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Gaming with Autism: My Story

Before I start, I just want to say one thing. This is something I’ve wanted to get off my chest for a while, but have never found the right words to say. See, many people misunderstand most mental disorders, especially when there’s not a lot of public information about them. However, this is a personal thing for me, so I decided to just bite the bullet and talk anyways. Any questions you may have about my condition, please feel free to ask me, keeping in mind that I want this to remain as civil as possible. Alright, now that that’s out of the way, I can begin.

I have autism. More specifically, I have Asperger’s syndrome, which is part of the autism spectrum. I’ve known this ever since I was eleven years old (I’m twenty-two now). For those who don’t know, it’s a mental disorder in which those affected have great difficulty in understanding social interactions. For instance, someone tells a rather dark-humored joke to two people, and one of them happens to have autism. The joke might be funny to the regular person, but to the autistic kid, that joke might be left by the wayside due to not understanding that it’s indeed a joke, and will most likely be taken so literally that the person sees it as grim more than funny. It’s that way with a lot of things: parties, busy store fronts, and almost anywhere else where that person is expected to be sociable.

For me personally, the biggest difficulty comes with understanding people’s body language and facial expressions – a common struggle for most autistic people. If it’s not me being oblivious to someone gesturing to me with their fingers to go over to them, it’s me failing to hear someone because I was expected to maintain eye contact when my eyes start darting back and forth between things around the room. And if I do make eye contact in the latter case, it leaves me feeling uneasy, like they’re judging me on whether or not I’m doing it right or something. It’s hard enough to tell when to laugh at someone’s joke, comfort someone who’s sad even if they don’t have tears rolling down their face, or anything similar.

It’s not that I lack empathy, mind you – I have emotions just like everyone else, and feel them all just the same (sometimes extremely). It’s just difficult to put someone else’s emotions into my shoes and feel as they feel. The best way I can explain it is that…it’s someone else’s face. It’s unique. It’s their face with their expressions being unique to that one person. How can I understand a face that isn’t my own, no matter how similar the look might be? They’re smiling, sure, but it’s the same as my smile, so it doesn’t click that they might be happy about something I’m struggling to figure out. If they’re sad, that downcast look is not my own, and doesn’t come from a place that makes me sad. It’s hard to relate to someone without understanding the context in my world, and that’s why people may see how I react, and think I’m coming off as rude or distant or just plain ignorant of the world around me.

Now, by now you’re probably wondering where gaming comes into all this. The best way I can put it is this: video games helped me understand emotions. Now, given my previous paragraph on not understanding faces that aren’t my own, you’re probably thinking how video games can somehow be different. Well…yeah, it’s weird. But think of it this way: real faces are uncanny to me. They might be similar to mine in that they’re human, but they’re off in just the right way that it feels uncomfortable to me. Doesn’t matter whose face it is. It applies everywhere, even down to television and film. It’s still a human face, albeit a slightly more expressive one, on the screen, so that uncanny feeling still pulls on me.

Video games are different somehow. Whenever I see a video game character make a face to emote, I’m seeing the emotion at its most raw form. This was definitely the case when the first PlayStation came around, back when character models were rudimentary. I’m seeing a smile during what is indeed a happy moment. I’m seeing anger when something is causing conflict. I’m seeing tears when a character dies or suffers at the hands of the villain. Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that the characters aren’t real. As a result, I don’t feel the uncanny strangeness of seeing another real human face. I just see a character, a possible extension of my own will, which I then put into action with a controller or keyboard in my hands.

Take a game like, say, the Mass Effect series, which has a choice and consequence system based on the dialogue options you take. In real life, you never really get the opportunity to understand what your words might say, and for someone with autism, that opportunity is even more lost. However, I can take all the time I want to say exactly what I feel I would say in that given situation, and see the real consequences of my actions. If I saved beforehand and pick a different choice, then I see that outcome as well. This back and forth is something I do regularly with games, and it helps me to learn how a typical reaction to a certain choice of words would play out. This in turn prepares me for other such verbal situations – minus the whole saving the world thing, obviously.

Or, as another example, take a game like The Last of Us, which is currently my all-time favorite game. The emotions in that game are as raw as it gets, and seeing those emotions in such a grim situation was an eye-opener for me in many ways. The biggest one was that I felt as though I were building a relationship with these characters, both through my actions in defending them from the in-game threats, to the random passages of dialogue you find throughout the adventure that allow for the characters to breathe and speak as though everything were (mostly) normal. I was playing through natural conversations as they played out, and that astounded me so much, especially when previous games had been less than successful in getting past the awkward staring of most in-game conversations. I soon began to apply that approach: the casual mentioning of something a friend of mine had noticed, and starting off a conversation from there. I’d never experienced anything like it. It was as though I were learning to really talk for first time in years.

It’s because of these games (and many more examples that I don’t want to bore you with) that I cemented the finer aspects of my social skills that had been explored but never fully realized. I still have a long way to go – that uncanny feeling when talking to someone still lingers in my mind like a bad memory. My family has been a great help as well with their support, and I also have a fiancée whom puts up with me more than would be deemed necessary, though that’s supposedly called love and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is why I’m so passionate about gaming, and why I’ve chosen it as my career path and not just a hobby. This was my reintroduction back into a world I was ready to give up on. If video games can do that for me, imagine how much they could help other with similar or other mental disorders that both allow them to see things in beautifully different ways, yet also hinders them from functioning properly. If I can help someone through a game the way they helped me, then I know I’ll have succeeded in my journey. Until then, I’ll just keep on looking for those wonderful stories that allow me to learn a thing or two about people through helping them.

Bloodborne Review

From Software has an interesting fascination with death. Every game they’ve ever made seems to relish in making sure the player dies as much as possible before reaching the end. They also have a fascination with leaving you in the dark when it comes to plot details. This was the case with the action-RPG Demon’s Souls and its spiritual successor Dark Souls. With the release of Bloodborne – yet another spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls – this fascination seems to have continued. And as with the previous entries, this does not make the game any less beautiful, rewarding, or mysterious. It feels like a game made by From Software in every way, but with mechanics intended to reward those who like to mow through enemies instead of playing it safe behind a shield.

Gone are the dark medieval settings from the previous Souls games. The action has now moved to the gothic horror landscape with a city named Yhardam, a vast city built with cathedrals and castles surrounded by moonlit shores and dark brooding forests housing all manner of grotesque abominations. Sharp building spires, defiled streets filled with rotting corpses and abandoned coaches, and heavy use of dark imagery like cemeteries all serve to give Yhardam a much darker atmosphere than Boletaria or Lordran could ever hope to muster. It’s also thanks to a masterful use of dark palettes that serve to not only creep you out, but to inspire a sense of awe of what was once an apparently thriving and great city, now blanketed with a thick cloud of misery and brutality. It also helps that the game features some of the best graphical details the PS4 can allow. Watching blood dripping onto the ground, your coat flapping to your movements, and the look of decay along the streets is all masterfully done. While it might not be the greatest example of the PS4’s graphical capability, it still looks fantastic.

Adding to this grim landscape is an even grimmer tale of what happened to this society. You play as a foreigner traveling to Yharnam in search of its legendary medical marvels. However, Yharnam has problems of its own, having been stricken with a plague that turns its inhabitants into hideous and violent beasts. In order to survive, you must cross the city and eliminate all threats that stand in your way. By utilizing the dream-like state Yharnam is stuck in, you must uncover the mystery of this plague and rid the city of it once and for all by utilizing the skills of the hunters, those who seek to rid Yharnam of the bestial menace. To reveal any more would delve into spoiler territory. The narrative, as with the previous Souls series, is about as sparse and vague as it gets. You do get more cutscenes this time around, but they’re more content in giving context for events rather than revealing the details. The deeper details of the lorecome from item descriptions, random notes you read, NPCs you talk to, and even the environments themselves. Piecing it all together takes some doing, and even its multiple endings leave more questions than answers. But such is the tradition of From Software, and it’s engaging enough to keep you interested for the brutal ride you embark on.

As with the Souls games, this is an action-RPG with a focus on stat and weapon upgrades. The basics from the previous games are all there. The same life/stamina bar, the quick-equip options, and the movement animation, right down to the hilarious rag dolling that occurs with dead enemies. The combat still revolves heavily around timing your attacks wisely due to the slower animation wind ups than most games allow, as well as facing enemies that follow that same rule. It uses the same hub world system that Demon’s Souls introduced while combining it with the sprawling, interconnected landscapes of Dark Souls, complete with well-placed and easy to find shortcuts between sections of each area to reduce the tedium of backtracking. This is a successor through and through, and another example of From Software’s covenant with its players: they give us the tools, we figure out how to best utilize them in the brutal lands we journey through.

The other big similarity is the collection of blood echoes, which are this game’s version of souls from the previous entries. You obtain them from killing enemies, bosses, and certain items you can find along your travels. Blood echoes are your means to level up your character, purchase items, upgrade/repair your equipment, and other such uses. If you die, any you’ve collected will be dropped in the place you died, and in order to obtain them again you must venture back to that area and recollect those lost souls, but only if you haven’t died again along the way. There are occasions where enemy might pick up your dropped echoes, during which the only way to regain them is to defeat that specific foe – they’re best recognized by their eyes now taking up a purple and blue glow. You can also gain Insight, which is similar to Humanity from Dark Souls and are gained in a similar fashion, but has a few hidden functions that I won’t spoil for you. This allows you to not only be able to summon co-op partners (more on that later), but to also purchase specialty items from the Hunter’s Dream, should you obtain enough of them.

Leveling up hasn’t changed much from the way Demon’s Souls operated. There is a doll in the Hunter’s Dream, much like the Maiden of the Nexus, that allows you to pay some blood echoes to increase your stats, of which there are only six this time around: vitality (health), endurance (stamina), strength, skill, bloodtinge (gun damage), and arcane (magic resistance). The more you level up, the more echoes it takes to increase the next stat. Weapons scale at varying degrees to certain stats like always, so your play style depends mainly on what kind of weapons you prefer to use and how you can best wield them, though this doesn’t change how quickly you can swing or how effectively they can stagger enemies, only the amount of damage done in a single swipe or gunshot. You can also use upgrade materials to increase the power of each weapon, and fortify them with blood gems, which are enhancement items that each holds a specific buff or condition, so playing around with these is encouraged.

Even with those similarities, Bloodborne maintains its own identity with a few key differences from its older brothers. The first thing to note is that the action in this game encourages you to attack, attack, and attack. Yes, gone is the tactic of using a shield and waiting for the enemy to recoil before attacking – you’re even given a pathetic wooden shield sometime in the game to show you how useless the passive approach is. Now, attacking first while getting a few extra swipes as they stagger is the most potent way to progress through the streets and sewers and forests of Yharnam. Instead of shields, you now have guns, which are used to stagger your opponents should they opt to rush after you while damaging them in the process. Should you shoot them at the right moment, it allows for a visceral melee attack, similar to the riposte from the Souls series. You have a limited amount of ammo you can hold (up to 20), and you can even use some of your health to gain five bullets at a time should you run low of the normal ammo types.

A few new mechanics are introduced to aid in this. First, your armor is now relegated to…well, just being clothing options with various defense stats. Each item of clothing fits with the theme of the game, so you never look out of place whenever you swap out for better defense. With this in mind, you now have the freedom to dodge, roll, and quickstep without sacrificing speed. To aid in that, your weapons now transform. Instead of switching stances with weapons, you can change the form of your weapon and change its move set entirely. You can use a sword that sheathes into a stone maul, a spear that can be used as a rifle, or even a sword that sheathes into a wider blade to use as a greatsword. All of them can even be switched mid-swing for a variety of combat circumstances, introducing a new level of depth to the already fantastic combat. For this reason, there are fewer weapons to obtain than the Souls series, but the transformations make up for this, as you’re basically wielding two different weapons in one for each option.

Another new mechanic is the ability to gain the health you lost by retaliating against those that struck you. You have a limited window after being hit to swing back and regain that lost health, up to a certain amount if you’re taking multiple hits. This keeps the pace of the combat quick without the need to retreat for healing, though there will be plenty of that either way. If you need to heal, but don’t have an opening to attack, you can use a blood vial, the replacements to the estus flasks. These are abundantly found on enemy corpses, and you can hold up to twenty at a time, but that doesn’t make it any less likely that you will die if you use them.

This is due to the more intelligent AI patterns the creatures you face exhibit. Thought they still follow predictable patterns in order to give you a fighting chance, that doesn’t change the speed, power, and ferocity at which they unleash their assault. Often, you’re caught between fighting up to ten foes at once, either by running past enemies and aggroing them, or just by running into a prepositioned mob ready to string you up. Ambushes abound, but are easy to avoid if you’re being careful and observant. For this reason, even with the added emphasis on aggressive tactics and the health regain system, it would still be wise to avoid larger mobs, instead choosing to pick them off one at a time to keep yourself alive, while also exploiting the animation interruptions present for both your and enemy attacks. This also being a horror type setting, half the time you come across enemies you should be seeing, but rather only hear, with their snarls and footsteps and unsettling groans entering the scene before revealing themselves, forcing you into a constant state of awareness that only the best horror games excel at.

Aside from the weapons you use, there are also numerous items to collect, either as a temporary status buff for you or your equipment, methods to collect more blood echoes, or even navigation items to keep you from getting lost within a world that features no map, quest marker, or anything of that nature. These items range from elemental weapon buffs, items that reduce your susceptibility to status ailments like poison, frenzy (which isn’t explained very well aside from peeling off three-fourths of your health), etc. These items are, once again, best used for certain areas in the game, and discovering their use remains as rewarding as ever, as is reading their descriptions to obtain the lore of the world.

As for sound design, Bloodborne does a remarkable job in that department. From your boots stomping on the ground to the sounds enemies make, to even the ambient noises of the city and its outskirts, the game is a feast for the ears. The minimalist score keeps things atmospheric, with the louder, more intense orchestral pieces saved for the incredible boss fights this game features. While their patterns remain as predictable as ever, they are by no means less challenging or memorable, as they can still easily corner or pound you into submission if you don’t tread lightly and strategize on the best method of defeat. And this time, instead of fighting dragons or ancient warriors, you’re fighting creatures like werewolves, mystic spiders, and creatures that are incomprehensible to describe to the human mind, with designs seemingly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft himself.

Of course, with a game as challenging as this, begging for help isn’t considered weak. The game still features online co-op, which allows up to two extra players online to aid you whenever you beckon them with a certain item (at the cost of one point of Insight). You can summon people for that one pesky boss fight that keeps killing you, or to help uncover the more hidden shortcuts you most likely missed in some of the game’s levels. You can only be summoned with a certain item, and each time you summon help brings the risk of bringing in another player who’s more interested in ending your life than aiding you. This can be avoided by killing a special enemy known as the bell-ringing woman, after which you can feel a little safer knowing another player isn’t going to steal your echoes. If they kill you, they gain all your souls, and vice versa if you manage to kill them instead.

The game also provides indirect aid in the form of notes. Players can use an item called the Notebook to leave hints on the ground that can give other players clues for the area, like avoiding ambushes, leading them to hidden treasures and shortcuts, or even to just say something about the scenery or story in general. All the notes are premade from a list of phrases and words related to the overall game.

However, there is a new feature added into Bloodborne in order to provide more content for the game. By finding special chalices throughout the game, you can unlock the so-called Chalice dungeons, which are procedurally generated labyrinths filled with enemies and treasure that you wouldn’t normally find within the main game. There are several alters with which you can create a dungeon, and each has several levels, complete with their own batch of unique enemies, aesthetics, and boss encounters. These dungeons can provide some form of relief from the main story areas, due to their overall lighter difficulty by comparison. They’re a good distraction for when the main game has become overwhelming. However, don’t look to them for the art design, as they reuse many of the same assets – caverns lined with tree roots, stone room after stone room, all the same color – as opposed to the more varied environments that Yharnam has to offer.

This game is a grand example of what the PlayStation 4 is capable of, but some technical issues still bring the game down. First, whenever the game loads after a death or fast traveling, the times in between range between thirty and forty seconds, a considerably length of time that had me sighing in disbelief most of the time. Also, the frame rate, while it maintains a consistent thirty frames per second, does tend to dip a little whenever you’re cooperating/competing with online players or when there are several enemies on screen at a time. I even found one tiny area in the game where the framerate took a massive nose dive while I was there, only to return to normal after leaving. It didn’t appear anywhere else and there were no enemies to fight, so this wasn’t a deal breaker by any means.

Given those issues listed, I still find this game to be a marvel of level and combat design. The aggressive style of fighting is a welcome deviation away from the typically slow, methodical approach Dark Souls takes to combat. The art style and narrative are disturbing, yet richly detailed with enough gothic lore and implications to rival the best written horror stories. The world design is intricately built and connected, allowing for a deeper immersion into the decaying waste of a city known as Yharnam. The enemies are memorable and frightening all at once, as are the numerous NPCs you come across. With these things in mind, this game is still not for everyone, and is in no way perfect. The difficulty will turn off many looking for a more manageable experience that doesn’t rely heavily on memorization and planning. The long load times and frame stutters are annoying, the lower weapon selection is disappointing, and the Chalice dungeons left a lot to be desired in terms of overall design. However, this is one game you should at least try once in your life.

This game is, in the best way possible, the antithesis and deconstruction of modern design, much like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are. The difficulty is such that memorization of patterns takes precedent over trying to feel like a badass. The level design leads you everywhere and nowhere, such that overcoming it boils down to remembering where certain rooms and encounters are instead of guided passages meant to be simple obstacle courses. The narrative is hardly there, making you think about things and having to discover it for yourself rather than everything being told to you while you’re powering through mobs of easy enemies. While not to say that modern games are terribly designed by comparison, From Software has proven that there are still groups of people willing to think about how to overcome obstacles instead of being told “this is the best way to win,” and then accomplishing it without guidance. It allows those people to say “I did it all by myself, and I feel great.” Though it’s not a popular decision for some, I know I prefer to feel like I achieved victory through my own way rather than playing the way the director wanted.

The Order: 1886 Review

Oh Ready At Dawn, how sad you make me. You guys are no stranger to good games, having made two excellent God of War games on the PSP, and this was your shot to really show off your talents on the newest generation of consoles. Unfortunately, what you delivered could’ve been made in 2007 and nobody would be none the wiser. I of course speak of The Order: 1886, the latest PlayStation 4 exclusive IP. I had concerns, but I was hoping those would be squashed after playing it. However, what I played was nothing more than a dull, yet interesting shooter that cares more about trying to tell a story than delivering a truly great interactive game along with it.

The setting is Victorian London in 1886 because of course it is. The only differences to the one of history are the fact that technology is based off steampunk aesthetics, and there are werewolves running amok. To fight the werewolves and a rising rebellion against the government, a group simply known as the Order exists, which has existed since the age of King Arthur, and all take names after the Knights of the Round Table. They drink from the Holy Grail, which contains a substance called blackwater, which bestows eternal life upon whomever drinks it, so long as it’s tied to the blood of the drinker. The current plot follows one of the knights, Sir Galahad, as he investigates the rebel incursion while also trying to understand why the werewolves, simply known as half-breeds, are decided to side with the rebels.

Now, as I’ve written above, that is the main premise, and it is an interesting one at that. We see glimpses of how the half-breeds operate and evolve, as well as get a few hints as to their motivations alongside those of the rebels. The problem here is that it isn’t explored at all. Where do the half-breeds come from? What’s their endgame? Why are they siding with the rebels at all to begin with? All of these are things you’ll be asking long after the game finishes, if you even care to think about them at all. A shame too, since the plot itself moves along at a slick pace, providing a well-told prologue for events yet to come that unfortunately are never going to surface until a sequel shows up. And with the game not lasting much longer than seven hours, even with its immersive blend of cinematics and gameplay – all of which seamlessly flow without a jarring interruption – all you get is the prologue and nothing more.

It’s an even bigger shame that all of the resources went to graphics, which are the most obvious thing to notice, and are the first thing I will praise about the game. The detail on the character models is almost uncanny, it looks so real. Watching smoke pass naturally into the wind, water dripping on the bulb of a gas lamp with a flame inside, even watching feet distort the fabric of a blimp as they land on top are all a marvel to behold if you’re a fan of detail. The game looks absolutely gorgeous on a technical level, and it really delivers the power the PlayStation 4 has been holding back. It’s a shame that the color palette has to have so many shades of brown, gray, and an annoying blue grain filter to hamper the beauty of this game, as it just makes every level look the same.

It just hurts that there are no real characters behind the tremendous voice acting, as the Order is full of nothing but clichéd character tropes. The female is the token hardened female fighter. The main character is the gruff voiced “obey orders until things go wrong” type. The other main character is the noble lady’s man. You’ve seen these characters before, and none of them do anything interesting with their archetypes apart from play them as well as they could. It just goes to show how much emphasis they placed on the plot rather than having us relate to the characters to give us more incentive to fight on.

The sound design overall is praise worthy on its own. From the crisp sounds of the guns you use, the accuracy of the voice synching – which helps support the absolutely fantastic voice acting – and the smaller sounds like paper rustling or boots stepping on cobblestone are just great to listen to and further draws you into the world that Ready At Dawn has created here. It’s even better that the soundtrack is beautifully crafted and helps to create a more immersive, cinematic world that you play in.

That being said, what you do end up playing feels lazily slapped together into what could just as easily have been a film. The developers obviously wanted to tell a cinematic story within the confines of a video game. It’s most blatant when you notice the letter bars on the top and bottom of the screen that make it seem as if you’re watching a widescreen film on a smaller screened TV. After a while, you stop noticing it, but that just begs the question: why are they there in the first place? It also doesn’t help that over two hours of the game are dedicated to non-interactive sequences (I don’t say cutscenes because they blend so seamlessly into the gameplay). And when you have a six to seven hour total session, that’s over one-third of the experience, and that’s just unacceptable in this day and age where people crave more freedom and interactivity.

What’s even more unacceptable is the design of the gameplay itself. There are three types of gameplay at work here: walking and exploring, cover-based shooting, and quick-time events. The walking and exploring sections are probably the most common gameplay type you’ll play, and it’s arguably the most dull and lazy part of the game altogether. It feels as though it was created to allow the player to take in the breathtaking scenery and admire the detail they put into making the game look great. All it does is guide you through hallway after hallway while occasionally finding audio files that you can only hear from the pause menu – thus killing the immersion – and looking at interactive photographs, news clippings, and other miscellaneous objects. You can even flip some over to look at the back, but that’s pointless because there’s nothing behind the things you flip. If you’re going to all this trouble to make things interactive, give us a reason to actually interact with it all.

Instead, the majority of interaction is used in combat, and even then it feels somewhat underdeveloped. This is a third-person cover shooter, and that’s the only part of the game that actually has some form of effort thrown into it. It utilizes the sticky variety of cover, but it doesn’t feel as obvious as other games of that ilk. You can fire from cover blindly or through aiming, and the weight of each gun feels appropriate for the type you use. Shotguns have the appropriate level of recoil, automatic rifles must be kept in check, etc. You even gain access to science weapons, courtesy of Nikola Tesla. There’s an arc gun that fires lightning at your enemies, which is every bit as fun as it sounds, and a thermite gun, which fires a thick fog of ignitable oxide that can render enemy cover useless once you light it up. The biggest problem is that the camera always stays close to Galahad. While it’s great for taking cover, allowing you to feel more desperate and challenged in locating enemies, it remains that way throughout the entire game, which feels like the camera man is trying to give Galahad a hug the entire way through. I really don’t want to count every strand of hair on Galahad’s head, guys, as impressive as it is that you can see all of it.

Instead, the count that should matter is the body count, as the rebels are looking to protect themselves. While their AI isn’t terrible – in fact, it’s actually competent in defending itself – they never utilize cover or their arsenal to the fullest. What ends up happening is you constantly picking off the runners who attempt to take cover, and those who do take cover don’t seem to stay in cover long enough to stay alive. But at least they’re not unbalanced like the shotgunners, who wear improbably thick armor that makes anything other than explosives or science weapons useless, and will easily drop you in three well-placed shots if you’re not running to the farthest corner of the map – which isn’t far, as battlegrounds are painfully small. You do get some help from your friends in the Order, but they’re practically useless. Most times, they’ll just stay in cover even when an enemy is right in front of them, waiting to get killed, leaving you to finish the job for them. They have no sense of strategy, and the few shots they do take never progress into a kill. If the game just left you by yourself as a one-man army, nobody would’ve noticed the difference.

To mix things up, however, you get to fight werewolves every now and then to change the pace a little. Unfortunately, they follow a strict, easily overcome pattern. They charge at you, allowing you to dodge with a QTE, and then run in a straight line ahead of you, giving you ample opportunity to shoot them before they charge again. Rinse, repeat, and finish them with a QTE to keep the fight from getting monotonous. Even in areas where you fight multiple half-breeds, the pattern is so predictable and simple that any challenge werewolves should present based on their lore is severely crippled.

Speaking of quick-time events, they’re everywhere! I mean it, there’s not one level that doesn’t have a few QTEs sprinkled around here and there. How do you do a melee finisher? Do a QTE. Helping someone up a ledge? Do a QTE, that’s how. Even with something as mundane as picking up a key on the floor somehow requires a pointless QTE sequence, and it gets a little old after a while. This isn’t Heavy Rain, where the entire game is focused on QTE sequences, so why are they putting so many here? And the worst part is that the only two boss battles in the game are extended QTEs, making them entirely disappointing affairs instead of challenges of skill. This is a shooter, meaning that all of your skill should center around…well, shooting. If you’re using quick-time events to compensate for the lack of polish in the actual game, then why not center those efforts on the core gameplay rather than filling it with a few button presses?

There are also stealth segments, but they’re few and far between, and even there they couldn’t be bothered. They’re about as basic as you can get. Just sneak past some guards with predictable paths and reach your destination. If you get caught, it’s an instant failure, and you get thrown back to the beginning of the section, increasing the frustration level tenfold with the way this game is designed.

There’s little if anything to unlock while playing the single-player campaign, which, as stated earlier, will last you around six to seven hours average. Aside from the audio files, there’s nothing else to gain. Not even unlockable costumes, weapons, easter eggs, etc. Just finish the campaign, and play again, if you feel so compelled. With a lack of multiplayer, which I feel would work considering the solid shooting here, and no real incentive to replay the story, I see no reason to pick the game back up after it’s been completed.

I really wanted to be wrong. I had heard all the concerns about this game, and came in with the possibility that perhaps it wasn’t as generic, lazy, or forgettable as had been claimed. Alas, every complaint I’ve heard is justified. I enjoyed the actual gameplay elements apart from the quick-time events, and there’s a genuine attempt here to create a unique and interesting narrative to explore and experience. However, the issues listed above just make all of these attempts fall flat on their face.

We want QTEs to make sense within the gameplay. We want games to be engaging without using the familiarity of cinema as a crutch against a lack of entertainment. We want a narrative that begs to be explored. Had this game come out a few years ago, all of these aspects would be praised, even if mildly. As it stands, however, times have changed and standards have improved. There’s nothing worse than settling for a standard experience and praising it as something safe. We can do better than this, and as other reviews will tell you, this is the general sentiment in the gaming community lately. Don’t play it safe; play it smart.

On Game Length & How Little It Matters

Over the past few days, a bit of news came out about Sony’s upcoming exclusive The Order: 1886 involving its total length. In short, a speed run of the game was released early, and the total time totaled just over five hours, cutscenes and all. Naturally, this has sparked some controversy on the internet, as does any piece of news related to video game news and hype these days, with gamers crying out over the fact that they would be paying sixty dollars to get an experience they could get through in about a day or two.

I have two issues with everyone’s arguments, and I’ll keep them as civil as possible. The first issue is that they’re taking a speed run of a game as being indicative of the total time it would take to beat a game. A speed run, by definition, is trying to see how quickly you can defeat a game. It is a self-imposed challenge that most gamers are fond of in order to show off their skill at any game in particular. The video has circulated enough times for the words “speed run” to appear often, and yet I see numerous comments claiming that the game is only five hours long…from a speed run.

I don’t know what happened to taking context into consideration, but it seems pretty clear to me that a lot of people don’t understand what a speed run is. The person in the video completed the game as quickly as possible, which means that they are either very skilled at these sort of games, or they were playing on a lowered difficulty setting, making it easier to rush through the game. Either way, judging the game based on one video series, a speed run no less, is not exactly a very wise thing to do, considering the game has yet to be released, and the developers themselves, as well as game reviewers in particular, have mentioned that the game, when played at a steady pace and difficulty, takes much longer to complete. I’m sorry, but in this case, I’d rather take the word of the developers over one rapidly completed video series.

My second issue is with a much broader topic: why are people this upset over the length of the game in the first place? Now, don’t get me wrong, as I fully understand the issue at hand. People want value for their money, especially when that money is being placed on an increasingly expensive pastime like video gaming. However, people put value on different things in this world, and video games are no exception. If someone sees value as having an incredible amount of content within a single game, that’s fine. If someone else sees value as being a great game experience that they’ll cherish for the rest of their life, even if it was only a few hours long, that’s fine too.

I find that some of the best games aren’t the ones with huge amounts of content, but ones with meaningful and engaging content. Games where the things you do matter, feel satisfying, and/or improve you in some meaning manner are far more memorable to me than ones with an overwhelming sense of scale and content. I’d be more than willing to pay sixty dollars to play a game like Shadow of the Colossus, God of War, Portal, Uncharted, or even Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, because each of those games was in some way or another engaging, satisfying, and meaningful to me. Nowhere did I mention how long each game was, and let me tell you: at most they can run at least ten hours, give or take, with a few examples able to be completed within less than two hours.

The point I’m offering is this: the length of a video game is arbitrary. Some games want to pad themselves with content that, while fun, are merely there to pad out the length because the developer wants to keep people playing for as long as possible, without realizing that some of the greatest games ever made aren’t very long to finish, but last within the memories and hearts of the people who enjoyed them. Whether or not The Order: 1886 has worthwhile content remains to be seen before its inevitable release, but I assure you, if anything should be criticized, it most certainly should not be the length. Remember, it’s the journey, not the destination, that’s the most memorable, and sometimes the most short-lived experiences are those that make the most impact. And in the case of video games, the most impactful experiences are the ones most players return to.

South Park: The Stick of Truth Review

Bring up South Park to people, and you’ll get a pretty mixed response. On the one hand, it’s one of the most irreverent, disgusting, most insulting TV shows ever to disgrace the small screen. On the other hand—which is the side I’m on—it’s a wonderfully written satire that refuses to pull punches or take sides on modern issues, instead allowing people to see just how ridiculous their actions are, and in doing so allows us to be better for it. And this is in spite of the gross, shocking, and often insensitive jokes the show loves to dish out. So why hasn’t a game of South Park that matches its level of satire and humor and makes it into a good game? Nobody knows, but one thing is certain. South Park: The Stick of Truth is the definitive South Park gaming experience. The humor is there in full force without censorship (well, almost), the gameplay is fun and in keeping with the general tone of the show, and most of all you feel like you’re a part of this insane little Colorado town.

The premise is simple: the boys of South Park are LARPing (Live Action Role Play) throughout town instead of playing video games—imagine that ever happening in these modern times. The humans, led by Eric Cartman, are locked in an epic war with the Drowe Elves, led by Kyle Broflovski. Their goal is simple: obtain and hang onto the Stick of Truth, which is quite literally a stick they found somewhere for the sake of the game. Whoever controls the stick controls the universe, and both sides are continuously fighting for the thing in a fantasy role-playing manner, complete with changing rules and various fantasy tropes. You play as the new kid in South Park, a silent character that you can customize to look as close to your South Park counterpart as you want him to be. His coming was apparently foretold because of course it was, and his arrival sets off a series of events into motion that only South Park would be as bold as to show.

To say anything more would be to ruin several in-show references for long-time fans of the series, as well as the clever and witty writing this game brings to the table. Written by show creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, their no-holds-barred approach to satire and humor is no less apparent here than in their original creation. They poke fun at many video game elements, both the good and annoying, as well as a few pop culture references here and there. The story being told here is also well-paced and chock full of numerous laugh-out-loud moments that had me rolling and out of breath as I tried to continue playing the game. Some of the humor doesn’t always hit the mark though, but that’s mostly reserved for gross-out moments involving going inside body parts (no I'm not kidding) and some of the jokes I personally found a little insensitive (again, something to expect from South Park). Nevertheless, it didn’t detract from the overall experience we're given here.

That’s not the game’s only strength, however. The art style and animation, as well as graphical quality, is on par with the TV show. Now this might be odd, considering the TV show has some of the worst animation quality in the history of TV cartoons--which everyone knows by now doesn't matter--but that’s the thing. It makes it unique that the game so perfectly emulates the show’s style and atmosphere, making you feel as though you’re a part of the show. I won’t say much else, because if you’ve seen any bit of the show, you know what to expect in terms of how they animate the characters, how they create buildings and scenes, as well as how they voice act the various characters, whom I also won’t discuss because, again, there’s nothing I can say that the show can’t explain for you. Needless to say, these are memorable characters that each have their moment in the spotlight at some point or another.

I’ve said what I could on the visuals and story, so let’s get on with the actual game. The game is a turn-based RPG, and it’s a pretty standard one at that, at least on the surface. You control your character through the town of South Park almost in a side-scrolling fashion, with a few areas where you can go vertically in order to reach new areas or due to the path guiding you through. In each area you encounter, there are many hidden paths and secrets that allow you to find items such as armor, weapons, and various other collectibles. You manage these things in the menu system the game shamelessly just calls Facebook. Here, you can view your equipment, quest status for your various missions and side objectives, collectibles, and also how many friends you’ve made along the way, which can unlock permanent ability perks for every ten friends you make. Each piece of equipment has unique abilities that can benefit specific classes, such as higher armor for the warrior, a higher cash reward yield for the thief, etc. You can further enhance equipment by finding or buying equipment patches and strap-ons (not kidding about the name there), either through searching through drawers and chests or by taking them off fallen enemies.

The combat is basic, but with a surprising amount of depth to it. The game first has you pick from a selection of four classes. There’s the warrior, mage, and thief classes that each function in the typical manner they would in other RPGs, all with their own unique special abilities. There’s a fourth class known as the Jew class--which only South Park can effectively pull off--which functions much like a cleric class in that it combines status-affecting abilities with a high risk high reward system that gives you more power as you're damaged. You take turns as you, your ally (you only get one ally to use in battle, but that's more than enough for this game), and your enemies all do their best to defeat one another. You can choose between regular attacks, special abilities, items, summons, and magic. By performing timed button presses before attacking in a parody of the Paper Mario games, you can enhance your moves by either expanding your combo strings, delivering a harder blow, or making special abilities more effective. You can even call upon some of the characters you meet to assist you in battle as a summon, but they're fairly pointless as you can only use them once per day, will not help you for boss battles at all, and they're one-hit-kill moves that ruin the fun of the combat. I only used them to see what they did, and never used them afterwards, in spite of their hilarious animations.

The same principle also applies to blocking, which reduces the amount of damage you would normally take. Status effects like being poisoned get replaced with being grossed out, in order to fit in with the South Park universe, and it makes combat all the more humorous, especially when combined with some of the more silly and gross attacks you unleash. However, I would say that the default difficulty setting is a bit too easy, since it’s too easy to just beat your opponents with brute force instead of using the more creative attacks. Switching to the highest difficulty alleviates this by forcing you to debilitate your opponent with stacked status effects before landing big hits. Even though the game can still be beaten without you and your party ever dying, the fear of defeat is real at the highest difficulty, with your enemies landing their own painful status effects on you and hitting with their own creative and painful attacks that require a bit of defensive play. Defeating enemies net you experience points to upgrade your level. Every level up grants you an ability point to use on your special attacks to make them more powerful, even though some are more useful than others.

But it’s not only turn-based combat at play here. Throughout certain areas, you’re greeted with environmental cues such as glints on cracked or unstable items. By using certain items, like your ranged weapons, or by harnessing the power of your farts (more on that later), you can create new pathways for you to travel through. If enemies are in your way, these environmental hazards can be used to get rid of them, thus avoiding unnecessary combat. It’s a good thing this passive-aggressive style of combat gives you the same number experience points that regular combat nets you, so as to avoid the problem of killing enemies for no reason other than to get rid of an obstacle and having no reward for it in the process.

The magic in this game is done through the use of farting. You, as the new kid, have this insane ability to control your farts, and this makes them somehow more powerful and useful in battle. You consume “mana” (mostly gas-inducing meals) to power your farts, and can use different types of farts against your opponents, all of which inflict the gross-out status and can deal massive damage in the trickier fights. You can even use your various fart abilities to take out environmental roadblocks, and even light enemies aflame from afar. I used it all the time, in and out of combat, as it’s both useful and mildly amusing to witness.

The side quests in this game are pretty numerous, but normally don’t amount to much aside from a few sort of useful rewards. You have the occasional fetch quest and monster hunt, which can often be pretty funny if you’re privy to the joke the quest is setting up. From a mechanic standpoint, it’s pretty much the same as any other RPG, made only unique by the type of humor at play. You’ll get a good laugh and get some experience along the way, as well as the possibility of making new friends, but don’t expect much of a challenge for some of these side missions. It also doesn’t help that the quest management system is pretty vague in how it helps you. It only gives you your objective, as well as the general location of the quest on your map, but other than that it offers little feedback as to how far you’ve progressed aside from an icon that appears and disappears in a flash on the main game screen itself.

You can even collect items throughout your adventure. There are more customization options like facial hair, new hair styles, facial features, and dyes to color-customize your equipment. These are always fun to mess around with, as you can do at any point in the game without the characters really noticing, which adds to the fun for some odd reason. There are also collectible chinpokomon figures (from the popular Pokemon satire episode) hidden all throughout the world. There are thirty of them total, and some can be pretty tricky to find, forcing you to use all your exploration abilities at your disposal to find them all.

The game can take anywhere from ten to twelve hours on average to complete, which is pretty short in comparison to other RPG offerings. That time will only matter if you consider what you’re getting for the money. A lot of the more blatant jokes don’t always hit the mark, some of the dialogue gets repetitive at times, and the quest management could’ve used a little more thought. Other than that though, I see no reason to skip this game. The most hardcore South Park game would be ridiculous not to buy this game for their memorabilia collection. It might not change the mind of someone who dislikes the show, but this game isn’t meant for them. It’s meant for both RPG players and fans of the show. It’s crass at times, but it also has its brilliant moments in both gameplay and humor. Get this game if you enjoy good doses of either thing. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Destiny Review (part 1)

I didn’t write this review at launch because it’s difficult to assess the value of an online game on launch date alone. Over time, things expand, more content is introduced, and the game becomes something completely different. Plus, there’s little I could say about Destiny’s launch that many people haven’t discussed at this point. Many feel it’s a flawed, but highly addictive and enjoyable game with an interesting lore that begs further explanation. Others feel the flaws in the narrative and overall structure are too significant and underscores the hype surrounding it over the past year or so. Having played the game almost daily for the past two months since its release, I’d like to share my own experiences with the game, and outline what does and doesn’t work for me, along with my current and future thought on this ambitious title.

First off, let’s get the elephant out of the room right away. Yes, the story in its current form is disappointing. Characters pop in and out without being given much development. The dialogue ranges from average to mind-numbingly dull, especially coming from a surprisingly unenthused Peter Dinklage as your Ghost: your flying droid-like companion throughout the entire game. Every bit of plot progression is veiled in a thick fog of ambiguity that begs to be discovered, but presently delivers as little as possible. It feels, at least at this point in time, as an excuse to unlock the areas in which you play, and does little more than introduce this universe rather than build and flesh it out to get players invested. The narrative bits you do find are in the form of an online grimoire that could’ve been implemented in the actual game, but feel as though it’s trying to create some sort of meta-experience. If this is the case, then all we can do is be patient, which is the sort of thing that can really anger a lot of gamers looking for an immediate fix on a new game.

And yet, I feel no animosity towards it. Why, you might ask? Well, the simple reason is that I’ve seen many sci-fi stories that have this kind of intro: introduce your characters, the threat(s), and get used to having to fight the threat(s) for the remainder of what’s to come. It’s an introduction, and nothing more. When Bungie began talking about the narrative of this game, they claimed to have wanted to create a story they could tell over ten years. If they’re using only one game to achieve this (and this is speculation at this point), then we, as the players, have no choice but to be patient as they slowly reveal more and more of what this plot has in store, which so far is interesting enough to warrant further expansion.

Now, I don’t need to remind everyone of just how beautiful this game looks. Even on the last-gen consoles like the PS3 and Xbox 360, the level of detail and the quality of the artwork is downright astounding. Everything in its art style oozes a traditional sci-fi vibe, enhanced with dynamic lighting, phenomenal animations, and the most incredible skylines I’ve seen in any game. Structures, both organic and artificial, are designed with care and consideration, with a little of a fantasy twist. The formation of stone structures within the dense and lush jungles on Venus are only one example of some of the spectacular sights you’ll find. On current gen consoles (the PS4 in my case), the textures are smoother to allow for more detail in the environments, the animations are top notch and smooth, and the lighting is even more beautiful than ever before, even though it might not be pushing the hardware as far as it can go due to its multiplatform nature. However, if you want pure eye candy to behold, Destiny is that game for you.

As far as gameplay goes, this is by far one of the best controlled shooters you’ll probably ever play. The buttons are mapped in familiar places if you’re used to games like Halo and Call of Duty, and never deviate from that set mapping on default. You can change the settings in the menu, however, to suit your needs. It feels tight and responsive without any sort of input lag. You feel as though you’re the one in charge of the fights, not the gun. But aside from the response, the game features something more akin to an RPG for its shooting. You’re given three classes: Titan, Warlock, and Hunter. Each class has unique abilities for any given situation. Titans are essentially super soldiers, able to hit hard and tank damage. Warlocks are space wizards, utilizing the Light of the Traveler to summon energy attacks based on either dark or solar damage. Hunters are your rogue class, who hit fast and silently, able to disappear as quickly as they appear before stabbing you in the face. The game has a leveling system based on experience up to level 20, after which your level is dependent on the armor you wear, which can bring you up to 30. Experience doesn’t become a moot point, however, as a certain currency called Motes of Light can be obtained by gaining experience.

With each class, you’re given different options in terms of mobility and attack style, and this is where the gameplay really shines. The added jump abilities that vary with each class add a heightened sense of verticality to the game, and the design of the planets you explore shows this. This can help you reach the various golden loot chests or dead ghosts (which give you backstory in the form of cards on the Bungie website). Finding these chests scattered throughout (aside from the rare golden ones) take a bit of traveling, and are a part of the looting mechanic in this game. Collecting loot grants you access to weapons, armor, and cosmetic class items. They range in rarity based on their color. Green is common after level 10, blue is rare, purple is legendary, which are extremely hard to find outside of special missions (more on that later), and exotics are even more difficult to find, often needing specialized, complex bounty quests to obtain one. Each weapon has unique perks that allow you to pick your own style of shooting, and level up the more you use them. Armor pieces are based around stats that allow you to use your special abilities more often by reducing their cooldown period, as well as increasing your defense to accept more punishment from the tougher brood of aliens.

The first few levels of items are obtained through a system called the Random Number Generator (RNG). The RNG is a chance system that dictates what piece of equipment you collect from the various foes you encounter, as well as the activities you complete. At launch, this was a little too randomized, as players would either get exactly what they needed from each engram (the method by which you collect the loot) or get ripped off by the engram vendor known as the Cryptarch, as higher level engrams had a chance of giving you a lesser item instead of one of that same color. Patches have since improved the chances of obtaining these items, so the system feels less cheap, as now the item you get from each engram corresponds to its color/rarity or higher. You’ll need these items to become stronger, as well as increase you end-game level for the harder missions. This is alongside giving you an advantage over the enemy aliens that guard the paths.

And what an interesting bunch of aliens that litter the forgotten planets of this universe. First are the Fallen, a hierarchal race hell-bent on reclaiming their lost glory as they scavenge planets in search of interesting items and artifacts all across the Solar System. Then there’s the Hive, a grotesque breed of creatures who are on a crusade against the Light so that Darkness can prevail over all, and they’re planning an invasion of Earth soon from their base on the Moon (which will come full force with the upcoming The Dark Below DLC expansion). Next are the Vex, a highly intelligent biomechanical race that has overtaken Venus and plans to turn it into one of their machines like they did with Mercury, though their reasons for doing this are currently unknown. Finally, there’s the Cabal, a dangerous group of gigantic aliens who are known to destroy entire planets just for getting in their way. They take areas by sheer force alone in order to assert their military dominance.

Each of these alien races all have unique patterns for attacking your guardians, and none of them are all that clear. You’ll spend more time dodging and picking at groups of enemies than you will charging through Rambo-style. They’ll shoot at you as soon as you’re within sight, and some will even chase after you if you’re not careful. It’s almost like a dance going up against many of these creatures, only with more bloodshed. The fallen behave like a pack, using small units among larger packs to outflank and outgun you in larger areas. The Hive behave like a swarm, charging with overwhelming numbers and force, doing their best to keep you pinned down with everything they’ve got. The Vex are the most organized, moving in tight groups and firing precise and deadly shots from all their setup directions. The Cabal have smaller numbers, but their surprising mobility, brutal firepower, and incredible defensive tactics make them a difficult foe to take down. Often times, these enemies will fight each other on the planets you explore, indicating that their goals are not all equal, and perhaps the possibility of forming uneasy alliances will take place in future story setups. Only time will tell. For now, they’re formidable foes that must be vanquished.

Many of these foes can sometimes prove too much, depending on the task you’re completing (more on that later). For these tough encounters, it becomes important to form a fireteam: a group of three players of varying classes that can work together to finish any task given in the game by coming up with strategies and assisting players in tougher areas. Fireteams serve as the most social aspect of the game, as in-game chatting can only occur in fireteams and not with only random players, done as a way to avoid griefing over voice chat. This can feel limiting to a lot of players expecting a certain level of interaction seen in other online games. For me, this is a pro and a con. On the one hand, I love having players always muted until you join teams, as it prevents listening to some of the worst the online community has to offer. On the other hand, since this game is intended to be a social experience, it seems odd that chatting is limited to fireteams and player-made groups. Maybe adding it to match-made groups as well would help things become better. For a game that touts that the main interactions you’ll find in the game is with other players, it’s jarring to see such a lack of it. For the meantime, it’s a great social experiment hampered by limited communication.

(EDIT: Bungie has since introduced a team chat system, in which you can choose to talk with a matchmade group in strikes and multiplayer matches instead of pre-forming a fireteam in order to do so. The voice quality is about the same, and it has increased social interaction amongst the game’s peers, so long as they decide to do so. So that last sentence should be somewhat disregarded.)

The game’s structure is set up as such: story missions, patrols, Strikes, Raids, the Tower, and the Crucible. The story missions are where the narrative is built from (obviously). They follow mainly linear paths through the larger overworlds towards an objective, which is how most FPS story missions are, with the main mission areas being “darkness zones” where respawning after death is removed and you must try the encounter again from the checkpoint. It takes an old-school encounter system, and for modern shooters, this feels a little arbitrary, and it can feel as such on the later levels when you recognize the pattern a little better. But whenever the missions let you just travel from location to location, there are a few instances of atmosphere and level building that can be appreciated in spite of the encounters. That said, each story mission is still intense and challenging for the levels you’re supposed to take them on in, even when each encounter feels like a timing exercise rather than an emergent experience.

Patrols are the most open mission types of the game. Here’s where you get to explore each of the main worlds, which are Earth, the Moon, Venus, and Mars. They’re not as open as their design might imply, but they do condense each area full of environmental detail and signs of the Golden Age’s lost potential. It does a good job of show, don’t tell, even if there are little to no plot details given within the game. This is where you’ll obtain a lot of your experience points and a few pieces of loot, from weapons to armor pieces to class items. You’ll find collectible items that allow you to upgrade your high level gear, as well as finding chests to get more currency and the like. To keep players busy, there small patrol missions scattered throughout each map, ranging in type from collection, killing, scanning, scouting, and small enemy bounties. They’re as tedious as they sound, and if it weren’t for the beautiful vistas, as well as the challenge of each enemy you fight, these would never even be touched by players because of their similarities to the similarly tedious minor MMO quests.

What keeps many patrols exciting, however, are the public events: timed missions that appear in certain sections of each planet’s world map, and range from defending downed satellites, taking down a tougher than normal enemy, or defeating enemy waves that vary in type depending on which aliens are being handled. These happen all the time at certain times of the day, and when they happen, they’re a good chance to snag some higher level upgrading equipment, provided to finish each event within their timeframe and challenge requirements. They’re the most emergent part of the gameplay experience, and are some of the most exciting when they appear seemingly out of nowhere, outside of the sky darkening as the warning signal mere seconds before it begins. I’ve seen more people drop what they were doing to play these events, something I don’t find very often in most online games, so it’s refreshing to see such a novel concept introduced so effectively here.

Strike missions are high-level bounty hunts. You get dropped off in a certain area on the map, and must make your way to your target, encountering waves of tough enemies along the way. They’re done at higher levels, and require higher quality equipment in order to tackle them, as well as being in a good fireteam. You complete strikes by completing sections of the strike path, which includes fighting off enemy waves while unlocking the next area, and defeating mini-bosses before facing the final target. The enemies here are more ruthless than in story missions and patrols, able to outgun and outflank you if you’re not paying attention. Strikes are easily the tensest portions of the game, and are typically better designed than the story missions due to the more balanced encounter rate and level of enemy intelligence shown off. Teamwork is also best seen in these.

The Raids are without a doubt the most well designed and most challenging feature of Destiny by far, and this is just from the one current raid alone: the Vault of Glass. Raids are like strikes, but in completely unique areas within the main world. You can have a six man party come in with you, consisting of only people on your friends list. While matchmaking would be interesting here, knowing who you’re working with is vital to success, as is communication. The raid is home to the most difficult and intelligent enemies the game has to offer, as well as navigation paths that take full advantage of your guardian’s mobility and the verticality. There is no guide marker to tell you what to do. Each section is a puzzle you have to solve through teamwork. The only clues you get are side notes that appear onscreen whenever you’re completing objectives. As seen in the Vault of Glass, there are team-based puzzles, horde rooms where the challenge is taking down the proper foes, platforming segments built around the jumping abilities of this game, a stealth segment, and unique time-travel puzzles that will leave your team dead if you’re just trying to push through without any thought. This is where you can see the full extent of the love and care Bungie put into Destiny, even with its other flawed modes. It’s brutal, requires constant communication, and is home to possibly one of the biggest challenges an FPS game has yet to see. Here’s hoping the next Raid is just as well-constructed.

The Tower is the main hub city of the game. Here’s where you can buy equipment with the currency and items you obtained through the various missions, as well as collecting bounties to increase your experience points. It’s a small area populated only by vendors, guardian mentors, the Speaker for the Traveler, and the different factions in the game, which are so vague and so similar to the other ranking systems that they’re hardly worth mentioning. You earn points for the different factions depending on whether or not you’re wearing faction-specific equipment or class items. With these points, you can purchase specialized legendary gear from them, as well as obtain specific exotic equipment bounties. They all have a backstory to them, but since no NPC is given a proper personality, it all falls flat in creating a unified world for you to explore.

The Crucible is the competitive multiplayer aspect of Destiny. It works as such. You have four game modes: Control (similar to Domination, but more cooperative), Clash (team deathmatch), Rumble (free-for-all), and Skirmish (3v3). The objectives are given to you right from the start, and the team or player with the highest number of points wins, whether by hitting the victory cap or being the top team/player after the timer counts down. Given the nature of the equipment in the main game, every single weapon and piece of armor all share the same stats within the bounds of the Crucible, so as to keep everything on an even plane between low and high level players, as everyone can compete after reaching level 5. Each match is played on maps that offer asymmetric design and vertical positioning, giving reason to use all of your guardian’s abilities to claim a victory. While there’s no ranking system within the game, thus removing the competitive aspect (another thing some players might find annoying), the mode is a great way to test your skills and gain different sets of equipment, and reinforce the concept of teamwork the game bludgeons you with early on. It’s a fun, balanced distraction, and it’s all the better for it.

I’ve been struggling to justify whether or not this game has enough of an identity to warrant an investment. I don’t believe I’ve found the answer yet, but if I had to guess, I would say that this is the most cooperative game I’ve ever seen outside of an MMO. Players don’t try to grief each other as often as other games, fireteam chats are always civil (in my experience), and the fun of going out with friends just to wreck some aliens is just too awesome to ignore. Is it all it was hyped up to be? Well, no, to be brutally honest. But, taken for what it is, Destiny is a fun time and a great social experiment that seems to be working on ways to improve itself little by little. If you’re patient enough, I say get the game and see if it’s your thing. It’s grindy at times, and the design of some of its features is structurally flawed in many aspects, but I can find nothing that breaks the game and makes it an awful experience. It’s a fun time in a fascinating and growing universe that only time will qualify. With that, I will (hopefully) see you star-side, Guardians.

Favorite Games' Explanation

Everyone has a list of his or her favorite video games. Most people like to put them up as a numbered list, but I feel this becomes a ranking system, not a personal list of games that have influenced your life at some point. I’m guilty of doing this in the past, but here I’m gonna try something different. I’m going to list my personal favorite games in no particular order, with the last game I name being the one that has impacted me the most (I.E. my “favorite” as it were). The explanations I give will be as brief as possible without spoilers, to not overwhelm you with a tl;dr for each and every game on here. I feel summarizing how I feel about them will speak more volumes than any review ever will. With that said, let’s get to it.

  • Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Director’s Cut): I love sci-fi games, especially cyberpunk ones. I never played the original game growing up, but I feel this game does just as good a job after playing them recently, with this one winning out barely for a spot on my list. What I love about this game is the theme of consequence without showing you how it could come to that conclusion, and the game mechanics portray this magnificently. There’s a consequence to playing like Rambo as there is with sneaking about, and the dialogue bosses do this well too. However, the big reason I love this game is that it allowed me to question my own ethics. Would I upgrade myself to become more than human? When that day comes, I’ll have questioned it enough to make a proper choice. The Director’s Cut has the full game to fill up some of the plot holes of the original, so it’s a more cohesive experience.

  • Metroid Prime: I’m a lone wolf kind of guy, and games that make me feel isolated is an almost…familiar sensation. It’s almost cathartic to play a lonely game, and the Metroid series is the king of that feeling. Metroid Prime is my favorite of them because for the first time, I look through the eyes of Samus as she navigates dangerous terrain. I feel more connected to her that way, and I love knowing I can kick ass and take names as a bounty hunter in space while also being nimble enough to traverse the treacherous landscapes. The planet in that game is equal parts beautiful and terrifying as well, and fighting space pirates feels amazing and brutal. What else can I say? This is my kind of game.

  • Red Dead Redemption: Rockstar’s games aren’t always my can of soda. I love stories in my games, and their usual brand emphasizes mechanics above narrative without giving much meaning to the mayhem their mechanics bring. Red Dead Redemption was their first game where the mechanics matched the narrative perfectly. To play as one of the tough cowboys of Western films is one hell of an experience. The slow pace of movement, the pinpoint accuracy of their gun skills, and the moral confusion most Western protagonists suffer from are all deconstructed masterfully. Not to say the game isn’t entertaining though. It’s just not the “fun” variety of entertaining. Rather, it makes you stop, smile, and say “wow” every now and then. You might even shed a tear or two along the way. If that isn’t the sign of a great experience, I don’t know what is.
  • Heavy Rain: Another choice and consequence game on this list, but this game makes each choice very meaningful. The consequences of your actions are extreme, and can outright lead to a permanent death if you’re not careful about it. Combined with having characters you come to care about, and that tension turns up to eleven in a heartbeat. The unorthodox, reflex-based style of gameplay also, surprisingly, makes it even more impactful to make these choices within a timeframe, if only because real life won’t let you breathe during these moments either. Even through clichéd writing and awkward accents, this game managed to yank me by the heartstrings and begged me to see what was next. And you know what? I would happily oblige repeatedly just to see what else I could try.

  • Dark Souls: This game is hard, but it’s the good kind of hard where it’s still fair on you. It gives you the opportunity to learn from your mistake and try again for a win with each moment of failure. It gives you the opportunity to figure things out on your own instead of holding your hand and saying “try this method instead” in order to claim victory. It expects you to be smart enough to handle whatever comes your way in any way you choose, right down to how you manage your stats and how you play with its mechanics to defeat its most treacherous of creatures. It also expects you to solve its story mysteries on your own, which insists a confidence I haven’t seen in any game prior, with the exception of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls. It asks you to not just use your reflexes, but your higher-order thinking as well. This is one more thing I appreciate, and I love every brutal minute of playing through it.

  • Dragon Age: Origins: I love fantasy settings, but Dragon Age: Origins really depresses me at times. A beautiful world ravaged by racism, corrupt politics, and the very incarnations of horror is not something you usually see in this setting. However, the folks at BioWare made it work with believable characters, a wonderfully written plot, excellent tactical mechanics, and an overall sense that everything you do has meaning. It eschews the traditional morality system for a system that has no true black and white choices, only gray to fill the blanks. It gave me a reason to either justify my choices or question them entirely without the game telling me that choice is always wrong or right in any scenario, even through my actions as well as my words. It fits meaningful choice into its fantasy mechanics, and it works amazingly well. Here’s hoping Dragon Age: Inquisition can capture that same spirit.

  • BioShock: There seems to be a pattern here of games I like that have their story told somewhere other than right in your face. The game thrusts you into a once beautiful city ruined by ego and greed, and escaping it is only half of your worries within this decaying dystopia filled with mutated citizens and a vast arsenal of guns and superpowers that are more entertaining to use than they have any right to be. Shoot first, ask questions later, and try to discover why the inhabitants have gone insane, while also being put to the test on your morals in an interesting way. What I really love about this game, however, are how it is able to deliver a narrative without resorting to plot dumps, as well as toying with how you see the structure of a video game and your role in the events. One hell of a game idea there, if you ask me.

  • BioShock Infinite: Where the first game deconstructed the structure of a video game, BioShock Infinite deconstructs the nature of the medium, told with a well-crafted story and mechanics that both compliment and contradict atmosphere for the sake of saying something. It showed me how much goes into a video game, from the design choices to the basics of structure. The genius comes the characters helping to tell the story, whom are all memorable and well written. Plus, the eye candy of Columbia will keep you enthralled for as long as you stay, even with all of its dangers and secrets, as will the insanely satisfying thrill of leaping off the skylines and swatting enemies away with a giant hook before incinerating the rest with a vigor. Is it better than the first game? Depends on what mood I’m in, but they’re both equally brilliant in my book.

  • Chrono Trigger: Look at this, another game where choice and consequence play a crucial role. I must sound like a broken record by now. Anyways, Chrono Trigger is an older game, but it is by no means outdated. Brilliantly written characters, excellent and balanced combat mechanics, and a grand story to fit them all in. Aside from that, Chrono Trigger, to me, is the perfect fantasy game. There’s not a moment in it that doesn’t feel anything less than magical. It’s a game where I can get lost in for days and not worry about losing my place in both the story and reality. It’s a fully realized world that doesn’t make excuses for itself and molds itself depending on what path I walk throughout, and it has earned a spot in my heart as well as on this list.

  • Xenogears: Games like to throw the word “epic” out to describe themselves, but nowhere is its definition more fitting than within the world of Xenogears. From the novelties of its tightly constructed mechanics (jumping in a JRPG? I’m game!) and the way it jumps from melee foot battles to giant mech fights, this game keeps you on your toes in more ways than one. But aside from all that, the game has one of the grandest stories ever told in the medium. Great characters forced to decide between fate and choice, sci-fi themes inspired by psychology and religion, and a grand war spanning thousands of years with reasons long forgotten. I have a harder time figuring out what I don’t like about this game. To say anything more would be to spoil this massive and amazing game.

  • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: This is a series near and dear to my heart, and this installment happens to be my personal favorite. It’s not just the fully realized swordplay mechanics and great puzzles either. It’s the fact that, for the first time, the Zelda series has become more grounded than ever before. The fact that this plot is unafraid to get dark without sacrificing hope while being consistent as well (precisely where Majora’s Mask failed) is amazing to me. That, and it has some of the best-developed and likeable characters in the series, the most beautiful environments, and a great dungeon set that provide a worthy challenge. This is one of Link’s most intense quests ever, and it happens to be his best as well.

  • Shadow of the Colossus: This game is an odd one. The goal of it is to kill sixteen colossal creatures in order to revive your girl. These creatures are the only thing you fight in the game. You travel vast, empty stretches of beautiful landscapes to arrive at these battles either on foot or on horseback, without fighting any creature in between. Why play it? Well, the colossi themselves are challenging, as both puzzles and fights, and each are unique from one another. Climbing them and trying to stay on long enough to stab their weak point is an experience I can’t even begin to describe. The landscapes are great to wander through and discover, and the story is as haunting as it is hopeful while telling you very little. It’s one of the greatest gaming experiences I’ve had. And it’ll remain as such for the rest of my life.

  • Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: Man, this game is one hell of a thrill ride. It’s essentially an Indiana Jones style third-person shooter with climbing mechanics, and it has some of the most memorable characters and settings you’ll find in any game ever. And yet the true appeal of the game is how every one of the great action sequences happens while you’re still in control of Nathan Drake, essentially having you be an essential part of a Hollywood style chase or action scene, which is something few games have managed to do as perfectly as this one, which are revealed if you play the game. So keep an eye out for this one, as well as the rest of the trilogy, for a grand adventure you won’t soon forget.

  • The Last of Us: The last game on this list is my all-time favorite. It’s my favorite for one big reason. Sure, the graphics and art are beautiful, the gameplay is brutal and expertly crafted, and the story is well-written and incredibly down-to-earth, but those aren’t the only reasons, though they do make it the experience that it is. No, this game allowed me to reevaluate some of my thoughts about my future in the midst of such bleak and terrifying possibilities, one of which was my fear of becoming a parent. After playing this game and going through that emotional journey, I know now in my heart that, despite the mistakes I may make, I’m ready to be a father, a man for my family, as well as being prepared to protect that family regardless of the situation, whether I speak to my kids about how life works or I’m protecting them from the worst mankind has to offer. No other game, film, or book can claim to have that kind of effect on me or given me the tools to express that desire, and that’s why The Last of Us is my all-time favorite game.

On #GamerGate and Why It Needs to Die

Now, as I've stated on a previous blog post, I don't do rants. The title might seem as though this will become a rant, but I'm going to remain as calm and focused as I possibly can, even in the face of such malice and scorn. My words will seem harsh, but I need to let this off my chest because this whole mess is getting more and more out of hand.

For the past few months, a "movement" began known as #GamerGate, which originally was supposed to call for a change in the ethics policies regarding video game journalism after it was revealed (rather questionably, I might add) that a female indie developer by the name of Zoey Quinn who slept with a journalist used that leverage to get a higher review score on her game. This isn't going to be a history lesson on the movement, as you can find that information anywhere online at this point, and even on The New York Times of all publications.

Instead, let's talk about what the movement has devolved into. In the past few weeks, members of this movement have made severe death threats to several female gamers, game critics, and developers. A female developer, whose name escapes me at the moment, was recently forced to leave her home after death threats were sent to her. Anybody who defends women in the industry are targets as well.

Things erupted out of the gaming circles and into the mainstream news media when Anita Sarkeesian, a prolific and rather controversial feminist critic of video games, had to cancel a speech at Utah State University after a threat was sent promising - and bear with me on this, as I wish I were making this up - to commit the deadliest school shooting in history if Ms. Sarkeesian delivered her speech, all because of her rather critical viewpoints on gaming, and because of her outspoken viewpoints as a femenist. Even after pleading with security to check for guns, Utah's right-to-carry laws won over and her speech has been indefinitely postponed.

Now, I'm not here to talk about my opinions of Anita Sarkeesian and her critiques on gaming. What I'm here to discuss is the disgusting level of misogyny that #GamerGate has displayed. Anyone who is a woman in the gaming industry is a target to them. Men who defend these women get targeted by this movement Even as developers plead with members of this so-called "ethics movement" to cease this mindless hate, it's still raging on in the feeds of Twitter and other media outlets. Harassment has become the norm. Death threats are sent in the so-called name of "ethics" in games journalism, and was was supposed to be an honest discussion about issues in gaming journalism and gaming's role in social criticism, as well as the critique of the idea of a male-centric culture, has been consumed by nothing more than sexist trolling and harassment.

This cannot go on any longer.

As a gamer, I find the quality of a video game more important than the people working behind the scenes. If there are women on staff helping to bring about a wonderful new title, so be it. If they are talented in whatever role they play in a game's creation, does it matter if they're male or female? If they want to work in this industry, who are we to say to them "you cannot be here; this is a place for men, not women"? I realize that the history of video games has been overflowing with testosterone for the longest time, but is it so bad to have a little estrogen every now and then?

What I'm trying to say is that it shouldn't matter the gender of a game developer, journalist, critic, etc. If they are passionate about video games and want to become a part of this massive industry, who then has the right to take that passion away? Gamers are increasing in numbers. It is no longer just the hardcore gaming community (of which I myself am a part of) that drives the industry. It also doesn't matter if their viewpoints criticize video games in some form or another. These attacks only serve to prove the critics right on one thing, and that is the biggest thing to address.

Gaming has a severe problem with its members.

They say hating on something is part of a problematic internet culture. I don't buy that. I've seen more gamers react in a constructive manner against criticism. Its this vocal minority that always gains the spotlight only because they scream the loudest. And when gaming only acknowledges the loudest instead of the most reasonable, something has seriously gone wrong with communication in this culture. And now, I leave you with a few poetic on-the-fly verses.

Instead of all the hate,

I propose an honest debate.

Don't focus on attacking;

Focus on the words instead of just reacting.

I entered this community

To be a part of its alluring unity.

What I find instead

Are idiots wishing each other dead.

No more, no more!

This isn't what it was before.

Bring me a more refined culture

Instead of one overrun with vultures.

What I Look for in a Great Game

Everyone has their favorite games. They can give you a million reasons why they love their games, but rarely do I hear about what people actually expect from games in general. With so many genres and play styles out there, it’s difficult to figure out what makes an individual game “great” in the midst of so many constants and variables. So I’m going to attempt to explain what I personally look for in a game that will make me stop and say “yeah, that game was pretty freaking sweet.” This will be a list of three things that make a game great for me, but it will not be in an order of importance. I’m just going to consider what goes into a game and say what I look for with each individual piece, as well as how it should fit into the whole package. I won’t be talking about graphics, art style, sound design, etc., as those are just basic yet important accessories to any game, and each game is too different for me to talk about these features at length. With that said, let’s get started.

1- The gameplay must work to fit the tone and feel of the game

I don’t know how often I hear about how some games don’t have “excellent” gameplay. There are those who think the best games are those that handle smooth like butter, have a deep system of mechanics, and must be “fun”. Now, I love a game that can deliver on all of those, but it’s gotten to the point where I started asking myself: does gameplay really need to be fluid, complex, and specifically for fun?

I then recalled my first experience with two games: Silent Hill and Shadow of the Colossus. Neither of these games handle in a particularly good way. Silent Hill has you playing a writer who gets tired easily and can’t shoot straight, and must fight through a town filled with nightmarish creatures in order to find and save his daughter. Shadow of the Colossus has you playing a kid who is clumsy and a poor swordsman, and is tasked with taking down gigantic beasts by climbing on their bodies and killing them with an ancient sword. And yet, somehow, these games still managed to engage me through their mechanics, because they did serve their purpose for the game they were in. Both characters aren’t the most powerful, and yet their triumphs felt even more like such because of their limitations, both in character and in the gameplay.

Many other great games do the same thing, but these two were the most obvious examples I could think of. Sure, the games that control like heaven are incredible to play every now and again, but for me, a truly great game is one which takes its mechanics and uses them to enhance the environments, characters, and world in which you’re playing in. Speaking of which…

2- The world must be engaging to play in

In the aforementioned games, their worlds play a big role in how I view them today. Silent Hill’s bleak, abandoned, and depressing town; and Shadow of the Colossus’s peaceful, quiet ruins made me feel as though I wasn’t just playing a game, but I was the narrator of each scenario. However, there are some games that go one step further in atmosphere.

For example, BioShock has Rapture, a dystopian paradise squandered greed, vanity, and ego. What was once a paradise for the unrestrained became a shambled war zone for crazed mutants and stubborn fools. The broken and eerie lighting from the ocean, the psychotic ramblings of splicers in the distance, and the creepy little sisters roaming with their hulking guardians sucked me in from the get-go, and did not let go until I decided to stop the game for that one session, and even then, I couldn’t get the place out of my head.

The Last of Us is another example of a game with a thick and engaging atmosphere. Staring at the crumbling buildings succumbing to nature while you travel through a familiar world ruined by a raging infection that’s slowly wiping humanity out, coupled with encounters with humanity at its most desperate and depraved makes for an flat out terrifying look at what the apocalypse holds for us, and you have to endure it for the entire journey the game takes you on. Never have I felt so excited to be a part of the apocalypse, only to be physically and emotionally exhausted by the true nature of humanity’s most primal instincts.

Its games like BioShock and The Last of Us that engage not only through their narratives, but also the environments by which you travel through. To have a world is simply not enough anymore for me. There has to be a reason for it to be the way it is, and there must be narrative reasons for them to be there. With that said…

3- The story must be well-written and must work in tandem with the gameplay

That statement may seem odd, given my mention of The Last of Us, a game that tells a story in part with cutscenes. Now, I’m not opposed to cutscenes and scripted sequences as long as they do not show things that go against the game’s rules. The Last of Us follows that philosophy well, but this is more than just about cutscenes. When I mention a video game story, I look for one thing, and one thing only: do my actions mean something in any part of the game’s narrative? With The Last of Us, my actions dictate how much development Joel and Ellie go through with optional dialogue moments that you can choose to partake in, as well as how I flesh them out in their combat styles. Is Joel a risk-taker, taking aim and aggressively taking enemies out regardless of the odds, or is he the cautious type, taking foes down one by one with a chokehold or a lethal hostage negotiation? These are things that only the gameplay can tell you. Storytelling is just as much about the actions characters take as it is world-building, lore, and dialogue.

And I go to yet another set of games that showcase the awesome power of gaming’s narrative capabilities: Metroid Prime and Mass Effect. Yes, Metroid Prime has a story, and it’s told through everything the game gives you. You play as a skilled and dangerous bounty hunter searching for a dark power that’s killing a planet. You discover narrative bits while you scan environments and read logs, all while you maintain full control of your character as the environment and enemies tell you of what’s been tainting this once peaceful and secluded planet. And you even control how strong Samus gets while obtaining upgrades as the story goes on.

With Mass Effect, the narrative can go many different ways depending on actions you take within an important element in the game: dialogue sequences. While the gameplay serves to show how you and your squad are especially skilled for defending the galaxy, it’s through the many interactions with the galaxy’s many aliens that truly show how much the story can change with a single sentence. Show compassion and mercy to an enemy, and they may reconsider hunting you down in next game. However, be the ruthless badass, and you will suffer the consequences if you think it’s worth the trouble. These come in many shapes and forms, and seeing the story change so dramatically with different choices shows just why video game storytelling is powerful: it gives the player choice in how they form the story.

I know I’ve gone on long enough, but those are the three main things I look for in a great game. I love seeing a game that wants to tell a story, but allows the player to build the story themselves and dictate how it turns out. This can be either by changing the written plot altogether or by showing a different side of the action, or maybe bypassing the action altogether to make your character a bit more complex than a madman hunting and killing everyone in sight. And with gameplay, this can be achieved well, but only if the developers see that the game doesn’t have to adhere to the rule of fun, but adhere to what the story and world are like. I know this is all my opinion, but this is how I see things. There will be games for those who disagree with me, and you have every right to disagree. However, I will always seek out the games which do the things I’ve mentioned and I will enjoy them if they’re done well. Thanks for reading, and I hope I gave you some insight into my gaming choices.

P.S. - all games mentioned are what I consider to be great. Obviously, the opinions I express about each game are simply that: an opinion. If you disagree, that's fine, but please try to keep any and all debate about their quality as civil as possible.

Why I Love The Last of Us

In a feat I can only describe as unexpected, a game came out last year that not only awed me with its technical and storytelling achievements, but also moved me to tears at several points throughout the powerful and dark adventure. If the title didn’t clue you in, this game was The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s latest effort after rolling off the success of their excellent Unchartedseries. Right from the beginning, this game brought me to the verge of tears, and yet also filled me with this nausea-like sensation in my gut that things couldn’t possibly get any worse.

As I soon learned, this game revealed its dark, sadistic, and downright depressing atmosphere in my face, with my body consistently weakening and my eyes filled with dread over things to come. Yet, in the most unexpected places, I found slivers of light that didn’t force me to throw a Molotov at myself. It’s in these moments, along with the connection I felt and shared with Joel and Ellie, the stars of the show, that proved to me that The Last of Us was more than a mere survival-horror action game. It was proof that even humans can exist in games, and that they can be to us as family.

The basic story premise is nothing special, or even new. A fungal infection spreads to humanity, creating a zombie apocalypse. Though usually a virus, this synopsis can be found in many films, comics, and TV shows, such as The Walking Dead, 28 Days Later, etc. Zombies have been a part of our culture for a long time, and that’s not likely to change. It made sense for Naughty Dog to want to capitalize on this trope, but here they tried something slightly different. Instead of focusing on the collapse of civilization as we know it, as other media are prone to do, they instead focus on two characters: Joel, a hardened smuggler, and Ellie, a girl who grew up during the apocalypse and has no real connection to anything from how it was before. Again, nothing new, as Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road shows a father and son’s journey through an apocalyptic wasteland while focusing on their relationship. However, where The Last of Us shines is not in how it emulates its obvious influences, but rather expands upon them in possibly the most casual and restrained manner possible.

The evidence is in the sharp and natural dialogue that comes out of these characters. Rather than simply talking about how hopeless everything is or how they’re to go about their daily lives trying to survive, most of the exchanges between characters revolve around the mundane, such as explaining what an ice cream truck is to a young kid, roleplaying what it’s like to check in at a barren and desolate hotel, and being mildly irritated/amused by a book filled with some of the worst puns and jokes you’ll ever hear. And these moments come almost immediately after shooting a guy in the face while his pal soon gets his head smashed into concrete. Hey, I’d want to lighten the mood too if I were them.

All of this is presented in one of the most beautiful settings I’ve ever seen. Images of lush plant life swallowing entire buildings whole while tearing apart streets and sidewalks have been shown before, but never have you really had the chance to walk through and admire the haunting beauty of this scenario. Forests are abundant in wildlife, as are the mostly barren cities that have become less a jungle of steel and concrete and more an ancient, overgrown ruin, a grim reminder for the people in the game of a life that was, but is no more. Take that in for a second. You only see this in a few abandoned buildings here or there nowadays, but it’d be hard to fathom a place like Boston succumbing to the same fate. Well, once you see it, it leaves a lump in your throat as your eyes quiver with unease. At least, that’s what I felt as I gazed upon the landscape, made even more impressive by the quality of Naughty Dog’s game engine that allows the PS3 to utilize its full graphical potential and give us a downright gorgeous scene.

Yet I haven’t touched on the story much, have I? With all this talk of writing and setting, I’m surprised I didn’t spoil anything yet. Well, I won’t be doing that, but I will tell you that, even with its seemingly uninspired setup, it’s how the sum of all its parts come together that really matters. And as a new addition into the ever-increasing tome of zombie lore, it’s a damn fine entry. The typical themes are all there—the collapse of civilization, survival, keeping your humanity—yet are not in-your-face about it. It only leaves clues like newspapers and old notes to help you understand what happened during the twenty year span that the fungus nearly destroyed everything. The development of a rebel group known as the Fireflies to fight an increase in military power also adds a new dimension, as we see what the U.S. has been reduced to over the timespan, and also try to find a cure for the infection plaguing humanity. Even Joel and Ellie’s relationship is an example of a few of these tropes (more on that soon).

All of this is told in a very mature manner, as opposed to the lighthearted nature of Naughty Dog’s previous efforts such as Crash Bandicoot, Jack & Daxter, and Uncharted. I admire any writer of any medium who can attempt to go out of their comfort zone and try something unique and unknown to them. I become even more impressed when they can pull it off, and Naughty Dog certainly surprised me with their level of maturity and skill, especially with my initial skepticism that they would revert to try and make the game more lighthearted as that’s what they know how to do best. In fact, the game almost tries to be like a theater play, rather than anything resembling a TV show or film, partly due to its structure and the way the performances are driven and how everything is set up and revealed.

Another thing they do exceptionally well is character development. In both Jak & Daxter and Uncharted, the devs at Naughty Dog made wonderful and memorable characters that have come to be known as gaming icons over the years. I laughed at the antics of Daxter, I felt Jak’s anger over the abuse he suffered, and I sympathized with Nathan Drake on his daring and often suicidal hunt for hidden history. Not that any of these characters are perfect—Nathan Drake is a bit of a hypocrite when it comes to violence—but they did leave their mark. Admittedly, I had a hard time sympathizing with Joel in this game. He suffered heavy losses, yes, but he became a selfish bastard afterwards. Throughout the game, however, I understood why he became like that, and eventually felt pity. I cheered for him during the end sequence as well, which might confuse you if you’ve seen what happens, but that’s because I came to know his plight. I saw the pain in his eyes, and it made me feel the same kind of pain. His will to survive—heightened by survivor’s guilt—is only matched by the love he’s capable of showing, made evident by the excellent intro sequence. He’s a stereotypical badass done right.

Ellie, on the other hand, was the immediate star of the show in my eyes. Born within the apocalypse, all she grew up knowing is how to stay alive. She has no concept of what a girl her age should’ve been doing had the world not fallen apart. She should worry about boys and what she wants to be and which shirt goes with which skirt, not living with a throbbing fear that her life could be ended by a zombie the next day. However, unlike Clementine from Telltale’s The Walking Dead, she is more than able to take care of herself, even if she needs a bit of a push to do so. She always carries a knife, and is more than capable with a gun. She’s also one of the most foul-mouthed fourteen year olds you’ll ever encounter, likely a product of the harsh militaristic environment she was forced to grow up in. Yet in her eyes there’s this innocence, a longing to understand the world as it once was, and an optimism that it can all be that way someday. She and Joel develop a bond throughout the game—as can be expected—yet the circumstances surrounding their meeting don’t exactly foreshadow that. Or if it does, it’s likely from the jaded feeling of “oh that’s been done before.” Yet I’ve never seen a relationship develop this well or this slowly. What starts off as convenience eventually becomes necessity, and that’s where their characters really come into their own. For Ellie, this journey is her coming-of-age moment, and it’s where the narrative truly shines.

They meet a cast of varied and colorful people along the way, whom I won’t spoil as that would give many plot reveals that I’m desperately trying to avoid. I’ve liked more people than I’ve hated, even some people I would normally consider scum for their actions. I could say that they represent one or more aspects of the fall of civilization and humanity, but then I’d be boring you. So instead, I’ll just say that with each character, I can pretty much quote them by this point, and I even chuckle at some of their idiosyncrasies. I love their respective roles in the story, and their own interactions with Joel and Ellie.

The part that struck me the most, however, was the gameplay. Again, not much here is being done that hasn’t been done before...if you look at each individual system separately. It combines the elements of a third-person shooter with survival horror and adventure parts built in. You collect and scavenge items to craft for weapons and health kits. You take cover when in a fight, though it isn’t at all sticky so it feels more natural. There’s the famous over-the-shoulder perspective that Resident Evil 4 popularized and has since been beaten to death by several games. Lots of things you would find in horror games is here. Lots of things you would find in shooters is here. Lots of things you’d find in survival horror games is here.

Now, I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to combine game genres and gameplay tropes, you better have a reason for it apart from “I like these two styles, so I’m going to put them together.” No! It needs purpose. Thankfully, The Last of Us gives a reason for these things, which I’ve heard people complain against. If you see a rag on top of some sheets, you can’t take all those sheets with you. That’s counterproductive, and ripping them takes time you don’t have before your skull is caved in. If your enemies drop only one or two rounds of ammo, that’s likely all they had left while they were trying to feed the rest into your body. You find supplies in the most likely places you would find them in real life, and in these scenarios, you’re in areas that have likely been picked mostly clean by whoever happened to be there first. If there are any left for your use, it was either human error or lack of space.

Either way, it’s there to aid you in the various fights you find yourself in with the humans in the game. Being able to outmaneuver a group of armed scavengers in large asymmetrical arenas in as many different ways you can—guns blazing, stealthily, avoiding them altogether—is a gameplay experience I haven’t had since I played Dishonored, a game that also had many different play styles. However, unlike Dishonored, the game doesn’t subtly force you to play a certain way in order to obtain the best possible result. Whether you want to maim and tear your assailants apart with guns and shivs or quietly give their necks a gentle wringing from behind like a dirty used towel, that’s entirely up to you. It tries to adapt to most peoples’ play styles, while still making sure that you follow the rules the game sets out for you.

For me, I tried to conserve supplies as often as possible, which meant that I picked the stealthy route. However, if I ever got spotted, I would do my best to pick enemies off one by one as accurately as possible without consuming important things like ammo and health kits. The humans here don’t give you a break either. They will hunt you down, try to flank you, and basically play cat and mouse with you while you attempt the same. Your AI companion helps you out whenever you’re in a rough spot by either throwing bricks, shooting them, or telling you their general location if you can’t see them. These moments were cerebral and satisfying, even if afterwards I got the sense that I did a bad thing. I don’t know if it was the gurgling and struggling of everyone I choked out, or that last man standing begging for his life as I point my shotgun at his face.

You even have to fight with the infected, which is not much easier to do. With runners barreling towards you like that one fish in Spongebob with a chocolate addiction, clickers that kill you in one hit if they so much as touch you, and other variants the reveal themselves much later, your strategies for each encounter are different depending on the environment you’re in, how many of certain types there are, and whether or not you have enough supplies to take them all down quickly. Outsmarting them is usually the best tactic, as their sight is compromised, but their hearing is enhanced. Creeping past them is usually the best idea, as getting into a fistfight with a large group of runners and clickers is likely going to leave your neck a bloody mess of strings and meat. Guns help to, but some like the clickers have so many layers of fungus growing on their bodies that they take bullets like a boat full of sailors take cheap gin. Sneaking past them or going behind them to jam a knife down their spore-filled throats is usually your preferred method of taking them down, even if their buddies are trying to sniff around for your urine-soaked pants along the way.

In every fight, I never felt as though anything was getting monotonous, even with the more predictable infected encounters. I enjoyed every tense moment. Crafting happened in real time, so if I had to make something, I had to hide, soaked in my own sweat and blood, and create my next item before they found me. It doesn’t have the same exact level of tension that traditional horror games do, however, since your AI partner is basically invisible to every man, woman, zombie, cat, and brick except for very few instances where I had to save them from an enemy grapple. I would’ve been annoyed at this had I not been so disdainful of most escort missions in games (looking at you, Ashley from Resident Evil 4). While it is true that the AI is suspect to the occasional lapse in judgment and higher-order thinking, they quickly recover from this and go back to the hunting.

These elements appear in the game’s multiplayer mode, which is practically an extension of the universe. It has a basic deathmatch mode, but with limited respawns and a more tense atmosphere and limited sprinting and listening mode. It also has a survivor mode, which is a last man standing mode where respawns are laughed at until the next match—in other words, you die and stay dead until the next match. The gameplay is the same—including the real-time crafting—and keeps that same level of tension as in the game. However, this mode feels more dangerous, as you’re fighting actual human players who behave very much like a pack and will take every opportunity to ruin your supposed fun. You hunt for supplies, but not just for crafting. These supplies are meant for your survivor group outside of the matches. This part is what helps you level up, get more upgrades and weapons, etc. The more people in your group, the faster you level up, but the higher the demand for supplies is as well. I felt protective of my group during every match. The fact that they all had names helped out as well. It’s a great multiplayer experience that I always keep coming back to.

Blah, blah, blah, tell us what you really thought of the game, why don’t you. In short, I can summarize my experience with The Last of Us in three words: surprised, depressed, and enlightened. Surprised by how damn well every component of the game—story, gameplay, art style—blended together into an unforgettable experience. Depressed at the darkness and hopelessness the atmosphere felt throughout, even as I rooted for the characters more and more. Enlightened at the hidden moments of pleasure and human decency that I found within the game. I’m not the only one who thinks this about the game, but the dissenters would disagree.

Look, I realize that this game isn’t for everyone, and I know that some can’t overlook the fact that the gameplay mechanics aren’t refined in the traditional sense. I know some people found the realism jarring and too dark. For me, that’s just what games should accomplish. I’m not saying get rid of fun and entertaining games like Call of Duty or Super Mario. I’m also not saying that you’re wrong to have these opinions—not every game is for everybody. But this is the game that showed me how much games overall need to grow up. Point me to games in the past that accomplished what The Last of Us did, including its level of restraint and maturity. I can show you exactly where the fourth wall is broken for humor, where the jokes come in because the game needs to be “fun”, and I can show you the silliness of the overall plot. Even in some of the best horror games that are meant to frighten have moments that you laugh at because of how silly it all is. Games don’t need to just be “fun” anymore. We need to get past that. I didn’t exactly have fun playing this game, and I felt that it was for the best. I needed this experience to show me that games can have the same level of sophistication that cinema and literature has without having to resort to “fun” to keep people entertained.

And that is why I love The Last of Us.

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