6 – Assassin’s Creed 3
5 – Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
Revelations felt shallow and like it was resting on the foundations of Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood rather than adding anything new. It was nice to have some closure for both Altair and Ezio, but the setting and linearity crippled any interest the game held for me. If you never played this game you would not have missed anything. However the DLC which focussed subject 16 and his story was by far the most interesting thing to do in the game.
2 – Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
The latest game in the Assassin’s Creed series is arguably one of the best; it has a charm and character beyond that of all the AC games including Assassin’s Creed 2. With by far the best protagonist who’s personal story really got to me. Minus some pacing issues and the poor modern day segments the game very well could have been the game of the year 2013.
1 – Assassin’s Creed 2
Assassin’s Creed 2 was a huge leap from the original and combined a brilliant character with a gripping story. The locations were beautiful and the soundtrack is one of the best video game soundtracks ever. Overall it was probably the best balanced game of the series and is arguably one of the games of the generation.
Charm in abundance, but is it the return to form for the Assassin’s Creed series?
Warning! This review may include spoilers.
Since the Assassin’s Creed series became a yearly franchise, the quality has noticeably dipped to the low point that was Assassin’s Creed 3. However Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag fixes most if not all of the issues that plagued its predecessor. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has the heart and soul of a game of the year contender, and on a personal level has made me fall in love with the series that I have grown so disillusioned with over the last 3 years. It not only rivals Assassin’s Creed II (arguably the high point of the franchise) but in many areas even surpasses it.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has advanced the naval mechanics of AC3 through increasing the upgrading of the ship, adding a dynamic weather system, the ability to loot ships and giving the player a tonne to explore and discover truly immersing the player into the role of being a pirate. Making the world open and sailing the Jackdaw your primary method of travel means these changes are very prominent and given that they have all been executed effectively means AC4 really stands out from the previous iterations in the series.
Away from the ocean the gameplay is more of the tried and tested Assassin’s Creed formulae. It has been built upon and polished the foundations that Assassin’s Creed had set. There are surprisingly few bugs considering the scope of the game in contrast to the vastly smaller AC3 which was riddled with bugs. The game is filled with things to do and unlike AC3 and its desire to turn the player into a businessman as opposed to an assassin; everything the game gives you feels related to the character and doesn’t feel out of place. The missions are more open than they were in AC3 it really feels like Ubisoft has listened to the series’ fans, whilst this is not always the case it is a step in the right direction, although a few less ‘Tail’ missions next time would not be a bad thing.
One of the most obvious ways Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has improved upon its predecessor is its main character; Edward Kenway is a fantastic character to play as and feels like a blend between Altair and Ezio, there is a lot of depth to the character and this allows Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag the ability to pull off both light hearted and more sober moments that the game has. It is the combination of these that really makes the narrative of the game the strongest the series has seen in a while. All of the characters feel interesting and add to the development of Edward and his story.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag does however suffer from pacing issues, especially in the last third of the game where the game suddenly remembers it is an assassin game too, not just a pirate game and rushes the development of that (almost certainly for DLC or a sequel).
The game has about the same graphical fidelity as AC3, but the art style is vastly superior. The cities have a great deal more life, and the whole environment has a beautiful vibrancy we have not yet seen in the series. The UI and menus are a lot simpler and easy to find your way around. The soundtrack is also superb, the best the series has yet had, overall the presentation is polished to perfection and looks great considering the limitations it has on the current generation consoles.
The modern day setting has moved on from Desmond and now has you as the character jumping into the animus by moving it into a first person setting. Overall I feel this is the weakest part of the game, weaker than Desmond’s story. However all the information that the player has access to about the history of both the Assassins and Templars is fascinating but the first person as greatly limited what they can do with it and definitely seems to indicate we will not see a modern day setting for the series.
Overall Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag a great game and one of, if not the best, the series has to offer. It is the game that Assassin’s Creed 3 should have been and has restarted my love for the series. I hope the dip in form of Assassin’s Creed has been put to bed for good now and the series and can use Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as a stepping stone for greater games in the future.
Dark, Unforgiving, and Emotionally Brutal
Warning! This review may include spoilers. Do not read unless you have completed the game.
First and foremost it is important to establish that whilst The Last of Us is not ‘perfect’, Naughty Dog has done an incredible job in its development of its newest IP. I whole heartedly echo the sentiments of game journalists and gamers everywhere when I say this game is a strong contender for the best video game of this console generation, simply put The Last of Us is a masterpiece in the art of video games, it is dark, unforgiving and emotionally brutal.
The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic action-adventure game that combines a dark and desperate atmosphere with an endearing father/daughter-esque relationship between Joel and Ellie, our protagonists. Let us first touch upon the atmosphere and setting of the game. The world we inhabit in The Last of Us is a brutal, harsh, and un-romanticised take on how humanity would cope with a fungus that turns the people into Cordyceps. The idea for this fungus is actually based in reality on something called Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis that in real life, the fungus infects small insects and it feeds off of the tissue of the insect until the insect is ready to die. It then tells the insect’s brain to go to a comfortable spot, die, and then the fungus sprouts out of the carcass of the insect and releases its spores into the air to infect other insects of the same species. In game this is essentially what happens to humans infected. However infected people go through stages; starting of as runners, to clickers and eventually to an unknown third stage before dying and allowing the fungus to release spores to infect others. I found this idea to be a refreshing angle opposed to the numerous zombie virus’ we have seen in recent years and using something that does actually exist makes this feel all the more darker and realistic a take on how far humanity will go to survive. This fungus has devastated most of the United States and (we assume) the rest of the world. Humanity is now confined to safe zones governed with martial law; many of these zones have been abandoned as we see in Pittsburgh during the course of the game. The world is a constant fight for survival and because of this, smuggling is rife in these areas. Joel and his partner Tess are talked into smuggling a teenage girl (Ellie) to the Fireflies, a group of rebels to the martial law in place currently. This leads them on an adventure across the United States over 6 months and shows how human civilisation has crumbled in the aftermath of the Cordycep infection.
The Main Characters
The characters are an equally important reason as to why this game impacts the player so effectively. Before the outbreak Joel was an average guy trying to keep work flowing and look after his teenage daughter, Sarah. However now Joel is a smuggler, and he has been hardened by the events of the past 20 years and haunted by one incident in particular. This moment sets the scene for the entirety of the next 15 hours, it is emotionally brutal and unforgiving in its execution. I do not feel that any description I could give would give enough credit to how powerful the first 20 minutes of The Last of Us are, so for now I’ll simply implore you to play, and experience it yourself. The heartache of that moment builds not only Joel’s character but our own, we really empathise with why Joel has become so hardened to the world around him, and how he does not have much left to live for. His condition when we are re-introduced to him 20 years later is similar to that of an alcoholic, symbolised perhaps by Tess offering him a drink and him refusing emphasising that he is not drinking, but is in the alcoholic-esque state.
Simple things like that are what add such depth to the game and building of character. Another example of this detail is the constant referencing of Joel’s broken watch given to him by his daughter Sarah at the beginning of the game. Symbolising not only how Joel himself is broken but how what he has lost is always with him and it’s the not letting go of it that is keeping him going.
Ellie’s character is reminiscent of Joel’s daughter, shown through referencing that they both enjoy music, are both active, and both have a similar way of interacting with Joel. Their similarity helps create this father daughter bond early on, and we see it progress and Joel becomes increasingly accepting and caring towards Ellie. The fear for many of us would be that Ellie’s character wouldn’t be strong enough to make the game feel as if it was not one long escort mission. But this year has been all about the strong female characters with Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) and Elizabeth (Bioshock Inifinite). You can now add Ellie to that list, she is as strong, clever and self-sufficient as Joel as is.
[Spoiler warning for the next paragraph]
The fact she is the one to save herself from David and not Joel saving her shows how she is not dependant on Joel as many of us feared she would be. However, like Joel, she isn’t one dimensional like many video game characters are. There’s a touching moment between her and Sam where she admits to what she is afraid of and at that point it struck me how human she seemed how whilst she came across as a confident, bold, bad ass most of the time, she was still scared. It added a layer to her character that shows she doesn’t always show her true feelings, which ties well into what she says (and doesn’t say) at the ending of the game.
The beginning is a crucially important (if not the most important) part to the game as it gave Joel a reason to care about Ellie, without that explanation for why Joel is so closed off it would have felt really out of character for him to warm to her the way he did. If I did have a complaint it would be that it still felt too sharp a turn from being cold to her to being nice, however given the huge time gaps the game has at points I feel this can be forgiven, even if it was an opportunity missed to further increase the bond the player feels towards Ellie.
The characters and setting are the two aspects that strike me as the most prominent strengths within The Last of Us, but that is not all the game has going for it. The story, visuals, audio, and gameplay are all areas which Naughty Dog has got as near to perfect as I’ve experienced within a game before. The story, like the characters, is not one dimensional it’s not just a tale of a man and a girl traveling across a post-apocalyptic America; it’s the story of humanity’s downfall. Every room has its own story, going into a house to look for supplies and it suddenly strikes you, this was a home to someone. A child’s posters on a wall, the same posters Sarah had at the beginning of the game, books, diaries, notes. They not only show what those people were like but also emphasises what has been lost in the 20 years since the outbreak. It helps create the effect on the player that the people who lived here were real people and not just hypothetical people you assume would live there.
[Spoiler warning for the next paragraph]
There is one particularly haunting moment, where you stumble across a community living in the sewers that has become infected, finding a nursery, you find the remains of an adult and several small children whose legs are poking out from under a sheet put over them. A nearby note suggests that the teacher shot the children and then themselves so that it would be quick and painless unlike being killed by the infected.
This is just one of many moments that make the game at times almost unplayable because it’s so emotional difficult to digest. It is something we rarely see in games, but is something that would certainly happen in a real life apocalypse. The moments like these are implemented so effectively that even now, a week after finishing the game, it is still difficult to put it into words how traumatic The Last of Us can be.
Visuals & Sound
The game visually is nothing short of stunning. The art style suits the theme perfectly and similar to Metro Last Light, succeeds in making the world feel dead/dying yet still alive at the same time. The motion capture is excellent, the characters look real and the emotions come across well. The attention to detail is incredible and this combined with realistic animations and the great visuals make the game feel incredibly immersive and real. This is combined with what is undoubtedly one of the best soundtracks in a video game. The sounds convey the atmosphere perfectly, with some truly haunting pieces such as ‘All Gone (Aftermath)’. Even the more endearing and upbeat pieces have such a haunting quality about them that really conveys the hopelessness of the world we are in. ‘The Path (A New Beginning)’ is a perfect example of this and how whilst there are truly touching and warm moments to be found, danger and pain is never far away.
Some of you may be feeling, “this is all well and good, but what about the gameplay?” Too often we play games that are driven by its narrative and world design, and the gameplay suffers as a result. However what makes The Last of Us such a masterpiece of video game development is how the gameplay is just as strong as any other area of the game. The Last of Us does a great job at forcing you to adapt your tactics based on the situation you find yourself. The game is never easy which is good, even on easy mode you never feel superhuman, just lucky. Enemies have variety; the Cordyceps have a variety of types; runners, clickers and bloaters all of which require a different approach. Runners being newly turned will be able to see you but are by far the weakest, clickers will use sound to track you down, but this also allows you to throw bottles, bricks and bombs to distract them and create an opening for yourself. Bloaters are Cordyceps that have been turned for a long time and have developed hard armour like skin due to the fungus. Personally I am not a fan of these as they look too ‘gamey’ and appeared the majority of zombie games made. However, encounters with bloaters are few and far between so the fear of them when they are just around the corner is never lessened from over exposure, so for this I am willing to look past their inclusion in the game.
Human enemies are far more proactive in their search for you and like with the Cordyceps stealth is the best option to avoid alerting enemies to your presence, which would lead to the requirement of using guns, and wasting precious ammunition. However human enemies will notice when one of their guys is missing unlike the Cordyceps which means you have to progress for more quickly and more efficiently when faced with human enemies.
There are plenty of hidden areas to discover which encourages exploration and rewards the player with items that can be used to upgrade weapons, Joel/Ellie’s abilities, and create items like shivs, bombs, and health kits. All of the creation process happens in real time which means you have to be cautious and aware of the environment and helps create tension. There are weapon slots available for a few weapons at a time, which can be upgraded but all weapons you pick up you keep in your back pack, a compromise for those who hate having to drop weapons and people who hate having every weapon at once. You can go into your back pack and choose a few weapons to put on a quick select menu. Ammunition is scarce and it always becomes incredibly tense when you approach a room or area with the sound of enemies coming from it, with only a few bullets left. The listen feature is in my opinion, a great tool to have and was at times more important than any of my weapons, and it really helped show how all your senses were vital in surviving the world. At times I would find myself having to stop playing due to either a lack of sound which would always put me on edge, or that out of game noises were making it difficult for me to hear what was in the next room.
There are a few things to note with companion AI such as your companion is invisible to enemies. Whilst this does at times break immersion, it is more practical as without it approaching a situation with stealth would be near impossible. They could have perhaps had it so you could have had Ellie or other companions stay back as some people have suggested, however I feel this would have taken away from their character development and made them feel weaker than Joel which would have been a disaster as the game goes out of its way to show Joel is just a man, and not a super hero.
[Spoiler Warning for the next 2 paragraphs]
Earlier I said I didn’t want to discuss the beginning, and whilst I stand by that it’s important to look at the poetic way the game begins and ends as they are very similar. At the beginning of the game we’re in a car with Joel, his brother Tommy, and his daughter Sarah, they crash and Sarah’s leg is injured, we play as Joel carrying Sarah from the accident, through streets full of people panicking and being attacked by runners, being chased by runners then saved by a soldier. The soldier is then ordered to kill both Joel and Sarah; he fires on them before being shot by Tommy. For a brief second the player feels they’ve been saved, until the most heart-breaking sound comes from where Sarah has fell. I do not really need to say any more as those of you who’ve played know what has happened, and those of you have haven’t will have an idea. At the end of the game, Ellie has been taken by the fireflies as she is immune. They need to operate on her brain to create a cure as she is immune to the fungus. Joel chooses rescue Ellie moments away from death, and carries her away whilst being chased by the fireflies. It is almost the reverse to the beginning and it helps confirms the comparisons between Ellie and Sarah, and poetically shows how Ellie has become Sarah in Joel’s heart, and he could not cope with losing the only person he cared for again.
Naughty Dog was unforgiving in its ending for The Last of Us, and confirms the brutality of the world and shatters any misconception we may have had left that we were ‘the good guy’. After taking Ellie back from the fireflies, more or less destroying any hope for developing a cure, Joel then coldly kills Marlene so that she won’t come after Ellie. On the journey back Ellie asks Joel what happened and he lies to her saying that there were more like her and they hadn’t found a cure. When Ellie asks Joel if this is true, he to her faces swears it is. Ellie says she believes what he says but her face shows that she really doesn’t but she will go with what he says, in exactly the same way that Sarah said she was fine in the opening 20 minutes when it was clear she wasn’t. Joel’s choosing of the option that kept Ellie alive but practically doomed humanity to a slow extinction confirms what the game as show all along that Joel isn’t a hero; he’s a man who has received a second chance at being a father, and made the choice that whilst many of us might not admit we would make, we probably would. It can also be seen as symbolic of how the world has changed that people have become more selfish and look out for their own as that is the only way to survive. As Joel says at the end “I struggled for a long time with surviving. And you… no matter what, you keep finding something to fight for.” Ultimately Joel says what the game is about there, not finding a cure, not saving the human race but having something to fight for. A selfish and, in my opinion, more genuine motivation for a protagonist who is simply a man who has lost everything.
The Last of Us is one of best video games made; it is dark, brutal and unforgiving. It tears at your heart and leaves you feeling empty and crushed time after time, but always makes the journey and struggle for Joel and Ellie feel worth the emotional struggle. It is the most intense experience I’ve had from any video game yet. It is arguably the best game of this console generation, and one of the best narrative driven games ever created. It is a video game masterpiece and Naughty Dog deserves to be commended for making yet another fantastic Playstation game. The Last of Us is as close to perfect a game as I have come across, and whilst I cannot wait for the sequel I would be equally happy if this game was left as the only on in the series, keeping its integrity and darkness intact. Everything was just right with the game and it is a must play for gamers everywhere. If you don’t have a Playstation 3, either buy one or borrow a friends as any gamer who does not experience The Last of Us will miss out on what is undeniably one of the most emotionally powerful video games ever created.