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Story Telling In Video Games

Story tellers have always been looking for new and more creative ways to express themselves and/or entertain the masses. I think that, if handled correctly, video games can be the most immersive and creative medium of all. But what is the correct way to go about telling a tale in such an inherently interactive environment? Over the past several years, various people and studios have experimented in an attempt to answer this question. The solutions some have come up with have been absolutely amazing in some cases, controversial in others and a complete failure in a disappointing number more.

You may have heard of The Chinese Room. They are an independent developer who has gained some fame for making two such infamous story-based games. The ‘walking simulator’ is a derogatory term which (so far as I know) was invented to describe the games that The Chinese Room is known for. Dear Esther is the first time I’d heard of them myself. This is a ‘game’ which I believe I have complained about before on this blog; the amount of interaction the player has is minimal: hold ‘w’ and move the mouse to point in the direction you want to walk while a mopey man talks in your ears about something. I honestly gave up listening to him after only a few minutes of him complaining. A mistake, it turns out, as the mopey man who talks way too much turns out to be the device by which the entire story is told. You walk around a deserted island until he runs out of stuff to complain about. The end. There is some kind of gameplay here, but I fear it was not intended by the developer; the level design is extremely poor. So much that it presents quite the challenge at times to work out where you’re supposed to next. Oftentimes it leads you to a dead end and you have to, with no indication at all, work out that you’re supposed to do a 180 and go back the way you came for a bit. To get through this harrowing experience, I would throw on some tracks from Spotify to listen to while I held ‘w’ down for 5 minutes straight, and discovered that you can’t actually drown yourself in game – several times. When this torture ended, I remember a great feeling of frustration that I had wasted my time on it. I was shocked to discover that I had only apparently spent 76 minutes on it. I thought it had been hours.

Their next game was Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. I did a review of it at the time. If you can’t be bothered to read that, here’s a summary: if you ignore the very nice graphics and beautiful soundtrack, the only thing impressive about this game is how the story can be so boring throughout, and yet the ending still manages to disappoint you. The story is told in basically the same way, except there is now some kind of gameplay, I’m not talking about the (still as unbelievably terrible) puzzle of a level design, but there’s a confusing light puzzle thing that is remarkably easy to solve once you work out the first one.

Everything about The Chinese Room’s games screams pretentiousness to the highest degree. They are games that feign depth and put on an aesthetic which tries to trick you into thinking that these games are deeper than they actually are. The kind of thing that some people would be scared to criticise because fans could so easily tell you that you ‘just don’t get it’ and that you’re ‘not clever enough to understand’. Well no more!

Gone Home is also a walking simulator, developed by Full Bright. I love Gone Home. It’s the only good walking simulator I’ve ever played. It tells the story of a person going home to the house they grew up in and learning about the events that transpired while they were away. What makes the game good is how much freedom the player is given to pick and choose how much information they want to learn. There’s the base story, which you have to follow, but there’s also so much more detail the player can go into in the form of documents, photos, notebooks etc. The player chooses the pace at which the story is told – this is an advantage of this medium that walking simulators simply must capitalise on if they’re going to tell a story. If you’re trying to tell a story through a game and you don’t want to give the audience the freedom to go at their own pace and skip out on stuff that might not be as interesting to them as someone else, are you sure a video game was the right medium to tell this story? Gone Home’s story is simple, easy to follow and excellently told. It doesn’t try to be anything more than it needs to be – there’s no fluff, it’s not trying to examine the human condition, it’s trying to tell the story of a family and the struggles they’ve had with living together – and yet Gone Home has had a far deeper impact on me than anything The Chinese Room has ever done. I fell in love with the characters and I left the game feeling satisfied, rather than frustrated. Gone Home is up there with the greats.

Walking simulators are quite limiting, however. You can only really tell one kind of story with one – one where the events have occurred and you’re a person walking through the rubble, uncovering the story regarding what happened. Telltale takes a more cinematic approach. I think most people know of or have played their Walking Dead game, at least the first series. It’s the only one I played. Telltale pioneered the episodic approach to releasing a story driven game. They would work on an episode, release that, and then do the next episode a month later or so. This is a pretty good system for them for a few reasons. For one thing, it means that they can have an output and release stuff on the regular without compromising so much on quality than if they had released it all at once. It also gives the players a common stopping point. It means players of the game are more likely to discuss it with each other. If the game was released all at once, it would leave players all at different points meaning that they would avoid discussing the game. By releasing the game in easily-digestible 2 hour chunks, you get the water-cooler effect, where people start discussing what they think might happen next. Then we get the peer pressure in for the people who aren’t playing the game but everyone else is. It’s a great marketing strategy.

In terms of how Telltale tells a tale, it much like watching an episode of a TV show, only you get to make some decisions like how the main character will reply to a question, who they’ll back up in a conflict, should they go to this location and do this or go to the other location and do something else. There’s also a combat system built into most of them which almost always consists of quick-time events and button-mashing, which can be exciting sometimes, but it is almost impossible to fail most of the time. Telltale has made series in this style ranging from The Walking Dead to Minecraft. They have been hugely successful, and I’m not going to sit here and write that they are bad at it; they’re not, they make good stuff, just nothing great.

I think that there are a few things which hold back all Telltale games. For one thing, production value is fairly low – animation is consistently robotic looking, graphics usually leave something to be desired and the soundtrack has never been stunning, but this is what you get when you are splitting you’re resources so much that you can be working on multiple series at once, and when you want to easily port the game to mobile.

Also a problem for me is the implementation of player choice. We know from the failings of The Chinese Room that you need player input. I’m not convinced Telltale actually really has any. I think that when you are given a choice in a Telltale game, you are being tricked. It’s not like the game ignores anything you tell it – it’s more that the choices you make have no real effect on the outcome of the story. Quite often a dialogue choice will come up and it will be designed so that whatever you choose, the same event will occur afterwards. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect Telltale to create such a branching story line so that any choice the player makes will have a different effect on the outcome. I just think that when you have a system like this, you are relying on the illusion of choice you’ve set up to not be shattered; once it is, the player starts to wonder why they’re bothering. I’ve always watched Telltale games being played on YouTube rather than buy them and play them myself.

For a more high production value game in this style, see Life Is Strange. Life Is Strange is the same sort of formula, except it’s a lot more like a normal game; you have a lot more control over what the main character, Max, does. You can walk her around, go exploring and also control time – but that’s more to do with the plot than anything else. This opens up something that is missing in Telltale games – exploration. Like in Gone Home, the player is given more of an opportunity to play at their own pace. If they were to walk into a room, they’d be able to look at loads of things in the room in order to learn more about the world, the characters and pick up hints about the plot. Choices that the player makes actually affect aspects of the game. So far as I know, nothing can change the outcome, but it makes the journey to the outcome so much more interesting, and provides a different experience for each player.

Life Is Strange is also a beautiful game, with pretty good animation, nothing stunning but better than Telltale’s stuff, and a great soundtrack. You may get annoyed with the characters, being that they’re all angsty teenagers, and you’ll definitely get annoyed if you are a teenager yourself because the character’s lines were all clearly written by someone who does not know how teenagers talk to each other – I’ll say this is charming; it did give me a good laugh while playing it.

There are loads of other games I could talk out – The Witcher 3, The Last Of Us, Uncharted – but I wanted to focus on games who’s sole purpose is to tell a story rather than be an action adventure or an RPG. I have seen proof that games can be, when done correctly, an amazing way to tell a story and an experience to remember for the player. But I think that it is so much harder to achieve this than to make a great film because there are so many variables involved. For a story to work as a game it has to be written as a game, and it should not be something that could be directly translated into a film or a book. Story telling in games is hard – but when it pays off, it can make for a groundbreaking experience.

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Games Reviews

Crash Bandicoot: The Legacy

Back in the good old days of the 90s, Naughty Dog was just two guys – Jason Ruben and Andy Gavin, friends from school who liked making games together. They’d been working on a few games before and had made a bit of money from it. After they wowed Universal Studios with their fighting game, Way of the Warrior, Universal decided they wanted to get into the games industry and promptly made a deal with Ruben and Gavin: “we’ll give you an office space on the Universal lot and a few employees to help you make us a few games”. They agreed and hired seven people, which was quite a lot of people in the early 90s, to help make their next title.

They’d previously worked with consoles like the Sega Genesis and the Panasonic 3DO (yes Panasonic made a games console, everyone was doing it at the time). The 3DO had the advantage of an optical drive, meaning that developers could put a lot of content into their games – 650mb was a lot in the 90s. The problem with the 3DO was that it wasn’t very powerful and neither was it very popular. Quite recently, however, Sony had just entered the console market with the PlayStation. This had an optical drive, and importantly, it was very powerful – being focused on 3D graphics. It had been released exclusively in Japan a year before and was met with wild success, knocking Nintendo and Sega off of their pedestals as the industry leaders. Naughty Dog bought a developer kit at vast expense and got to work making a game for the newly released, in America and Europe, Sony PlayStation.

Mascots were a thing for consoles back in the 80s and 90s. Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic. Sony had nothing. This gave Naughty Dog an ambitious idea. They were going to, without Sony asking them to or even knowing it, make the PlayStation mascot. They decided they wanted it to be an animal like Sonic the hedgehog and wanted to follow the idea of making it an animal that most people don’t know about (apparently people don’t know what a hedgehog is in America). They decided to go for an Australian setting and therefore to pick an Australian animal. They eventually picked a Bandicoot. To this day, most people still don’t know that a Bandicoot is a real animal. Many people will Google “what kind of animal is Crash Bandicoot?”, followed quickly by “what is a bandicoot?”. He was given the name “Crash” because he is always crashing into boxes during the gameplay.

These games were a wild success and got Naughty Dog to where they are today – one of the most respected game developers in the world. Earlier this year, a remastered collection of the original trilogy was released for PS4. This meant that a studio, Vicarious Visions, had to play the original games and recreate everything. Every level, every secret, exactly the same. I’ve heard they’d done a marvellous job of it, so that’s why I bought all three of the original PS1 games and played them all the way through.

It’s been said a million times by now, but these games are all harder than most people remember. I only remember playing Crash 3 and remember getting stuck at one point and never continuing, but I don’t remember it being quite as hard as it is.

Crash 1 starts with no cutscene. You press play and the game throws you into the first level. There are actually no cutscenes at all until you reach the very end of the game. To watch the opening cutscene you have to wait on the main menu for a minute or so. It really makes a statement about the importance of the story in this game when the opening cut scene is only really there to serve as a screen saver. So it turns out that Crash has been genetically engineered in order to lead Dr Cortex’s army of bandicoots to take over the world. It goes wrong, the bad guys kidnap Crash’s sexy bandicoot girlfriend and now Crash needs to save her. A very simple story which only serves to provide some kind of motivation to the main characters, and is only there for the people who care about that.

The gameplay is your simple Crash stuff – 3D platforming including excellent level design, inventive enemies, compulsive box smashing and wompa fruit collecting. It’s all very fun and furiously frustrating. Most of the time when you screw up the game makes you feel like it was your fault, that you’re not good enough, which is actually something that takes skilled game design. You’ll screw up a lot, and when you do you’ll start screwing up even the easy bits that you got perfectly the first time. This all makes it so much better when you do finally get to the next save point because you know you’ll never have to do any of it again, but you’ll be glad you managed to do it. This is important – you don’t get angry at the game for being unfair or too hard, you get angry at yourself for being bad at the game.

If you run out of lives in Crash 1, you’ll go back to the last time you saved. So it’s fine, right? You just need to save after each level and it’s good. Oh, how naive you are, thinking you can save whenever you want. You have to earn the right to save your game in Crash 1. To save your game you have to collect three bonus coins from unmarked boxes to get into the bonus level, then you must complete the bonus level without dying. When you load the save it’ll put you back to the start of the level you got the save point on. The save points aren’t on every level, either. You’ll find one on every one out of three or four levels. Which means you might run out of lives and have to go back to redo three or four levels that you just completed, preferably without losing any lives because the number of lives you have carry over to the next level. Does this make you want to smash your head into a wall? Yes. Does it make for the best feeling in the world when you finally get a save point? Also yes.

The boss battles in Crash 1 are known for being hilariously easy in comparison to rest of the game. I agree with this knowing; the bosses are a bit pathetic in their attempt to defeat you. They’re all just scripted so once you learn what the boss is going to do, you aren’t in any real danger. Some bosses only take a few seconds to defeat once you know what they’re going to do. Naughty Dog took this advice on board when making the next games.

Crash 2 discards with the sexy bandicoot girlfriend aspect in favour of an actual female character, Coco. Coco is Crash’s sister and she’s really clever and has a pet tiger which is pretty cool. There is actually an opening cutscene to this one, but it doesn’t matter. Cortex wants to take over the world still and Crash needs to collect all the power crystals so that Cortex doesn’t have them. Coco sometimes calls Crash and tells him what’s going on with that. Crash 2 adds the idea of a warp room. The warp room is where Crash can jump through one of many portals to get to a level. This is probably so that there can be more variety in the levels, with ice levels and fire levels which wouldn’t have made sense if there was no warp room idea and all the levels were supposed to be connected like in Crash 1. The gameplay is basically the same as the first game, but just with new enemies to get angry at.

Thankfully, depending on your opinion, you are now allowed to save after each level. Now you only have to complete a level once. This makes the game a lot less infuriating but also feel so much easier. I felt that the game only really became a challenge with the final few levels. Although, this might have been because the levels are genuinely easier, or it might have been because, unlike the first game, DualShock controllers had been invented by this point, so now you don’t have to control the game using the D-Pad. In any case, this meant that where the first game took me two weeks to complete, the second only took me two days.

In Crash 3 there’s some time travel nonsense that matters as little as any of the stories in the Crash series, but it’s all very similar to the previous game, with warps rooms and so on, except now as crash progresses he gets new abilities like double jumping, extended spinning and a bazooka, which makes some of the enemies very simple to deal with – you just shoot them. You can also play as Coco now, which is pretty good because she has a jet ski and a tiger. This was the game that I remember playing most and playing it filled me with memories of a better time when life was good. I never finished it as a child, and I’m very glad that I finally did. Again, it only took me two days.

It’s said that you haven’t really finished a Crash game until you have all the gems. So you have to smash every box and complete every time trial of every level of every game. I didn’t do this, so when I say it only took me two days, that’s just how long it took to get to the end of the final boss battle of each. For some people, doing what I would count as finishing the game is just the start. I don’t really want to commit to that. I’m not that kind of person.

So then, which is the best? It depends on what experience you’re going for. If you want to have a really tough time of it but feel very rewarded at the end, I suppose you probably want to play Crash 1. If you want to just sort of have fun and chill out, Crash 3 is your game. Crash 2 is the worst one, but that’s not to say that it is bad – it’s excellent – it’s just not as good as the other two, or rather, it doesn’t do anything that Crash 3 doesn’t do, and it’s not as hard as Crash 1. I can’t speak for the N’Sane Trilogy, but apparently, it’s a very faithful remaster of the original games, and many have claimed it’s even harder.

The Crash Bandicoot trilogy is legendary amongst gamers, particularly around my age who played them as a child and remember them fondly, because nostalgia blocks out all the painful parts. It got Naughty Dog to where they are today and began their legacy of making some of the best games in the world. Well done Naughty Dog.


P.S For those wondering why I didn’t mention Crash Team Racing, it’s because it’s like £30 everywhere I look and I only have bad memories of that game.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda – Not Actually the Worst Game Ever

Mass Effect: Andromeda came out a few months ago, but if you wanted a quick review from me I can only disappoint you. When the game came out, it was bombarded by the internet because of the animations and glitches. In fact, EA managed to unwittingly create a perfect storm by releasing the game early to some people – so for the majority of people, the marketing of the game was stuff like this:

Which was a bit of a disaster for sales in an environment when so many things can go wrong, and if any of them do, the sales of a game can completely fall over. Big games like Mass Effect: Andromeda need to sell well because they cost so much to make. A lot of casual fans dismissed the game because of the footage of the animations and glitches they were seeing all over YouTube, and while the reviews of the game weren’t actually bad in general, they were just not as good as most people need. At least it got over 70% on Metacritic, which is the threshold it needs to cross in order to be not a complete disaster, but it was just not good enough for casual gamers – especially at the £50 price point. The game didn’t sell well enough and it’s no surprise to anyone that EA has (apparently) ‘shelved the series’.

I would love to go into the details of why the game failed so badly on a technical level, but other people have already done that a lot more effectively than me, and with better knowledge. Firstly by Jason Schreirer of Kotaku who did some excellent investigative reporting on the subject, and secondly, there’s a great video which also covers animation in RPGs generally:

But if you can’t be bothered with that, here’s a summary: EA is in love with their Frostbite engine (and has been for years) and recently decided that all their games must use it because then they’ll all look really good. The problem with that is Bioware had barely used the Frostbite engine in the past, and because the engine is only really a graphics rendering engine, they had to rebuild a lot of the systems they had before for the other games when they used the Unreal engine. A combination of poor management and staff changes throughout the project lead to everything falling apart. A lot of the animation ended up (probably) being untouched by human hands and was left mostly to the computers to work out using advanced cyberspace computer magic. I’m surprised EA didn’t delay the game again, but I suppose this is EA we’re talking about, who would throttle a starving orphan to get an extra £10 in sales of FIFA.

Considering the nightmare of a development Andromeda had, I was genuinely impressed they managed to get such a complete game out the door. Yeah it was glitchy and the animations were often hilarious, but overall the game is playable, and I only encountered 2 game-breaking bugs, causing me to have to reload from an early save and redo some bits. It’s even quite fun. Yes, even after all the bad press it got, I still bought it (for cheaper than the normal price) fully expecting to find that I had made a horrible mistake. Given my expectations, I was very quite surprised by the game – in a good way.

Andromeda takes place after the events of Mass Effect 3, although none of the characters are aware of the events of Mass Effect 3 (probably a good thing). This is because, as the narrative dictates, after Mass Effect 2 the council decides that just in case the galaxy is wiped out by the Reapers after all, they should send a few colony ships to the nearest other galaxy: Andromeda. They all set off just before Mass Effect 3 begins, and arrive 700 years later. Thorugh some kerfuffling, you become the human Pathfinder – the person who is in charge of establishing new colonies throughout the galaxy and also sorting everything else out because apparently, no one thought to send any kind of military with the colonies to do the dangerous stuff. But that’s fine, I think all government officials should be trained in the art of combat and sent into war zones – it would more fun that way. Some stuff and things happen – you meet an alien race who are hilariously called the ‘Kett’ and some purple humanoid lion people who are all quite nice but don’t really trust outsiders. The story, in general, is okay – nothing too interesting or engaging but at least it drives things forward. I could fairly well predict the plot points that were coming up as I played through the story.

Getting into the characters for a minute, it’s worth setting this up by mentioning that the characters in the original trilogy were definitely one of the strongest points of the games. They were all interesting, varied and had rough edges – like real people. They could joke around but knew when to get serious. You knew you could depend on them in a crisis. Through the games, you got to know them very well – if you spent enough time talking to them – and because of this, I got to quite like some characters that I had, at first, disliked. This was only because I actually talked to them and helped them out with their loyalty missions. It was all very well done. Andromeda’s characters are all a lot more childish and light-hearted. The majority of the characters are people in their early 20s and not from a military background, so they aren’t hardened and they often joke around, sometimes inappropriately. I don’t want to give the impression that I hated this, I was just a bit confused by it for a while and I definitely don’t prefer it. It’s a little bit jarring if, like me, you’ve come straight from the original trilogy. I suppose it was an attempt to distance this set of characters from the characters of the Normandy. I can respect this direction, even if it comes off a little bit cheesy at times. My biggest problem was the lack of variety in the crew. Nearly everyone failed to interest me at all. I didn’t really want to get to know my crew particularly in the same way that I wanted to get to know my crew on the Normandy as Commander Shepard. Ryder (the Pathfinder) is much less of a leader on the ship than Shepard and more of a friend to everyone. I’m not such a fan of this direction, personally.

One thing I am a fan of is, however, is the new dialogue system. The original Mass Effect series had a dialogue morality system where one could choose either the good option or the bad option for what they want to say to people. If you do a lot of good things, you will be able to do special good things which will mean you can persuade other characters to do stuff – and the same for the bad dialogue options. It doesn’t amazingly matter whether you pick good or bad, It’ll just affect whether Shepard is nice to people or not. The problem with this system is that one only has to choose at the start of the game whether they want to be nice or nasty and then from that point on simply only pick the relevant dialogue options in order to unlock the late-game persuasion options. This system is abandoned in Andromeda and replaced with what emotion you want to respond with. Do you want to respond to a person emotionally, logically, professionally, or casually? This means that you’ll end up spending a lot more time thinking about your options rather than always going for the good or the bad option. In the originals, it would sometimes even point out to you what the good option and bad option is for a moral choice. Would you like to do the good thing or the bad thing to these people? Oh no! How am I going to decide?! What a conundrum!

The original idea behind Andromeda was to go back to the roots of Mass Effect, which was fantasy fulfilment and exploration. While I think the term ‘fantasy fulfilment’ sounds dodgy, I can confirm my fantasies were fulfilled by this game more effectively than in the first three games. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and I’ve got to say, Andromeda got me feeling like I was in charge of a little spaceship, like in TNG, and that’s a great feeling. I loved the idea of flying around the galaxy and visiting new planets with my loyal crew at my heel, ready to take a pounding whenever they fail me. But that’s just my fantasy, I don’t know about you.

As for the exploration part, well I dunno about that. The game features 7 planets to wander around. They are very large areas and I only found the border of one once. However, these planets are all a bit empty. One planet is literally just a big sandy desert a la Tatooine or Jakku from the Star Wars franchise of movies. Originally, there were going to be infinite planets like No Man’s Sky, but people in Bioware questioned how that would possibly make a good game and how they could tell a story in a game world like that. The idea was scrapped and the number of planets was eventually reduced to 7. I feel as though they could have trimmed it more if it meant more variety and features on the more important and interesting planets. I didn’t feel at all compelled to properly explore the planets I was on. I quite quickly got bored of all of them before even the game would allow me to move on to another planet. I found I was rushing through the missions just so I could go somewhere else. In open world games, I’m a strong believer in ‘density over size’ of a game world. Just Cause 3’s world was big and empty – I got bored pretty quickly, the same is true for the Mad Max game. You can try to impress me all you want with how big the world is, but if there’s not a lot in it, I don’t care – I would even prefer the world were smaller. This is why open world games like Skyrim, The Witcher 3 and Horizon Zero Dawn work so well – their worlds are only as big as they need to be in order to comfortably fit all the actual stuff in them. The reason I wanted to move on to a different planet in Andromeda was that I wanted to see a different horizon and be somewhere else. I would say Bioware didn’t do an excellent job of the exploration part of things.

They didn’t screw up combat too badly at all, however. Well, that’s not entirely true – the biotics wheel is gone and you can only equip two powers before a mission which you’re stuck with. This was probably an attempt to streamline the combat, but I just think it makes the combat a lot less varied and a lot more shooty. Strategy is no longer much a concern in Andromeda and combat is a lot messier. That said, I think it still is very fun in its own way – it’s certainly more fun than a lot of third person shooters I’ve played, and a lot more varied in terms of the enemies you’re fighting, which need you to do different things in order to take them down. It’s quite like Destiny. I had fun with the combat, but I did still miss the strategy and planning involved with the previous games. I suppose you could explain it away by saying that Commander Shepard was an actual military commander and Ryder has almost no military training at all – but that just leads you to question why Ryder has been put in charge of a military team when there are people on the ship who are actually qualified to do that very thing. What are they even there for?

The game was a lot of fun and I did play it for thirty hours. However, the final four of those hours were rushed because I could feel myself getting very bored and I didn’t want to abandon the game when I felt so close to the end. The plot left lots of things unexplained – clearly setting itself up for a sequel which will never happen now (probably). Maybe the (potentially) forthcoming DLC will explain some of these things. I would say that the game is worth playing if you’re a fan of the series. And if you can get it cheap. And if you have nothing else to do – which you clearly don’t because you read all the way to the bottom of this.

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Games Reviews

Mass Effect: All You Have To Do Is Ignore The Ending

I started working on a complete playthrough of the original Mass Effect trilogy back in March, around the time Andromeda was coming out. I’d never played any of them before (except that’s not true, is it, Henry), and I wanted to experience them. ME2 has been often acclaimed as the greatest PC game of all time – or at least in the top ten. I was mainly convinced by my friend and housemate, George Pell, who’s love for the Mass Effect series knows no bounds. Although you can’t trust all his opinions; he really liked Batman Vs. Superman. I have, in the past couple of days, completed Mass Effect 3, but we’ll get to that later.

Mass Effect 1 is 10 years old, but it doesn’t look it. The gameplay feels old, but I can only imagine what people must have thought of the graphics back in 2007. This game was a case of BioWare doing what they knew very well how to do, a classic RPG. BioWare, of course, has been well known as a studio for its excellent RPGs like Knights of the Old Republic and Baldur’s Gate. As a result of this, Mass Effect is slightly confused in what it wants to be. It has a lot of quite (at the time) innovative combat systems to make it an action game, but it also feels very slow. There are long sequences of the player doing nothing.

Most notably, the lift sequences. When you get into a lift, you experience the entire lift journey. You can’t move, you are required to just stand there and wait for the lift to arrive at its destination while a news bulletin (if there is one available that you haven’t listened to let) plays to you. If you want to get to somewhere, you have to walk quite a distance to get to that place. When you land on a planet to start a mission, you quite often arrive in a random location and you have to drive to the starting area. This is a style that BioWare had been using for a long time. I quite like it in some ways; you get a real feel of the scale of everything. I can, however, understand why the decision was taken to remove this.

But then you have the combat. The game has frustrating combat. I’m not really sure what it is about it, however. I think the difficulty level may be one thing, but I think it’s mostly that the combat system is complicated. If you were to use it properly and have some fun with it, you might find that it’s not so bad, but I didn’t know this. The problem is that one (me) might assume (as I did) that the combat is mainly about shooting stuff. One would be incorrect in this assumption. It’s more about using the so-called ‘biotic powers’. Basically, magic which allows you to do various things to your enemy, such as remove their shield, set them on fire and throw them into the air etc. I didn’t really pay attention to this very well, mainly because the system wasn’t explained to me. I didn’t use them really at all until one of the AI companions started using them and my friend told me I wasn’t using them enough.

I think the game has the same problem as the Witcher 2 had, in that the game has all of these cool systems which can (and should) be used, but at no point is any of it really explained. This means players such as me will have a hard time understanding these things and will leave frustrated. I really did not enjoy the combat in Mass Effect 1, but thankfully, that is not the main part of the game. George Pell put it to me that, “Mass Effect 1 is just a game you have to get through so you can play Mass Effect 2.” I don’t entirely agree with that. There are some very good aspects to the game.

The story of the game is simple, easy to understand and at no point goes high concept and overly convoluted. There are these things called ‘Reapers’ which a long time ago wiped out this ancient civilisation called the ‘Protheans’. Now the Reapers are coming back to kill everyone again, we don’t know why but you find out in the sequels or something when the writers think of something. You are Commander Shepard of the Normandy spaceship, and the super-cool intergalactic council made you a spectre. Now you have access to lots of funding and can do what you want to protect the galaxy from any threat. You do some stuff and no one believes the Reapers are a thing so no one takes any action, so you have to take matters into your own hands. A Reaper shows up and everyone kills it and then decides they should have listened to you in the first place. Fin.

On to Mass Effect 2 now, and BioWare has done a stunning job of cutting back the fat. Not removing it entirely, just trimming it to get the balance right. Gone are the big, open planets, the long lift sequences and convoluted combat, and here is a sleeker, cooler and much more enjoyable experience. There’s been a massive improvement to the graphics and the game feels a hell of a lot more modern overall. For a game released in 2010, it seems ahead of its time.

I want to take a moment to appreciate the coolest aspect of the series. When you make a character in Mass Effect 1, it stays with you until the end of Mass Effect 3. This includes all of your decisions and the state of the galaxy you left it in. All you have to do is load the latest save file from the previous game into the next game and it’ll continue you from there. Your actions, appearance and relationships with other characters are preserved. This is, I think, the coolest thing about the series, and I wish more games did it. There are some decisions made in ME1 which directly affect choices you can make in ME3. This adds more pressure to make good decisions because a bad choice will haunt you for the rest of the series, not just the one game. It also means that you can get so easily attached to the characters; my Commander Shepard felt personal to me, she had made my decisions and she was friends with all the characters I want her to be friends with.

Back to ME2, the combat has been simplified. You could, if you’re boring, just run into a room and shoot everything. This would take a long time but there’s nothing stopping you. The combat feels a little easier and lots more enjoyable. The story is as simple as 1 – not ridiculous, simple, makes sense, I can understand it.  What’s really interesting is the system used to decide the ending. Basically, the ending is determined by how much work you put into the whole game. If you rush it, you’re unlikely to do very well at the end, but if you take the time to prepare, the ending will go well and you’ll have a great time. I think this is a good system. What’s really good is that fact you don’t know when you’ve done enough. You could go on forever, doing side quest after side quest until you’re blue in the face, but eventually, you have to bite the bullet and go for it, hoping you’re prepared for whatever comes next. It adds a lot of tension to the finale of the game.

Mass Effect 2 introduces you to a rich array of new characters to meet and get to know. The writing here is really good. I felt very attached to these characters by the end of the game – even some of the ones I thought would be really boring at first. Seeing them again in Mass Effect 3 was a nice experience, even though I’d only finished 2 about three or four days prior to starting 3. There are many break-downs of what it is that makes this the best game in the series, but I’ll give you a quick version. Every character on the crew has a ‘loyalty mission’. They approach you with a problem and you say, “Okay, mate! I’ll get right on that!” And eventually, you get around to it. These missions are reminiscent of some of the particular-character-centric episodes of Star Trek TNG, where the point of the mission is more to get to know the crew member better and grow attached to them. They are very well designed missions and I really enjoyed doing them. You don’t have to complete them all, but it is highly recommended you do.

2012 now and Mass Effect 3 now exists. The highly anticipated end to the series where everything will be explained and we’ll all feel super satisfied and we can all die happy. More on this later. Mass Effect 3 trims yet more fat from the game – too much if you ask me. The game feels a lot more high action, wave-after-wave combat, and I don’t think that is a good thing. The first thing that struck me about the game is how much more cinematic it all was. Featuring much longer cut-scenes and action sequences. Environments feel smaller and cosier, which just means there’s less to explore and everything feels a bit more cramped. And the fabled lift sequences of old? Well, the lift door on the Normandy doesn’t even open anymore in Mass Effect 3, you just click on it and tell the game what deck you want to be on, so you can sit through a boring loading screen.

And speaking of clicking and controlling stuff, WHY IS EVERYTHING DONE WITH THE ‘A’ BUTTON? There are so many buttons on the controller, but interact, roll, cover and run are all performed with the same button. I’ve been in countless scenarios where I’ve needed to run away but instead, I’ve rolled, or got into cover on the wrong side, exposing myself to enemy fire. I checked – the ‘Y’ button and the bumpers are not used for anything. The combat was reasonably entertaining but got a little stale after a while. I found myself more often just waiting for the combat scene to end than really enjoying myself with it.

So, the story. My, my – what a story. It starts out as good as expected, and indeed, most of the story is as good as expected, and then you have the end, but more on that later. For the most part, we have a sensible, simple and easy to understand story, which is both satisfying and intriguing – everything a growing plot needs. It does, however, feel like a big conclusion. By which I mean, the story is split up into three sections, the first two are about resolving some conflicts that have been around since the first game. In this way, the game doesn;t really stand up on its own and the story feels oddly structured. The whole thing feels like a film rather than an open world expansive universe. It feels like Return of the King, where the whole story was just about bringing an epic story to a close.

Okay, let’s talk about the ending. If you weren’t aware, Mass Effect 3 is infamous for having a really very bad ending. At the time people were absolutely furious at BioWare, prompting them to release an extended version of the ending for free, giving a little bit more detail about what was actually going on. I had psyched myself up for disappointment, but it was all futile, Mass Effect 3’s ending is a let down in ways no one could possibly predict.

It just doesn’t make any sense. I’ve gone through it in my mind over and over again and I still do not understand what they were getting at. It’s convoluted and unnecessary. The whole reason the Reapers exist and the whole reason they want to kill everything makes exactly 0 sense at all – and that matters. It ruins their whole image for me. Like how the prequels to Star Wars went a long way to completely ruining the character of Darth Vader. They suddenly don’t seem so cool anymore. And then you get choices for how you want to deal with the Reapers. You have three options and they all suck – there are two which go against everything you’ve worked towards for the past 80 hours of gameplay, and one which magically solves all the problems somehow and doesn’t explain it. You know why? Because it makes no sense! Without the DLC, the ending isn’t explained at all, and with the DLC it’s all explained a little better, but still not well enough to count. Think of the ending to The Matrix Revolutions – that ending makes perfect sense and is a great ending in comparison (I make this comparison because the general gist of both endings is similar). It’s not something I can easily put into words, It’s just something you have to experience.

I don’t know if it was just me, but I had some big issues with getting the games to work properly. It was because of my CPU architecture that at certain points in 1, all animated entities became pixelated black boxes, which meant I had to disable all lighting to correct it. It was, admittedly my mods which cause 3 to crash just before the final cut scene after downloading the Extended Cut DLC. But it was not my fault that 3 pauses slightly every time something new loads into the UI, like a quest marker or a new load of dialogue options. And for God’s sake, why is the use of a controller not supported on PC? I had to enable this with mods. All the assets are there, it’s just that controllers are disabled. Why?

For me, the series, in quality terms follows the Alien franchise. 1 was good in the way that it had a cult following and was a slower sort of thing. 2 was a lot more action oriented and people generally liked it a lot more. 3 felt a little rushed and lacked something fairly fundamental so it just felt lacking. It was trying to live up to the previous instalment too much and was too scared to try and stand on it’s own. It’s a real shame because the quality of the series has been so high and then the end happened and It’s hard to come back from that. I really enjoyed the games and I would definitely play them all again. The ending just left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. Just like the ending of all my posts.

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Reddit – It’s Reddiculous!

It’s about nearly the end of my second year at university and my God, are the deadlines building up. As of the time of me writing these words I face four weeks of exams and hand-in dates for my various coursework projects. I would be lying if I wasn’t feeling at least a little bit stressed. It takes a lot to stress me out, and I’m starting to feel it, so you know it’s pretty dire up in here. As is such the situation that is the situation of right now, I find I don’t really have a lot of time to be writing this at the moment, so this is going to be a short one.

Let’s see… what do real blog writers do when they have to post something but have no idea about what to write about? Ah, yes – steal something from Reddit. I’ve had a Reddit account for about 4 years and my interest in the site comes and goes like the tide. I’ll go through periods of being a little bit obsessed with the thing and then time will pass and I’ll get bored and only type its URL in my address bar every so often. The same goes for things like various Youtubers, like PewDiePie. Between about August 2016 and the end of May 2017 I’d say he was one of my favourite YouTubers but now I’m not so interested anymore. These are the kind of things that are really good if you’re careful not to wear yourself out on them.

What I find frustrating about Reddit is the repetitiveness of some of it. /r/AskReddit is a prime example of what I mean. For those not with it on these matters, this is a subreddit where people ask a question and everyone else provides an answer. These questions can be for example: “What’s the sluttiest thing you have ever done?”, or, “Besides fight club, what is the first rule of something?” (both actual questions). Often, someone has something interesting or funny to say. The problem arises when, because nearly every obvious question imaginable has already been asked, the less creative of Redditors just end up re-asking the same questions as before. You’ll get different answers, but there’s something tiring about the whole thing. A common question will be something along the lines of “Ladies of Reddit, what is the sexiest thing a man has done for you in bed?” and, “Whats a red flag for you on your hot date with a hot guy?” Obviously an attempt to grab some quick tips from some deeply lonely person. It’s fine for a while but then it’s just tedious just to read the same question over and over again. There are some interesting questions being asked but there are too far between to make up for it.

We also have the marvellous places that exist like /r/thatHappened, /r/Im14AndThisIsDeep, /r/IAmVerySmart and /r/TumblrInAction where no one seems to understand a joke. These are subreddits where people see something someone has written somewhere on the internet, or in real life, which is either pretentious, obviously a lie or simply just stupid. These are places that are a bit of laugh at first, but then just irritating. People are incredibly sceptical and sometimes downright nasty towards the subject of a post. It’s not a good mindset to get into and can lead to one thinking that every something someone has written that was intended as sarcasm is just them being stupid or pretentious. Similar things can be said for /r/SavedYouAClick, where people share examples of click-bait and answer the question it is asking – but a lot of the things people post are actually not click bait and intended as a joke, but no one understands this of thinks the can get away with it for sweet Reddit karma.

There are bad subreddits that are examples of good reasons to go on Reddit, however. My favourite being /r/LifeProTips where people share their pro tips for life in the format of “LPT: When packing for a trip, make sure to touch everything you’re not sure you packed. This creates a stronger memory of what you packed and where it’s packed.” Yes, they are normally that stupid. The subreddit ranges from unnecessary ideas like “Go in every room in your house every day to make sure every room in your house is fine”, to bad ideas like “Don’t say sorry, say thank you instead!” Great idea if you want people to not like you. Some tips are unrealistic: “LPT: If you’re about to drop something down the drain, don’t fumble around trying to catch it and risk dropping it again- just cover the drain”, some are obvious: “LPT run your spoon/scooper under hot water before digging into a fresh tub of frozen ice cream” and then some ideas are just oddly specific: “LPT If you eat at a shop regularly and know you won’t be there one day, let them know.” This is often at least mildly amusing and a good way to waste a few hours. Sometimes you’ll come across a genuinely good tip which you’ll forget about immediately and never implement into your life.

There are some subreddits I like because they are genuinely at least slightly interesting places, but there’s nothing out there that makes me feel like I’m spending my time wisely. For some reason, the saying “time enjoyed wasting is not wasted time” doesn’t apply here. I always feel like I could have wasted my time in a more enjoyable way. I decided, recently, that I was going to commit to not wasting time as much as I normally do. This fell apart when I started watching endless episodes of Gordon Ramsay programs, but that’s basically over now. I’ve been able to play more video games, read more and of course get a lot more work done much faster than normal. Yet, still, I only post one of these a month. I’m just lazy when it comes to this blog, I think.

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Games Reviews

Horizon: Zero Dawn, Not Zero Out Of Ten

It seemed like a really dumb idea when I saw it at E3 2016. So, it’s cavemen fighting autonomous robot dinosaurs in an open world action/RPG? Sounds amazing. Not that its potential stupidity put me off at all; after seeing so many bland, generic, boring titles being shown off all week, Horizon: Zero Dawn was the only game that I vividly remember seeing and being intrigued by. I appreciated it; it was interesting. Furthermore, there have been a few films I had dismissed as being ‘probably stupid’ from the trailers and ended up loving, like Pacific Rim and Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ve become more open to stupid ideas of late. I failed to have a go at Zero Dawn at EGX 2016, due to it being tucked away in a corner of the Sony area, so I didn’t see it until it was too late to have a go. Maybe this was a good thing; it meant I went into the game with absolutely zero expectations for its quality (other than the countless reviews calling it amazing).

Right from the start of the game, it acknowledges the fact that the whole tribal, primate humans living alongside robot dinosaurs is a little bit odd. That’s fairly unavoidable. At the start, I wasn’t, to be honest, that interested in how this had come to be, but through some very clever storytelling, the game got me interested. Very interested. The game keeps giving you little pieces of the puzzle one at a time but never one big enough to give you a real idea of what the whole picture is. Until it does. When it does, suddenly, it all makes sense. Let me tell you, the back story behind this game is really cool. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for ages after I completed the game. It’s the kind of story that I just wanted to tell people about. I won’t do that here because you may wish to play the game, but I’d really like to tell you. When you get each piece of the puzzle, it changes the way you see the world. It adds perspective and context which makes the world more interesting the further in you get.

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Going on a little bit of hunt

The main character, Aloy (get it? Aloy, like alloy?), is an interesting person. At first, I thought she was a bit boring, but as I got to know her a bit more I started to like her. She starts the game as an outcast from the tribe, living with her father-figure, Rost (get that one as well? Rust!). The reason she is an outcast is shrouded in mystery from the get-go and all that is mentioned is that she is ‘motherless’. It’s not clear what this means, but that’s part of the fun – finding out. Aloy is very strong-willed and clear headed. The tribe she is an outcast of worship some of the machines like gods, she doesn’t. The tribe forbids people from going into ancient ruins, Aloy doesn’t care about this rule. All she wants to know is who her mother was and where she came from. That’s not to say she doesn’t care about anyone or anything else, she’s actually fairly compassionate, but her main driving force behind what she is doing is in pursuit of discovering her past.

It wouldn’t be a game without gameplay, and in this game, the gameplay is thoroughly enjoyable. It’s an RPG at heart, but it’s more of a Witcher 3 RPG than a Skyrim RPG. You don’t ultimately make decisions about anything that would change the outcome of the story (which is not like The Witcher 3) and you can’t change what Aloy is as a character (which is like the Witcher 3), but you choose how you treat people and what missions you want to do for people. The main RPG elements are in the levelling system and the equipment you pick up. It’s completely open world, so once you get past the start of the game, you can go wherever you want in the world and do any mission. Like in The Witcher 3, you get missions from people, but you won’t be able to do all of them at first. You’ll open the mission screen and it’ll tell you that the next main mission is for level 19 characters, but there are some side missions for level 16 and under you can do.

I like this system a lot. It forces you not to rush the main mission too much and actually do some side quests so by the time you’ve done those side quests, you’ll have levelled up a few times and be ready for the next main mission. It avoids problems like that seen in Arkham Knight, where you’ll have side quests but there is no real incentive to actually do them, so one might end up just doing the main missions and rushing through it all. This is not an issue in Zero Dawn. It also helps that the side quests are actually quite interesting and have a little variety, Rocksteady, meaning I didn’t dread having to do some side quests out of a resignation they would be terribly boring and the same thing over and over again.

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The most fearsome of beasts

Combat in this game actually quite reminds me of the new Tomb Raider games, but somehow mixed with The Witcher 3 and then tweaked quite a lot. I think it’s the reliance of the bow in the game. It’s not a system that is simply about you pelting arrows into a damage sponge until it falls (not that it wouldn’t work as a strategy). It requires you to quickly assess each new enemy and decide what the best way of tackling it is. Some machines are vulnerable to things like fire or freeze damage. In these cases, one should bombard the enemy with fire arrows or freeze bombs until a meter is filled. In the case that it is vulnerable to freeze damage, the meter will fill and the enemy will slow down and become more susceptible to regular damage. This isn’t something I concerned myself with until later in the game where it got a lot tougher requiring me to try harder. You can also get ‘tear’ arrows which removes parts of your mechanical enemy. This is useful for enemies with big guns strapped on them; you can tear them off and pick them up to give them a good old taste of their own medicine. This is a great way to add some variety into a combat system. If you hadn’t guessed by now, I’m a stickler for diversity in game mechanics.

There is also quite a lot of fun to be had in stealth. Dotted around the world you’ll find bandit camps. Surprisingly enough you need to kill all the bandits to liberate the area and the prisoners of the bandits. This is where I think the designers borrowed a little from games like Far Cry because it feels rather similar. You have the same camp alarm system which you’ll need to destroy to avoid backup coming should you be sighted by anyone, and you have the tagging system which allows you to track enemies down. I did all of these with stealth. I would simply hide in a bush and snipe with my sniper’s bow. It was actually a lot of fun and gives you some good rewards for doing it.

In most scenarios, you have the ability to stealth it, and I would recommend that course of action considering that otherwise, it gets very difficult when you have to fight a million enemies at once. I’ve never succeeded by doing that.

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Actual screenshot I took

I’m not sure how much further I can go with this without mentioning the graphics. They’re pretty good. As is a common theme in this review, I wasn’t convinced at first. Probably because this was just after I’d finished Uncharted 4, which I don’t think is a fair comparison. Zero Dawn also has a slightly cartoony art-style which threw me off at first. The game looks good. Really good. I think it’s one of the best looking games on PS4. Considering the hardware it’s running on, it’s very impressive. One of my lectures at my University has been constanly mentioning the graphics in this game and talking about how good it looks on a PS4.

Zero Dawn features a ‘photo mode’ which I have spent a very long time playing with. It works in the same way many other photo modes have worked – you can adjust pretty much any setting of the camera and move it around and what not. It’s a testament to the very attractive visuals that very often while I was doing something, I would pause the game and go into photo mode to take a quick few screenshots. What lets this system down is the limitations of the PS4 itself. By default, pressing the ‘share’ button opens a sharing interface which allows you to record a video, take a screenshot and upload stuff to YouTube, Facebook or Twitter. I changed this so that pressing the share button once just takes a screenshot. Unfortunately, the PS4 takes around two seconds to think about it before it actually does it. This can be very annoying especially at times when I wanted to take a screenshot during a cutscene where timing is critical. I would have to press the button two seconds before I see the image I want to screenshot using mystical foresight powers.

A slightly weird thing about this game is the world design. The world is diverse with some areas being snowy like the Arctic and some areas being Death Vally conditions. This wouldn’t be so strange if it weren’t so sudden in transition. You start off the game in a forest area where it gets a bit snowy in places, and then you are allowed through a big gate. Beyond the gate is a pure hot sandy desert. This was, of course, completely outrageous and ruined all hope of emersion as I was crushed by the unrealistic nature of this.

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It’s a great, big world out there

It’s a good sign then, that this is the only slightly reasonable criticism I can come up with this game. The world feels deep and real, the characters have personality and feel fresh. We know there will be sequels, and all I can say about that is I am very interested in what the story is going to be. The end of the game left no real openings apart from an after-credits cutscene which teased at what direction it might go in. Guerrilla Games, please don’t go in this direction, because it would be a very annoying way to continue the series onwards.

So, yeah, this game is good. If you have a PS4, I would highly recommend it. I look forward to the sequels whenever they happen, and I will probably be playing it a few more times before they do.

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Uncharted 4 – Best of the Bunch

I wrote before about Uncharted 1 and 2, remarking that if I ever got around to finishing the 3rd and 4th games I would review them as well. Well look what happened – I stormed through 3 and enjoyed 4. Here follows a collection of my thoughts on the matter.

Uncharted 1, 2 and 3 were a struggle. I enjoyed the story and the exploring but I didn’t enjoy the combat – not one bit. At first, I didn’t mind it. After a few hours, the repetitiveness wore me down. I dreaded a section of combat coming up, and I got very frustrated. The mere thought of getting stuck on another battalion of nasty people gave me the collywobbles I tell you. I needed to take regular breaks from playing to cool off, because as I got more frustrated the less patient I got, so I was playing worse, leaving me in a bit of an unending circle. At one point I took a break that lasted over a month, and because of these breaks, I didn’t get to the end of Uncharted 3 until almost a year had passed. I got very angry and I often questioned why I was bothering with it.

It was all worth it. All the struggle, the frustration, the shouting at my screen. I’m so pleased I persevered; Uncharted 4 is incredible. Without this instalment of the franchise, I’d have probably called the whole project of playing the series a boondoggle. Almost every complaint I had about the previous games has been resolved and that has made this game inordinately enjoyable. In short, Uncharted 4 is being added to my private, metaphorical hall of bloody excellent games that I love like a father loves his favourite child – and not my pit of games I despise like that same father might chain his least favourite child to a radiator and ignore them.

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PS4 takes a screenshot every time you get an achievement (It rarely looks good)

Combat – my main complaint about 1, 2 and 3. Combat in Uncharted 4 is actually quite good, however. In fact, it is very enjoyable. I actually, if you can believe it, really like the combat in Uncharted 4. Variety is rife and well welcomed. Level design is much more interesting, giving you different ways of tackling different groups of enemies in an assortment of ingenious and interesting approaches. And most importantly, stealth. Stealth actually exists in Uncharted 4, in an achievable way. You could sneak about a little bit in preceding instalments, but you were always doomed to failure. Someone would always spot you when most of the people were still about, and the games gave you no chance to get out of sight before every bad guy in the room knew where you were, and once they know that, they know forever – you can’t loose them. You’ve got one chance, that’s it. Uncharted 4 gives you the possibility of stealthing a level full of bad guys and gives you the tools you need to be able to do it – enemy tagging, awareness meters, bushes to hide in and so on. I found that it was a lot more fun to take each level slowly and sneak the whole thing, taking out each enemy at a time. When someone spotted me, I’d simply jump into bush around a corner and they’d loose me. I’d climb up next to a window and defenestrate the next fool who walks past. Being able to stealth all the time meant that I actually sometimes wanted to just run-and-gun some levels for some more variety. Combat in Uncharted 4 is what it should have been in all the past games and more.

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It does indeed

One of the things I really liked about the games of the past was the stories they told. The characterization and adventure of it all really are fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable. However, it must be said that 4’s is the best. It’s a lot less silly and more grounded in reality but in a good way. Somehow, the treasure not being some mystical and unexplained force made it all a lot easier to get into. In 2 particularly, it was about saving the world. 4 is about finding billions of dollars worth of treasure. I prefer the latter motivation if I’m brutally honest; it seems more human.

I also preferred the choice made to drop all the characters constantly questioning whether the end goal is worth the means. Every uncharted game has some point where a character asks Nathan, “This big pile of treasure or whatever you’re looking for is totally not worth risking your life for! Quit while you’re ahead!” It gets a bit tedious after a while. In 4, Nathan is only doing this because he has to. He’s not actually interested in the treasure because of money, he’s interested in the treasure because he needs the money for reasons that are explained in the plot. His motivations for risking his life in the way he does is much more relatable and that is another thing that makes the plot more enjoyable. You feel like you’re in it together and you can get right on board with it.

The game also admits that Uncharted is a bit of a rip-off of Indiana Jones. There are so many references I could point out. From talk of people being abducted by inter-dimensional beings to ‘bad dates’ while looking at some grave stones. I don’t know why I enjoyed this so much, but I really did. By the way, when the character in question mentioned the inter-dimensional beings, they also remarked that they thought this was a stupid idea. I liked that one particularly.

As always with Naughty Dog, the graphics are incredible when you consider the hardware the game is running on and will leave anyone in awe of how amazing and wonderful the world is. Uncharted 4 brings it to another level of incredible graphics. The world looks so real, the people resemble real humans to a startling level of accuracy. If only my PS4 would keep a little quiet, instead of imitating an industrial hair dryer, trying to keep cool while rendering these complex and beautiful images, but that’s a criticism of PS4 rather than this game.

It’s actually a little bit surreal. I was used to the thoroughly PS3 looking people in the prior games but in this new game, all the people look the same but so much more clear. It’s like when a character in a video game is based on a real person and the first time you see them is after playing the game they were in. They look so much the same but also different and it’s a little bit unsettling.

Some change must have happened in Naughtydog before The Last Of Us; they’re doing much more story driven games. I like it; they are very good at it. The best – no one better. Finishing Uncharted 4 made me excited for whatever games Naughtydog plan to do next. The Last of Us 2 cannot come quicker – if it’s anything like the first one and Uncharted 4, it’ll be a very compelling reason to get a PS4.

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They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

I saw La La Land about a week and a bit ago. I loved it. It’s probably one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. The music, the story, the cinematography – I was a fan of all of it. If you enjoy a good film, you simply must go and see La La Land.

Although I’ve had my eye on this film for a while, it was not until relatively recently that I saw the reviews that they used in the trailer. You know the ones I mean – where they read a review and clip a sentence or two out to put on the posters, like text sound-bites. I never trust them when they only pick one word from the review to sum up the whole thing. Like “Astonishing.” That could very well be taken out of context, for example:

Astonishing. How could a film be this bad?

I’m not going to read all of those reviews to confirm that these little clippings are being used in proper context, so we’ll never know if the review is in the proper context or not. Which is why I never normally pay attention to them, but one caught my eye:

They just don’t make movies like this anymore.

Now I’ll admit, I couldn’t find the source with my classic ‘fifteen seconds of Googling, and then just giving up’ routine,  but I promise I’m not making this quote up beyond the limitations of the variable reliability of my memory. This review got me thinking. Do they really not? If you think about it, they just did – it’s called La La Land and you should totally go and see it. In all seriousness, however, I get what this person meant, but I think there is a reason for that.

For one thing, Hollywood hasn’t been making a whole lot of musicals since the 60s, just simply because people got bored of them; people demanded a different, more modern kind of film. “Musicals are the kind of thing my parents like; it’s not for me and my band of cool, hip, rebellious friends – I want to see something different and challenging, something that will really knock my socks off!” Is what I imagine the teenagers of the 70s and 80s spoke like (I’ll have to ask my Dad for confirmation), and we all know that the film industry is the slave of the teenager, with all their disposable income and confused ideas about rebellion and challenging the status quo etc. I thought people liked Status Quo, maybe I should listen to their music sometime.

The main reason I think this person holds this view is quite simple: La La Land is intentionally nostalgic. They couldn’t make it more obvious if they tried; the film even references the fact that it is pretty nostalgic. I think this is part of the subject matter of the film, however, and not the director & writer Damien Chazelle being a pretentious git. The film is about the dreaminess of the idea of Hollywood (despite the real Hollywood apparently being not very nice as a place) – hence why the film is called La La Land. The film is deeply artistic, and it the kind of art I really appreciate; it’s trying to look like an old film from the 40s and 50s by using techniques like film with real film cameras, strong colours and cinematography that makes some scenes look like it was filmed on a big sound stage like those musicals from back in the day, and all with a highly appropriate degree of subtlety.

I suppose the reason this review got me thinking the most is the constant assumption that people jump to that because an old film is old it makes it better “‘cos these Hollywood producers only care about money rather than the art of film. Do you know how many masterpieces are turned down every day because they aren’t some superhero blockbuster? I don’t, but I bet it’s a lot.” Is what they say. But is older better? No. There’s not much of a debate to be had about the subject. Have you seen the latest season of South Park? You should – it deals exactly with this subject. Hollywood has discovered a new goldmine to exploit: nostalgia. There have been so many films and TV shows that are rebooting old films and TV shows from the 70s and 80s these days, and not nearly half of them have been any good. And in any case, when people say that all the good films were made before the year 2000, they’re only thinking of the classics: Alien, Terminator, Ghost Busters and so on, they never consider the terrible films like 1997s Air Bud, 1989s Alls Fair (3.6/10 on IMDB) or 1965s Monster A-Go Go (2.8). Not thinking about them are you, nostalgic people?

I’m not saying that La La Land is only liked because of the nostalgia factor, because I have no nostalgia for these types of films, having only seen things like The Sound of Music and West Side Story in the past few years for the first time, and I didn’t think much of them – least of all West Side Story. I can see what style and era La La Land is going after, but it doesn’t remind me of any film in particular. And anyway, I reject the whole idea that films aren’t as good as they used to be; there have been some bloody brilliant films that have come out quite recently – La La Land is not the only good film of late and it’s not good because it looks a bit old.

So in conclusion, they do make films like this anymore, nostalgia should be treated with scepticism and I really liked La La Land. You should go and see it.

Categories
Reviews

2016: A Review

I seriously considered not doing a post about 2016 – not because of the whole ‘what a terrible year’ trend that is cancerously infecting the internet and television since the end of John Olivers television program, where I believe it started – but because I’m sick of it. Was 2016 the best year ever? Not particularly; many bad things happened. Was it a year that couldn’t possibly get worse? No. Not at all. We’re all still here, and to be brutally honest, I had quite a nice year where some quite good things happened to me and also involved me in many strange and inexplicable ways. I am sick of people talking about 2016 being the apocalypse and the end of civilised society; life goes on and things are only as bad as you let them be (within reason – I mean if you have terminal cancer, I can’t imagine there’s much you can do to make things better than someone who is in perfect health). I’m also not a massive fan of my round up of 2015; it lacks a real purpose and it doesn’t have much to say, but that was a year ago, let’s see how writing a post every month for a year has improved my writing ability.

I’m certainly still leaving it to the last minute; the idea was one post per month and not necessarily a post on the final day of each month, so the fact that November’s was on the 29th doesn’t mean it was too early, it just meant I was at least slightly organised in November. I have managed to do a post every month for the year of 2016, so doesn’t that make the year just a little bit better for everyone in the entire universe? I’m writing this post starting from about 18:15 on the 31st of December 2016, so perhaps next year I could get a little more organised and write these in advance. I’ll also try to write more often a just do a post whenever I feel I have something to say but continue to make sure I write at least once a month; it’s a lot easier to do this when I have something to talk about, but much harder when I had something to discuss but I left it too long and lost interest – I think it’s easy to tell which posts I’m referencing if you just read them. Go on, read all of them – some of them are actually okay to read, and others you can just think about something else while rolling your eyes across the text, pretending to yourself that you are actually paying attention to what you are looking at.

Overall, 2016 ain’t been that bad for me; I did some nice things – I went to Vietnam and also Norfolk! I watched some excellent television programmes and read at least one book. I made some friends, caught up with others that I hadn’t seen  in a while, I’m supposed to mention Jeff at some point so here you go, I moved into a house for University with some pretty cool people and I’d say that honestly, I’m feeling happier than I did a year ago. So my personal life is going pretty well thanks. How are you? Uh-huh, yeah, yeah, really? Oka- yea- I don’t actually care that much, sorry, I was only being polite and anyway I can’t actually hear you.

In 2017 I want many things to happen, and since I’m talking to The Internet as a whole, and The Internet as a whole is definitely going to see this, I want to make my wishes for 2017 known to all. Reddit, Youtube and Twitter, please, please, please stop using the words ‘cringy’ and ‘cancerous’ to describe absolutely everything and anything you don’t like. I think this is a trend started by the YouTube channel H3H3 and the sheeple have followed. I’m not sure what it is about the word ‘cringy’ that irks me so, but every time I see it or hear it I LITERALLY CRINGE. I actually can’t think of a better description – I just hate it, I hate how overused it is – it tingles my teeth in a deeply unpleasant way.

I hope I don’t have to explain why the word ‘cancerous’ is a bit of an over-the-top, inappropriate word for something so small as an annoying meme or YouTube channel. ‘Cancerous’ suggests an entity which acts as an active detriment to the healthy existence of another entity – like, well… a tumour. Going a bit far, don’t you think? A little insensitive, too. You know, for people who are actively suffering from cancer.

All year I’ve been hearing these words to describe absolutely everything that is disliked on the internet. Leafy? Oh, he’s so cancerous. That Game of War advert? What cancer! What cringe! PrankInvasion? God, what cringy cancer! Please find another word. An appropriate word, a better word. Like ‘bloody annoying’, or ‘not at all very good, not at all, indeed’.

Also, could we make Bernie or someone the president and can we not Brexit, pls? K, thanks, bye.

P.S.

I still need to work on my endings.

Categories
Games Reviews

The First Half of Uncharted: Schrödinger’s Franchise

Last month, I posted a day later than I should have. I know, unbelievable. So, to balance out this terrible crime, I’m posting this one a day earlier than I normally would. Satisfied, Ambrose?


Last Christmas, I received the Uncharted Collection as a gift. Just what I wanted, especially as I had asked for it specifically. I wanted it because of a simple reason: PlayStation fans won’t shut up about it and considering I bought a PS4 to play exclusives, I thought I might as well give it a go. The series was developed by Naughty Dog, who, of course, developed Crash Bandicoot, Jack and Dexter and The Last of Us. I really liked The Last of Us, and I grew up playing the Crash Bandicoot games. I think Uncharted is worth my time. However, I’ve only so far been able to play the first two, so I’ve still got two to go (I also bought the fourth one when I got the collection), but I feel now is the time to share my thoughts. If my opinion is drastically changed after I play the second half, I’ll update you.

Uncharted is about a man called Nathan Drake, who is supposedly a direct ancestor of Sir Francis Drake, the famous explorer. Determined to follow in the great man’s footsteps, Nathan is basically Indiana Jones/ Lara Croft and he explores tombs, solves puzzles and fights the bad guys to stop some unholy evil from destroying the whole entire world etc. etc. etc. Fairly standard stuff if you ask me. Although I sound sceptical, I will admit that the writing in Uncharted is probably the best thing about the games; the characters are well developed, the story is, well, interesting enough to keep me playing, and as you’ll find out, that’s pretty impressive. There have been several times when characters have genuinely made my laugh and I can say that I do really care about most of the characters. The story is never anything groundbreaking or actively gripping and perhaps a little too complicated for me to bother paying that much attention to the finer points, but hey, I didn’t get bored and stop.

The visuals of the Uncharted games are pretty impressive. Even more so when you remember that these games were developed for the PS3. Naughty Dog somehow managed to work out a way of working unholy dark magic with the PS3’s complicated cell processor to make it produce graphics that, at the time, look absolutely face-meltingly, stunningly fabulous. I know I’m playing it on the PS4, and a version which has been optimised for the PS4 with improved graphics, but still, wow. Several times, especially in Uncharted 2, I had to stop just to have a look around and take in what I was seeing. Naughty Dog are wizards, and they know how to make this bit of hardware do magical things. Massive environments, colourful scenes and the small details which just bring the whole thing together.

The environments are the kind that you just want to spend all your time climbing about and exploring. It’s clear a lot of ideas have been taken from Tomb Raider here, and to be fair, the new Tomb Raiders have clearly taken some ideas back from Uncharted. I have had the most enjoyable time in Uncharted just climbing up the walls and solving the many, actually often quite challenging, puzzles. It’s not that it’s relaxing – it’s not like therapy or a spa day or anything – it’s interesting enough that if climbing and puzzle solving were over half the game, I’d be quite satisfied with it as a game.

I’ve played the first two hours or so of Uncharted 3 (I’ll get back to it when I don’t have so much coursework to do), and I got to a point where Nathan climbed out of a well and encountered about 20 bad guys. At that point, I sighed, heavily. I remarked to the world that I had been enjoying myself, and now I had to deal with this. Combat in the Uncharted games is many things: difficult, repetitive, irritating, but most of all, it’s tedious. When I started playing the games I didn’t mind the endless combat, but when I realised that it never changes, I started to loathe it.

Combat is the same format every time, and it never seems to end. Enter an area, get behind cover, shoot ten or twenty bad guys, despair as a second wave arrives, run out of ammo much quicker than should, scramble around getting more, get shot by three RPGs at once, die, start again. Do this a couple more times and you’ll eventually get through (assuming there isn’t a third and then a forth wave), but then feel your soul die as you enter a new area, get behind cover… It’s all just tedious, and there is hardly ever a break. In my Tomb Raider review, I said that one of the things about the game is that it never stops. To quote myself exactly:

The game starts off running, and practically never stops – this keeps you glued to the game. It’s like the game has grabbed your ankles and stops you from leaving until you have finished. Occasionally it lets loose a little bit and you can struggle free to rest a bit, but in my playing, I’ve just wanted to keep going until the game ended.

You’d think, then, that I’d like this endless combat in Uncharted, but the difference here is that Tomb Raider indeed didn’t stop, but it didn’t repeat itself too much – sometimes you’d be running, sometimes you’d be fighting, sometimes you’d be almost falling off a cliff. It’s tense, it’s full of action and – vitally – it never gets boring. Uncharted’s action gets boring and fatiguing, but Tomb Raider’s doesn’t. It’s called variety, Naughty Dog, and it’s very important to create enjoyable gameplay. The game isn’t even satisfying to complete, I felt glad, but only that it was finally over and I wouldn’t have to ever do it again. I felt like Frodo at the end of The Lord of the Rings, I doubt he would describe his feeling as being ‘satisfied’ at his quest being over, but I’m sure he felt happy that it was all over. But at least Sauron didn’t make a sequel to the One Ring, so Frodo got off easy there.

It’s a real shame because the combat almost tips the balance against all the good things about this game and plunges it into a set of games I don’t want to play. If I’m brutally honest, if I didn’t already own the entire franchise, I’d probably not bother playing past the first game. Hell, I’d have probably not have bothered finishing the first one. It took months to do that because I got stuck on a particularly irritating combat section and got so angry that I decided I needed a break for a few months.

I’ll play the rest of the franchise because I own them and not because I would have bought each respective one after completing them. I just keep comparing them to the glory that is the Tomb Raider series. I’m very interested in the fourth installment, as it is post-Last Of Us, and I want to know how that game changed the series, probably not much considering it’s likely that they were working on both games at the same time, but I can dream!