Where “The Last of Us” puts Naughty Dog Among the Best Developers Working Today

So, remember when I mentioned “The Last of Us” and how it is getting some great early buzz?

Well, now that the first wave of reviews has hit, it appears that was just the early leaks of the wave of gushing love for the PS3’s biggest game of the year, as some are already calling it the best game of this generation at the least.

While that’s all great, it’s also time that we start viewing the game’s developer Naughty Dog in similar terms. As the winds of video gaming shift with the coming of a new generation, it is time to step back and examine who are the very best developers working in gaming today, and where Naughty Dog ranks among them.

5. Bethesda

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The thing about Bethesda that almost took them off the list is that really, they’ve only  focused on two major franchises (“Elder Scrolls” and “Fallout”) in the last eleven years.

Yet the fact remains that all of the titles in those franchises get serious consideration for the top of several best of lists. It’s admirable that Bethesda has learned that they do one thing well (open ended RPG’s) and have worked to insure that they are the very best at that field, and that every entrant into the genre not only sets an impossible bar of quality, but also sends shockwaves throughout the entire industry.

Sure it’d be great to see them broaden their creative horizons, but only because they are so impossibly good at what they do now.

4. Naughty Dog

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A fun fact. “The Last Of Us” marks the first time Naughty Dog has worked on two franchises in one generation, as the PS1 got the “Crash Bandicoot” games, the PS2 had “Jak and Daxter,” and the PS3 has had “Uncharted.”

Yet, much like Bethesda, instead of this being a hindrance it has instead allowed them to focus on doing one thing well. Unlike Bethesda, that one thing isn’t a single genre, but rather an intense focus on exploring the cinematic possibilities of gaming, while perfecting the “gaming” part itself. This started to become clear with “Jak and Daxter II,” but it was “Uncharted 2” that let everyone know that Naughty Dog was simply capable of creating experiences no other developer can.

It sounds like “The Last of Us” is continuing that trend in a big way, and at this point there can be no doubt Naughty Dog will be the first company to really show people the first true next gen PS4 title.

3. Valve

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Hey, I’d love to put Valve higher, but the last 5 years or so haven’t exactly been filled with many actual games.

Still, does anyone need a reason for this? If so, I submit “The Orange Box,” which contained one of the greatest games of all time, it’s two equally good add ons, and just for the hell of it, the best multiplayer game of this generation, and another legitimate contender for the best title ever. Oh, and the whole changing the landscape of how the gaming industry works with their Steam system thing.

So while it would be great if you couldn’t nearly measure the time between full entrants to the “Half-Life” franchise in decades, it’s impossible to deny Valve their rightful place in the hierarchy of developing giants.

2. Rockstar

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In 2001 Rockstar changed the way many developers approach video games with “Grand Theft Auto III.”

Since then? Along with maintaining that same revolutionary quality with each new “GTA” entrant, they’ve also managed to create the perfect Western game, adapt a cult classic 70’s film into a cult classic video game, and, most importantly, consistently pursue some interesting new gaming ideas and franchise revivals that may be hit or miss, but have never been dull (well…except for table tennis).

Rockstar may have the advantage of being made of several large studios, but each branch can claim the development of at least one classic video game, and all put them under the same logo that has become a stamp for quality.

1. Nintendo

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The champ is here.

It almost seems impossible that Nintendo would have stayed on the throne as long as they have, but since 1985’s Super Mario Bros., they have been the one company not only synonymous with video games, but with the best gaming has to offer. No one can match the stable of classic characters and franchises that Nintendo boasts, and no other company is as dedicated to maintaining a level of quality with each new title over such a lengthy time frame. How they have managed to create revolutionary titles out of some franchises over two decades old seems impossible, yet they do it year in and year out.

What really puts them over the top though, is that they are the only developer on this list who also creates their own best selling systems. To quote a song from their 80’s roots, they’re simply the best…better than all the rest.

Valve’s 400 MB Sized Problem

So Valve has been busy updating some games recently to include support for their “Big Picture” mode that will allow Steam to be used on TV. It’s a welcome update for those with the capabilities and, for most games, is taking nothing more than a 70 MB update to help incorporate.

Except for one game though. For some reason “Half-Life 2: Episode 2” is requiring a 400 MB update. This being the internet, suddenly everyone started having a theory of how this would lead to “Half-Life 2: Episode 3” or even “Half-Life 3”. Nobody has any real idea about how this works, but hey, since 400 is a way bigger number than 70, it can only mean the release of one of the most anticipated games of all time right? The madness surrounding the update is so consuming, that a completely unrelated video from Machinima featuring  a series of binary code, and vaguely “Half-Life” music playing throughout, was thought to be part of the conspiracy, and players are now feverishly scouring “Half-Life 2: Episode 2” to find any changes.

The “Magic Bullet” Of the “Half-Life 3″ Conspiracy

Of course, the whole thing is nonsense to the sane mind, but it does bring up a very real problem for Valve, in that the next “Half-Life” (in whatever form it may take) is slowly reaching some pretty unrealistic expectations. Whenever an extra 330 MB of unspecified, probably insignificant data can bring the entire PC gaming community to a furor, the hype meter has definitely spiked, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Valve’s exhibited an uncommon level of craftsmanship over the years, but even they are setting themselves up for a scenario where gamers are having years to craft their own game in their minds that even Valve might not be able to match. While this doesn’t mean they should rush the development of a game, it may be time to give gamers something (anything) regarding the next title in the beloved series before the hype machine claims another victim ala “Diablo III”.

Or….Well You Know

The Best of Steam Green Light’s First Approvals

Steam Green Light finally approved its first 10 games to be featured on the site, and (for the most part) they’re proving why this program is such a great idea in the first place. From zombie games, to samurai simulators, to “Half-Life” mods, back to zombie games, just in the initial offering of titles we are seeing some really remarkable ideas that will soon become available for all. Ranking those initial 10 titles is no easy task, but if you want the best of the best of Green Light so far, here it is.

10. McPixel – Probably the type of game that looks fun to vote for, but won’t get that many buys, “McPixel” is an odd title to say the least. It’s made up of a series of 20 second levels where you have to achieve a goal (usually getting rid of a bomb) without many instructions on how to do so. It’s reminiscent of “Wario Ware,” and carries a very unique since of humor, but looks like it may wear its welcome faster than that classic ever did. Nothing to see here, move along.

9. No More Room In Hell – “No More Room In Hell” is a “Half-Life 2″ mod that more than favors “Left 4 Dead,” but this zombie squad based FPS gets some serious points for knowing its genre. I like the variety of zombie enemies, weapons, and appropriate environments, but what I love is the scarce ammunition, lack of crosshairs display, multiple game modes (including an awesome survival mode where you hold down a zombie fort) and overall fun factor. If you’re not tired of “Left 4 Dead,” but crave something new, keep your eye on this one.

8. Cry of Fear – A “Half-Life” mod, this is one of two horror games to make the final cut. “Cry of Fear” uses the old “you have amnesia” story to throw you into a world of fear and constant terror. The goal of “Cry of Fear” is to simply throw as many unexpected atrocities at you as possible and test your limits of composure. “Cry of Fear” reminds me of a really good carnival haunted house, and its use of sound, light, and atmosphere are top notch. Also, you have to see the above video of people playing it and losing their minds to the game’s scares.

7. Heroes and Generals – Maybe the most technically proficient of the initial Green Light games, “Heroes and Generals” looks to breathe a little life in to online FPS shooters. “Heroes and Generals” allows players to either take to the frontlines in a variety of combat situations FPS style, or take the role of a commander and manage the battle in more of an RTS format. This type of game has been tried before, but has never really produced a big hit. However, the media released so far is intriguing, and the team behind the game is some of the same people who worked on the “Hitman” series and “Freedom Fighters.” It’s got a lot of pedigree going for it, and could be a quick hit.

6. Project Zomboid – ANOTHER ZOMBIE GAME? Yes, but don’t hold that against it. This may be the most conceptually intriguing zombie game I’ve ever seen, as the emphasis is on survival and not shooting. Using a sandbox mode and isometric perspective, “Project Zomboid” allows players to scavenge supplies, build safehavens, maintain their hunger and boredom levels, and of course, fight the occasional zombie. It’s so in depth, you have to consider things like hanging sheets over your windows so zombies don’t spot your lights, and already features an active mod community who contribute to the game regularly. I’m a BIG fan of this one, and you should definitely consider it if you’re a fan of the first two “Fallout” games.

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How Valve is Making Sure Gamers Get the Games they Want, But Only if it Helps Children’s Charity

Valve may be my favorite video game company in the world.

It really has nothing to do with their games either. I mean, I’m as big as a fan of “Half-Life,” “Left 4 Dead,” “Team Fortress 2″ and the rest of the lineup as anyone, but it’s more the general vibe of the company that appeals to me so much. They’re living proof that it is possible to maintain a respectable bottom line, without having to sacrifice artistic or personal integrity. Maybe it’s their supposed ‘no bosses’ atmosphere at the office, but you actually do get the impression that they make moves for the benefit of their fans and not their figures.

Case in point is the new Green Light section on Steam. In case you weren’t aware, Steam Green Light allows indie developers a forum to submit their projects to for approval to be featured on Steam. The games are voted on by the users, and run the virtual gamut of just about every genre and concept you could possibly imagine. It’s similar to Kickstarter, with the key difference being that most of these developers aren’t asking for money, but rather the kind of exposure to open consumer minds that only Steam can provide.

With any open market of this magnitude, there is naturally going to be problems. Already cases of false titles (more than a few “Half-Life 3s” have been pitched) and morally improper game concepts have been reported, plus you just have the general onslaught of pitches that leads to hard worked ideas being buried under a pile of half-hearted hopefuls.

Valve may have found a solution to the problem though, and it comes in the form of a “pay to play” type entry fee. Now for a developer to feature their idea, it’s going to cost $100 dollars. In the grand scheme of things, most developers can easily write this off as a minor investment in their own project, with the potential reward being worth far more than that figure. And in case you actually believed that Valve would do something like  pocket the money, you forget who you’re dealing with.  They’ve announced that all proceeds from this fee will be donated to the Penny-Arcade sponsored charity Child’s Play.

Only Valve could manage to solve a nightmare of a logistical problem in a way that somehow manages to help children’s charities. It’s that surreal level of forward thinking and personal responsibility the company has that even makes me believe that their newly rumored venture into the physical console market that their pet project “Steam” is slowly helping to destroy, might somehow work after all.

A Serious Discussion About Comedy in Video Games

I was lucky enough to grow up a gamer during the NES era. I say lucky not just because, as a child, the NES was this mythical monolith of unlimited entertainment potential, but because I’ve been lucky to see video games evolve from the big bang moment that was Nintendo’s first console. In that time, what’s impressed me most evolution-wise isn’t the technological advancements the industry has enjoyed, but the artistic ones.

Writing quality would probably be the biggest improvement. Recently, I started playing “The Witcher 2,” and I’m finding it to be a watershed moment in video game storytelling. Sure, some of the dialog is groan-worthy, but the overall tale, and the brilliant way in which the game weaves it, is simply astounding. While it may be a beacon of writing quality in games, it’s far from the only port in the harbor. Games like “Braid,” “Bioshock,” and “Heavy Rain,” to name a few, have all gone far and beyond to prove that at their best, the stories of video games can bring out all of the same emotions as the stories in books, films and theater.

Except for humor.

Of course, I’ve laughed while playing games before, but it’s rarely been because of a specific joke made. Instead, by their general nature, video games are just light-hearted entertainment sources. Hell, the mascot of the entire industry might just be an underdeveloped Italian plumber with a hatred of reptiles, incredible jumping abilities, and a hard-on for elitist blondes. So for an artform that isn’t supposed to take itself too serious by its very nature, why is good, pure comedy so hard to come by?

Let me backtrack a little bit from that statement. I know that funny video games exist. I also know that comedy is perhaps the most subjective form of entertainment there is. What makes one person’s sides split causes another’s lips to droop. But still, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t works of comedy in other mediums that are generally considered to be undisputed comedy classics. Like “Caddyshack” or “Ghostbusters” or “This is Spinal Tap.” What is gaming’s equivalent? Well, type “funniest video games of all time into Google” and the consensus answer would seem to be “Conker’s Bad Fur Day.” I’ve covered Conker before, but just as a refresher, “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” is simply the raunchiest, most parody-filled, brute force comedy video game ever made.

And it’s not that funny. Well, I mean it is, but at best it’s a decent episode of “South Park,” without any of the clever context. “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” was a machine gun of jokes that figured if it fired enough rounds, one of them would hit just about everyone that played it. Even worse, it aimed that gun square at the stereotype that gamers are only 14 year old virgins, and made its name from it. And yet, to this day when people reference it, they use the words “Adult Humor.”

The King of Video Game Comedy?

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