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: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception [PS3, 2011]

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception [PS3, 2011]

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
System: Playstation 3
Genre: Action/Adventure/Platform
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: November 1, 2011

Past adventures of Nathan Drake, star of the Playstation 3’s best-selling Uncharted series, have taken him all over the world. The Amazon Rainforest, Tibet, Istanbul, Borneo, Nepal. The dude has been everywhere. With Uncharted 3, Drake can now scratch even more locations off his list, including an extended run in the Middle East.

Uncharted 3 begins with a massive bar-room brawl. Drake and his long-time pal (and mentor) Victor Sullivan (“Sully”) get caught up in a deal that quickly turns sour, forcing them to fight their way through dozens of enemies, complete with broken whiskey bottles and snapped pool sticks. This works as a tutorial of sorts, as it demonstrates the slightly modified combat system while throwing our heroes directly into action.

This is the core of Uncharted 3 — moments of intense action interspersed with cutscenes to help flesh out the story. The opening bar-room brawl is only the tip of the iceberg. This time around, the big adventure set-pieces include a dashing escape out of a rapidly burning building, frantic manuevering out of a sinking cruise ship, and an elongated trip through the stifling Rub’ al Khali Desert with no water to speak of anywhere. These exaggerated sequences are the biggest reason why most gamers have fallen in love with the series, and they do not disappoint in the trilogy’s conclusion.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception [PS3, 2011]

For those looking for a bit of back-story about Drake and Sully, you are in luck. The mysterious relationship of our favorite treasure hunters is elaborated on in a series of flashbacks, even allowing gamers to play as a teenage Drake. The overall story arc is still relatively simple, but fans of the series will be pleased with this further insight.

The Uncharted series has always featured a seamless transition between its platforming and third person shooter gameplay. Naughty Dog are known for their excellent platform skills, and Drake’s jumping from ledges to chandeliers to poles or whatever else he can grab onto is flawless in execution. The gunplay, however, remains a bit of a burden on the series.

Simply put, little has changed with the game’s combat system, so the same annoyances remain in place. The shooting system feels dated and rough around the edges, and there are a few too many set-pieces that rely heavily on long gunfights. The new addition of being able to throw back tossed grenades is a welcome one, but it does not excise the occasionally awkward shooting controls. Thankfully, the campaign is spaced out with good variety for the most part, making these moments a minor annoyance more than a burst of frustration.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception [PS3, 2011]

Unfortunately, while Uncharted 3 boasts a beefy multiplayer mode, it requires an online pass ($9.99) to use it (unless you buy the game new). Outside of the co-op missions, I never really fell in love with the online features in this series, so I cannot justify spending an extra $9.99 on something I will not get maximum value for. If you are into the multiplayer aspects, you might be better off just buying this new.

Even though Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception still suffers from minor gameplay issues, the single player campaign is still a blast to play. This is as close as you’re going to get to a *good* Indiana Jones game, complete with outrageous action scenes that will make your heart race. This also may be the best-looking game I have seen yet in this current console generation, as the attention to graphical details is impeccable. If you have been following the series, you ought to do yourself a favor and finish the trilogy. I would consider it a toss-up between Drake’s Deception and Uncharted 2 as to which is the best, and both are absolutely worth playing.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
System: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: October 13, 2009

I liked the original Uncharted quite a bit, but it took me a while to get a hold of the sequel. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves expands upon the original in every way while maintaining the same adventure/platforming gameplay that was so great the first time around.

Uncharted 2 picks up right where the first game left off. Treasure hunter extraordinaire Nathan Drake is back, this time trying to find out what happened to the lost fleet of Marco Polo. Aided by new and old characters alike, Drake’s journey takes him across exotic locales all over the world. Jungles, snowy mountains, hidden villages — you name it, it’s there.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

Building upon the epic nature from the first game, Uncharted 2 is grandiose in every sense of the word. Again playing out as a big-time summer blockbuster movie, the game has a number of insane cinematic moments. The opening chapter of the campaign heaves itself in your face, forcing you to learn the game’s controls while Drake is trying to climb up a wrecked train that is hanging — just barely — over a cliff. Yeah, this “tutorial” is only the beginning. There are a lot of ridiculous and over-the-top action sequences scattered throughout, and they are just AWESOME. Drake has almost superhuman jumping abilities — which come in handing for the game’s excellent platforming sections — and does a lot of stuff that is physically impossible, but it works because this is a *video game*. For sheer cinematic brilliance in gaming form, Uncharted 2 is among the best.

It certainly helps that the game is stunning, one of the most gorgeous titles available on any platform. The character models are top-notch, and the aforementioned exotic locales are simply beautiful. The details found while traversing these areas are subtle but brilliant, such as Drake having snow get stuck to his pants while in the mountains, or having his clothing become wet after jumping into a lake. With an impressive musical score and some excellent voice acting, Uncharted 2 definitely feels like an action movie.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves [Playstation 3, 2009]

While this sequel is all-around more polished than its predecessor, it still struggles with some minor gameplay mechanical issues. Combat is much improved, as now you don’t have to empty clip after clip into enemies before they finally drop. However, there are still occasional problems with the covering system, namely Drake getting sent to hide behind the wrong piece of cover than what you originally intended. This tends to happen right in the heat of important battles, and can lead to some frustrating deaths that are faults of the gameplay, not the user. There is also a lot of repetition in the game. There are moments where there seems to be gunfight after gunfight, which gets tiresome. Naughty Dog usually does a good job dividing up segments into different styles of gameplay, but there were some areas where it became redundant. Still, there are a lot of EPIC sequences that make up for the occasional monotony.

Perhaps most intriguing about Uncharted 2 is its addition of a multiplayer mode. At first I was wary of this because Uncharted is very much a single player experience, but I was pleasantly surprised as to how well-executed the online play turned out. There are both competitive and co-op options available, each of which has different game modes. I found the co-op games to be the most fun online, as you can either play through various levels while fighting off countless enemies, or you can play an “Arena” mode where you shoot your way through ten waves of villains. The competitive modes include traditional Deathmatch, Plunder (a spin on “capture the flag”), and Turf War (control areas to win), among others. There is still a good-sized community active today, and that should remain for the foreseeable future.

Uncharted 2 has received an impressive amount of accolades — and Sony has made sure that we are aware of this by listing “25 Perfect Review Scores” on its cover — and most of these high marks are deserved. While I still found issues with some of the gameplay quirks and general repetitiveness, I greatly enjoyed working my way through the single player campaign. The addition of a high-quality multiplayer section is just the icing on the cake. If you’re a fan of giant action/adventure epics, you will feel right at home with Uncharted 2.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Crash Bandicoot [Playstation, 1996]

Crash Bandicoot [Playstation, 1996]

Crash Bandicoot
System: Playstation
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: August 31, 1996

It is easy to see why Crash Bandicoot caught on as the Playstation’s mascot in 1996. Crash was charming, quirky and charismatic, and he fell in line with other popular offbeat animal mascots at the time (Sonic the Hedgehog, Tasmanian Devil, etc.). His first game, aptly titled Crash Bandicoot, is a platforming adventure that is a hybrid of both 3D and 2D styles. The graphics are strictly 3D and hold up surprisingly well today, but the game plays more like a 2D platformer than anything else.

Crash has 32 levels set on three islands, and there are a good mix of styles as the game progresses. Some levels are traditional horizontal side-scrolling fare, whereas others have Crash moving vertically instead. Every now and then a different spin on these levels will appear. For instance, an early level has Crash running frantically toward the bottom of the screen while avoiding obstacles in order to outrun a giant boulder. This variety keeps things fresh from beginning to end.

Crash Bandicoot [Playstation, 1996]

For the most part, the gameplay is fairly formulaic. Each level has enemies and crates scattered throughout. Enemies can kill Crash in one hit (unless he is powered by the popular Aku Aku character), although they can be taken care of either by performing a carefully timed spin attack or by simply jumping on them. The crates bear helpful items, including fruits (collect 100 for an extra life) and extra life tokens. Pretty basic stuff, but it works.

Crash Bandicoot has two glaring problems that hold it back from potential greatness. 1) The save system is royally fucked. In order to save your progress, you have to find three unique items in a level and then finish a brief bonus round, some of which can be tricky to complete. This is a very off-kilter system, and it is not very effective. Crash is not an easy game, and it is possible to complete 2-3 levels, die, and then have to start right back from square one because you missed out on the bonus round. It’s amazing that someone thought this was a good idea. 2) The controls are so finicky that they can cause cheap deaths, and this happens far too often. Since the game can only be played using the D-Pad, this setup is far from optimal. Thankfully this would be rectified in future games.

Even with these two weaknesses, Crash Bandicoot is definitely enjoyable. There may be times when you will want to smash your controller, but the game has such a fun atmosphere that it’s hard to stay mad at it for long. This is an admirable first effort for a once-great franchise.

7/10

Video Game Review: Crash Team Racing [Playstation, 1999]

Crash Team Racing [Playstation, 1999]

Crash Team Racing
System: Playstation
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: October 20, 1999

Back in 1999, Crash Bandicoot was still reigning supreme as the Playstation’s mascot. Looking to branch out from the series’ standard platforming games, developer Naughty Dog released Crash Team Racing, a kart racing spinoff very similar to Mario Kart. If you have played a kart racing game before, then you have a good idea of what to expect with CTR. The controls are largely the same and are very simple — the buttons for accelerating, using powerups and the “hop” function are all you really need to know (power sliding is key). The powerups are standard fare — there are speed boosts, rockets that take out the leader, TNT boxes that are dropped immediately behind you, etc. There really is not a lot in the way of originality, but this is not an issue simply because CTR is so well-polished. Naughty Dog took the best elements of previous games in the genre and molded them together to make something that truly stands out on its own.

When I think of kart racing games, I immediately think of multiplayer. Playing split-screen with friends is usually the best way to go with these types of games, and while CTR offers plenty of fun via its battle and versus modes, it really excels in its single player adventure mode. This feature has an absurd amount of depth. You select a character from the world of Crash Bandicoot (Coco, Neo Cortex, Tiny, etc.) and then proceed to race in a variety of worlds while battling bosses along the way. You are given free reign in an open world in which you drive to whatever race you want to participate in. Once you have completed a course’s standard race, new options open up that bring additional replay value to the game: Relic Races and CTR Challenges. The former option requires you to race the track alone in the fastest time possible while smashing crates that temporarily stop time. The latter option puts you in a standard race, but your goal is to find the hidden C-T-R letters while still finishing in first place. Beating all three styles of races for each course provides you with gems/emblems that open up more levels. It really is a lot of fun going through each course while trying to get 100% completion.

Although the graphics shows its age, CTR is still one of the better-looking games from its era. Its kart racing formula is timeless, and even though it is not original in the slightest, it is still a blast to play. In fact, CTR is one of the most well-rounded kart racers I have ever played. I liked this game a lot when I was younger, and I still enjoy it to this day. If you are looking for a simple racing game with surprising depth, I highly recommend Crash Team Racing. You can’t beat its $6 price tag on the Playstation Network either.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune [Playstation 3, 2007]

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune [PS3, 2007]

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
System: Playstaton 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: November 16, 2007

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a hybrid action/platforming game that plays out as if it were a summer blockbuster movie. High production values, top-notch voice acting, over-the-top cinematics — its got it all. The game has a similar storyline to Indiana Jones movies and Dirk Pitt novels. You play as Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter who claims to be a descendant of English explorer Sir Francis Drake. Nathan is on a quest to find the famed artifact known as El Dorado, a giant golden idol hidden somewhere deep in the jungle. As any good fortune-hunting movie would have, Drake is accompanied at times by two supporting characters: Victor Sullivan, a grizzled cigar-chomping veteran who has a penchant for telling old travel stories, and Elena Fisher, a snarky reporter trying to land her next big news story. The plotline is hardly anything groundbreaking, but it is entertaining enough, especially since it is aided by some strong fleshed-out characters.

As mentioned earlier, Uncharted is a combination of an action/shooting game and a platformer. Since the game was created by Naughty Dog (Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter), the platforming sections are designed rather well. While some platforming games get beyond frustrating due to touchy controls and mistimed jumps, Uncharted really excels in that department. Nathan is able to make some pretty incredible jumps, and the game is more forgiving when you are off by just a little bit since it usually allows him to desperately cling to the edge and pull himself up. The platforming areas are genuinely fun, as Nate traverses some large rooms by jumping along the walls, using vines, ledges, chandeliers and whatever else he can land on.

The combat, however, is where the game could use some work. The main enemies are pirates who are racing to get the treasure first, and they are all over the freakin’ place. The enemies themselves are not the problem, although some more variety would have been nice. I was more disappointed with the actual shooting aspects. I couldn’t tell you how many times I emptied a dozen rounds of an AK-47 into a pirate just to see him stumble around like he was drunk. Really, it should not take more than a few shots to down an enemy. Not a huge problem, but an inconvenience nonetheless.

Where Uncharted really excels is in its presentation. It is no exaggeration when I say that this game truly feels like you are playing a movie, and it is helped greatly by its impressive visuals. Even for a relatively early PS3 title, Uncharted’s graphics are stunning. The jungle comes alive with lush green colors, the animations are virtually perfect, and the attention to detail is just remarkable. One neat aspect that stood out to me: if you end up in the water, Drake will emerge with his clothes soaking wet. Cutscenes are interchangeable from the regular graphics, as the same engine is used for both. Throw in a strong musical score and high-quality voice acting and you have a memorable experience.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is simply a blast from beginning to end, even with the occasional repetitive combat and agitating shooting mechanics. You are going to have to suspend disbelief with this one — which shouldn’t be a problem if you enjoy Indiana Jones at all — because Nathan Drake does a lot of things a normal guy couldn’t do. But hey, this is a video game, and playing games is all about having a good time. Uncharted is a fun ride and doesn’t require much thinking, just like a good summer blockbuster movie. I greatly enjoyed playing through the game, and I can’t wait to play its allegedly even better sequel.

8/10