November 9, 2013

Game Review: Gone Home

Gone Home is one of those games that was bound to be divisive. In a gaming world populated almost entirely by open-world shooters - seriously, go check on Wikipedia how many of the best-rated games of recent years are "open world action-adventure" - it's a highly non-standard gaming experience, and the themes (or rather, theme) that it explores are none too popular among mainstream gamers. Despite that, Gone Home seems to have gotten a lot of praise from major gaming websites, which is when you should start getting suspicious.

Before I start the review, let me tell you that I was pretty heavily biased when I started playing this game, although in two different directions. On the one hand, I really wanted to like this game. I want games to be innovative; I want them to help loosen patriarchy's grip on gaming; most of all, I have nothing but the deepest respect for the Fullbright Company, GH's developers, for coming out publicly against some particularly disgusting sexism on the side of the organizers of PAX. On the other hand, I always knew I would end up hating this game. Every single review I've read of it made it clear that you basically do nothing in this game but go around a house and read things, and I hate nothing more than a low-budget movie pretending to be a game.

Gone Home puts you in the role of Katie, a woman who comes back to her parents' home from a year in Europe and finds the house completely empty. Instead of doing what every other 20-something year-old would do at this point and invite everyone you know for a keg party, Katie decides to explore the house and uncover what happened, reading notes and listening to audio logs (somehow) left by Katie's sister Sam in order to piece together what happened. Basically, take Bioshock Infinite with nothing but voxophones and way worse graphics and you get Gone Home.

I'm not going to have any spoilers in this review, but it already says a lot that there really isn't all that much to spoil. The plot is so unoriginal and predictable that I could call the whole story from 5 minutes into the game. Seriously, after the first 2-3 audio logs, anyone with even the most cursory knowledge of 90s pop culture should immediately know pretty much what the ending is going to be, and this game almsot prides itself on its abuse of 90s pop culture icons, complete with whole cassettes of crappy 90s music spread throughout the house. The predictability of the plot makes trudging around for clues all the more unmotivated, and if I were Katie, I'd seriously be working on that keg party by now.

But seriously, that's it - you go around, reading notes, listening to audio logs and - if you're into that insuffarable alt-rock or wannabe-punk of yesteryear - play cassettes. There's no gameplay and no sophistication. Then I realized that I used to play games like this all the time - back in the 90s, there was a deluge of point-and-click adventure games, and everyone dug the hell out of them. Sure, they were nothing to write home about (get it?), but they were a fun distraction for a few hours, had some cool puzzles and often some very intelligent and funny dialogue and characters. Gone Home is basically a modernization of that genre, except it has no characters, boring as hell dialogue, and 3 of the world's most trivial puzzles. It is a point-and-click in the spirit of the worst, laziest representatives of the genre, which had you basically clicking on everything in sight until somethign happened (e.g. Phantasmagoria 2).

Gone Home received a lot of praise for its attention to detail, and yes, you can pick up and examine almost every item in the house, and it's clear that the developers put a lot of time and effort into making sure that the items you look feel real and distinct. But if anything, I'd say there's way too much attention to detail. It's never clear what's important and what isn't, and when you can pick up and look at every pen, eraser and book in the house, it's just too much. It's a classic rookie mistake in basically every form of art that it's amazing to me that no one has called the game out on this. When you make everything stick out, nothing sticks out, and the whole games becomes a big pile of nothing.

Sam's voice acting is pretty good, though not without its weak moments - at some point, Sam tells about a kiss she had, and then proceeds to unleash the most stereotypically girly giggle I ever heard in my life. It is such a weak moment, especially given how it clashes with Sam's portrayal as a brave girl who, from early on, resisted attempts to peg her into a traditional gender role. Most of all, I am seriously bothered by how meta the concept of the audio logs is. Unlike other games that employ them, there are no physical devices that contain the logs, so all you can conclude is that these are just diary entries by Sam that are being read out. But if Sam is so desperate to hide the full story from Katie -  as the game clearly tells you she is several times - why the hell did she go to such lengths to record it for her and leave clues as to the location of the records? Why make Katie go through all of this reading and exploring? The whole basic concept of the game just smacks of lazy design.

I mentioned that there are a few puzzles in the game. Actually, only one really deserves to be called a puzzle, and even that one only reveals the ending to a subplot - you don't need it to beat the game. The first one was particularly disappointing - you need to find a combination to a drawer lock, and I was looking around for clues, looking for combinations that were mentioned often, and I was so excited to try it on the lock. It didn't work. I decided to go back for it, only to go a bit further and see a combination clearly written on one of the items in the next room - a combination which had nothing to do with anything in the game. And this is one of your three puzzles, mind you - the only times in the game where you, the player, are actually needed.

Also, this is a minor point, but I have to mention this - why are there so many things in the game written in cursive? I mean, I know a lot of native English speakers can read and write in cursive pretty fluently, but even then it's not everyone. Why the hell would you force me to read so much cursive? It's so painful, so straining. The Last of Us had a lot of stuff in cursive, but guess what? You could push a button and get a typed version of the same text, which makes sense given that your character probably knows how to read cursive. Gone Home even does this at one point, but then, for some inexplicable reason, some of the most important documents in the game are this huge page of cursive with no typed version. Seriously, Fullbright, I love you people and all, but screw you with all this cursive.

Don't get me wrong, there are some very nice moments in this game. I really cracked a smile in the part where Sam talks about this kid she hated, but was friends with because "he always had the best Nintendo games". Another good one is when you see Katie and Sam's answers to a school assignment, in which students were given a list of sentences describing menstruation and had to rearrange them in the correct order. Katie just followed the instructions; Sam interspersed them with a story about a woman who rebels against oppressive societal norms and becomes a leader in the Polish in WWII. It really does a great job of building up Sam's character, though like I said, this portrayal is hardly consistent.

Lastly, I can't finish this review without saying anything about the game's price. This game takes at most two and a half hours to finish, and that's if you read everything, do everything, and examine everything. You can probably finish it in under an hour if you power through it. And yet, the developers had the nerve, the outright gall, to ask 20$ for this game. 20$! Do you have any idea what PC games you could get for 20$? You could get both Deus Ex and System Shock 2 on Steam for less than that, and have 30-40 of the best gaming hours of your life (both games, by the way, have better graphics than Gone Home). Hell, you can probably get some of the most awesome 3DS games for 20$, and you'd have a ball without having to get out of bed. 20$ for this non-game with zero replay value? Shame. Shame!

So, bottom line: don't get this game. It's so not worth your money. It is borderline offensive in asking for so much money for so little game. Just watch the Let's Play on YouTube - you'll get the same experience without getting ripped off. The only possible reason I could think of to buy this game would be to have Fullbright's back given their stand on PAX, but I'd like to believe you can be a progressive and still give people a product worth their money. But that's just me.

October 16, 2013

Tarantino and Israeli Movies

I'm working on the post I promised to write, but I have to take a break to comment on a story that's probably not going to interest a lot of people, but I feel like I can't just ignore it. I'm talking about Quentin Tarantino endorsing an Israeli movie by the name of Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf (מי מפחד מהזאב הרע), which is one of the worst movies I've ever seen.

First of all, let me get this out of the way: I despise Tarantino and his movies. I didn't use to have anything against Tarantino himself: honestly, I found Pulp Fiction to be passable at best, and I seriously think that any attempt to make movies like Kill Bill out to be anything other than dimwitted exploitation is just people kidding themselves. But up to that point, it wasn't personal. Everyone is free to like bad movies. Hell, I love How High and the Friday trilogy, so who am I to say anything.

But then Tarantino made two movies that were so offensive to me, I just couldn't take it anymore. I'm talking about Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained. To be honest with you, I haven't watched either one all the way through: I tried watching IB about 4 times, and could never get through the halfway point, because this movie is SO GODDAMN BORING. Say what you will about Friday, at least you wanted to see how Craig and Smokey are going to get out of trouble. Who could possibly care about Tarantino's cartoon characters?

But that's not the worst part of it. The worst part is that Tarantino, in both cases, was seeking to exploit some of the worst human tragedies in history to make another stupid gore-fest. Like Spike Lee said, Tarantino was trying to make out slavery to be a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. He tried to do basically the same thing to the holocaust in IB.

The thing is, I seriously believe Tarantino is actively trying to offend people at this point. After Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, I guess he realized that critics and pretentious movie snobs will praise basically any movie he puts out, and that's when he started basing all his movies on splattering blood. After a while, he thought "you know, I bet I could poke fun at the holocaust and get away with it too". And how right was he - Israeli Jews were actually stupid enough to invite him over so they could personally kiss his ass. "OK guys", he then said, "I know what I'll do next - make light of slavery!" "Oh no, Quentin, you'll never get away with that." "Oh you just watch me." And the crazy thing? Yeah, he got away with it for the most part.

My dislike of all things Tarantino aside, I hated Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf from the day I watched it, which was probably less than two weeks after it was released here. Israeli film critics were heaping praise on it, claiming that "it doesn't look like an Israeli movie", and they're right, insofar as the production values are actually pretty good for the most part. But that alone doesn't make a good movie. A good movie has to tell a story, has to be somewhat interesting, and it doesn't hurt if it's brave enough to discuss an issue that's somewhat taboo. Unfortunately, Bad Wolf is a cowardly and pointless movie.

Spoilers for the movie follow, although honestly, you're not going to watch it. The movie is about a middle-aged man by the name of Gidi (Tzahi Grad), kidnapping and torturing Dror (Rotem Keinan), who is under suspicion for kidnapping and murdering Gidi's daughter - based, by the way, on a rather ambiguous testimony by one other girl - to get him to confess and tell him where he buried parts of his daughter that were never found (I won't go into the specifics). Now, torture is a rather taboo subject in Israel, much more so than even in the US. Both the army as well as the secret service employ it regularly, and anyone who opposes that practice is widely considered to be a self-hating traitor. I'm actually bound to get a lot of hate mail just for pointing that out, but what the hell, right?

This means that the movie could really have done something brave and interesting by tackling the issue of torture, because Dror spends the entire movie denying he had anything to do with the girl's murder, up to the point where Gidi eventually kills him. But no. No one ever says anything about torture being wrong or ineffective in principle. The only thing that's in question is Dror's guilt, and the movie even manages to demolish that tiny bit of interest by showing us in the last scene that yeah, Dror actually did it. It's as if the directors were such blatant cowards that they had to say "hey, we know those torture scenes were gnarly, but don't worry- the guy deserved it!"

Another factor which makes this movie impossible to like is the presence of Lior Ashkenazi. Now, I have been bashing the movie a lot, but Grad and Keinan actually manage to turn in great performances. They're great actors who do the best that can be done with the god-awful writing (which often feels like someone tried to write something for an American cop show and then used Google translate to put it into this movie), and are unfortunately wasted here. Ashkenazi, on the other hand, is just a terrible actor. Throughout the movie, he has exactly one facial expression - a combination of "I'm a tough guy" and "I'm worried", which is probably an attempt to make it clear to us that his character is some tragic hero. It doesn't work, and for a hero, he sure acts like a scumbag vigilante for most of the movie, who basically leaves Dror to die at the hand of a maniacal torturer.

The funny thing is, the creators seem to be somewhat conscious of what enormous cowards they are, so they have a Palestinian character on screen for a grand total of about 30 seconds, as if to say "hey look, an Arab. You know, because this is a movie about torture." I am willing to bet good money that in one of the earlier drafts, the guy had a much bigger role, and was only left in the movie so that there would be an argument for it not being a complete cop out. 'Cause otherwise, the guy is completely redundant as far as the plot goes.

I could go on about how much this movie sucks and all the ridiculous, pointless things about it. I think you get the message, though. I'll finish with this thought: there's a saying in academia that first-rate people hire first-rate people, while second-rate people hire third-rate people, and third-rate people hire fifth-rate people. Tarantino is a second-rate movie director praising a third-rate movie, and I dread to think what garbage will start receiving praise next.

September 30, 2013

Nintendo Hard, or Hardly Working?

This image has the same effect on old-school NES gamers as a cross on vampires.

(A slightly different version of this article was published on GamesBeat Unfiltered.)

There’s a secret to figuring out just how good the game you’re playing is, and it’s very simple: play on the highest difficulty level. As far as the things that make or break the gaming experience go – controls, hit detection, camera, etc. – this is the only way to really find out how well everything works.

Naturally, many of you are already questioning this assertion. You’d think that controls, camera, aiming and other commonly-infuriating video game elements would show their strength equally well regardless of difficulty. However, the reality is that you will rarely be able to judge them fully when playing on lower difficulties. To explain why, let’s talk a bit about the right and wrong ways to make a game more difficult, the importance of playing on the highest difficulty level, and why I think most game reviewers are slacking off on Normal.


As an example, let's take one of the best reviewed games of recent years, Mass Effect 2. If you are not familiar with the series, then first of all, go play Mass Effect 3 right now. Now that you know that ME is a squad-based action-RPG, we can move on.  

One mission in ME2 pits against three waves of enemies: the first wave consists of varren, the lizard-dogthings in the image below, while the other two waves consist of ostensibly more formidable creatures. I say "ostensibly" because unlike on easy or medium difficulty, where the varren are pushovers and the other enemies are the main challenge, on harder difficulty settings, the varren are going to kick your ass.

And you thought the Reapers were the biggest threat to organic life.
Why? Well, on lower difficulties, the varren hordes can be quickly disposed of by using explosive weapons. Hell, if you’re playing an Adept (basically a magic-user), you can use an ability called Singularity to make all of them float around helplessly while your squad takes them down. Chances are, the varren aren’t even going to touch you.

On higher difficulty levels, though, things aren’t so simple. Here, the varren have an additional layer of armor, so that not only can they take a lot more punishment, but since many special abilities, including Singularity, have no effect on armored enemies, the varren can’t be floated until you soften them up a bit. Chances are, you’re going to get ganged up on pretty fast.

At this point in the game, several harrowing realizations will dawn on you. The first thing you’ll notice is that this game really doesn’t know how to handle close quarters combat with enemies half your size. Once a varren gets up close, it is practically impossible to attack him. If there’s just one, you can probably punch him and knock him back right before he takes a big juicy bite out of your leg. If two or more have gotten to you, though, you’re pretty much done for.

At this point you’re likely to think: OK, melee won’t work here, but I can at least run when varren get close. Time for your second realization: the running mechanism in this game is utterly broken. Your character can run for a limited amount of time, but it is so hard to move when running that you are very likely to run into a wall that your character should have seen, mostly because the camera doesn’t shift perspective when you veer left or right. Worse yet, your character automatically dives into any cover you run towards, so you’re all too likely to accidentally duck next to a rock while running, very nicely allowing the varren to eat your face with minimal effort. The third realization is by far the most horrifying: that ME2 is one of those games where you are knocked back when hit by enemies, regardless of whether you got hit from the front or from the back.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the ME trilogy, but as far as I know, this is the only game of its caliber that managed to get away with characters floating in mid-air while walking down slopes, falling down through infinite holes in the floor, and various violations of the laws of physics. The only way I can think of to explain why this game managed to become so critically successful, even outstripping the sublime ME3, is that almost no one reviewed on a difficulty level higher than normal. There’s just no excuse for an encounter with alien dogs taking me ten times as long as beating the final boss.

As I was trying to overcome the mighty varren, stopping only to go buy new controllers to replace the old ones that I angrily broke in half, I suddenly started getting flashbacks to the days of my youth. See, in the old days of the NES, we didn’t have your fancy “difficulty levels”, or “online walkthroughs”, or “saves”. Back then, you had exactly one way to play a game: nightmarish, hellish, insane difficulty, and there was no one there to help you figure it out. It was so common for NES games to be teeth-grindingly hard that they inspired a term used to this day to describe impossibly difficulty games: Nintendo Hard. Bayou Billy, Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden, and many other games from that period showed you the Game Over screen so often that they must have given violent personality disorders to an entire generation of gamers, or at least that’s why I think GTA is so damn popular. Nowadays, it’s taken for granted that beating a game shouldn’t take more than a few days of playing, even if you really suck: just keep trying and you’ll get there. In the NES days, only the best and most devoted got that distinction.

In the 80s and 90s, the Nintendo Hard phenomenon was an artifact of the gaming industry’s backwardness: a lack of experience, which made it harder for developers to anticipate problems, as well as inadequate technology, which took its toll on gameplay mechanics. Things like being unable to attack when going up stairs, or getting knocked back into the abyss when jumping into a platform by an enemy you couldn’t see before, were likely the result of the limitations of consoles at the time rather than conscious design choices. Nowadays, such flaws are much more difficult to justify, especially coming from major developers.


I give Mass Effect 2 a hard time for the atrocious design flaws that the armored varren expose, but the armor itself is actually a great way of making the game harder. By giving enemies more powers and better defenses, the game forces you to take the strategies you have already developed for playing the game and upgrade them, challenging you without screwing you over. The complete opposite of that is changing the rules of the game on you, so that your old methods just don’t work at all. And when I started playing The Last of Us on its highest difficulty, Survivor, that’s exactly what the game did to me.

In case you don’t know, a lot of the enemies in TLoU are zombie-like things called Infected. The most common types are Runners, who mostly look and act like most zombies you have seen in other games and movies, and Clickers, who look, shall we say, more exotic. Since a group of Infected can be very dangerous, and even individual Clickers are instant kills, you’ll be using stealth a lot of the time to engage them. On Hard and lower, it’s pretty easy to crawl up to Runners, but you have to be slower and more careful when trying to sneak up on Clickers, who have perfect hearing.

"They're charging HOW MUCH for an Xbox One?"
On Survivor, things are quite different. Here, sneaking up on Runners is next to impossible. And while you might think this is OK, there are two problems with this. The first is that, while sneaking up on Runners is made extremely hard, sneaking up on Clickers is as easy as before, meaning that Clickers, with their supposedly excellent hearing, are actually more susceptible to stealth attacks than Runners.

The other problem is that rather than forcing you to play more intelligently, this change actually forces you to be dumber, relying more on brute forces and less on planning and sneaking.  Take for example one of the first encounters in the game, which pits you against four Runners and a Clicker. What I would do on Hard is sneak up on each of the Runners – which had to be done perfectly, otherwise they would summon the Clicker to rip out your jugular with an instant kill – and then eventually I’d take the Clicker one on one. I had to be very quiet and careful, move around elegantly, making sure I didn’t cross another Runner’s line of sight while moving – in short, I was Solid Joel, and it was glorious.

On Survivor, I quickly realized that this tactic has absolutely no chance of working. I tried to think of other things to do, until finally I had a really stupid idea: since only the Clicker kills you instantly, I could use a gun to take him down first. This would alert all the Runners to my location, but hey, I could probably take them down in a fist fight. It’s the Ryu Hayabusa school of fighting: make as much noise as possible killing the first guy and then beat the rest into a bloody pulp. Only Ryu Hayabusa is a ninja with a sword, while Joel is a middle-aged man with a two-by-four. But what do you know: on the highest difficulty of a supposed survival-horror game, brute force was indeed the way to go.

Frankly, I don’t know which is worse: games that are difficult because of bad design or games that are difficult because they just behave differently on different difficulty levels. In both cases, the feeling is that the game is harder for all the wrong reasons. I think the most important thing to remember, when developing, reviewing or playing games, is that being challenging and being frustrating isn’t always the same thing. Keeping that in mind just might make video games a lot more fun for all of us.

September 14, 2013

Game Review: The Last of Us

The first problem with reviewing The Last of Us - and this was true even when it first came out - is that most people had already decided what they think about the game before playing it. When GameSpot scored the game an 8/10, the website and reviewer Tom Mc Shea received a torrent of angry and at times downright hateful responses claiming that they scored this "masterpiece" unfairly – this a full 9 days before the game was released. This incident was one of many things which inspired me to write this post.

Considering the fact that The Last of Us has been out for two months and that pretty much everyone has heard about it by now, it may seem pointless to write a review of it now. But given how much this game has been praised - usually, for all the wrong reasons - and given what I have already written, I believe it can be safely said that this review remains relevant. While I will discuss the plot, I am going to first and foremost discuss gameplay, and especially, how often these two aspects are confused when discussing this game.

Disclaimer: As far as I can tell, this review is spoiler-free. However, keep in mind that when reading a review, there's always the risk of being exposed to some minor spoiler, like the location of a fight or a type of enemy. Tread carefully.


A good place to start a game review is identifying its genre, so that people would at least loosely know what to expect. With The Last of Us, that's not as easy as it may seem. The game has been marketed as a survival horror game; however, anyone who identifies survival horror with games like Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil (I know, I'm ancient) will have a hard time understanding why. To explain that statement, let's talk about what survival horror is in the context of video games.

Survival games are about overcoming a situation in which the odds are stacked against you: you have limited means in your disposal with which you have to overcome impossible odds, including enemies that are extremely difficult or impossible to defeat. In Alone in the Dark, few monsters could be killed with conventional weapons, and some could not even be seen without special equipment. The Resident Evil games (the first few, at least) are well-known for not even giving you enough ammo to clear the first few rooms you go through. The message that these games sent you early on is that not all encounters can or should be dealt with as fights; that killing all your enemies is not always desirable or possible, making them a constant threat in your exploration of the game world. And you usually have to explore those areas of the game a lot. [1]

If we agree on that interpretation of survival, then it certainly doesn't apply to The Last of Us. Your characters are much stronger than most enemies you'll meet, and unless you're incredibly wasteful and careless, you'll have more than enough ammo and supplies to beat every enemy in the game, even on the highest difficulty level (Survivor). In fact, for the most part, not only is it possible to finish off all enemies before moving on, but it is actually required. There are very few encounters in the game that you can avoid, and even then the game sometimes discourages that choice by giving one of the enemies some collectible that you can't get any other way. There is even one cutscene, which I can only interpret as an intentional meta-joke, in which your character is told by another that you could sneak by the next set of enemies without killing them, "even though I know that's not your style", to which the response is "we'll see how it goes".

So there is no survival element in this game; what about horror? You probably already know that there are zombie-like creatures in The Last of Us, the Infected, which have already killed the majority of humanity, and are a constant threat to the survival of the species. This setting sounds promising: what's more horrifying than to have all of humanity under the constant threat of a violent death at the hands of a throng of nightmarish monsters?

To its credit, the game does a remarkably good job of explaining the existence of these "zombies": the Infected are not undead, but humans whose brains have been taken over by parasitic bacteria. They are living creature, similar (at least at first) to zombies, who are highly aggressive towards humans. The fact that this is based on the real world Cordyceps parasite, which can take over an ant's brain, makes the story seem all the more realistic and horrifying. It also explains why the Infected can be killed by conventional means like bullets and choking.

However, all that tells you is that The Last of Us is a video game set against a horror backdrop. Sadly, this horror is never reflected in the gameplay. Horror in a video game is the constant feeling of insecurity; the understanding that not only are you comically under-equipped to defeat your enemies, but that you can never know what threat will come next, nor when and where it will appear. Both Alone In the Dark and Resident Evil are full of examples.

There's none of that in The Last of Us. Oh, you'll face quite a few Infected; however, the game almost always lets you know when the Infected show up and when you've killed all of them, and the same is true for fights with humans. Combine this with your ability to hear Infected from afar and effectively see them through walls (think Detective Mode in the Batman Arkham games) and it's basically impossible to be surprised. To be fair, this super-hearing is disabled when playing on Survivor difficulty, but Survivor only opens up after one playthrough. Since it doesn't change the location or number of enemies in any encounter, you are unlikely to be surprised.

I just told you a lot about what The Last of Us isn't, but I still didn't tell you what it is. To do that, let's be unconventional and talk gameplay. Like I said, encounters are little more than out-and-out combat, but The Last of Us actually does a good job of forcing you to be smart about how you engage enemies. Combat is fast and fluid, with a very good action vibe to it. There are many, many ways to engage enemies, and the game generally forces you to take advantage of all of them to be effective. 

The game gives you many chances for armed combat, with 12 different weapons available. The game thankfully avoids shooter cliches like three barely-distinguishable machine guns or overly-powered RPGs, with most guns different enough that you will find yourself switching between all or most of them in accordance with the situation you find yourself in. Some guns are better for taking down enemies who are further away, some are better at close range, and others are useful mostly against the bigger and stronger enemies. Even the two basic weapons, the pistol and revolver, which are pretty much the same in practice, have enough cosmetic differences between them to feel legitimately distinct.

Melee combat is less effective, as you may quickly get overwhelmed by enemies, but you will still use it in the beginning and in the later stages of an encounter to conserve ammo. Luckily, your character is so badass that he can kill almost anything with at most four punches. You can also use various melee weapons like crowbars, two-by-fours and baseball clubs to make it harder for enemies to hit you back, and these can be outfitted with various extensions that give you a certain number of one-hit kills. 

While guns and punches are fun to use, you will be even more effective if you take advantage of the game's stealth mechanics. Like pretty much any action game released nowadays, sneaking up on an enemy allows for an instant-kill takedown, but The Last of Us offers several fiendishly clever variations on that concept. Your character is quite the ninja, and can sneak around without being heard by human enemies, and for the most part, by Infected as well. Upon grabbing unaware enemies, you can finish them off by choking them, which doesn't take up any resources but does take a lot of time, meaning that you could be spotted and attacked by other enemies in the meantime; or you can finish them off with a shiv, which is fast but uses up precious supplies. Either way, you'll want to drag grabbed enemies away before taking them out in order to keep enemies unaware of your presence for as long as possible. Alternatively, you can use grabbed enemies as hostages, forcing other enemies to stay back while you sneak off with their buddy, or use them as human shields, firing at enemies with a handgun while forcing them to either hold their fire or hit their own comrade.

This is only one example of how combat in The Last of Us is smart, fun and strategic. However, it is also the only thing you do in The Last of Us. This is how the game goes: you go from one location to another, killing almost every living creature you come across and picking up any supplies you find. And don't get me started on the "puzzles" in the game, uninspired fetch quests which make the Legend of Zelda's box-moving affairs look like advanced calculus in comparison.

Older gamers will remember that there used to be a genre a lot like this back in the day: games like Double Dragon and Final Fight, called beat 'em ups, where your goal was to advance across the screen, kill all enemies and pick up anything they dropped. And while combat in The Last of Us is a hundred times more sophisticated than any beat 'em up I've ever played, it operates on the same basic philosophy. The result is that The Last of Us is a stealth-'em-up game with a survival-horror plot. Few games are able to make the plot and gameplay fit together, to make combat feel like a necessary and logical extension of the story, and sadly, The Last of Us isn't one of those games.


The plot and voice work in The Last of Us has received praise from just about everyone, and rightly so. As far as writing and voice-overs go, The Last of Us is perfect, and I am not exaggerating. Everything the characters say and do is believable, [2] and even the dialogue that enemies exchange with their comrades and with you is mostly very solid.

The most surprising thing about the game's plot is it's attitude to humanity. It could have been very easy for the writers to say that after the outbreak, times are tough and people are scum, period. But the game insists, even in this dark setting, to show faith in humanity. You'll see characters go from being ruthless killers to caring human beings through their interactions with others; you'll see the most aggressive and violent people showing their vulnerabilities upon finding the body of a loved one who fell victim to an infected attack; you'll learn of people who, against all selfish instincts of self-preservation, let strangers in need into their lives and sometimes paid dearly for it. In a way, The Last of Us isn't just the story of humans trying to stay alive; it is the story of how some are still trying to stay human. With this in mind, the daily struggle to not become Infected – manifesting itself not only in fights against Infected, but in the actions of humans who preferred to end their lives rather than let the parasite take over them – can be seen as a much more metaphorical struggle against losing one's humanity.

The story, as compelling and well-written as it is, would not have been as effective if it weren't for what is definitely the best voice-acting cast in gaming history and one of the best casts I've seen in general. Especially noteworthy are Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, voicing Ellie and Joel respectively. Baker is an established voice-acting god, and Johnson is a pleasant surprise for those who haven't heard of her before, to say the least.

This is The Last of Us' true triumph and the lasting impact it will have: never again will anyone be able to give a game a pass on terrible voice acting and a silly plot because "it's just a video game" (I'm looking at you, Final Fantasy X). Gamers can and should expect more from video games in the future, and The Last of Us is a perfect answer to all who say that video games are not art.

Of course, everyone's opinion is valid and whatnot, but I can't help but call out some of the criticism of the game's plot. One less-enthusiastic review which I have already mentioned is the one written by Tom Mc Shea for GameSpot:

"Joel, already accustomed to a life of brutality and focusing on his own needs [Mc Shea asserts throughout the interview that Joel was a criminal before the arrival of the Infected, something which I have found no support for anywhere in the game], has partnered with a woman of a similar disposition. Tess… like so many of the characters in The Last of Us, has a one-note personality that allows little room for a more nuanced interpretation… Such flimsy characterizations erect an emotional barrier for the first few hours of this adventure… Without any sympathetic characters to latch on to, you are left with little attachment to this pack of selfish animals."

Philip Kollar, writing for Polygon, went even further:

"The Last of Us made me feel sick to my stomach... It paints a vision of a near-future that is cold, heartless and, in many cases, downright evil. It's not a fun place to be, and likewise, the game isn't really a fun thing to play."

When I first read these comments, honestly, I was kind of offended. Not to play the Middle-Eastern card or anything – I'm no oppressed refugee myself – but I don't think these lines could have been written by anyone except members of the better-off sections of Western society. It is as if these people have absolutely no sense of what violent oppression and a daily struggle to survive do to people. People like that have no time to be sympathetic. People like that don't have the privilege of sticking to some lofty, abstract moral code. It is exactly the humanity that occasionally shines through in The Last of Us that shows that its creators got it, that they put their judgment aside and made the effort to think what sort of humans a disaster-struck environment might breed. Anyone who doesn't get that obviously can't enjoy the plot to this game, and I truly pity them for that, because if you don't understand hardship, you don't really understand humanity either. The Last of Us does a perfect job of presenting both. It is nothing short of incredible. [3]


I really enjoy playing this game, and I highly recommend it to anyone. I just think we sell video games short when we say that this is as good as they get, because to be honest, it's not. There are better games out there than The Last of Us, with comparable plot and voice acting. And although better and worse are subjective things, there are certainly games out there that have introduced new concepts, revolutionized gaming, and have done that while looking and sounding better than The Last of Us. If anything, I think the graphics in this game are objectively bad. Lighting is weird, textures are often ugly, and the game will frequently give you headaches if played for too long. Final Fantasy XIII came out 3 years before this game, and say what you will about it, it had far better graphics and was probably a little less linear.

At this point you might say: OK, The Last of Us may not have a lot going for it other than a really great plot and the combat. But how much more do you need? I mean, a lot of games try to be sophisticated and end up wasting your time on backtracking and busy work, so maybe The Last of Us' genius lies exactly in its simplicity? Well, there are a lot of genuinely sophisticated games out there, but it's true that if combat was really flawless, there wouldn't be much to complain about. However, combat is plagued by many problems which hold it back, especially in terms of AI.

First of all, combat has no clear rules. It's not about randomness or circumstances: what you can or can't do changes not only between battles, but between enemies in the same battle. Take the first serious fight against Infected: the first Infected you notice is standing still, and you can easily sneak behind it and choke it. When playing on Hard, you can usually sneak up on the rest of the Infected just the same, even if they sometimes detect you for no clear reason. However, on Survivor, I have never been able to sneak up on any other Infected in that encounter, no matter what I did. I could have accepted that I'm just not good at sneaking if it weren't for the fact that I could still sneak up on that first Infected, but all others immediately detected me when I was a few steps behind them. In other encounters, Infected didn't even need to see me or hear me to detect me, leading me to suspect that the game just made them automatically detect me when I crossed some map boundary, like video games did about two decades ago.

Another problem with combat is that it often punishes you when you try to be clever and rewards you when you take a brute force approach, especially when dealing with Infected. See, the weaker Infected, called Runners, are easier to sneak up on, but they are faster, and upon seeing you, will alert the rest of the Infected around to attack you. The more dangerous Infected, called Clickers, can't see, but have excellent hearing, and can kill you as soon as they catch you. There are also Stalkers, a stage between Runner and Clicker and probably the game's greatest miss. They are supposed to be sneaky and cunning while still able to see, but in practice, they mostly just run between two spots making scary noises.

These problems are illustrated by one fight where you face two clickers and a pack of Stalkers. Try this out if you want to have some fun: make a lot of noise, say, by running in place. The Runners, who don't have such great hearing, won't react, but the Clickers will come out swinging. You can finish both of them off – I used a shotgun for this, so you don't even have to be that quiet – and can now deal with the runners with no hassle from the clickers. Worse yet, because of the messed up detection mechanism the Runners have, you can approach and draw them back one or two at a time, so that they don't even stand a chance. Similar tactics won't necessarily get you through all fights - again, the rules are very inconsistent - but often enough, they do.

Human AI also fails to impress in this game. It happens all too often that enemies will see you from a distance, shoot at you, see you running to the right, then go to the spot you stood at, go to the left, and ask "where is that guy?" There are even worse cases where enemies seem to just forget ever seeing you, and cases where they know where you are but fail to pursue you, even when they outnumber you and could almost certainly beat you if they didn't try to get you one by one.

All of these AI bugs greatly encourage camping and brute-force tactics, and discourage intelligent stealth combat. I actually thought the game was pretty challenging when playing on Hard because I was trying to go Metal Gear Joel, but since on Survivor, being stealthy is rarely an option, I quickly realized just how easy combat is if one simply camps and takes advantage of faulty AI. Add to that your apparent ability to choke a person to death while standing right next to another enemy without him hearing you, and things really get facepalm-worthy at times.

Of course, you can ignore this and handicap yourself by refusing to take advantage of these bugs, but you really shouldn't have to, and in other games, you don't have to. Try to win by drawing enemy fire in Arkham City or Mass Effect 3. I dare you. You'll see the Game Over screen quicker than you can say "man, this review is long".


The Last of Us is a fun game with an amazing plot. It's not a masterpiece gameplay wise: combat, as fun and innovative as it is, is all there is to it, and it has more than a few problems, including an underwhelming AI and lack of clarity regarding what you can get away with. Still, it's a great game which in all likelihood will keep you coming back to get all the collectibles and see what else you can or can't do in a given encounter. And when you're sick of the single-player campaign, there's very good multiplayer in this game as well.

This review was written using the PAL version of the game, which is thankfully much less gory than the American version (though still plenty gory), after finishing the game on Hard, Survivor, and Survivor+.

[1] There are actually survival games which have little or nothing to do with horror. For example, Far Cry 3 is a survival game: you have to be clever in picking up resources and taking on enemies, because for the most part, everyone else is much better equipped and much stronger than you. And that's not only true for human enemies: a tiger in Far Cry 3 will mess you up, hard.
[2] Other than that cringe-worthy "I just shot the hell out of this guy". Ugh. Some people claim it's a reference a scene from The Unforgiven, but I'd say it's a bit of a stretch, and even if it is, doesn't quite work.
[3] It's also worth mentioning that anyone who played the game should know that Mc Shea's characterization of Tess is completely wrong.

September 13, 2013

This Plot is Awesome! Also, the Game's OK

(An edited version of this article can be found on GamesBeat.)

Everybody wants to play a game with a great story and strong characters, but when these aspects take precedence to gameplay, something is lost. About misplaced priorities in game reviews, and why you shouldn't stand for them.

The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are hitting stores in less than three months, and you know what that means in the minds of video game magazine editors: "Best Games" lists! Yes, prepare yourself to be bombarded with lists of best PS3 games, best Xbox 360 action games, best multi-platform tactical shooter games, and any other variation on the concept where a writer or two summarize their magazine's review of ten to twenty games instead of writing something new. The opening shot was fired by IGN, with their list of Top 25 PlayStation 3 Games.

It sounds like I'm belittling it, but actually, publishing a Top Games list takes guts, because you're basically guaranteed to piss someone off. If you write about Uncharted, someone will complain that you left Arkham City out (and really, how dare you?). Write about Mass Effect, and it's "what about Killzone 2?" It's a game where the only winning move is not to play, and really, given that today anyone can go to your website's review archive and sort reviews by rating and genre, I don't even see the point.

But far be it from me to judge the choices made by hard-working editors. No, I'm not here to discuss the idea of a Top Games list, or even the specific choices made by IGN, but rather, how these choices are made, and by extension, how video game reviewers decide which games are worth our cash and which aren't.  And if you, like me, live in a place where gaming culture is underdeveloped, rental stores are unheard of, and games are severely overpriced, this is something you should definitely care about.

To see what IGN's list has to do with this, just read the top entry for (you knew this was coming) The Last of Us. Of two paragraphs devoted to explaining why it "isn’t only very easily PlayStation 3’s best exclusive... [but] arguably the best game of the generation on any console", half a paragraph is devoted to introducing developer Naughty Dog, and the rest is a summation of the game's plot. Oh well, can't go into too much detail with so little space. You really shouldn't dwell on minor things like, you know, what you actually do in this game.

This is probably the biggest problem with the mainstream gaming media today, and it's a big one: the shift in focus from gameplay elements of a game to its cinematic aspects, i.e. plot, characters, graphics and what-have-you.

It's not an accident, and it's not just IGN. Barely half of IGN's original review of the game is devoted to the gameplay; in its summary, gameplay is mentioned in passing. The same is true not only for most favorable reviews of the game, but also for the more critical reviews. Reviewers for GameSpot and Polygon, who gave the game scores of 8 and 7.5 out of 10 respectively, based their criticism more on the nature of the characters than any gameplay issues.

Now, don't get me wrong: I don't hate The Last of Us. I actually like it a lot (even though I also think it is vastly overrated). I'm also very much in favor of plot taking a more important place in video games. But the fact is that back in the old days, this could never happen. You couldn't cover up significant problems with your game by packaging it with pretty graphics and interesting characters, because you just didn't have the technology to put these elements into the game. Your only way to get good reviews for your game was to make a good game, and surprise surprise – that's the era that gave us Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Metal Gear. Games from that era are not only still loved and played by many today, to the extent that more than one person made a career from reviewing and discussing them and other NES games, but are also the inspiration for basically everything we're playing today. Will anyone watch The Angry PS2 Nerd videos 10 years from now? I doubt it.

Before I come off as some old cranky guy telling you young people how things were better in my time – I love a lot of modern games. In fact, my favorite game ever is Arkham City, with Mass Effect 3 and Skyward Sword close behind. But what all these games have in common is that they combine ingenious, fun and fluid gameplay, taking all the great things from the classics while getting rid of all of the tediousness and broken gameplay, with beautiful graphics and a compelling plot (well, less so in Skyward's case, but still, you could do a lot worse). AC even has great voice acting for the most part, and ME3, well… ME3 has Jennifer Hale.

I get it: games like The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and Mass Effect deal with political, social and philosophical issues that TV and film just don't touch nowadays. Ironically, the fact that video games aren't considered a serious storytelling medium by the public at large has actually improved their ability to tell an interesting story by making them less scrutinized (although neoconservative and white supremacist nuts have still raged at some of the games I've mentioned, but how can you avoid pissing those people off, right?). That's great, and developers should continue to take advantage of that fact. But that need not and should not come at the expense of gameplay.

The bottom line is, we don't need to sell ourselves short. You can have a great plot and great characters while still insisting that your great story also be a great game. Otherwise, what you get is just an overpriced DVD. By pulling attention away from gameplay, the gaming media serves us all ill; it makes it easier for developers to sell us an inferior product and cover it up with cinematics. 

Anyone who grew up during the 1990s remembers how common it was to rate games according to visuals when 3D graphics first came around. Let's not let something like that happen again.