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This is my first writing piece in a while. In fact, it’s been just over three weeks since I made my last contribution to Manhattan Digest, and this lack of output on my end has been a real thorn in my side. I always like to keep active as a writer, and in a timely matter, but for some reason November just hit me with a bad case of writer’s block, and admittedly a little bit of a depression too. I honestly found myself uninterested in going-ons in the world of film and music which is a shock to me as much as it is for you, and I did find myself rapidly looking for a new fix. That new fix turned out to be a retreat into an old past-time of mine: video games!

I’ve often told people that I’m about an eighth of the video gamer that I used to be, but I’ll also be first to admit that the vicarious thrill of of enacting digitized violence in video games can be oh so nourishing (name a video game where your favorite weapon isn’t the shotgun), and it actually felt good to return to this old comfort zone of mine. In this past month I’ve played through The Last of Us, Grand Theft Auto V, and Bioshock Infinite, the three acclaimed games that popular consensus would seem to say are 2013’s most likely Game-of-the-Year candidates.  I have to say it was quite an experience to play all of these games, and the order in which I did certainly paved me back to the direction I so desired

The Last of Us

TheLastOfUs

Genre: Third-Person Action – Survival Horror

Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment

Developer: Naughty Dog Software

Systems: PS3

Synopsis: 20 years after a viral outbreak began turning people into raving flesh eaters (call them zombies if you will), an aging survivor named Joel must traverse a disparaged America with a young teenage girl name Ellie, who might carry a cure to the virus inside her.

My Thoughts: While all three of these games turned out to be well worth my time, I’d have to say that this is the one game in the trinity that really, truly lives up to the hype. Granted, I don’t know if I’m the utmost authority on the matter, but in hind sight it would appear that The Last of Us really is an A+, and as close to perfection as modern video games get. It’s a game that’s devoid of a dull moment, but most impressively it tells a very emotional and shocking story, that is only enhanced by the gameplay.

The post-apocalyptic scenario has been done innumerable times over the last few years, that it’s hard to think there is anything more to mine from it. Instead though, The Last of Us makes the genre feel fresh again, by setting the action in the story 20-years after the outbreak hit, and also focusing on a very complex dynamic between it’s two main characters. Taking on the role of Joel, a broken man who has lost everything to this world gone mad, as well as Ellie, a teenage girl that is immune to the virus, we see them form a huge bond over a trek that takes nearly a year. Everything in the story seems so realized, including twists and chapter transgressions that complement your intelligence rather than insult it, to gameplay that is often challenging, never repetitive, and always fun. You really do feel like a survivor in the game, as your ammo and health supplies always run the risk of running out, but the combat is brutal enough to give you the feeling of being a real bad-ass. You really feel the plight of these two characters during their harrowing journey, and it’s also beyond commendable once you realize that your character of Joel may not have the primary objective of saving the world. Dare I even call this game psychologically dense?

Not to give away much, but by the time you reach the ending, your gonna have a hard time believing what you just witnessed (and did). It’s one of the most ballsy endings I’ve ever seen in a video game, and that alone is enough to label Naughty Dog as the best developer of this generation of gaming. While the company found gargantuan success both critically and commercially with it’s Uncharted trilogy, even those games feel amateurish and tame when compared to the The Last of Us. It truly is a game for the ages, and I’m hoping we never see a sequel to it, just so we can preserve it’s legacy in a singular and unaltered form. So if you haven’t guessed, I reallllllllyyyyyy loved this freaking game, and it raised my standards for quality gaming by quite a bit. In a way, it did to video games what The Wire did for me and television.

Grade: A+

Grand Theft Auto V

Grand_Theft_Auto_V

Genre: Third-person action – sand-box

Publisher: Rockstar Games

Developer: Rockstar North

Systems: PS4, Xbox 360

Synopsis: Three criminals find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and have to perform a series of heists and robberies together.

My Thoughts: Grand Theft Auto is pretty much the one video game franchise I still regularly follow. Whenever a new entry in the series hits home consoles (as I don’t own any portable systems), I find myself playing the shit out of the goddamn game. My commitment to this series definitely stems from my interest in crime fiction stories, but I also feel that the writing, design, and game mechanics for Grand Theft Auto is always top-notch, and really speaks to the movie lover in me. Thus, I’m not surprised to say that yes I did indeed love the latest entry in this venerable series, and if it’s not my all time favorite Grand Theft Auto game, than it’s pretty damn close.

The series has received most of it’s accolades for giving players so much freedom, and gameplay options. Grand Theft Auto V not only ups the ante by introducing it’s biggest world yet, but by also incorporating plenty of options for how one can go about the story. It was truly an ingenious move on the developers part to make Grand Theft Auto V the first game in the series to give players the ability to switch between three different characters, and even more brilliant to decide the game would have a central focus on heists. All five of the game’s big heist missions (which can all be planned and executed in various ways), are so much fun to play and watch, and the fact that your constantly switching between characters (who all have a different feel to them) really makes players feel like their playing the movie Heat (albeit a cartoony one, that has a much larger body count).

Still, what really kept me coming back to the game was not the gameplay mechanics, but for the writing instead. It’s obvious right from the beginning of the game, that Rockstar is trying to lampoon Hollywood and contemporary America, from the hilarious dialogue, to the R-rated parodies on celebrity life-style, to main character Michael’s constant jabs about how movies are so much better than video games. There’s certainly a lot of ground to cover if the game wants to ridicule our country yet at the same time recognizing it’s appealing stature, so what better venue to do it than in a giant sand-box game that’s modeled off of Los Angelas. It’s hardly subtle in it’s views, but it does it in such an intelligent way, such as giving the game an aesthetic that recalls the 80s, a decade I find to be far more superficial than the one we’re in now. I for one feel that Grand Theft Auto V ‘s social commentary is doing exactly what Harmony Korine’s film Spring Breakers tried to do, by both fantasizing and exposing the rampant excess that exists under America’s candy-coated media-saturated surface. It all adds weight to the game’s main story too, and it makes sense (at least in the games hyper exaggerated world) why these characters are performing these crazy heists and criminal acts. In fact, when you reach the main quest’s finale (which I won’t be spoiling) gamers might want to go for the two “tragic” endings instead, just to see how this crazy pulp-fiction world is able to actually give us some well thought out drama. I blame this game and Breaking Bad for my recently revived interest in crime fiction.

Issues that people have had with the previous entries in the series (virtually indestructible cars, monotonous driving sequences, an occasionally inefficient aiming system) are still more-or-less present here, but in the end it hardly matters. Rockstar knows precisely what their fans want from a Grand Theft Auto title, and this one gives them all that and more.

Grade: A

Bioshock Infinite

Official_cover_art_for_Bioshock_Infinite

Genre: First-Person Shooter

Publisher: 2K Games

Developer: Irrational Games

Systems: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Synopsis: Set in an alternate version of 1912, a rogue named Booker DeWitt finds himself in immense debt, and his asked by his suitors to travel to the floating city of Columbia, and bring them a young girl named Elizabeth whom is being held captive. Upon rescuing the girl, he discovers that this girl has some truly majestic abilities, and the two work together to hold off the seemingly endless army reserves that the city of Columbia throws their way.

My Thoughts: I’m so glad I saved my play-through of this game for last, and I’ll get to that in just a second. The original Bioshock is one of my favorite games of this generation. It was a highly imaginative game that was often creepy and enigmatic and is almost solely to blame for the bizzaro-retro aesthetic that many games have carried since. Still, it didn’t sacrifice fun gameplay for it’s enticing style, and I might even go as far to say that Bioshock is the most exemplary first person shooter to come out since Goldeneye on the N64. I became excited that this sequel to the game would be taking gamers to a different city, especially after Bioshock 2 failed to impress. Unfortunately, Bioshock: Infinite is the one game of this 2013 trinity that I happened to find disappointing.

My main gribe with the game is that it lives too much in the first one’s shadow, which would be fine, it’s just the game doesn’t really elaborate on things in quite the same was the original Bioshock did. While sure, the story becomes less vague as it goes along, and observant players will discover the special voxophone recordings throughout the game that give more details into the world’s backstory, but we don’t really ever understand why Elizabeth holds such god-like powers (no less why she couldn’t excape on her own!), or how it’s connected to this floating city in the sky. Also, while I knew the ending received a divisive reaction months before I played it, I honestly think it’s one of the most ridiculous conclusions I’ve witnessed in a game in quite some time, if only because it seemed to feel like it was being poetic, while in reality it felt like M. Night Shymalan had directed a Disney film.

Don’t get me wrong though, as there’s still plenty to like in Bioshock. The world is simply a marvel to look at, combat is often fun and visceral, and at times the game has the flourish and sense of humor you’d find in a Terry Gilliam film (i.e. Brazil). I also like that they gave your character a voice in this game, as in the original game you played an unnamed and silent protagonist which worked for that game’s design, but this one definitely needed a change of pace in that regard. It’s also worth noting that I played the game on the normal difficulty setting, and I found it extremely easy, as not only is it impossible to die in the game (a fault I had with Bioshock, admittedly), but the power-ups and upgrades you receive throughout the game are very powerful and often lay waste to enemies quickly. So in essence the game is more a visual rollercoaster than anything else, but then again I can’t think of too many other video games that can present themselves as such, and work in the way this one does.

Grade: B-

Conclusion

I certainly enjoyed my excursion from my daily tv and movie viewing prerogatives, but it also feels like a weight off my shoulders to have played these games to my satisfactory level of completion. As explained previously, I traded in my gamer card for that of a cinephile, and I really don’t think that video games will ever reach the storytelling potential that movies do, but it’s great to see developers are trying so damn hard at it. As you can tell, I feel all three of these games are worth your time and money (a bit more hesitantly for Bioshock: Infinite though), and they all make great Christmas gifts. Hell, if I find myself snowed in during the next few months, I feel I could be giving these games another visit…although movies are more important, right?