Video Game Review: The Last of Us [PS3]

The Last of Us [PS3]

The Last of Us
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action-Adventure/Survival Horror
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: June 14, 2013

The Last of Us is the type of game that seemingly comes around only once per console cycle. Naughty Dog, creators of Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and Uncharted, have perfected their craft over the years, and this is their most mature effort yet.

It is also their magnum opus.

Set in a post-apocalyptic United States in 2033, the game revolves around two central characters: a grizzled Texan named Joel, and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie. A nasty disease (similar to the real-life cordyceps fungi) has spread across the country, turning humans into Infected. The two of them are brought together by forces outside of their control, and Joel is given the responsibility of protecting young Ellie as they attempt to survive amidst the chaos of the wasteland.

The game shares many tropes with those of post-apocalyptic films and books (Cormac McCarthy’s work in particular is a big influence), but everything is brought together in a way that makes the overall experience still feel fresh and engaging.

The Last of Us [PS3]

It starts with the Infected.

These aren’t your average “zombies”, however. They run through four stages of infection, with each one getting progressively worse. Some attack in bunches, while others stalk you in the dark, waiting for the right moment to attack.

It’s stage three where the Infected — called Clickers at this point — get *really* sickening. This is when the fungus completely take over the human face, rendering them blind while also extremely sensitive to sound. One hit from them is insta-death. Their grotesque appearance is only enhanced by their constant “clicking” sounds — this is the stuff of nightmares.

Stage four is even more horrifying. I won’t ruin the surprise there.

The Last of Us [PS3]

Coming across a large area filled with various stages of Infected is often downright scary. I found myself dying — a lot — and would frequently have to re-think my strategy for surviving that section. Should I take out one or two Clickers and then run like hell? Should I throw a couple of nail bombs on the ground and then try to lure a large group into the subsequent explosion? Or should I just avoid combat altogether and try to sneak past everyone?

The latter quickly became my preferred method of fighting. Combat is not easy, especially since ammo and other tools are scarce. This game is all about survival, and there will be many times that require improvisation in order to get to the next area. This becomes especially important once non-infected human enemies enter the picture — they are arguably even more dangerous since many carry shotguns and other lethal weapons. On multiple occasions (when I was unable to sneak past), I would run out of ammo only to frantically attempt to craft a nail bomb or other device to help even the odds. This really makes you maximize all potential resources.

The Last of Us [PS3]

I suspect that avoiding most combat will be the preferred method of some gamers simply because of the ghastly displays of violence that ensue. Finishing off an enemy can be absolutely brutal, and the violence is very matter-of-fact. There were countless times when my jaw would drop simply because I could not believe the game got that graphic.

Then again, it’s in this brutality that some of Naughty Dog’s attention to detail shines through. There are a number of little things that impressed me throughout the campaign, such as Ellie’s teenage ramblings or her random whistling, or the subtle Southern terminology from Joel.

Perhaps most impressive is just how immersive The Last of Us truly is. There is minimal loading, and the transitions between cutscenes and actual gameplay are seamless. There are also no obnoxious trophy pop-ups to remind you that you’re playing a game — most of them are related to finishing the campaign, and they pop up after the credits. This, in particular, was an excellent touch.

This is a game that relies heavily on its narrative, and its characters are incredibly well-written — an impressive achievement, considering how much dialogue there is in the game. The voice acting (with Troy Baker as Joel, and Ashley Johnson as Ellie) is fantastic, and when the game is at its peak, this feels like a high quality TV show or movie. At the very least, this is a frank reminder that video games sure have come a hell of a long way over the years.

The Last of Us [PS3]

The single player campaign — which lasts around 15 hours, give or take a couple depending on how much you explore — is one of the best in years, but as an added bonus there is also a surprisingly enticing multiplayer feature. Rather than feeling tacked-on like many, many other like-minded games, it seems a significant amount of effort was put into this.

The multiplayer mode has you pick from one of two factions — Hunters or Fireflies (both of whom are integral to the single player campaign) — and then forces you to stay in that group until you either finish the multiplayer story or have your clan entirely wiped out. Clans can be built up by winning matches (in variations of Team Deathmatch), collecting supplies and completing objectives.

Teamwork is imperative to success online. Attempting to “run and gun” your way to the top of the leaderboards is a recipe for disaster. Just like in the single player campaign, ammo and supplies are scarce. It is important to work together as a team, especially since everyone shares the same goal: to improve their faction.

But really, the multiplayer is just the icing on the cake. It’s a fun little diversion, but the single player campaign is where the game truly shines.

Simply put, The Last of Us is a major accomplishment in the world of gaming, and it has effectively set a benchmark for all games to come. When people look back at this console cycle, this is one of the select few games that will be labeled as the best of its generation.

10/10

Video Game Review: Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Action-Adventure
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal (multiplayer)
Release Date: March 5, 2013

One of my biggest pet peeves in gaming is when a game scatters dozens, sometimes hundreds, of collectibles throughout the environment in an effort to boost replay value. The Grand Theft Auto series, in particular, is notorious for this, but this is a common practice in open world games. I usually don’t bother to go back through and find these random trinkets, but I made an exception for this year’s Tomb Raider reboot.

You see, in Tomb Raider, it’s actually *fun* to explore the world it presents. A novel concept, right?

In this reboot, a young Lara Croft and a team of archaelogists/adventurers have embarked on an expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai, an island off the coast of Japan. Little is known about the island, other than that it causes death and destruction for those who near it. Sure enough, upon arriving to the area, the crew’s ship crashes in the midst of a violent storm, and the group becomes stranded on the island.

As one might guess, it turns out that they aren’t alone on Yamatai. A violent cult of “Sun Queen” worshippers inhabits the island, and they don’t take kindly to visitors. As Lara navigates through the island in an attempt to find a way off of it, the cult members are there nearly every step of the way. They are a huge problem at first — especially since young Lara has never encountered such violence at this point of her life — but by the end, they become nothing more than mere nuisances.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The evolution of Lara Croft from an ambitious archaeology graduate to cold-blooded adventurer is marvelous, and quite frankly, it’s one of the biggest reasons to play this game. Not only is her transition to a hardened explorer believable, she also looks anatomically correct for once. Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job developing Miss Croft, humanizing her while showing the immense suffering she receives along the way.

The other major player in the game is the island of Yamatai itself. This is a gorgeous island full of wild life (including boars, wolves and rabbits, all of which can be hunted), and there is so much of it ready to be explored. The island is incredibly well-designed, as anyone with a sense of adventure will surely be curious enough to climb the various ledges in hopes of seeing where they lead. While the story is a fairly straight-forward affair, there are plenty of opportunities to traverse the wide-open world in order to find relics, documents and other historical items scattered about. Hell, I found myself visiting every nook and cranny of the island just for the beautiful views they might provide. Seriously, this is one gorgeous-looking game, easily one of the best from this console generation.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

As this is a tale of survival, much of the gameplay revolves around Lara doing what she needs to do to survive and get off the island. A convenient XP system allows her to “level up” by killing enemies, hunting animals and finding treasure. These experience points are in turn used to improve her current capabilities, such as adding a rope gadget to her bow, or adding extra ammunition for her guns. What’s great about this feature is that every improvement is shown on screen. If you add the rope gadget, for example, it will appear on top of the bow and remain visible while harnessed on Lara’s backside. This attention to detail is very impressive, and it only adds to the sense of realism within her character.

Also on the island are a handful of optional tombs that can be explored, and each one presents an interesting little puzzle. Some of them are real head-scratchers, but the reward at the end is always worth the trouble. Each tomb has its own chest full of goodies to help Lara, often including treasure maps that show locations of collectibles in the area.

Miss Croft also has the unique ability to use her “survival instinct” — with the quick press of a button, the environment turns gray, and any items of interest are highlighted in yellow. This is similar to Batman’s detective mode in the Arkham games or the Eagle Eye vision in Assassin’s Creed, and it comes in handy quite often. At times, it perhaps makes things too easy, but it can be avoided altogether for those who want a bigger challenge.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The single player campaign lasts anywhere from 10-15 hours, and it plays out much like an Indiana Jones movie. There are several big adventure scenes that will leave you breathless, but at the same time, there’s nothing “new” here in terms of storytelling or action setpieces. If you have played any of the Uncharted games, you will know what to expect, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tomb Raider also features a multiplayer mode, but it is merely tacked-on and mostly irrelevant. The online features were dead on arrival, as the community has dwindled rapidly, making it difficult to find matches less than a month after its release. I played online for a couple hours, enough to get a feel for the three different modes, but it did not leave a lasting impression. This has always been a series to play for the single player campaign, and this reboot is no different.

While it’s still quite early, Tomb Raider stands as one of this year’s biggest gaming highlights so far. As far as adventure games go, this is one of the better ones, and it also happens to be a technical marvel. This series received a much-needed breath of fresh air with this reboot, and I’m curious to see where Lara Croft goes next.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and OnLive)
Genre: Action-Adventure, Open World
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: August 13, 2012

It’s too easy to dismiss Sleeping Dogs as “Grand Theft Auto set in Hong Kong”, though the similarities are certainly there. Both are open world adventures set in a world of crime, but this offering from Square Enix is strong enough to stand out on its own.

The game places you in the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong who is tasked with infiltrating the infamous Triads gang to take them down from the inside. As the game progresses, the number of crime and mob story clichés increase, but the end result is still satisfying. It’s a well-told story, especially when compared to other like-minded video games, and it is engrossing despite its reliance on familiar tropes.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Since Wei is a highly-trained officer, he has an impressive array of skills at his disposal. Not only does he know how to handle a gun (of which there are many), but he is an expert in hand-to-hand combat. The fighting system is one area where Sleeping Dogs really shines — it’s very similar to Rocksteady’s Batman games, and it is easy to pick up and play. As Wei works through the story and completes different side missions, more fighting combos are unlocked, offering a surprisingly deep system.

Wei can also use his police abilities at various points, and these include hacking security cameras, lockpicking, and tracing cell phones. He is a man of many talents, and this leads to a diverse group of missions that send him all over the streets of Hong Kong.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

While working undercover, Wei can perform work for the Triads while also sneaking off to help on police cases. There are dozens of random side quests scattered throughout, some of which include helping pedestrians with small tasks, street racing, or even performing karaoke. Quite simply, there is a lot to do in the game, with no shortage of things to discover.

One gameplay tweak that Sleeping Dogs offers over other sandbox titles is its increased amount of checkpoints. No longer do you need to replay an entire mission if you die — there are checkpoints provided after every major event. Unfortunately, while this sounds great in theory, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a relief to not have to drive halfway across the city just to restart a mission, but having so many checkpoints also lowers the difficulty quite a bit. During my 15+ hours with the game, I was rarely ever challenged. Once I got the hang of the countering system within combat, I was able to breeze through most of the missions, with nary a restart necessary. It’s a bit disappointing that the game is so easy.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

On the flip side, one area that Sleeping Dogs absolutely nails is its presentation. A great amount of detail went into building the in-game Hong Kong, and the story is given the full Hollywood treatment, even bringing in big names for voice work, including Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone and Lucy Liu. Perhaps most impressive is the in-game soundtrack. The score, composed by Jeff Tymoschuk (Nightfire, Everything or Nothing), is fantastic, but the radio stations are some of the best I have found in any game, period. Music buffs will love that there are stations devoted to individual record labels, including Daptone (Budos Band, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings), Ninja Tune (Bonobo, Emika, Lorn) and Warp (Bibio, Flying Lotus, !!!).

It’s a shame that Sleeping Dogs got a bit lost in the summer of gaming, but it is a great sandbox title that deserves a good, long look. For fans of open world games, this is a must play, and it will likely be a fixture on my “best of” year-end list.

8.5/10