felt rushed or incomplete; quite the opposite, in fact! Bastion puts its arm around your shoulder, spins you a fantastic tale, pats you on the back and then saunters off into the sunset. For the completists and sentimentalists, there is a New Game+ option that lets you keep your upgraded weapons and adds more gods to the Shrine, which buffs enemies in various ways to voluntarily increase the challenge.

All good things come to an end though, and god damn if I wished Bastion lasted two, three, hell, five times as long as it did. Lord knows worse games do.

Review: LIMBO

Game: LIMBO
Recommended price: $5-$10
Metacritic Score: 89
Completion Time: 3 hours
Buy If You Like: Giving charity to promising indie game designers.

Most atmospheric game since ICO.

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