Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

image

I find Uncharted odd as a series, or more accurately people’s response to it. It’s one of those games that gets tens across the board and inspires a rabid army of dickheads (a minority of its fan base I’m sure) to lash out at anyone that dares criticise it, but the games have a lot of quite serious issues. The shooting is piss, the gunfights are poorly designed, path finding when climbing is often annoying and the series’ sense of fun, Indiana Jones-esque adventure is undermined by its protagonist being a mass murderer stealing artifacts purely for material gain. It’s less, “Hey Nazis, this belongs in a museum” and more “Hey people with as much claim to this as me, I need more money.” To be fair though the games are enjoyable (well, two and three at least) and have a good sense of spectacle and enjoyable set pieces. I heard the fourth and final game in the series was more measured and mature compared to the others; the phrase “post Last of Us” was used, and that piqued my interest far more than any of the game’s promotional materials. So do they pull it all together for the finale? Or is it business as usual just with more staring into the middle-distance?

Several years after Uncharted 3 globe-trotting murderer and Johnny Knoxville impersonator Nathan Drake has settled down with a salvage job, married series mainstay Elena and is generally bored of no longer going to foreign countries to nick everything shiny and not nailed down. Fortunately for him his older brother Sam suddenly shows up out of the blue- having never been mentioned in a previous game- with talk of the ultimate scheme apparently very important to the two, again not mentioned in a previous game. The game attempts to get around this by having Nate understandably (given the situation) believe Sam to have died in prison, but he literally never mentions him to anyone, including his wife. Anyway Sam owes his life to a Panamanian drug lord who broke him out of jail, so the two set off to find a massive treasure connected to pirate Henry Avery and a bunch of his pirate mates. The story is easily the strongest of the four games: it has a consistent through-line with consistent country-hopping and no superfluous interludes like the boat in Uncharted 3, the characters are all solid, with Sam being a stand-out both on his own and when interacting with Nate, and the reveal of what happened to the treasure and the Pirates stashing it is excellent, where instead of eleventh-hour supernatural bollocks it all comes down to the greed and violence inherent in Human nature. Frankly it all gets wrapped up a lot more than I’d have liked given some of its plot points, but that’s par for the course with the series really, and you can tell Neil Druckmann was given a bit more room to breathe and explore character motivations and reactions to different situations. Also I like how the game sheds more light on Nate’s past and the world he inhabits, showing them to be unmistakably criminal in nature, particularly his mentor and father figure Sully, who has extensive contacts in the underworld.

Gameplay has always been the series’ biggest stumbling point, and while things have improved here, it isn’t by much. Shooting now has more weight and impact to it, the stealth has improved somewhat with detection markers and marking enemies a la Far Cry and MGSV and the limited vehicle sections are no longer utter shite, but the key problems remain. Gunfights are still poorly designed- hordes of enemies who can take more damage than you swarm in from all directions to keep you planted behind cover while snipers and/or armoured shotgunners with the health of an endgame Dark Souls boss turn up to finish you off. It feels like it’s trying for a “switch up tactics on the fly” approach similar to what The Last of Us did so well, but it ends up as a frustrating mess when dealing with more than a handful of enemies armed with anything tastier than bullet-based weaponry. Pathfinding when climbing is irritating when the game doesn’t paint handholds a conspicuous “use these, dickhead” colour (though the previous games’ penchant for yellow has been left behind with the PS3) while the two new features of a grappling hook and stabbing a climbing hook into porous rock are selectively fun and intuitive and ¬†an annoying waste of time handled much more poorly than the game it was taken from. Speaking of elements taken from other games, it has its own version of TLOU’s planks in the form of boxes being dropped to stand on and climb. Whereas planks worked well in TLOU’s world the boxes just feel like filler, and it is always boxes, usually on wheels- sometimes they drop drown, sometimes you roll them, sometimes you lasso them with the grappling hook; methods change, boxes remain the same.

Uncharted 4 is by far the best game in the series, but it still has problems. Its plot is consistent, its characters solid and it has a few genuinely good moments of emotion and introspection. Gameplay wise only slight improvements have been made, but it’s enough to elevate A Thief’s End above the other three games. For this reason and its new plot points inexplicably not mentioned in previous games I recommend newcomers to the series only play this one. It’s confident and has more room to breathe while maintaining and improving upon the previous instalments’ good bits.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Mafia 3 Review

image

Mafia 3 is one of those rare games that comes around now and then worth picking up on concept alone. After two games exploring the well-worn, over-exposed path of the Italian mob Mafia 3 puts you in the boots of Lincoln Clay; mixed race Vietnam veteran and adopted son to the head of New Bordeaux’s (New Orleans in all but name) Black mob, who after losing said father and adoptive brother and being shot in the head embarks on a journey to murder the current Italian Don and everyone said Don cares about and works with. It’s 1968; excellent music and horrifying racism run rampant, you’re basically The Punisher, and frankly it’s the best idea for a game I’ve seen all year. I was hyped going into it, as I have been since it was announced. But how’s it all turned out?

The Story is quite straightforward and focused, all told. As I said you spend the game murdering people as revenge for what happens to you: events are set up by a framing device in the dual forms of a documentary made years after the fact featuring Lincoln’s friend and confidant Father James and an FBI agent tracking Lincoln, and a scratchy recording of a Senate hearing in which Lincoln’s mentor and unhinged CIA agent John Donovan explains why he helped Lincoln murder so many people. It’s a nice idea but they often detail or at least mention events before they’ve happened. It does stop the game from talking about things it’s just shown you and it does add a certain sense of drama to proceedings but it did spoil a rather cool murder before I’d committed it. The game has some good set-pieces and stand out characters but it’s largely there to keep Lincoln moving from place to place killing people, which works for me. Speaking of stand-out characters the central trifecta of Lincoln as a man forced through circumstance into becoming a monstrous killing machine falling back on his extensive, Vietnam-hardened special forces training to deal with the fact his relatively happy life has been cruelly and needlessly taken from him and Donovan and Father James as the devil and angel on his shoulder works very well. What works slightly less well are Lincoln’s underbosses, who are only afforded broad strokes of character. Burke is a drunk, racist, bitter Irishman, Mafia 2 protagonist Vito is into respect and acts as firm hand on the tiller and Cassandra is a Black woman. It’s not that she’s particularly bad as a character she just has very little going on to the point where I can’t remember any of her dialogue or interactions with Lincoln, which is a shame because the game doesn’t have a whole lot of female characters. There’s a sort of Tarantino-style hyper-violent camp to the whole thing which definitely helps deal with some of the darker elements; a sort of Inglorious Basterds with a Black Vietnam vet and a horde of poorly trained racists, Django in the 60’s with blue jeans, the Rolling Stones and automatic weapons.

Gameplay wise it’s oddly similar to Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. New Bordeaux is split into districts; you take out low level operations that lead you to capos, killing the capos leads to killing the more important story-integral bosses. Regardless of whether you’re burning, breaking or stealing to take out operations you will uniformly be killing a whole load of goons at every turn. Shooting is solid and responsive but weapons can lose damage due to range quickly, and Lincoln loses health at an alarmingly realistic rate. It makes sense in that his skills lie in stealth and guerrilla warfare and so he’s better suited to hit and run strikes, but it can be annoying when you pop out of cover to shoot and suddenly lose all your health. It’s made worse by the fact that outside of missions you don’t regain any health items or ammo upon death, which is very unhelpful the few times main missions require you to deal with hitmen who come and find you in free roam. Also you lose half your money when you die, which seems to happen purely to give you a reason to use Vito’s “Consigliere” feature; a woman who banks your money to stop this happening. But banked money is spent in an identical way to non-banked money, making the whole exercise pointless. There’s also no fast travel, but driving is fun, and there are no activities outside of main missions and side missions, so if you’re into all that ancillary shite that GTAV offers this might not be for you. The game’s USP is tied into the aforementioned underbosses- each capo’s operation must be assigned to one of the three in exchange for favours, weapons and upgrades, and each district must then be put under the control of one boss- any upgrades granted by another boss will be lost, and not splitting turf fairly can apparently result in bosses turning on you and having to be fought. That never happened to me though. They got all pissy at me a few times but I managed to keep them all sweet. Also the game’s soundtrack is excellent- radio stations play a shuffle of loads and bloody loads of good sixties songs and certain missions will play certain songs non-diagetically to good effect.

Overall Mafia 3 is great. It’s a straightforward, direct game about being a badass Black man murdering an entire town full of racist gangsters; good shooting, good driving, solid character and story with some real standouts. It doesn’t do much that’s new but it does everything very well- it’s a polished, well crafted experience. Add that to it’s interesting premise, well-realised time period and excellent amount of murder and you have a recipe for a great time. Definitely check it out.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18

Virginia review

image

Virginia, much like the work of my arch nemesis David Cage, strives to be an interactive film rather than a more “traditional” videogame, though it does so in a manner more interesting than Cage’s work in that it focuses on editing rather than cinematography. You play as FBI agent Anne Tarver, assigned to a missing persons case and an internal affairs investigation of her partner, Maria Halperin. Events are seen entirely on first person, no one ever speaks (at least you can’t hear them if they do) and the game often cuts suddenly, to wildly varied results. There’s limited interactivity with the environment; no puzzles or choices or anything like that, you just press X on things to make the next scene happen. So it’s a story based game through and through, but is the story any good?

No. No it isn’t. Parts of it I could actually interpret had promise; a traumatic past for Maria involving another agent and a montage of Anne progressing through the ranks by taking down a series of apparently corrupt Agents, but the game has too much love for abstract, poorly explained dream sequences that begin to blend in with reality as the story progresses. This isn’t helped by the fact that the game’s USP, its film-like editing, ruins the pacing at times and for most of the game prevents scenes from properly sinking in and having the necessary context. Looking back on it having finished the game shortly before the time of writing (it’s about ninety minutes long) the story is a complete mess with no character, context or motivation, with too much emphasis placed on being weird and different over a cohesive, coherent narrative. Also it’s clearly taken a lot of influence from Twin Peaks but forgets that Twin Peaks took the time to establish an entire town full of locations and characters before all the really weird stuff started happening.

I think Virginia is a mess, personally, but I can’t deny it’s unique, and I’m glad someone took a chance with an idea like this. There’s not much more to say about it really, I’m sure some people will like it but for me it’s a good idea with poor execution and a few decent scenes.

By James Lambert

@jameslambert18