These are a few of my favourite things + The Last of Us Part II

With the teenage-angst-fueled “console wars” in full flow now, I thought it best to add some more kindling to the fire, albeit, insignificantly small kindling. So, with the coming end of this, the eighth generation of video games, in the twilight of the PS4, I have been (in Julie Andrews’ voice) thinking about a few of my favourite things (where things = PS4 exclusives).

My first introduction to the world of video games was a PlayStation One and ever since then I have stuck with the brand through routine perhaps, or an unwillingness to change, rather than any sort of “fanboy loyalty”. I have a soft spot for any new Pokémon game released on a Nintendo console, and I may have had a 6 month love affair with an Xbox One S (I really needed to play Quantum Break), but when all is said and done, there is nothing I savour more than the warm embrace of my double-vented, aeroplane-whooshing black rhomboid, whom I lovingly refer to as “The PlayStation”. I keep coming back to Sony’s console series for the games; it’s always been about the GAMES. So, without further ado, here are some GAMES that hopefully will explain to you why there is something special about the GAMES that drop exclusively on the matte-dark slate of electronic stimulation humming loudly behind my TV.

1. Raindrops on Tallnecks and whiskers on Scrappers

2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn was an injection of life and colour into my encroaching open world fatigue. Here was an IP that fascinated me from the get-go. One clear standout was the joy in slowly uncovering the mystery of the world; how it came to be. How did humanity, the Old Ones, eradicate society as we know it? Through Aloy’s eyes we experience parallel feelings of uncertainty, begin awakening old memories and have absolutely no idea where the story is going, or where her character arc will end up.

This enigma of the world, its old, yet futuristic beyond our real-world current tech, all steeped in cults and foggy sorcery, has comparisons with the Star Wars aesthetic. We are the junk-rats scrounging amidst great beasts, taking down star destroyers with nothing but some fancy tear-blast arrows.

Finally, the combat is utter perfection. While melee takes a back seat, the bow mechanic is the best I’ve played in a game. The pull and release, the slow-mo time, the speed with which Aloy breaks animation, the variety of arrows and strategy – all of this was revolutionary to me at the time. As slick as this weapon was, it would have been all for naught if the things we were aiming at were boring or repetitive; I can assure you that the exact opposite occurs here. The Machines (Initiate Morpheus’ voice) are a brilliant enemy puzzle to solve with numerous variations, and Horizon knows this. It knows its strengths, and keeps throwing new Machines, new encounters to throw you off. With a huge map, 50+ hours of content andWith the jam-packed Frozen Wilds DLC, adding a few new terrifying beasts, the game always feel fresh, intense and fun. Every fight feels like a real-time riff on Pokémon‘s elemental and effectiveness design.

Horizon is a game where the stars aligned for me; the lore, the combat, the machines, it all came together beautifully. I can’t wait to see where Guerrilla Games takes the franchise in Horizon Forbidden West, coming (fingers crossed) some time in 2021 to PS5.

2. Bright Chiral Crystals and warm Porter Booties

Image credit: barkar-b via Flickr

I have spoken at length about Death Stranding, the Kojima fever dream involving babies, inky whales, and making lots of deliveries. There simply isn’t any comparison with other triple-A video games; it’s incredibly hard to define, measure, and play-off against open world games. DS is a game that has been directed like a movie, with Wes Anderson levels of stylistic flourish, coupled with a convoluted sci-fi storyline. It is inherently odd, it is so foreign, it reminds me of the first time I travelled to Japan. There is such a different mental attitude there, like discovering a forgotten yet populated isle that’s been to the future, came back and integrated it into ancient history. DS has that zen-ness about it; it takes its time to open up, and if you let it engulf you, there is nothing else you’ll think about for several weeks as you plan your next route to the Distribution centre.

I have never finished a Metal Gear game. I hold this badge, or lack thereof, with little honour. I always found the games too finicky – I never felt like the game was made for me, rather, it was I who had to adapt to the game and what it wanted from me. I like a power fantasy, but Metal Gear boxes you into doing things a certain way that never meshed with me. Hence, I was tentative before I started playing DS. Rest assured, it was such a unique experience that never for one second did I bounce off the game. Walking in the rain, listening to Low Roar, making deliveries, was such a soothing, meditative puzzle that really resonated with the “stare profoundly at this landscape” part of my soul.

3. Fisk’s paper henchmen tied up with web

Image credit: .Natty.Dread. via Flickr

Marvel’s Spider-Man arrived during a blockbuster year for video games in 2018. To remind you, this game was trying to direct my attention away from God of War, Red Dead Redemption 2, Celeste, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Gris, Florence, Tetris Effect, Shadow of the Colossus, Spyro Reignited Trilogy, A Way Out, among several others that I have never got round to playing (yet). I have spoken about this game too, in a blog post where I tried (badly) to combine Spider-Man’s traversal with the concept of flow. TL;DR, imagine if you took Kratos’ axe, or Aloy’s bow, and applied that same slick, fluid mechanic to the human body; that’s what it’s like to web swing around Manhattan.

I am a huge fan of everything Insomniac does, from Ratchet & Clank to Spyro to Resistance (except for Sunset Overdrive, which for some reason I really bounced off), in addition to being a low-key comic book geek, so the announcement of Spider-Man was probably the greatest super-hero news I’d ever heard (Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum also made my hands flap in childish glee). The game is an absolute joy to play; it is easily the most fun I’ve had this generation. From web-swinging, to super fast combat, to a really good Spider-Man story, Marvel’s Spider-Man really is the best super hero video game I’ve ever played. It’s also one of my favourite Spider-Man “things” in general, with perhaps Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 film, or the obscenely meticulous Into the Spider-Verse animated feature, equalling it.

What I always ask myself when I’m looking for a fun game to play, is “what’s the movement like?”. I’m obsessed with feeling light, athletic and powerful in a video game; it’s why I’m drawn to third-person action adventures. If something obscure comes along, then that traversal, that feeling of taking over an avatar’s body with my Dualshock is at the forefront of my mind. Games like Vanquish on PS3, or 2017’s Nier: Automata, came out of nowhere for me and hit it out of the park; “it” being my brain. What I’m trying to say is, if I just want to sit down on the couch, not think too much, and have some fun, I’m always going for SPEED. So, thank you WipeOut, thank you Forza Horizon 4, thank you Bayonetta, and most of all, thank you Spider-Man.

4. Gold-coloured foxes and crisp cherry blossoms

Ghost of Tsushima has only been out for ~3 weeks (at the time of writing) and it’s already destroyed my eyes with its beauty, carving itself a well-earned place on this list which no-one actually cares about except me. The developer Sucker Punch‘s latest outing is a large departure from its Infamous anti-hero franchise, taking place during the real-life Mongol Invasion of Japan in the late 13th Century. You play a samurai, Jin Sakai, who must adapt his code of honour, and combat, to overcome the Mongol threat. The open world is yours to devour, gathering recruits, making friends, uncovering betrayals, and being distracted by birds. Much like how Guerrilla Games went off-piste with Horizon moving away from their PlayStation classic Killzone franchise, Sucker Punch has done the same here, to much fanfare and deserved praise. It seems that when studios are given creative freedom, to create new IPs, wonderful things can happen.

I have only played approximately a third of the game so far, by my estimate, but I can recommend this game wholeheartedly. If nothing else, take a look at some of its photo-mode shares on your favourite social network; it’s arguably the most beautiful game to date, running on a 7 year old PC. Ghost’s setting is definitely its USP; waxing moons, an abundance of golden forests, pampas grass flowing in the wind, oh the wind! Probably the greatest environmental cue ever; instead of a mini-map, or compass to locate missions, one swipes up on the Dualshock touchpad to “summon the wind”, which proceeds to visually and aurally direct you in the general direction of your objective. Additionally, animals such as golden birds, fox’s and the like, will direct you to points of interest, such as shrines to acquire new player buffs, hot springs to rest, and others. Much like Spider-Man where I spent all my time finding the backpacks to unlock all the different costumes, any time I have with Ghost is spent exploring and running around, ignoring the main story, to Lord Shimura’s annoyance I expect.

This game is a high-fidelity Feudal Japan simulator. It is also the best not-Assassin’s Creed game I’ve ever played. Yes, the familiar open world tropes/repetitiveness is here, but Ghost is redeemed by its clear passion in delivering to the player what it feels like to be a badass samurai. Dripping in Kurasawa-vibes, Ghost‘s standoffs and katana-combat are off the charts levels of “Mmmmmh!”. There’s even a stylish literal-Kurasawa-mode where you can play the entire game in B&W, some added old-school film effects, and Japanese V/O – for you Sanjuro fans, it is an absolute delight.

I might be cheating a little putting such a recent game in, but who cares, it’s my list, and anyway, praise should be given wher- hang on, is that a fox?

5. When the WLF bites, when the Scars sting, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember that Pearl Jam song, and then I don’t feel like murdering everyone

Was this list feature just an excuse to talk about The Last of Us Part II for the next 1000 words? Yes, perhaps it was. Now if you please, indulge me.

I played The Last of Us Part II in one metaphorical breath. I never quit the game in the week or so it took me to finish the game, rather, I would keep it paused, ready to go at a moment’s notice. It was always there, in the back of my mind, scratching my neurons and pushing me to get to the end of the story as soon as possible. When I finally did it, when Gustavo Santaolalla’s haunting strings started plucking away as the credits rolled, I breathed out; Part II had kept me in a stranglehold, consuming me, the consumer. The experience reminded me of when I was a kid, where I would stay up until 4am, racing through the newest Harry Potter book, desperate to reach the end. Using the word “gripping” to describe Part II is like calling the Empire State Building “tall”. To me, at least, Part II was an overwhelming experience; an unbelievably impressive follow-up to one of my all time favourite video games, 2013’s The Last of Us. I was (probably) in the minority of people who didn’t want or need a sequel to the original game; I found that ending brilliant and was satisfied to leave it there. In fact, I remember thinking how incredibly progressive and shocking that ending was, that they shouldn’t even try to top it, or even match it, which they’d have to do in order for any sequel to not be lesser than its predecessor.

I stand corrected; The Last of Us Part II is my favourite video game of all time. I say that with no hesitation, with no hand waving. For what I want out of a video game, Part II delivers in spades. Just when I think it’s peaked, it goes, “oh, we’re not done with you yet”.

It doesn’t care about what you think about it. It’s a masterful exercise in amplifying the best parts of the first game, while also holding its own. It’s a meticulously, obsessively handcrafted semi-linear masterpiece. The story structure and dialogue is as good as any excellent book or film I’ve ever experienced. Emotionally, it hit me like a ton of bricks. Go play it, now. Seriously, go.

Without going into too many spoilers, Part II takes place five years after the events of the first game, with the player controlling Ellie as she sets out on a path of revenge, in order to quell an all-consuming trauma that occurs in the first few hours of the game. New characters include Abby, played by Laura Bailey, a member of the WLF militia group, and former Firefly; Dina, played by Westworld’s Shannon Woodward, who provides a love interest for Ellie, as well as the possibility of “living on a farm somewhere” away from the, at times, shockingly gritty and realistic violence; and the star duo of the story, Yara and Lev, two kids on the run, having left the clutches of a cult known as the Seraphites or derogatorily, Scars. The story of these characters, along with many others, including Joel and Tommy from the first game, is pitch-perfect. How they intertwine, and how it is slowly revealed to the player, that nothing in this life is morally black and white, is <insert superlative>.

Yes, before you ask, the game is jaw-droopingly gorgeous. I said Ghost was beautiful beforehand, but with Part II, the level of polish on the world, on the characters, on every goddamn animation, is unbelievable. It simply doesn’t make any sense how this video can be played on my heaving and huffing black box of Balrog fire. Even on my sub-par 1080p screen it still looks utterly gorgeous; I’m pretty sure my face would melt à la Raiders of the Lost Ark if I had a decent 4K TV. I know I like to use a lot of adjectives for a lot of games, but believe me, the animation quality in Part II is unrivalled; every little facial gesture, every transition from cutscene to gameplay back to cutscene, the tiniest finger movement, the tiniest blink, Christ, I could spend days just screaming in tears how beautiful the gun cleaning and modding animations look on the workbenches! Okay, I’ll stop now.

Combat. Story. I mean, talking about either makes me wonder how I can even talk about this game like any other game. The combat is just, so organic, that it doesn’t even make sense to talk about it separately from the story. You are stealthing around, crafting weapons, running from humans, shooting humans, throwing molotovs at dogs, firing bows, sneaking past Clickers, shotgunning Shamblers, pressing square to beat the life out of someone, wading deeper and deeper into a river of blood and death that you are complicit in because you have no choice, you are controlling Ellie, even though she is making all these terrible decisions, it’s all you, you are avenging your conscience, you are dragging your friends and everyone you love into a never-ending cycle of violence, until you come out, broken, hollow, with nothing and no-one left, just your addiction burned out, finally, making you realise that maybe instead of revenge, of your idea of justice, you should try to love, try to live a life, to soothe your trauma, to decouple your ego, to honour the memory of your friends, and maybe, just maybe, you can banish your demons, with time.

Every game I have ever played, I have been able to evaluate critically. There are always pros and cons, even if the cons don’t matter to me, I can always avoid my own bias and find them. Yes, maybe Days Gone would have worked better as a linear game, and been 20 hours shorter, maybe the Niflheim sequence and Valkyries in God of War were too hard/OTT for my tastes. Perhaps Ratchet & Clank should have been 20 hours longer with 20 more planets and 20 more weapons. Whatever it is, I am aware of it. I am telling you now, as someone who has been playing PlayStation games since 1999 (give or take), The Last of Us Part II is flawless. I can’t see anything wrong with it. It’s a perfect game. I can talk about it endlessly: from accessibility options to difficulty settings, from the water physics to the use of dim lighting, from the emotional gut punches of character deaths to character growth, from the representation of playing a triple-A action game as a lesbian to depicting transgender characters and people of a variety of body shapes, from the perspective shift building of tension to the use of music to undercut and highlight sorrow and pain and Ellie’s moth tattoo that symbolises looking for the light and the cyclical use of Pearl Jam’s Future Days that perfectly encompass- *audio fades out*

Honourable mentions

So, those are five of my favourite experiences I’ve had on the PS4. There are a few honourable mentions, due to personal taste of course.

God of War – A brilliant reimagining of the stagnating franchise, much lauded and possessing unquestionably the greatest axe-throwing mechanic in a game, as well as the entire game being pretty much done in one take, GoW is a masterpiece. Why didn’t I include it? Fear, I think; the tension I felt while undertaking any boss fight because they were so damn intense.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – Another Neil Druckmann work of art, but I can’t have too much Naughty Dog on one list, otherwise I’ll get told off. This game is the best in the Uncharted series, lavishing in cinematic style, in action and in Hardy-boys-esque true “adventure”. Absolutely essential must play for any PlayStation fan.

Ratchet & Clank – I grew up on the original series for PS2, and for the PS4, I merely wanted more. I loved the game, how beautiful it looked, and how it was a wonderful slice of the suped-up, particle-heavy, platforming madness and hoverboard extravaganza that hooked me back in the day (oh and the funky weapons too). But that was it, just a slice. I need the cake, ALL of it. Hopefully, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart, a PS5 title releasing sometime in the future, will finally tick those boxes for me.

That’s all folks. Look forward to a PS5 follow-up to this post in about 7 years. And as always, thanks for reading 🙂