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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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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