Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy Review

These days, first-person shooters and other, more “mature” genres are the most prominent games. But back in the 1990s, it was all about cartoony platformers. Mario was the long-standing gaming icon, and Sonic the Hedgehog had risen to prominence in the early years of the decade. Sonic’s popularity lead to countless imitators, with many an “animal with attitude” failing to replicate what made the hedgehog Mario’s one-time rival. There was, however, one such would-be mascot who actually succeeded in being the third-party in this platforming mascot equation: Crash Bandicoot.

Crash Bandicoot was created by Naughty Dog, the developer who is now most famous for creating the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. Crash’s first three outings on the Sony Playstation proved to be so popular, that the anthropomorphized marsupial became the face of Sony’s initial gaming platform.

Crash’s popularity can mostly be attributed to the quality of his games, though it probably helped things a bit that the orange bandicoot had a tone of his own. While Mario was whimsical and Sonic was “cool,” Crash Bandicoot was downright silly. Taking as much inspiration from Loony Tunes as from the likes of Sonic and Mario, Naughty Dog created a worthy addition to the platforming family with an identity of its own. But one who sadly fell out of prominence after Naughty Dog surrendered the character to other developers after the PSOne era. From the PS2 era (which saw Sony’s former mascot become a multi-platform franchise) and the subsequent console generation, the once-mighty Crash Bandicoot fell from grace, with developers never quite knowing how to recreate the series’ magic. After an off-putting quasi-reboot which saw a complete overhaul in art direction (something that never serves as a good sign for long-standing series), Crash laid dormant for nine years.

Thanks to developer Vicarious Visions, Crash Bandicoot is back with his first (and most famous) three adventures being rebuilt from the ground up for the Playstation 4. Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy faithfully re-creates the beloved original trilogy of platformers for a new generation. Though this faithfulness means there’s a little bit of a “warts and all” quality about the N. Sane Trilogy, it also proves to be something of a labor of love and a beautiful re-introduction to the series.

Though Crash Bandicoot was one of the early 3D platformers, it plays a lot more like a 2D one than something like Super Mario 64 (released in 1996, the same year as the first Crash Bandicoot title). The camera is usually fixed behind Crash, with the bandicoot traveling forward through stages that felt like those of a 2D platformer, but with a 3D perspective.

Crash Bandicoot can jump on enemies, but also comes with a spin attack. He collects Wumpa Fruits which, like Mario’s coins or Sonic’s rings, grant an extra life for every one-hundred gained. In the game’s own unique twist on the genre, the stages are also littered with boxes. Once every box in a level is destroyed, Crash is rewarded with a magical gem, which are needed if the player wishes to obtain one-hundred percent completion, with special colored gems found in certain stages which create new paths in certain levels.

Crash seemed to have learned a thing or two from Donkey Kong Country, as the boxes are reminiscent of DK’s barrels, and come in different varieties: Some contain a single fruit, others contain multiples, Crash can bounce on some, while others contain TNT, and will explode within a few seconds after jumped on (or instantly if Crash spins them). The sequels also added Nitro boxes, which will explode instantaneously upon contact, and can only properly be destroyed by hitting a switch at the level’s end. Finally, there are boxes adorned with a tiki mask named Aku Aku. Grabbing one and two masks will give Crash that many more hits, while obtaining a third mask will grant temporary invincibility.

The core gameplay of Crash Bandicoot is a lot of fun. Most of the levels are well designed, and trying to obtain every gem adds a level of complexity to the equation. On the downside of things, the perspective can often be misleading, with the fixed camera leading to some tricky platforming. This is especially true in the first game of the trilogy (simply titled Crash Bandicoot), which can, at times, feel a bit trollish with the tricks it plays with perspective. Still, the core mechanics are so fun that they mostly overshadow the sometimes cumbersome perspectives.

Though the second and third titles of the series, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back and Crash Bandicoot: Warped still suffer from some of these troublesome camera issues, they remain two of the few 3D titles on the original Playstation that hold up pretty well in terms of gameplay. The original Crash Bandicoot, however, wasn’t quite so lucky. Despite the fun mechanics, some of the later levels feel almost unfairly difficult, which were made all the worse by a convoluted saving system (in the PSOne version, you could only save after acquiring a gem or completing a bonus stage).

Thankfully, part of that problem has been rectified here, as the N. Sane Trilogy features a streamlined saving feature throughout all three games. For the first Crash Bandicoot, this is something of a godsend with how difficult it could get at times. Those difficult levels still remain – sometimes with unfair traps that require trial-and-error – but at least now you don’t have to worry about replaying them if you missed out on a chance to save before getting a game over.

Cortex Strikes Back and Warped remain two of the best of the early 3D platformers, however, with even the original PSOne versions being enjoyable today.  Crash 2 introduced a sliding move, a crouch that (like Mario) could result in a high jump, as well as overall better level design; and Warped added a wider variety of gameplay styles (jet ski levels, airplane levels, motorcycle levels, etc.) as well as Time Trials, which would award players with saphire, gold or platinum relics if you could finish a stage fast enough.

However, all three games are better than ever as part of the N. Sane Trilogy. The original Crash – though still flawed – is a much better game with the additional features (such as the aforementioned saving), while the sequels are a case of two great games being made all the better.

The obvious changes are the visuals and music. Though the level design is the same, everything has been rebuilt from the ground up. This isn’t simply the old Crash Bandicoot games in HD, but games that don’t look like remakes at all. If you didn’t have the knowledge of Crash’s past, you might be forgiven for thinking these are original PS4 games. And the cartoony aesthetics – whether it be the Australian inspired setting of the first game, the arctic or sewer-themed stages of the second, or the various time periods Crash visits in his time-traveling third outing – stand out all the more on current hardware. Video games look better than ever these days, yet most developers feel the need to make games look more “gritty” or “realistic” because of the technological power at play. But Crash Bandicoot: N. Sane Trilogy serves as a good example of why such colorful and vibrant games should be explored more often on HD hardware.

Though Crash Bandicoot’s musical scores may not be among the most iconic in video game history, the tunes are infectiously catchy and – taking another cue from DK – can be incredibly atmospheric. Every track has been faithfully recreated, and these already great soundtracks sound better than ever.

Not every change in the N. Sane Trilogy is cosmetic, however, as there have been a few tweaks made to the games themselves. Most notably, Warped’s Time Trials have been inserted into the two earlier games, giving them even more challenge and replay value. Additionally, Crash’s sister Coco Bandicoot, who was originally only playable in select levels of Warped (and even then only in levels that saw her riding a vehicle or tiger) can be played in any platforming level of all three games. She plays identically to Crash, and playing as her is optional, so she doesn’t exactly change the game, but she keeps things faithful for purists while also making up for her somewhat disappointing playability in Warped’s original release.

Crash Bandicoot has had a long, shaky history, but I feel like the N. Sane Trilogy serves as something of a refreshing reboot for the series. The perspectives can still get tricky at times, and the first game can still feel cheap, but the N. Sane Trilogy resurrects the series in a gorgeous recreation of the beloved Naughty Dog games. Hopefully this leads to publisher Activision green-lighting a brand new Crash Bandicoot 4 (ignoring the post-Naughty Dog games and using these remakes as a blueprint would be the best course for the series’ future).

When most people think of Naughty Dog, they probably think of Uncharted, The Last of Us, or even Jak and Daxter. But for me, Crash Bandicoot has always been the synonymous name with the developer, and Vicarious Visions has done a wonderful job at turning these nostalgic favorites into worthwhile contemporary titles.

The bandicoot is back, and I hope he’s here to stay.

 

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

Uncharted 4

Naughty Dog has come a long way over the years. The studio first gained widespread recognition with the Crash Bandicoot franchise, of which they developed the entries found on the original Sony Playstation. The Playstation 2 era saw Naughty Dog make a more serious platforming series with Jak & Daxter, while the Playstation 3 years saw them reach new critical heights with The Last of Us and the Uncharted series.

Naughty Dog has now broken their usual conventions by resurrecting one of their series for a new Playstation generation, as the Playstation 4 is now home to the fourth entry of the Uncharted series, which Naughty Dog has claimed will be its final installment before they head into new horizons. If Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End really is the last hoorah for Nathan Drake and co., they probably couldn’t ask for a better sendoff. Uncharted 4 is both a culmination of everything Uncharted has accomplished over the last nine years, and a loving tribute to Naughty Dog’s own history.

Uncharted 4Uncharted 4 sees series hero Nathan Drake in a new light, as he’s put his adventuring life behind him, settled down, and married series heroine Elena Fisher. But when Nathan Drake’s older brother Sam – long believed to be dead – comes back into Nathan’s life, our hero is left with little choice but to resume his dangerous lifestyle.

It turns out that Sam Drake has been locked away in a South American prison for the last fifteen years. Though Sam hasn’t seen the same kinds of adventures as his younger brother, he does share a similar love for adventure, being most obsessed with the lost treasure of the legendary pirate Captain Henry Every (spelled “Avery” in the game). Sam has deduced where to begin searching for the treasure, but made the grave mistake of sharing this information with his cellmate, a notorious drug lord named Alcazar. After Alcazar enacts a prison break, he threatens Sam to find Avery’s treasure for him, giving Sam mere months to do so before Alcazar’s men come looking for him.

Uncharted 4Sam, aware of his brother’s famous exploits, tracks down Nathan Drake, who reluctantly agrees to partake in the treasure hunt to save his brother’s life (after believing to have lost his brother once, Nate can’t bear the thought of losing him again). The brothers recruit Nathan Drake’s old friend Victor “Sully” Sullivan, and the three of them head out on their biggest adventure yet. But things won’t be so easy, as an old rival of the Drakes, Rafe Adler, and his army-for-hire, will stop at nothing to get the treasure first.

Uncharted 4The premise is simple enough, but it serves as a perfect setup for Nathan Drake and company to visit the most exotic locations and partake in the most tremendous action set pieces in the series. The story also provides the series’ best character development, with Nathan, Sam, Sully and Elena all growing as characters, and Rafe proving to be the series’ best villain.

Where Uncharted 4 shines the brightest, however, is in its gameplay. Taking the best elements of its three predecessors – and a few cues from Naughty Dog’s other works – Uncharted 4 is the most polished and varied entry in the series.

Nathan Drake is still able to equip two guns at a time (a pistol and a larger weapon) for a bit of run-and-gun, third-person shooting, and there’s still plenty of platforming and climbing to be had. And yes, there are still Indiana Jones style puzzles to be solved from time to time. What makes Uncharted 4 feel refreshing, despite being the fourth entry in the series, is how well utilized these elements are.

The staging and level design in Uncharted 4 brings out the best of the series’ elements. The combat and platforming feel more fluid than ever, and the puzzles are easily the best in the series, with some of them requiring some serious thinking to solve.

Unfortunately, there are still a handful of shootout segments that are overly long (a complaint I had with previous entries that really seems like it should have been rectified by this point), but they are much less excessive than they were in the third entry. It’s never that these shootout segments are outright bad (a point I might argue was the case in Uncharted 3), but Uncharted is at its best when it’s utilizing all three of its gameplay components: shooting, platforming and puzzles. So when the shooting segments do become a bit excessive, it becomes really noticeable, and can take away from some of the game’s overall genius with their repetition.

Uncharted 4That’s ultimately a small complaint, however, when you take into account how well the overall package is, especially the series’ famous set pieces, which reach new heights with their exhilarating pace and ridiculous setups. From taking part in a gunfight while dangling from a collapsed building over a cliff to the series’ best car chase sequence to booby-trap-filled pirate islands, Uncharted 4 keeps upping the ante with one action achievement after another.

A small gameplay twist has been added to the game’s narrative, as there are a number of instances in which players are given a series of choices for how Nathan Drake reacts to a situation and what he has to say. It’s nothing game-changing, and maybe even a bit under-utilized, but it does help give the game an added dose of personality (not that it had any shortage in that department).

Uncharted 4Another of the game’s highlights is the presentation. Good heavens, is this game ever gorgeous! From a purely technical standpoint, Uncharted 4 might be the best looking game I’ve ever seen. Every environment is richly detailed, and a wonder to behold. The character models and animations are the most realistic I’ve seen in a game, made all the more believable by the great performances of the actors. The cinematic presentation is simply second to none.

The campaign alone would be more than enough, but Naughty Dog has gone the extra mile and included an incredibly fun and addicting multiplayer mode to go with it. Teams of players can face off against each other in a handful of play styles (from death matches to capture the flag, under the title of “Idols”).

Uncharted 4The seemingly simple multiplayer setup turns into something great due in large part to how well it implements the core mechanics from the main game, and tweaks them appropriately for multiple players. Along with the usual platforming and shooting, players can gain upgrades and power-ups by collecting treasure (obtained via defeating enemies, helping downed allies, or finding trinkets throughout the stages). With enough treasure, players can purchase better weapons, AI controlled henchmen (like brutes, medics and snipers), and powerful items called “Mystics,” which pay homage to the supernatural twists of the series by unleashing curses on your foes or giving benefits to your team.

Uncharted 4Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a wonderful gaming experience that exudes a strong sense of love and dedication on the part of its developers. That main adventure captures the feeling of an action-adventure flick better than any game out there, and the multiplayer is strong enough to hold its own. Take into account that the campaign’s hidden treasures, notes, and secret dialogues are more cleverly tucked away this time around and require some serious exploration to unearth, and that you can unlock customizable options for the multiplayer modes (from small costume changes to additional characters from the series’ history), and you have more than enough content to keep you coming back for more.

Some of the series’ flaws are still present, and the new mechanics that are added aren’t as present as they could have been, but Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is no doubt a milestone for Naughty Dog. In one segment of the game, Nathan Drake plays one of the stages from the original Crash Bandicoot on his Playstation. This moment doesn’t just play into our nostalgia, but also sums up what Uncharted 4 is all about. This isn’t just Nathan Drake’s last ride, it’s also a culmination of Naughty Dog’s accomplishments that started over two decades ago, on the shoulders of a bandicoot.

 

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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review

*Review based on the remastered PS4 version as part of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection*

Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is not only seen as the turning point for the Uncharted series, and a benchmark for developer Naughty Dog, but also as a modern classic. Released on the Playstation 3 in 2009, Uncharted 2 reaped critical acclaim and is often cited as one of the best video games of all time. Its reputation isn’t undeserved. Uncharted 2 took all of the good points of its predecessor, and cranked them to their limits.

Much like its predecessor, Uncharted 2 aims to capture the feeling of an Indiana Jones style adventure film into the world of video games, and it could be argued it accomplishes this feat better than any game that came before it. Maybe even after it.

Nathan Drake is on a quest to find the mythical city of Shambala and the legendary Cintimani Stone hidden there. He is joined by Chloe Frazer, a more rough-edged, coquettish contrast to “good girl” Elena Fisher from the first game. Though Elena ends up playing an active role in this adventure, Chloe knocks her down to the tritagonist role.

As you might expect, a psychotic villain is also in pursuit of Shambala and the Cintimani Stone, in the form of Lazarević, and his band of Serbian mercenaries. He’s a pretty cookie-cutter, brutish villain, but he does what he needs to for the game’s simple plot.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted 2 remains similar to its predecessor, albeit with considerable more polish. The game still combines third-person shooting with platforming, but it handles both of its gameplay halves better than the original.

Whereas the first game often had Nathan Drake involved in gunfights that would go on for a bit too long, Uncharted 2 more gracefully spreads out the action. The gunfights are still present, of course, but they are trimmed down, and made even more exciting and varied due to the game’s greater set pieces and staging.

Meanwhile, the platforming has been made more polished. In the first game, the majority of platforming consisted mainly of jumping from one ledge to another while hanging off cliffs. Though such mechanics remain, they are given greater variety with better presented platforming challenges. And the ledge-hanging segments have been made more fluid, since Drake can now move across ledges using the control stick, and only needs to jump between them when necessary.

Nathan Drake can still use two guns at a time, a pistol and a larger weapon. But the stealth mechanics and melee combat, as well as puzzles, are better utilized this time around, making things consistently fresh.

Uncharted 2Better still are the aforementioned set pieces. Many adventure films involve action scenes that involve the characters jumping from one speeding car to another while battling villains in each vehicle, and that very scenario is beautifully recreated here. We even get an extended sequence aboard the roof of a train, a must for any self-respecting adventurer.

It’s in moments like these where Uncharted 2 shines brightest. The Uncharted series wants nothing more than to be ranked alongside the adventures of Dr. Jones, and the game is wise to use a greater variety of action set pieces than its predecessor, and only ever reusing one of them (for narrative purposes). There are few games that capture such feelings of exhilaration so consistently.

Uncharted 2Uncharted 2 even ups the ante in aesthetics. The game looks great, with a wider range of environments to explore, with the most beautiful being snowcapped mountains and icy caverns. The music is similarly epic, and would feel right at home in a Hollywood blockbuster (albeit Uncharted 2’s score is more atmospheric and less generic than most big Hollywood pieces these days).

The game does have some issues, however. Some may find that the plot is sticking a little too close to the adventure film rulebook, with most of its twists and turns being predictable from a mile away. And once again, the villain is a bit underwhelming. Perhaps the game’s biggest narrative misstep is the demotion of Victor Sullivan. The show-stealing buddy of Nathan Drake has a greatly reduced role this time around, aiding Drake in some early segments in the game before declaring himself to be “too old for this stuff.” It’s an oddly unceremonious way to write-off a fan favorite character.

It should also be pointed out that there are some chapters within the game that drag on for a bit. While most of the game is exciting and fun, a small handful of chapters overstay their welcome. This is especially true later in the game, when the chapters start becoming lengthier, with some of them simply feeling stretched out, instead of justifying their additional timeframes.

These are ultimately small complaints though, since Uncharted 2: Among Thieves remains a highlight in Naughty Dog’s library, and one of the most fondly remembered exclusives on any Playstation console.

If the original Uncharted was the Indiana Jones game we all dreamed of, then Uncharted 2 is perhaps the Indiana Jones game we never dreamed we’d actually see. Let’s be glad we did.

 

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Crash Bandicoot: Warped Review

Crash Bandicoot: Warped

When it comes to discussing the best entry of any beloved video game series, you’ll usually find a range of answers. Very rarely does a series have an entry that’s almost unanimously hailed as the best. Crash Bandicoot: Warped is one of those few, as it is consistently cited as the best Crash Bandicoot game. It’s with good reason. Crash Bandicoot: Warped is the best Crash Bandicoot game.

Threequels can go either way in the video game world. They’re either the point in a series where the ideas have seemingly wrung dry, and the game just seems to go through the motions, or they’re the point where creators really prove their mettle by continuously improving their craft.

Crash Bandicoot: Warped falls under the latter category of course. Taking most of its immediate predecessor’s best assets, Warped added a number of fun ideas of its own into the mix, producing the culmination of Naughty Dog’s vision for the Crash Bandicoot series.

The game uses a similar setup to Cortex Strikes Back, with the “Warp Room” concept now being expanded to one larger room leading to five smaller chambers, with each housing five levels and a boss.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedCrash retains all of his moves from Cortex Strikes Back, but this time around he also gains new abilities after defeating the game’s bosses. The new moves include a double jump, a super spin (which also allows Crash to glide), and even a bazooka!

Levels are still played in a 2.5D perspective, with the quality of level design equalling and surpassing that of Crash 2. But Warped doesn’t just settle for matching its predecessor, and new types of stages are also introduced in addition to the platforming stages. Crash Bandicoot, as well as his sister Coco, now partake in motorcycle races, jetski obstacles courses, and aerial dogfights, among other new concepts. Admittedly, the number of these vehicle stages comes at the price of less platforming stages than its predecessor, but Warped’s variety is consistently impressive.

As was the case with the second game, a crystal must be collected on every level to progress further, with each stage also housing one or two secret gems (one gem for breaking every crate in a level, with the potential second gem usually being tucked away in a secret area).

Warped ups the ante for completionists however. In addition to the returning crystals and gems, Crash and Coco now have the option to collect relics. Players can return to any completed stages to partake in that level’s time trial mode. Complete a level fast enough, and Crash is rewarded with a relic. Only the third-tier “sapphire” relics are needed to unlock secret stages, but for those seeking the game’s greatest challenge, you can always go for the gold and platinum relics.

Crash Bandicoot: Warped’s levels aren’t quite as difficult as those in Cortex Strikes Back on their own, but getting every gem is as challenging as anything in its predecessor, and completing the time trials is a whole other beast entirely. This makes Warped the most “all audiences” Crash title, as less experienced players will have a decent challenge just getting through the game, while diehards have a hefty task waiting for them with the gems and relics.

The story this time around is that, after his defeat in Crash Bandicoot 2, Dr. Cortex and his space station crash down to Earth, accidentally freeing an evil voodoo mask named Uka Uka in the process. Two notable retcons take place here: The first is that Uka Uka was apparently the mastermind behind Cortex’s previous evil schemes, and the second is that Uka Uka is the evil brother of Aku Aku, the voodoo mask who was previously just a power-up in the past games, but is now a full-fledged character.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedUka Uka is angered with Cortex’s failings in the past, and once again seeks the power of the crystals and gems to take over the world. But after the events of Crash Bandicoot 2, the crystals and gems have lost their power. So Uka Uka recruits fellow villain Dr. N. Tropy – who dabbles in time travel – to aide them in claiming the crystals and gems in the distant past, where they still have full power. Aku Aku then sends Crash and Coco through time in order to stop his brother, Cortex and N. Tropy’s plot.

While the time travel setup may sound like a gimmick, it actually helps the game stand out from its predecessors all the more. While Crash 1 and 2’s levels stuck closely with themes of water, snow, and the like, Warped instead has stages based on ancient Egypt, medieval times, an under construction Great Wall of China and, of course, dinosaurs.

In an interesting twist, none of the game’s world’s adhere to a singular theme, and the gimmicks are instead thrown about almost randomly. You’ll go from one backdrop to another and back again. In lesser hands this may just seem inconsistent, but here it works in Naughty Dog’s favor, as the sporadic nature of the level’s themes seems to reflect the game’s energy and sense of humor.

The overall sense of control feels more finely-tuned than in the past games, with Crash’s movements feeling more fluid than before. The visuals, while admittedly aged, also look more polished, with the animations being more vibrant than ever. Similarly, the music has taken another leap forward, with Warped having the best soundtrack of Naughty Dog’s trilogy of platformers. Even loading screens are made fun by the presence of various characters speaking to the player as the levels load up, giving you brief glimpses into their entertaining personalities.

As entertaining as Crash Bandicoot: Warped still is, however, the tricky perspectives of its predecessors are still present, and they have only become more noticeable with age. The game’s fixed perspectives still lead to confusion as to the placement of some objects and enemies, leading to some accidental deaths. And while the game’s bosses are a step up from the past two games, the final boss is once again a bit of a letdown (Uka Uka’s presence in the final battle is little more than an obstacle that needs to be jumped over).

Admittedly, some of Warped’s new ideas also fall short of their potential: Coco Bandicoot is introduced as a playable character, but all of her stages involve either riding in vehicles or on the back of a tiger, so she ends up feeling like a missed opportunity at some variety in the platforming gameplay. The aforementioned motorcycle stages, while a nice change of pace, are a bit basic and lack much distinction between one another.

Crash Bandicoot: WarpedWhen all is said and done though, Crash Bandicoot: Warped remains one of the original Playstation’s highlights. Crash Bandicoot started his gaming career as a bit of a manufactured gaming mascot, but with Crash Bandicoot 2 and, ultimately, this title, Crash became a genuine video game star.

It is a little bit of a bittersweet affair. Crash Bandicoot: Warped marked the last time Naughty Dog made a platformer starring the titular character before he got passed around to various other developers like a hot potato, never again reaching the heights of Warped.

Naughty Dog has gone on to make Jak & Daxter, Uncharted, and The Last of Us to immense acclaim, but many still hope that somehow the developer finds their way back to Crash Bandicoot one day. Playing Crash Bandicoot: Warped is still a blast even today, but it’s also a bittersweet reminder of the fruitful future for Crash Bandicoot that could have been.

 

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Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back Review

Crash Bandicoot 2

What a difference one sequel can make. Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back was not only better than its predecessor back in its day, but the years have only magnified what an improvement it really was. The original Crash Bandicoot has its place in history, but many of its aspects now feel archaic. Crash Bandicoot 2 now feels closer to the proper realization of what Naughty Dog was trying to achieve when they created the Playstation’s original mascot.

Crash Bandicoot 2 takes the assets of the first game, and polishes them while also giving the formula more depth.

The core gameplay remains the same: Crash still jumps and spins his way through levels, which are presented in 2.5D. But Crash has some new moves this time around. He can now crouch, crawl, and slide. Jumping while crouching or sliding gives Crash a higher and longer jump, respectively. And Crash also gets his own equivalent of Mario’s stomp attack, but in keeping with the Bandicoot’s sense of humor, Crash falls flat on his face, in contrast to Mario’s fancier acrobatics.

Other then the new moves, a lot of the game is more of a refinement than a reinvention of the series. The graphics are more polished and colorful, the music is a lot more memorable and catchy, and the level design is more creative, with an added dose of story to compliment it.

Crash Bandicoot 2The plot is appropriately simple, but surprisingly thought out for a platformer that relishes in cartoonish silliness: After his defeat in the first game, the evil Dr. Neo Cortex stumbled across a magic crystal, and learned it held immense power. With his armies defeated and his former assistant Dr. N. Brio – tired of Cortex’s abuse – turning a new leaf, Cortex’s only ally is the cyborg-like Dr. N. Gin. Needing someone to help find the remaining crystals to complete a super weapon (mad scientists aren’t made for that kind of work), Cortex manipulates a gullible Crash Bandicoot into believing he’s seen the error of his ways, and convinces Crash to gather the crystals as a means to save the planet.

Meanwhile, Dr. N. Brio, trying to stop Cortex’s evil plot, also seeks Crash’s help in gathering magic gems which can help him defeat his former employer. But Cortex is a bit more convincing, so N. Brio sends his remaining forces to stop Crash, should he continue to aid Cortex (which explains the enemies and bosses standing in the player’s way).

The story continues throughout the game via holographic messages from the mad doctors (and Crash’s sister, Coco) in the game’s hub world. It’s a setup that really works in the game’s favor, and this is a good instance of the plot intertwining with gameplay, instead of being an excuse for it.

Crash Bandicoot 2’s levels all house one crystal – usually found towards the end of a stage and in the open – which are required to progress further in the game, and one or two gems, which are optional and sometimes well hidden.

Crash Bandicoot 2Every level has one gem that is acquired by breaking every crate found in the stage, similar to the first game. Mercifully, having to survive the entirety of a level is no longer an additional requirement. The other gems are found by other means (usually via bonus areas or performing special actions in particular levels), and sometimes involve backtracking and return visits.

The game’s later levels can get decently difficult, but you shouldn’t have too much trouble if you only wish to blast through the game and nab the crystals. But obtaining every gem is a task for those seeking a real challenge. There are a few gems where the tasks required to get them can feel convoluted or tedious, leading to some frustrating moments, but most are a fair challenge.

Another very important aspect that Crash 2 improves on its predecessor is saving. The original Crash Bandicoot’s save feature was more than a little bit of a mess, requiring players to collect tokens to play bonus stages to win the opportunity to save. Cortex Strikes Back instead includes a basic save feature in the game’s hub world, and all Crash has to do is walk up to a wall to save in between levels. Compared to its predecessor, it’s a godsend.

Crash Bandicoot 2Crash Bandicoot 2 also tweaks the level progression, with each stage accessed through the innovative “Warp Rooms.” Warp Rooms are condensed spaces that each grant Crash access to five levels apiece, which gives the game a more unique setup than the original’s more generic world map.

There are a few drawbacks to Crash’s otherwise stellar sequel, however. Along with some of the gems feeling like a chore to obtain, the game retains some of its predecessor’s tricky perspectives, with some areas becoming more difficult because you can’t make out the distance between objects. Boss fights are still nothing to boast about, with the final boss in particular being a big letdown.

All things considered, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back remains a textbook example of how to do a proper sequel. It learned from its predecessor’s mistakes and not only touched them up, but also created a heftier and more varied gaming experience of its own. Time may not have been kind to the original Crash Bandicoot, but Cortex Strikes Back remains one of the series’ finest moments. It’s still a whole lot of fun.

 

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Crash Bandicoot Review

Crash Bandicoot

Back in the 1990s, animal mascots were all the rage in video games. Sonic the Hedgehog was a wild success, even surpassing Mario’s popularity for a time. But while Sonic may have been way past cool, he inspired just about every developer to try their hand at an “animal with attitude” character, in hopes of replicating his success, with mostly disappointing results. Most of the would-be mascots inspired in Sonic’s wake were uninspired, forced, and quickly forgotten. One exception, however, was 1996’s Crash Bandicoot, created by Naughty Dog.

Crash not only became popular, he was even seen as the unofficial face of the Sony Playstation for a time. Crash was successful enough to start a franchise and put Naughty Dog on the map. Unfortunately for Crash, his debut outing has suffered the effects of time, with many of its elements showing their age in prominent ways.

Crash Bandicoot is a 2.5D platformer, with 3D characters and environments, and a mostly 3D perspective, but Crash moves in a fixed path. It was more of an attempt at creating a 2D platformer from a 3D point of view, as opposed to a open 3D platormer like Super Mario 64, released the very same year as Crash.

Crash BandicootNor was Crash’s moveset as versatile as Mario’s. Crash can jump and perform a spin attack to wipe out enemies. A tiki mask named Aku Aku works as the game’s sole power-up (found in some of the game’s many breakable crates), and can be stacked up to three times (the first two work like shields to make Crash more durable, while a third Aku Aku grants temporary invincibility). Additionally, Wumpa Fruits work like Mario’s coins or DK’s bananas, with an extra life granted for every one-hundred you can nab.

The story served as a means to introduce Crash Bandicoot to the world. The mad scientist Dr. Neo Cortex is experimenting on animals, forcefully evolving them to create an army of animal soldiers to take over the world. Crash is an evolved bandicoot from these experiments, but ends up rebelling against the mad doctor. Crash manages to escape Cortex’s lab, but ends up on a far off island. With Crash’s girlfriend Tawna still in the hands of Cortex, Crash sets out to save her.

The plot really is inconsequential, but it does try to give the characters some fun, cartoony personalities, though those personalities didn’t truly shine through until the sequels.

Crash Bandicoot’s level design provides a handful of fun stages, but a lot of them can feel rather bland. The levels themselves can sometimes prove difficult, though you’ll probably lose more lives due to the fixed camera work, which is so focused on Crash himself that you can’t always make out the distances in jumps and the placements of objects and traps. Crash’s less-than ideal jumping physics don’t exactly help, either.

Crash BandicootThere are a few boss fights found in between some of the game’s thirty-two stages, but they end up being rather dull and easy. You may struggle to get to these boss encounters, only to feel the payoff wasn’t worth it.

The worst aspect of this original Crash Bandicoot, however, is the awkward save feature. In a baffling design decision, the primary means of saving is by completing certain bonus stages, which are unlocked in certain levels by obtaining three token’s shaped like Tawna’s mug (tokens shaped like the villain’s faces also appear in certain stages with bonuses of their own). But even if you manage to get to Tawna’s bonus round you can miss the chance to save if you die in the bonus round, and you can’t redo these bonuses again in the same playthrough. 

The only other method of saving is by collecting gems. Gems are secret items that are earned by destroying every crate in a stage without dying. That might not sound too difficult, except that some crates are hidden, and there’s no way of knowing how many you missed unless you’ve completed the level without dying. Worse still, much of the game’s difficulty stems from trial-and-error, and you often have to lose a few times in order to memorize a stage’s layout. This convoluted save feature often means you’ll go through several levels without a chance to save, making game overs feel like a crushing blow as you have to redo much of your progress.

Crash BandicootYou can always quit the stage and start over (being forced to sit through more load times) to reset any possible deaths, or come back and try a level again later, but asking players to jump through so many hoops just to get the opportunity to save the game is beyond outrageous. The ability save should just be included at all times or by reaching certain points and clearing certain levels. Saving your progress shouldn’t be an optional reward.

Still, there is some fun to be had with Crash Bandicoot, but it all only goes so far: The simple gameplay works well enough (though this too would be refined in the sequels). The graphics, while aged, at least show off the game’s sense of humor (Crash’s death animations provide Looney Tunes-style slapstick). The music is fun if maybe not entirely memorable. And every now and again you’ll come across a solidly fun stage.

The sad thing is most of the game’s best bits feel mediocre when compared to both today’s standards and the better platformers of the time (not only was Mario 64 released the same year, but Sega’s Nights Into Dreams as well). The worst aspects of Crash Bandicoot – namely the dumbfounding save feature – have only devolved all the more with time.

Crash Bandicoot may have created a star out of its titular hero, but the framework was bettered by the two succeeding games in the series by some margin. The original may have laid the groundwork for the sequels to justify Crash Bandicoot’s popularity in the 1990s, but the sad truth is the original title may be better left to memories.

 

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The Last of Us Review

The Last of Us

While video games and zombie apocalypses are certainly no strangers to each other, The Last of Us attempts to rise above the oversaturated genre by telling a more compelling, mature story and a deep gameplay experience. And though it doesn’t always hit the mark in gameplay, and its story may fall short of its ambitions, The Last of Us nonetheless provides another solid entry in Naughty Dog’s catalogue.

The story of The Last of Us sees the world overrun by an incurable outbreak that turns people into zombie-like creatures, sending the world into chaos. In the early years of the outbreak, a man named Joel lost his daughter – not to the infected, but to a soldier – as they tried to find safety. As the years pass, the loss of his daughter has turned Joel into a bitter and hopeless man. Eventually, Joel finds himself in the company of a girl named Ellie. Ellie could be humanity’s salvation, as she is immune to the deadly infection. It becomes Joel’s mission to escort Ellie to a research facility, so that she might be studied and a cure can be found.

The Last of UsOf course, the plot unravels into something a bit more complex – both narratively and emotionally – and includes twists and turns, deranged villains, and the experience of one loss after another. But what makes the story of The Last of Us escalate into something more is the core relationship between Joel and Ellie. Ellie becomes something of a surrogate daughter to Joel, and their interactions and banters can come off as something smart and heartfelt. The game is wise enough to provide some quieter moments of character development between the two of them, and not just focus on the dread of the apocalypse.

On the downside of things, when the apocalypse is brought into the picture, The Last of Us falls into incredibly cliched territory. It becomes yet another showcase of “the zombies aren’t the real threat, the survivors are!” which has to rank among the most tired of genre tropes. Wouldn’t it be neat if, for once, the zombies were the ultimate evil in a zombie story, thus leaving the narrative free to explore new themes and not simply tread the same road of nihilism and pessimism that’s been treaded a thousand times before? Even the death of Joel’s daughter is used more as a means to justify Joel’s violence towards the bad guys than it is contemplative on the actual nature of loss. For a game that presents itself (and has been acclaimed as) a forward-thinking , giant leap in the medium’s narrative abilities, The Last of Us frequently stumbles when it comes to expressing any themes and all too often falls prey to the genre’s most familiar territory.

The Last of UsThankfully, the gameplay fairs a bit better. The Last of Us is a third-person action shooter, like so many games of today. But it sets itself apart from the crowd for rewarding patience and strategic pacing over simply shooting everything in sight. Some of Naughty Dog’s quirky controls are still present, with Joel seemingly magnetizing to any object in which he can take cover, but at least it’s not simply a case of just shooting everything.

Ellie, as well as a few other occasional allies, aid Joel with items and backup support in combat. Ellie’s presence ensures that the story is weaved into the game at all times, but she and the other friendlies also give the game more urgency, as their safety is as important as Joel’s. Joel’s allies help him out, and players must make sure he in turn helps them.

Unfortunately, with these allies comes one of The Last of Us’ big drawbacks: The friendly AI isn’t always reliable, and you’ll often find that you’re walking a mile ahead of your partners, as they’ve wandered behind or got stuck after a hectic encounter. The friendly AI never feels broken, but it can get distracting when you’re trying to hear one of Joel and Ellie’s conversations, only to resort to reading Ellie’s subtitles, as she’s so far away her voice is only audible in a distant mumble.

The Last of UsThe single player campaign is a lengthy affair, with solid stage design and a few good moments of character growth from Ellie. But Naughty Dog saw fit to add multiplayer into the equation. Although these multiplayer additions were (strangely) given little fanfare before the game’s release, they rival, and in many ways surpass, the single player campaign.

Multiplayer comes in three varieties: ‘Supply Raid’ and ‘Survivors’ both serve as team death matches, and see two factions of players facing off against each other, using the same guns, melee weapons and makeshift explosives found in the story mode to try to outwit and terminate the opposing team, with Survivors being notable for its lack of respawning. The third mode is ‘Interrogation’ in which players “interrogate” their rivals after their defeat to learn the location of the opposing team’s lockbox. The team that captures their opponent’s lockbox wins. All three multiplayer modes are engaging, and give the game even more longevity and depth than it would already have.The Last of Us

The Last of Us is a hefty gaming experience, complimented by a memorable musical score and detailed visuals. There are more than a few downsides however: The inconsistent AI of ally characters, the story falls prey to the same old tired themes of zombie stories, with the introduction of a primary antagonist late into the game feeling downright excessive. A number of instances where Joel is required to push Ellie on a makeshift raft are fun at first, but as they increase in frequency they begin to affect the pace of the game.

There’s a lot holding The Last of Us back from being among the ‘greatest games of all time’ like it has often been touted (and how it often seems to tout itself). But there’s enough quality in the gameplay and multiplayer to justify Naughty Dog’s efforts.

 

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