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.

Spider-Man Remastered PC: Web-slinging masterpiece

PC gamers, rejoice: You can now play one of the best superhero video games around with Insomniac’s Spider-Man Remastered swinging its way onto PC this month.

Spider-Man Remastered was first released on PlayStation 5 in 2020, an updated version of Insomniac’s 2018 PlayStation 4 game. The PC port has been handled by Nixxes Software, a 20-year-old Dutch company re-knowned for its magic touch when it comes to taking console titles and porting them to PC.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man sees the titular superhero have to save New York from Mister Negative, a crime-lord who threatens to release a deadly virus upon the city. As Spider-Man battles Mister Negative and his plans, Spider-Man also faces off against a number of well-known enemies from comic book lore – Scorpion, Rhino, Electro – while also tackling the personal issues facing his civilian identity, Peter Parker.

Sony, clearly impressed by the work that Nixxes was capable of, bought the company in July 2021 and as well as Spider-Man Remastered, Nixxes has been responsible for the PC ports of Deus Ex Human Mankind Divided, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Marvel’s Avengers and Rise of the Tomb Raider.

The PC version of Spider-Man Remastered promises increased graphics performance using dedicated Tensor Core AI processors found only on GeForce RTX GPUs, nVidia DLAA (Deep Learning Anti-Aliasing), an AI-based anti-aliasing mode for GeForce RTX gamers, a wide range of display ratios, including ultra-wide 21:9, panoramic 32:9, and nVidia Surround multi-monitor setups as well as graphical features such as SSAO (Screen Space Ambient Occlusion), texture filtering, LoD quality, shadows, and more. 

It also comes with the City That Never Sleeps additional downloadable content which features three missions (The Heist, Turf Wars and Silver Lining) and the now obligatory – and welcome – photo mode (I’ve posted some of my best images at the bottom of this post).

I played Spider-Man Remastered on a PC that while a good performer on the CPU front (it has a 11th generation Intel i5 11600K) it isn’t packing a modern generation GPU like one of nVidia’s RTX series cards. Sadly, I’m still running an AMD RX580 with 8GB of VRAM, so to say I was a little nervous was an understatement. My monitor is an LG 27GL650F running at 1080p 144hz.

However, dear reader, I am pleased to announce that Nixxes has done sterling work with Spider-Man Remastered as I experienced an almost dream play through of the game, using the high graphics preset across the board (Recommended hardware and automatically selected by the game), returning stable frame rates and only delivering one crash that forced me to restart the game.

The game auto-detected the High graphical settings preset for my AMD RX580 GPU.

I am surprised my RX580 performed so well, to be honest, as I expected it to be like a slideshow at times, with the ageing silicon hampering my enjoyment of the game – but it didn’t. That said, my workhorse GPU can’t trace rays so I couldn’t test out the ray tracing goodness, unfortunately, so if there any GPU companies or PR people that feel like being generous and would like to send me a nice shiny graphics card to test out so I can experience the game how it was meant to be with all the graphical bells and whistles, you can reach me at gamejunkienz@gamejunkienz…

OK, back to the game.

Traversing New York as the web-slinging crime fighter is just as enjoyable on PC as it was when I played the game on my PlayStation 5.

While I could have used mouse and keyboard, it just felt more comfortable using a PS5 Dualsense controller and developer Insomniac has really nailed the sensation of skimming between buildings by a web strand, and it’s probably on par with the excellent swinging mechanic found in Activision’s Spider-man for the Nintendo GameCube.

Footage captured from my PC play through of Spider-Man Remastered (high settings). Captured using Microsoft’s Xbox Gamebar for PC.

According to FRAPs, doing fairly pedestrian tasks like wandering around Doctor Octavius’ laboratory delivered frame rates in the high 90s, while in combat and general game play frame rates tended to hover close to 60 frames per second, dropping to the mid-50s at times.

The lowest I saw the frame rate drop was into the mid-30s but only for a few moments. I experienced the odd stutter from time to time while web-swinging but nothing that affected enjoyment and I’m sure if I had dropped graphical settings to medium frame rates would have been even higher.

AMD’s own Adrenalin software monitoring program advised an average frame rate of 58.1 frames per second (using the latest 22.5.1 drivers.)

Not content with that I also monitored performance with Xbox’s PC game bar, which saw GPU usage dropping to as low as 27% during less strenuous moments, going all the way up to 100% utilisation during heavy combat (and the GPU’s fans sounded like they were working hard, too)I. The CPU was clocking in at around 4.10Ghz most of the time.

There’s no new content here just for PC: This is the same game that console players got to enjoy a couple of years ago and if you’re a completionist there is a shitload of collectibles and side tasks to keep you busy while you’re not giving the smack down to crime syndicates and bad guys (backpacks, missing pigeons, photos at landmarks, science laboratories).

You can probably tell by now that in my humble opinion this is an absolutely brilliant port of an absolutely brilliant PlayStation game. Along with the Batman Arkham series, this could quite possibly be one of the best superhero video games of all time and despite having played this before on PS5, I enjoyed the chance to play through it again.

Once again, Nixxes has shown it is masters of its craft and the fact that more PC players can now play some of the best games from PlayStation consoles is nothing but good for the industry. With the RX580, textures on Spider-Man himself and other key characters (not NPCs) were crisp and detailed, especially his suits (as you can see in a couple of the images below), and I didn’t experience any environmental pop-in as I swung around the city.

To be honest, the only thing I want to know from Insomniac, Nixxes & PlayStation right now is … how long do we PC players have to wait to see Spider-Man Miles Morales on PC as I need as much advance notice as possible to ensure I have a new GPU that can trace all them sweet, sweet rays …

A selection of photos using the game’s photo mode

A big thank you to PlayStation NZ for the early review copy of Spider-Man Remastered. At time of writing this review I had put 30 hours into the game, completed 70% of the main story, done several side missions and collected multiple backpacks.

PlayStation Plus: Subscription-based gaming library

For the past couple of months, thanks to PlayStation NZ, I’ve had the chance to check out the Deluxe tier of the revamped PlayStation Plus, which launched here in late June.

PS+ is now made up of three tiers: Essential (pretty much the original PlayStation Plus), Extra and Deluxe, with Deluxe differing from the other two in that it features timed demos of selected games, access to classic games from a variety of PlayStation formats (PlayStation 1, 2 and PSP) a catalogue of old and more recently released games and access to some of the best selling PlayStation 4 games of all time.

In essence, it’s PlayStation’s answer to Xbox’s phenomenally successful Gamepass subscription service. It comes with some caveats in our region as we (and our Australian mates) don’t get access to the PS3 library and game streaming functionality that other regions do. This means no Killzone 2 or 3, no inFamous, no Motorstorm Apocalypse and no Ratchet and Clank: Tools of Destruction.

The Deluxe tier will set you back $NZ24.95 a month, while the Extra and Essential will set you back $21.95 and $13.95, respectively.

I have to say that over the past month, the service has grown on me, especially with the games added to the service in the past day or so for Deluxe and Extra subscribers, including indie cat game Stray and just about every Assassin’s Creed game known to man.

Since the revamped service launched in our region, I’ve played games from the Deluxe tier’s game catalogue and its classics section. Much like Gamepass when I first started using it, I’ve found myself playing games that I likely wouldn’t have bought outright but have taken the risk because they’re part of a subscription service and I can delete it if I hate it for no major loss.

Case in point: The Tour de France is currently on so I downloaded Tour de France 2021 and have tootled around with that; I’m toying with golf (I’m not very good) so I’ve been plying the fairways of Augusta in PGA 2K 22 and I’ve done some laps in the most recent Formula 1 game.

They’re not necessarily games I would buy outright so Netflix-like game subscription services like this let me download, play, then delete to my heart’s content all for the cost of a monthly subscription price and without the outlay of paying full price for a game that potentially I may grow tired of but be stuck with. In that respect, the service is a winner.

However (and there is always a however), I feel that the classics section in our region has huge room for improvement. It only has 85 games and personally, not of them are classics in my eyes.

For example, we have no gems like Monkey Island 2 Special Edition, Enslaved Odyssey to the West, God of War 2, the original Red Dead Redemption, The Force Unleashed and the Sam & Max series. Here was a chance for PlayStation to showcase some of its all-time classics to a new generation of gamer and in our region, I can’t help but feel that it’s fallen short a little. Hopefully, the selection will expand and grow as the service matures.

I had great fun replaying God of War 3, thanks to the Remastered version, and it’s as I remember it being (and the remastered version here looks much nicer, too) but sadly, some of the classic titles like Ape Escape 1 are less than smooth experiences, having been made for consoles that came out generations ago and don’t always play nice with the modern PlayStation 5.

Jax and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, for example, downloaded and fired up but just refused to let me play it, failing to acknowledge any button presses. I never got passed the “Press start” screen. I don’t know if it was just me having issues but it was frustrating, to say the least.

One game that I was very pleased to see on the service was Red Dead Redemption 2, a PlayStation 4 game that for some reason continually refuses to install on my PS5 using the game disc. While the game is visually no different from the PS4 version – this isn’t a remaster, after all – it’s great being able to play it on PS5 with what seem quicker load times.

Final verdict

When PlayStation launched the new PlayStation Plus in our region at the end of June I was, honestly, a little underwhelmed by what was initially on offer but as this month’s new additions have shown, they service can only get better as it matures and new games are added to the roster.

For someone who has just picked up their first PlayStation, the new PS+ represents pretty darn good value while they get a feel for what’s available, but for gamers who have been part of the PlayStation family since the early days, and have played many PS games over the years, I can see then perhaps doing what I do with Xbox’s Gamepass: Stop and start when the mood takes me and new games appear that pique my interest.

Oh, and if you get the chance to play Stray, do it. It’s charming, touching and delightful – and I’m a dog person through and through.

Gran Turismo 7: Get your motor running, head out on the highway

The Gran Turismo series has a long pedigree with Playstation.

It’s long been a mainstay series that has pushed the boundaries on whatever PlayStation it has appeared on. This year, the franchise celebrates 25 years of the racing simulator appearing on Sony’s gaming machine.

Twenty five years longevity is a massive achievement so it’s fitting that Gran Turismo 7 is perhaps the series’ most impressive & accessible yet. It’s not perfect but it’s close.

Before you even start racing proper, there’s Music Rally, a surprisingly addictive mini-racing game where you race around a track, against the clock, while a musical soundtrack plays in the background. The timer counts down in the beat to the music with Music Rally kicking off with Hooked on Classics 1 & 2 (performed by Royal London Philharmonic Orchestra, an album I actually own on vinyl), blasting from your speakers while you drive a Porsche 356 Speedster ’56. It’s insane.

Every time you pass through a checkpoint the crowd cheers & claps and time is added to the clock. Race ends when the song finishes. Once you run out of time, you can watch the replay. While watching the replay, I realized I gave a fellow competitor driving a Mazda MX5 a good ole shunt in the rear while rounding a corner!

After Music Rally comes the controls set up section. You can pick from three control schemes. Traditional, which uses the left stick to steer; Using the D-pad or using the PS5 controller’s motion controls where you tilt the controller. This was my preferred control scheme. I don’t have a steering wheel and pedal set up so using holding the controller like you were gripping a steering wheel just felt natural.

I need to talk about the Dualsense controller’s motion controls some more.

Frankly, it is brilliant and adds a level of immersion to a driving game that I’ve not experiences before. I found myself instinctively holding my controller in front of me, arms outstretched, hands gripping the controller like it was an actual steering wheel. As I turned my hands into each corner, I actually also found my body position shifting slightly, mirroring the position of my hands. I hate using the word game-changer – I cringe every time I see it and every time I use it – but honestly, the motion controls with GT7 is just that: A game changer.

Accelerate and braking is controller by the R2 and L2 buttons, respectively, R1 changes your view and other buttons control various other functions. You can have as many or as few driver assists as you like, with difficulty starting at beginner, which has every assist activated, to expert which has every assist off. I’m not a seasoned Gran Turismo professional so I stuck with intermediate difficulty but turned braking assist off.

Graphically, Gran Turismo 7 comes with Performance mode, which targets 60 frames per second at a native 4K, and Ray Tracing mode, which isn’t full ray tracing: It’s just implemented in race replays, demo scenes and the ‘scapes photography mode.

I stuck with performance mode as quite frankly GT7 looks so freaken good that I didn’t miss the ray traced features.

Perhaps one of the most impressive features of GT7 graphically is the often at times simply mind-blowingly stunning time of day cycle, especially when the sun is starting to set in the distance and the landscape is bathed in the orange glow of the disappearing sun.

As is the way with Gran Turismo, your road to greatness starts at the bottom, giving you just enough entry credits to buy a used car from the local car dealership.

Cars range from the Honda Fit Hybrid and Maxda Demio XD to Subaru Impreza WRX Type E to a Lamborghini Murcielago LP 640 – but, sadly, you only have 20,000 credits so you’re restricted to the Fit, Demio or a Toyota Aqua S. I went with the 2014 Honda Fit Hybrid.

Then there is the Car Cafe, a seemingly strange destination at first but it soon turns out to be a rather interesting location. Owner of the Car Cafe, Luca, issues you challenges through “menus”. It’s all very high brow, and the challenges generally task you with completing a series of races in order to collect, say, three European classic cars or three Japanese compact cars by placing in the top three. The cars are the prize for winning the series (if you can’t be arsed racing you can always just buy the car, of course).

The first race I took part in was the Sunday Cup at Northern Isle Speedway: I won a zippy Mazda Demio. In my second race, I won an impressive Toyota Aqua (I genuinely think the Aqua is a neat week car).

My first car collection was obtained, I’d completed the first “menu” and I was sold on Luca and his Car Cafe.

With Gran Turismo 7, the basic fundamentals haven’t changed: The more races you compete in, the more credits you earn, the more of “locations” you unlock, the more cars you can buy.

Before too long you’ll be putting in the miles obtaining a new category licence, you’ll be taking photos at the ‘scapes photo centre, you’ll be upgrading forks, brakes and engines to eek as much performance as you can from your current pride and joy and you’ll be … pressing your nose against the glass at Brand Central as you drool over the luxury cars that will take you most likely a lifetime to afford (or hours and hours and hours of driving)!

Gran Turismo 7’s music is a strange mix, too. at times that almost clash with each other. It’s a real eclectic mix with races having at times quite poppy, modern tunes while menus have more orchestral scores, with grand pianos and saxophones. The soundtrack selection is quite odd at times and forgettable, to be honest.

One thing I didn’t like was that races were the old rolling start – and you’re always at the back. Why, oh why, do racing games insist on doing this? Why place me last out of 12 cars and force me to fight my way through to the front of the pack? I’m not Lewis Hamilton, for goodness sake.

I lost count of the number of times in my career that I busted a gut in, say, my little Citroen Clio, screeching around corners on tracks like Alsace, the occassional touch of bumpers, trying to make up ground lost by starting last to end up 4th by a lick of paint.

There’s definitely a grind with Gran Turismo 7, though, the more you progress but that has always been the way with the series: You have to put in serious time tuning, practicing and racing to achieve greatness.

That said, there is an incredible amount of depth here, there’s so much minute detail that dyed in the wool car afficionados will be positively salivating as they tune their race cars to the nth degree just to gain that crucial extra horsepower. It’s not a racing game, remember, it’s a driving simulator.

GT7 also has a rather splendid photo mode and all of the images with this review were captured with it. I’m especially fond of the ‘scapes photo mode which lets you place cars into images of iconic world location. The Mini and Corvette were photographed in front of the New Zealand South Island’s stunning geography, including Lake Pukaki.

It’s inevitable that Gran Turismo 7 will get comparisons to the Forza Horizons series – that’s just what some gamers do, right: Compare a game on one platform with a similar one on the opposition platform.

For me, though, I’d liken the Gran Turismo series to an avid collector with a stable of classic cars that they polish on weekends and take out for Sunday outings. Forza Horizons 5 is the young, enthusiastic racer with the Subaru Imprezza with lowered suspension who loves nothing more than cruising as fast as they can on a warm Summer’s night, tunes blasting from the eight-speaker Bose sound system. Both games are brilliant in their own right but both appeal to very different audiences.

I’ve yet to check out the multiplayer – the servers weren’t online yet – and the game seems to have micro-transactions embedded in it as I noticed a few pop ups when the game’s roulette-style reward system was in play that linked to the PlayStation Store, clearly allowing players to top up their in-game credits balance with real-world money. Frankly, I wish games would just stop this micro-transactions bollocks.

Twenty five years on, Gran Turismo is still a cracker driving game and it’s rather fitting that Polyphony Digital’s latest creation is such a finely tuned experience that just sings on the PlayStation 5.

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.

Pick Up Quick! Developer interview: Tackling litter one piece at a time on the PlayStation

Pick Up Quick! features Tahunanui Beach in Nelson.

Those of you that have combed through the vast amount of user-generated content in PlayStation’s Dreams may have come across Pick Up Quick!, a game launched by Sustainable Coastlines and designed to tackle the problem of litter on New Zealand beaches and encourage players to combat the issue in real life.

Tokahaki Point on Kapiti Island and Tāhunanui Beach in Nelson were recreated in Dreams by North Canterbury school administrator Stacey Bartlett [25] and is one of first partnerships of its kind with British-based Dreams creator Media Molecule.

The aim of Pick Up Quick! is to hunt and collect as much discarded rubbish as you can within a 45 second time limit then the game compares what you collected with data gathered from real-life rubbish collection from the beaches. By mid-September, it had been played more than 3000 times in more than 50 countries, including the United States, Spain, Scotland, Canada and Singapore.

Studio director at Media Molecule Siobhan Reddy says what Stacey had achieved with Dreams was incredible. “She’s a talented creator. We’ve seen some pretty wonderful creations within Dreams and this is right up there. The community aspect of gameplay that encourages education and understanding is really impressive.”

How much litter you pick up in 45 seconds is compared to real-time collection data.

“We’ve featured it [Pick Up Quick!] on the global Dreams homepage; it shows what’s possible so we’re hoping it encourages people to get creative as well as think about their environmental impact – wherever they are.”

Thanks to PlayStation NZ, I got the chance to talk to Stacey about making the game and to Camden Howitt, co-founder of Sustainable Coastlines and the Litter Intelligence programme.

Stacey, how did you become involved in the project? Had you had any experience with Dreams – or any modeling software or game creation tools – before starting this project? 

Pick Up Quick! creator Stacey Bartlett used Dreams on the PlayStation 4 to create the game.

I was approached by PlayStation New Zealand to create Pick Up Quick!, as they were looking for a New Zealand Dreams creator and Media Molecule recommended me based on my previous Dreams work.  I have always enjoyed creating things, although I didn’t have much game development experience until Dreams was released. I was able to partake in the Dreams beta and early access, and I learned a lot about creating games in that time. 

How did the design process for the game work? Did you brainstorm about what you wanted, or did it develop fairly naturally?

I was given a brief for the game, and from there I created a design document, as well as some rough concept sketches for how I wanted the game to look. I relied on my plan a lot – I find it easier to write things down first and work from there rather than make things up as I go.

I played the Tahunanui Beach level and I recognised the distinctive seawall straight away. How easy was it to craft the real-world beaches into the game – and how long did it take until you were happy with it?

Tahunanui Beach was fun to create, as I was able to use Google Maps extensively as a reference to cover all the different angles. The challenge came in the nit-picky things – for example the waves. I spent a lot of time tweaking the animation to get it just right! I can’t say for sure how long they took me to create as it’s a bit of a blur now, but it was a fair few hours. 

How cool was it to have input from Dreams creator Media Molecule and for them to feature it on their Dreams homepage?

Very cool! I admire Media Molecule a lot, and to see them featuring something I made is quite surreal!

Camden, tell me about how this collaboration first came about? How did Media Molecule become involved?

We worked with PlayStation’s help to get the game off the ground. After approaching Stacey, our incredible creator who was super on board with the concept, PlayStation assisted in the coordination of Media Molecule who helped Stacey along the way with any design questions she had. It’s been such an exciting project for everyone, to have international support for our cause from the likes of Media Molecule was fantastic.

What’s the main aim with Pick Up Quick: What do you hope it will achieve? And are you confident that people will become more litter-aware on our beaches after playing the game or that young players will help their parents become more aware of litter on beaches?
We want to help young people to look at the issue in their area, and solve it. Us New Zealanders love our beaches but we’re a bit disconnected in some ways from the fact that we are polluting them. The aim here is to inform young players around what the issues are on our beaches. Despite our “clean and green” image, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Pick Up Quick! is available through Dreams on the PlayStation 4.

Pick Up Quick! in action. This is Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach.

Yakuza 6: The Song of Life: Farewell, Kiryu-san, my old friend

My love of Sega’s Yakuza series has been well-documented on this site. If you haven’t read my last blog post on why I think the series is so great  (and, for goodness sake, why not?), you can find it here but the Yakuza games hold a special place in my heart.

First appearing on the PlayStation 2, the Yakuza games chronicle the life of former (but now disgraced) Yakuza, Kazuma Kiryu. I’ve seen Kiryu grow as a character through the series and while in Yakuza 6, he might be a little older (younger foes constantly refer to him as old man before they inevitably get their arses handed to them on a plate), he might have a little more grey around the temples, but he still carries the presence of a Yakuza  (he was Fourth Chairman, after all), despite insisting to people he is just a civilian.

Yakuza 6 (PlayStation 4 only) focuses on Kiryu returning to Kamurocho after spending time in prison for past crimes, hoping to live out the rest of his days in peace in the orphanage he founded,  with Haruka, the young girl he fostered it’s kind of complicated). On his return, he finds that Haruka is missing and while searching for her in Kamurocho, learns she is in a coma after a hit and run – and she has a new born son. Kiryu return to Onomichi Jingaicho in Hiroshima to find out what happened to Haruka.

While it’s not crucial to have played previous Yakuza games before (there is a good video run down in the main menu that will get you up to date) and Yakuza 6 is probably the most accessible of the series, I feel for a series like this it’s always good to have played at least one other game as you’ll be aware of the backstory and have been introduced to keyl characters such as like Makoto Date, Kiryu’s arch-nemesis Goro Majima, and Kiryu’s once best friend Nishikiyama.

While previous Yakuza games tended to stick to the one location, Kamurocho, Yakuza 6 ventures forth to Onomichi Jingaicho in Hiroshima. Having a new location really adds depth to the game’s narrative, and there’s an interesting dynamic on display as a big city Yakuza gets to grips with how things are in the provinces. Like previous Yakuza games, the towns are jammed pack with restaurants, entertainment venues, convenience stores and bars. As is common throughout Japan, there are lots and lots of vending machines in Yakuza 6, too.

 

Combat has always been an important part of the Yakuza series. In earlier games, Kiryu could mix between four different styles, each one different to the other . Things are slightly different in Yakuza 6 (gone are the variety of fighting styles), but ultimately, combat centres around Kiryu building up his  “heat” meter, which he can then activate (with the R2 button) and unleash a variety of punches and kicks with delivers powerful finishing moves. I thought some of the finishes in Yakuza 0 and Kiwami were over-the-top but in Yakuza 6 they take things to a whole new level.

New to Yakuza 6, is the clan battles, which has Kiryu ordering fighters he has recruited to help fight other street gangs. It’s view from the top-down perspective with Kiryu (you) ordering colleagues who to attack. It has a very strategy game feel to it, with different strength units.

Another thing the series has always been known for is its off-the-wall side missions and Yakuza 6 does not disappoint. To be honest,  they’re the type of quests that you’d only find in a Japanese game. Many of them are just head-scratchingly bonkers but they make you smile and don’t feel out-of-place.

One, for example, sees Kiryu dressing up as Onomichi Jingaicho’s  mascot Ono (which has a head of an orange with a bowl of ramen noodles as a hat) because the normal person who played the mascot just didn’t turn up. Another mission sees him having to stop and sing lullabies to Haruka’s baby son – who he is carrying around with him at times  – while he scours Onomichi Jingaicho after hours in search of baby formula. Speaking of babies, a nice touch is that when Kiryu encounters rivals on the street and it initiates a random fight, if he’s holding the baby, there’s a cut scene showing him handing the infant to a bystander before he launches into the fight. It’s those little details that are reasons why I just can’t get enough of Kazuma Kiryu and the Yakuza games.

There will be some who are put off by the off-the-wall side quests and the countless cut scenes with lines of dialogue that help move the story forward, but for me, that’s all part of what makes the series so great. Visually and technically, Yakuza 6 is  the best of the lot with amazing attention to detail when it comes to facial features of characters and the details of the environments. I also like the fat that (apart from the original Yakuza) the audio is Japanese with English subtitles: It just adds even more atmosphere to the game.

Yakuza 6 is said to be the last game of the series featuring Kazuma Kiryu, w hich will be a shame, but what is also a shame is that the Yakuza series isn’t as popular as it should be in the West: It’s a series that deserves more attention from gamers thanks to its deep narrative and strong character development. I can’t recommend the series highly enough but if you’re still on the fence, Sega has released a timed demo of Yakuza 6 that might whet your appetite.

Sayonara, Kiryu-san, it’s been a pleasure knowing you.

Thanks to Five Eight Distribution for the review copy of Yakuza 6: The Song of Life which was redeemed via digital distribution. 

 

 

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy media kit

Uncharted 4 (PlayStation 4) was one of my favourite games of last year: I always like the action that Naughty Dog crafted into the games featuring the likeable rogue Nathan Drake and its Indiana Jones-style of adventuring.

One of the new characters introduced in Uncharted 2,  was Chloe Frazer, a fellow treasure hunter.

In The Lost Legacy, the standalone campaign (which, I’m guessing, means you don’t need Uncharted 4 to play it – but it’ll certainly help with back story), Chloe is on a quest for a famed Indian artifact: The Golden Tusk of Ganesh. In order to find it – and keep it out of the hands of a ruthless war profiteer – she enlist the help of former paramilitary leader turned gun-for-hire Nadine Ross. The pair venture deep into the mountains of India’s Western Ghats to find the ruins of the Hoysala Empire and recover the legendary Golden Tusk of Ganesh.

The Lost Legacy is out next Wednesday (August 23) and will set you back $NZ69.95 (It’s PlayStation 4 only). Any impressions of the game are embargoed until tomorrow but I’m allowed to share photos of the media kit that PlayStation NZ sent me. PlayStation have always excelled at media kits when it comes to its marquee titles – and the one for The Lost Legacy doesn’t disappoint.

Look out for some impressions on The Lost Legacy next week – and details on how to win a copy of the game, thanks to PlayStation NZ.

 

No Man’s Sky: How many zeroes are in quintillion?

I have to say when I first heard about No Man’s Sky, a game from British development studio Hello Games, I really didn’t know what to expect – and I wasn’t that excited about it.

All it seemed to be was visit a procedurally generated planet, scan lifeforms, get back in your ship then fly to the next planet. Rinse and repeat.

Well, the more I’ve seen of No Man’s Sky, though, the more intrigued I’m becoming and my thinking has changed about it. Sure, it’s still all about exploration and naming the lifeforms you find (I can guarantee there will be a few creatures named after body parts – and I’m not talking about arms and legs) – but it does look as if there’s a bit more to do than what we originally thought.

There’s clearly a lot of people who thought the same as me as PlayStation is releasing four game play trailers before the game comes out in August that showcase the four key things you can do in the game: Explore, trade, fight and survive. The first video, Explore, is up above.

Did you know No Man’s SKy has 18 quintillion planets? EIGHTEEN QUINTILLION PLANETS!!! How many zeroes is in a quintillion?

Look, I see No Man’s Sky going one of two ways: It’s either going crash and burn (into one of its procedurally generated planets) and people will be really confused or be amazing and we’ll all happily be exploring planets until the end of time.

We’ll know in August when it comes out.

 

E3: The big guns come out to play

Day two of the E3 press conferences before the show proper and Microsoft and PlayStation held their press events. I woke up at 4.25am to watch the Microsoft one and I liked some of the announcements, especially the Project Scorpio console (although I’m tossing up now whether to save for a Project Scorpio console or save for one of the soon-to-be released AMD RX480 graphics cards (and probably a new motherboard to put it in).

Microsoft’s biggest cheers definitely came for the two consoles that had been rumoured but no-one really knew much about. There’s the Xbox One S, which is 40 per cent smaller than the launch Xbox One, has an internal power supply and it supports 4K Ultra HD, there’s the new console called at the moment Project Scorpio which promises “6 Teraflops”of GPU power. There’s a new Elite controller and you can customise your own one-of a kind Xbox One wireless controller but as far as Microsoft’s games went: I thought they were OK but not outstanding. I do like the cross play feature where someone with a game on Xbox One can play someone who is playing the same game on a Windows 10 laptop/PC.

Microsoft had Halo Wars 2 (I loved the first game), Dead Rising 4, Gears of War 4, Rare’s Seas of Thieves (which looks great), Forza Horizon 3 (which is set in Australia!), Recore,  Final Fantasy XV, Minecraft Realms (it was good to see famed developer John Carmack wearing a Samsung GearVR headset for this demo) and The Division Underground. All solid games but nothing really earth-shattering, in my view. That said, indie title We Happy Few looks genuinely interesting as did PlayDead’s Inside (the same developers that created Limbo).

Update: Thinking about things overnight, Xbox has scored a major win in hardware side of things by announcing Project Scorpio.  Yes, it’s 18 months or so until the console will be released (I suspect it’ll be revealed middle of next year sometime) but I’d say announcing Scorpio will really put the heat on Sony and it’s PlayStation Neo console which, I think, is due for release late this year. Microsoft are really gunning to win the console wars and build the “most powerful console ever” and looking at its speaks, it is indeed a powerful machine. It’ll be interesting to see whether Microsoft’s announcement yesterday has PlayStation worried about its Neo.

As far as games go (and let’s face it, that’s why people buy consoles/play PCs), though, for me, Sony won the battle, if there is such a thing. I love both consoles but personally, I felt that PlayStation’s games seemed a little fresher, a little more exciting.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a much older (but a bit of a dick towards his son) Kratos in the God of War reboot, The Last Guardian which seems to have been in development for decades finally got a release date, Horizon Zero Dawn looks incredible, Hideo Kojima’s new game Death Stranding which featured a naked Norman Reedus (from Walking Dead fame) wondering why he’s on a beach,  there was a very Last of Us-esque game called Days Gone which features zombies in an apocalyptic setting, Detroit Become Human (the next game from David Cage) and then there was the PS VR stuff which, frankly, made my eyes pop. I was even enthralled with the Call of Duty VR stuff that I didn’t know was actually Call of Duty until near the end (oh, and I’d easily buy a copy of Infinite Warfare just for the remastered version of Modern Warfare which has, without a doubt, the best COD mission ever in All Ghillied Up). Oh, and there’s a Batman Arkham VR game [breathe, breathe]

PlayStation has a new PS4 coming out called the Neo but nothing was show at its press event. I wonder whether PlayStation will reveal more at the Tokyo Games Show?

Looks, there’s something for fans of both consoles but for me, if I had to pick a console which had the strongest line up of games coming out, I’d put my money on PlayStation. I also liked how most of PlayStation’s press event was game footage and trailers rather than people standing on stage talking.

This is not an exhaustive list of every game announced but just those that caught my attention. Anyway, enough words. Here’s some moving pictures. Enjoy.

 

God of War (PS4):

Horizon Zero Dawn (PS4):

Infinite Warfare (ship assault):

Days Gone (PS4):

Halo Wars 2 (Xbox One):

We Happy Few (Xbox One):

Gears of War 4 (Xbox One):

 

Thoughts on what PlayStation and Xbox showed today?