moral

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Review — Thief’s Real End

by Jed Pressgrove

For the first few hours of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it seemed the amoral Uncharted franchise turned to spiritual inquiry, aligning itself with the most profound aspect of the original Indiana Jones movie trilogy. By game’s end, the script rejected its own promise; protagonist Nathan Drake’s deception and immaturity were, again, sentimentalized. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy does the opposite with Chloe Frazer’s character, though from a more secular angle. For half of the game or so, the proceedings seem to be Uncharted by the numbers, with Chloe following the lead of Nathan as a “selfish dickhead,” to quote Chloe’s reluctant partner Nadine Ross. But before and after the climactic train-based action sequence, Chloe gives up her thieving instincts and injects moral conscience into the story, proving that you need goodness, not just a gender switch, to save a lost series.

There is a hint of Chloe’s better humanity in her first scene in The Lost Legacy. Before enacting the initial steps of a profit scheme to locate and steal the storied tusk of the Hindu deity Ganesh, Chloe interacts with a little girl running a store in a marketplace in India. Not content with a single transaction, the child keeps thinking of ways to extend time with Chloe. Chloe humors the kid as much as she can, and eventually the girl’s stubborn desire to befriend Chloe leads her into potential danger. No harm comes to the girl, but Chloe, forgetting her egotistical mission, is visibly concerned about what could have happened.

From there, Chloe teams up with ex-mercenary Nadine, who has no interest in doing business with two-faced people. Nadine’s frustration with Chloe’s half-truths comes to a head when Nadine learns Chloe’s been working with Nathan Drake’s brother Sam the entire time. After a period of separation, the common threat of death at the hands of an insurgent group led by Asad, who wishes to find and trade the invaluable tusk of Ganesh for a bomb, brings Chloe and Nadine back together. Riding a young elephant the duo saved, Nadine drops the “selfish dickhead” label on Chloe, who, in accepting Nadine’s usage of the male-evoking insult, starts to realize her lying ways hurt any chance of sisterhood she has.

The two, along with Sam (who, in his quips, is almost endearingly true to the douchebag legacy of the Drakes), manage to attain the tusk — but not before Asad has already traded the relic for an explosive that he intends to detonate in the middle of a city to ramp up the revolution he believes is just. Chloe feels an urge to do something when she learns about Asad’s plan, while Nadine and Sam both point out that the political conflict isn’t hers, that she accomplished her mission and can now benefit from the sale of the tusk. It’s a dilemma with the weight of a pop franchise behind it, as Nadine and Sam represent the questionable but alluring status quo of the entire Uncharted series.

But Chloe doesn’t ignore her new moral compass, saying “This isn’t our fight; it’s my fight.” What follows is something you might see in any Uncharted game — an extended scene of vehicle chases, gunfire, explosions, and other near-death experiences — but, finally, with humane conviction behind it. In this climax, The Lost Legacy becomes the game Uncharted should have been from the beginning, notwithstanding a reliance on tired action tropes.

The coda that interrupts the end credits confirms Chloe’s legacy isn’t shallow. As Chloe, Nadine, and the Indian girl from the beginning of the game eat pizza to M.I.A.’s “Borders,” Sam tries to appeal to Chloe’s former greed, explaining that a plan to give the tusk to a ministry of culture isn’t necessary. The child puts Sam in his place: “Don’t ruin the moment.” As her appearances in previous Uncharted games demonstrate, Chloe’s surface strength lies in both her ability to match the ambition of men and her sexiness (the sweaty strands of hair that stick to her neck and face through most of The Lost Legacy more than prove the latter). But more significantly, this latest (last?) sequel proclaims she can be a good person and influence, and for that to show up in the fifth entry of a modern big-budget action game is, well, damn-near miraculous.

Traitor Gives Meaning to Shootin’ ‘Em Up

by Jed Pressgrove

The second mission brief in Traitor says “You [the protagonist] don’t really care about the absurd complexities of politics.” With this phrase, developer Jonas Kyratzes sums up the appeal behind most, if not all, great shoot ’em ups — the cathartic simplicity of shooting away without responsibility or consequence, particularly when ammo is limitless (an ammo problem, typical in more “realistic” shooters, stalls catharsis). Kyratzes’ phrase can also apply to how game criticism operates: the innovation of Traitor, released two years ago, has largely been met with critical silence.

Traitor challenges the shoot ’em up tradition without completely overturning it. Through well-written text that I wish was the standard in video game scripts, the game weaves a conflict of interests between the protagonist and the standard shoot ’em up decree. The moral conflict either compels you to stop pressing the fire button or comments on the precious life that you choose to extinguish. This moment of the game is stunning in its originality. The hesitation it can inspire is unlike anything one normally experiences in the excitement of shoot ’em ups.

After this conflict, Traitor returns to the “shoot everything” roots of the shoot ’em up, though modernity is present in the upgrade and reputation systems. Traitor feels like a scrolling Space Invaders with RPG elements. The use of “HP” alone suggests the RPG connection; the exploration confirms it. Even the outstanding soundtrack by Chris Davis seems to have more in common with the majesty of 1990s Final Fantasy themes as opposed to the blood-pumping tracks from vertical shooter classics like Soldier Blade.

The shooting is about as simple as it gets, which doesn’t necessarily mesh well with the upgrading as far as challenge is concerned. After saving up credits, it’s possible to upgrade enough so that the missions are a breeze. Some later missions may catch you off-guard, but the most frustrating parts of the game are sections where enemies or obstacles block your way and your weapon isn’t upgraded enough to destroy them before the scrolling screen essentially kills you. I also wish the bosses were more challenging — even the final boss was a pushover, as it cannot travel the horizontal length of the screen.

Kyratzes’ storytelling overcomes these gameplay limitations for the most part. Each mission is preceded by concise dialogue (some of which is quite witty) from faceless characters who represent downtrodden and alienated peoples. This dialogue builds political purpose (at the risk of oversimplification: Marxists in space). Even buying upgrades can become more about helping others, in clear contrast to the upgrade screens in Fantasy Zone and Lords of Thunder. The story also goes beyond text. While Traitor’s visuals represent an old-school style, they create a distinct and mysterious galaxy. I often wondered about how a particular enemy design came into existence.

If it were a “AAA” release or heavily marketed indie title, Traitor would give big game critics (who fainted over Luftrausers) something to talk about. Traitor is another rebel unrecognized by the gaming empire, but a historical perspective suggests that it is an important shoot ’em up that can be improved. In its flaws and strengths, Traitor points toward the hope of greater games.