The OUYA and I have a complicated relationship. When I first saw it I loved the idea of a console that was free from any restrictions, one that would inevitably become a playground for the independent developers that I had come to love so much. However the reality fell short of my (and many others) lofty expectations but deep down I still really wanted it to take off. Whilst I’m not cheering for the downfall of the three kings of consoles having a viable alternative for developers who can’t afford to develop for traditional platforms is something that the industry needs and before you ask no, smartphones don’t count (at least not yet).
OUYA’s latest move has done nothing to improve this situation, however.
OUYA recently announced the Free the Games fund, an initiative whereby a game that’s funded through Kickstarter can have its contributions doubled, to the tune of $50,000. On the surface that sounds like a great thing as that kind of cash is kind of unheard of for many independent developers and studios however this isn’t free money exactly. First off your game must be an OUYA exclusive for the first 6 months of its life after which you’re free to do whatever you want with it. Secondly your Kickstarter goal must be at least $50,000 and you have to reach it to be eligible to get your funds doubled. These two aspects combined together have seen the Free the Games fund met with some harsh criticism and, frankly, I’m inclined to agree with them.
For starters being an OUYA exclusive drastically limits your market potential as even the most successful game on that platform has only managed to sell around 2,000 copies. Considering that cross platform development is now easier than ever thanks to tools like Unity indie developers are quite capable of releasing for multiple platforms even with the limited resources that they have to work with. Thus it makes sense to release on as many platforms as is feasible to maximise your market exposure unless you’ve got a compelling reason to go exclusive. $50,000 might be compelling enough for some, especially if that will allow you to develop a cross platform release during the exclusivity period, but the second caveat on that funding is what makes that particular scenario unlikely.
The average game project on Kickstarter gets no where near the amount of funding that OUYA is asking for in order to receive the grant. According to Kickstarter’s own numbers the average funding level of a games project is on the order of $22,000 which includes outliers which have nabbed millions of dollars worth of funding. In truth the average indie studio would probably be lucky to get anywhere near the average with 63% of them raising less than $20,000. OUYA’s logic is likely then that any game below that amount would be too risky for them to invest in but its far more likely that they’re pricing out the vast majority of the indies they were hoping to attract and those who meet the requirements will likely not want to trade exclusivity for the additional funding.
In theory I think it’s a great idea however it’s implementation is sorely lacking. I think a lot more people would be on their side if they reduced the amount of funding required by a factor of ten and changed the exclusivity deal to guaranteeing that the game would be available on the OUYA platform. That way the developers aren’t constrained to the OUYA platform, allowing them to develop the game however they want, and the OUYA would get an order of magnitude more titles developed for the platform. Of course that also means the risk of getting shovelware increases somewhat however after my decidedly average experience with OUYA exclusive titles I can’t say that they’d be diluting the pool too much.
I’m still hoping that OUYA manages to turn this around as their core idea of an unchained console is still something I think should be applauded but the realisation of a viable, alternative console platform seems to keep drifting further away. Their latest move has only served to alienate much of the community it set out to serve however with a few tweaks I think it could be quite workable, allowing OUYA to achieve its goals whilst furthering the indie game dev scene. It doesn’t look like they’re intent on doing that however so this will likely end up being yet another mark against them.
I’m not exactly known for going against the main stream view of a game but for what its worth my opinion is (mostly) formed based on the merits of the game itself rather than the popular opinion of the time. This became painfully apparent after my Dear Esther review and despite my assurances that I was able to put game play aside for a good story (like I’ve done several times before) I feel that many people who read that review don’t believe I’m capable of identifying a good story. Then I came across Journey, yet another game that tentatively pushed at the boundaries of the “game” definition and I thought this could be my redeeming grace. Of course Journey is nothing like Dear Esther as there’s no question as to its status as a game and what a game it is.
Journey opens up with you, a nameless and near faceless individual, standing in front of a vast desert. Apart from some vague imagery of what appears to be a star falling to the ground there’s not much more of an introduction. You’re then given control and shown the basics of movement using the PS3’s motion controls as well as the tried and true dual joysticks. Journey then leverages off your past game experience to drive you to the next goal (a close by hill) upon which the ultimate goal is shown, a giant mountain from which a pillar of light is emanating. You will spend the rest of the game attempting to reach that point.
The art direction of Journey had me first thinking that most of it was cell shaded but it is in fact just heavily stylized. Whilst the characters and scenery are usually quite simple the environment which you play through is quite vibrant and dynamic, especially for a place like a vast desert. At the same time the foley and sound direction is magnificent as they compliment the visuals quite aptly. Indeed one of the best aspects of Journey is the seemingly perfect combination of visuals and sounds, timed perfectly to evoke your emotions in a certain way at specific times.
Whilst the game play of Journey is undeniably there, thus firmly separating it from other experimental titles, it’s quite simplistic yet thoroughly satisfying. If I’m honest I went into this expecting Dear Esther levels of game play: I.E. nothing much more than exploration. You’ll spend a great deal of time in Journey exploring the areas but that’s far from the main game play mechanic which centres heavily around the idea that you main character can fly, albeit for a limited time.
The little tassel on the back of your character is your flight timer. You can jump and then fly to great heights but as you do the symbols on your tail start to burn away. When they’re depleted you’ll fall back to the ground and you’ll have to look for places to recharge it. Thankfully these are plentiful, either taking the the form of stationary points or animated cloth animals that will follow you around, recharging you as you go. You can also increase the length of your flight time by finding glowing orbs that are scattered around the place and the end of each level will let you know how many of the potential orbs you collected before carrying on.
Where Journey really starts to shine however is when other people start accompanying you on your journey. I remember my first encounter clearly: after finishing a level and proceeding to walk through a long hallway to the next I spotted movement off in the distance. I was going to back track to look for more orbs but the way the figure moved seemed… different to everything else. Excited I followed after them and when I got to them it was clear that there was another person behind that controller. Where it really got interesting though was when we tried to communicate to each other, being limited to only short bursts of sound. This meant that cooperating had to be somewhat instinctive, but you’d be surprised how much you can say with only a simple means of communication at your hands.
The multiplayer aspect, whilst not an essential part of the game play, does lend itself to some awesome emergent game play. When your characters are close to each other you slowly recharge each other’s flight time and you can recover it fully with single communication ability you have. This means your flight time can be extended indefinitely if you and your partner work together allowing you to gather many of the glowing orbs thus increasing your flight time again. Towards the end I had an extremely long tassel that allowed me and my partner to reach unfathomably large heights with relative ease. This made many parts of the game much easier and also served as something of a bragging right when I was joined by someone with a shorter tassel.
Journey has not a single line of dialogue, instead relying on cut scenes that tell a story through a series of brilliantly done hieroglyphics. They didn’t make a terrible amount of sense for me at the start but as you progress a grand story of a society that rose from the desert only to fall down again. The pictures start off in retrospective, highlighting things that had happened in the past that lead up to the world as it exists today. About half way through the hieroglyphs start turning prophetic, telling a story that seems to be eerily close to yours as it is happening right now.
Ultimately the story that’s told without a whiff of dialogue or text is amazingly satisfying. Whilst its not a gripping emotional conclusion that I’ve felt for similar story based games in the past it’s definitely fulfilling and thankfully steered clear from any notion that there might be a Journey 2 (and however they’d follow up Journey is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader). Showing you the names of people you shared your journey with along the way is a really nice touch and I was devastated when I found out that my video capture software had crapped out halfway through and those names were lost to the ages.
Realistically the only fault I can level at Journey is the price as at $20 on a game that I can’t share with my friends that only lasts 2 hours seems a tad steep. I’m sure it will eventually come down a bit in price and there’ll be something of a renaissance of people playing Journey again but until then I wonder how many are willing to take the rather steep plunge to play through it.
There’s few games that have made me smile the way Journey did, both at the beginning with a child like wonder at the amazing world that was presented before me to the ultimate conclusion that was a beautiful metaphor for the grand cycle of life and death. Everything about Journey just seems to meld together so well, from the art to the music to the game play. I could go on but realistically Journey is something that you need to experience for yourself.
Journey is available on PS3 exclusively right now for $20. Total play time was approximately 2 hours.
It’s not often that you see games stay as platform exclusives, especially successful ones. Since many publishers look to maximise their profit on any set of intellectual property a cross platform release, usually across the big 3 (PC, PS3, Xbox360), is inevitable especially if the franchise is successful. The Uncharted series from Naughty Dog is something quite special as whilst it has enjoyed success similar to that of say Mass Effect it has remained a platform exclusive for every release . The third instalment in this series, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, is no different and picks up sometime after the events that took place in Uncharted 2.
As in all Uncharted games you play as Nathan Drake, a rough and tumble treasure hunter with an eye for hunting down treasures hidden by one of his ancestors Sir Francis Drake. This time around Drake is investigating why it took his ancestor so long to sail across the east indies when he could have done it in a fraction of the time. This leads him on several quests to find the various items required to retrace Drake’s path and hopefully discover the treasure that remains hidden there. People from his past come back to haunt him in this adventure though and much of the back story between Drake and Sulley which hadn’t been explored up until now.
The Uncharted series has a reputation for being on the pretty side and Uncharted 3 is no exception. Whilst there doesn’t seem to be a vast improvement from that on previous titles there’s still some noticeable differences when you compare them side by side. It’s mostly in the small things like Drake’s face having a lot more detail to it. Since this is their 3rd release on the platform it follows that they’re probably pushing right up against the PS3’s limits, especially when the game ran as well as it did (I never noticed any slow down). Naughty Dog also get points for getting the lip syncing and motion capture spot on, something that too many games get horribly wrong.
Uncharted 3 retains the winning, Tomb Raider-esque game play style that has made it such a hit with its fans. Nearly every part of the game is filled with platforming sections, elaborate puzzle sequences, cover-based combat and a few quick time events thrown in there for good measure. Indeed at this point I’m willing to say that Uncharted is quite formulaic in its approach as the parallels you can draw between this latest instalment and its two predecessors is quite startling. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with it, Uncharted is successful for a reason, but this means its in the same category as games like Call of Duty. For some that will be off putting and I can understand where they’re coming from.
Now I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with me getting better at the Uncharted games or not but this time around I rarely struggled with any of the platforming or puzzle sections. The platforming sections really are just an organic progression blocker as Drake has very obvious queues about whether or not he can make it to the next ledge or not. It also seems that the developers, whilst keeping in the old hint system to help you get past a section should you get stuck, have made the NPCs that accompany you far more chatty when it comes to solving problems. Again it could just be me picking up on it more but it really did seem like the game’s overall difficulty had been taken down a notch or two.
Combat in Uncharted 3 is fast paced and action packed but felt like it suffered due to the inherent inaccuracy of doing a shooter on a console system. Now this could just be because I prefer the mouse and keyboard (and I could just shut up and buy the right peripherals) but most games like this compensate for that by helping you out a little, usually by locking onto the target once you get your sight in right the first time. Still there are times when I’d do a section and lay waste to an entire horde of baddies without breaking a sweat but it was just as common for me to struggle with bad aiming and misplaced grenades (is there a way to cancel a grenade throw? I couldn’t figure it out).
The quick time events also felt well placed for the most part, enabling Uncharted 3 to retain that movie level feeling whilst still letting you feel like you were in control of the action. There were a couple that dragged on for far too long however; long enough for my wife (who loves watching me play games like this) to leave the room and say “Call me back when this section is over”. It’s what my friends have come to call Epicness Fatigue when something is just so epic for so long that you get bored with it and just want it to be over. The game definitely didn’t need to be padded out at all, I mean its a relatively short game but still almost double the length of any recent FPS, so the few drawn out action sequences don’t do Uncharted 3 any favours.
The development of Drake and Sulley’s backstories was quite refreshing as it was something that was overlooked in the previous two releases. Up until this game I had just assumed that they were business partners of a few years and nothing much more than that. The story of Uncharted 3 reveals that they’ve been together for much longer than that which, if you retcon that back into the prequels to this, makes some of the decisions made by those characters seem very unusual. Still the backstory is tied in very well with the main plot so it works out anyway.
Overall the story is quite good, well above what you’d find in other games of similar calibre. Whilst I didn’t feel the same level of emotion as I have for other games I did genuinely care for the characters and hoped that certain events would unfold in the way that I wanted them. True to its Hollywood styling there’s an ending that’ll make everyone happy and thankfully doesn’t loudly declare that you should wait for the next one to come out. Undoubtedly there will be another, I believe Uncharted is to the PS3 as Xbox is to Halo, but a game always gets bonus points from me when they can wrap up the main story line like that.
Uncharted 3 might just be another instalment in a series that’s found its success formula and is sticking to it but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s just a damn fun game to play. Whilst none of the individual components stand out on their own as something revolutionary the seamless combination of all them comes together that makes something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. If you’re wondering why some people buy a PS3 over another console Uncharted 3 is definitely something I can point to as an example of what gaming on the platform can be like and indeed the Uncharted series is a great benchmark with which to compare other titles on the PS3.
Uncharted: Drake’s Deception is available on PS3 right now for $78. Game was played entirely on the medium difficulty setting with around 12 hours of game time and approximately 30% of the achievements unlocked.