Saturday 15 February 2014

The Last of Us: Left Behind Review

The Last of Us’ DLC came out yesterday and I thought I’d do a review. So that it’s topical and stuff. For those who want to know what I thought of the original game, well, I wrote a paragraph on it a couple of blogs back. I liked it, basically.

I'm also going to moan about Tomb Raider a little bit. Bear with me.

So Left Behind is split into two halves, one being a prequel to The Last of Us' main story and one filling in a plot hole that wasn't much of a plot hole. The latter feels somewhat like an extended deleted scene, one that doesn’t particularly do much to further the story or the characters but does include more of The Last of Us’ signature style of action: Stealthy brutality with a general sparsity of ammo. Like in the original game, these sequences are at their best when you’re given free reign to plot your own route between each room while trying to keep your wits about you as the Clickers click-clickety-click just a few feet away. Because it’s so easy to mess up these parts the tension is always high, and Left Behind manages to contain just the right balance of these scenes to stop things feeling repetitive - that’s one fault of the original game if I had to think of any.

But it’s in the other half of this DLC that the interesting stuff happens. We meet Ellie’s friend Riley and basically spend the whole time walking around and ‘hanging out’ with her. It’s the sort of narratively heavy approach that really, really wouldn’t work if the writing and performances weren’t absolutely top-notch. Luckily, they are. There’s an element of mystery to the character of Riley that keeps things moving, but for the most part it’s just the two friends stumbling across things and hanging out together. It’s done so believably here that it’s almost a shame when we have to get back to shooting things.

I’ve been playing last year’s Tomb Raider recently, and the gulf in sophistication in the storytelling here is ridiculous. Bear in mind, Tomb Raider was praised by most reviewers as being a dark and thoughtful reimagining of gaming’s most famous video game heroine, putting character development first and foremost. I was always skeptical, however, because of how cartoonishly over the top the whole grittiness thing went. In my opinion, the mishmash of “seriousness” and fast-paced mass-murdering gameplay in Tomb Raider was almost farcical, and people seem to have also overlooked how simplistic and cliche much of the dialogue could be. “I’m here. You’re safe now.” “You saved me. I knew you would.” “I made you a promise.” Congratulations, Tomb Raider, for proving that video games have now successfully reached the level of maturity of such ‘works of art’ as The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.

Luckily Tomb Raider was still pretty fun, but there was nothing remotely clever about the characterisation of Lara. With her infinite athletic endurance in spite of the horrific graphic injuries she’d sustained over the course of the cutscenes alone, she wasn’t a believable character. So, yeah, I really don’t understand all the praise that game got for being ‘realistic’. Ellie in The Last of Us is the polar opposite of that. She talks and behaves like a real person. There are a lot of subtleties to her behaviour. Sometimes she can be annoying - but this isn’t because of bad writing, it’s because she’s behaving like any cocky tormented teenager would given the situation. Since she’s the star of this DLC and not Joel, I guess we’re going to get more of the obvious ‘hurr hurr Ellie looks like Ellen Page’ comparisons again. I think that does a bit of a discredit to the work Naughty Dog have achieved here in fleshing out the character, although there is one thing that… because of the recent news regarding… shhh!

So not everyone will like Left Behind. There’s very little ‘gameplay’ here and the pacing is slow. Personally I admire the low-key approach, it sticks out well amongst a sea of what I like to call ‘Michael Bay’ games. The overall experience is much closer to something like Telltale’s Walking Dead series (albeit with a hundred times the budget) than, say, Call of Duty. It’s over in 2 hours flat, so you might want to ask yourself whether it’s worth the asking price (if you didn’t get it in the super-reduced season pass bundle like you totally should have). As for me, I’m actually warming to the movie-like length for a product like this. I can see more and more of this sort of thing happening in the future. Look, I don’t have enough time to sink 20 hours into every new game that comes out; for a big budget, linear, story driven game in particular, it’s an awfully big ask to pad things out without resorting to cheap gameplay rehashes. BioShock Infinite’s Burial at Sea is another good example of how the shorter length can work well these days. Just get the pricing down to the point where gamers will stop moaning and we’ll all be happy. Oh, also, Sony, please don't make me download and install five billion updates when I've already downloaded the DLC. Thanks.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Fandom Schmandom

Fans are weird. That’s the conclusion I’ve come to following a few escapades in ole London this weekend. Let’s start with one of the geekiest fandoms of them all: anime. Now here’s the disclaimer: I am not, and probably never will be, an anime fan. I’ve probably seen about 2 or 3 episodes of anime in my entire life, and that’s including the Pok√©mon animated series. I’ve come across a few films like the weird pre-Inception dream based film Paprika, and the big hits like Ghost in the Shell, Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro are certainly on my to-watch list. But again, I am not an anime fan. Why do I bring this up? Well, someone decided to drag me along to the London Anime & Gaming Con today. My verdict? Well, let’s just say, the people I came across weren’t doing much to deflect the awkward anime nerd stereotype.

That’s fine. I’ve got nothing against those types of people. If you want to dress up in a tightly fitting dress wielding a polystyrene sword (with far too much attention to detail) from your favourite piece of fantasy nonsense, I’m not going to stop you. I might feel slightly weirded out, but I don’t think that can be helped. There’s something faintly terrifying about a group of cosplayers completely into their characters, running around with no shame. It reminds me of the role playing society back at my university that would run around campus in full medieval costume and act out ridiculously complicated storylines oblivious to everyone else. Well, all the power to them, I say. Just accept that most people are going to be confused and probably a little bit intimidated.

Of course not all anime fans behave like this, because if they did, the textiles industry would probably collapse in on itself. Cosplay is there for those who want it, others can silently consume anime in their own privacy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make you any less of a ‘fan’ just because you don’t want to join in with a certain vocal community - that's what separates ‘fan’ from ‘fandom.’ Cosplayers wouldn’t run around in ultra-stylised fantasy costumes if nobody else did; it’s the very reason they feel no embarrassment, and one reason why events like LAGC are worthwhile. For the right people…

Now on to a very specific type of fandom… The Room. One of the most universally loved bad movies has spawned a whole group of dedicated fans, myself included. In between all the screenings and spoon-throwing Tommy Wiseau’s happy accident has become a cult phenomenon that continually spreads through word of mouth and sheer audience fascination. Co-star Greg Sestero’s hilarious book The Disaster Artist and its just-announced movie adaptation from James Franco would not exist if it weren't for the fans. It’s the perfect example of how much can arise from such an obscure obsession.

Tommy and Greg continue to host regular screenings all around the world. Indeed, they were in London this weekend; while I didn’t go personally this time (it was my brother's turn), I did attend a screening with them back in 2012, and I can confirm that it was every bit as mental as you could expect. I may have a photo here somewhere…

But I’ll finish by getting back to the real sticking point here - fandoms aren’t for everyone. And I think we all have a right to dislike, hate, even laugh at them to a point. They are, by their very nature, completely divisive. Sitting on the train on the way back from London today I had to put up with a bunch of intoxicated football fans and their loud, derogatory banter. I have absolutely zero interest in any sports whatsoever, so fans acting obnoxiously only serve to wind me up, or make me break down into uncontrollable laughing when it gets as ridiculous as it did. I swear, if I have to hear the ‘tangy cheese’ song again…

Anyway, the point is, if you want to belong in a fan community, go for it. You’ll have a lot of fun, and you won’t feel embarrassed doing something mental if you’re hanging out with a whole bunch of other people doing something mental. But it’s also okay if you’d rather just hang back and read a book or something. I don’t know. Fans are weird.