Character Study – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Featured image courtesy of usgamer.net

In Uncharted 4, the most telling character moments are unspoken. Bonds forged over years create preternatural connections more chiseled than Nathan Drake’s heroic chin. These are the stories of people who feed off each other’s lives, people who’ve grown together, lost together, laughed together. The gamut of emotions is represented in their psyches, and by extension, in their expressions. For some time, the Uncharted series has been compared to the most bombastic Hollywood franchises of today. It’s the closest things video games have to a Marvel blockbuster, complete with the banter and third-act problem impeding storytelling through frequent combat sequences. Uncharted 4 continues that sort of bluster, spitting out bombast like a late night fast food joint. However, this final arc illuminates the error in that theater comparison, instead showcasing that these characters, and their intertwined digital lives, play out far more like a television show. So much so, that by the end, they create an emotion what only the finest shows can elicit: We never want to leave.

There is a finite amount of famous, antiquated buried treasure in the world. By this fourth entry, one would think Nathan Drake has discovered most of it. However, even as he lays with his most treasured find, his wife Elena, he falls into another source of adventure. This time, it comes from his long-lost brother, Samuel, who Nathan presumed dead after a failed getaway from a mission in a Panamanian prison many years ago. Startled, Nathan discovers that Samuel must collect the buried treasure they were seeking back then, that of the famed Pirate Henry Avery, and return it to a crime kingpin to whom Sam owes his life.

From there, the adventure ensues, as Nathan leaves his domesticated life with Elena, lying to her in the process. It’s quite apparent that Nathan is dealing with strife while adapting to his spacious New York pad and The Wire Season 2 dock working occupation. He’s a maritime trash collector, so the Hero’s call to adventure rings in his ears like an angelic hymn. The lie to Elena is where Uncharted begins its affecting emotional heft, the kind garnered by years of growing closer with an audience. The fib isn’t that of a disgruntled treasure hunter we just met, it’s an admission of his mistrust with a woman we’ve seen Nathan struggle to commit to over three entries. Drake is an impulsive man, and the years we’ve spent with him during this journey makes this lie even more painful. The happy ending remains elusive for Nathan. Perhaps he just needs this one final chase, and then he’ll be happy.

This is the Don Draper syndrome. A man constantly searching for the next thing, hoping it will finally provide the happiness he so desires. For Don, that is generally women, and sometimes advertisements. For Nathan, it’s treasure, and previously women. It’s an addiction, and one we see gradually transform to actualization over the period of the show. Don perpetually pines for the kind of meaningful relationship that validates his life in the wake of an orphaned, distant upbringing. Nathan’s taken a similarly nomadic approach to life, finally settling down after handling the pursuits he believed necessary to bring him happiness. Don believed he had it with Megan, only to discover her youth and vigor didn’t jive with his melancholy middle-aged manhood. He abandoned it, finding peace within himself after stripping away those vanities and returning to his innate sense of self. Nathan has happiness in Elena, but it’s come at the cost of suppressing his adventurous affinity. Drake’s tribulations played out in our lives, his history bared on our screens over the course of four games. Here, it comes home to roost. We can sympathize with him because we know the horrors he’s faced, we’ve lived through it with them both. So to see their genuine affection outshine turbulence feels like a victory in the same way we root for on-screen couples to make it work.

Image courtesy of Expert Reviews

Image courtesy of Expert Reviews

Nathan and Elena are characters tailor-made for ‘shipping. Their flirtatious chemistry was obvious from the start, and this entry only heightens the fact fanboys were right this time around. These two belong together. Drake doesn’t often linger on the women of his past, in fact the love triangle spawned by the second title was quickly whisked under the bed to re-focus on Nathan and Elena’s relationship. Just as the now blip of Karen and Jim in The Office season three was a necessary evil to make Jim realize he truly loved Pam, Nathan’s dalliance helped cement that he belonged with Elena.

These sort of emotional ties are what take Uncharted to storytelling strata other games rarely sniff. It understands the minimal stakes involved with the actual gameplay. The whole game is a series of repeating danger room scenarios. There’s no real investment needed, because there’s no chance these characters are really going to die. Even when a misstep caroms Nathan to his death at the steep, frothy waves below, Naughty Dog’s pristine tech has practically already respawned the player, snuffing out even the brief holler of anguish from companions at Drake’s alternative fate mere seconds ago.

They understand the real stakes lie in the emotional fates of these characters. How they grow together, who they end up with, whether Sully will ever realize those cigars are the greatest danger he’s faced? These are the mundane but more memorable fates resonating with players. Audiences have a deep investment in where a show’s characters end up. How they leave the screen in those final moments, who they end up with, what their last line is. Character beats that seem trivial take on grandiose meaning when recognizing they’ve compounded over literal years of people’s lives. One need only look at the outrage over How I Met Your Mother’s finale to see how affecting a finale can be.

This sort of minutiae speaks to us on a humanistic level because it is us. This reflective quality is precisely why NBC just made a show with almost that exact name, “This is us”. Seeing ourselves in characters takes someone from a flattened plot device to a rounded glimpse at realism. Hinting at the everyday deficiencies one can face in their own life, amidst the turmoil of continual conflict, is why they feel so resonant.When Elena and Nathan so briefly start to spat before pausing it to focus on the mission at hand, the dizzying distress of anyone’s fraught relationship moments likely come back to them. Crafting artifice that lifelike is supremely difficult, that’s why television shows prepare their groundwork for years of a show’s characters and their stories to slowly unspool. Naughty Dog stumbled into that precise scenario, which is why its characters were never truly in danger.

So few games deal with the aging of a character, allowing players to spend enough time with someone that they see those minute shifts in their lives and motivations. More often than not, alterations come as the result of a bombastic event: a death, a murder, a kidnapping, blackmailing. Such are the tropes of many a game, and while Uncharted uses grandiose motivations as justification for its similarly over-the-top set pieces, it deftly understands that its character moments don’t need those sort of titanic shifts. Indeed, the game’s most powerful interactions are generally not the result of a bombastic explosion or motorcycle chase, but caused by simple lies or a hurtful remark. Turns out, those cause far more pain to Drake than the barrage of bullets peppering his ripped frame.

Image courtesy of TechKee

Image courtesy of TechKee

Lies often ripple across seasons of a show, perversely sitting as a Chekhov’s gun prepared to go off. Walter White’s numerous falsities provided a clear illustration of the disastrous aftereffects of that choice. Inside Uncharted 4, there’s an alternate game where the player follows Sam’s fib. His story begins with his false motivations, and you play through the entire ordeal gingerly stepping over the literal and figurative bombshells littering your path. Similarly, the mistrust Nathan shows for Elena belies the relationship we’re privy to in the beginning of this game. These are also the necessities of long-running series. Imbuing drama, recalling tensions buried deep under seasons of a show or new game entries. This collective history allows one to uproot these problems, creating the type of emotional distress only caused by time. Naughty Dog calls upon this approach as the impetus for Nathan’s initial lie. After all, most show’s happy endings are ephemeral. We rarely show what happens after the “just married” convertible drives away.

In Uncharted and television’s case though, these series stroll on. They don’t fade to black, leaving people with a quaint smile. They poke and prod at character’s motivations, leaving players with an opportunity to see how their own perceptions of these characters change as they themselves age. Seeing oneself in the jet-setting, thrill-seeker early game’s Nathan Drake is unlikely, but grappling with the sedentary lifestyle of his adulthood certainly is. That’s the pleasure provided by time, the opportunity to shift how people connect with characters long past their design doc.

Uncharted 4 provides a satisfying coda, giving people one final chance to chew on potential parental issues. The series transformed, not just in terms of gameplay and environmental innovation, but in how its characters traversed the shifting motivations of young adulthood to settling into a career. These universal themes resonated over nine years of people’s existence, consistently reminding people of the fluctuations in their own lives. That is the most powerful part of television, the way it ingratiates itself into one’s life over years. It imbues characters with enough life that to part with them is as painful as saying goodbye to a good friend. No longer just creations, their lifeline matches up with a specific sections of your own.

These aren’t wireframes anymore. Their departure spawns tears. Reminiscing about their own journeys inevitably reminds you of your own. Genuine emotional entanglement is a rare feat, reserved for only the most personally affecting media. Just as shutting off the television after a finale does not sever your tie to a show, ejecting this disc did little to dissuade Uncharted from dancing around my mind.

Dead Weight – Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

They await your embrace. Staring idly into the distance, their hands dawdle at the menial task before them. Crouching low like a cat about to pounce, you eye your target, pupils dilating in anticipation. Trepidation conflates with excitement, and your emotions jitter as if you’re undergoing a state change. Oh so carefully, you pitter patter forward on the lightest of steps, your target merely breaths away. And just like that, you lurch forward, snagging them tightly in your arms before planting a loving kiss on their neck. This is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s stealth tutorial, teaching players the techniques as they approach their soon-to-be deceased wife with a heartwarming bouquet. Imprinting this memory on the player at such an early stage feels trivial, it’s a novel inversion of the typical tutorial. The moment lingers though. Like a gas station burger at the start of a road trip, it sits in your stomach, a constant sense of dissatisfaction at odds with the sense of joy you feel on the road. It permeated the experience, feeling like an albatross around the neck of a game that worked best when it embraced the manic over the mainline.

After stealth is used to kiss your slaughtered spouse, it is forever after used for covert orc obliteration.

Shadow of Mordor fancies itself a revenge tale, one where a cardboard cut-out of Aragorn, named Talion, traipses through Middle Earth. His journey is predicated on avenging the death of his wife and son, and he’s returned from Purgatory by a ghastly ghost-elf spirit named Celebrimbor, who’s equally trapped in this hellish reality and inhabits Talion’s body. Orcs have overrun the land, and it’s his job to stop them.

One of the first impressions of Mordor is how limited the world feels the instant you step on the ground. It’s a blase blanket of dullness the size of a Wal-Mart Parking lot, just expansive enough that getting to your car feels like a drag, but close enough that you can still spot your destination in the distance. This has been one of my major issues with any expanded Lord of the Rings stories in general, the world doesn’t feel like it has any extra room to breathe. Everything still seems to revolve around the central Tolkien novels, and while it’s prudent to keep a universe from spiraling into incomprehensible canonical forays, this world feels like its glass walls have turned to diamond in the interim.

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Meanwhile, Talion spends much of his time trying to find out the history of the ghost-Elf named Celebrimbor that co-habitates his body. Unsurprisingly, that story also winds up tying back to the central LOTR tale surrounding Sauron and the One ring. All the while, Talion rarely mentions his family, but his lone connection to his past life comes in a happenstance stumbling upon an ex-compatriot of his who went rogue. They have little rapport, and their embattled history feels like an issue that would fall by the wayside when the entire human race is crumbling around them. Ancillary story issues stack like Jenga blocks covered in petroleum jelly, and they come to a head with the introduction of Gollum as another key cog in the story’s central mystery. The presence of such overt canonical tethers feel like stuffy safeguards, their insertion only muddling the simple tale Monolith is trying to tell. The overwhelming collection of these mainstream ties can smother a title that actually found a way for players to create their own revenge tales on a scale far grander than Talion or Celebrimbor’s pursuit of Sauron.

Monolith’s Nemesis sytem allows players to manipulate the orcs in this world by targeting specific ones, slaying them, conquering them and eventually commanding them. As the player defeats those orcs, new ones step up to take their place. The opposite works as well, as any orc who defeats the player increases in power, improving their place in the orc hierarchy. What makes it more unique is its sincere lack of self-seriousness. Orcs will readily comment on the fact that they recall slaying your puny human meatbag body before, and how they’re prepared to strip your dignity even further. Some orcs also return from the dead, sporting gnarly scars and sometimes bags over their head to cover their grotesque appearance. Who knew they were so vain?

But Mordor has an Orc problem, and they’re prone to suffocating the player at points. Small skirmishes balloon to widespread battles within minutes, as any new Orc passerbys join the scrum like Urukhai to a freshly slaughtered goblin. Those types of amassing battles may bludgeon home the bleakness of one’s situation, but it can make missions that require the pinpoint assassination of one particular orc nearly impossible. Even if you manage to take down the legion surrounding him, don’t worry, there’s another patrol of 20 orcs just waiting to take their place. These belt-loosening battles have a shelf life, and after the twelfth time of trying to take down Goober the Monstrous, I pined for the simplistic counter-immediate kill of Assassin’s Creed days.

Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

Creed is a useful comparison in this sense, since the exploration and side missions feel like the most enjoyable components of this Mordorian Madness. Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from other games, as is the case with most open-world grab-bag games nowadays, but they make no bones with the comparisons, even using tower scaling as the impetus for opening more of the map. They stop just short of having Talion dive off these structures making an eagle sound, although his graceful falls look eerily similar. What they do instead is take out any of the artificial craft that’s grafted into Creed. Talion doesn’t linger seeking out the next small crevice to place his hand, he flies up flat walls like it’s nothing, and Monolith’s decision to ensure scaling and movement would be a superhuman strength rather than a realistic portrayal works well when fleeing or maneuvering around Orc strongholds. These additions bleed right into some of the side challenges that task players with performing a particular number of kills with a weapon to earn upgrade points. The carnival game nature of them provide a refreshing break from the gray seriousness of the story, and steer players directly into the skid of this game’s most pleasurable mechanics, stealth, exploration and the bow. Oh and that bow, with its willingness in slow-motion mode to allow for instant kills. It truly is the best part of Shadow of Mordor.

Monolith’s novel nemesis system provides a deep, system-based revenge tale for those seeking a player-based emergent storytelling more satisfying than the one they penned, but it’s impossible to escape the trappings of a world whose only fleshed out new character is an orc named Ratbag who’s hell-bent on revenge. Shadow of Mordor weaponizes other open-world game systems with an ease of maneuverability welcomed in this hostile territory, but fails to engage the player beyond that surface level excitement. That stealth kiss of your wife in the beginning feels like a misnomer the more you play, as any level of intimacy with anyone in this world is shredded to pieces. If I could’ve just once, snuck up on old Ratbag and planted one slobbery kiss on those seaweed, emaciated cheeks, Shadow of Mordor would’ve at least made me feel something.

Maximalism and Mediocrity – Batman: Arkham Knight

Note: For the purposes of this review I’m choosing to ignore Batman: Arkham Origins. I didn’t play it, nor does it fit neatly into the Rocksteady Batman trilogy.

Batman: Arkham Knight begins with a  declaration of death. “This is how it happened. This, is how the Batman died,” Commissioner Gordon growls in the opening cutscene. It’s an omen, one so prophetic it permeates reality, serving as a reminder this is Rocksteady’s final bite at the Bat-apple. They’ve set the battle lines from the outset, immediately distancing themselves from the franchise they created. That opening line feels like a bombastic declaration to the publisher Warner Bros, “THIS IS THE DAY BATMAN DIES OKAY, WE’RE DONE AFTER THIS.” That sort of exasperated exuberance bleeds through the entirety of this game. It’s an exercise in maximalism, as if they took the core elements of its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City, shoved a balloon pump into them and turned on the air just long enough so the whole thing wouldn’t burst. Oh and they added a Batmobile. Lots of Batmobile.

The premise is the same as it’s been in the previous titles. Set aside a particular set of Gotham, (Asylum grows to a compounded City which grows to three full-blown islands this time around) have one baddie represent a threat to the citizens of Gotham and have Batman swoop in to stop them. This tale focuses on the exploits of Scarecrow, who’s devised his most deadly toxin ever and threatens to unleash it on the streets. His partner, the Arkham Knight, is a mysterious figure who claims to know Batman better than anyone, and seems hell-bent on killing him no matter the cost. They’re comic book villains in the best sense of the connotation. Grandiose, designs on domination and a dab of intrigue.

Batman’s his grim gung-ho self, intent on stopping this dreadful duo. However, he has an internal companion this time. The Joker infected several people with a toxin that’s slowly turning them into Jokers, and Bats happened to get a good whiff. Everywhere you turn, there’s Joker just waiting to comment on the situation, a constant reminder of your gradual transformation to darkness incarnate. That descent is a common theme, one that stinks of purposeless personality exploration. The chances of Batman actually performing something dreadful is null, and the game’s Chekov gun goes off like one of Joker’s toy blasters.

batmobile-kotaku

Image courtesy of Kotaku

Anytime Batman grapples with his transformation, the Joker gleefully externalizes the internal struggle. It’s a clever conceit to avoid an obtuse internal monologue, but it also doesn’t leave the player any room for interpretation. The closest you get are flashbacks where Batman’s voice quivers, dripping with regret for past actions. Those still feel like hollow reminders though. They’re handily out of the player’s control, something players technically had no hand in, and never even experienced in one of the previous Batman games. Cherry-picking lore and shoving it into a game like this is necessary to build the world, but don’t expect players to feel any sort of emotional investment unless they were privy to and part of its occurrence. Indeed, emotional investment through inherent gameplay rather than immersion-breaking cutscenes is an area plenty of games could improve. Arkham Knight is no exception.

These sorts of emotional touchstones are an ever-present nature of this game’s narrative. When Batman’s forced to reckon with his actions that harmed a former friend, he’s haunted, a shell of his oft-imposing figure. There are real opportunities within the game though to force him to truly reckon with the nature of his actions: the broken kneecaps, the shattered skulls, the collateral and structural damage to the city from driving around in a freaking tank. Those are the sorts of narrative dissonant actions that Rocksteady never forced itself to reckon with. They had the Joker inside his head the entire game and a prime chance to completely subvert typical game narratives. There’s no need for a twist, just perhaps a steady reminder that Batman’s madness may actually be manifesting itself in the very actions you have to perform in order to beat the game. Unfortunately, that’s probably a pipe dream. Start unraveling his “moral” actions and the Bat’s moral mystique fades within his entire collective history.

Batman’s fluid movement and combat remains the same, the only major addition being the Batmobile, which Rocksteady is intent on pounding into your skull. Props to them on its controls; driving the monstrosity around, particularly in tank mode, I can feel the hundred of hours that went into fine-tuning it. It was necessary though, they treat this thing like an extension of your body, and its maneuverability is necessary for various platform puzzles early on in the game. Get used to it, the Batmobile is necessary for plenty of the Riddler puzzles and side missions. It starts to take away from the core mechanics that made the series in the first place. It’s another example of the balloon pump theory. Where in past games a puzzle may’ve taken place within a small area like a room where you had to combine several gadgets, now it’s within an entire complex, requiring frustrating Batmobile functionality and navigation. This isn’t the only example of Arkham Knight blowing something out without adding substance.

polygon-credit

Image courtesy of Polygon

The world itself is easy to explore. The Batmobile flies around quickly and gliding is still a breeze, and possibly the most enjoyable part of the game. That exploration belies what becomes a prevailing issues throughout the whole game: a location devoid of any character. All of these games rely on bland color palettes, but the suffocating, Stephen King like nature of Arkham Asylum bred a particular vibe throughout the game. Ditto for Arkham City, who created a Lord of the Flies type supervillain stronghold. This is just, like, a city yet to be gentrified? Wandering around the world I could barely tell you any area that constituted a particular event. There’s nothing reminiscent of the ascent up the tower where Hugo Strange lied at the end of Arkham City or Penguin’s ice lake. Nothing even calls to mind the exterior of Arkham Asylum where you could look upon the lake towards Gotham; even that mundane environment felt more emotionally engaging than anything in Arkham Knight. This is a world that feels like it was created solely to shove more stuff into it. Part of that is the Batmobile’s problem, as increased mobility necessitates environmental expansion. It’s to the detriment of this world though, a mindless bevy of skyscrapers and roads.

Rocksteady provided one of the finest combat templates for pseudo-action RPG games of the last ten years. Their single button hits, easy counters and dodges made for approachable combat that didn’t force players to constantly remember 14-button combinations for their newest moves. Its elaborate and weighty animations cemented its effectiveness, letting even the most novice player feel as if they were capable of decimating an army of foes around them. A third game necessitates innovation though, a product of both external and internal pressure. It feels like they went too far, adding too many enemy types that require a particular move to kill properly. That in and of itself is fine. The layered, divergent enemy types of Halo is what makes its combat so amazing. However, that still requires a single verb to defeat something: shoot. Batman starts to settle into the convoluted territory of this guy needing a punch, tasering this trashy thug, but there’s also a medic that could revive someone, oh and don’t forget about the brutes that you’ll have to throw pop-rocks at first before punching them 20 times in the gut like a little brother fruitlessly hitting his big bro.

In a vacuum, these sorts of enemy diversions seem great, but the generally close quartered combat scenarios oftentimes lead to awkward encounters that completely contradict Rocksteady’s earlier message of not punishing players for memorizing a move set and produce awkward encounters rather than balletic beat-downs. In this game, memorizing myriad button scenarios is a necessity rather than a luxury. Part of that’s because I suck, but attaining any combat scenario where your actions generate the fluidity of previous games feels few and far between.


A third game necessitates innovation though, a product of both external and internal pressure.


Arkham City was the series first real foray into an open-world template, altered from the enclosed, Metroidvania-esque world of Arkham Asylum. Despite that, they peppered enough sidequests throughout the world to keep one’s interest. In particular the Riddler trophies. In Arkham Knight, they fully immersed themselves into the repetitive sidequest concept embroiled within open world game design. Players have to conquer enemy battalions throughout the city, take out mines across the islands or save firefighters. These missions feel like empty padding. The balloon pump went full bore on these puppies and after the first two or so excursions, the fun goes POP. Even the quests involving main Batman villains like tracking down Penguin’s weapon caches or stopping Two-Face’s men from robbing banks are a series of repetitive missions entirely absent of the villain’s personality sans a drab voiceover after the task is completed. Not only did those missions feel unnecessary, they felt completely divergent from the main story.

Arkham City painted a twisted, winding tale that made every villain feel as if it was part and parcel of the same demented mission to take down Batman, even if Hugo Strange was the primary villain. This feels like there’s the Arkham Knight and Scarecrow, and then everyone else just minding their own criminal acts. I guess I could stop Penguin, but I don’t particularly care to track his vans through the same boring process four times in a row. As I found out though, completing those missions was very much necessary to feel any sense of closure for this story. A discovery which led to one of the most egregious decisions I’ve ever seen in a game.

As I finally neared the end of the main story, Rocksteady tried manipulating my mind with several times with one-offs scenarios. A good effort sadly undermined by them peaking with the Scarecrow scenarios in Arkham Asylum. The final scene features Batman’s identity revealed to the public. Scarecrow expects this to be a grandiose end to the Batman, but Wayne reveals his aversion to Scarecrow’s fear toxin, besting him in the process. Despite beating the “big bad”, the game felt like it went out with a whimper, as Batman asks Alfred to initiate the mysterious “Knightfall protocol”, something I presumed to be a tease for the next game. I was wrong. Soon after, it sent me back to Gotham and informed me I would have to finish up at least 3 of the side missions in the world if I wanted to see the Knightfall protocol. Gating additional tidbits or easter eggs behind game completion is one thing, but to flaunt it as a necessity to see the finale of your story? I can’t remember a game ever being that insistent on a player absolutely seeing the full extent of the work they put into this world. “We made this for you, and if you want that ending we made, you’re gonna have to experience every single part of this game.”

Whatever Rocksteady, I’ll play ball. I blew up every mine and destroyed every tower or stronghold they had just to see this Knightfall protocol. It’s a cut scene, and I sit back ready to wash my hands of the game with this finale. Lo and behold, the scene ends after about one minute on a cliffhanger, cuts to credits, and then informs me I have to 100% the game if I want to see the real end of the Knightfall Protocol. Incredulity is my only reaction.

technobuffalo-credit

Image courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Yes, games are inherently different in that they require player action to see their conclusion. They require some level of aptitude, but the barrier to story conclusions, particularly in open-world games, is generally pretty low. Still, can you ever imagine a film reaching its climax, heading into its descending action, cutting to black and saying you’ll have to watch every deleted scene and commentary on the DVD before you can see this ending. No. For that reason, and many others enumerated above, Arkham Knight is a monotonous, unsatisfying conclusion to this trilogy. That’s a trait it shared with Christopher Nolan’s conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, the similarities between the two trilogies are eerily numerous.

Christopher Nolan created three Batman films: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. All three were generally praised, and created a new, darker, more “serious” paradigm for comic book movies, one that DC jumped right into and find itself stuck in now. This trajectory and influence feels reminiscent of Rocksteady’s creation. Both came out of relatively nowhere, and immediately sparked discussion over someone finally “getting” the Batman character. In Nolan’s case, that seemed to mean steering into the darkness. Setting up the typical origin story and exploring the depths to which Wayne sunk in the aftermath of his personal and physical transformation. Rocksteady followed a similar path with their art direction, capitalizing on an Unreal Engine that’s tailor made for spitting out gritty, dark environments like Epic’s touchstone for the engine, Gears of War. Yet they also fine-tuned the sort of abilities Batman actually displays with a strict set of gear, movement/combat, and his ninja-like stealth abilities. All three facets are utilized in Arkham Asylum and throughout the entire series. Nolan found similar success with the early portrayal of Batman as a stealthy assassin with near supernatural fighting skills.

Even analyzing the cultural feedback on the trilogies, the second title in both seems to engender the most goodwill. The Dark Knight is considered by many to be the finest comic book film ever, and many would argue the same about Arkham City as the finest comic book game produced. The connection comes to a dispiriting conclusion when talking about the end of each creator’s trilogy though. Both The Dark Knight Rises and Arkham Knight dig deeper than ever before into Batman’s psyche. They send him to the depths of his mental hell, trapping him physically in a pit within the film, an overt metaphor that dovetails nicely with the mental entrapment Batman finds himself in with the Joker infesting his every thought throughout Arkham Knight. Yet, they both falter with the same inevitable expansion that feels necessary as a series continues.

Fans grow restless. They expect an increasing cast, deeper references, new villains, the whole gamut. Giving in to those inclinations is only natural. Who wants to recreate the same world. That canonical sprawl starts to seep into the quality. The Dark Knight Rises introduces Catwoman and hints at Robin, ancillary characters who start to feel rather superfluous compared to the central struggle between Bane and Batman. The same is true in Arkham Knight, as the colorful cast of Catwoman, Nightwing, Robin and rather unexplained villainous collaboration between the Arkham Knight and Scarecrow makes the story look like a once promising crop field overcome by weeds.

They both feature Batman being “bested”. One through physical means as Bane breaks his back, the other mental, with Scarecrow revealing his identity publicly. Grappling with both of those facts takes Wayne to the deepest dredges of his mind, a tact that’s ultimately a fallacy in concept as players know the inevitable positive outcome. Most superheroes descending into darkness aren’t interesting solely because their upstanding morality means people know they’ll ascend probably without repercussions. This is especially true of Batman, who’s often mentioned as being “born in the darkness”. Going further is unnecessary, players understood his motivations and psyche the moment his parents got shot. This is where these last two entries failed, and without the dynamism of a top-flight villain to counteract Batman’s stoic nature, the stories felt like nothing more than an indulgence in senseless darkness.

batman-youtube

Image courtesy of Youtube

Arkham Knight is a competent bookend in many respects. The singular loop of taking down foes from the darkness and gliding around Gotham is still unbelievably satisfying. It’s also bloated and bland, the product of an expansion that sacrificed bespoke content in favor of repetitive grinds. That may have started first and foremost with the Batmobile, whose presence undermines a lot of the unique discoveries on-foot traversal afforded players in the previous game.

At one point in the game, Batman sees a particularly grisly, emotional scene. “Scarecrow is punishing me,” he growls to Alfred. If Batman wasn’t describing his internal punishment, then Joker was extrapolating it to the player. Players have no chance to reckon in their actions or even the thoughts of Batman. Reveling in moments of silence to comprehend the dire situation before Batman would’ve at the least allowed players to make some of their own assumptions about his psyche.

Perhaps players have to take that upon themselves. Maybe, just maybe, that sacred refuge lies atop the tallest peak of Wayne Manor. And as you stare upon the wreckage below, contemplating just how to resolve this mess, you start to understand the crushing nature of Batman’s infinite loop towards his inevitable dea…”WELL BATMAN, there’s still 200 riddles to solve on Founder’s Island, why don’t you get on that!,” the Riddler interjects over a citywide loudspeaker. Nearby the Batmobile whirs to life, smashing through foes with all the subtlety of an impassioned elephant.

Sigh.

Gloss and Circumstance – The Order: 1886

The Order: 1886 is a serious game. Its characters take their jobs seriously, they take their combat chatter seriously, and the game’s color palette tells players to take it seriously. Ready at Dawn, the game’s developer previously known for its God of War entries on PSP, was handed an opportunity to dabble in the AAA game space with a new IP, a high honor for a studio hoping to break into big budget blockbuster console games. It’s akin to Colin Trevorrow getting the call-up from indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. They took this transition seriously. The end result is one of the biggest high-profile flops in recent memory and a game that exemplifies the very worst perceptions of AAA games.

The Order: 1886 focuses on an alternate history late 19th century London. The Order is a group of knights sworn to protect the land, and each are named after the original knights of King Arthur’s round table. These knights live centuries through the use of “Blackwater”, an elixir that grants long life and heals all wounds. Sir Galahad is the game’s protagonist, a rugged hero who personifies masculinity and sports a moral compass permanently affixed true north. Remember this is a AAA game and Ready at Dawn knows there needs to be a male hero people are familiar with (eye roll).

The game opens with Galahad escaping the Order’s imprisonment, a seed planted to encourage players to see how the yarn unfolds. Almost immediately, the game lays out its minimal threshold for death, as a torture scene ended with me pressing triangle to kill someone. Repeatedly pressing X brutally killed another guard nearby. The Order: 1886 doesn’t have time to mess around with non-lethal take downs, that’s not serious. Death is serious.

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Soon after this escape scene, they flash back in time and show Galahad as a prime Knight of The Order, the arbiters of morality who’ve battled rebels and half-breed werewolves in London for centuries. From there, you play through the investigation of these purported rebels as the story hints at questions over whether the Order is really as wholesome as Galahad believes it is.

The story is rote, the kind of B-movie blockbuster plot you expect in the doldrums of late July from a DC castoff superhero flick. Despite this, the gameplay is the nadir of the entire experience.

Combat is more droll than the story. Its archaic gameplay conventions defy comprehension. It functions as a cover shooter, and by that I mean you have to be in cover during combat or you’ll die almost immediately. The game plays like a laundry list of outdated AAA shooter features: A cover system that isn’t intuitive, whack-a-mole AI popping out of cover (at one point I entered an area and eight different enemies popped out of cover at once like a Three Stooges sketch), and map triggers that you have to trip for new enemies to flood in. When you’re not busy shooting enemies, you’ll be doing any number of minute tasks including unlocking doors, shoving carts forward, overloading circuits or climbing on ledges. Their idea of gameplay diversity is an eight weapon armament, quick-time events, and unlocking mini-games. This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.

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The Order: 1886 is a dinosaur. It seems like Ready at Dawn looked at common practices from five years ago, threw them all into a bag and started randomly sprinkling them throughout the pristine world they crafted. And that’s really the only highlight of The Order: 1886, it is a technical masterpiece.

The Order: 1886 is like a beautiful bauble your grandmother has but never lets you touch. Perfectly rendered corridors contain only a single element of interaction. The character models are creepily lifelike, dynamic lighting shifts minutely as you saunter through a hall, lamps elegantly reflect off windows. Literally everything looks like something polished beyond exhaustion. Ready at Dawn knows it too.


This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.


I can’t recall a game that’s been more obnoxiously transparent in its fascination with itself. Oftentimes Galahad will only be able to move slowly in new areas just so you can admire every little detail in the environment. If an area is too dark to properly appreciate, don’t worry, they’ll hand you a lantern. The world even contains tiny objects to pick up and examine so players can truly appreciate the precise level of intricacy Ready at Dawn etched into everything. Despite their obvious attempt at environmental storytelling, these trinkets and documents added literally nothing to the story. They even instituted a full-blown camera mode, replete with features down to the lens length of the shot you want. The entire game feels like an aesthetic circle-jerk.

Despite this overzealous gloss, the world itself leaves a lot to be desired. Its gray tones bring to mind the type of “dark” blockbuster that has commandeered the summer box office since Nolan’s Batman films landed. DC steered into this skid with their cinematic universe, and The Order: 1886 takes its cues directly from that. There is no time for banter in this world, there are freaking werewolves to kill. The game is so devoid of levity, the only respite I found was in this entirely out of place SackBoy prop I could pick up and examine.

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The characters seriousness is unrelenting as well. Galahad scowls constantly. I don’t recall even a smirk from any characters within the game. Most of the dialogue involves shouting, which must’ve made for an interesting recording session. Even when Galahad just needs a drink, he doesn’t hold back as he shouts at the bartender, “A drink goddam you!”. And don’t worry, in case you fall into a haze and forget the seriousness of the situation, Galahad will remind you. “I’m in no mood to jest,” he bellows at one point to a fellow knight following a firefight. Woah dude, I get it!

If the setting and characters weren’t serious enough for players, Ready at Dawn even manipulated historical figures to lend credence to the time period they chose. Nikola Tesla pops up as your version of James Bond’s Q, although he provides little to no technical assistance. He mainly serves as a prop to justify some of the more technically majestic weapons in the game. Even Jack the Ripper is shoehorned in through an egregious plot twist.

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The Order: 1886 will stand as an exemplar of the worst of AAA games: all gloss and no substance. Ready at Dawn seemed far more preoccupied with making a film than trying to create compelling gameplay, and the resulting story was uninspired at best. Cutscenes make up probably 1/3 of the game, and what little gameplay there is remains woefully devoid of imagination. The game’s technical mastery is overcome by a self-indulgent title intent on showcasing the developer’s hard work rather than letting people appreciate the world’s intricacy on their own.

There’s a point in The Order where Galahad insists that you don’t kill guards you believe to be innocent men. Within 30 seconds, he’s opened fire on a crowd and stabbed a guard in the face. And why wouldn’t he? What kind of hero just chokes someone out? Remember, this game is serious.

E3 and the Specter of Iterative Hardware

Prior to E3, Microsoft and Sony looked like the Hans Brinker’s Dutch boy sticking his finger into the dyke fruitlessly. Leak after leak spilled out of the companies, to the point that presentations were devoid of many surprising moments. Leaks are yearly occurrences now, but this year’s news that both companies were working on iterative hardware steps for this console cycle felt more significant than any trailer leak. Indeed, the knowledge the current consoles would soon be stepped over like AI on Tyronn Lue tended to hang over the entire proceedings.

Microsoft’s presser followed the same format they’ve used the past two years, cut the corporate speak to a minimum, tout their first-party and exclusive games as much as possible, throw in an indie sizzler real and reveal your latest online features. It’s tried and true formula, a far cry from the old days of sales figures and droll 3rd party demos that have flitted over to their publisher’s press conferences. Nonetheless, they kept any mention of their new Project Scorpio console until the every end of the conference. Presented as a console meant to allow developer’s to harness the full potential of their skills, the bravado with which they presented the new console made it feel more like a moonshot than a box with lower specs than the newest PCs.

Their presentation made it feel like it was flown from the future, (RIP to using Marty McFly in 2015 as a reference for any future jokes) bandying about technical terms like GPU and teraflop as a way to pander to the NeoGaf gamers who care about that while wowing casual viewers with developer testimonials. They’ve created a black box (and it will absolutely be black) that at this point feels next-gen even though they’ve tethered themselves to the current console cycle. Many people know that its specs aren’t as powerful as the latest PCs, but by claiming it’s the “most powerful console ever”, there’s a large segment of gamers that will buy into that. The real issue is that they can’t abandon the current install base of Xbox One owners, meaning that their decision to have new hardware looming in the distance casts a foreboding shadow over every game with a release date, every game in development that’s gone dark, and more importantly, almost every game at E3.

On the other side of the aisle, Sony rests atop the console plastic throne, grinning at every opportunity about the PS4 as one of the fastest selling consoles of all time. They’ve won this generation. But they’ve also chosen to create an iterative project in the Playstation Neo, a sort of Playstation 4.5 that is rumored to allow 4K gaming and assist with the launch of their VR headset. This seems incredibly silly to split a console audience that’s already shoveling their money into Sony’s coffers, but that’s another topic altogether, it’s more interesting to look at their hush-hush roll-out approach in contrast to Microsoft.

Prior to E3, Playstation CEO Andrew House acknowledged the existence of the Playstation Neo, while deflecting any further comments by stating that it won’t be at this E3 because they want to focus on the games. A smart approach, to be sure, a laser focus on the ability of a console to play games is what’s gotten them ahead this cycle. And focus on games they did, their presser was like a pre-set Youtube playlist of new trailers with the least amount of corporate gobbledygook I can remember. However, that also leaves the announcement and association with games in development strictly under the speculative umbrella. Assuredly, they will announce that all games on the Neo will work on the PS4, bifurcating an install base during a time of prosperity is lunacy, but it still means at some point the transition will come, and games will start to include features only available on the more powerful console.

The rapid progression of technology is making these sort of shifts inevitable. It’s remarkable the previous console generation lasted so long. The peculiar part is that I recall lots of rhetoric around gamers having to get used to longer console life cycles, as hardware companies worked longer to break even and awaited new technology to reach an affordable price point. Yet three years later we’ve already reached one of the shortest console life cycles ever. The Wii U is a torrential failure, with the NX already moving in as a swift replacement. The Xbone already has a slimmer model, and it’s older brother is only a year and a half away. Meanwhile, even Sony’s runaway success is being shoved aside to show off their shiny new toy.

Getting gamers to warm to iterative hardware jumps mid-lifecycle will be a steep learning curve. Nintendo has already started the practice by releasing an insufferable amount of ways to play their handheld games, and splitting their install base with the New 3DS. Those carry smaller price points though, and something people have gotten used to over years of remodeled, rejiggered Nintendo handhelds hitting the market. In the console community though, this is a dramatic shift. Even if it’s standard practice in other tech like phones, Sony and Microsofts’ PR teams have their hands full positioning these new consoles to get buy-in from gamers. Microsoft is already on the clock, Nintendo stopped hitting snooze around a year ago and Sony will begin their timer to the next-half-generation soon.

During this lame duck period, most of the games shown off at E3 already have the stench of console neglect hanging over them. Many of the games revealed will come out on these current consoles, but it’s an assurance that many developers are already working on the next model of the game to come out on Scorpio over Neo. Nintendo’s new Zelda is a prime example of this, but at least that is being released on both consoles concurrently. One can presume that a number of games already released earlier this console cycle will get remastered editions on the new console too, making an even more egregious recycling system than how current remasters are handled. It will also force developers to test their games on multiple systems, adding more hoops to a production process where 80 hour a week crunches are just a part of the job. No matter how excited the games unveiled during E3 might have been, it’s impossible to ignore the looming shadow of new hardware. People will still flock to pick up consoles this fall, but rest assured there’s an annoying voice shouting, “Hey, listen!”, reminding them that in less than a year their purchase will be outdated.