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Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Review of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands

Tiny Tina’s WonderlandsIf you’re a fan of Borderlands, or just looking for a good dungeon crawler to play, then Tiny Tina’s Wonderland is the game for you.

Although it may seem like a simple reskin of Borderlands 3, there are plenty of new features and improvements that make this game worth playing. The shooting and looting loop is as fun as ever, and the humor is much more consistent than in the previous game.

However, if you’re getting bored of Borderlands’ formula, then I wouldn’t recommend picking up Wonderlands. The structure of the game has barely changed since the original Borderlands, so it might not be what you’re looking for.

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If the notion of a “What if Borderlands, but with D&D rules!” sounds strangely familiar, that’s because it does. Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep was a DLC expansion for Borderlands 2 based around the same concept, and this is a near-direct follow-up set after. In fact, Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep: A Wonderland’s One-Shot Adventure has just been re-released as a standalone title. It doesn’t matter whether you play it or not; you’ll know what’s going on without playing it.

Of course, let’s start with the basics; Tiny Tina, along with two of her friends named Valentine and Frett, has crash-landed on a planet while waiting for rescue. Tina decides to bring out Bunkers & Badasses, a role-playing game with a lot of weapons that just happens to be set in the Wild West. Tina creates her own campaign in which you must fight the malevolent Dragon Lord, as voiced by Arnett, the voice of Batman from the Lego Batman movie, as a nameless rookie. How do we know he’s bad? He chops off the magnificent, most amazing, and prettiest pony’s head in all of existence: Queen Butt Stallion. The bad guy has to die clearly.

I had hoped that Wonderlands would be more edgy and dark in its humor, avoiding the subjects that the Borderlands series is known for. There’s always been a dark comedy lurking behind the fart jokes and insanity in Borderlands. Tiny Tina, for example, is a hilarious illustration of this; she’s a completely broken kid who had undergone an immense amount of trauma and wound up dealing with it by adopting a mad persona.

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Over time, the more tragic aspect of Tiny Tina has been pushed into the background, and in Wonderlands, it’s barely even addressed; nevertheless, despite the coarse humor, there are no curse words. That’s because, unlike all previous Borderlands games that have received an M rating, Wonderlands gets a Teen rating.

Let’s be honest here: an age rating on a video game doesn’t immediately improve the writing and humor. The idea of Wonderlands being rated Mature doesn’t make it any more funny, but it does limit the jokes somewhat. The writers themselves poke fun at it several times, noting that the hundreds of Pirates you encounter drink Soda, not rum. In my opinion, the game does not feel as much like a full-fledged Borderlands game as it does previous entries in the series. It also lacks some of the same trademark humor that has been characteristic of this franchise since its inception. With more cooperative play and less focus on exploring, Tiny Tina’s Wasted Potential is a far better fit for younger gamers than its predecessors were. As a long-time Borderlands fan, I did miss the black comedy and adult jokes in this release. The game is rude and crass, which was where much of my enthusiasm for it stems from.

But the good news is that despite the ESRB’s rating, the writing is far superior to Borderlands 3’s cringe-inducing efforts, although it still falls short of the highs set by its predecessors. The tone is lighthearted and enjoyable, and most of the jokes land favorably, however, there’s a feeling that the writers are just flinging joke after joke at you without giving you any rest. The story is also a little on the self-referential side, cramming in subtle and not-so-subtle references to just about everything from the Monkey Island games to role-playing clichés. It relies on it a little too much, though, forgetting that referring to anything isn’t humorous in and of itself.

Tiny Tina is in top form as the insane, erratic, and loud Bunker Master. Ashley Birch provides the voice of Tina once again, and her role as Aloy in Horizon: Forbidden West was somewhat flat. She puts everything into voicing Tina and would have fooled me if I hadn’t known beforehand that she was playing both parts.

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Tina is likely to be as divisive as ever. Her wild behavior, loudness, and tendency to end every statement with a YELL can be quite charming and amusing, or totally irritating. Her voice plays a crucial role in the Bunker Master’s job of narrating activities and even altering the planet in front of your eyes. If you found her annoying in the past games, you may wish to skip Wonderlands entirely or just lower the volume. However, if you’re one of the many people who find her distinct brand of insanity charming, this game is for you.

Valentine and Frett are secondary characters who appear in and out, parodies of D&D players. Although Valentine isn’t the brightest knife in the drawer, he is a fan of the idea of being a hero, and he is more guided by his emotions than Frett, the Robot. These two reconciling their two very different approaches provides a great lesson for all D&D players: there’s a time for rules and a time for winging it.

Overall, I had a lot of fun with Wonderland’s narrative, and I especially liked the Dragon Lord, who gets a lot of words and backstory. Arnett seems to be having a blast voicing the character, and it shines through in all of his lines. What I’m trying to say here is that the tale accomplishes its purpose; it provides a bare minimum of plot explanation for everything while also eliciting a chuckle or two, such as when Torgue violently destroys the entire ocean.

The artists and animators who have stretched their abilities and raided the color box appear to have benefitted from the D&D concept. The settings are vibrant, colorful, and full of fascinating views of ransacked pirate ships or villages that have been lifted into the air by a magic beanstalk. There are several interesting elements in the levels, as well as some enjoyable opponents. Enemy variety is insufficient for the game’s scope; basic skeletons make up the majority of it.

The game surprisingly ran well on my Ryzen 4800 and the aged but still kick-ass GTX 1080. I had everything turned up to maximum, and I didn’t notice any significant framerate drops. The only problem I encountered was stuttering in windowed mode, which the game would occasionally switch to when first starting it up.

This is a Borderlands game through and through, with all the same drawbacks and strengths as its predecessors. This ends up being just as much of a liability as it is a benefit because, on the one hand, the shooting is still lots of fun and the weapons feel fantastic to use. After that, you’re probably going to die a few thousand times over. It is highly unlikely that you will survive the entire campaign on your first try (or even attempt). But hey! You may still have fun with a game like this if you put in the effort, and I’ll show you how further on. What awaits during your journey through Unholy Heights? There are thousands of skeletons and pirates and other cannon fodder who will happily charge at you with all the intellect of a goldfish attempting to solve a math problem, eager to be shot down amid a barrage of colors, explosions, and special abilities. There are still mountains of guns to loot and analyze. There are still heaps of pop-culture nods, dumb jokes, and nonsense for you to read and chuckle with.

Given the plethora of fantasy cliches, I was a little disappointed that Gearbox stayed true to their guns. In fact. You could be fighting goblins, climbing beanstalks, and battling an evil Dragon Lord while wielding an assault rifle or a shotgun, in general. A few weapons get a little more glamorized, such as pistols with crossbow parts or a shotgun with a bubbling cauldron of crystals, but I believe there was much more space for Gearbox to go creative and embrace the fantasy element rather than sticking to the franchise’s usual style. A handheld trebuchet that shoots flails perhaps?

The guns are still enjoyable to use, and they’re well-balanced. There is no longer a way to improve weapons, so if you find something you like, it will certainly be discarded after an hour or two, but with so many different gun models shot at your face, you’ll undoubtedly discover something else to fill the huge hole in your heart. Then wielding that boomstick to kill stupid opponents is satisfying, stress-relieving fun.

The new spell system adds a little bit of variety to the mix by swapping out grenades for spells. You may loot a wide range of magic abilities, such as meteoric fireballs or intense auras, in this D&D reskin. It’s not like these additions provide much gameplay value; it’s simply another ability with a Cooldown. However, throwing out spells is still enjoyable, and when combined with your class’ specialty, it provides you with lots to do. If you pick the spell-casting class, you can really hurl magical projectiles quickly, and even equip two spells at once.

In terms of class distinction, things have gotten a few improvements, owing to the fact that you no longer pick a predetermined character with a fixed class. When creating your own custom character, you may select from six different classes, but you can also adopt a second class later on. It’s not feasible to max out both skill trees since you only have so many skill points available, but it’s a lot of fun to mix and match your skills. Then, near the end of the game, you may swap out the secondary skill tree at any time to play around with it. I really like this alteration to the system because it allows for a lot more experimenting and varied play styles in terms of whether you want to go after elemental damage or buff spells or concentrate on your companion dishing out more hurt.

There has also been an effort to improve the melee combat. You may now obtain new swords, hammers, and axes with their own characteristics and special perks, and the fighting skills have a slew of bonuses for hitting people in the face. Actually, I believe that constructing a totally melee build is feasible. However, that would be a pretty boring way to play because there’s just one button for striking things, so doing so for 15+ hours is probably going to get monotonous. Plus, in a series about stockpiling weapons like some sort of military dragon, why would you want to?

The strict adherence to the Borderlands game template is perhaps the most significant problem with this, as we saw in the first game and which has barely changed in the years since. It’s a little vexing that Gearbox hasn’t advanced their quest-making methods for decades, despite the fact that so many games have come and gone. The story’s writing team does a fantastic job of disguising the tasks with interesting themes or concepts, such as when Tiny Tina is attempting to complete a quest while Valentine and Frett are distracted by an unimportant NPC. These portions are fantastic, and most of the side missions are good, but I found myself growing bored with the same basic structure over and over again. There aren’t any. It would have been nice to include a few surprising pieces or turns to make things seem new and exciting, but there aren’t any. I get the impression that I had a good time playing Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, yet I can’t recall anything in particular.

The new overworld, like the previous games, is constructed similarly to that of classic D&D campaigns. It acts as a connecting link between all of the objectives and is full with ruins and dungeons to explore. Your character’s head becomes a bobblehead; there are shortcuts to discover and even a few abilities that allow you to return and access previously inaccessible locations or collect special loot dice that boost your chances of finding valuable gear. The new Combat Encounters are self-contained arenas full of monsters to fight, essentially condensing the whole Borderlands concept into a few rounds of combat. I enjoy some of the smaller overworld elements, such as fallen Cheetos serving as barriers or soda rivers that neatly convey the idea that the overworld is a genuine D&D map. It can’t be denied that the overworld adds nothing to the game in and of itself; after all, it’s just a hub world with a different camera angle – but I still appreciated its inclusion for what it was.

The shooting and looting in Borderlands have always been its two major pillars. The first game was advertised as containing “millions” of weapons, and that number has only increased thanks to the game’s ability to combine distinct parts to create new bullet-spewing equipment. Most of the time, this implies minor statistical variances and elemental properties, but it’s not uncommon for it to produce interesting results. There are also the new legendary items, such as a screaming Banshee blade or the Queen’s Crey, which can call frost meteors. Hunting down valuable loot, obtaining slightly superior gear that fits your build, and the thrill of a Legendary emerging from a chest are all as pleasurable, gratifying, and addicting as they’ve ever been.

However, when it comes to the rainbow showers of weapons, armors, abilities, and trinkets, I must confess that Borderlands has gone a bit too far. With the introduction of lootable spells, armor, and cosmetics there’s now more gear than ever before coming from foes and chests alike; all offering minute changes in stats. I soon found myself ignoring almost all of it, only pausing to investigate the purples and legendaries, and maybe the odd blue. The rest remained on the floor, like a carelessly discarded handful of Skittles destined to be thrown away. I don’t believe there will be that many die-hard fans who will go through every single drop, but I feel like the typical person would be similar to me and overlook the bulk of it, in order to save hundreds of hours of their life. Perhaps I’ll be alone with this viewpoint, but I think Gearbox needs to reel down the loot a little so that it starts to seem valuable again.

I’m really not a fan of how the game manages cosmetics. It’s nice that bad guys constantly drop new tattoo designs and colors for your custom character to use. However, it is aggravating to have them take up room in your inventory if you do not remember to go in and open them.  All this in mind, cosmetic collections are a waste of time and money. When you have hundreds or thousands of cosmetics, they take up a lot of room until you finally toss them out. It’s an ill-advised game design that takes away essential inventory space in a game all about hoarding things like a rampaging vacuum cleaner. The obvious answer is that cosmetics should be added straight to your collection. Simple, right?

It’ll take you 10-15 hours to finish the game, and if you want to complete the numerous side-quests and challenges that dot the overworld and major areas, it’s certainly going to be double that. There’s a decent amount of end-game content after that, in which you may participate in the Chaos Chamber fights. These are a sequence of arena fights against a variety of foes, with curses and blessings being picked up between rounds. A currency is gained during the journey that may be used to obtain loot, with new kinds of gear not seen in the rest of the game appearing along the way. It’s a fantastic method to extend gameplay time without detracting from the overall experience.

Conclusion

Borderlands 3 is a fantastic addition to the series, with more shooting and looting than ever before. Although there may be too much loot for some players, the game still offers an enjoyable experience that can last for dozens of hours. The end-game content is also well-done, providing extra challenges and rewards for players who want to keep playing after finishing the story. Whether you’re a fan of Borderlands or not, this game is sure to please.

Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands
Overall rating: 3.5 star
Available On: PC, Playstation & Xbox
Developed By: Gearbox

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is Manipulative and Perfect

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I played Brothers: A Tale of Two sons over a month ago. I sat down on a Saturday afternoon, looking for a break helping my kids cram a month’s worth of science project research into a single weekend. I had no clue what kind of experience I was in for. I thought it was just a cutesy game about two brothers, which you control simultaneously, where you spent a few hours overcoming obstacles, got a happy ending, and then forgot about the game forever.

About three hours later I sat, dumbfounded, as the credits rolled. I don’t know precisely how to frame what this game is, but I do know there is no other game of any kind or length that had me from the word go and wouldn’t release me until it was finished with me rather than I with it. Forgettable it is not.

The question becomes how to describe what makes it so unique and so special. The game, at its core, is horribly manipulative. It’s also heartfelt and full of wonder and sad and note perfect. I’ve put this post off for weeks because I simply do not know how to write about it. I don’t know how to do justice to what Starbreeze Studios has concocted.

After the break, I take my best shot in a deeper, rather spoilery dive…

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A Tale of Two Sons begins with the youngest of two brothers unable to save his mother from drowning in stormy seas. It’s emotionally charged, sure, but nothing we haven’t seen before. Fifteen minutes into most any Disney or Dreamworks animated movie and you’ve seen the introduction of a character who’s endured some kind of tragedy. Our protagonist must have inner turmoil, after all; doesn’t mean the rest of the tale isn’t filled with cotton candy and unicorns and snow princesses singing Let it Go. And even though, some time later, dear old dad is sick and the boys must go on a quest for a cure, what you see during the opening hour of the game is a full plate of sweet musings. The boys can interact with almost everyone on their way out of town, whether it’s to stop and pet a friendly cat or to tease the drunkard on the bench or give the local bully his just deserves. It’s all innocent.

Then you hit the troll caves and some of them are nasty, but you help a couple of them out and they’re nice to you and, hand-in-hand, they help see you off for the next phase of your journey. This is all set up. It’s a very successful attempt to lull you into a false sense of security. At this point you know the game will have drama, but you’ll face it head on, overcome some clever puzzles that make you feel smarter than you actually are, and everything will be wonderful. Because that’s the script we all know. We’ve seen and played it a hundred times already. And whether it’s brother The Older assuring brother The Younger that he holds no blame over him for their mother’s death, or the rescue of a young girl, or a wild aerial ride on a hang-glider, it offers the perfect balance of tension followed by wonder, followed by achievement and warm fuzzies. It does these things for one reason and one reason only — so it can take it all away.

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By the time you reach the climax of the boys’ journey, you begin to sense the script changing. Deep down, as you drag your mortally wounded older sibling to a tree stump and leave him there, promising to return with aid, you know that this story has curdled. You just don’t want to know it and so you press on. You get the magic elixer. You return to the lifeless form of your brother and you believe with every fiber of your being that this will be when the sun comes back out and you both return to dad and you live happily ever after. It has to happen that way because anything else is unthinkable. And, ever so briefly, Starbreeze lets you cling to that notion. It lets you have your happy ending. Until it doesn’t. They’re taking the knife, the one they slid ever so carefully into your gullet, looking you dead in the eye, and giving it that extra twist. And they’re doing it just because they can; because they want to give you that brief sensation of warmth and comfort before they strip it all away again and leave you sitting on the cold, hardened earth.

Your return home offers no triumph, but it does offer you a glimpse at how The Younger has grown, the strength he has gained from his experience. It does so, brilliantly, through a single press of the gamepad trigger. It’s an act you perform a thousand times in the game. It’s reflex. But not here. Here it is loss and gain bittersweetly intertwined and it’s the only way to reach the end of the journey. But even here, Brothers isn’t done with you.

You’ve returned. You’ve overcome your fears and you’ve rescued dad. And your reward? A second gravestone and a broken father on his knees as you, in turn, stand above him. You’ve lost your mother, your brother, and by all given accounts your dad has checked out, so you’ve likely lost him too. And what have you gained?

Finding the message here isn’t easy. Life is hard, wear a helmet? There are certainly grounds to argue that this game is simply manipulative for the sake of being manipulative. But all narratives manipulate. The question is how effective is it? Guessing where it’s going before it gets there doesn’t mean it’s not effective. It just means you’ve got your smarty pants on. So, it’s tempting to ask, what exactly was the point of all this? Why would anyone want to subject themselves to it? I suspect the point is the same as in any tragedy — to feel.

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This is a sorrowful game, but it’s not a game about sorrow. It’s not even a game about loss, really. It’s about the importance of the journey. It’s about what people give to each other along the way. It’s about knowing how to feel and embracing that full spectrum of feeling. Life is not joy and it’s not sorrow. It’s disparate moments of both of those things spread across time, while mostly ranging in places in between.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is an opus that Starbreeze composes and plays expertly, without a missed beat or an off-tune note. It is one of the single most memorable games I have ever played and if you haven’t yet, even knowing what you know now, you should take the four hours out of your life to experience it. There is so much more to the measure of this journey than how it ends or in this quick summation of how it gets there. Take in the lives of these two brothers for yourself. Celebrate with them. Mourn with them. Remind yourself of what you know already — that the journey matters.

The Last of Us Spoiler Space

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If you listened to Episode 180 of Jumping the Shark, or if you have finished The Last of Us, you know that it’s close to impossible to discuss the game fully without giving away a significant amount of the game’s story. With that, and the desire of some community members to keep the discussion going in mind, consider this a full-on, spoiler filled discussion of The Last of Us. If you read this post, things will get spoiled. If you read the comments, things will get spoiled. You have been warned.

It took a couple of days for me to be able to stop thinking about The Last of Us. Some time around the side trip with Tommy the game changed for me. The combat got, I don’t know, better. Maybe I just had more resources or maybe I finally got a grip on it, but it felt like I could approach every encounter like a puzzle and figure out the best combination of tactics. That probably has as much to do with me realizing that it didn’t have to be just sneaking or just killing as it did the encounters themselves, but something changed.

That trip with Tommy also marked a change for me in that it showed me that the game wasn’t going to rely on the “typical” story beats. I’ll admit that the beginning couple of hours were incredibly predictable. Ellie is the key to the cure, Tess gets bit and dies, none of this was particularly new or surprising. Before setting out with Tommy, Tommy’s wife gives Joel the “don’t make me a widow” speech and I thought , “Oh here we go.” Of course, Tommy was going to die. Of course Joel would tell Ellie that he will bring her to the Fireflies because Tommy’s death has to MEAN SOMETHING.

Then, the game pulled a fast one on me. Ellie realized what Joel was doing and she split. Tommy and Joel went after her and not only did Tommy not die, but Joel quietly and without a big speech about responsibility and family and whatnot asked Ellie to get up on his horse and they left. That’s it. Nothing trite or cliche, just a character who, up until this point had been very selfish, doing a selfless thing.

The best part of that exchange isn’t that it didn’t fall into cliche, it was that it didn’t mark a Turning Point for Joel. Most games these days seem to think that bad people can continue to be bad as long as they’re on the receiving end of your bullets, but bad people that you play have to end up getting redeemed. I know I’m not Joel. I don’t need Joel to end up as a saint because of some inability to relate to people who aren’t perfect. Hell, I’m not perfect. I like my characters with a little dirt on them.

And make no mistake, there is no redemption for Joel in this game, which is in part why the ending stuck with me. Joel’s “selfless” act in the end was completely selfish. He went from being a guy who selfishly pushed away a scared child just so that he wouldn’t have to deal with the 20 year old death of his daughter to a man who selfishly rescued that same child from death simply because he didn’t want to lose that same daughter again. Now, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have done the same thing, but the thing about the ending that twists that knife is how he handles it after the fact.

Ellie was pretty clear with Joel that they had to get to the Fireflies because after the events with David, she had to know that the journey wasn’t for nothing. Ellie was in no position to tell Joel what she would have wanted as she was unconscious and being prepped for surgery but after the fact, Joel owed it to her to tell her the truth. Maybe she would have agreed with him, maybe she would have hated him, but whatever the case, after everything they had been through together, Joel should have treated her like an adult and told her what he had done but he didn’t. In the end, the selfish Joel who never wanted to shepherd this kid across the country lied to her, not because he wanted to protect her, but because he didn’t want to lose her. You could make the case that Joel was just protecting her, but Ellie had earned the right to decide for herself how she felt about the whole thing.

If I had to describe this game, I’d say that it’s better than the sum of its parts. The zombies were inconsequential, the AI was frequently dodgy the combat and stealth encounters early in the game made for some encounters as rote as the early story beats but by the end, I wanted to do nothing but play this game because I wanted to see what happened to these people. I wanted to see where this journey led Joel and Ellie and where it led me was disappointment, not in the game, but in the main character, a disappointment that hit hard and stung deep.

The Last of Us may not be the best game I’ve played this year or the best game on the PS3, that would be Fire Emblem: Awakening and Uncharted 2 respectively, but it’s a game that stuck with me a long time after the disc stopped spinning.

Hotline Miami (PSN) in Review

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This is how you’re supposed to be doing it.

It’s 3 A.M., I’ve got my headphones on and the 47” LED is searing my retinas in hot pink and turquoise neon, the title in scan-lined Russian letters like it’s bootleg contraband, hardcore violence porn from a world where only outlaws play outlawed violent video games. The music is turned up almost painfully loud, throbbing synth pulses from a 1989 that never existed except as a fantasy of unremembered nostalgia in the minds of musicians likely too young to have listened to music back then. I’m trying for either the 20th or the 100th time to complete a level of Hotline Miami, and I’m feeling totally wired, paranoid, cranked up really high and headed for a 19th nervous breakdown as I get gunned down again.

In another life, I split skulls and splatter gore everywhere, mind flashing back to the white suited apocalypse at the end of A Better Tomorrow II, thinking about how many times I’ve killed that dog and wondering if that Call of Duty dog will die this ruthlessly, cruelly, and without pity. I die again. Stupid mistake. Get up and go again. Is it just me or is the screen changing colors? Why does it all look crooked? I’ve never taken cocaine before, is this what it’s like? It’s how I imagine it. I don’t feel any pain when I die over and over again. I don’t really feel anything but DRIVE.

It hits me. I’m not working out a puzzle. I’m not watching guard patterns and learning the level. It’s not about learning a sequence or perfecting a series of moves. It’s not all in the wrist, reflexes are not being refined. The repetition starts to grate, and I realize the horror behind this video game.

I’m being programmed to get it right. I’m being programmed to lose all feeling and become a desentized 8-bit killing machine. I put on my mask, pick up a shotgun, and become a fucking monster.

And then a man in a cock mask asks at point-blank range, “do you like to hurt people?”. I pause. He’s not asking the top-down 8-bit Ryan Gosling on the screen. He’s asking ME. Music is hurting my ears at this point, it’s so loud. I’m staring at the screen, those fucking scanlines slicing up eyeballs. Well, do you, punk?

This is Hotline Miami’s Grand Statement About Video Game Violence, about all the Little Computer People we’ve murdered over and over again over all of these years. This is, or should be, Video Gaming’s Message to the World 2013 (or 2012 if you played it on PC, before it hit PSN). This is your argument, right here Roger Ebert (Kurosawa rest his soul), that games can be art, carry meaning, and comment on humanity. But this isn’t another bro-op AAA game disguising fucking MURDER FANTASY with Hollywood production values. There is no anti-hero bullshit obscuring the fact that the character you control is a psychopath. This is raw. It’s not “awesome” to kill people in this game. It’s pretty sick- by design.

I don’t know that there has ever been a more wretched, honest moment in a video game than when the character stops after the first massacre and vomits.

Yet it all remains remote, at arms length. The video game medium keeps us safe from the truths Hotline Miami is exposing us to, as we play. The deconstructed retro graphics and Lynchian narrative cryptograms give us safe distance from what this game is screaming at our faces. Many will play this game and think that its “bad ass”. Many will relish in its merciless, brutal bloodshed. But they’ll miss what this game wants to say to us.

As the highest paid developers in the video games industry continue to fail to find anything for us to do other than to kill things, Hotline Miami is like a blazing neon indictment of what we are psychically, digitally doing far too often when we play. Maybe the developers didn’t intend this, maybe they thought they were making nothing more than a bloody, violent, surreal old school indie action game with an incredible aesthetic sense. But even if they didn’t, the underpinnings remain.

Did I have fun playing Hotline Miami? Of course I did, the gameplay is awesome. But is it because I’ve been programmed to enjoy it? Or do I just enjoy hurting people?

Bass rumbles, my 2013 TV flickers like a 1983 set. It’s really too fucking loud. I should turn it down but I won’t. I should turn off the PS3 and go to bed but I won’t. Next level, new mask, weapon unlocked. I descend.

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Why The Last of Us Sucks

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Along technical criteria The Last of Us is a stunning entertainment product. The art direction is rugged, detailed, and presents a post-apocalyptic American civilization both in ruins and in the process of returning to nature. The character animation, modeling, and voice acting (coupled with an attention to body language) is damn close to the best in the industry, setting new benchmarks for the quality of human depiction in AAA design. The sound design is sparse, evoking a quieter world punctuated by the percussion of gunshots or the wet smack of a fist in the face. It’s not hard to be impressed by Naughty Dog’s production work, which may very well outstrip anything they’ve accomplished in the Uncharted games.

It’s really too bad that the rest of the game sucks.

To get at why, you’ve got to look past the portentously important Serious Themes of the game and the po-faced earnestness of it all. You’ve got to cut through a horde of affirmatively nodding, self-congratulating “game journos” tripping over themselves to connect this game somehow to Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – I guess it’s enough for them that there’s a guy and a kid that meet cannibals. Get past the sense that this is somehow supposed to be what a “great” video game looks like in 2013, and you’ll find little more than hackneyed, predictable setting and themes- which drag in elements from pretty much any post-apocalypse fantasy ever made from great examples like ”Children of Men”  to execrable ones like the Will Smith remake of “I am Legend”. There’s also a thick layer of tired, bedraggled zombie tropes weighing down the entire affair that should be exhausting even the most diehard fan of the subject matter.

But beyond the clichéd, expected scenarios and situations, the core of where The Last of Us fails the hardest, is that it’s just another turgid stealth/cover shooter that wouldn’t have been impressive on a gameplay level half a decade ago. I almost felt like the game was trying to make some kind of meta-joke at one point, when the characters walk into an area with carefully arranged waist-high walls. Or when I turned on the main character’s magical mutant hearing ability. I’m also not quite sure how anyone can miss that Ellie is just another version of Ashley. Between Enslaved, Bioshock Infinite, Amy (giggle)and The Last of Us, there still hasn’t been a game that has done the whole “escort the girl” thing better than Resident Evil 4, even if Ellie’s dialogue is far better than her ancestor’s.

It’s disappointing that a game that has such good dialogue and attention to detail falls back on routine shooting action, clumsy melee, sneaking, phony “exploration” and other completely generic and unremarkable simulations of brutality and violence.  You can pretend all you want that the game is about Serious Themes, but really it’s just another game about murdering people and shooting at fungus people to get to the next story-delivering cutscene . In a sense, it’s spiritually close to the “Mondo” films of the 1960s, that purported to be about educating audiences about world cultures…but they were really just exploitation films with plenty of sexual and violent content. It’s dishonest, and in the end the disconnect between the themes of the storyline and what you actually do in the game is vast. I’m still not quite sure how following somebody for five minutes while they ramble on and then helping them press the triangle button to get to the next area qualifies as “gameplay” anyway.

So instead of a game like Catherine, that uses a seemingly arbitrary puzzle game mechanic to metaphorically represent the character’s relationships, growth, and change, we have another game like Bioshock Infinite that wants to be about Serious Themes but fails because the designers can’t think of something better for you to do other than to rifle through drawers and shoot motherfuckers in the face.  This also completely upturns any sense of morality in the story, just as it does in the Uncharted games where Nathan “The Butcher” Drake is revealed to be a completely amoral, psychopathic one-man slaughterhouse.  The expectations of the video game audience are very different than those that passively watch a film or TV show. Video game players expect there to be action, and violent action at that. And that’s where the participation element is unfortunately focused in The Last of Us. It’s really too bad that the developers didn’t take a higher road. But I guess “a higher road” wouldn’t include a multiplayer mode.

Throughout the game, such as it is, I kept thinking about how powerful it would have been if Joel wasn’t a gun smuggler, that he was just a regular guy. Maybe somebody that turned to farming and a solitary lifestyle of peace after the zombie apocalypse. He could wind up with Ellie in a similar story, but instead of the core action being killing people and/or fungus men, the game would focus far more on evasion, ingenuity, problem solving, and developing the father-daughter relationship without the bloodshed. They didn’t get into gunfights with eight or nine bad guys at a time too much in The Road, did they?

The thing is, if The Last of Us were an unashamed, unpresuming VIDEO GAME- I wouldn’t mind so much. I love video games, and in particular games that revel in being in the medium. Left 4 Dead succeeded because it didn’t pretend like you paid admission to do anything other than shoot a bunch of zombies and holler at your friends. Resident Evil 4 is a game about shooting zombies in the face. It doesn’t pretend like it’s anything but that.  It is also squarely a video game focused on (great) gameplay, player engagement, and activity. There’s no somber appeal that it’s really all about parenting issues and dealing with loss. Shinji Mikami was never under any impression that Resident Evil 4 was in competition with movies and TV shows.

Don’t get me wrong- I want video games to reach for bigger, more literary themes. I like that developers are at least trying. The problem is that games like The Last of Us exist in this sort of twilight existence between game and film, and if games are to be successful as an artistic medium then it’s the unique-to-the-medium qualities of gameplay we should be looking at, and how that gameplay articulates context, subtext, and meaning. Not how those things are described by the production values, because if you put The Last of Us up to cinematic or literary comparisons then you are also holding it up to a much, much higher standard informed by films made by people like Kubrick, Tarkovsky, McCarthy, and hell, Shakespeare.  You are, at that point, no longer comparing the work to Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. “Good…for a video game…” no longer makes the grade.

Developers like Naughty Dog are doing it wrong, tacking the gameplay as a gating system for story progression in a “good… for a video game” CGI film. It should be the gameplay and the mechanics of gameplay that define the experience and tell us what it’s about.  It’s pretty telling that when you inconsequentially die from a random one-hit kill in the Last of Us, there is no “game over” screen. It’s a perfunctory, obligatory half-assed video game stuck into a routine zombie movie with stellar production values. That’s all there is to it.

Lots of people love this game, more power to ’em. I guess this formula works for some folks. For my part, I’m hitting the Wikipedia summary after six hours of play and realizing that I’m just really, really bored with the game. I don’t care enough about the plot to sit through another six hours of snooze-inducing stealth and man-shooting bookending dialouge scenes. I’ll read what happens in the plot (which I think won’t be much of a surprise) and then I’m going back to Guacamelee. Now, that’s a video game.