Consoling: Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us

For the last few weeks I’ve been catching up on some relatively ancient and incomplete console games from the pile: Uncharted 3, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us. The latter two I’d got started in but never finished, while UC3 was a fresh start.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Uncharted 3 continues the tradition started in the first two games: high-adrenaline on-rails escapist entertainment, and likely the closest we’ll come to an Indiana Jones game.

Drake looks out over a desert city

This chapter takes things slightly deeper by putting you in the sandshoes of the young Nathan Drake, a boy starting out on the path of treasure hunting and adventure seeking. We find out how he meets and bonds with his long-time mentor Victor ‘Sully’ Sullivan via early adventures in relic thievery and (predictably) shooting guns at people.

Drake and Sully look over a sand covered city

As with the other games in the series, the amount of people you kill on your journey seeking one of Francis Drake’s supernatural discoveries is ludicrous, but it’s also very cartoony and becomes background noise before too long. It rarely feels like a fight is simply there to extend the game, in contrast to Tomb Raider.

An abandoned shipyard with huge ghost ships

There are a lot of great set pieces, from a ridiculous parachute-free skydive off a crashing aeroplane to a high speed chase on horseback – this game’s version of the great train sequence from Chapter 2. The horse animation is very funny compared to the majesty of RDR – they kind of skate over the sand.

Drake stands in front of a crashed aircraft

There’s a moment in the game where I thought that the developers had made a brave character choice, before finding it quickly walked back, which was disappointing. But then I remembered what kind of game this is and forgave it: just have fun and don’t worry about the plot or emotional weight. Perhaps the fourth chapter will deliver on that front – it’s titled A Thief’s End which sound somewhat ominous, though it probably means he just chooses the straight and narrow, right?

Drake staggers through an empty desert

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Way back in 2013, I purchased an Xbox One at launch solely to be able to play Tomb Raider, having enjoyed the last edition and Rise being a platform exclusive for a while. Of course I then didn’t play it until the exclusive window was over!

Lara looks over a horizontal tomb

It starts well enough, with an epic climb through a brilliantly animated snowstorm where you feel Lara’s cold viscerally. And the early adventuring is just that: adventuring. Finding abandoned tombs, solving fun puzzles, and seeing some amazing sights.

Lara in a snowstorm

Slowly but surely the game starts to introduce enemies into the picture. And before long that becomes the main thrust of the game: shoot (or hack to pieces with your ice pick) a gazillion bad guys. It becomes pretty tiresome, not helped by the fact that the death animation when you die (which was often for me!) is particularly gruesome. The enemies attack your fallen body with enthusiastic gusto, which is very unpleasant to watch and doesn’t seem to serve any purpose other than shock-value.

Lara looks up at a golden underground chapel

I eventually abandoned the game altogether when a battle scene became basically Call of Duty, with Lara and some allies defending a village against wave after wave of gun-toting foes backed up by a military helicopter. That fight exhausted me and seemed so far removed from what I imagine the Tomb Raider series to be about. Lara never questions her killing sprees, nor does the game try to justify them. Which is odd given the semi-serious tone the game takes.

Lara looks out at snow capped mountains

I came back to TR after finishing Uncharted, to try and finish it off (looking at the screenshots it was almost 2 years after my first failed attempt!). This time I knew what to expect, and having just played UC made the whole shooter side of the game seem more normal. The gun battles were still annoyingly frequent, but I upgraded enough skills to be able to sneak through most areas, and silently dispatch enemies if not. Unlocking new abilities also made the environments more fun to traverse, swinging huge distances and launching into mid-air to attach to an icy wall with a lunging pick.

A ship frozen vertically in an ice wall

TR is far more serious than UC but if you can settle into the rhythm of it there’s fun to be had. There are some bad and obvious artificial time-extenders (traversing from one side of the map and back, or rescuing a companion that disappeared and returned for no logical reason), and the story is nonsensical, but it’s slightly less on rails and the environments can be lovely to explore. I don’t think I’d play the next one though (Shadow of the Tomb Raider), which from reviews sounds like it’s even more violent and ‘fighty’.

It feels like TR needs yet another reboot, to rediscover the joy of exploration and movement instead of relying on the crutch of combat.

Lara climbing Mt Rushmore-like stone faces

The Last of Us

Talking about violence.

Very early on The Last of Us introduces you to the mechanics of killing (the main skill in the game), as the game teaches you how to sneak up on and throttle some ‘evil’ humans. The strangle and choke animation is long and drawn out, and made me feel bad about the whole event. Maybe that was the idea? But then the game proceeds to demand you kill pretty much everything that moves, human, zombie, or otherwise. With many, many drawn out throttling sequences if you play stealthily as I tried to.

I found myself despising playing this game for quite a while. I’m not a fan of survival horror, and would never normally play this kind of game. But TLoU has had so many stellar reviews, particularly based on the story. So I knuckled down and tried it.

Joel and Ellie in a church

Like TR, I stopped playing multiple times and for long stretches, largely due to being overwhelmed by the horror and graphic deaths I kept experiencing. Watching your character have his jaw ripped from his face, or his face ripped off, or any number of other horrendous deaths is not terribly entertaining. And I was genuinely scared of the zombies once they got close – I abandoned the controller many times with fear and loathing. The sounds the various zombie species make is super unsettling too – very well designed to make you uncomfortable pretty much constantly.

I found the game very hard, and was dying often to begin with, despite setting it to easy mode and having all the possible helpers on. I’m not sure why it was so difficult, some kind of mental block to the setting and viciousness. Lead character Joel is a very hardened soul, with only slivers of compassion occasionally peeking through. So too Ellie, his young ward, who is very old for her age, due to the brutality of the world in which they live. I found it hard to imagine wanting to survive in that world when it was so relentlessly depressing and without hope, which also made it hard to put myself in Joel’s shoes.

I also couldn’t help imagining the plight of the zombies, contemplating what it must be like to be a human consciousness trapped inside those mutated shells, and hating it. I was pleased that the game asked that question (are there people inside these creatures), albeit briefly and quickly dismissed. I’m not sure what canon zombie lore says about this, but just the thought that it might be possible was disturbing enough.

Joel on horseback riding through a forest

Along with the zombie hordes, you also have to deal with a lot of of unpleasant humanity. Some of the human villains verge on the absurd (let’s make them cannibals and paedophiles and religious nutters) and lacking believable motivation, which makes their deaths seem excusable at the cost of plausibility. Even then it felt slightly wrong to be so trigger happy with the few remaining humans – surely they weren’t all beyond redemption.

All of which makes it sound like this is a bad game – but it’s not. As everyone has said, the story is very strong and the atmosphere and world are brilliant. It’s not exactly open world, but the zones are so thoroughly imagined and varied that it almost feels like it is. I was constantly surprised at how much small detail was put into every room, sewer, and building. The character animation – particularly facial – is beautiful too. You feel like you know precisely what Joel and Ellie are going through just from their (often exhausted) expressions.

Joel and Ellie silhouetted in moonlight

The tone is deadly, deathly serious, with very little room for relief. Which makes the rare glimpses of hope or beauty all the more powerful and compelling. One moment in particular toward the conclusion is one of the great reveals in gaming – I won’t spoil it here other than to say that it is almost prophetic in the way it echoes the cautious emergence of wildlife during the Covid-19 event.

And the story is emotionally effective and often surprises. There are clunks and a few fake delays (I’m obviously not a fan of time wasters, which is funny given Warcraft is basically a series of time wasters!) but the slow development of the bond between Joel and Ellie is extremely well told. It’s basically a movie, in that you don’t get any choice in what’s happening, but there’s a reason movies are still a great storytelling medium.

Joel and Ellie in front of a dam

The conclusion of this game is pretty much perfect, and even though there is more story that could be told I’m pretty sure I’ll avoid the sequel. As with TR, reports that the new game ups the ante on the violence and relentless killing makes me think it’s not for me. I’m begrudgingly glad I played this original though.


During the play-throughs I found the emerging theme of these three games for me was how they depicted violence. Each one upped-the-ante, from the arcadey Uncharted, to the serious-face but fantastical Tomb Raider, to the ultra-violent ultra-realistic The Last of Us.

I found it harder and harder to keep up with the sheer volume of murder required. I think this was particularly true of UC and TR, where the heroes don’t ever stop and wonder if maybe 1000 deaths is too high a price for a piece of old treasure. In TLoU it’s slightly more acceptable – you’re killing monstrosities with no redeeming features – but because the game is so glum and real it becomes a psychological slog to keep your head above the claustrophobic horror. And you still have to kill plenty of humans, who are just as set on surviving as you are.

TLoU is perhaps showing the player just how horrible it is, rather than just shoving it into games ostensibly about adventure and discovery. Which doesn’t make it any more pleasant to play, but it does at least provide some context.

The debate about the place of violence in games will likely never end, and it was an interesting to experience different implementations of it in a sequence like this. Despite actively disliking playing TLoU for the first half, it was probably the most honest about the violence. The other two not so much, with TR in particular being guilty of misjudging the line between serious and silly.

I’m tempted to try Destiny 2 again next – getting back to the mindless and repetitive style of grind-gaming in a gorgeous sci-fi universe. Albeit with heavily fetished guns. There’s no escaping it!

Goldeneyed

I love reading ‘oral histories’ of things , where a reporter gathers recollections of events or cultural phenomena and weaves together a story that becomes more real than a single perspective or more formal analysis. They can be slightly contrived, but when they’re done well they’re hard to beat. A great example is this retelling of the filming of Predator, which is hilarious.

I really admire Arnold because he knew exactly what he was playing. I remember there’d be rewrites every morning, and one morning Arnold steamed out of his trailer straight up to John and grabbed him by the collar and said “John…” and John said “Yes?” “There are four words here; I’ll do three.”

Today I read a slightly more low key one about the making of Goldeneye, the classic Nintendo 64 game that (almost accidentally) reinvented – or more correctly invented – the multiplayer FPS on a console.

Doak: The multiplayer mode, which is now seen as critical for its big success, was for a long time just a wish-list thing, not a thing that we were definitely going to have. The N64 had four controller ports so it invited the idea that you’d have four-player split screen, but we were only going to program a multiplayer mode if we had time.

The story has some great images of hand drawn level maps and faxed bug reports. Amazingly the 21 year old game still has a vibrant and dedicated community playing it, largely due to the rise of speedrunning, and the support Goldeneye included for that activty before it was a thing:

Doak: We inadvertently invited speedrunning from very early on, because we had the timed unlocks.

Clark: Finishing the level faster than the target time unlocked a cheat. The harder the target time, the more awesome the cheat mode: Turbo mode, Bond invisible, invincibility, unlimited ammo — essentially keys to enter God Mode, a means to explore the game in unimaginable ways. Personally, the challenge itself got me addicted: It was a very dynamic game for speedrunning, and the target times were a clear invitation to prove yourself. Facility 00 Agent’s target of 2:05 was the legendary measuring stick. The elite.net, the home of GoldenEye speedrunning, has been tracking records since 1998. Remarkably, the game has more active speedrunners right now than at any point in the past.

The speedrunning detail reminded me of an amazing video I stumbled across last year, which showed Australian (represent!) streamer Karl Jobst beating a 15 year old record as it happened. It takes 52 seconds and his reaction when he realises is incredible. From a completely relaxed start – and probably his billionth attempt so he’s not expecting anything – to an emotional wreck.

Watching that led to a rabbit hole of trying to understand what I was watching. The aforementioned The Elite Rankings has a huge history of speedrun times, and such esoteric concepts as tied vs non-tied world records. From there I found a YouTuber RWhiteGoose who has a channel where he talks in great detail about the lore of Goldeneye speedrunning. Some of the epsiodes run for hours talking about a 60 second level, discussing the records and how they were achieved and then bettered. I was fascinated to see he’d posted an analysis of whether ‘Dam 52’ was even possible 10 months before Jobst proved that indeed it was.

All of which led to one of the most entertaining gaming videos I’ve ever seen. I kept seeing references to Ryan Lockwood’s legendary run on ‘Streets 1:12’, and eventually found Goose’s 2h40m analysis of that run, including the full video and audio. 2 and a half hours on a 1:13 run might sound excessive – ok it is excessive – but sit back, skip to 1:37:15, and enjoy. Language warning!

Console-ation

Coming back to your PC one afternoon to find it dead, and still dead after hours of fiddling, and deader still after days of troubleshooting, and confirmed dead after weeks of swapping parts, and finally condemned after even a multimeter on the motherboard couldn’t help, is not recommended. It certainly puts a stop to any MMO play, and also puts a stop to blogging.

Due to a combination of option paralysis and over analysis, it’s taken 6 months to get a new one built and installed. Which put me so far behind in Warcraft that all I could do before Battle for Azeroth was finish of Legion flying, and unlock the Highmountain Tauren and Nightborne allied races (I pity the Alliance who could only unlock their extra races after finishing late-game Argus factions). I’ll mainly regret never getting the Field Medic title, but after grinding hundreds of poor murlocs (some revenge for the many times they swarmed a levelling lowbie) time just ran out.

However the enforced break did have some positive consequences, mainly in the form of playing some long queued-up PS4 and Xbox One games1.


First up was Uncharted 1 & 2, featuring the charming, handsome, and literally bulletproof Nathan Drake.

Handsome, and Nate

These are old games now, but they still play as smooth as butter and look good too in their remastered states. It’s on-rails (literally in the case one of the best sequences on a moving train), Indiana Jones meets Lara Croft high adventure, all told with great vim and vigour, and the British humour is welcome.

There’s a tad too much gunplay sometimes, but the sheer inventiveness of the set pieces and beautiful locales make it all worthwhile. I’m pleased to think there’s 3 more games to go – just have to wait for the PC to break again I guess.


Next I plunged in to Horizon Zero Dawn, which is a beautiful game to play and watch. The scenery is often breathtakingly lush, and it’s set in a unique and totally compelling world of mechanical animals and primitive human civilisation.

The lead character, Aloy, is a great protagonist, vastly different from the smirking Drake and a perfect example of how to create new and interesting heroes without having to fall back on standard tropes.

The control and animation is a treat too, all feeling natural enough to pick up and play relatively easily even after a break. I spent a lot of time just wandering around foraging and exploring, slightly resenting having to deal with the mechanical wildlife when I strayed too close.

Worth the climb – this is the view from the back of a moving ‘Tallneck’ dinosaur

I didn’t finish HZD though, mainly due to the sheer size of the game. I thought I was traveling quite well and progressing the story, only to unlock a new section of the map that totally took the wind out of my sails. It was overwhelming to see how much more there was to do, to the extent that I downed controller and moved on.


As a palate cleanser I dipped back in to the online stalwart that is GTA V.

Seems legit

The single player game is too brutal for me, but the online version is so full of ridiculous things to do (play golf or tennis, try and steal an army jet, race through Hot Wheels tracks in the sky) that it’s hard to resist. It’s an MMO without any question, albeit one without any structure other than the city you live in.


Due to various Rockstar bonus events, I managed to save enough to buy a posh apartment this time around, which was fun – just like real life without the responsibility. I find GTA has only short term novelty value (though many would disagree – there’s plenty of role playing and career gaming happening there), so before long it was time for the highlight of this console escapade.


Welcome to Armadillo

Red Dead Redemption.

Easily one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. I’m a sucker for Westerns and RDR revels in the stories and traditions of the genre, then lets you live in it2. It’s quite incredible.

I’d started and stopped it many times before (‘I should be paying Warcraft not this’), but this time it got the hooks in deep. RDR is a sprawling Western told through the eyes of John Marsden, a perfectly realised and written Western hero, fitting every stereotype yet rising above them all. The land he inhabits is full of wonderful characters, ranging from mad grave diggers to Mexican Cartel Generals, and everything in between.

The range of personalities is great, and they’re all fully voiced, but it’s the landscape that is the real star. It’s beautiful and barren, dangerous and serene, begging you to stay on horseback and just ride as far as you can to see where you end up.

For an 8 year old game it still looks stunning, and the fact there is a remastered 4K version for the Xbox One X almost made me buy a whole new console just to see it in full glory.

No cow left behind
Of course being a Rockstar game there are few women, and unfortunately RDR2 looks to continue that tradition, but there is one very well written NPC that makes up for some of that. Some of the storylines are throw away, but many pack gut punches and emotional heft well beyond what you would expect from such a well trodden genre.

And, no spoilers, but it has the most powerful endings to a game I’ve ever experienced.


  1. Plus watching Game of Thrones S1-S7, finally. 
  2. Which made watching Westworld after playing RDR a real pleasure.