‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part I

May 9, 2015 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews

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Nearly two years ago, American studio Naughty Dog released The Last of Us on PS3. The game went on to win more than 240 game of the year awards around the world, a number only slightly less unfathomable than the fact that there actually are so many game of the year awards to hand out. I wanted to get the game immediately, but with an 18-month-old baby, another one due shortly and this other commitment called life, I was forced to put my dream of playing the game on the backburner.

Last month, I went to Tokyo and visited a Yodobashi Camera, just possibly the best electronic stores ever created. It was in the store’s video game section that my eyes feasted on a familiar image that brought the memories flooding back. Not only that, the game had become part of the PS3 classic collection, meaning it was ON SPECIAL.

This was my face upon those realisations:

jizz

And so, despite having games I bought more than two years ago still wrapped in their original plastic covering, I decided it was imperative that I purchase The Last of Us immediately.

After returning, however, I didn’t rip into the game right away. It’s hard to describe, but I liken it to starting a new writing project — you’re excited but you’re also terrified of the commitment it’s going to take to get through to the end. Accordingly — and I’m not kidding — I spent one night admiring the cover (both front and back), and another reading the Japanese instructions manual (front to back).

And then, I was ready.

This post and those to follow it will be a diary of my experience playing The Last of Us. There could be some mild spoilers, but I’ll keep the big revelations concealed for those who want to check it out for themselves.

Day 1 (May 5, 2015)

– Man, I miss the days when you can just plug in a cartridge, turn on the system, and get playing right away. These days, you have to first log in to the Playstation interface, select the game, and then, just when you’re pumped to go, it tells you that you have to update the “system” and install some underlying game files. The same went for The Last of Us, meaning I had to wait about another 15 minutes before I could actually get into the game.

– I also missed the old loading times, or lack thereof. You don’t notice it once you’re into the game, but in the beginning The Last of Us took so long to load I thought the game had stuffed up.

loading

You see this a lot in the beginning

– Finally, we’re in. The first thing that struck me about the game was how cinematic it looks and feels. Games these days all tend to go down the cinematic route, with Heavy Rain in particular sticking out in my mind (I haven’t played a lot, as you can tell), though The Last of Us takes it to another level. The camera angles, the cuts, the spot-on musical score — it’s no wonder a movie version is in the works, set for release in 2016. It’ll be easy — the director can probably just take scenes from the game and film them again in exactly the same way.

– The opening scene of the game is an eerie one that sets up the calm before the storm. The protagonist, Joel, returns home from a long day of work and his baby girl is waiting for him. It’s a sweet little scene that takes minimal time to construct a genuine father-daughter relationship before the shit hits the fan. And boy does the shit hit with a splatter. As most of you know, The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic horror-survival drama game (what a mouthful) set 20 years after a viral outbreak that has wiped out most of civilization.

lastopening

So sad

– After the trauma of that superbly executed opening sequence — which holds its own against any post-apocalyptic zombie movie in recent years — we get the intro credits, a work of art in its own right. It’s stylish, informative, and reminds me of the openings of the best shows on TV in the modern era.

– When the credits finish rolling, the story moves forward by 20 years. There are a few safe/quarantine zones scattered around, with martial law being the norm. Joel has become a member of a shady group of smugglers in Boston. And here’s my first complaint about the game — he looks a little too similar to how he did 20 years ago; just greyer hair, a bushier beard and a few more wrinkles around the eyes. Perhaps the difference is more noticeable on the PS4 version, but the numbers don’t fully add up. We have to assume Joel was probably in his mid-30s in the opening scene, meaning he would have been in his mid-50s by the time the game begins “properly”. And he looks a little too buffed for a dude living in a world where food is insanely scarce. I think I thinner Joel would have been more realistic, and perhaps a clean shaven young (or stubble) Joel would have brought out the age difference more.

Young Joel vs Old Joel

Young Joel vs Old Joel

That brings me to the end of my first day of playing and Part I of my Last of Us Diary. I only played it for about 20 minutes, but I’m starting to feel that the hype surrounding this game is not unwarranted. Seriously, I already think it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played, and I haven’t even done anything!

Stay tuned for Part II.

PS: Just about everyone I spoke to about the game said I should have gotten a PS4 so I could play the remastered version of the game released last year. It was tempting, but ultimately I knew it wouldn’t be a wise investment given how little I get to play consoles these days. Besides, the graphics on the PS3 look good enough to me.

Game Review: Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting (PS3)

May 8, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews

IPPO

When visited Japan in October last year, I nearly blew a blood vessel when I saw a poster for Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting, the greatest boxing manga ever known to man. That blood vessel probably burst when I realised that the game would not be released until December. I then kind of forgot about it until a couple of months ago, when I saw that the game was available for download on the PlayStation Network for a consideration discount. And though I hadn’t played my PS3 for months, I decided it was time to dust it off and get back into action.

Hajime no Ippo is the longest-running boxing manga in history. It started in 1989, a year before Mike Tyson would be knocked out by Buster Douglas in Tokyo, and it’s still being drawn today by the same artist, George Morikawa. There are now 110 single volumes and nearly 1,100 individual weekly entries in the series, and the amazing thing is that the main protagonist, former bullied high school student Ippo Makunouchi, is still not world champion. That takes patience and dedication.

Volume 1 of Hajime no Ippo (1989) vs Volume 110 (2015)

Volume 1 of Hajime no Ippo (1989) vs Volume 110 (2015)

The other reason I was so excited for the game was because Hajime no Ippo, the franchise, is also responsible for arguably the greatest boxing simulation video game ever made, Victorious Boxers, a game I still occasionally break out on the old PSP on long journeys. The game, and its comprehensive training-mode version Victorious Road (PS2) — based on the foundations of the classic Boxer’s Road series — features the smoothest and most dynamic gameplay system I’ve ever experienced on a boxing game. Most gamers only know about the Fight Night series, but if you want fun, exciting simulation boxing that feels authentic and awesome, then Victorious Boxers is the one.

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Victorious Boxers, still the best boxing simulation around

The last Hajime no Ippo game I tried was Hajime no Ippo: Revolutions, which seemed like the greatest idea of the time because it utilises the Wii’s motion controllers, but the game itself turned out to be quite a disappointment because of the system’s inability to capture precise hand and body movements. My guess is that it’s the same reason why there are so few motion-based boxing games out there.

The Wii version was a great idea without the hardware to pull it off

Anyway, back to Hajime no Ippo: The Fighting on the PS3, the first game in the franchise since 2008. I knew the graphics were going to be fantastic, but apart from that I didn’t know a whole lot more.

After playing it quite a bit over the past month, my overall impression is that it is a fairly fun, albeit somewhat repetitive game that is far more arcade than simulation. It’s much closer to an advanced version of Punch Out than Victorious Boxers. In fact, the games it most resembles, in my mind, are those Dragon Ball Z games where people beat the crap out of each other like Street Fighter but have these insane special/finishing moves that are unstoppable and unblockable once the correct buttons are pressed at the right time. The result is a fast-paced arcade-style boxing game you will probably play a lot for a little while and then never touch it again.

Graphics

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Like Revolutions, The Fighting goes for a stylish anime look as opposed to the old polygons or “realistic” representations of manga characters. The lines are thick and there’s a distinct hand-drawn feel that almost makes you feel like you are watching the show’s long-running anime series. Personally, I prefer the CGI-type renderings in Victorious Boxers, but I suppose for an arcade-style game the artwork matches.

Sound

Hajime-no-Ippo_09-17-14

I am assuming they got the original anime voice cast for the game, and it sounds good. It’s got the typically lively manga-style music that will get your blood steaming and the sound effects will make you feel like bones are being crushed (and sometimes they are) by the punches. It’s all very over-the-top in the way that the anime is.

Gameplay

The core of the game is its story mode. You start off with Ippo, of course, and follow the progress of the manga in terms of which opponents you face. When you beat an opponent you add him to the roster, meaning you can start using that character in the free play mode or, if they have one available, their own story mode. Certain characters can only be unlocked once you complete a story mode for a certain character.

IPPOO

Before each fight, there’s a bit of story that plays out in manga form. It’s nice to relive those moments but after a while you’ll start skipping it and get straight to the action.

Unfortunately, like some of the previous Hajime no Ippo games, not all characters are available. This will disappoint a lot of fans as it did me, because part of the allure of games like Victorious Boxers is that you can fight every single guy Ippo has ever faced in the manga. Here, the roster is simplified down to just the key guys and the most popular characters, meaning you won’t get to take on characters such as Ponchai (whom Ippo first used his Dempsey Roll against), Hammer Nao, Iwao, Jimmy Sisphar, and so forth. Given that the game was released in late 2014, the newest character introduced is Alfredo Gonzales, though the big boss, Ricardo Martinez, is of course also available.

The way the game stretches out the story mode is by offering an “IF” alternative path, which is automatically triggered if your character wins certain fights they are lose in the manga or lose certain fights they win in the manga. For example, if Ippo beats Date in their matchup, that would open up a new path the character would be able to pursue, even though the original path will still be available if you play it again and intentionally lose that fight. You have to complete both paths to “finish” that particular character.

Ricardo Martinez is still the ultimate boss

Ricardo Martinez is still the ultimate boss

This method opens up a new world for characters who don’t get to fight a lot in the manga or anime. That said, apart from a newly invented manga story intro to the fight, it doesn’t really add much more to the playing experience because you can simply create the same matchups in the free play mode.

Speaking of which, I feel like the free play mode is essentially for players to hone their skills and gain experience points. Yes, there are experience points to be gained after each fight and characters can level-up to make them stronger. Some characters start off their story modes against extremely difficult opponents — ie, Takamura’s first fight is against Brian Hawk — so you may need to go to free play mode to build him up a bit before going back to challenge them again.

As I alluded to above, the gameplay of The Fighting is pure arcade action. You have a button for block and different buttons for different punches — jab, straight, hook, and uppercut. The most important button, however, is probably the dash button, which allows you to side step punches, step back, or dash forward.

Each boxer has several meters they need to keep track of and is all up on the screen for everyone to see. There’s of course the health meter, and emptying that means your fighter will be knocked down. Each time you get knocked down you lose a “life”, so to speak, and when you run out of those you get knocked out completely (unless the three knockdown rule is in effect and you get knocked down three times in a round). In other words, you know exactly when a fighter is going down and whether he will get back up.

There is also the stamina meter, which reduces each time you throw a punch and recovers fairly quickly when you don’t. If you run out of stamina your boxer will just stand there puffing, opening him up to barrages of punches from your opponent. There’s the block meter, which decreases every time you block a punch and lets you know when your character’s block will be broken make you vulnerable to attacks thereafter.  Lastly, there’s the finishing move meter, which accumulates throughout the course of the fight. Once it is full (I believe there are three levels all up), you can press a button to execute the special move. It looks like an ordinary punch with a blue light around it, but once it hits, the game automatically enters into a cut-scene where the character will summon the special move and deliver massive damage to the opponent.

Each round is a sped-up three minutes, and after each round you’ll get to rest and read strategy advice from your corner. Each character has a set of skills (some have more, some less) that can be equipped before the fight and in between rounds. The skills — such as stronger jab, stronger endurance, better counters, etc) are obtained by beating certain characters in the story mode, and some skills are exclusive to some boxers. A skill could also be activated in certain situations, such as if you are knocked down or injured, or if you’ve done so to your opponent. Then there are skills that can be equipped that cancel out skills equipped by your opponent. It’s not that complicated.

There are two keys to mastering the game — combos and counters. The first is to learn the combos of your particular fighter, which you can conveniently access in a drop down menu once you pause the game. Some boxers have unlimited combos that can go on for eight punches or nine punches until your character runs out of stamina, and almost all characters have “Sunday punches” that can break through blocks at the end of combinations if you key them in the right order.

The Verdict

To be honest, I was kinda disappointed after I started playing The Fighting. I loved the simulation-type boxing games and this was more like Street Fighter, which is less fun when you play by yourself. It’s really repetitive and one-dimensional. You just have to block, side-step punches, then counter. Rinse and repeat. It becomes a meter-denting exercise that doesn’t take a long time to learn.

Additionally, there are probably only two knockdown animations and the character always looks exactly the same when on the canvas. The finishing move animation is also the same every time and you might start to get sick of how long it takes to execute after a while. And being an arcade-style game, there’s no blood, with only a couple of levels of facial swelling that’s nowhere close to what you see in the manga.

That said, after a while, I started really getting into the game and found it to be highly addictive. The skill-level required turned out to be higher than I anticipated. While it is still a meter-denting and button-mashing exercise at heart, each character has different strengths and weaknesses — not to mention combos — that take time to master. Each opponent also requires a slightly different strategy, one that might take more than a single attempt to figure out. If you damage an opponent’s skull or ribs, for instance, you might need to keep attacking the same spot to maximise damage. Sometimes to win you will need to toggle the skills a little to neutralise your opponent’s advantages. It’s little things like that that can make the game exhilarating.

Accordingly, I played The Fighting religiously for a couple of weeks straight and had lots of fun, but once I stopped, there was no urge to ever play it again. I might give it another go if I get the chance to play it with someone else, but for now, it’s going back into the vault. This is one for the fans of the franchise and arcade-style boxing games. Those looking for something to take the mantle away from Victorious Boxers will still have to wait.

7.5/10

Game Review: God of War: Ascension (PS3)

July 10, 2013 in Game Reviews, Reviews

god-of-war-ascension-cover

God of War III on the PS3 is, to this day, one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It’s stunning to look at, with innovative controls and gameplay, brutal combat and kill moves, jaw-dropping bosses and boss battles, and a captivating storyline that will have you immersed in the world of Greek mythology. (My full review of that brilliant game can be found here.)

And so it was with great excitement that I purchased a copy of God of War: Ascension during my trip to Japan in March, even though I had about half a dozen games I hadn’t even played. That’s how much I wanted to play it.

It took a few goes, on and off, to get through the game (you know what it’s like when there are more pressing concerns like work and a family), but I finally managed to complete the first run through the other night — a huge accomplishment in itself.

Unfortunately, Ascension could not come close to replicating the wonderful experience I had with GOWIII. Technically, it is as good as the series has ever been, with some astounding backdrops and beautiful scenery. The gameplay is pretty much the same, but with a few nice new additions including the ability to make an object move forward and back in time and create clones of yourself. The boss battles are still epic and the bosses themselves are bigger than ever.

But to be honest it didn’t feel like the game broke any new ground. GOWIII was such a massive step up from GOWII, but Ascension felt like the makers of the game were just trying to cash in on the success of the franchise by adding a bit of spit and polish to GOWIII. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but the lack of ingenuity and innovation did make the game feel a lot more stale and repetitive than its predecessor.

Even mini-boss battles are still epic

Even mini-boss battles are still epic

Ascension is actually a prequel, chronologically the first game in the series. That said, I wouldn’t have known that without reading about the game, because the storytelling this time around is sorely lacking and too convoluted for my liking. I wish I could explain what the plot is about, but I seriously have no idea. I didn’t skip the cut scenes or anything, but all I knew was that there were a bunch of scary-looking ladies I had to fight.

It’s a real shame because Acension, as a standalone game, is still pretty awesome. I still loved the combat gameplay, especially against the epic bosses, which are usually broken down into several phases and require a very long time to conquer. The kill scenes are more gruesome and bloody than ever, and really bring out the power of the PS3 graphics, with the blood specks and splatters clearly visible in the detailed close-ups. The game itself, on the first run through, probably takes about 13-15 hours (which is fairly substantial), and then there are some extras which allow you to restart the game with a different-looking character/outfit but fully-charged weapons.

However, these solid elements don’t quite add up to a memorable game. Part of it is the lack of innovation from GOWIII, but I think it also has something to do with the storytelling and the lack of variety in the game’s progression. In GOWIII it never felt like you were doing the same thing over and over because one minute you might be scaling walls and fighting minions, and the next you could be sliding down a ramp, solving puzzles, then engaging in an epic boss battle. Ascension’s gameplay didn’t feel like it had that variance, and the puzzles also weren’t as creative.

What Ascension does have going for it is the online multiplayer aspect. I haven’t tested it much yet but the ability to play with other people is an excellent addition to the franchise. My main complaints are of course the inability to use Kratos (apparently the developers didn’t want everyone choosing Kratos, as they probably would), and also the inability to play offline with two controllers (or more) on the same system and TV. Not everyone loves online play, you know.

A scene from a multiplayer mission

A scene from a multiplayer mission

On the whole, God of War: Ascension is a sound addition to the GOW franchise, but it’s also one of the more unremarkable ones. Perhaps it’s because I was too spoiled by GOWIII, but despite its strengths there just wasn’t enough freshness or variety to make Ascension a must-have for PS3 gamers.

7.5/10

Game Review: Sleeping Dogs (PS3)

December 9, 2012 in Game Reviews, Reviews

I hadn’t played a video game with a storyline since I was immersed in Heavy Rain and Infamous well over a year ago, mainly because such games require a significant investment of time which I don’t have these days. Nonetheless, I kept hearing rave reviews about this Grand Theft Auto-like game based in a Hong Kong called Sleeping Dogs (I would have thought Eating Dogs was more appropriate), so I decided to put away some spare time to tackle it.

It turned out to be an investment with great returns, as Sleeping Dogs was an addictive and fun experience that has enough distinctive qualities to separate itself from all the other open world games out on the market. If you’re a fan of open world games such as GTA and Infamous and/or fans of Hong Kong gangster movies then it’s likely you’ll enjoy Sleeping Dogs as much as I did.

You play Wei Shen (a transliteration of “dangerous” in Mandarin), a HK native who has returned after spending years in California to work undercover for the HK police. He infiltrates the Sun On Yee triad organization, starting off from a low-level enforcer and, over the course of the game, rises through the ranks to become an invaluable member of both the triads and the police. As the stakes get higher and higher, Wei Shen finds himself torn between the two sides, blurring the line between good and evil  and forcing him to decide where his loyalty ultimately lies.

From a story perspective, it’s a game that steals from HK gangster movies such as old classics like A Better Tomorrow and newer hits like Infernal Affairs. The swearing and violence are full-on; there are street brawls with kung fu moves, meat cleavers and machetes, car chases and crazy shootouts. You can drift up and down the mountain paths like Initial D, run all day and swim in the ocean, sample local delicacies, hack computers and install surveillance cameras. It’s old fashioned yet refreshing in a lot of ways.

The gameplay also steals from many of the more successful video game franchises. It is based on the GTA foundation which allows open world exploration with a main core mission, dozens of side missions, mini games and plenty of other stuff to check out and do if you can’t get enough. It’s not quite like Infamous in the sense that you can choose to be “good” or “evil” by selecting a certain route of missions, but it is similar in the way you can attempt both “police” and “triad” missions and level-up both sides to learn different skills and abilities (eg, car jacking without setting off alarms, etc).

The graphics are excellent but by no means revolutionary. The game provides a sprawling, glittering vision of HK that isn’t quite “realistic” but captures the city’s reputation and charm with a mix of high rise buildings, traditional ghettos and neon lights. The characters’ faces look genuine enough, although a little more facial movement could have added to their emotions. It’s one of the better looking games out there but you can’t really it to the best of the best because of the vastness of its open world nature. As often is the case with such games, camera angles occasionally become problematic, but not to the point where they become annoying.

The voice acting is brilliant, led by Will Yun Lee, who voices Wei Shen. He’s not particularly well known right now, but that could change after he plays the Silver Samurai in The Wolverine next year (though perhaps not Mortal Kombat Legacy). Many of the supporting characters are played by Asian and Hollywood stars, including Edison Chen (sorry, no sex scandals this time), Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson, Kelly Hu and Lost‘s Yunjin Kim — but its Mrs Chu (voice by Irene Tsu), an old-fashioned triad mother who works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, gets my vote as the best of the lot.

You don’t wanna mess with Mrs Chu

The combat system is apparently modelled on the Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games, which I have not played but understand it is a freeflow combat system which features both hand-to-hand fighting and melee weapons. You can punch and kick, perform roundhouses, tackle people, trip people, break arms and legs — the whole shebang. You can also accomplish cool/sick kills by utilising the surrounding environment, which ranges from phone booths and electrical panels to wood saws and swordfish (!).

As the story progresses, you get to use a variety of guns which adds a new dimension to the game by allowing players to take cover, fire blindly and target specific enemies and body parts. You can even leap over certain obstacles and fire while time slows down. It’s all pretty cool, and there are always tutorials to make sure you get the hang of things before you start testing them out on the streets.

The driving system is similar to GTA and allows players to shoot from moving vehicles. Also added is the ability to jump from moving vehicles and guiding indicator arrows to let you know where and when to turn if you have a set destination, which really helps if you have trouble keeping an eye on the road and the map at the same time. My favourite is the ability to hail down taxis to take you to a destination of your choice, which saves a lot of driving time especially when you have to drive all the way across town.

In-game driving footage

The biggest strength of the game is the compelling core story, which is what makes it as good as any of the other open world classics. I was surprised by the effectiveness of the storytelling and the well drawn out characters. I inexplicably grew to care about Wei Shen’s plight and understood his obsession and rage. And some of the multi-part core missions involving one-on-everyone fights and shootouts are simply incredible, as epic as the climax of any HK gangster flick. The introductory mission, the wedding, the hospital shootout and the final mission are the high watermarks in my opinion.

The shorter side missions are nice too. Wei Shen can go on dates with various girls, go drag racing (on a bike or car), do favours for people, go on drug busts, gamble, bet on cockfighting, join a fight club or collect stolen statues to learn new martial arts moves from his master. Most of them will pop up from time to time on your map, but some can be random happenings you stumble across on the street. They do get repetitive after a while, but the same can be said for most open world games.

The trimmings are really for the die-hard fanatics. I’m talking about finding all the health-increasing shrines and locked suitcases littered throughout the city, becoming a karaoke master and improving the collection of outfits, cars/bikes and paintings in your possession.

It’s really a question of how much you want to explore. The game took me around 23 hours to finish on its maiden (and probably only) run, which included a lot of time on the fight clubs, side missions and especially the drug busts. A friend of mine, however, told me it took him just over 10 hours to complete when just focused on the core missions, so it’s up to the individual how immersed they want to be.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether you want to go straight through to the end or take the scenic tour, Sleeping Dogs is a whole lotta fun. There are ample open world games out there these days but Sleeping Dogs takes the best of those games and adds a unique HK flavour to go with its compelling core story, superb voice acting and timely humour. I might even consider buying the some of the online add-ons, in particular the Nightmare in North Point expansion title with Chinese vampires/zombies!

9/10

 
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