XCOM 2: The Turn Based Strategy I Needed

I pre-ordered XCOM2 about a month before Christmas for myself, my brother, and close friends. I had only seen one teaser for it and admittedly had only a moderate interest level. I grew up with XCOM and spent hours sending my blonde mo-hawked men into silver UFOs to get shot. It was never a game that I excelled at because I was too young and it was too complex back then. XCOM Enemy Unknown and XCOM2 have both done an amazing job revitalizing the game and giving old fans (like myself) more.

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I don’t play a ton of turn-based strategies. I was playing Shadowrun: Returns last month but XCOM2 got me a lot more involved in every single action. Alien Activity have always been two words that make me sit, unblinking and tensing every part of my body until I was sure none of my friends and family died that minute. Yes, I said friends and family. When XCOM Enemy Unknown became popular and I was able to hear from more people who played the XCOM franchise, I learned I was not the only one who enjoyed renaming and customizing characters to resemble family and close friends. There was something so much more meaningful, and painful, about taking someone you trust into battle and trying not to get them killed by aliens.

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In XCOM2, there is surprisingly even more customization than Enemy Unknown. I am a huge fan of the game offering more content in this area. There are so many gratuitous closeups and cinematic kill angles when you take an action that allow you to take a moment from being ultimately STRESSED to just sit back and watch an alien get utterly destroyed. It may sound like a small thing, but allowing you those few seconds of reveling in the reward of a successful kill makes it all worth while.

Customization options allow you to change everything from what their armor components look like (e.g. arms, legs, torso), accessories, and tattoos which are earned. You can now give their weapons names, patterns, and color. After spending 10 minutes customizing one soldier, I was extremely relieved to find the “Save to Character Pool” button. Yes, the game takes pity on you and says, “We know you will reload 100 times to not lose all of this hard work. Here, we pity you.”

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Your soldiers all start off as Rookies and individually level up when they get kills in battle. They are automatically assigned a “class” after their first promotion and then you get to choose their specialization as they grow. You can stick to 1 skill tree or dabble in both depending on your play style. A lot of times, I would get skills and forget about them only to be surprisingly rewarded in battle later. Battle gets increasingly more fun as your soldiers level up because your men become stronger in ways that cater to how you play. I keep a sniper or two in the back and send in rangers to do a lot of flanking damage. I also love to bring a medic along and someone to hack the shit out of robots.

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There is also this new loading screen to and from missions that have your soldiers sitting in the Skyranger looking extremely badass. On the way to a mission, it tells you a summary and where you’re going. On the way back, you get some highlight statistics from the mission and MVP charts for a few select feats like who dealt the most damage. Again, it’s just another really nice touch that allows you to admire your team of soldiers and feel more attached to them. It really does motivate you to make smart decisions in battle… and reload 100 times.

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The one thing I really can’t bring myself to care much about with XCOM2 is the story. I always find myself clicking through the little cutscenes in which you are talking to the doctor or engineer. I just don’t even need the plot with the rapidly developing alien technology and how they’re retaliating to enjoy the game. I just want to skip through it all to get into missions quicker. I haven’t beaten the game yet but I already look forward to trying an Ironman playthrough (no save scumming allowed). If I never post again, it is because I am dead from jumping off of a bridge after missing a shot with 98% chance to hit.

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Warhammer Vermintide Gives New Life to the Ye Olde Gaming Tradition of Rat Killing

Warhammer Vermintide is the newest 4-player co-op game to consume my free hours of the eve as of late and it may be my favorite yet. I did not think it could happen, but I find myself enjoying this game more than I did many 4 player titles over the past several years. My friends and brother tend to team up to kick ass in 4 player games like we did in Left 4 Dead, Evolve, Payday 2, and Monaco. I had no idea what Vermintide was all about when it came out, but I took a swing at it after it was gifted to me by my benevolent friend and I have been slaying rats since.

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Red Moon Inn

Before you jump into the action, everyone gathers in the Red Moon Inn. It’s important to mention this part because it’s really a minor detail that makes a lot of difference in 4 player co op games. To have a virtual space to “relax” and recoop in feels like the missing element I always wanted. When you’re in a game like Payday 2 or Left 4 Dead, you’re just sitting looking at a menu with UI elements when you aren’t actively fighting your way through a level. It’s so much nicer to have a place to stand around in, swap out your gear, and show off your loot to other players before getting into things. Or, if you just need to take a break and breathe, you can hang out and take a few minutes while still allowing your teammates to forge equipment, upgrade, and use a shrine to “pray for loot”.

I love this touch. It also allows you a chance to get to know the characters a bit better because each of them have their own room made up to decor that suits their personality. You can learn a lot about a person by looking at their stuff.

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There are 13 different missions in the game that are filled with a variety of objectives to accomplish. The variety of events throughout missions really feel like tests to challenge the strength of a team. The number one challenge of the game is teamwork and sticking together to survive the random chaos! I feel like more and more games like this are coming out; games like this seem more fun and appealing if you have a group of people to play it with. If you can find some kind of steam group or online group to team up with if you don’t have enough friends who like to do this kind of thing, I highly recommend doing so.

Another in-game feature I really enjoy is the presence of collectibles in most levels called Tomes and Grimoires. When my friend was first explaining this aspect to me, it was one of the most appealing things. Tomes and Grimoires, when picked up, will replace the players’ inventory space where healing items and potions go. They are hidden in tough to get to places in levels that require solving short jumping puzzles. That is awesome for two reasons. One, it calls for level exploration that isn’t in the pursuit of getting to the end as soon as possible. Two, the players have to be confident enough in the team’s abilities to go out of their way  for them and sacrifice the inventory space!

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Loot phase. 

 

Possibly the best and worst part of the game is the loot phase. You get to press a button to roll dice. Now, I must say, I really really wish this worked like dice in the Witcher 2 in which you released the left mouse button as you moved your mouse to “throw” the dice and roll them. In Vermintide, you just click a button and they roll themselves. This feels a lot less satisfying because then you wind up feeling like it was out of your control. In the Witcher 2, if you accidentally rolled dice off of the table, tough luck! At least it felt like your fault. When you make it through a level in Vermintide with 3 tomes and 2 Grimoires just to roll a 2 or 3, it pretty much calls for an immediate ragequit.

I could just go on and on about this game. It’s pretty cheap at only 29.99 retail. I would gladly have paid a full 60 for this. If you love co-op games or just want to decapitate some rats, get this! Now! GO!

Among the Sleep: Psychological Thriller Meets Crawling Simulator

This weekend, I took a break from playing The Witcher 3 and finally installed and played Among the Sleep. As usual, I bought it during a Steam sale some time ago and never got around to it. My partner was perusing Steam games on Saturday and I brought it up as a suggestion because we both tend to like first person games that are focused on a narrative. I installed it and we both sat down to play this together with only the knowledge that it was about being a two-year-old who crawls around in fantastic looking environments. Boy, was there more.

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The voice acting makes this bear sound creepy and untrustworthy.

I am going to give a vague synopsis to avoid spoilers and discuss the core mechanics of the game. It begins with a cutscene as you become acclimated to the life of a two-year-old and what your living situation is like. You receive a teddy bear that speaks slowly and with the voice of a middle aged man. But, you are willing to follow the bear (because you have to) as it plays games with you.

After you become familiar with the basic mechanics and what life is like for baby-you, something jarring happens that makes everything shift. The house becomes dark and scary and you are helpless as you crawl through it to open doors and peek around corners. You are a vulnerable observer who wants nothing more than to find their mommy.

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Go ahead. Crawl around. Nothing to be scared of.

Reality then breaks away into fantasy, or perhaps nightmare, as you fall into a sort of dreamworld representation of your psyche. You then proceed to navigate through several levels that may be places you have experienced as a two-year-old with creepy filters changing them that may represent some kind of fear or trauma. The environments seem to be alive in that there are sounds and visual shifts happening as you navigate through them to solve puzzles. If you have played a game like Amnesia, it is similar to that in how you progress.

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I thought this was just a nice park…

You can alternate between walking and crawling and hold shift to run, albeit not very fast. You are a toddler after all. And who wants to run? It’s so noisy. Crawling felt like the most immersive, and scariest, means of traveling. Feeling small and low to the ground enhanced the feeling of vulnerability in the world around me. The feeling of vulnerability is key to making you feel like a victim to trauma as you discover childlike drawing scattered throughout each level which depict your perception of important figures in your life.

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Vision distorts as baby-you cannot handle certain sights.

The game is about uncovering the child’s life and the secrets it holds. What happened to you and why are you here piecing things together? Each level is rich with scattered pieces of the narrative, scares, and memories. When you are scared, the best you can do is hide under or inside of something such as a bed or cupboard. It’s exactly how you think as a child; if I hide, maybe it will all just go away. And it does, but not for long.

FEZ: A brilliant game that sat in my Steam backlog for way too long.

I felt that it was necessary to include in the title of this post that I just got around to playing FEZ. I’m pretty sure that I bought it during the summer Steam sale of 2013 months after it came out. Two years later, I booted it up because I wanted to play something that my laptop could handle when I wanted to be near my partner who was stuck on the sofa playing Bloodborne.

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I would be more disappointed in myself for waiting so long but, on the other hand, this is just the kind of game I was in the mood to play this summer when not screaming at Rocket League or spending hours on my Desktop in The Witcher 3. I can play Fez for 15 minutes to an hour and get plenty of satisfaction from my play time. It is a pretty casually paced 2D/3D platformer that allows the user to change the perspective on the fly.

Change perspective on the fly?! That sounds crazy, you might be saying! Well, it is. I was pretty awed by the puzzles that could be created from such a mechanic in Monument Valley but since FEZ came first I’m giving credit where credit is due. Of course there may have been other titles to do this first. If you know of any, please let me know in the comments!

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You play as the little white dude named Gomez. He looks like he’s made of clay. You also get a hat, so rest assured you Team Fortress players. You traverse across many different types of environments trying to collect cubes by climbing vertically and horizontally. It works similarly to Super Meat Boy or I guess even Super Mario that you will encounter more advanced types of puzzles and geography to navigate as you progress. I think I am about 20% of the way in right now so it’s been fairly easy so far.

One of my favorite parts of the game are all of the cute little animals strewn about the levels. There are rabbits, turtles, bunnies, pigeons, and worms. They all have adorable animations and sound effects, too. Sometimes I just have to walk up to them and watch them live their little lives. There is no way I know of yet to harm them. They just meander around looking cute while you play the game.

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This game is only about $10 full retail on steam right now. I’m sure most readers probably already on it on Steam from the 20 sales that have happened since the game first came out. If you haven’t taken the time to boot it up yet, go do it! This game will instantly charm you.

Finally got a Playstation 4. These four titles have kept me playing!

I kept waiting and waiting to pull the trigger on getting a Playstation 4. $400 is a substantial investment, there weren’t a ton of exclusive titles, and I figured the price would drop over the summer of 2015. Well, turns out it doesn’t matter that I waited because my girlfriend wound up buying it for us (thanks, babe!). Seriously though- it has gone to great use since we got it. To be fair, she uses it much more than I do. I didn’t think I would play much on it but these four titles have kept us pretty glued to it these past several weeks!

1. Bloodborne

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I haven’t played more than 20 minutes of this game, and half of that was spent in character creation, but I can see why my girlfriend has been glued to it 24/7. It’s a console exclusive game that is a part of the Dark Souls series set in a gothic style world. The player is challenged by all sorts of crazy blind dudes with scythes, swords, pistols, and chain… whips? This game calls for player mastery in the 3D space and of your chosen weapon. You can alternate between a long range and short range weapons to take on enemies alone or with others. The online system uses beckoning bells to find other players who are trying to get through the same levels as you.

If you haven’t played any Dark Souls games or Bloodborne, you have probably heard another gamer passionately discuss how hard it is. Why would so many people keep playing it if it seems so rage-inducing then you may be asking. I know I asked. Well, my theory is because it is so incredibly rewarding when you do conquer things. You team up with unknown allies to defeat huge bosses and enemies that would otherwise seem impossible to overcome and it takes a lot of work. My girlfriend says it feels like she is really doing something with her life when she makes good progress in Bloodborne. Not many games can do that!

2. Rocket League

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ROCKET LEAGUE. This is one of those games that, at first glance, looks like nothing special. Let me tell you that this game is worthy of all of the attention it has been getting. I was talking to a coworker about how I thought this game’s success could also be attributed to it’s timing. This game came out in the middle of the summer with no other really big AAA titles flooding the market and when everyone is looking for a game to hop into with friends. It was being given away for free for anyone with a Playstation Plus account while going for $19.99 on Steam. I am pretty confident in saying it is the best free game I’ve ever played.

Think Matchbox cars meets FIFA. The gameplay is simple- hit the ball with your car using boosters and jumps to get it into the opponent’s goal! Each game, whether you win or lose, you get an item at the end. The item can be a topper for your car, an antennae, wheels, decals, or a different trail particle effect. The matches are 5 minutes each which is perfect for the fast pace. Losing is easy to cope with due to the low cost of sticking it out for one game, but winning feels so good. There are no weapons and being good is mastering the jumps, timing, and angles. It’s one of those games that has me cheering and jeering at my TV and pumping my fists like I just scored a goal in the World Cup.

3. Trials Fusion

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I was so fond of Trials after having played the first one on Steam years ago that I looked at the new one on the shelf at Gamestop with a knowing smile on my face. I remember having tested Trials Fusion a year or two ago at Comic Con before its release. Fortunately, my girlfriend was familiar with Trials so it was an easy pickup for us. As much as I love my hardcore RPGs and FPS games, sometimes it is nice to play a casual game like Rocket League and Trials Fusion. Both games offer as many laughs as they do controller-gripping vein-popping moments.

Trials Fusion is just a good time. The goal of the platform time trial game is to get from the starting line to the finishing line as quickly as possible to place-hence the title. What makes it unique is the ability to lean your player forwards and backwards to balance your rider and spin your bike. Unfortunately, your avatar is highly susceptible to crashing and will ragdoll flop all over the place after the slightest touch to their body. It makes for some hilarious results, too. In Trials Fusion, you can use the L and R stick to flop around and do some ridiculous ragdoll flailing before you decide to give it another go. The quick restarts make gameplay feel smooth and addictive. Similar to Rocket Legaue, you can unlock various upgrades to your bike for fun customization. It’s another great local co-op game for those who have gaming SO’s!

4. FIFA 15

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What can I say? I love soccer. I miss having cable to be able to watch Premier League and some MLS games but now I get my fill by playing with coworkers and playing FIFA. I don’t know all of the fancy new features that 15 has over any other version but I think it is a fine game. There is a lot of nuance in moving the player and the dribbling/defending. There is an astonishing amount of unique animations but very often do you see popping, clipping, and other odd bugs. Considering the movement animation is at least 50% of the game I have to say I am pretty surprised at the amount of bugs I see in each game but it doesn’t ruin it for me. For as many bugs as I see, I am also wowed by some of the unique moments in player celebration, reactions to calls by the ref, and idle animations.

I’m very much looking forward to FIFA 16 with the addition of women’s teams. I hope that they push the PS4 graphics a bit further as I think that the VFX could use some stepping up .I really noticed the water FX in particular when you are playing in the rain. One more nice thing I like about this version is there is very little repetition in what the announcers say. I think it was FIFA 12 or 13 that I heard a lot of repetition but maybe I just haven’t played as much yet.

Well, that’s it for my two cents on some great PS4 titles! I would have mentioned GTAV, of course, but since I am already playing it on PC, so. I am looking forward to some other titles on the PS4 like the next Quantic Dream game, Horizon, Firewatch, and The Last Guardian.

JAZZPUNK: A Fantastically Outrageous, Indie Game that Everyone Should Play.

It’s so hard to know where to start with this game, so I’ll jump right in with a little background.  Jazzpunk was created by a DUO, Luis Hernandez and Jess Brouse, who established Necrophone games in 2008.  They have created some games at Game Jams previously, and have since had one release preceding Jazzpunk: Beetlenaut (which I have not played).

Anyway, they certainly got some help making Jazzpunk, as is made clear in the credits, but this is an indie game that I felt 100% obligated to rave about after playing it because it left me with that rare feeling; the one that makes me want to shout its name from mountain tops in the hopes that other gamers are listening and have the same exceptional experience I had playing their game.

Graphic Design in the opening sequence of Jazzpunk

Graphic Design in the opening sequence of Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk wastes no time throwing you right into the experience that is… JAZZPUNK.  It starts off with this busy, exciting, loud intro with music that makes me want to reference Archer somehow in that it’s very spy-like and glamorous. You are presented with a lot of patterns, loud colors, and imagery that set you up for the attitude and setting of the game before being hurled into the intro scene: a quiet train station where you exit from a very peculiar shaped suitcase.  The mechanics of the game itself are so simple that the player requires to explicit instruction to proceed.  There is only one way to go, it just all depends on what you want to look at and how long you want to take to get there.

There's a joke around every corner in this game.

This is one of the first few jokes that got a laugh out loud from me and gave me an idea of what to expect from the rest of the game.

The next thing you know, you’re invited into an office because it turns out you’re a very important person with a very important mission.  This is presented all very tongue-in-cheek and the laughs begin from the second you walk into the secretary’s office.

Jazzpunk plays very much like other indies I’m very fond of: Gone Home, Thirty Flights of Loving, and Dear Esther; the first person, exploratory point-and-click mechanics with a “figure it out yourself” feeling.  Jazzpunk expects you to be the type of player who wants to look at everything, click on everything, and relish every detail.  If you don’t, you are simply robbing yourself of the full experience.  If this sounds like a chore for you, it may not be your type of game.  If you’re like me, you embrace games like this that give you a setting and set you free to perform actions in a world full of things just waiting for you to discover.

The first level you are allowed to play around in.

The first level you are allowed to play around in.

Jazzpunk is like this: you could either read a comic book, or read a transcript of the comic book without the imagery, characters, expressions, and little details.  Just like the Mass Effect series or recent Fallout games, you could do exactly as you are instructed to in each level, do your mission, and miss tons of little things all around you.  The Stanley Parable makes perfect example of this game design principle: taking advantage of the idea that the player will want to deviate from the “main course” and push the boundaries of what the game can afford before doing what must be done to continue.  I really appreciate this type of design because it just feels so rewarding when you dig up piece after piece of comedy gold.

An ordinary pizza with numbers on it...?  Or a ticket to an alternate dimension full of pizza-related mayhem?

An ordinary pizza with numbers on it…? Or a ticket to an alternate dimension full of pizza-related mayhem?

Even though the jokes are absolutely ridiculous sometimes and really random, something about the formula just did it for me.  The humor was all paced very well in between ambient activities and small side quests.  The jokes are spread throughout player conversation with the NPCs, who sure have a lot to say, the environment design (e.g. signs, buildings, sentient boxes), and interactive objects.  Just like old RPGs, I found myself clicking on every NPC until they had nothing left to say to me… or disappeared. I just couldn’t move on with the main storyline until I had explored every nook and cranny of each level to be satisfied.

Many, many computer-related puns await the savvy gamer.

Many, many computer-related puns await the savvy gamer.

There are a lot of computer and programming-related jokes that I could appreciate.  Some of them may go over the heads of gamers who don’t have a lot of experience with code or game development, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a detractor from the game.  On the contrary, it could be incentive for players to Google things in order to understand the joke and learn from it.  I find myself doing that sort of thing all of the time with normal TV shows if I don’t understand a reference.  That said, I think it’s brilliant, to elaborate on this again, that the designers made this game keeping in mind that their target audience is primarily smart, savvy, mature players.

Break it break it down.

Break it break it down.

One of my favorite aspects of Jazzpunk was the number of mini activities there were strewn throughout the game.  Even though the game is primarily walking and clicking on stuff, every now and then you find yourself thrown into a specially scripted mini-game that managed to hold my attention for more than 5 minutes.  Pictured is the players’ artfully drawn man-hand which pops up when necessary to participate in particular activities.  In this particular activity, the hand dons a jeweled ring as the game allows you to scratch records of dated voice recordings related to science and technology with a phat beat playing.  I found this activity to be bewilderingly enjoyable and must have “DJ’d” for about 5 minutes before resuming.  It’s moments like this that really make the game memorable.  I don’t want to spoil too much by mentioning other mini-games but I wanted to emphasize the fact that this is much more than just a “walking simulator” as some may call it.

 

Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

To end on a positive note, I uploaded this photograph I took of Game Informer magazine after reading the “review” they did of Jazzpunk that was crammed into their, I don’t know, “last minute” section of the magazine?  Someone named ‘Jeff’ who is proudly well-versed in B-movies and games thought that Jazzpunk got bad and bad again.  I don’t know who Jeff is or what games and movies he watches, but I was infuriated after seeing this lousy “review” in the back of the magazine and, as you can see, tore the magazine in outrage (especially after that Octodad review, too).  I feel this is injustice to indie games.

If I spent months or years developing an indie game as brilliant as Jazzpunk with a best friend or colleague, I would be outraged at this kind of lazy journalism.  Heck, I was outraged for them I suppose.  I took almost 200 screenshots while I played Jazzpunk because I felt so compelled to document each thing that brought me a good laugh.  I highly recommend this game to the casual and experienced gamer.  I recommend it to anyone who wants to just boot up a game and enjoy explorings worlds at a relaxed pace with the desire to get some great laughs.  Have you played Jazzpunk yet?  What did you think?  And if not, check it out on Steam here. I spent $5.50 on the game during a Steam sale for about 5 hours of unforgettable gameplay, so wait until the next sale if $14.99 is too far beyond your budget.

The Last of Us: What I Loved (and Didn’t Love) about Naughty Dog’s Latest Action-Adventure Title

I was indeed very late to this party, but I finally got around to playing and finishing The Last of Us over the course of several weeks.  Had I had it my way, I would have marathon played this game over a weekend, but my life and job just kept me too busy to beat this in a handful of play sessions.  I also feel like I should mention the fact that I really had no idea of what to expect from this game going into it.  The only other title from Naughty Dog I had played was Uncharted but I gave up on that because I got tired of the “run then kill dudes” pattern of the gameplay.  I realize this is what Action-Adventure games are but I felt like it just lacked in too many departments, thus preventing me from ever trying Uncharted 2 or 3.  All I knew about The Last of Us going into it was that it had infected things in it that you have to kill given minimal supplies and that it had an actor in it who looked sue-worthy similar to Ellen Page.  

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That said, I don’t really mind that she looked like Ellen Page… What? Don’t look at me like that.

This “review” will contain spoilers, so if you haven’t finished the game, I highly recommend not reading this and playing it first so you can comment or have a discussion with me about whether you agree or disagree with me on the points I’m going to touch on during my evaluation.  I want to talk about what I really loved about the game and what I thought it lacked or could have gone farther with.  

To start off on a high note I want to talk about the opening cutscene and how it absolutely floored me.  I loved starting off playing Joel’s daughter, Sarah, and padding through the house trying to figure out what in the world was going on.  I found the father-daughter relationship and even the level design of the house painfully relateable so needless to say, I cried at the end of the chaotic opening sequence in which Joel fails to succesfully escape the city with his daughter alive. 

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The level design and environment art were highly enjoyable throughout the game.

That said, I think that the cut scenes were extremely well acted, animated, and shot.  They were never jarringly placed either.  The cut scenes fit very well in between action sequences and I think kept the game at a solid pace all the way through.  I also thought that the level design and environment art was excellent.  I almost wish there was some way the game would have let me enjoy those aspects a bit more… like with a first person cam toggle or more L3 moments that gave you good views of where you were.  I found myself using guns to zoom in on a lot of things in order to enjoy the art and posters all around.  Sometimes though I could tell in certain areas they almost didn’t expect the gamer to look closely.  There were moments when I’d see two identical pictures in the same room as each other or even within feet of each other because the level designer expected us to just chug through a particular area.  That was a little disappointing, as in a game of this length (it took me about 20 hours), I’d expect enough variety in the art to not roll my eyes at seeing two paintings of a mime in one room of a house.  Okay, okay, I didn’t mean to make it sound that bad when here I am trying to praise the art.  I’m just a detail person and those little things can kill immersion in a dramatic game such as this.  

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When Ellie commented on a scene or they had an exchange, I wouldn’t have minded if the camera moved around a bit to show you some additional perspectives.

I’m also happy that I never felt rushed after I cleared a level.  There’s nothing more annoying to me than games that have characters who won’t stop saying things like “HURRY UP!” when you are trying to explore, be a completionist, or just take your time during a level to appreciate what’s there.  The Last of Us, thankfully, didn’t ever do this.  Ellie always waited patiently for you to move on and would wander around, hum, mimic a jam, or adorable attempt to whistle while you searched.  That might have been my favorite aspect of the AI behavior in this game which I’m about to discuss a little more.  The fact that they took advantage of downtime to build Ellie’s character with ambient observations or audio design was brilliant.  To add to that, there were collectible comic books that would trigger conversation with Ellie as well as certain scenes that would spark conversation.  If you take the time to read each comic book summary, they are metaphorical to Ellie’s journey and struggle, but I wish that was taken further.  Ellie always tells you she’ll read the comic books later, but I wish she did something like talk to you about each chapter after she read it in the following level or tell you how she felt about it.  That would have been a great opportunity to develop her character and solidify her, and Joel’s, motivations along the way.  

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She says she’ll read it but she never talks about it! Argh. Also, not finding them all was frustrating when I felt like I searched every single corner.

I said I’d talk about AI behavior, so here we go.  This is the first and probably worst “didn’t love” aspect of the game.  The AI behavior of your companions (when you had Ellie and Tess in the beginning) and the enemies was often times very frustrating and confounding.  It was like the AI was a puzzle in itself to figure out.   There was not a whole lot of instruction on the game’s end as to what the rules of engagement were with particular enemies, making strategies very hard to develop until you were near end game.  At first, this made combat VERY frustrating.  The only thing the game really taught me was that Clickers reacted to sound, thus the best way to deal with them was with stealth/shanking.  This was fun when you succeeded at it.  However, the clickers were more often than not paired with gaggles of “screamers” I think they were called?  Just regular infected dudes who would groan and run at you like a zombie would.  I had no idea how to deal with them for the longest time and I often just wound up going all out with melee or a shootout to finish them off.  Their movements seemed unpredictable, and like every other enemy, we were never given any information about how to handle them or what was most effective.  

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Clickers: the scariest but easiest to deal with enemy.

Listening mode was fantastic and I really enjoyed using that to play up the stealth actions through the game.  But again, the AI behavior was just so unpredictable and unknown that it was a LOT of trial and error.  Frustrating trial and error.  I put a lot of thought into why combat frustrated me so much early on in the game and figured out what my problem was with it; there is no more reward for doing well or punishment for doing poorly.  Failure was made annoying by being granted the same cutscene and audio clip of being grabbed, bitten, and that high, screechy terror sound as it happened.  The checkpoints were spaced out well, so I had no problem with trying over and over, but then I learned the enemies’ paths (which were not randomized) making it more disappointing the more I had to re-do a scene.  I would have preferred more variety in death animation clips and methods overall and even a reward for when you do exceptionally well at handling enemies in a scene (e.g. a temporary health or damage boost, bonus item drops, or proficiency with your method of choice).

Once I did start to understand how combat worked better, which for me was towards the last half of the game, doing it right was so much fun and often got my adrenaline pumping when I pulled off a scene without getting hurt too badly or wasting too many supplies.  I really enjoyed the opportunities to upgrade my weapons but there was another thing that I needed more information on when it happened for the first time.  

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Sweet, a weapon upgrade bench! So uh… what would the weapon holster DO exactly? Guess I have to spend 75 scrap to find out. Oh, that’s what it does.

I suppose it was just by design that you had to figure a lot out on your own.  I feel like I’d enjoy the whole endeavor much more the second time through but on the flipside, it wouldn’t be the same.  Maybe Naughty Dog just wanted you to constantly feel confused, frustrated, and unsure the whole time.  Now that I’m actually typing that out I kind of liked it in retrospect.  Those feelings were supposed to be how Joel felt through the entire journey.  I guess if that was the intention, they could have connected it by giving us sound clips from Joel or something being like, “Now let’s see what this does…” or whatever.  There was just a lot of not knowing what the hell I was doing but most of the time I didn’t care.  I just wanted to move forward and experience more of the story.  I can complain about the unintuitive controls, UI, and crafting system in retrospect, but in the moment you’re not really thinking about it as much as you’re thinking about the last cut scene you just saw and where you need to go next. 

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Wait, so I need another 1/4 of a blade and a half a rag? When am I picking up fractions of supplies? I have no idea… WHO CARES!

It was easy enough to craft and I was always making molotovs instead of health kits because, hell, you either die in a scene or you do it right, right?  But the whole fraction of a material thing boggled me the entire game.  I STILL don’t understand what that was about.  I never realized when I was picking up 1/4 of a blade or a half of a rag.  Finding and gathering materials was always fun, but it was often a triangle spam-fest followed by an immediate press of the select button to see what I could make. When I couldn’t forge a shiv because I only had 3/4 of the tape I needed, I’d just stare helplessly and confused before closing the menu and moving on with a shrug.

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I can’t wait until you all spread out so I can shoot you in the head with an arrow or shank yo ass.

I want to talk a little more about the characters (other than Joel and Ellie) and the roles they played in your journey.  Like I said at the start of this thing, the cut scenes were highly enjoyable and the virtual actors felt real enough to draw very heavy emotions from me at the right moments.  At the same time though, I can’t help but feel like some of these characters’ stories fell short or could have been played out with more meaning.  The characters would say and do one thing in a cut scene, but then be contradicted by the gameplay that would follow.  For example, when Tess painfully sacrificed herself to buy Joel and Ellie a little more time in running away from the… military guys… in the Boston Capital Building, if you don’t hurry your ass up and waste time trying to look around or search for stuff, the sacrifice was completely futile because the dudes catch up to you and fight you anyway.  I had a problem with that and felt like they should have either put more pressure on me to RUN or just play out the cutscene of Joel and Ellie escaping so I wouldn’t sit there and say, “well, gee, that was a waste of a sacrifice” right after an extremely dramatic moment. 

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He’s an asshole! Wait, why again? What happened exactly? Oh, that’s why. Wait, he’s an asshole?

This kind of happened with Bill too.  The game kept telling me this guy was an asshole, a dick, a jerk.  But what did he do?  Helped us at every turn when we were with him.  Then we find out he’s gay and his partner hung himself, but not before leaving behind a letter telling us how he hated Bill’s guts.  That WOULD have been a good reason for him to be an asshole were it not for the fact that he reads this letter right before sending you off on your separate ways.  We never really see him be an asshole other than saying things like “don’t touch anything” to a kid, which… who wouldn’t?!  Everyone’s dead and you gotta look after your stuff!  Joel just sort of halfheartedly apologizes about the death of Bill’s “buddy” before we never see Bill again, so I don’t know.  I loved watching these characters interact and learning more about Ellie and Joel’s personalities through the cut scenes along the way, but maybe I just wanted to see more of the characters come out through gameplay and mechanics too, not just the cut scenes.  

 

Henry and Sam are especially good examples of this.  You meet them and Henry seems very level-headed and in control of his brother and their situation, but then they do ridiculous things in the game.  

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Sam, what happened to being like GLUE?! WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT?

Everyone except Joel seems keen on teaming up, but then they ditch you the first opportunity they get after barely helping at all in a combat situation.  Henry tells Sam to stick to him like glue, but then the second you’re left alone with Sam, the kid LITERALLY goes running up to enemy AI and you have no control over his movements whatsoever.  That was an extremely frustrating moment for me.  There was just so much dissonance between what happened in the cut scenes and then what followed that I found myself furrowing my brow trying to understand just how Henry could be so unobservant of his own brother to not see him get bitten?  Or that he wouldn’t even let him have a toy… they were brothers not father and son.  Why didn’t Sam stick up for himself?  He just wound up being a scared victim and Henry gave up on himself when his brother was lost to the infection.  It was a gasp-eliciting moment but I couldn’t help but question that series of events later on.  

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You collect a lot of these through the game. Each time I found one I thought, “wow, maybe I’ll meet them all or get paid scrap metal for each one later!” Nope, they’re just contest winners on tags for you to look at. Wh…why? Huh? ~_~

I feel like I’ve been ranting too much about the negatives now when my overall experience of the game was one I would call “fantastic”.  I would recommend this game to any gamer, certainly, but maybe to have lengthy discussions with them about this stuff just as equally as wanting them to have the experience.  I guess to summarize, it was a huge artistic success, told a great story, used virtual actors extremely well, and was beautifully unpredictable, but had a lot of weaknesses in terms of game design.  I think Naughty Dog will improve and blow us away with their next title.  There were so many good ideas but maybe they could have left out the extras to focus on what was important.  

 

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Most of the game you are focused on the most important thing: this girl, right here.

Ending this with what I loved most about the game: the last scene.  My heart…  I loved that you got to be Ellie in that last little level going towards a promising looking town before a scene that concludes everything that had been developing between Ellie and Joel on a parent-child level.  Joel does something that’s hard for an adult to do and lies to Ellie’s face because he realizes she is the most important thing he has left in his life and she knows that too.  Maybe it was a cheap, quick ending to some.  To me though the fact that Joel fought so hard and recklessly stole her back from the fireflies because, selfishly, he loved her and she was all he had left to live for, was one of the most touching moments I’ve experienced in a video game.  It made me think a lot about my own dad and that definitely brought some tears.  

I never edit these things or do second drafts, but I feel like I have gone on long enough at this point and covered a lot of bases.  I just feel like I could discuss every single piece of this game.  So what did you all think?  Please feel free to comment and let me know what you liked or didn’t like, and if you agree or disagree with me on any of these points!  I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Of Us and highly anticipate seeing what Naughty Dog comes up with for us next time.