Category Archives: Better Late Than Never

Better Late Than Never: Journey

Journey-coverI’ve played Flow and Flower before – two of Thatgamecompany’s earlier games, both imbued with an ethereal feel and gameplay unlike anything I’d seen. More a meditative experience than traditional titles, they teeter on the fine line between art project and bona fide video game. Both were compelling in their own ways, but I didn’t feel the need to revisit them.

Journey, on the other hand, feels more like a regular video game, collectibles and all. Yet it still has an ethereal quality that marks it out as other – and stirs more emotions in its short timespan than most other games manage in tens of hours. Upon finishing, my first motivation was to start it all over again.

The simple gameplay is beautifully explained without the need for words of any kind (indeed, I was irritated by the regular appearance of ‘Saving’ in the top corner, a needless use of a word when the game otherwise does so elegantly without them). A mysterious mountain looms in the distance, and your simple task is to guide your berobed avatar towards it. That’s it. Holding down the X button will launch your avatar into the air, and you can fly for as long as the patterned symbols on your scarf remain lit. Certain collectibles make your scarf longer, and allow you to fly for longer. Holding down the O button elicits a sort of chant that can activate objects.

18971Bridges_2

The game mostly sees you hunting for objects to activate in order to unlock the path forward, and really there’s very little more to it. But it does an astounding job of creating a strong worldfeel, and of drawing out intense highs and lows of emotion. At one point you find yourself surfing down an enormous sand dune in the company of some playful fabric eel things, skimming through archways and leaping off rocks for the sheer fun of it, and it’s simply joyous. Later, you find yourself trapped in a scary underworld being hunted by monsters, and the feeling of menace and fear is palpable.

One of the chief ways in which the game draws out these emotions is through the sumptuous orchestral music – the original soundtrack is phenomenal, and was rightfully nominated for a Grammy award. The graphics are similarly stunning, and the sweeping use of colour – from the descent down the dunes in the golden sunset to the creepy blue caves of the underworld – really affects how you feel about the game.

I love the way it never explains itself, too. You’re left to make up your own mind about what the journey represents, and what the various things you encounter actually mean. It’s a refreshing change from tiresome cut-scene exposition, and all the better for it. I’m a big fan of leaving things unexplained – the world would be better off without midichlorians and better with far more films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

Journey-PS3-Screenshot

I was worried that because the game came out four years ago, I wouldn’t be able to experience one of its signature features – meeting other people who are playing at the same time, and wordlessly teaming up with them on your shared journey. However, I did manage to bump into a handful of other players, and it was fascinating to wonder what they were thinking. Was this their hundredth playthrough, or their first? Where were they in the real world? All I had to go on were their movements – was that straight line sprint for a collectible an indication that they were an old hand at this game? Did they play it every night, perhaps as some part of their daily routine?

Like reasoning through the mystery of the game itself, I loved the way I had to impose my own meaning on the actions of others. And although I perhaps wouldn’t go so far as to pronounce Journey as profound, it’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever played before.


Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?

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Better Late Than Never: Uncharted 2

uncharted-2-box1A few minutes into Uncharted 2, and it’s already apparent that it’s leagues ahead of the previous game, both in storytelling and finesse. After a meeting in a beach bar with some old associates, Nathan Drake finds himself persuaded to join a museum heist in Istanbul – an opener that immediately draws attention to the ‘Among Thieves’ subtitle. It’s a bold statement – Nathan is unequivocally a bad man, a man who thinks nothing of stealing for profit. Yet as the game goes on to show, he’s a somewhat less bad man than the other bad men and women who dog his every step. And later on he finds himself torn between the archetypal ‘bad girl’, who shares his thirst for adventure and questionable morals, and the ‘good girl’ who perhaps reflects his better side.

It’s a much more fulfilling plot than the mostly black and white storytelling of the first game, the latter being a much more basic set up in which bold adventurers journey in search of El Dorado. One of my favourite parts of Uncharted 2 is when the two rival women in Nathan’s life finally meet, which leads to some wonderfully sharp dialogue – a domestic crisis played out under gunfire and across a quest for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala.

The game's cold opening is brilliant.

The game’s cold opening is brilliant.

But it’s not just the story that makes this game stand out above its predecessor – the set pieces and locations are fantastic. The very start of the game sees Nathan clambering up the ruined carriage of a derailed train, which is hanging precariously off the side of a snowy mountain cliff for unknown reasons. We then cut to the beach bar scene, and realise that the derailed train is a flashforward to something that must happen much later on. As a cold opener (pun intended) it’s fantastic, and I like the way that it builds expectations for what’s to come. When the train section of the game does eventually arrive, it’s easily the stand-out part of the entire game, a pitched battle along the length of a train that winds its way through jungles and up into the Himalayas, all the more exciting because you know how it must turn out.

And it’s not the only memorable set piece – the scenes in war-torn Nepal are beautifully evocative and wonderfully drawn, and the Istanbul heist is brilliantly tense. Then there’s an exciting chase scene involving a seemingly unstoppable tank, as well as some eerily beautiful (and huge) ruined temples imbued with ancient machinery – even if these are defiantly copying a page torn out of the Tomb Raider textbook.

The Himalayan village provides some stunning views.

The Himalayan village provides some stunning views.

The controls are improved too, making gunfights much more enjoyable and less frustrating than in the original game. Yet gunfights still occur far too frequently for my taste, and Drake steadily mows down an absurd number of people for someone who is essentially a wise-cracking treasure hunter. His good-natured humour and murderous intent seem somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows.

The finale, too, rubbed me up the wrong way. The eventual denouement comes as something of a letdown, a tedious ring o’ roses with a bullet-sponge bad guy that’s more frustrating than exciting. It felt more like a need to fill a hole on a design spreadsheet that said ‘INSERT FINAL BOSS FIGHT HERE’, and it amazes me that video games still feel the need to throw in end-of-game bosses even if this doesn’t fit with the nature of the game. Bosses are a relic from eighties’ shoot ’em ups, yet they still get dragged in to all sorts of modern titles as a matter of course. I fondly remember how Banjo Kazooie subverted this trend by switching out the expected final boss fight for a quiz show. I’m not saying that there should have been a quiz at the end of Uncharted 2, but the point is that there are many ways of ending a game that don’t have to involve ploughing bullets into an overpowered boss.

It really is a stunning game that clearly pushes the PS3.

It really is a stunning game that clearly pushes the PS3.

When all’s said and done, Uncharted 2, like its predecessor, is a big dumb old adventure game that would never win an Oscar for its plot. But in terms of sheer fun and spectacle, it trumps the first Uncharted in every single way. And even if the characters feel a little cartoonish at times, I found myself caring about what happens to them – a seemingly simple requirement that many other, lesser games regularly fail to achieve.


Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?

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Better Late Than Never: Uncharted

99443-uncharted-drake-s-fortune-playstation-3-front-coverI finally got around to getting a PS3 in December 2013, and since then I’ve been gradually playing through some of the system’s exclusives. But with the recent release of Uncharted 4 on PS4, I thought it was high time for me to finally sample this series for myself. So I dutifully loaded up the first game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

I remember that when this game came out in 2007, Sony was playing catch-up with Microsoft. The PS3 had launched about a year after the Xbox 360, and sales were slow to start. Sony was in need of killer platform exclusives to line up against Microsoft’s impressive roster of games (Uncharted went head to head with Halo 3). At the time, I pretty much dismissed Uncharted as ‘Tomb Raider with a bloke’, a seemingly desperate attempt to cash in on the well-worn subgenre of Indiana Jones-style adventure. But even if it struck me as entirely unoriginal, there was no denying that Uncharted was exceedingly pretty. I remember cooing at screenshots of the rusting submarine in the jungle and thinking it was an impressive showcase for the PS3 – as well as an iconic image.

Uncharted Drakes Fortune submarine

Seeing that submarine in the game itself was no less impressive. And having seen that image so many times in the intervening decade, I had the strange sensation that I’d been there before, even though it was my first time playing the game. Having said that, few of the other locations really stand out in my mind now that I’ve finished Uncharted – it’s all a blur of jungles and ruins, with only the creepy medieval labyrinth sticking out as something that seemed unlike anything I’d seen before.

Playing the game itself was something of a chore at first. I’d gone in expecting it to be just like Tomb Raider – which it pretty much is, when it comes to leaping about on ruins – but the shooting sections are completely different. I ran into my first gunfight with pistols blazing, leaping about all over the place, just like I’d do in Tomb Raider – and I died very quickly. Getting through the shooty bits felt like a war of attrition, and by the point that I got to a huge jungle clearing stuffed full of seemingly endless guards, I was ready to give up on the game. The controls felt clunky, and I kept standing up by accident instead of sneaking around in cover, plus I learned that the only way to win most fights was to stay behind a wall and carefully pick off the bad guys. Which felt pretty boring, to be honest.

uncharted drakes fortune cover shooting

But not long after I almost gave up, something clicked. I gradually began to work out when I should stay in cover and when to risk rushing the enemy. I started getting better at placing grenades where I wanted them to go, and using height to my advantage. I began to realise that the gunfights were puzzles with various solutions, some easier than others. I still had to restart some of them many, many times, but I was actually starting to enjoy them, rather than willing them to end.

There are still too many gun battles, though: the kill count in this game is nothing short of astronomical. I must have murdered thousands of mercenaries by the end. Nathan Drake is essentially a one-man army, a tooled-up, beefcake hero of the sort to be found gracing the covers of straight-to-video eighties action flicks. Whereas the gunfights in Tomb Raider were occasional, and often against exotic animals or supernatural beings, Uncharted sees you mowing down fields of soldiers. It doesn’t really make any sense.

And another example of logic being thrown out of the window is the way that the bad guys keep showing up in locations that are meant to be inaccessible. You spend a large part of the game solving puzzles and leaping across chasms to reach secret chambers that the enemy supposedly doesn’t know about, only to find an army waiting for you. It’s ludicrous.

But then again, the game itself never tries to be anything less than a hokey old adventure story, a tale of derring-do with a suitably square-jawed hero. Having said that, I was impressed with the characterisation – Nathan, Sully and Elena come across as likeable leads, and Drake drops some genuinely brilliant quips. And the story is told with aplomb, much unlike the Tomb Raider games. Whereas I barely understood what was happening in any of the first five Tomb Raiders, let alone the motivation of Lara Croft and her various nemeses, I always knew where I was going and why throughout Uncharted.

That’s not to say the story is going to win any prizes, mind you. If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect. As I watched the final scenes of the game play out, I remarked to Mrs Merriweather that the storytelling and characterisation in this game were better than in many I’ve played. She regarded the cheesey dialogue being exchanged, the narrow escape, the almost kiss, the turnaround ending, the sail off into the sunset, and declared: “This is rubbish”.

uncharted ending

I’ve got to admit she has a point. We could have easily been watching any old action flick from the eighties, but with mouth movements that don’t quite match up to the dialogue, and skin that appears unnaturally shiny. The script may be better than most games of its time, but it’s hardly Oscar-worthy – and us gamers have put up with so many shitty stories for so long that our standards have been suitably lowered.

But as a popcorn flick, an action romp, a swashbuckling adventure with a likeable lead, Uncharted undoubtedly works – just switch your brain off at the door.


Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?

7 Comments

Filed under Better Late Than Never, Reviews