DLC Review: The Last of Us: Left Behind

So. “The Last of Us” was a game that I had to play through multiple times to fully appreciate it (as can be seen in my original review for it and then later my best and worst of 2013 list), but now I view it very highly, and as such was eagerly anticipating this: the game’s first and indeed only piece of story DLC. Is it a worthy addition to the game? Or just a piece of short, throw-away fluff that doesn’t need to he here? Spoilers for the main game’s story follow.

“Left Behind” focuses entirely on Ellie during two very important times in her life. As advertised it shows what happened to her and her best friend Riley during the events leading up to them both becoming infected, and also, interestingly, includes a section starting from the moment Joel falls from the horse outside the university. She drags him into a shopping mall, locks him away for safety and then begins a hunt for medical supplies. About equal time is given to both scenarios and each one offers a very different tone, different gameplay and scenery, and both are entirely worthy of a place in the game’s overall story. Gameplay hasn’t changed much at all, but the content on display here is a must for anyone enjoyed the main game. I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but if you don’t want to know anything about it all (and indeed I feel that’s the best way to play it) would be advised to play it before reading this review. Also, to get the most out of the DLC, read the tie-in comic “The Last of Us: American Dreams”- it’ll help with some of the things mentioned.

The prequel chapter is largely focused on exploration and dialogue- going more in-depth into Ellie and Riley’s relationship as they skip out of their responsibilities to basically mess around and have fun for a day. The lack of combat gives Naughty Dog opportunity to tell the story in a slightly different way- the optional conversations and the like are still present, but this scenario is a lot more playful and unique, with little touches being used to great effect. For example you play games like breaking car windows with a brick, there’s a small section dedicated to Ellie’s pun book, and a particularly stand-out section that for spoiler reasons I will simply describe as involving an arcade. Of course, if you’ve played the main game (or read the second paragraph of this review) you know how this is going to end, and indeed Ellie’s infection is shown, but despite knowing this is going to happen this section still manages to throw some great surprises your way, and when the dire part of the story it hits as hard as you’d expect. This is arguably the core part of the DLC, and it carries that burden admirably.

Moving on, the winter section of the DLC is a lot more combat-focused, with a generous helping of exploration as well. A lot of it reminded me of the section in which Joel is navigating the hotel basement in Pittsburgh- it’s creepy, intense, and there’s a clear drive to get the hell out of your current location. Story-wise this one doesn’t have a lot going on; there’s an interesting sub-plot featuring soldiers that’s told through notes and corpses which is good while it lasts, and Ellie’s dialogue to herself as she traverses the mall is well-written. Gameplay wise it’s the same as the winter section of the main game- Ellie isn’t as physically capable as Joel, but has all her moves as well as her weapons, and the gameplay is still as satisfying as it was originally. The one new addition to the gameplay is encounters featuring both human enemies and infected, with you acting primarily as an instigator of some good old-fashioned monster in-fighting. It’s used a few times and doesn’t really seem like “one of many options” as much as it seems like the one key that fits in the metaphorical lock, but it is a cool touch.

The one thing that really stands out is how well Ellie is represented as a character. Taken as a whole, the DLC has a great mix of gameplay showing her to be a resourceful badass in the “Joel” mold perhaps to an even greater extent than the Winter chapter and a combined story that shows her to be rounded while going into a key emotional event that shaped her into the person she is in the person she is later on. It shows she could carry a whole game as the main protagonist no problem, and also provides context for a lot of her mannerisms and outlooks in the main game. Also, there’s one rather bold, brief story element during the prequel chapter that adds subtle volumes to the whole thing. I won’t spoil it here.

Overall, “Left Behind” is a wonderful addition to “The Last of Us”. The only problem I can find is that it is rather short for £12 in the UK, though if you bought the season pass it does soften the blow. I didn’t, but I do think the content on offer here is of great quality, which helps. The mix of gameplay between exploration and plot and combat is a good one, and story-wise the whole thing is a great character study that adds depth where it needs to, lets actions speak for words where necessary, explores a touching friendship and the last effects of it, and sheds new light to an established character. If this really is the one piece of story DLC for “The Last of Us”, it’s enough for me, and as DLC generally, it’s pretty damn good. So I recommend it, basically.

By James Lambert

Outlast (Ps4) Review

It’s finally here. After waiting months for a chance to play it I finally have. Praise be to the Walrider I’ve finally played “Outlast”. Released last year on PC, I bought the game on Steam only to discover my laptop couldn’t run it in a way anyone would describe as “smooth”; I even wrote an article about it. I was eagerly anticipating the game since its very first trailer: horror and stealth are my two favourite genres in games. Add in an interesting mechanic in the form of the game’s video camera and some screenshots showing one hell of a villain (the one shown above) and I was all set. Only I couldn’t play it. Fortunately I knew it was coming out on PS4 in Q1 of 2014, and that it would be free for Playstation Plus subscribers. So I bided my time, patiently waiting to 1. Get a PS4 and 2. Have access to Outlast. Well the wait ended on Wednesday 5th February. So here it is: my review of “Outlast”, and my first review of  a PS4 game.

“Outlast” is a horror game in the same vein as “Amnesia: The Dark Descent” in that it prioritises  stealth and evasion to the point where it has no combat system. Get spotted by the enemies here and you’ll have to employ a mixture of sprinting away like you’re re-enacting the opening of “Trainspotting” and hiding like… well like you’re hiding in the dark from a lunatic armed with a pipe. Unlike Amnesia however, there are no real puzzles or the like to solve- the focus of the game is moving to the next area, sneaking around enemies, and sometimes seeking out a few switches or valves to aid in your passage to the next area. Now that may sound sparse in terms of gameplay, but it really doesn’t feel that way, as I’ll get into shortly. Point is, this is pure horror- it’s come to slap modern gaming across the face, scream at it and let it know that horror games are making a come back. It’s basically doing the job that everyone seems to think “The Evil Within” is going to do. Only far better.

The game’s story and visual design are top notch, as are the tone and atmosphere it creates. You are Miles Upshur- a young, brave/stupid/hey he’s being controlled by you so it’s your fault Journalist who, after a tip from an inside source, breaks into Mount Massive Asylum to investigate claims of corruption and horrific experiments. From there it’s a pretty breakneck descent into gory, bleak-as-hell madness as Miles is forced to go deeper and deeper into the asylum, confronted by all manner of terrible things. The story is told in two main ways: backstory on the asylum and what went on before you arrived is handled in collectible documents scattered throughout the world, and events happening here and now are documented in Miles’ notebook, provided you film certain things with your video camera (more on that in a moment).  It’s a good way to do it- you can miss certain documents but still get a good idea of what’s going on, and getting more documents means you get a decent amount of extra information, all of which is well-written. Mount Massive Asylum is beautifully crafted- battered corpses, blood pools and various organs are all over the place, and every area has a great sense of macabre to it that fits the genre perfectly. The asylum is physically incredibly dark and foreboding, with the few respites you get still managing to feel unsafe thanks to the game’s visual style, music and the fact that you often don’t know whether the people you encounter are hostile. Yes, in a brilliant change from the norm, not every patient in the asylum bears you ill will, and if they do then they aren’t necessarily going to attack you. Apart from a couple of – for a lack of a better word – “boss” characters whose sole purpose is to hunt you down and kill you, a lot of the patients will act in ways varying from completely ignoring you, through spouting gibberish or indeed attacking you at random. Some will act as “enemies” and patrol with weapons, attacking you on sight. The point is, you often don’t know who’s going to do what until they’ve acted, and by then it could be too late. It’s a brilliant touch that really fits the tone of an asylum where the inmates have all been left to their own devices, and it’s refreshing to see a game where not all mentally ill people are violent psychopaths. The game is consistently creepy and every encounter is filled with dread. It’s a proper horror game- and it revels in it. The story goes to a slightly odd place right at the end, but I felt it worked- the story really builds up to its conclusion, and although I still had some questions, everything I saw made sense in the context of the story.

Now, the gameplay side of things. As I mentioned before, the game doesn’t have a whole lot of “Game” elements, per se. Sure, it’s an actual videogame with gameplay and challenges and not some David Cage interactive movie bullshit, but it is, how should I put this… streamlined, to a certain extent. The only pick-ups are batteries for your camera. You have regenerating health, and the only time an objective becomes more complex than moving to a different area is when it asks you to turn two valves or press three switches. The game is often broken up into sections with more neutral patients and exploration, and finding said valves and switches while an enemy patrols the area. This enemy is at most times Chris Walker- a huge, self-mutilating ex-MP and star of the game’s PSN dashboard art who is completely relentless and capable of tearing your body off. Not your head. He holds you by the neck and tears your body off. Seriously. The one tool in your arsenal to really help against your pursuers is Miles’ video camera, which comes with a battery-draining night vision mode that acts as the game’s flashlight. This is easily the game’s most unique and best-implemented feature. Not only does it add to the atmosphere- drenching everything in an eerie green glow and illuminating areas while not giving you full clarity in dark areas – it enables you to keep tabs on enemies in the area and plan your movements around them, adding a layer of strategy to proceedings that really helps. It also means that you can effectively hide in most dark areas, as you can see enemies but they can’t see you- making running away and hiding a valid tactic, particularly as enemies will have a hard time keeping up with you and tracking you in pitch-black areas. The enemy A.I can be very forgiving, at times bordering on stupid, but given the genre I find this to be fair. Of course you can bump up the difficulty levels if you feel the game lacks challenge. Overall although the gameplay can and has been described as a “haunted house simulator”, I really feel this doesn’t do the game justice at all. It’s challenging, rewarding and the stealth is good, particularly when coupled with the game’s superb horror sensibilities.

Any problems? Well, one or two. The aforementioned A.I had a couple of issues in which I sprinted right behind enemies’ backs (close enough to reach out and touch them) and they didn’t react at all, and one time I ran into Chris Walker (in an attempt to spring past him as he was clearly about to discover me) only to die for no apparent reason. Also the pause menu’s save function does NOT manually save the game anywhere, but instead saves progress to the last auto-saved checkpoint, making it effectively useless. This only really caused me trouble once, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Anything new added to the PS4 version? A new difficulty- “Insane”, in which you can hold two (as opposed to ten on “Normal”) batteries at a time and have to complete the game in one sitting. The touch pad can be used to zoom the camera and the light on the back of the gamepad lights up green when using night vision, and all other times represents your health: white is fine, through yellow and orange to red, which means you’ve been killed. Most likely in a horrible fashion.

Overall, “Outlast” is easily as good as I’d hoped. The atmosphere, tone and environment are top notch. The gameplay is tense, scary and the night vision camera is a brilliant idea wonderfully implemented. If you’re like me and you love horror games, pick this up without delay. It’s in my top ten games of all time (possibly five) and if I had reviewed it last year it would have easily made my 2013 GOTY list. Expect it to feature in this year’s list.

Now if you excuse me, I have an appointment with Dr. Trager…

By James Lambert

The Wolf Among Us : Episode 2 – Smoke and Mirrors Review

The second episode of Tell Tale’s “Fables” adaptation “The Wolf Among Us” hit the PSN store on Wednesday. I loved episode 1, and speaking of which this review will forgo talking about gameplay mechanics, controls and the like apart from a brief description that’s coming along shortly. If you want a more in-depth description of how the game plays, you’ll find it in my review of episode 1.

As for that brief description I just intrigued you with, it’s as follows: “The Wolf Among Us” is an adventure game revolving around investigating areas, some very light puzzle solving, action scenes (usually brawls and chases) and making difficult decisions. It’ll be very family to anyone who’s played Tell Tale’s own “Walking Dead” game, and it’s based on the Vertigo comic “Fables”, about fairy tale characters living in modern New York. Right, with that out of the way, how was Episode 2? Light spoilers for Episode 1 incoming.

In short: very good. The quality has remained consistent to both Episode 1 and Tell Tale’s games in general. One thing I noticed here even more than the last episode is how possible – and indeed satisfying – it is to be a complete bastard- bordering on psychopathy a few times. I kept up my previous stance of basically being kind and polite to women and harsh and violent to men (which is honestly just how it turned out, really) which lead to me torturing a suspect when I could have calmly interrogated him, utterly trashing a strip club with a cricket bat and violently throwing Jack of Fables out of a bar because he wouldn’t shut up and I had things to do. This episode is lighter on investigation and heavier on action and conversation, but it fits where the story goes and keeps a good pace. Said interrogation and strip club trashing sections were the highlights, and overall the gameplay is still satisfying and well implemented- the more action-oriented sections blending well with the more old-school adventure game stuff.

Story wise it’s mainly a continuation of the last epsisode. New characters introduced are either there for a quick cameo like the aforementioned Jack of Fables, dead, or there to advance Bigby’s investigation, such as Georgie Porgie, here re-imagined as a heavily tattooed Northern English creep who runs that strip club I trashed. He also pimps out his girls, which didn’t end well for a couple of them. Also included is Dave Fennoy’s (Lee Everett from “The Walking Dead” game) Blue Beard, who is good while he lasts but is only in one scene. Also because I was a complete psychotic bastard he was on my side for the interrogation and therefore silently smiled his approval rather than interrupted me like in the clip shown before the episode’s release. You can’t have it always I suppose. The episode’s ending cliffhanger is a bit far fetched as far as I saw it and does stamp out a lot of the intrigue to a certain extent. MINOR SPOILERS; you find out who the killer is, basically. So you know who now, but not why. Personally I would have liked to see the whodunnit story stretched out a bit further, but I’m still eager to see where the next episode goes.

Episode 2 of “The Wolf Among Us” keeps up the gameplay and story standards set by episode 1. On the negative side the game did freeze up for a few seconds every now and then but it never broke the game, and that’s the only technical issue I encountered. If you’ve bought the season pass then you won’t be disappointed with this new episode. If you didn’t but you liked Episode 1, give this one a look.
By James Lambert