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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.

Cracked LCD- Uncharted: The Board Game in Review

Bandai’s new Uncharted board game, based on the smash hit Playstation franchise, probably isn’t what you’d expect. For one thing, it’s more specifically a card game. For another, it doesn’t suck at all. Getting into the nuts and bolts of it, the surprising thing is that it’s a very accomplished, studied design that makes up for a lack of originality or progressive concepts with a smart sense of syncretism, taking diverse mechanics and melding them together while maintaining an impetus for streamlining. This is a game that needs to be accessible, playable, and fun. It is those things, and designer Hayato Kisaragi has delivered more than I expected out it.

The question on the minds of Uncharted fans is if it “feels” like you’re Nathan Drake or Elena Fisher, jumping from golden ledge to golden ledge while engaging in banter between the cover-based shooting and ersatz Indiana Jones trappings. The short answer is that no, it doesn’t “feel” like that at all and it’s a very high level take on a very high level interpretation of the games’ setting, characters, and events. The upshot of this is that the game is good enough that it didn’t really need to be Uncharted to succeed, so if you’re a fan of Naughty Dog’s treasure hunting saga, consider it a bonus that you get to play as the whole gang- even Tenzin.

Essentially, this game drinks deeply from the deckbuilding well in the Ascension mold, with a revolving display of adventure cards available for acquisition. But it’s definitely not a deckbuilder. Instead of assembling a deck you’re assembling a tableau of action cards drawn from a separate, rather large deck. These action cards determine what you can do in the game and are something like Magic permanents- once you’ve paid for them by discarding other hand cards equal to cost, they’re part of your action “menu” and are tapped (sorry, “rested”) when used until the next round. You get to do two things per turn, which includes playing cards and using them.

A payed-for and played card may let you rest it to draw a card, place a search marker on one of six displayed treasure cards, or to add to attack points if you’re trying to shoot a bad guy card or another player in the deathmatch mode. If you don’t like your cards, they can be discarded for a stock effect- green ones give you two extra actions, blue gives you two health points, and yellow lets you place a search marker. Red cards are weapons, and some weapons like the fabled Pistole let you dump red cards to increase damage.

The search markers are where the game veers simultaneously into worker placement and area control mechanics. Some treasures have an effect that extends to anyone with search markers on it. Once a required number of search markers are placed on a treasure, it’s discovered and the player with the most tokens gets the victory point value and all players there get any other effects that occur. It works really well, and it creates some serious competition- and the need for long-term strategy and smart use of your cards.

This is a tightly wound game. Actions are very limited, and if you don’t budget your cards right, you can wind up screwing yourself out of being able to take a useful action- or you might miss the cash-out on a treasure. Further, at the end of the round any enemy cards in the adventure display that weren’t killed shoot every player, and you can rest cards to absorb damage. Oh, and when played with the normal rules this is an elimination game. If you die, you’re out. This can lead to some great high-stakes, win or die situations.

It’s a two to four player game, although I don’t think you really want to go less than three. Like most area control games, it doesn’t feel quite right with a pair. There is a decent solo game included, and in addition to the standard competitive mode where the players are shooting at and being shot by the bad guy cards there is also a delightfully nasty deathmatch mode with tons of treasure-stealing and there’s an obligatory co-op horde mode. Expect to spend about fifteen minutes per player with the game regardless of how you play it- it moves quick, has a nice arc with escalating difficulty, and a neat sense of development.

The characters have the expected special abilities. But here’s the neat thing. They don’t necessarily start with them, and they don’t really level up to them. Instead, you gain them by acquiring combinations of cards in your tableau or by certain game situations. For example, when Sully drops below seven health, he gets to put a free search marker out at the beginning of every turn. Tenzin gets stronger and stronger over the course of the game as he takes damage.  It’s an interesting- and subtle- way to introduce some narrative and sense of progress without introducing mechanics.

I’m surprised that I wound up liking Uncharted as much as I did, and to be honest I half-expected this to be a negative review. It’s an inexpensive, fun game with a cool- if not completely enveloping- mainstream setting. The irony is that you could easily retheme this entire game by replacing the art with characters and objects from the Indiana Jones films, and it’d still be the same good game.

Muddying Marisa

Marisa Chase of Uncharted: Golden Abyss

See that fetching young lady up there? That’s Marisa Chase. She’s your sidekick/guide/reason for killing dudes in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. She’s an archaeologist, like her grandfather and like her grandfather she’s looking for a link between a secret sect of Spanish friars and a city of gold hidden in the Central American jungle.

Uncharted wouldn’t be Uncharted without a plucky female there to act as the straight woman to Nate’s jokes, as well as point out obvious things like ledges and bullets and murderous henchmen. She can shimmy and jump like Nate and she knows as much, if not more, about the lore of the region as Nate and she drives a mean canoe. She’s a pretty valuable asset as you make your way through the jungle towards a reunion with the slimy Dante and his ally turned enemy General Guero.

There is one important difference between her and Nate though, and it’s one I wish the writers would have stuck with. Unlike the other ladies in Drake’s life, Marisa doesn’t use guns. Right up until when she does.

We’re going to get into Golden Abyss spoiler territory here, so I won’t be offended if you hold off on reading this until you play the game. As launch games go, I liked it, although it pales in comparison to Uncharted 2, what I consider to be the high water mark for the franchise. Sony has a pretty good track record with bringing their exclusive franchises to their handhelds and Golden Abyss sits firmly in the middle of these efforts. It’s not as good as the God of War PSP games, but it’s vastly better than Special Agent Clank. Among Uncharted games, I’d say it’s on par with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, way below Uncharted 2 and way above Uncharted 3.

Marisa has a hard road to walk in that she’s going to be compared to Elena yet she can’t live up to being Elena. It’s not her fault, nor is it the fault of the people at Bend Studios. They have to make a side character that you care about, in order to make the player understand why they’re risking Nate’s life, but at the same time, they’re making a character that is never mentioned in any of the other Uncharted games. Basically, she’s Willie Scott.

Marisa is bright, attractive, headstrong and not at all afraid to go tromping through the jungle, so she’s easy to like. Bend Studios makes the same unfortunate writing and voice direction that Naughty Dog does and makes her and Drake turn every simple action into a conversation but not to the point where Marisa becomes annoying. On a somewhat related note, Bend did get rid of UC3’s incessant need to have Drake touch something every five minutes like the game was a Very Special Episode of Uncharted where Drake finally owns up to his crippling OCD.

Where Marisa differs from the women in previous UC games is that she doesn’t use guns. At various points in the story, usually right before your’e attacked, Marisa makes it a point to mention that she doesn’t do guns. Doesn’t use ’em, doesn’t like ’em, wants nothing to do with ’em. As defining character traits go, it’s not the most original thing in the world, but it makes sense for the character in a way that the opposite choice made in previous games do not.

Look, no one loves Elena Fisher more than me, however her transformation from reality TV show host in Uncharted to gun toting murderess in Uncharted 3 makes absolutely zero sense to me. I understand that from UC2 onward she is an investigative journalist and as such needs to protect herself and yes, she did see her camera man brutally murdered in front of her, but the flippant manner in which she kills bad guys in UC3 did not sit well with me.

To be completely honest, I’m not really sure why Drake is so comfortable killing guys other than he’s the hero and in these games, the hero kills people. I get that murder is the most common form of expression in games lately, and there are plenty of people trying to kill Nate over the course of these games, but why is he so comfortable with killing them? In UC3 we see Nate as a street urchin. Fast forward to Golden Abyss and he’s comfortable with all manner of arms, as well as capable of snapping a guy’s neck with impunity. In fact, if you want to get every kill based trophy in the Uncharted series, Nate has to kill at least 2800 people. In comparison, the highest number of confirmed kills in military history is 160. What happened to Nate to make him OK with blowing someone’s brains out and then switching to making a charcoal rubbing like he’s in third grade art class?

So yeah, I was really happy with the idea of making Marisa uncomfortable with and unwilling to use guns. My wife is extremely uncomfortable around guns, and will not allow them in the house, which isn’t a bad choice given that we have two young kids. Still, I would love to pick up target shooting as a hobby, but her edict makes it somewhat impractical. So again, I understand Marisa’s choice and I thought it was an excellent one. Realistically speaking, she’s an archaeologist. What does she need a gun for and when would she have learned to use it during a childhood spent accompanying her grandfather to dig sites?

All of this made the decision to have Marisa start using guns towards the end of the game all the more infuriating. Without getting too much into it, Drake catches up with Dante, they fight and Dante makes a comment about Marisa letting Drake get his hands dirty while she manipulates him. At this point, I thought they were going to do a big reveal and make Marisa the villain, something I would have hated. They didn’t, but I hated the alternative just as much. Marisa takes this speech to heart, as most people would do when confronted with the ramblings of a lying thief, and decides to start pulling her own weight. Never mind that she helped Drake get to the city of gold and has helped Nate every step of the way except for when gunfire broke out. No, she needs to start helping out at this very minute and the way she’s going to do that is by killing people.

Come the eff on.

With that, Marisa, who had been a genuinely interesting character became yet another Uncharted sidekick, peeking out from behind cover and ineffectually shooting enemies. Worse, by giving her a gun, her AI went from defense to offense and she would frequently venture up the path too much, taking fire and making me expose myself to save her. Making a character uninteresting with a shitty personality shift is one thing, making me have to restart a checkpoint multiple times because she can’t hit the broad side of a barn is something else completely.

I don’t know if Bend felt they needed to drop some female empowerment stuff on us, or what the thinking was behind this, but I wish someone had sat them down and explained that sticking to your morals when it is incredibly difficult and/or inconvenient to do so is the stronger choice. Knowing that you were able to stick to your code would be far more empowering than throwing your belief system away just because some asshole said some things that made you feel bad. Sure, Nate offers the token “once you do this it changes everything” line, but it’s not like he seems all that upset at having murdered several hundred people so why should Marisa care?

It didn’t sour me on the game entirely, but it did bug me. It also made me think that we’ve gotten about as much out of the Uncharted franchise as I think we can reasonably expect. I’m glad that Naughty Dog is moving on to The Last of Us and I hope it energizes them creatively because between this UC game (which I know they only supervised) and the creatively bankrupt Uncharted 3, I think Nate et al should take a cue from the old Marisa and swear off guns for a bit.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss in Review

Launch games are a tough sell for any console, especially consoles brimming with features other than the customary jump in graphical fidelity. Launch games typically don’t have the benefit of years of familiarity with the hardware and they bear the brunt of increased scrutiny compared to games later in the console’s life cycle. One of the best ways to combat this is to come out with a game from an extremely popular franchise and hope that the combination of quality and nostalgia are enough to overcome any shortcomings. So is the case with Uncharted: Golden Abyss, one of the launch games for Sony’s new hi-tech handheld, the PS Vita. As a game to show off the Vita’s technology, it does a great job of showing the possibilities of the platform. As an Uncharted game it doesn’t fare as well, unable to reach the same heights as previous games in the series. Somehow it all averages out though, giving fans of handheld gaming the thrill of navigating collapsing jungle temples during their daily commute.

Set prior to the events in the first Uncharted, Golden Abyss picks up mid-story, as Uncharted games are wont to do, with treasure seeker Nathan Drake scaling a temple in a Central American jungle while trying to evade a small army of goons. Between the way the story starts at the mid-point before jumping back to the beginning, the move set of Drake when scaling heights and meleeing enemies, and the familiar sounds of Nolan North’s voice acting, it’s clear that this is Uncharted. Not a stripped down port, or a featureless representation of Uncharted, but Uncharted, warts in all, just in handheld form.

As a game used to show off the increased graphical power of the Vita, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better choice. The lush colorful Central American jungle pops in beautiful detail, as does the temples and dig sites found therein. Drake moves the way we expect him to move, with the same motion captured fluidity of the PS3 versions. Moving Drake around works well, whichever of the various controls schemes you choose to use. Purists can stick with buttons and the control sticks however using your finger to trace a ledge path for Nathan provides a satisfying and oddly futuristic take on platforming. Using the Vita’s back panel for traversing temples isn’t as sure of a thing, in part due to a strange reversal of actions that have you stroking downwards to climb up ropes and vice verse, and in part due to using the same fingers for support as for movement.

There’s a fair amount of touchscreen swiping to be done, even if you forego it when platforming. The QTE’s used in other Uncharted games for counters during melee bouts have been replaced with touchscreen swiping. Similar events pop up when you’re making your way across ledges, requiring you to pay attention or plummet to your death. The same thing happens with the occasional balance beam section, where you have to tilt the Vita to regain Drake’s footing. The swiping is fine, however the balance stuff feels tacked on and worse, sometimes Drake will fall ten feet to his death, a drop much smaller than one experienced by a side character later in the game without death as a result. Even if you don’t do much melee killing, expect a whole bunch of swipe fighting towards the end, as two extended bouts of fisticuffs require you to make with the touching. It’s interesting to see how the swipe motions correspond to Drake’s actions, but these fights go on a bit too long for when they occur.

This being a prequel, not all of the familiar faces of the Uncharted universe are present, replaced with new characters: Drake’s slick and ultimately untrustworthy employer Dante and Marisa Chase, a female archaeologist looking for her missing grandfather and a link between a Spanish friar and a city of gold. The game eschews the global catastrophe and supernatural trappings of the previous games, attempting a more personal tale in the process however time and time again Drake is reminded that this is just a job for him, it’s not his concern, and after a while, you start to believe it. Throw in a general funding a small war via the sale of drugs and looted artifacts, hardly the stuff of the scope of previous Uncharted games, and you have a conflict that seems decidedly lightweight.

Regardless of the motivations behind the gunplay, Drake does get shot at, a lot, and it’s here that the Vita really shines as a platform. No longer constrained to a set of face buttons for moving or aiming, the dual thumbsticks allows you to pull off head shots with the same precision as a standard controller. Better yet, the Vita’s gyroscope allows you to fine tune aiming, providing one of the best uses of the technology I’ve seen on a handheld. Enemy AI ramps up fairly well, with light enemies moving between cover and peeking out from the side of a box, usually when you have your sights trained at the top of their cover. Once the armored enemies show up, they rush with impunity, requiring you to prioritize targets lest you see the familiar black and white screen of Drake’s demise, the sound of Drake’s screamed name echoing in your ears.

Multiplayer doesn’t exist in any form, neither competetive nor cooperative, however Bend Studios gives you plenty of reasons to keep playing once the story has ended, with hundreds of collectibles strewn about the jungle. There are trinkets to find, little stone deities, jade glyphs, pieces of the missing archaeologist’s equipment, charcoal rubbings to be made by rubbing the touchscreen, photos to take using the system’s gyroscope as well as other bits and bobs that help illuminate the game’s story. You won’t get anything for finding all of these, other than trophies and greater narrative insight, but if you have a collectible itch, this is definitely the game to scratch it.

Once the Vita has been on the market for a couple of years and there are plenty of games that match Uncharted’s visual fidelity only without all of the Sony mandated motion stuff, it’s hard to say where this game will fare against them.We’re not there however and despite the narrative failings and occasional technologically mandated frippery, Uncharted: Golden Abyss lets you bring Nathan Drake on to the train, half-tuck and rapier wit in tow. As launch games go, you could do a whole heck of a lot worse.