Monday, June 24, 2013

The Last of Us - a Must-Own for the PS3

A few days ago I completed the latest and greatest game from Naughty Dog, the PS3-exclusive The Last of Us. It was just released June 14 and I don't talk about brand new games on here very often, but I'd been looking forward to this one for a long time and it was quite an experience so I felt like putting fingertips to keyboard. I'll try to stay away from any spoilers in case you haven't played it yet but plan to (which I highly recommend).

In The Last of Us, the world has been overrun by a fungus that infects humans via spores which cause the fungus to grow on the human brain, driving the victims insane. The fungus then spreads throughout the host's body, mutating it as the infection progresses through various stages of severity.

These infected humans then spread the disease in classic zombie fashion by biting non-infected humans. But this is an infection, not the walking dead, so the good news is that if you die you are off the hook. The game starts with Joel and his daughter Sarah in the Texas hill country as the plague is just beginning, but after a small amount of backstory it quickly fast-forwards 20 years to a point when the resulting pandemic has decimated the population and left roving bands of infecteds and merciless humans in their place.

You play most of the game as Joel, who in the 20 years since the outbreak has been forced into doing some morally questionable things to survive. Joel now lives in a military-controlled quarantine zone in Boston and the rest of the story revolves around Joel's journey across a post-apocalyptic America with a 14-year old girl Ellie to meet up with a resistance group called the Fireflies.

I hesitate to give any more details than that for fear of spoilers, but suffice it to say that this is probably the best story I have ever experienced in a video game. As you would expect from the game's premise, it isn't really a feel-good tale - the underlying tone is grim and brutal, but it is emotionally moving. The plot itself doesn't hold anything particularly new in the realm of post-apocalyptic fiction (I've read and seen my share for sure!), but of course the true strength of any tale is the characters, and these are believable and lifelike - I actually cared about them and even gasped when shocking things happened to them. On your journey you meet several other people along the way and even though you have much less time to get to know these supporting characters they seem very fleshed out and believable as well - all leave you with the impression that there is a rich backstory there even if you don't have time to hear it during the game. Oh, and the game utilizes the common game device of finding old diaries, tape recorders, notes, etc which fill you in on a lot of the details of what happened to the various people you find, both living and not-so-much.  The quality of the story and the depth and interaction of the characters really made me feel like I was watching a good movie as much as playing a good video game.

And in the fact is stranger than fiction department, I stumbled across these videos about the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis fungus that act very much like those portrayed in the game. My background is in microbiology and environmental chemistry so that probably boosts the interest level for me, but mostly I just thought they were cool because they were so damn creepy. Check 'em out.

I would describe the gameplay as a stealth-based survival horror third person action game. Didn't realize I was going to use that many words before I started that sentence - is that a genre?

There are four different stages of the disease which lead to four different types of infecteds that would just love to floss their teeth with your neck tendons.

Runners - Newly infected who have lost most of their reasoning ability and run around frantically, viciously attacking anyone they find.
Stalkers - The infection has spread so that the fungus has begun to sprout from the person's face but has not completely covered it yet. These infecteds tend to flank and sneak up on their victims instead of mindlessly running about until they find one.
Clickers - The fungus has progressed to cover the infected's face which blinds them, but these infecteds have developed extremely sensitive hearing which allows them use a method of echolocation to "see" via audible clicks.
Bloaters - These infecteds have survived long enough that the fungus has completely covered their entire body. They are slow and lumbering but very strong and their fungal layers provide them with an armor plating of sorts which makes them very difficult to kill.

In addition to the infecteds, there is no shortage of crazy-ass brutal human survivors who's hobbies include walking in deserted towns and shooting you in the forehead.

First and foremost I consider the game survival horror almost by definition given the horrific survival scenario in which you find yourself.  Supplies and ammo are scarce so you search them out where you can and conserve them as much as possible. And you also search out tools and mechanical parts which allow you to upgrade and craft your own weapons and health kits once you are able to find a workbench on which to work. I've never been a fan of the search for useless coins and treasure in games but making me search for parts I can use to make things I need to survive fools my mind into thinking it is less of a useless exercise. Shades of Resident Evil, Dead Space, and Fallzone 3 here.

One other thought on the survival horror aspect - I used to play through my games in the most difficult mode for the sake of the challenge, but after some consideration a while back which I discussed in a previous post, I have switched to typically choosing the "Normal" difficulty level for my more recent games. But here, for this game so keyed on survival and scarcity of resources, I think the "Hard" mode may have been the better choice (there is also the even more difficult "Survivor" mode). I didn't think that Normal was too easy - it played great and believe me I had my fair share of getting my throat ripped out, it's just that I think the tone of the game may have been a bit more enhanced if ammo and supplies were just a little less available. Of course, with all the bullets your enemies are spraying at you the reality is there should have been be even MORE ammo available for you to grab after you take them down, but reality aside, if I had it to do over again I think I might have preferred to play it on Hard. Right now I'm playing through on Survivor mode, but as much as I like the game I doubt I will finish it again - I'm not much of a trophy whore and I almost never complete a game twice.

Don't get me wrong though, even on Normal ammo is NOT plentiful. If you just shoot everybody you will run out of bullets very quickly, which is where the stealth component comes into play. You try to avoid confrontations where possible and to conserve ammo you can sneak up on enemies and choke them out or shiv them. To assist in this, Joel can focus his listening which allows you to see enemies through walls as long as they are making at least a little noise. This is pretty much exactly like Batman's Detective Mode sight in the Arkham games, except Joel's ability seemed a bit more realistic where as the enemies get quieter or further away they get fainter and disappear altogether if they are totally silent. I really enjoy this mechanic. This ability isn't available at all on Survivor mode which I suppose is more realistic, but not sure if it is more fun. I found the stealth play suspenseful and fun. Perhaps a bit slow to develop at times, but this felt consistent with the tone of the game so it worked. However, I don't expect it to wear quite as well on subsequent playthroughs. My only minor complaint about the stealth encounters is that the AI seemed a bit weak. Enemies didn't seem to notice me when I was pretty sure they were looking right at me. And they NEVER saw Ellie who stumbled and bumbled her way all over the place literally right in front of them. And somehow the gurgling chokes of the guys I snuck up on did not alert their nearby cohorts or even clickers for that matter. That might be a result of playing it on Normal difficulty though - maybe the enemies are more alert on the more difficult levels. Either way not a big deal just a bit inconsistent with the reality in that universe.

The action component primarily consists of smooth gunplay and slightly less smooth melee combat that feels pretty much exactly like that in Uncharted. These encounters were broken up by a number of setpiece sequences like when you are doing things like sniping infecteds from a perch as they attack your approaching friends, keeping infecteds from invading all sides of a cabin (a-la zombie mode in the COD games), escaping an armored truck that is firing a heavy machine gun at you, riding a horse throught a forest, etc. There was also a small puzzle component where you had to find ladders, planks and other items like that to get from one point to another. Overall I would say the action encounters were somewhat repetitive but they were so well-done and dispersed throughout the game that it never really felt that way to me at the time.

Naughty Dog has consistently made some of the most visually stunning games I've played and this is no exception. The detail in both the urban cityscapes and in the natural landscapes across multiple seasons was just beautiful. And I am always a big fan of the palette of rich colors that they use. Proof that you don't have to paint everything dull gray and brown to make it realistic or to set a grim tone.

And Naughty Dog is a master of camera work on its games. Their signature cinematic cut scenes not only blurred, but virtually erased the lines between video game and movie here. At one point my wife came in the room and said, "I thought you were playing your game." "I am" I responded. She took another look, "oh, it looked like it was a movie for a minute - very realistic."

The detail on the characters was equally impressive. The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) changes in their facial expressions and the detailed mannerisms really added up to make the characters more believable and consequently enhanced the immersive experience.

I did see a few instances of objects in the distance blinking in, one instance where I found an odd pool of static, and one glitchy part where Ellie was on the back of an invisible bad guy who was trying to shake her loose so she basically looked like she was shaking violently in mid-air. So I guess I can't say it was perfect, but damn near.

First off, the music - it was excellent. The tunes playing during some of the trailers had already piqued my musical interest a bit and the rest of the music in the game just confirmed that I loved it. Hauntingly beautiful during the moving scenes, tense during the firefights, suspenseful and spooky during stealth encounters with infecteds - the music perfectly accentuates every situation. The music was the work of Gustavo Santaolalla who I had not actually heard of before but after looking him up I see he has won a ton of awards for his work in the music industry and the movie industry. And probably soon for the videogame industry as well.

Does voice acting go under the Sound section? Guess so. The voice acting is superb - especially from the main characters but from ancillary characters as well. Just outstanding. Joel was voiced by Troy Baker who also voiced Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite and Two-Face in Batman Arkham City. I'm not familiar with the work of Ashley Johnson, but she did an excellent job of providing the voice of Ellie. Naughty Dog veteran voice Nolan North (Nathan Drake) even made a voice appearance as David - a character you meet maybe 3/4 the way through the game. And on my second playthrough I've discovered quite a bit of rich dialogue taking place between the environmental characters that I didn't even notice the first time. Some of the dialogue from the numerous nameless thugs you encounter is pretty cliche and can get repetitve just like it did in the Uncharted games but I suppose there are only so many different ways one can pre-record "we're gonna fuckin kill you old man!" so that's understandable I suppose.

And the sound effects are very realistic, even my dog Chico thinks so - when dogs started barking onscreen he started barking back at them. The environmental and combat sounds work extremely well to enhance the realism - especially if you have a surround sound setup.

So as you can tell I thought the Last of Us was a great game. I hesitate to use the word "fun" to describe it given the overall dark tone, but I found it to be a rewarding and entertaining experience. And despite my frequent use of the word "grim" in this review, there were also a number of very touching moments where more positive human feelings like hope, loyalty and love were on display as well, even if they felt more like the seasoning than the primary ingredients. But good or bad, or I guess I should say good AND bad - that's life. Especially after the world has been destroyed and all the trivial distractions of modern life have been stripped away. I think Keates said it best - just kidding, I just realized that I'm starting to annoy myself by drifting to much into the heavy stuff so I'll stop.

I'm guessing some people might find the ending somewhat controversial, but to me it was consistent with the narrative and characters set up in the previous 15 or so hours so it felt like a natural conclusion. For that matter it was more or less consistent with my own feelings anyway - so I got no beef with it. Wish I could discuss it here but like I said - no spoilers.

Also, the game is very linear - which for some ridiculous reason seems to often be immediately interpreted by some gamers these days as a bad thing. Like I said, playing this game felt like watching a good movie or reading a good book, and with the possible exception of the Choose Your Own Adventure books those media are of course quite linear. And to me, all things being equal, linear video games are not only not a bad thing, they are a good thing. So I don't consider that a knock. Just mentioning it for those anti-linearity folks out there. All that being said, the world that is available for you to explore didn't really feel confining to me, so most of the time I was left with the impression that it was an open world that I just didn't have the time or interest to explore - and if the developer can achieve that they have succeeded in my book.

On my personal ratings list I would give it maybe a 9.6, although as always I reserve the right to change that later. I often find that my long-term opinion of a game in the context of certain systems can change a bit as I ruminate on them after completion, so I might decide I like it a little more or less in a couple of weeks, but for now I would say it goes pretty near the top of my PS3 games list.  Not AT the top, but near.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gaming on $2 or Less - Dead Space Downfall

"This is deep space... weird shit happens."

Truer words were never spoken.

My second post for the new Gaming on $2 or Less feature is not actually a game, but a video based on one. A Blu-ray video to be precise - Dead Space Downfall - which I recently purchased from Fry's for the paltry sum of only $2 (we'll conveniently ignore the sales tax - dang already breaking my own rules).

I'll admit, I am a sucker for horror science fiction movies. They don't even have to be particularly good for me to enjoy them. Whether they are universally accepted classics like Alien and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, lower tier thrillers like Event Horizon and Pandorum, or B-grade cult favorites like Galaxy of Terror and Life Force - I have been in love with horror sci-fi flicks for a long long time.

Dead Space Downfall is a prequel to the first Dead Space game. It details the ordeal of the USG Ishimura leading up to, literally, the moment the story begins in Dead Space the game. The events take place at the same time as those occurring planetside as shown in the prequel game Dead Space Extraction. The chief protagonist of the movie is Ishimura's hard-ass Head of Security Alissa Vincent who does her best to figure out what is going on and try to save the ship's crew - spoiler alert - she does not succeed.

From the back of the case: "For the crew of the USG Ishimura, this is how the horror begins: On a deep space mining mission to a remote planet, an ancient religious relic - thought to be proof of the existence of God - is unearthed and brought aboard. It is worshipped by some, scorned by others. But when the unholy artifact unleashes a long-dormant alien race, its glimpse of Heaven transforms the ship into a living Hell. The chaos is immediate. The carnage is uncontrollable. And an onslaught unlike anything ever witnessed by mankind has now been set free to rip this world apart. Prepare yourself for the disturbing opening chapters of the new EA game that takes adult animation to graphic new levels of bloodshed and terror. This is DEAD SPACE: DOWNFALL."

That pretty much says it all. And yes, disturbing, graphic, bloodshed and terror are good words to describe this video. There is a lot of gore in this thing. A LOT.

Here is the trailer:

Special features include the movie trailer (pretty cool), the game trailer (excellent addition but shaky quality), a deleted scene (draft drawn and a little hard to watch), photo gallery (kinda cool behind the scenes art), "isolated" soundtrack (meh), and supposedly cheat codes although I didn't notice those. You also get a separate DVD with the portable digital copy that you can copy over to your portable devices. I've never really used those from DVD/Blu-ray purchases before but a nice addition anyway.

The trailer for the movie looked good, but inexplicably the game trailer was not in HD and looked grainy. What?! To a trailer-lover like myself it is a sin for a Blu-ray to include a trailer at lower than HD resolution unless the HD source material does not exist, and I know full well the HD version of that trailer is available because I've downloaded it. So that annoyed me a bit.

Is the movie good enough to stand on its own merits for people that didn't play the game? Well, no probably not - it seems more geared toward fans of the game. Does the loosely woven plot start to fall apart if you pull too many threads? Yeah kind of, but the same is true of the game and I still loved it. Did they make a mistake by showing the security chief's final video transmission at the very beginning that spilled the beans about what was going to happen? Yeah, I didn't really care for that choice but everybody already knows the Ishimura crew is screwed from the get-go so no biggie. Did... OK OK stop asking me so many questions. It's not Star Wars, but like I said, I'm a sucker for this stuff, so even though the video is a little shaky I still thought it was pretty cool.

So if, like me, you loved the video game then you would probably enjoy watching this video to see the backstory events unfold. If you have no interest in the game whatsoever then it might not be your cup of tea. And if you are offended and put off by the thought of a violent and gore-filled science fiction animated film, well you are the polar opposite of their target demographic for this thing and you should definitely leave it on the shelf, but then again if you are that guy then you probably already made that assessment for yourself from the title and the dismembered arm on the cover. For me personally, it was definitely worth adding to the gaming/Blu-ray collection for only $2. Oh and it is also available for instant streaming on Netflix.

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

Gaming on $2 or Less - Crackdown for the Xbox 360

I don't mind paying good money for games or hardware that interest me, but there is something particularly satisfying about finding a used game in a bargain bin for $1.50 and discovering that I really like it. There are very few games I won't try for less than $2 and since I like playing all kinds of games it is not all that uncommon for me to find an unexpected personal gem that way - or at the very least a game that gives me more entertainment value than the mere $1-$2 I put into it.

Recently I bought a copy of Crackdown for the Xbox 360 complete with the case and manual on eBay for $1.46 with free shipping (I always include the shipping on my $2 or less rule). I was completely unfamiliar with the game, but now that I've played it for several hours I have to say I thoroughly enjoy it!

Crackdown was developed by Realtime Worlds in 2007, conceptualized by company founder David Jones, the British programmer who created the classic Lemmings back in 1991 and the first two Grand Theft Auto games.

The back of the case has a pretty good synopsis: "All justice. No Restraints. As a genetically enhanced agent of justice, it's your job to rid the city of crime - by any means necessary. You're the extreme solution to an extreme problem, as you attempt to take out 21 gang bosses and restore order to a sprawling metropolis teeming with lawlessness and strife."

The narrator puts it even more succinctly to begin the game: "It's all gone to shit!" as back story pictures pan by comic-book style - which fits because this game definitely feels like a comic book. Grittier than Superman or even Batman though. This is an indie comic where you're a juiced-up Judge Dredd type of law keeper and your job is to kill all the bad guys by stomping them to death, throwing them off rooftops, shooting them in the face, running over them in cars, etc. - good wholesome violence like that. And every once in a while the voice of HQ comes on and shows you some video intel on the latest evil-doer you need to hit. It basically feels like a modern-day sandbox version of one my old arcade favorites from Williams - NARC. In fact I wouldn't be surprised to stumble across a crazy clown or some dude flinging giant hypodermic syringes at me. But unlike in NARC, arresting the bad guys is not an option - you just put them in a grave.

The game begins in the garage of the Agency Keep. You go pick out which vehicle you want to take out into the crime-ridden city - a sporty supercar that drives under other cars and scoops them out of the way, a larger Hummer all-terrain vehicle that drives over cars and obstacles, or a big Mac truck that just piles through them. Once you get out into the city you can also jump into any other vehicle you see out there and if you return it to the agency garage it adds it to your inventory of usable vehicles when you respawn.

In addition to tons of vehicles you can also use all kinds of weapons, including those you pry from the cold dead hands of the criminals. And like the cars, if you check in captured weapons at one of various supply points throughout the city it adds them to you usable inventory. You have to reclaim the supply points from the gang members first but after that they provide a port in the city where you can refit with different weapons and reload all your ammo. You can jump all over the place, climb up everything, lift and throw everything (assuming you've built up enough strength), shoot, stomp, kick, grenade, swim - it is basically the fun open-world experience that I expected from Grand Theft Auto IV before I played that and found it utterly boring.  There are also lots of little add-on challenges like races, stunts, and collecting orbs. The game actually reminded me quite a bit of the PS3 game Infamous which I played a couple of years back, but then I realized that even though I played Infamous first, it was actually released a couple of years after Crackdown. So it seems like several of the things I liked about Infamous may have actually been inspired by Crackdown.

Graphics are bright and stylized - look almost Dreamcastish to me - which I like. This game is a big comic book and isn't going for realism so hyper realistic COD graphics would have been out of place.

The auto-aim on the shooting is intuitive and easy to use, although the melee combat is less so - several times I stood there doing roundhouse kicks in the air 2 feet in front of a guy while he sprayed me with both bullets and profanity.

The trailer shows off a few of your moves as clean the scum off the streets of Pacific City.

There is an RPG component as well as your skill ratings are tracked on-screen for 5 abilities - Agility, Driving, Explosives, Strength and Firearms. You get points for using each of these skills and when you attain enough points you level up for that particular skill. So the more heavy stuff you pick up, the heavier stuff you CAN pick up, etc. And there is something particularly satisfying about picking up up a big car with a couple of thugs in it and hurling it over a bridge into the water. Or just punching a car into a metal pulp a-la Street Fighter 2 for that matter.

As far as the story goes, Crackdown is not going to make you think and feel and empathize with the characters or any of that mushy stuff. It is pretty much just one long cliche-filled series of explosions. So if you are looking for an emotionally-moving tale well, move on to something else. But if you, like me, just finished a game with a more complex narrative and character development and were looking for some nice cheap fun to swish around and cleanse the palate before the next big game well for me this was it.

The primary gameplay is pretty repetitive so it does start to get a little old after a while. So I can't say that I see myself actually hanging in there long enough to kill off all the gangs and kingpins to complete the game, but I found the gameplay, even repetitive as it is, so addictive that every time I turn it on I still quite enjoy it. Also co-op play and a few other options are available to extend replay value as well. I'm not sure how many hours I've put into this so far, but I've definitely gotten my money's worth. Rating-wise - for me I think I'd give Crackdown like an 8.4 or so. Not bad for a game I had assumed would be closer to a 7 when I bought it.  Hell I liked it so much I might have to go check out Crackdown 2 now. I know one thing - if I find Crackdown 2 for $2 or less like I did the first one I'm definitely getting it.

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Excavation of Buried Atari E.T. Cartridges in New Mexico Approved

Any retrogamer worth his salt, or just older gamer in general (like me) for that matter, has heard the tale of how Atari, dismayed at the tremendous amount of E.T. games that were returned for a refund, sent truckloads of them into a New Mexico desert to be dumped and buried in a landfill back in 1983. Many people have alluded to this event when discussing this historically bad game that supposedly had such a pivotal role in the so-called video game crash of 1983. Well, I think the impact of that game's failure on spiraling console game sales at the time has been significantly exaggerated over the years, but it sure as hell didn't help matters. And I'd like to be the contrarian who says that E.T. was actually an underrated game, but  I played it back then and even still own my original cart today and I gotta say - it's a shit game just like everybody says.

Anyway, I bring it up because I just read that the City Commission of Alamogordo, New Mexico has recently approved an excavation at the municipal landfill where this mass video game burial supposedly took place. The excavation is reportedly going to be filmed and featured in a Canadian documentary.

I have to say, based on what I've read it appears that this mass dumping of games, assuming it did indeed take place, did not focus exclusively, or perhaps not even primarily, on the horrible E.T. game. It was reportedly a dumping of various returned and surplus hardware and games of all sorts that Atari had stored at its former game manufacturing plant in El Paso, Texas that was being converted into a scrap recycling center at the time. Given the huge numbers of E.T. carts that were returned for a refund it seems likely that E.T. would have constituted at least a significant portion of the dumped items but who knows. Regardless, the interest behind this story for me has nothing to do with how many E.T. games were actually put in the ground, it is the counter-intuitive notion that video game sales - which were booming just a couple of years earlier - were so dismal by 1983 that somehow the most financially sound solution for moving this merchandise was to load it up into 9-10 semi trucks, drive them to the middle of a New Mexico desert, and dump them in a giant hole and pour concrete on top of them. That's crazy! So if this documentary ever airs I'm going to try to track it down and check it out.

Local news station KRQE did a brief piece on the upcoming excavation below:

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