The Last of Us (PS3) – Review

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Let’s talk about magic. Not the Harry Potter, wave your wand kind of magic, but the real kind. The kind you feel on a first date, or a beach, or any time when events, emotions, thoughts, everything just seems to flow in harmony. When your ears are ringing from the comprehension that something truly special is happening… It doesn’t happen as often as it should in life. Especially in the realm of entertainment. Entertainment is another beast altogether. It’s manufactured magic… And most of the time you can tell the glaring difference between the two.

Movies, and lately TV, have always been the perfect medium for manufactured magic- just as any other art stirs emotion, thoughts, questions, etc… But at the same time, for every Godfather, Unforgiven, or Indiana Jones, there are 200,000 direct-to-video Steven Segal movies hoping to cash in. That’s the thing about entertainment. In it’s most refined form, it’s strictly for profit. last2It’s not coincidence that movies make billions of dollars these days, they’re designed to. However, luckily for us, even manufactured magic is magic. Let’s face it, there are great movies, and then there are Apocalypse Now’s… Just as there are great shows and then are Mad Men‘s.

Well, the 8th dimension has just been blown open. Now we have great video games, and then we have The Last of Us.

I’ve never played anything like it. Technically it’s a video game, in that it comes on a game disc and you play it on a console… But when the opening scene of this unfathomably fantastic adventure begins… It’s all magic from then on.

imagesThe Last of Us is the story of two people, Joel and Ellie, and how they survive 20 years after the world as we know it ends. Do you remember that scary picture of the tarantula that had been over-grown by the Cordyceps fungus? I do. It looks like some kind of monster from under the sea. As the spores from the fungus replaced the spider’s cells with its own, it changed it into the freakish alien-looking horror it became… While the spider was still alive. Ultimately, the spider dies and the spores are released into the air to find the next host. Scary right? Well imagine it happens to people. The spores have mutated, speeding up the process, turning regular people into mushroom-headed nightmares that attack and kill anything they see or hear.

It’s a twist on the old zombie apocalypse, one that’s rooted in real, disgustingly terrifying science.

the-last-of-us-hd-wallpaperThe Last of Us starts off on the night of the outbreak, with animation done so well it looks Pixar-real. Animation in a game is key, and the motion-capture technology used to bring these characters to life is as good as it gets. The movements are real, the faces, eyes, and the mouths all move perfectly to suspend the disbelief. The characters have weight, they don’t spring like normal video game avatars. They move deliberately, it’s one of the dozens of tiny details that work together seamlessly.

After the heart-wrenching opener we cut to Joel in Boston, 20 years later. He’s older, greyer, and hard as f*cking steel. The story picks up when Joel and his girlfriend Tess, a pair of morally-ambiguous smugglers, people who ferry goods and services in and out of the Quarantine Zone, get roughed up by a local henchman. Boston is one of the few remaining Zones that are still functioning, although the more time you spend in the Zone, the more it feels like these people are just dying a little slower than the infected that roam the dark corners of the world. The_Last_of_Us_Preview_1The story doesn’t fall back on exposition, it drops you in the middle. It doesn’t stop to explain everything that isn’t vital to the main story, and therefore doesn’t insult the intelligence of the player.

In fact, this “game” is all about not insulting the intelligence of the player. It takes every zombie-horror-survival cliche and turns it sideways. There is never a moment in the entire 17 hours of play that feels stale or tossed in… And did I mention no load times? Usually in games you’re waiting for a little bar to fill up in order to play the next mission or level… Here, it’s all one seamless experience. There’s no breaking the fourth wall to pull us out of the world we’re submerged in.

Seriously, there were times I referred to things in the game in the first person. Like, “well she’s been traveling with me for this long,” that never happens for me. I play a lot of video games and not once have I felt personally responsible for the outcome of the story. Why not? Because I’ve never been invested like I have in The Last of Us. I’m telling you, this is not a video game. It’s a simulation.

images2There are moments of pure shit-your-pants terror, where the controller is slipping from your hand because your palms are sweating from adrenaline. All because Naughty Dog, the makers of the uber-popular Uncharted series, plays it straight and lean. There’s no over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek here… There is brutal, unforgiving, and yet ultimately beautiful “game” play. From the scariest depths of spore-ridden basements to the stunning views of an over-grown world where nature has taken back what man had built, this is a phenomenal experience.

I won’t spoil a thing that you don’t already know. Joel and Tess meet up with Ellie, a young teenager, and they are paid to smuggle her out of the Quarantine Zone to the local militia/freedom-seeking Fireflies outside… But of course, things go wrong along the way, and it’s up to you to guide these characters across a ravaged landscape chocked full of scary fast zombies and even scarier fast people. Early on one character muses, it’s not the infected you have to worry about, it’s the people that are unpredictable.

elliesThe Last of Us is a triumph in every way. It succeeds in flushing out a world only glimpsed in films like The Road, Children of Men, or I Am Legend, in which the environment itself becomes a central character. It take you out of your living room and into a world so dangerous, so unforgiving, that the only choice is to be even more brutal. Eventually you come to truly care about the characters on the screen. When they’re hurt, you feel it… You really do. More than once I found myself tearing up, feeling grief, feeling betrayal, feeling the cathartic struggle for life. I cannot recommend this “game” enough. It’s the reason why the PS3 was made, and a fitting swansong for one of the best entertainment consoles ever made.

Bravo Naughty Dog. This is truly a work of art.

Winning the War on Reality: Playstation 4 is Coming

Sony announced its latest break through in video game technology last night amongst massive fanfare, unimaginable consumer expectation, and an industry that is still unsure of where it will be in the next five years. The Playstation 4 aims to hit that target when it gets here, and to steer the next generation of consoles toward an all-inclusive, social, and online experience.

large1The PS4 sounds awesome, hands down. Out of the gate we’re talking top-of-the-line hardware here, eight x86-64 cores and a native Graphics Processing Unit that has 18 separate “compute units” that produce 1.84 teraflops of processing power. It has 8GB of system memory with a GDDR5-based system that produces an unbelievable 176 GB per SECOND of bandwidth for graphics rendering and performance. It has a completely separate chip for handling downloads as well which means “download in background” doesn’t mean waiting for two days for your latest game or demo to arrive.

largeBasically all of those Teraflops and GDDRs really just mean one thing: the Playstation 4 is a beast. It’s hands-down high-end graphics processing, and some of the videos shown at last night’s event proved that there is a whole new world of entertainment out there that Sony wants to bring to ALL your devices, not just your living room TV. The graphics are truly next-generation. From the millions of objects it can handle on the screen at once to the ability to provide feature-film-like animation. This thing will blow your socks off… And it will further combine all of your entertainment possibilities in one hub, with games, movies, TV, music, and more all rolled into this new paradigm of “the War on Reality” Sony is using. It’s clever.

The PS4 is based on 5 principles that Sony feels are the future of gaming: Simple, Immediate, Social, Integrated, and Personalized. For simple, Sony has stripped down the frills and fine-tuned the experience of the User Interface. They have created the largest, fastest, and most comprehensive gaming network on the planet, linked with Gaikai Inc’s cloud technology, that will allow players to browse ALL titles for the system through the Playstation Store. Gone are the days of downloading a stripped-down demo of a game to see if you like it. Now you’ll be able to go to the PStore, select a game, and immediately start playing it.

finalfantasy_versusOne of the most anticipated aspects of the PS4 is this immediate principle. Need to pause your game for awhile and don’t want to leave your system on? Not problem, just hit the power button and the PS4 will instantly freeze and enter a low-power standby mode. Then when you’re ready, you just hit the power button again and jump right back in where you left off. I don’t know how this will work with online games, but I’m sure there will be some version of it integrated. Taking this immediacy one step further is the ability to buy a game from the online Playstation Store, and immediately start playing it. Not like now where you have to wait for a game to finish downloading before you can jump in… With the PS4 you click download, and then start the game. It will continue to download (at full speed thanks to the dedicated chip) in the “background” while you play.

Sony has also gone social. One of the biggest problems with online gaming, in my opinion, is the prevalence of dickheads. Trolls hide behind stupid user names like YourMomSuxIt69 or WeedRulez420, talking smack while sheltered by the mask of anonymity. Well Sony is hoping to oust the dickheads with the PS4. Each user will now create a REAL profile with your REAL name and REAL Facebook integration. Does this mean MomsBasement420 will stop tea-bagging your corpse in a heated match of Battlefield? Probably not. But it will hopefully provide ways to screen out the kinds of players your want to play online with, and at least a real name so you can meet at the bike racks after school.

playstation-4-console-logoAnother huge social aspect of the PS4 is the “share” button. This button is going to kick ass. Ever just finish an epic killstreak on Black Ops II and wish someone else had been around to see your expert shooting and knifing and jumping? Now you just hit the “share” button, skim through the last few minutes of gameplay, select the beginning of the moment you wish to share, and upload it as a video for others to watch. I think this function is going to be unbelievably fun. Creating moments of awe-inspiring fun is what gaming is all about, and now you’ll be able to share those experiences with your friends. That is friggin cool.

Integration is also the name of the game with the Playstation 4, and they’ve gone beyond all expectations with this one.  The new Playstation app will allow iPhones and Android devices to have a “second screen” experience with their favorite titles. Imagine you’re playing Grand Theft Auto 5 and need directions across town. Now I’m completely making this up, but the technology is real, and it would let you do things like pull up a real-time map of the city on your iPad with a route planned out for you… Or Maybe a dossier on a potential client in whatever Hitman-type game could be sent to your Samsung tab for you to read up on different game aspects. These aren’t real game aspects, but the “second screen” experience is very real. Sony plans to integrate ALL your devices into your gaming exploits.

ds4The new Dualshock 4 controller sports a familiar shape and layout, while giving a new touch-pad input and “share” button. They have perfected the art of the rumble, and each controller comes with a more integrated motion-control input. Along with the direct control of the Dualshock 4, the PS Vita, which Sony released last year, will allow gamers to remotely control their console and their games. They introduced a technology that promises to make seamless play possible between the console and the handheld, giving users the ability to play ANY game remotely through the Vita.

Lastly, the PS4 aims to be completely personalized. The console will get to know you over time, suggesting titles from the games you play, and the ratings your give. It will even download games, music, movies, and television for you that it thinks you might like! The PS4 will take snapshots of your entertainment habits and offer up content based on that information.

playstation-4-controllerWhile Sony doesn’t have a physical console yet, the guts are there and the technology is here. In my opinion, they’ve taken a huge leap forward, and in the right direction. Combining awesome processing power with a completely immersive and social experience. If Sony can follow through on the promises they made last night, and deliver it without breaking the bank of the average gamer, they might have just put the future of gaming back on track. The PS4 will be available this holiday season.

BREAKING NEWS: The Playstation Network is Back Up and Running as of 12 am PST

After three weeks of issue-skirting press releases and Call of Duty: Black Ops withdrawals, fanboys can now rejoice as the Playstation Network is now back online after three longs weeks of waiting. If you remember: a few months ago iPhone hacker GEOHot finally jailbroke the Playstation 3, after almost 5 years of release. When GEOHot went live with his information, Sony responded with a request in court for streaming giant Youtube to turn over any IP addresses of people who had viewed GEOHot’s “how-to-jailbreak-your-PS3″ video. As Sony put the pressure on GEOHot, hacker group Anonymous issued a warning to Sony not to push the envelope too much, or there would be disastrous results.

A few weeks later, Sony’s Playstation Network was the victim of a massive hack, in which hackers stole millions of IDs from Sony’s Qriocity Music service. Sony promptly took the PSN offline, leaving many gamers in the lurch as a bulk of Sony’s games are multi-player.  As the days dragged on, Sony issued another press release stating that hackers had indeed infiltrated the accounts of millions of Playstation Network users, including areas where credit card numbers and identification are kept.

Sony was then called before congress to explain themselves and to find out why they took so long to issue a statement to users (In fact it took over a week for Sony to say a word about the incident). In the meantime, hacker group Anonymous has adamantly denied the hack, while Sony has definitely set it’s sights on them.

But what did Sony expect when they’re running 5 year old systems that support the PSN, and had barely any anti-intrusion software present at the time. Since the attack, however, Sony has employed protection giant Norton (by Symantec) to not only help them secure the Playstation Network for the future, but to investigate why and how this happened in the first place.

When I was finished downloading an update to a brilliant little piece of freeware call PS3 Media Server tonight, I found that my PS3 was prompting me to update… my heart skipped a beat when I realized what that meant. That I could scoop almost everyone with this story! To quote the mighty Wayne’s World “GAME ON!”