Brief reviews of some PS3 games

About a month ago I bought a Playstation 3, and boy, have I been using it. While a generation out of date, the console has impressed me with the quality of some of its releases. This post is a quick review of some of the games I’ve played so far.

Uncharted 3

Nathan Drake ruggedly hangs from a manly object in Uncharted 3.

Uncharted 1, 2, and 3

Constantly referred to as a “flagship” Playstation series, the Uncharted trilogy is explicitly, and pretty successfully, a blockbuster action-adventure film in video game form. You control Nathan Drake, a douchily-charming Indiana Jones ripoff who constantly cracks wise as he dodges bullets and hangs on things.

Plot-wise, the individual titles are pretty interchangeable. Drake & Co. race against various bad-guy crews in pursuit of some locational McGuffin: El Dorado, Shangri La, and the Iram of the Pillars (which appears in the Koran, apparently). I write “plot” with some hesitation: as in the action films Uncharted imitates, the story is really just an excuse on which to hang various action sequences. The effect is a mixed bag. On one hand, there is enough of a story-setup to sort of feel like you are Drake while playing, but the characters’ constant banter quickly becomes grating.

The action is almost non-stop, although each game has a smattering of slow-walking sections and several Tomb Raider-esque puzzles. Where the games really shine is in their combination of parkour and shooting. While most shooters nowadays give the player a way to take cover during a gunfight, Uncharted allows you to climb all over buildings and other structures while sneaking or (usually) fighting your way through a level. Uncharted 2 and 3 surpass their progenitor not only in graphics—the first game’s characters sometimes appear to have bathed in mercury—but in the innovation of parkour inside moving environments, like a collapsing building or a sinking ship.

Overall, the Uncharted games are an enjoyable diversion, particularly 2 and 3. You won’t always follow the plot—why are we here again? Why are those guys shooting at us?—but they’re so formulaic that you can probably guess everything important. Don’t take them seriously, and you won’t be disappointed.

Vaas, the primary antagonist in Far Cry 3.

Vaas, the primary antagonist in Far Cry 3.

Far Cry 3 and 4

The two most recent entries in the Far Cry series are a hyperviolent, drug-fueled blast. Lacking the asinine dialogue and sappy schlock of the Uncharted games, they’re serious enough to get emotionally invested in while still absurd enough for gamer wish-fulfillment.

In Far Cry 3 you play as Jason Brody, one of a group of rich young friends who are partying their way across the Pacific Islands. After skydiving onto an island where they’ve heard that anything goes, the group is kidnapped by pirates. Jason escapes but his older brother is killed in the process. With the help of a native tribe that’s been fighting the pirates, Jason rescues his friends one by one and then takes his revenge on the pirate leaders responsible for his loss.

Far Cry 4 puts you inside Ajay Ghale, an American-raised native of the fictional Himalayan country of Kyrat, to which you have returned to spread your mother’s ashes, per her dying wish. In the process you’re kidnapped by Kyrat’s psychotic dictator, then join up with a group of rebels to fight him.

In terms of gameplay, the two titles are nearly indistinguishable, other than a few extra features (gyrocopter, grappling hook) added to the fourth game. That’s not a bad thing. Both offer an intensely engaging combination of stealth, strategy, and balls-out carnage, and both play out over massive open worlds. Whether doing a Takedown (impaling an enemy on your machete) or shooting down an helicopter full of reinforcements with your grenade cannon, Far Cry is a gripping, visceral simulation of carefully-executed violence.

The stories in each game are similar enough to recognize the brand while original enough to be satisfying. Both, as mentioned, include extended drug sequences, which are pretty fun to play through, and both raise interesting questions of morality and identity—though the morality stuff is blunted by the sheer bloodshed your characters perpetrate. The villains in each game stand out as almost Shakespearean: Vaas with his muttered soliloquies and lightning-fast shifts of mood, Pagan Min with his gaudy homosuggestuality and rambling speeches.

Far Cry 3 and 4 are smart entertainment, compulsively playable passports into a seductive world of drugs, violence, and drama.

The Last of Us

This game is, hands down and without question, the best game on the PS3. Plenty of games have already proved that video games can be art: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus come to mind. But this may be the first title that unambiguously deserves to be called literature. Playing mostly as Joel, an old smuggler, you enter a post-apocalyptic world in which (terrifyingly plausible) parasite-caused zombies have wiped out most of civilization. Surviving humans are either clustered together in cities ruled by military fiat or rove in packs of ruthless bandits. Joel and Ellie, a teenage girl, have to travel together across the country to search for a group of rebels who think they can use Ellie to create a vaccine for the parasite.

The Last of Us is set amid zombies, but like the best zombie films, it’s really about how people deal with the collapse of society. Joel, scarred by his experience at the beginning of the outbreak, has adopted a cold survivor’s attitude in which he keeps everyone at arm’s distance. The development of his relationship with Ellie is the centerpiece of the game, and watching how characters grow and change, and how their past shapes who they are and what choices they make, is no-bullshit sublime to watch. (Move over, Cormac McCarthy.) The voice acting is phenomenal; the music is perfectly restrained; the dialogue sounds more realistic than many actual conversations.

Gameplay-wise, The Last of Us is gripping—as in, incredibly stressful. The game almost always encourages stealth over full-on combat, and ammunition is limited. Even your melee weapon has a limited number of hits before it breaks. One really cool feature is the listening-mode, which allows you to see other nearby characters through walls. Unlike Detective Vision in Batman: Arkham Asylum or the camera in Far Cry 3 and 4, listening-mode only works if you’re not moving or are moving extremely slowly. This means that when sneaking, you’re constantly trading off between speed vs. know exactly where your enemies are.

The violence in the game is incredibly brutal, for example when Joel strangles or shanks an enemy from behind. But, as other reviewers have noted, it never feels gratuitous, largely because of the world in which it’s happening. While many violent games occur in fun, exciting worlds, the universe of The Last of Us is mercilessly bleak. And while most video games give the player an excuse for being so violent—i.e. self-defense—The Last of Us takes this one step further by also giving your enemies plausible reasons for trying to kill you, whether they’re zombies or humans. (Speaking of zombies, these ones are terrifying, especially the Clickers, whose mutations have rendered them blind but given them the ability of echolocation.)

I could go on and on about how incredible this game is, but the truth is I’d rather be replaying it. Which I’ll go do now.

Tomb Raider

Laura Croft’s 2013 origin story is very pretty, but the gameplay is so unoriginal and the narrative is so cloying that the overall product is frankly offensive. Life is too short for well-crafted crap.

BioShock 1, 2 and Infinite

2K’s masterpiece trilogy. After The Last of Us, the BioShock series is probably the best candidate for video games as literature. Each game explores deep themes of political ideology and choice or lack thereof. The first game is a flooring first-person shooter set in an underwater Ayn Rand ex-utopia that’s been overrun by magic-wielding zombies. (It makes more sense in the game.) The second one reenters that same world in a way that’s nowhere near as groundbreaking as its predecessor but still satisfying, while Infinite ups the ante by turning the dystopian lens from theoretical disputes (between libertarians and socialists) to actual history (American triumphalism, with all the racism and religious bigotry that goes with it). One significant difference, though it’s more of a tradeoff than a flaw, between Infinite and the first two games is that the tense survivalist horror of the latter is replaced with more of a run’n’gun swashbuckling adventure. Personally, I prefer slow tension; when my survival depends on correctly making a long series of decisions, I feel more in control and more invested. Infinite, on the other hand, is a bit like a theme-park ride: it’s exciting, but you’re ultimately in the passenger seat. But this is a minor and subjective criticism for a game which, overall, is jaw-dropping in its depth and scope.

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