Relationships in Games That I Actually Cared About

I’ve talked before about the various trends over the past year that I’ve found exciting and one that I’ve been particularly excited about is the maturing of game writing and the increasing complexity and realism of storylines and characters. I like a beat ’em up/hack’n’slash/2D platformers as the next and there are plenty of games that I loved despite their crappy stories. Fun comes in many forms and ultimately it still comes down to gameplay and mechanics for me. That said though, there’s something magical about a story and characters that truly engage you. It’s like being transported to a different world and seeing through someone else’s eyes.

Even more rare in gaming history than those truly inspiring stories is the realistic and nuanced portrayal of relationships between characters. It’s understandably difficult. The limits of technology have often meant that relationships are often reduced to giving gifts or going through stilted lines of conversation to get people to like you. Obviously, that’s not quite how relationships work (at least most of them)! Even if the relationship is somewhat realistic, it’s even more difficult to make it compelling. However, I think the industry has really shown that it’s evolved beyond that now and that it can create realistic relationships between people that you actually care about. And I’m not really talking about romantic relationships here as you’ll see below. So here are my personal top 5 relationships from games I’ve played that got me right in the feels. Yours of course, might be completely different! Of course, I’ve heard about other games that have great relationships like Red Dead Redemption, but obviously I can’t comment since I haven’t played it. Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments below! Also beware that there are minor hinted spoilers – nothing major, but you may want to skip the entry if you don’t want to find anything out about the game. Continue reading

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5 Awesome Gaming Trends of 2013

2013 saw a lot of changes in the games industry. Some were good, some great, some awful and some fell flat on their faces. However, one thing that can’t be denied is that there have been a lot of innovations and a lot of people trying new things. Of course, it’s easy to focus on the parts of the industry that are not changing and are possibly even stagnating, like the release of sequel after sequel and the unadventurous attitudes to existing game genres, but you only need to take a step back and take a look at the year as a whole to realise that there’s been plenty of new and interesting developments too. With the launch of the PS4 and Xbox One and a ‘new generation’ of games on the horizon there are likely to many many more surprises in the future. So what better time than now to look back on the last year and see what trends really worked? There are tons of interesting trends which have developed or are developing as we speak, like second screens, cross-play, cloud computing and the resurgence of platformers and rather than try to pick the ones I think are the most important to the industry, I’ve decided instead to pick just 5 trends that I personally found the most exciting. What are you favourite trends of 2013? Are they anything like mine? Let me know in the comments below! Continue reading

The Last of Us Review: In a league of its own

Image by naughty_dog

Image by naughty_dog

Man, does The Last of Us by Naughty Dog put the survival back into survival horror (although it’s technically it’s more of an action-adventure survival horror game)! You’ve probably heard a fair amount about TLOU by now. There was quite a bit of hype before it came out, but that doesn’t compare to the uproar it caused after it came out, which is a good sign for any game in my opinion. Personally, I think all the praise this game has received been well-deserved. I’m talking solely about the singleplayer here as I haven’t tried the multiplayer yet, although I’m looking forward to it. TLOU is one of those rare games that has the ability to really affect you, to get under your skin so that you can’t help but stay up at night thinking about it. Like many games that really have something to say, like BioShock Infinite or Far Cry 3, TLOU is at times painful to play through and will leave a  part of itself lodged inside you for a long long time to come. Its story, characters, graphics, combat and more form an incredible, unforgettable experience that will leave you breathless when you finally put the controller down.

Again, like many good stories, I don’t want to tell you too much about it. I think it’s the kind of tale that you want to explore and unravel for yourself. In brief, it starts how you would expect, with an outbreak of some sort of infection that turns people to walking, rotting corpses that feed on humans. It happens suddenly, before any authority really knows how to react and the result is utter terror and pandemonium. Like many, Joel’s life is torn apart and he becomes a survivor, baptised by fire. The game follows him in his quest for survival until we meet Ellie who, thanks to the circumstances, is thrown into Joel’s unwilling care. She holds humanity’s last hope and together they must find a way to complete their mission and save mankind.

Image by naughty_dog

Image by naughty_dog

My favourite part of TLOU was the emotional connections that you form with the characters. Of course the main relationship is with Ellie and although at first I tried not to get too attached, eventually I found myself checking over my shoulder to make sure she was catching up and focusing more and more on keeping her safe. I always found her death sequences were much more devastating to me than Joel’s. Although technically Joel is the guide and protector, in a dark and uncompromising world full of horrors, Ellie’s spirit and unfaltering innocence are like a guiding beacon that you can’t help but follow. Of course, the connection you develop to these characters have a lot to do with how well they are developed. Sure, on the surface Ellie seems like a happy-go-lucky kid and Joel like a bitter, angry survivor, but the more you learn about them, the more you realise there’s more to them than meets the eye. It’s the same with the whole cast of characters you meet along the way, no matter how briefly. Each character is deeply layered and nuanced and  each person has their own personality and backstory. None of them feel like they’re just there to advance the plot. Each character is treated with a delicate and caring hand. Even the worst of them (and as you might expect, brutal times breed brutal people) are presented as human beings. Both Ellie and Joel grow and change as people in the course of the story and their relationship shifts with it. I’ve seen very few games that put the relationships and people at the center of it and that do it so well too.

In general, the game does not shy away from brutality, whether it’s shown or merely described by its characters. The death sequences being as graphic and horrific as they are, really makes you want to avoid them. It’s not like other games where dying just means you falling in slow-motion to the ground and a game over screen. In this game, death feels more real and more emotional than I’ve seen in any other. Seeing characters you’ve developed a strong connection to being ripped apart and their blood spraying everywhere is definitely something you want to avoid at all costs. The art style, the realism of its graphics, the believable dialogue and interactions, everything comes together to create an incredibly beautiful and depressing post-apocalyptic world. All of the elements blend together to give the game an overarching feeling of total despair and oppression. You get the sense that no matter how much the people in it fight, they’ve been irrevocably changed and nothing can ever be the same. The fear constantly hangs over your head, just like everyone else in the world and you know that the survivors are usually the ones who have had to walk over other people to get there. There’s no room for sentiment or kindness. Yet, the partial destruction of the human race has meant that much of the civilized world was returned to nature and there are a few moments of true beauty sprinkled throughout the devastation. These are like moments of respite, an oasis in the midst of an otherwise dark vista. The rest of the world goes on and life goes on with or without us. In fact, in many ways, the rest of the world seems almost better off without humanity destroying things and building things and deciding on how to run our planet.

The plot arcs build tension beautifully and the story is one of the best written I’ve ever seen in a game and is better than most good movies I’ve watched in recent times, but at the same time, it never forgets that it’s a video game. While it’s very cinematic and fluid, with frequent auto-saves and very few loading screens, it’s also very interactive – your lack of supplies encourages you to explore and you and Ellie constantly have to work together to get past obstacles. The more gamey parts of the game, like solving at times pretty difficult puzzles, crafting, upgrading your weapons, fighting, sneaking and exploring are just as much a vital and enjoyable part of the game as the emotional cut-scenes and dialogue, in a way that BioShock  Infinite didn’t quite manage to achieve.

Image by naughty_dog

Image by naughty_dog

Another excellent part of the game was its gripping combat. Encounters with hostiles are almost always extremely tense. Even before you see them, you can often hear the different types of zombies approaching or the equally dangerous human enemies and avoiding detection is usually a tricky and nerve-wracking affair when enemies are closing in on you from every side.  There’s also a lot of variety in how you fight and it’s up to you to assess the situation and decide whether you want to sneak around or if a well-placed bomb and a shotgun will be enough. If things get too much, there’s always the option of escape – just throw down a smoke bomb and run like hell. The constant lack of supplies amplifies that fear. Sometimes you can’t fight and you’re forced to sneak around enemies because you only have 1 bullet left. The TLOU requires quite a bit of strategy and you really have to use your head when it comes to fighting and crafting. Many of the same supplies are used to craft multiple items, so you have to decide what you really need – another medkit or a molotov cocktail? Since you never have enough supplies, you really feel like you’re fighting for your survival, unlike other games where an abundance of supplies means that after every section you’re going to be fully stocked up. In TLOU, there will be points where you can do so, but it’s not going to be easy to get there and it’s rare that you’ll ever be totally filled up on everything.

As you can probably tell from the screenshots, TLOU is a beautiful game. In many ways it looks a lot like Uncharted, but much grittier and darker. Although as mentioned before, the views you glimpse from dilapidated buildings or when you’re tracking through the woods are often breath-taking in its detail and dream-like realism. Its easy to get immersed in a world that’s as fully fleshed out and as incredible to look at as the one in TLOU. The seasonal changes also spice things up, as well as being a clever way to progress the plot. Each change of the season brings with it its own delightful views, whether it’s the sun shining through the leaves in summer, the warm colours of Autumn, the cold beauty of winter or the bright energy of Spring.

TLOU also has an incredible musical score that cuts in at just the right times. Like any great musical score from a video game (like ME for instance), as soon as it starts up, it has the ability to transport you to new places, to make you feel sad, nostalgic, uplifted, inspired or hopeful. There are very few games where I can say I was genuinely moved by its musical score, but TLOU is definitely one of them.

Image by naughty_dog

Image by naughty_dog

The game wasn’t perfect of course (is any?) Personally, I thought the crafting and weapon swapping systems were awkward to use and could have been made slightly easier and more intuitive. It may not have been an issue in another game, but in a game where every second counts, I would have appreciated not having to rifle through menus at such a sedate pace. Swapping weapons in particular, was sometimes a painfully slow process for me. I did really like the fact that it was difficult to craft items as they lead to some incredibly tense moments during firefights where you’re crouching behind cover trying to craft a medkit while you’re being shot at or trying to craft a molotov cocktail fast as you can to take out a group of zombies, but I thought the clunkiness of navigation were a little more frustrating than they needed to be.

Also, another small complaint I had was that a sudden abundance of cover and bottles to distract enemies sometimes gave away when a fight was coming up and occasionally took away from that wonderful tension and immersion that’s so central to the game. Obviously, it’s unavoidable to a certain extent, but they certainly could have made it less obvious at times.

Although it had some minor flaws, TLOU is by far one of the most moving, immersive and intelligent games I’ve yet had the pleasure to play. It doesn’t try to pander to the masses by employing many of the standard features in other games these days or by focusing less on the more serious elements and more on the action, as a lot of games seem to do. It is what is and it doesn’t try to hide it. In fact it celebrates in its own uniqueness and for that TLOU is a far superior game to me than most of the games out there at the moment. I know its been said before, but I think TLOU is truly a masterpiece and whether it’s your kind of game or not, it’s hard to deny that. And in the midst of all the controversy going on at the moment, it’s just what the industry needs. If games continue to be made with such maturity and sensitivity, I will one very very happy gamer.

100 Follower Giveaway: BioShock Infinite

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HERE IT IS!!! THE FABLED (since Tuesday) GIVEAWAY! And you guessed it right (with a small hint from me), I’m giving away BioShock Infinite for PC! Ok, so I realise that a lot of you have probably played this by now, but I think it’s a tragedy that some of you haven’t yet. So if you were saving up to buy this or just hadn’t gotten around to picking it up, now you have no excuse! I wanted to give you guys something special to thank you for supporting my blog and if you’ve read my review on it, you’ll know that I think BioShock Infinite is the best game I’ve played this year (I haven’t played The Last of Us yet, so I can’t compare).

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SPECIAL 100 FOLLOWER POST COMING UP AND AN UPDATE!

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have heard that CheeeseToastieandVideoGames now has over 100 followers! To celebrate this exciting milestone, I’ve decided to hold a giveaway (of a recent game this time – it may SHOCK you INFINITELY. Get it? Shock you… it’s BioShock Infinite ok?) and write a special blog post for you guys. I wanted to do something a little different for the post, so what I’ve decided on is a sort of Q&A where I answer any questions you guys have for me, whether it’s about myself, how to land games magazine internships, what it’s like working for at a games magazine or anything at all! Obviously if you’re going to ask me embarrassing or super personal questions I’m probably not going to pick those, but other than that I’ll answer pretty much anything! Feel free to get creative – it doesn’t just need to be about games. Depending how many there are, I’ll probably just pick a few and focus on those.You can email me the questions at cheeesetoastie555@gmail.com, or tweet them to me at @CheeeseToastie or just leave them as comments to this post. I’ll give it until Friday, so make sure to send them in soon! 

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My favourite games of all time or games you should play before you kick the bucket!

UPDATE: I promised to expand this list to include my top ten favourite games quite a while ago (back when this blog was still brand spanking new), so here’s me finally getting around to doing it! This one is going to be a little more difficult than the last one, because once we’re out of the top 5 I can think of a ridiculous number of games I love for many different reasons and in many different ways, but I’d said I’d do it goddamit, so I will!

I’ll mark the titles of the new additions with the word ‘new’, because as you’ll soon discover I’ve actually replaced one of my previous top 5 games with a new one, so it won’t be as straightforward as simply adding entries 6-10. Let me just say now, it might surprise you which game got forced out of my top 5 and which one replaced it!

As I haven’t done anything like this yet and this is still a fairly new blog, I thought it might be nice to write down a list of my all-time favourite games both to introduce myself a bit more and to recommend a few games to you guys as well. Keep in mind that I’m not necessarily saying these are objectively-speaking the ‘best games ever’ even within their respective genres, so if you think any of them are a load of rubbish, that’s absolutely fine! These are just games that captivated me in some way and brought me immense personal enjoyment. I think whether you like a game or not is mostly a subjective experience. I’m not suggesting that a game can’t be judged only on its technical merit. I’m merely saying that enjoyment and preference, the things that are probably most important to your average gamer simply can’t be quantified in any meaningful way. For instance, I can’t deny that the first Uncharted and LA Noire were technically superb games that made great strides in animation, but they just didn’t have that extra quality that makes a game pop to me. There are lots of people, however, that would probably strongly disagree with my opinion of Uncharted and I completely respect that. There are even some games that I spent a lot of time on, like World of Warcraft, but looking back on, although the game brought me a great deal of immediate pleasure, I can’t say it’s a game that brought me much lasting enjoyment.  I think the best reviews of games that I’ve read are the ones that try to weave those two elements: personal experience and objective judgment, together rather than attempt to ignore or deny the existence of your personal feelings. Although, this piece might be leaning more towards the ‘personal’ side than usual, that’s the kind of style that I’ll be trying to bring my blog and I hope it’s one you enjoy!

Last thing I’ll say on my choice of games is that it was a lot harder than I thought it would be to list only a few of my top games. There are lots of games I really liked, but just didn’t make the final cut. Why didn’t these games make the list? Sometimes, like the games I mentioned above, despite being decent in quality and fairly fun, they simply didn’t fulfill that core need that I have, that all gamers have. You know, that part of you that is only satisfied by playing a really good game that works for you. Clearly that core need is different, whether it’s a desire for an excellent narrative or just a need for escapism and I think it’s what makes you pick this game rather than that one. Of course, there are some I love to bits, but just didn’t quite make the top 5 like the original Fable, or the first Halo, Goldeneye or Unreal Tournament. You can probably see a bit of a trend here, I love RPGs, first-person shooters and and open-world games, although as I’ve mentioned before I’m open to playing anything really.

I’m sticking to the best of the best for me, but I may add to this as I find new games that I think are worthy of ‘the list’ and maybe add on a few more if I get the time. Also, as these are not full reviews of the game, they’re probably less detailed than you might expect if you’ve read any of my other pieces as I really just wanted to write down some of my personal thoughts and feelings on them. If there are any games on there that you haven’t played before, I’d really suggest you give it a shot and see if you can’t get the same kind of pleasure I got out of it.

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Open ended games: Yay or nay?

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NOTE: First off, what do I mean by open ended games? Like with my open world games article, I’m using the term ‘open ended’ very loosely here to mean any game, book, movie, etc… that leaves some of the main issues unresolved or open to interpretation by its end and not necessarily something as completely open to different readings as say Inception is. Of course, that means that I’ll have to discuss the endings to a few games, but only in so far as to say they’re open-ended and in what way. I definitely don’t want to spoil anything for you guys, so rest assured that’s about as detailed as I’m going to make my descriptions of any endings.

It’s interesting, because when I was doing my research for this article, I realised that there aren’t a ton of open-ended games out there. The main three that I’ll be discussing are BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3 and Far Cry 3. There are others, but honestly, not many. I didn’t find this hugely surprising considering the reaction from the gaming community to many of the games that have left questions for players at its conclusion. All three of those games I just mentioned seemed to generate a lot of anger (not necessarily a majority in every case, but enough) about the open-ended nature of the game. With any games of this nature, there often seems to be a significant portion of fans who write off the experience simply because they wanted something more definitive or because still have many unanswered questions about motive, theme or just what happens afterwards. In the most extreme cases, it seems some people think that just because they didn’t understand the ending, it must make no sense at all. I don’t necessarily blame fans who think this way, because the history of games has done little to dissuade them from this line of thinking. Games on the whole have been uncomplicated pieces of entertainment about heroes and villains and end either tragically or happily, but at the very least definitely end. I’m not saying that all the open-ended games I’ll be discussing have amazing or even good conclusions or that all games should end that way. My thoughts on this matter are simply that this is another instance where I feel developers are hampered from being creative by the expectations of the gaming community and that to grow and mature as an art form there needs to be more games that aren’t afraid to leave much to the imagination.

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