The Striking Beauty of Death Stranding

The Striking Beauty of Death Stranding

I know this game isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but good lord, do I love the game’s aesthetic! Below are a few screenshots taken with the game’s photo mode. This game looked great on the PS4, but it’s drop-dead gorgeous at 4K60 🤤

Mario Kart in 4K is Glorious

Mario Kart in 4K is Glorious

So don't ask too many questions about how I got these screenshots 😉 but I was curious how Switch games would look like on this theoretical "Switch Pro" that has been rumored for a year or so now. One of the things I'd love to have on a "pro" Switch is the ability to run games at 4K (the current Switch tops out at 1080p).

As it happens, I had the ability to get some side-by-side comparisons of Mario Kart 8 running at 720p (Wii U resolution) and 4K. Setting aside the fact the Switch version runs at 1080p and has some visual imrpovements of its own, I wanted to see what the difference would be if we took the Wii U game and just increaded the resolution. As you can see (as long as you don't look at this on your phone) is that the difference is massive, and I really hope that we get the opportunity to run these games at 4K for real in the not-too-distant future. Nintendo's games scale up really well to high resolutions, so hopefully we get the chance to do just that.

My Review of The Last of Us Part 2 (SPOILERS AHEAD)

My Review of The Last of Us Part 2 (SPOILERS AHEAD)

🚨 It’s hard to talk about this game without getting into spoilers, so check out this tweet for my spoiler-free, tweet-length review. This won’t even make sense if you haven’t played the game, so really, bookmark this for later and come back when you’ve finished the game. 🚨

I finished The Last of Us Part 2 yesterday, and I’ve been letting it rattle around in my head for a bit before saying too much about it. You likely already know the deal with this game’s reception: basically the critics largely loved it, and it’s getting review-bombed on places like Metacritic. The actress who played Abby is also getting flooded with death threats for things her character did in the game.

As an…ahem…older gamer, this reminds me quite a bit of the Metal Gear Solid 2 drama that happened way back in 2001. That was another case of gamers getting attached to a grizzled middle-aged main character in an instant classic game, only to have the rug pulled out from under them in the sequel as they unexpectedly had to play as someone else. Kojima pulled off this trick really well in 2001, and I recall no one seeing it coming at the time. As you can guess, fans were outside themselves with rage over this bait-and-switch. In a wave of gamers-being-gamers wave of immaturity, fans were upset you didn’t play that game as Solid Snake, but instead you played as this “effeminate” bleached blonde haired character called Raiden. “I didn’t pay $50 to play as this guy!” was a common outcry then. The narrative structure and complexity was derided at the time as well.

As time has passed, Metal Gear Solid 2 has warmed on the fan base, and it’s generally considered a classic to this day. The character of Raiden is much more loved today and the story about online communication/life is more relevant today than it was 19 years ago when it was created.

Similarly, The Last of Us Part 2 pulls a similar trick, although it goes even further than MGS2. The marketing material made it pretty clear that this was Ellie’s game and that you would be playing from her perspective, so that wasn’t a surprise.

What was a surprise was the fact that not only was Joel not in the story for long, but that he was brutally murdered in the first hour of the game. So no, there’s no going back for a Part 3 game where we go back to Joel, there was no chance of Ellie getting in trouble and you shifting over to Joel to go save here, there was nothing, he was gone.

This is a bold move by Naughty Dog, and a credit to Sony for allowing one of the most iconic main characters from their line of exclusive games to be murdered. Joel is gone, and as a player, it was brutally difficult to watch that scene unfold.

But that’s not where the rug-pulling ends.

Much like MGS2 where you get a perspective shift to a player you didn’t know about before this game, halfway through this game, you switch perspectives to play as Abby, the woman who you watched murder Joel just hours before.

This is where the controversy with this game really gets some gas.

Some complain about having to play as the person who killed Joel. Other complain that you play as her for too long. Yet others will complain that they should have intercut between Abby and Ellie’s timelines throughout the game. If you felt that way, then okay, I can’t force the narrative structure to work for you, but I can tell you how it worked for me.

If I could sum it up concisely, I’d say the first half of this game, where youi play as Ellie, is what I was expecting this game to be. The stakes are higher (I didn’t expect Joel to die), but I got to be an older, more capable Ellie from the first game and I thoroughly enjoyed both the story (a woman’s quest for revenge turning her into a shell of a person) and the gameplay, which was everything the early gameplay reveals promised and more. The second half of the game shocked me in it’s audacity in attempting to reshape my perspective on not only the events in this game, but the events of the last title as well.

Snarky tweets will talk about how when you kill someone in combat someone will yell “they got Tommy!” when they find the body, as a cheap way to get you to realize that the people you’re killing in the game are real people. I think this added some realism to the game and I appreciated it, but this is not the part of the game that I thought made me change my views on the whole series.

The fact that you spend 8+ hours playing as the “enemy” is a shocking, brilliant move, and it’s the only way I think this narrative trick could have worked. By spending hours and hours as Abby, you have time to go from, “this is the bad guy, fuck her” to, “I kind of want to kill Ellie.” I don’t think you get that by intercutting 1 hour gameplay segments between the characters, nor do you get that by just seeing Ellie embrace the darkness from her own perspective.

The Abby segment leads up to a showdown with Ellie in the theater that she’s been using as a base all this time. The game keeps you in Abby’s shoes for the fight with Ellie, and I’d be lying if I said it was anything short of one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had playing a video game. I assumed I would confront Abby and get my revenge, but the game turned this around on me. I didn’t necessarily want to kill Ellie, but I definitely thought she needed to be stopped.

After this showdown, which results in both women leaving, with Abby warning, “don’t let me see you again,” we flash forward to a farm where Ellie and Dina have adopted a domestic life that appears peaceful and everything we hoped for these characters in the end. They have a baby, you herd some sheep, and when Tommy comes over with a new revenge proposition, Ellie and Dina send him packing. The screen fades to black here and I thought the game was over. It was a satisfying, happy ending and I was ready to watch the credits roll and feel pretty good about life.

Then the game keeps going.

Ellie is not past this, and she can’t resist getting the revenge she failed to get a few years ago. She throws her entire life away to get the justice she has been obsessing about ever since Joel’s untimely demise. Of all the horrible moments in the game, and there are no shortage of these, the one that hit me hardest was when Ellie told Dina “that’s your choice,” whether she waits for Ellie or leaves her forever as Ellie goes on this revenge journey again. I’m sure people think this decision is unrealistic, and clearly Ellie should stay where she is, but people are not purely logical beings and they make self-destructive decisions every single day.

The final hour or two of the game has you play as Abby and then Ellie again. The tone is different now, and this whole final segment is seeped in a melancholy not present in the rest of the game. The rest of the game shows the horrors of this world and makes you wince at the terrible things people do to survive, but the final hours have a sadness of inevitability to them that I find hard to explain. I would say I had fun during much of this game, even if it was a different sort of fun that I’d get from something like a Doom or Halo game, but this final segment wasn’t fun by any means.

The long story short is that Ellie and Abby fight one more time, and this time you’re doing it from Ellie’s perspective. At this point, I think the game misses an opportunity to embrace the interactive medium that it is. Abby doesn’t want to fight, but Ellie forces her to do so. But I, the player, also didn’t want to fight, and yet the game makes me have a fist fight with Abby. I wish that I had the option to not fight Abby if I didn’t want to. I wish that if we were going to fight, the game played from Abby’s perspective so I was also controlling the player who was in a more relatable mental state for me. There was even a moment in the fight were Abby is on her knees in the water and wants me to stop…I wanted to stop too, but I had to hit the square button to hit her again. This was uncomfortable, and while I get what the story was going for here, but considering that I don’t kill Abby anyway, I wish I had more autonomy over how that scene played out.

But then that fight ends and Abby and Ellie once again go off in their own directions, and the lonely walk back through Ellie and Dina’s previously shared home is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a gamer. The loss I felt was immense and even through I knew they were gone, a part of me hoped that Ellie would turn a corner and Dina would be there.

Ellie ends this story alone and unfulfilled. She didn’t get the revenge she wanted so badly. She lost the people she loved along the way, and now she has nothing.

This was a hard ending.

I’m often a fan of stories not taking the easy way out, not giving you the ending you want and instead giving you an ending that makes you uncomfortable, so maybe I was predisposed to like this, but I think that this game will stay with me forever because of how hard it hit me.

I know The Last of Us Part 2 won’t please everyone: people don’t like Abby, they don’t like Joel dying, they don’t like the gay relationship at the center of this story, they don’t like the trans character, they don’t like the violence… For me, this game was hard to play at times, but also had some of the most satisfying combat encounters I’ve played recently and was built on a story and storytelling structure that made to change how I felt about everything in this series. I feel like I’ve been able to say this about so many Sony exclusives in the past couple years, but this game is an absolute achievement.

Horizon Forbidden West Trailer in 4K

Horizon Forbidden West Trailer in 4K

I feel like the PS5 announcement event failed to do the games they showed justice in terms of just how good they looked. Don’t get me wrong, the games lineup was impressive, but the low bitrate of the video did a good job of hiding the clarity of what was on display.

A good example of this is Horizon Forbidden West, which just looks stunning in 4K. I downloaded a 4K version of that trailer and it was night and day compared to what was in the stream, so I really recommend checking that out.

Download the 4K version here (400MB .mkv) or watch it on YouTube.

Psst, I downloaded most of the trailers in 4K, so if you’d like to see another one and YouTube ain’t cutting it, hit me up and I’ll send you a link.

8 Hours of Animal Cross New Horizons for Your Daily Grind

8 Hours of Animal Cross New Horizons for Your Daily Grind

Ok, so let’s all agree not to make this post reach too far and wide and let the powers that be know about it, but if you ever wanted your work day to feel more like Animal Crossing and less like…well, normal work, this is just the ticket for you.

Animal Crossing New Horizons has 24 tracks of music that play throughout the day, one song per hour. My compilation plays all 24 tracks for 20-ish minutes each, clocking in at almost exactly 8 hours. Start this when you log on for the day and hopefully you’ll be wrapping up work as soon as it finishes.

The best flow seemed to be to start at the 6AM track, which feels very warm and welcoming, and concludes all the way around at 5AM with some very chill night time music to wrap up the day.

Download the 8 hour MP3 here (462 MB) and put it on in the background while you work. Just make sure to turn it off before jumping on a conference call.

And if you would prefer them as individual tracks in the music player of your choice, there is also a 24 track version you can download here (80 MB).

PS5's Disappointing Backwards Compatibility

From the official PlayStation blog

A quick update on backward compatibility – With all of the amazing games in PS4’s catalog, we’ve devoted significant efforts to enable our fans to play their favorites on PS5. We believe that the overwhelming majority of the 4,000+ PS4 titles will be playable on PS5.

The fact that PS5 will not have full backwards compatibility with PS4 games is a disappointment, even though I've seen some people express joy in this update. I'm sure most big games will still run, and that's great, but it feels like they should have done better here.

What's really disappointing is that as far as we know, there is zero PS1, PS2, or PS3 compatibility. With all this power at their disposal, emulating PS1 and PS2 games should be a breeze. The PS3 was notoriously complicated, but PCs are able to do this really well today, so it seems like it should be there too.

Sony has a remarkable collection of games on their 4 major consoles, and it's a shame that it currently looks like you will only be able to enjoy PS4 and 5 games on this new machine. Unleashing that libraary of games on the new console would make this The PlayStation and would help them get the gamers who want the new, as well as those who want to relive the classics. Maybe Sony has a summer announcement where they'll reveal expanded compatibility, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

I should mention that PlayStation Now lets you play some PS2 and PS3 games, but only via streaming and it is only an average experience in my time with it.

PC Gaming is Kinda Magical

So I’m a console gamer at heart, and I’m greatly looking forward to the PS5 release later this year, but I recently got my first gaming-capable PC and have been giving it a workout over the past month. Here’s a few things I’ve come to appreciate.

Old Games Just Work

Half Life 2 came out in 2004 and at the time ran on most people’s computers at resolutions close to 720p (some higher, some lower, but in that ballpark) and most people got 30-ish frames per second. Since then, technology has evolved considerably and on my current machine I can run it at 4K, 300fps. I didn’t have to wait for a remaster or of the game to be upgraded to 64-bit, I lust clicked the “install” button in Steam and it worked.

This isn’t a remaster by any means, and it looks like a 16 year old game in many ways still, but it looks incredibly sharp, and runs at a frame rate higher than any consumer display on the market can even render.

Compare this to the PS4 where old games simply don’t work in the first place, and even if you play them through PS Now, their streaming service, the games look at low-res as they did when they were released. Supposedly this is going to change in the next generation, and Microsoft has done some good work this generation with resolution and frame rate improvements in their backwards compatibility mode, but it’s so much simpler on PC.

And if you compare it to the Mac where 32-bit apps simply don’t work at all, it’s infinitely better than that train wreck. Half Life 2 simply does not run on macOS anymore.

High Frame Rates are Addictive

As a console gamer, I’m pretty used to 30fps games and feeling totally fine with that in most cases. But after spending some time with a pretty high-powered PC, I’m now hooked on 60fps everything. As a dumb, but perfect comparison, Madden 20 has two modes on PS4 Pro:

  1. Standard mode: 60fps at 1080p
  2. High res mode: 30fps at 4k

On the PC, you of course don’t have to choose, and I can get:

  1. 4k at 60fps+

Madden is not a hard game to run, but this 60fps expectation is possible with basically every game. Similarly, Forza Horizon 4 has similar options in its Xbox One X version, but here on the PC I can run at visual settings higher than the best Xbox version and still get over 60fps.

Before getting this machine I would have told you 30fps was fine, but now I treat 60fps as the base and will configure my settings to make sure I hit that at all times.

More Stores Equal More Sales

One confusing thing about PC gaming is that there are many game launchers out there, and many games are only available on one of these, so you need to have like 5 launchers installed to play all the games you want. But there are plenty of games that are sold in multiple places, and with more stores comes more of a chance for games to be on sale, so it feels like you can get a deal easier than waiting for your consoles one store to run a sale.

Also, it’s a little thing, but I have a wishlist on my PS4 store, but Sony doesn’t tell me when those games are on sale. Meanwhile, it seems the major stores on PC do this pretty reliably.