The best games I played in 2016

I had a lot of fun playing video games in 2016, even if most of them were a year or two old. In fact, 2016 didn’t seem to me like a great year for new releases, but as with most gamers I have a massive backlog to play and so had more than enough to fill my time. Without (much) further ado, here are the top five games I played in 2016.

Warning: this list is an indie-free zone. No pseudo-intellectual games with primitive graphics here!

My top 5 games of 2016

5. XCOM 2 (2016) (PC)

My score: 8/10, Metacritic 88/100

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XCOM 2 was initially exclusive to PC and Mac, and its launch generated a lot of bad publicity due to performance issues and poor optimization. For good reason: I was shocked at how badly the game ran on my machine, with dreadful textures and myriad framerate and animation issues. Firaxis eventually released a patch which went some way to fixing these problems, and when you got down to the underlying game it was very, very good. XCOM’s combat is excellent, as is its basebuilding metagame, and the greater customization options available in XCOM 2 somewhat distracted from the fact it was all quite similar to the first game. As the game’s troubled launch faded into memory everyone seemed to agree that XCOM 2 is, essentially, awesome, and its release on PS4 and XBOX 1 gives more people a chance to play it. Though I’m not sure buying it for a third time, as we plan to in our household (on PC, Mac, and PS4), sends Firaxis and publisher 2K the right message.

4. Tokyo Mirage Sessions FE (2016) (Wii U)

My score: 9/10, Metacritic 80/100

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Tokyo Mirage Sessions is a celebration of Japanese video game and broader popular culture that also happens to be a well-written and highly polished RPG. The plethora of character-based side quests means the game easily supports its 60-hour play time, and the humour, colourful graphics and outstanding score ensure the game is a feast for the senses and a pleasant escape from the daily grind. It’s a really fun and exuberant game, and one regrets that the Wii U’s low install base means the game is unlikely to get the appreciation it deserves. At least developer Atlus’s next game, Persona 5, should make up for it on that score.

Incidentally, I learned the symbol in the title is not a hashtag but the musical notation for “sharp”. Which makes perfect sense, as it captures the Fire Emblem inflection/flavouring of the game, as well as its musical motifs.

3. Fire Emblem Awakening (2013) (3DS)

My score: 10/10, Metacritic 92/100

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The first game I got for my New Nintendo 3DS, Fire Emblem Awakening is an excellent game. I’ve been a Fire Emblem fan for years, but this is the first to re-capture the magic of Fire Emblem 7 on the GBA. Awakening has the usual great FE turn-based tactical RPG gameplay, but also features an interesting story, likable and varied characters with lots of humorous dialogue, and an ingenious shipping mechanic that really helps you become invested in your party members and their relationships. Awakening’s well-deserved success helped inspire Nintendo to release no fewer than three Fire Emblem games in 2016, in the form of Fire Emblem Fates, and playing through those is one of my goals for 2017. Any RPG fan who hasn’t played Awakening yet really should.

2. The Last of Us Remastered (2014) (PS4)

My score: 10/10, Metacritic 95/100

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Remastered is the best way to experience one of the most poignant stories ever told in a video game. The less you know before playing it, the better. The Last of Us is a masterpiece of storytelling, but also features gripping and visceral gameplay. It’s a spectacular technical achievement with some of the best graphics ever seen. A violent, at times depressing, and often frightening game, but one that anyone who can stomach it should try to experience.

1. The Witcher 3 (2015) (PS4)

My score: 10/10, Metacritic: 92/100

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I’ve never felt as immersed or as emotionally invested in a story-based video game for as long as I did with The Witcher 3. I spent almost half of 2016 playing it: including the expansions, a single complete playthrough could comfortably take you 200 hours. What’s so unusual is that everything you do is distinctive and feels like it has meaning, and every minor quest or activity is part of its own story. Every decision has weight, and almost every incidental character you encounter has their own back story and independent motivations. That goes for the dozens or hundreds of minor side quests, and the main quests and characters have a depth and texture unparallaled in triple-A games of this nature. On which note, The Witcher 3 features probably the best graphics and environments I’ve seen yet on the PS4, as well as a majestic soundtrack.

For me, playing The Witcher 3 felt like playing all three Mass Effect games and Skyrim rolled into one, and like many people, I’ve come to regard it as the best game I’ve ever played.

Honourable mentions

Resident Evil 4 HD (PS4, 9/10, Metacritic 82/100) was a welcome opportunity to return to one of the best action games of all time. The gameplay and pacing are as tight as ever, though it was a bit of a shame that Capcom didn’t do more to really bring the game up to date. For now, it’s still probably the best version of the game available, and one that everyone should play at some point in their lives. Fallout 4 (PS4, 9/10, Metacritic 87/100) provided a large sandbox world with brutal combat, a dizzying range of weapon and armour customization options, and a deep settlement-building mechanic. In hindsight, my review score was overly generous, as the game’s story was poorly paced, undermined by a narrative with an emotional imperative at odds with the core gameplay mechanics.

This year I caught up on two classic JRPGs I missed when I was growing up: Chrono Trigger DS (8/10, Metacritic 92/100), and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D (8/10, Metacritic 89/100). Playing these now for the first time, they were both enjoyable experiences, but more as a result of story, character and setting than the gameplay. Both games are massive internet forum darlings, and I think the hype around games like this can affect the experience of new players who come with inflated expectations.

Resident Evil Revelations (7/10, Metacritic 80/100) was the first game I played on Wii U and a satisfying Resident Evil experience, even if it lacked the polish and scale associated with the main entries in the series. Bioshock Infinite (PC, 8/10, Metacritic 94/100) is something of a poster-boy for videogame storytelling, and I was blown away by its opening stages, and enjoyed its fast-paced gunplay and impactful magic system. However, the story gets caught up in its own metaphysical contortions, and I was put off by the game’s smug vilification of left-wing politics. Other games I played this year which flattered to deceive included Batman: Arkham Knight (7/10, Metacritic 87), Tales of Zestiria (7/10, Metacritic 72), and Divinity Original Sin (6/10, Metacritic 88), all of which started well but went downhill more or less as time went on. Divinity, in particular, felt like a perfect case study of why not to use crowdfunding to build an RPG.

My Game of the Year

The Witcher 3 was the best game I played in 2016, and probably the best game I’ve ever played. That said, it was released in 2015, so as far as 2016 goes, my top game of the year was Tokyo Mirage Sessions  FE. If you have a Wii U, you should certainly check it out!

 

2016 in Gaming: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Nintendo has been through a relatively rough few years. Their latest home console, the Wii U, was a commercial failure. Its eventual install base of about 13 million constituted about a tenth that of their previous console, the Wii. That said, having picked up a Wii U in late 2016, I’ve been impressed by the range of exclusive games available on the console, not least Tokyo Mirage Sessions, one of the best games I played all year.

I also finally picked up a New 3DS in 2016, and have been very taken with the console itself, as well as the enormous library of high-quality games available for the handheld. In a world where addictive free-to-play games are more and more prevalent, Nintendo’s approach to providing quality (and, generally, wholesome) handheld game experiences stands out. At the same time, Nintendo also made waves by bringing two major franchises to mobile phones. Pokemon Go was the video game sensation of the year, making an impact on popular consciousness which few entertainment products matched. The day it was released in the UK, I came back from my lunch break to find a group of young professional women in suits visiting a Pokemon station outside my workplace. The game was important, not just for its own success, but for what it showed about the potential of the medium.

In December, Nintendo released Super Mario Run for iPhones. The game received largely positive critical reviews, but has had a mixed reception largely because of Nintendo’s bold move of, er, charging people to play it. Nine pounds is admittedly quite expensive for a mobile phone game, but the game’s release highlighted the toxic nature of the mobile phone games market. More Nintendo games are on the way for mobiles, including Animal Crossing and Fire Emblem games, so it will be interesting to see whether their reception is in line with Pokemon Go or Super Mario Run.

Nintendo announced their next console, the Switch, towards the end of 2016, and the machine is due out early next year. Most of Nintendo’s useful innovations tend to get cloned by Microsoft and Sony as soon as they’re announced, which might explain why they left the announcment as close to launch date as possible. Essentially, the Switch is a home console which will also supports handheld gaming, as it features a portable device you can pick up and take with you to continue your home gaming experiences on the move. It’s an ingenious idea with great potential, and with a likely price point of around £200 it would remain in the budget of a relatively large proportion of the population. Here’s hoping the console’s launch is well executed and its features clearly explained, and that it doesn’t suffer from the confusing myriad of control options that hampered the Wii U. The end of the year also saw the spectacularly successful launch of Pokemon Sun/Moon, a conventional video game release which proved to be one of Nintendo’s biggest ever, with 10 million units shipped by the end of the year and at least 7 million sold.

Overall, 2016 was a successful year for Nintendo on a number of fronts. It’s good to see the company traditionally associated with gaming doing well in a challenging, and often confusing and chaotic, creative and retail environment.

The Bad

2016 was expected by some to be ‘the year of VR’. Certainly a number of Virtual Reality products hit the market, in the form of Oculus Rift, the Vive, and Playstation VR. Having been fortunate enough to try both a Vive and Oculus, I have a sense of how exciting this technology is, and the extraordinary potential it offers to deliver a range of cultural, educational and other experiences to a very wide range of the population–to pretty much everyone, in fact.

For that reason, it’s depressing if not surprising to see how Virtual Reality has been delivered to the public so far. The year started badly when the Oculus Rift, the first headset to come to market, was priced far higher than most people expected. One of the reasons given was to make the product “aspirational”, which some interpreted as code for making it something only rich people could afford by artificially inflating the price. Later in the year, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey was caught up in a bizarre scandal in which he seemed to be aligning himself with extreme “alt-right” internet trolls by offering to bankroll pro-Donald Trump shitposting memes in the run-up to the US elections. Oculus also faced criticism from some quarters for trying to buy up VR games and make them Oculus”exclusives”–a highly controversial strategy in the PC environment, which has always benefited from the lack of platform fragmentation that exists in the console market. But VR technology has the potential to be a game-changer, and in the pursuit of exclusive titles, Oculus owner Facebook seemed to many to be adopting a predatory strategy with sinister implications.

The Ugly

When I was growing up in the 1990s, and into the early 2000s, dedicated video games magazines were my main source of information about games, and I was totally reliant on them for news, reviews, and guides to difficult games. The internet has totally changed the games journalism industry, and most people now rely on online sites for this kind of information. Only a few magazines remain. In the UK, Edge Magazine and Games TM both vie for the same market with ‘mature’ and intelligent games journalism. Post-2008, with declining living standards the reality for most people, it’s harder than ever to pay for print journalism, and the price of these magazines keeps going up just as the page count and format of the magazines keeps getting smaller.

To a certain extent, games websites have filled the gap, with the advantage that they’re updated several times a day rather than once a month. However, websites have to way to monetize a “free” service, competing for clicks and ad revenue, with the result that accessing good and reliable content can be a challenge. The always-on, herd mentality culture of the internet also means it can be difficult to get divergent opinions about games. Even as an independent, casual blogger I understand the pressure of not wanting to be “caught out” with your view on a game, so there’s a tendency for writers to be conservative and hew towards a standard view, and with the internet it takes about 30 seconds to find out what that standard viw is. To me, this explains why so many bang average (or worse) games get a free pass from critics, with franchises like Uncharted and developers like Telltale and Kojima enjoying a bafflingly inflated profile online.

Although sites like Polygon do seem to try to hold powerful companies to account, neverthless the gap in wealth and power between multi-billion dollar publishers and relatively small and precarious news and opinion outlets couldn’t be more apparent. In proportion as their real power wanes vis-a-vis the gaming giants of the world, so games outlets seem to devote more and more time to eulogising arthouse independent or ‘indie’ games. The desire to promote games made outside the big publishing houses is admirable, but games websites regularly go to cringeworthy lengths to shower praise on gimmicky and simplistic games that would have looked and felt primitive on the NES. Emotional manipulation or shock value in game narratives seems to be valorized, even while sincerity or simplicity is regarded as old hat. Until recently this could perhaps be dismissed as a symptom of our “post-modern” times but, if 2016 has taught us anything, it’s surely the corrosive effects of this kind of vain intellectual posturing.

Tales of Zestiria (PS4) – Review

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I have some explaining to do. Eight months have passed since I posted my first impressions of Tales of Zestiria. That’s an inordinate amount of time under any circumstances, but particularly so in this case as those initial glowing impressions gradually gave way to frustration and despondency, meaning that T. and I took a six month break from the game. For a while I was worried in case my enthusiastic post would mislead anyone into buying a game which would ultiimately disappoint them. Having finally returned to and completed Zestiria, I’m relieved it’s not as bad as I feared it would be; though it still doesn’t live up to either its own early promise, or the standard of quality the series is generally known for.

The Tales series of RPGs is a long-running Japanese franchise where each game is generally set in its own fantasy universe, and you control a band of characters on some kind of journey to save the world. The franchise is known for its energetic real-time combat system, which functions almost like a beat-em-up with heavy reliance on combos and flashy special attacks. It also features couch co-op for up to four players, which is pretty unique for this style of game and a major selling point for the franchise. In Zestiria, the main character is Sorey, a young man who becomes the ‘Shepherd’. Sorey is a noble-minded hero tasked with quelling the ‘Lord of Calamity’ and the force of ‘malevolence’, a kind of ethereal element which can corrupt normal people and turn them into ‘Hellions’ (basically, monsters). Almost anyone can fall prey to malevolence, and it normally affects people who evince strong negative emotions. Interestingly, Sorey also has to guard himself against the affects of malevolence: it’s intimated that other Shepherds in the past have fallen victim to it, often under the pressure of the demands of a faithless, fickle, and dependent flock.

Sorey is a likable enough character, with an endearing simplicity and generosity of spirit. Sorey is accompanied on his journey by a number of Seraphs, who are elemental spirits associated with Water, Fire, Earth, and Wind. The spirits provide moral support and advice along Sorey’s journey as well as helping him out in combat. One of the new combat mechanisms introduced in Zestiria is ‘Armatization’, whereby Sorey can fuse with a Seraph to gain massive boosts to health and damage, also unlocking more attacks. This is one of the best parts about the combat system, and there is a good rhythm between pulling off combos in normal form, then armatizing and dealing massive damage.

Unfortunately, combat is seriously marred by severe camera problems. Most previous Tales games had a system where, when you encountered an enemy, you were taken to a generic instanced area to fight. However, Zestiria, in the effort to maintain an open-world feel, has you fight in the very area you encountered the enemy. Obviously, the world does not just consists of flat open areas, so this means you have to fight in corridors, around corners, on slopes, etc, and the camera is simply not designed for it. You’ll often find yourself fighting with little or no view of your own character or the enemy. In mitigation, at least this doesn’t tend to affect boss fights, but it does detract from one of the game’s main features. I don’t understand why they don’t simply switch to an overhead view on those occasions.  It particularly affects the enjoyment of players other than the first, because the camera always follows player one and his target. While I’m on the topic of co-op play, it’s worth noting that player two won’t get any trophies for this game, even if they’re signed in before they start. It’s a really weird oversight, as in previous Tales games both players can earn trophies, but here only the main player can do so. It’s either a deliberate and dickish decision, or a lazy oversight, but either way, it’s an avoidable irritation.

Over the years the Tales series has incorporated a number of different levelling systems and other mechanics that mean there is always something going on, whether its eating meals when resting at an inn to get stat boosts, or levelling titles to unlock special abilities, etc. Zestiria has a plethora of these systems but ultimately it’s easy to get lost in their complexities, and in the end we generally decided not to bother with them. It’s a shame because there are some good ideas here but they just get lost in a sea of menus and obtuse names. There are only so many unintuitive systems most players will be prepared to learn to play a video game in this day and age. Zestiria also features a huge number of skits, the talking-head cutaways featured in all recent Tales games. But sadly, the writing isn’t really able to keep up, and most of the skits fall flat.

The Tales series is known for the quality of its dialogue and the endearing and inspiring interaction between its characters. Zestiria starts well, but starts to go downhill once more characters are introduced. Unfortunately, a likeable main character is removed from your team early on, and although her replacement is endearing enough, the same can’t really be said for the seraphs in your party. The game gets the balance wrong, and there is too much sarcasm and snarky bickering, combined with too much zany nonsense. At times, the dialogue can also just be very difficult to follow, meaning jokes aren’t funny, and long sections of exposition seem impenetrable or don’t relate to what you’ve just seen. I don’t know if this is a translation issue (we played the game with the English dub), but it definitely felt like the writing was worse than most other Tales games.

It’s a shame, because the story is actually quite interesting, and features some really atmospheric anime cutscenes at reguar intervals throughout the game. The pacing really suffers about halfway through, which was the main reason why T. and I stopped playing for half a year. However, shortly after we went back to it, some important story events actually mitigated some of our frustrations with the game to the point that I felt bad for forming such a low opinion of it, and the closing sections are generally pretty good. The final section is a real slog, as the game throws several long dungeons at you followed by a marathon boss fight that forced us to turn down the difficulty to Easy (look, it was after 1am on a school night, don’t judge us). But this is within the margin of error for a JRPG, and genre fans will likely overlook it.

Zestiria’s graphics are really quite nice. As one of the first PS4 games we played, I was expecting to be blown away by the graphics, so at first was disappointed. I later learned this was initially released on PS3 and then touched up for PS4, which makes sense. However, the graphics are clear and colourful, and the more built-up environments are well-designed. The game features very large open areas between quest hubs, and these can look a bit barren, but it’s really just a case of adjusting your expectations from Skyrim or Witcher 3. The music is pretty decent for the most part, but a few dungeons have quite weird and unmelodious music, and there’s one tune towards the end of the game featuring singing that got on my nerves.

On the whole, Tales of Zestiria is a mixed bag. There are elements here of what makes the Tales series so great, with a few really moving and interesting story elements, and some good characters. But there is too much unevenness and bad writing to be able to recommend this wholeheartedly, and only Tales series completionists should play this over something like Graces, Xillia, or Vesperia. Zestiria has the feel of a bit of an experiment, and here’s hoping that they fine-tuned some of these ideas and mechanics for Tales of Berseria, which is due out in Europe this time next month.

7/10

The Raid 2 (film) – Review

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Within the scope of its limited ambition, 2011’s The Raid was a perfect action movie. The Indonesian film, written by Welshman Gareth Evans, featured astonishing action set pieces choreographed by martial arts experts Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian. The film garnered a huge following, so it was no surprise that it was swiftly followed by a sequel. The Raid 2 is a much more ambitious film: whereas the first was set in a single tower block, the sequel is a sprawling two-and-a-half hour epic set across Jakarta’s criminal underworld. Taking place right after the events of the first film, surviving badass cop Rama (Uwais) is sent undercover to build a case against the corrupt senior cops who protect the city’s criminal overlords. Rama has strong personal reasons for agreeing, but it’s nevertheless one of those occasions where you don’t really have a choice: if he says no, Rama will almost certainly be killed, as will his family. The only way out is to keep moving forward, winning the trust of senior mob bosses while also managing incompetent and uncaring superiors in the police force. As someone points out to Rama later in the film, the only way to extricate himself and protect his family is to eliminate all the crime bosses, and their police patrons, for good.

The plot brings to mind movies like Infernal Affairs, and Rama is a very sympathetic character. He’s also, once again, an extremely effective one-man-army and the film features several lengthty and brutal fight scenes, both one-on-one and one-versus-many. The first film was very violent, of course, but The Raid 2 really ups the ante and features spectacular set-pieces and some quite gruesome executions. For the most part the violence makes sense, but the second half of the movie does see a move towards more stylized violence. We are also introduced to two assassins who are each based around the idea of a single gimmick: one uses a baseball and bat, and the other is a stylish young mute lady who uses a pair of claw hammers and always wears shades. These characters revel in brutal executions, and I really disliked their presence. They felt very out of sync with the sincere tone of the rest of the film, and more like a knowing nod towards the Tarantino style of ironical comic book violence. It’s a bad sign for the franchise, and I really hope that future films don’t go further down this path.

When the film is making an effort to be sincere, it is capable of producing decent characters. The crime family which Rama infiltrates is led by the gruff but charismatic elder statesman Bangun, while Rama befriends Bangun’s hotheaded son Uco, who looks uncannily like Bruce Campbell. Bangun’s consigliere Eka also gets a moment to shine towards the end of the film. Many of the film’s events are precipitated by Uco’s egotistical behaviour and desire to usurp his father, meaning he conducts an underhanded alliance with rival mobster Bejo. Bejo was one of the film’s problems for me, largely because he is devoid of menace, physical appeal, or any charisma. He also sports physical disabilities, which is fine in itself but taken with his lack of discernible mob boss attributes means he lacks credibility. He is often seen bringing in defenceless victims to be executed like beasts, but we never see how they are supposed to have been overpowered or defeated. The whole Bejo storyline feels incongruous, and I would have preferred they had cut him and his his faction (including the gimmicky assassins) out of the movie and shortened it by a good half hour.

Indeed, at 150 minutes the film is far too long, and especially considering the body count and level of violence, sitting through it is a test of endurance as much as anything. It’s a shame, because the film is not without moments of compassion and human feeling, but in the absence of any real humour (sorry, watching a girl slaughter a group of grown men with a pair of hammers doesn’t count), it turns into a slog. It’s an impressive film, with some wonderful technical and artistic achievements, but it only partly lives up to its lofty ambitions.

7/10

Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars (3DS) – Review

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In the strange and persistent absence of a new Advance Wars game for the 3DS, I was grateful to The Otaku Judge for recommending Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars to me earlier this year. Shadow Wars is a military-themed SRPG which might help scratch the itch for those hankering for a new AW game. Rather than gathering resources and building units, Shadow Wars gives you control of a team of around six operatives who level up over the course of the game. In this sense, it’s a bit more like XCOM or Fire Emblem, with an important difference: if any of your units die, you fail the mission, as you can’t recruit new units to your squad.

Shadow Wars is part of the Tom Clancy universe which includes the Ghost Recon, Rainbow Six, and Splinter Cell franchises. I’ve never been a big fan of these games, partly because I don’t like quasi-realistic first-person shooters. I suck at this style of game, and would much rather play something more slapstick and unserious like the Hitman series. Also, the Tom Clancy games are generally based around a very gung-ho valorization  of American military power which sticks in my craw. Shadow Wars is no different, as the story sees your team of American ‘Ghosts’ carry out various black-op missions in Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. The pretext for this is a cliche-ridden tale of Russian military and mercenary groups following a programme of violence and aggression to terrorize their peace-loving neighbours, and the Ghosts are the only thing standing against them. It’s basically a neo-con fantasy, which some players will be into, but it’s not for me.

As far as the dialogue and exposition goes, the writing is eminently unimaginative, with your squad engaging in by-the-numbers military banter and characters largely conforming to strict archetypes. But the draw here is the gameplay rather than the story or the script, and Shadow Wars largely does a good job of delivering a satisfying SRPG experience. Although your squad only consists of a few members, they level up after almost every mission, with linear but very long skill trees. You can then customize their loadouts so they can specialize in, for example, anti-personnel or anti-armour weapons. The game takes a distinctive approach to SRPG fireams combat: unlike something like XCOM, your characters can never miss, but have strict range requirements. So, a sniper has better range than an assault trooper, but has more restricted movement. If the character is out of range, they can’t shoot. It’s a simple solution, and removes the element of frustration when your sniper misses a 95% chance-to-hit shot for the umpteenth time, like in XCOM. You also get access to explosives, drones, and so on, as well as unlocking special attacks which can really help turn the odds against your opponents. It’s sort of like real life when the technologically superior force can just call in an airstrike and wipe out half the map.

The greater certainty in the gameplay perhaps contributes to Shadow Wars being a relatively easy game. The campaign is surprisingly lengthy, but is relatively light on challenge, and anyone who has completed games like Fire Emblem or XCOM should probably dive right into the top difficulty setting, Elite. I played it on Veteran and failed maybe one or two missions in the whole campaign. As you progress through the story you unlock Skirmish missions, which are usually based around a certain idea (hold a position with a group of snipers, complete a mission with only engineers, etc). Some of these are quite cool and there is a decent amount of content here. If it was released now, most of those skirmish maps would probably be paid DLC. However, I got bored before finishing them all. There is also a versus multiplayer element, but I didn’t try that. As the game is now five years old or more, I’d be surprised if there was much of a ‘scene’ around it.

The environments are quite well-rendered, and the game features some in-engine cutscenes which look surprisingly good in 3D. There is also a fair amount of character art which is pretty decent for the most part. On the other hand, the character animations in missions are rather minimalist, as are the tinny sound effects, and the game’s score is forgettable and generic. All that said, Shadow Wars is still likely to deliver a reasonably engaging experience for anyone looking for a portable, military-styled tactical RPG. And, considering that 3DS games generally hold their value pretty well, Shadow Wars is comparatively cheap now and should only take a nibble out of your bank account. Just don’t expect it to match up to the offerings of Intelligent Systems or Firaxis.

7/10

Glowing indie review heralds green light for The Last of Us 2

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Talk about timing. Naughty Dog and SCE must have been waiting for my review, because the ink barely had time to dry on yesterday’s post before they announced The Last of Us: Part 2. The announcement was one of the main stories coming out of Sony’s PS4 convention this weekend gone, and was accompanied by a fairly lengthy trailer.

The Last of Us was pretty much a perfect game, and its ending was a big part of that. T. and I recently discussed how Naughty Dog might approach a sequel, and I thought they would basically have to move away from the story and characters of the first game. That’s not what they’re doing, though. One of the problems with this approach is that hearing any details whatsoever about the sequel involves major spoilers for the first game, and that includes watching the trailer. You have been warned: hurry up and play it, or else.

The trailer itself is pretty cool as far as it goes, but then trailers aren’t always exactly a reliable indicator of final quality. A big part of why people are somewhat worried about the prospect of The Last of Us: Part 2 is not just that Naughty Dog might produce an inferior or poor game per se, but that in doing so they might tarnish the legacy of the first–which, as I mentioned in my review, is generally regarded as one of the best games ever made.

Lead writer Neil Druckmann has asked fans to “trust us”, and I guess that’s all anyone can do. As far as the actual content of the game goes, he’s said if the first one was about love, then this one will be about hate–which is neither particularly helpful nor particularly reassuring. The trailer certainly sets up a tale of vengeance. One way or another, we’ll only know once the game is released, which probably won’t be for a couple of years yet. Here’s hoping Naughty Dog and SCE do justice to the world and the characters they created.

The Last of Us Remastered (PS4) – Review

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I tried to play The Last of Us on PS3 a couple of years ago, but couldn’t finish it due to a gamebreaking bug. The bug didn’t just affect one copy of the game: it damaged the interaction between TLOU and my PS3, meaning any and all versions of the game were unplayable on my console. So I was grateful that the game was remastered for the PS4, and looked forward to finally being able to finish the story. It was a struggle over the last couple of years to avoid spoilers about the ending, let me tell you.

The Last of Us is a third-person action/survival horror game made by Naughty Dog, a developer primarily associated with the Uncharted series. The game is set in a post-apocalyptic USA where the population has been devastated by an epidemic of the Cordyceps fungus. Cordyceps is a real-world fungus which mainly affects insects and is famous for its bizarre affects on behaviour (google ‘zombie ants’) as well as the grisly protrusion of the fungal ‘fruit’ which erupts from the exoskeleton. Needless to say, the impact of the epidemic has brought humanity to its knees. Large-scale economic activity has ceased; the population has declined alarmingly, and most people live either in one of a few quasi-fascist militarized enclaves, or as part of predatory ‘hunter’ communities. It’s a hellishly bleak environment that evokes comparison with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

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For most of the game you play as Joel, a middle-aged man shorn of much of his humanity. Joel is defined by his ability to survive, and over the course of the story Joel kills a very large number of people and infected in often brutal ways. The human core of the story is Joel’s relationship with Ellie, a 14-year-old girl entrusted to Joel’s care early in the game, and the story of The Last of Us is the story of their journey together. It is difficult to discuss the game’s plot without giving away major spoilers, but suffice to say that the arc of Joel and Ellie’s relationship is the emotional backbone of the game and is the main reason why this is often spoken of as one of the best video games ever made.

Joel is something of a deconstruction of the typical video game hero. In fact, he is more of an antihero than anything else, showing little charm or compassion for most of the game; but this is entirely compatible with the setting. This is a world where almost everyone from ‘our’ society has been killed off, and the most extreme kind of self-reliance and emotional insulation is needed to keep going. It’s referred to more than once that Joel has done some very bad things in the past. However, Joel’s relationship with Ellie does humanize him, and his cold demeanour makes those moments of humour and compassion all the more moving. Ellie is the breakout star of the game and, although you only control her for brief periods, the game’s real hero. Ellie seems like a real teenager and is an often entertaining companion–as well as an absolutely lethal one. While Joel is a one-man bloodbath, Ellie is also deadly with a variety of weapons and more than capable of helping Joel out of a jam if he gets in trouble.

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Combat in The Last of Us is extremely violent, brutal, and impactful. Joel gains access to a variety of firearms, which all pack a heavy punch. The difficulty comes with aiming, as the game does a believable job of making it difficult to hit your enemies. Moreover, infected will generally keep coming straight at you until you kill them, meaning it’s easy to get overrun by even small groups. Ammo is very scarce, and Joel will often have to rely on improvised melee weapons, bricks and bottles, or even his bare hands to survive. These mano a mano fights have a surprisingly visceral quality, helped by the excellent cinematic camera and also the weight and inertia of Joel’s physical form. The desperation felt while sprinting to stop a hunter, about to kill a defenseless Ellie, was exceeded only by the relief that washed over me when I knocked him over and proceeded to beat him senseless. This is not a game for the faint of heart–a reflection of the world it’s situated in.

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The obvious visual and gameplay influences for The Last of Us are Resident Evil 4 and Half Life 2, and the game more than lives up to those lofty standards. The graphics on the remastered PS4 version are stunning, perhaps not as advanced as they were when the PS3 original came out but extremely good nonetheless. In particular, Joel and Ellie’s facial animations are exceptional and movingly convey a range of emotion throughout the story. The decayed urban cityscapes are extremely well-designed: the various cities you explore feel like real places, that have fallen apart in believable ways. Twenty years have passed since the first outbreak and nature is returning to the cities: not just in the form of grass and weeds, but in the abysmal spread of fungus that accompanies the most advanced stage of infection. The mere sight of spores forces Joel to don his gas mask, and is normally followed by some appalling prospect of a corpse completely overtaken by fungus, belching spores into the air. Before infected get to that stage, they’re known as ‘Clickers’: still able to move, but with their brains and crania overtaken by fungus, they rely on sound to navigate, constantly making a ‘clicking’ sound from the back of their throat. The sections of the game which see you sneaking around groups of Clickers are by far the most frightening.

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The sound design is yet another high point, and The Last of Us features some outstanding voice acting for the main characters. It also features an impressive turn from Nolan North, known mainly for the execrable Nathan Drake but who does a great job here. The soundtrack also cannot pass without comment: it is a perfect minimalist accompaniment to the story and, like the story, a work of sad and sombre beauty.

The Last of Us Remastered comes with the Left Behind DLC, which is a several-hour Ellie-centered expansion set during the events of the main story. It’s definitely worth a play and adds extra value to what is already an outstanding package. The main story clocks in at about 15-20 hours, and in addition to the DLC there are unlockables and multiple difficulty levels, as well as a multiplayer mode.

In making The Last of Us Naughty Dog revealed a level of maturity and sincerity in their world-building and storytelling that is totally absent from the risible Uncharted games. I only wish they would do more games like this, but at least they have created one unforgettable masterpiece. That’s more than most studios manage.

10/10

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