The Last of Us Part II

Upon its 2013 release, Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us proved to be a tremendous hit with fans and critics alike. It proceeded to receive awards from nearly every conceivable outlet with one journalist considering it gaming’s Citizen Kane moment. Emboldened by the success of this game, series creator Neil Druckman and the rest of Naughty Dog began working on a sequel in 2014. As development proceeded, Naughty Dog also provided gamers with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The former provided a sendoff to series protagonist Nathan Drake whereas the latter continued the story with two prominent female characters. Both games were well-received and cemented Naughty Dog as one of the most beloved American developers in the process. With the sequel to The Last of Us announced in 2016, fans eagerly awaited what Mr. Druckmann and his team had to offer.

Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, the development process would prove to be less than uneventful. While Mr. Druckmann had previously encountered tremendous difficulties on his path to bringing his artistic visions into reality, it was nothing compared to what was about to occur. The troubles began brewing as early as the very year they began work on the game. In March of 2014, it came to light that the creative director of the first three Uncharted installments, Amy Henning, had left Naughty Dog alongside game director Justin Richmond. One article from IGN speculated that they had been forced out of the company, citing how it coincided with Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley’s subsequent replacement of their respective positions. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra released statements, clarifying that neither of them had anything to do with the departure of Ms. Henning or Mr. Richmond.

The controversy eventually subsided, and the fans continued to await the sequel to The Last of Us. Shortly after the release of The Lost Legacy in 2017, the first trailers for this sequel surfaced. Fans were now more excited than ever – particularly after the game became slated for a release in September of 2019. However, history repeated itself – this time, in the worst way possible. Jason Schreier, writing for Kotaku, wrote a report that revealed Naughty Dog’s intensive crunch schedule wherein 12-hour workdays was the standard. Many people concluded that Naughty Dog had been exploiting their programmers’ passion, and soon enough, the company gained a bad reputation in Los Angeles County for up-and-coming programmers. With its staff unable to bear working such untenable hours, the company had a 70% turnover rate. Although several other sources claimed such a thing was not unheard of in the industry, this caused many of Naughty Dog’s fans to turn on them.

Because of these harsh working conditions, the game found itself delayed yet again – this time to 2020. Naughty Dog assured fans the game would be released by that year’s summer, but then a disaster the likes of which humankind hadn’t experienced in nearly a century occurred. In late 2019, a coronavirus dubbed COVID-19 had broken out in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province. Being highly infectious and capable of causing severe damage to one’s respiratory system, everyone on the planet not employed by an essential business soon found themselves under lockdown the following March. Unemployment skyrocketed and the ensuing stock market crash was likened to the Great Depression of the 1930s. By the end of the year, over one-million people had lost their lives to the virus. It would eventually be considered the single worst pandemic in recorded history since the influenza outbreak of 1918.

In response to logistical problems caused by the virus, Naughty Dog opted to delay the game once more – this time indefinitely. By this point, fans were beginning to lose patience with Naughty Dog. It would seem that the game was not to surface for quite some time. However, an undesirable development forced their hand. In April of 2020, key details of the game’s story were leaked onto the internet. Although it was initially dismissed as a hoax, the leaks were quickly confirmed as the genuine article. Under most circumstances, leaks spoiling major content would cause fans to despair. The emotion these leaks instead inspired was sheer, raw anger – directed at Mr. Druckmann himself. Due to the content of these leaks, many fans swore off buying the game entirely with some going as far as canceling their preordered copy.

A few days after these leaks occurred, Naughty Dog announced the game had gone gold. Discs could now be manufactured for a slated release date of June 19, 2020. Many fans were excited about getting their hands on the game sooner than expected, but it was clear the leaks had taken the wind out of Naughty Dog’s sails. Regardless, the game, simply titled The Last of Us Part II, quickly amassed a level of acclaim rivaling – and in some circles, surpassing – that of the original. Many of them considered it the first true masterpiece of the 2020s. Facing delays, internal problems, and a worldwide pandemic along the road to seeing the light of day, was The Last of Us Part II truly able to surpass the acclaim of the original game and truly tap into the medium’s storytelling potential?

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Marvel’s Spider-Man

In the 2010s, Connie Smith, Sony’s Vice President of Product Development, approached Insomniac Games, wishing to speak with CEO Ted Price. Following the release of Insomniac’s Xbox One-exclusive Sunset Overdrive, Ms. Booth had an interesting proposal, suggesting the studio work on a game based on a Marvel property. As the company had built its reputation with original properties such as Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank, Mr. Price’s response was, by his own admission, “fairly neutral”. He had never considered working with an existing property. However, while the CEO had his reservations, his development team’s attitude was another story; they were ecstatic over the prospect of working with a Marvel property.

It’s plain to see why the team would be so enthusiastic; during the 2010s, Marvel was at the height of their mainstream popularity, having myriad success stories with the cinematic universe they created. No other company attempting to create such a long-running film franchise experienced the success Marvel had. It was to the point where the average filmgoer could expect a quality release bearing the Marvel brand on an annual basis. This success had profound ramifications both inside and outside of the industry. Many other companies, including their prominent rivals, DC, would attempt to creative their own shared cinematic universes, yet they didn’t quite meet the same levels of critical admiration. Perhaps the most profound impact the Marvel Cinematic Universe had on pop culture was giving their more obscure characters a new lease on life. Though certain heroes, including Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man were well-known before the universe’s inception in 2008, its success allowed comparatively obscure characters such as Black Panther and Ant-Man to become household names.

Once Insomniac accepted Ms. Smith’s proposal, Jay Ong, the head of games at Marvel decided it was time for a change. According to him, they had previously released games based on or directly tied to the release of films that adapted their properties. While this led to a significant output, it also meant developers didn’t have time to create anything impressive or memorable. It did result in Treyarch’s well-received adaptation of the film Spider-Man 2 in 2004, but fans dismissed most of these titles as shovelware, and they cemented the generally negative perception of licensed games as a result. Fortunately, Marvel was not interested in a game based on an existing film or comic book story, giving Insomniac carte blanche to choose any character they wished and develop an original plot for them. The team thought long and hard about which character to use, and they ultimately settled on Spider-Man, citing his relatability and charming everyman persona, Peter Parker. Activision had been responsible for publishing the games based off the 2000s Spider-Man trilogy, but the franchise was now truly in the hands of Insomniac and Sony.

Though the team started off excited about the project, they also found it to be a daunting experience. With the wealth of stories and versions across almost every conceivable medium, how could they possibly do such an enormously popular character justice? Art director Jacinda Chew, on the other hand, saw this as an opportunity, and subsequently interviewed the Marvel staff members who were the most familiar with the character. From there, it was up to a team of writers led by Jon Paquette to create an original take on Spider-Man that still remained true to the character. Insomniac had even gone as far as receiving ideas from two comic book writers, Christos Gage and Dan Slott, the former of whom co-wrote the script. Though they drew upon many iterations of the character in order to understand what made a compelling Spider-Man story, Mr. Paquette was insistent on not drawing too much from any one version.

Development of this game, which would simply be titled Marvel’s Spider-Man, began in 2014 and took roughly four years to complete, seeing its release in September of 2018. Fans and critics alike were expecting Marvel’s Spider-Man to be, at best, a modest success. The game instead went on to become the sleeper hit of 2018, outselling the unanimously praised God of War and becoming the PlayStation 4’s killer app in the process. The game was praised for its good writing, solid combat engine, and successfully incorporating Spider-Man’s signature web-slinging abilities. Many critics called it the greatest superhero game ever made, comparing it favorably to Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Arkham City. Such was the extent of its positive reception that Jamie Fristrom, the man who programmed the web-slinging mechanics in the game based off of Spider-Man 2, had nothing but praise for Insomniac’s own take on them. Was Marvel’s Spider-Man truly the prolific company’s answer to the Batman: Arkham series?

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Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Introduction

Along with Bloodborne, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4 proved to be one of the killer apps of its platform. As with the previous entries, it received nearly universal critical acclaim as a storytelling experience that far surpassed those of its peers. This caused many gaming enthusiasts to buy a PlayStation 4 for themselves in a parallel to how Uncharted 2 caused people to gravitate towards the PlayStation 3 in the previous console generation. Uncharted 4 was advertised as the series’ finale, as it gave its central protagonist, Nathan Drake, a conclusive sendoff.

However, shortly after the game was released in May of 2016, Naughty Dog began working on a new campaign within the same universe. Though many ideas were thrown out, Naughty Dog ultimately cast Chloe Frazer, a side character who debuted in Uncharted 2, as the lead. This campaign was billed as downloadable content for Uncharted 4, though it ultimately got a standalone, physical release when it debuted in August of 2017. This game, titled Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, didn’t exactly garner the same level of critical acclaim as Uncharted 4, with some outlets criticizing its lack of innovation and short length. The decision to continue a series after promising the previous installment would conclude it is a tricky proposition. Considering that mainstays such as Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley had little input for this game, it would indeed appear to be a recipe for stagnation. Was this new team able to do this critically venerable series justice?

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Introduction

The PlayStation 3 was widely mocked upon its release, but after many critically acclaimed games found their home in its library, Sony regained much of the market share they had lost to their competitors. One of the developers that helped draw newcomers to Sony’s console was Naughty Dog. With their trilogy of Uncharted games, they received a level of critical praise few other artists could claim to match. In 2013, they followed up this success with The Last of Us, which in many circles, managed to surpass their previous efforts in terms of artistic merits. These four games were widely believed to possess the best of both words; not only did they boast the cutting edge of 3D technology, the voice actors brought their characters to life when their peers in the AAA industry struggled to do the same.

The Last of Us is popularly considered to have been the seventh console generation’s swansong, and the within same year of its release, the gaming world saw the debut of the PlayStation 4 in North America and PAL regions. Much like the PlayStation 3 before it, the PlayStation 4 faced something of a backlash when it launched. Though gaming fans marveled at the superior processing power of this machine, there was a major point of contention regarding its lack of backwards compatibility with any previous PlayStation console. Naturally, fans weren’t enthralled with the idea of purchasing a console incapable playing the games they had amassed, so the savvy ones saved their money. It was clear like any successful console before it that the PlayStation 4 would need a sizable selection of exclusive games in order for the average consumer to consider it a good return on investment.

In November of 2013, Naughty Dog announced their newest project: the fourth installment of their Uncharted series. Series writer Amy Hennig was to make a return and serve as its creative director working alongside Justin Richmond. However, Ms. Hennig and Mr. Richmond left the company during the game’s development in March of 2014. These sudden departures led to some speculation within the gaming community, spurred by an IGN article suggesting that Ms. Hennig was forced out by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the directors of The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, released an official statement, clarifying that neither of them were involved in Ms. Hennig’s departure while proscribing the article as “unprofessional” and “hurtful”.

In June of 2014, the co-presidents requested Mr. Druckmann and Mr. Straley to lead the game’s development. It was during the E3 conference of the same year that Naughty Dog formally unveiled the project under the name Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Examining the promotional materials caused some fans to suspect the series was to take a darker turn, though in a 2014 interview, Mr. Druckmann assured them that the story would be different while still retaining its charm. The sudden change in personnel caused no shortage of problems. Plot ideas and eight months of shooting were left on the proverbial cutting room floor and the voice actor for a central character had to be recast. Consequently, the project was plagued with numerous delays. It was slated to for a late-2015 release before getting pushed back multiple times within 2016. Uncharted 4 at last saw its debut in May of 2016. Like their previous four console efforts, it became a critical and commercial success, and it was considered one of the finest titles for the PlayStation 4. The subtitle this game bears does not belie its status as the series’ grand finale. Was Naughty Dog able help make the PlayStation 4 a viable platform while also giving their most lauded franchise a proper sendoff?

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