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.

Crysis 3 Tries Really Hard to Take the First-Person Shooter to the Next Level

iRhD5QPRZfw0LI rented Crysis 3 from my local Redbox on a whim. I’d never played either of the first two, in fact I didn’t even know it was a first-person shooter when I got it. With the miracle of modern technology I was able to yank up my Google app and look at some reviews from IGN while I was standing there contemplating getting it, and man am I glad I did. By the time I was finished with Crysis 3‘s main storyline I was sad I had to return the game. I could have played it over, and lately that seems to be the gauge for a good game.

crysis3dammap1First of all, it’s a visually stunning experience. Using the new CryEngine 3 it manages to pack more awesome particles on the screen than any game I’ve seen recently, and that was just on the PS3… I can only dream of how it looks on the PC with the settings turned up. What it really adds up to is very cool looking grass and water effects. I found myself being distracted by the environment MANY times throughout the short storyline, leading me off on little side adventures… Nothing as cool as Tomb Raider, but that’s another review. All in all Crysis 3 is a very well acted, written, and produced game. It almost felt like I was playing something next-generation. Along with a Call of Duty-caliber multiplayer on top, EA’s latest release is a good step in the right direction for this kind of game.

Crysis 3 takes place in the near future, when super soldiers wear special nanosuits made from stolen alien technology. crysis22011032311210878The suits enhance their abilities and let you jump higher, run faster, and best of all: turn invisible! The extremely complicated plot involves a mega-corporation that controls all of the energy on the planet. I don’t want to say too much but they get it from a source they shouldn’t be messing with, so it’s up to you, Prophet, the ultimate super-soldier, to stop them. The game is mostly an open-world experience, where exploring every nook and cranny will net you rewards. The weapons are fairly standard, except when you pick up an alien gun… But even then they’re nothing to write home about. The real fun comes from using the new bow and arrow. You get different tips on them for different situations, and it’s extremely satisfying to put an arrow through an unsuspecting bad guy’s head.

Unfortunately Crysis 3 has some glaring downfalls that really distract from the experience. One is the length, this is the shortest story mode I’ve played. They’ve trimmed off all the fat and made it a straight-forward break in and save the world plot. crysis-3-review-fpsI wouldn’t have minded so much, but it was such a great story, with some top-notch voice acting. Secondly, the use of the cloaking device is not nearly as good as it should be.¬† Before too long I found myself repeating the same situation over and over, I’d get to a new area, sneak around and arrow a guy or two until their buddies catch on that someone is there and start lobbing grenades everywhere. Then I’d hide until they calmed down and go around trying to take each one out. Then I’d move on to the next area. It wasn’t until the middle of the game when all hell breaks loose that it got really interesting. Then by the time I got around to enjoying the story and the game play it was all over.

Crysis-3-Explosions-Beneath-the-Liberty-DomeWhen I think about it now, Crysis 3 is more of an action movie than a video game It doesn’t feel immersive and it never stops reminding you that you’re playing a video game. You drop in, blast your way through what’s left of New York, watch a lot of well acted cut scenes, and then an extremely satisfying and rousing ending… Then it’s over and you’re left wanting more. I don’t know if it’s because I had rented it and was pressed for time, or if it simply seemed too short, but when I was done it felt like I’d just played the last half of a really cool, epic sci-fi shooter.

It’s a good rent, but other than the arena-style multiplayer, the outstanding graphics, and the above-average voice acting and storyline all add up to something that is less than the sum of its parts. Crysis 3 is available on PS3, Xbox 360, and PC.

the Pinnacle of Play: GRAND THEFT AUTO Returns to Westside

For some of us, playing video games is more than fun… It’s an obsession… but it wasn’t always this way, I swear.

I am a child of the Commodore 64 generation. Growing up, my friends all had Ataris, and SEGAs, and ColecoVisions, and while I might’ve been the last kid on the block with a Nintendo Entertainment System- we did always have the latest and greatest of the home computers. From the Commodore 64XS in all its color glory, to the green lettered IBMjr with its giant floppy disks, the Amiga, and CGA graphics (a milestone in computer gaming), in the Toomb household there was always a newer computer.

Enter the golden era of adventure gaming, and a little company called Sierra. I booted up King’s Quest for the first time in the 4th grade, and was immediately transported into every fairy tale I’d ever read. What I remember as brilliant color graphics and a fully-realized 3D world is mostly sentimental memory, because looking back now the graphics and game play are almost embarrassing. If I showed my kids these games, they would think there was something wrong with me… But I spent hours and hours glued to the mouse and keyboard- frantically typing in commands like “use hammer on door.” Those early adventure games were like an extension of my imagination, where the characters could go anywhere, explore anything, and complete some quests along the way. Sierra put out a slew of these Quest games when I was between the ages of 8-12- ranging from Police Quest to the extremely inappropriate and revolutionary Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards. Now, my parents weren’t the most censoring parents in the world, and while letting your 10 year old play a game where the sole purpose is to get laid might sound like fun, it’s sad to say that I learned a lot about the birds and the bees from ‘ol Larry (I will never forget the first time I saw digital breasts in VGA… all those pixels… wowza).

As I got older and Nintendo took over the world, I spent hours guiding Mario and Luigi through countless levels and machinations, from Yoshi’s Island to Mario Kart, Mario 64 to Street Fighter II. I also logged countless hours on the computer with flight simulators and open-world driving games like Test Drive, but something was always missing. Call it my young initiation into the Land of the Lounge Lizards, but video gaming was entirely too safe. By the time I was in my late teens, early 20s, the Playstation I had introduced me to blood-splattering fun games like Resident Evil and Siphon Filter, but they were all just plug-in-and-unwind kind of games. To be played with friends on a lazy afternoon, not to be immersed in. I always longed for those days of open-world adventure, where exploring a digital landscape was part of the fun. Nothing matched King’s Quest or Leisure Suit Larry.

Enter Grand Theft Auto III. The game that literally changed the way my brain was wired. In the video game world there is everything before GTA III, and then there is everything after. Before GTA my video game playing was a hobby, an escape, something fun to pass the time.

Grand Theft Auto puts the player into the shoes of a criminal who has just escaped from prison after being betrayed by his bank-robbing ex-girlfriend in the New York-esque town of Liberty City. I cannot impress the impact that this game had on me enough. It was as if every game I’d played in the past was really just building up to this particular game. It had everything I ever wanted in a video game: an open-world with tons of stuff to do besides the missions, a real soundtrack with real music instead of digitally produced noises, and a sense of humor- I repeat- a sense of humor. Until GTA, video games were all “hero this” and “save that,” but suddenly game play was wide open. I could steal cars, drive them at high speeds into oncoming ambulances, I could run from the cops and shoot my way out of going to jail, and most controversially: I could pick up a hooker, have implied sex with her, and then kill her and get my money back. A long way from Mario and Luigi, but not so much from that first game of Leisure Suit Larry.

Over the years, the Grand Theft Auto franchise has evolved- every time taking place in a new locale based on an American city. This is the key point to the GTA games… American popular culture is truly what’s being lambasted in these games. Sure you can sneak up construction cranes and snipe random people on the sidewalk, but it’s really our society’s ridiculousness that’s being assassinated. The games mix satire, social commentary, criminal fun, and whimsical amusement perfectly. Leave it to the British (Rockstar Games North) to skew American culture in such a brilliant “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” kind of way.

From Vice City (Miami) to San Andreas (Southern California) and Las Venturas (Vegas), Grand Theft Auto has clung tight to the criminal mythologies of America while offering up a heavy dose of tongue-in-cheek comedy, mostly missed by critics. Grand Theft Auto eventually became sillier, wilder, and yes, funner as the years and locations progressed- culminating in what most see as the height of the series GTA: San Andreas. Taking on the role of CJ, an “LA” gang member, the bustling cities gave way to freeways and landscapes, deserts and ghost towns alike. San Andreas was the first in the series to incorporate 3 major cities (San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas) into the game. San Andreas was a sprawling epic, with almost too much to do. From working out at the gym to become a hulk, or gorging yourself on fast-food until you grew fatter and fatter (even a little binge and purge at the “Burger Shot”). CJ could sneak onto an aircraft carrier and fly a Harrier-like aircraft (complete with missiles), he could even steal alien jet-packs from Area 51. GTA: San Andreas had it all… including base jumping from the Transcontinental Building and Golden Gate. Uh, yes please.

The outlandish qualities of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas were eclipsed (much to the chagrin of those who fawned over giving their characters different haircuts and tattoos) by Rockstar Games‘ reboot of the series, Grand Theft Auto IV. The only game I have ever waited in line until midnight for. Boy was it worth it. GTA IV, in my opinion, is simply the greatest video game ever made. Rockstar took a step back from the silliness of some of its previous titles, incorporating more dramatic aspects, free-form storytelling, and cranking up the social satire. Rockstar did this by creating the greatest video game character ever made: Liberty City. Based on New York’s Burroughs and New Jersey, Liberty Cityis a living, breathing monument to what can be done with a video game. When I first got the game I would get lost for hours, looking at scenery, following random street people as they go about their days, watching two drivers duke it out after a fender-bender… I mean,¬† for all intents and purposes Liberty City is the greatest simulation ever made public. From FoxNews pundits spouting fire and brimstone to reality TV (yes, there are in-game channels to actually sit and watch), GTA IV has it all- especially when combined with the two add-ons Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony.

But that was almost four years ago.

Rockstar has released¬†Red Dead Redemption and LA: Noire in the meantime, both of which are quality games of the highest marks, however still fall short of the bar set by GTA. Yes I said it, Red Dead isn’t as good as GTA. I know this is camp-splitting issue, and I don’t want to detract from the open-world awesomeness of Red Dead, but it didn’t have city buses I could drive down the sidewalks of Times Square at high speeds, killing hundreds of innocent bystanders while laughing maniacally… ok?! No amount of standing up to zombie bears with a flaming torch as a weapon can match that feeling.

However the wait (or should I say, the initial pre-announcement-wait) is finally over. On November 2, Rockstar officially kicked off the hype for Grand Theft Auto V with a teaser trailer featuring none other than a brand-new, re-imagined San Andreas (specifically Los Santos, the GTA version of Los Angeles). That’s right folks, GTA is returning to the West Coast with a bang.

From jets to jet-skis, the great outdoors to inner-city struggle, Grand Theft Auto V sets its sights on American culture and Hollywood lifestyles. The economy is also a big player in the latest in this franchise, as the trailer contrasts movie stars and mansions with homeless camps and soup kitchens. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to get my hands on Rockstar’s latest opus.