What Entertainment Product(s) Have I Been Consuming This Week – 13th June 2016

It’s been a week full of pre-E3 leaks, more than I can recall in recent memory. I suppose it’s hard to keep a lid on all of these things, but it does rather worry me that there won’t be anything left to announce that will surprise us in the way that we had the FFVII remake and the return of The Last Guardian last year. Ho-hum.

Anyway, what I have I been partaking of over the last week…

The Witcher 3: Heart of Stone: The release of the new Blood and Wine expansion has made me return to the world of Geralt the witcher, as well as purchase both big DLCs. I loved the base game, but got a little burned out with it towards the end. Now refreshed, I’m really like Heart of Stone. It’s substantial without straying too far from the pattern set by the main game. I’m probably about two thirds of the way through now, and finding the story very interesting. Whilst lacking the ‘epic’ scale of Ciri’s tale, this seems to be looking at the nature of evil and the question of immortality. Also, the wedding sequence is fantastic.

Skylanders Superchargers: Tesco were selling the Wii U for £15, so I bought it for my daughter. We’ve not played too much of it yet, but it seems okay. I’ve never played a Skylanders title before so wasn’t really sure what to expect. It seems more polished than Disney Infinity, if not quite up to the standards of Lego Dimensions (though that probably has something to do with the fact that it’s more obviously targeted at a younger audience). I am slightly disappointed that right from the very start there are chunks of the game that are separated off by a blindingly obvious paywall, though I guess that’s the point of these toys-to-life games.

Arrow Season Four: The emerald archer has finished his fourth TV season now and, like many others, I think this was rather a mixed bag. Whilst Neal McDonough made a great villain, his motivations were always a little cloudy and, unfortunately, the fact that his powers revolved around invisible magic did make for a few too many scenes where Stephen Amell and co were being made to stand around ‘looking trapped behind an invisible wall’. This season also seems to have suffered more than most due to its length: the plot arc dipped a fair bit throughout. Still, there have been some standout moments and it remains one of the best things on TV.

Final Fantasy XIII: Actually I haven’t being playing this, I just wanted an excuse to use the tag and annoy the idiot who left me a profanity-laden comment last week, seemingly because I didn’t proclaim that FFXIII is the greatest game ever made. It isn’t.

What Entertainment Product(s) Have I Been Consuming This Week – 3rd June 2016

In the first of what may be a regular feature but, in all likelihood, will be something I do for a couple of weeks and then mostly forget about apart from a small kernel of intellectual guilt that remains deep in my soul, here is the badly-titled post where I tell you – the people – what I – the person – have been playing/watching/reading/listening to this week.

Final Fantasy XIII: Six years after my first abandoned playthrough, spurred on by the fact that (for reasons probably best ignored) I’ve recently acquired the other two games in the trilogy, I have been attempting to make it through Square-Enix’s much-maligned last big single-player, single-numeral entry in the series. In the past I’ve been quite adamant that I didn’t like XIII, mainly due to the battle system that I just couldn’t get along with. Having started the game afresh, though, I’m enjoying it more than I thought I would. True, the combat mechanics mean that many fights can devolve into wars of attrition, but there’s a tactical element to it that I hadn’t really tuned into before.

It does, however, have possibly the worst opening of any game I’ve ever played. Certainly of any big title. There are some stunning CGI sequences, but the first few hours (hours!) of the game are just exercises in tedium. Walk down a corridor, enter a battle that is so simple it really is just a matter of selecting ‘Auto-Battle’ four times in a row, walk down another corridor, watch a cutscene, rinse, repeat. The mechanics of the game are introduced so slowly but not really explained in great detail unless you read the in-game codex. Just get on with it! Thankfully, now some 30+ hours in, I’ve got to the world of Gran Pulse and can actually walk around a bit and do sub-questy type things. Hurrah! This really is a game that rewards invested time, because it does get a lot better both in terms of gameplay and storyline, I just wish it didn’t take so damned long.

Also, Vanille is incredibly annoying.

The Witcher 3: Well, technically what I’ve done this week is bought and downloaded the Heart of Stone and Blood and Wine DLC and spent hours re-installing the game on my PS4. I played it for a few minutes, picking up where I left off with my post-end-game save, though seem to have stumbled immediately upon an XP bug where my character seems stuck at 2000/2000 points on level 35. There’s a few things the Internet suggests to try that I might have a go at, but haven’t got around to it yet. Looking forward to spending some more time in Geralt’s world, though.

The Flash season two: There’s a current void in my life that will remain unfilled until The Flash comes back later this year. I think I’ll do a separate post on the whole season at some point, but suffice to say this has been a great season. Perhaps not quite as good as the first, it’s still managed to be consistently entertaining for twenty-three episodes. And that ending. Holy-shit-pants.

What makes the show so great is the cast. Grant Gustin is fantastic as the eponymous hero, and it seems such a shame that the DC movies won’t feature him. Also Tom Cavanagh has rapidly become one of my favourite actors. More of him, please.

On… Uncharted 4

Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End contained below.

Blimey, this is a lovely game. Lovely to play, lovely to look at, lovely to hear. Just lovely. At times its loveliness is so pronounced that it makes you want to reach out and stroke your TV screen. Don’t do that, though, as you’ll get fingerprints all over it and immediately feel embarrassed.

Uncharted 4 is one of those games that, if you dissemble it to its constituent parts, doesn’t seem to add up to very much, yet somehow the finished product is spectacular. On paper it should be rather like The Order 1886: a linear, story-based romp interspersed with shooty bits. And, yes, it is that (plus some jumpy bits and car-drivey bits), but whereas The Order felt dead and leaden, this feels full of life. Maybe it’s the stunning graphics. The vistas of Scotland and Madagascar in particular are the most astonishing I’ve seen since The Witcher 3. Maybe it’s the characters. If wise-cracking Nathan Drake urked you before then, well, he won’t endear himself to you this time. But if, like me, you enjoyed the breezy, almost effortless charm of the main cast then you’ll certainly get your fair share of entertainment here. Maybe it’s the gunplay. True, it’s not best-in-class but is easy to pick up and, most importantly, fun. Most of the weapons have a satisfying heft to them, and there’s enough variety so that you feel you’re constantly finding new items throughout the length of the game.

Most likely, it’s everything together that makes this game what it is.

Nathan Drake doing what he does best: standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff.
Nathan Drake doing what he does best: standing perilously close to the edge of a cliff.

What’s most pleasing is that, considering this is the fourth game in the series (well, fifth if you count Vita prequel Golden Abyss), this is actually the one that differs most from the pre-set formula. There’s an increased focus on stealth which, wonderfully, never descends to the level of insta-death fails (I’m looking at you again, The Order). The pacing also seems better, with more sensible gaps between the all-out shooting sections. And whilst you never feel that you’re free to explore the world, there are multiple sections where you have more scope for moving off the beaten path. I found particularly impressive the way that the game signposts and funnels you down particular routes without ever really making you feel as if you being forced to go in a specific direction. There are no mini-maps, waypoints or HUD routes here, yet you never feel lost.

Special mention should be made of the game’s story, and if you’re really worried about spoilers you should step away now. Superficially, Uncharted 4 centres around a hunt for the lost treasure of long-dead if not long-Johned pirate Captain Avery. In actuality, the story is more concerned with the question of obsession and the notion of what we do after the adventure of youth is over. The game ends with the idea that, as life moves on, you shouldn’t give up on your dreams entirely, but perhaps you do need to adjust them and consider them in light of what else you’ve gained. The introduction of Nathan Drake’s brother Sam, whilst admittedly feeling slightly shoe-horned into the series’ continuity, provides an interesting juxtaposition. Despite Sam being the elder brother, his time spent languishing in a Spanish jail means that he essentially plays the role of Nathan in the early games: driven to find the treasure more than anything else.

It’s unusual for game series to end in a ‘planned’ way: normally they go on either forever or until the sales figures drop too much. Uncharted 4 is very much a ‘goodbye’ to the series or, at the very least, to the series as we know it. There could be more Uncharteds after this, but I think it’s fair to say – some DLC aside – Nathan Drake’s treasure-hunting days are over. That’s nothing to be sad about, though. The series definitely ends on a high and, as the game tells you, you can’t keep doing the same thing forever.

Remember that bit in Ocarina of Time when you could see Death Mountain and actually go to Death Mountain? This isn't like that.
Remember that bit in Ocarina of Time when you could see Death Mountain and actually go to Death Mountain? This isn’t like that.

Of course, an Uncharted game wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without some amazing set-pieces. Whilst there’s nothing here that quite matches the train sequence in Uncharted 2,  you’d have to be a cynical cove indeed not to be caught up in the thrills presented by the Madagascan car chase or the escape from the Scottish church. It helps that everything is presented in such a stunning way, with very few performance problems (I think I noticed maybe three or four slight frame drops throughout my time with the game). Naughty Dog have a reputation for squeezing wonders out of PlayStation hardware, and they haven’t disappointed here.

If any criticism can be levelled at U4 it’s that it is still a linear adventure at heart. This didn’t concern me – I’ve spent too much time in aimless open worlds – but if you’re coming to the game expecting something akin to an RPG then you’re not going to be happy. There are the normal Uncharted hidden treasures to uncover, though they don’t do an awful lot aside from unlock some special game modes and other ‘goodies’ in the option menu. The Vita title Golden Abyss had some interesting codex entries fleshing out the treasures, and I was a bit disappointed to find those missing here. I’m also not sure how much replay value there is here, particularly if you don’t touch the multiplayer (which I didn’t).

All of this is criticism for the sake of it, though. Uncharted 4 is one of the best games I’ve played this generation.