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.

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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.

Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom Pretty Much Nails the Action

Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom, simply referred to as Attack on Titan in Japan, is a third-person action game that has been out in its home country since February. Us Europeans won’t get the anime adaptation game until August 26th, though- meaning most will have to wait a bit longer to get their mitts on the thing. Luckily for MCM London attendees, though, a demo of the game was available to members of the public over the past weekend. I was one such participant, and I’m glad to say that the property has been executed quite well.

If you’ve watched or read the excellent anime or manga (or both, if you’re me), you’ll understand that perhaps the main pull of a playable Attack on Titan lies in the realisation of the 3D Manoeuvring Gear. If you haven’t followed the anime, this gear is essentially a harness that soldiers don to fire dual grappling hooks and zoom around vertical environments assisted by gas-powered thrusters. They need this hyper-mobility to outmanoeuvre titans- giant, carnivorous humanoids- to protect humanity’s last walled city.

I must admit that I doubted the translatability of the 3D Manoeuvring Gear to games. Spider-Man 2 showed us how to do swinging mechanics back in 2004, but there are several caveats to Attack on Titan’s setting that might’ve hindered the fulfilment of swinging in this game. Firstly, the buildings of Attack on Titan’s walled city aren’t exactly skyscrapers. The majority of the architecture doesn’t exceed three or four stories, meaning there’s less of a vertical buffer in the environment. Furthermore, the speed at which soldiers zip about is much faster than established swinging mechanics have exhibited. The need to accurately swing around and target weak points on titans at such velocity means there’s a slew of challenges to realising this mechanic.

The demo that I played was set during a battle to defend a portion of the city of Trost that’s been breached by the titans, in line with early episodes of the anime. The controls were a little bit bizarre to start out with, but I soon got the knack of controlling Eren on the PS4 controller. The X button is, as ever, the jump button. Pressing square launches you in the whichever direction you’re moving, and much like in Spider-Man 2 you’ve got to time your grappling hooks with for maximum speed of traversal through the environment.

When you do close in on a titan, it’s time to lock on to them using R1. At this point you can use the right stick to flick between several parts of the titan’s body- knees, elbows, and neck. A press of square in this mode attaches a grappling hook to the highlighted area, allowing you to circle around the anchor point for a short time. Pulling the L2 trigger at this moment causes the grappling hook to reel in, and a well-timed push of the triangle button launches Eren into a spinning sword slash to sever the appropriate area.

Much like in the anime, titans are a varied bunch. This means you’ll have to tackle individuals differently: more docile specimens can be dispatched quickly and easily by going straight for the kill-spot at the back of the neck, but more alert creatures won’t go down so easily. One might track your movements with their face, meaning you need to sever a leg to trip them up without risking the chomp. Some are unusually grabby, and require an amputation at the elbow before you’re able to zero in on their neck.

I must say that I’m very impressed at the execution of these mechanics. Rocket-powered swinging could’ve easily devolved to a nightmare train wreck of uncontrollable fumbling, or slowed down to the point of losing that characteristic dynamism. As it is, the system deftly juggles speed and precision to really capture the essence of the show’s fight scenes. It remains to be seen whether the game’s length is supported by varied and interesting scenarios to facilitate this action, but colour me very interested for now.

Image credits: koeitecmoeurope.com

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.

Unravel Review

A lot of games sell themselves on their visuals. Hell, graphics are often a main marketing strategy for whole platforms. Aesthetics are a major pillar of the experience of play, and it’s most of what people have to go on when they’re deciding whether to play your game (unless you’re among the few developers that still release demos). A lot of discussions have taken place regarding the relative importance of aesthetics versus gameplay quality; would you rather have a beautiful game that lacks in the gameplay department, or an ugly yet mechanically accomplished title? For me, Unravel illustrates why game design should favour quality gameplay before visuals.

Coldwood Interactive have created a very pretty game. Its environments vary from fresh and earthy woodland to breezy seaside to rolling countryside blanketed in crisp, fresh snow. Each level really does feel visually and tonally distinct. The player character, Yarny, is a downright adorable design that feeds well into the core mechanics. The excellent animation and application of lighting effects make the game very emotionally expressive. Pathetic fallacy is particularly well employed to tweak the emotional tone of Yarny’s adventure, an effect the delightful soundtrack compounds beautifully.

Yarny’s journey is realised by some pretty solid core mechanics. As Yarny runs and jumps from left to right, he leaves behind a trail of yarn. This not only serves to realise the checkpoint system- Yarny unravels as he progresses and must find spools of yarn throughout the levels to maintain his body- but also allows you to rappel safely down long drops as well as climb back up. Yarny sports a loose strand of yarn that he can use to grab faraway points to climb up to, swing from, or pull towards himself. You can also make knots in your yarn trail to tether points together, or make a taut bridge to bounce from. It doesn’t take long to get used to this relatively broad range of mechanics, and I can’t help but admire the imagination at work here.

Sadly, control foibles and the design of the game around the puzzles often lead to frustration. I have no issue with difficult games, but there are lots of points in Unravel where I met a sticking point because I just couldn’t see what I was supposed to be doing. A lot of the puzzles are in environments that are unfortunately not designed to effectively communicate my options for progressing in the level.

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A particular offender in this area is the climbable environmental objects that are advertised with a slight shimmer. They’re not advertised very well, though. The sparkle effect on these objects is very slight and often blends in with the myriad other particle effects happening onscreen. I can see that Coldwood Interactive didn’t want to compromise the visual style with obvious shimmering lights on the screen, but the game needs to prioritise effective communication. One maddening is a tense chase as a gopher pursues Yarny through an underground burrow. This segment culminates with a steep drop that requires you to leap from a ledge to grab some climbable roots to escape. My attempts for this sequence number in the double digits, and I was driven to say some quite regrettable things at the screen before I eventually spotted the “telltale glimmer” on the hanging roots. This is not an example of good game design.

While your controls are precise enough for general platforming, there are a lot of sequences that require more precision than the decidedly floaty controls can reliably deal with. The core mechanics work well for calm puzzling, but don’t hold up very well when there’s an element of timing or stress to proceedings. Unravel is at its best when you’re serenely progressing through the lovely environments accompanied by a soundtrack that intensifies the sense of fun adventure. Sadly, instances of frustration are too frequent, and shatter the carefully cultivated sense of lighthearted fun and poignancy when they rear their head.

The story, such as it is, is decidedly serviceable. The game provides a nice framing device with Yarny exploring areas linked with memories of an old lady to magically restore her photo album. It’s a story told very convincingly from the heart in what feels like a very honest expression of the soul of the folks at Coldwood Interactive. It’s like a sweet poem, all bright eyes and optimism.

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Unravel is very effective at making you empathise with Yarny and his self-appointed task. Often all the visual and musical elements of a scene build up to create memorably stirring sequences. A particular level late in the game is remarkable for this effect, as Yarny needs to pass through a snowstorm and needs to drag a lantern with him to keep himself warm and anchored against the freezing winds. This sequence is indicative of the game’s main issue, though; while it’s a very effective segment for making you really empathise with Yarny and want to fight with him against the elements, it’s also maddening to be blasted a considerable distance backwards in a massive gust of wind. The emotional weight of the scene in undermined by gameplay that’s just a touch too frustrating.

Unravel is a game that had the potential to sit alongside games like Limbo with its imaginative mechanics, honest emotional core, and arresting visual design. Sadly it’s too often hampered with game design problems from poor communication, unreliable controls, and serious pacing issues. Lots of sections of the game would have been saved from this with a few tweaks to make them less awkward. Ultimately Unravel is defined by its sense of aesthetics and heart, but also by substantial issues with its gameplay that often serve to erode its sense of adventure.

Gravity Rush Remastered Review

The most recent game to receive the “remastered” treatment, Gravity Rush Remastered is Bluepoint Entertainment’s effort to remaster Project Siren’s game in a platform transition from PS Vita to PS4. I should note upfront that I never played the Vita original, so this remaster is my first taste of Gravity Rush.

The game starts with amnesiac protagonist Kat waking up in the flying city Hekseville, followed by a cosmic cat whose companionship gifts her with the powers of a “gravity shifter”, meaning she can manipulate gravity around her person to fling herself at great speed in any direction. This skill also empowers her to take on the Nevi, malevolent otherworldly creatures that plague Hekseville’s unfortunate citizens alongside freak gravity storms. Compelled to help those in need and driven to discover the circumstances of her past and the nature of this mysterious city in the sky, Kat quickly establishes herself in town and meets a colourful cast of people in her search for answers.

Kat and the host of supporting characters are wonderfully designed with an original, varied yet cohesive aesthetic that’s well realised on the PS4. Hekseville itself is a bit less interesting, with little to differentiate each area’s vibe apart from a different omnipresent colour saturation for each district. I’m also not entirely sold by the game’s eclectic, jazzy background music that plays out while you explore the city. While it initially frames the jaunty environmental and character designs quite well, it eventually plays out as cloying and repetitive. Nevertheless, the environments tend towards openness and are well laid-out to accommodate for your topsy-turvy gravity bending shenanigans.

It’s clear from the outset that the main draw of Gravity Rush lies in Kat’s gravity shifting powers, and thankfully the game excels in their realisation. The controls are fairly simple: a tap of R1 detaches her from the ground, then the right stick and/or Sixaxis aims a reticle at the point you want her to “fall” (fly) towards with a second tap of R1. You can quickly pause in space and re-angle your fall on the fly, and you’re soon tumbling through the city with ease and a certain grace. You’re encouraged to explore Hekseville to pick up ability-boosting crystals dotted around the city like the orbs from Crackdown, and it’s just as satisfying to sweep up tens to hundreds of the things on your way between main and side objectives in the open world.

Much of the combat against the Nevi revolves around finding the right angle to strike their weak points indicated in classic video game style as glowing bulbs on their bodies. On the ground you’re restricted to simple kicks and sliding attacks, but in the air you use the gravity shift-aiming reticle to pinpoint Nevi weak points for well-placed flying kicks. This leads to impressively balletic mid-air combat as you tumble, zoom and kick your way through the opposition. For the most part It’s mesmerising and involving to puzzle out the best way to exploit weaknesses in your enemies’ guard, although some frustratingly elusive foes are overused later on.

It’s also worth noting how well the Sixaxis integration works for fine-tuning the aim of your falls and kicks, especially mid-combat. The sensitivity is well-tuned and feels appropriately accurate. I injured my right thumb the day before I started the game, and I really appreciated the stress it took off my thumb as I pulled off more and more complex aerial manoeuvres. Even in absence of that very specific injury, the option to tweak your direction while your thumb is occupied with pressing the face buttons for attacks is a welcome option. This is the best version of motion control utilisation: an optional compliment to traditional button inputs.

While the game’s core mechanics are satisfying on a fundamental level, it’s the mission design in which you employ them that the game occasionally falls short. There’s a decent amount of variety in mission objectives, but it’s variety wasted on baffling decisions that don’t make the best use of the strength of Kat’s gravity shifting powers. A decent amount of missions remove your powers for a time, which only serves to point out Kat’s stilted and imprecise movement when confined to the ground by traditional gravity. There are two forced-stealth sections in the main storyline rendered nearly pointless by both the incredibly low stakes (go back twenty paces and try again if you’re spotted!) and their pitifully short duration. I’m not sure why resources were focused on what amounts to about 4 minutes of stealth gameplay in a 10 hour long game.

A lot of the missions that allow full exploitation of your powers are still plagued by bad design and repetitiveness. Two back-to-back missions heavily feature the exact same boss which takes about 10 minutes to beat. Another boss, a flying serpentine Nevi monster, turns up about three times and requires you to follow it through the air, waiting for expose its weak point for a few seconds of pounding… before going back to following it around again. Then things switch up slightly: instead of pounding its weak spot multiple times, you hit it once (variety, see!) before luring the creature towards a trap that an NPC companion has set for it. Rinse and repeat. Twice. The characters themselves sigh resignedly along with the player when they see the big idiot is still alive.

Another disappointingly repetitive mission takes place late in the game and involves a scientist asking you to place four sensors around the area. Two of the locations spawn enemies that cause you to drop the sensor you’re carrying when you get hit. So you deal with the enemies in the vicinity, and have to go back to the scientist to pick up a replacement sensor to drop off in the cleared area. I get that it’s meant as an incentive to keep you on your toes, and it’s only a 30-second detour, but it’s pointless busywork and only serves to waste your time. After you’ve placed the fourth sensor, you need to go back to the one that’s not beeping because the scientist apparently didn’t turn it on (Kat even remarks that it’s not acting like the others when she places it, but it’s ultimately redundant that she notices this because she nevertheless has to be told to activate it). Then when you return to the scientist again, you’re tasked with delivering yet another sensor that he forgot to mention. I get that the NPC is being portrayed as bumbling and forgetful, and it’s probably meant to be funny, but it does not result in engaging, worthwhile gameplay and the joke dies in the air.

Sadly, a lot of these poor objective designs- waiting for weak points to reveal themselves, awkward and insubstantial stealth sections, and item delivery busywork- come off as cheap ways to extend the game’s length and are poor vectors for the excellent core gameplay. The majority of the game is well-designed, but these offending sections take up a substantial enough portion of the game’s duration that it becomes egregious.

While the story has great potential and touches on some really interesting beats, it’s also marred with pacing issues and a prodigious amount of unfulfilled character and plot threads. A section purportedly centred around filling in Kat’s forgotten past ends with a fizzle of unfulfilled promise, and the game’s explanation of the nature of the world falls disappointingly flat on its face. At one point Kat returns to Hekseville after a brief stint away to find that a year has passed in her absence and a major regime change has shifted control of the city to a different faction under a figurehead the game seems to think it’s sufficiently built up as a recognisable character. While this character’s aspirations were mildly hinted at earlier in the story, it’s an unearned development straight out of left field. Ultimately, although Gravity Rush got me to care about its characters and world, the scope of each of the unfulfilled plot threads strike me as arrogant sequel-teasing while I’d rather the narrative be more fulfilling in this game. Maybe Project Siren were rushed along and had to radically cut back on their original vision. That would explain a lot. The game doesn’t come close to resolving many of its main threads, leaving me to feel cheated rather than eager for more.

Gravity Rush Remastered is a game with incredibly imaginative gameplay that’s essentially hampered by unimaginative design and a frustratingly incomplete story. Had Project Siren avoided common game design pitfalls and tied up the story more satisfactorily, Gravity Rush might have been something really special. However, the core mechanics are very well implemented and so satisfying that the game is nonetheless carried to create a worthwhile experience overall; it’s just a recommendation that comes with lots of unfortunate caveats. The game’s already-pretty visual design feels fresh in high definition, and the controls feel natural on the controller; you can’t argue against the fine remastering work Bluepoint Games has done in translating Project Siren’s game to PS4. Gravity Rush Remastered overall is a positive and clearly ambitious project that’s frustratingly impaired by some unfortunate issues that I hope the upcoming sequel addresses.