Uncharted 4: Finishing Thoughts

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Weelllll, here we go. I finally played Uncharted 4. It was a bit like GTA V, which I knew I wanted to play for a while but took a long time to get round to, and then when I did, was blown away. Well actually Uncharted 4 didn’t blow me away quite like GTA V did, but it was still pretty darn impressive.

Uncharted 4 is, funnily enough, the fourth instalment of one of the most high-profile games on the Playstation platform, published by Sony themselves, and developed by Naughty Dog, of The Last of Us fame. The game has been maturing release-by-release and by this time round, it really does feel like you’re playing a finely executed piece of art, from a creator who has spent years refining their craft.

The game takes you from childhood cityscapes, to African islands, Italian cathedrals, Scottish highlands and much more. The locations are absolutely incredible in every way. To describe how they look, words like stunning, incredible, awe-inspiring, don’t even do it justice. This game is visually unlike anything I’ve ever played before. No doubt made possible by the strictly linear path you must take through each environment, the areas you visit and interact with are meticulously detailed. Each and every leaf on every piece of rock sways in the wind completely naturally, birds fly in the distance without a sense of scripting, clouds drift by overhead, atmospheric sounds accompany your every move, and mist rises from waterfalls and distant mountaintops. It is just a sight to behold.

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The game even comes with a screenshot mode that allows you to freeze the moment and adjust camera zoom, tilt etc to your liking. I stuck to the (awful) PS4 screenshot button though as to frame screenshots throughout the whole game would have killed the pace.

Visual prowess is perhaps one of the key attributes of an Uncharted game. The others being big set pieces, exploration/climbing and puzzles. Uncharted 4 adds another: storytelling. Naughty Dog have clearly borrowed from their experience with The Last Of Us (an incredible, moving and immaculately paced adventure game) to apply an additional level of depth to the story of Uncharted 4. Through various mechanics like playable flashbacks, the game explores the history of the protagonist Nate, his brother Sam, partner Elena and fellow buccaneer Scully. We see their loves, losses, passions and weaknesses, all bounce around off each other throughout the game as their relationships evolve and unfold before our very eyes. Strict pacing is employed to build upon this, with long periods of fighting-free exploration used to trigger conversations and build atmosphere. The voice acting and script were spot-on, with some real stand-out performances by Elena (Emily Rose) and Rafe Adler (Warren Kole), and the motion capture was brilliant – facial expressions engaging, accurate and believable.

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The pacing is probably one of my few niggles. The pattern of exploration, puzzle, fighting became very repetitive. The predictability removed any sense of urgency or surprise. I would never be startled by an enemy as I could always tell when the scene was transitioning from explore to fight. The game itself actively encouraged this mindset by playing calming music after a battle, signalling you’re no longer under threat, and even showing your weapon in the hud just before enemies appeared. If found this strict adherence to routine a bit boring after a while and I longed for some variety and surprise.

The set pieces weren’t quite as memorable as, say, those in Uncharted 2 (think the train chase and the carriage cliff climb), but they were undoubtedly fun. The puzzles were average, relatively few in number, and not particularly taxing. In fact, I played the game on “normal” difficulty and considered it really easy. The fights were fun but quite limited in scope (they always took place in small, controlled environments), and lacked much variety (almost all enemies were identical throughout the game, with only two encounters with vehicles you could actually destroy yourself). This meant you weren’t forced to adapt your combat style, so it became really easy just to treat each encounter the same.

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My absolutely biggest gripe is with the physical abilities of the characters. For a game that prides itself on the realism of its environments and world, its characters treat death-defying leaps and falls as if they were walking to work. The falls that they can take make my knees creak in reaction – theirs must be made of steel. The jumping, climbing, swinging and falling is just so over the top that the balance between fun and realism is swung too far the opposite direction. It just breaks the continuity of the overall experience. It became a running joke – in advance of what was clearly going to be a superman-powered jump, I’d say to my wife “watch this”, make the jump, and we’d both giggle about how stupid it looked.

So in reflection, Uncharted 4 feels less like a game and more like an interactive movie. You control the characters, but the story is so strictly delivered, the progression so intently linear, and the action lacking any real sense of urgency or tension, that somehow it doesn’t feel as engrossing as the visuals imply it should be. The visuals really do carry the game in my opinion, while everything is so unquestionably slick, but lacking that feeling of risk and uncertainty that makes games so exciting.

I’d highly recommend it, but I feel Naughty Dog have perfected some sort of art here while sacrificing some core energy in the process.

iPhone SE: The Perfect iPhone

I guess I’ve sort of ruined the typical surprise with that title haven’t I?

Bit of context then… I’ve slowly been reducing the importance I place on technology in my life, as I try and focus more on my connection with the real world and other people. I came to realise that I had been using technology, probably since a teenager, as form of escapism, and and so I’ve been working on re-prioritising what I spend my time on and place importance on. That meant selling my Apple Watch, deleting apps like Facebook and Twitter from my phone, and most recently, switching from an iPhone 6 to an iPhone SE.

The theory was that as a larger phone is more capable, as it can more comfortably be used for things like games, video and long-form reading, then by owning one I was encouraging myself to spend more time on it. This certainly proved to be the case for me – I spent a lot of time on my phone. However, I never really wanted a larger phone: when the iPhone 6 was released, I was perfectly happy with my smaller 5, but was at a point in my life when having the latest and greatest technology was important to me, so I upgraded anyway. I didn’t like the larger phone, but like so many others I just told myself to get used to it.

Anyway, a few years later my iPhone 6 battery was so bad I had starting using an Apple Smart Battery Case, which made the thing even bigger, and impossible to take out of and put in pockets due to its high friction coating. In felt like I was lugging around something that was larger than necessary, and not in tune with the importance that I felt I should be placing on it.

So I sold it and bought an iPhone SE. The physical appearance is identical to the older iPhone 5/5S, but it comes with the internals of the 6S. I got it in Gold, and let me tell you, this phone is perfect. I don’t use that word lightly, so I should caveat it with…. “for me”. It is small enough to be unobtrusive in pocket, its far easier to hold and my thumb can reach the entire screen, and it looks way nicer than the bland and generic looking iPhone 6. The camera is brilliant, and the overall device performs nice and fast.

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What I like about it the most though is that its size specifically excludes or discourages certain activities. I don’t use it for games, video or long-form reading, which means that if I want to do those things, I do them consciously on other devices (iPad or laptop). This means instead of content and attention-saturation from consuming endless media on my phone in no particular structure, I now decide to ‘read the news’ or ‘watch some videos’ (on another device that itself is best suited to whatever activity I’m doing) and that’s a segmented part of my day that has a start and a finish. I feel more empowered this way – less a slave to whatever my phone beeps at me. My phone is now for calls, light emails and messaging, news, camera/photos, music, maps and other reference/utilities (parking, laundry etc), and that feels so right. It feels like what phones are best suited for.

Unless I for some reason change my mind again, this will be the model I will follow the upgrade path for. Will just need to see whether Apple aligns updates to the SE with its flagship phones each year, or leave it for early the following year as they currently have done.

Anyway, all of this isn’t to say what anyone else should do, and I hope I’m not doing that typical techy superiority thing… its just to document something that made a significant difference in my day to day life/routine, for the better. I think the focus, time and importance we place on technology in our life should not be treated complacently, so whatever the result, I’d certainly encourage individuals to at least have thought about where their priorities lie, and ensure their actions align with them!

Kholat: Finishing Thoughts

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Kholat is another ‘walking simulator’ that are becoming popular, and I really enjoy them. For those that don’t know, these are games where generally you don’t ‘do’ anything other than walk around a game environment and witness things, generally spoken audio (like finding journals) or similar, that slowly tell you a story. They are essentially interactive books, but with the primary medium being visual rather than text, and where each player experiences the whole story differently according to the choices they make and the order in which they explore the game world.

The thing with them though is that they are quite easy to get wrong. Because the storytelling relies upon fewer disciplines and less interactivity to draw you into an near-eventless world, the overall delivery has to be very polished otherwise the spell is broken and the story just isn’t effective. That is the case with Kholat unfortunately, that seems to have its heart in the right place but is let down by almost all aspects of its delivery. None of it is awful, but too much of it just isn’t great, and worse it just isn’t cohesive, and that creates an overall disappointing experience.

(By the way, if you want an example of the gold standard of walking simulators, go get Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture – a mind-glowingly incredible gaming experience, if you like that sort of thing.)

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The entire first Act is a town where you enter a single building

The story is an imagining of ‘what might have happened’ relating to a supposed real life incident where a group of students died under mysterious and as-yet unsolved circumstances while on a camping expedition. They cut their tent from the inside in a panic and their bodies were found with unexplainable injuries. The game takes place in the same environment, where you, to some degree at least, are re-tracing their steps and/or investigating what happened – it isn’t really clear (and that’s fine by the way).

My biggest complaint about Kholat is in the way the story unfolds. The entire premise of the game is around the unexplained deaths of these students, yet within about 10 minutes of playing it is made glaringly obvious how they died (as you succumb to the same fate many times). Basically there are some supernatural baddies hanging out in the area. So the story pivots to understanding what these baddies are all about, and I just thought that was a total let down. Why build something up so much and then just let it deflate?

The ending of the game is left deliberately obscure and open to interpretation. But in order to actually do any interpreting, the player needs to have a very good grasp of what amounted to quite a large number of journal entries, written by different people at different times, to the extent I found it all a bit hard to keep track of. I therefore wasn’t really able to put together any pieces once the game was finished, and so I was left feeling pretty underwhelmed. While complex story arcs are fine, they still need to be accessible to all players and not just the hardcore.

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The other problem with this let down is that it ruins the air of mystery and creepiness that otherwise could have been used to great effect. For example, at one point a distant church bell ominously starts chiming; usually a sure sign of creepiness but by that point in the game I just didn’t really care why, as clearly everything going on was not making any sense and I just needed to roll with it.

Finally on the experience side of things – the voice acting wasn’t very good. Sean Bean, who voiced one of the mysterious characters, has such a bizarre script that I sort of don’t even blame him for its bland and unenthusiastic delivery. Then the female student’s journals are devoid of any emotion at all until the very last one, by which point she’d lost my interest.

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These guys appear every now and then, and, like everything else in the game, are never even partially explained

The rest of my issues are more on the gameplay/technical side. One of the tutorial points mentions “planning each excursion” between campsites, but then there is exactly zero mechanic in the game relevant to this – you don’t get hungry, cold or tired and you can’t even stop at campsites even if you wanted to! Then there is a weirdly implemented compass that you for some reason always hold sideways, annoyingly long load times, glitchy sound and graphics and no way to mark the map with co-ordinates you find. Also there’s the weird three-act structure where acts 1 and 3 are essentially irrelevant they are so short and content-free.

A bit of me did actually enjoy the game. There were some scary moments (earlier on before the predictability had set in) and some of the exploration was enjoyable (although again the environment got quite monotonous after a while), and I’m pleased I’ve played it. I also feel like the developers tried hard and deserve not to be roasted for this – it isn’t terrible, it just isn’t that great. I’d love to see their next endeavour which I’m sure benefit from their learnings making Kholat.

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Gravity Rush Remastered Review

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Writing this a few months after finishing it so the experience isn’t as fresh as it could be so I’ll keep this brief, but nice to have a record.

Gravity Rush is a 3rd person anime-styled adventure with a load of charm, that is well-executed, looks great and benefits from an Eastern cultural essence that provides an unusual and enjoyable element to a Westerner like me.

The character you play is a young girl called Kat who wakes up in a town where weird baddies and storms have appeared, and the appearance of a magical cat gives you supernatural strength and powers. The game is you restoring the town to normality by finding parts of it that that have been eaten up by the storm, and defeating the baddies.

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The standout element of the game is the ability to ‘shift’ gravity, allowing you to essentially fly (technically skilled falling!). You point at the surface you want to ‘fall’ to, and gravity shifts to make it so, and you go flying towards your direction. Shifting mid-fall allows you to navigate around in 3D space, uncovering hidden areas, exposing weaknesses of enemies etc. Its really fun to do and never gets old.

Much of the game plays like many others like it. Alice: Madness Returns springs to mind – long story missions with repetitive enemies and battles, slowly evolving as you earn better abilities, but unlike Alice, Gravity Rush manages to keep the balance enjoyable (Alice became a slog as it was far too long and repetitive). For each story mission, there are a few side quests and races to undertake, which are all quite fun and not overly numerous.

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The overall game atmosphere left a really pleasant mark in my mind. Each area of the city has its own unique look and feel, as well as ‘theme tune’ that plays while you’re there. There are a number of weird and wonderful other worlds you visit, each with their own environmental challenges and skills required to navigate. The various areas complement each other really well and I’ve been left with a real fondness when I think back about this game.

I found the most interesting part the character Kat. Her lines, relationships and even risqué scenes provided an insight into Eastern culture that is quite new to me as I haven’t watched/played any anime-type things before. It had this weird mix of innocence and sexuality; a balance that perhaps isn’t seen that much over here in the West. Kat is simultaneously vulnerable, sexy and endearing.

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The game was quite long, I think due to the addition of DLC content in the PS4 version I played. I definitely wouldn’t want it to be any longer, and I was aware it was long, but it was fun the whole way through.

A quirky and fun adventure with a few unique abilities and charms that leaves a really positive imprint; definitely recommended.

My score: 8/10

Batman: Arkham Knight Review

Its almost as if this blog is turning into solely game reviews…. ok yes that’s exactly what this has become I’m afraid. I like to document it when I complete a game, so why not put it here (don’t answer that)?

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So, Batman: Arkham Knight. Number 4 in the ‘modern’ console releases of Batman, but number 3 in the ‘official’ Rocksteady series, as Arkham Origins was made by a different developer and goes off-canon a bit (as far as I’m aware). Each of the games evolves from the previous one, starting from the very successful Arkham Asylum. Each introduces a new fundamental game mechanic – Arkham City opened up the environment to a much wider area with more focus on gliding (after the claustrophobia of Arkham Asylum), and Arkham Knight introduces the Batmobile as a primary method of travel, and further increases the play area with roads and different whole districts of Gotham city to explore.

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The Batmobile is pretty awesome really

Other than these key evolutions, the rest of the game mechanics have remained unchanged. You get a few new gadgets in each game to earn, but the combat, baddies, style and pretty much everything else is the same as before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing I suppose as the game concept is really good, but I did let out a small sigh starting the game, seeing what I was getting myself into.

Overall the game was very enjoyable. Batman’s voice acting was great (if a little OTT), the graphics and environment were incredible, the batmobile was fun to drive, and combat remained satisfying and challenging.

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Combat and tactics remain thoroughly enjoyable

The plot itself was a bit mediocre. There’s a few main enemies (namely Scarecrow and new guy – “The Arkham Knight”, who flip-flop between who is the one you’re actually after and who’s in charge of who, and the eventual defeats are bit bland. Then there’s all the other baddy characters like Two Face etc, who each get their own little side-story (read: side missions), but some are so short it feels disjointed considering the historical significance of some of these characters.

As with all these games, the decision of when to progress the story or pursue side missions is left up to the player, and while some side missions are witheld until certain points of the game, this player-led progress means the pacing of the game is left entriely down to the player. I find this almost always doesn’t work very well – either you spend too long on side quests so you lose interest in the main plot, or you focus on the main plot and then don’t upgrade enough through side quests to enjoy all the powerups. Only the developers know in advance what the best ‘pace’ should be, and there’s no way for a player to know this, so it is pot-luck and entirely driven by each player’s personal play style.

Then there’s the Riddler. Everything to do with the Riddler was basically awful, and it significantly reduced the quality of the experience for me. The game employs the same old concept – Riddler has hidden a load of clues, items breakable objects etc all over Gotham and how have to find them all before you can progress his bit of the story. There are about 250 of these!! Collecting them involves enduring his endless inane childish babbling, all the while being acutely aware that the actual implementation of a set of traps on this scale would be an enormous undertaking and not just be dreamt up at a moment’s notice as seems to be the case. The whole concept of chasing down glowing question marks is downright demeaning to a character like Batman, and the whole exercise was just unrewarding. Even the final battle with Riddler was rubbish and forgettable. This is some of the worst artificial extensions of game time I’ve seen, and was just completely overdone. I don’t know why they went so mad with Riddler stuff but the devs should be embarrassed.

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Lots of things get blown up

One brilliant aspect was the Joker sub-plot. I don’t want to give too much away, but basically Joker, despite dying in the second game, features heavily in this one, in a unique way and fairly intrinsically to the plot. His demise in this game is the most interesting of all the baddies, his acting is fantastic and he gets some hilarious lines. He’s been the best bit of the Arkham games for sure.

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Joker and “Bats” hanging out on a rooftop 

Getting to 100% on this game was a slog. There were so many ‘things’ to find, just to tick them off, that didn’t really add to the game itself. I think the balance was too skewed in that direction, but considering these are optional (to a degree), I suppose only the completionists like me are going to be annoyed! I clocked up 47 hours on this one which is pretty high, and I feel a lot of those hours weren’t particularly good value for money.

That said, there were plenty of really enjoyable aspects to the game, especially if you are a fan of the genre, story etc.

My score: 7/10

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Review

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I think I’ve just finished this game. It isn’t really very clear whether I’ve finished it or not, which I will explain.

MGSV is an open-world military/stealth/espionage game, where you spend your time using a combination of stealth and endlessly novel weapons and gadgets to infiltrate bases, rescue prisoners, capture outposts and defeat baddies, all while uncovering a mysterious plot involving worldwide nuclear threats and… paranormal experimentation.

Whereas usually in games the plot and the gameplay are intertwined, with MGS the two are so dramatically different that they can almost be considered completely independently of each other. The gameplay, game mechanics, level progression, base building etc on one hand, and a cut-scene heavy elaborate and mindblowingly confusing and extravagent plot and set of characters on the other. You could basically play the game without the cutscenes or story and have a great time, and similarly you could probably just watch all the cutscenes and enjoy a movie, albeit one that probably doesn’t make any sense.

So to look first at the gameplay itself, which is outstanding. As a long-time Splinter Cell fan, when I heard that this game was about ‘stealth’, but then saw screenshots in open sunny deserts, I was dubious. Stealth to me means creeping in the shadows indoors at night, not racing around in choppers and Jeeps, but MGS won me over – it really is brilliantly done.

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Sneaky sneaky

You are Big Boss, general badass and leader of guns-for-hire Diamond Dogs and you have a wealth of weapons, gadgets and other tools available to you, all of which can be upgraded throughout the game. You can choose how to play the game, but you are rewarded by using stealth and not killing people (so, silenced tranquilliser guns, sleep and stun grenades, distractions and generally sneaky sneaky approaches, knocking out enemies one by one until you’ve secured the area), or you can just as easily go loud, deploying a tank and using rocket launchers, landmines and grenades to obliterate anything with a heartbeat. Both are fun, and both are completely equal in execution quality and options.

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One of your buddies – D-Dog, who can sniff out baddies and other useful stuff

Not only are you a one-man-infiltration-machine, but you can call in “buddies” who can help you (a sniper, a dog who can sniff out enemies, a mechanical walking machine or a horse) and you can call for airdrops of anything from ammo to full-size tanks or other vehicles that you have acquired.

This endless array of options led to some really great gaming experiences. Sometimes I’d be infiltrating a base with a stealth load out, and then I’d be completely blindsided by a plot twist that meant I needed to go loud, so I’d call in a loudout drop from the chopper and completely change my tactics, sometimes even swapping out buddies as well. I might then steal a vehicle and go to the next mission or side mission, or call the helicopter to take me there. Sometimes the helicopter would come and help me with some air-to-ground barrage, but I’d have to make sure I hunted out any ground-to-air artillery first and take it out with some C4. Perhaps I would interrogate a guard and find out there’s a prisoner nearby which might mean a change in plan, or maybe I’d get caught and suddenly need to resort to drastic measures to survive. The game has a brutal (but rewarding) checkpoint system where you can lose a lot of progress if you die, so you really don’t want to.

Then there is a whole behind-the-scenes base-building aspect to the game, where the enemies you extract from the battlefield become your new recruits who help research items for you. You can visit your “Mother Base” and explore it, unlocking some hidden cutscenes. As it grows, so do the weapons and item upgrades that become available to you. You can even micro-manage which teams each staff member resides in, to maximise the base efficiency, but I just used the auto-manage option the whole time unless I needed a temporary boost to a particular team to meet a particular upgrade’s requirements.

The AI is intelligent and challenging, adapting to your playstyle. For example, if you always infiltrate camps at night-time (the game has a day and night cycle), soldiers will start wearing night-vision goggles and using torches, or if you always use gas grenades they might start wearing gas masks. This makes you adapt your approach, always keeping you thinking. You can even send out some of your mother base staff on behind the scenes missions on your behalf to disrupt enemy supplies of gas masks etc to try and turn the odds back in your favour.

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The cutscenes are numerous, long and overly dramatic

That’s just a fraction of the gameplay, which is totally immersive and excellent and I had a blast playing it. There’s so much to it, and its all really well balanced and makes for one of the best 3rd person stealth/combat games I’ve ever played. On the flip side, there’s the plot and other theatrical elements which really mess with the formula. The plot alone is completely nuts and makes little sense unless you do a lot of background reading and listen to all the tapes that you collect throughout the game. It references huge amounts of back-story which went over my head because I’d not played any previous MGS games. It was quite enjoyable but I just got the feeling they went overboard. Every cutscene includes dramatic slow-mo moments, lens flares and climaxing music, as if this is some mini-movie. Every mission starts and ends in a full credits sequence (spoiling half the twists in missions because it tells you who is ‘starring’ in the mission before you’ve played it). The game designer Hideo Kojima’s name appears every time you finish a mission or do anything. The cutscenes are really long too; I wouldn’t be surprised if there was at least 2 hours of cutscenes in this game. There’s also an embarrassingly overly-sexed character with huge bobbing boobs in a tiny bikini, with a far-fetched plot device created to explain why she dresses that way. I think it is related to the culture of Japan etc, where this sort of thing might be normal, but it sticks out oddly in the game. The theatrics of the game are basically over the top, and I did find myself getting fed up with the long and bizarre cutscenes. Also your character, voiced by Keither Sutherland, is weirdly silent for most of the game, despite being pivotal to almost every scene. Then way he just doesn’t say anything ever is really strange. There must be a decision behind it, but the result is odd.

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“Quiet”, a very useful but ridiculously ‘gifted’ woman

The only significant negative about the game is the pacing, although this can be counter-acted with some fore-knowledge. Essentially, the game is split into two chapters, but there can be no other explanation for the quality of chapter 2 other than they ran out of money or time. It is a mishmash of a few cutscenes, a handful of new missions and side ops and a load of replaying of old missions on a harder difficulty level. When you complete Chapter 1, you feel like you have legitimately beaten the game – the pacing up to that point is perfect, there is a decent finale etc, and then the end game credits. Then it says “End of Chapter 1”. The player is then left to believe that they are half way through the game, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. The slow realisation of how awful and non-existent Chapter 2 is makes for a real comedown after the climax of Chapter 1. I’ve read up on it and there are plenty of rumours about budget and time constraints fighting against an overly-grand vision by Kojima, but there is simply no excuse for this terrible execution. Chapter 1 should have been the end, leaving the rest of the side ops etc open for playing casually. What’s infuriating is that there are a few ‘secret’ missions in Chapter 2, unlocked only by achieving certain things (which you aren’t told about), which then explain the entire plot. There is no hint that these missions even exist (I just researched on the web and stumbled on it), but they explain a LOT. To bury something of such significance inside an otherwise pointless chapter is crazy.

Overall, this is a fantastic game that I highly recommend. The gameplay is brilliant, the missions and side ops are varied enough to avoid monotony, the plot is totally mad but intriguingly unusual and unexpected. There are a load of culturally-inspired decisions made that are confusing and unnecessary but they can be ignored. I would advise all players to consider “Chapter 1” to be the full game, to avoid disappointment, although I would recommend playing the important story missions in Chapter 2.

Going back to an analog watch after Apple Watch

I wore my 42mm Apple Watch Space Grey Sports daily for about 6 months. I pre-ordered it the minute pre-orders came available and was very excited to receive it. I am an early adopter and a general fan of Apple design (although less of a fan of their software these days).

I’d worn a Tissot wristwatch for about 15 years, but once reading about the Apple Watch, it made me ask a few fundamental questions about the purpose of a watch. I started to understand how watches were at least 50% a fashion item as opposed to being purely a utility to tell the time (which is why I wore mine). The more I thought about it, the more sense it seemed to me to give a smartwatch a try – if I am going to wear something on my wrist and I’m not that fashion-conscious, I may as well make the most of it and get as much use from it. I also realised that my current watch was really showing its age.

Unfortunately, the Apple Watch did not live up to its hype or the expectation I had for it. I don’t actually blame it for this; it is literally a 1st generation product and I can’t think back to many 1st gen digital products that lived up to the expectations of a modern digital consumer – our standards are exceptionally high! However, the future is called that for a reason and I can only wear on my wrist what is available today, and today the Apple Watch is not worth wearing (for me).

(The enjoyment of any watch is, I now understand, a very personal thing. The following assessment is therefore true only for me, but I’m just going to say that once rather than appending “in my opinion” after every sentence that follows…)

Form

If a product is comprised of form and function, the Apple Watch doesn’t deliver on either. While the design is modern and well executed, and probably some of the highest quality hardware engineering you can expect for £350, the design lacks any form of emotional quality. It simply doesn’t evoke any response in my heart when looking at it, unlike almost any normal watch. I can’t quite put my finger on why; maybe it was just too black, too metal, or too flat. Rather than looking and feeling like a watch that also does smart things, it looks like an Apple computer that happens to tell the time, and that wasn’t what I wanted to see when looking at my wrist. The fact that almost every single UI element was a circle but the physical watch shape was a rectangle never quite worked for me either; I started longing for a round watch.

I actually tried to reduce the gadgety look of the device by buying a 3rd party leather strap from Pad & Quill, which was great and made a huge difference, but a strap can’t save the watch from itself.

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Before and After: Standard Space Grey Apple Watch Sports and with Pad & Quill’s leather strap

 

This is the thing I didn’t anticipate or appreciate about buying a smartwatch; that it needs to feel right. The desired feeling is specific to each individual, but for me I realised I wanted to feel like I was wearing a watch, not a computer.

Function

This one is easy to critique. The Apple Watch needs to mature before the functions it provides will be more useful. Some basics are limiting it off the bat – namely speed and reliability. Apps are painfully slow to load, and sometimes don’t load at all. As I read once, computer interactions are measured in hours, smartphones measured in minutes, and smartwatches measured in seconds. I.e. if doing something on your watch takes longer that it would take to do on your phone, there’s no point, and that was the problem with the Apple Watch. Using it for anything that involved any interaction with it was an exercise in frustration as you sit there staring at the spinning wheel.

Other niggles made it annoying, like having to make an awkwardly-horizontal wrist movement just to get the screen to light up and tell the time, and playing cat and mouse with the home button as you could never quite tell if it had recognised your press, then it would but only after you’ve pressed it again so you’d go back and forth endlessly. And don’t even get me started on Siri, which worked about 1 in 10 times. If Siri doesn’t work 100% of the time, it is worth trying.

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Get used to this

 

As many others believe, I think the Apple Watch simply tries too hard to do too much, probably because Apple don’t really know how people are going to use it, so they want to give people options to see how it pans out.

What this meant was that the trade-off between form and function (sacrificing form for increased function) didn’t balance, because the function wasn’t there. So I was left with a smartwatch that didn’t feel very smart.

(Just to re-iterate, this is my personal experience. My wife absolutely swears by her Apple Watch, mainly because of one of her use-cases – her phone remains in her handbag and she can now see notifications, messages and calls without having to find her bag).

So what next?

I made my mind up and sold it, and had started reading and learning about mechanical watches. I started to appreciate the thought and work that goes into a lot of watches out there, and how in fact the function isn’t necessarily that important – there is something about watches that appeals to our vanity above all else. I used to think I liked an understated watch because I wasn’t into fashion, but that’s probably not true – having an understated watch is still a fashion decision like any other.

I knew I wanted to wear an analog watch. I was happy to forego the smart capabilities – in fact, I had come to realise that I didn’t want to get closer to my digital life, but in fact the opposite. I struggle enough to maintain a balance between being engrossed in digital and real life, and I didn’t need another device making it harder. The Apple Watch managed to remind me of how increasing my digital interactions wasn’t always a good thing.

The only brand I fell in love with was Nomos. They are an independent German watch manufacturer making waves as they build their own movements in-house and strike a difficult balance between minimalism and unique design (minimalist watches are all the rage right now but they generally look overly bland and lack subtlety). This is quite unusual as most watchmakers, even the big players, buy movements from only a handful of Swiss manufacturers. The Nomos design is also unique and right up my street. Unfortunately they start at about £1,500 and the ones I like are about £2,500, so a Nomos was out of the question – there simply is no justification for spending that sort of money on a watch, for me.

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Nomos Tangente Neomatik

 

I then nearly bought a Tissot Luxury Automatic – a mechanical chronometer (very accurate) with an innovated movement giving it an 80 hour power reserve (how long it stays ‘wound’ when not on the wrist), but at £650 and with quite a bland design, again I couldn’t justify it.

Tissot Luxury Automatic Chronometer

 

I then kind of gave up for a few weeks until I stumbled upon Farer. They are a UK-based watch designer whose style I immediately liked, and when I showed my wife the Stark watch, it was the first one where she immediately said she liked it, which was a significant moment!

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Farer Stark

 

So I ordered it! And now I am a proud owner of a ‘dumb’ wristwatch. It doesn’t have the aficionado appeal of a mechanical watch (it has a battery), but it is really well designed and presented, and at £380 was much more affordable (although granted still pricey for a Quartz watch).

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My Farer Stark which arrived today

 

So for now, I am having a dumb wrist, and it feels great. There was something about the Apple Watch that was trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist. There were moments of genius that I think will evolve into something in due course (for example, customisable complications and tap to turn navigation), but these are bogged down by unnecessary feature bloat and poor performance.

Give it a few more years to evolve and, just like the iPhone, I’m confident it will mature and live up to its own lofty standards, but its not there today, and today I feel much better wearing a normal watch. I’ve accepted my own levels of wrist vanity and am pleased I have found a solution that allows me to tell the time and feel good about it.