Video Game Awards 2017: The ‘Secret of Mana’ Award

Okay, this is the award category where I have to give a little bit of backstory. Secret of Mana, originally released in 1993 on the SNES, is one of my favorite RPGs. But I didn’t actually play it until 2012, via the Wii’s Virtual Console service.

This particular award is named after Secret of Mana because it gives the spotlight to a game I didn’t play during its original release, but caught up on in the previous calendar year (in this case, 2016), as kind of a “better late than never” kind of thing.

So without further ado, here is 2016’s Secret of Mana Award recipient.

 

Winner: The Uncharted Series

Yeah, I didn’t fully play the Uncharted games until early last year, when I bought the Nathan Drake Collection on the PS4. Though the games are flawed (particularly the first and third entries), they really are something great, and I regret not playing them during their original releases. In fact, I like them so much, that I would retroactively hail Uncharted 2 as my favorite game of 2009. Their fast-paced action, and replication of Indiana

Originally, I was going to give this award to Undertale, which was released in September 2015, but I didn’t play until January of 2016. But I feel that was a close enough window that it was inconsequential. Meanwhile, the original Uncharted trilogy was released in 2007, 2009 and 2011. So catching up on three great games a good number of years after their original release was too much to pass up. Plus, I named Undertale as my overall Game of the Year for 2015, so it wasn’t exactly shorthanded.

Anyway, Uncharted is great. I understand its power now.

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Video Game Awards 2017: Best Gameplay

Continuing with my 2017 video game awards (celebrating 2016 video games), here’s one of the biggest prizes, Best Gameplay. After all, without gameplay, a game isn’t worth very much. No matter how good a story may be, how developed a world is, or how pretty a game looks, none of it would amount to much if it’s not fun to play.

 

Winner: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

I’m going to be honest, this was a toss-up between Uncharted 4 and Dark Souls III. As much as I love the gameplay in Dark Souls, however, Dark Souls III carried on the polish that was introduced to the series with BloodBorne a year prior, while I feel Uncharted 4 marked a significant improvement to the (admittedly already solid) gameplay to the Uncharted series, which had been dormant for nearly five years when Uncharted 4 arrived.

With such extravagant action set pieces, Uncharted 4 brings a terrific level of variety to the the series, and fine-tunes the more unfortunate aspects of its predecessors (enemies no longer absorb bullets like sponges, and the gameplay itself feels more polished). Because of its perfecting of a tried-and-true formula, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End had to take the cake.

Runner-up: Dark Souls 3

Video Game Awards 2017: Best Visuals

My 2017 Video Game Awards (celebrating the best in gaming of 2016) carry on! Visuals are most likely the first thing you notice about a video game, and are certainly the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about how far video games have come over the years. In 2016, video games reached new visual heights, but only one game could stand tall above the rest.

 

Winner: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Uncharted 4

When discussing great video game visuals, there are two different ways to look at things: those that are more realistic, and those that have inspired art directions. While usually I’m more partial to the latter category, as it’s definitely the more timeless of the two, this year I have to give it to a more ‘realistic’ title, because Uncharted 4 simply looks that good.

Not only do the people look realistic in Uncharted 4, but they move realistically, and their facial expressions are believable as well, two areas which even the most shiny games usually stumble.

But then we have the environments. Good heavens, is the scenery of Uncharted 4 gorgeous! The stunning water effects, the beautiful landscapes of Madagascar, and the dark and dreary pirate coves. Uncharted 4 is one of the rare games where I sometimes just stand still to take in all the visual beauty.

Uncharted 4 isn’t merely the most “realistic” looking game I’ve ever played, it’s also one of the most beautiful.

Runner-up: Paper Mario: Color Splash

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 3: Drake’s Deception Review

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

Uncharted 3

Video games have a much better track record in regards to sequels than most mediums, though threequels can still be a bit of a mixed bag. In the video game world, the second entry of a series usually learns from its predecessor’s missteps, rectifies them, and expands on the merits of the original. The third entry can either enhance a series even further and bring it to new heights, or be the point where things start feeling a bit repetitious. Naughty Dog’s 2011 title, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, falls somewhere in between. It’s a stellar experience that lives up to the heights of Uncharted 2 in many ways, but still suffers from some of the shortcomings of being third in line.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted 3 is pretty much identical to Uncharted 2. Nathan Drake still wields two weapons at a time (a pistol and a larger weapon) to partake in third-person shooting action, while combining that run-and-gun nature with platforming and Indiana Jones style puzzle solving. There have been some small additions to the experience, with a notably greater emphasis on melee combat (this title introduces “Brute” enemies, that can be fought in bouts similar to the recurring fights Indiana Jones had against big men). But overall the gameplay remains largely the same.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since Uncharted 2 is a tremendously fun game, and that same sense of fun carries over to Nathan Drake’s third outing.

This time, Nathan Drake, Victor Sullivan, Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer are on a quest to find the lost city of Iram of the Pillars. Naturally, an evil organization, lead by Katherine Marlowe – a former acquaintance of Drake and Sully – is also trying to find this lost city.

The good thing about the plot is that it’s a lot more character-driven this time around, with a particular emphasis on the relationship between Drake and Sully (perhaps as a means to rectify Sully’s questionably limited role in the second game). The story takes a number of cues to Lawrence of Arabia, but might also need to cite Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as an equal in inspiration. There are even segments that see players in the role of a young Nathan Drake in a way not dissimilar to how Last Crusade gave us a glimpse of Indiana Jones’ earliest adventure.

On the downside, the very setup of finding a lost city, and the way it plays out, almost mirrors the plot of the second game. They more or less just dropped the snowy mountains in favor of the deserts of the Middle-East (personally, I find the snowy setting to be both more unique and aesthetically pleasing). Additionally, the main plot takes a detour midway through, with a few chapters serving as little more than padding (albeit one of the game’s finest set pieces is included among them).

Uncharted 3Where Uncharted 3 shines brightest is in the action itself. There are a number of instances where the set pieces and action scenarios of Uncharted 3 match those of the second game. The adventure opens with an extensive bar fight. Later in the game Drake has to escape a burning building, run from countless deadly spiders, jump from horse to truck and back again in yet another nod to Last Crusade, and in one of the game’s best moments (the aforementioned one that takes place during the dip in the plot), Nathan Drake must navigate his way out of a sinking cruise ship, with the overturned ship changing up the platforming of the series in inventive ways.

These set pieces are Uncharted 3’s greatest strength, but the title also benefits from its terrific implementation of the series’ overall mechanics for much of the game. Along with better utilized melee fights, many of the puzzles found in the game rank as the best and most clever in the series. The game even continues what Uncharted 2 accomplished with more compact and focused gunfight segments. At least it does all this until the last few chapters.

It’s a shame to admit that, although Uncharted 3 recreates the spectacle of the second entry, the last few chapters ensure that it never consistently captures the quality of its predecessor. Though the majority of the game is on equal footing with Uncharted 2, the last few chapters bafflingly resurrect the greatest misstep from the first Uncharted.

Like the first game, the final few segments feature overly-long gunfights against enemies that seemingly eat bullets, and once you’ve finally managed to finish them off, they are followed by reinforcements who do the same. The puzzles and set pieces all but disappear by the third act, and they are replaced by seemingly endless fights against armies of enemies that grow more and more repetitious.

Uncharted 3This means that Uncharted 3 ends on a more disappointing note than it begins. Coupled with the familiarity in gameplay and plot, and unfavorable comparisons to Uncharted 2 were bound to happen (and they still do today). But don’t think that Uncharted 3 is a failure by any means. Its predecessor is simply a landmark title. One that Uncharted 3 couldn’t quite live up to. But by its own merits it’s still a pretty remarkable game.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a great game filled with fantastic action and fun gameplay that lives up to the series’ reputation, as well as that of its inspiration, Indiana Jones. The visuals are terrific, the music is appropriately epic, and much of the game displays a great sense of variety. It’s a thrilling experience.

The problem is that it fails to improve upon its predecessor. Instead it simply goes through the same motions, but throwing different obstacles in Nathan Drake’s way. And by the end, the game’s genius devolves into something of a monotony.

A great game under most criteria, but perhaps not quite the spectacle that Uncharted 2 is.

 

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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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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review

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

Uncharted

When it was released on the Playstation 3 back in 2007, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune brought a newfound success for Developer Naughty Dog, who became something of the Playstation brand’s premiere first-party from that point on. Though its sequels are more revered, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune remains a fun and exhilarating experience even nine years later.

Drake’s Fortune marked the debut of the Uncharted series and its now-iconic protagonist Nathan Drake. It tells the story of the treasure of El Dorado, and Drake’s quest to retrieve it, aided by his friend and partner Victor “Sully” Sullivan and journalist Elena Fisher. But they are pursued by rival treasure hunter Gabriel Roman, and his bands of pirates and mercenaries.

It’s a really simple plot, one that would feel right at home in an action-adventure film. It is also a very fitting plot, since Uncharted draws heavy inspiration from the likes of Indiana Jones, and even manages to replicate the kind of action scenarios found in Dr. Jones’ adventures for the video game medium.

The action is a combination of third-person shooters and platforming, with Nathan Drake able to carry two weapons at a time (a pistol and a larger gun) and use fisticuffs to take out enemies, as well as jumping, climbing and swinging across obstacles to make it through the environments. There are also puzzle elements thrown into the mix, which really add to the game’s Indiana Jones approach in crucial moments.

UnchartedNathan Drake mostly controls well, with the gameplay being pretty easy to learn. Some of the climbing can become a bit tedious, since the player has to keep jumping from various ledges and conveniently protruding rocks, which can feel a little awkward at times. And while the simplicity of the combat can be fun, many of the game’s later combat sections feel overly long and dragged out to the point of growing repetitious.

With that said, the core gameplay is really fun, and the aforementioned puzzles, as well as some exhilarating vehicle sections, help give the experience a good sense of variety. There are also some secret treasures that can be picked up, so completionists have a fun little detour to look forward to.

Uncharted also has a great presentation, with terrific visuals and an appropriately cinematic score that would feel right at home in a Summer blockbuster. Uncharted’s cinematic approach to presentation and narrative really make it feel like an Indiana Jones style adventure film found its way into a video game.

UnchartedIt also helps that the game’s three main characters are very likable. Nathan Drake may not have the mystique of Indiana Jones, but he has an everyman personality about him that makes him a refreshing character amid the countless waves of angry, vengeance-seeking anti-heroes in video games. Sully regularly steals the show with fun quips and a great sense of humor. And Elena feels like a more capable female sidekick than those that usually accompany action heroes (she still finds herself in need of saving from time to time, but she’s given some good moments to help out on the action, so she doesn’t come off as totally helpless).

All in all, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune remains an incredibly fun gaming experience. It has its flaws, and its sequels are obvious improvements, but the simple and fun characters, exciting gameplay, fantastic presentation and extravagant action set pieces made it a fitting start for one of Playstation’s most revered franchises.

Considering that there’s never been an Indiana Jones game that properly recreated the excitement of the movie series, one could say that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was the Indiana Jones game we all dreamed of.

 

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