‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part VI — Say Hello to My Little friend

May 21, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews

Hunters

Here come the Hunters

Note: This is the fifth part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here, Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here and Part 5 here.

Day 10 (May 14, 2015)

After farewelling the affable Bill, Joel and Ellie keep driving until they reach an elevated bridge packed with abandoned cars, forcing them to change route. This leads them right into a trap set up by “Hunters”, basically criminals who hunt down travellers and other people for their possessions and god knows what else.

Joel, having been “on both sides” in the past, is able to see through the act and avoids the initial onslaught, but their car eventually crashes and they must take out the nasty dudes one by one. Vastly outnumbered, it’s just not a smart idea to take these guys head on, so stealth, quiet kills (either by choking or shiv) and taking hostages becomes very important.

What shocked me, however, was that some of these bad dudes had impressive weapons of their own, including my favourite, the Molotov cocktail. There was this one time when I killed one of the Hunters and was feeling very pleased with myself as I waited behind a car for his companion to walk right into my lap, and before I knew it I was on fire and screaming! The bastard threw a Molotov cocktail at me! That’s my move!

molotov

Watch this

Molotov2

Bwahahahaha!

This brings me to the subject of weaponry, another aspect of The Last of Us that hits the nail on the head. The weapons system in this game is sublime. It’s smooth, it’s real time, and it’s neither too easy nor too hard. I still stuff up way too often when I panic, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

The fundamentals are straightforward. If you don’t have a melee weapon, you can punch and kick your opponent with the square button. It’s not as simple as button bashing, however, as if you time the punches wrong or if you are out of range, your opponent will seize the opportunity and beat you up. Dudes can also grab you from behind like in a prison shower, so you need to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Occasionally, the game offers an opportunity to perform a counter move, at which time the triangle button will pop up on the screen. If you press it in time, you can evade a punch and then carry out attacks of your own.

Take that!

Take that!

Bullets are relatively scarce throughout most of the game, so I was a big fan of just punching it out. It’s a great stress reliever, especially when you’re surrounded by so many enemies. Even better than punching people is a great melee weapon — like tyre irons, baseball bats and wooden beams — particularly one that has been “upgraded” so that the blades get “stuck” in the enemy and you have to pull it out. The only un-upgraded weapon that has a similar effect is the axe. I may have just outed myself as a sadist, but boy it is satisfying.

The axe is Jack's fave weapon too!

The axe is Jack’s fave weapon too!

Moving on to projectiles. The game has the brick and the glass bottle, both of which can be used to divert the attention of an enemy or stun them, so you can then run up and hack them to pieces! It’s one of the most useful items in the game, especially against gangs of clickers or when there aren’t many human enemies to battle.

I already mentioned the Molotov cocktail before. My second favourite after that is the smoke bomb, which creates a cloud of smoke to briefly incapacitate a group of enemies. The most valuable aspect of this weapon is that enemies will not shoot at you through the smoke, which is particularly useful when taking on multiple baddies.

The one I use the least is the nail bomb, which sounds nasty and is quite explosive, but I tend to prefer the Molotov because I like watching my enemies burn. With the nail bomb there’s just body parts left lying around in the aftermath.

nailbomb

I really don’t know why I don’t use the nail bomb more

In terms of guns, The Last of Us has plenty for players to find and upgrade. You start off with a small handgun, but later one you will come across shotguns, rifles, magnums, guns with scopes, and even a flamethrower. I like how the game splits them into short and long weapons, so you can equip one of each at a time for ease of access. If you want to change guns you’ll have to crouch down and reach into your backpack, which could render your vulnerable to enemies. As the game progresses, you’ll get the opportunity to add one more holster for both short and long weapons.

The shittiest long-range weapon has to be the bow and arrow. I’m a big fan of Daryl Dixon from The Walking Dead, but the bow in The Last of Us is not a crossbow but more like a Katniss Everdeen bow. It’s quiet, but the range is limited and shaky as hell, and if you miss they’ll all know about it.

Daryl's crossbow would have been much better

Daryl’s crossbow would have been much better

My favourite short weapon is probably “shorty”, which is more or less a short shotgun. I can’t aim when I freak out, and shorty provides a pretty solid blast radius. My favourite long weapon is the good ol’ shotgun. Again, it’s the blast radius that I like, though it’s its ability to blow apart enemies at close range that brings me back to it over and over again.

Shotgun

Shotgun blasts at close range are the best

And of course there is the flamethrower, which is one of the last things you’ll find. I don’t find it super useful because it has a relatively short range, but the effects are undeniable spectacular.

flamethrower

The flamethrower in action in a multiplayer game

The upgrade system is based on these gears you can find lying all over the gaming environment. An upgrade — like faster reload time, higher clip capacity or reduced sway — costs a certain number of gears, so you should pick and choose your favourite weapons and just stick to upgrading those. Importantly, upgraded can only be done on tool benches, which you’ll be able to find in limited number of places.

And before I forget, I really like that you can actually see the weapons on Joel’s back. Realism!

Anyway, the Hunters are a bitch. After clearing out the first batch, Joel and Ellie venture into an old hotel and have to take out a whole other gang of them. Things get interesting when an accident forces the two to separate, and when Joel finds himself being overpowered by a macho Hunter he ends up being saved by Ellie.

Ellie blows some dude's head off

Ellie blows some dude’s head off

This leads to Joel trusting Ellie enough to give her a gun, though I certainly could not tell that she helped at all in the next sequence, when she was supposed to help me out with a rifle from above while I took on another batch of Hunters. She was useless. I was on my own out there, I tell ya.

Days 11 & 12 (May 15 & 16)

All that hiding from Hunters leads Joel and Ellie onto a building ledge, from which they travel around the building and through a window. Suddenly, Joel is jumped by a dude out of nowhere, but being the badass Joel is, he starts pummeling the dude until Ellie lets him know that there’s a kid pointing a gun at him.

The dude and the kid are Henry and Sam, a couple of brothers. They seem to be less wary of us because of Ellie, and soon an alliance of sorts is established. It’s clear these two are going to be our new travelling companions, for however long they last.

Henry Sam

Henry and Sam

Henry and Sam, as soon as I saw them, brought up memories of Michael and Walt from Lost.

walt and michael

Walt and Michael

I initially thought Henry and Sam were father and son, as I did with Michael and Walt, but as it turned out they are siblings in both cases. Harold Perrineau, who played Michael in Lost, is nearly 52 now, and even though “black don’t crack,” he’s just way too old now to play Henry in the movie version of The Last of Us unless they change it to a father-son relationship. So I don’t know who they’ll get. Michael B Jordan (the new Human Torch in the Fantastic Four reboot)? Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther)? You tell me. As long as they don’t get Jaden Smith to play Sam (who’s supposed to be 13) I’ll be OK.

Travelling with Henry and Sam was pretty cool while it lasted. There was a sad scene when they found themselves in a toy store and Sam wanted to pick up a toy robot, only to be admonished by Henry because their rule is to only take what they need. Later on, if you look carefully and not face Joel in Ellie’s direction, you’ll see her pick up the robot for Sam, which is a nice little touch to the game.

Toy store

Henry forces Sam to leave the toy robot

The plan they came up was to escape the Hunters at night via a guarded gate. I tried stealth for as long as possible, but eventually I didn’t know how to proceed without gunning down the dudes on top of the tower, so we ended up having an all-out gun battle. Fortunately, Henry could hold his own, and it wasn’t that hard to take care of all them.

After passing the gate, this suped-up armored car starts coming after them, and in the panic Henry and Sam decide to ditch Joel to save their own skins. Dick move on their part. Ellie comes back to join Joel because she’s awesome, and together they find another way out.

The armored car tracks Joel and Ellie down later on and they’re forced to jump off a bridge.

Bridge

Jumpin’ Jumpin’

The next part of the story takes a bit of a leap here, no pun intended. Joel passes out after crashing into rocks from the current, and when he wakes up he sees that both he and Ellie had been rescued by Henry and Sam. What are the odds?

Ellie convinces Joel to not smash Henry’s head in, and together they move on again, this time into some sort of underground sewerage facility packed with zombies.

Sewers

Smells nice

This was a pretty intense part of the game because it was such a claustrophobic environment. What made it worse as the gradual discovery that there used to be a group of people living in there, with little kids and all, led by this dude named Ish, who left a lot of diaries and notes lying around for people to find. They all died, of course, because some idiot left the door open or something and the zombies came flooding in. All it takes is one idiot.

This was also the place where Joel and Ellie get separated again, and for a little whole Joel ends up with Sam and Ellie with Henry. Mixed things up a little, I guess, but it didn’t make much of a difference, to be honest.

After the escape from the facility and a bit of scavenging came something a little different — an encounter with a sniper. This part was really fun but also really frustrating. Basically, there’s a sniper up in a building up ahead with a bunch of henchmen guarding him, and Joel must find a way to get to the sniper without getting shot. This meant plenty of stealth as I proceeded up towards the building, but it was extremely difficult to get to the sniper because it was hard to pick off all the henchmen without being spotted.

I died about a dozen times, more or less, before I figured out the best way, which was to throw plenty of smoke bombs to shield myself from the sniper while I picked off the henchmen. It wasn’t easy, but I got the job done, and after disposing of the sniper something even more interesting happened — I had to become the sniper!

Barry Pepper or Mark Wahlberg?

Barry Pepper or Mark Wahlberg?

As Joel waves Ellie, Henry and Sam to come toward him, the trio gets swarmed by enemy combatants, and Joel must use the sniper gun to pick them off before they get to his friends. I sucked at this, of course, so it took me a few tries to take out all the enemies.

Shortly after that, zombies come running, but it appeared that it didn’t matter whether I’d be able to shoot any of them because there were way too many anyway. I knew there must have been a reason for this, and sure enough, my fears were confirmed when the story led into a long cut sequence with Ellie and Sam. This could only mean one thing — someone was going to die soon!

And I was right. Sam got bitten during the zombie attack earlier and turned over the course of the night. And when he attacked Ellie the next morning, Henry was left with no choice but to shoot his little brother. Wracked with guilt, Henry shoots himself in the head.

Henry

Do it!

I wasn’t too torn up about it. I still remember Henry leaving me behind earlier! Karma’s a bitch, bitch.

Still, first Joel’s daughter, and now Sam. That’s two dead kids in one game already. Brutal.

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

December 25, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

catchingfirekatniss

Why is Jennifer Lawrence so awesome?

Finally, back to the cinema! I had been dying to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy, since the credits started rolling on the first film, which I thought was a brilliant adaptation of a fine book. Expectations were especially heightened given that the second book is my favourite of the entire series.

My first impression of Catching Fire is: very good again, on par with the first film in terms of execution and remaining faithful to the source material, but falling a little short of my lofty expectations. In many ways, it’s simply an extension of the first film (despite replacing director Gary Ross with Francis Lawrence, who did I Am Legend and Water for Elephants), with the same structure, mood and tone (unlike the first few Harry Potter movies where each installment was like a standalone adventure), a tale that has no real beginning and no real end, which I’m sure affected the overall experience.

No time is wasted in setting up the premise this time as audiences are presumed to know the kind of world the film is set in and what the characters just went through. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has returned back to District 12 along with co-winner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and live in the almost ghost town-like winners village previously inhabited by the only other District 12 winner in history, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). The trio are about to embark on a tour of the country to celebrate their victory, but the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland), fearing that Katniss is becoming the symbol of a potential uprising, wants her dead. If you didn’t get any of that, chances are you’ll need to brush up on your Hunger Games knowledge, because there’s no spoon feeding of information this time around.

While the story is a continuation, it does go into more depth and explores their world and history in more detail. The characters are fleshed out more and relationships and alliances are questioned and tested. And don’t forget, there is that semi-love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which is played out with a minimal amount of cringe (at least when compared to Twilight). The love story is a key part of The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t dominate it, and we can all be thankful for that.

What I love about the book, which the film follows closely, is the clever way in which (I suppose I should say spoiler alert here) the story finds a way to bring Katniss and Peeta back to the Hunger Games arena again without making it feel like a rehash. The stakes are raised, the dangers are magnified, and the creativity of the head gamekeeper (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) is on full display. We are comforted by the return of familiar characters and excited by the addition of intriguing new ones, each with their own eccentricities and backstories and all appearing to be hiding a secret or two.

 

Unfortunately, the time in the arena is relatively short, or at least it feels that way. I complained about the overlong set up in the first film and I make the same complaint again here. It’s actually worse this time as the amount of real interaction between Katniss and her enemies feels quite limited, whereas the time out of the arena — the preparation, the training, the political posturing — felt much longer by comparison. And even though her foes this time are much more formidable we don’t get to see them nearly enough, especially after they have been hyped up beforehand.

One other complaint I have is the ending, which was incredibly exciting and cliffhangery in the book but came across as somewhat anti-climatic in the film. It was rushed, strangely, given by that time the film was already pushing 2.5 hours, and didn’t do enough to set the stage for the final chapter.

On the whole, there is still a lot to like about Catching Fire. For starters, Jennifer Lawrence is as awesome as ever, and this time she is joined by some really impressive names such as the aforementioned Hoffman, as well as Jeffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone and Sam Clafin as a surprisingly good Finnick Odair. Returning stars such as Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz also make their mark without stealing any of Lawrence’s thunder. The second film in a planned trilogy is always tricky, but for the most part Catching Fire delivers with its star power, intriguing visuals and engrossing storyline. I do think the script may have followed the structure of the novels perhaps too closely — resulting in some of my gripes — and could have benefited from a less linear narrative structure, though when all is said and done it’s a solid effort and an enjoyable 2.5 hours of drama and action. I just think it could have been better.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I’m lowering my expectations substantially for the next two installments . Yes, they are also splitting the final book, Mockingjay, into two parts, damn moneygrubbers.

Book Review: ‘Mockingjay’ by Suzanne Collins

July 18, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

A post-apocalyptic world where two children from each of the nation’s 12 districts are thrust into a televised battle to the death – where there can only be one winner. That was the premise of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Not entirely original (you know, Battle Royale, etc) but with enough originality and differences to be an enticing and exciting hit in its own right.

The second book in the series, Catching Fire, amazed me by taking the story to another level when I thought it had nowhere to go. Catching Fire widened the intensity and scope of the games, provided more context and upped the characters and action. Save for a disappointing ending, it was all fans could have hoped for.

Now I’ll admit I was initially sceptical about Mockingjay, the third and final instalment in the trilogy. Collins had already milked the “reality TV goes too far/totalitarian rule” concept for all it was worth, and now faced the daunting challenge of bringing the story to a satisfying conclusion. But how was she going to do it without getting repetitive?

Well, I’m glad to say that Mockingjay is a fitting finale to the Hunger Games trilogy. It might not have the freshness and creativity of the first book or the excitement and innovation of the second, but what Mockingjay does is wrap up the story extremely well and in a way that I certainly did not expect.

For starters, the tone of Mockingjay is very dark. It’s a brutal world Katniss Everdeen lives in and Collins does not sugar coat it. Think of the darkness of the final Harry Potter books and multiply it by…a lot. There’s blood and guts and the horrors of war. There’s military strategy and politics and propaganda. There are a lot of serious themes here, and at times I had to remind myself that I was reading a young adult novel. And if you’re expecting a wonderfully gift-wrapped ending with cream and cherries on top then you’ll likely be shocked. Mockingjay is a stark reminder that the “real” world rarely turns out the way we envisage.

Without giving away too much, the story picks up from the cliffhanger ending of Catching Fire. The Hunger Games are over and this one is all about the final battle with the Capitol that ensues. Katniss finds herself thrust into the spotlight again as the rebels want her to be the symbol of the rebellion against the evil President Snow, but is she really saving the world or is she merely another pawn in their game? And what about the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale? Who will she choose? And what kind of world will she find herself in when it’s all said and done?

So as you can see, there’s lots to ponder in Mockingjay. This third book reinvents itself by stepping back from the Hunger Games to provide the bigger picture, including why the games were necessary in the first place. The focus here is no longer on reality TV but on the nature of war and power and the politics that go on behind it. The concepts and structure are arguably more intelligent and thought-provoking than the first two books in the series, and that’s saying a lot.

Collins continues to handle the action scenes with great skill, and there’s even a clever link back to the Hunger Games as the story nears its conclusion. I was also unexpectedly drawn to the ongoing love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which never forms the centerpiece of the narrative but is always there and itching to be dealt with. For the record, I think it was resolved brilliantly.

My main problem with Mockingjay is a feeling of inevitability. You know things will end with a bang and you’re forced to wait patiently through the book for it to happen. While there are twists and turns and highs and lows, I got the feeling that Collins was to some extent padding the pages in the lead up to the big finale. In that sense, Mockingjay lacked the compulsive page-turning capabilities of The Hunger Games and in particular Catching Fire. Not to say it wasn’t still a brisk and exciting read, but let’s just say I would have gotten less paper cuts turning the pages (had been reading a real book instead of an e-book).

Ultimately, I guess you could call Mockingjay a satisfying conclusion of sorts. It might not be the perfect Hollywood ending some had hoped for but I for one preferred it this way. Some may gripe that the various loose ends in the book are not tied up very well – I personally thought an extra chapter or two was warranted – though the epilogue has a haunting quality that totally kills JK Rowling’s abomination from Harry Potter 7 (and do I even need to mention the vomit in Twilight: Breaking Dawn?).

So there you have it. Mockingjay is a flawed but strong conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy, one of the rare literary phenomena these days that actually deserve much of its praise and success. I don’t think I have ever devoured a book series as quickly as I did this one.

3.75 out of 5

Book Review: ‘Catching Fire’ by Suzanne Collins

June 30, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

As soon as I finished the first book, The Hunger Games, I moved straight into the second of the series, Catching Fire.

I said in my review of The Hunger Games that my impression of it may have been tainted by the fact that had watched the film version first and had also watched Japan’s Battle Royale, which has a similar premise.

Catching Fire didn’t have to face such problems. I was sceptical at first because the core of the story is the Hunger Games itself, and I wondered how Collins could possibly squeeze out two more books that didn’t simply repeat what happened in the first. After all (spoiler for the first book ahead), didn’t Katniss and Peter win the darn thing already?

Well, those concerns were unfounded. In fact, Catching Fire completely breaks free of the parameters set by the first book and takes the series to a whole new level.

How does Collins do this? Well, for starters, she ups the ante on just about everything that made the first book good. I won’t reveal too much about the plot, but Collins finds a clever way to make the games “fresh”, from the manner in which the tributes are selected to the fascinating new characters and the innovative new battleground. Even the returning characters are given new angles as more is gradually revealed about each of them.

Collins also intensifies the relationships Katniss has with the two boys in her life, Peeta and Gale, adding more tension to the love triangle. It wasn’t my thing but could be appreciated my some readers.

The best part about it was how the story played out with a Harry Potter-esque mystery that does not get revealed until the very end. Some of it was rather predictable but I still came away impressed. The biggest compliment I can pay to the book is that it is not only better than The Hunger Games but also improves it by providing added context.

Of course, Collins still manages to infuse that addictive quality of her narrative style into the book as well. I breezed through this book by reading it any spare minute I had, and sometimes even when I’m not supposed to have the time. It’s not hard when every chapter ends on a mini cliffhanger and the writing is so easy to read.

I do, however, have two major complaints with Catching Fire. The first is that certain parts of the book felt a little drawn out, while others felt too condensed. Occasionally I got the feeling that there was an imbalance in the storytelling that needed to be addressed. The second complaint is how Collins botched the ending. After setting up the mystery so well all the way through, the book trips and falls flat on its face at the very end with an extremely rushed “unveil” and ends on a cliffhanger. The payoff after going through such an exhilarating ride turned out to be unexpectedly disappointing.

That said, it has forced me to jump immediately into the third and final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, which I hope to finish and review soon.

4 out of 5

Book Review: “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins

June 26, 2012 in Book Reviews, Reviews

Let’s face it, it was only going to be a matter of time before I set out to devour The Hunger Games, the next big thing for young adults after Twilight and Harry Potter.

The first thing I will say is that I watched the film version first (review here). I also followed that up with a viewing of the eerily similar Battle Royale (review here), which is based on the cult classic novel by Japan’s Koushun Takami. Accordingly, it needs to be kept in mind that my impression of the book has been somewhat tainted by what I already knew going in.

Hence, if I had to sum up The Hunger Games in two words it would have to be “pretty good.” For the most part, it is well-written and exciting, but lacks the “wow” factor I had been hoping for. Again, a large part of that might be because I already knew everything that was going to happen.

For those needing a brief outline, it’s about a post-apocalyptic North America that has been split into 12 districts, all of which are ruled by the oppressive central government known as the Capitol. Every year, to remind the masses of their powerlessness, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games, where one teen of each sex from every district is thrust into a televised battle to the death where there can only be one victor. The story follows Katniss Everdeen, a feisty girl from the impoverished District 12 who is pretty handy with a bow and arrow.

The film version, barring a few minor details and changes, essentially covered everything and in some cases improved on the book. So if you’ve already seen the movie, I’m not sure there is a whole lot to be gained from reading the book as well in terms of discovering new things.

That is not to say, of course, that reading The Hunger Games was not a pleasurable experience. While Collins is not on the level of say JK Rowling when it comes to storytelling, she is certainly much much better than Stephenie Meyer. Collins’ style is direct and to-the-point, plus she has a knack for action sequences. Her descriptions could be stronger but at least they are not unnecessary or over-the-top. The initial chapters setting up the world and the games are excellent.

This is a very easy-to-read young adult book that uses a straightforward, page-turning-inducing narrative (in which chapters often ended on cliffhangers) where the allegorical undertones are hinted but never fully explored. Personally, I liked it that way.

There was also a little bit of romance but thankfully it steered clear of the mushiness of Twilight. Importantly, here the girl isn’t just someone looking for love and nothing else (Bella Swan, cough cough), but is actually a strong character capable of holding her own against a bunch of badasses. And it’s nice to see the boy being the damsel in distress for once.

In all, this was a stellar start to a trilogy, though I must say not entirely worthy of the praise heaped onto it, especially considering how similar the concept is to Battle Royale, which was published back in 1999. Having now read Catching Fire, the second book of the series (review coming soon), I can say that the story really does begin to expand and grow into something truly special. But as a standalone piece of fiction for which I have already seen the film version I can only give it…

3.25 out of 5