As I waded through the gaming doldrums of the past few months in preparation for the imminent release of the next generation of consoles, it seemed like as good a time as any to revisit some of my personal favorites that helped define the last two generations of gaming, Naughty Dog's high-flying, treasure hunting Uncharted series. The globe-trotting exploits of the self-proclaimed descendent of Sir Francis Drake have held a special place in my heart because they truly embody my belief that video games can be so much more than just mindless action. They can also be one of the highest forms of entertainment and storytelling - two tenants that the series has really helped usher into the mainstream over the last 15 years. After several years away, I was excited to spend a month or so revisiting my old friends like the womanizer with a heart of gold, Sully, and Elena, the tenacious reporter who just might be the only one capable of calling out our main protagonist Nathan Drake on his bullshit. However, simply enjoying them wouldn't be nearly productive enough, so, naturally, I decided it was time to definitively rank them all through a combination of both gut feeling and 11 carefully crafted categories that epitomize what an Uncharted game should be.
The skateboarding/reliving your adolescence sim known as the remastered Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 released at 9:00 PM on September 3rd. At approximately 9:01 PM, one whole musical note into the Guerrilla Radio scored hype video kicking off the game, I found that I was 14 years old again and ready to shred. This remaster is somehow more than we had any right to even hope for. It exists as a nostalgia bomb that feels both entirely new and completely familiar at the same time because it truly has managed to get wiser as it got older. Perhaps most importantly, though, it's also the ultimate excuse to revisit that tiny streak of rebellion the originals bestowed upon this former President of the mathletes that could only come from such a glorious Punk and Ska filled soundtrack, and it gave my aging self another chance to keep searching for that one, perfect line to skate.
Without a moment's hesitation, I can say that my favorite game of all time is Naughty Dog's 2013 masterpiece The Last of Us. It's a beautiful tale of crushing loss and survival in a zombie-ravaged future that is filled with an overwhelming sense of dread in every crevice but also manages to contain moments of unparalleled beauty. While the series could have easily ended with the first game's heartbreaking finale (more on that later), the mega-hit was clearly always going to get a sequel. So how do you possibly follow-up the greatest game of all-time, and how will that game play out when it coincidentally releases in the midst of a global pandemic? The answer, it turns out, is quite complicated.
Apparently gaming in 2020 is the year of FromSoftware for me, as the first half which already included Bloodborne and Sekiro has now added 2016's Dark Souls 3 to the mix. Perhaps it was Soulsborne fatigue, or maybe it was all that's changed in the 4 years since it came out, but I found DS3 to be my least favorite of all the Soulsborne titles so far (still TBD on Dark Souls 2 and Demon Souls). Overall it was still a very solid game that provided plenty of fun smashing giant bosses with massive greatswords for 50 or so hours, but it played more like a refined Dark Souls than anything that had something new to say. Lacking the foreboding atmosphere and trick weapons of Bloodborne and the incredible precision of Sekiro, DS3 felt oddly dated and almost a little rough, while also lacking the sense of wonder and amazement that makes that first trek through the original Dark Souls so memorable. Fortunately, though, DS3 manages to pick itself up from some early game stumbles and really gets rolling around the halfway mark, maintaining a high level of consistency throughout the rest of the main game and two excellent DLC packs.
As the two posts I previously wrote on Final Fantasy VII this year alone can attest to, the adventures of Cloud and friends from Square-Enix have held a special place in my heart for over two decades. With an (at the time) absurd 50+ hours of side quests, monster battles, and world saving, this epic made quite the lasting impression on my former tween self. While I've loved many Final Fantasy games since then (special shout outs to VIII, X, and XV), none stands out quite as much in my game loving heart. For the past five years since it was initially announced way back in 2015, Final Fantasy VII Remake has oscillated in my brain between sky high expectations and trying to put my guard up to shield myself from the inevitable disappointment. So, did the remake gods manage to pull it off or were my hopes crushed like poor Sector 7 under the weight of Shinra's greed?
All you need to know about the recently released remake of 1999's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis can be found in a five word exchange that occurs about a third of the way through the main campaign. Just as the game's protagonist and proven action hero, Jill Valentine, has seemingly escaped the clutches of Raccoon City's apocalyptic zombie outbreak aboard a subway train headed for safety, the back of the train is abruptly pulled off in a glorious display of strength and bad-ass flames by the Umbrella Corp's bioweapon du jour, the titular Nemesis. With all hope seemingly lost, a grizzled old mercenary, whose name escapes me because it was never important, defiantly utters the sure to be iconic line "Get off my train, shitbird" before heroically sacrificing himself and buying Jill some time via suicide bombing. Truly the bard himself could have never concocted a more beautiful turn of phrase, and peak Schwarzenegger couldn't have hoped for a more fitting sendoff.
After surviving 60 hours of brutally punishing bosses in Bloodborne, my first instinct was to move on to some far less stressful and easier, breezier fare. In the ensuing days, every time I booted up my PS4, I saw that Bloodborne icon and tried desperately to convince myself not to give into the temptation of initiating a sadistic New Game+ run just to see how skilled I had become. For a few nights at least, I kept the siren's calls at bay, but the following Saturday night while bored, I thought "What could possibly be the harm?" in checking out the latest FromSoftware Opus, Sekiro, which had been sitting on my Playstation since a super holiday sale last year. This compromise of playing something new would surely placate my desire for a challenge and allow me to move on with my gaming life. Naturally, this quick peak into the world of Sekiro soon blew up into a month of repeatedly dying until I could once again add another gaming badge of courage to my collection that can only come from defeating a Soulsborne game.
The true highlight of any FromSoftware game is its massive and crushing boss battles. With each passing boss, I found myself more and more absorbed in the game's intoxicating cycle of death and learning. There's an unbelievable sense of accomplishment that comes from finally adapting to a boss's patterns and besting them after they've taken so many lives from you that makes the hours of building yourself up and cursing the nightmare of Yharnam worth it.
One of my earliest fantasies in life was becoming a wise and powerful Jedi. While wearing out the assorted VHS tapes we had the original Star Wars trilogy recorded on, I'd imagine myself engaged in death-defying combat featuring the greatest fictional weapon ever created - the lightsaber. There may have been an overwhelming likelihood of enduring a lost weapon and severed hand or two for most lightsaber users that not even a WiiMote strap could remedy (cc: Binge Mode), but an artificial appendage seemed like a small price to pay for an instrument so perfect. As science and my general clumsiness have not yet caught up to a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, my only true outlet for lightsaber twirling Jedi-dom has been in the world of video games. Respawn Studios's latest release, Indiana Jedi and the Temple of Miktrull Jedi: Fallen Order, is a glorious amalgamation of a multitude of game types ranging from Uncharted crossed with Metroid Prime-style exploration to Dark Souls style fighting. Almost all of the myriad facets come together for one of the most enjoyable games of the year, but, above all else, the true highlight of Fallen Order is how good it feels to wield a lightsaber.
Despite having not played a Hideo Kojima game since the original Metal Gear Solid back in 1998, I decided it was time to break that lengthy drought by picking up the new social media/gig economy/Norman Reedus simulator, Death Stranding, so I could see just how weird the preceding two decades had made the gaming world's most notable auteur. Within an hour, all of my wildest hopes for pure video game absurdity had been met thanks to a crying baby attached to my suit and Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro informing me that he stole my fluids while I was unconscious to study them. If I had hit the power button then and never returned, my investment would've been worth it, but fortunately I kept going and soon discovered the true draw and greatest achievement of Death Stranding - the links between all the players undertaking this massive journey together.