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Star Trek doesn’t have a very good track record when it comes to quality video games. I suppose that can go for many media properties. However, every now and then, you can find a diamond in the rough. One of those diamonds was Star Trek: The Next Generation: Echoes from the Past for the Sega Genesis (there was also a Super Nintendo version of this game, but since I never played it, I am focusing this article on the Genesis version).
This game is great. While most video games are “action oriented”, Star Trek is generally not known for that. The great thing about Echoes is that it combines a lot of different elements into it that gives gamers not only a satisfying gaming experience, but also blends fundamental Star Trek touchstones (exploration, diplomacy, intelligence-over-force). It isn’t an easy trick to do (which might be why so many Star Trek games fail), but Echoes succeeds.
In the game, the Enterprise become involved with attempting to locate the IFD, a piece of technology that can change reality on a whim. Competing with them on this journey are the Romulans and the Chodak, a new enemy race invented for this game. Hoping to find this device before their enemies, the crew must endure several challenges and trails in order to find themselves worthy of receiving it.
The game is primarily puzzle-based. The crew find themselves in various planets, ships, and outposts. The puzzles are challenging, but not impossible. The major trick is finding out what you need to do in order to be successful. Sometimes you need to repair a ship. Other times, you need to traverse an obstacle-style course. There are rescue missions and missions in which you need to find various items. The events during the game vary to keep things interesting and fresh. The game is also pretty long. You can’t complete it in reasonable one sitting (don’t worry – there is a save setting). That’s a good thing as I like becoming invested in a game for a long time.
When you beam down to planets, the game presents a Zelda-like set-up with a top-down view and multiple item selection. However, unlike Zelda, you have up to four characters you can use at any given time. This helps out tremendously as you can separate your group to explore various parts of the level at the same time (you can rotate who you control at any given time). In fact, you will need more than one crewmember to accomplish various tasks that befall you (and some crewmembers have different advantages to them that others don’t).
When not on a planet, you are hanging out on the bridge where you can rotate through each station, conn and tactical being the most prominent. Yes, with tactical being an option, there are space battles you can engage in. However, don’t get too many hopes up as the battle function, while fine in its own right, is nothing to really write home about and, to be honest, you likely won’t be using it all the much (at least if you are smart about things).
There are a couple of tricks to Echoes that make it stand above other games. The first being when you are talking to other people, you can choose how you want to control the conversation. You will get a few options and you can pick your response. Your response will then determine the course of the conversation. For example, if you encounter an enemy ship, you can steer your conversation away from a battle or straight for one. It is wonderful.
The other little cool thing is the computer. You can access this and read files after files of various Star Trek-related items, many of which are not connected to the game at all. The game even has an entry on the Enterprise-B which was completely made up for the game since Echoes was in development a good two years before Star Trek Generations (the first Enterprise-B appearance) was released. I think this info was pulled from the Star Trek Encyclopedia then in print when this game was released.
This was not a game I really appreciated when I got it at 12 or 13. But when I returned to the game later in my high school years, I really learned to love it. It has so many elements that keep the gamer invested in the story. The most important thing is that it is fun, and that is really the key component when playing a video game. If you can get a copy of Echoes from the Past either as an emulator or the actual game for the Genesis, get it! It is worth your time.
A few days ago I finished up the latest release from Sony-owned developer Naughty Dog, the PlayStation 3 exclusive title The Last of Us. It took me a few days to process what I had just played. The world of The Last of Us is brutal, gruesome, cold, and in many ways hopeless. It has a lot in common with other zombie and post-apocalyptic media from the past five or ten years, and yet it is still a gut-wrenching, amazing experience. It is well-designed and amazingly scripted, and it is one of the best videogames of the current generation, a generation soon to expire with the impending releases of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
The Last of Us is a story about characters, in this case gruff, older Joel, a man in his 50s who lost his daughter at the outset of a global pandemic caused by an outbreak of viral fungus. Joel, along with partner Tess and various other side characters at points throughout the game, must escort young Ellie, a 13 year old who just may be the cure that humanity needs to wipe out the virus, from Boston to Utah in the devastated, dangerous, and violent wasteland that is now the United States. Joel and Ellie must survive horrifying zombie attacks, marauders and scavengers in the wasteland, as well as the cruel environment itself.
This is an incredibly simple story – the whole thing boils down to a road trip – but The Last of Us is filled with outstanding writing, character moments, and intense gameplay that give it a depth few other games have come close to matching this generation. Joel and Ellie have some character stock in them, but they are largely unique creations, and their developing father/daughter relationship over the 15 hours or so of gameplay is something special. The Last of Us is populated with incredibly well developed side characters as well, including the aforementioned Tess along with Joel’s younger brother (who has restored a hydroelectric plant and set up a community in mountains of Wyoming).
Aside from character writing and interactions, The Last of Us is filled with tremendous atmosphere and unique locales and environs. Throughout the game, you will explore abandoned, ruinous cities, terrifying sewer systems, and forests filled with threats both human and non-human. There is a sense of dread with every new environment, but the environments are also flat-out gorgeous, featuring some of the best rendering work of this entire generation of games. There were times I kept going despite the constant dread I felt just to see where The Last of Us would take me next. There are some amazing quiet moments interspersed throughout the game, and I don’t even want to mention them so as not to spoil them for any potential player. It is, simply put, a gorgeous game.
Of course, The Last of Us does crib from recent zombie and/or post-apocalyptic media. Joel and Ellie’s journey is highly reminiscent of the father/son voyage in Cormac McCarthy’s excellent post-apocalyptic novel The Road (a novel which was later adapted into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen). It isn’t like The Last of Us is ripping anything off – it’s really more of an homage to a great book than anything else. There are elements in the game which also popped up in last year’s excellent The Walking Dead adventure game from developer Telltale Games, but these are probably nothing more than coincidence considering The Last of Us has been in development since 2011.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is one of the best games of its generation, and quite possibly the best first-party title on the PlayStation 3 (high praise indeed for a system that has prided itself on great first-party games). The gameplay is tight (though the combat can get frustrating at times), the locales are amazingly rendered, and the relationship between Joel and Ellie is highly developed. The game is incredibly harsh and depressing at times, but it should be. This is not a nice world that Naughty Dog has created, but it is an incredibly detailed world that is both fun to play and will leave you on the edge of your seat in many places.
I know I usually don’t get to games months after they’ve been released but a late review is better than no review, right? Well to get started, I thoroughly enjoyed this game. It was released in June of 2012 on 360 and PS3. It’s been the first game since Skyrim that I’ve really been looking forward to and wanting to play. All in all, I loved the game and was very happy I bought it instead of renting it. It was entertaining, and I would recommend it to, in particular, gorehounds and metalheads. Not exactly for the modest or younger crowd because there are very many obscenities, sexual references, profanity, and vulgar language, all of which really made me laugh out loud.
The story: Juliet, a hot cheerleader in high school, hunts zombies with her family. The school is taken over by an emo guy (or should I say misunderstood?) who unleashes the rotten”, that is, zombies, demons, or whatevs). Juliet loves her school and wants the rotten to leave so she takes it upon herself, and her boyfriend to kill and abolish them. Simple and succinct plot, I like that. By the way, her boyfriend was eaten by zombies so Juliet somehow severs the head, puts a collar on, and drags him through the entire game by her waist. He adds the humorous lines and the interaction between the two lovebirds is tremendously funny. There is a lot of magic which gives rises to a talking head, bosses coming back, and a fantastical nature.
The music is superb with Mindless Self Indulgence frontman contributing to most of the music. In addition, there are also other popular metal bands. I know I heard Arch Enemy, possibly some Murderdolls, and quite a few others. I actually got to the point where I wanted to unlock more music, with my precious medals, to see which other artists they had brought on. This is actually the music that I would listen to in my spare time, such as if you go in my truck I might already have some Arch Enemy playing.
I personally love the hack and slash genre. This game was that. Combos, slashes, finishers, running around avoiding bullets, blood splatter. It’s all there and glorious. Though I must admit and as low as it is, the character is also gorgeous which keeps me very glued to the game. It’s a hot cheerleader who wears a short skirt. I’ll leave it at that. In addition there were many references to horror icons and other cult movies: San Romero high school, Fulci Fun Center, Juliet’s dad resembling Bubbo Ho-Tep, and the line “Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead” were the few that I caught. There’s even a level that has you re-enacting classic videogames like PAC-MAN. It’s full of mini games that can be challenging, but nothing worth punching a hole in the wall. I LOVED hearing the “Hey Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind” song every time you unlock your “Sparkle Hunting ” Mode! I would use it, even if it was unnecessary because the music is so rad.
The downfalls of the game, if there really were any, may have been the shortness or whatevs. I personally didn’t mind the shortness because replay value isn’t essential in videogames. This game is very story based where you look forward to the cut scenes as much as the action itself. I got the game for less than $20 on Amazon so even the slightness bit of entertainment is acceptable. I’ll certainly play it again because there are still a lot of unlockables such as different combos, music, outfits, and level ups. It’s hard to say that there bad things about it because I enjoyed every minute of it. Maybe too much vulgarity for some? The game certainly doesn’t have the depth of Skyrim, or the seriousness of Assassin’s Creed, but it’s also not as shallow as Sonic the Hedgehog. It’s a nice change of pace to see rainbows and glitter in games.
Also, worth mentioning is James Gunn had a hand in production. He has directed such great films such as: Slither (’06), Super (’10, with Ellen Page and Rainn Wilson), and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy (’14). I am a big fan of his, espescially Slither. You can tell that the story really rises above many other zombie games with excellent script, characters, and progression.
In the end, this game was made for me. Slashing zombies, blood splatter, gore, and metal music. It’s all me and I loved it. Maybe you will too! 5/5
*Updated, Spring 2013
In the past few years online gaming services like PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, the Apple App Store, and Steam have helped give rise to a number of excellent independent video games (many of which are also highly affordable). It might even be fair to say these services have saved the independent game developer, as development costs have steadily raised into the tens of millions of dollars during the PS3/Wii/Xbox 360 era. It isn’t uncommon for a triple-A or holiday release title to cost perhaps twenty million dollars or so to develop. Additionally, as development cycles become longer and longer (averaging about two years for most Triple-A titles), costs also rise exponentially for developers.
Independent games require fewer developers and studios can bypass standard means of production (including foregoing selling in brick-and-mortar stores altogether), costs can be significantly reduced at the developmental stage. This has helped lead to a boom in independent gaming in the current era. I personally began delving into independent titles about three years back. I discovered a considerable number og great games at relatively low cost, my favorite of which I have decided to assemble here. The following list is by no means a “best of” compilation. It is merely an attempt to help raise awareness of some great independent games I have played over the last few years.
5. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP (2011)
Superbrothers looks a ton like an old Atari 2600 adventure game and plays like a PC adventure title from the late 80s. Players point-and-click their way through the game as the Scythian, a female adventurer who must battle demons and solve puzzles to save the forest. The game, as noted, has a highly old-school aesthetic. The music and the story, however, reflect what is currently popular among gamers, including some great work on the soundtrack (composed by Jim Guthrie) and cool gameplay concepts, such as interacting with the game’s environment through touches and taps. One of the coolest features is that real-world time also has an effect on certain moments in the game.
The game also contains some pretty great self-referential humor which is done without being too ironic or winking at the audience too much (which is appreciated). Upon my initial play-through in 2011, I was blown away. I hadn’t been sucked into an adventure game like this in years (maybe not since The Last Express in 1997!). The game is just so unbelievably beautiful to see in motion. Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery is available on the App Store and has also been released for the PC. The best way to play this game, however, is on the iPad, due to the excellent touch screen controls (the right mouse button attempts to duplicate the experience somewhat on the PC, but isn’t quite as good). I recommend playing with a nice set of headphones on as well to get completely lost in the experience.
4. Super Stardust HD (2007)
Sometimes I like to just pick up a game and play away. Sometimes I just want to blow things up with the least possible input from a story. Super Stardust HD allows me to do just that, and I am grateful for it. Released onto the PlayStation Network in 2007, developer Housemarque’s twitch action title became a huge hit. SSHD plays a lot like a fantastic combination of classic arcade games Asteroid and Robotron: 2084. The game uses dual analog sticks to both fly around a small planet or planetary object and shoot at asteroids and enemies, alternating between red for fire power and blue for ice power. Bonuses, such as highly-effective bombs, shields, and other power-ups, are also available.
Super Stardust HD is an extremely simple and effective title, and it also looks fantastic on my 46” 3D Bravia television. In Winter 2012, Sony released a port of Super Stardust HD onto the PlayStation Vita system, which also plays extremely well. I actually prefer the handheld version over the console version, as the pick-up-and-play factor is even higher on that platform. This is not a particularly deep or involving game, but SSHD has an old-school charm and I am constantly going back to it time and time again. When I need a few mindless hours of twitch gameplay and space centipedes, I grab my Vita and go for it.
3. Limbo (2010)
Limbo is a black-and-white physics-based puzzle/platformer. Like Super Stardust HD, Limbo was developed by a European independent studio. The game was originally released exclusively for Xbox Live, but later found its way to both Steam and the PlayStation Network. It is also available on the Mac OS platform. Probably the most interest aspect of the game is in its art aesthetic. Limbo has an art style that has been compared favorably to German expressionism, and looks absolutely phenomenal. I never would have though a black-and-white title would be so compelling, but this one has proved so unique that other games have tried somewhat to ape its aesthetic (see: Escape Plan).
Limbo is the story of a boy who journeys into an almost solitary world, encountering very few people in a dark and mysterious forest. He must search the forest in order to find his missing sister, eventually reaching a devastated city. I recommend playing this game for the fantastic art style and for its similarity to classic fairy tales (there are obvious parallels with Hansel and Gretel) and a look that I can only describe as being expressionism meets film noir. I have no preference for platform for playing Limbo, but I have to imagine it is pretty cheap on Steam at the moment. Check it out where ever you can and as soon as you can – you won’t regret it.
2. Bastion (2011)
Considered one of the best games of 2011, Bastion is an independent video game developed by Supergiant games. Bastion is available via Xbox Live and for Windows-based computers through Steam. Interestingly enough, it was also developed for use on the Google Chrome browser, making it one of the first video games to be played on the Chrome platform. Like Limbo before it, Bastion has an incredibly memorable art style. The game’s environments look almost hand-painted. Bastion has also been highly praised for its music and use of voice-over narration.
Bastion is an action/RPG hybrid played from an isometric viewpoint. It is fantasy-themed, and its weapons, enemies, currency, etc. reflect and embrace that. Bastion is the story of “the kid”, who sets off for the Bastion (think of it as a kind of community center/safe zone) after a devastating, destructive event happens, destroying much of the known world. What I find interesting about this game is that its development team consisted of only seven people, which seems ludicrous in hindsight. I would recommend playing Bastion on the Google Chrome browser, just because I think it’s neat that its even on a browser to begin with.
1. Journey (2012)
Released in the spring of 2012, Journey is an adventure game developed by thatgamecompany (who also made Flower) exclusively for the PlayStation 3 system (it first appeared on PSN but was later available in retail as a disc-based title). Highly anticipated for at least two years, upon release Journey quickly became the fastest selling PSN game of all time. The game went on to win several end of year awards and even garnered a Grammy nomination, the first for music in a videogame. Though it is largely a minimalist game experience, Journey has won overwhelming praise from critics and gamers alike.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this game is its unique online multiplayer system. Journey features no voice communication between players, and names are not displayed above player-characters the way they would be in an online game such as Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty. Journey‘s focus on the anonymous works extremely well, adding to the mystery and minimalism of the game’s nature. Players pop in and out of each other’s games almost randomly and totally seamlessly. As for the story, Journey is light except for its main goal: the player must get to the beam of light at the top of a far off mountain. This is a beautiful game, from its brilliantly rendered sand to its unique coloration (the underground segment is absolutely gorgeous) to its fantastic, emotionally riveting soundtrack. I highly recommend checking Journey out. It is a fantastic experience that stands as one of the best games of its generation, independently developed or otherwise.
It’s pretty safe to say the PlayStation 3 launch was an unmitigated disaster. No, November 11, 2006 was not the brightest day for Sony. Ridiculously high launch prices, multiple SKUs, a weak lineup of games, a year behind the Xbox 360, and in direct competition with the Wii, which sold over a hundred million consoles despite not having ten games worth playing. Oh, and Sony pushed BluRay onto the consumer, whether he or she wanted it or not. Yes, looking back on the PS3’s launch must be pretty difficult for Sony execs.
In hindsight, it was a good thing that Sony helped usher in the age of BluRay. It may have delayed their console launch a year and added a hundred bucks to the launch price, but DVD began showing its age around 2005 or 2006, and BluRay ended up being a better format than HDDVD. Sony was also ahead of the curve in the harddrive division. Featuring at least double the HD space as an Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3 is the perfect system for easy firmware and software updates. The cheapest model of the PS3 offers at least 120 GB of HD space nowadays; the Xbox 360 offers a mere 4 GB in its basic model. The difference? A mere $50.
So where does that rambling, editorializing first few paragraphs lead us? Here at the Culture Cast, we rarely so often delve into the world of videogames. Personally, I’m not a fan of media podcasts and blogs that occasionally delve into other forms of pop culture. For the third time in our 50+ post existence, however, the Culture Cast will fall back on videogames in order to talk about the strange tale of Ninja Theory’s 2007 PS3 cult game Heavenly Sword.
Those first few PS3 years seemed pretty rough at times. There was a dearth of first party exclusives. Third party publishers seemed to place their best resources and time into developing the 360 versions of their games (in many cases this problem still exists). Outside of the launch titles MotorStorm and Resistance: Fall of Man and the holiday 2007 title Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, there was only one other triple A first party title released in the first year or so of the PS3’s life. This game was Heavenly Sword.
Developed by European studio Ninja Theory and released in September 2007, Heavenly Sword is a third-person action game in the vein of God of War. The story focuses on Nariko, a fierce and deadly warrior princess fighting for her country, father, and adopted daughter against the forces of evil. Nariko must use the mysterious Heavenly Sword in order to defeat the malevolent Raven King and his minions, thus freeing her warrior clan of a terrible curse and saving the kingdom.
So what makes Ninja Theory’s title so strange? The game’s characters and settings are an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese, and other Pan-Asiatic cultures, but the story, writing, and performances are uniquely British. Character actor extraordinaire Andy Serkis hams it up as not only the villainous King Bohan, but also as the game’s cinematic/m0-cap director. It’s like the crazy is cranked to eleven. The beautiful Nariko isn’t a typical early 20s Hollywood type either; she’s an adopted mother, clan heir apparent to a leadership position, and extremely complicated.
Heavenly Sword also has Kai… Kai is Nariko’s adopted daughter and she is twee as fuck. Just check out this cutscene, perhaps my favorite part of the game:
Now that cutscene may make entirely no sense to anyone outside of context. But the great thing about Heavenly Sword is that there is no context. The entire game is exactly like that. Kai is illustrative of the game at large: playful and fun but also almost unnervingly, impossibly weird. It’s no wonder this game couldn’t “save” the PlayStation 3. Who exactly did it appeal to?
Heavenly Sword was expected to sell in the millions and millions. Who knows how much Sony paid Ninja Theory to develop it exclusively for the PS3 (it started out as a 360 title)? It sold just over one million copies worldwide, most of which were probably sold in Western Europe. It didn’t help that Sony gave the game little promotion, expecting the game to appeal perhaps on the fast-fading “Cool Japan” fad. It also didn’t help that Sony seemed to refuse to lower the price of Heavenly Sword. Years after the game’s release it was still nearly as expensive as new releases. As late as November 2010 the game was still listed for $40 in GameStop.
Despite poor sales, the game met with some critical acclaim, garnering a 79 on Metacritic and an 81% on Game Rankings. The game was also nominated for several awards, which was perhaps some kind of validation for developer Ninja Theory, who would go on to create the colossal flop Enslaved: Odyssey to the West for the PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010 (they are currently working on the Devil May Cry reboot for Capcom, which fits their sensibilities perfectly). Main character Nariko fell short of becoming a beloved female gaming icon, but her long, red hair and distinctive fighting style and her Heavenly Sword weapon nearly accomplished just that.
There were a ton of reasons why the PS3 failed that first year, and still struggles despite more than making up for the lack of great first-party releases in 2006-2007. Heavenly Sword may have been one of those reasons. But I feel it’s a bit unfair to call it an out and out failure. It’s pretty character design, awesome mo-cap direction, and overall weirdness give it a special place in my heart.
The Culture Cast with Zack and Nick has long relied mainly on the talents of Hollywood filmmakers and television producers to give us the content to review that we so crave as pop culture junkies. Video gaming is another huge part of my pop culture obsession and thus far hasn’t gotten a lot of love from us here on the blog. So many professional communities out there offer a better job of discussing and dissecting video games than we could ever hope to do. Just recently, the guys over at Giantbomb devoted an entire week of podcasts, write-ups, and video entries on their Game of the Year 2011 awards. I highly recommend checking out their content and subscribing to their excellent gaming podcasts.
Having said all of that, I decided I would go ahead and compile my list of my ten favorite video games from 2011. This list is by no means official and/or comprehensive. I am not a professional games journalist, nor a journalist of any kind at all. This is not a list of the “best” games of 2011; it is merely a list of my favorite games of the past year. I hope you’ll enjoy this list. Please leave your feedback/hateful comments for us to consider for future write-ups.
After a nearly universally panned second entry in the Resistance series, part three had a lot to make up for in the hearts and minds of fans. It almost accomplishes just that. Despite feeling somewhat derivative of other popular games in the genre (Half-Life 2, various Halo entries, and even Uncharted 2), Resistance 3 offers a fairly compelling father and son story in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s hailed novel The Road. Though it dragged a bit and relied too much on dark and/or bland environments, Resistance 3 still offered a ton of fun to be had as well as an interesting (if unnecessary) PlayStation Move compatibility control scheme.
NetherRealm Studios’ Mortal Kombat reboot should not have worked, and yet it does, and does so rather well. The story mode, long the bane of the fighting game genre, is not only fantastically done, but is the rare retcon that works. Developed strictly as a 2D fighter, character models are gorgeous and the 3D is absolutely amazing.
Catherine is not a game for everyone. It succeeded at being a fan favorite while receiving very mixed reviews from critics. But this Mature-rated action puzzler/dating sim is exceedingly weird, and that’s what I love about it. Featuring the year’s oddest story, Catherine succeeds at telling a tale of growing up, maturing, and finding love in a messed up world. While its graphics aren’t great, it’s cutscenes and incidental animation (done by the excellent Studio 4C) are fantastic. Definitely one of the weirdest games ever released in North America.
Despite not receiving the same welcoming reviews of its predecessor, Killzone 3 actually builds upon the experience of Killzone 2 in many ways. Featuring jaw-dropping graphics, great mo-cap work from actors like Malcolm McDowell, and an overall professional, polished experience, Killzone 3 is one of the best games of the year and a worthy entrance in the series.
An overall more polished game than its predecessor, inFamous 2 kept me busy for hours with its great missions, fantastic controls, accomplished graphics, and cool, comic book-esque story. Can’t wait for the third entry.
Featuring two of the best PlayStation 2 games of all time, updated graphics, 3D modes, and a host of great additional features, the Ico Collection is a fantastic value for its price and a great nostalgia bomb for gamers.
Sony’s mascot series couldn’t “save” the PlayStation 3 when it was originally released in 2008, but it was a fantastic game overall. LBP2 builds upon that experience while strengthening the user-created content, the graphics, and the general scope of the series. LittleBigPlanet is now a marquee, flagship series and I look forward to future installments.
A fantastic experience and a ton of head-scratching, puzzle-filled fun, Portal 2 is an amazing game that deserves every accolade in the gaming industry. My only question is this: How can developer Valve possibly top this experience?
This iPad/iPod Touch/iPhone release was perhaps the biggest surprise of 2011. Featuring old-school 8-bit-esque graphics, absolutely fantastic music, and a compelling story, Superbrothers is truly an amazing game and a fantastic experience.
Yeah so maybe it didn’t live up to the glorious heights of Uncharted 2. But so what? Uncharted 3 is an amazing game, featuring some of the best console graphics ever. The ship graveyard and desert levels are worth the price alone. It may be time for Nathan Drake to retire, but Naughty Dog’s run of games this generation rivals any other studios’ in the industry.