Resogun 2

A lot of games are judged these days on the amount of content they can boast. Do they have a 30 + hour campaign? Do they have multiple endings? Do they have multiplayer? If a game doesn’t answer one or two of these questions with an enthusiastic “Of course!” then it may be dismissed for lacking considerable value. On these terms, Resogun may not make the cut for many, offering a mere five levels, three ships, and four difficulties. But overlooking this game on those grounds would be a real mistake, for in that seemingly small breadth of content lies endless hours of score-topping, eye-popping, frenzied excitement that games ten times its size couldn’t muster.

Resogun is a strong launch title for the Playstation 4 for many reasons. For one, it’s accessible as hell. It’s a twin-stick, side-scrolling, shoot-‘em-up, which takes longer to say out loud than learn how to play. People who aren’t even familiar with a video game controller can learn the ropes within a matter of minutes. Left stick controls the ship, right stick controls your gun. Got it? Got it. The game introduces a few more controls at a fine pace (like the ability to boost and use bombs), but it never gets too complicated. That’s not to say the game is easy, and once the levels start progressing past their first phase (each level is split into three phases, each ending with a unique boss battle), things really start to heat up. If you’re still finding yourself blowing through each level without breaking a sweat, move the difficulty up a few notches. You’ll have to become a master of reflexes and memorization if you want to excel. I guarantee your palms will be sweating and your arms feeling like mom’s spaghetti by the time you hit Veteran difficulty.

As you progress through each level, your ship slowly starts to upgrade to match the increasing difficulty. You might start off a level with a ship that only shoots one bullet at a time, but by the end it will be a stream of bullets with the ability to lock on to incoming waves of enemies with pinpoint precision. The goal of the game is to get to the end of every level alive, sure, but getting there is only half the fun. Resogun’s thrives off of score-whoring, giving players a multitude of ways to increase their combos. However, if you take too long to destroy an enemy or die, your combo resets back to 1. This is basically a slap in the face to go back to the beginning of the level to try again. The higher the difficulty, the higher your combo can go. There’s no greater feeling than getting through an entire level without dying and seeing those points pour in.

On top of the basic “blow up everything that gets in your way while keeping your combo meter going” gameplay, there are also a few neat little tricks that help set Resogun apart from the competition. There isn’t much of a story to speak of, but what becomes clear is that you are in a mission to rescue the last remaining humans, ten of whom are locked away in each level. Every once in a while, the announcer will warn the player that ‘keepers have been detected.’ In this case, special enemies will spawn somewhere in the level. You have a certain amount of time to defeat those enemies, which will then set one of the ten trapped humans free. Pick up that human and deliver him or her to one of the stations in the level and you get bonus points, or an extra life, or an extra bomb. Fail to do so and that human dies, effectively killing your chances of gaining a much-needed perk. It’s that ever-escalating threat of maintaining a combo, saving every human on the map, upgrading your ship, and trying to stay alive that makes Resogun so hectic and addictive. The score you receive at the end of each level almost feels like a challenge. “This is what how well you did this time. Think you can do better? Prove it.”

Resogun 9

But it isn’t just Resogun’s accessibility that makes it a no-brainer purchase for new adopters of the Playstation 4. The game is visually fantastic, a chaotic blend of every hue imaginable. Acid trips aren’t this vibrant or colourful. Particles literally rain down from the shimmering sky and scatter across the ground like diamonds. Enemy ships litter the sky in a minefield of bullets and explosions, and it feels like a miracle every time you manage to make it out alive. It would be a shame to blink, which you won’t be doing much of anyways considering how quickly things can spiral out of control. My eyes were bleeding by the end of every level in the best way possible.

But the brightest stars burn out the fastest and it won’t be long before you’ve seen everything there is to see in Resogun. As mentioned, there are only five levels in the entire game, with the promise of DLC coming in the future. You can up the difficulty, switch between one of three ships, jump over to arcade mode in hopes of achieving astronomical scores that top the leaderboards, but at the end of the day, it’s always going to be those five levels. There’s online co-op, which does manage to squeeze out a little bit more fun, but I always preferred the herculean task of solo play.  I had seen it all in the matter of an hour or two. I moved on from the game in the span of a week.

I enjoyed what little time I had with Resogun and look forward to returning to it in the future. I can’t resist the temptation to play through a level or two every time I turn on my Playstation 4, if only to set off another bomb that wipes the entire map clean in a wave of white hot death. It’s far too short and thin a title to be deemed a ‘system-seller,’ but anyone that already has the console would be hard-pressed to do better. The next-gen is young, but if a king needed to be crowned, it would be Resogun.

Final Score - 8/10

Starbreeze Studios is a developer best known for first person shooters, most notably the PayDay series, the Riddick series, and The Darkness. So when they revealed that Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (a downloadable title) would be releasing alongside Payday 2, it took a lot of fans by surprise.

Brothers is a game unlike anything Starbreeze has ever produced. The game is largely story-based and focuses on two brothers traveling across the country in search of a cure for their father, who has taken ill. The brothers must overcome many hardships throughout the adventure in order to complete their goal.

 

 

The main story is completely ancillary, however, and serves as nothing more than a thin excuse to send the brothers to their theoretical doom over and over again. I can’t help but think how much healthier everyone would be if they just invested in building a road instead of having to shimmy across gorges with the help of lovelorn trolls, and jump over the tops of mountains on goats among other ridiculous things. This is possibly due to the game’s need to design rudimentary puzzles for you to complete before moving onto the next area or cutscene. If you removed these, or made them any easier, you would basically just be walking to the end.

Brothers does something a lot of other games have since given up on, and that is changing up the control scheme from the normal layout. You control the two brothers at the same time, the older brother taking the left side of the controller and the younger brother taking the right side. This is pretty disorienting at first but you quickly adapt in order to complete the first few “puzzles” when you realize that the only inputs used are the triggers and analog sticks.  The game does not use the control scheme in any meaningful way later on, and you won’t be struggling to adapt to holding the triggers while pushing the analog sticks for movement at the same time. Anyone who has played a shooter will find the control scheme different at first, but ultimately it is the same as moving the camera in a first/third person shooter while moving.

I put puzzles in quotes up there because they really aren't puzzles at all. They are merely obstacles that usually just require you to push a fence open, or pull a lever with one brother while the other is hanging onto something. After a while it gets tiring, which is saying something because the game is about 3 hours long. Everything in the setting is just too conveniently placed and it makes the world feel crafted instead of natural. This is a real shame because the world that Brothers sets up is very interesting. It is a world where giants, mythical animals, barbaric blood worshiping tribes and other fantastic beings exist, but you only get a brief glimpse into their nature. There is simply no way to explore the world as the game is akin to a hallway in an office: a straight line with a few offices on the side to peer into.

 

Ultimately Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a game specifically built to continuously tug at your heart strings in every respect, but it doesn't earn it outside of a single instance towards the end. The control scheme works, but the developers don’t use it in any meaningful way, and I don’t think the game gains anything from it. It is nice to see a developer branch outside of their comfort zone, but in this case, it falls flat.

 

 

Final Score - 4/10

 

Delightful, energetic, and a little long in the tooth. Those were my reactions to 2011’s Rayman Origins, a well-crafted platformer from Michel Ancel that was an absolute pleasure to play. Beautifully rendered, tight controls, and some sharp level design. The kind of things you want in a 2D platformer, and it was a breath of fresh air to boot. Because the reality is you get these types of games from Nintendo or the indie scene, and rarely with the same caliber of production. Rayman Legends is a whole lot more of that same game.

Like its predecessor, Rayman Legends is an absolute looker. Gorgeous hand drawn art that animates beautifully gives the many environments of the game character and a personality of their own. Be it a luchador inspired environment, or my personal favorite, a mishmash of James Bond-esque spy levels with a group of enemies rocking Splinter Cell gear. Even platforming familiars such as the lava level has an absolutely beautiful pop to it. You could argue that the art direction was already impressive in Origins, and that’s true, it was. But Origins wasn’t nearly as varied on a visual level, and that’s something Rayman Legends corrects early and often, constantly moving you through levels that feel distinct visually, even if the theme of the art direction stays the same.

Like the original, Rayman Legends is a tight platforming experience. Some of you may need to adjust to how Rayman handles as he’s not really floaty but he isn’t carrying nearly as much weight as you’d expect. Once you adjust, Legends is as sharp mechanically, if not sharper, than Origins and you’ll be moving from one obstacle to the next with precision and relative ease.

Some effort has also gone into one my biggest disappointments with the original in that some levels overstay their welcome. I rarely found a level that I felt just dragged. Though there is a backtracking segment; it was handled effectively as you weren’t necessarily doing the same exact thing all over again. The game varies itself nicely, having you speed running, doing gliding levels, swimming levels, the aforementioned spy meets stealth meets platforming levels, and the not so satisfying Murphy levels.

The biggest gameplay addition to Rayman Legends is Murphy, a character designed with the touch controls in mind. I can’t comment on how he stacks up on a touch controlled device, but on a gamepad he’s a blemish on what is an otherwise well put together game. Rayman Legends, like the original, is at its best when you are moving through the level at a brisk pace and hitting all your marks correctly. Murphy slows that pace down to a screeching halt, as more often than not you’ll be standing still to take care of whatever Murphy prompt you need to handle.

On a gamepad, it’s done with the press of a button, and some of these levels can be enjoyable. Specifically ones where you are asked to move along quickly, and you’re simply pressing the button to have Murphy move environment pieces to keep you moving quickly. But most of them just dampen the pace, and all the satisfaction comes from when you finish those levels. Not because they are satisfying, but more so because you’re glad they are done with and you can move onto Rayman Legends proper.

Which again is a tight platformer with sharp controls, and one that actually had some interesting boss fights to boot. The initial two and final boss fight leave a lot to be desired, but there were a handful of segments that used Rayman’s mechanics rather intelligently. Specifically a robotic dragon that had you hoping under moving cover to deflect attacks back at the beast before you could finish him off. Another is an excellent throw down with a gigantic masked wrestler. Platformers usually don’t have fun boss battles (at least in recent years) so it was an absolute delight to fight some that were this entertaining.

Like its predecessor and most platformers this game is a collect-a-thon. This time blue teensies, those blue things with giant noses. To reach the credits sequence simply playing through the game should get you to the finish line. Which is a welcome change from what you had to do in Rayman Origins. Where you most likely had to go back to some older levels and go hunt down missing pink things (I forgot the name) to progress the game. That said to make it to the games hardest levels you’ll still need to obviously collect all the teensies, and specifically 400 for a bonus area. This area is frankly good enough to justify some of that tedium do to how satisfying these levels can be.

If you played Origins; there were these levels where you chased a treasure chest on what were tough-as-nails levels. In place of those now are music based levels. Where you go along on a similar type of obstacle course. Where any mistake results in you needing to start over (but with check points this time), but the kicker here is that it’s all done to the rhythm of a song. And for those who have a keen ear for music this can be a delight of its own. As it is both infectious and gratifying to hit every note of a level, and it also is a level where you can feel out where the jumps are coming.

Black Betty ends up being a good introduction to these types of levels, but my personal favorite was a mariachi inspired of the Eye of the Tiger. That is as far as music selection is concerned (there is even some classic orchestral stuff), but that final area is those levels at their peak as far as game design is concerned. Devilish obstacles, faster paced tunes, and all around less forgiving. At times frustrating, but the finish line is that much more satisfying for it. It’s just a shame that most likely you’re going to play a lot of Rayman Origins levels to get to it.

Most of the standard levels in Rayman Origins should have about 9 teensies to collect. A king and queen who are hidden in secret stages within the levels, and teensies hanging for their dear lives to an enemy, a rope, stuck in a cage, or what have you. Collect enough yellow lums in a level and you will get a scratch card. This scratch card will unlock pets that will get you more lums, extra teensies, or levels from Rayman Origins. On one hand its extra content to a game, but on the other hand it’s recycled content. It’s content that they already made last time. And frankly I purchased Rayman Legends to play Rayman Legends, not the levels I already beat in Rayman Origins.

So really the whole tedium of a collect-a-thon isn’t really lost here, but ultimately I find that extra level more for completionists. If you just prefer to play your game and make it to the credits? You won’t have to worry about it what so ever. But for completionists and people well versed in platformers? Yeah it’s a collect-a-thon in the vein of collect-a-thons.

And that’s really the lasting impression of the game. When it’s hitting its stride the game is an absolute delight. A game pouring with enthusiasm and high energy in so much of its content. But there are occasional dips along the way. Be it a new addition that frankly that isn’t that satisfying (at least on a gamepad) or the usual boredom presented by being forced to collect things.

But maybe the real drawback here is that really it’s more Rayman, instead of another step forward. Rayman Origins was part return to form for Rayman, and in many ways a brilliant reimagining of what Rayman games are and can be. While it didn’t do anything new for the genre, it did plenty for the Rayman series as a whole. Legends just gives you more of that, and more of that was already a really good game. And it still is a really good game. It just never quite does enough to put Rayman in the same class as genre legends. And really that’s a shame considering the subtitle of the game. Make no mistake about it though. If you enjoy platformers, Rayman Legends is a must buy.

Final Score - 8/10

 

 

Life in space is impossible. Alfonso Cuaròn’s latest film “Gravity” begins with this warning, reinforced by the foreboding soundtrack building up behind it. It’s an obvious line, one a cynical person may think is insultingly reminding the audience that space is a hostile place for life. However the truth is much more beautiful and rewarding. That simple fact is the heart of the movie.

The opening sequence fades into the silence of space, Cuaròn moves his camera through its vastness with breathtaking precision, giving us a dizzying and stunning view of Earth before introducing us to three astronauts in the middle of a mission. We only see the faces of two of these astronauts, Ryan Stone, a troubled medical engineer, played by Sandra Bullock, on her first mission, and veteran space walker Matt Kowalski, sagely portrayed by George Clooney. Every other character in the film is merely a voice, from the third astronaut to mission control. “Gravity” is about Stone and Kowalski and their journey in space when things go terribly wrong.

There were whispers of concern before the film released that Cuaròn’s first since “Children of Men” would merely be a special effects driven thrill ride with no human story holding it together. Again the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. While it would be a travesty to ignore the breath stopping power of the thrills Cuaròn has designed, they would be as worthless as lungs in space without the very moving personal story of the two astronauts caught up in them. Yes, the set pieces are magnificent to behold, simultaneously leaving you in awe at their beauty while sucking the breath out of your lungs with their soul crushing violence, but the film never forgets what is really important:  the people whose lives are in danger.

Bullock and Clooney are both completely committed to conveying this in their performances and it would really be a shame if they are overlooked in favor of the film’s technical achievements. Clooney’s calm assurance is perfect for the soon to retire veteran, he provides old hand wisdom to Bullock’s space rookie and keeps her grounded even when she is spinning out of control. Bullock is suitably vulnerable at first, but her journey through the increasingly dangerous fight for survival sees her discover a strength within herself that is just as heart-stirring as the cinematography to behold. Her journey is heartbreaking and overwhelming to witness at times, but it’s also very touching in such an honest, no bull way that it manages to break free from sentimentality and transcend into one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater.

To think that we get all of that at the core of one of the most white knuckle disaster movies ever made is almost too good to be true. Cuaròn is a master at the long take and he uses it to brilliant effect here to force us right into the middle of the destruction. This is the first film that I’ve seen in 3D during this recent fad that actually left me feeling thankful I didn’t opt for my usually preferred 2D version. Like Stone I found myself gasping for breath as Cuaròn placed his camera in the thick of it, capturing the sense of terror one must feel while fighting for every second amidst such an unforgivably aggressive disaster in the cold void of space. Every sweep, every stomach churning spin is bang on the money, supplying both thrills and emotional highs and lows that mean so much more than just being lovely to look at.

Much like Stanley Kubrick accomplished in “2001: A Space Odyssey”, he achieves a style that feels married to the very nature of space. This style, combined with either dead silence or the stunning score, makes every set piece a symphony of disaster, with my very favorites being a devastating visit to the International Space Station and the well-earned conclusion, which nearly moved me to tears while simultaneously threatening to force me to dig my nails into my cheeks to relieve some of the nearly unbearable tension.

And that’s the true magic of this movie. The tension is built up steadily throughout its ninety minute running time, exploding in places but never losing its momentum. Through that tension I also experienced one of the most satisfying and moving human stories in recent years. Nothing is wasted in “Gravity”, no line, no shot, no instance of the incredible music, it’s all executed at just the right time and with the maximum impact on the story Cuaròn is telling. It’s an incredibly terrifying and rewarding experience, one that you will feel like you’ve experienced firsthand. As Clooney’s Kowalski puts it, when it’s all said and done you’ll have one helluva story to tell.

Final Score - 5/5

 

To put it bluntly: Steve McQueen is the most exciting up-and-coming director in the film industry today. After giving us Hunger in 2008 and Shame in 2011, he is back for round three with 12 Years a Slave, a biopic about Solomon Northup, a freeman who was tricked, drugged, kidnapped, and forced into slavery. It’s a true story, and the screenplay is based on Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave features a supremely talented cast consisting of Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Giamatti. Besides Fassbender, these actors play relatively minor roles and the entire film depends on the performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon. Ejiofor is a brilliant actor who is finally getting his chance to play a major role. Over the course of the film, he displays every emotion in the spectrum and perfectly embodies the character and person of Solomon Northup. The hardship on screen directed by McQueen and depicted by Ejiofor is often difficult to watch, but moving your eyes away from the screen is even harder. Another standout in the cast is Lupita Nyong’o, a relative newcomer who plays Patsy, a slave girl whose talent for picking cotton that wins the affection of Fassbender’s character, the sadistic slave owner Master Epps. Rounding out the cast is Alfre Woodard as the wife of a slave owner, and Sarah Paulson as Epps’ envious wife. Chiwetel Ejifor gives the performance of his career here, and I hope he does not get overlooked when award season comes around.

The film closely follows the novel. Solomon goes from plantation to plantation until he eventually gains his freedom. The plantation scenes are haunting, and a few in particular are incredibly brutal. McQueen has captured the look and feel of the mid-1800s impeccably in this film, from the architecture in towns all the way to precise details like the type of plates or cabinetry in the houses. Some scenes are simply there to show the slaves’ environment and living conditions and shed light on how they lived. Solomon interacts with a variety of different people, and even if the film is about slavery, everyone is depicted as a believable human being for the time period. The film makes no statements about race, and is better for it. 12 Years a Slave also has some comedic moments that nicely break up the tension in the film and will have you cheering for Northup.

McQueen continues to show his tremendous technical skills. 12 Years a Slave is a visually and musically phenomenal film, just as his previous ones were, but 12 Years a Slave is more conventional and approachable in comparison to his previous films. However, there are still a lot of similarities. Like the others, much of the story is told through flashbacks, montages, and lingering shots. Long single takes and tracking shots pervade the film, and McQueen puts strong emphasis on the pain that the characters display on screen, keeping the camera on them long enough to maximize the effect.

McQueen believes that 12 Years a Slave is a film that needed to be made, and after seeing his depiction of 1800s Louisiana, I am inclined to agree. 12 Years a Slave is ultimately a harrowing account of a man’s determination to survive and reunite with his family. It’s a film that will resonate with everyone; one that will make you cry, laugh, cheer, and especially cringe. This is filmmaking at its finest.

Final Score (Out of Five): 5/5

 The Swapper is a clever puzzle game that routinely finds ways to make you feel smart. 

Oh Divekick, I want to love you, but you keep making it hard on me. And just when I think I’m ready to dislike you; you remind me why I think you’re so endearing. What either started as a joke or a crazy idea has manifested into this clever little two-button fighting game known as Divekick. It is one part parody, and another part example of just how much nuance there is to a fighting game. Building a game around one type of move may seem shallow (and it is), but the game is a showcase of just how much goes into that one move, especially when it’s down to the wire.

Like I said, this is a two button game. One button is the dive button (jump), and the second is for kicking. Kicking without diving makes you jump back, you can do quick dive kicks to move forward quickly, and a full dive kick’s range is dependent on what character you chose. Some characters dive higher (such as Dive), some characters can do multiple kicks in the air, and another might kick with a lightning stream. Also one of the characters is a Skunk Bear mother who smokes expensive cigars. When she kicks a character that person goes flying right off the screen.

Divekick is a game brimming with personality and a brand of parody humor that gaming usually struggles with. There are a number of inside fighting game community jokes that might not have any appeal to a casual audience, but there is also a character who speaks primarily in Will Smith quotes and movie references. And then there is the sheer magnificence that is Uncle Sensei. Given the game is as simple as it is, Iron Galaxy chose to go into an interesting direction with their loading screens. Instead of gameplay tips, Uncle Sensei gives tips on life and the art of competitive fighting with helpful advice such as “body odor can be an effective advantage in a competitive environment, and no that’s not considered cheating”. There are far more ingenious tips on life in the game, but I’d rather you find them out on your own.

The game makes the most of the two button fighting game joke as it can. All the way down to how you navigate the menus. Your interface is your dive and kick buttons. You need to press both buttons at once to select a mode/options page, and you navigate left to right using the dive or kick button. It might be funny at first, but after a while you get over that joke.

Luckily the story mode has some clever beats along the way. The two titular characters (Dive and Kick) have the backstory of essentially Fresh Prince of Bel Air (clearly there are plenty of Will Smith fans at Iron Galaxy), another character is a parody of a rejected Capcom character, and there is even a Mortal Kombat reference. The story mode consists of a series of fights that includes some throw-downs with rival characters, ultimately culminating in a boss fight with S. Kill. – as in Seth Killian, as in yes, the ex-community manager at Capcom – in what is basically a joke on how fans usually dislike any balancing decisions done to one character or another.

At its base, this should be a good game in spite of its shallow nature. The combat itself is fun purely because of the differences in characters and special abilities. The jokes are pretty funny as only a handful really require you to know the fighting game scene inside and out. The problem is that the game may have taken the stripped down nature a little too far. The single player modes are simply lacking. The story mode is really all there is, and only the opening/ending captions are all that entertaining as far jokes are concerned.

The biggest kicker however is the multiplayer. This is a game that would be a wonderful little party game to go online with a group of friends. Unfortunately as it stands this is a game you can only really play online with one friend. Still fun, but severely lacking compared to not only other fighting games, but party like games in general. Plus as a whole the combat is what it is. Endearing, funny, but ultimately maybe too simple for even its own good.

As it stands Divekick is a wonderful joke that either feels like “The Best Worst Videogame Ever” or at times a surprisingly well put-together joke. It’s an entertaining parody on the fighting game genre in its own right. It’s just a shame everything around the game takes so much out of it and not allowing you to hop online with a group of your friends in the same lobby feels like a travesty. On the other hand, you should play this game for Uncle Sensei tips alone.

Final Score – 6/10

It’s easy to look at State of Decay and react with “Ugh, another zombie game? Really?” This is very much a zombie game in its aesthetic and setting, and trust me, it will definitely cover some zombie apocalypse tropes. State of Decay, however, is something genuinely unique in a genre of games that are desperate for something unique. It’s a survival game with a heavy sense of “real.” Melee weapons degrade, your characters grow tired, and death is a permanent punishment for messing up. It’s an ingenious little experiment in the genre, and it’s a type of experiment that frankly really could only come from the indie scene.

The game opens up very simply, with Marcus Campbell and his buddies being attacked by zombies. There’s no drawn out setup or opening cut-scene; you and your friend just have to straight up deal with zombies. Tree branch in hand, you clobber away and help your buddy out. From there on, you sneak through the woods and are watching every corner. Making sure to stay quite as well as avoid being spotted by the undead. You move as methodically as you possibly can, trying to scavenge resources as well as look for other survivors. But it’s once you move into the main town that the meat of the game begins. Before long you’ve (hopefully) amassed a group large enough to make yourself feel comfortable tackling the apocalypse.

State of Decay’s directionless opening may turn some people off, but it’s a significant change of pace from how modern day games spin their narratives. The game is more about player-driven storytelling than the plot Undead Labs has created. Because it’s a sandbox, infusing a sense of reality into its gameplay systems creates an experience that can become intense out of nowhere if you aren’t prepared for it. Deaths in the mission are a constant threat, but it’s going to be organic screw ups that truly make the experience memorable.

When one of your prized crew members dies it can be a soul-crushing moment. In one such instance, one of my characters was coming back home after a mission, only to have the vehicle I was using break down. In this game world, running over zombies often does damage the vehicle, and I had already alerted a large pack of zombies. With what little shotgun shells I had left, I valiantly fought them off for as long as I could while trying to make a run for it. But you have a stamina bar in State of Decay, so of course you can’t sprint for miles. To make matters worse, if you use one character for too long without switching, they will grow tired and hungry. In this case, Marcus was already exhausted from the mission. Miles away with no help in sight and down to my last shotguns shells, I watched as that horde of zombies ripped Marcus in half.

This wasn’t part of a scripted mission; it was a product of my own mistakes. I could have easily switched characters before I went out or I could have run over less zombies. Instead, I chose to be aggressive (because running over zombies is hilarious) and that ultimately cost me one of my key party members. It’s a player driven narrative without the facade you get from the likes of Mass Effect or something like 999. Yes, there are systems and choices in those games that allow you to personalize those experiences, but ultimately you’re still playing someone else’s story. In State of Decay, the game world is the canvas, your controller is the mighty pen, and the gameplay is the writing.

That’s not to say there isn’t some structure to the game, as much as that structure is very loose. There are main story missions, but the story is minimal in its execution. Marcus and the group obviously want a way out of town, and of course there are some military guys you’ll cross paths with to find out how to get out of dodge, before (yeah, you guessed it) a final mission where you’re trying to get out. Very basic stuff, and none of the NPCs really stick out as anything memorable. The Wilkersons are scumbag gunrunners whom you try to tolerate, the cops in a nearby town come off like cliché post-apocalypse cops, and at some point you help a couple. The animations in these scenes are stilted and kind of take you out of it, but ultimately all these pieces are there just to give the game world some flavor.

The sandbox you play in comprises of two major towns, a cabin area, farms across side roads, and a festival area you see a little later in the game. You’ll be driving back and forth through many of these areas to complete missions or scavenge for supplies. Because the game world is relatively large, you can also move your home-base. Benefits can include things like larger sleeping areas if your party gets too big. Stuff like that actually has an impact on the game as characters have moods. They can become nervous, suicidal, crazy, or exhausted without even having gone on missions.

And just because you stop playing doesn’t mean the game world stops. State of Decay is a persistent experience. When you come back, your party members will go through supplies you have collected and react to their current situation. Large stretches away from the game could lead to coming back to a one of your party members going insane and shooting up some of your other characters. Some may find that kind of gameplay exhausting, but I found it to be an incredible asset to the experience, at least in theory.

For all of State of Decay’s wonderful game systems, it does have some glaring drawbacks. Vehicles do break down and can’t be abused without them exploding. However, it is a viable tactic to use and abuse a vehicle quickly, get out of it, and move on to another car, or avoid running over zombies, and only focus on zombie killing with vehicles when the mission demands it. This can take a lot of the tension right out of the experience, as being that conservative is highly effective, and if you make it a priority to scavenge early and often and ignore missions, you can easily stockpile enough supplies so that no character will have a mental break down.

Most of them will be a little scared, but that’s something a quick “take them out on a mission and kill zombies” can easily fix. In theory, moving your home base from the initial church area is supposed to be a product of looking for better defenses. But if you build the right assets, that church area is rarely under any significant attack, especially if you have been scavenging enough ammo and weapons. State of Decay’s largest issue isn’t about how frustrating the game can be, but more so that it’s too easy to take advantage of it, making it a far easier survival game than you want it to be.

Mechanically, some players might find the game a little janky. Because these aren’t typical action game heroes, the movement is stiffer than what you get from modern day third-person games. Only a few of them are really all that accurate with a gun, and weapons will have recoil that your character might not be able to handle. It does add to the game as it keeps the “keep it real” theme going, but it can also take away from the raw entertainment of just shooting zombies. Personally, it’s all about the melee kills: brutal, gory, and all kinds of satisfying. All of this is tied to RPG-esque leveling systems: the more you shoot – the better that character gets with a gun. The more you run – the quicker your cardio goes up, allowing you to sprint longer. Most of it works fine, but no amount of improvements to the shooting makes the pistols any more consistent. Most of them are just outright weak. But then again, it’s all about axing zombie heads off.

State of Decay may not be enough for people tired of the zombie game, but to dismiss it as any other zombie game would be to debase the game from what it actually is. This is a survival game in the purest sense of the word. Yes, once you learn the game’s ins and outs it becomes easy to take advantage of, but the systems in place make State of Decay something truly unique in a genre that absolutely needs a game like this. It may not be as well engineered as a game like The Last of Us, nor will it ever feel as human, but it’s a stark contrast to how Naughty Dog or any other triple-A studio handles the zombie apocalypse. That alone makes it something worth playing, and the fact that it’s a good game doesn’t hurt, either.

Final Score – 7/10

 

 

Editor’s Note: I got my copy of Metro Last Light with my graphics card. Because of this, I didn’t get to play the game on the Ranger difficulty, which is pre-order DLC. I am not paying for a difficulty mode. With that said, here is my review on the game without Ranger mode.

The outside world that was once inviting is now a dreadful wasteland. What were once playgrounds for the next generation are but a grim reminder of all that humanity has lost. Grand monuments are but rubble, and the air has become far too harsh to breathe. A gas mask is required to even venture outside, and a gun is a necessity if one is to survive. And if you’re down to your last few rounds, it can be a frightening experience. Hordes of fierce mutants claw at you, shattering your gas mask and clouding your vision. Blood splatters all over the glass, and thick patches of dirt get in the way of any desperate shot you can line up. All the while you’re progressively suffocating and holding on to your last breath to find one last filter, one last glimmer of hope for survival.

It’s these moments that end up being the highlight of Metro Last Light, and when the game feels like it has truly clicked from top to bottom. In many ways, Last Light is much like its predecessor, 2010’s Metro 2033. It’s an Eastern-European first person shooter that’s more in the vein of modern day corridor shooters than some of the more inspired works like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or Cryostasis. Make no mistake about it though; like 2033, this is a game that feels appropriately foreign. Yes, if you play the English dub you will find some poor attempts at Russian accents, and enough of a westernized take on Nazis for the sake of not offending anyone.

In between all that though, there is something incredibly authentic about how the game handles so many other elements of that Russian heritage. It’s a representation of communism that could only come from a group of people who actually understand it, even down to the brand of humor one would find in most communist readings. It’s also the tone of the game that makes Metro a different beast from its contemporaries. The way the game paces itself, the way the game expresses its brand of melancholy and dread, and its themes are all Russian in look, feel, and execution.

Unlike 2033 however, Metro Last Light is a more accomplished game from top to bottom. Throwing knives no longer feels like an agonizing game of roulette, a close quarters stealth kill is not missing this time by, and the gunplay is snappier and more accurate from weapon to weapon. Some of 2033’s more interesting characteristics are lost in translation here, but so are majority of frustrating aspects of that game. Sneaking around meticulously is smoother and more realized on a mechanical level. You no longer feel like the game is robbing you of your well executed play as you did in some of the more infuriating segments of Metro 2033.

Of course these mechanical improvements have their own drawbacks. Because sneaking around is so much easier, and your arsenal of weapons and actions are better realized, the encounter design is frankly unjustifiable. The enemy AI in these segments behaves in foolish ways even on the hardest difficulty, and rob the game of any tension the stealth segments might provide. In one instance I encountered, a guard found a dead body I left over and alerted everyone on patrol in that area. In most cases this is the beginning of a major shoot out, but I held my ground and watched as all the guards danced around the map, moving from cover to cover, and checking their corners back and forth. Surely a few of them had to see me. In fact, one was sitting almost right next to me, but the game didn’t acknowledge it.

These moments aren’t just immersion breaking; they also point out how much you can get away with. There are far too many sequences where one can be standing right in front of the enemy, and the game arbitrarily deems you hidden. Too often it feels the game is more about celebrating its impressive lighting engine, and less about executing tense gameplay encounters. And the added accuracy of weapons, on top of them being silenced, can cripple any concept of challenge. Because of this it’s also easy to save up ammunition, which is the currency in the game, and since Ranger mode was pre-order DLC, some players may not have the option to play the game the way it might have been intended.

In between all that, you have some excellent encounters, like the aforementioned surface levels, as well as other throw-downs with mutants in the Metro. Some players may not enjoy the spongy nature of these enemies(on Hardcore difficulty), but given the arsenal they feel appropriately intimidating. They are rather idiotic enemies like their human counterparts, but far more menacing and threatening, and all of these enemy types do offer a sense of variety. One such enemy requires you to use your flash light to blind it to give you an opening at its weak spot, while another requires you to constantly stay on the move as you try to break through its outer shell, and humans themselves provide a reprieve from this tense action by taking things slower and allowing you to sneak around.

It’s all paced very well, unlike most corridor shooters of its ilk. While the game is a very linear experience, moving you from one gameplay scenario to the next, it doesn’t feel monotone, nor does it rely only on its enemy types to keep it varied. You’ll often find yourself in hub worlds where you are meant to soak in the atmosphere and setting. The game is as much about place as it is about play. Some of these levels do feel like sight-seeing tours instead of organic environments, but it’s a level of characterization that is easily appreciated over your journey, if only because it creates a series of peaks and valleys throughout the flow of the game.

Narratively, 4A games had decided to make the “Artyom kills all the Dark Ones” ending of 2033 cannon. For those unaware, there was an alternative ending where that doesn’t happen. Last Light picks up some time after that as a newly discovered young Dark One is found, which Artyom’s ranger comrades want killed off as the Dark Ones were such a major threat in 2033. While the game makes subtle attempts at conveying Artyom’s guilt over this genocide, it rarely ever amounts to much. Most of the narrative has Artyom searching for this creature, as well as dealing with the multiple factions vying for control in the Metro.

The primary antagonists end up being human enemies, and the larger plot progression revolves around their attempts at taking over. The final showdown comes down to one impressive onslaught between Artyom’s Rangers and this rival faction. Yet the game does make attempts at asking if humanity is actually worth saving. Or is evolution taking its course and it should be The Dark Ones that are ready to populate the earth? You know, the typical stuff you would expect in an apocalyptic setting. Some character exchanges are entertaining in their own right (I quite enjoyed the 3 Musketeers references), but others fall flat. The first major female character of the series is far too cliché to be worthy of any interest. She starts as your typical no-nonsense soldier who doesn’t trust the protagonist, but eventually becomes a contrived love interest responsible for a pretty tacky and groan-inducing nipple slip.

As previously mentioned, the lighting engine in this game is highly impressive. 2033 wasn’t short on atmosphere, but it’s easily bested by Last Light’s superb visual direction. Shadows are richer now, and dark as can be, providing an actual asset to the stealth gameplay. The way the lightning quickly flashes and shows you ghosts of the past is both frightening and spectacular all at once. Metro’s dilapidated Moscow is a consistent vision on a visual level, the highlight of which is still the surface world, more specifically a swamp area. It all creates a setting that feels unique in ways most post-apocalyptic settings never do.

Plenty of videogames on the market have remarkable visual direction, and use bloom lighting to highlight some jaw dropping scenery, but very few of them feel like the visual direction has a purpose. Metro Last Light isn’t one of those games. The lighting engine is as much an asset to gameplay as it is to showcasing technical prowess. The detail for each pixel in the environment adds to the atmosphere and characterization of Metro’s take on a ruined Moscow.

Some fans of the original game will be disappointed that the fragility and resource management of Metro 2033 have been compromised by Last Light’s mechanical improvements. Even more should be disappointed with some of the more bombastic gameplay scenarios that clash with the more subdued tone of the game, such as a “boss fight” like encounter with a Tank that just comes off as illogical, and of course the modern-day action game trope that is the speeding train level.

On the other hand, the mechanical improvements make for a competent and confident game from top to bottom. The surface levels that were the best segments of 2033 are still the high points of Last Light. The setting is visually striking, and illustrated very well. The gameplay overcomes its AI drawbacks with some respectable pacing. It’s a linear corridor shooter executed in a manner that I wish more corridor shooters were. It may be ultimately lacking, but Last Light is proof to me that 4A games is well on their way to making something truly special.

Final Score – 7/10

The Last of Us-1

The conventional wisdom these days is that AAA games can't take risks. Too expensive to risk alienating anyone, the stunning environments, art direction, and explosion-laden spectacles of these titles don't sum up to anything beyond their parts. Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2 may have represented the best and worst of this kind of game. Solid action and great writing made for a fun game, but the two parts made for a dissonant whole. Endless action and piles of corpses didn't seem to affect the story of Nathan Drake and his companions. Naughty Dog's latest game, The Last of Us, proves that they understood their earlier failings, and corrected them without compromising their strengths.

So many of its triumphs seem like they should be no-brainers for games this expensive; dialog that values character over plot, where we are trusted enough to read emotions between the words and expressions of the cast; pacing that believes we can be as enthralled by scavenging empty cities as we are by explosions and gunfire; presentation through UI, camera, and mercifully limited trophies which never gets in the way of what's going on to remind us of how many people we've killed with our pistol. The Last of Us nails these smaller things without failing to provide thrilling action scenarios that fit the game's grim context. At its best, it proves that the shooter can tell a meaningful story anchored by authentically human characters without losing any of the tension and excitement that draw people to the genre.

The Last of Us introduces us to its world with remarkable efficiency. We quickly find ourselves in the shoes of Joel, a man living in a quarantine zone in Boston 20 years after a fungal outbreak started turning people into feral zombies. He lives on the margins of legitimacy, smuggling goods in and out of the zone to guarantee enough food and weapons to survive. Joel and his partner in crime, Tess, are ruthless people who won't hesitate to kill or torture anyone between them and their rightful loot. The combat reflects this. Joel often has the element of surprise on his side, and while the player can avoid some encounters, they are just as often encouraged to eliminate those in their way.

An encounter often begins by sneaking up on an isolated hunter and grabbing them from behind. “Don't do anything stupid,” he might protest, struggling, your arm tight around his neck, a pistol possibly pointed at his temple. It doesn't matter what he says. Each choke-out lasts agonizing seconds; the better to feel his pulse, rumbling through the controller, die away as he grasps for one last hope; the more to sweat the possibility of discovery, of the controlled hunt turning into an anarchic brawl.

The Last of Us 2

When spotted, messy stealth turns to messy pragmatism. You use a flying brick to stun a hunter, setting them up for a brutal finishing blow. His friends rush towards you until you draw your gun, where they retreat to cover. Human foes are patient and cautious when they can afford it. Those that can't, like those armed with mere pipes or planks, tend to be more reckless. One such foe can be taken down by a wavering headshot or some well-timed haymakers. But with the threat of enemy reprisal, and no regenerating health cushion, running and gunning often gets you killed. It's best to fall back, break line of sight, and search for a new line of stealth attack as enemies hunt for your new location. Those drawn out games of cat and mouse, as I waited around corners and behind doors for enemies to leave themselves open, or tried to line up one last bullet for one last headshot, provided a tightrope tension to normal encounters that I haven't felt in a game in a long time. It's a shooting game that doesn't want the player to get shot or waste bullets, and that invests every single foe with significance and potential threat. Battles against infected enemies can sometimes be more frustrating to manage, but their relentless pursuit and deadly attacks ratchet the tension up even further.

Strong as both combat and storytelling are, they don't gel perfectly right away. The Last of Us is low on tutorials, but it takes its time introducing mechanics and characters. Soon, Joel is off on his own escorting a young girl, Ellie, across America. They talk, they solve simple navigation puzzles involving finding a tool to cross a nearby gap, they scavenge supplies to make medkits or molotovs, they fight some humans or infected. But sometimes, there isn't much room to mix approaches between action and stealth. Other times, particularly during a lengthy trip through Pittsburgh, the game feels bogged down by the basic narrative movement of “reach point A”. When Ellie sighs about yet another wooden pallet ride across a small body of water, the player feels her frustration, and not in a good way. It's still a very strong game at these times, but it's merely another beautifully presented and written action game that leaves the player a little more time to breathe than most.

The Last of Us 3

It was in its final third that the game truly surprised me. At first, the game is very much Joel's story, with Ellie sitting as an accessory on the sidelines. She is your escort, and while she's no naïve flower, it's easy to compare her at first with Elizabeth from Bioshock Infinite, down to her seeming invisibility to enemies. She wants to make herself useful in their journey, but Joel keeps her at a distance. Love is a risk he can't take, because he knows what it will do to him. But it's not an act he can keep going forever.

Joel and Ellie's deepening familial bond pushes them to do things they'd never have done at the beginning of the game. Crisp jumps forward in time make the maturation of these characters more believable, and we see how love and survival transform them. All the excellent character work at the start of the game allows Naughty Dog to trust the player's attachment to this pair, and the player's recognition of their bond with each other. They know when to lean on our sympathy with the protagonists, and when to twist it oh so carefully against us. It's a master class in design, marrying the minimalist emotional thrust of a Team Ico title with more conventionally complex mechanics and encounters. The environments get larger, resources are strained tighter, and the player's expectations are thrown back in their face. It's about as good as games get, ever.

The very last stretch might not hit these highs, but that makes that portion merely great, instead of one of the best gaming experiences of the generation. And the ending doesn't fall to cheap melodrama to compromise any of the complexities of Joel and Ellie's relationship, presenting the characters as they are, and forcing the player to fill their shoes instead of making easy choices. It ends as strongly as it begins.

The Last of Us 4

The Last of Us is smart in a world starved of high budget games that have the audacity to be truly brilliant. It's a game worth celebrating. If this is what's possible on our well-aged current generation technology, if designers can learn the right lessons from Naughty Dog's achievement, then maybe there is a light in the darkness for AAA games.

Final Score - 10/10