When I booted up my PS5 for the first time and signed into the PSN, I immediately downloaded a few of the must-have games. You know, the Demon's Souls remake, Miles Morales, and Returnal. I also downloaded some other ... shall we say "less high profile" games that piqued my interest, including the [ultimately very impressive] World War II shooter Hell Let Loose and a little indie game that claimed to be a sequel to H.G. Wells' classic sci-fi novel The War of the World, called Darker Skies.

Darker Skies takes place during the aftermath of H.G. Wells' classic novel The War of the Worlds,
but the visual and sound design is clearly pulled from the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie starring Tom Cruise.

Budget "Last of Us"

I didn't have high hopes for this budget indie title, but I was curious what a game developer would even do with a property like War of the Worlds. As soon as I saw the first enemy, a zombie shambling around just like a Clicker from The Last of Us, my heart sank. With all the potential of the source material, Steel Arts had to go with a zombie game?! The War of the Worlds is a classic sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion of Earth. My expectation for a video game adaptation of The War of the Worlds would either be some kind of survival horror game about surviving against Martians who survived exposure to Earth's microbes, or an action shooter about humans counter-attacking the Martians on Mars, or something akin to XCOM. It absolutely would not be a total knock off of The Last of Us, right down to having infected zombie humans.

And when I say this is a knock off of The Last of Us, I'm not just talking about the presence of Clicker-like zombies. The protagonist has an X-Ray "focus" vision, he scavenges random supplies in order to craft consumables supplies, and most encounters with enemies are intended to be dealt with by various throwable tools. There's even areas of the map that are overgrown with red Martian tendrils, similar to the spore-infested areas of The Last of Us, except this time around, the character doesn't need a gas mask to get through.

The character can use X-ray vision to detect enemies through walls, but only if they are moving.

The only thing missing is the tag-along NPC child character -- which is a big problem because the interactions between the two characters is a huge part of what makes The Last of Us a great game. That's where the heart and soul of that game was. If you played The Last of Us, and you thought the best thing to emulate is the crafting system, then I feel like maybe you missed the point...

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I don't think that Capcom and Naughty Dog realized just how topical their 2020 releases of Resident Evil 3 and The Last Of Us Part 2 would turn out to be. Both games were released in the spring and summer, as a strange novel coronavirus (believed to have jumped from Chinese bats to people) began to spread within the United States and the rest of the world. Both games are about zombie apocalypses, and were released at a time in which large portions of the global economy had been shut down, and residents were expected to essentially shelter in place in their homes for weeks or months to prevent the spread of the pandemic. The 2020 pandemic (which is still ongoing 18 months later, despite the widespread availability of multiple vaccines), provided me with some unexpected context on these two games.

Check out the video essay version of this post on YouTube.

Both games are zombie apocalypse games, and zombie fiction is often based around fears and anxieties of societal collapse in one form or another. The original Night Of The Living Dead channeled the anxieties of nuclear Armageddon, and filtered them through the lenses of both McCarthy era Communist witch-hunts and a degree of racial tension. George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead channeled fears that consumerist culture would lead to toxic behavior that is not only self-destructive to the individual, but also to society at large. Zombies in other fiction might represent anxieties about racism, sexism, socialism, technology gone amok, and so forth.

Zombie fiction is usually inspired by contemporary fears surrounding societal collapse.

Video game zombies are no different, and they can represent any of those anxieties from a simple narrative standpoint. Because games are an interactive experience, zombie games can even explore anxieties about a loss of individual autonomy in ways that non-interactive media would struggle to approach. But I'm not here right now to talk about zombie games in general. I want to talk specifically about the pare of blockbuster zombie games that released last year, during the height of a real-life pandemic.

Both Last of Us games express concerns about the increasingly myopic "us and them" mentality in American culture and politics and the apparent inability of many people to empathize with others and see their point of view -- or even their humanity. And Resident Evil, as a series, channels anxieties about the self-destructive nature of the corporate desire to make profit at all costs, and then use their vast wealth and lobbying power to cover up their unethical activities.

Regardless of the messages intended by the developers, playing both of these games in 2020 made it really hard for me to not look at them both through the lenses of my own anxieties about the contemporary pandemic situation that we saw (and continue to see) ourselves in. It was a situation that neither game's developers could have foreseen (even though scientists, public health experts, and futurists have been sounding the alarm bells for the inevitability of pandemics in our increasingly globalized world). Anyway, since neither Capcom nor Naughty Dog could foresee that the games would launch in the middle of a real-world pandemic, they didn't really design their games around the ideas and anxieties of a real-life pandemic, and I think that shows through clearly in both games.

Neither REmake3 nor The Last of Us 2 are really about the pandemics of their settings.

After all, it would be so much easier to deal with a pandemic if we could clearly see the spread of the disease in the way that characters can in Resident Evil and The Last of Us. It would be so easy to isolate and quarantine individuals if infection caused their skin to almost immediately start rotting, or if we could see with our naked eyes the little coronaviruses coming out of people's mouths and noses when they cough, sneeze, or breath. And it would be so much easier if the disease itself were only transmitted between people through invasive physical contact such as a bite. But none of that is true in this real-life COVID pandemic. In light of a real-world pandemic, it seems almost silly that the fictional pandemics of Resident Evil and The Last Of Us could possibly lead to such widespread societal collapse, and the pandemic itself is of little concern to the player.

To be clear, what follows represents my personal contextualization from playing Resident Evil 3 and The Last of Us Part II during the COVID pandemic. These impressions do not represent my opinions on the actual quality of the games on their own merits. You can check out my reviews of both games, or check out my video on the "Lessons Capcom Learned for Resident Evil 3". I understand that neither game is about the pandemic. All I'm saying is that having played them during a pandemic highlighted just how not about the pandemic they actually are.

The lessons Capcom learned for Resident Evil 3.

Needless to say, there will be some minor spoilers for Resident Evil 3 (remake) and both Last of Us games. There will also be some spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V and Death Stranding. Reader discretion is advised.

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The Last of Us 2 - title

Perspective shifts were used effectively in The Last of Us.

I'm a fairly outspoken critic of the first Last of Us. I felt that the gameplay was fairly shallow (though very well-produced), and focused too strongly on the zombie apocalypse plot at the expense of the surrogate father-daughter story that was being told. The best and most memorable moments were the opening scene in which you play as the scared 10-year-old girl as the zombie apocalypse breaks out, and the part where Joel and Ellie pet the giraffe. And maybe the very end where Joel confronts the doctors in the operating room, for those 40% of us who actually completed the game. And the only enemy encounter that was actually good and meaningful was the one-on-one cat-and-mouse boss fight with the cannibal David in the burning restaurant. Those sequences make up the emotional linchpins of the game and are genuinely moving moments of humanity [or inhumanity], and the perspective shifts that reinforce or contextualize those moments are -- dare I say -- artistic! But then 90% of the actual game that you play is rote cover-based shooting separated by stealth-lite and the occasional "puzzle" that never gets much more complicated than propping a ladder up against a wall.

For being a game about a grieving father eventually finding meaning in a surrogate daughter, it never really let the player act out the interactions between the characters. She was invisible to enemies in stealth and mostly took care of herself in combat. She lacked an upgrade tree and didn't really improve her combat or stealth abilities much over the course of the game, so there was also no ludic development of her character, and the player never feels like you are teaching her how to survive, or doing any of the surrogate father stuff that the game is supposed to be about.

So yeah ... overrated... Still good! But like a 7 instead of a 10 out of 10. "Sacrilege!" I know.

The companion isn't the sole focus of the narrative this time around.

This time, however, the relation between the player character and your NPC companion(s) is not the core of the story. This game is not about the character interactions that the player has no control over; this game is about the violence that the player absolutely has total control over! Ellie and Dina's relationship is the B plot behind the revenge plot, and gets further relegated to a C or D plot in the second half of the game. They're already friends/lovers before the game even begins, so there isn't much in the way of building a relationship. In fact, Ellie's story this time around seems to be more about how being a moody, self-absorbed teenager just pushes Ellie away from the people who care about her. It's more a game about being anti-social, which fits much better with both games' core gameplay.

Cycle of Violence

Now, I cannot talk about the artistic merit of the game without talking about the back half of the campaign. Naughty Dog may have embargoed publications from reviewing the second half of the game, but I'm not going to let that stop me from talking about it. Naughty Dog has no place telling critics or reviewers what they can and cannot tell consumers about the game. I'm personally not offended by the second half of the game like some other people are (I think it's the better half of the game, and Naughty Dog is lucky that I'm going to talk about it, because otherwise the game is a D-). I am, however, offended by Naughty Dog thinking they can impose a muzzle order on reviewers, even if it genuinely was in the interest of "not spoiling the game" (as opposed to just trying to hide a controversial element of design that might turn off some consumers). So yeah, I'm going to try to avoid specific spoilers of major plot developments, but this review will contain minor or moderate spoilers about the overall structure of the game.

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Logan movie poster

You've probably already heard this, but Logan is not a typical comic book movie. In fact, this movie feels less like a comic book movie, and more like a western combined with Terminator 2: Judgement Day and The Last of Us. This last analogy is particularly apt, considering that Logan deals with the extinction of mutants from the X-Men film universe.

The X-Men comics and movies have always been known for being topical, with their themes of racism, bigotry, and so forth, and Logan manages to to also be surprisingly topical regarding its storyline of a child fleeing [what amounts to] a violent drug cartel in Mexico, being unwelcome in the United States, and having to flee even further to Canada.

And this movie is laden with so much more possible metaphor. Logan's rejection of the comics' fallacious telling of events may symbolize our own need to let go of our childhood nostalgia regarding these fictional universes and characters and accept new and different interpretations. The final scene, with the child clutching the action figure, just so perfectly captures this bittersweet sentiment. And thank goodness that there isn't an end-credits scene, because I would have been pissed if anything had come up to ruin that perfect final shot. Or maybe it symbolizes the gradual and steady loss of our own real-world heroes. The last astronaut to walk on the moon died this year. We've lost civil rights leaders, WWII veterans are becoming increasingly rare, our 20th century pop culture icons are slowly kicking the bucket. What kinds of heroes will replace them? There's a lot to unpack here.

Logan - X-Men comics
The X-Men are revered, mythical figures within the film's universe.

And by avoiding any strong, direct connections to other X-Men movies, Logan not only allows non X-Men fans to get into the movie without all the extra baggage, but it also kind of implies that maybe the previous movies aren't to be taken seriously either...

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My past two blog posts have been focused on open world gaming. These posts have been continuations of an earlier post about the narrative "limbo" that many open world games create via their quest structures. In the first post in this second series, I pointed out what I perceive to be a problem with open world games that insist on turning their sandbox worlds into little more than convoluted mission-select screens and collectible checklists. In the following post, I described some games that I think managed to make successful open worlds by including features or mechanics that made traveling through the space (or knowledge of the space) into a meaningful mechanic. This time, I want to go back to some of the games that I singled-out in the first post in this series, and brainstorm some ways that they could have made better use of the large spaces that their maps offered so that traveling around the world wouldn't become so boring later in the game.

But before I do that, I want to re-emphasize that I don't hate these games. They're just not very good at using their space, and that's what I'm criticizing. Well, the newer Assassin's Creed games have been pretty terrible. Anyway, I pick on games like Skyrim and The Witcher III a lot, but I like them just fine - I bought the DLC for both. I pick on them, not because I hate them, but because I do like them and I want them to get better (or for their sequels to get better). Rather, my objective here is to find ways for these games to make better use of the large, open spaces that they provide the player, so that exploring the map feels more mechanically relevant, more interesting, or more rewarding; and to feel less like a time-sink.

Games like Skyrim and The Witcher III have massive worlds, but do a poor job of utilizing the space.

Bethesda's Skyrim and Fallout titles, as well as CD Projeckt Red's Witcher III and Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto V, already have open worlds that transcend being simple, convoluted mission-select screens like games like Assassin's Creed and Metal Gear Solid V. They populate their worlds with little narrative world-building details that make their worlds feel alive and lived-in (even though they may feel stagnant). So what could a game like Skyrim or The Witcher III have done to improve its open world?

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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