Treasures and testing times

I’ve recently been playing some games – christening the PS4 in my new house, and getting some of the frankly enormous Steam backlog chipped away. So here’s a couple of thoughts about ’em, for what they’re worth.

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BLUE STEEL.

First up: Uncharted. I’d played the first three games before on my PS3, but as a PS4 kick-off I decided to play through the remastered versions as a lead-up to the latest – and apparently final – instalment. (Except it’s not now the final, because reasons.)

The ports to PS4 are great. I remembered the games fondly – even though Nathan Drake, Adventurer is an absolute douchecanoe, there’s no denying the addictive nature of his cod-Indy adventures – but they looked even better on the newer platform.

 

If you’ve not played them, the basic gist is: treasure hunting and shooting dudes in frankly jaw-dropping scenarios. The series is not without some real ethical/social weirdness, but if you can suspend disbelief enough, it’s absolutely up there with the Indiana Jones series if you’ve a fortune-seeker bug you want scratched.

The first game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, ropes Sir Francis Drake in with the search for El DoradoUncharted 2: Among Thieves sees you searching for the Cintamani Stone and Shangri-La.  Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception heads desertwards for a sort of Greatest Hits of T. E. Lawrence adventure. Each episode has villains whose level of cartoonish evil is such that they would, in previous lives, donate a lot of time to railway timetables and moustache twirling.

It’s to the developers’ credit that they keep the tone approachable in the three games. Yes, there’s the sense of consequence and of stakes being high, but there’s also enough humour to keep things moving along. And then, of course, there’s the setpieces, which is the real reason I love these games – in particular Uncharted 2.

I mean, it opens with you dealing with this:
Uncharted™: The Nathan Drake Collection_20151011201844
And that’s before we get to the clambering over hotel rooftops, ancient machinery or giant idols.

The remaster fancifies a lot of the graphics – the sweeping vistas are even more appealing than before – and evens out some of the combat bugs I remembered causing deep-level eye-twitch in the PS3 iterations. The games feel like they should: there’s the occasional bullshit enemy, but overall it’s not bone-crunchingly difficult.

The fourth game takes full advantage of the processing abilities of the PS4. It looks almost too good – Nathan appears to have had a facelift – and plays very well. Some core mechanics have been retooled (you now have a grappling hook and can see the awareness level of enemies) but the additions are welcome.

What’s interesting about this game is that it pushes hard the idea of family, and of Getting Too Old For This Shit. It also plays memory against current life; parts of the game take place in the past, and deal with regret. It’s a game of age: Drake’s mentor, Sully, is now too long in the tooth for a lot of the adventuring. Sam, Nathan’s long-lost brother, reappears looking grizzled and prison-worn. And Drake himself is – to his mind – stuck in a salvage gig and family life.

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Press X to bond.

(Frankly, how Elena ever put up with him long enough to get hitched is the fact I found most difficult to suspend disbelief over, and this is a game that features mummified corpses as IEDs.)

As such, the game is a bit more sedate than some other entries in the series. We’re introduced to Regular Life Nate, who keeps all his adventuring shit in boxes and clocks in to a gig to keep things stable. But his prison escapee brother soon puts paid to that; his freedom wasn’t completely free of snags or debts. It’s not until about a third-to-a-half of the way through the game that the action level picks up, and there’s setpieces that fit in with the rest of the series.

However. 

Things soon improve. I’d wondered when the series would get completely into pirates, and the fourth game embraces it wholeheartedly. In their pursuit of pirate lord Henry Avery‘s plunder, I found pretty much every x-marks-the-spot-swashbuckling-ho! childhood fantasy fulfilled. There’s Goonies and Pirates of the Caribbean elements taken and run with, with elaborate traps and galleons and maps and mechanics and, oh, the sort of glorious faded-elegance joy that you could want from something involving a fucking pirate colony.

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Nice birdcages! Oh, wait. 

The game saves its best bits for the last third, but man, they’re worth persevering for. I’m glad they kept pirate plunder for the last episode, as it really seems that – understandably slow parts aside – they’ve saved the best adventuring parts for Drake’s farewell. It took a while to get me into the groove, but when I got there I was grinning like an idiot because there’s no way pirate skeletons aren’t gonna make me a happy camper.

The other little game I’ve just completed is The Turing Test, a little indie game that takes around 8-10 hours to play to completion. It’s a puzzler which takes some design cues from Portal and The Talos Principle and borrows atmosphere from sci-fi films.

It’s a pretty simple setup: you’re Ava Turing, a scientist awoken from hypersleep by a computer, TOM, who has determined that there’s problems with fellow explorers on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. You’re sent down to the surface to enter the facility and suss out what’s going on.

What’s really going on is explained through examination of audio logs and notes found through the base. But this is secondary to the meat of the game, which is the solution of puzzles. See, it turns out the people on the base don’t trust TOM, and so construct rooms he can’t possibly solve: they require a human touch to complete.

(Yes, this is absolutely a handwaving explanation of Why Things Exist Like This In This World.)

The mechanic is simple: you’ve a gun-like device that can pull energy spheres in and out of docks. Different colours provide different results: some provide constant power, some provide interrupted power in different synchronisations. Use the spheres, plus the occasional pressure-pad, space-magnet device and infrequent robot buddy to get through the rooms. It’s not as enjoyable as the Portal games as it lacks the world building that made them great, but it’s a pretty neat way of spending a couple of hours, as long as you don’t peer too hard.

theturingtestpc_01

 

There’s a bunch of interesting ideas covered in The Turing Test: free will, the limitations of employers over employees, artificial intelligence, and more. But they’re kind of given short shrift; there’s not much room to explore them beyond handling 3D models and considering the voice acting.

Overall, it’s a game that’s mostly smart; you will feel like a dummy for not figuring things out immediately. But it’s also the sort of puzzle game that could have used a bit more polish. Some of the puzzle areas can be completed with less materials than you’re provided with, and many feature fail states which are impossible to escape without reloading, which is annoying, as the game offers no way to die, for the most part. Portal, at least, let you plunge to your doom if you’d fucked a puzzle up beyond repair. And to my disappointment, neither delicious neurotoxin nor a slurred rendition of “A Bicycle Built For Two” feature in the game.

Still, it’s worth a look, at least until a third Portal game shows up.

Brief addendum: Also completed episode three of The Walking Dead: A New FrontierI’m still not sold on the new engine – things look weirdly shiny and too 3D in comparison to the precious series – and found this ep to have a lot of loading bugs. Story was ok I guess, and they’re definitely ramping it up a little. But I don’t care about Javi as much as I did Clem. 

Am currently working my way through Life Is Strange and I fucking love it. Seriously, if you haven’t played it, go and check it out because it’s some of the best writing about being a dorky teenager that I’ve experienced, on any platform. It’s criminally good. 

 

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