Uncharted 4 Single Player Review

 

Naughty Dog has been adamant that the story of Nathan Drake is coming to a close, and they decided to send him off in grand style. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a gigantic game, and its strengths and weaknesses are mostly connected to the sheer scope and grandeur of the game. At its best, it’s mind-blowingly awesome. At its weakest moments, it’s just trying to do too much in one game.

For me, Naughty Dog’s biggest achievement this go-round isn’t the astounding graphics, the masterful sound, or the awe-inspiring level designs. It’s the fact that the studio has finally overcome its traditional Achilles heel of a bug that let characters drift inside environmental objects. The game did freeze once, there was some minor frame rate lag from time to time, and I noticed a couple of object pop ins, but considering the size of the levels, the sheer amount of stuff going on in-game, and a general video game industry allowance for a level of sloppiness when games go beyond a certain scale, the profound absence of bugs in the single player campaign is a huge achievement for which Naughty Dog should be praised.

Now let’s dig into the stuff that most people care about more: gameplay and story. Drake is on the trail of Henry “the King of Pirates” Avery’s pirate loot. The focus on pirates feels a little stale after Assassin’s Creed put almost every pirate ever into their games, but the platforming puzzles are astoundingly good, with a nice flow that doesn’t sharply demarcate between puzzle portions, exploration portions, and combat elements. Gone are the days of one artificially-indicated path. Yes, those obvious ledges are still there, but there’s often more than one, with some dead ends. Exploration also pays off because of collectables, but there are also additional journal entries to find that give you a much better sense of the mystery that Drake is chasing this time around.

Uncharted games have traditionally been challenging – action adventure platformers tend to be more difficult and require you to think more than your average shooter. I think Uncharted 4 ups the ante a little, and there are a few downright frustrating moments. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but a “skip” option might have been nice for those playing just for the story.

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Though I wouldn’t recommend that. Uncharted plots have always been goofy in the spirit of the matinee serial films that inspire the series. The lighter tone has distinguished Uncharted’s obvious direct competitor: the Tomb Raider games. The plot of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End benefits by comparison to the garbage fire that was the story of Lara’s latest adventure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s great. The second half of the story is great. The first half is slow, scattered, humourless, and overly reliant on overlong cut scenes. Yes yes, it’s all very pretty, but I don’t want to watch a game. I want to play a game.

For some reason, Naughty Dog decided to sideline characters we know and love to introduce Sam Drake, Nate’s long lost brother. Sam is a pretty good character in his own right, but he hogs the screen time, and since this is perhaps the last we’re going to see of Elena and Sully, it’s frustrating that they’re not present for large portions of the game. At times, it feels like Naughty Dog is trying to recapture the bromance patter that made Uncharted 2 such a joy to play, but the game falls short, and of course it does: the loss of Amy Hennig’s light dialogue touch is profoundly felt, as is a seeming lack of understanding regarding what’s going on in the female characters’ heads. Many of Elena’s lines come across as products of “my wife said this to me once, so it must be profound” moments in the writers’ room. Accordingly, these lines come across as “perfect woman” platitudes that reminded me why I couldn’t stand Elena in the first game.

And Elena isn’t the only too-perfect female character in Uncharted 4. Nadine Ross is another “better than men at everything” character. The whole game just seems so self-conscious about having “positive” female representation that it doesn’t let these characters just be characters. None of them pop like Ellie does in The Last of Us, despite numerous other elements transferred over from that game.

After all, Nathan Drake is a great character precisely because he’s flawed. He screws up. He can’t always fix it. But some of his morally questionable actions this time around ring hollow. It left me with the distinct impression that Naughty Dog listened to their critics too much, and wanted very badly to explain why their charming rogue hero kills so many people. Who cares? Indiana Jones also shoots plenty of people. Shooting people in a video game is fun. Especially when they’re sociopathic mercenaries who are trying to kill my in-game avatar.

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The insecurity on display in the writing is a shame, because the characters who are just allowed to be characters are pretty awesome. Sully is very Sully when he makes his appearances, and this is good. Sam, as I mentioned, is good too. And the villain of the game is as legitimately scary as a guy without super powers other than ridiculous wealth can be. Every element of the guy made me want to punch him in the face in the very best of ways.

As I said, the second half of the game, once they cut through all the “serious emotional core” nonsense, is great. Once you’re exploring beautiful levels, experiencing the wonder of the glorious graphics and romantic scenarios, you forget about the cheeseball attempts at a “meaningful” story. The Madagascar level is one of the most glorious things I’ve experienced in a video game, and it’s one of many thoroughly gorgeous environments you’ll encounter. There’s so much eye candy, you’ll get retinal cavities. Lots of stuff blows up, lots of shooting happens, and what more do you really want from a video game?

I’ve hammered at Uncharted 4‘s flaws because I really do think the game is worth playing. Better, I think it’s worth paying full price, because technically, it’s a glimpse into the future of what video games can do. It’s not just graphics either. It’s everything: rope physics, driving mechanics, mud and gravel behaving realistically, weather effects being a subtle addition instead of LOOK THERE IS WEATHER! On top of this is sound design so artful there were times I stopped to appreciate the creaking of different types of flooring, the groan of a building, or a subtle environmental sound that just made the whole thing seem that much more magical. I still think the pause sound effect is one of the greatest game sounds ever. Is that enough sound nerding? I hope so.

Despite iffy writing, Uncharted 4 innovates. If you’ve got a PS4, give it a try.

Why Frank Cho’s Work is Feminist

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You may have noticed that there’s something of an ongoing brouhaha surrounding the work of comic book artist and writer Frank Cho. It seems every time he does something involving a woman these days, someone screams. It’s fashionable to label Frank a misogynist over some parody covers, but I know the guy, both personally and professionally, and the dude can be in a room full of naked women and keep his eyes on their faces unless there’s a punchline to be had.

I know this because I’ve actually been in a room with Frank involving multiple naked women. He was a guest on Ed and Red’s Night Party. We had him draw Dean, the pig character from Liberty Meadows, on a topless woman’s back. It was meta, get it? It’s also really damned hard to create art on a surface at isn’t flat, or even uniform.

Another funny, spur of the moment thing happened on that show. For the episode, I cosplayed Brandy from Liberty Meadows, and we got a “Beltsville” t-shirt screen printed from a place down the street. Unfortunately, said shirt was proportioned for a woman who was a B-cup, and when I put it on, the screen printed letters tore, leaving white marks wherever the shirt’s weave had caused a faultline. It looked like crap, so we turned it into content. We had Frank fill in the white parts of the letters with sharpie, because he was a “professional”.

This, it turned out, left black sharpie marks on the white bra I was wearing underneath the shirt, because the marker bled. Frank, being Frank, turned those spots into eyeballs, so that I could look back at guys staring at my chest.

That’s the Frank Cho I know: funny, clever, appreciative of other people’s work, and very much aware that women who look a certain way get treated like we don’t have faces.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to provide another side to the whole “Frank Cho is a misogynist” thing that isn’t just more angry shouting, but I just keep coming back to personal memories involving Frank and his work. I still remember the first time I saw a Liberty Meadows book, in Meltdown Comics in Los Angeles. I bought it because I’m a sucker for cartoon animals, but also because it was the story of a busty woman who had no idea how attractive she was, and the short nerdy vet who harboured a secret love for her.

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Brandy was like no other woman in comics I’d ever encountered. She wasn’t a superhero. She was goofy and klutzy. She was insecure about her weight. And she was in on the various zany jokes instead of being the typical killer of fun. Liberty Meadows was a combination of all the great parts of the Sunday funnies page without the horrible elements – the constant digs at Cathy in various Liberty Meadows strips showed that I wasn’t alone in my annoyance at that level of female neurosis.

Liberty Meadows was elegant, silly, smart, and fun. It was a comic strip that allowed its female lead to be beautiful, flawed, slapstick, smart and fun all at the same time, and that was something I desperately needed as a woman trying to find my place in television comedy. Throughout my career, I have run into various brick walls because most media properties don’t allow women to be all these things at once. In fact, it’s usually a paradigm of “Smart, glamorous, or funny. Pick two.” Call it the “Big Bang Triangle” if you will. Penny is funny and and object of desire, but she’s a waitress when everyone else is a scientist. Amy, on the other hand, is funny and smart, but dressed deliberately dumpy. Bernadette, similarly, has an affected voice and thick glasses so that she’s not TOO pretty, or TOO smart, because she plays up the funny. The media considers it unfeminine if a woman is TOO MUCH.

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Frank Cho doesn’t sacrifice a woman’s beauty or sexuality for intelligence or the ability to take part in comedy, and I love him for that. His parody covers are continuing his tradition in this regard, and people who claim they’re misogynist are just flat out wrong. If anything, they’re poking fun at how freaked out our society gets over boobs. Try living with a gigantic pair: you realize how absurd it is the first time you get smacked in the face with your own breast. Yes. This has happened to me more than once.

Feminism isn’t about protecting women from the big bad world or putting us on an unnatural pedestal.  Feminism is about equality between men and women.  So essentially, if Deadpool is allowed to do it, some female character should have license to do it too.

Men are allowed to be naked, loud and obscene for the sake of comedy. Look at South Park, Family Guy, and Seth Rogan’s stuff. Frank Cho is one of the few creators out there who dares to let women be the star in that kind of comedy, instead of the disapproving wife/mom or the object of sexual conquest. Frank draws women who laugh at themselves, and the ridiculousness of the current nerd paradigm, without making these women seem like the kind of women the world laughs at too. He gives us license to laugh at ourselves in a world that conspires to tear down our self esteem.

And if that isn’t progressive; if that isn’t FEMINIST; I don’t know what is.

(PS: if this article does well enough, I’ll tell the behind the scenes story of where those pics of Frank signing my butt came from.)

Text of my Canada’s Top 20 Countdown Segment on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

city_06This segment will air on Canada’s Top 20 Countdown syndicated radio show on Saturday.

IT’S ALMOST HERE! After numerous delays, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End finally gets released to the public on May 10th! But because I have special privileges… meaning a review code… I’ve already started playing it!

The graphics are, possibly, the best you’ve ever seen on a console, but more importantly, the game plays smoothly, thanks to subtle tweaks that make slippery surfaces and ropes move more realistically. And because it’s an exclusive, it’s optimized for the Playstation 4, but it also has a ton of audio and video customization options, as well as accessibility options, so everyone can get the experience they want.

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For those who haven’t played an Uncharted game before, it’s the story of globetrotting rogue Nathan Drake, and is an homage to classic adventure movies in the Indiana Jones type tradition. These games have always been technical showpieces for Playstation, and this one is no exception.

But what about the story? Playstation has sworn me – and pretty much every other journalist – to secrecy. But I’m sure plot spoilers will be all over the internet before launch, because a lot of games reviewers are angry jerks with no lives who live to spread their misery around like internet herpes whenever possible.

… oops, did I say that out loud?

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(I’ll have a full review up when I finish the game!)