Originally my idea for reviewing one game a week was done primarily to avoid writer’s block once a week as they’re by far my easiest posts to write and usually the most enjoyable as well. However sticking to that promise meant that I couldn’t just rely on AAA titles like I had done previously, no in order to be able to keep a steady stream of reviews going I’d need to broaden my gaming horizons significantly and play games that I might not have considered previously. To that end 2013 was filled with a bevy of titles ranging from some of the most unheard indie developers to major publishing houses with pedigrees spanning decades.
Whilst I had initially thought the calibre of games this year to be somewhat lacklustre looking over the list I can see that instead its my standards that have increased as many of these titles have received wide critical acclaim, including my own. Indeed looking back over the scores there are multiple titles that share my highest rating (9.5 this year) indicating that any one of them could potentially be crowned game of the year. Still looking over this list I’m finding myself torn to crown a winner as many of them are deserving of it, especially within their own genre.
Here’s 2013’s list of reviews in chronological order:
The winner of the wooden spoon this year should be pretty obvious as there was no other game that was so widely panned as Ride to Hell: Retribution was. Whilst I can understand a publisher wanting to get something out of their investment Ride to Hell: Retribution was clearly unfinished with the actual functioning bits simply not coming together cohesively. Mind you it probably wouldn’t have been a highly rated game should it have had the time required to fix it, with all bets with it being something like GTA but with bikers, but you have to wonder about the execs who put the stamp of approval on something like that.
I have to give a shout out to Gone Home as it was by far one of the most impressive storytelling games evidenced by the fact that I felt my review could really only be meant for those who had played it already. It starts off slow but you find yourself being pulled in ever so slowly as the story begins to reveal itself to you. Yet again I’ll have to stop myself here as to say any more would feel like I was spoiling the game for you and whilst Gone Home won’t receive my Game of the Year award you can be damn sure it was one of my main contenders.
The final battle for my game of the year comes down to 2 titles, both of which I have been praised for their strong story. The reason I’m conflicted is one of my known bias towards one of the games and the other being in a genre that I typically rate lower. That being said upon taking a step back and thinking about which of those two titles was the better overall game the choice was clear: my game of the year for 2013 is The Last of Us.
Whilst my aversion to survival horror is well known The Last of Us managed to draw me in far more than any other title in its genre has managed to do and that’s pretty much all due to the gripping story that it portrays. At the time I can remember saying that I didn’t think it was game of the year material, especially considering all the hype surrounding it, but upon reflection it is the best game I played last year. Few titles have managed to cement me in my seat for the better part of a day (I think I spent 9 hours straight in my last run to finish it) and fewer still have made such a lasting impression on so many. Naughty Dog is to be commended for taking the risk on a new IP and pulling it off so well.
The runner up is, as you could have guessed, Beyond: Two Souls. Whilst the wider critical reaction to it has been somewhat mixed I was definitely a fan of it, thoroughly enjoying the playable movie that Quantic Dream had created for us. However it’s not as strong of a title as Heavy Rain was which is what made me realise just how solid the Last of Us really is. It’s still a great game though and one that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who’s seeking a great interactive movie experience.
2014 is looking like a great year for games with dozens of AAA and indie titles coming out that I’m already looking forward to. I’ll endeavour to stick to my guns of doing 1 review per week as that seems to strike the right balance between variety and amount of time I need to dedicate to getting them out.
So, dear readers, what was your Game of the Year for 2013?
It’s nigh on impossible to miss the hype that’s been surrounding The Last of Us, the latest game to come out of Naughty Dog studios who’s been responsible for other PlayStation 3 exclusive hits like the Uncharted series. I tried my best but it the sentiment among the reviewer crowd was hard to miss: this game was shaping up to be everyone’s game of the year. However the interesting part about it was that it wasn’t something like revolutionary game play or top end graphics that was sending the review scores northward, it was the confronting story. I had been sold on the game since I saw the short gameplay demo that was released last year and had already lined myself up to play it despite it being a survival horror so all that was left was to fire it up and see if my impressions of it lined up with the hype that surrounded it.
You play as Joel, a single father who’s been working hard to provide for his daughter Sarah. Everything seems to be good in your world, heck she even manages to scrounge up enough cash to buy you a watch for your birthday, but soon an epidemic starts to sweep the nation, one that enrages people and turns them into vicious beings that attack anything when sighted. Tragedy befalls Joel, turning him into a bitter person and he then spends the next 20 years in a quarantine camp, finding work as a smuggler who gets things into and out of his camp. His world is shaken up after he seeks revenge against someone who’s wronged him only to find himself tangled up with a rebel group who’s only request is that he smuggle a girl to one of their camps.
Her name is Ellie.
With this current console generation coming to the end of its life the games are taking full advantage of the hardware platform that’s available to them and Naughty Dog’s expertise on the PlayStation 3 shines through in The Last of Us. All the environments you’ll explore are incredibly detailed, showing the world in glorious ruins. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s skill that all of this runs without a hitch as well with the game remaining buttery smooth even during intense action scenes. What I did like though was the distinct lack of environment porn, I.E. scenes that were deliberately designed to make you gawk at the rendering engine. Sure there were a lot of impressive moments but I never felt like any of them were created specifically as screenshot bait, they were just emergent based on the great level design and detailed environments.
The Last of Us is a survival horror game where resources are scarce and death almost certain should you not play your cards right. Now traditionally I’m not a big fan of these titles as they tend to do things that violate my rules for being a good (but also challenging game) and The Last of Us is no exception to this. It’s made up for somewhat by the inclusion of other mechanics that allow you to negate some of the more annoying aspects of survival horror game play through the use of skill and simple curiosity but there are still some issues that remain unresolved that I will take the game to task for. However I do understand that this is part of the survival horror schtick and is probably considered a great example of the genre so I’m more just trying to make my biases known so you don’t feel the need to lambast me in the comments.
There’s 3 main mechanics that drive the game play of The Last of Us. The first is good old fashioned 3rd person combat which has been tweaked with a stealth mechanic that you’ll make good use of if you don’t want to be reloading the game every 5 seconds. The second is a form of simplistic puzzler/platformer where you’ll have to solve a puzzle in order to progress to the next stage. Lastly there’s a customized RPG like system of crafting, upgrades and upgrades that allows you to improve your character and create consumables that you’ll undoubtedly being making heavy use of throughout your play through. None of these are particularly unique, and indeed I’d argue that the the gameplay isn’t the strongest characteristic of The Last of Us, but they do make for a challenging game.
You’ll spend the vast majority of your time exploring the environments that you’re in for bits and pieces that you can use to craft items to help you along. You don’t have to do this but the less you do it the harder the game will get for you as, no joke, that piece of rag you picked up 2 hours ago could be the very thing that saves your ass. It can get a little laborious though as pretty much every section you go through has to be inspected with a fine tooth comb to make sure you didn’t miss everything and, once you get past a certain point, you might stop doing it because you’ve managed to max out your inventory. However even if you do manage that there’s still another reason for you to keep searching: for the other upgrades.
There’s 2 ways to upgrade your character with the first being through “supplements” that affect Joel. For the most part they just make the game easier, giving you more health or decreasing the time it takes to heal for instance, but some of them can make the difference between life or death like the ability to save yourself from a clicker attack with a shiv. If I’m honest most of them apart from the Shiv Master one didn’t really impact on the game that much, usually just giving you a little more leeway with which to accomplish the same things. I also found that the supplements were scarce enough that I could just drop them into skills to max them out so the choice is usually based around your play style and what seems to be hampering your progress the most.
There’s also the upgrades to your weapons which can improve things like reload speed, clip size and fire rate. There’s unfortunately no way to upgrade the damage of any particular weapon which means they’re just as effective when you first get them as when you last fire them which, honestly, gave me the shits. The awful aiming coupled with the relative ineffectiveness of shots that hit anywhere but the head means that most of your weapons feel like they’re having no impact whatsoever with the exception of the shotgun and shorty (which are only close range, not so great for things that want to bite you). The upgrades make up for this somewhat by allowing you to fire and reload more rapidly but when you don’t have a lot of ammo (and you can’t carry that much even if you save every bullet) it’s kind of a moot point. Even upgrading the bow, something which is typically super bad ass in any survival game, doesn’t increase its usefulness that much, especially against moving targets.
Which brings me to the combat of The Last of Us which is quite typical of the survival horror genre. There’s 2 modes that you’ll be playing in: stealth and out and out firefights. Now the former is actually quite well done as the environments are strewn with little nooks for you to hide in and wait patiently for your prey to walk by so you can snag them and choke them out silently. You also have the rather awesome ability to “concentrate your hearing” which essentially enables a wall hack that allows you to see where enemies are. They have to be walking or talking for it to work, which becomes something of an issue later on, but it’s enough so that you can get a feeling for where they all are before you strike. Of course one mistake means that your prey will alert everyone else and then you’ve got two choices: run or start shooting.
This is where I feel The Last of Us starts to fall down a bit as the guns don’t feel effective at all unless you get a headshot and lining one of those up while under fire is nigh on impossible. The human AI is smart enough to not run blindly around corners where it knows you’re hiding (and it will try to flank you) so you can’t do the usual rounding up and then gunning them all down sort of thing that’s possible in other 1st/3rd person shooters. With the wonky controls of the PlayStation3 the only effective guns I found were the two I mentioned earlier although they still suffer if not aimed somewhere near the head. Of course the stealth aspect of The Last of Us means that there’s opportunity to flank people out although the AI has a rather terrible habit of suddenly figuring out where you are when you pop your head out to start shooting at them.
The same applies to the infected as the AI behaves very differently when you’re near them, to the point where sometimes they’ll make a beeline straight for you even when they’re not supposed to be aware of your position. There’s ways to counteract this, of course, but I don’t like the feeling that I’m making up for the shortcomings of the AI by bugging it out with other game mechanics. I remember one particular challenge (starting the generator in the basement so you can use the card reader door) where after causing a ruckus I’d run to a dark area to hide so I could then plan my escape. Should I not place a bomb somewhere else that then gets triggered by an infected a bloater would then, inexplicably, find me even though I was nowhere near that particular spot. The bloaters also appear to have eyes despite them apparently not being able to see and don’t get me started on the one-hit-kill nature of the clickers which requires 75 supplements to avoid.
The Last of Us is also not bug free either as I had several times when triggers simply failed to load, locking me in the current section being unable to progress until I reloaded from the checkpoint. Additionally the checkpoint behaviour isn’t reliable as manually restarting it often means restarting from a point faaaaaaaaaar behind your current checkpoint, meaning it’s better to just die rather than try to reload it. There’s also the rather irritating feature of spawning enemies in rooms that you’ve already looked in and cleared, ones that don’t have any entrance path to them (like on the second story of a house). For the most part they’re manageable but when you’re dealing with the 100 other stressful things the game throws at you this can be enough to stop you playing.
But the thing that Last of Us is receiving so much praise for isn’t it’s gameplay it’s the detailed and very confronting story that drives you through it. Credit where it’s due for the voice and motion capture actors for portraying it so well as I’m quite intolerant of bad performances in either aspect but the people behind The Last of Us do a top notch job. Whilst I won’t put a plot analysis here (that’s something for the spoiler section below) suffice to say that the story evokes heavy feelings of empathy, sorrow and strong cognitive dissonance over how your characters play out. The Last of Us is one of the few modern games where you have absolutely no control over how the story plays out, something that I enjoy but may frustrate some players.
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS FOLLOW
I felt a deep sense of empathy for Joel, despite his obvious character flaw of not wanting to care about anyone (from fear of getting hurt). With that in mind the ending felt like the one that I wanted to happen, because fuck anyone trying to hurt Ellie, however in doing so I had to bear the costs associated with doing that. The final scene between Joel and Ellie was probably one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to watch as it’s clear that Ellie knows Joel is lying, as evidenced by her simple reply that echoes her initial character before it’s developed over the course of the game, but she’s accepted he has his reasons for doing so. Whether he’ll ever reveal them to her is something that’ll be left up for discussion (or possibly a sequel, although bonus points to Naughty Dog for not leaving us dangling) but it’s almost at the point where it doesn’t matter.
Whilst Ellie’s fate was somewhat expected (although I question its validity, it’s not like we can’t do brain surgery without killing people) I had more expected Joel to be the tragic hero, especially considering the origin story of the first couple hours. His survival was somewhat counter to what I expected which I was glad for and ultimately it enabled the hollow hollywood ending which is what The Last of Us is being widely acclaimed for. With that in mind the lack of a choice system, one with a lot of games shoehorn in at the end to give the player some sense of control over the ultimate ending, is a smart move by Naughty Dog and something I commend them for.
PLOT SPOILERS OVER
The Last of Us is an exhausting experience physically, mentally and emotionally. It’s one that will test your limits of what you think is right and wrong, making you question what ideals you would compromise when faced with the same situation. Whilst I might not enjoy some of the gameplay mechanics due to their survival horror roots I can’t deny the gripping story that’s well portrayed by the actors involved. Whilst there are many that would recommend getting a PS3 just to play it I won’t count myself among them however should you already have one it’s certainly one of the exclusives that shouldn’t be missed, no matter what kind of gamer you are.
Rating: 9.5/10 (includes +1.0 reviewer’s bias to counteract for the fact that I routinely rate survival horror badly)
The Last of Us is available right now on PlayStation 3 for $78. Game was played on the Hard difficulty with around 17 hours of total play time and 7% of the achievements unlocked.