Playing catch-up with Uncharted and The Last of Us

I feel like its important to note that I’m nearly as much of a gamer as I am a movie buff, so I am mostly blowing smoke here. When deciding between the PS4 and Xbox One, one big deciding factor was back catalog. I had a 360, which I liked a lot, but I felt like I missed out on two PS3 titles in particular: Uncharted and The Last of Us, both from developer Naughty Dog. Fortuitously, both of these games were released in updated versions for the PS4, as Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and The Last of Us Remastered. There are many similarities and differences between the two, but having spent time with the first two Uncharted games and the main storyline of The Last of Us, only one is essential enough to go back to.

Both games are highly cinematic, with gorgeous cutscenes and well-developed characters through scripted dialogue. Games like Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto often deservedly are called cinematic as well, but unlike those games, both of these play linearly like a movie, forcing you into one perspective with no independent choices to be made. In that sense, the role-playing is kept to a minimum, but they both remain engaging by creating characters worth watching. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is a swaggering treasure hunter who would definitely feel at home in a multiplex, spouting one liners while performing daring acrobatic feats, while The Last of Us’ Joel and Ellie are deeply tragic characters exploring a world where humans are everywhere but humanity is rare. You never feel like you are these characters, but you definitely want them to succeed, and are more than happy to help out however your controller will allow.

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The difference between the two, as you could probably tell by the character descriptions, is what kind of movie each is. Uncharted is a fun summer blockbuster, full of high-wire stunts, explosions, romance, and good old-fashioned map-checking. In each, Nathan Drake is on the hunt for a treasure following clues from a classic explorer (Francis Drake and Marco Polo), with a bad guy on his tail who looks to use the treasures magic for nefarious means. Comparisons with Indiana Jones are valid, and the whole flow of Uncharted is refreshingly throwback as opposed to high-octane; stuff happens on trains and jeeps rather than fighter jets. Outside of the main action, Drake also has flirty interactions with reporter Elena Fisher, who is great, and fellow treasure hunter Chloe Frazer, who is OK I guess, while putting up with questionable allies Victor Sullivan, who curmudgeonly cigar chomping puts everything in perspective, and dashing Harry Flynn, who is just the worst character in the world. Its all in good fun, and would be great for two hours, but stretches a bit thin at ten.

The Last of Us is much less action based and more of a survival thriller (not quite survival horror, but related), with a tension that leaves a pit in your stomach and an episodic structure based on seasons that feels well suited to a miniseries. From the first loading screen, with spores swirling around over sparse strings, the game establishes mood in a way that most movies don’t. While ostensibly a zombie game, the real enemy is other people, whether the martial-law rulers of the cities or the raiders and cannibals of the uncontrolled areas. This puts it much more in line with The Walking Dead than Resident Evil, but through the way it carefully paints every corner of its torn down world, The Last of Us still finds something new to do with a tired genre. Most of that has to do with the interaction between the main characters, aged smuggler Joel and fiery young Ellie. The game presents itself as an examination of the father-daughter dynamic, but also explores loss and survivor’s guilt in non-trivialized ways. As the two travel across the country, they meet new characters at every stop who are every bit as interesting, particularly Joel’s partner Tess and hungry hunter David (played by Nathan Drake himself, Nolan North). It moves at a fast clip, always leaving you wanting more of each location but providing a complete picture of a world in chaos, and ends on a morally confusing note that doesn’t betray the characters in the slightest.

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But what matters most to many is the gameplay, and even here, the drama wins. Uncharted does have its share of fantastically fun set pieces (a train and convoy chapter late in Among Thieves stands out), but is usually split half-and-half between platformer climbing sequences and shootouts. The platformer elements are fun for a while, but can be incredibly annoying, often reducing to jumping at a wall until Drake grabs something or looking around like a moron for a ledge. The shootouts are not varied enough to keep interesting throughout the entire runtime, although a gameplay shift in the form of new enemies late in the first Uncharted brings some much-needed spark (a minor similar attempt in Among Thieves falls flat). Among Thieves introduces some minor stealth mechanics, which are fun to use but usually irrelevant. Sporadic puzzles are also fairly uninvolving. It adds up to a game that’s fun for a while but becomes a bit of a chore, even though the story keeps the player invested enough to see it through.

The Last of Us still has plenty of shooting, but is gives you a much wider variety of ways to deal with situations. Running and gunning isn’t an option, but straightforwardly playing the game as a cover-shooter like Gears of War is possible. For ammo conservationists like myself, a stealth playthrough is fantastically fun, with a neat listen-mode mechanic that lets you map out the enemy locations from a distance. It’s also often possible to skip combat altogether. Switching between human and zombie encounters keeps things fresh, even though it stops bringing out zombie variants early, and a mid-game switch to Ellie’s perspective changes the strategy yet again. That praise being said, there are some swimming sections which stop the game dead, and puzzles involving ladders and planks that serve little to no purpose.

One stark distinction between the two is their treatment of violence, summarized in the Last of Us review at the great Giant Bomb. At one point in Uncharted 2, the bad guy notes how many men Drake has killed as an off-hand comment. Drake shrugs it off, but he’s not wrong; hundreds of faceless grunts get offed by Drake with no real comment, creating a weird narrative dissonance that never quite gels. Sure, Indiana Jones killed some Nazis, but never an entire battalion. The brutal mechanics of The Last of Us make each kill feel like it has some weight, even if that fades after many hours in the game. Eventually, Joel and Ellie’s kill-first-ask-questions-later approach comes back to bite them in a terrifying way, and comrades are lost in ways that make the stakes feel very real. One of the bigger questions the game asks is whether Joel is a good person and if his actions are justified, in addition to how growing up in a brutal world will shape Ellie, and the violence serves the arcs of both characters as well as the demands of gameplay. Rather than act in contrast to the narrative, it directly reinforces it. Despite the fact that The Last of Us is much bloodier than Uncharted, it feels much less gratuitous.

The Last of Us and Uncharted are both short games with no exploratory value, which makes them easy sells for those of us with time restraints that are more strict than our budget. Uncharted is decent popcorn entertainment, with some good setpieces (particularly in Among Thieves) but ultimately less value than its time investment due to frustrating gameplay mechanics. The Last of Us, on the other hand, is as engaging as entertainment gets, not so much breathing fresh air into the tired zombie genre but perhaps acting as the definitive take on the subject. It’s a complete experience (a sequel seems ludicrous), and as tender and terrifying as any movie could hope to be.

Uncharted (2007) C
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) C+
The Last of Us (2014) A

 

Playing catch-up with Uncharted and The Last of Us

On the narrative nihilism of Fallout 4’s ending

SPOILERS for the ending of the main questlines in Fallout 4 and mild spoilers for Fallout New Vegas follow. But its the main quest, so its probably fine.

I put around 175 hours into Fallout 4 before finally putting it down a couple of weeks ago. Bruce G. McKibbits was the type of adventurer who left no stone unturned, built Sanctuary Hills and Hangman’s Alley into thriving metropolises, and earned the friendship and respect (and perks) of all willing to travel with him. Bruce G. McKibbits cares about his son, cares about the people of the Commonwealth, and cares about the future of humanity as a whole. Unfortunately, that’s not one of the four speech options, so Bruce G. McKibbits killed his son and destroyed humanity’s best hope at a future in a desperate attempt to save his soul.

Let’s back up.

Fallout 4, in the vein of New Vegas, puts your character in between four factions:  the facist Brotherhood of Steel, the insidious Institute, the tunnel-visioned Railroad, and the milquetoast Minutemen. While its possible to just ignore the Minutemen completely, in order to finish the game with any of the other three factions, the remaining two must be annihilated. None of the three factions are perfect; there’s a good rationale to the leaders of each being seen as the villain. But considering how high you can ascend the leadership of each organization before plot-demanded betrayal, some form of diplomatic solution seems within reach. But neutralization is not an option; its annihilation or bust.

The obvious decision for me was to kill the Brotherhood of Steel. Sure, there were some good people there, but they were uninvited interventionists with no regard for the people of the Commonwealth. I teamed up with the Railroad and invaded the first place I met them, the Cambridge Police Station. I expected to face an army of faceless goons here, and that any named characters would give some form of recognition, some form of a “please don’t do this.” Instead, Scribe Haylen, whom I saved an ally with against the orders of the Brotherhood but days ago, was just another body on the pile. No speech. No recognition. No catharsis. Just guilt.

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In a sense, that guilt is deserved. You betrayed a flawed institution, but one with angels among its members. But this guilt was better emphasized in the proceeding section. On my attack of the Prydwen, the Brotherhood’s floating fortress in the sky, I opted for the loud and noisy route. After the majority of the leadership had been felled, I was walking among the carnage when a child Brotherhood scout approached me and mistook my power armor for that of a friend. He asked whether I had heard about what happened at the police station. He was a glitch, a remnant of a subtler route I had opted out of for this portion. But he embodied the collateral damage that must be accepted in the endgame; no matter what, innocents are lost en masse. When I sunk the Prydwen, I was complicit in a triumphant massacre. And big bad Maxson didn’t attempt to use words; he just fell.

Which left me with the choice between the Institute and the Railroad. The Railroad’s pursuit of synth freedom at all costs was admirable, and up until this point their state of relative disconcern in the fate of the Commonwealth as a whole was a nonissue, in the same line of reasoning that renders #AllLivesMatter infuriating. The Institute, on the other hand, was too secretive and cold, but had recently appointed me director. The Institute was truly a heaven, and the technology they had could help the lives of the many. With Bruce G. McKibbits as director, surely they would move away from the enslavement of the synths and toward a more open relationship with the outside, right? So I’d bide some time and work on uniting the Institute and the Railroad, as they didn’t have conflicting ethos in the same way both had with the xenophobic and technophobic Brotherhood.

That was not to be however. Either the Railroad had to be eliminated and synths doomed, or the Institute had to become a smoking ruin and humanity left in stasis. I did both in separate save files, and neither was satisfying. Perhaps that emptiness is part of the point, that war never changes and etc etc. But even narratively speaking, the lack of an option to attempt (and maybe fail!) a diplomatic solution is frustrating. Having my own hand force my own hand when waiting seemed an option wasn’t agency; it was forcing action in the name of getting gameplay rather than satisfaction. Maybe David Thier at Forbes was correct, and the only way to win is to not play. Siding with the Railroad once again meant a massacre, with innocents among the ruins in addition to abandonment of hope. Siding with the Institute meant living with the implication of continuing a history of murder, elitism, and slavery. And the most hope you’d get is a hint of optimism.

There’s an argument that Fallout is non-cinematic, and having it play out in a more dialogue-heavy fashion goes against the style of the games. But compare the fantastic ending of Fallout: New Vegas, which is similarly untidy and forces you to compromise at least one of your ideals, but never forces outright sociopathic behaviour. Once again, there are three main factions which are mutually incompatible; the secretive and effective dictator Mr. House, the well-meaning but incompetent NCR, and the captial-E Evil Caesar’s Legion. It’s an easy choice to throw the Legion under the bus if you’re remotely moralistic, but it is possible to support Mr. House without decimating the NCR (although that certainly is an option). You just tell them to leave, and show them your army of killer robots. Similarly, you can side with the NCR and neutralize Mr. House without destroying New Vegas. Finally, you can tell them both off and run stuff yourself (although with the implication that you’d suck at the job). There is nothing perfect, but a loyal paragon ending is possible, where your soul is intact even if your goals aren’t met in their entirety. That isn’t enough for Fallout 4; it wants your soul and accepts nothing less.

While we’re talking about Fallout….

Stray Observations:

  • Overall, I really liked Fallout 4, and will jump right back in when the DLC comes out. Faults with the ending left a worse taste in my mouth than New Vegas, which I love, but it left a much stronger impression than Fallout 3, which had something to do with water I think. I would have liked to see more main-quest ancilliary side quests that didn’t just repeat themselves, as well as sidequests with every companion, but the content on hand was bountiful. Let’s say B+.
  • It just really seems like murdering the Railroad is terribly inelegant. The attack on the Prydwen or the Institute makes sense from a gameplay perspective, since its a Big Action Ending. But killing the Railroad is morose and cowardly.
  • That bug where the beds disappear when you build a TV is just the worst thing.
  • That sidequest on the USS Constitution is just the best thing.
  • What Fallout games really need to take from their Elder Scrolls sister series is the guild sidequests, which don’t tie directly into the main quest and function as five substantial games within the main one. The sidequests were great, but often a bit isolated (I really wanted the Cabot house questline to open up into this, but it ended as quickly as it began).
  • Having only played the 3D Fallout games, the different representations of the Brotherhood in each are fascinating. Compare the Nazi-esque Fallout 4 Brotherhood with the militaristic but benevolent group in Fallout 3 and the paranoid and impotent Brotherhood of New Vegas. Each version has the same creed, and shows just how much status and leadership matter over simple intention.
  • While the companions were a huge step up from Fallout 3, they were a letdown after New Vegas, especially considering that the Mass Effect influences they took would add with NV to the perfect companion system. They never seemed involved in missions, did not converse much about progress in the story, and only rarely offered interesting questlines outside of picking them up. However, Nick Valentine, Curie, and Codsworth were great, and there was a legitimate sense of teamwork.

 

On the narrative nihilism of Fallout 4’s ending