Fake Difficulty in Games

So what am I talking about when I say ‘fake difficulty’? I don’t mean that the game is not difficult, but that devs make the game ‘harder’ by fiddling with numbers to make it more difficult to achieve objectives in a very superficial and unsatisfying way. An example of this is increasing enemy damage by 200% for hard mode without adjusting anything else. It’s not that these methods of increasing ‘fake difficulty’ shouldn’t be done at all or that they can’t be incorporated into making a genuinely fun and challenging experience, but if done badly, it can make playing it feel tedious. Often difficulty modes are tacked on at the end of the development process, so even while the Normal mode might feel very well-balanced, the more difficult modes can often feel very out of wack, because little thought has been put into how superficial increases like making enemies deal more damage can affect the overall experience. Continue reading

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

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.