Making A Murderer (Season 2)

This review contains major spoilers.

There’s a scene in episode nine of this newest season of Making A Muderer, where Barbara Tadych (mother of Brendan Dassey) calls Steven Avery. Tadych unleashes an angry tirade at Avery, whose new attorney has just pointed the finger at her husband, Scott, as a possible suspect in the murder of Teresa Halbach — the murder for which Avery is currently incarcerated. Scott is also heard in the background swearing, screaming, and professing that he always hated Avery. It’s a very jarring scene, where the show’s primary functions come to a head; the pursuit of the truth, and to offer a compelling, bingeworthy drama with a few twists for Average Joe, before he moves onto the next thing. People played Armchair Detective after season one, with some theories implicating Scott and stepson Bobby Dassey, so seeing the theory somewhat vindicated was undoubtedly thrilling; but at the expense of Barb’ Tadych, the long-suffering mother whose human interest story has been a source of levity in the show.

Making A Murderer’s second season is a different beast to its first; an evolution of the core idea. These might typically be read as compliments, but honestly, I’m not so sure.

The true crime mega-hit has tried to come of age somewhat; taking in criticism with the best of intensions, and barfing up something of a response. Where they were lampooned for showing no real compassion for the murder of Halbach, they’ve kinda sorta tried to illustrate how beloved she was by her peers. Where they were knocked, rightly, for leaving out compelling evidence against Avery, they’ve kinda sorta outlined how it’s not valid. Where they were called one-sided… well, they paid lipservice to some of the awful things that happened as a result of their sensationalism. Ken Kratz is undoubtedly a skin-crawling presence on both seasons of the show, but a sub-10 second clip of him saying his family have recieved death and rape threats isn’t exactly doing justice to the mess that’s been made of this story in the last three years.

That’s very much a microcosm of the season as a whole; feeble attempts at broadening their horizons, making something of a haims of it, but still managing to make me think more broadly about this case, and the true crime genre itself. This is far from the first show to milk a tragedy for its creator’s gain and for punters’ amusement. It’s far from the first one I’ve watched this year. But for whatever reason this one felt the need to try and rationalize it’s place in the world.

There’s an extended sequence early in the season dedicated to speaking with what few friends or peers of Halbach are willing to meet the filmmakers. It’s sincere enough, and tastefully done, but rings somewhat hollow when you know her family still disavow the show, and are viewed as villains by some of the audience as a result. If anything it makes the show almost feel seedier, more disingenuous; continuing to make a media circus of this woman’s death, but acting like ‘hey, we really care though.’

Later in the season, the aforementioned pantomime villain Ken Kratz is on a media tour to promote his book, and he speaks to reporters from CRIMECON(!) — a Comic-Con-esque venture for true crime fans, which honestly made me question the very nature of fandom itself in 2018.

Central to the show’s mix of stone-faced seriousness and hollywood twists and turns is Kathleen Zellner; Avery’s previously mentioned attorney. She’s prolific and respected in her field, notable for getting dozens of convictions overturned in her career. She’s also something of a showman; leading the charge for Avery’s freedom with rallycries on twitter that almost read as blurbs for episodes of the very Netflix show she now stars in. New evidence! New suspects! A man robbed of his life! All this and more, tonight! She couldn’t be more perfect for this show; a talented legal mind who seems very aware of the fanfare surrounding the case and loves every second of it.

For a season so bogged down by its own place in pop culture, it also remains thoroughly poignant in places. As you might expect, the legal trials and tribulations are much slower in this season compared to the last, so things are padded out with more interviews with the Avery and Dassey clans. Steven’s ageing parents are easy to root for, struggling to keep their families together and merely hoping to see their son free again before they pass on. It might sound like a brutal summation of things, but that’s explicitly stated by everyone involved. Likewise the turmoil suffered by the Tadych/Dassey family, as Brendan comes SO close to freedom, is an upsetting reminder of the human cost of this story, outside of prison walls.

Making A Murderer season two is a compelling mess. For some reason it feels determined to draw your eye to the dehumanising mess it’s made of this story, stroking its chin about what it all means. Every slick montage of Wisconsin scenery set to their ominous score feels more like a work of fiction than any kind of documentary. But the story at its core is so hard to tear yourself away from. The term guilty pleasure should really be taken back from lowbrow comedy and the like, and be applied here. It might be award-winning, prestige TV, but I’ve never felt quite so conflicted during a TV show as I did during this.

Jordan Devlin vs. Walter (OTT, Wrestlerama 2)

Watch this match here. (Sub req’d, $8/month)

When OTT finally announced they had booked Walter for their June 2018 event, their fans were delighted, and the match was obvious. The world-conquering Austrian versus our boy Jordan Devlin, whose gimmick has been putting down “imports” and banging out a four-star match in the process.

It would have been great, and the fans would have been satiated.

But great wasn’t great enough for OTT. They had NOTIONS, and those notions paid off two shows later at the company’s flagship August event.

With their Wrestlerama 2 singles match, Devlin and Walter produced something special. Concluding, at least for now, one of the most simple-yet-effective angles on the indies in recent memory, OTT wrung more out of a mere three Walter appearances than some promotions have in months of booking. They created something far beyond a one-and-done great match, and told an excellent story that felt distinctly OTT. With the rabid Irish crowd in Jordan’s corner, this really felt like a match that couldn’t be replicated elsewhere.

The story of the match was this; a more focused and intense Devlin was able to learn from what previously felled him, but Walter still had his number.

The song and dance routine of Devlin and David Starr in June was replaced with a no-nonsence power walk to the ring. Starr wasn’t the irreverent buddy cop partner, he was an earnest cornerman, and he added to the match in a very real way.

Devlin’s performance as the no-nonsence babyface was perfect. He came out strong early with leg kicks and a taunting feign of a chop. When it was time for Walter to, well, be Walter and lay a beat down, Devlin sold it like it was the fight of his life. His hope spots had a sense of urgency and panic, never quite feeling like he was kicking Walter’s ass, but occasionally feeling like he had him rattled and survival was possible.

The other big carryover from June was the ‘Gojira Clutch’ sleeper, which scored Walter the win when these two met in a tag match. On every occasion, Jordan either countered it or simply weathered the storm. This culminated in the finish which was so perfect I’ve had to re-watch it in isolation a dozen times, separate from the three times I’ve watched this match in full. After a 20 minute war, Walter gets the clutch on one last time and Jordan starts to fade. The crowd are on tenter hooks, rallying for Jordan to power through. In a spot as old as wrestling itself, that I would consider a tired trope 95% of the time, the referee checks Devlin’s hand to see if he’s still conscious. It drops twice. On the third drop, Devlin keeps his hand in the air, looks up at it, and makes a fist, causing a roar from the crowd so impassioned you’d swear the guy just won the whole match.

Before he can start his comeback, before he can even tease a package piledriver, Walter says ‘fuck this’ (at least in my head), scoops Devlin up, and drops him with a Rikishi Driver, or whatever you want to call it if you’re a movez-nerd, and scored the pin.

Devlin learned from his past mistakes; but Walter was still too good. A wonderful story, hammered home by a tremendous post-match segment. A gloating Walter and Tim Thatcher taunt their longtime rival David Starr, who then tends to Devlin, looking precisely as devestated by this loss as a former champion should.

I’ve seen a lot of great matches in my time as an OTT fan, and have a great attachment to them as a promotion and Devlin as a performer. But this was a match that felt like it simultaneously encapsulated everything great about the promotion, while also shattering the glass ceiling of what people think about as a “great OTT match.” It’s a detail-oriented, minimalist classic, where every second is treated as important, and the crowd reacts like the winner’s purse goes straight into their pockets.

With so much left on the table for a rematch (the match very intentionally shied away from any kind of finisher spam), the really exciting thing is considering what they’ll do when Devlin rebuilds himself to try again.

Wrestlemania 34 Review

Wrestling Christmas has finally been and gone.

Much like regular Christmas, following months of build up and excitement, after a few hours you were thankful it was done for another year. Time to… Take down the Wrestling Tree?

Anyway.

Wrestlemania 34 had fans reaching almost unheard of levels of uncynical hype before showtime. WWE had not only thrown together a fairly compelling card, but it was so stacked that people forgot that sitting still and watching anything for seven hours is fucking insufferable.

Continue reading “Wrestlemania 34 Review”

Top Ten Video Games of 2017

Is it really over-done to talk about how great games were in 2017? Yes.

But they were.

There were several games that came out last year that you could argue were legitimate all-time greats, and countless others that were really, really, really fantastic.

In particular, I felt this was a year that video game writing came into its own. I know the myth of ‘games can’t tell good stories!’ has been dead for some time, but 2017 felt like a year where they tackled an impressive range of topics, sometimes with nuance, sometimes with bombast.

A few notable omissions; I never got around to Cuphead, much to my shame. I’ve been anticipating it for years but not owning an Xbox meant I missed out. Me and my room-mate were planning a co-op run on his XB1, but it never materialised. Likewise, not owning a gaming PC means I missed out on the phenomenon of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – even though it looked like the logical advancement of the waning-survival genre that I’ve been waiting for.

Hounorable Mentions

Continue reading “Top Ten Video Games of 2017”

Streaming Plans for 2018

I refuse to call this a resolution, it’s just an idea to make things better that just happens to coincide with the new year. Thanks.

Last year, I really put streaming on the back-burner due to moving out and laziness. So here’s the plan going forward. I’m going to try and do two a week. One early in the week, one on the weekend.

I’d like to have two series going concurrently. There’s some new Hitman content out, the Patient Zero campaign, so I’ll start that soon. You can watch my previous Hitman videos here.

After getting some good feedback on it, I decided to give Life is Strange: Before The Storm a whirl. I was apprehensive about it, but enough LiS fans have told me it’s worth checking out. You can see my full playthrough of the original series here.

I’ll start Hitman in the coming days and Life is Strange on the weekend. Once I’m done with those, I’ll finally get back to my long in-stasis Dishonored 2 playthrough.

I hope folks can check some of these out and enjoy them. I’ll also be trying to write more on this site, and I’ll update on all of this on Twitter when possible.

Happy 2018 and such. X

Top Ten TV Shows of 2017

It’s been a long year but we finally made it; we’re in arbitrary year-end list season! My favourite.

Here’s a list of my favourite TV shows of the year. There was a lot of great stuff to watch in 2017, more than I was able to make time for (I’ll get to you in the new year, Mindhunter) but these were my favourites.

10. The Keepers

The grim, uncomfortable nature of The Keepers makes it hard to class as ‘enjoyable,’ and difficult to rank on a list with a bunch of mostly irreverent hyuck-fests, but nonetheless it was a very affecting show. Detailing the murder of a nun, and how it ties in to systemic abuse and coverups in the Catholin church, The Keepers is a gripping documentary series, in the vein of Netflix’ true crime heavy hitter; Making A Murderer. 

9. GLOW

Netflix’ sorta-true-to-life adaptation of the story behind GLOW was a fun watch for wrestling fans and non-fans alike. The diverse cast (big names like Alison Brie and Marc Maron, juxtaposed with wrestling mainstays like The Amazing Kong) all brought the goods, and I enjoyed the characters slowly learning that wrestling is goofy as hell; and that’s what’s great about it.

8. Broad City

Another solid season of laughs from the fantastic lead actor/producer/sometimes director duo of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer. When it’s at its best, Broad City is funniest show on TV. Season four saw a few more misses than usual, but still entertained consistently. Bonus points for some fantastic cameos this year, including Ru Paul and Peri Gilpin.

7. The Confession Tapes

As with The Keepers, this is a perfect follow up for any true crime junkies with a Netflix subscription, who weren’t quite satiated with Making A Murderer. Focusing on coerced confessions, this anthology series covers a number of different cases, speaking to witnesses, prosecutors, and the accused themselves, to piece together what happened, and why the confessions in question may not have been genuine.

6. Preacher

When season one of Preacher aired; I liked it. It was good. But it wasn’t really good enough. Season two was where the show really found its groove, and I couldn’t be more excited about where it goes next. True to the spirit of the comics, not holding back on the outrageously dark humour, but still going in its own direction and avoiding feeling dirivative – season two was hilarious, surprising, and still had a great foundation of three excellent central characters, and three or four absolute gems in its subplots.

5. The Punisher

Bucking my sense of Marvel fatigue was this surprisingly thoughtful deepdive on the character of Frank Castle. Yeah, that Frank Castle. Castle was a highlight of the supremely lame second season of Daredevil, largely due to the sheer level of violence he brought. Jon Bernthal scowled, said some noire-y dialogue, and bodied some crooks in spectacular fashion. For the standalone series, the bodying was reigned in, in favour of actually examining what makes Punisher who he is – more than just anger over his dead family. A rare example of a Marvel/Netflix collaboration that didn’t outstay its welcome, I would strongly recommend this to any comic book TV show cynics, or jaded former fans.

4. Rick and Morty

Look; the conversation around Rick and Morty became insufferable this year. The arrogant fans suck. The ‘I don’t watch it, aren’t I cool?’ people suck. Some of the people involved in the show suck. BUT. It’s still one of the sharpest shows on TV today. As much as the fanbase ran it into the ground, to the point it’s now a dog whistle for the worst people on this planet, Pickle Rick was an enjoyable instance of the show lampooning itself. Likewise, the szechuan sauce that spawned a million thinkpieces, was actually a clever conclusion to the season’s debut. In summary; this is a show best enjoyed when watched alone and never discussed with any other person, ever. Just as Rick would want, baby! WUBBALUBBLADINGDONGDOODLE!

3. Big Mouth

It’s understandable to worry an animated Netflix show about puberty would be nothing but dick and cum jokes — and hey — we got some dick and cum jokes here, for sure. But Big Mouth is an honest and relatable show about the most awkward time in a young man’s life – with just enough heart to balance out all the other stuff. The belly laughs came faster than I anticpated with this one, and it ended up being one of the best surprises of the year for me.

2. American Vandal

This perfectly timed satire of Making A Murder, The Jynx, and others, doesn’t just poke fun at the frequently occuring tropes of these documentaries – it also crafts a bizarrely compelling mystery of its own. This is easily the most bingeable show of the year – with its hilarious, deadpan delivery and whodunit plot that will genuinely keep you guessing. 

1. Nathan For You

After a slightly weaker season three, Nathan Fielder returned to form this year, and retook his place as one of the funniest and weirdest comedic minds on TV. This season of Nathan For You was everything that makes the show great, amped up to the next level and culminating in a two hour finale that defies explanation. The cringiest, funniest, most bizarre thing I can recall seeing. If you haven’t gotten on the bandwagon yet, start with season one and get caught up right away. While I would hate to see it ended, season four would be the perfect culmination for what is one of my all time favourite shows.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice (2017, PS4)

Whether it’s high budget action, or twee indie melodrama – games can and have done it all. But I still feel there’s too few games that tell stories that need to be told. I want more stories that feel important – stories that you insist your friends make time for; because they say something worth listening to.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one such game.

Playing as Senua, a skilled but troubled warrior, the goal of the game is to venture into Helheim, the Norse mythology’s underworld, to rescue the soul of her deceased lover Dillion. To read such a summary of the plot, you’d think it’s all very God of War. Venture into Evil Land, snarl, mash the square button, execute enemies in over the top fashion, snarl some more, grunt about how tortured a soul you are, fight a boss, end. In execution, Hellblade is a much slower, less bombastic yarn. The intro sets the tone perfectly for the ensuing ten-ish hours. Travelling on her own, Senua slowly sails through a misty, ominous swamp. The credits slowly roll by. Prominent among them, top billing in fact, are the game’s historical and mental health advisors. The folks at Ninja Theory want to make things clear from the jump; we’re doing this, and we’re taking it seriously.

As the credits drift past, Senua is bombarded by a number of voices that are never introduced to the player, but it quickly becomes evident they are representative of some kind of psychosis in the titular heroine. They aren’t overly-acted caricatures, at least not at first. They’re disembodied voices, peppering your ears with short, monosyllabic taunts or ridicule. If you’re using headphones as the game recommends, the audio design is immediately impressive and harsh.

Hellblade is a story about mental illness. Emphasis on about. Senua’s struggles with the “darkness” represent an interesting wrinkle on her more literal adventure to Hel, but this is unreservedly a nuanced, sincere, unrelenting story about a person struggling with psychosis and the social alienation that comes with it. From the previously mentioned internalised voices, which often can get muddied up with the narration of the story, causing a deliberately overwhelming feeling, to the game’s liberal use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ trope, Hellblade is enigmatic in a way that made me feel very closely tied to its protagonist. It’s gruelling, confusing, upsetting and tiring; but in such a way that I was totally engrossed.

The revelations surrounding Senua’s past are largely reserved for the game’s second half, and I won’t spoil them here, but I was constantly impressed with how Ninja Theory utilised her story to make broader points about mental health, and our reaction to it as a society. It isn’t a quirky character trait, nor is a straightforward objective to be beaten. Hellblade wants players to understand the difficulties people in these situations face, and not simply think of them as problems to solve.

With so much to say about the story and how it’s told, and I really could go on and on, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some kind of adventure or ‘walking simulator’ game. In reality, it has the heart and soul of one, but it’s wrapped in the body of a quasi-character action game. As she ventures towards Hel, Senua will fight enemies, battle bosses, solve puzzles, and tackle some unique set pieces that, again, I won’t spoil here. The combat can best be described as functional. You have a heavy attack, light attack, a block, and a dodge. The movement is weightier and less flashy than, say, Devil May Cry, and feels more grounded and visceral. The enemy designs are repetitive and it quickly begins to feel like most of the fights are used as padding or a scenery change from the exploring and story chatter. I’d describe it as ‘not bad’ but stretching ‘not bad’ out to ten-ish hours simply doesn’t work.

Likewise, the puzzle solving is functional and, at times, satisfying in its mix of cleverness and simplicity – but it has a template that is repeated far too often. The majority of puzzles see you trying to find a spot in the environment that will cause elements of the world to line up, creating an image that matches one that is painted on a locked door. Some twists on the formula, including an early section with portals that experiment with ‘impossible space’ and illusionary walls, are fun. But like the combat, it outstays its welcome.

The second half of the game offers some very imaginative set pieces and boss battles, which finally offer a highlight for the game that isn’t tied to watching a cutscene, but it feels like too little too late. Around the six or seven hour mark, I was getting frustrated. The story had amped up but the combat and puzzle solving felt stagnant, blips of creativity aside. I wouldn’t go as far as to say these mechanics should have been fully discarded, but the balance is certainly more than a little off. When Hellblade finally starts to show its hand, the last thing you want is a laborious square-mashing brawl between you and the next revelation.

These grievances didn’t detract from my desire to keep going though, and when I reached Hellblade’s conclusion, it was more than worth the bumps along the way. The ending of Hellblade is one of the most poignant, powerful and bittersweet things I’ve seen in a video game. It’s stuck with me for over a week, and I’ve watched it back a dozen times. The writing and performance capture, which impress throughout the game, really stick the landing. Likewise, the game’s unlikely but very cool use of FMV (yes, full motion video with real actors) is used to perfection here.

Hellblade’s minor failings can’t tarnish this absolutely staggering achievement for Ninja Theory. The game’s handling of mental health isn’t just good; it manages to not feel tokenistic or self-congratulatory. It has a harsh, uncompromising story, and doesn’t offer simple solutions – yet still feels uplifting when it’s all said and done. It won’t win any awards as a character action game, but Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice will undoubtedly be remembered as a classic for year to come.

Ruiner (2017, PS4)

I beat Ruiner, and Ruiner beat me.

I can’t remember the last time I had to turn down a game’s difficulty, just to finish it.

Ruiner’s thumb destroying mix of dual-stick shooting and beat-em-up mechanics was punishing me even in the tutorial. The first sub-boss I fought took me around ten attempts to defeat. The game doesn’t mess around.

Talking about difficulty in games is one of the toughest aspects of writing about them for me.

I’m not sure what made Ruiner’s challenge feel less fun than, say, Hotline Miami. The latter is one of my all-time favourite games, even though it had me wanting to throw my controller at a wall on occasion. But with Ruiner, I actually felt more inclined to walk away than to power through. If not for its compelling style and world, I may have given up.

It’s not something I’d go so far as to call broken or badly designed, but it did feel like certain sections of the game could have had a mere two or three less enemies spawn during a particular wave of an encounter and maintained a good level of challenge without being as frustrating.

Combat in Ruiner is hectic. You can shoot and attack with melee, as can your enemies. It is neither a simple action game, nor a bullet hell shooter. You and your enemies can both dash and use shields. Often there are large mech-like enemies, basically gun placements, that need to take priority. Then there are sub-bosses and bosses. Keeping on top of everything is almost more to do with mental arithmetic than thumb gymnastics. So many enemy types and patterns meant I often felt like I was getting side swiped by a weak minion while focused on a hulking boss, which can be a frustrating way to go out. To that end, the second half of the game debuts drones that crash-land in combat arenas; they don’t attack you, but their mere existence in the level drains you of health and energy. It means death doesn’t necessarily feel like something you learn from all the time, but rather a result of being buried under a mountain of foes.

Adding to the confusion is one of Ruiner’s most intriguing gameplay mechanics; its skill tree. Moreso than any game I’ve played this year, Ruiner really means it when it says ‘play however you want.’ You have a bevy of awesome special powers at your disposal; EMP grenades, supply drops, different types of shield, special melee attacks, increased ammo capacity, mind control of enemies, bullet time and more. When you level up, you can use experience points to unlock a new ability or upgrade an existing one. At any point in the game, you can unassign those experience points and reassign them elsewhere, disabling one special ability and unlocking another. This isn’t a limited time offer, or a feature tied to rare consumable items. You can do this at any time.

This approach to leveling up enourages experimentation, which is great, but can increase your death-rate as you try and find the right mix of talents for your playstyle. Early on, I realized the personal shield wasn’t for me, although later in the story, an allied character said I should deploy it to survive a laser attack from a boss. It’s rare, but it was disappointing for such a freeform system to require you to adopt certain tact to progress.

Other than that, it’s a fun system to toy with, and it’s extemely satisfying to find the right combination of tech for you. And, really, it’s the only standout aspect of the gameplay.

Ruiner does two things; drop you in an arena to kill wave after wave of enemies, and drop you in a story HUB to soak up some ambience and collect side quests. There’s no frills here. Even those side quests are things you can do as you work through the main levels that advance the plot. The melee combat is fast and fairly satisfying, as you dodge around foes and pummel or slice them with your weapon of choice. Gunplay feels a little less precise, with enemies moving far too fast to really be worthwile unless you’re using special abilities that stun or slow them down. The game has a useless auto-targeting feature turned on by default, that I recommend turning off. The variety of guns will draw you in however, with electric shock rifles, sawblade cannons and more traditional machine guns, all of which at least look and sound devestating and feel fun to play around with. Mixing the sci-fi weaponary with the aforementioned special abilities, and a collection of bats and blades means the combat never feels dull, despite it’s simplicity. When you’re not dying on a loop, you will occassionally marvel at just how cool your character looks and feels while zipping around the map, slicing enemies in two.

The real draw of Ruiner is the world. Wearing its anime and cyber punk influences on its sleeve, Ruiner is absolutely stunning from first loading screen to closing credits. The distopian metropolis for a setting isn’t unique, but it’s gorgeously realized. The city streets are filthy, but glowing with neon signs. The industrial levels are lit with an almost overbearing amount of red light. The game’s incredibly cynical vision of the future sees husks of humans, with tubes and wires bursting from their skulls, mind’s melted by overdosing on virtual reality escapism, attacking you in the later levels. It’s all very grim and nihilstic, with dark themes, dark visuals and beautiful, brooding, understated music

The only letdown is the story, which almost feel like it betrays the rest of the world building with how rote and predictable it is. While your protagonist at least looks as badass as his surroundings, his story will just be something for you to skip through. Furthering the disappointment is the inexplicable lack of voice acting. Not every game needs VO, but Ruiner feels straight up jarring at times, as characters deliver their nihilistic, cyber punk-y monologues, drenched in red neon, looking as cool as possible — and then their character model just gestures to suggest speech, as the subtitles appear. It’s very flat.

Overall, Ruiner is a worthwhile experience. The combat is fun if unremarkable, with tonnes of weapon variety and special abilities to tinker with. The difficulty may push some away, but I don’t doubt some will relish it. The world is remarkable, and begging for a more compelling story to take place in it, but even without that it’s worth the five or six hours you’ll spend ripping through it.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017, PS4)

Naughty Dog is at an interesting cross-roads in 2017.

They’ve cemented their legacy as one of the absolute best developers in the world at what they do. As narrative-focused shooters go, they lead the pack. But as the years tick by, their formula, particularly in the Uncharted games, has been well and truly sussed. The Lost Legacy is another gorgeous, charming adventure with solid gameplay and an easy-to-binge run-time, but it’s hard to not feel burned out on the series at this point.

Prior to release, many would have argued last year’s Uncharted 4 was a rickety bridge too far, but the game ultimately recieved adoration for telling the franchise’s most mature story to date.

With Lost Legacy, a $40USD standalone, the series regresses somewhat, feeling a little more Uncharted-by-numbers than last year’s ‘game of the year’ contender.

You play as Chloe Frazer, a fan favourite from Uncharted 2 and 3, who is teaming with Nadine Ross, a cool but underutilized anti-hero from Uncharted 4, to track down the elusive ‘Tusk of Ganesh.’ While the dynamic between the two heroines gradually evolves from frosty to friendly, and will charm you along the way, there isn’t much to sink your teeth into as far as character development goes. Despite inventing a previously unheard of brother out of thin air, four games deep, the last entry’s dynamic between Sam and Nathan Drake was compelling and fleshed out, as was Nate’s parallels to antagonist Rafe. Lost Legacy feels like a step in the wrong direction as the heroes’ odd couple routine is very aged at this point, and worse still, they’re teaming up to fight the most one-dimensional villain of the series so far. Naturally the minute to minute banter is great – Naughty Dog knows how to write likeable characters and genuinely funny gags. But if you were expecting something deeper, such as what ND offered in the previous Uncharted, or the seminal The Last of Us, you will be disappointed.

In the gameplay department, things are similarly showing their age. The cover-based shooting feels like it hasn’t advanced since the earliest days of the PS3/360 generation. While Nadine and Chloe boast some tremendous tag-team animations when engaged in melee combat, the encounters mostly feel like busy work you’re just getting through so you can see the next cutscene. Despite the open combat arenas seemingly encouraging you to grapple, sneak and larp around to your heart’s content, getting creative kills as you go, the bullet sponge enemies go against that. Playing in anything other than a hunkered-down, military, cover shooter style has always resulted in frequent deaths for me.

One sizeable section in the middle of the game gives you a faux open world space to drive around in, with core objectives and side quests you can tackle in any order you’d like. It doesn’t massively change how you’ll play the game, and feels more like a bit of technilogical muscle flexing. But hey, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Naughty Dog games were always maligned as gorgeous but linear, to a fault; with Lost Legacy they’re encouraging people to engage in some virtual tourism. The space they provide is jaw-dropping. It’s huge, without compromising the series’ trademark detail and weather effects. Coupled with the always fun Photo Mode, you can spend a few hours just looking at the various nooks and cranies of the world, marvelling at how good ND are at making the most of the hardware at their disposal. The objectives scattered across the map are still very typical of the series, and simply letting you tackle them in any order isn’t the Hail Mary that will keep it interesting, but it’s a fun novelty on this occassion.

Puzzle solving is another key ingredient in the Uncharted formula, and in this case it’s one that is still holding up pretty well. There are a decent amount of puzzles squeezed into the eight-ish hours of Lost Legacy, and they’re mostly a perfect balance of challenge and accessiblity. Some sections mix things up by having larger scale puzzles that you’ll need to solve with quick reactions and platforming, so it’s not always a simple ‘line up these pieces of an amulet’ job. 

Fans of the Uncharted series will definitely enjoy this shorter adventure. While much of what makes the games great is getting tired, it’s still produced with a level of polish and charm that makes it compelling. The mix of crazy set pieces, including an all-time great in the franchise, puzzles, combat and exploration – appropriately mixed up and trimmed to fit in a less than ten hour experience is hard to argue with. As well worn as the tropes may be, it’s hard not to crack a smile in the company of Naughty Dog’s characters.

Danger Zone (2017, PS4)

In an era of remakes, remasters, sequels and spiritual successors, there’s never been a better time to peruse your gaming catalogue and wonder which ageing franchise deserves a return. After playing Danger Zone, I am confident that we need a new Burnout game in the coming years. Unfortunately, I am also confident that Danger Zone simply will not scratch that itch.

Danger Zone serves as a standalone version of the ‘Crash Mode’ feature in the later Burnout games. You drive into traffic and try to cause as much damage as possible. As the pile-up grows higher, so does your score. Eventually you can detonate an explosion and use in-air controls to steer the wreckage into yet more cars.

In theory, DZ has all the necessary parts to make this work. Some former Burnout devs are on board. There are cars. There are busy intersections. There are explosions. There are no drivers, thank god, so you can enjoy all this unadulterated violence without feeling awkward.

But to say these are the only parts you need to recreate the magic of Burnout is to sell the franchise very short indeed. In hindsight, Crash Mode was a fun diversion from what Burnout was really about; racing. It was a clever way to give players a new objective other than racing from A to B, and it also let them maximise the explosions-per-second ratio. It was a wonderful compliment to the whole experience, which was ultimately still about driving fast and ramming other racers off the road – not Average Joe commuting to work.

When the controller is in your hand, Danger Zone feels like Burnout. Purely in terms of second-to-second gameplay, it’s a reasonable approximation. But unlike any Burnout game I ever played, I found my attention waning after 30 minutes. Very quickly, a routine is established in how you get an ideal score on each map; you need to bounce from one ‘smashbreaker’ collectible to another, each offering an additional explosion and bounce. The extra bounce lets you hit more cars and grab more cash bonuses – and the smashbreakers are usually positioned in such way that there is a perfect line through each level. This is similar to the classic Burnout levels, which were often structured in such a way that you had to try and navigate your twisted wreck into as many new lanes of traffic as possible, to ensure the highest level of collateral.

But, again, these were fresh objectives sprinkled in between more traditional races, and thus the formula wasn’t exposed as quickly.

It isn’t just the variety of Burnout that is stripped away, however. DZ has a bafflingly dry presentation, utterly soul-less and quiet. It feels like a proof of concept whipped together to impress investors and secure funding for an actual game. Literally every level takes place in a sterile warehouse environment, with no music, and no vehicle selection options. You drive a white sedan into traffic, to silence, and if you fall off the track, you’re told the ‘simulation’ is terminated – I guess suggesting this is some kind of fake warehouse – a somehow less exciting venue than a regular warehouse.

While the mid-2000s pop-rock of the PS2 games isn’t exactly hip any more, DZ opting to not include music of any variety is simply confusing. The title has a humble price tag, so maybe major-label music rights were a no-go, but anything would have been better than this.

The same can be said for location variety and some unlockable car models. At a budget price, this didn’t need to be Grand Theft Auto proportions — but it needed to be more than this. The graphics are dated, with completely unremarkable destruction modeling and physics, so at a certain point you have to ask what exactly did they spend money on?

The price is an interesting sting in the tale for this game. As you can tell; I didn’t really like it. But it does play ok. There are fleeting moments of Burnout nostalgia. Some levels, especially in the third tier, are actually kind of creative. They use the ‘simulation’ narrative to do away with real life constraints and have some fun with the level design. At just over a tenner (EU), with about 80 minutes of gameplay, there are worse investments. If you are absolutely starved for Burnout-esque content and looking for something cheap – it’s a tentative recommendation. Just don’t expect to be satiated for long. In some ways, Danger Zone has only worsened my pining for the legendary racing series to rise from the ashes (and glass, and rubber, and steel).