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Why The Last of Us Sucks

the last of us shot one

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.

Columbia Falls: Why Bioshock Infinite Sucks

BioShock Infinite

Last night, I was playing the much-ballyhooed Bioshock Infinite. I had rescued Elizabeth, a dead-on cross between a Disney princess and one of the kids from Akira voiced by someone that sounds straight out of drama school, from her towering monument. We wound up on a beach. Sunbathers relaxed in the warm, Maxfield Parrish-like glow that blankets virtually every visual in the game. It was a peaceful scene after a hectic action sequence. As I’ve done in System Shock 2, Bioshock, and Bioshock 2, I dutifully looted everything in sight. Right there on the beach, in a picnic basket, I found some machine gun bullets. Suddenly the world of the sky city Columbia- which is really described mostly through advertising posters and cute graphic design- fell apart and I was just playing another idiotic shooter with tedious looting, ho-hum gunplay, and pointless bloodshed that does nothing for the story but provide the player with something to do in between the movie parts.

Columbia fell apart again when I made it to the vaunted Hall of Heroes sequence that some have mentioned as a high point in the game. It’s a walk-through carnival exhibit/museum celebrating the military exploits of Columbia’s founder- who apparently took great liberties in embellishing his role in quelling the Boxer Rebellion and his participation at Wounded Knee. Suddenly- as former Gameshark writer Mitch Dyer once said- that this game wants to have Something to Say About America was literally blasting me in the face with far more deadly accuracy than any of the braindead AI thugs that routinely run up and try to bludgeon you while you shoot flocks of birds and rocket launchers at them. I suppose if I weren’t 37 years old and hadn’t already sorted out that America has a history of revisionism, hubris, bloodshed, and outright racism I might have been shocked or fooled into thinking that this supposedly ambitious, supposedly intelligent shooter had a profound or meaningful statement to make. But it doesn’t. Throughout the entire segment, I was all too aware that I was playing a video game trying far too hard to be meaningful or resonant. It comes across as silly, childish, and naïve. Like a fifteen year old telling you that the government is, you know, real bad man.

The politics are trite enough but the world of Columbia- and in fact, the entire game that is Bioshock Infinite- is a house of cards that completely collapses every time you dig through a trash bin to find a hot dog and some money or when you rob an ice cream shop’s cash drawer and the family eating there just sits, going through a repeated animation. Or when you walk around carrying a shotgun in a penny arcade and no one minds. And also when you do things like jump 50 feet in the air to hook a “sky hook” onto a latch and slide around on rails just like Samus did in the floating city that was in Metroid Prime 3. No review I’ve read has mentioned this similarity.

The problem is that so much attention to detail- even if it is facile, juvenile, and completely superficial- tricks the player into thinking that the frankly quite dated gameplay is something more than it actually is, and when the façade drops as video gamey concepts intrude (like a hat that gives you combat bonuses) what is revealed is a stunningly mediocre game with little actual substance. It looks incredibly expensive. It’s cosplay-ready. It apparently won 80 Major Awards before it was released according to one banner ad. Tom Chick’s negative review was flamed to hell. It’s one of the few recent games to hit the high 90s on Metacritic. So it has to be good, doesn’t it? Right?

Mind you, I loved Bioshock and I loved Bioshock 2 even more. Those games had Big Heady Themes too and they had some of the exact same mechanics. It’s not too hard to map the “vigors” to the “plasmids” if you want to compare the whole left hand magic thing, which is totally incongruous with this game’s setting. Those games were shooters as well, and so was System Shock 2. But those games knew their places, and they had more restraint. There was so much more subtlety and ambiguity rather than ambition and excess. They weren’t trying to shock you with OMG racism. The second Bioshock had one of the most profound statements about parenthood I’ve ever seen in a video game, and it also had some amazing tactical combat. The first game had atmosphere, mystery, and this incredible sense of aftermath. Bioshock Infinite has none of the above, even though it copies the much less interesting parts of its predecessors down the line. Without the more compelling qualities of the past games, it’s just a dumb shooter. Don’t kid yourself.

That anyone is finding the writing intelligent or thoughtful blows my mind. Last night, when I hit one of the big plot twists, I almost felt insulted that it was presented as one. Elizabeth bellowing “yeah, well, just because I want a puppy doesn’t mean I’m going to get one!” had me laughing. I mean, seriously. Who writes this shit? Haven’t we outgrown “this is great writing…for a video game” yet?

The violence is more evidence of this game’s stupefying immaturity. For the first 30 or so minutes of the game, I was kind of buying it and I was enjoying the process of discovery. The intro is very well done. There is a sense of revelation and wonder. But then, out of nowhere, I’m chopping some guy up with the sky hook and suddenly I’m a one-man butcher shop mowing down people. The sense of adventure and imagination is gone, replaced by dull slaughter. Every gunfight is dull as dishwater in the game, and even on the hardest difficulty there are no tactics or strategies required. The vigors are boring because they’re just the plasmids. I’m just shooting people because, well, that’s what you do in video games, right? And I say this as a person that likes shooters.

So Irrational has gone and done pretty much the same thing they’ve done since System Shock 2 with the only upgrades being budgetary or technical. Everything else feels like a downgrade. It’s a game rife with hubris and preposterous self-importance, desperately trying to hide that it’s just as shallow and meaningless as a Call of Duty campaign. Tonight will likely be my last night playing it before I look up the ending on Wikipedia and go back to playing Injustice, or possibly even firing up Metro 2033 to get ready for Last Light. I don’t know why I’ve given this game so many chances to validate itself. Maybe it’s because I can’t believe it’s been so widely praised. Or that so many people have been fooled into thinking that this game is anywhere near greatness.

Why I Think Borderlands 2 Sucks (But I Like It Anyway!)

Borderlands 2 is a terrible game design. It’s boring, tedious, repetitive, and it never actually rewards the player. It’s obviously a successful design because people continue to play and enjoy it. But can you really, honestly say that it’s a great video game?

Hold on angry internet mob, put the pitchforks and torches down and lemme finish. I like both Borderlands 2 and its predecessor quite a lot and I think Gearbox’s latest is an across-the-board improvement. They’re fun, casual games that don’t really require much focused commitment or involvement other than spending a lot of time futzing around with character builds and all those oodles of weapons. Playing with friends is neat because you can shoot the shit while you shoot the bad guys. I’m glad that improvements were made like dropping those restrictive weapon specializations and adding the Badass goals and bonuses, which hugely increases the gameplay- and challenge. But both Borderlands are absolutely terrible designs along a couple of different parameters.

The obvious ones are laid bare just by playing the game for an hour. The story is barely more interesting than the first one and the game world remains oddly barren, lifeless and remote, despite decent character writing that too often mistakes “attempts to generate memes” for “good”. Personally, I’m pretty tired of characters being little more than quest dispensers in any game. That’s an aspect of MMORPGs that has consistently chased me away.

Quests are somewhat improved, a couple of them are a little more thoughtful and I like that some have optional goals. But by and large, it’s the same post-MMORPG find-and-fetch or kill X number of Y kind of affair. It’s still boring as hell to drive way the hell out to a waypoint and trundle around looking for an item you’re supposed to retrieve while shooting a bunch of bad guys that pretty much just run at you.

The gunplay is rudimentary at best outside of picking which shooting implement to use at a given time. Playing a Gunzerker makes the game feel almost like a Serious Sam title. Despite class abilities, extended elemental effects, and more enemy variety than the first game it’s still pretty basic, undynamic shooting action that really isn’t all that much fundamentally different from Doom. Or Castle Wolfenstein 3D.

Further, there are no RPG elements in the game despite claims otherwise. Fiddlefarting over whether to sell Gun A that does X damage and has Y% of this effect or Gun B which does X+1 damage but doesn’t have that effect but another is not role-playing. Nor is shopping for new class abilities with your new XP-purchased skill point. Those things are micromanagement, not role-playing.

More discreetly, Borderlands 2 sucks for the same reasons that the first one did. It’s the same silly, ultimately pointess loot grab where 99 percent of the loot you find is either not as good as what you already have, it’s something to give away to another player, or it’s more or less worthless. Shops are stocked with the same kind of junk with the occasional daily deal there to tempt to you sell off your entire backpack. And don’t get me started on clicking on Pandora’s countless lockers and storage boxes. I don’t consider wandering around and picking up $2 and a pack of sniper rifle bullets over and over again to be gameplay and it’s definitely not great gameplay. I almost grimace when I see a bunch of green lights from a distance. I know I’ll go over there, collect my two dollars and sniper rifle bullets, and move on. Like a Pavlovian dog.

But it’s the leveling and character development that keeps you playing, right? That’s great, but the development curve and sense of progression in the game remains completely screwed up- it’s too long, drawn out, and rewards perseverance and grinding rather than good play and player skill-building. It takes like 10 levels to even unlock your character’s core class ability. Levels are few and far between, it seems, and it feels like you are constantly chasing a game-changing function that never materializes.

In fact, that kind of summarizes a lot of my complaints with how Borderlands 2 is designed. It’s a hamster wheel game. You’re constantly trying to advance or find a great new gun, but when you do either it’s rarely more than a minor, incremental change. I can’t believe they haven’t figured out a way to monetize this endless chase for something slightly better. Maybe Borderlands 3 will have you buy BorderBucks with your credit card to increase the odds of finding a purple weapon. But for now you can pay the entry fee and just keep running and opening boxes between bouts of shooting, blissfully ignoring how empty the game actually is.

Of course, with co-op partners, it doesn’t feel quite so much like that and bear in mind that most of my time with the new game has been solo, although I played through every piece of the first game with a steady group. We didn’t bitch too much about the design. We talked about movies, family, politics, whatever instead. The game was nearly secondary. Focusing on the game as a single-player design reveals things that are still present in co-op- you just don’t pay as much attention to them. You also tend to blissfully ignore how tedious, repetitive, and workmanlike so much of the design is.

Of course, the great art direction and visual panache, coupled with some funny jokes helps to glosses over all of that ugliness and eventually the game bests you. It is addictive. You fall into a kind of a dull-eyed stupor and just enjoy it for what it is- a dumb shooter with a lot of guns, quests, and four very divergent character options. There’s nothing wrong with that for so long as you’re having a good time. The good news is that Borderlands 2 is more fun to play than its predecessor. There’s plenty of activities to do with it and many hours of them at that. But I’m not under the illusion that it is in any way a great or progressive video game design.