Thursday, May 26, 2016

Why Uncharted 4's ending bums me out - Opinion

[contains spoilers]

Silence—a first for the series.

Boot up any of the other Uncharted games, and you'll be greeted with momentous fanfare that pumps you up for yet another exciting adventure. It's fittingly titled "Nate's Theme" after our intrepid hero, capturing both his bravery and the exotic thrills that await him on the road ahead. But Uncharted 4: A Thief's End eschews with the series' bravado, opting to instead welcome the player with a solitary, silent, and haunting image:

The tonal shift feels deliberate; the dead pirate serves as a warning for those that tread down this path. And as you progress through the game's story, it's clear Uncharted 4's narrative revolves around greed and its consequences. Sam's naivety and lust for treasure sweeps his brother off his feet, transporting them both to Avery's island in a race to find the legendary captain's treasure before their ruthless adversaries do. Elena is also dragged into the struggle, first to rebuke Nate for his betrayal but then to watch over her reckless husband. Shortly after the two reunite on the island, they share a pithy exchange that reveals what's at stake:

Nate: "Thanks for saving me. Again."

Elena: "I almost didn't this time."

This journey isn't merely about risking one's life for gold and glory—it's about straining the fragile trust of those closest to you. Uncharted 4 masterfully echoes this in the tale of Libertalia and New Devon, where colonists and pirate leaders alike were deceived, tortured, and slaughtered by each other. Their internal strife shattered their proud allegiance, the venerable pirate utopia now left abandoned, flooded, and booby trapped. For half the game you stand in awe at what the pirate brigade was able to accomplish together, but eventually you uncover the truth of their arrogance, violence, and madness. Greed ultimately consumed them, and their mistrust for one another ensured that no one would survive to tell the tale.

Similar seeds of doubt are strewn amongst the main cast late into the game: Sam has lied to Nate, Nate has lied to Elena, and the uneasy alliance of Rafe and Nadine is quickly crumbling. Nate realizes the severity of this obsession with gold, first chiding himself for taking advantage of his wife and then bearing witness to the horrors of New Devon. It's clear this treasure is cursed—insofar as the people seeking to covet it don't seem to survive for long—and after reuniting with Sam, Nate makes a bold decision: they're all getting off the island, empty pockets in tow.

Nate & co. abandoning the plot wholesale was an interesting pivot in the story for me. Even though it felt like the game was warming up to an explosive finale (especially after the amazing ship graveyard section), this decision felt logical—after going through so much trouble to locate Avery's stash, our resilient hero has seen where this path takes him. His time with Elena has grounded him, Sam's betrayal let him taste his own bitter medicine, and the letters he collected illustrated how this tale would play out. This life wasn't fun—it was extremely selfish and dangerous. The player is then struck with an elongated period of silence as the cast slowly descends down the mountain back to the plane, an unceremonious anti-climax to our story.

Yet this is not where the game ends.

Sam somberly remarks about the explosions off in the distance, aching for the same resolution the player is. Eventually he gets separated and heads off to finish the journey he and his brother started. Nate coincidentally stumbles into an opportunity to pursue him, and does so. At this point, I figured the story was going to conclude with a fistfight to bring Sam back, as it seemed like an appropriate and emotional crescendo to close on (after all, how often do you brawl with the final boss in order to save his/her life?) Perhaps—I figured—there might be an epilogue of a playable Rafe or Nadine (or even Sam) descending into Avery's ship, discovering that the grisly pirate had rigged the vessel to burst if anyone stumbled upon his loot-laden corpse. Thieves dying with their desperately-sought treasure isn't exactly a fresh trope, but if there's something Avery seemed dead-set on, it was killing anyone that dared to steal from him.

To my surprise (but I'm sure the delight of many players), there's no subversion or shock—Nate travels to the pirate ship, duels with Rafe, and saves his brother. He escapes the crumbling vessel and returns home to shed his boring life, managing a salvage company with his wife which undertakes less risky ventures and explores the world. Almost everything ends better than expected for Uncharted 4's cast, the villains of the story being the only ones to receive a reprimand for their greed. Sure, Sam can't get back the time he lost in prison, but there's still a whole life full of adventure ahead of him with the best partner a guy can ask for.

I don't like this ending.

It may feel like a fitting conclusion for a sentimental fan of the Uncharted series, but it is not a good closer for this particular story. I know these games are a far cry from the bleak world of The Last of Us, but I expected a more serious resolution to accompany the more mature writing. Instead, the game follows in the thematic footsteps of the past three titles, placing Nate in constant peril but doing nothing to leave a lasting impression that he learned anything on this journey. At best Nathan realized he shouldn't lie to his wife, but at worst Elena's concern for him comes across as incessant nagging that keeps him from his true calling. Nearly nothing of importance occurred to convince me that this was definitely his final outing into the wild, other than the developers stating so.

A major part of my disappointment is because there were no demonstrable opportunities for Nate to quell his greed. I yearned for the mountaintop brawl with Sam because it would be a dynamic way to prove the treasure wasn't worth sacrificing one's life for, especially because Sam was emulating Nate's younger/more brash side. Instead, Avery's ship is set ablaze so the brothers—under immediate duress—can only escape with their lives, the lagoon caving in to ensure that the treasure was irrecoverable. But what would have happened if they had an opportunity to pillage it safely, or if they had the choice to hand it over to Rafe and Nadine? Doesn't Nate being forced to pull Sam away from the gilded goods sound like it would reinforce the narrative the players received throughout the game?

Robbing the story's main character of his agency to reject this lifestyle proves nothing to the player. Despite the subtitle, Uncharted 4 isn't about a thief's end—it's about a thief's reward. It's about how scavenging, trespassing, shooting, and narrowly avoiding death every minute can be quite thrilling and glamorous. As long as you act like the good guy, you get rewarded with a loyal wife, a fantastic job, a gorgeous beach house island, and a brilliant daughter. There are no lasting injuries, dead friends, or monetary losses to speak of—only the splendor of a life well-lived. Hell, the game ends on Nate recounting how fun and awesome his memories of the first game were. That right there is prime evidence of how enviable this lifestyle is, outside of your wife potentially thumbing her nose at you for doing it without her permission.

Perhaps, looking back, The Last of Us set too high a bar for Naughty Dog to achieve. Whereas that story ended exactly when it needed to and with the perfect tone, I can't help but feel that Uncharted 4 is a squandered opportunity. So many magnificent little details lured me in the wrong direction: the inclusion of the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus, the old woman at the estate alienating her family, and the discovery Burnes' grandson's corpse moments before the climax of the story. These remarkable tidbits unfortunately stand in stark opposition to how the narrative wraps up. There was no punishment for Nathan's thievery in the end; all the treasure hunter needed to do was stop chasing after illegal jobs and he was perfectly fine. Compare that to Avery's beloved Saint Dismas—despite being penitent, the man still suffered and died for his trespasses, only able to find solace through repenting for his sins.

Uncharted 4 should've just opened with a dramatic shot over Avery's island with Nate's Theme 4.0 playing. The lone skeleton swinging in the rusted gibbet is the exact opposite tone of this mindlessly optimistic game.

Images obtained from:,,

Friday, May 13, 2016

Shadowgrounds - Thoughts

The demo for Shadowgrounds was one of the first games I remember playing courtesy of the Steam storefront. Back in the days where Valve's marketplace was diminutive and I was curious what (non-FPS/Blizzard) wonders lurk within the unexplored jungles of PC gaming, I happened upon this gritty top-down shooter and decided to give it a whirl. I greatly enjoyed what I played, but it wasn't until the Humble Frozenbyte Bundle that I was able to nab both it and its sequel. Nearly a decade later, I finally set aside the time to play through it, and boy, it sure is an action game made in the '00s.

If that's not an enriching description, allow me to paint a better picture by asking some questions. You know how The Matrix had a massive impact on everything that tried to be cool post-1999? And you know how Halo: Combat Evolved (or Starship Troopers if you will) helped popularize placing the American military into sci-fi settings? And ya know how Doom 3 tried the whole horror in space thing? Mix those three things together, add this music to it, and yeah—that essentially covers all six hours I spent with Shadowgrounds.

To its credit, the game doesn't play like anything I mentioned above. The lofty camera angle may fool you into thinking it's a twin-stick shooter but Shadowgrounds isn't as kinetic or exciting as one might think. As strange as it sounds, the game strikes me as more of a bizarre Doom clone. You have an arsenal of ten weapons, your hellish foes require frequent strafing to avoid projectiles, and the nonlinear maps encourage room-by-room sweeps and munitions scavenging. The game doesn't come anywhere close to touching Doom's immaculate design or mechanics, but it echoes its bold style; the best praise I have to heap upon Shadowgrounds is that at times it feels like a European reimagining of id's classic.

Of course, the opening missions of the game do little to convince the player of that. Shadowgrounds has a slow build towards the meat of its gameplay, unapologetically forcing the player to engage in some very boring gunfights until their arsenal begins to expand. Right around when the grenade launcher is introduced and the game replaces its monster waves with patrolling guards is when I found myself most appreciative of the experience. The purchasable skills linked to each of the weapons gives you something to look forward to while you're mowing down countless hordes of faux-Shamblers, and while it may be a bit of a lottery trying to figure out which ones are helpful and which are duds, their inclusion keeps things interesting.

There's not much to the Shadowgrounds besides that. The story is what I'd lovingly refer to as the polar opposite of Deus Ex: Human Revolution: each character, cutscene, and journal entry are wholly meaningless and shockingly boring, to the point where I wouldn't be surprised if a high schooler secretly wrote it. There's not a lot of variety to the setting, and when you do get a change in locale the game tries to be Halo so hard it hurts. The flashlight mechanic is interesting in theory but comes across as irritating (please let me upgrade its battery!), the end of the game introduces shielded enemies that are impossible to fight, and the dodge roll is downright pitiful. None of these issues are worth getting your panties in a bunch though—this is prime C-grade material, so it's prudent to expect some ugly bumps along the way.

There is a mindless joy at the center of Shadowgrounds. The gunplay is decent and the campaign is competent... but it's not anything I'd earnestly recommend. Perhaps it was better off being a gilded memory locked between some synapses in my skull, but hey, at least it was kinda entertaining while it lasted. It's an unremarkable blast from the past that served as a good diversion between the bigger titles getting released this year.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Deus Ex: Human Revolution - Thoughts

To say I enjoyed my time with Deus Ex: Human Revolution would be an understatement—with no hesitation do I deem it my favorite in the series, as it hones in on what makes the franchise so remarkable. Gone is the streamlining process that hamstrung Invisible War, the intrepid FPS series finally returns to the rich well of player choice its ancestor had unearthed. Yet it approaches the world of Deus Ex with a more serious tone, concerned with the diametric arguments revolving around governments vs. corporations, technology vs. nature, and traditionalism vs. progressivism. Human Revolution poses complicated questions and constructs excellent gameplay scenarios for you to tinker with; while it does have its fair share of problems, Eidos Montreal's risky debut is a resounding return to form.

I'll start by proclaiming that I really like Adam Jensen. In numerous titles nowadays, the main character serves as a somewhat emotionless vehicle for the player to steer, devoid of much personal baggage in order to ensure the dominance of their puppeteer. Jensen fulfills this to a degree, but he's visibly weighed down by the events that occur in the prologue, tormented by what he's irreversibly lost, as well as what he must regrettably become. Both JC and Alex are skeptical of their positions as pawns, but remain confident and effective at their work; Jensen on the other hand is overwhelmed by his burden, robbed of his spouse and frustrated with his employer. My fondness may be because I'm more drawn towards characters that struggle with their inner demons, but I contest that Jensen is the most fascinating protagonist yet. I found myself easily sympathizing with his struggles, eager to hunt down Megan Reed's attackers and discover the shrouded truth.

Just as the game's predecessors had, the story continues to cleverly imagine what an augmented future might hold. While Human Revolution doesn't engage with philosophy as actively as its older siblings, it utilizes dialogue far more naturally, accentuating the believability of the world. I also appreciate how subtly the conspiratorial elements are handled this time around, the game no longer beating you over the head regarding whom belongs to which faction. The plot does take an unexpected turn towards the end (that would seem even wilder without having played the DLC, a la Mass Effect 3), but everything is fleshed out so nicely with dialogue and in-game text that I walk away very pleased from my time with Human Revolution. Too often when I play a game, the story becomes either negligible or trite, so it's always a delight when I can get engrossed in a virtual narrative.

The return of emails reveals what a boon the electronic exposition is to the story, as their absence from Invisible War was sorely missed. Reading text provides frequent breathers between the tense sleuthing, and it's often interesting or sheds light on the world around you. Unfortunately hacking is probably the worst gameplay system you have to interact with, as (while it seems complicated at first) it's quickly distilled down to dull game of probability. There's no excitement or complexity of choice present here—simply click your way to the exit or restart if things go wrong. It's a shame the game has no option to swipe pocket secretaries from guards, as I would've loved a non-confrontational way to gain access to computers or skip having to hack yet another laser grid panel.

Hacking thankfully remains the only mechanical misstep, as the rest of Human Revolution plays superbly. That's not to say that the shooting is on par with Call of Duty—it clearly isn't—but it works well within the framework of the game, keeping firefights dangerous since Jensen doesn't feel like a one man army. Where the Sarif employee excels is at hand-to-hand combat, pushing the game considerably towards a silent melee focus (which worked well for me). Slipping around the seamless third person cover until you can get behind a man and punch him with both your fists is amazingly satisfying, the takedown animations keeping their luster over all 30 hours of play. My personal philosophy was to use non-lethal force unless innocents were involved, which by that point meant the blade arms would get unsheathed. Man, are those blade arms cool. Occasionally stupid, but always cool.

Complementing the excellent stealth are a variety of avenues you can walk down to complete your mission. Side quests are plentiful and the game constantly addresses multiple play styles, hitting the player with a barrage of "oh, I could've done it this way!" whilst exploring. True, Jensen can end up becoming a solid all-rounder at the end, but you still have to use your wits and inventory to work through any problems you rub up against, which is where the series flourishes best. Plus The Missing Link portion of the game is a great tabula rasa moment, letting you play around with an alternate style of play before the ending.

The game does stumble in a couple other places, most notably in forcing you to revisit the major hub cities. I like Detroit and Lower Hengsha a lot, but the amount of backtracking the game thrusts upon the player is a bit excessive (especially in one specific part of The Missing Link). There's some other iffy parts—the belligerent boss fights, that wall-busting is lethal, and how awkwardly stitched in the DLC is—but for the most part the game's highs outshine its problematic lows. For every instance where the game throws a boring backtracking segment at me it lets me do something cool like chuck a pimp off a roof, and for every headache-inducing boss I'm forced to fight I get an exhilarating moment where I make it through a floor unscathed and/or unseen.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a lot like Deus Ex, except that it's (arguably) more refined. Certain mechanics have changed and some details got lost in the transition, but the modern coating makes it far more palatable. While I appreciate a lot of what the original did, I was unequivocally more excited to sit down and play Human Revolution every time I booted it up. The game stays loyal to its roots, constructing an intriguing world that feels great to play and is ripe with spectacular scenarios. Human Revolution doesn't suffer from standing in the shadow of Deus Ex like Invisible War did—if anything, the series grows stronger for having it attached.

Now that I'm officially a fan of the franchise, I'm greatly anticipating the release of its sequel this August—here's to hoping it lives up to my high expectations!