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Game Anatomy: The Plan

DmC_box_art

Copyright Capcom and Ninja Theory

It’s honestly surprising that I’ve never really talked much about this game, although it came out during my hiatus on this blog, so that’s probably why.  DMC: Devil May Cry is a strange beast of a game, and it’s really hard to discuss thanks to all of the baggage the game has accumulated over the past 7 years (or that the last main series game came out almost a decade ago), but ultimately, it’s not really all that bad.  I’m a bit of a strange fan, considering I hated it until the fourth game came out, which totally revised my entire view on the series (except for 2, 2 sucks), but I am a fan of the flashy, stylish, anime as Hell series, and when I got a chance to pick up the game on Playstation Plus, I really enjoyed it.  It’s sort of a better version of the first game, and that’s really good.

Yeah, it has really terrible art direction, bad character designs and the story is terrible even from the perspective of the series, but the action is really good, the platforming is really cool and the level design is the best in the series.  That last one doesn’t sound like much of a barrier, because Devil May Cry level design is terrible, but seriously, it’s really, really good here.  In fact, the levels do a great job of servicing the combat, which is admittedly a downgrade from 3 and 4, because it’s much more than a funnel to take Dante from one fight to the next.  The levels are complex and interesting, breaking into platforming and combat sections in a way that feels natural, and sometimes, if rarely, blending them in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or stupid.  It’s great, and it also allows for encounters that really utilize the weapon switching of the combat.  One level stands above the rest though, and that’s Mission 16: the Plan.

For very stupid plot reasons, Dante and Virgil are raiding the building of the main bad guy, and killing all of his elite troops.  What’s cool, but not what makes the level so good, is that it’s set up in a way so that Dante and Virgil each have their own thing going on, and while the player is Dante, it’s possible to see Virgil’s progress mirroring the player’s own.  It’s not exactly in real time, but it does feel like it’s in real time, the few times you can see Virgil doing his thing.  Also, it solidifies the relationship between the brothers in a way the game hasn’t managed to at this point, which will make their eventual falling out that much stronger at the end of the game.  However, what’s really cool is that the level is set up like a heist movie, with Kat, the kind of boring witch love interest, narrating the entire level.

See, in the cutscene before the level, the player isn’t shown what the plan is, and instead, the level is narrated all the way through by Kat, with commentary by Virgil and Dante, for what the brothers are supposed to do.  Much like the execution scenes at the end of Ocean’s Eleven, Kat explains to Dante and Virgil what they’re supposed to do while they’re doing it, complete with the drawings of her plans being superimposed over the gameplay while its being explained to the player.  What’s really cool about this, other than it being one of the few examples of this in the medium, it also does a good job of explaining to the player where to go and what to do.  Sure, the levels aren’t particularly complex or anything, but it does throw a lot of very, very difficult enemies at you, but it does also have a few places where the player can screw up and wind up having to face a horde of very difficult monsters all at once.

That happened to me.  Kat was specific about not doing something.  I could have avoided it and I wound up dodging into a hole and falling right onto the floor where I shouldn’t have been.  What’s great is is that not only did I get a little scene were Dante chastises himself for being an idiot, it was also something specifically called out to me not to do, I did it, and I got something different happening.  It’s rare that we actually get a chance to see something that interesting in a video game, but to make it in where failure can be well incorporated into the game itself.  It’s very cool.

However, what also really works is the storytelling.  Like I mentioned before, the plot in his game is really bad.  It’s like a bad combination of the worst of White Wolf stuff, and when smug American comic book creators remake manga in order to prove that Japanese comics are stupid and Western comics are inherently superior.  Yes, that’s a thing, and DMC: Devil May Cry is the video game equivalent of that.  It’s disdainful of the source material and goes out of its way to actually insult the previous games, and no, I’m not talking about the infamous mop scene.  It’s a game that takes itself incredibly seriously, so certain it’s the future of the series and so much better than it’s anime bullshit predecessor, but it’s also a game that features abortion via sniper rifle and fighting an demonic Bill O’Reily (which is legitimately the best fight in the series and will be its own Game Anatomy).  However, one of the things that works really well is the relationship between Dante and Virgil, which we never actually get to see in the main series.  The way it becomes strained and fractured, mostly by Virgil’s growing fanaticism, and the brothers slowly switching their views on life and their destiny is really great, plus it’s done very organically, without Virgil suddenly becoming an asshole at the end.  The Mission does a really good job of highlighting all of it, and does a good job of both showing how much the Sons of Sparda care about each other, but also how much their relationship is falling apart.  This level does take place after Virgil shot a pregnant demon in her womb with a sniper rifle.  Jesus, that’s a sentence I’ve written.

By allowing the player to watch Virgil do what he does, and give us a few scenes where Vigil and Dante interact, plus their narration commentary while Kat is detailing the plan (as they’re doing it, I remind) does a lot for characterization without taking control away from the player.  A lot can be said about what you can do with cutscenes, but by just allowing it to work while the player is actually playing the game, that’s pretty cool.

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It couldn’t have gone any other way

We’re going to be talking about Mass Effect again this week.  I’m going to be talking about it a lot now, especially after the news that came out yesterday.  Because I kind of think that it’s sort of inevitable, actually, but it’s also kind of gotten me thinking, so, let’s get back to it.

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Right, so, yesterday, EA said they’re “scaling down” Bioware Montreal and that Mass Effect was officially on ice for the time being.  What that means specifically is unclear, because it does seem that Mass Effect Andromeda multiplayer will still be updated.  No one has said anything about the single player DLC, which was teased (and possibly leaked a month ago) at the end of the game, at least as far as I can tell.  This, combined with the confirmation that Andromeda was mostly pushed out at the last minute and wasn’t really ready for release when it came out is dissaponting, but also not really surprising.  I loved Andromeda, but it did feel a bit like a cash grab.  Not when I actually played the game, because it was clearly made with love (just not ready to be played yet and filled with small flaws), but in the marketing and how EA didn’t seem to care about whether or not the game got fixed after it was out and the lack of notification if there was going to be more in this series.

Honestly, though, I think this might be pretty much all that could have happened, and it’s not Andromeda’s fault.  Andromeda was a wonderful game, and I loved the 70+ hours I put into actually beating it.  The thing was, it proved something to me that I was afraid of.  Mass Effect is dead, and the ending of ME3 killed it.  Not because of the choose your color bullshit of the ending, but because it was such an obvious “burn the setting and run” sort of ending that there was no coming back from it.  Pushing the game to a galaxy literally far, far away, 600+ years removed from the events of the game meant that nothing we as players grew to love was part of the game.  Yeah, it had the aliens and vague references to the characters, and they really tried to shoe horn in a Citadel equivalent, a lot of the game felt like they were trying to do the same thing, but different for no reason.

Andromeda is disconnected from the other games because Mass Effect 3 destroyed the setting.  Sure, I guess it got fixed/not broken depending on your Extended Cut ending, but it didn’t matter.  All three endings are mutually contradictory, have nothing to do with the game itself, and ignoring them would also prove to be something of a problem with any potential sequel.  Throwing it into another galaxy, though, does nothing to help, since all it does is give us some familiar faces, and has us go over the same issues once more.  Andromeda rehashes conflicts that were already resolved in the original trilogy, for good or ill, and it makes all of the decisions we did matter even less.  The Milky Way is toast.  Fuck it, we’re moving on.

It’s not just the fact that the three endings are mutually contradictory, meaning that in order to make an actual sequel, Bioware would have to pretty much invent three different settings for one game.  Hell, in one of them, Shepard would still technically be running around, even if you knocked the timeline up thousands of years, since she’s all the Reapers now.  Also, the Reapers would still be alive in two endings, but the Geth, EDI and any other AI based creature would be gone in another.  That’s a huge undertaking to make a game, and it wouldn’t be worth it to wade through.  That’s, of course, using the Extended Cut endings, which of course Bioware would do, but those endings clearly weren’t the intent (which is why they’re pretty much shitty PowerPoint presentations tacked on at the end of the game).  The original ending is a straight up massacre, with the Mass Relays being canonically destroyed and the world returning to a pre-spaceflight setting, which is literally the destruction of the setting.  If you can’t go into space, there’s no point of a space opera setting.  Now, of course they would go with the Extended Cut, but there’s no way they could make a decent sequel incorporating that ending, unless EA is willing to basically make three different Mass Effect games.  Still, they’re color coded, and that’s worked for Pokemon.

Even ignoring the ending, and just giving some sort of handwave of “yeah, the Reapers died, Crucible, whatever” is a problem too.  Three had so many choices, but that could be implemented in a variety of ways, or, let’s be honest, there was a reason why there was a golden ending for each major conflict in 3, just make all of them canon.  It’s the ending that’s the real problem.  Ignoring it is pretty much what I would have done, but it’s also a tacit admission that it was a terrible idea, and I doubt that Bioware would want to retread that whole discussion, regardless of how they feel about the ending 5 years removed.  Yes, it has been five years.

It’s hard to know what to do with Mass Effect.  I would be willing accept pretty much anything, because I love the ideas.  Andromeda was fun, but it missed so much about the original settings, that while it works for a side story, I’d rather return home.  Especially if Andromeda itself isn’t going to be any more interesting to see than home is anyway.  Still, I wish we could see some of the secrets of the new series revealed.  Maybe in time.

How to make the best of the weakest parts: Mass Effect Andromeda

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Before we begin, I will spoil literally everything about Mass Effect Andromeda here.  If you have not completed it, please do not read any of this article.  I don’t have time to put any other spoiler warning up, so keep that in mind.

So, the Kett were pretty much the weakest part of Mass Effect Andromeda.  The Archon was basically a giant missed opportunity and the rest of the Kett were basically just a redeux of the Reapers, by way of the Borg.  That was actually kind of lame, especially after so much build up and an attempt to give them something of an identity through a pretty good extended side quest.  Here’s the thing though, the Kett might actually be good for Mass Effect in the long term, and would actually be able to fill the exact same niche as the Reapers, while doing it a lot better than they ever did.  It won’t even be that hard.

Before Andromeda, the Reapers were the weakest part of Mass Effect, for a lot of reasons.  The conversation with Sovereign on Virmire is one of the best science fiction scenes I have ever experienced.  “You exist because we allow it, and you will end because we demand it.”  It’s an insane line, one of the best in the series (up there with “Had to be me, someone else might have gotten it wrong.”) and nothing ever lives up to it.  No interaction with the Reapers, through the rest of the next two games, any of the comics or the terrible tie in novels, manage to reach the heights that the discussion with Sovereign manages to do.  After that, the Reapers are pretty much faceless Elder God rip offs, and also manage to contradict all of the cool things Sovereign said.   It would be impossible, actually, to match up with what he said and manage to have a coherent story, but it’s still ultimately disappointing.

330px-Sovereign

Image copyright Bioware/Electronic Arts. Also, the Reapers never manage to be this cool, again, either.

The game, from then on, becomes entirely about the Reapers, and they take over the narrative, but they’re not very interesting.  They also contradict themselves a lot, never living up to their promised potential, but what’s really boring about them is that they have no identity.  In a series where the “humanization,” for literally lacking a better term, of the alien is a major theme in the story, the Reapers stand apart.  While that was probably the thematic point of the Reapers, it doesn’t work for them.  Sovereign, and to a much lesser extent, Harbinger, try to act as the “face” or identity of the Reapers, nothing gives them any sense of character.  Even the Geth, who are also synthetic beings with a gestalt mind, get a lot more personality.  They’re given goals, identities and characters, as well as an engaging backstory, that allows them to grow beyond being simple death machines that ran the cute engineer girl’s people off of their home planet.  They exist simply to be an antagonist (and then they burn the setting down as one final “fuck you” to Drew Karpshyn), lacking any nuance or narrative interest.  In short, they’re boring.  Also, they don’t really fit with the rest of the setting.

The Kett are basically the Reapers 2.0.  The Reapers show up, eat everything to make them a part of who they are, are an implacable army of destruction and their power is so much greater, the Council species barely have a fighting chance (and then they don’t because at the end, someone half remembered some of the things Sovereign said in that awesome conversation you had with him on Virmire).  The Kett manage to be exactly that.  However, they have one thing that makes them different from the Reapers.  Also from the Borg, to which they are also quite similar.  See, the Kett are people.  Yeah, they have their old lives stripped of them and there’s this quasi-religious element to their new identity that forces them to live this creepily Spartan lifestyle, but this seems to be cultural, not genetic.  The few Kett we get a chance to interact with have their own unique personalities and are basically people.  Terrible people, sure, but they’re people.

This is where it works.  Since we can actually interact with them, they can fit into the Mass Effect paradigm really well.  If we can get some actual interesting Kett characters, even if they’re bad guys that we have no chance of managing to get on our side, they can be compelling and interesting.  Someone who genuinely sees Ryder as a rival, maybe even like how General Kang was to Captain Kirk, as an example, or maybe take that religious aspect the Archon had and make something with it.  Like a Paladin type character, a crusader, who is convinced it’s her holy duty to destroy the Initiative.  There’s a lot to play with, and that makes them interesting.  By making them people, it does mean that the game is never going to get the epic scene with Sovereign, but if that means we get to have human villains with thoughts, dreams and desires, as well as a way to deal with them that, potentially, isn’t violence (even if one can’t come up in the game), that makes for a better overall experience.  I’m willing to sacrifice that one moment for a longer term goal.

On Liking Things

Before I get started, this has completely unfiltered spoilers for Secret Wars and basically everything I’ve read from Nick Spencer’s run on the Steve Rogers side of Captain America.  I haven’t really read any of his post Secret Wars Sam Wilson stuff, so I don’t know how relevant it is to the discussion.

I’ve been following the whole Hydra Captain America since it all went down with Steve telling a scientist “Hail Hydra” and it’s engendered a lot of discussion.  However, I think a lot of it is misguided and actually offensive in how sort of childish and immature the discussions have been.  Literature is all about emotion, specifically the type of emotion it engenders in its audience.  This emotional reaction is in a lot of ways, the main goal of all types of literature, or if not the main goal, one of the major ones.  Humans, being rational beings, tend to attach themselves to things that they find emotionally appealing and detach themselves from things that they find emotionally repugnant, regardless of how irrational it is.

The discussion about Nick Spencer’s Captain America work, specifically the stuff about “Nazi Steve,” as I like to call him (because I thought it was from a movie), has fallen into this territory and a lot of the discussions around whether or not it should or shouldn’t be done, and whether or not anyone should actually like it have really been, for a lack of better phrasing, stupid as goddamn fuck.  Specifically, it’s a perfectly acceptable to not like the story, find it offensive and think that thanks to the political climate and burgeoning white nationalism in the United States to think the story might be in poor taste.  Seriously, there’s nothing wrong with taking any of these positions, and they’re perfectly rational positions to take, actually.  Social critique is actually a very important element of literary criticism, and while there are people who are taking it to a rather vocal extreme, it’s still a rational side to take on the whole thing.  Taking a work within the context of which it was created is a valid thing to look at when doing literary criticism, so to look at a story where a symbol of liberty, democracy and the ideal of America is corrupted, either in universe or at a meta level (or both), into a far-right authoritarian terrorist owing fealty to alien elder gods during a time of high anxiety about white nationalism and feel like it’s not exactly a good time to write it is perfectly valid.  At the same time, it is equally valid to say that this is exactly the time to write this story, mostly because of that context.  Both sides, of course, are right, because literary discussion doesn’t exactly have “right” answers.

Literary criticism is about looking at something from a specific angle, and no angle is truly more “valid” than any others.  I tend to think post-modernism is stupid bullshit, as an example, but a person who looks at Jack Keroauc’s “On the Road” from a post-modern perspective is no more or less right than if I looked at it from a Marxist or modernist perspective.  Also, what the critic takes away from that is generally pretty valid, provided they can back up what they’re saying with textual evidence, and people who have been arguing they don’t like Captain America being the leader of Hydra because it makes Captain America into a Nazi, the thing he was literally made by two Jewish comic creators to fight, has a lot of textual evidence to back up what they’re saying.  The people arguing against that also have a lot of textual evidence to support their point of view.  I don’t agree with them, but they do have it.

This comes back, however, to the comic itself.  The actual discussion is less about the critique of the story from one literary perspective or the other, and more about people’s emotional response to each other’s arguments.  Many people, on either side, are generally now allowing anyone to really have that discussion, mostly because they’re saying that the other side truly isn’t a valid discussion, and therefore that other side should just shut up.  They will completely disregard the other side’s points, deliberately misinterpret them and throw them back as if they have defeated their argument, when in reality, they’ve just said they didn’t like what they said, so they shouldn’t be allowed to say it.  In something completely unrelated, it pains me when my students don’t listen to me when I try to teach rhetoric.

Look, is it okay to be offended by a piece of work?  Yeah, it totally is.  Especially when the story features a subversion of a work in a way that is extremely off putting.  It doesn’t mean the people who are saying that Steve Rogers should never be a Nazi are right, but it doesn’t make them wrong to say that they don’t want to see this kind of story, either.

As for me, I think it’s a terrible idea for a lot of reasons and Captain America holding goddamn Mjolnir and being considered worthy is pretty high up there.  I’m guilty of not liking it for political reasons (also not liking it because I’ve never liked anything he’s ever written and because the story doesn’t even make sense within itself, and it requires itself to even work, because it doesn’t work without the context), but mostly I just thought it was stupid because the whole “twist” was going to have the dumbest twist so Spencer can put everything back into the toybox when he’s done.  There’s no way that Cap would permanently become a right-wing authoritarian terrorist.  I think what pushed me over the edge was actually seeing Cap holding Thor’s hammer over the broken bodies of his friends.  Sure, it might be a fakeout, but Mjolnir has become something of a symbol to white supremacists everywhere.  It’s hard to want to see that be a thing in the best of times, and not just because Steve has always sort of represented a quasi-leftest, pro-diversity sort of character.

This New Captain America Stuff is Stupid, and I Like Stupid Comic Book Stuff

I haven’t spoken about comic books on this blog since 2011.  That’s so crazy.  I used to do those “what should they fix” for DC on the lead up to the New 52.  Considering how the New 52 turned out, well, I’m guessing no one at DC comics reads my blog.  That’s insane, because so many things have happened in the world of comic books since then, and I never even got a chance to blog about Secret Wars, which might be my favorite event book ever.  I guess I really only come to this well when I have something to bitch about, and well, Secret Empire #0 has given me a lot to bitch about.

Secret_Empire_0_Cover

Copyright Marvel Comics and Disney

God that makes me so mad.  I guess they’ve made a point of pointing out that Hydra isn’t always a Nazi organization, but Steve Rogers joining, and having always been a part of, a secret, far right authoritarian terrorist organization is not a good look, no matter how much Nazi shit you want to scrape away from it.  I guess Steve is the “good” part of the right wing authoritarian terrorist organization.  Also, he wants to put mutants in camps.  It’s wonderful.

The whole thing is stupid comic book shit, and I’m not even going to make a big deal about it being in bad taste because Trump got elected because this was in the can before he got elected, so there was no way to stop it from happening.  Also, I don’t really feel qualified to comment on the real world ramifications of making Steve Rogers a violent, right wing authoritarian.  It doesn’t help that the whole thing will be retconned away at the end of the story, having just been a stupid thing that changes nothing, because mainstream super hero comics will always return to the status quo no matter what.  It is hurtful, in a way, I guess, for a lot of reasons, but that “Hail Hydra” scene really managed to make me rethink comic books

Right from the get go, I knew this was going to be temporary.  If it wasn’t the original plan,  it would be overturned eventually.  There was no way Marvel was going to keep Steve as a member of Hydra for long, and it’s not like they’re going to kill him again, they just did the whole passing of the mantle thing a couple of years ago.  No, I knew it was going to be brainwashing or cosmic cube shenanigans or a Celestial or Franklin Richards going through puberty, or whatever as some sort of explanation and it was just throwing the whole “nothing ever matters in super hero books” right in everyone’s faces.

The full page panel of Steve saying “Hail Hydra” was like a crystallized moment in time.  A moment that said “none of this stupid shit matters” and I almost stopped reading super hero comics right then.  I mean, I knew I wasn’t going to, Al Ewing and G. Willow Wilson are still making great comics and Superman is a lot of fun, but it was the most impermanent “shocking swerve” I’ve ever seen.  I was six when Superman died, and even then, I knew he was going to come back, because that’s what comic book characters did.  I always knew it wasn’t going to be permanent, but there was something about this one in particular that shook things up and made me really want to evaluate my hobbies and what I really enjoyed.

I won’t like, the political implications of it didn’t make me happy, but what really made me sad was seeing a character I like a whole lot get transformed into the opposite of what he was in what was the most lazy way possible.  Consider the alien suit for Spider-Man, which slowly tried to transform him into something different, corrupting him.  It was a slow burn story, and while we all knew Spidey would get the red and blues back, it didn’t matter, the story was about the struggle.  None of that is here.  Steve is just the opposite of what he was, and apparently he always was that.

Then I guess Marvel decided to make it worse.  Today, in Secret Wars #0, we discover that the Nazis really won World War II.  The desperate Allies used the Cosmic Cube to alter reality, thus changing Steve Rogers from Hydra Agent into Captain America.  I mean, obviously, that’s not how the story is going to go.  Obviously, the real twist was that the Nazis altered it, then the Allies altered it back, but it doesn’t stop it from feeling really gross.  Other than how messy on all fronts an Axis victory would actually be (unless they mean the Allied invasion was stopped), it’s just not cool to double down on the Cap is Hydra thing by really doubling down and also declaring the Nazis won World War II.  There’s a lot of cultural baggage to that war, and to say “nah, the only reason the Allies won is because of a magic space cube” is terrible.  Coming back and being all like “oh, but no, it was how we all remembered it” at the end really isn’t going to help much, because we’re still stuck with having to deal with 8 issues of Nazi victories and more Nazi Steve.

Still, one thing I think is especially weird is that Steve wants to put mutants in camps.  Jesus, why?

Strangely Underrated: Mass Effect Andromeda Review

Let’s start by getting everything out of the way.  Mass Effect Andromeda is a good game.  It’s a solid successor to the original trilogy, and while it doesn’t always do things right, neither did the original game.  In a lot of ways, Andromeda is Bioware at its finest and the game feels like it’s the best thing they’ve ever produced.  Other times, it really feels like Bioware at its most Bioware, relying too heavily on their own tropes, animations and concepts that don’t always pan out.  Ultimately, the game is good much more often than it is bad, and even when it’s bad, it’s more disappointing than anything else.  What it really comes down to is a game with a lot of expectation, and meeting it most of the time.

Mass_Effect_Andromeda_cover

Copyright Bioware and Electronic Arts

Mass Effect Andromeda picks up a little bit more than 600 years after the original trilogy, with a group of arks having been sent to the Andromeda galaxy (some 2.5 million light years away in real life) for the purposes of science and exploration.  To the characters, the game picks up in between parts 2 and 3 of the last game, meaning that while the players know that the arks were probably sent to hide humanity (and the asari, krogan, salarains and turians) from the Reapers, the characters actually don’t.  Once they drop out of faster than light travel and begin to defrost the people in cryo stasis, the Andromeda Initiative, the organization the player works for, find that all of the potential colony worlds are a bust due to some sort of dark matter interference.  Combine this with an ancient race of robots, alien invaders that don’t come from the Milky Way Galaxy and the indigenous people caught in between, there’s a lot going on here and a lot of things for the writers to play with.

Unfortunately, the main story is mostly about the main character fighting off the invaders as the new “Pathfinder” with a super AI and advanced combat abilities.  It’s not that it’s a bad story, nor does it ignore the ideas of immigration and colonization, and the good and the bad that comes from it, but it’s a little disappointing that the story is a fairly typical hero’s journey, with all of the more interesting ideas being used as little more than set dressing.  The game introduces a lot of ideas, themes and concepts, mostly dealing with what it takes to start from scratch further away from anyone else in the universe they know than anyone has ever been, but not all of them are followed up on.  Further, a lot of the new ideas for this galaxy, introduced to make the galaxy seem different and alien from our own, don’t get enough development and are not fleshed out enough.  Much like with the first game in the series, the game ends with more questions than answers.  Then, with the game being a new IP and sequels pitched right from the beginning, it felt like a mystery waiting to be solved.  Here, as an established game, with a lot of uncertainty about the direction of the series, they feel more like storylines unresolved.

The worst offender is the Remnant, technology left behind by someone, so mysterious that even the native Angara don’t know where it came from or who made it.  All that’s left is mysterious, advanced terraforming technology, which serves as the main mechanic for the game, and their robot guardians.  Who or what the Remnant are is a main element of the story, and while some parts of it do get answered, the resolution leaves the story hanging and uncertain as to what the developments actually meant.  There’s a great reveal at the end of the game, which has huge ramifications for the newer setting, but the game does nothing with it.

Mechanically, the game is mostly solid.  It plays nice, handles well, and it’s good to have a vehicle that is actually fun to drive.  Planet maps that aren’t all mountain ranges also helps, as well as the six wheel drive function.  The Nomad is much better than the Mako or the Hammerhead, and the planets, while fewer in number than in the first Mass Effect, serve as nice RPG maps, with tons of interesting quests (a step up from Dragon Age Inquisition) and lots to see.  Plus, they’re actually designed with the Nomad in mind, making it less of a chore to get around.

Combat, too, is a refined and improved version of Mass Effect 3’s combat system.  The ability to change powers at will more than makes up for the smaller power suite given to Ryder, and while changing classes at will doesn’t quite work out like they intended, a little bit of tweaking and balancing will do a lot to fix everything.  Plus, the fact that Ryder can specialize into anything makes for some really interesting builds, although, balance is still a problem here.  Adding the jump jets and more advanced AI makes the fights a lot more dynamic than just grabbing cover and pulling out the biggest sniper rifle, especially when taking into account the several new and old weapons, each with their own kind of firing system.

The weapons, however, are also an example of the RPG elements getting in the way of game.  Weapons have to be researched and crafted, using resources, because it’s an RPG and of course we have to have a crafting system.  Because research points are scarce, it’s difficult to branch out and buy new weapons, especially late in the game, because every level of firearm needs to be leveled up, then built, separately.  Every 10 levels, each weapon needs to get more powerful, and the game doesn’t do it automatically, so the player needs to spend and increasing number of research points to buy the next level of gun, then spend more resources to build it.  Fortunately, it’s possible to deconstruct the old weapon to get some of the resources back, but it’s still a lot of steps with a lot of moving parts.  Since research points are limited, it’s generally not worth branching out in a save file, because if you’re at level 30, all of your guns need to be level 5, and you can’t just research the level 5 blueprint of a new weapon, you have to research 1-4 first (although you don’t have to build them).  Also, while it’s really cool each weapon has its own unique firing system, the game doesn’t really explain what that is, having to make due with some hard to read stats (which can be somewhat conflicting and are terribly balanced) and a couple of sentences of description.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the graphics, most of which has been fixed with a patch.  Yes, the game has poor animations and there’s a lot of Bioware talking head syndrome, but a lot of it is fixed and the problems weren’t quite as bad as initial reports made them out to be, at least on the PC.  The bigger issue is that Bioware is reusing animations from Dragon Age Inquisition instead of coming up with new ones.

There’s a lot to criticize, and I know I spent a lot of time sounding like I’m trashing it, but these don’t completely diminish the enjoyment of the game.  There are lots of issues, but it’s fun, it’s enjoyable, and it feels like actually exploring a new galaxy.  The game needs work for the sequel, but it’s got a lot of heart and it’s definitely worth the trip.

What the Hell Happened: Uncharted

This is a new thing I’m going to try.  I know I try to focus on the positive here at Cluttered Mind, ever since I decided to change up the format a few years ago.  However, there are a few franchises out there that have just managed to fall apart over the past few years, and I want to try looking at them from the perspective of where a series went wrong, and maybe how it could be improved in the future.  This time, we’re going to start with the Uncharted series by Naughty Dog.

Uncharted_Drake's_Fortune

Copyright Naughty Dog and Sony

Uncharted first appeared on the Playstation 3 in 2007, which was something of a banner year for new IPs, since it saw the genesis of Mass Effect, Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed.  It was also the beginning of the Seventh Generation of Video Game consoles, and was a time when that generation was actually beginning to hit its stride.  American games had developed a niche, thanks in no small part to Gears of War and Call of Duty 2 (and, ironically, Resident Evil 4 before them), and we were beginning to see the dominance of Western developed games throughout the entire console cycle.  Uncharted was an interesting game.  Developed by Naughty Dog after years of working on the Jak and Daxter games, Uncharted was a new kind of 3D action platformer.  Taking cues from Tomb Raider, as well as their own platformers, the aforementioned Jak and Crash Bandicoot before that, Uncharted was a cinematic shooter/platformer hybrid that tried to capture the pulp movie feel of the Indiana Jones games.

It was something cool, something that really hadn’t been done in video games quite as well as it had been done here.  It had rough edges, but it was a lot of fun and looked gorgeous.  Most importantly, it felt like playing a movie.  That’s not a complaint.  For years, Western developers had promised interactive movies, and with Uncharted, they got it right, seamlessly moving from dialogue cutscene to action heavy set pieces that were actually played by the player.  See, this is what a lot of games do wrong.  All of the cool stuff that Nathan Drake does in the game, mostly, is actually performed by the player, and utilizing really clever level design, they were able to hide that the set pieces are sort of scripted.  There’s an optimal route, and today, ten years after the game had come out, it’s pretty obvious what the developers wanted the player to do, but at the time, it felt like, for once, getting to play a cutscene instead of watching.

The first Uncharted wasn’t polished and had a lot of stupid and cheap bullshit tacked on to it, even on Normal difficulty.  The second game managed to polish it up and fix a few of the issues.  It felt more like what the developers wanted to make, at least from my perspective, and it felt more like playing an action movie.  Going from cutscenes to gameplay felt more seamless, combat was more intense and a bit more open and it was a lot less cheap (although they did add those shotgun wielding guys in riot armor).  It was cool, but it was basically where the series came to an end.  Or, maybe should have come to an end.

A big issue is that the second Uncharted game basically has the same plot.  Drake gets caught up trying to steal some artifact, gets betrayed by a friend, the artifact winds up being a lot different than the legends say, Elena shows up, Drake fights some wannabe world conquerer.  Seriously, it’s in all four games.  I guess the bad guy in 4 doesn’t want to conquer the world, but he’s basically a rich douchebag version of Lex Luthor, so he’s still a megalomaniacal asshole, so it’s kind of the same thing.  Drake goes through the same character arc (hey, maybe talk to your wife, don’t be a selfish dick, friends are important) and that would be fine, if the games weren’t always so focused on the stories and the characters.

Worse, the gameplay sort of stagnates after the second game.  Some things get polished a bit, mostly melee combat, but it’s the same over the shoulder shooter with some platforming and some puzzle solving.  Every single game uses the same mechanics.  It’s something of a microcosm for nearly every Western developer during the Seventh Console Generation.  So many games managed to find this awesome way to make third person shooters work, and it got crammed into everything when they found it could work with everything.  By the end of the generation, it felt like nearly every game was just a third person shooter with a handful RPG elements stapled to it for a good skinner box (especially in multiplayer) and while that wasn’t true, it did make gaming feel really  boring by the time the generation ended.

This is the big problem with Uncharted.  It just kept going and it never did a single new thing.  It’s itteriative and boring, and it’s a shame, because the ideas are all there, but they’ve never managed to do anything with it.  Maybe now that they’ve retired Nate, they can follow along with someone else for the time being.