LTTP: The Last of Us Part II

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Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II was a fitting name for the sequel to the PlayStation 3 classic. Sometimes sequels shake things up or dramatically evolve from one instalment to the next, but not this franchise; it was cut from the same cloth. It evoked similar feelings of despising and pitying the protagonist. It smothered us with stories of humans being absolutely awful to each other. And it gave us plenty of opportunities to dispatch or sneak by infected and humans alike. 

Part II felt instantly familiar as someone who replayed The Last of Us via its remaster last year. There were evolutions and expansions on ideas, but it largely played the same on Hard difficulty. Snuffing out infected and humanoid enemies alike without expending too much resources would often yield even more resources. It all quickly snowballed the two protagonists into powerhouses. Being careful paid off too much in this case. 

Ellie was a playable character in The Last of Us, but she wasn’t a full fledged playable character with her own skill tree. Ellie starring in the Part II was expected, but her sharing the spotlight with Abby, the daughter of the late surgeon that Joel killed in that Colorado hospital operating room, was a bit of a surprise. She had her own story, skill tree, and set of exclusive weaponry. 

The two protagonists were more capable than ever having remembered that they were humans that could go prone and crawl through grass like Metal Gear’s Solid Snake. They could even shoot while on their backs which gave me Metal Gear Solid V vibes. New gadgets and skills mixed things up a bit, but they weren’t enough to stave off the familiar feeling of it all. The characters continued to consume decades old pills or “supplements” to expand their skill trees in-between firefights involving makeshift bombs and Molotov cocktails. Fighting off infected felt as natural as swimming (which you can now do) while human enemy behaviors stood out like a sore and inadequate thumb in 2021. Many of these issues exist in newer full-fledged stealth games, but I was hoping Naughty Dog made further advancements in that area.

I was also disappointed by two new enemy types: the dogs hunting along with humans and the Stalker from the infected ranks. They were annoying to deal with and didn’t really pose the interesting threat that the developers intended. I see how these two can seriously ruin someone’s day in the higher difficulties, but on hard difficulty? They were either silenced unceremoniously, lured into a makeshift bomb or greeted with a shotgun blast to the face. Yeah, the game is still very violent.

The Last of Us was violent and occasionally cruel, but I felt Part II was very violent and often cruel. Abby and Ellie were monsters in their own way and they displayed it often in both gameplay and cutscenes. They were born into a world where the most monstrous survive and where restraint and compassion often leaves you lying in a pool of your own blood later down the line. The story’s twists and turns didn’t surprise me, but its expansiveness did. It felt like they made two games that joined at a single event before concluding with yet another decision made by characters that I personally did not agree with, but understood. 

The developers sprinkled minute and overt touches of humanity amongst the enemies this time around. Enemies would often call each other by name. They’re often heard discussing plans for their own communities and the threats they faced. And by the time the player swap occurred, it was apparent that people were just trying to survive and many of them were following orders to ensure the survival of their friends and family. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I didn’t change my approach even after these details were made very apparent. You could say I just played my side’s role to the extreme, but I just wanted to loot in peace.

Exploring the environments was the highlight of the game for me. I tried to explore every nook looking for “environmental story telling”. The hotel and the basement floors of the hospital were my favorite spaces because they told epic tales from the early days of the outbreak. There were dozens of tiny awful discoveries through the course of the game, but the one where this small town’s greatest archer drugged his friends and neighbours and locked them in a spore infested mechanic’s office stuck with me. The brilliant touch was me stumbling across this hell room first; before piecing together the journal entries and notes to discover the grim reason for this room full of infected. 

I’m glad I chose to wait a whole year before playing The Last of Us Part II. In that time, the PlayStation 5 launched and a free PS5 update unlocked the framerate to 60 FPS among other tweaks. The game ran extremely well on Performance mode; I’m certain it’s playable at 30 FPS, but I’m opting into the 60 FPS life when I can. The animations were top notch and was a technical highlight. I don’t know how they kept everything looking so smooth and responsive. I didn’t feel like I was waiting for actions to play out. 

The Last of Us Part II wasn’t a wild or earth shattering sequel like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was, but Naughty Dog did just enough to keep me locked in. I want them to shake up the gameplay systems for the next game, but I don’t know what that would look like. All I know is that this loop of seeking out supplements and silently snuffing out humans and infected is well worn territory. I wasn’t bored or tired of it by the time credits rolled, but I don’t know if I can tolerate a third installment of the more of the same on the gameplay front. 

As for story? Questions linger. What are the fates of the survivors? Will there be a bitter sweet ending one day? Is there hope in this world or will humanity be doomed to succumbing to barbarism? Only Naughty Dog knows and I’m looking forward to finding out how it all unfolds.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

LTTP: Control Ultimate Edition [PS5]

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I really liked Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake. Quantum Break wasn’t well received so I threw it onto the “maybe-play-it-one-day” pile and completely forgot about it until Control was announced. Control was immediately appealing, but I incorrectly believed Control looked like a redo of Quantum Break in some respects. After playing Control, I realized I was just seeing the through line of their work; they make third person shooters that transform players into bad asses.

Remedy action needs to feel hectic — it’s in their DNA — and they layered that increasingly hectic action into Control masterfully. I never felt overwhelmed and just when I thought they were done, they added another variable. The weapons themselves cover the standard video game shooter gamut: pistol, shotgun, rocket launcher, and the like. They were nothing to write home about and assumed a basic pistol shape known as the Service Weapon. In lore, this shape shifting weapon apparently took many forms in the past including Excalibur. 

The marriage between of lore and function permeated throughout Control. The game cold drops Jesse Faden at the precipice of completing her life long quest to find her brother. She found herself in the Federal Bureau of Control’s headquarters known as the Oldest House. What was the FBC? Why is this place empty? Why is the Director dead? Through dialog, reports, and recordings, the universe of Control began to take shape. Nearly every single thing had an in-universe explanation; it wasn’t always the most plausible explanation, but it was fun! I loved the idea of a federal agency trying to explain the supernatural. It reminded me of The Witcher and how Witchers were treating magic, ghosts, and monsters with a degree of logic and seriousness that often wanders into the absurd.

I found the open and Metroidvania-like structure of Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order underutilized. The rewards for exploration were so trivial. Exploring the Oldest House yielded morsels of lore, materials for crafting upgrades, and the occasional side quest. It wasn’t for naught. Exploring a shape shifting office building may not be the most awe inspired thing I ever done in a game, but it was genuinely fascinating to push forward and see what Remedy tucked away. 

Control may be one of the better super hero or Star Wars titles I’ve played. Star Wars Jedi Fallen Order may have gotten Lightsabers to a good spot, but the sensation of grabbing an object from the environment and hurling it towards an enemy was second to none in Control. It was incredible to see how the juggled gunplay, “force powers”, and movement into this elegant dance. Even though I saw Jessie flying in promotional art or trailers, it didn’t occur to me that they would include it as a component to combat. It didn’t take long before I was throwing chairs and computer screens, picking off pesky snipers with my pistol, before leaping into the air to launch rockets at clumps of enemy fodder. 

The Ultimate Edition comes with a PlayStation 5 upgrade that includes a performance mode. There’s a quality mode as well for some 4K resolution nonsense and/or ray tracing, but I didn’t even bother digging into any of that. The game played great at 1440p60 and I recommend it as the way to play. While it may have played well and looked quite striking from a distance, I found the up-close character models very grimy looking. It’s not a full blown next-generation game and I hear the PC version looks a notch or two better, but poor Arish looked like a ghoul in some of those dialog sequences.

True to form for Remedy, the live action cutscenes and in-universe shows were top notch. I’m a big fan of Dr. Casper Darling’s corporate videos. I could watch him enthusiastically explain his discoveries all day. The Threshold Kids puppet show was unsettling a bit, but the reason for its existence made a lot of sense. Kids need to know about the dangers of the The Oldest House!

I wanted more of Control, but I don’t think the expansions were the right way to approach that conundrum. The main game felt concise and varied with sidequests brushing up with the limits of repetition. The Foundation and AWE expansions? They went a bit too far with stretching out the gameplay content. The 1:1 mix of story content and gameplay felt like it was stretched 1:3. Chase this monster again, retread these areas again, fight in this combat arena again. I wonder if I would have felt this way if I played these expansions on the original release schedule because despite their seamless integration with the main game, these expansions felt off.

Control was a fun filled adventure filled with top quality action and an engaging universe that I relished. This very well might be my favorite Remedy Entertainment game ever. It does everything that studio was known for extremely well and I cannot wait to see how they expand upon their ideas. How much of Control do they bring into Alan Wake 2? Can they ever pull off a sequel to Control? Much of what makes it the game it is, is the self contained nature of The Oldest House. The veil of mystery is essentially gone now, so just bringing more Control isn’t going to cut it. I don’t know what the answer is, but I’m back on board with whatever they do next.

Verdict:
I loved it

Demon’s Souls PS5 Review

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The Bluepoint remake of Demon’s Souls was exactly what I wanted. It addressed most if not all the complaints that I had 11 years ago. Die hard fans may have qualms with things here and there, but I had zero complaints. As far as I’m concerned, Bluepoint took From Software’s effort and refined into a more palatable game while still retaining most of what I remembered.

The game runs a smooth 60 FPS (except during this one session that required me to restart the PS5). This kind of performance elevated the game to the point of enjoyable. It was playable on the PlayStation 3, but it got in the way of the gameplay. The level of performance was so smooth that I was even willing to start parrying. I wasn’t that proficient at it, but the fact that it was even a worthwhile option was revelatory to me.

Super fast load times meant I was zipping from archstone to archstone within a handful of seconds and dying was rendered a minor inconvenience rather than the 30 second timeout that it once was. I was right back into the thick of things and ready to seek revenge or run right into a reckless death.

I recalled bits and pieces of Demon’s Souls, so the entire game wasn’t a complete mystery to me. Even through the foggy memory, I still recognized the quality of life improvements that Bluepoint included. Not having to haul myself between storage and the blacksmith was once such convenience that got rid of something annoying. Also the ability to send loot and materials back to storage was welcomed as well. Some may say that these things added to the unforgiving premise of Demon’s Souls, but not me. They didn’t do anything, but elongate the game unnecessarily.

With many of the rough edges polished, I was just breezing my way through the game. Much of the original release’s annoyances and frustrations made way for satisfying progress. It didn’t take long before I realized I was at the last boss and seeing credits.

From Demon’s Souls to Bloodborne, I’ve always felt From Software’s ideas were bigger than what they could pull off. The idea behind Demon’s Souls was very sound, but the technical issues kept me from truly enjoying it. Bluepoint removed the ambiguity and friction between myself and the game; when I died, I knew it was wholly my fault. It wasn’t because there were input delays or unresponsive controls. Bloodborne was my favorite game of theirs primarily due to the fact that the framerate was relatively stable. Now, I think Demon’s Souls may be my favorite to play for similar reasons.

Verdict:
I liked it

Ratings Guide

Astro’s Playroom Review

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Astro Bot’s Rescue Mission was an excellent demonstration of the possibilities of the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation VR. A couple of years later, here comes Astro’s Playroom, an excellent demonstration of the PlayStation 5 and its DualSense controller. I wasn’t expecting an innovation in platforming mechanics or ideas; that’s now what these games are about. I played through familiar ideas with a few interesting sensations. 

Astro’s Playroom is a wonderful stroll through PlayStations’ history. I ran into classic PlayStation hardware, PlayStation themed callbacks, and just a deluge of all things PlayStation. It was cute, nostalgic, and done so well for a freebie title. 

Each of the four worlds highlighted one of the four PlayStations that passed us by, but that’s just window dressing to the real attraction which were the different ways they utilized the DualSense haptics, adaptive triggers, and other features that many probably forgot existed on the DualShock 4. Remember motion controls?

I consumed Astro’s Playroom in its in entirety. It was the perfect length and left me wanting just a bit more. It was a brilliant introduction to the DualSense controller and the PlayStation 5 hardware and software capabilities. Every PlayStation 5 owner owns it, it’s just a matter of whether they will find time for it and I firmly believe people should. It’s that good.

Verdict:
Must Play

Ratings Guide

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