Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

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The majority of the previous console generation focused on developing the concept of the “cinematic game,” attempting to communicate to the player a feeling of being in a movie. As console power has increased and game development theory has advanced the industry has moved more and more towards open worlds; even series that were once linear, like Metal Gear and The Witcher, have made the leap from movie-like storytelling to sprawling epic. It’s a shame, then, that Uncharted 4 has to exist, as it represents the pinnacle of the cinematic species. It’s not only a bittersweet farewell to one of the most beloved characters in gaming, but also to a dying breed of interactive storytelling.

With Uncharted 4 developer Naughty Dog has solidified its position as one of the most talented studios working today. Uncharted 4 is a meticulously crafted game, not only in the spectacular graphics (arguably the best on any console) but in the ingenious design that remains controlled and linear without ever seeming so. Playing Uncharted 4 often feels like an open world, as the environments use subconscious visual cues more subtle and ingenious than even Half-Life 2 to pull the player along invisible strings. Never before has a puppet-player been able to feel so free.

But while the player revels in false freedom, Nathan Drake himself, long-time protagonist of the Uncharted series, is feeling tied down. At the beginning of Uncharted 4 the wisecracking hero has managed to settle into some semblance of a normal life with his wife Elena. His most grand adventures consist of diving for sunken cargo crates and stamping papers late into the night. The years show on Nate’s face, and his nostalgia for his old escapades is masterfully woven in with the player’s own nostalgia for the series that started almost ten years ago (especially in one section where Nate reenacts his classic firefights with a dart gun and some targets). Though the initial hours are heavy on non-interactive cutscenes, Uncharted 4 mitigates boredom by both sprinkling in action-filled flashbacks as well as using crowded environmental storytelling to minimize any necessary exposition.

Nathan’s life is suddenly interrupted when Sam, Nate’s yet-unmentioned brother, seems to come back from the dead, and lures Nate back into another pulp-fiction adventure in hunt for the legendary treasure of pirate Captain Avery.

But Uncharted 4 makes it clear that, as much as Nathan craves his previous life, he’s truly a changed man without the appetite for the excitement. Without spoiling anything, Nathan’s motivations are a far cry from the glory and riches that drove him in previous titles.

The same can be said for the rest of the characters, who are flawlessly written and acted beyond the high bar of previous Uncharted games. They’re not only older and more quiet; they’re more human, and it’s clear that the lessons about creating companionship and meaningful relationships in games that Naughty Dog learned from The Last of Us is shining through. As exquisite as the action is, Uncharted 4’s real draw is its thorough exploration of its characters that plucks more heartstrings over the course of the 15 hour story than almost any other action game has been able to touch.

In fact the entirety of Uncharted 4 seems deliberately designed to match Nate’s struggle with the disillusionment of adventure. Combat encounters are far less frequent, and most can be approached by a simple yet effective stealth system instead of guns blazing. Though the snappy variety of firearms makes the loud approach more fun, the quiet route does a better job of reducing the ludonarrative dissonance that has plagued Uncharted for so long.

This creates some problems with level design in combat sections; sometimes in an attempt to work for both stealth and shooting enemy encounters get caught in an awkward middle ground between the two. But in general, the game has shifted focus away from moment-to-moment combat to focus on climbing, set-pieces, and emptier chapters that allows the game to show off its unbelievably detailed world and develop its characters through passive dialogue.

Everything that Uncharted 4 attempts is the best the series has ever accomplished. Naughty Dog has finally figured out how to create a decent melee system that perfectly captures the fisticuff-tussles of Indiana Jones, and has also successfully created legitimate boss fights-highly scripted hand-to-hand fight sequences that are far more flowing and satisfying than the bullet-sponges that Uncharted has used in the past. Though Uncharted 4 doesn’t have a “flagship” set piece like Uncharted 2’s train or Uncharted 3’s airplane, it still imparts its share of ludicrously over-the-top action. Nevertheless it’s a shame that the car chase sequence, likely the game’s best action scene, was given away at E3.

There’s infinitely more delve into here, from the addition of a jaw-snapping air punch to combat and to a rope that encourages a feeling of smooth freedom throughout both climbing and fighting, but suffice it to say, Naughty Dog has made a masterpiece. Uncharted 4 ends with a tidy sense of closure, and though the Uncharted series could make a return, Nathan Drake and his band of thieves definitely won’t. Nevertheless, it may be better for Uncharted to die here and stay dead, not only to avoid the overdone prequel/sequel trap that Gears of War and Mass Effect are dangerously close to falling into, but also to see what else Naughty Dog is capable of accomplishing. They’ve checked the box on the cinematic game; it’s time they move into uncharted territory.

Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst Review

 

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Mirror’s Edge Catalyst should have been a simpler game. It should have focused on what it does even better than its excellent predecessor. It should have cut down on the find-and-gather side missions that seem obligatory in open worlds. It should have gone with an entirely different story that does a better job of complementing its fascinating sci-fi future.

But it did not. Catalyst is so wrapped up in being bigger and better than the original Mirror’s Edge that it ends up only being bigger. That’s not inherently a bad thing; the first Mirror’s Edge was far too short to fully enjoy its refreshing, flowing parkour system. But Catalyst, at times, worries more about if you have something to do than whether or not what you’re doing works in its own context.

But I digress: Mirror’s Edge Catalyst takes place in the City of Glass, the capital of a futuristic nation overrun by a dystopian version of extreme capitalism. There is no government, only ruling corporations and the families that lead them. You play as Faith, a “runner” that acts as part of an illicit organized courier system across the rooftops of Glass. Catalyst thankfully wastes no time throwing you right into her bright-red running shoes and whisking you off to leap and climb across the tops of soaring skyscrapers.

In these simple moments of running from place to place, Catalyst is a magical experience. The Mirror’s Edge series remains the only legitimate example of good first-person platforming, and as you fall into the rhythm of jumps, slides, and wall-runs, Catalyst feels like playing water. It’s smooth, it’s crisp and easy and clear, and it is immensely satisfying. In a generation where design trends have moved further and further towards complicated three-dimensional movement, Catalyst carries on the original Mirror’s Edge’s mastery.

The core mechanics are strong enough to make Catalyst worth playing from beginning to end and then some, but Catalyst sets such a strong base that it becomes unable to proceed from its foundation. A few essential mechanics are locked within Catalyst’s simplistic and unexciting skill trees, but they become available within an hour or so. A rope that allows you to swing and grapple becomes available near the halfway point, but it can only be used at certain pre-designated points that are painfully rare throughout the world.

But just as Catalyst succeeds where the original succeeds, it also fails where the original fails. Thankfully there are no more awkward shooting mechanics, but instead,they’ve been replaced by a clunky martial arts system that feels at odds with the game’s emphasis on movement. Fights often fall into a pattern of kick, different kick, dodge, repeat until everyone is down, and ideas like knocking enemies into each other or off of ledges seem both silly and against Faith’s character (“I’m not an assassin!” she says at one point, but then proceeds to push dozens of policemen over railings to their doom). Catalyst tries to encourage you to use movement and the environment to your advantage, but this too quickly becomes cyclical. Enemies stupidly chase after you in your direct trail, which allows for a pattern of running in circles and leaping off of the same obstacles to score a downward kick before starting again to run away.

In fact every time Catalyst throws you into its parkour flow, it puts up a dam to block your way. Maybe it throws an enemy directly in your path that you have to fight or awkwardly push away to continue. Maybe it tempts you with one of the many collectibles that require you to come to a full stop to gather.

Not all diversions are so antithetical to Catalyst’s premise. Deliveries offer thrilling timed runs for modest EXP gain. GridNodes (which must be completed to unlock fast travel) offer interesting climbing challenges that require a large amount of vertical thinking. The rare side missions that the game offers usually succeed at introducing and testing some of Catalyst’s more obscure mechanics (like enemy alert levels and how to reduce them).

Missions themselves are usually a solid length and end before becoming tiring. They bring you on a tour of Catalyst’s gorgeous city, from underground tunnels to soaring sky-needles. Although low-quality textures can often make for a blocky horizon and rough detail, Catalyst’s minimalistic, vibrant color pallet and clean, modern architecture make it a visual joy. It’s a shame that the journey through such locales has next to nothing but a techno-babble story to tie it together. The campaign is barely coherent until almost three-quarters of the way through, and the game expects you to already know information and motivations that it won’t actually tell you until later on. The whole ordeal, the plot, the characters, the action, all feels written and acted by a group of rebellious teenagers. Only one personality, a hacker named “Plastic” ever succeeds at being entertaining. The rest of the cast, Faith included, either trudges along with no clear motivations or is dropped from the story entirely after just a few short hours.

All of this is baggage on what is at its core an improvement over its predecessor. Despite its apparent misunderstanding of itself, Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s core gameplay mechanics still pull through to make it a wildly fun, if deeply flawed, experience.

Infamous: Second Son Review

Infamous: Second Son is stuck with a concept too exciting for its own good. It aims to tell a more grounded, less unbelievably wild story than its predecessors, while at the same time imbuing the player with more wild powers than ever before. The amazing movesets bestowed upon you make you feel like a god whose aspirations and duties should be going far beyond the repetitive sidequests, short main campaign, and black-and-white karma system that that drags you down to the role of an explosive street detective. When it clicks, it clicks, and Second Son becomes the most fun Infamous game yet, but when it does work, it’s simply because flying around a gorgeous Seattle as a smoke/neon/video vigilante (or terrorist) is something that’s almost impossible to make boring. Second Son seems like it put all of its efforts into constructing a flawless recipe that developer Sucker Punch didn’t give enough time to cook.

You play as Delsin Rowe, a delinquent street artist who spends his days causing harmless mischief, much to the chagrin of his police officer brother. Delsin is a Native American, part of the fictional Akomish tribe, who graffitis his longhouse and routinely disappoints the elderly woman who raised him. The attempt at racial diversity by Sucker Punch is a valiant one, imbuing triple-A games with the rare non-White protagonist. Unfortunately, after the prologue, Delsin’s Native American heritage is all but forgotten about. You never visit the Akomish reservation again in the game (until the ending cutscene), and Delsin’s motivation, to gain the power necessary to heal members of his tribe injured by the villainous Augustine, quickly becomes forgotten.

The focus instead rapidly shifts to near-future Seattle’s unfortunate plight. After the ending of Infamous 2, the world became afraid of Conduits (people with super powers; think mutants from X-Men), and the government set up the Department of Unified Protection to systematically hunt them down and lock them up. Conduits, they say, are really a group of “bio-terrorists.” Seattle lives under the total control of the DUP, subjected to a military occupation under the guise of safety. Augustine, head of the DUP and ironically a “bio-terrorist” herself, rules with an iron fist, her monumental towers of concrete casting a shadow over the otherwise beautiful and sunny (the city is conspicuously devoid of rain) Seattle. Delsin only first discovers his Conduit power, to absorb the power of other Conduits, when a crashed DUP vehicle lets a smoke-wielding criminal free. The escapee, Henry, becomes the first of four conduits from which you will absorb your powers. Every one of the four becomes a significant, recurring character, but Second Son’s writing is so awkward and unflowing that only one character during the entire game, the Bronxite ex-drug addict Fetch, is at all believable.

Second Son’s story does almost nothing right. Augustine is generic, Delsin is unlikable, and Delsin’s brother seems pulled out of a late-night cop show. But Second Son is not a story oriented game. The campaign is over quickly (too quickly), and the game encourages you to explore the Seattle and systematically liberate each neighborhood from DUP control. You’ll want to see as much of Seattle as possible. Not only is it a gorgeous and culturally rich city in real life, it’s been meticulously recreated to capture the feel of the city to a higher degree than either Infamous or Infamous 2 was able to. Second Son’s Seattle is arguably one of the best looking open worlds in video games.

It’s a shame there’s so little to do. Side quests are painfully boring, usually requiring you to look for hidden cameras, look for hidden messages, look for hidden DUP agents, and…that’s about it. Seattle should’ve been a playground full of exciting opportunities to use your powers in creative ways. The only side missions that even require combat are the good or evil mini-missions, where you’ll either be beating up drug dealers or killing anti-conduit protesters. The most fun you’ll have outside of the campaign is assaulting the DUP mobile command centers in each neighborhood, mostly because they’re the only part of the game that provides a significant challenge.

That being said, every power you receive is incredibly fun to use and plays so differently each could be given its own game. However, after just a few upgrades, you become absolutely unstoppable. Few things in Second Son will provide any sort of real challenge, even on the highest difficulty.

So Infamous: Second Son, is nothing more than another one of those pervasive power-fantasies that dominates triple A development, but it reminds us why power fantasies are so popular in the first place. No matter how unbalanced the gameplay or how stiff the writing, nothing in Infamous: Second Son can put a serious dent in the fact that Second Son is just plain fun (having superpowers is having superpowers). Even something as simple as navigation is endlessly entertaining and completely satisfying. Every Infamous has had some sort of gliding, but in Second Son, the gliding is so lenient that you can basically fly. The freedom of leaping gracefully from rooftop to rooftop as you sail through the air is perfectly captured, as is the sadistic pleasure of landing a perfect headshot from a glowing beam emanating from your palm. This is a 6 year-old’s superhero dream, encapsulated.

Second Son has a few interesting ideas. Some side missions have you holding the controller like a spraypaint can to create street art. It’s at its best in the the free post-campaign DLC, “Paper Trail”, which integrates gameplay across PC and PS4. Paper Trail uses fake websites, interactive puzzles, fake news broadcasts, and even some real-life origami folding to create a PC experience that make you feel more like a detective than anything in gaming before, even if its PS4 missions contain no creativity or variety.

Infamous: Second Son is by no means a great game. In fact, it could be considered only slightly above mediocre. At the same time, Infamous: Second Son is a pure game, unconcerned with trying to engage the mind of the player and satisfying itself by being more raw fun than anything seen so far on this generation of consoles. As much as the gaming industry likes to talk about art, atmosphere, and serious storytelling, Second Son reminds us why we started playing games in the first place.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

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MGSV: The Phantom Pain is the best Playstation 2 game ever made. True, it came out barely two months ago and only for modern machines, but it has controls that are sufficiently complicated, trying to command too many actions onto too few buttons, so as to resemble in feel games of previous decade. This is not an insult. The Metal Gear games have always had odd, complex control schemes, and V is the best of the bunch. It puts more actions onto fewer buttons with more success than any PS2, I mean, err, Metal Gear, game has been able to accomplish.

But what am I doing, jumping right into a game by talking about the controls? No, I should start in a hospital, where, conveniently, the game starts as well. It throws you right into the hazy, first-person perspective of someone slowly waking up from a coma, tended to by a kindly, nearly photorealistic eastern European doctor. Of course it only remains peaceful for so long, before heavily armored soldiers bust in and start shooting, a hulking fiery Frankenstein starts to fling flame indiscriminately, and a mysterious man called Ishmael shows up to help you through it all (Ishmael really needs to tighten up his scrubs in the back). You learn the ropes piece-by-piece, as your body slowly awakens from the nine-year sleep it has been succumbed to. It is an ingenious hiding place for a contextual tutorial that not only acclimates the player to the odd feel of the controls, but introduces those unfamiliar with Metal Gear to the overall climate, the conspiracies, the bad guys (hint: they’re the ones shooting at you), and the strange supernatural twists. It is, hands down, the best introduction a videogame has ever had.

No game can possibly live up to such a strong start, and Phantom Pain is no exception. After its explosive inception it resorts to fairly standard Metal Gear gameplay. Both stealth and Rambo are valid approaches to almost every mission, but unlike most games that give you such a choice, MGSV gives you legitimate incentive to go the sneaky route. See, Mother Base, the home fort of your non-national military organization Diamond Dogs, was destroyed nine years ago. You have to rebuild it, and take revenge on the pale-skinned cowboy who caused the disaster. How to rebuild it? By attaching soldiers to…balloons.

The “fulton recovery device” mechanic is tonally inconsistent with the rest of this serious tale, but it’s an inspired design move. It allows you to capture soldiers (and later, equipment) that you come across during missions, and add them to your Diamond Dogs army to deploy, help you with research, etc. While it is silly to watch dazed soldiers whisked into the air via small black party decoration, and while it’s never explained just how they become convinced to loyally join your side, it encourages the player to play aggressively yet non-lethally. That elite soldier might be dangerous, but you don’t want him dead. You want him for yourself.

Undoubtedly, this objectifies the soldiers on the battlefield, turning them into stats and skills. This isn’t by itself a problem, because Phantom Pain already goes 90% farther into humanizing its enemies simply by giving each soldier a name, but it does diminish the impact of an otherwise harrowing late-game plot twist.

But over the course of about 40 or so core story mission, Phantom Pain packs in enough shocking turns to make up for this slight diminution in impact. True, a few “big” reveals will be lost on those who haven’t played (or simply don’t remember; it is from 2004) Metal Gear Solid 3, but in general Phantom Pain’s story accomplished something that no other game in the series has yet achieved: you can actually understand it.

Indeed, it is finally true. A Metal Gear game…that can actually be understood. Don’t get me wrong; the plot is still the complex mix of various conspiratorial organizations and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that has always been present, but it doles it out in such manageable portions that it never overwhelms. In fact, I didn’t start banging my head against the wall in confusion until what were literally the last few minutes of the game, something that I spent the entirety of MGS4 doing.

Where Phantom Pain’s story soares is in its characters. It never lives up to, say, The Witcher 3, but the incredible writing, voice acting, and facial capture lend humanity to both the black-horse scheming villain and the macho-man main character. This is especially true for Quiet, the controversial sniper who wears less clothing than a Victoria’s Secret model. Body language is, obviously, an essential part of her character (no, not because of her nakedness, but because she doesn’t talk), and underneath all that…nothing, there is a surprisingly deep character buried within her. It’s a pity she’s so shamelessly sexualized (there’s a story reason why she wears few clothes, but it’s a pathetic excuse), because had she actually been clothed, I would go as far to call her a “strong female character.”

Quiet is part of the buddy system, a new addition to the series that lets you take one of a four sidekicks (one of which is technically a vehicle) alongside you on missions. It’s a fantastic idea that adds an extra layer of depth and strategy to gameplay, but ultimately it’s terribly balanced. As soon as you get the ability to drop in vehicles, the horse loses all function. The walker is great for all-out attacks, but if you desire stealth, it serves no purpose. The dog (wolf, really) is useful for distractions and scouting, but almost anything the dog can do Quiet can do far better.

Quiet is incredibly overpowered. She can scout outposts and give you a near-complete map of enemy activity before ever nearing the base. She can wipe out entire battalions, both lethally and non-lethally, with almost no help from you. If you order her to start firing, enemies will immediately target her, conveniently turning all of their backs in the same direction and leaving themselves wide open for stealth-takedowns. She’s a good failsafe for if you get spotted, but she takes almost as much skill out of the game as does the “chicken hat”, Phantom Pain’s toggle-able version of an easy mode.

But these are minor gripes. The Phantom Pain only falls flat on its face in one area. Though I can hardly say the game is shallow; numerous essays have already been written concerning its symbolic and philosophical implications, Metal Gear Solid V handles the theme of child soldiers in a tangential way, lacking in depth or any real feeling of sensitivity. There are the occasional scenes where adult characters will offer some sweet, heroic, or sentimental gesture towards the abused children you encounter over the course of the game, but MGSV finds it sufficient to ultimately turn the children into just another type of enemy. Their storyline isn’t tragic; it’s cold and undeveloped. The only real “character” among the children hardly seems like a child at all, but is written and acted just like a shorter version of another soldier. Some may argue that that’s the point, to depict how war changes a child. But MGSV provides no solvency for this dilemma besides dramatized spankings (that sometimes involve limb dislocation) and suppressed revolutions.

This problem is ultimately derived from overextension. It’s been known for a while now that director Hideo Kojima didn’t actually get to finish the game anywhere near what he had wanted. Nevertheless, his style and direction remains as sharp and stylish as ever; he’s cut the half-hour cutscenes and replaced them with concise, expressive segments and numerous audio logs that flesh out the story more than his previous mini-movies ever could. Here you’ll find some of the best camerawork, framing, and lighting ever seen in a game; Kojima’s experiences working on Silent Hills clearly show through.

Whatever you think of Hideo Kojima’s personality (I personally think he’s a narcissistic creep), you cannot deny that he makes great videogames. This is his best yet; it represents the perfect combination of beautiful filmmaking and storytelling and fantastic situation-based gameplay that he’s always aimed for but never quite gotten ahold of. It stretches itself a bit too thin, but what remains is still an incredible whole experience full of unforgettable moments. With the time and money Kojima was expecting we may have easily gotten one of the best games of all time. Right now? We’ll simply have to settle with “incredible,” and dream about what might have been: the loss of Kojima’s final chapters will forever remain a phantom pain within gamers’ minds.

DMC: Devil May Cry Review

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DMC: Devil May Cry is devilishly stylish, angelically designed, and ridiculous in every sense of the word. It traps you in a warped world where gravity has no meaning and where soft drinks are manufactured by giant, ancient, pupae. Where security cameras become disembodied eyes, and where architecture bends and twists as if folded by an origami artist. And it is populated with every manner of broken-doll-faced, slashing, gnashing modernised demons within and outside of the realm of imagination. It feels like angst incarnate, and it is glorious.

Unfortunately, it’s set up on the back of a mediocre story that attempts, and fails, to deliver a strong message about the degree of control over our modern lives. A suave businessman demon named Mundus has conquered the world’s leaders through debt. He spies on humans through CCTV networks, controls their thoughts through the media, and keeps them docile on a diet of heavily-advertised sodas. When not farming human souls for the consumption of demonkind, he reclines with girlfriend/wife Lilith, a monstrous woman more artificially tucked and stretched than the mother from Brazil (the obvious metaphor for society’s emphasis on looks does not go unnoticed). The attempt at a morale is valiant, and relatively rare in gaming, but the story eventually falls back on good ol’ demon killing and an uninteresting terrorist group as its main crutch plot points. It’s not as if cautionary tales of establishment power are new or original; DMC just seems to be lazy in its attempts to highlight an already saturated theme.

The task of freeing humanity falls upon the half-angel half-demon Dante, a booze-infused and rock-skulled punk who spends his days “killing demons and getting laid”, as he puts it. He’s found by his brother, a computer genius named Virgil, and a young witch named Kat, who has the ability to see and create portals to the demonic realm of Limbo. The story remains fairly straightforward, with simple objectives about how to weaken and ultimately destroy Mundus providing context to an entirely linear story. The writing is excellent, sprinkled with witty and sarcastic one-liners from Dante. Yet the voice acting, which is rushed at best and dry at worst, turns an otherwise simple-but-engaging script into something hard to take seriously (or hard to take humorously, for that matter). It’s not terrible, but when such excellent lines are delivered to barely half of their potential, it can be hard not to wince.

That being said, Dante’s obnoxious yet likable nature helps to contribute to DMC’s overall sense of style. Every move is flashy, most of them literally so, and environments are some of the most dementedly beautiful seen in gaming. The world itself wants to kill you, and it makes this known. Huge neon letters flashing “Kill Dante” or “Destroy” will appear around arenas as a sort of cheerleader encouragement to the demons surrounding you. Floating bits and pieces emanate from buildings sometimes more twisted than those of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Everything is highlighted by a grinding soundtrack that alternates between intense techno and heavy (and I mean heavy) metal. One of the best levels puts this music at the forefront, surrounding the player with walls of digitized airwaves and silhouettes of nightclub goers and strippers. The gothic style of previous Devil May Cry titles has been trashed to make way for a bold, modern, rebellious aesthetic that overloads the senses and makes demon slaying feel genuinely “cool.”

The slaying itself occupies 90% of DMC’s core gameplay (outside of some simple yet satisfying platforming). Each of the five main weapons (plus the three different types of firearm) feels so distinct that skills learned with one cannot easily be translated to another. Two weapons are “angel,” fast, wide, and perfect for crowd control. Two others are “demon”, centralized, sluggish, and used to deliver high damage to small areas or individual enemies. The all-around default sword, aptly named “Rebellion,” serves as a simple compliment to its brighter, more specialized counterparts. Stringing together attacks into combinations is fluid and satisfying, especially because the game keeps track of points and letter-grades you in real-time. Beautiful combos are simple to pull off with responsive controls (even combos that involve quickly switching between weapons), and the constant blue-red-black-yellow hues of every battle make them a sight to behold. It’s too bad the upgrade tree becomes almost complete after just one playthrough. Seeking out new moves and improvements would’ve made for the perfect motivation to explore DMC’s wealth of modes, difficulty levels, and replayable content.

Everything tends to fall apart in the last few missions, as DMC’s sense of flippant action starts to diminish and we’re met with a final boss fight that feels more like a QTE than the cinematic, epic, and visually creative bosses that come before. But by that time, you’ll be on such a DMC-high that you won’t care if the last hour or so flounders. You’ve chopped, sliced, and clubbed your way through a beautiful world that knows exactly when to introduce a new enemy, and exactly when to introduce a new weapon. Maybe you didn’t get laid, but you sure as hell killed demons.

The Problem with Videogame Critiscism

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The Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself, was made available on Netflix earlier this month. I’d been reading so much of Ebert recently that I jumped for joy, and quickly sat down to watch it from beginning to end (although not all at once). Watching a film in sections usually diminishes its power, but by the end I was on the verge of tears. Not because the film’s conclusion is particularly sad (spoiler alert: Ebert dies), or because I felt sorry for him and his family, but because I knew that a great mind that had dedicated itself to improving entertainment had left this earth.

Then I looked around, not literally, but digitally, at the gaming websites and blogs that saturate my bookmarks bar, accompanied only by my email and Amazon.com. Considering the hours and hours of my life I spend reading and writing about games, I thought “will any game critic be remembered like Roger?” My favorite game critics jumped to mind. Danny O’Dwyer, Kevin VanOrd, Elle Gibson, to name a few. Their deep, entertaining, and insightful criticism rattles around in my head every time I read one of their reviews, and it seemed unjust that such talented writers would likely go forgotten by the media at large.

That is, until I looked up on Wikipedia a list of critics who’d won the Pulitzer prize. Looking down the list, I saw only one familiar name: Ebert himself. The rest were critics who write about, going down the list in order, architecture, music (then music again), television, art, film, dance, and literature. These aforementioned genres, the cornerstones of our culture, alternate wins for the criticism Pulitzer as if deliberately taking turns. The amazing critics who work in these amazing mediums absolutely deserve their awards, but it did bother me, ever so slightly, that videogame criticism, that is, criticism of a genre that makes far more money than all of those other genres combined, isn’t represented. By now, surely gaming can be considered a cornerstone of our culture as well? That thought immediately ceased as soon as I started reading the work of some of these winners, particularly of two recent winners, the art critics Philip Kennicott (winner in 2013) and Sebastian Smee (winner in 2011). The two are polar opposites, Kennicott using more eloquent language than a thesaurus entry, and Smee writing in short, simple words without complicated structure.

Nevertheless, both critics were insightful beyond comparison of anything present in videogames. Smee pointed out and analyzed the softness in the tones and the eyes of Bartolomé Estebán Murillo’s “Rosa of Viterbo”, and related it back to the influential painter’s childhood. Kennicott wrote a recent editorial about how the civil war still isn’t over, and used his knowledge of art as a tool to add increased depth to his analysis by relating it back to fine art culture. Demonstrating his versatility, Kennicott’s following article is a review of Icelandic pop star Bjork’s new MoMA exhibit. He calls it pretentious, but also explains why pretentiousness is not necessarily a bad thing, and how it may be necessary in today’s popular music scene.

As much as I respect O’Dwyer, VanOrd, and Gibson, these art critics are writing circles around them almost as much as O’Dwyer, VanOrd, and Gibson write circles around me. This cannot be because the game critics are inherently worse writers. When all three mentioned game critics are filled with passion, as VanOrd is whenever he reviews a From Software title, or as O’Dwyer is in almost every episode of his bi-weekly show “The Point”, they can communicate complex messages thoughtfully and simply (and Gibson is arguably better than Ebert when it comes to humor). It’s not for want of skill. It’s for want of a legitimate medium to apply it to.

Let’s face it. Videogames are not good. They have never been good. The number of games that could stand up as art when compared to the masters of every other genre is so small they can be counted on one hand. The games that we hold aloft as our saving graces, the titles we consider high art, only appear so when compared to the dirt that makes up the rest of our favorite way to spend our time. However, this is a reality we can’t afford to face. We can’t just go around saying “this game is terrible, that game is terrible” because, in their hearts, every critic loves whatever medium they choose to write about. It would destroy us to destroy our own genre so brutally, as we would have to do if we were to hold games to the same standards as other critics hold their genres. I cringed just recently when I saw VanOrd call Bloodborne a “religious parable” in an attempt to artistically heighten a well-designed game that primarily uses its religious symbolism to justify hitting things with swords. I, myself, am a complete victim of this trend, and I graciously accept the title of “hypocrite” for writing this opinion piece. Just a few days ago I wrote a raving review for Infamous: Second Son, a game that I know, deep down, is juvenile, pointless, clumsy, and downright bad art. But, as I said in my review, I had fun, so I heaped on the praise.

That was it. My entire review hinged on the fact that, although Second Son is bad, it was fun, and was therefore good. The same can be said of the game I’m playing now, the universally acclaimed Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag. It’s macho, disgustingly and needlessly violent, reliant on filler, but so much goddamn fun.

That’s where games have hit a terrible rut, one that we cannot seem to dig ourselves out of as an industry. We do not prioritize beauty or sincerity, as other art forms do. We prioritize fun, and our medium suffers for it (in 2014, the beautiful and tragic This War of Mine universally lost “Game of the Year” to titles about littering fantasy worlds with dead bodies). Other genres have been vessels for human expression almost since their inception. They originated as art, and they’ve stayed art. Similarly, videogames, as a whole, are the same as what they originated as: toys. And now that they have a few entries that look pretty and go deeper than just killing, they suddenly want to play artist with the big boys.

I’m not going to make so bold a statement that no videogames are art. Most definitely are, but none are art for the ages. None will be remembered as masterpieces 60 years down the road, much less stand the test of centuries. This is partly because videogames are so young. It’s also partly because, in their 40 years of existence, they’ve progressed far slower than they should have.

By this time, film had Gone with the Wind. By this time, television had The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. Neither of those genres had technical advances nearly as dramatic as videogames over their lifespans. Our versions of art, our explorations of beauty, the human condition, and the human psyche are there, but are only skimming the surface of what interactive entertainment can accomplish. They are, as a rule, weak in the overall scheme of art. Videogames right now are both shallow and callow.

And so game critics are stuck with the abysmal task of putting on a happy face and presenting to the world and to the games industry a veil of “all is well”, dishing out glowing reviews and “8/10’s!” like fun size chocolate bars on Halloween. If we were to truly become harsh, to hold our own medium to a higher standard, we would at the same time destroy it. We would demolish the slowly growing acceptance that the general art world has had toward games over the past decade. We would destroy the image of games in our own eyes. And, most importantly, faced with a horde of “6/10” and “4/10” games that are still ultimately fun experiences, we would obliterate the trust gamers have in critics, effectively eliminating any critical power to drive further change. Every once in a while, an article such as this arises, recognizing some enormous underlying problem in games that simply must change. But every time, the author goes straight back to the old standards, as I will likely do following this article, and as is necessary to keep game criticism afloat.

We’ve seen the disastrous effects harsh standards can have. Every time a score is significantly lower than the average, the de facto explanation is not “different opinion” but “bias and corruption.” Just recently, this led to the Gamergate scandal, where a Twitter feed dedicated to uprooting corruption in games journalism (based off of approximately, hang on, let me count, zero evidence) steadily devolved into a voice for a violent sexist minority of our gaming community.

There’s a man named Nick Capozzoli who writes reviews for Gamespot.com. His scores usually hover around the metacritic average, but his vocabulary would feel at home on a page in the New York Review of Books. One of his especially memorable reviews, for the game Ace Combat: Infinity, seemed to do everything right. Though big words were thrown about, it was hardly glib (a word I actually learned from Capozzoli). Capozzoli not only analyzed a rather shallow game on as deep a level as justly possible, he successfully related it back to history, videogames as a genre, and culture in general. All of his reviews do this, and yet in all of his reviews, and for Ace Combat: Infinity especially, a war is waged in the comments between those who admire his writing and those who accuse him of being a pretentious bigot.

Indeed, Capozzoli was making a mistake, one of the worst you can make in critiquing. He was not writing for his audience. Though his words are as fluent as any fine art critic, and his potential for analysis clearly as deep as any Pulitzer winner’s, his review failed to recognize that gamers, as a rule, have as shallow and callow an outlook towards their medium as the medium has towards itself. They can’t worry about, as Capozzoli describes it, gaming’s “dispassionate remove from warfare.” They’re too busy deciding what to buy so that they can spend an afternoon shooting stuff.

That is the harmful reality of videogames. Our genre lacks depth because the most passionate fans don’t ask for it. Games centered around fun should always have a place, but when they dominate gaming almost exclusively, critics must endorse the culture “fun” in order to maintain readership, maintain artistic influence, and convince themselves that they made the right choice for a genre to dedicate their talents to.

It is not corruption, nor is it dishonesty. It is gaming in the status quo, and, if it continues to move in the direction it’s going, it will change. But by the time it does, we may well be living in retirement homes. This is reality, and this is why a game critic will not even be considered for a Pulitzer for at least the next thirty years. In order to critique art, the subject of the criticism must already be a part of a larger artistic medium. Videogames can be just that, an overwhelmingly artistic medium, but until they evolve, critics are left playing with toys.