• July 2018
    M T W T F S S
    « Jun    
     1
    2345678
    9101112131415
    16171819202122
    23242526272829
    3031  
  • Archives

  • Categories

  • Advertisements

Heart is the Best Power: God of War Review

god-of-war-key-art-01-ps4-us-01nov17

Copyright Sony Entertainment

God of War made me cry.  That’s a sentence I never thought I’d write or say unironically.  It wasn’t ugly crying I get when I finish reading the Gray Havens at the end of Return of the King, or even a lot of tears, but there were a few times I definitely got emotional playing God of War.  Like, God of War is a good game, yeah, but from a narrative perspective, it’s what studios like Naughty Dog or Ready At Dawn have been trying to make for over a decade and have never managed to succeed at: it’s a genuine story that directly integrates its gameplay, story and narrative writing into one succinct whole.  It does so without sacrificing the brutal gameplay and carnage the series is known for, and manages to do so while simultaneously making a statement on what violence is, and how it should and should not be used.

An indeterminate number of years after the end of God of War 3, God of War picks up with Kratos, pantheon slayer and formerly all-around irredeemable piece of shit, in the Norse realm of Midgard, mourning the death of his wife, building a funeral pyre with his son and going on one last hunting expedition with him, to make sure his son, Atraeus, is ready for the journey ahead.  The journey it turns out, is to take the ashes of Faye, Kratos’s wife, to the highest peak of all of the Nine Realms of Norse Mythology and spread her ashes.  It gets interrupted by a strange man with tattoos, who can’t feel pain, and can stand up to Kratos’s full godly wrath, and Kratos and his son get wrapped up in a twisted telling of the last bit of Norse mythology.

One of the things that makes God of War so good is that it is unapologetically a video game.  Unlike a lot of games that focus on narrative, God of War isn’t trying to be a low rent B-movie.  It’s not trying to hide its fantasy elements, or the fact that it’s a video game with tons of cool video game stuff.  It’s got bosses, multiple enemy types, combos and all sorts of cool RPG stats.  It’s not a particularly complex video game from a mechanical standpoint, but it doesn’t hide any of its video game elements.  Bosses have health bars with their names plastered all over the bottom of the screen, enemies have health bars, there are health pick ups, the game isn’t afraid to give the player button prompts when Kratos or Atraeus have to do something, and there are tons of optional fights and even a couple of Final Fantasy style super bosses.

It’s really refreshing to play a video game that actually utilizes the medium in order to tell a complex and interesting story.  There are, for instance, no actual cutscenes.  Much like Metal Gear Solid V, the entire game uses tracking shots and is shot entirely within the game engine.  Unlike Metal Gear Solid V, which has a whole bunch of different environments and requires a loading screen to transition between them, God of War is one single tracking shot, from pressing start to the stinger after the game.  The only time there’s a loading screen is when the player dies, or turns off the game.  Because there are no cutscenes, the game makes it feel like the player and Kratos (and Atraeus, somewhat) are directly connected.  When Kratos has to do something, the player is expected to use the action button, and when Atraeus is supposed to do something, the player needs to press the button that commands Atraeus.  It’s not done like a quick time event, either.  The game has done away with those, replacing pretty much every big time cutscene or set piece battle with the normal gameplay.

The game does not skimp in scale.  Much like every other game in the series, Kratos fights things that are several times larger than him, and each time, the game uses its normal combat system.  Sure, there are a couple of times where things like movement are controlled, such as fighting someone on the back of a dragon, but the actual fighting between Kratos and the boss uses the same system as before.  Kratos might not climb on the back of a mountain sized enemy like fighting Kronos in God of War 3, but there are still several giant enemies, and the game still figures in huge monsters Kratos has to jump onto to murder, while steering them into bad guys, just like every other game in the series.

Combat itself is great.  It steals liberally from Dark Souls, merging with the combat from the older games.  It’s fun, it has some depth, and there are definitely fights in this game that will pull out all of the stops to challenge the player.  The gameplay is not just here to service the plot, it’s fun in and of itself.  It may not be on the level of Devil May Cry 4, but what is, really?  Besides, that was all DMC 4 had going for it, this has so much more, plus its combat is a lot of fun.

About the only downside of the combat is probably that while the game doesn’t skimp on the size of bosses, it’s still not quite sure how to do giant monsters just yet.  The fight on the back of the dragon, for example, is a bit easy because of how much has to be scripted.  It lacks, for instance, the depth of combat and it doesn’t push the player as much as one of the optional Valkyrie fights, even the easy ones.  There’s a part in the game that takes place on the corpse of a jotun even larger than Kronos, but Kratos never gets to fight it.

Narratively is where this game shines.  It’s a very emotional game that really explores Kratos as a character.  By the end of the series, he had become a ridiculous self-parody; an irredeemable, awful piece of shit who was still hard to play as, even when going up against people who were objectively much worse than he was.  This Kratos is older, wiser, and perfectly aware of the darkness growing in his heart.  The game doesn’t shy away from how awful murdering Zeus was, even if Zeus was a heartless rapist bastard who totally had it coming.  To Kratos, the end scene of God of War 3, where he literally punches Zeus’s face into mush (a scene so violent I couldn’t look at it while I was doing it, and I hate Zeus), is a source or shame.  A shame so deep, it causes a rift between he and his son.

The growth of the development between Kratos and Atraeus is the real star here.  Kratos is so ashamed of himself, who he was as a person, that he wants to make sure Atraeus never becomes like him.  As such, he becomes distant, and that distance makes his son angry, and Kratos sees that same anger growing in him.  The game is all about this cycle, this mythological cycle of sons killing fathers, rising up and destroying what was before, just because of daddy issues.  Whats interesting, is the game gives the player, and Kratos himself, a vision as to just what he had become by the end of God of War 3.  While talking about the specifics go into some pretty specific spoilers, by showing Kratos just what he had become, it allows Kratos to actually grow as a person, and become something so much better.

There is a lot to discuss, but basically, the game is essentially a real game.  It’s what every studio has been trying to do for decades, and it does it not by sacrificing what makes the medium work, but by embracing it.  It’s fantasy, it’s a video game, and it’s got one of the best, most emotional stories I’ve seen come out this year.  Good job Sony Santa Monica.

Advertisements

Game Anatomy: Leviathan Axe

So, before we go on, I am going to say that I’m going to try to avoid spoilers, but I can’t promise anything.  I’m not done with the game, but I’m about halfway through the game, so I do know some things.  Also, a student spoiled part of the ending for me, because that’s how things go when you deal with teenagers.  However, considering what I am discussing, there is one major spoiler for the midpoint of the game.  I don’t know if it ruins something, but it might make the scene this blog posts spoils a little less impactful.

So, as a warning, there are pretty big spoilers in this blog post.  Please read with caution.

god-of-war-key-art-01-ps4-us-01nov17

Copyright Sony Entertainment

Once again, there will be some major midpoint spoilers in this post.  Please be cautious.

God of War is not a game I would have expected to be good.  I loved the first two games so much I actually played one of the PSP games.  It was awful.  I also beat it in, like, two weeks due to sheer determination.  The third game was way too much, just sort of an awful, bloody slog through some of the worst writing.  When the Dad of War stuff came out, I didn’t care, I thought they were just trying to go after Naughty Dog and do another Last of Us.  Nope.  God of War turned out to be something great, and it felt like a God of War game in ways I never imagined.  One of the best things about this is Kratos’s new Leviathan Axe, a winter weapon of frozen death that shakes up not just the gameplay, but the story, too, in many great ways.

Obviously, the Leviathan Axe is not the Blades of Chaos (or Athena or Exile).  It’s personal, more brutal and brings Kratos closer to the action.  In the old God of War games, the Blades of Chaos had huge range, able to strike enemies from a distance, which really made the combat in God of War really engaging, especially considering how the game used camera scaling to pit Kratos against things that were sometimes literally the size of a mountain.  However, the new God of War is up close and personal, and that isn’t something the Blades of Chaos were known for.  By introducing the players to the Leviathan Axe right at the beginning, it shows the players that this is going to be a completely different God of War, more interested in being like Dark Souls than being like the older games.

The game is much closer, more personal, than it’s ever been.  The camera no longer scales, even when Kratos is fighting something an order of magnitude larger than him.  This means the game requires a melee weapon that is up close and personal, because that’s what the game is trying to convey.  This is a very personal game, because it’s about not just Kratos and his relationship with his son Atraeus, but it’s about Kratos exploring, perhaps for the first time in his long, long life, just who he is exactly.  It’s a very up close and personal examination of who he is as a man, and as a god.  Giving Kratos a weapon that plays into the new camera, and tying it all into the more personal journey is absolutely necessary.

While the Leviathan Axe is a closer, more brutal and personal weapon, it also does a lot to transform the gameplay.  The Blades of Chaos are very combo heavy, with lots of complex moves requiring specific button presses, mix ups and memorization, and that’s something that worked for the original games in the series, which are closer to spectacle brawlers like Devil May Cry or Bayonetta.  With the way combat and exploration are set up, requiring more precise usage of shields and avoidance, an aggressive weapon doesn’t work.  The Leviathan Axe is slower, each strike being more deliberate and pointed than simply mashing tons of enemies into powder by hammering on the attack button with the Blades.  It’s not Dark Souls, it’s still God of War, but it definitely is more Dark Souls adjacent than the series has ever been.

With the slower, more deliberately paced combat, we’re able to set  up a nice dichotomy between the Kratos of old and the Kratos we have now.  It does a good job of showing who Kratos can be, because it’s a weapon focused on precision, not overt violence.  Kratos is a more tempered man now, and the combat reflects this.  This continues on, until, and these are the spoilers, Kratos gets the Blades of Chaos again.

This should completely upend the game, especially since the Blades have all of the same abilities that they had originally and they play exactly the same, but instead, it doesn’t.  This is where the Leviathan Axe comes into play.  See, like I said, the combat in this game is much more complex and deliberate than before, and if they were to just give the player the Blades right at the start, it wouldn’t feel right.  Kratos would run in and get slaughtered, and he wouldn’t feel like a big bad ass at all.  Instead, with the new, more personal system, Kratos has to build his way up and get used to the flow and feel of fighting before they throw in the hyper aggressive Blades.

However, Sony Santa Monica takes it a step further by keeping the Leviathan Axe just as important to the game as it was at the beginning.  Not only do they use the fire and ice motifs to tell more about the story and the competing balances in Kratos’s life, which feeds into the gameplay since Kratos finally has a way to kill Hel-draugr, but they also make sure it’s still a really good weapon for combat.  The Blades are great for sweeping a room, but they swing and have a huge arc.  When needing to get up close and personal, the Leviathan Axe is the better choice.  It’s more defensive, and it’s easier to use a shield with.  Also, it’s a lot easier not to go full on berserker mode using the Axe.

Of all the pretentious…:NieR Automata Review

Nier_Automata_Cover_JP

Copyright Platinum Games and Square Enix

I probably should wait a few days before writing this, but I am not happy.  Maybe in a week I’ll have a different review.

I thought the days of pretentious anime games were over.  I’m not sure why, there are always going to be pretentious artists who think that whatever vague, semi-philosophic garbage they can cram into their writing is the most important thing in the world, generally mangling some form of postmodernism into a twisted shape in order to say something stupid.  After all, we did have Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice come out last year.  NieR: Automata, the sequel to 2010’s NieR, which was a spin off of a secret ending of the Drakengard series, is also, once again, a bunch of pretentious crap, info dumped at the end of the game to make a point about a theme that didn’t really exist until the game decided to give it to the player 2/3s of the way into the game.  Combat is pretty fun, though.

NieR: Automata takes place some 9,000 years after the events of the original NieR, with machine lifeforms sent by an alien race having taken over the earth.  Artificially created people known as Androids (despite most of them being female…) fight against the machine lifeforms on Earth, while the last vestiges of humanity control them from a base on the moon.  The player takes on 2B, a combat Androids, and her scouting companion 9S, as they fight to protect mankind and destroy some sort of thing the machine lifeforms create.  The twists and turns on this will get stupid.

As a game, NieR is an interesting hybrid of high octane, Platinum style action games, bullet hell shoot ’em ups reminiscent of Capcom’s old 1940 series and more Western style open world RPGs.  The game manages to seamlessly switch between all of these types more or less on the fly, although being that this is a Platinum game, the high flying combat is the most prominent, and the most well developed.  The game plays a lot like Bayonetta, in that it’s heavily focused on offense, with dodging as the primary form of defense.  Dodge properly, and the player sets up a counter attack that punishes the enemy for massive damage.  Combat isn’t particularly deep, at least when compared to the kings of the stylish action genre, but it is engaging.  Mostly by throwing horde after horde of enemies at the player, and making them relatively easy to tear through, without taking away the challenge.  It’s easy to dodge out of the way of melee attacks, cut through the right particle attack with a katana or jump out of the way of giant laser beams, but because the battlefield can literally be covered with enemies, one dodge could mean falling into the trap of getting pinned up against the wall and murdered by robots.  However, once it’s all said and done, and 2B (or one of the lesser characters the game makes you play later in the game) stands above the corpses of machines, the game delivers on giving the player a feeling of victory in a way most games just can’t hope to pull off.

The other parts of the game are much less developed.  The bullet hell sections are common, and with the way the enemies use ranged attack, is somewhat incorporated into the melee combat.  However, it’s still just pretty standard Gradius or 1940 style shoot ’em up gameplay here, maybe getting as advanced as Einhander.  The bullet hell sections are more distractions to the normal gameplay, to add something when travelling from one story mission to another, or to allow for some bosses to be way outside what 2B and 9S would be able to take care of on their own, despite their own personal combat abilities.  This is cool, but it does make some parts drag at certain points of the game.  Ultimately, however, they are fun, if that’s the sort of gameplay someone likes.  I found it to be a welcome addition, but it’s also something that requires a completely different skill set from the rest of the game, so it’s something that could completely wreck another player’s enjoyment all together, especially when going for the final “True” ending of the game.  The worst part, and perhaps the most trying part of the game, is the attempt at making it more like an open world RPG, and combining both the stylish action and bullet hell elements into that Western style open world sort of gameplay.  Now, if the world was interesting or well laid out, this wouldn’t be a problem, but NieR runs into nearly every large problem that an open world has, without any of the good things.

The only real virtue of the world map of NieR is that it’s small.  This is a good thing, because one of the biggest problems with the game, especially early on before the fast travel locations open up, is that many of the missions, and not just side missions, require the player to navigate the entire map just to get anything done.  A lot of the game is set up as a bunch of fetch quests.  It’s really not until the third playthrough, which honestly is where the actual game kind of starts, before the game actually stops making most of the main story into fetch quests, until the end, when it goes back to having the characters run around the whole map again.  It’s an interesting attempt at an open world, and all of the sins committed are done more out of ignorance rather than any actual bad design, but making it where back tracking to the other side of the overworld map just to progress the story made me put my controller down and find something else to do on more than one occasion.  This was only caused by a side mission once.

Along the way, I also encountered several bugs and smaller technical issues.  Part of this was playing on the PC, where playing in fullscreen mode led to framerate drops during cutscenes and blurry, downscaled graphics.  Also, several times throughout A story, I had several side quests fail to work.  That was annoying.

The worst part, though, is the story.  Not only is it bleak and nihilistic, it’s done in a pretentious, bullshit sort of way, reminding me heavily of Neon Genesis Evangelion.  It tries to make a point about the future or life or something, but since so much is hidden from the player, including the things some of the characters actually know, it’s hard to make heads or tails of what is actually going on.  The game refers to things that the player should probably know, and while some of them are references to NieR or Drakengard, most of them are things that are only revealed during the final ending, if even then.  Several things I only know because I looked them up while I was writing this very thing, but it commits one of the biggest sins of storytelling by holding off until the end to give any revelations at all.  Nearly everything of importance is only revealed at the end, and while some of it is seeded throughout the B and C stories (there’s nothing in A story unless the player already knows what to look for, and even then, it’s not great at foreshadowing), most of it is just an endgame revelation, or it fails at foreshadowing what’s coming up.  There’s a certain amount of “importance” the game thinks it has, and I don’t want to dismiss it by saying it’s a game about sexy robots fighting each other, because importance can come from anywhere, including video games where you play as a sexy robot.  Here, there really is no importance.  It’s just a game about sexy robots that throws in some stuff from philosophy and a few Biblical and classic literature references, hoping that’s all it needs to be deep.  It doesn’t even fail in an interesting way, like Xenosaga did.  It just has these things, with a somewhat bleak and ambiguous story, and acts like that’s all it needs.

That said, the ambiguity of the story did push me to keep playing, but it also caused me to delete my game as soon as I got the final ending, so it’s hard to say if it was worth it.

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.

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.

Best in the World: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Review

BreathoftheWildFinalCover

Copyright Nintendo

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve been updating my “Top 10 games of all time” and while that’s an article for another time, something struck me.  In the past two years, I’ve added two new games to that list from the past two years.  Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain and Dark Souls 3 are easily some of my favorite games of all time, and are only getting better as time goes on (even if I don’t like leveling a pyromancer).  What’s really crazy, is that it’s march, and I’ve added another game to the list for the third year in a row.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild isn’t just the best Zelda game since Link to the Past, nor is it the future of Zelda titles, but it’s the future of open world titles.

This Zelda opens up 100 years after Ganon has already defeated Link and Zelda, with Hyrule in decay and all of the realm’s champions presumed dead.  That same Link, having spent 100 years being magically rejuvenated, awakes after hearing Zelda’s voice and embarks to finish what he started 100 years ago.  However, this Hyrule is different, unlike any other Hyrule we’ve seen before.  It’s not just big, it’s huge, and as soon as Link walks out of the Shrine of Resurrection, it is his to explore.

Breath of the Wild completely remakes the entire open world genre.  While other games with an open world follow Skyrim’s model, the previous title holder of “re inventor of open world genre,” Breath of the Wild does its own thing.  The world truly is open right at the start of the game.  Sure, there’s a bit of a tutorial area, but that tutorial area is so large, it’s hard not to see at as a big, open world.  There’s so much to do, see and experiment with right in the tutorial zone, that it makes many other games in the genre seem restricted.  Need to cross a ravine?  Cut down a tree.  Need to get to a shrine at the top of the mountain?  Climb it.  See a bunch of enemies that will overwhelm you in a fight?  Set the grass on fire or push a boulder on them.  Then, once the full world opens up, it’s completely up to the player to what they want to do.

Other Zelda games tend have the illusion of openness, allowing the player to tackle some of the dungeons in a less than optimal order.  The last Zelda game, A Link Between Worlds, made it so each section of the game could be completed how the player wants.  Here, Link doesn’t even have to complete the dungeons and can charge headlong against Ganon right at the start of the game.  It’s not optimal, but it’s a possibility, and the main dungeons, too, can be approached in any order.  Nintendo does have a recommended order, but that’s just the easiest order.  I didn’t even follow that order.  Even then, there are so many ways to approach even getting to those places, that it’s insane.  It’s not because the combat system is deep, or because there’s a big world, like many other open world games, but it does one thing differently than anything else: it totally revolutionizes movement by adding climbing.

Climbing isn’t new to open world games, hell every Assassins Creed game is based around it, but Breath of the Wild lets the player climb literally everything, which allows them to go anywhere at any time, and go do anything.  Consider trying to get to the top of the Throat of the World in Skyrim.  There’s a long, winding staircase, which is cool and has tones of lore connected to it, but it also takes forever.  In Breath of the Wild, if I want to get to the top of the mountain, I’m just going to climb it.  Then, instead of fast traveling to the bottom, I’ve got a paraglider, so I’ll just fly down.  That’s so much cooler than having to walk down when I can just jump.

For all the gushing I’m doing, the game isn’t perfect.  There aren’t enough dungeons, and thanks to the completely open world aspect of the game, Nintendo is still trying to figure out what they want to do in regards to dungeons.  Each of the four big dungeons is generally made up of one gimmick, and it’s a cool gimmick that uses a lot of spatial awareness that hasn’t otherwise been used in the series, but it’s still sort of the same thing done over and over again.  The game tries to use the 120 shrines, which vary in size and approach, to make up the difference, but it’s not quite the same.  A lot of them are hard to find, there are seriously way too many of them, and the reward is visually cool (a 3D representation of the outfit Link wore in the original Legend of Zelda), but is mechanically inferior to pretty much everything else in the game.

There is the other elephant in the room, as well, the fragility of the weapons.  Normally, I find weapon breakage to be a stupid, pointless mechanic, but here, Nintendo has mostly made it work.  This is because there are a wide variety of weapons, across three categories, each doing various amounts and types of damage, with elemental strengths and weaknesses thrown in for good measure.  It’s rare that Link will be without a weapon, and scavenging them up does fit in with the game’s thematics, but the weapons are seriously way too fragile.  Honestly, there’s probably no good fix for this, either, since anything short of indestructible would probably not be enough.  On one hand, it is cool to switch between weapons, but it would be better if the difference between weapon groups wasn’t just based on a trade off between damage and speed of attacks.  Maybe if there was an actual reason to use a club over a sword, or if a spear could pierce armor.  That would be an improvement over what we have been given.  At least, however, the elemental damages do something different.

I was tempted to just start the review by saying “It’s the best since Link to the Past, end of review,” because it honestly feels that way.  However, there is so much that this game does right, and a few rough edges that need to be smoothed over.  Zelda games and open world games really needed a kick in the ass, and I’m hoping that everyone will see this as the right place to build from.

2016 Biggest Disappointment (In Gaming): Uncharted 4

Uncharted_4_box_artwork

Image copyright Sony and Naughty Dog

Uncharted 4 gets to be the biggest gaming disappointment, and disaster, of the year, because not only was it the worst game I played that came out this year, it also ruined one of my favorite game series from the last generation.  Not because it ended the series, or because it did anything particularly bad, but because it showed me that Naughty Dog just doesn’t care that much about making video games, and are more interested in making B-grade knock offs of B-movies.

I’m one of the six people in the world that didn’t really like the Last of Us that much.  Sure, Summer was a great start, and Winter would have made a nice second act, but the whole game felt like the team was more interested in making a movie, a movie that wasn’t particularly good, than making a functional game.  At the same time, the Last of Us at least had a game that was worth playing in there.  Sure, it was a pretty mid-tier stealth game with some half-assed survival mechanics bolted on, but that actually kind of made the game worth playing through and enjoyable to experience, even if I didn’t like it.  Uncharted 4 doesn’t even have that.  Everything that’s playable is just the same as it’s been since the second game.  No improvements, not alterations, no real push to the genre to bring it forward.

In my review, I mentioned it did manage to blend platforming in combat in a way that the series has tried, and failed, to do since the original, and it does do that.  It’s the one shining thing in the game, the perfect blend of the game’s cover based shooting and platforming, which would be great, if the game actually made a point of using it more than a handful of times.  Most combat is like it’s always been, with Nate outnumbered by way too many, and the best strategy is to hide behind cover, line up a head shot, and then move when they’re not shooting and trying to flank.  There are a few set pieces where the player can use the new improvements to combat, but it’s only a handful of them, giving a glimpse of what might have been if they had the time to actually make something out of the game.

See, one of Uncharted’s biggest failings is that it’s all about going from set piece to set piece, and honestly, set pieces are fine, as long as there is something to it.  Doom had a similar issue, but Doom also managed to kick ass and be a lot of fun, so it’s more of a minor issue than it is here.  When this game is on, it feels like it’s scripted, and then I die because I did something “off script.”  All of the big set pieces seem to only work when I follow the correct route and do things the right way.  It’s not that this is actually the case, the multi-tiered combat zones actually give the player a lot of freedom, but the game feel and enemy placement does a lot to punish the player for experimenting.  So while it does give a lot of chances for the player to stretch out their problem solving skills, it also packs in so many enemies and Nate still has the hit points of a wet piece of tissue paper, so it becomes in practice, an exercise in frustration.

Other than combat, though, everything is just a straight line.  All of the Uncharted games have been linear and have basically told the player where to go, but there is something particularly egregious about this entry, and it’s hard to pin down as to why.  Part of it, that I imagine, is because of the huge, sprawling landscapes that look like they’re open to the player, but are just background, or the obviously fake “open sections” where Nate and his worthless brother are parked and have to solve a puzzle.  There’s generally a pretty big place to wander around in, but mostly it’s to obfuscate the answer to the puzzle rather to actually allow the player to explore.

Finally, the story is probably the worst in the series.  The lack of magical elements, strangely, is one of the few saving graces, but the whole story is “Nate’s past comes back to haunt him,” which would be great if that wasn’t already the plot to 2, and second, if these characters, who are apparently so important to Nate, were ever mentioned before.  2 utilizes flashbacks, and the fact its the second in the series, thus still able to establish new stuff for the world and its characters, in order to make the past seem threatening.  Here, we have an established game world and suddenly we have Nate’s brother, never mentioned, and the psychopath who nearly got them killed, never mentioned, all coming back to complicate his life because he’s unhappy in retirement.  At least the ending manages to work out.  Sort of.

Maybe I’m the one person in the world who thinks this, but I hated Uncharted 4, nearly every bit of it.  At least it’s the end.  No reason to play the same game for the fifth (or sixth time, I never played the Vita game), after all.