PlayStation developer Naughty Dog was once best known for its part in foisting the PSX’s answer to Sonic The Hedgehog upon us with the Crash Bandicoot series of games. While not being my thing, the Crash games were well produced, sold well, and generally received favourable reviews from critics back in the day. However, in the last 5 or 6 years Naughty Dog has somewhat reinvented itself as a developer of high quality cinematic action adventure games with the critically and commercially successful Uncharted series on PS3.
The Uncharted games certainly provided a very good reason to consider buying a PS3 over the Xbox 360 at retail with their exclusivity to Sony’s console, and to my mind, while there are some good 360 exclusives out there, Microsoft’s console never really came up with a serious rebuttal to Nathan Drake’s modern-day take on Indiana Jones. Nevertheless, I do not think that Uncharted alone would have been the tipping point in most gamer’s decisions over which console to pick up, assuming one was initially ambivalent over which of the seventh generation consoles to buy. I had already long bought a 360 by the time Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in late 2007, and while I admit that it looked quite good, and sounded promising from the coverage I caught in Edge at the time, I wasn’t tempted to break out my old flexible friend and pick up a PS3 for this alone. However, you cannot deny the quality of production values that Naughty Dog have been injecting into their PS3 releases and the impressive way they have moved away from pseudo-“kiddies” games like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter to the mature content of the releases we’ve seen since (and including) Uncharted.
In the Spring of 2013, with the next generation of consoles only months away from launch, Naughty Dog delivered what could be rightly described as the PlayStation 3’s swan song – The Last of Us.
The back drop to the game is nothing that we haven’t seen before.
A global pandemic has all but wiped out modern civilisation, and those that have survived are living in heavily fortified zones protected by the military. Outside of these zones are other remains of humanity, pocketed in small areas of once thriving towns and cities surviving to live amongst the decay and detritus, but away from the order laid down by the military. The virus that has wrecked humanity starts life as spores getting into the brain and then developing into a fungus that turns the host into violent zombie. Over time the fungus grows deforming the head and other parts of the body, and there is no cure. These poor souls are referred to as the “Infected“, and there are a lot of them still out there looking for fresh victims as the virus can also be spread by being bitten.
After a short prologue to the main game, which sees the last hours of our world before the virus begins to spread, you take control of one of the survivors, Joel. Set twenty years later, Joel has become a smuggler of guns and pharmaceuticals with his partner, Tess, and through a twist of events get involved with a resistance movement called the Firefly’s, whereby they are entrusted to escort a young girl, Ellie, across country to a Firefly stronghold. As the game progress a strong relationship between Joel and Ellie forms which helps them drive forward, against the odds, to their ultimate destination.
The action elements are formulated of confrontations either with hostile human opponents, or the Infected. Weapons are not available in abundance, so fortunately Joel can look after himself, and many enemies can be dispatched by hand in ways not entirely dissimilar to what you would expect in Uncharted. Weapons that are available come in the form of small arms and cruder weapons such as shiv’s or baseball bats. To make matters more interesting not only are bullets in short supply, but non-ballistic weapons can only be used a few times before they will break and become useless. Therefore scavenging becomes a key part of the game process when not engaging in combat or avoiding enemies. You will find yourself searching high and low for the parts to make a shiv or Molotov cocktail, if you’re lucky you may find some bullets, but you’ll search everywhere for items so that you can survive.
The game requires you to think, and in many cases will allow you the opportunity to squirrel yourself away to one side while you consider what the best plan of attack will be, if indeed attack is a genuine option. Early on in the game, when ammunition and weapons are probably at their most scant, if you decide to become a one-man zombie-Terminator you are going to come unstuck very quickly indeed. As in real life, you use your intelligence to pick and choose your battles. Do it wisely and you’ll progress; the alternative usually results in death or making the next encounter ever the more tricky. The computer AI is excellent, and you will be quickly hunted down should you even accidentally give your position away. There are a few battles where a direct approach is required, but they are few and far between, and thus generally the action is of a cerebral variety as you eliminate those that block your path. The game is not easy, and there will be plenty of deaths before you pass certain areas. Indeed, some encounters really crank up the tension as you potentially face being overwhelmed if you do not enact a suitable strategy or respond quickly enough.
Of course the action is not entirely the primary driver of the game; it is the narrative and the relationship that forms between Joel and Ellie, and the action constantly plays second fiddle to the story being told. This cannot be highlighted more than in the dying minutes of the game where you would be rightly expecting one thing to happen, and your resilience is rewarded with something else entirely. In fact the game’s concluding minutes are very clever and I applaud Naughty Dog for taking the route they took to bring the story to a close.
The graphics are of the highest quality, well drawn, everything has character, and the lighting effects are just beautiful. The animation is some of the best I have seen, with lots of detail in facial expressions bringing the characters more to life and further enhancing the relationship building that goes on between them and between you and them. Sound, both music and audio, is first rate as you would expect if you’ve ever played any of the Uncharted games. Technically this must be pushing the PS3 to its limits, and it’s doubtful we’ll see anything of this quality launched on the system again now that the PS4 is centre of Sony’s attention.
The Last of Us is not perfect (criticisms I do have are all very minor), but within the genre that it sits in, it comes as close as one can get to gaming perfection in my opinion, and it will be interesting to see which developers try to copy or surpass the game, within its kind, as time moves on.
One developer who should take note of The Last of Us gameplay and narrative is Capcom. In many ways Capcom have spear headed the zombie genre’s rise to prominence in modern media with the Biohazard (aka Resident Evil) series, but they have lost their way considerably since the brilliant Biohazard 4, and perhaps ever more so since Biohazard 5 as Biohazard 6 is just a complete mess. Biohazard 5 has many redeeming qualities for me, even if it is not as good as its predecessor. I cannot say the same for the abomination that is Biohazard 6. If Capcom can extract just some of the essence of The Last of Us, combine that with the characters and story strands of Biohazard, and refocus on the one player element instead of fixating on the need to pander to multi-player, then they may be able to inject some credibility back into the franchise. After all, Naughty Dog have gone on record as saying that Biohazard 4 was a big inspiration to them during the development of The Last of Us.
With the cost of PS3 hardware now plummeting as retailers look to clear their shelves for additional space for PS4, there has never been a better time to pick up a brand new PS3 on the cheap so that one can play this game. While it may seem a bit extreme, the investment will be worth the experience that will unfold and you can then of course take in many of the other PS3 exclusives like the aforementioned Uncharted, plus Gran Turismo and others. I have no idea how many individual video games I have played since I was born, but there aren’t that many I really wanted to sit down and play through again immediately after completing them for the first time. With The Last of Us I did not get that feeling. The feeling I got was sadness, I was actual sad that I had completed the game, that my journey with Joel and Ellie had come to an end and there was no more story left to tell. I do not think I can say that about any game I have ever played or completed before; and I think that, more than anything else, that sums up the emotional impact of the thoroughly good story told by The Last of Us.
I shall, of course, be returning shortly to experience this epic once more, and I look forward to the forth coming single player DLC. I can only hope that if Naughty Dog decide to continue Joel & Ellie’s adventure, that the game is every bit as good as this; they have left themselves a mighty high mountain to climb… indeed a part of me would like to see the game as a stand alone title. Alas, I am sure commercial pressures will dictate otherwise. Still if any developer can trump their previous lofty achievements, on their record so far, it would be Naughty Dog.
Times they are a changing. Go back 15 years or more, and if you wanted up to the minute news, reviews and previews of everything that was going on in videogame land then you would have to wait for your monthly rag of choice to either drop through the front door or land at your local newsagent or WH Smith. Now we can access everything at the click of a button either at home or on the move. However, I’m sure there are plenty of you out there who still read videogame magazine’s; and probably just as many who have been regular readers of the various tomes over the years that have adorned news racks across the country; and fondly remember some of those that are no longer in print.
My first foray into gaming magazines was back in March 1988 when I persuaded my mum to pick me up a copy of Your Sinclair while we were in the local newsagent’s. US Gold’s conversion of Rolling Thunder was the featured cover game and amongst the games reviewed were Karnov, OutRun, Gryzor (aka Contra), IK+ and a good number of other well known titles.
Your Sinclair (YS) was witty, irreverent, and above all, entertaining. While they may have had their own unique content, neither Sinclair User nor Crash, came close to the continuity of quality and amusement YS provided. Pssst, Slots of Fun, Future Shocks, Trainspotter Award, Tipshop, I looked forward to reading them all; even Programme Pitstop (and I had no interest in BASIC whatsoever!).
I pretty much faithfully stuck with YS for over two years, buying my final issue in late 1990 before unceremoniously abandoning the Spectrum era in favour of that of the Atari ST. However, I never really settled on a dedicated ST magazine. I picked up the odd copy of ST Format and ST Action, but neither were as enjoyable as YS in terms of overall content and “feel”. Fortunately, salvation was at hand in the form of Zero.
As some of you may remember, Zero was launched by ex-Your Sinclair staffers, (no surprise as both were published by Dennis Publishing, although YS was later sold to Future Publishing), and was very much in the YS mould, but aimed at the newly burgeoning 16-Bit home computer scene.
Zero had the irreverent feel that YS so successfully conveyed, yet managed to keep its own identity and distinctness rather than just being a 16-Bit clone of the 8-Bit classic. Cleanly presented, with some very memorable content, Zero was once the UK’s best selling 16-Bit magazine, won an Indin Award and very kindly gave me a free copy of Robocop 3 for my Atari ST when I finally decided to fork out for my first ever magazine subscription! With regular pieces from Dave Excellent, Black Shape and the Zero ST; contributions from the likes of David “Whistlin’ Rick” Wilson, Jane Goldman, David “Macca” McCandless, Duncan McDonald, Mike Gerrard et al; plus articles and interviews on all that was relevant to the Amiga, PC and ST gaming scene in the early 1990’s, it seemed Zero could do no wrong.
Sadly, Zero was not to have the longevity of its legendary 8-Bit progenitor, despite its awards, droll style and well written copy.
Videogame consoles had never been overly popular in the UK during the 1980’s. The scene was dominated by the Spectrum, C64 and Amstrad CPC; and consoles like the Sega Master System and Nintendo Entertainment System were seen as niche, probably due to the cost of the games (£30 – £40) and in-part, poor distribution (only a select few stores stocked these consoles & games back in the ’80’s). However, with the launch of the Sega Megadrive in late 1990, and an aggressive marketing campaign for the system, home computers started to lose ground to this new breed of home entertainment and its “arcade” quality graphics. Plus, at £199 it was cheaper than the 16-Bit home computers of the day and, it has to be argued, did offer an experience closer to the arcade than any home conversion the Amiga or ST could muster.
With the shift in games moving from home computers to home consoles came a shift in our reading habits, and with the UK launch of the Super Nintendo, the year 1992 became something of a watershed moment for videogame magazines in the UK.
After 55 issues, ACE was discontinued by EMAP, and the first magazine to really embrace the 16-bit home computers of the late 1980’s faded into history during the spring of ’92. My beloved Zero was axed in the Autumn to be replaced by Sega Zone and, the now Nintendo only, Game Zone. The brilliant Mean Machines, (launched by Julian Rignall), which really captured the new 16-bit home console and early ’90’s import scene so well, was also axed; replaced by Mean Machines Sega and Nintendo Magazine System.
Ironically, while all this upheaval was going on, Your Sinclair soldiered on to the Autumn of 1993 when Future decided to finally put the legendary Spectrum mag out to pasture after a run of 93 issues.
1993 also saw the launch of Edge. Intrigued by the plastic bag masking the magazine within, Edge was very different to the other videogame magazines about at the time. With an almost industry like slant on its editorial, clean precise presentation and a mature style Edge was a videogame magazine for adults, and I loved it! With the 32-Bit era dawning, Edge really captured the exciting technological changes superbly, as we said “goodbye” to sprites and “hello” to polygons. Perfectly encapsulating the end of the 16-Bit era, the swift arrivals and departures of the CD-32, Jaguar and 3DO, while showcasing the rise to dominance of the Sony PlayStation and Sega’s fumbling of the Saturn. Those first few years of Edge were brilliant, and make a fascinating read today of the rise to prominence of the 32-Bit machines and how videogames became more culturally acceptable and not just the domain of children and nerds.
With the launch of the PlayStation in the UK in 1995 I started reading the Official PlayStation Magazine (OPM), but my interest with this tailed off as I started getting more and more into importing. OPM was a good read, and the cover disc was always useful for the demo’s included, but it catered strictly for the UK domestic market, and to be honest, I completely lost interest in the magazine the moment the Japanese PlayStation scene became more important to me.
OPM was the last (to date, anyway) dedicated games magazine that I’ve read on a regular basis. Edge continued to be pretty much my staple read until 2012, when, after a 12 year subscription, I reluctantly cancelled my sub and stopped reading the magazine. Edge was, and still is, a very well written magazine, but for me the articles were either becoming too heavily industry focused (in a way I just did not find interesting as I, sadly, do not work in the games industry), or were becoming re-hashes of themes and articles written years previously. Too often I was finding myself just flicking through the pages and then tossing the magazine to one side until the next issue arrived in the post. A great shame really, but for me, editorially speaking, Edge’s heyday was the mid-late nineties where by it covered the games scene in a way that no magazine had really done before, or since. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with me, but, it’s only an opinion and I do hope Edge goes on for another twenty years or more!
Today, print media is slowly becoming a dying trend. Why wait once a month for the latest videogame news and reviews when you can go online and get it now? Still, I look forward to the postman bringing me my monthly dose of videogame retrospectives from Retro Gamer, and with the console market entering its eighth generation, there’ll be no shortage of games and systems to cover as Dreamcast, PlayStation 2, Gamecube and Xbox all now qualify for “retro” status.