The Last of Us: Left Behind Review

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Let me make this easy for you. If you can answer yes to these three questions, then don’t waste any time and download The Last of Us’ only single player DLC – Left Behind:

1. Did you like and finish The Last of Us?

2. Was the story an important part of your enjoyment of The Last of Us?

3. Do you miss The Last of Us?

If yes is your answer three times then you don’t need to read anymore. Yes it is worth it. Yes it is as good. No you won’t like the main game less.

Recently I’ve been making a strong attempt to minimise subjectivity in my reviews and discuss/highlight the objective qualities of a game. I cannot do this with Left Behind. I just can’t. The Last of Us left an immense lasting impression on me. So much so that I haven’t been able to shake it off my mind for nearly half a year now. I have no qualms in making the following statement: The Last of Us is my favourite game of all time. I do not say this lightly, so much so that I have begun a personal crusade to play all of the frequently referenced games in the “best of all time” discussion. Half Life 2, Shadow of The Colossus, A Link to the Past, Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy Tactics, Metal Gear Solid… and I still have a ways to go. I understand all this. It’s a testament to the quality of Naughty Dog’s latest game that it has inspired me to discover the “classics,” so to speak. 

Going back Left Behind. the biggest compliment I can offer is how much it served as a reminder of why I love The Last of Us. The minimalist HUD, a simple user interface that doesn’t get in the way, a live crafting system that escalates tension and sacrifice, scavenging for parts, all of these minutia elevate The Last of Us from great to something special. Choosing black backgrounds to white text may seem like a simple choice in menu design but even this ingeniously adds to the immersion that is so crucial to the experience. And that is by far in a way the word of choice when describing Left Behind. Experience. It pays to adjust your own environment to get more out of the digital one you’re about to dive into. Blacken your room, kick anyone out who’ll disturb you, use the best surround sound headphones you can find and let yourself go.

The headphone part is crucial thanks to the excellent sound design and subtle, melancholic soundtrack by Gustavo Santaolalla, known for his Brokeback Mountain and Babel film scores. The sounds are so abstract you will be hard pressed to pinpoint the instruments incorporated in producing such unique tones. Watching the 90 minute making-of documentary “Grounded” by Area5 TV provides some great insight into how the sounds were developed. This comes included with the Season Pass. At one point I heard rattling and clicking coming from Ellie’s backpack while she was jogging. I had to stop and take in the level of detail I was witnessing. The direction you’re facing in listen mode changes the subtly alters the sound designof the clicking and makes stealth that much more tense. It’s clear no sacrifices were made in quality when shifting from main campaign content to downloadable. 

I value the details Naughty Dog perfected to heighten the immersion, but Left Behind really shines in it’s content, just like the main campaign. You play as Ellie this time, not Joel. If you remember the winter sequence of The Last of Us (which you absolutely will), then you can recall the differences controlling her presented. Though she might not be able to stand her ground and fist fight her way through like Joel, Ellie’s character design presents certain advantages, just like in winter. Her switchblade does not break and unlike shivs has unlimited use. It could just be me filling in the gaps, but due to her smaller size and being more nimble, it felt like Ellie was capable of being stealthier and sneaking was an even more viable option than before. For example it seemed like crouch walking was faster and it was easier to hide behind objects. There were certain points where sneaking through wasn’t an option and Ellie had to eliminate all foes in the area to continue. This brings me onto one of Left Behinds strongest features. There are multiple sections of gameplay that involve pitting Clickers and runners (the infected) against the hunters. This was incredibly satisfying everytime and also surprisingly challenging to pull off smoothly. There was a multitude of strategies to try out and pick from. You could consider alerting the presence of the hunters to the infected and then swing through while they duke it out, or you can create chaos and pick off one of each around the edge. Or you could molatov cocktail a group, or just stab them with your switchblade. Then the choice is who do you eliminate first. one wrong choice and suddenly Ellie is the target of everyone’s fury. I didn’t expect a completely new dynamic that adds a layer of complexity and engagement that wasn’t present at all in the main game. And being able to do this at multiple points demonstrates confidence in the mechanic and I can say that it was almost always fun. I have to mention that towards the climax of the game there was a combat sequence that seemed oddly laid out and involved knowing the environment through trial and error, rather than observation due to the imminent failure if you don’t begin picking off your enemies early. This was different to what I’m used to, and seemed to contrast the rest of the game, though isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else it reminds me how solid the combat and mechanics of The Last of Us are. Again with the small details: when turning, if your torch I on your neck and field of view alter first and the light follows after, the quick turn mechanic (down and X) speeds up movement, the aim circle decreases in radius when standing still and changes size when you move or turn. Time and time again I find myself playing a game unlike so many others in how it treats me, as a player.

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I really don’t want to get into much of the story. Like I said, if you’ve played the main game you can expect the same level of quality in acting, writing, animation, emotion and pacing. Ashley Johnson reprises her role as Ellie while Yaani King brings Riley, Ellie’s close friend to life. They both do incredible jobs. Ellie feels real. Riley feels real. I don’t see a bunch of pixels changing colour and polygons moving around when I watch them. I don’t know, it’s a level of quality I’ve grown to not expect from AAA games. I think a huge part of this is the design and animation of the eyes of the characters, especially Ellie. Her big, green eyes feel alive. They feel like they carry weight, pertinence and expression. When I see her I’m reminded of Tish from Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, a game I feel influenced a lot of The Last of Us’ excellent design. Quentin Tarantino’s more recent films have had this uncanny ability to toy with your emotions, to make you laugh your ass off then observe the darkest and saddest moments, then rejoice or breathe a sigh of relief. This is how I would describe Left Behind. There is no one thing above all else to look forward to, but know that it’ll be a strange, ultimately dark journey through a teenage girls experience in a decaying world. While she tries to hold onto something that brings her happiness, your knowledge of what’s to come battles with your expectations. It serves as an excellent demonstration of what a prequel should do. You know what’s going to happen, but you still fight it with everything you’ve got. Your heart and mind won’t be sure what to agree on. Even this encapsulates what The Last of Us, and more specifically Left Behind represents. 

 

 

There are some key things I’m not going to discuss on purpose. I’m leaving that for you to discover and form an opinion on. Left Behind tries some brave things, all of them culminating to produce one of the only rewarding and worthwhile prequels of any medium. The Last of Us is one of the most complete games I’ve played. I didn’t want anything new to negatively affect my overall feelings towards the game (*cough* Star Wars prequels *cough*). I was anxious to play this add on in fear of that very thing. But Left Behind does not hinder The Last of Us in any way. Instead it provides one of the most touching, rounded and complete side stories to a game ever. Left Behind gives me hope for DLC.

 

 

 

My Score: 10/10

(scores are given in 0.5 increments, in AKA a 20 point scale.)

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 Review

The Wolf Among Us Episode 2, marks the latest entry in the 5 part episodic, Point and Click adventure game series. The game is developed and published by Telltale Games, most notable for 2012′s The Walking Dead: The game, which shares a similar structure to The Wolf Among Us and is now on it’s second season. Episodes from the two series are alternating in release. The game is played from a third person perspective and is solely a single player campaign. The Wolf Among Us is a canonical prequel to the DC – Vertigo comic book series: Fables, by Bill Willingham, and can be played on: PC, Mac, PS3, Xbox 360, IOS and Vita. It is 1-2 hours long.

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Story:

ImageTelltale are known for their stories, especially those embedded deep with dark and adult themes. The Wolf Among Us follows suit. A story driven game, episode 2 is very much a continuation of episode 1, starting very shortly after the end of the first. Upon finishing, it feels far more like a connector episode, setting things up very nicely for Ep.3, rather than adding significant substance to the overlying plot. For those who didn’t play part 1, you play as protagonist, Sheriff Bigby Wolf (or the big bad wolf from fairy tales) and are investigating a murder in Fabletown, a fictional region of New York City, where fairy tale characters – or Fables – are in hiding. However the less you know about the plot going in, the more satisfying you will find the game. What makes The Wolf Among Us special is seeing a multi-faceted, complex version of characters you have grown up with sharing human flaws. Drugs, prostitution, murder, loan sharks; these are real life struggles facing these Fables and are what make them so easy to connect with. They are interesting now. Observing a ‘princess’ partake in less than noble acts is incredibly jarring and is consistently a slap in the face, a reminder of the extent of the hardships they are going through.

Telltale’s formula of diamond shaped storytelling – everybody starts and ends at the same point, but the route varies based on your choices – is even more effective than in season 1 of The Walking Dead. While in Walking Dead, you undoubtedly played the good guy because you were taking care of a helpless little girl, even if you had to make hard choices at times, in the Wolf Among Us it is a far more viable option to be a badass or ruthless. This route is made more available due to the baggage Bigby carries, in fact the baggage all the Fables share from their reputations back in the Homeland shape a lot of the choices you and the NPC’s make. There are usually four dialogue options, which are more often than not representative of the personalities: blunt, sarcastic, honest/negotiable and quiet. How you choose will shape your path through the narrative.

Gameplay:

The game is a point and click adventure in the traditional sense of the word. investigating objects or people in an environment will unravel the story and keep the game moving. The combat is based on quick time events, though are more involved than those in The Walking Dead and boss battles in God of War. A fail state is rare to achieve, as the combat will keep presenting opportunities to recover however it is possible to lose. In these instances the game restarts from a checkpoint. However the game is very light on combat, with 1 or 2 to speak of per episode. Movement through the environment is not smooth, but the slow pacing ensures time so minimal interactive objects are missed. The camera can be panned approximately 45 degrees left, right, up or down, but only when investigating, not during combat. Interestingly, this is not a crime investigation game, you the gamer are not a detective, you essentially control a detective and the mystery keeps the game moving. The Wolf Among Us is very easy to jump into and requires minimal skill.

Presentation:

ImageCell-shaded like Borderlands, The Wolf Among Us boasts a very interesting neon art style which allows the characters to be more emotive and emphasises a noir film aesthetic. Yellows, Pinks and purples are all vibrant and pop but a majority black colour pallet emphasises the dark mood. as the game is progressing over the episodes and scenes, the presentation seems to be changing, fluctuating between lighter and darker environments based on the tone of the scene. The biggest, most concerning problem with the game is the framerate. Even on a mid/high rig PC, the game suffers from dropping frame rate and animation getting stuck. I have also noticed this cutting off the end section of dialogue, so that your conversation choices can be presented. This is frustrating.

 

Audio:

The theme song of The Wolf Among Us is memorable and immediately sets the tone. The synthesised soundtrack is mostly understated. If it were to be described in one word, it’d be ominous. No matter the scene you’re in, you know if things are getting more tense because the soundtrack subtly warns you. The voice actors bring the characters to life and represent well known characters in a way that sounds right. There is incredible crossover in voice actors between The Wolf Among Us and The Walking Dead, though most of these go unnoticed, emphasis on most. When you do recognise the voices it can break the immersion but this is often brief and doesn’t interfere with the experience. stereotypical character tropes are reinforced by chosen accents. A scumbag pimp with a northern english accent, a bartender with a think New Jersey accent or a unreliable toad boasting a cocky/east london vernacular, either way it serves to highlight the purpose and role of the character.

Side Note: it must be stated that there are characters in The Wolf Among Us who share very similar designs to characters that are in other Telltale productions. For example, Grant (or Grendel) looks a lot like Handsome Jack from Gearbox Software’s Borderlands 2, which Telltale recently announced they are releasing canonical episodic content on, titled: Tales From the Borderlands. Similarly, Beauty looks a lot like Lilly, from Season 1 of The Walking Dead Game. The third might be more of a stretch, but Telltale also announced a Game of Thrones adventure game, and Jack in the bar looks an awful lot like Jaime Lannister, portrayed by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series.

 

 

My Thoughts:

The Wolf Among Us: Episode 2 continues the high quality storytelling and graphical design set by previous entries and series. So far I have enjoyed these two episodes more than the entirety of The Walking Dead Game, and I loved The Walking Dead. The mystery definitely is intriguing but I am far more invested in these characters and their intentions than the overlying murder plot. It’s definitely a huge bummer that the framerate bugs out on what appears to be most platforms and most certainly affected my enjoyment of the game, but not by too much thankfully. I really love the art style and film Noir aesthetic, along with the soundtrack and definitely feel like this will hold up a lot better than other games of this generation. I would recommend The Wolf Among Us to anyone who values stories in games, ambigious morality in characters and point & click adventure games. Also anybody who like The Walking Dead owes it to themselves to try this game. DO NOT play episode 2 before episode 1. That would suck.

My Score: 8.5/10

(I give scores in 0.5 increments, in other words a 20 point scale.)

Video Game Review Format – Captain Positive Niegro

Taste in entertainment media is probably the most subjective thing since fetishes. “Final Fantasy X is the best Final Fantasy because blah blah blah…” “Bitch you crazy. Did you see Sephiroph stab that girl? It’s another level of…” and so on. If people can’t agree what is the best instalment in a franchise, what makes them any better at deciding what the best game of all time is? What about best game of the generation? Of The Year? What about why a game is bad? That’s all. Why it’s bad. “you should not play this game because ABC…” The correct answer is nothing. It’s subjective. Therefore it’s bullshit and nonsensical to put pen to paper (or hand to keyboard) and write down why somebody should or shouldn’t like/buy something based on your opinions. The logic is backwards. Why do we stick to it? By no means am I saying opinions don’t matter. Shit when you break it down they’re all that matters. But when describing if a random individual will or won’t enjoy a product of art, an opinion is not helpful. There’s too much noise involved. Sometimes you just have to analyse a game for what it is, not for what it does to you.

I read a lot of reviews from a lot of sources on a bunch of different games. Every time I do so I can’t help but find myself getting hung up on that one flaw the reviewer couldn’t get past and, oh crap now it’s taken over my entire outlook. If it’s a game I’m highly anticipating, then that negative suddenly, for no good reason at all, fills me with rage quit rage and overshadows the reviewers opinion from mattering at all (I have a feeling this might explain impulse comments on youtube and messageboards, but that could be a whole other blog.) But in reality what the fuck do I know! the reviewer is the one who has been given early access for and played the game, is hired on the basis of knowing what makes a game good or bad and is providing me with information based on their experience. But in the heat of the moment I’m blind to these facts. lternatively, a game revealed a while back looks interesting, I wait a year or so for review to decide if I should play or not, discover the gameplay mechanics are not spectacularly tight and the story takes turns which the reviewer didn’t particularly like and now I’m turned off from the game. Again, how does this make sense? Why aren’t the positives highlighted and promoted more heavily than the flaws? I won’t find to suck what you find to suck. I like blondes you like brunettes. I like girls you like guys. It’s arbitrary and not effective when describing what a game is and if they should play it. All that matters is what it’s good at. If there isn’t much good to talk about then don’t talk so much and this in itself should demonstrate the quality of the game. If for example the story is exceptional yet the gameplay is kinda janky and just keeps you moving through so you can watch the cutscenes, then talk about how good that story is and describe the gameplay in respect to that story. It’s a more effective way to verbally illustrate who this game is for and if it’s what the reader is looking for.

Thinking about it, what is the function of criticising a games flaws? One answer could be to give your opinion on it so people who match your opinion know what to avoid. Ok… so what about all the gamers who have no problem with that kind of flaw, such as fluctuating frame rate or inconsistent animation, yet see that these features have been called out and now lose a little interest. Not to mention the immense number of reviewers you would need to track to decide which matches you perfectly. What if a review just wasn’t subjective? What if it was based in objectivity? Does the game succeed on a level that should be appreciated (consistent story, enjoyable mechanics, good variety of combos etc) and not on what made the game good for you, the reviewer? Their are obvious exceptions to this format. A broken/incomplete games deserves to be called out and shamed as they are not what they claim to be (a functioning product) and every gamer needs to be warned away. Their are no excuses for selling something that doesn’t work. However in this case a review is almost pointless. All you need is a statement: “Whatever qualities this game may or may not have had, I cannot provide a review as it is fundamentally broken. There are several crashes and errors throughout that inhibit me from proceeding and I cannot justify telling anybody what it succeeds at as there is a chance they will not be able to see. Until a functioning version of this game is unavailable, I will not review this game.” Or words to that effect.

There could be an argument made that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. A review that consists mostly of a factual and positive description, followed by a final, personal verdict could make sense. For example: “Enslaved: Odyssey to the West was a game that I loved a lot and found a great emotional attachment to despite not really enjoying the fighting mechanics. However after completion I found that the art design and character interaction was so well done that it defeated any complaints I had about the combat system.” putting a concise opinion such as this at the end would allow the reader to understand how the analysis of the game translates into an individual basis. However if this contradicts what is highlighted as being great in the game, then it is clear that this is a layered game that different gamers will take different things away from. This is a better alternative to reading a detailed description of what an individual liked or didn’t like about something as an answer to if you will like it yourself.

I am laying out my ground rules for reviewing a video game. They are based in the philosophy that a piece of medium this interactive is so subjective in enjoyment and satisfaction, that the review should focus minimally on flaws and opinions that directly relate to the individual. They should in fact concentrate on bullet point aspects of what makes the game good/great/amazing/fun. The review should consist of:

1. A description of the game – this can/should include: genre, approximate length, camera style (first/third person), single player/multiplayer/both, co-op mode, online co-op mode, art direction, platforms it is available on and developer & publisher. This is fundamental information that provides a basis upon which to decide if it is a typical game they enjoy or are familiar with. This also consists of information that directs the gamer into knowing what they’ll be getting into.

2. Story – in this section I will identify:

  • if there is or isn’t a story.
  • how the story is told, e.g. cutscenes, dialogue during gameplay, environmental storytelling, speech boxes, etc.
  • What the premise of the plot is
  • Who the main characters are
  • Highlight the difference between the story and the narrative (this one could be tricky but it’s important)
  • Identify the mood of the game, this is often crucial to understanding the rhythm of the story and game as a whole.
  • if the story is a good, interesting, unique. 

That last is the one most susceptible to subjectivity, however I am adamant that a good, consistent and strong plot transcends taste and can almost universally be agreed is worthwhile. Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Fight Club, Memento, everybody who has watched these have slightly differing opinions on them as a whole but there is an agreed consensus that the story being told is good and worth hearing/experiencing. And I will fight you if you disagree.

3. Gameplay and Mechanics:

  • I will describe the gameplay – how I interact with that world, how I engage with enemies or objects, how I move and progress and how skills are being judged. 
  • I will describe the mechanics – Is movement fluid? How varied are your options in fighting or moving? What are your tools? Do you have control over the camera or is it fixed?
  • How does gameplay and the mechanics contribute to the narrative?
  • What is the level of depth and learning involved?
  • Is it punishing, hard, have a learning curve? Am I eased in?

4. Presentation – this is without a doubt the most subjective category. It is more important identify what the presentation is and not why you do or don’t like it:

  • What is the chosen art direction and how does it make sense in the context of the story being told?
  • What is the AI character animation like? e.g. lip sync, random or trigger based movement etc
  • How does the presentation develop across the game? is it a static enivronment you learn to be a part of or is it an ever changing landscape you constantly need readjusting to?
  • Provide example comparisons

5. Audio:

  • is there a soundtrack? what type of music is played across the game?
  • How detailed is the sound design and how does this contribute to mood?
  • What is the voice acting like?

6. and Finally, how does the games differing features analysed above come together as a unison product? Do they compliment each other. What is this game like in respect to previous entries in the series? Who is this game for?

This is my goal. I aim to prove myself right by following these steps and reviewing games that came out within the past couple of years, DLC and upcoming games. My plan is to review:

  • The Last of Us – followed by story DLC: Left Behind
  • Bioshock Infinite – followed by story DLC: Burial At Sea
  • Infamous
  • Infamous 2
  • Infamous Second Son
  • Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes
  • Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag

This will provide a good mix as I will be testing this style of review on games who have already been extensively judged and share established perspectives, as well as story DLC which is a tricky component to review. Along with this I will review new games to see if the reviews are interesting and helpful.

I hope this is a method that will really get my point across. Stop focusing on and highlighting why something sucks and could be better. Promote the crap out of what makes this thing people have been pouring their souls and more importantly time into, worthwhile. I’m cynical enough most of all the time, I don’t need more when deciding whether or not to have fun.

Man if you read all this I really like you and hope it made sense. Keep an eye out for the reviews. I’ll try to do them proper.

Thank you,

 

Mert Tutkun.

 

My 12 Years A Slave Review:

Hollywood films operate in cycles, the releases of which often show a pattern, tied together by a common thematic thread. There has been a precedence lately surrounding the difficult theme of slavery, particularly the 19th Century American slave trade. Reasons for this can be debated almost endlessly, but what is certain is that patterns will always emerge. Proof of this is 2012’s Django Unchained and Lincoln, both of which share some related themes and a central purpose in addressing slavery, but handled in drastically different ways. Now 12 Years A Slave is out and it is no question the pinnacle of this pattern. The cycle has reached its summit and now must begin anew.

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As the profoundly simple title puts it, 12 Years A Slave is the story of free, family man Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Eijofor’s) betrayal, kidnapping and consequential fall into slavery. It is no spoiler to say that his time as a slave does ultimately come to an end, however the majority of the film does not focus on his entry or exit of slavery. At its crux, the real story is how the educated mind of a free man must hide away in the body of “a dumb field nigger.” His ability to read, to think and even have humane ideologies such as believing himself an equal, not inferior, to white Americans, all this he must constantly hide. Through body language, eye contact, speech and actions, Eijofor succeeds as an actor portraying a two-sided character while also being the entry point for the audiences experience, as we witness the ordeals that reside within 12 years along with him. At times, Solomon is submitted to horrors, other times he witnesses horrors sometimes more severe. The greatest moment however is when Solomon is forced to partake, forced to harm another slave. Because no matter the cost, Solomon must go on, he must endure, he must survive so that he can live once more.

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The film is supported by a star studded cast filled with actors such as Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Bedenedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Michael K. Williams. There isn’t a single unconvincing performance throughout but supporting actor Michael Fassbender deserves special recognition for portraying the particularly despicable, yet deep character of Master Epps. Introduced to the man first through a description, “a hard man,” we see the extent of that analysis coming through in a progressively worsening manner. What does “hard” really mean when slaves our commonplace all around? what warrants the description of hard even by your peers? Fassbender, and really all the actors southern accents are well executed, though an ear used to the Irish accent can just now and then, pick up his original Irish voice coming through. The vernacular of 19th century southern English language used seems so of the time, there are points in which the film can be difficult to comprehend exactly what is being said. Upon rewatching, these moments can be put in context or listened to multiple times to understand to its full.

12 Years a Slave was all filmed on location in Louisiana, and it shows. The visual beauty, both in presentation and scenery acts in stark contrast to the abhorrence occurring all around. Who knew Louisiana was actually beautiful? The juxtaposition of a backdrop of hills and crop glistening in the summer sun is dramatically contradicted by a hanging slave serving punishment in the foreground brings very specific attention to the day to day acts of cruelty going on. That’s the point here. What 12 Years highlights is not “slavery is bad,” because that’s obvious and saying otherwise is ridiculous. The real message and commentary is the specific experiences these men, women and children were subjected to every day and how that tremendous ordeal affects a human beings mind and very existence.

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The bible and religion is an interesting, recurring tool used in 12 Years A Slave. Whether to demonstrate the power to oppress that can be summoned by using scripture or the strength to endure and unite that can be drawn from it, the many facets of religion reflected by the characters invokes more questions about what religion is. What does it represent? How can something used to demote a people be used by the same people to stay strong?

This is no ordinary film. Apprehensive, going in I expected a certain depiction, a certain epic defiance centred around a hero fighting the villaineous ‘white devils.’ Spartacus, essentially. Ironically this proved to be an epic underestimation of the quality of the director, the writing and the film itself. There is subtlety at work I have found lacking in a great many recent films. It seems like there is a resurgence for nuance in dialogue and filmmaking in general, as seen at points in the recent American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis and now 12 Years. In one scene, a particular employee (Paul Dano) of the master (Benedict Cumberbatch) forces the slaves to clap in rhythm while he sings: “Run Nigger Run,” using the song as a lesson for the consequences of defiance and running away. The visuals then fade to the master himself preaching the bible to the same group with the singing continues in the background. Eijofor is often at the centre of the subtle aspects of the film, all the more reinforcing this as a career-defining performance. Director Steve McQueen’s confidence with long shots and extended moments of silence instils trust in the viewer and atmosphere in the scene and film. Occasionally these moments overstay their welcome, however I would argue there is a purpose for each long shot and all of them add something to the spectacle.

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Describing 12 Years A Slave as being one of the best films of 2013 doesn’t do it justice.12 Years is one of the best films I have ever seen. It is a work of art and I mean that by it’s very definition. Every time I view the scenes and moment to moment acts, they will change in meaning and purpose, yet the driving essence of the film will always leave an emotional and thought-provoking impact. A cinematic masterpiece, nobody should subject themselves to missing out on this experience.

Why The VGX Awards Failed:

And how can it be made to work?

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Let me preface my words below with a little background. I am not a long time gamer. Games have been in my life since my memory kicked in at age 4 with Crash Bandicoot and Metal Gear Solid on the PSOne, however I distanced myself away from games 2-3 years ago to focus on my studies and ensure the best possible future. I then ended up in hospital and didn’t leave for a month. My education took a hit. I could not attend university as planned. I am now on an unintentional gap year.  I am 18 years old. It took these series of events for me to realise that nothing gives me joy like experiencing a great video game, not high achievement, not admission to the greatest universities not skydiving nothing. I love books and films and HBO dramas but there’s just something special about storytelling in Video Games. Having the worst day ever and instantly remedying it by playing Journey is incomparable. Losing hours to the wondrous plains of Skyrim or following the story of Lee and Clementine in The Walking Dead only to have it break your heart in ways you didn’t know it could break are feelings only games can give you in that way. I was drawn back in and now cannot let go. Every gamer has their own definitive title that’s closest to their heart with significance beyond comprehension to those that didn’t experience it from their point of view. This is what makes video games a great and unique art form (yes, if you can interpret, then it is art). What makes video games not so great however is an award show like the recent VGX.

I’ll be honest and say this is my first viewing of the annual VGA’s, now VGX. The general consensus on previous VGA’s seem not so stellar however this year seems to have taken the award for being the worst. The advantage I have is no prior reference point except other award shows for other media e.g: The Oscars, The Emmy’s, VMA’s, BAFTA’s, Golden Globes etc. Though pretension has continued to plague these shows there are some central themes that are absolutely crucial and cannot be excluded under any circumstances. This is the core of VGX’s failure. There have been some excellent suggestions and criticisms of the VGX’s by great gaming voices such as Joe Vargas of the Angry Joe Show or Boogie2988 – special praises for Kotaku who instantly recognised and called out the show for it’s crippling awkwardness – as well as countless voices across: Reddit, NeoGaf, Youtube and more. What is most important to take away from the immediate response is how desperately the community wanted a video game award ceremony to be done proper. And why not? If Grand Theft Auto V can generate more revenue after 5 years of development than the most successful film in history. Avatar did in 15, how is it possible that the game is not recognised by a ceremony worthy of it’s success? Of course financial success does not warrant accolade outright but it does deserve the opportunity for serious recognition by a united and legitimate source. Needless to say, Saturday’s attempt this was not. I want to establish what the fundamental flaws of VGX were and how they could be done in a successful manner and what a video game award show should become. Might as well start with Number. 1:

1. Leave the most coveted award to the end! Imagine best short film being announced after best picture at the Oscars. There is no way this would work, nor is there any instance of this approach being implemented successfully in the history of award shows. It’s award show class 101: build up suspense by dishing out awards one by one until you reach the climax of the evening with your most important award, in this case Game of The Year.

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2. Structure your award distribution like a pyramid. Announce a group of awards that share a common theme which lays the foundation for explaining why these games were nominated. Then consecutively build upon these groups with added levels that define the games and help support your decisions. Each subsequent group should be smaller than the previous and carry more weight. This way methodology is established and the audience can appreciate reasoning. Here is a thought out and well designed award structure:

Genre’s  - establish the variety of great games that came out that year and what the cream of the crop was for each of them, proving your medium not only something for everyone but something incredible at that:

  • Best RPG, Best Action/Adventure, Best Casual, Best Sports, Best Racing, Best Fighting, Best Shooter, Best Indie, Best Co-op Multiplayer, Best Competitive Multiplayer, Best Platformer, Best Strategy and Best DLC

Performance and Presentation -  what qualities have made the games this year special in a way that should evolve gaming for the better:

  • Best Art Direction, Best Sound Design, Best Graphics, Best Mechanics, Most Innovative Gameplay, Best New IP, Best Sequel,

Ecosystem’s - recognise the best exclusives available within each gaming ecosystem, proving each of them are the best place to play and no matter where you do your gaming, there is great choice and the industry is doing well:

  • Best Playstation Exclusive, Best Xbox Exclusive, Best Nintendo Exclusive, Best PC Exclusive

Platform Types - Building on ecosystem’s, look at what each type of gaming device has been supporting over the past year and what a gamer on that platform should not have gone without:

  • Best Console Game, Best PC Game, Best Handheld Game

The Game’s Soul - What have individuals and artists put into these games that have made them that special gem this year. What has given this game its essence -

  • Best Soundtrack, Best Song, Best Voice Actor/Actress, Best Character

Makers - Who has been making these games this year and who has been the best at doing so. Recognising not only the programmers and artists but also publishers and supporters of these games that helped them get made:

  • Best Studio, Best Publisher

Next Year – Penultimately, what appears to be the game to keep an eye on and to look forward to in the year to come. Perhaps special attention could be given to an Indie game coming out the following year that looks great but hasn’t been getting a lot of buzz, thereby supporting smaller developers in an exclusive manner:

  • Best Upcoming Game, Best Upcoming Indie

And after ALL of that, you then announce:

  • Game of the Year

Between these groups of awards, Input world premieres that are exclusively in-game footage, announcements and release dates to keep your audience surprised and rewarded for viewing your show. There should also be awards and recognition throughout that do not focus on the games but rather the gaming medium. For example:

Best Internet Personality, Developer Of The Generation, Biggest Surprises Of The Year, a montage of what’s to come next year. Combine this with the announcements and a pyramid-structured award scheme, then you have a real award show that is captivating and engaging. Yes, you are allowed to put in commercials we understand you need to make money however the technique is to trick your audience into thinking the commercial are a side project and the awards themselves are the main act, not that you lured them into a trap so they can buy a bunch of products being adverts. It’s nuanced but there’s a craft there.

3. Audience. you need an audience. No award should be accepted in front of just a camera crew and host. Even if ready-made video acceptances stand (as some of these were great, Irrational, Naughty Dog, Ubisoft Montreal), there should always be an audience to applaud and congratulate. This is to fill the deathly creepy silence that’s present otherwise, demonstrated perfectly on Saturday. Media outlets and personalities across the world are watching carefully to report on your show, why not invite them to the evening so they can view live and be your audience. As much as I thought the laid back ceremony was interesting and different, it is still essential that the game of the year nominee’s be present in the building to accept that award in person if it is to carry the weight you wish it to. There has to be something that separates you from the best there is and by being their to collect it in person, the developer is making a statement that the award in their hands is that difference maker.

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Clapping = Good

4. Choose your hosts carefully. I have no problem with Joel McHale. I have no problem with Geoff Keighley. I have a problem with either and especially both hosting the Award Show. I understand the attraction of selecting a celebrity to host a gaming ceremony as it legitimises the event by bringing in outside heavyweights. However their needs to be a mutual respect for the chosen celebrity host and the Company (Viacom) choosing the host. I have no idea if McHale plays/played video games. He certainly joked that he kinda knew about Borderlands yet his ridiculously outdated nerd-gamer jokes prove otherwise. The answer to this is irrelevant. What is relevant however is that the person chosen to award individuals and companies for their accomplishments should understand the importance of those figures and appreciate their significance. It is also the responsibility of whoever is in charge of the ceremony, be it Viacom or SpikeTV, knows the personality of their selected hosts and if that is what will work in the mood they are trying to create. A 3 hour live casual award show is not the place for a sarcastic, bemused and mocking host as the jokes have nobody to bounce off of, be challenged by and to be demonstrated as satire instead of insult. “yes all us gamers are useless, antisocial, basement dwelling, virgin teens. Now the award for a multi-billion dollar generating game goes to..” A documentary in the United Kingdom, “How Video Games Changed The World” interviewed several celebrities who are/were insanely passionate about games and projected that passion in an inviting manner. Use one of those guys.

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Man I wish hands in pockets was the worst of it

5. Never, ever, ever, ever interrupt an artist promoting his product by asking if he got high while creating it. I’m sorry you had to go through that Tim Schafer.

6. Don’t announce your Award Ceremony starts at a specific time (3pm Pacific, 6pm Eastern, 11pm GMT) if you’re going to have a pre-show where you start handing out awards. That’s what your audience wants to see.

7. If you want live music as part of the evening that is relevant to the awards being distributed, one suggestion might be to try and get the nominees for Best Song in Game to play their best songs in game so that viewers and your audience can appreciate those songs in game. If this is not possible because the stars are too expensive or busy then find other incredible songs that are part of the best soundtrack awards and use them, but sparingly. Don’t make it a 20 minute segment everybody is waiting to end because it doesn’t fit with the tone. Also, do not get irrelevant jackasses to stand outside and stall for time without any preparation or instruction. Even if they got both of those things in advance the fact that I think they didn’t proves that they didn’t. It was embarrassing and by far the low point of the evening. Yes we all know you can kill people in GTAV. That’s kinda been the crux of the game since forever. No I don’t want to chant potato.

The games that were highlighted and nominated on Saturday are the reason I am a gamer and why I want to dedicate myself to games by becoming a game critic. Bioshock Infinite, The Last Of Us, Gone Home, Ni No Kuni: these are not just good for a game they are incredible marvels that deserve to stand their with the best across history. The VGX awards are why they do not stand their with the best across history. They have not been awarded that chance. It’s sad. They deserve better.

There were some really great moments scattered through the show. Though previously revealed by IGN, confirmation of a Game of Thrones Telltale game is good news. On top of that a Borderlands game by Telltale is pretty cool. I love The Walking Dead and the first episode of The Wolf Among Us was excellent. I just hope the studio isn’t overburdened by 4 simultaneous projects. No Man’s Sky might be the stand out of the entire evening, Broken Age by Tim Schafer looks interesting but that was really it. Aside from a few extra seconds of big games like The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt, Destiny and Thief, there wasn’t much to be excited about. Tom Clancy’s: The Division looks to have fascinating weather physics but no doubt streaming the video over the internet does not do it justice. Release dates, beta’s, new games, DLC, these are announcements there needed to be more of but it was definitely not the weakest element of the evening.

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IGN, Gamespot, Polygon, Kotaku, Game Informer, Revision3 Games, Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun. There are people at these companies that I wait every single day to hear their opinions from. What they say matters to me and carries weight. Listening to RebelFM with Arthur Gies or Spoiled Games on Rev3 helps me find my own voice and discover my thoughts. I care about what these guys think when united. I do not understand how this has not happened already, and maybe the VGA’ was an attempt at this but the ideal award show is won hosted in unison by these companies, and chosen by people from these companies. Colin Moriarty announcing best PS3 exclusive, Kevin Vanord announcing the nominees for Best RPG, The McElroy quintuplets or however many there are awarding most innovative gameplay. Hundreds of people travelled from all over the world to be with the Podcast Beyond crew for their 300th podcast. A podcast. imagine the flurry of support one true award show created and voted by games journalist across the globe could have. Each site has their own game of the year awards and then come together to generate an ultimate version. This is what is needed. I only wish it were possible or there were something fans like me of websites and podcasts and reviews and games could do to make this happen.

@merthussein

Masters of Sex: Season 1 Episode 1 Review

Showtimes new television drama, Masters of Sex presents itself as a fresh take to the subject of sex as a plot line, however this also serves a secondary purpose of legitimising frequent nude scenes, which no doubt will attract a lot of attention and viewers. This has the potential to make Masters of Sex an empty shell of a series, similar to what happened to Spartacus. However, based on the first episode, I am confident that as long as the show keeps the premise of a 50’s doctor destroying the taboo of sex and female orgasms as its focus, then it has the potential to be great.

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There is no subtlety that Masters of Sex echoes the success of Mad Men, as it is definitely being positioned to run on the momentum of a 50’s/60’s setting AMC’s show re-energised. Beginning the series as a drama focused on the confinements of it’s period, with an emphasis on a building full of secretaries, egotistical professionals, and an abstract, brilliant protagonist definitely brings Mad Men to mind. However it’s clear after finishing the episode there is enough unique content for the show to stand on its own and not live under that shadow. No doubt this will be done by the lead himself, Dr William Masters.

Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Dr Masters is excellent. This is obvious from the get-go. Original, precise and ambiguous, Sheen demonstrates how to play a character with a possible dark nature inside the shell of perfect demeanour. Perhaps commendable for the writing, which is on point for the most part, Dr Masters is hard to nail down. Clearly egotistical and proud, yet revolutionary and compassionate, Masters as a character is set to provoke opinion and toy with emotion. Across the first episode alone: he saves a woman’s life, promotes science over conservatism  and tries to influence the fertility of his wife, but counteracts this with lies, slightly disturbing sexual habits, repeatedly watching others engage in coitus and his dramatic announcement towards the end. This is all supported by unforgiving facial expressions that leave you question the reasoning and morality of his decisions which of course is to the credit of the writing and Michael Sheen’s performance. After 60 minutes, I am already extrapolating Dr Masters to become one of my most thought about characters. But sadly there is a ying to every yang and a Dr Ethan Haas for every Masters.

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Nicholas D’Agosto’s depiction of Dr Haas is not necessarily a bad one, but it is riddled with overused portrayals and frustrating moments. Playing the role of an annoying and brash, yet handsome and gravitational character is an irritating TV cliché, and one this show could have done without. Unfortunately this show could have done without a lot of its cliché’s: the boss refusing to change his ways in fear of his reputation, the perfect wife struggling because she can’t give her perfect husband the perfect child they perfectly want, and the new girl in town with a fresh attitude contradicting stale social traditions through confidence and feminism. That being said, Lizzy Caplan’s role as Dr Master’s newly-hired secretary, Virginia “Ginnie” Johnson is very entertaining and at times captivating. She does emanate the presence of a cross between Mad Men’s Megan Draper and Peggy Olson and her relationship with the lead does little to shake off the comparison.

Dr. Ethan Haas

There is also a slew of interesting side characters such as Betty DiMello, a lesbian prostitute-for-men with a dark, dry sense of humour, as well as Dr Austin Langham, a promiscuous doctor willing to ‘perform’ in medical sex tests, along with a few lighthearted moments involving comical secretaries. These people made me laugh out loud and immediately wonder about their background after just a few lines.

There are a lot of cliché’s already in the show but at the core lies an untouched and potentially gripping premise, one that looks to make sex more open than it is even today and is doing so by reflecting on how the taboo was tackled 60 years ago. There is also a persistent theme of the show checking itself and keeping to the realities of the times its set in. Whenever Ginnie is acting as an equal to her male counterparts, another character will remind her who she is; a woman. Whether it’s Barton Scully turning his back on Ginnie to emphasise cutting her out of the discussion or Haas’ comments in bed, these moments root the show with believability which then increases the value of its message.That is what will make Masters of Sex special.

Score: 7.5/10

I Tried The Oculus Rift, And I Liked It

Oh boy, the magical Sci Fi of virtual reality is here, almost

Oh boy, the magical Sci Fi of virtual reality is here, almost

This years Eurogamer Exposition in London brought me face to face, or rather eye to eye with the illusive Oculus Rift and immediately after the strap was fastened my reaction was: “man, this is blurry.” Something I did not expect, the intense pixel visibility could apparently be attributed to either: the optimisation of the space warfare shooter I was playing to the Oculus Rift, the game being in beta or the prototype nature of the hardware, if the man guiding me through the experience is to be believed.

That being said it was still incredible. My unfamiliarity with a joystick compared to a controller did nothing to hinder the wonderment of what was happening. I tried out all the tricks the device has to offer: looking down into my cockpit, up into the stars, even over my shoulder as I was pulling my ship back out of combat. This presented a far more immersive and ‘realistic’ simulation of the game. While the game itself did nothing for me: it’s lousy gameplay, visuals and joystick input, the Oculus Rift more than made up for its downfalls. The game experience became far more a point of reference to imagine what genres and games would truly make the most of this capability.

It almost goes without saying that first-person gameplay is pretty much a necessity. A particular button on the joystick I accidentally pressed suddenly took me out of first person to show that my ship was in fact a giant robot. This sounds cool but in reality the functions of the Rift were essentially muted by the act. Aside from being able to look around for sightseeing purposes, there was no way to assault other spaceships in third person. For that reason I cannot imagine much support from third person heavy games like Mass Effect or Grand Theft Auto. On the other hand, fantasising about gazing at Columbia in Bioshock Infinite or the eerie mansion of Gone Home is truly exciting. The only exception to the rule that comes to mind in terms of third person ineptitude is the new brand of emotion and experience heavy games such as Journey.

Columbia - Bioshock Infinite. Play it.

The other potential benefit that seems to be overlooked in previews is the use it could have in twitch based gameplay. The Oculus Rift was extremely responsive, far more than I imagined. A quick glance to the right immediately brought that whole area into vision without any lag. What I could see was dependent on the speed I moved my eyes and neck, not how fast I would move my right thumb. For gamers who cannot play first person shooters on ridiculously high sensitivities either because it’s disorientating or too fast, this is a far superior alternative that feels natural and results in greater immersion. The obvious scenario and perhaps most desired game incorporation is Titanfall. Parkour, mechs (titans, sorry) and fast-paced multiplayer combat would all become far more badass moments if it were our eyes and head moving instead of a thumb.

Titanfall

 So what about the disadvantages? There are always disadvantages. Yes. There are.

The disorientation caused by the headset has been discussed to the level of nauseam the device itself causes, however I would like to quickly give my thoughts. I did not experience it. Not even a little bit. Of course there are many factors to consider: the difference in game (generic spaceship simulator instead of mech simulator in Hawken), the short 15 minute length of use or the fact that I was too preoccupied being in awe but the fact is I was absolutely fine. I would wait to have a far longer session to be definitive but my experience leads me to believe that the nausea will vary from person to person. What’s far more obvious is the distance between your eyeball and screen. Even after a short while I did feel a slight soreness. This is worrying when thinking of playing hours on end. I suspect there will be consistent warnings and precautions suggesting frequent breaks, which could suck when the purpose of the Rift is enhanced immersion.

It’s TV for your eyes! Add headphones to this picture and now you have no idea what is going on around you (the real around you, not the game). That could be dangerous. If you’re in a location you don’t trust implicitly or aren’t alone, anybody could sneak up on you and if you have siblings, good luck. It may be an important factor in a lot of gamers decision to buy or not. Finally, the price. From my moment in paradise it’s pretty safe to presume this will not be a cheap addition to your gaming setup. As far as I am aware Oculus Rift has not released an official price, or a release date or even a final model so who knows what it’ll be like in the end. Perhaps they will go the apple route and have a premium version and a cheaper version but either way I do not see this being a common peripheral hardcore gamers, let alone the casual market will adopt.

It’s exciting. Very exciting. Perhaps the best part of the Eurogamer Expo apart from holding the phenomenally improved dualshock 4, it certainly made the event. I have to hope the pixelation is an anomaly that will be fixed by the time games are being made for the device and the entry price will not be too absurd but, with everything taken into account, you can believe the hype.