“The Last of Us” is a near masterpiece

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Naughty Dog’s “The Last of Us” has been available for just over two weeks now, and in that time, it’s been reviewed ad nauseam by every major games blog and even some publications that don’t normally cover that sort of thing. But it’s for good reason, because “The Last of Us” doesn’t just represent a fresh take on the survival horror genre, but it delivers one of the most memorable gaming experiences in quite some time. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive my copy until this past weekend, and as such, doing a typical review seemed pointless. So instead, I’ve put together a list of the Top 5 reasons why you should rush out and buy/rent “The Last of Us” if you haven’t already.

1) Story: There’s a lot to love about “The Last of Us,” but none more so than its rich, cinematic storytelling, which develops characters that you actually care about as they evolve throughout the game’s year-long timeline. Similar to “The Walking Dead” in many respects, the game may feature its share of zombie-like creatures to battle, but it’s the human drama that drives the story, and Naughty Dog has done something pretty fantastic in blurring the line between what’s morally right versus what’s necessary to survive. Nature can be a bitch, but in this Cormac McCarthy-inspired post-apocalyptic setting, humanity poses an even bigger threat.

2) Production value: At this stage in the current gen cycle, it’s amazing that most games still don’t take full advantage of the power behind the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, because “The Last of Us” is an absolutely gorgeous visual treat. The attention to detail is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and combined with the excellent voice work (especially Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson in the lead roles), it makes the characters and environments feel remarkably realistic. The voice cast isn’t just recording lines of dialogue in a sound booth, but completely inhabiting their roles to the point that it’s like watching real actors at times, and that really lends to the cinematic quality of the story.

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Game Review: “Fuse”

Available for
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Publisher
Electronic Arts

The shooter genre has typically been defined by its ability to deliver things like innovation and addictive gameplay, which is what makes a title like “Fuse” seem so unremarkable. It’s not that the game, developed by the “Ratchet and Clank” team at Insomniac, is necessarily bad – it just feels rather mundane compared to some of the other shooters on the market. Heavily influenced by a number of likeminded titles (particularly Epic’s “Gears of War” series), “Fuse” offers a fun but somewhat shallow experience, namely due to the fact that it never fully develops its own identity amidst the hodgepodge of game mechanics borrowed from much better titles.

The story is generic and not terribly engaging, and part of that problem is a result of the almost nonchalant handling of the way information is distributed to players over the course of the game. It gets to the point where unless you’re tracking down and reading every single piece of supplemental intel hidden throughout each map, you probably won’t have a very good sense of what’s going on. So with that in mind, here’s the official synopsis provided by Insomniac:

What happens when a violent civilization unearths advanced alien technology? In the not-so-distant-future, a new kind of arms race is about to begin. When rogue paramilitary company Raven discovers an alien energy source called Fuse deep within a classified government facility, they stage a daring mission to steal it. Soon, they use Fuse to advance their arsenal beyond anything the military has ever prepared for. Desperate to keep their discovery secret, the CIA calls in a small independent contact team called Overstrike 9 to neutralize the threat. But as Overstrike closes in on one enemy, another even more sinister reveals itself behind the curtain. And what was once an alien arms race becomes something much more deadly.

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Game Review: “Motocross Madness”

Available for
Xbox 360
Publisher
Microsoft

While not exactly an all-time classic, the original “Motocross Madness” games for the PC had a solid fanbase and are generally well remembered for their incredible crashes and speedy action. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to hear Microsoft would be reviving the series, only this time as an avatar-driven Xbox Live arcade title.

Arcade is the keyword here, because from the over the top announcer, to the over the top races, this “Motocross Madness” feels like it belongs in an old arcade cabinet, complete with motorbike controller. However, once you get past the tutorial level, which does a nice job of showcasing the high speeds, “SSX” style tricks, and the glorious return of those highlight reel crashes, you’ll likely be surprised to find that “Motocross Madness” differs greatly from those old arcade racers in how open it is.

In a race, for instance, you’ll find a plethora of shortcuts littered throughout each course, creating contests that limit the amount of course barriers and invisible walls, and instead encourage exploration in order to find the best way to tackle a lap. It’s nothing new, but except for a couple of instances where you get lost easily, it’s well done. Where the open course mentality really shines, though, is in the free ride mode, where you are granted a sizable map to collect coins and skulls, which can be used to unlock new items, and more importantly, plenty of room to pull off amazing jumps and tricks.

These open levels consist of three sections and are absolutely huge. Every area is littered with multiple insane jumps, as well as unique areas you’ll run across like amusement parks or castles which provide even more opportunities for creative havoc. My biggest problem with the mode, however, is that unless you are really, really obsessed with finding big jumps and exploring the areas or unlocking everything, there just isn’t much incentive to invest serious time in it, and the novelty can wear off quickly. I would have even settled for scaled down environments if they could have been loaded with more objectives, kind of like the old “Tony Hawk” games.

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Game Review: “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14″

Available for
Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Publisher
Electronic Arts

Since much doesn’t change in the world of golf (they still use clubs, for instance), it usually takes more than a roster update to justify a new “Tiger Woods” installment each year, making the series one of the perennially fresher entries into the annual sports game genre, as new ideas become an expectation for fans.

“Tiger Woods 12” is a great example of this, as the famed Masters tournament was finally added, and the luster it provided to the game made it arguably the greatest golf experience yet. In comparison, “Tiger Woods 13” added a mode that let you play as a freaky looking child version of Tiger Woods. Suffice to say, it was less successful in providing that same feeling of a complete experience, and golf fans were left with little reason to abandon the 2012 edition. Until now, that is.

Because now comes “Tiger Woods PGA Tour 14,” and with it the most complete and engaging translation of the sport of golf to video games the world has seen. The biggest factor contributing to this is the heavy emphasis on golf legends in the game, exemplified with the Legends of the Majors mode. Similar to the historic moments mode in the “NBA2K” games, here you can play through some of the biggest events in golf history, ranging from the dawn of major tournament play in 1860, to the Jack Nicklaus dominance of the 70s, all the way to the Tiger Woods era, and everything in between.

Spanning over 140 years, there’s hardly a major moment that is left out, making the mode an interactive textbook history of golf. It’s also highly enjoyable to attempt to meet the win conditions of each scenario (there are two for each moment), and the variety of the challenges is creatively impressive. Bonus points are awarded for the period accurate clothing and looks, which includes graphical filter changes like sepia tone or Technicolor to make each period uniquely stand out.

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Game Review: “Madden NFL 13″

You know, I think “Madden 13″ might be the most depressing game ever made.

Seriously, when I first booted it up, I was greeted by the new (and very well done) menu score, loaded up a quick play Redskins vs. Cowboys game, and marveled at the new presentation that so perfectly recreated a CBS broadcast, it managed to subside my summer longing for the football season in earnest. From there, I’m welcomed to a beautifully rendered Cowboys Stadium by the new, and enjoyable, announce team of Jim Nance and Phil Simms who actually bring some enthusiasm to the booth again, as they give a fantastic and accurate introduction to the matchup. As you might expect, the set up and presentation to “Madden 13″ are phenomenal — I would even use the term unrivaled, in terms of sports games.

Then things actually get even more encouraging when I took the field. The new “Infinity Engine” that runs the game manages to avoid being a buzzword, and actually changes the gameplay in an initially significant way. Essentially the new engine attempts to prevent the canned animations and the predetermined outcomes they led to, by allowing for dynamic player reactions to on the field situations. It’s appropriate then that the cover boy this year is Detroit Lions great Calvin Johnson, as a play is never really over or decided until it is actually over and decided, much like the plays of Johnson himself. This new engine is bolstered by further innovations such as the ability to cancel a play action animation on the fly and regain control, or how defensive backs can hunt and track a ball with unprecedented levels of control. The goal of this year was obviously to make the on-field action feel more organic, and you may be surprised at how well this is achieved at first.

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