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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.

Review: Journey [PS3]

Game: Journey [PS3]
Recommended price: $20
Metacritic Score: 92
Completion Time: 2-3 hours
Buy If You Like: World peace, Justice, Art, Sand simulators

Seriously, play this game.

Seriously, play this game.

I do not even know where to begin with describing Journey. Perhaps the beginning? That always seems to work for most people.

Journey starts out as (and continues to be) the most impressive sand-simulator I have ever seen. Sliding down the first sand dune instantly transported me back into childhood, or at least as far as Super Mario 64. But Journey is not a platformer; it is an emotion, an experience. One that only gets more and more compelling as the minutes pass.

Describing your mechanical actions as you play the game almost feels like missing the point, but to not mention them would miss the point. Nearly every single thing about Journey is perfectly crafted. You move around with the left analog stick, and can pan the camera by either tilting the PS3 controller or using the right analog stick. In the opening desert-scape, you get some extra fabric added to your avatar’s scarf, which allows you to jump and glide for a few seconds. The only other button used is “O,” which lets out a little “energy chirp” or longer blast if held down.

That is it. There is no UI, no hearts, no power meter (aside from the scarf), nothing to distract you beyond the immensity and immediacy of the moment.

I felt more connected here than in most MMOs.

I felt more connected here than in most MMOs.

After the tutorial “level,” gamers connected to the internet will encounter perhaps the most sublimely executed feature in videogames: another human being. That sounds facetious, until you realize how often games treat other players as competitors, enemies, or judgmental peers desperately trying to foster virtual respect. Your fellow traveler in Journey is exactly that, no more, no less. Except… it is much, much more than that.

Remember when I mentioned the player’s scarf controlling the ability to jump? While there are items scattered around the landscape that add length to said scarf to further increase one’s hang-time, the ability to jump is always limited to how much of a “charge” the scarf has. One can only replenish this charge at certain locations along the map.

Unless, that is, there is another player around. Merely being in close proximity to a player with charge remaining on their scarf, will cause your scarf to recharge to full as they entwine. This is not a draining of power, but rather a creation, a resonance. Similarly, the sort of “energy chirp” players can do will also charge your partner’s scarf if they are in range.

I am spending so much time talking about this because the way Journey fits together as a whole led me to one of the most intimate experiences I have had in videogaming – all without voice, text, or even names. I felt connected to this stranger, as we slid down sand highways and soared above the dunes while alternating our energy chirps. I had a suspicion that my anonymous partner had played this game before, but he or she seemed tolerant of my exploratory inclinations. If they wanted to direct my attention towards something or indicate that we should give up on trying to get that tricky scarf-extension orb, a series of chirps was enough. Of course, as we traveled, I would occasionally chirp to keep up his/her power level, and after a while I think he/she realized what my seemingly random chirping accomplished (and then returned the favor).

There's more than just desert, but seriously, I don't want to lessen the experience.

There’s more than just desert, but seriously, I don’t want to lessen the experience.

I am not going to talk any more about the rest of the game and the environments explored, both to avoid “spoilers” and because the game itself is only 2-3 hours long. But suffice it to say, it’s brilliant. Absolutely, devastatingly, goddamn brilliant. And I haven’t even talked about the music, which is universally praised and adored. And have I mentioned the visuals? I believe I have, but they too are striking and sublime – there were a few moments during Journey at which I seriously considered buying a $150 video capture device solely to take screenshots of this one game.

Sometimes I struggle with these shorter, more artistic games insofar as how much they are really worth. A game like LIMBO can be amazing (and it is), but spending $15 on something you finish in a single sitting? Perhaps I should have waited for a sale there. But with Journey I do feel it is enough of a novel experience to be worth skipping one night out at the movies to play. Not to mention it comes with two other games, although I have not yet played them. Possibly all combined they could make a full MSRP ($30) worth it. Even if it is just Journey though, anything more than a 25% sale means this bundle will be worth it on the strength of Journey alone.

…”Journey alone.” Whatever you do, don’t Journey alone. Christ, I want to play again.

Beach and the PS4

So, I have been and will continue to be on vacation at the beach with family until the end of the week. The internet service down here is absolutely abysmal – we’re talking 5 Mbps shared across 40 rooms – which is why I have not been on top of the comments and general news. I suppose that might sound bad, caring about frivolous internet things while at the beach. But honestly, if I knew it was going to be vacation back to 1994, I might have passed. Also, the ocean seems saltier this year and there was a fly in my soup.

That said, how ’bout that PS4 news?

If you have not been keeping abreast of the latest developments, Sony basically “won” the show. You can read Liore’s coverage of the event or even similar things in this CNN article. Bottom line?

  • No new restrictions on used game sales.
  • No internet connection required.
  • $399 vs Xbox One’s $499

It wasn’t all good news – a Playstation Plus membership is required for all multiplayer, just like Xbox Live today – but it was a fantastic PR coup for Sony to have been quiet all this time before launching into these consumer-friendly revelations.

A couple Apologists skeptics from around the web have tried to paint Sony with the Xbox One brush over the used games quote though:

“The DRM decision is going to have to be in the hands of the third parties. That’s not something that we’re going to dictate or mandate or control or implement.”

“Aha!” the Apologists cried. “Same thing as Xbox!”

Not really. In fact, not at all. The key point here is that Sony’s strategy is unchanged from the current generation. Remember Online Passes? Those were 3rd party attempts at mitigating secondary game sales, all of which happened in this generation. If EA suddenly changes their mind vis-a-vis reintroducing Online Passes, Sony isn’t going to stop them, but at least it isn’t turned on by default as it is in the Xbox One scenario. As Destructoid put it:

The major difference between PS4 and Xbox One, of course, is that Sony hasn’t made it easier for corporations to control the behavior of their customers, because the PS4 doesn’t tie your copies to your accounts, or initiate checks to scrub traded game data off your system. Basically, Microsoft designed the Xbox One to make it as easy as flipping a switch to eradicate any possibility of sharing your games, while Sony is maintaining its policy of this current generation.

Or you can go with the Game Front article for even further clarification:

“The Online Pass program for PlayStation first-party games will not continue on PlayStation 4. Similar to PS3, we will not dictate the online used game strategy (the ability to play used games online) of its publishing partners. As announced last night, PS4 will not have any gating restrictions for used disc-based games. When a gamer buys a PS4 disc they have right to use that copy of the game, so they can trade-in the game at retail, sell it to another person, lend it to a friend, or keep it forever.”

This is good news for gamers, indeed. In a nutshell, you can buy a used single-player game for the PS4 and play it all you want. If you want to go online with it, you may have to deal with some sort of publisher-determined DRM, be it an Online Pass or whatever.

Basically: #PS4Life

Not that I’m going to buy one anytime soon – I just bought a PS3 last Christmas. But it’s nice to know that whenever I do hop aboard the next console generation, I will have the opportunity to catch up on all the games I’ve missed by hitting up Amazon or some local place and not be paying full MSRP out the ass for 2+ year old games.

Overboard

I am officially back in action, having successfully moved all my shit across town and (more importantly) getting the internet hooked up at the new place. During the transition, I took the opportunity to indulge in my baser whims, and ended up purchasing the Playstation 3, a very decent TV to play it on, and… games. All of the games.

  • Demon Souls
  • Journey Collector’s Edition (Journey, Flower, flOw)
  • Final Fantasy XIII
  • Heavy Rain
  • Catherine
  • Metal Gear Solid 4
  • ICO & Shadow of the Colossus bundle
  • Red Dead Redemption: Game of the Year Edition
  • Valkyria Chronicles
  • Uncharted 1 & 2 (came with PS3)
  • Infamous 1 & 2 (came with PS3)
  • Bayonetta

In fact, I might have gone a bit overboard, even though all of them were less than $20 apiece.

Scratch that, I know I have gone overboard, because this also happened:

Well... I... but... MoP was $20 so I thought... sigh

Well… I… but… MoP was $20 so I thought… sigh

The funny thing is that I have so much choice at the moment, that I have chosen not to play anything just yet. The only game I have booted up in the last 48 hours has been XCOM (it was $28 at GMG over the holiday), and that was just because it was one of the few Steam titles that I could play in Offline Mode. I only played XCOM until the end of the tutorial (difficulty Normal Ironman), but so far it has piqued my interest. Then again, I should also probably get back on the WoW train if for no other reason than to actually use the last few remaining free days. And then there is some PlanetSide 2 things I want to talk about. Nevermind the fact that I should probably finish hooking up my PS3 and pop at least one disc in the tray…

So, yeah. Overboard.

Since I am already in for a penny, might as well get all the pounds: if there is some PS3/console exclusive title that I should be on the lookout for come Xmas sale time, let me know in the comments. For example, I almost overlooked Bayonetta until I saw it on eBay last night.

Interesting Move, CCP

Way back in February, I was quoting Bullshitter in Chief, David Reid, on how Dust 514 could make EVE “the biggest game in the world at the end of 2012.” There are only 33 days left in the year for this to be theoretically possible, but nevermind.

At that time (and still currently), my questions focused on the “what the hell were they thinking with a PS3 exclusive” angle. The related followup question was how CCP planned to muscle into an already crowded FPS marketplace with a completely unknown IP (the FPS portion anyway); free-to-play will only get you so far, if no one knows about you.

Well, with all the game console browsing I have been doing lately, I have a partial answer:

Product Features

Platform: PLAYSTATION 3 | Edition: 250GB Uncharted 3: Game of the Year
  • The new 250GB PlayStation 3 System, with a built in Blu-Ray player, can hold over to 1800 Games, 140 Movies, 99,000 Songs, and 40,000 photos
  • The PlayStation 3 system includes a free PlayStation Network membership for online gaming, streaming movies and music, and access to the PlayStation Store
  • UNCHARTED 3: Drake’s Deception Game of the Year Edition showcases Nathan Drake’s journey through new challenges and includes over $45 of Bonus Content
  • With a 30-day trial of PlayStation Plus, access your instant game collection and download from a free library of hit games. Save over $70 with the PlayStation 3/Uncharted 3 Game of the Year bundle
  • Dust 514, a free to play game available exclusively on the PlayStation Network, thrusts you into the explosive ground conflict of the EVE universe
  • Included with this PlayStation 3 bundle is a promotional code for your personal DUST 514 ordinance pack containing a 7-day active skill booster, a permanent Armored Personnel Carrier, an assortment of digital items, and 2,000 Aurum to spend on in-game gear, weapons and equipment. Over $30 in total value.

That’s right, somehow CCP got Sony to include $30 worth of item shop goods in the, er… PS3 Uncharted 3: Game of the Year bundle. Because nothing says sci-fi F2P FPS like a 3rd-person action game.

It is an interesting move, and certainly one that will garner some extra attention from whomever takes advantage of that bundle. I can’t help but get confused though, when it appears that the Dust 514 mention is missing from the other bundles like the 500gb Assassin’s Creed 3 and even the 320gb Uncharted 3 bundle. Did CCP only pay enough to get on the 250gb bundle instead of the 320gb? Surely there is no hardware difference, so did they just change their minds? Did Netflix out-bid them?

Regardless, I find myself even more intrigued by this unfolding drama than I was before. And, hey, now that I own a PS3 myself, I might actually go full gonzo and try it at some point.

This Is Why We Can’t Have Good Things

A few hours after Saturday’s post, I decided: “Yep, that PS3 bundle is the way to go.” Part of the ordering process is choosing the bonus game, which I did. “Part of this bundle is out of stock.” Alright, maybe everyone is picking LittleBigPlanet 2? I tried another game, and got the same error. Finally, I refreshed the page and saw this:

God… dammit.

Given the fact that I would have been getting five games, all of which I had a passing interest in, along with the 250gb console itself for $219, I started kicking myself for not jumping all over this thing. Why didn’t I order as soon as I saw it on Friday?

Bah. Let me check some other places to see if they offer similar price ranges…

raaaaaaaagggggggeeeee

You goddamn sons of bitches.

In the heat of my rage, I did end up laughing a bit over the fact that I was partly mad that I hadn’t thought to do this exact thing myself. These assholes aren’t even including the bonus game, which means they basically got paid $65 to take a free videogame.

But, seriously, this sort of shit is why we cannot have good things. Capitalism and free markets working as intended, sure, whatever. But can you sit there and tell me that this sort of arbitrage is anything more than nihilistic? There is zero difference in “markets” between Walmart.com and eBay, especially when the latter is being sold by a small-time retailer. I am fine with arbitrage conceptually because while the profit is essentially risk-free, it can be argued that value is actually being generated by the arbitrageurs by virtue of them moving product between markets. For example, I am fine with some local store basically buying shit online and selling it in their store at a markup, because hey, maybe I don’t want to wait for it to get mailed. Or maybe I’m not internet savvy. And so on¹.

These guys though? Fuck those guys. Stores are posting deals to encourage more shoppers to show up, and what they get instead are opportunistic leeches extracting other peoples’ consumer surplus while adding nothing. These are concert ticket scalpers buying thousands of tickets, artificially creating the scarcity they prey upon to the detriment of all parties.

And what really sucks for me personally? I am not going to be able to look at any sort of lesser PS3 deal without a jaundiced eye. Future deals will be contrasted with a $219 possibility and likely be found wanting. Just like with the Steam Autumn Sale going on right now, if I somehow miss a 75% deal during its window, I am not ever buying that game until it is back on a similar discount. It may not be entirely logical, but it is the way things work for me.

Moral of the story: Jump on these sort of deals immediately. Worst case scenario: eBay.

[Fake Edit] As I pulled into the Best Buy parking lot on Sunday to pick up my $180 32″ TV and $20 MoP expansion (uh oh), I noticed there was a Walmart right next door. Went in to get some groceries, walked out with the $199 (!) aforementioned Infamous/Uncharted PS3 bundle (cheaper because no bonus game). My “normal” Walmart didn’t have any, but this one had at least four. I was sorely tempted to go “I’ll take all of them,” but internet bravado rarely transfers into real life. Plus, I was already feeling worried I was going to get ‘jacked on my way to the car by carrying around a 32″ TV and PS3, let alone several.

¹ It did occur to me that I did a lot of this sort of thing in MMO AHs, i.e. “flipping.” However, I would argue that I was still providing a service insofar that the original seller was desiring a quick liquidation and nothing else. Or maybe it is the same thing in the abstract. Then again, the person who ends up buying my flipped good never knows how much I bought it for, which is the source of a lot of my ire right now.

Late to the Party

This question may be be moot by the time anyone can read/respond to it, but…

If you had zero next-gen consoles or games, which one (1) console would you purchase?

  • Xbox 360 250GB w/ Halo anniversary and Forza 4 ($199)
  • PS3 Slim 250GB Console with Uncharted 1 & 2 and Infamous 1 & 2 ($219)
  • Nintendo Wii Console with Wii Sports and Wii Sports Resort ($119)
  • None (see below)

I have zero interest in the Wii U or any of the handhelds – I’d be using the console as a Netflix box for a 32″ TV at a minimum. I am heavily leaning towards PS3 right now between the number of exclusive titles that I have some interest in, but I am also aware of how many times PS3 owners have been screwed over in terms of updates, game ports, etc. My PC will still be my primary gaming rig, but if I wait until 2013 and the next-next-gen, then my 32″ TV will be quite out of place attached to my PS2.

Then again, I haven’t actually bought the 32″ TV yet ($180), so technically I could just do nothing at all and wait all this shit out like I have been for the last 6-8 years. Sigh.

#firstworldproblems

Console Exclusives Need to Go

It is 2012. We should not be living in a world in which I cannot play The Last of Us without buying a six year-old, $250 console. I mean, look at this:

Metal Gear 4 wasn’t enough, but goddamn if The Last of Us pushes me to it. Probably not really, but who knows what kind of holiday sales there will be between now and then. Hopefully one that includes the Ico/Shadow of the Colossus HD pack, MGS4, and… err, the Uncharted series? Am I missing something else exclusive to the PS3 worth playing?

Also, looking forward to Far Cry 3. Luckily, it will be on the PC.