Mighty No. 9 Review — A Dashing Idea

by Jed Pressgrove

Conceptualized by Mega Man artist/producer Keiji Inafune, Mighty No. 9 does what Mega Man and countless other home-console platformers have failed to do: marry the motivation to complete all levels with the urge to achieve a high score. More than enough satisfaction can be had by beating Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, or Ninja Gaiden, and if you are going to do anything more, speed runs and finding secrets tend to be more attractive than engaging with these games’ scoring systems. Not so in Mighty No. 9, where trying to create an endless combo (and add to your high score) gives you bonuses to help you through lengthy but imaginative levels, such as a military base in which you must climb on and dodge boxes that fall off various conveyor belts.

Ingeniously, Mighty No. 9 ties its high-score focus to the dash, a descendant of Mega Man 3’s evasive slide that did away with the stricter trail-and-error positioning of the first two entries. To start a combo in Mighty No. 9, you must first shoot an enemy enough to stun it (different foes take different numbers of shots for stunning), then you must absorb the enemy by dashing into or near it, whether in midair or on the ground. However, you must use the dash quickly after the stun, or the absorption won’t register as part of a chain and will end the combo. Thankfully, if you recognize your dash will be too late, you can keep a combo going by avoiding the stunned enemy altogether or blasting it until it disappears.

In addition to stretching out combos, absorbing enemies grants power-ups, such as increased speed and health tanks that can be consumed during a level. One of these effects, stronger firepower, brings a dilemma. This power-up stuns enemies faster, which can be a blessing when your health is low, but it also makes your shots pass through multiple characters, meaning that you might accidentally stun an enemy that is too far away for combo linkage. Because of these situations, you sometimes have to play counterintuitively to get the best combo and high score, such as waiting until multiple enemies separate enough so that you can jump between them and fire only toward those you can absorb fast enough.

The goal of a long combo doesn’t just inspire otherwise illogical behavior, though; it also encourages stunts with the protagonist’s flexible dash. For example, you can stun an enemy floating high above a death pit by jumping in the air and shooting them once, then, while in midair, you can transition into a dash after the shot to absorb the enemy, and then, instead of falling to your death, perform another dash (or multiple dashes) to reach a ledge. Because you only fall slightly between midair dashes, you can skip portions of levels by doing the move over and over, but certain levels, such as the brilliant White House-like setting that involves tracking down a propaganda-spewing sniper, can punish you for spamming the dash and not paying attention to how it can throw you into enemy fire or an instant-death trap.

The dash even has an unusual role in boss fights. Each boss has a health bar that is split into segments. You decrease a segment by shooting the boss, then you must try absorbing the boss to permanently erase that segment of health (and potentially continue a combo). If you don’t do this within a certain period, the boss will regenerate the entire segment. This rule forces you to consider ahead of time how you and the boss will be positioned as you fire away.

While Mighty No. 9 has very noticeable flaws like weak-looking explosions, some terrible voice acting, and a rambling story, its fascinating take on the combo and dash makes it the most underrated Mega Man game (in spirit). Popular commentary has failed to recognize the ingenuity because too many critics and fans are obsessed with prerelease hype and gossip. Just ignore the Kickstarter groupies. It’s actually fitting this game released within a year of Mega Man Legacy Collection: the series’ legacy would be greater if it showcased more daring, well-executed tweaks on the formula like Mighty No. 9.

Firewatch Review — Cynicism Simulator

by Jed Pressgrove

In applying the “walking simulator” label, the gaming press and gamers miss what Firewatch is (a mystery/drama) and what action it emphasizes (hiking and conversing). If you wanted to be just as clueless as those labelers, you could call Firewatch a “hiking simulator,” as such a marketing term would overlook that the game barely tries to simulate what it feels like to traverse the wild. But the biggest failure of Firewatch involves its soap-opera view of humanity’s interaction with the natural world, a continuation of the facile darkness that creators Jade Rodkin and Sean Vanaman pimped out in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

You walk and talk as Henry, a middle-aged man who takes a job as a fire lookout in a national forest to escape the difficulty of dealing with his wife, who has developed early-onset dementia. You take orders from and report to supervisor Delilah, who also expresses a sad jadedness about the toughness of real life. As natural as the voice-acted dialogue can be between Henry and Delilah (especially when they trade sarcastic remarks), their eventual romance is hard to buy for the simple reason that you never see the two together. This limitation seems irrelevant, though, when you consider the dreaded purpose of Firewatch: dragging the player into a fatuous underbelly.

The story seems petty early on when Delilah, with little evidence of professional insight in her direction, tells Henry to chase off a couple of belligerent teenagers. He attempts to give orders to the teens, they run away, and on a later day, Delilah reveals the teenagers are missing. Later, Henry finds evidence that someone, maybe multiple people, is spying on him and Delilah and recording their conversations. Preposterously, all these weird details become tied to a former fire lookout who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the Vietnam War. With this relevation, it’s clear Rodkin, Vanaman, and the rest of the story/direction crew seek to dumb down an important history of human struggle for the sake of character reflection, but only a cynic would think Henry has to be scared by such an exaggeration to consider the responsibility of being a husband.

Although Firewatch has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock more than once, no Hitchcock film ever moved as slow, but that’s by design. Developer Campo Santo intends an illusion of exploring nature the old-fashioned way, requiring you to hold up a compass and map rather than view a convenient map screen. Yet you’re confined to particular preset paths and will run into many invisible, illogical walls if you venture too much. The forest is thus unconvincing, and it’s almost a joke when a character uses the word “hike.” This detachment from sincere feeling and experience receives its trashiest expression with the disposable camera, which the developers want you to use so that you can sentimentalize their depiction of nature rather than understand why people get sentimental about nature. Firewatch may not have any zombies like The Walking Dead, but that only means it’s a more subtle version of a mindless doomsday vision when the big fire takes over the pretty sights at the end.

Assault Android Cactus Review — Emotional Arenas

by Jed Pressgrove

The arena fights in the new Doom are often preceded by an opportunity for preparation and scouting, decreasing the chances of the combat intimidating you. Outside of a tutorial stage, you will not find similar complacency in Assault Android Cactus. The hundreds upon hundreds of enemies for each arena fight in Assault Android Cactus, along with the need to recharge one’s battery in order to survive, bring greater pressure than what you will experience in Doom, and with that comes greater elation when you finally obliterate the opposing forces and hear that dizzying melody that kicks off the stage-clear theme.

You would be hard-pressed to name a better twin-stick shooter than Assault Android Cactus. Developer Witch Beam channels the oddball joy of classic works by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy) and, more importantly, establishes a compelling set of rules to assist and concern players during the mayhem-filled fights. Each character has a primary standard weapon and a secondary power weapon that has to recharge after each use. In most cases with the latter, the character will perform a dodge before and after the shot is fired — a quirky update on 1942’s innovation in bullet evasion. The majority of the characters have the firepower (e.g., seeker missiles, shotgun, etc.) that you would associate with a “shooter protagonist.” But a couple of the heroes fall well outside of such expectations, such as the woman whose primary weapon is a boomerang and whose secondary weapon is a black hole, creating what feels like an iconoclast’s take on the twin-stick shooter framework.

Assault Android Cactus is also a race against time. Each protagonist is powered by a battery that decreases over the course of battle; taking hits from enemies depletes the battery as well. The trick is killing enough enemies to attain a battery power-up before time runs out. You can gain boosts to speed and firepower and paralyze enemies via other power-ups, but such effects must take a backseat in moments during which your battery meter is flashing red in a crowded arena. The new Doom does not have anything like the suspense of the battery, instead encouraging players to engage in “Glory Kills,” which drop health and ammo for you. In Assault Android Cactus, none of your kills carry any sort of pretense of pride like Glory Kills, yet carrying out a streak of 150 consecutive kills is far more pleasurable, not to mention more eye-catching and varied, than Doom’s  mini cutscenes of enemy destruction.

The arena design in Assault Android Cactus exposes most levels in twin-stick shooters as lazy and boring. In some cases, it’s not even accurate to call the battlegrounds “arenas.” In one level, you move through corridors as enemies try to push you back. In another level, the floor and walls collapse and come into place based on where you move. Even when a level is more like an arena, there can still be strange things to account for, such as a deadly laser that routinely sweeps through the entire level, forcing you to hide behind crates or enemies at the right time.

Given this constant intensity, it’s not shocking when you go through Assault Android Cactus’ final boss, which involves enough transformations to rival the concluding multi-stage battle in Treasure’s Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. But truth be told, no action game has ever so surprisingly registered as pure camp as Assault Android Cactus. When your battery runs out, you hear an auto-tune voice woefully sing, “I’m just another android, and my battery’s running low.” The synths of this tune recall the ominous keys of A Clockwork Orange, bringing an undeniable gravity to what would otherwise be interpreted as an easy joke. After the entire song, after you hear the android singer proclaim “can’t feel my feelings,” the tone is more sensitive than humorous, more resonant than smart-assed. It’s difficult to imagine bolder expression upon defeat in a well-tread shooter subgenre.

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Review — Stupid Letters

by Jed Pressgrove

In no way does Dear Esther’s mixture of first-person movement, voice-overs, and music justify the new arrogant subtitle “Landmark Edition.” Now available on PS4 and Xbox One, this game is more of a poorly written road map on how to convey emotion in a story of a man who writes letters to his dead wife. As you listen to the widow (played by Nigel Carrington) read his ostentatious thoughts, you might wonder whether Dear Esther intends to represent that most irritating type of academic, the one who can’t express himself in a concise, understandable, and honest manner.

In Dear Esther, you activate different readings by the protagonist based on where you walk on an island. While many gamers have sneered at Dear Esther’s lack of traditional video-game activities like solving puzzles, the problem here is not with intent but with execution. (This very point also eludes the game critics — some of whom probably identify with the snooze-worthy ramblings of the main character — who think Dear Esther is historically significant.) The majority of Carrington’s voice acting lacks passion and points to a person who likes stringing flowery words together. As such, it’s difficult to believe the character is even reading letters to his departed wife. This disconnect is more than noticeable when you consider Monica Taylor Horgan’s reading of a letter, from a dying wife to a troubled husband, at the conclusion of Silent Hill 2. The vulnerability of Horgan’s character comes with the delivery of the lines. Without a better actor, Dan Pinchbeck’s script in Dear Esther struggles to remain engaging on a basic level.

Sometimes the limited appeal of Dear Esther has less to do with the academic language and tone and more to do with how elements of the game fail to play off each other in a compelling way. Jessica Curry’s score, for example, can tug at superficial feelings with a simple piano riff and suggest something deeper with violins, but this effect often clashes, for no apparent reason, with Carrington’s emotional opaqueness. On more than one occasion, I thought Dear Esther was shameful for wasting Curry’s compositions on wannabe humanistic commentary, but on the other hand, at least there was one thing in the game that felt consistently human.

The game design can prevent one from comprehending the messages of the husband. Depending on the path you walk in Dear Esther, you might activate voice-overs in an order that makes some musings indecipherable and thus meaninglessness to the story you are piecing together. This approach seems to suggest that developer The Chinese Room wants the player to go through Dear Esther more than once to get a proper understanding of the story. Replaying Dear Esther is far from an inspiring thought, as the pace of the character’s gait is slow.

Many have compared Dear Esther to Proteus, but the latter first-person game is full of life: you can inexplicably run up a hill, you can put animals in motion, and you experience the tones of the seasons before being lifted into the heavens, a suggestion of spiritual transcendence. Dear Esther merely revels in spiritual incoherence when you happen upon part of a dilapidated ship that looks like a cross or when you spot two books on the ground, one a religious text and the other a science book, with no comment from the protagonist. You will also see random white paintings and phrases, one of which alludes to the conversion of Saul from the Bible: “a light from heaven shone around him and he fell to the ground.” With these details, Dan Pinchbeck panders to the idea of being deep and spiritual, though he would probably not write a game called “Dear God” because, based on Dear Esther and the more recent Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, he is resigned to using the Lord’s name in vain.

Inside Review — Uncreative Nihilism

by Jed Pressgrove

Platforming is dead (that is, boring), or at least it appears that way for the majority of Inside as you guide a mysterious boy in danger. Like developer Playdead’s previous game Limbo, Inside is a side-scroller in which you solve puzzles, often through dying and retrying a section of a chapter. But whereas Limbo maintained interest with ideas like a parasite that forces you to move in a certain direction or a switch that causes the entire level to rotate, Inside too often sticks to tedious chores such as dragging items into position so you can jump to higher platforms and swimming away from an enemy who can kill you instantly. (Inside has nothing on Solomon’s Key, Lost Vikings, or One Fine Day.)

The best parts of Inside are the weirdest, such as when you have to lead about two dozen human-like experiments or when you are absorbed, in the last chapters, into a blob with human appendages. Outside of these experiences, director Arnt Jensen tries to coast on the morbidity he established in Limbo. One should question why, for the second game in a row, Jensen insists on allowing the camera to linger while the child protagonist meets his doom in any of the articulately constructed death sequences. This instance of repetition, as in the more uninspired platforming sections, seems to point to an easy business model rather than any personal or artistic motivation, in contrast to Edmund McMillen’s undeniable, controversial thematic purpose in The Binding of Isaac via Zelda-inspired dungeons. Inside’s child endangerment will equal automatic deep meaning for many critics and audiences.

Both Limbo and Inside emphasize the feeling of being trapped in a dark place, but the latter adds ambiguous science fiction. The game implies the boy you control is science gone wrong, and the aforementioned blob brings to mind the monstrosity in the final third of the anime film Akira. “Look at what humankind has done” is an intended moral reaction in Inside, but that doesn’t mean the story is even halfway done right.

Why let the boy be absorbed by the blob and have the creature die once escaping from “inside”? Jensen and company hammer you over the head with fatalism beforehand, only to offer the disappointment of pathetic death as freedom. Inside’s primary ending doesn’t have the conviction of the conclusion of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which illustrates what its protagonist represents in a culture and time and how his death reveals the misguided philosophy of a machine-like institution. Because you rarely have a sense of what’s going on within the boy, or within any of the human-like experiments, Inside’s primary ending suggests there is no meaning to struggle, that if you want to get out of the system, you might as well die because you are a shell. This inarticulate statement risks being seen as profound to an indie gaming scene prone to self-pitying, half-assed intellectualism.

Vogel’s Lack of Appreciation for Video Games and History

by Jed Pressgrove

For a large part of “No, Video Games Aren’t Art. We’re BETTER,” game designer Jeff Vogel struggles to describe video games in a way that doesn’t sound like a superficial, ahistorical commercial. His confused smugness comes in its purest form when he suggests “we game designers” naturally aim at something higher than art. Like many hype-spinning commentators, Vogel doesn’t appear at first to understand what makes video games different from each other, much less from similar interests.

According to Vogel, video games can achieve “transportation,” which he defines as better than art. He uses the new Doom game to illustrate this concept. In a reference to the comic Penny Arcade (which has some of the worst comedic timing of all time), Vogel is fine with calling Doom something as vacuous as “playable sugar.” Yet he moves away from what that phrase might imply, saying that he was “utterly transported” when he fought three bosses in Doom. He then cites a unique feeling of being “consumed” and “drained” after expending the effort to defeat the bosses.

Vogel’s claim seems to be that art can’t cause any of these feelings, but this notion is easily rejected. A movie can transport you to a different time and place, one might describe a pop song as “playable sugar,” and a rock show can consume and drain concertgoers. Even if we limit the discussion to video games, the first Doom did everything better than the new Doom, excluding weapon design. There is nothing unexpected about doing one arena fight after another in a Mars or Hell setting, but it’s in Vogel’s best interest as a self-important game designer to bullshit readers into thinking the new Doom does something historically significant with a few boss fights. Maybe Doom does accomplish something different, but Vogel can’t explain why with vague terms that are applicable to all types of art.

Ironically, in stating it’s “dumb” to feel proud after beating a boss, Vogel dismisses one of the more distinct things a video game like Doom might have going for it, at least in comparison to movies, songs, books, paintings, and other things that are often labeled art. The easiest way to understand popular appeal of video games is to think in terms of art, puzzles, and sports, with the third term leaving plenty of room for pride after defeating an opponent. But Vogel has already made up his mind that video games represent some kind of magic that has little relationship to anything before it. (One wonders if he would be able to consider that Michael Jordan is an artist who beat people on the basketball court.)

In arguing that the new Doom sets itself apart without showing how it’s different than previous first-person shooters, Vogel fails to acknowledge the history of the very form he praises as singular. Vogel’s flippancy toward serious evaluation of video games pops up several times after his non-analysis of Doom. He says “We offer Experience,” apparently trying his hand at mindless marketing talk. He also says if you are looking for “artistic accomplishment” and “creativity,” you should look at any “Best Games list from 2014 or 2015.” First of all, why should any reader automatically assume a list from a random game critic will identify artistic accomplishment or creativity? Second, why only from 2014 or 2015? The suggestion leaves room for the common misconception that games from previous decades don’t have aesthetics, expression, and messages–that they cannot be appreciated as art, that they are different from art. Later, Vogel says he likes games such as Gone Home, Her Story, and The Beginner’s Guide that borrow “storytelling techniques from obsolete art forms.” Nevermind what these techniques or art forms are. Nevermind whether Gone Home and company actually introduced these borrowed techniques to the video-game form. Vogel again prefers to condescend, not articulate.

Vogel’s take on The Last of Us, which appears in the middle of his post, fares better than what precedes it, if only because he becomes more specific. His main point follows: the “actual game part of” The Last of Us (the action, not the cutscenes) is what makes the game special, as it causes us to be momentarily tricked “into thinking we’re struggling for survival.” This theory aligns with Defender creator Eugene Jarvis’ idea that tapping into players’ “inner Neanderthal” keeps them coming back for more. Vogel excitedly talks about the power of the developer to create “addiction machines” and “compulsions.” It’s even hard to tell whether he is joking when he says, “I want to absorb you to the point where it threatens your marriage and your livelihood.” Vogel’s ideal game is one that transports you, i.e., makes you forget the real world and enter a new world, and turns you into an addict (an effect, I would point out, that many television shows and pop songs have on their audiences).

With this ideal, we see the true colors of Vogel’s misleading post. He claims he is arguing in favor of video games as a whole and as a unique form, when in fact he places more value on “gamey games” and scrambles to articulate how these types of games have no historical precedent. In doing so, Vogel denies the history of art, games, and sports. If you want to appreciate video games, it should go without saying that you have to honestly compare them to each other, whether they came out in 2015 or 1975, and to other things that compel, transport, consume, and addict audiences.

Kirby: Planet Robobot Review — Kirby’s Power Fantasy

by Jed Pressgrove

The power fantasy is often associated with dominance, especially the masculine sort. As such, people don’t tend to connect the puffy and pink Kirby to such a fantasy. But this year’s platformer Kirby: Planet Robobot has a suggestive, over-the-top reversal: the protagonist, while operating a mecha suit, literally screws into the final boss, eventually penetrating the enemy and passing all the way through.

This display of brute, phallic force from the cute hero rejects the misconception that the mecha-suit action in Planet Robobot is a gimmick. While it’s true many Kirby games have been easy and thus could be said to make one feel dominant, Planet Robobot has a graver tone, thanks to its two-legged machines that recall similar but briefer moments in Mega Man X and the urgency of the “Heart of Steel” theme (Hirokazu Ando’s soundtrack is one of the best of the year). Kirby’s Dream Land 2 already played with the notion of the hero becoming more powerful by attaching himself to different animals, but these occurrences, such as when Kirby rides inside a fish out of water, were sometimes more awkward than empowering.

With the mecha suit in Planet Robobot, you can destroy things that seem immovable, like the automobiles in the game’s second world, Resolution Road. Even though you can feel the weight of the suit, your mecha movement is quicker and more precise than the case of the power armor in Fallout 4. There is also a version of Kirby’s suit that allows you to cruise as an automobile and jump from plane to plane, supercharging the foreground-background dynamic that felt tacked on in Kirby Triple Deluxe.

In the concluding series of bosses of Planet Robobot, the power fantasy is subverted before the wild climax. The boss stage of the sixth world leans as you walk, producing disorientation that clashes with the killer efficiency you felt in previous levels. With Kirby looking up as you ride an elevator, the loss of his dominance is apparent (appropriately you can’t move Kirby during this sequence), as is his sense of awe at what he is about to face. You end up fighting a more intimidating version of the classic Kirby villain Meta Knight. (I destroyed him as cheaply and desperately as possible with the poison ability, staying high in the air and flinging life-draining chemicals to the floor.)

The next boss flips the power dynamic further. As $10,000 bills rain down, the battle evokes white-collar menace on par with the cigar-smoking Fat Cat, the great final enemy in Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. In a dialogue sequence, this Planet Robobot boss confirms his view of your subordination with racist language (“wild natives”). The very final boss form can actually swallow and spit you out; the camera follows you as you are swallowed to emphasize powerlessness and humiliation. All of this helps emphasize the game’s ultimate catharsis of screwing your foe to death, making Planet Robobot both an essential take on Kirby and a shining example of creativity in 2016’s big-budget game malaise.

A Note on the Lack of Game Bias Reviews

by Jed Pressgrove

You might have noticed that after my review of Doom at the beginning of June, Game Bias has been dead. This was not my intention. In the early summer, I tweeted that I would be working on reviews of Kirby: Planet Robobot and a couple of other games for Game Bias. The delay on these reviews has a very simple explanation: I lack both time and resources in 2016.

My divorce is the major reason. Economically, I’m not where I was the last couple of years when I was able to write articles for Game Bias regularly. I no longer have my own PC, and that has made writing difficult, as you can imagine. Although I plan on getting a PC as soon as I take care of other concerns, I can’t say when that will be. Until then, when I do get to a PC I can use, I’m usually writing reviews for Slant, not Game Bias. Slant provides me review copies of games, so that’s where my priority has to be. On top of that, there was also a significant death in my family recently, as well as signs of another divorce, and my day job has become much more demanding. All of these things have cut away at my opportunity and, hell, some of my motivation to write.

I debated on whether to write this entry at all. The reason I ended up doing it is that I appreciate everyone who reads my work a great deal, and I feel you deserve an explanation, even if you were never wondering.

I’ll end on some good news: my review of Kirby: Planet Robobot will be coming to Game Bias soon. I hope I can say the same for other pieces. As always, thank you for reading.

Doom (2016) Review — Fear No Evil

by Jed Pressgrove

The firefights in the new Doom have something to share: Hell has little suspense. Thanks to music cues, checkpoints, “Gore Nests,” and more, you almost always know when you’ll be fighting waves of demons, who continue to appear out of nowhere, but in an orderly fashion, as you kill off their kin. Doom, like the 1993 original, is faster than the overwhelming majority of first-person shooters, but the pace elicits superficial excitement rather than tension because you’re rarely caught off-guard and because ammo and health are plentiful.

Although this entry features expendable characters, irritating voice-overs, and too-easy satire about corporate marketing (“Weaponizing demons for a brighter tomorrow.”), the point hasn’t changed since the original Doom: kill demons on Mars and in Hell. With scenes dedicated to the silent protagonist’s brutish approach (such as when he forces a drone to give him a weapon upgrade), Doom is unapologetic and witty about its brawniness, making it more fun than the pretentious Dark Souls III. The shooter’s cause is also helped by developer id Software’s superior weapon design that includes two modifications that can be leveled up for almost every gun. Since you can switch between a gun’s normal and modified fire during battle, the strategic and kinetic possibilities are immense, surpassing the amount of styles enabled by power-up selection in the 1989 vertical shooter Blazing Lazers. The gun offerings in Doom also confirm the embarrassing lack of imagination in Wolfenstein: The New Order, another Bethesda-published title.

Doom’s tactical variety and breakneck pacing don’t make shooting the star of the game, though. The irony here is explained by a standardization of danger. As far as combat is concerned, you’re usually only threatened when you enter one of the game’s many arena fights, which are imposed by mission objectives and suddenly locked doors. In these arenas, there is often an object, such as a Gore Nest, that you have to interact with before a variety of demons pop out of thin air, so in these cases, you have the luxury of scanning the area for hideaways, power-ups, ammunition, and so on before the battle starts. After you initiate the fight, it’s best to attack the enemies as they enter the arena; their starting positions are projected by red energy patterns. Because enemies can materialize all around you, the “keep moving” principle largely guides success, as does performing melee finishers (“Glory Kills”) on stunned enemies for health pickups and using your chainsaw on enemies to replenish ammo. With some practice (and you’ll get plenty of it), you can see the odds are stacked in your favor, and if you die, checkpoints ensure you won’t be far from the arena.

As such, this is the first time in the Doom series where you can operate with negligible fear. The less respected Doom 3 had fewer enemies on the screen at a time, but it produced more suspense because demons could come out of a hiding spot in any hall or any room. You could justify the new Doom’s arena repetition by saying it’s adopting a different paradigm, but the result is not as exciting as Masanobu Endō’s 1982 classic Xevious, which combined predictable enemy entrances with some random variations in enemy type and attack style.

The inclusion of Glory Kills in Doom says a lot about id Software’s decreased emphasis on unpredictable horror. When you perform a Glory Kill, the game temporarily takes control away from you so that you can watch the protagonist’s armored hands and feet rip and pulverize different parts of enemies. Even though these finishing moves vary according to enemy type and player position (e.g., you get a different finish if you’re behind an enemy), you see them so many times that they become like ordering a Classic Single vs. a Classic Double at Wendy’s. From a practical standpoint, the Glory Kills can give you much needed health in a pinch. At the same time, the imagery of Glory Kills — hell, the very name — evokes this illusion of masculine invincibility that is in line with many pop action games and is another reminder that some developers can’t leave the blood pornography of the 1990s behind. The violence in the original Doom was more about complementing atmosphere, tone, and theme rather than showmanship (as in the gore of Mortal Kombat). The new Doom rejects this significant historical distinction.

The best part of this Doom has nothing to do with violence. As critic Patrick Lindsey once said about the original Doom, “The secret is that Doom is not actually about the shooting.” Here, Lindsey pointed to the lack of precision aiming and emphasized the importance of movement. I want to borrow this point about movement but flip it away from the idea of putting oneself in the best position for killing enemies. The most interesting parts in the new Doom involve exploring every corner of a level for tucked-away items without falling to your death. When you fall, there is no Glory Kill or chainsaw kill or “Berserk” power-up to bail yourself out. When you fall far enough, you’re dead. That’s the tension that a title like “Doom” entails.

Uncharted 4 Review — Thief’s Glorification

by Jed Pressgrove

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is by far the best Uncharted game. That’s not a surprise since the series is largely mediocre, but this fact doesn’t take away from Uncharted 4’s almost-perfect opening chapters that change protagonist Nathan Drake from an opportunistic douchebag “related” to Sir Francis Drake to an individual beset by familial, spiritual, and instinctual pressures. This conflict, which appropriately references the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves, loses its potency and its point when directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann seem to go out of their way to recycle action concepts and arrive at a non-messy, amoral ending.

The previous Uncharted game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, attempted to draw the series closer to the mythology of the Indiana Jones films with its flashback of a young Nathan Drake getting a lesson in thievery from veteran Victor Sullivan (adult Nathan’s partner). This flashback resembles what a young Indiana Jones experienced in The Last Crusade when he got his fedora from an older, better man, but Uncharted 3’s secular lightheartedness and lack of family ties spoil the Indiana Jones comparison and show a specious understanding of juvenile development. Uncharted 4 corrects this mistake with flashbacks depicting young Nathan’s rejection of religion — the game’s best visual is when Nathan sits on a bed as a nun remonstrates him, the lighting on the boy bringing out the preciousness of his soul — and the influence of his big brother Sam.

The present-day journey in Uncharted 4 takes off when Nathan learns Sam, thought to be deceased for years, is alive and needs help finding treasure to pay off a crime lord. Due to guilt over the fact that he once left his brother for dead on an ill-advised quest for fortune, Nathan lies to and leaves his wife Elena to accompany his long-lost mentor sibling, but the script also implies Nathan is starved for violence. This yearning shows up in an earlier segment when Nathan, retired from adventuring, rolls around in his man cave and shoots targets with a toy gun, as if to combat withdrawal. When Nathan later lies to Elena again in order to buy more time to assist Sam, the shot of the wife on the phone dissolves into a shot of the Madagascar wilderness (where the brothers think they’re hot on the trail of treasure). This cinematic technique powerfully communicates screwed-up priorities: the thrill of danger first, family second. Sullivan, often a comic-relief character, even highlights Nathan’s dubious motivation: “I thought this was about saving Sam.”

The deeper you get into Uncharted 4, the less concerned it is about morality and the more determined it is to run the player through a gauntlet of unexciting or overused ideas. Ledges breaking. Tediously easy puzzles. Characters boosting each other up to places where ladders should be. Pushing boxes against walls so that you can reach a higher platform. Triggering mummy bombs. Uncharted 4 is another case where good editing seems off the table in the AAA business meeting that says quantity equals quality. The more responsive melee combat, greater emphasis on stealth, and addition of climbing tools are fine, but the more suspenseful and dynamic sequences, such as the clock-tower climb and the elevator gunfight, should have made up the majority of the game, as they could have given the action a consistently engaging identity.

Even the once-complex cast peters out. Elena does show up a couple of times to make Nathan question his intentions, but soon all the characters agree the suicidal mission should be completed. The earlier allusions to the penitent thief, who confessed his sin to a dying Christ, are forgotten. By the end, the greed and irresponsibility of Sam and Nathan result in everyone’s dreams coming true. The sentimentality is at its grossest in the epilogue, which showcases Nathan and Elena’s privileged daughter edging toward the same path of materialism disguised as adventurism. This unironic ending proves the subtitle “A Thief’s End” is bullshit.