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.

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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!)

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Ratchet and Clank – The review, based on the game, based on the movie, based on the game

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It’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since we first met a Lombax named Ratchet and his tiny warbot buddy Clank. But now not only are they finally back in a full game, but they’ve got a movie coming out on April 29th too! (That release date may be different if you’re outside of North America.)

Movie schmoovie, we care about the game, right? Right! Well, I’m happy to report that it’s fantastic! For those new to the series, Ratchet and Clank is about a Lombax spaceship mechanic with dreams of joining the buffoonish Captain Quark’s Galactic Rangers. Ratchet the Lombax meets Clank, a polite-but-powerful little robot, and together they defeat enemies, win races, fight in space battles, and generally save the universe.

While the latest game and the companion film follow the same general idea of the original Ratchet and Clank, there are a lot of extras added, very different framing, and a much more epic ending. Dr. Nefarious takes his rightful place as arch villain, and not surprisingly, some supporting female characters have been added… fortunately they don’t seem shoehorned in. The result is more of a combination of the best elements of all the Ratchet and Clank games as opposed to a reboot of the original, though Secret Agent Clank is replaced by some clever puzzle levels that make Clank’s small size an asset. The game looks gorgeous, especially the cut scenes which are actually movie footage. It features great comedic voice acting, and has lots of replay value. It’s funny in an all-ages, farcical way, and the dialogue is sharp and full of references to the foolishness of social media.

But the reason to play Ratchet and Clank is the gameplay. It’s classic all-ages run and gun at its finest, with tons of weapons you can combo together, upgrade, and enhance at weapons stations. You can start a dance party with the Groovitron, then shock enemies with a Proton Drum, and finish ’em off with a weapon of your choice. If you want, you can even get the small but murderous robot Mr. Zurkon, or kamikaze Agents of Doom robots to assist you. It’s fun, it’s funny, and at the right difficulty setting for your skill, it’s pretty challenging. The best way to play is to level up as many weapons as you can as you go. It’ll help a lot in the final fight.

Once you finish that fight, you get access to the Insomniac Museum from the garage on Veldin, a stunningly crafted series of vaults that memorialize elements of the history of the franchise. The extra work that went into these unlockables is a true labour of love, and it creates a definite incentive for collecting those infamous gold bolts.

There’s also a collectible card system that gives you buffs to weapons and loot drops. It’s pretty fun to go hunting for the cards and the gold bolts, but my favourite collection quest was the hunt for telepathopus brains using a jetpack. Exploring side missions on various levels rewards super useful gadgets, and the optional rail grinding areas are just a ton of fun as well. Also fun? Challenge mode, where you do it for the loot, and the sheer joy of using awesomely powerful and totally ridiculous weapons. I’m using the word fun a lot, aren’t I? Well it’s FUN!

It’s also a game with very few flaws, other than some minor lag when too much stuff blows up at once. The Doom Blades caused the most noticeable slowdown because they cause a lot of damage once you get that weapon levelled up, as does the Sheepinator… but the Sheepinator is just worth it sometimes because it’s the Sheepinator. Load times, on the other hand, were consistently lightning fast.

The only other quibble I had is that sometimes the background audio got drowned out by the music and sound effects, which was a shame because I think I missed some good stuff. Otherwise, Ratchet and Clank is all-ages gaming at its absolute finest, and if the movie is anywhere near as good as the game, I’m very much looking forward to it.

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Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear – Single Player Campaign Review

Do you want to pay $20 for decent video game fan fiction? That’s the question potential players will have to ask themselves when purchasing Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. With some caveats, I think longtime Baldur’s Gate fans will feel satisfied with Beamdog’s latest outing… if perhaps barely.

The game is neither as lofty and “just” as its defenders claim, nor as poorly-written and buggy as its detractors will insist. Instead, it’s a lot of solid work on the back of an inherently flawed concept. Siege of Dragonspear serves as an interquel between Baldur’s Gate’s original Throne of Bhaal expansion and Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn. Essentially, Beamdog attempts to knit together all the best elements of the two games and tell an original story at the same time. These dual masters create a diluted result, albeit with moments of greatness.

Some improvements to inventory management and navigation were nice to see, especially regarding quickly being able to tell which weapon or armor piece is better, or which characters can use a given item. The increased number of gameplay modes was also nice – experienced players will want to play on Core Rules mode, since normal is a bit too easy if you’re used to Baldur’s Gate.

Yes, Rasaad, Neera, Dorn and Baeloth from the Enhanced Editions are back, as are the base characters from the original Baldur’s Gate, though Imoen isn’t available to use in your party. I stuck with old favorites Minsc, Dynaheir and Jaheira, because as much as I like Rasaad as a character, he still has trouble staying on his feet in fights. Some day I’d love to see a Baldur’s Gate style game designed specifically for the monk character class, because I don’t think monks do well unless a campaign is designed specifically with them in mind. The other reason I stuck to a base roster is that there are some new characters to try out, and at least one is a winner.

My favorite new character is goblin shaman M’Khiin. Not only is she an interesting character from a concept and voicework perspective, but she’s handy in battle, capable of summoning shadow creatures and large numbers of healing and protection spells. Since Siege of Dragonspear doesn’t give characters much room to level up, I found M’Kliin to be a very necessary addition.

The other new characters didn’t thrill me as much. Gnome cleric/thief Glint Gardnersonson is cute. I liked him, but I didn’t find him useful. He’s got a cute side quest though, wrangling other members of his family.

Conversely, lesbian single mom archer Schael Corwin is SO CLOSE to being a great character, but she just misses this status due to some sloppy dialogue. It’s great that Beamdog attempted to include a conflicted, struggling, responsibility-driven single mom. But Corwin also comes across as hypocritical and jealous, wanting space to think one minute, chiding me because Rasaad the monk said something nice to me the next. Being emotionally distant while trying to control what a romantic partner does is a sign of an abusive relationship, and it creeped me out. I chose Corwin as my romance option because I was curious about the lesbian single mom angle, but there were too many shades of the batshit crazy lesbian stereotype for me.

This wouldn’t be an issue if the game hadn’t been marketed on something of a “we’ll give you your social justice and you’ll take it and you’ll like it” paradigm. Despite the staff protests despite giving Jaheira more development, she’s still very much a nag… and that’s okay, because that’s Jaheira.

This brings us to the oddly controversial trans character, Mizhena, who is an extremely minor part of the game, and altogether too big a deal was made of an extremely small part of a fairly large game. The scandal was a ridiculous shitstorm over nothing. But that being said, Mizhena’s writing is uneven to the point that she, too, seems unhinged. Though voiced as a soft-spoken and serene character, she suddenly becomes a trash-talking hardcore in accordance with the god Tempus when you actually need her to do something useful.

Meanwhile, the “female villain”, Caelar Argent, is two-dimensional and cliche. She’s no Irenicus. She’s no Sarevok. She’s another female character in video games that feints at being “strong”, but lacks depth, lacks personality, and even lacks any real evil. We never really get at what makes her tick, and once her story is told, the game takes the player on a very strange epilogue that I would have preferred was a fully-formed fifth act. THAT story interested me.

The most profound “social justice” moment in the whole game for me came about because Beamdog maintained the fact that the world of Faerun is deliberately regressive regarding race. Taking the goblin M’Khiin into your party gives you a 2 point penalty to reputation, and some NPCs will complain that she’s around. But M’Khiin is a stalwart and brave character, as well as an exceptionally free thinker. By showing, not telling, the game makes a fantastic statement against prejudice that isn’t forced down the player’s throat. That’s how you do social commentary in video games.

This strange “best of times, worst of times” mix repeats itself technically and artistically throughout the game. The game music is sometimes just far too loud, drowning out all of the voices. The voice work itself, however, is usually excellent, with the return of Jim Cummings as Minsc being especially stand out. Except for that one “ethics in heroic adventuring” line that made me very sad, Beamdog nailed the depiction of Minsc, which was no small feat. Boo even gets a unique moment to shine talking to a rat to find the source of a plague. Minsc is a definite highlight of Siege of Dragonspear, and there’s lots for Minsc fans to love.

On the other hand… and it breaks my heart to say this, but… shoehorning David Warner into events before Jon Irenicus is an official part of the Baldur’s Gate story doesn’t work. While it’s believable that Irenicus may have done surveillance on the Hero of Baldur’s Gate before capturing his or her adventuring party, the amount of direct interaction that his character, here called “The Hooded Man”, was retconning overkill. Warner’s voice is too delightfully distinct, and Irenicus is too physically unique, for the hero to not immediately recognize him after being captured in Baldur’s Gate II. Worse, we really learn no more about him, his past, or his inner thoughts, through his inclusion in Siege of Dragonspear. Less would have been more regarding “The Hooded Man”.

In another strange turn of events, Jaheira’s new lines are not given a voice actor. My understanding is that this is because Beamdog couldn’t get the original voice actress back, and they didn’t want the new voicework sounding too different, but Jaheira has entire conversations with other party members where only one side is speaking. Perhaps this would have been a good job for Biff the Understudy?

Regarding graphics, I found the game quite dark, and couldn’t for the life of me find a brightness control. I had to turn on the option that revealed transversable portions of the map to be able to see all of the different winding halls in some of the darker dungeons.

And finally, we get to the story itself, which is similarly uneven. There are enough very good side quests to make the game worth its twenty dollar purchase price, especially a brawl with a cult of wizards that seemed impossible until I figured out the strategy for victory. There are also great little class based moments, and I enjoyed being able to talk my way out of some situations in good halfling fashion.

However, the main quest itself is unsatisfying, and in places, it’s a downright hot mess. Some weaknesses in the journal details and some outright broken quests had me extremely frustrated in places. The high point is a series of battles where you get to head up a larger squad of fighters, as well as the fight to take the castle itself… well, at least that would have been great if it hadn’t crashed on me twice, making me redo twenty minutes of fighting each time.

But on the whole, Siege of Dragonspear displays moments of legitimate talent regarding its ability to tell a good Baldur’s Gate story far beyond what Beamdog has shown in the past. It suffers, however, from a lack of play testing, which would have caught many of the bugs and clunkier story moments. Furthermore, it needs to get better at treating characters like characters, instead of soap boxes. Overall, I’m left hopeful that with Bioware alumnus David Gaider joining the Beamdog team, the best of Baldur’s Gate may still lie before us, once Beamdog gets the confidence to start telling its own stories, instead of inserting chapters into pre-existing ones.

As for Dragonspear itself, I think it’s worth a whirl once it’s patched. It feels less fan-fictiony in the side missions, and it was pretty fun to play someone else’s extended D&D campaign.

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