Throwback Thursday: Assassin’s Creed II

 

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“Ezio Auditore de la la la”

Assassin’s Creed II
Released: November 17, 2009

As much grief as I give the franchise as a whole, I cannot hide my former obsession with the series and this game in particular. It truly is near and dear to my heart and I spent hours upon hours playing it. This was actually the first game of the Assassin’s Creed series that I played and it had not occurred to me that I should probably have attempted the first one beforehand. Although, with my most recent experience of a game (The Witcher 3) it seems to be an ongoing trend of mine. I have quiet an ardent love and interest for the Renaissance and it spans from the artwork to even the politics, particularly in the Italian Renaissance. It’s such a fascinating time in my opinion and by setting Assassin’s Creed II in this period, Ubisoft managed to completely sell it to me.

You start the game as Desmond Miles, our modern timeline, Nathan Drake-sounding protagonist. Having not played the first game I was very confused as to why a lady named Lucy Stillman was breaking Desmond out of an odd looking machine and eerily clean building, littered with baton brandishing security guards. Having since gone back to play the first game and subsequently the majority of the sequels over the years, I do understand what was happening now. The main premise of the series is the ongoing war between the Assassins and the Knights Templar, who serve as the antagonists of the franchise. Desmond, a descendant of the Assassins, is captured by the modern day Templars in the first game who hide their true identities behind a multinational company known as Abstergo Industries. It is here that Desmond is introduced to the Animus, a machine that allows one to relive the memories of their ancestors. The Templars use the Animus to gain access to information concerning what is known as the Pieces of Eden directly from these memories. The beginning of this game are the events that take place immediately after the first. Lucy, an Abstergo employee, breaks Desmond out and reveals herself as an undercover Assassin. She takes him to a safe haven where they meet up with fellow Assassins Shaun Hastings, a historian and analyst, and Rebecca Crane, a technician and the mind behind the new and improved Animus 2.0. It is here where Desmond goes back into the Animus to relive the memories of his ancestor, Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a young man from an affluent Florentine family living in the Renaissance period.

Here is usually where I consider the game to actually start. The modern day timeline is still fun at this point in the series, but no one plays these games for Desmond’s side of it all, and the end of the world plot of the modern timeline becomes quite strained after this installment. Ezio remains one of my favourite characters from any video game that I have played. He is a loyal friend, intelligent and gets the job done. This does not mean that he doesn’t come with flaws, as he is arrogant at the beginning of the game with an air of narcissism. This is one of the reasons why I loved the game so much. Ezio is by no means perfect and his character development is enjoyable to watch. He goes from being a mollycoddled teenager to becoming an experienced adult who has learnt from his past actions, although his cavalier attitude does make reappearances every so often. His development also felt quite believable as well. Initially Ezio is driven by vengeance as his father and two brothers are wrongfully executed for treason, and it is only until he comes to realise that their deaths were part of a much bigger battle that he dedicates his life to the Assassin Order, like his father before him.

It’s a common opinion that this installment of the series is the best game and Ezio as a character is only one reason for this. The gameplay was heavily improved from the first game, which I quickly came to realise when I went back to play it. Assassin’s Creed (2006) was extremely repetitive, although the story was sound. As Altaïr, the player would travel between cities to do the same menial tasks: eavesdrop on a conversation, beat someone up for information, pickpocket another person and finally assassinate the target. This trend continued throughout the entire game until right at the end where there was finally some variation and a rather unexpected boss fight. Ubisoft were able to take the basics from the first game and develop these ideas for Assassin’s Creed II, such as creating a wider range of missions to participate in (whether they were main or side missions). As a result, this gave a better sense of exploration for the player as they were able to deviate from main missions to become more immersed in the game. Even the ability to swim was an improvement. If Altaïr fell into water, the player would immediately be ‘desynchronized’ (sic), so adding the element of swimming was a welcome touch and even served as a great method to run away from guards. Alongside swimming Ezio was also able to row gondolas and this was a perfect way to manoeuvre around Venice, especially when you would accidentally jump into water that would lead to a dead end. The gondolas proved to be very useful in getting around the city at a faster pace than running around like a headless chicken.

The health system had also been developed, meaning that players had to visit doctors to buy medicines that could be used to replenish health for major injuries. Armour was able to break, meaning the player would have to go to a blacksmith for repairs. There were much more weapons that could also be utilised and bought from the blacksmith, and the ammunition capacity for things like throwing knives and smoke bombs could be upgraded at a tailor. The player was also able to hire groups of NPCs to help fight or distract guards for a certain number of florins. I do remember that one of the first achievements I received in this game was for spending 5000 florins on courtesans. What can I say? They were the best at distracting guards while I grabbed treasure/Codex pages.

The more I think about all of the improvements that were made in this game, the more I realise that it’s so hard to list them all. I will say that my two favourite aspects of this game were the Glyphs and the Assassin Tombs. I loved going around the cities to find the Glyphs that Subject Sixteen (another assassin descendant) had left in the Animus because the puzzles that ensued were always so interesting and challenging. I remember my dad actually helped me with a lot of the Glyph puzzles as we spent hours one day just hunting specifically for them. The Assassin Tombs were also a lot of fun, though this was more because these levels reminded me a lot of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (2003), which my brother used to play a lot of on the PS2. At the time, I wasn’t really allowed to play a lot of games that my brother had because I was a little too young but that never stopped me from watching him play. It was nice to eventually experience a game in a similar kind of way as I didn’t get to play Prince of Persia all that much.

The way that Ubisoft had managed to implement their own story line into historical events was one of the best things about the first two games, but I think I eventually lost interest in it because it was no longer set in a time period that I knew or cared enough about. But, rearranging and analysing pictures of both Biblical and historical figures to reveal the supposed Pieces of Eden in the Glyph puzzles that the game’s version of the Knights Templar were after was very cool. It all just seemed to work so brilliantly, and I think the games lost touch with that further down the line. I’ve talked about my hatred for Assassin’s Creed III in a previous post, and I still stand by this opinion. I just think that after spending such a long time with the franchise, Ubisoft should be able to produce a better game than what they did in that year. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was a definite improvement, and it’s probably the best one since Assassin’s Creed II, but nothing beats it.

Armed with a compelling story (that still made sense at this point), a well-rounded protagonist and polished gameplay, Assassin’s Creed II is a near perfect game. Of course, it has its quirks as every game does. It does on occasion feel as though the controls do not agree with you and Ezio sometimes goes running up walls where you didn’t intend for him to do so. The combat system has always been clunky in a sense that you’re simply just waiting for your opponent to strike so you can counter or disarm them. But despite these issues and flaws the game remains one of the best, and not just within the franchise. In my honest opinion, this was the high point for Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed series. With a new game coming out every year (not to mention the spin-offs) and now an upcoming film to be released, I feel as though Assassin’s Creed has simply become excessive. However, this does not taint my love for the second game of the franchise. It’s still a great game even now and writing this has made me want to start the game from the beginning once again for possibly the millionth time.

I recommend this game for people who have an interest in history, even if it’s a slightly skewed version of it (the fist fight with the Pope at the end is worth it, trust me). Also, it’s great for people who just like to run around armed and dangerous in beautiful cities. There’s so much that this game offers players and none of it feels really feels forced or boring. I know I feel sorry for the kid who went to grab it from the shelf in Game on Boxing Day in 2009, but was beaten to it by me. It’s coming up to 7 years old now, so if you’re playing it for the first time now then it’ll feel somewhat dated but it’s definitely worth your time and energy.

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Throwback Thursday: Gears of War

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Left to right: Anthony Carmine, Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago

Gears of War

Released: November 7, 2006

Ah, the days when there was an Xbox 360 in my house. Even though it was the console that originally kept me from getting The Last of Us (2013), I had a lot of good memories with it. Namely, two of the biggest game series that were exclusive to the Xbox: Halo and Gears of War. My first experience of Gears of War was watching my brother and one of our neighbours playing it. I had absolutely no idea what to expect with the game, as I thought it was just another shooter. Little did I know that this game had the ability to scare the living daylights out of me. Looking back on it now, the game is not that scary, but there are plenty of moments that still cause me stress and panic. The horror aspect of the game was definitely toned down in the later games, which probably made things a lot easier for me to handle. I screamed several times while I was watching the game unfold, much to my brother’s distress as he’s not good with horror and jump scares, so my girlish squeals unsettled him quite a bit as he tried to play. A few years down the line and I found myself buying the game with my dad (after failing to do so by myself, as I was underage at the time), and my brother immediately forced me to be player 2. It is an unwritten rule after all that the eldest sibling gets to be player 1, so I took my place as the bottom screen player with next to no objection.

I usually give a short summary of the games I review, but as this game is a franchise I will only focus on the story of the first game. Taking place on the fictional planet Sera, Gears of War‘s universe is rich in its history. A liquid called Imulsion became a source of energy after a scientist deduces how to harness its power, leading to wars that lasted for 79 years. These were known as the Pendulum Wars, which broke out between the nations in their attempt to gain more Imulsion. Following the wars, a subterranean race called the Locust emerged and began their onslaught on the human race, which is referred to as Emergence Day (E-Day). What was left of humanity fought back against the Locust horde and the remaining government figures formed The Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG), and introduced their military force, the “Gears”. After losing the battle against the Locust again and again, the COG decided to use a weapon known as the Hammer of Dawn on cities inhabited with humans to put an end to the Locust invasion. The first game of the series begins 14 years after E-Day, with the Locust returning and calling for war against the humans. The player takes control of Marcus Fenix, a Gear who has been imprisoned for 4 years before the beginning of the game for abandoning his post in a selfish act to save his father, Adam Fenix. Marcus is freed by his good friend and fellow soldier, Dominic Santiago (who player 2 controls in co-op mode), after the call to arms is announced. Marcus is reinstated into the military and is quickly informed of the COG’s plan to use a device called the Resonator, which will map out the underground tunnel system that the Locusts have formed over the years. By doing this, the humans will be able to strike back at the Locusts from the very heart of their enemies’ underground civilisation, the Hollow.

Initially when I played this game, I paid no attention to the story whatsoever. I was far more interested in running around and shooting things, because that was the objective of the game. There was nothing more substantial than that for me to sink my teeth into. The only supply that I had to keep an eye on was my ammunition, which is not that hard to come by in the story mode. As far as I remember, your comrades cannot die unless if they are controlled by another player, so when playing on single player I didn’t even have to worry about other people. They would become ‘downed’ and I would have to help them back up, but I only did that whenever I needed the extra firepower. When playing on co-op however, if one of the players were downed, there was a limited amount of time that the other player or one of the NPCs would have to be able to revive them. This was good to create a sense of urgency, as you had to drop everything you were doing to help your comrade, otherwise you would have to start again from the last checkpoint. Annoyingly enough, sometimes the NPCs wouldn’t help me when I was downed, both on single player and co-op mode. On these occasions I felt as though I was being cheated, as the deaths were unfair and just frustrating to witness. It definitely put me in a sour mood whenever this happened, which either motivated me to continue killing every enemy I saw, or I would just put the controller down and call it a day.

After playing the Halo franchise for a long time, I had become used to playing first-person shooters but Gears of War threw me into third-person. I think it was because of this game that I actually came to prefer the third-person perspective as I like to see as much as the camera can allow and not to be restricted by the character’s peripheral vision. Also, another thing that I prefer in Gears of War over Halo is the fact that I had to think a little more tactfully. I found that in Halo, I could run in guns blazing and most likely survive (not so much on the Legendary difficulty). In Gears of War, I was forced to use cover strategically and figure out my way around enemies to flank them, rather than facing them head on. However, Master Chief in Halo moves at a pretty impressive speed considering the fact that he wears the MJOLNIR Powered Assault Armour. The characters of the Gears of War franchise do not have that luxury.

One of the things that I still find hilarious is the fact that each of the characters are giant, burly men. I mean, these guys are absolutely huge. It’s no wonder you can’t sprint; they’re carrying so much weight around and that’s not even including the armour they wear. There is the ‘roadie run’, which just makes the player duck and move faster than usual. It is quite helpful when you’re trying to get into cover that is a fair distance away and at some speed, so it does have some kind of purpose. I was happy to see the introduction of female Gears in the third game but after seeing Marcus and the rest of the hulking men, the women looked slightly out of place due to their much smaller physique. Either they should have toned the men down to begin with, or the women should have been a bit bulkier just to even things out a bit. Then again, these games are about anything but realism. There’s a chainsaw bayonet on one of the guns. Need I say more?

The characters are colourful in their personalities as well. I have a real soft spot for Damon Baird, despite many people thinking he’s a sarcastic cynic, but I think he’s extremely funny and he brings a bit of lightheartedness to the game. Out of the members of Delta Squad, I found Augustus “Cole Train” Cole to be the most annoying, but that’s just my personal opinion. I know a lot of people like him, but his constant whooping and acting like a child irritated me. I enjoyed the voice acting throughout the game, and I found it hard to believe that it was John DiMaggio who voiced Marcus as I knew him as Bender in the TV series Futurama. Out of the 3 games (not including Gears of War: Judgement), the first installment of the franchise is most definitely the best one. Unfortunately, it is probably the one that I have played the least. I still panic whenever I get to the part with the first Berserker, so that’s one aspect of the game that puts me off from playing it, but that is through no fault of its own. That’s just due to my brother having traumatised me.

It was a widely anticipated game in 2006 and won Game of the Year for obvious reasons. The story was exciting and compelling, the setting and history were well crafted and, in all honesty, there is something very satisfying about running around as a huge guy with a chainsaw/gun hybrid, mowing through enemies like soft cheese. It was something new, and I’m always up for a good co-op game. I have made it abundantly clear before that I love to play local multiplayer games and I much prefer them over online gameplay. The campaign is long enough to be able to really get stuck into it and it feels like a real achievement when progressing through it on the hardest difficulty. However, on co-op it is possible to set the difficulty differently for the two players, making it much easier. In a way, it is cheating but after all of the unnecessary deaths I suffered, it is fair to say that the game owed me a few favours. The game definitely encourages teamwork, with a lot of the levels designed to force players to think of strategies as a team rather than just the individual. As a person who greatly appreciates co-operative play, I enjoyed this aspect of the game whether I was playing with another person or just the AI.

This game is brilliant, but while I have some fond memories of playing the game, it doesn’t stick out to me as one of my favourites of all time. I talk about Gears of War positively but it is not nearly as impressive as some other games that I have played. That being said, it is enjoyable and definitely worth playing if you enjoy shooters and an emphasis on co-op. Of course, you can still play it as a single player but remember that you’re only as good as the team around you.

Rating: 7.5/10

Throwback Thursday: Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

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The eponymous Abe

Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee

Released: August 31, 1997

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Follow me.”

“Okay!”

Honestly, I just wanted a reason to talk about this game. I think that it is the first video game that I ever played and, unfortunately, it’s not extremely well known from what I’ve gathered. My friends now know about this game because once I start talking about it, I cannot stop. It’s a real problem. But then again it’s not, because this game is my favourite ever video game. This is the one that takes the top spot, hands down. My brother, mum and dad all love this game as well. We have a shared love for it, and that’s really nice and mushy but it’s also very practical when I’m replaying it and I can’t get past a certain level. My dad somehow miraculously remembers how to do it, or something along the lines of it and we figure it out again together. I am not even exaggerating when I say that my dad spent hours and hours on this game. Not only is this due to the game being remarkably fun but it is also one of the toughest games I’ve played. It’s relentless, but this is what video games used to be like. Before the internet had become what it is today, you couldn’t really turn to Google and search how to beat a level. Just the other night, I was struggling to find buried treasure in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013) and the coordinates provided in the game were already a search option in Google. People have become lazy, but I’m guilty of it too. Not only this but the games themselves are much easier, with tutorials holding the player’s hand and spoon feeding them the best way to progress through the game. This is why games like Dark Souls (2011) have been met with so much praise as it takes games back to their exceedingly difficult roots, but it’s also been the subject of a lot of debate with people claiming its too difficult. With that being said, despite the arduous work that goes into it, Abe’s Oddysee is a fantastic game, and here’s why.

You boot up the game and you’re greeted by a blue guy with a stitched up mouth and large yellow eyes. Remember, this is Oddworld, almost anything goes. This scrawny looking character is none other than the eponymous Abe, and the hero of this game. Granted, he doesn’t look like much of a hero and even the back of the original Playstation 1 game box states that in “a lush world of diabolical danger where everyone wants to eat you, you’re the skinny guy with no weapons”. Things immediately are looking pretty bleak for Abe and the player but rest assured, it doesn’t get easier. Abe is a member of a humanoid race known as Mudokons, the majority of the population of which have been enslaved by meat processing factory owners called the Glukkons. Creatures such as Paramites and Scrabs are slaughtered at Rupture Farms to make tasty treats, but the meat supplies have become sparse and are close to extinction. The Glukkons, needing a new source of meat to keep their business up and running, plot to turn their Mudokon workers into food. Abe, stuck working late polishing the floors, overhears their meeting and flees while exclaiming to the player “Get me outta here!”. As a child I really didn’t process how macabre the story is and even now I’m able to turn a blind eye to it. This is mainly because the developers, Oddworld Inhabitants, shrouded a lot of the morbid stuff with dark humour. Everything about Abe is hilarious. He’s clumsy, his voice sounds like he has a constant blocked nose, he moves like Jack Sparrow and he’s even sometimes quite sadistic (in a humorous way). Lorne Lanning, the director and one of the key designers of the game, claimed that games were becoming about violence and shooting things and so he wanted Abe’s Oddysee to serve as an antithesis of this. There is still violence, but the game is mainly rooted in its puzzle solving and requiring the player to make quick decisions. In this game instead of shooting my way out of a situation, I had to be smart about it. A lot of this game is trial and error but it’s all part of the experience, and it can be frustrating (the amount of rage quits is just astounding), but the sheer joy when completing a level is overwhelming.

I am pretty sure this game is the reason why I love platformers. I would probably pick a platform game over almost any triple A title that is currently out there simply because I find them so fun. The genius of the puzzles are all dependent on the fact that it is a platform game. Not only this, but the camera does not follow Abe. Instead he walks through several different screens, each of which hold a new treasure or terror. Listening out for the snoring or mechanical step of a Slig that is in the next screen is crucial and forces the player to think and act quickly. It is quite stress inducing, and that’s where most mistakes are made. The amount of times that I have tried to rush through a screen only for it to end in failure is innumerable, but I don’t seem to learn from it. Whenever I hear the dramatic chase music strike up, I go into a blind panic and make Abe run as fast as his legs will take him. Higher platforms serve as a safe place for Abe for the majority of the game as enemies cannot follow you upwards and so the player must use them for a tactical purpose. It is such a fulfilling feeling when you manage to run away from an enemy that is gaining on you, and you make the jump that ultimately saves you. Now, all of this is well and good but I did say that this game was hard. This isn’t because of the AI or the level designs, it is simply due to the fact that you play as a defenseless character. I have noticed that in a lot of modern horror games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010) and Outlast (2013) that the developers opt to go with the ‘run or die’ attitude, rather than arming their players with a weapon. While this works to build tension, you’re still able to be hit a few times by enemies before you die, meaning you have a chance to get away before you eventually die and have to try again. This is not the case in Abe’s Oddysee. Whether he is shot, trampled or mauled, Abe will die as soon as he is hit by an enemy. Not only this but checkpoints in the original game were extremely scarce. If you died you would be thrown all the way back to your last checkpoint, and forced to redo it all until you got to the point where the little yellow Mudokon head appeared at the bottom right corner to indicate a checkpoint. Absolutely ruthless. This is probably my only real complaint about the game, but the people at Oddworld Inhabitants heard their fans cries and put in more checkpoints and even added a quick save feature in the sequel, Abe’s Exoddus (1998).

As Abe, you can walk, run, jump, sneak and roll. Pretty standard, right? Wrong. Abe can speak (not much, but he can) to interact with other Mudokons and confuse Sligs. Abe is also given the ability to whistle and fart, both of which are important during the Monsaic Lines levels, but it’s also fun just to make Abe fart and laugh to himself. To save his fellow Mudokons from their inevitable slaughter by the hands of the Glukkons, Abe can greet the other workers and tell them to follow him. The player leads each Mudokon individually through the treacherous levels until coming to a bird portal, where he can chant and the Mudokons jump to their freedom. In the original game, the player had to continuously go back and forth to lead Mudokons to the bird portals, but again this was revised in Abe’s Exoddus as it became possible to ask a group of Mudokons to follow Abe. The chanting also served another purpose, which was the ability to possess Sligs. Whenever I replay this game, I realise how hard the first level is to people who have never played it before. The fact that I know that I can possess Sligs makes the first 10 screens or so much more bearable. As a Slig, you can talk and converse with other Sligs, command Slogs (terrifying dog-like creatures) and use their guns. Possessing a Slig usually entails killing all the other enemies in the vicinity to clear a path for Abe, who is immobile and vulnerable while possession is active. I always found the most entertaining part of the possession ability was how creative you can get once you’re done with the Slig, and this is where some dark humour comes in. Abe can simply make the Slig run off the edge of a platform and fall to its death, have it be shot by one of its comrades or eaten by a Slog. However, I think the fan favourite is to explode the Slig. In the same way that the player possesses the Slig, if you hold down the same buttons while possession is active the Slig begins to shake and you can hear it make comical noises in its confusion before it explodes. Pretty gruesome stuff. But to top it off, Abe giggles to himself like the fiendish little Mudokon that he is.

The environments in the game are beautifully designed and they are definitely one of the most memorable parts of the game. From the mechanical factory to the scorching desert of Scrabania, the locations are a wonder to behold. I remember being fascinated with the amount of colours in the game, and to this day it still amazes me at how amazing it all looks. Despite the vicious creatures, I would probably visit Oddworld if I could. Alongside this, the music is just as good. I mentioned the chase music already, and I am actually listening to it as I write this. The low, fast paced strings accompanied with rhythmic drumming gets your heart pumping as you’re running away from a Scrab or a horde of Paramites. Whatever is chasing you will kill you, and the music reminds you of this. Speaking of Scrabs, they are probably my favourite enemy in this game. I don’t know what it was about them, but as a kid I loved their design. I still get such a thrill whenever I’m running away from one of the cannibalistic creatures (Oddworld just keeps getting darker), and the best experience of this is in the Scrabanian Nests level where they just seem to come from everywhere. The weird and wonderful creatures really do make up Oddworld and it wouldn’t be the same place without them. Both immensely terrifying and strangely beautiful, each of the enemies Abe encounters is truly a work of art. I especially loved how different they all were, which you are told about in the game if the player decides to take the time out and read the little hints provided. While it’s a hard game, they don’t leave you completely in the dark. For example, Paramites are friendly while alone, however if they are cornered or with another of their kind they become vicious and will attack. Paramites can be distracted with chunks of meat that they will devour, allowing a small window for Abe to run past them. On the other hand, Scrabs will attack Abe on sight and will not be sidetracked unless another Scrab appears. In which case, the Scrabs battle to the death and gives the player a chance to get away. With puzzle solving being the main objective of the game, knowing how each of the enemies will react to Abe is crucial. If you’re not well prepared then prepare to fail… or at least prepare to die a lot before you learn what to do.

Oddworld is a remarkable place and the lore is deeply set into the gameplay and the environments. You truly feel immersed into the game and the stakes are high when you know that there aren’t many checkpoints around. The remake of the game, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty (2014), came out in the summer of last year on PS4 and I was very excited for it. Oddworld Inhabitants teamed up with Just Add Water to recreate Abe’s Oddysee from the ground up, but kept the most crucial elements about it. It was fun, and being a veteran of the original game I immediately set the difficulty to hard (meaning I had Abe’s original vulnerability and frailty to weapons and the like). However, as much as I liked the game, it was too easy simply because of the added bonus of having a quick save option. I tried not to use it but the temptation was too great and I soared through the game much more quickly than I anticipated. I may write a more detailed account of my playthrough of New ‘n’ Tasty in the future but for now I will round off what I need to say about the original game.

Abe’s Oddysee has earned its place as my favourite game of all time, not only for the nostalgia but the enjoyment I get out of playing it. Newer video games seem to focus more on the serious aspects of things, which is fine, but sometimes I like to play a game for the fun of it. Abe, the clumsy, skinny, blue guy in his quest to save his race delivers both fun and frustration. It is one of the most challenging games I have played but that is part of what makes it so wonderful. Yes, it is rather morbid at times but at least it’s not like Mortal Kombat(2015), which I covered in my last post. For me, Abe is the most iconic figure in my video gaming history and I will always have the time to return to Oddworld to get him out of Rupture Farms.

Rating: 10/10

Throwback Thursday: The Last of Us

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Game cover: Joel and Ellie

The Last of Us

Released: June 14, 2013 (PS3) August 1, 2014 (Remastered edition PS4)

I’ve seen a lot of these Throwback Thursday things and I thought I’d try my hand at it with reviewing a game. Only this won’t be much of a review but more about my feelings of this game. I’m aware that this game isn’t particularly old but I have told almost every person I know about how much I love this game and now I have a platform to do so in writing, which I love almost the same amount. Although, to be honest, there’s not much to review with this game. Every gaming website that I have seen have showered this video game with the highest praise and every person who I have met that has played this game had nothing but great things to say about it. I was sat in the cinema with my brother getting ready to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) and the adverts before the film started featured the cinematic trailer for The Last of Us. I was absolutely encapsulated by it and I honestly remember the experience of seeing that trailer more than my first time of watching Star Trek, and I love those films so that’s saying a lot. But the horror set in when I saw and heard the announcement: “Only on PS3”. I was genuinely mortified as I remembered that the only console in my house was an Xbox 360 and I recall groaning in my dismay, out loud, in the middle of the cinema. My boyfriend rubbed salt in the wound when he told me that he had preordered the game, but little did he know that I would invade his house just to play it (though he took control when I was scared to play on). I waited another year until I finally got my hands on the Remastered edition, with enhanced graphics to match the powerful machine that is the PS4. Also, spoiler warning to any readers who have not played this game yet as I will be writing about parts of the story in great detail.

I adore this game and it has an extremely special place in my heart. While it’s not my favourite game (and the spot for this is reserved for a game that is so nostalgia filled that I will probably write my next Throwback Thursday on it), it is most definitely the best game I have ever played. With over 200 Game of the Year awards, The Last of Us takes the player on an incredible journey full of love, loss, danger and survival. Admittedly, I couldn’t contain my excitement for this game and I took to the internet to watch a Let’s Play, thus beginning my addiction to YouTube. So, I did actually know what happened in the game but that didn’t spoil my playthrough of it in any way. Watching the first cutscene gave me a lot of happy feelings as I remembered how it all started. Joel, the protagonist, and his daughter, Sarah, sharing a heart-warming conversation while quietly celebrating the then young man’s birthday. Joel puts Sarah to bed after she falls asleep on the sofa until she is woken up by a phone call from her uncle, Tommy, and the player takes control of Sarah. I remember seeing this on YouTube and thinking “Oh, you don’t play as Joel? Okay, I’ll go with this”. In my own playthrough I explored the little details of Sarah’s room (her reflection was actually visible in her mirror, this is quite rare in games). Now, when I say little details I don’t just mean the tiny pixels that make up the aesthetics of the game. As Sarah calls out to find Joel but finds her dad’s room empty her body language changes entirely. She turns from walking nonchalantly around her home to cradling herself as fear begins to set in. Her voice becomes shaky and more desperate and it was this moment that I remembered that Sarah is a child, no more than 12 years of age, and this alone would be absolutely terrifying let alone what I knew that was coming next. I really have to hand it to the actors of these characters. Not only did they provide their voice but they motion captured them as well, so these small changes in their demeanour is thanks to both the animators and the actors who worked painstakingly to create the realism in the masterpiece that is this game.

Explosions, panic and murder ensues and the small family the player follows talks about how people in the cities have become ‘sick’. They jump into a car in the hopes of escape but find that everyone has had the same idea and you, the player, is helpless as Sarah as all you can do is look out of the windows and witness the horror that is unfolding around you. Unfortunately they wind up in a car crash in which Sarah is injured, rendering her unable to walk, and Joel takes it upon himself to carry her while Tommy is armed and protecting them. Initially when I saw that the game was under the ‘zombie’ apocalypse genre I was quite skeptical. It’s a genre that’s been overdone in pretty much every art form, but The Last of Us takes the concept in a new way. Technically those affected are not zombies but instead infected with a mutated form of cordyceps, a fungal parasite that in reality infects insects and is able to destroy entire colonies. The game’s version of cordyceps attacks the brain and the infected loses all control of themselves and fungal growths and plates sprout from the head and body after years of infection. Upon natural death the infected find a corner to die and their body emits lethal spores that will infect any who inhale it. This in itself impressed me to no end. The developers had actually come up with an entire biological cycle for the infected and meticulously designed their appearances in the different stages of infection (Runners, Stalkers, Clickers and Bloaters), with each being more terrifying and dangerous than the last. The fact that cordyceps is a real thing was also something that I found scary as it made me think that this was actually possible, as it’s not your usual reanimated corpses terrorising the nation and wanting to eat your brains.

Last warning for spoilers.

I cried like a baby when Sarah died. I did not expect within the first 20 minutes or so of playing a game that I would get so emotionally invested in these characters but it continued to happen throughout the game. That’s a real achievement for the actors, they played their parts to perfection and I wouldn’t change anything about these characters. They at least gave us a short introductory credits to recover from the trauma, but the game then throws you 20 years into the future where you find an older and much more aggressive Joel hardened after years of surviving the hell that had been unleashed. You’re then introduced to Tess and the player then begins to realise that it’s a motif in this game. You meet someone new, team up with them for a while and they’re tragically taken away from you. In the short amount of time that the NPCs are with the player, you can’t help but feel attached to them. The developers of this game managed to successfully get players involved with the story of each character, no matter how vague it is. Take Tess for example: she comes into Joel’s ‘home’, bruised up from a brawl she’s had and there is clear tension between the two people. Did they have an argument the night before? Are they always like this with one another? Who knows. But what the player does know is that they have each other’s back no matter what. It’s 20 years into the future and we only get told snippets of what happened in the time between Sarah dying and where Joel is now.

It’s a masterfully told story and it immerses the player completely. In my previous review of The Order: 1886 (2015) I talked about how immersion into the game was difficult as there are too many cutscenes that throw the player in and out of gameplay and cinematic sequences, which overall ruins the flow of what could have been an incredible game. On the other hand, The Last of Us uses cutscenes only when it needs to. Most of the dialogue and interactions between characters, objects, etc are done through gameplay and this makes the player feel as though they are as invested in what is happening in the game as the characters are. In my own playthrough I found myself caring a lot more about the characters than in other games I have played. If I died in other games I would become frustrated but never have I found myself feeling horrified at the idea of the playable characters getting injured or worse. The death sequences in the game are terrifying as it cuts to black right before Joel’s mouth is torn open by a Bloater or as a Clicker rips a chunk out of his neck. Your imagination is vivid, and this is your worst nightmare when trying not to think about what just happened to either Joel or Ellie. Or the fact that you let it happen.

Now that I’ve mentioned Ellie I feel obliged to talk about her. She is, by far, the strongest female character I have had the pleasure of playing as in any video game. Granted I didn’t like her at first, because I thought that she was the most stereotypical part of the epidemic based apocalypse theme, as she is immune to cordyceps. I found myself rolling my eyes at the thought of her being the cure for humanity but she soon changed my mind about her. Ellie is 14, tough, funny and she has a rather colourful vocabulary. Each of these things made me love her more and more and I have never played a game with so much effort as I did as I tried not to let her get hurt. I don’t know if it was a maternal type of feeling (I’m frequently named the mother in my group of friends) or if I just simply didn’t want anything bad to happen to her because I had grown so fond of her. Either way, I grew as attached to her as Joel does by the end of the game even though he doesn’t want to because she reminds him of Sarah. The developers lied constantly about the ability to play as Ellie in the game as they didn’t want to ruin the surprise. Upon Joel’s near fatal injury the player takes control of Ellie and in my own experience I noticed an immediate change. The controls felt more nimble and agile to suit Ellie’s stature but I could no longer take down enemies with brute force and my weaponry was limited to what Ellie was actually able to wield. I began to feel a lot more vulnerable as Ellie, which made it even worse when the entire scenario with the cannibal, David, played out. As a character, David scared me more than any other enemy in the game. I came to realise that the real horrors of what happens in that type of world is not the infected, they can’t control themselves and it’s not their fault that they are infected.

I have all the praise in the world for this game and not enough time or words to talk about how amazing it is, but take my word for it. Of course, I will mention the fact that there were a few graphical issues here and there as no game is without its fault but it is quite amusing seeing some of the characters locked in stasis during a cutscene while the audio continues to play out. During my first playthrough of the Remastered edition, Tommy was using his body to hold a door shut to give Joel and Sarah time to escape but he became frozen and the arms of the infected flailed around helplessly through the gap as they tried to bypass their stationary obstacle. Glitches are always part of a game and I actually enjoy finding them, so long as they don’t ruin the gameplay, as it’s a little quirk that you’ll remember for a long time. The amount of collectibles and the detail of the environments that aren’t even necessary for the player to explore is astounding. The player will probably find something new every time they play through the game, so hats off to the developers for creating such an amazing world that can be explored time and time again.

I may come back to writing about this game as there’s a lot of things that I haven’t said. Though I will make a quick note about the soundtrack of the game: Gustavo Santaolalla does an incredible job with the music and it’s got me through a lot of assignments over the past couple of years. Soothing, beautiful and visceral. Amazing job. I recommend The Last of Us to anyone who hasn’t played it already and to those that have (or those who don’t mind spoilers) to watch Grant Voegtle’s video on YouTube entitled ‘The Last of Us Changed My Life: In Depth Analysis and Dissection’. It was a joy to watch and even the director, Neil Druckmann, along with several cast members have Tweeted their praises for the video.

If I could only use one word to describe this game it would be: breathtaking. Truly a testament to what video games really are – a form of art.

Rating: 10/10