Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Remastered PS4 Review (2015)

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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune review

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Remastered starts you in media res aboard a dangling train off the edge of a plateau in the Himalayans, and you having to climb Nathan Drake up and around the carriage to reach safety. It’s an exciting and almost nail biting sequence and these sorts of set pieces are the bread and butter of Uncharted 2.

The plot of Nathan Drake’s second adventure uses some familiar beats and has some inconsistency, especially in how the supernatural aspect of the plot is handled. But in essence it has a familiar goal: you are looking for an ancient and powerful relic called the Cintamani Stone which takes you all the way from the green jungles of Borneo, to the midst of a war zone in Nepal, through ancient temples and up the Himalayas aboard the train in one of gaming’s most impressive sequences that transitions wonderfully and seamlessly from jungle to tunnel to snowy mountains and to the famed Shangri-La Climbing around and fighting your way through this train is simply incredible.

The antagonist, Lazarevic doesn’t make for a particularly compelling villain, given his propensity for being an underwritten caricature of Nietzschean philosophy (which you will only really pick up on towards the end) but his appearance is suitably menacing and imposing. Whilst the plot isn’t terribly deep, our core cast of Nathan Drake, old flame Elena Fisher and the sultry Chloe Fraser that is somewhat reminiscent of classic Lara Croft (maybe because of her accent) form the emotional core of the narrative and with excellent vocal performances and animation that keep the game from becoming barely held together set pieces, so it is very enjoyable in an Indiana Jones kind of way. There’s much more detail in Drake’s journal this time around too, which flipping through provides some extra characterisation and humour that is a nice touch.

As for the mechanics of the game, it doesn’t not stray too far off from the first game, which is still centred mostly around mass killing (the statistics counter had me at almost 1000 kills by the end of the game) with cover based shooting, except for some slight changes to the melee. Everything feels much more smooth and responsive and the cover system did not put me in as much trouble as it did in Drake’s Fortune. Same with the platforming. Failures in combat and platforming actually felt like genuine screw ups on my part and a need to git gud as opposed to the game being temperamental on me. There were however some glitches and a situation or two in which I rolled into a corner with enemy in pursuit and there was no way out, and a visual glitch or two, but these are few and far between. Puzzles are also pretty simplistic and few and far between, but act as a nice change of pace.

In terms of graphics, this game is a real stunner and had I not known otherwise, I would swear that this wasn’t a seven year old game. At full 1080p, 60fps, it is a magnificent sight to behold and that’s with the makeover being much less drastic than it’s predecessor.

One thing that is missing here is the multiplayer, which is an understandable omission but I don’t think it’s enough to be a deal breaker.

Naughty Dog have made an incredible game with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which is the entry in which the series hit it’s stride and Bluepoint Games have done an incredible job remastering the game that it remains just as thrilling to play and beautiful to look at as it was when I first played it six years ago.

9/10

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Remastered (2015) PS4 Review

During the last generation of consoles, I never played through the original Uncharted, which came out in 2007. Well, I played a bit of it but I never finished it. With the remastered edition, new life has been breathed into this first entry into the series and now the game is much improved.

But first, let’s start with the game itself. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a pulpy, almost swashbuckling adventure that draws heavy inspiration from the Indiana Jones series and Tomb Raider. The game takes place in a lush Central American jungle and Nathan Drake (Nolan North), who is the kind of guy that is a bit of a douche but is lovable anyway is looking for treasure (obviously) on an expedition for a television series hosted and filmed by Elena Fisher. The two have a great chemistry and so does Drake and the older Sully. As a whole, the story isn’t complicated, but it doesn’t need to be and is a great introduction to these characters whilst still offering a very entertainingly told story, which is helped tremendously by an excellent score that from the main menu alone is sure to have you feeling excited.

As for the mechanics of the game, the game combines platforming, which is quite easy to do and intuitive on a fundamental level, however at time the controls and the timing can feel a bit imprecise, leading to many deaths that were otherwise avoidable. As for the combat, it is quite dated, this being the early stages of conspicuously placed chest high walls. Kill Switch had come out a few years before and Gears of War had come out in 2006. The combat here doesn’t flow terribly well, mostly because of Drake sticking to the cover and disengaging him from cover is clunky and slow and can get you shot with the lack of a crouch button, which lead to a feeling of weird difficulty spikes. Sometimes the cover doesn’t work well at all. This is most pronounced in the final boss fight where I was trying to roll from one cover to another and it didn’t attach me to the desired cover location, which often lead to frustration as the boss could one shot kill me. This was on normal difficulty.  The game slows down quite a bit because of this and does feel a bit whack a mole at times. However, the AI is intelligent enough and will sometimes try and flank you or flush you out with grenades. The actual shooting itself here is very responsive, the guns typically have a nice recoil and each weapon type feels different so they’re fun to shoot. You can also use your pistol whilst hanging from a ledge which is occasionally handy.

Now as for the remastering effort, which was done by Bluepoint Games. Bluepoint have done an incredible job here. Where some remasters are content simply to upscale the resolution, Bluepoint have gone through the game with a fine comb and improved almost every asset in the game from better world geometry, to much higher resolution textures and improved character models that bring the game’s visual quality up to a level comparable with it’s successors. The game also runs at native 1080p at 60fps so not only does the game look great, it performs great too. You can also tweak the motion blur options between off, object and object+camera, which is nice for those of us who aren’t terribly fond of camera motion blur in games. Digital Foundry have a good visual analysis here.

In conclusion then, this game, whilst it’s age does show in the design and mechanics as our cover shooters with conspicuously placed chest high walls have been much refined since Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune  comes out, it still remains a fun adventure that had me smiling regularly with it’s charming characters, visuals and rousing score, but also had me occasionally frustrated too. This is without a doubt the best way to experience the game if you’ve ever thought about replaying it or are playing for the first time.

7.5/10

Shadowrun: Dragonfall Directors Cut (2014) PC review

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The campaign of Shadowrun: Dragonfall does something most other RPGs have difficulty doing: being concise. Where other classic RPGs will throw in an overwhelming amount of lore and odd character names at inopportune times, the world of Shadowrun is fairly easy to understand and I knew nothing about the series. It also feels perfectly paced with minimal fluff and no MMO type questing.

The premise is this: you’re a shadowrunner,which is basically a type of mercenary often doing work for shadowy corporate types operating within an anarchist Berlin in a cyberpunk future. But this sci fi setting is also mixed in with a fantasy one in which elves, dwarves, orks, trolls and magic also exist. It reminded me of Arcanum a little bit. The general thrust of the main plot is that a job goes wrong and it seems like you were set up and you’re trying to find out who it was and why. It’s a simple yet effective framework to hang the main plot and all the self contained stories that occur through the jobs you do for clients.

As for the writing overall, it’s quite good. Older cRPGs or newer ones in the same vein as the classics often have a habit of being overly verbose but here it strikes a good balance between literary flair and being to the point and easy to understand. Dialogue is also mostly quite believable except for one mission called False Flag, which had strawman nazi stand ins who had a plan to gas the metahumans. They also had a propaganda document which gave me a bit of a smirk reminding me of A Wyatt Man illustrations, but aside from this one particular quest I generally enjoyed the writing.

The character I played was a human street samurai by the name of Bane Big Guy. I specialised mainly in assault rifles and by the end I was a fully decked out cyborg. The dialogue options in the game were quite limited however in the way cRPGs usually are by their very nature but most of the time it was enough that allowed me to have a solid basis for forming my own character and filling in the blanks with my imagination. Also with the cybernetic upgrades, the more you install, the less essence you have (to a minimum of 1 from a starting point of about 6), which in turn weakens your ability to effectively utilise magic.

One of my complaints with the role playing mechanics is that the skill checks are locked out if you don’t have the requisite skill. So there’s no chance of failure or chance of success even if you don’t have the required skill for the particular action, which can limit roleplaying even more. In terms of stats, there’s a decent amount of them and easy to understand. How they work is that you have your base stats, such as quickness and then skill trees under those, such as pistols or shotguns. If your quickness skill is say at 5, then each of the skills it governs can only be upgraded up to 5 and upgrading from level 4 to 5 in a tree requires 5 skill points. Simple and forces you to specialise, so it’s a good system. Most of the governing stats govern about what you’d expect if you’ve ever played and RPG before.

Combat is also quite good. How it works is almost exactly like the newer X-Com games (minus the environmental destruction on account of the 2D backgrounds). It’s turn based on grids, there’s cover,an overwatch option. Unlike X Com however you’re always stuck at 4 party members total except for one time circumstances in certain quests, but overall it was a system that was very easy to understand and get in to whilst still having a decent amount of challenge on Normal difficulty.

In terms of the aesthetics, the game uses highly detailed 2D backgrounds with simple 3D models for characters and weapons, which is for the most part visually appealing and guarantees that the game can run on toasters. I do have my own issues with the look though, maybe because I’m used to the visual styles from classic Fallout or Arcanum and such for 2D cRPGs, but the overall style looks a bit too flat and clean and reminds me of Transistor instead. This is a minor gripe of course because it still looks pretty nice overall but a bit more grit would’ve been good.

These criticisms aside, Shadowrun: Dragonfall Directors Cut is a very fun RPG that looks nice, is incredibly user friendly and has for the most part, good writing and even better pacing. An all round excellent RPG.

8.5/10

 

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration Edition (2016) PS4 Review

After over a year of being only available on the Xbox platforms and PC, the most iconic heroine of video games returns to the Playstation with this complete edition of Rise of the Tomb Raider.

The story of this second entry in the current reboot Tomb Raider series has Lara Croft following in the footsteps of her publicly disgraced father in order to find an artefact known as the Divine Source (or the holy grail). This sets you off on your adventure to Syria and Siberia and encountering religious fanatics and a small tribe of the descendants of the followers of a Byzantine man known as the Prophet. The story sounds very Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with a bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark thrown in for good measure so there’s not much mind blowing originality here, but it is decently well told, although I felt it had some pacing issues, but this might be because of my taking my time and doing much of the optional tombs and crypts instead of just doing the critical path. The motivations of all the principal characters are also believable and are all well voice acted.  There is also a lack of the ludo narrative dissonance from it’s predecessor, which is good, but Lara as a character feels a bit underwritten. Speaking of Tomb Raider (2013), that game isn’t necessary to play to enjoy this one story wise, however I’d still quickly say here that it’s worth playing anyways because it’s a good game. 

From snowy Siberian mountain peaks and wilderness, a former gulag and breathtaking lost cities and dingy crypts and tombs with glittering Byzantine style mosaics and everything in between, Croft’s latest adventure is a visual feast. In certain moments this is accentuated with dynamic camera angles that provide a cinematic intensity to the platforming. Shadows are also generally excellent and animation is of a high quality, even showing the rabbits in the Siberian snow stopping to clean themselves. The game also runs at a stable 1080p 30 FPS with very few hitches on a base PS4 providing a consistent experience that is also surprisingly responsive. There are a couple blemishes, such as a lack of high quality anisotropic filtering and some shimmering happening with the anti aliasing in certain areas but they do not sour the look of the game too badly despite being noticeable. Those who have a PS4 Pro have multiple options for improved visuals or performance as well.

In terms of the mechanics, the game is an excellent blend of exploration, puzzle-platforming and action. The exploration is facilitated by an addictive loop in which, for example, exploring crypts unlocks parts for new weapons or improving language proficiency through finding certain documents or murals allows Lara to decipher monoliths, which reveal coin cache locations which allow you to purchase extra weapons, outfits or items. There are also side missions which unlock extra items as well and while these are often basic kill or fetch type quests, they’re worth doing and there aren’t an overwhelming amount of them so it doesn’t become tedious or make the game feel lazily designed.

The optional challenge tombs, which unlock upgrades that aren’t available through normal gaining of upgrade points see a more puzzle solving focus than combat one that is found on the critical path and whilst these puzzles aren’t the most cerebral ones ever, they are smartly designed and utilize core mechanics, such as rope arrows and platforming. Despite not being overly complex, through the use of intelligent visual cues and design, these sections feel satisfying to complete and are rarely frustrating. All this and the exploration is facilitated in hub areas that too are well designed, look excellent and are fun to traverse and do a bit of hunting (which actually feels useful now!) in.It also does not fall into the trap of becoming overly large with nothing to do, so there is a good density of things to do and collectables to find. The platforming system generally works very similarly to the Uncharted series,although I find it more engaging here because of the different gadgets such as the climbing axe or the wire spool. In the fast paced more cinematic sequences, it is still very engaging and exciting, especially as a bridge collapses or a building burns or you’re being shot at.

The combat, most of which takes place in main story segments is fast, responsive and enjoyable. There is a rudimentary stealth system which works well in thinning the ranks before a major combat encounter, but what the system reminded me of was The Last of Us.  There’s no crouch button here however, nor is there a sticky cover system, which favours a high level of mobility. You can also craft things like molotovs and nailbombs on the fly without having to enter a menu screen,at least whenever the required cans or bottles are dispersed through the levels and the game not so subtly encourages you to use them on trios or duos of enemies and it’s very enjoyable to do so. There is also a dodge mechanic, which if timed right enables a QTE encounters or you can tap it twice to roll. There are also four weapons types: pistols, shotguns, bows and rifles, all of which are fun to use. On normal difficulty or higher, there’s no aim assist but with responsive controls, I was able to regularly land headshots with ease. This is all helped with tight level design and AI that is intelligent enough to take advantage of it, with them being able to flank me a couple times. All in all, it’s a highly enjoyable and mobile combat system, however, I would like to see the next entry of the series to blend the combat and platforming a bit more.

As for the extra content of the game, there is the Baba Yaga expansion, which can be considered like this game’s equivalent of the Scarecrow section from Arkham Asylum is accessible within the main campaign and well worth playing.

The Croft Manor section is split into two parts. The first is Blood Ties, which is a much quieter exploration and light puzzle solving aspect of the game that has you explore a decrepit Croft manor to find Lara’s father’s will so that she can keep possession of the property. Through documents and relics, much like in the main campaign, you get a bit of extra insight into the world and the backstory of Lara’s father and childhood was actually quite interesting. This is also worth playing. There is also the Lara’s Nightmare which also takes place in Croft Manor and is basically the obligatory zombie mode. There is also the Cold Darkness mode, which I haven’t spent much time in which is another obligatory zombie mode that is combined with puzzle solving that is inconsistent with the style of the main campaign or other modes and is more like the game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, which is a good game, but doesn’t work terribly well with the mechanics and overall design of this game.

There is also the Expeditions modes, one of which is a self explanatory survival mode and the others include things like score attack or chapter replays. Most of these modes are playable with cards, which are obtained through credits earned in game or through microtransactions, however, this edition of the game showers you with so many credits and cards from the outset that this feature becomes an annoying redundancy. These cards act as modifiers to the experience which can be activated that allow you to say, play the campaign with character models of Lara Croft from the earliest games or other things to do with upgrades or weapons and stats, which might add a bit of novelty should you decide to use them.

Additionally, the packaging of the retail version of the game is quite nice as it comes in a small artbook that has some really nice fan art for the series interspersed with some concept art for this entry. Overall, then, Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration Edition is the best way to experience the game on consoles and the game is just all round excellent whose main campaign alone is worth the cost of entry.

9/10

Devil Daggers (2016) PC review

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Devil Daggers is like somebody’s black metal or dark ambient demo tape on cassette. It’s lo-fi, has few tracks (in this case, one track) which may be very long or very short. Devil Daggers is also a first person shooter that is stripped down to it’s barest essentials and is one hell of an intense game.

How it works is this: you enter the level, which is basically a square arena. You have two firing modes: continuous fire and shotgun. You can jump, strafe and shoot,moving at a very high speed. Your goal is to survive as long as possible and try to top the leaderboards. It’s pure arcade fun and survival is not easy and trying to last long is almost tantric, requiring an immense level of skill. My highest score so far is just under 90 seconds, but the pure concentrated tension can feel like an eternity.

Whilst I introduced this review with a music comparison, there is however the fact that this game has no music. It is terrifying ambience that come from the croaking of the flying skulls, to the scrambling and scuttling of the uranium green spiders and god knows what other horrors lie beyond, for I am not yet good enough at the game to even reach the point of their spawning.

Visually, the games uses a lo fi 3D aesthetic, with unfiltered textures, jittery polygons and enemies that appear more or less pixelated depending on distance, which is reminiscent of the technical qualities of Playstation 1 games. It is a rather striking and simple aesthetic that works very well with the simple yet skillful mechanics, although where it differs from the aesthetic of Playstation 1 games is that here textures are actually displayed correctly and you can have a high frame rate. In essence, it’s making the old new.

Devil Daggers, while potentially addictive, it is something that is best in small bursts, playing a couple rounds here and there. It is light on content however and retails usually for $4.99 on Steam. I got mine for $1 in a humble bundle not too long ago. If you want something small, visually and aurally interesting, as well as skillful in the way that would have been a hit in the heyday of arcades in the West, then look no further than Devil Daggers.

7.5/10

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (2016) PS4 Review

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture was one of this month’s Playstation Plus games (ordinarily it would cost about $20USD) and it is absolute shit. But before I tear into this latest effort from Dear Esther developer, The Chinese Room, I will point out some of the positives.

One of the most noticeable things about this game are the graphics which, for the most part are impressive, with lush foliage and a beautiful rendition of an English village in the mid 1980s. The environment design is great and everything looks lived in, providing a fantastic sense of place, along with some good vocal performances and ambient sounds and melodic music. The production values are quite good and the map itself loops quite well and feels logically designed.

However, that is all the praise I can give. The reason being that there is no game here. It is just a walking simulator and a bad one at that. The movement speed is painfully slow, probably about as slow as when both your legs are crippled in Deus Ex. It really is quite a slog schlepping through the town, which on a blind playthrough serves to pad out game length. This speed slows even more when the game arbitrarily restricts your movement speed. You can hold R2 to move a bit faster, but the speed is still painfully slow. The frame rate is also totally inconsistent with it sometimes being smooth but often dropping dreadfully low to almost slideshow territory in some instances. Combined with a rather aggressive motion blur effect, the game made me feel almost queasy at times and I usually have a strong tolerance for this sort of thing and don’t get motion sick easy.

Furthermore, the game has basically no interactivity. Sometimes you can open doors or flick on a light switch, but any instance of interactivity is meaningless and the world remains almost totally static, indifferent to player action. There’s even an achievement for beating the game without interacting with anything.

So, what about the story? The story is told in a non linear fashion (in addition to it’s environmental storytelling) in certain key spots or through radios and telephones, which act like audio logs from Bioshock and any NPCs are just an abstract vaguely human shaped particle effects. The actual story involves a quarantined now derelict small english village who have mysteriously disappeared and this mystery is incredibly easy to figure out so the rest of it becomes a mind numbing time wasting exercise. But if I am to be charitable, much of the dialogue is about the characters, reminding me a little bit of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia but far less interesting or engaging. Of course you can miss out on pieces of the story and still complete the game, which is supposed to create replay value, but you probably won’t want to replay it considering how dull it is.

Ultimately, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a pretty looking and pretty sounding experience (mostly) but there is absolutely nothing of substance and is a mind numbing exercise in tedium. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it but if you feel like you want to experience the story, I’d advise you to watch it on youtube alternating between 1.25x speed (for talking bits) and 1.5x speed for everything else.

3/10

Hacksaw Ridge (2016) Review

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Friends, Mel Gibson is back. Hacksaw Ridge is his latest directorial effort, portraying the true story of Desmond Ross (Andrew Garfield) who was a conscientious objector who decided to enlist in the war as a medic and the first conscientious objector to win a medal of honour.

The opening shot of the film sets the grim tone of the film with an overhead shot of some dead Japanese in a bombed out No Man’s Land in Okinawa. This introduction is incredibly impactful and sets the style too, with Gibson using a stable camera in order to confront us with this war dance. After this, the first act builds up the character of Ross and his life as a child and then some time prior to his enlistment in a romantic plot that might seem familiar in this kind of film, but it’s well done and not dragged out. There is also his basic training and the conflict there as a result of his beliefs and finally, they reach Okinawa.

The battle scenes in this film are a dance of death and have an unflinching commitment to realistic violence on the level of Saving Private Ryan. It is brilliantly shot, everything is easy to see and is such an incredible spectacle in both violence and emotion and even the smallest roles are invested with great depth and believability, with the performances being tremendous all round. The entirety of the Okinawa portion of the film has an almost Homeric quality to it. The first time up on the ridge for the company also has a horror vibe, with a thick smokey haze that you can almost smell and feel engulfed by and pans to lost limbs and spilt intestines on the ground.

This is going to be a short review since I very much liked the film and it’s something that must be seen. While it’s narrative structure is fairly conventional, the film is simply incredible, filled with heroism and the thrill of battle. This film is an instant classic and you should all go see it this weekend.

8.5/10