Bound Review

When you take your cues from the likes of thatgamecompany’s Journey, you’d better have a pretty damn good follow-through. Bound certainly brings some neat tricks to the table; its central ballet-driven conceit is a brave start, and the bizarre yet attractive presentation initially make for a compelling little game. But the more you play, the more frustrating and hollow Bound feels. Its dance is missing too many steps.

A car pulls up to the pavement by the seaside and a heavily pregnant woman climbs out. She heads to the beach, walks a short distance, and pauses to pull out an old notebook. The landscape fades and distorts into a fantasy realm, a jagged and fractured kingdom built atop a roiling sea of cubes under a sunset-orange horizon. Two characters appear: the Queen, domineering and regal; and the small Princess, a modest dancer and the player character. “A monster is destroying my kingdom,” the Queen says in a garbled unearthly tongue. “Go and stop him.”

Thus begins your quest to dance through the shifting alien world to fix its wrongs. Every movement you make in the game is some form of dance; just the act of moving forwards is carried out with grace, the Princess’ arms outstretched and trailing twin ribbons. Every frame of animation as you leap, twirl, and pirouette through standard platformer moves like jumping, dodging, and ledge-crawling is wonderful to behold.

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It’s not all platforming, though. There are malicious entities on your path that will attempt to bind you and hold you still, whether they do so by pelting you with a stream of projectiles or grabbing onto your limbs to physically hold you in place. That’s when you really break out your moves, holding down the “Dance button” and pressing face buttons to carry out an improvised routine and magically shield yourself from your would-be aggressors.

Bound’s main issue is that it all feels like more like a shallow tech demo than a piece of art. The spectacle of the game is quite beautiful, but to actually play through it quickly feels like a slog despite its short 2 hour runtime.

As entrancing as the dancing is to watch, platforming is consistently inconsistent and vexingly awkward, as it’s tough to gauge the range of your leaps and dives. Although you always reset right at the ledge that you fell from, it’s still maddening when you fall thanks to the imprecise form-over-function movement system. The mounting exasperation over control of your character really undermines the game’s major theme in the joy of movement; why care about all the monsters trying to limit my freedom when the act of manoeuvring within the world is irritating anyway? All enemies do is slightly impact upon an already stunted pace of progress.

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Further to this, I feel like there was a huge opportunity missed in the game’s approach to dancing as protection. You can vary your dance moves by alternating between the four face buttons if you want, but it actually doesn’t matter whether you do or not. You can just hammer the Square button to ward off surrounding threats, or the X button to keep leaping forwards if you need to maintain forward momentum. There’s so much potential to this mechanic that’s squandered here, and I can’t help but think of what might have been: rhythm elements could’ve tied your defensive moves to the backing track; different enemies could’ve required different type of moves or combos to be effectively rebuffed; different sequences of button presses could have formed new moves instead of the same four actions. There’s no incentive to act beyond the bare minimum required of you, mindlessly bashing the same commands over and over again in order to progress.

What thatgamecompany got right with Journey’s core gameplay was making sure that it was fundamentally joyful moment-to-moment. The high points of that game – sand surfing and sweeping flights across the mountains, unladen by gravity – were pleasurable because of the burst of absolute freedom you were offered in those sequences relative to normal play. Bound’s answer to those sections takes the form of sequences at the end of each level where your character glides along a ribbon for a couple of minutes, scooting through the level’s architecture to a grand symphonic backing track. Here, though, you have extremely limited control over her – you can only slide slightly towards either side of the narrow ribbon, and influence what poses the dancer holds on the way. You’re simply along for the ride, watching overlong and overwrought “look how pretty the game is!” sequences with nothing in the way of gameplay-led satisfaction.

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I suppose it’s appropriate, then, that Bound isn’t just anaemic in terms of gameplay mechanics; its narrative is seriously lacking, too. The game tells a story of the pregnant woman’s memories of childhood and family issues, filtered through metaphor in the dance-platforming sections that form the game’s meat as well as short first-person examinations of frozen moments of time that those sequences represent. The game’s story is fractured (presumably due to the fact that you can play through the game’s levels in any order you want, for no good reason that I can think of), obtuse to the point of pretentious, and melodramatic despite a failure to make me care about any of its characters at all. I suppose the game thinks that a few frozen frames of a fraught family’s life is enough to make me empathise with them, but the approach is so ham-fisted, opaque, and at times inane that I actually resent the main character for making mountains out of so many molehills. “Oh, you broke a plant pot as a kid and got told off? Yeah, you’re totally cleared for hallucinating a self-indulgent dreamscape.”

Although short, Bound doesn’t pull off enough ideas to fill up the time it takes to play. Its lack of mechanical complexity, haltingly ponderous pace, and failure to emotionally engage beyond the surface level means you’re just twirling through a series of moodscapes bereft of much meaning. I admire much of what it tried to do different, but there’s just not enough depth to make Bound feel like a particularly interesting tech demo, never mind a product priced at £15.99.

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No Man’s Sky Review

No Man’s Sky is a victim of impossible hype and mishandled, potentially dishonest marketing. Whether we like it or not, the pre-release juggernaut that precedes every high-profile release frames our mindset when we approach the finished product. Sometimes a game will live up to or exceed our expectations; The Witcher 3 and DOOM respectively come to mind. Sometimes, though, the end result is somewhat uglier. Promises undelivered, falsehoods uncovered, and potential unrealised.

Unfortunately, I think you know where I’m going with this. With No Man’s Sky we were promised infinity, but in its place we’ve received the void.

No Man’s Sky opens quite well. Stranded on an alien world with a broken ship, you forge through the local wilderness to scavenge your way out of the predicament. You turn your laser-spewing Multi Tool on the rocks, ores, and plants littering the environment to craft the necessary upgrades to repair your beaten vessel. You might stumble across wildlife to scan and catalogue. You fill up on the two fuels required by your ship- Launch Fuel (expended to lift off), and Pulse Fuel (which allows you to travel between space borne bodies like planets and space stations in a matter of minutes rather than hours). When you’re finally ready to leave the planet you’ll blast through the stratosphere and explore the solar system, eventually crafting a warp drive to venture between stars with more than a pinch of trepidation. Are you ready for the whole universe that awaits you? These unsure first steps through the solar system and beyond on your journey to the centre of the universe are laced with palpable excitement at the sheer possibilities lying in wait.

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Indeed, the first hours of No Man’s Sky still feel like they hold all of the promise that was hinted at in the game’s phenomenally poorly-communicated marketing. It’s a time full of firsts: you’ll learn alien languages to better understand different intelligent species, solve puzzles both abstract and logical to uncover ancient secrets and extract useful blueprints, and you’ll dive into battle with roving space pirates. Maybe, you might think, just maybe, this game might be something special after all. Maybe the hype was justified.

But that’s before you start to notice all of the walls. Each and every limitation and mistake that stands between the No Man’s Sky that was promised and the No Man’s Sky that is.

The core gameplay loop of exploring planets starts out feeling like a fun adventure into the unknown, but quickly becomes an obnoxious bore. There are a few different “types” of planet- snowy ice planets, island-strewn watery planets, greenly forested planets, arid hot planets, craggy rock planets, and muggy toxic cloud-plagued planets. The main difference between enduring the environmental hazards posed by a toxic rain and a blizzard is the colour of the bar on your screen that lets you know how quickly you need to refuel the hazard protection systems in your suit.

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Despite there being 18 quintillion celestial spheres you might potentially visit, there’s still a prevailing sense of sameness to it all. Every planet holds the elements that you require to fix your ship should you damage it to the point of dilapidation or deplete its fuel. Sometimes you’ll come across a particularly mineral- or life-rich planet, but limitations in the game’s design even dull those discoveries after a while.

There are millions of creatures, yet they mostly act the same- passive creatures slightly vary in skittishness and aggressors are persistent assholes until you either put a small amount of distance between them and you or fill them with enough lasers to render them dead. They’re incredibly varied in design, but often in an off-putting, randomly-generated way that breeds unintentional hilarity more often than awe. As hysterical as it is to watch a poor slug head welded unceremoniously onto a lumpy T-Rex body waddle around, it’s not exactly the Jurassic Park-style scene of wonderment teased in the game’s trailers. The cobbled-together procedurally generated critters lack crucial character. Flora is almost as underwhelming as the fauna, too; I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen the exact same plants and fungi turn up on the many planets I’ve travelled.

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Also littering the game’s worlds are artificial structures. These are either Monoliths, which teach you words from alien languages (sometimes after little riddles which, while initially entertaining, eventually become predictable or frustratingly obtuse), alien outposts, or abandoned facilities that you must blast into. This summons the wrath of the Sentinels, robotic bastards who take umbrage whenever they detect mining, hunting, or breaking-and-entering for reasons unclear. This would pose a threat if the sentinels didn’t immediately disperse as soon as you enter a freshly-cracked facility or when you simply jump into your ship and take off. Not only are the game’s various buildings unvaried in design and content (get ready to find a lot of the same blueprints repeatedly), they also undermine the game’s major theme of discovery since every planet has clearly seen intelligent spacefaring people before you came along. Especially since you’re never given context for who you are, why you’re on this journey, or basically anything.

Perhaps the most prominent question surrounding No Man’s Sky in the run-up to release was “what do you actually do?” To which the most pure answer is: exploration and acquisition. But since exploration loses its lustre thanks to the lack of continual compelling content to discover, you’ll inevitably lean hard into the acquisition route. As I mentioned before, early on you gain the ability to craft and attach a warp drive to your ship which is used to leap between stars. Fuelling and upgrading your warp abilities is a primary focus. You scavenge for resources, upgrade and refuel your ship so you can more efficiently jump towards the centre of the universe, then rinse and repeat. A few hours in and the game’s boiled down to that endlessly repeated cycle and you’re left wondering if the taxing journey is worth the destination since by then you’ll have seen most of what the game has to offer for a while.

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The heavy emphasis on acquisition highlights the game’s most egregious frustration: your tiny inventory. As well as juggling your various ship fuels and life support systems, you’re constantly contending with stunted personal and ship inventories that quickly dampen the experience considerably. You can purchase additional slots for your suit as well as trade extortionate sums of money for a new and roomier vessel, but building up such a fortune through conventional means takes time and that time is spent struggling against your tiny inventory. Even when you do gain additional slots, upgrades to your suit and ship systems vital for survivability and sense of progress make use of those very slots. So you can either upgrade your abilities at the cost of precious inventory space, or remain weak and slow so you can carry a few more stacks of Plutonium without having to shuffle your stuff around fifty times per hour. This constant dithering and hassle just serves to annoy rather than engage.

On top of this repeated fiddling, the game’s UI and menus are slow and arduous to navigate. The game uses a similar menu system to that of Destiny– a cursor is passed over the screen with the thumbstick and relevant icons are prodded sometimes with a press of the X button, but sometimes with held press of the X button (it seems like which option is relevant is arbitrary). It’s a slow, clunky, inefficient process that doesn’t fit a controller, and I doubt it fits a mouse either. Dealing with the system in the heat of a space battle as you frantically try to feed iron into your failing shields (which for some reason replenishes them) underlines the poor interface quite well.

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Another vexing oversight on the UI side of the game’s design is the Milestone system. Effectively Milestones are achievements, and pop up to let you know when you’ve performed certain tasks a number of times, accompanied with a nice little musical fanfare and sweetly designed icon plastered on the screen. What isn’t so great about them is how they completely block your ability to interact with anything in the game while they’re triggered. This is especially maddening when you’re moments from icy death due to failing hazard protection systems mid-blizzard and you can’t jump into your spaceship that’s close enough to mist the windscreen with your breath. You’re hammering your fists on the unresponding and indifferent vessel, screaming down the blistering winds pelting your frost-burned face as some cosmic bastard pats you on the back for having travelled exactly 100km by foot.

But then that’s the issue endemic to No Man’s Sky. Many oversights and niggling issues that add up to build a wall between the game that was promised and the game we have. The limited interactivity, the uncountable number of systems of the game that are more shallow than promised (stunted ship variety, crafting, and diplomacy mechanics are perhaps the most offensive examples), the near-nonexistent physics (wildlife clips right through buildings while rocks float midair when their bases are mined away), the weirdly grainy pop-in loading of ground textures as you move closer to a planet’s surface, the core gameplay loop at odds with fundamental design decisions in the game’s balancing. Space flight is little more than cruising through endless asteroids and incredibly rare dogfights. A list of examples far too long to keep reeling off here. The tension between the game’s scale and the game’s scope is what breaks it and reveals its true nature: jumping between an infinite number of underwhelming playgrounds.

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Sometimes a glimmer of realised potential shines through the cracks. Cruising towards a new planet with a particularly well-timed track from the phenomenal score by 65daysofstatic (fascinatingly it’s procedurally-generated like the rest of the game, pairing appropriate samples of synth-laden tunes) can send shivers down the spine. The small, flickering flame of your drive to discover is stoked by sadly too-sparse snippets of cryptic backstory. In these brief, fleeting moments where the game works and you’re immersed, it’s clear that with more time No Man’s Sky could have been something special.

Perhaps the game still could be. Hello Games has spoken of supporting the game post-release. As it is now, No Man’s Sky feels more like an Early Access title than a definitive final product. Perhaps with a thorough system overhaul and a host of additions to invigorate exploration, No Man’s Sky might yet reach the stars. Right now, however, No Man’s Sky feels like it needs to take a serious look at its mission statement. I hope it’s not too late for that.

Abzû Review

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about Abzû without referencing its relation to its spiritual predecessor, Journey. After all, Abzû’s development at Giant Squid Studios was led by Flower and Journey art director Matt Nava while Austin Wintory lends his composing talents to the soundtrack. Alongside this surface-level audiovisual kinship, Abzû also aims to capture a calm, reflective, mood-driven experience. It’s designed to soothe you and move you. It does not squander its lineage.

Abzû’s central premise is simple. You’re a diver delving into the depths of the ocean to explore underwater ruins, gradually learning more about the history of the beings that inhabited the place. “Journey, but underwater” would not be an inaccurate summary of proceedings.

Swimming is a simple affair (which is good, because it’s your primary action within the game): propel yourself forwards, and adjust pitch and yaw with your left stick. My biggest worry going into Abzû was whether the swimming controls would handle well, since the near-ubiquitously limited manoeuvrability of games’ swimming controls are a pet hate of mine. However, Abzû controls pretty well after a couple of minutes’ adjustment; turning is pleasingly sharp without feeling unrealistic, and you’re fast enough to take the game at your own pace without feeling restricted.

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Abzû’s greater sense of freedom afforded by six degrees of movement is paired with a mechanical lightness even more pronounced than Journey’s to create an experience that’s more committed to calm, challenge-free play than the latter. You solve the lightest of environmental puzzles in order to progress to each new area, but these are never more complex than “find the object that opens the door”. There’s no fail-state at any stage of the game: the harshest punishment the game has to offer is a light slap of the wrist for brushing too close to mines later on, but it’s one of the least severe penalties I’ve seen since you regain full mobility almost immediately.

While Journey was a 3D platformer, Abzû is more closely related to walking simulators. It’s possible that the genre’s increasing popularity over the last couple of years, with big names like Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, and of course Gone Home, having paved the way for Giant Squid to develop such an easygoing video game free of friction to focus on mood and atmosphere.

While Abzû is irrefutably a kindred soul to Journey, it’s got an emotional core all of it’s own. Journey was set up as a lonely, solemn pilgrimage through sprawling plains of sand and vast, crumbling monuments to an ancient civilization. That’s why that game hangs on your partnership with other players: by yourself Journey is for the most part an isolated affair of quiet reverence, but add another player and you cling to each others’ presence to help each other through in both a practical and emotional sense. That initial sense of isolation melts away when you spot a companion on the horizon and rush towards them, greeting them with a stream of musical sounds.

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Abzû is a world apart. Most prominent is the focus on interacting with all manner of sea life; you brush fins with a massive amount of aquatic creatures, never far from company. There’s a mechanic where you latch onto and “ride” the larger specimens, serenely gliding along in pleasant symbiosis. Schools of fish will swirl around you, sometimes joining you for a short while before breaking away to flit along their own paths. Various meditation stones sprinkled amongst the larger locales allow you to observe individual fish carry out their lives in fairly realistic, if slightly squashed, ecosystems. You’re constantly unveiling and freeing fish from underwater “pools”, adding to the already-booming population of the game’s areas.

Your positive, friendly relationship with sea life in Abzû is the emotional lynchpin of the playful, carefree atmosphere of the game. There is a sense of duty to your actions in a similar vein to Journey, but your pilgrimage is coloured with more of a relaxed, stop-and-smell-the-flowers (seaweed?) vibe. You’re compelled to travel the depths and improve their ecological variation as you go, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun while you’re at it. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack underlines this distinction perfectly, his trademark stirring compositions lighter here with lively melodies. The symbiosis between gameplay and soundtrack is so strong that at times, Abzû almost feels like a playable album.

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Equally important to the atmosphere of Abzû are its stunning visuals. Yet again, Matt Nava’s art direction drew me in almost effortlessly: a dizzyingly vibrant and varied colour palette lends Abzû’s environments a brilliant sense of energy. Level layouts packed with detail enforce the game’s subtle visual storytelling as you discover more about this world beneath the waves. The models of the diver and sea life alike use a simplistic, geometrical style that easily differentiates each species (Abzû seems to have a deep respect for marine biology, highlighting the name of each encountered animal) and meshes pleasingly with the overall art style. Put simply, Abzû is splendidly easy on the eyes.

Abzû doesn’t run for very long (around two to three hours depending on how sedately you want to proceed), but that runtime isn’t wasted. This game is not to be rushed, but savoured. Take joy in connecting with and observing sea life. Thrill at the breathtaking current-riding sections that mirror the same ecstatic freedom found in Journey’s sparse moments of speed. The first time I encountered a whale I was transfixed. A little bit scared, even; the dwarfing scale of the creature sent shivers down my spine as I processed its presence. This game is all about the full range of emotional release: from the simple joy of hitching a ride on a Manta Ray to the whooping delight that is blitzing through the water at breakneck speed alongside schools upon schools of fish. Abzû excels in not just the serene, but the fantastic.

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Ultimately Abzû’s greatest strength doubles as its biggest weakness: you get out of it what you put in. Players willing to dawdle around to drink in the gorgeously presented scenery and atmosphere will find a tranquil, enriching, rewarding experience driven by curiosity and wonder. Those who require challenge or prefer conventional storytelling, however, might find Abzû a shallow frustration. And I wouldn’t blame them. Still, fans of Journey will find a worthy spiritual successor in Abzû. It’s quite unlike anything else, and communicates the unmatched majesty of the ocean like no other art.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

Nathan Drake is out of the game. In an attempt at a “normal” life after too many brushes with death, the man has finally settled down with longtime flame Elena. A small number of pilfered relics and McGuffins from previous games now litter his dusty loft, mere mementos of adventures past. But when Nate’s long-lost brother Sam turns up in debt to a dangerous criminal, he’s dragged again into old, illegal ways. Make no mistake, though: while this game carries all the hallmarks of the One Last Hurrah, Naughty Dog presents an experience that leverages the series’ past to weave a tale worth telling.

This time, Drake’s chasing down Captain Henry Avery’s long-lost treasure in a quest that once again whisks him and his companions across the globe. Uncharted 4 doesn’t reinvent the series’ trademark bombastic action-adventure formula, instead introducing gentle yet meaningful tweaks to the game’s mechanics and design to improve the whole experience.

The levels you’ll clamber and swashbuckle your way through are designed to facilitate the series’ characteristic merger of traversal and combat. Graspable ledges on both natural and manmade surfaces are gently highlighted with a telltale dusting of colour, and Drake reaches out to ledges that you can climb to which makes monkeying about cliff faces feel intuitive. You can take cover behind flat objects and waist-high walls and easily mantle the latter. You know the drill, it’s par for the Uncharted course.

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What’s new is the grappling hook, which integrates itself into Uncharted’s established platforming admirably while affording an easy verticality in level design. You can use it to swing across chasms, safely rappel down steep drops, and to pull objects towards you from afar.

The platforming mechanics are as solid as ever, and enable you to fling yourself around the varied environments in an engaging and kinetic fashion whether you’re climbing up a Scottish cliff face with relative leisure or frantically attempting to outrun a hail of gunfire in Italy. Levels are less straightforward this time, though- while there’s a set path for progression through levels, there are often areas and arenas with multiple routes of advancement which does reduce that on-rails feeling.

You’ll also employ these skills in combat situations, during which you’re usually dropped into an arena patrolled by enemies unaware of your presence- although there’s a fair share of firefights that start hot. Combat this time feels more frantic and improvisational than ever before, with an emphasis on dropping in and out of stealth to eliminate your foes. You’ll sneak through high grass and leap between ledges in the vertical environments to get the (sometimes literal) drop on enemies with stealth takedowns.

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If you’re spotted, you’ve a multitude of options to spring into action with. You can hunker down behind cover to trade fire and grenades with your attackers, rapidly switching safe spots as enemy fire swiftly degrades your cover while attempting to flank you from all sides. Alternatively, you can go on the run- this is what the game really wants you to do. There’s a special thrill afforded by the chaotic firefights that ensue when you’re swinging from point to point, guns ablaze while bullets fill the air around you.

Crucially, Uncharted 4’s goons don’t know where you are if you manage to break their line of sight for a few seconds- and while they’ll still search for you, you can use the upper hand to take out a few more men without drawing fire. This not only makes stealthy gameplay achievable if you mess up and get spotted, but also really lends the feeling that you’re thinking on your feet to gain the advantage against all odds.

Combat sections aren’t actually all that prevalent in Uncharted 4; I’d estimate that probably less than a third of your time is spent engaging your adversaries. You’ll spend most of your time carefully navigating environments, solving simple yet stimulating navigational puzzles to chase down that treasure.

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That’s not to say that this game doesn’t offer its fair share of explosive action. Uncharted 4 might be the most varied AAA game released yet this year, and you’re constantly shifting between different modes of play. Ponderous exploration scenes seasoned with dialogue are interspersed with high-flying action, sudden spikes of danger yank the carpet out from under you (the all-but-patented “precarious handholds occasionally crumble under your fingers” trick is less prevalent but still very present), and you’re constantly facing new challenges and situations. Now you’re driving, now you’re shooting, now you’re solving a puzzle, now you’re in a quietly emotional scene, now you’re hanging by a thread over a 1,000-foot drop. Uncharted 4 buckles you in for one hell of a ride, and plastered a grin across my face for most of my time with it.

Despite its commitment to the series’ gameplay, Uncharted 4 offers us a different take on an Uncharted narrative. This game was led by The Last of Us directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, and while the story features similar beats of twists, turns and reveals to the established Uncharted formula, Uncharted 4 shows an altogether more mature, grounded emotional core.

The game’s somber reflection on Nathan Drake, a man torn between obsession with adventure and the hope of a normal life, feels like a fitting focus for the narrative. Drake continues to be a revelation with his script, voice work from Nolan North, and incredible animation contributing to make him one of the most likeable and relatable playable characters out there. That’s despite the ludonarrative dissonance that comes from a person able to kill so many people without needing therapy, although I’m not sure why people hone in on Drake so much when this issue is so widespread in games. For what it’s worth, this treasure hunt is set up as an endeavour that Drake absolutely must pursue and the foes in his way demand violent action.

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The entire cast of the game is enthralling to watch, too- stellar vocal performances all round, especially the game’s core cast of Sully, Elena, and Nate’s brother Sam, played by Troy Baker. Uncharted games always have superb scripts, and this is one of the few games that I played through without a podcast on in the background because of the constant, excellent dialogue presence. Uncharted 4 features some of the best character work out there, and I was thoroughly invested in the personal stories of these people.

Special mention must go to Uncharted 4’s facial animation; you can see the history between these characters written across their faces when they’re interacting, with every expression and eye movement immaculately represented. Character models are painstakingly rendered; if you position Nate in just the right light, you can see the cartilage in his ears.

This flair for visual polish extends to the rest of the game too, in a presentation with a frankly astounding level of detail. There’s a reason that the game has a photo mode that allows you to pause the action at any time to take screenshots, although screenshots just don’t do justice to what this game looks like in motion. Locales from around the globe are lovingly designed and rendered, often feeling like real places rather than a constructed playground. Uncharted 4 might well be the best looking game I’ve seen that’s shooting for “realism” in its graphics, and you’re sure to revel in its visual delights. This isn’t just in the wild outdoors, either; I was amazed walking through Nate’s house early on, so realistic was the depiction of a home. The way that light glanced off windows, picture frames, and tiled surfaces differently alone was eerily lifelike in itself.

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Pair this with the multitude of incidental details of animation and script like the way that Nate checks his hair when you look in the mirror, or appropriately grunts and careens a bit if you swing into a wall, and you’ve got a game that’s full to the brim with details that draw you into its world.

There are plenty of extras to chase after the credits roll, too. Completionists may want to hunt down every artifact scattered throughout the game, or play the story through again on a different difficulty level. The variety and swashbuckling glee of this game certainly lends itself to repeated play for a lark. If you’re somehow held back from replays by the notion of walking familiar ground, there are even filters that overhaul the game’s graphics, rendering the world in cel-shaded, negative, 8-bit, and rainbow-coloured variants. There’s also a multiplayer, if you fancy pitting your skills against others’.

Uncharted 4 is a beautiful, pulse-pounding, pensive, sublime experience that is, dare I say it, absolutely essential whether you played previous games in the series or not. Naughty Dog’s talent and love for this game shine through in brilliant fashion from the first moment to when the credits roll around hour 16. Uncharted 4 is a triumph in narrative, character work, and gameplay, and a great example of what polished AAA design can achieve.

Ratchet and Clank Review

Ratchet and Clank, or Ratchet and Clank (2016) as we’ll soon refer to it, is a re-imagining of the series’ first game from 2002. It’s not a remake because it ties into the recent film, which is based on the 2002 original. To make things clear: you’ll play through levels which are sometimes faithful depictions of those found in the original game, and sometimes slightly or wholly reimagined, while the story has been altered to closely fit the events depicted in the movie.

The setting is playful spacefaring science fiction. Ratchet, a mechanic of the Lombax race, is called to action when diminutive robot Clank crash-lands on his backwater planet with terrible news: Chairman Drek of the Blarg intends to tear apart populated worlds to create a new planet to replace his race’s polluted home world. The pair set off to join the idolised Galactic Rangers, led by heroic Captain Quark, in a romp through some of the planets you’ll remember from the first game.

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The first thing to strike me playing thorough Ratchet and Clank was just how beautifully those planets are realised. It’s probably worth mentioning that the 2002 original got me into console gaming in the first place, and while it’s been years since I completed a whole playthrough, it was fascinating to see familiar planets and sequences rendered with current-gen technology. It’s the closest to that “playable Pixar movie” holy grail that’s been sought after for years.

Bright colours from a diverse palette pop in crisply realised alien planets. Cityscapes and less developed locales alike are alive with detail and moving parts that emphasises the feel of a vibrant and lively universe. The trademark wacky character designs are rendered with care, with delightful animation; smear techniques add expressiveness and punch to animations found in enemies’ attacks and your wrench’s swing. This all combines to build one of the most visually impressive games that can be found on consoles.

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Ratchet and Clank uses the reimagined worlds from the 2002 original as a stage for you to traverse and shoot-up vertical playgrounds with your quickly-growing arsenal of guns and gadgets. Along with the spruced-up level designs, this gameplay is similarly tweaked to account for the decade of experience Insomniac accrued making Ratchet games. Shooting aims your shots to wherever you’re pointed while you freely leap about the level, but you’re encouraged to hold the strafe button to lock the camera into more standard over-the-shoulder shooter mode. Jumping in this state makes Ratchet leap in whichever direction you’re moving, allowing him to dodge incoming fire while returning assault in kind.

Ratchet controls well, with each movement feeling tight and well-measured. These games have always controlled well, and Insomniac hasn’t re-invented the wheel unnecessarily; you’re still a leaping agent of death with a helicopter/thruster- equipped robot strapped to your back and a penchant for collecting bolts for currency, so if you found gameplay from previous Ratchet games satisfying then you won’t complain here.

A big part of the Insomniac style comes from the aforementioned arsenal of weaponry you’ll acquire as you strafe and flip through the game’s hurdles. You’ll acquire bolts from slain enemies and smashed crates that can be traded in at Gadgetron vendors in exchange for some new tools of destruction. This release features weapons from throughout the series (the Groovitron, Mr. Zurkon, and multiple variants of the RYNO appear amongst more alumni) , as well as some original entries like the Pixelizer, which turns enemies into voxel versions of themselves. The care that’s gone into this game is even more apparent when you take weapons like the Pixelizer and the Groovitron into account- the latter forces enemies to dance for a short time, for which each enemy in the game has their own dance animation. It would’ve been nice to have seen some of the more interesting weapons from the 2002 original make the cut, like the Tesla Claw and the Suck Cannon, but you’ve still got a diverse array of interesting weapons to play with that gain XP to become more potent with use.

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There’s also a modding system for your weapons that’s tied into a secondary currency you’ll find in your travels, the illusive Raritanium. These crystals can be spent at Gadgetron vendors to unlock nodes on extensive upgrade trees for each gun- you’ll pay one crystal of Raritanium to activate each modular upgrade that’s represented as a hexagonal node. These range from a slight increase in effective range or item drop rates to more potent mystery upgrades that you’ll need to surround with bought mod nodes to unlock.

All the gunplay can get really rather hectic. There’s often a lot of enemies and particle effects onscreen at once, and I often found myself confused in the hubbub which led to a few frustrating encounters. Death tends to land you just before the start of the current encounter, and I’m unsure whether that helps or harms the experience- it does lessen the pain of waiting to jump back in and meet the challenge, but you’re also robbed of much reflective downtime and the fight starts to feel trivial when setbacks of failure are so lenient. For the most part though, encounters are well designed for players to experiment with their full range of weapons and abilities, and frustrating sections whose strife can be drawn back to level design itself are few and far between.

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It is useful to take a break from all the action though, and Ratchet and Clank offers a smorgasbord of distractions and accompaniments to the core gunplay. Jetpack areas, though sparse, kick the vertical aspect of gameplay up a notch by making use of a jetpack acquired midgame to explore sprawling vistas. Rail-grinding returns, which functions as calming eye candy as you leap between airborne rails and bat away explosive mines to progress through and explore levels. Flying missions put you in the pilot’s seat of your ship, pitting you against scores of enemy craft with your machine gun fire and barrel rolls.

More substantial are sequences where you’ll play as Clank in rare occurrences where he’s separated from Ratchet. These are the slowest-paced sections of the lot, where you’ll solve simple puzzles centred around picking up and programming little robots to help you reach your goal. Juggling multiple helpers, switching them between bounce-pad, battery, and bridge-building modes might only gently tease your brain, but it’s a welcome change of pace that only sticks around long enough for you to be ready to jump back into action once again.

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There’s even a couple of collectible-shaped diversions to chase. Gold Bolts return, hidden treasures which can be used to unlock fun rewards like cheats. You’ll also find Holocards from defeated enemies and nooks and crannies of the game world. Collect trios of these and you’ll unlock content ranging from concept art to Omega versions of weapons for the Challenge Mode (this game’s version of New Game Plus). There’s a lot of this side content for fervent players to track down, and it’s another indicator of the amount of effort that’s gone into making this game a worthwhile product.

Sadly, where Ratchet and Clank’s triumphs in the gameplay and visual design departments shine, the game falls flat when it comes to its narrative elements. While levels from the 2002 game are re-rendered almost verbatim, the game’s plot is a far more faithful adaptation of the movie’s version of events. In fact, cut-scenes here actually turn out to be sequences lifted straight from the film- your PS4 even alerts you that it’s stopped recording footage because you’re watching “blocked material”.

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This means that the script from 2002’s Ratchet and Clank is mostly scrapped in favour of the film’s version of the characters. Ratchet is no longer a street-smart, selfish cynic, but rather a stereotypical bright-eyed Yes Man that answers the call to heroism without question. And Clank is no longer really a character at all, in stark contrast to the logical yet naive persona found in the original game. Our protagonists are weirdly quiet out of cutscenes, and most of their cut scene-based dialogue is blandly expository. As cliched as the tropes the original game leaned on are, at least those characters felt like they broke into the third dimension. A lot of the jokes from the original game made me laugh or smile even when I watched a supercut of the cutscenes in preparation for this review. By comparison, this game offers boring facsimiles of once-interesting characters that feel like they’re reciting a bad script in need of a first pass.

Even the series’ tongue-in-cheek humour is weakly represented here; it seems like this game can’t wait a single minute to bleat another ill-conceived jibe or unimaginative referential joke in your direction, and it gets tiring after a short while.

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There’s a really weird disparity of continuity between the game and its film footage cut-scenes, too. Later on there’s a scene where Clank springs a sudden plan into action. When asked what he’s doing, Clank turns to the camera and says meaningfully, “I’m improvising”, to which Ratchet smiles and gives a nod of recognition. This moment lifted from the movie is referencing some exchange that’s only found in the movie, and it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst a number of direct contradictions between events from cut-scenes and the game proper.

It leads to a sort of disconnect between the player and the game. The bland script, the constant stream of misfired jokes, the constant tension between the gameplay and the cut-scenes. In spite of the slavishly reimagined levels, designs and mechanics, the crucial narrative cocoon of the game has been sacrificed to resemble the film, like so many tie-in games before. Ratchet and Clank (2016) is a riotous ten hours of fun whose characters and story just won’t stick with you after the fact, and that’s a shame when you think about all of the love that’s obviously been poured into the game’s design.

Until Dawn Review: Top Notch Horror/ Adventure

UD Review 1

Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Format: PS4
Released: 26 August 2015
Copy purchased

Until Dawn is a horror/adventure game which plays like something akin to a Telltale or Quantic Dream game. Supermassive Games, previously known for developing downloadable content for LittleBigPlanet and a small selection of augmented reality games, has crafted a tight and satisfying experience where your choices really matter.

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