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.

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Toomb’s Tomb Raider Review

286142-blackangelMaking a new Lara Croft game is a tricky proposition. A franchise that has spawned countless games, 2 Angelina Jolie-starring movies, and inspired one of the best been-caught-masturbating scenes ever filmed (Grandma’s Boy). So when Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics Tomb Raider-reboot, simply titled Tomb Raider, was announced a few years ago, everyone’s reaction was pretty much the same: “Well of course they are.”

Don’t you love it when you get proven wrong?

2446979-tombraider_2013_03_05_22_24_38_600Holy shit this is one of the best games you can get for any console ever! They hit it out of the park on this one ladies and germs, cause Lara Croft is back in a(nother) origin story that is filled with edge-of-your seat action, palm-sweating-climbing, and so much more. Tomb Raider also comes with the highly coveted “my wife played straight through in a couple days” seal of approval that only comes along maybe once a year. I knew from the moment I first rented it that it was one of those special efforts that transcends the typical “awesome game” experience. In fact I had to return the rental and go trade in some old games so I could own a copy. It’s good enough to go in this broke guy’s keepers collection.

Lara Croft is the most famous heroine in modern fiction. She’s sexy, she’s independent, and she kicks ass in a pony-tail. In Tomb Raider, we find out how she becomes that way. Her character crosses platforms, media, and pretty much picked up where Indiana Jones left off on, and where only Nathan Drake has been able to continue. I mention Drake on purpose here, because it’s so obvious that Square Enix drew heavily on the EXTREMELY successful Uncharted series for their latest reboot. uncharted-2-among-thieves-1902Uncharted and its sequels are hands-down the most fun you’ll have outside a Rockstar Game. They are not video games per se, they are playable action movies. If you’ve never played Uncharted and you’re a gamer, you need to take a look at your priorities… Uncharted 2 is in my top 5 favorite games of all time (a list that, should it expand at all, will undoubtedly include Tomb Raider).

The reason Uncharted works so well, and also why Tomb Raider works even better, is because of the cut scenes. There aren’t any. With traditional “cut scenes” you’ll play a level, then it will cut to a mini-movie that moves the plot forward (if your lucky enough to have a game with a plot) before you play the next level. Rinse, repeat… It’s boring and monotonous and makes most games sub-par. Cut scenes can ruin a game (Dead Island) or, if done right, can truly elevate a game to a different level of entertainment.

lara-7Like Uncharted, and now Tomb Raider, time and effort were put into the story, the voice-acting, the motion-capture animation, and the way they all work together. The result is truly astonishing. Cut scenes stop being just that and become seamlessly integrated into the game. Video games are always STOP-GO-STOP-GO because of cut scenes and I think they break up the action and take away from the immersion. In Tomb Raider, right from the start you’re shot out of a cannon and the action never slows down.

Camilla Luddington has stepped into Lara Croft’s climbing boots, and with the use of some remarkable motion-capture CGI, the new Lara is an unforgettable character. From the first scene where she is shipwrecked, hit over the head, and hung from the ceiling in a scary cave, you empathize for her. When she falls and is impaled (albeit slightly), you feel the shock… Tomb-Raider_2013-1When she scrambles under collapsing rocks in a cave-in, you scramble too, mashing buttons to get away as a scary bad-guy tries to grab her legs, you break out in a sweat… When she jumps across a mind-numbingly-high chasm to barely grasp the opposite ledge, you hold your breath… Any flaws this game might have are so overshadowed by the brilliance of the M-rated action that they don’t even register. Tiny things like handling (Lara has a tendency to NOT turn around and grab the nearest ledge, resulting in more than a few accidental falls) and frame rate issues become insignificant with all this beautiful game going on.

Plainly said, this is what a video game should be… Mystery, suspense, action, vertigo-inspiring climbing, immaculate graphics, hidden treasures, and the best part? It’s open-world for the most part. Once the main story line is over, you’re free to explore the island… Where plenty of side-missions, hidden booty, and of course, tombs to be raided.

“It hate tombs.” Lara says after emerging from the first one. I’ll try not to get offended.

tomb-raider-2013Lara is 21 years old in this prequel. Fresh out of college with a sound theory on the ancient Japanese legend of Yamatai, a forbidden island reminiscent of Lost meets Apocalypse Now. When she and her friends are shipwrecked on the island, it’s up to Lara to learn how to survive in the jungles, caves, mountains, and shanty towns of the island. At the beginning of the game she is a normal girl, in an extraordinary situation, where she must adapt, overcome, and yes, kill in order to survive and save her friends. When Lara has to kill for the first time it is brutal, intimate, and disturbing. On the other hand, because it is still a video game filled with bad guys, within minutes Lara becomes a cold-blooded arrow-shooting assassin telling her mentor, “I had to kill a man.” “Lara, that couldn’t have been easy,’ He responds.

“It’s scary how easy it was…” replies Lara.LaraBloodyGoodTime

You climb to the highest peaks, and zip-line to the deepest caverns, you sneak-attack with arrows or you’re caught in a full-on firefight with the homicidal cultists on the island. Nothing like a homicidal cult to ruin your expedition eh?

Go out and rent or buy this game right now. You won’t regret it. The graphics, the story, the acting, the gameplay, they’re all nearly perfect. Tomb Raider is available on all platforms, PS3, Xbox, PC, and it boasts a fairly-fun multiplayer as well. It’s guaranteed a great time!Tomb-Raider_Screenshots-12-3-9