The Last of Us: Part 1 review: A discussion

Joel, from The Last of Us Part 1, capturing using the game’s photo mode.

PlayStation released the original The Last of Us, from developer Naughty Dog (Uncharted, Crash Bandicoot), in 2013, telling the story of Joel and Ellie, two unlikely people thrust together in a post-apocalyptic America, stricken with a pandemic caused by a mutating fungus that turns its victims into shambling, zombies.

The game was critically acclaimed, becoming one of the best-selling video games of all time, selling over 1.3 million units in its first week and 17 million by April 2018. It garnered numerous awards and in 2014, a remastered version was released for the PlayStation 4, followed by The Last of Us 2 in 2020. I sat down with game writing colleague Dylan Burns for a virtual chat about our time with the newly remade The Last of Us Part 1, which is out on PlayStation 5, on 2 September.

Dylan: I’ve played through The Last of Us many times. It must be five or six. I have the trophy for Survivor+ on both the PS3 and PS4 version. It’s safe to say that I’ve had a lot of The Last of Us in my life. Consequently, I found it difficult to find much enthusiasm for this remake. I thus entered my time with Part 1 feeling cynical. Why does this need to exist? Are we just going to remake games every handful of years from now on? And while I can’t say that I will actually finish Part 1 (I have played the opening few hours to get a sense of the changes), I have come around to an appreciation of the effort that has gone into this remake. I can confidently say that this is an essential purchase for anyone who owns a PS5 and has not yet played The Last of Us. Such players may be few and far between, but Naughty Dog’s market research must have shown they exist. Whether or not it’s worth triple-dipping for existing fans is a tougher nut to crack. 

The thing is, my memories of what The Last of Us is, and how it looked to me as I played it, are so ingrained that it does not matter whether it ran at 60fps or with real time reflections or updated character models and animation. The core gameplay is solid regardless of the foliage density. All that said, I could not help but be impressed at the sense of intimacy that comes from the higher framerate, improved lighting and reflections, and even the more subtle aspects such as tweaked camera shakes and changed angles during story scenes. There is no doubt that this is a labour of love and for that a lot can be forgiven. What this remake does is pull it into line with The Last of Us 2, creating a title that feels like it was released for this year, and allowing players to experience both Part 1 and 2 in a seamless way. What are your thoughts, Gerard? Were you a cynic like me, or did this come as something you have been looking forward to?

Gerard: My relationship with The Last of Us is a little different from yours, Dylan, as I haven’t played it as many times as you have. I  played through the original on my PlayStation 3 and still have fond memories of that play through. I’ve always loved the games and worlds Naughty Dog  have created and I felt that The Last of Us was a step up  in terms of the narrative and world building and it was, frankly, quite brutal in its depiction of life in a world decimated by a viral plague. 

For some reason, I didn’t go anywhere near the remastered PS4 version nor did I play The Last of Us 2. I don’t actually know why that was, if I’m being honest: I really need to get around to it. So, I actually went into this PS5 version with no preconceived expectations on what it would be like and so far what I’ve played has impressed me. 

As I progressed through the new version and heard the unmistakable guitar soundtrack, I had faint recollections of my first play through flooding back. I don’t want to spoil it for any PlayStation gamer who hasn’t played it but the game impressed me back then and so far I’m loving what I’m seeing.

It’s as you said, Dylan, this remake has brought the original game more in line with current games, at least visually from what I’ve played so far.  I’m not far enough through yet to gauge whether the gameplay has improved significantly but visually, yeah, it’s a massive improvement. It’s little things that I’m noticing the most: Like explosions and facial animations and character models. I also noticed how much more realistic something as simple as the burning barn not far from the start of the game is: It looks like a burning building, which is a vast improvement on the original which was clearly hampered by the technology of the time.

As you said earlier, it could be a little harder to convince those who have played it several times already to fork out for it again, but from what I’ve played through at time of writing shows a lot of work has gone into this remake, especially in those little quality of quality of life aspects, as well as visual improvements, of course. Can you see yourself playing this through to the end again?

Dylan: Honestly, probably not right now. Having played the opening hours of Part 1, I’ve now got in my mind the thought of one day replaying both games on PS5, but I’m net yet removed enough from the harrowing nature of TLoU2 and its unavoidable connection with the whole COVID pandemic to feel ready to do so. I can, however, see myself being pushed over the edge to include Part 1 whenever I do have the time and headspace to do so, when before I likely would have just rolled with replaying Part 2.

There’s also the fact that there have been even more tweaks to parts of the game that I deeply enjoy, such as the photo mode. I have a collection of snaps from the original that I treasure as documentation of my time with the game, and I can see myself getting hooked all over again with the added lighting options and just higher fidelity to frame and capture.

The accessibility options are also deep and customisable, and while not something made for me specifically, I often enjoy testing them out just to see if they help or enhance my experience. The addition of spoken description for each story scene, as well as all the other visual tweaks available for all manner of players, means that a whole new audience of previously locked-out gamers will be able to experience this. I think this is what draws me away from cynicism, because they didn’t need to add such broad accessibility. It is obviously respectful to people of all abilities and for such an iconic title to spend the time and effort on embracing those with perceptual hurdles  into this world will hopefully mean that other large studios hold this stuff up as mandatory for their own titles, and then build on it.

Tess from The Last of Us Part 1, captured using photo mode.

Gerard: The more I play, the more tiny little details I’m picking up. Things like more life-like facial animations and more “human” looking humans and more nuanced lighting that impacts much more on the game world than the original ever did. It has also reminded me how brutal the combat was too, especially the stealth kills. Also, if anything, this new version of The Last of Us has made me now want to play The Last of Us 2 even more. It has also reminded me what great world builders and storytellers Naughty Dog is. Sure, this is a brutal and harrowing tale set in a brutal world but it’s realised so well.

Dylan: I still don’t think this was needed, but the quality of what is here cannot be denied. I’m just wondering about the whole ‘full price’ situation. I cannot recommend people plonk down $125 for this, but there’s little doubt that sales will roll around and if you wait a while, it will easily be worth the $36 or whatever that EB games sell it for. Even the $98 ‘discount’ at Amazon is enough to tighten the bargain drawstrings and put your fingers in your ears for a few months.

Gerard: You raise a really good point, Dylan, on whether the game is worth full price, especially for those who have already played it in some form. I did a quick check of New Zealand prices and they range from $NZ108 right up to $139 so you’d have to be an extremely dedicated PlayStation fan to pay full price for a game that you’ve already played before, perhaps several times. That said, if you’re new to PlayStation and have never played The Last of Us Part 1 before, this would be the ideal entry point for newcomers.

Dylan: I think what you mentioned before has to be highlighted, though – how it is making you feel like you want to finish it and then move on to Part 2. This has to be one of the benefits of this approach, regardless of the obvious grasp at a resurgence in popularity as the television show hits (I still think everything we’ve seen of that looks pretty awful, to be honest). And, again, I also have to give Naughty Dog credit at pushing so hard for inclusive features. If nothing else, this is the main thing to be championed here, I feel.

A big thanks to PlayStation New Zealand and Australia for the early review code.

GAME REVIEW: GOD OF WAR PC: “It’s good, boy.”

A new year and another PS4 console game has made the jump to PC, with Santa Monica Studio’s God of War now available to PC gamers – and what a beauty it is.

When the game came out on console in 2018 it quickly became the poster child for how a talented development team could make games on Sony’s console sing and on PC the graphical fidelity has been turned all the way up to 11 – and it looks bloody fantastic.

I’ve completed God of War – or Dad of Boy as some like to call it – twice on the PlayStation 4 I liked it so much. The PC version will be my third play through. To this day, it is still one of my most beloved games of the last console generation. I just loved the intricately detailed narrative and the development of a character that has been a PlayStation staple since the days of the PlayStation 2.

Inspired by Norse mythology, the 2018 tale chronicles the journey of gruff Kratos and his son Atreus as they honour the wishes of Kratos’ second wife Faye to scatter her ashes from the highest peak of the nine realms. It’s a journey of discovery as Kratos learns to be a father to his son and Atreus learns more about himself and of his father’s “interesting” history.

God of War is the third high-profile PlayStation game to come to PC, with Day’s Gone and Horizon Zero Dawn already having been launched on the PC previously. There has been internet chatter that porting Sony titles to PC isn’t a good thing but it is: It means more plays get to experience great console games. Microsoft has done it for years without an uproar.

Sony says the PC version offers unlocked framerates, “enhanced” graphics (higher resolution shadows, improved screen space reflections, GTAO and SSDO, and “much more”), Nvidia DLSS and Nvidia Reflex, built-in support for DualShock 4 and DualSense controllers and ultrawide 21:9 support.

While Santa Monica Studio, the makers of God of War, oversaw the PC version, it was ported by Jetpack Interactive, a relatively unknown developer to me, but have no fear: Jetpack has done an outstanding job in porting this game to PC. It’s a straight copy: It doesn’t have new cutscenes or new missions. This is the same great game that appeared on the PlayStation 4 in 2018.

Where the PC version shines is the ability to customise things, especially graphical options, to suit the rig you have. God of War comes with four graphic presets: Low, Original (around the equivalent of settings on the PS4 version), High and Ultra. You can, of course, also run a mix of settings using the Custom option.

I started playing the game prior to Christmas and there were two updates in that time: One prior to launch and one post-launch, which seemed to have dramatically stablised the frame rates.

I played the game on an Alienware M15 R6 gaming laptop (Intel i7 CPU, 16Gb memory, RTX3080 laptop GPU) – a highly capable laptop – and on my desktop PC (i5 10600K @4.1 Ghz, 16Gb memory, 8Gb AMD RX580 GPU).

I spend a fair few hours wandering the game world of Midgard, battling Dragr, large trolls, undead people & floating tentacled things and loved the hell out of it. I also found that the optimised settings from Digital Foundry’s Alex Battaglia (timestamped in the linked video at around 16 minutes, 08 seconds) are worth their weight in gold, giving more consistent results especially with the RX580 given how highly detailed the world and characters are.

Alex Battaglia’s optimised settings (captured from my desktop PC).

I was surprised at the performance of the M15 R6’s laptop RTX3080, to be honest, as I was getting noticeable stutter from time to time but I do understand the 3080 I had is running a lower TDP (how much power it consumes under load) for the 3080 at 125W so this would have likely had something to do with that. That said, frame rates sitting in the mid to high 60s much of the time running the high preset.

Given the current state of modern GPUs in terms of pricing and availability, I really wanted to see how God of War fared on an ageing but perhaps more commonplace GPU, which is why I wanted to see how it ran on the old but trusty RX580 with its 8Gb of VRAM, a highly capable card but lacking modern finery like ray tracing & DLSS.

I was pleasantly surprised at how well the game played on my RX580 paired with my PC’s i5 10600K (running at 4.10Ghz). I didn’t notice any noticeable stutter or slowdown during game play nor cut scenes.

It seems a good CPU is the key to good performance here, and using Alex’s optimised settings – with ultra textures – I was averaging around high 40sFPS, dipping to mid 40s during heavy combat.

At times, I was getting over 60 frames per second during exploration and outside of combat encounters but it’s clear the RX580 is the handicap here. I’d achieve far higher frame rates and visual fidelity with a more modern GPU, something I hope to upgrade this year, stock and prices dependent.

Dropping textures to high, garnered a more consistent frame rate for my setup, sitting above 50FPS pretty much most of the time, even during combat heavy sequences. I could have played the game on the low graphics preset, of course, which would have given more frames but, frankly, I wasn’t going to do that, given the degradation in visual quality.

The game also has a stunning photo mode and all the images in this review were captured using the mode. The high level of detail, especially in character models, is really apparent in the photo mode.

Also – and I’m not sure whether my eyes were playing tricks on me – but I swear in some places while playing the PC version, I noticed details I didn’t remember seeing across my PlayStation play through. I’m sure it’s my eyes playing tricks but the PC version is a looker, make no mistake.

Simply put, God of War PC is a spectacular port of one of the PlayStation’s most celebrated franchises and being able to play it on PC is a win-win for all gamers.

I mean, Microsoft has made many of its best games available on both PC and Xbox series consoles day one (Halo Infinite and Forza Horizons 5, for example) so Sony making God of War available to PC gamers means more gamers get to experience fantastic gaming experiences and that has got to be good for gaming in general, right?

A huge thanks to PlayStation NZ PR for the early copy of the game.

A conversation about: Kena Bridge of Spirits

Kena Bridge of Spirits is a new PlayStation IP that has players control the titular character, Kena, a young spirit guide, as as she works to rid an evil corruption from a once-beautiful land & restore balance back to the world.

The game comes from first-time game developer Ember Lab, a creative studio more well-known for its animation and digital content work than video game making.

Thanks to Ember Lab, I got to play Kena Bridge of Spirits and I thought it was a good opportunity to have a chat about it with my gaming colleague Guy (Twitter: @nzBrowncoat), who also had a crack at it.

Here are our thoughts.

Guy: So, Kena Bridge of Spirits. First impressions in a nut shell?

Gerard: I like it. Right of the bat I just want to mention how damn gorgeous it is. It’s got a real Pixar-like visual style about it – and it’s not surprising, really, given that the developer Ember Lab have a background in animation. They’ve managed to really imbide emotion and feeling into her face, which is impressive. Game play wise, look, it’s not reinventing the wheel as it’s uses a lot of the tried-and-true platformer mechanics but a nice twist is the Rot, little spirit creatures that can Kena finds as she explores the world. They help Kena during combat and help solve puzzles around the world. What are your thoughts?

Guy: I am pleased I stuck with it. As after my first 30 minutess I was worried. It seemed very safe. Pretty…but safe but after I ticked over the hour mark I was totally sold. The combat is simple yet fun, the environments a stunning and the “Rots” scream plushy toy cute. Totally agree on Ember Labs, too. If this is their first ever game, man, what will they do next!

Gerard: Oh, yeah, they do. I love that cheeky grin when Kena discovers another Rot. I think safe is a good word there. It’s not trying anything too dramatic but it does things really competently and the game just has a feel good feeling about it. I liked how the backstory of the tormented spirits that Kena has to free is done through cinematic moments. They’re incredibly well done and I could quite happy watch a full length movie of Ember Labs’ animation work.

Guy: I think it takes too long to get to a complexity in both puzzles and combat, so that every encounter/environment is fun. For an eight hour game, I would say the first two hours could have been compacted down but I get that this game is catering for all ages, so younger gamers need a bit more of a slow burn into mechanics. What are your thoughts on the boss fight difficulty spikes?

Gerard: I agree that the combat is definitely a slow burn in that it introduces the enemy types gradually so that it doesn’t overwhelm the player too quickly but it might frustrate seasoned gamers. That said, some of those tougher enemies can really pack a wallop and I was floored a few times by some of the more aggressive ones. The boss fights up the ante, too, so you’ll definitely be challenged the further you progress. What did you think about the puzzle elements? I think it’s just the right mix of not “mind-numbingly easy but not pull-your-hair out hard”. I did like the mechanic where Kena could manipulate glowing rocks using exploding orbs, allowing her to create paths to higher points on the map.

Guy: I liked the puzzles. Chaining the energy to open doors, using the “Rots” to move items to pressure pads felt very Pikman. Sort of anyway LOL.

Gerard: Yeah, it is very Pikman-like. Nicely put.

Guy: I so enjoyed the aesthetic. Friendly, fun, inviting and just nice to be around. Its the same feeling I got playing Sack-Boys Big Adventure. So many games especially in this high-production space, are so dark and brutally violent. It was nice to play something that even for me (a 40yr old gamer) to exclaim aloud, “Ooooooh, man, that it cute right there.” LOL.

Gerard: Yeah, it totally is, right? It’s just got a fantastic feel good vibe about it and Kena is so wholesome and the Rot are amazingly cute. I smiled every time I found another one and it made that cheesy grin. Plus you can buy hats for them. Hats that look like mushrooms. Hats with horns on them. They look super cute. I can’t want to see what Ember Lab come up with next.

Guy: Haha, the hats!! I have two teenage kids who dragged themselves away from Reddit due to the beautiful graphics and ended up very vocal helping me choose and buy the hats for my “Rots”.

Gerard: Any gripes? I sometimes thought the jumping was a little floaty, and perhaps it’s because I’ve got used to having it in other games, but some kind of aim lock when Kena is using the bow and arrow – especially if you’re target shooting – would have been really helpful. I gave up on a few of the target shooting mini-games because it just proved too hard to line up the shots.

Guy: The aiming thing on the bow… the camera sensitivity is wrong. I almost doubled it from ‘default’ and it was waaaaay better. Then when I unlocked slow-mo the mini games were a breeze. Gripes? I would say the combat is not tuned enough for the punishment it dolls out. That window for ‘parry’ felt a tad inconsistent, so risking a missed parry was, too, well risky. So I tended to roll in bash-bash, and roll away. That would be my only gripe. What are your thoughts on the characters and voice work?

Gerard: Oh, yeah, the slow-mo. That works really nice in combat when you have a few foes or you want to got for a sensitive point on one of the larger enemies. In terms of voice work and characters, I thought it was well done but I would have loved to have learned more about her backstory. Overall I thought it was an amazing first effort from Ember Lab.

Guy: Overall very hard to find fault. Awesome price for the production level and level of polish on offer. Very “done-before” in terms of actual Nuts and Bolts game play mechanics and skill trees…like I said “safe”. But I loved it. It was a joy to play, the “Rots” are cute as hell and it was a perfect length for a weekend game. Nicely done Ember Labs.

Gerard: Looks like we both had a blast and highly recommend this to anyone after a nice chill-out PlayStation game (it’s on PS4 and PS5).

Kena Bridge of Spirits is out now for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.

Late to the Party: Spider-Man review

Selfie courtesy of the game’s photo mode.

Late to the Party is a n infrequent feature when I review a game that has been out for a while but I haven’t been able to review it at launch. Today, I’m looking at Spider-Man, on the PlayStation 4, which arrived a day after I had left for vacation in Canada. I was gone for a month.

For me, the Peter Parker in Insomniac’s Spider-Man isn’t the youthful Tom Holland from the most recent Avengers movies (inexperienced and unsure of his abilities), nor Toby Maguire’s Peter Parker (new to the superhero lark), but Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker, a superhero that is comfortable with his abilities and wearing the red-and-blue suit, but a little socially awkward at times.

In Insomniac’s Spider-Man, Peter Parker has been spinning the web for a while now, so he’s come to grips with his abilities and what he is capable of and the narrative features an ensemble cast of well-known villains and characters from Spider-Man lore, including Doctor Otto Octavius (Doc Oct), Martin Li (Mister Negative) Scorpion, Tombstone, Electro, (love interest) Mary Jane, Aunt May and Norman Osborn. The story has Peter defeating crime kingpin Wilson Fisk in the opening moments of the game,  putting him behind bars, only for another crime lord to rise in his place in the form of Martin Li, or Mister Negative.

As I write this, I’ve been back from  Canada for almost a week and have completed about 55 per cent of Spider-Man’s main campaign, collected 50 of the 55 backpacks and done about half a dozen research missions.I’ve also taken on thugs patrolling construction sites, tried to (unsuccessfully) capture wayward pigeons and had my arse kicked (a few times) by men armed with electric whips.

One of the first things that I noticed with Spider-Man is that Insomniac have nailed the swinging mechanic perfectly. Before too long, you’ll be performing acrobatics between skyscrapers towering above the traffic and pedestrian-filled streets and zipping through the air. In fact, the swinging mechanic is so good I didn’t feel the want (or need) to use the game’s fast travel system: It was more fun getting to the location using the old-fashioned Spidey way.

Melee combat is integral to Spider-Man and it’s top-notch, reminding me a lot of the combat in  Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series, and once I’d got to grips with the plethora of moves and combos, combat was fast and fluid, with me being able to guide Spidey from foe to foe seamlessly, filling up my suit’s focus meter which then let me unleash brutal finishing moves on hapless foes.

I watched my son, who has completed the main story (yeah, yeah, it’ll ruin the story for me. I know), and there were some hallucination sequences that, again, reminded me a heck of a lot of Rocksteady’s Arkham series (you know the segments where a tiny Batman has to sneak around while a giant Scarecrow taunts him). I’m saying that as praise, not a criticism, by the way.

There’s a lot to do in Spider-Man when you’re not doing the main story mission, from collecting backpacks that Peter has left dotted around the city and doing research for Harry Osborn using laboratories he has left around the city to unlocking corrupted communications towers (which is a game mechanic that I think has been done to death in video games) and taking selfies at famous New York landmarks. While some of the busy work seems formulaic, a lot of it was a good break from the hectic moments of the main story.

There’s a benefit to that busywork, too: The more collectibles and side stuff  you complete, the more weapons, gadgets, skills and suit mods you can unlock so there’s a real incentive to do the busy work: The results are well worth it. I mean, what’s not to love about a bomb that explodes, showering all around it with web or electric web that shocks enemies.

One thing I wasn’t a fan of is the wave-based enemy system used when you want to take down construction sites under Fisk’s control and demon bases ruled by Li but defeating bases is essential to unlock in-game Spidey suits, so I tolled away at them, but it was  my least favourite aspect of the game.

Spider-Man doesn’t  invent the wheel when it comes to third-person action games – plenty of other games have done the same thing and Spider-Man does fall into the formulaic overused video game tropes at times  – but Insomniac’s Marvel superhero game is so much bloody fun, with an engaging narrative, well-fleshed out characters and great game mechanics that it’s another reason why, for me, PlayStation is simply owning this console generation hands down.

Now to see if I can complete it before Red Dead Redemption 2 drops this week (I’ve pre-ordered the game: I’m not getting review code). I don’t like my chances.

God of War: All hail to the king

At its heart, God of War on the PlayStation 4 is a road trip featuring an angry God trying to bond with his son and forget his past, and a son who wants to be a warrior like his father but doesn’t know how.

As road trips go, this is a helluva ride, as Kratos and his young son Atreus trek to a formidable mountain to bury the ashes of the warrior’s recently deceased wife, but as fathers go, Kratos has a bit to learn and is, quite frankly, a bit of a dick to Atreus.

During an early hunting trip when Atreus misses a shot at a deer and tells Kratos he’s sorry, the bearded God simply replies: “Don’t be sorry. Be better.” Several times, Atreus frequently calls Kratos “Sir”, rather than father or dad.

Not that Kratos doesn’t try to work on his relationship with Atreus: There are  moments when Kratos wants to connect with his son – a comforting hand on the boy’s shoulder, a word of encouragement – but Kratos is clearly unsure of what it means to be a good, caring father so those fleeting moments are brief and his gruffness returns.

As the journey to the highest mountain in the realm progresses, Kratos tries to be a father by telling (rather bad) stories to Atreus as they row a canoe across a giant lake and it’s clear that the relationship between the two evolves and ever changes (Kratos becomes a little softer at times, Atreus pushes back a little) .

Kratos and the relationship with Atreus isn’t the only major change here: The scenery, too, is different, moving from Ancient Greece to Midgard, home of Norse mythos and the mighty vikings. The change in location is welcome and it’s littered with lush forests, ice-covered mountains and deep caverns and, of course, it’s all steeped in Norse legend.

Combat is dramatically changed from previous games in the series but, in my opinion, for the better. Kratos no longer has the blades of chaos that he swings from chains wrapped around his bandaged forearms (although, as if a nod to the past, he still wears the bloodied bandages) , instead he has the leviathan axe, a mystical weapon forged by two dwarfs who also created the mighty hammer of Thor. The axe can be hurled at enemies  then snapped back to Kratos like a boomerang, adding a new dimension to the combat.

The combat is still as bloody as ever, with brutal finishing moves that will cleave an enemy in half, and Atreus is  on hand to unleashing a barrage of arrows on foes as well as choke them with his bow’s string.. The combat feels satisfying and visceral although, at times it seems like it takes cheap shots by throwing in smaller enemies to the mix as you battle larger foes.  I’m not really that keen on being attacked from behind while I’m trying to avoid the fiery breath of a soul eater!

Beginning its life on the PlayStation 2,  the God of War series has always been about spectacle and Kratos’ place in the world, and this new GOW has spectacle aplenty but in previous games, Kratos was often dwarfed by his surroundings (remember the opening fight in GOW3 on the earth mother Gaia? The camera pulls back and you see Kratos is miniscule compared to his surroundings), now, Kratos is given real stature in the world,  real gravitas.

He’s now no longer dwarfed by the world as dramatically. Shifting the camera to behind Kratos’ shoulders as he moves, too, helps with this scale and shows you just how big he is. He dwarfs Atreus, who is wiry and small.

Kratos can upgrade everything from his armour and skills  to his weapons  using items found in the game world and a currency called hacksilver, and you can also upgrade Atreus’ kit as well. Quick time button presses are here but they don’t overstay their welcome, and now when you open chests you do’t have to mash buttons furiously like you used to do. The environmental puzzles won’t have you scratching your head and have you stumped for ages, either, but are clever enough that you’ll murmur a quiet “Ahhh …” when you solve one.

If you’re playing on a PS4 Pro, like I am, you’re in for a treat: God of War looks fantastic, even on my 1080p HD 55-inch TV, with amazing attention to detail and jaw-dropping vistas, and the game is bursting with colour and vibrancy.

The game world is filled with small details: Glowing particles float in the air from fires, muscles twitch underneath Krato’s skin as he moves, his beard is flecked with grey hairs, bark hangs from tree trunks. This is the best looking God of War ever without a doubt.

PlayStation 4 Pro can also chose either performance mode, which will give a better frame rate, or resolution mode, which will output at a resolution of 2160p checkerboarded. I played most of the game on the resolution mode as I like things to look purdy and the frame rate stays pretty rock solid. You’ll can also select a less intrusive UI (user interface), which means less screen clutter but personally, I like to see how much health my enemies have left.

The PS4 might not be the most powerful console in the world, but you know what? God of War is proof of what can be done when a publisher establishes a development studio like Santa Monica Studio then backs it and allows it the creative freedom to go wild and do what it does best. God of War is the result.

Ultimately, Santa Monica Studio has brought us a tale featuring a boy and a man trying to get to know each other in some pretty trying circumstances but, my word, what an adventure it is.

Simply put, God of War is one of the best games I’ve played this generation. Pure and simple.

Thanks to PlayStation NZ for an advanced copy of God of War, which is out on PlayStation 4 on April 20.

 

Yakuza: Heaps of cools stuff in a small area

This blog post is inspired by the great video that Jim Sterling did recently titled Yakuza’s Open World is the Biggest and Bestest. I felt myself nodding to everything he said so I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on the Yakuza series

The PlayStation 4-only Yakuza series’ Kamurocho district – loosely based on the city of Tokyo’s red-light district  Shinjuku  – might be small in size but it’s so densely packed with content that it puts to shame some of video games’ big, open world adventures.

I was first introduced to the action adventure  Yakuza series with Yakuza 2 on the PlayStation 2 and I was instantly captured by the craziness of the game world and the rich, deep narrative centred around main character, rising Yakuza (japanese gangster)  Kazuma Kiryu.

I love the Yakuza series’ open-world exploration mixed with almost over-the-top combat – Kiryu can switch between four fighting styles – but I think for me much of the charm comes from the Japanese audio with english subtitles and sheer craziness. Kiryu is voiced by Japanese actor Takada Kuroda (the original Yakuza had an english voice over actor but I can imagine the game would lose some of its charm) and the voice acting is just full of passion and really adds to the atmosphere.

Years passed and Yakuza fell to the wayside. I played games (a lot of games)  but  in the back of my mind, Yakuza was always there, waiting for me to come back. Last year, I decided it was time to get back into Yakuza and bought Yakuza Kiwami, and on booting it up, I instantly felt like I was home in a gaming world that I was familiar with. A few weeks ago, I bought Yakuza Zero, which takes the story back to the 1980s when Kiryu was a young, up-and-coming Yakuza.

Yakuza’s Kamurocho might be tiny compared to GTA’s Liberty City or Assassin’s Creed’s Egypt, but there’s so much content packed in that small collection of streets that I’m not sure I can go back to an open-world game that takes ages to traverse and has side quests that are just there to extend the lifespan of the game. I’ve visited Japan and visited the famed Akihibara district and Yakuza’s Japan felt familiar and warming, with  locations that seemed like they belonged in the world:  karaoke clubs, bars, noodle joints, convenience stores – and even a Sega arcade.

Yakuza’s side quests also feel as if they belong in the narrative, often quirky, light-hearted diversions from the main story. As he explores Kamurocho, Kiryu might have to pretend he’s a movie producer helping out two film crew workers who have found themselves in a spot of trouble, take a famous fighter around a few restaurants to show him a good time, or chase a variety of hooligans who stole a recently released video game from a small boy.

Even the people Kiryu interacts with have names that will bring a smile to your face: Man with Big Head,  Mr Shakedown (a giant of a man who fights Kiryu then steals his money), Bearded Homeless Man, (wait for it) Hatted Homeless Man and Mystery Man. You save your game at phone boxes, too, you can buy noodles from convenience stores, you can sing karaoke, you can race slot cars. The amount of stuff to do in a tiny world map is incredible. Just incredible.

I’m making my way through Yakuza 0 in anticipation for Yakuza 6, which was released in Japan in December, but is only coming to Western audiences next month. I’ll be trying my darndest to get it completed before I tackle the latest adventure of Kiryu.

Tragically, the Yakuza series hasn’t captured the attention of Western games like I think it should have. I think it’s probably been overlooked by a lot of Western gamers and that’s a shame. It’s a series that has a strong narrative with a likeable main character but not one that has been promoted heavily in our part of the world.

Have you got any games that you just adore but aren’t as popular as you think they should be?

 

 

Monster Hunter World diary Part 1: Where I have no idea what I’m doing

Part 1

While not a complete Monster Hunter newbie (I played a Japanese version on the PSP that I bought in Akihibara in 2008) but I’d be foolish to say that I went into Monster Hunter World having a clue on what I was supposed to be doing. That said, I thought I’d chronicle my adventures in MHW with a diary of sorts that describes how as a newbie I found things. I’ve also included a 15 minute video of me hunting a Kula-Ya-Ku bird. The video also features me climbing vines, opening my map a bit, swinging a giant broadsword, possibly eating some mushrooms and then, true to form, fainting and being carted back to my campsite. OK, here we go …

It’s me with my Palicoe buddy. Isn’t he cute?

I’ve only played about two hours of Monster Hunter World but this place is massive. I stuck with a fairly standard looking character, trying to get him to look a little like me, although I don’t have the rugged stubble on the chin that my hero does. I’ve got a cat companion called a Palicoe. I called him (I’m assuming he’s a he) Drew, after my dog. He’s a good companion so it seemed a good fit.

After completing the opening tutorial-like mission, I got to the hub world, and just like the environments, this place seems to sprawl on for ever and ever, another surprise around every corner. I followed the tutorial so I’ve learned how to (I think) upgrade my weapons and armour by going to the smithy and, importantly, how to fuel up before a big quest by gorging my face with food. I just love going to the canteen, ordering a vegetarian meal (I’m not vegetarian) and being served up a huge platter of cheese, drink and a whole fish! Cooked by Palicoes! This place is crazy.

On my first quest, which was really just exploring the world, I took down some low-level dinosaurs (I can’t even remember what they were) and hit in some undergrowth. I stumbled across some footprints that my scoutflies (is that right?) discovered. Apparently there is a big Jagras in the forest somewhere that I need to take down, if I’m up for it. Well, I decided I was up for it, despite not really knowing how combat works and still struggling with my great sword and its slow swing rate.

I followed the Jagras footprints till I eventually came him and what followed was a three-stage battle, with me mashing wildly at the action buttons on the controller, every now and then accidentally sheathing my sword when I thought I was swinging it. The Jagras puffed his chest out a lot and he reminded me a lizardy bullfrog. After a bit, he ran off, leaving me lying on the ground, having to eat mushrooms and smack flying bugs that replenished my vitality. What is this madness?

I still had to defeat the Jagras and the scoutflies lead me to his cave lair, where I found him sleeping – so I did what any good hunter in my position would likely dowould do: I whacked him in the back, hoping to injure him. It didn’t seem to work. Actually, I just seemed to make things worse. Long story short: After a lengthy battle that included hitting explosive flying things that stunned the Jagras, he was down. I was victorious!

I went back to hub world, fuelled up, upgraded my weapons (I still have no real idea what I’m doing but I’m not sporting a rather fetching outfit with armour fused with Jagras skin), chatted to my handler and was told I had to establish a hew camp deep in the forest. A flying monster picked me and Drew up, dropping us at the forward base camp. My handler tells me I have to establish another camp so off I head.

I stroll past some docile monsters, pick up some berries and other plants, and talk to a fisherman. I also collect some mucus, some dung and examine some piles of bones. I think the fisherman tells me he’s the best fisherman in all the land. Who am I to argue?  There’s a researcher woman standing a little bit further up the track. Doesn’t she know there are monsters roaming? I didn’t see if she had a weapon: I think she had a pen and clipboard, thought.

Suddenly, a Jagra appears so I hide in a bush. It walks past me then suddenly a tyrannasauraus-like monster appears. My handler tells me that I’m not to attack it as it is too strong for me. I don’t argue with her.

I eventually find the field leader who was waiting by some climbable vines that I missed completely. I think I walked past him a couple of times before realising I was supposed to talk to him. We climb up the vines, finding a flat piece of ground that will be suitable for a camp – but there’s a Kulu-Ya-Ku bird there, throwing pottery at us. I have to kill it as the camp won’t be safe if he’s wandering about.

I follow the Kulu-Ya-Ku’s phosphorous footprints, finding some doodles along the way, and eventually find him. I start swinging my giant sword at him. He picks up a bolder in his claws and throws it at me. I whack him with my giant sword, it clangs off his tail. What is is made of? Steel? The Kulu-Ya-Ku runs off but I lose track of him. I look at the map. Oh, he’s miles away. I eat some berries and carry on. Eventually, I find him, swinging my sword at him. He whacks me with his tail.

I hit some flying bug: It explodes, stunning the Kulu-Ya-Ku. I rush in for a charged swing but realise I’m facing the wrong was so watch my on-screen character swing wildly nowhere near the Kulu-Ya-Ku. My health is dropping so use the D-pad to scroll through my inventory. I find some raw meat, picking the button that I think will let me eat it. It doesn’t: The meat drops on the ground. I try again: The meat drops on the ground. The Kulu-Ya-Ku throws another rock at me.

Suddenly, a screen prompt tells me to waggle the left stick back and forth: I’ve been stunned. I frantically try but suddenly, I faint. That’s not very hero like, to be honest.

A cut scene suddnely appears, showing a palicoe tipping me off a cart back at the base camp. I decide I’m done for the day and quit the mission. I’ll try again tomorrow, once I’ve eaten a bit and licked my wounds. I’ll get you funny looking Kulu-Ya-Ku bird. I’ll get you yet.

To be continued …

Shadow of the Colossus review: An emotional rollercoaster

Thanks for PlayStation NZ for the review copy of Shadow of the Colossus. (The game was reviewed on a PS4 Pro, mainly using the performance mode but sometimes I switched to the cinematic mode just to check it out. Please note, the two videos included in this review show how to take down two colossi, so if you don’t want to know, don’t watch them.)

If a game is considered a success because of the emotions it arouses in a player, then, for me, Shadow of the Colossus is one of the best games of all time.

Despite its simple premise of a boy on a horse, traversing a vast, empty wasteland in search of 16 giants that he must kill in order to bring back his dead love, Shadow of the Colossus struck an emotional chord with me, so much so much so that I felt guilty about slaughtering some of the colossi, especially the ones that seemed to be minding their own business.

I took no pleasure in hearing their painful moans as I plunged a sword into their skulls, black liquid shooting from the gaping wound (each colossus has one or two glowing marks that must be repeatedly stabbed to kill them).  These massive beasts had done nothing to me but here I was, snuffing out their existence for my own selfish desires. I was feeling guilty about killing virtual giants, most of them shaking the earth as they crashed to the ground, lifeless.

I played the original Shadow of the Colossus on the PlayStation 2 then the remaster on the PlayStation 3 but for some reason, the game didn’t capture me then like it has now. I think I defeated the first two colossi, maybe. It could have had something to do with the less than friendly control scheme, which made for frustrating times and has been remapped here and is a vast improvement (ie it uses the R2 button for grab/hold, which is a much more ideal situation than the original game’s R1). Make no mistake, this is a re-make not a remaster. Be clear on that.

Apart from Wander (our hero), his horse Agro (is this the most wonderfully animated horse in all of video games?) and the colossi, the world is devoid of other life (apart from the odd lizard scurrying about and an eagle that follows Wander): There are no NPCs to converse with, no enemies that jump out from behind a rock to attack you, no traders to upgrade weapons,  and I think the game is all the better for it: It is singularly focused on what you have to do: Kill the colossi and not be distracted by side missions.

I started the game full of vigour and bravado, searching out the lumbering first colossus, and by the mid-point, I was starting to question that perhaps I was the monster, and not the beasts wandering the land. It tugs at your heart-strings and continues plucking as each colossus falls. Most of the colossus aren’t even aggressive towards you.

If you own a PlayStation 4 Pro, you’re in for a treat with Shadow of the Colossus, as the wizards at Bluepoint Games (longtime Sony collaborators) have given you a couple of nice options to play it in: A performance mode, which locks the framerate in at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second or a cinematic mode which pretties the graphics up but locks the frame rate at 30FPS. I played most of my play through using the performance mode: I mean, why wouldn’t you? With a game like this where jumps and perfect timing matters a lot,  a locked 60 frames per second is what you want, and guess what? The frame rate stays at that locked rate. I can’t say I noticed any hiccups or dips while playing. Sure, things look a little nicer in the cinematic mode but I don’t have a 4K TV yet, so I’ll save that mode for when I do have a newer panel.

The soundtrack deserves a mention, too. From the frantic orchestral pieces for each colossi to the quieter moments, the soundtrack is one that I could listen to time and time again. It’s fantastic. The game also has a pretty nifty photo mode, which I used to capture the images that accompany this review. Nice.

Shadow of the Colossus has faults: The camera goes wonky from time to time, obscuring your view of things and trying to climb onto Agro at times can be comical. I was also frustrated by a simple jumping puzzle against the third colossus, Gaius the Knight, for far longer than I should as Wander can’t sprint so I was forever missing the jump, plummeting to the cold water below, forcing me to try again and again and again until I got it.  Wander also can’t swim very well, which means the fight against the colossus that lives in water – Hydrus – extremely frustrating and more difficult than it should have been. I also felt that some colossi weren’t as impressive as others, for example, Gaius’ fight was awesome, Hydrus’ and Phaedra’s not so much.

Ultimately for me, Shadow of the Colossus is a game that evokes emotions –  whether that’s the intention or not by the game’s creators (I’m sure that is the intention) – both over what the player is doing throughout the course of the game and whether it’s all worth it. When a game makes you question what you are doing as a hero, as Shadow of the Colossus does, and makes you think whether you’re doing the right thing, it’s hitting all the right notes. Shadow of the Colossus hits all those notes for me.

 

 

Shadow of the Colossus: The Knight & the next one after that

I’m making my way through Shadow of the Colossus, the PlayStation 4 remake of the 2005 game which originally appeared on the PlayStation 2, but until my review appears, I thought I’d share a video of the game’s third colossi, the Knight, and the game’s fourth colossi, which I can’t remember the name of. Whatever its name is, it took far too long to defeat as I kept falling off (plus it took a long time to get into the right position). Review before the weekend, hopefully.

Enjoy the videos.

Shadow of the Colossus opening cinematics (PlayStation 4 Pro)

Thanks to PlayStation NZ, I’ve got an early review copy of the remake of Team Ico’s classic PlayStation 2 game Shadow of the Colossus, which I’m playing through at the moment (I’ve also played it on PS2 and PS3), so I thought I’d share the opening cinematics of the remake with you.

Captured on a PS4Pro, the game has been remade for Sony’s current generation console thanks to the remaster masters, Bluepoint Games, who have done other PlayStation games in the past. Look out for a review in the next week or so.

Enjoy the video.