The Backlog of News

I’ve been pretty quiet on Max Frequency lately. There’s been lots I’ve wanted to post about: The Last Of Us on HBO, Horizon on PC, E3 2020 cancelation, and more. I’ve been focusing on a much larger editorial; my biggest ever. When I come home after work or wake up before…I’ve been focusing on that piece. If I had more time to better balance work, my family, and this blog, I’d definitely would have shared fuller thoughts on these stories. I’ve made a choice to focus on this larger piece though. It’ll be worth it, I think. Can’t wait to share it. That’s the cool thing about Max Frequency too. My writing at my pace. It is liberating.

Myself on Twitter on March 11, 2020

I think I summed my lack of posting pretty well on Twitter the other day. Fortunately, the editorial I mentioned is going through the editing process, which gives me some additional time to write about other stuff. You’ll see posts throughout the day with my thoughts on some of the recent news that I wanted to get written down.

As for what this editorial is, I think I’ll be announcing it soon.

Uncharted 3’s Chateau and the Art of Escalation

Since I bought my new TV, I’ve been amped for Naughty Dog’s PS4 swan song The Last Of Us Part II. I replayed The Last Of Us last year, but wanted to scratch that Naughty Dog itch before Part II this May. Thankfully, I haven’t played the main Uncharted games since 2016. I only played Lost Legacy when it released in 2017. To top it all off, I’ve never seen what Naughty Dog has been capable of in 4K HDR. Now seemed like the perfect time to replay one of my favorite series.

I’ve always had the opinion that the Chateau in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is the best set piece in the entire series. Over the train, over the cruise ship, over the many caravans, I have always placed the Chateau on top. Having just played it again for the fourth or fifth time, I thought I’d break down why I believe that.

The Chateau perfectly captures the entirety of the Uncharted experience. From narrative design with the classic relationship dynamics, unnatural twists, and grand spectacle to the core pillars of gameplay; puzzle solving, combat arenas, and platforming. It is Uncharted distilled down to 90 or so minutes. And due to this distillation, the entire set paced marvelously: elevating it above the rest of what the series offers.

I want to go through the entire set piece and chart out why I believe the Chateau is the best Uncharted has to offer.

The chapters kick off with Nate and Sully arriving in a jungle in the middle of France. There’s no threat, just navigating the space to find a way to the chateau in the distance. This setting allows Nate and Sully reminisce and have their signature banter. Coming off of Uncharted 2, this dialogue and time was sorely missed. Uncharted 3 is a Nate and Sully journey from the get go and the beginning of this level allows for fans to soak in their storied history. It’s a real treat.

Once you arrive at the manor itself, the platforming and puzzle solving begin. Climb your way inside and the first platforming puzzle presents itself. A straight forward affair, you use a pair of chandeliers to reach an upper platform that allows you to open a door to progress.

Beyond this door is more Nate and Sully quality time while quietly exploring the interior of the overgrown house. Naughty Dog shows off their visual design chops as you navigate this dilapidated home. You’ll eventually arrive in a room with a fireplace and four sets of armor.

This is the first “notebook” puzzle. Using Nate/T.E. Lawrence’s notebook, you’ll rotate suits of armor to reveal a secret passage behind a fireplace. The notebook and platforming puzzles, so far, get players into the head space of Uncharted’s frameworks. These ancient places are navigational puzzle boxes to explore and solve.

On the other side of the secret passage, Nate is separated from Sully and falls down into an underground ravine area. The environmental design drapes the cave walls in sticky cobwebs. The mood turns eery. When squeezing through a gap, a few large spiders descend on Drake, but are quickly removed when he stumbles into a pool of water. The rest of this ravine involves navigating the water, flushing the thought of spiders into the back of your mind. Soon enough you find a wall to climb up toward the light. At the top, you emerge into the first combat arena of the level.

Effortlessly led straight into danger, the tension of the level tightens. The villain has somehow tracked Nate and their edge is lost. But, Nate’s enemies are not aware you are right beneath them inside the well. As the player, this puts you in an esoteric position giving you a combative edge. While nearly every combat scenario in Uncharted games up to this point results in open-fire, the option to silently eliminate enemies at the start allows you both the satisfaction of having knowledge the enemy does not and easing into the new difficulty.

After clearing out the area by the well, you are led to a brief tutorial with grenades. After a couple of well instructed explosions, you emerge into a courtyard where Sully is pinned down. With another quick shoot out over and behind you, the pace shifts back toward the puzzle headspace. This stretch of combat has elevated the stakes in both the narrative and the gameplay. The threat of Marlowe’s men is looming like the electrical charge in the air before a storm. The distant clap of thunder to remind you of the impending storm takes the shape of a rotten corpse belonging to one of Talbot’s men; decaying far too quickly for someone who just arrived. The shift back to puzzles gives you time to breath, keep your tension in check, and ponder your narrative situation.

Nate and Sully soon find a small room with Sabean script laid out on the floor. You’ll flip open Nate’s all-knowing notebook and use the pattern inside to determine the order of tiles you need to walk across. I like this puzzle because it warms you up for what lies ahead. It takes your headspace completely out of combat and gives it all back to puzzle solving.

Yet another secret passage reveals itself, this time to a laboratory where alchemy was practice by the occult’s number one fan, John Dee. The underlying pulse of the unnatural speeds up when you slide the altar table/work surface to reveal a shaft down to the family crypt. This unnatural element had always been a part of Uncharted up to this point and Naughty Dog dropping these breadcrumbs throughout the Chateau feeds that narrative appetite. Your imagination starts to run with the possibilities of what is to come.

Inside the crypt is the most intricate puzzle for the level. Combining elements of the previous puzzles, you have to figure out the placement of four animal crests on a checkerboard of Sabean script by manipulating the light around reflective panels on the floor. I think this puzzle is one of the series’ stronger ones due to how it weaves pattern solving, “block” sliding, the notebook, and manipulating the environment to come up with the solution. It’s not a head scratcher—Uncharted is not about stumping its players—but it is fun to solve. It also brings the puzzles of the Chateau to a satisfying peak, brining this element of Uncharted to a close.

Past the crypt puzzle, Drake and Sully find what they came for. In a very “Last Crusade” like moment, a knight of old guards the key to an ancient city, but only half of it. Upon emerging from the hidden burial location, big bad henchman #1, Talbot, arrives and snatches the all-important amulet. That’s when the spiders return in full force.

Talbot locks the duo in the crypt with the rapidly expanding hoard of spiders. Naughty Dog ushers you into one of their signature rear-facing chases. The threat racing behind, you run toward the screen, unsure of where you are going and only knowing where you’ve been. A small touch in the chase is when Sully trips ahead of you and Nate will stop to pick him up. The importance of their relationship is reaffirmed despite there being this wave of deadly spiders that escalates the excitement and tension to new heights.

The game offers a brief reprieve after the chase for Nate, Sully, and yourself. Around the corner, the grand finale awaits.

From your vantage point on the second floor, you can see Talbot’s men below pouring gasoline all over the premises. The stakes (and player thrill) spike back up immediately. A shootout begins right away, but it cannot stop a fire from being ignited. The Chateau begins to become engulfed in flames.

It is here that platforming and gunplay come together to elevate the set piece beyond what one gameplay system would do alone. There is a frantic nature to finding out where you need to go to avoid the flames, while also dealing with the bad guys popping off shots at every turn. You’ll duke it out with a massive brute, you’ll duck and cover against lackies with all sorts of guns: all with the urgency to escape the building that is burning and collapsing around you.

After clearing the foyer, you’ll begin to climb a set of stairs with the fire licking at your heels from below. Nate’s foot will get stuck and force you to quickly kill two enemies while Sully dislodges your foot. Near the top, the stairs collapse. Nate and Sully hang from the burning banister. Right after gaining their footing on the banister, the whole thing falls down again and forces you to make a final climb up before the whole stair set is swallowed.

A few more enemies stand in your way before you make your way to the roof. The entire Chateau is burning to the ground. You run away from the collapsing tower, chunks of the roof crumbling beneath your feet. In classic action movie fashion, you leap away from the explosion and slide down a gutter to land on the ground in one piece.

The duo recuperates and Sully questions Nate’s pride and motivation in this treasure hunt. It is a moment of discord in what should be a celebratory moment, even if only for their lives. It doesn’t take long for it to dawn on them that their friends Chloe and Cutter may be in the same danger on their mission in Syria, encouraging players to stick around for the next level.

The entirety of the Chateau level escalates marvelously. From the friendly jaunt in the jungle to barely escaping a burning chateau, Naughty Dog paces the whole affair with the cadence that defines Uncharted. It contains all the key elements of Uncharted’s signature gameplay and story telling, while proving Naughty Dog knew the PlayStation hardware better than anyone at the time. The Chateau is refined, elegant, ambitious, all while encompassing the soul of a beloved series. There are grander set pieces throughout the series, but I don’t think you will find one more polished than the Chateau.

Calibrating for the Next Generation – LG C9 4K OLED TV Thoughts

Right before Super Bowl LIV, our living room TV died. Just bit the dust out of nowhere. Abby and I were rocking a 2007 JVC LT-46AM73 that we were graciously given for free. The only investment was a $50 stand to put it on our entertainment center. It served us well, but I always had nitpicks with it. It cropped off the image on all sides with no scaling options, had no modern audio out options, and only two HDMI ports that were accessible. It was chunkier than most HD TVs I’ve used before, but at 46” it was a significant upgrade over the 32” we owned before.

While I always wanted to upgrade the TV, we couldn’t argue with the low, low price of free. The TV worked well enough to serve both our watching and playing purposes. I was in no rush to upgrade.

One night, as I turned it on for some regular TV watching, the thing just went kaput. I asked Abby to turn on the Apple TV and the JVC TV just died. I tried unplugging it and plugging it back in: No dice. I turned to Google and found out it was not uncommon for this model. One fix I found involved taking off the back of the TV and heating up a specific capacitor with a hair dryer until the unit powered on. That sealed the deal for me. It was time for a new TV.

I could not hide my excitement at the idea of buying a new TV. I have wanted to make the 4K leap for years. Encouraged by mid-generation console upgrades, a steadily growing 4K movie collection, and seeing my friends make the upgrade, I talked a lot about investing in my own 4K future. We own both a PS4 Pro and an Apple TV 4K, but were never getting the full power out of either of them.

I immediately began researching options. Assisted by my 4K brethren, Logan Moore and Mike Ruiz, I dove into a sea of specs, pixels, sizes, prices, and more.

After sifting through the options and ultra convenient Super Bowl deals, I landed on two options:

The key trade offs were the price difference/deals, the 10” size difference, LED or OLED, and future proofing features (like HDMI 2.1).To spare you all the details of the of my comparison and discussions Abby and I had, we ended up going with the LG C9 55” OLED, which is the one I really wanted.

We picked it up on a Friday night, so I spent most of that evening just rewiring our entertainment center and putting everything in its place. The first thing we watched was Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse in 4K HDR before I calibrated the TV. My eyeballs couldn’t handle all the colors.

I spent a decent chunk of time Saturday calibrating the TV itself; and I learned a lot. My buddy Logan told me that there was a bunch of settings to tweak when he bought his 4K a couple years ago. I had a hard time picturing that much tedium. Boy, was I wrong.

Breaking news: TVs are like full blown computers nowadays! The LG C9 can remember the settings you select for each HDMI port, which was a totally foreign concept to me. I started with RTINGS calibration guide and began applying their recommended settings to each port. By HDMI 3, I realized that RTINGS suggested settings were more optimized for movies and TV shows than they were for video game play.

I turned to My Life In Gaming and their 4K setup episode. I fused the two sources of information to make each port exactly what I want. I’ve got three game consoles hooked up (for the first time ever!) and our Apple TV 4K. If I watch a Blu Ray disc (or a 4K Blu Ray when I upgrade to the PS5 and Xbox Series X), I will have to adjust the settings to get the video quality I’d prefer for video. That is not something I’m super looking forward too. It would be nice if there were profiles or toggles to switch between custom preset settings made by the user.

Once it was all calibrated, I finally booted up my PS4 Pro. I booted up God of War, Marvel’s Spider-Man, and Tetris Effect.

I never knew how much visual information I was missing. More so than raw graphical detail, the colors and lighting that are capable with HDR is astounding. It reminds me of when I put on glasses for the first time; I was miss out on a whole world of detail.

Beyond the present with only my PS4 Pro, the next generation of consoles is looming on the horizon. The known specs at the time of this writing claim the PS5 and Xbox Series X will be capable of 8K at the max, including 4K 120Hz. While my TV can’t handle 8K, it can handle 4K 120Hz thanks to having the HDMI 2.1 standard. If both the input and output devices are HDMI 2.1 and you use a cable that can handle the bandwidth, you are golden. Being able to handle the upcoming generation was imperative in my research for the TV.

I remember offhandedly saying to one of my friends “I will have a 4K TV by the time The Last Of Us Part II release.” As that time came closer, I knew that was not an active goal I was pursuing. There were simply more important things to save up for that impact far more than my entertainment system. Despite the TV not being a planned purchase this soon, it has amped my hype for the PS5 and Xbox Series X much higher than it was with my standard HD TV. Having this new 4K HDR TV has kicked me back to my PS4 library to check out what the Pro has to offer. Even impending titles like The Last Of Us Part II have had their hype levels dramatically increased.

My new TV is probably the raddest purchase I’ve ever made. It is such a multipurpose device; from the people that use it to the content it can present. I am extremely happy with it and cannot wait to see what the next generation of video games will bring to the screen.

Is PlayStation Entering the Video Game Engine Business?

I have had a thought for the past two weeks. It was sparked by Jason Schreier of Kotaku reporting that Horizon: Zero Dawn could be ported to PC, unheard of for a first-party PlayStation exclusive. Then the flames were fanned by Blessing Adyeoye Jr. of Kinda Funny off-handedly mentioned that Media Molecule may allow creators to port their creations in the upcoming game Dreams to PC.

I cannot shake the thought that PlayStation may just start licensing some of their game engines, specifically Guerrilla Game’s Decima and the creation tools behind Dreams.

This is all speculation, but I have been mulling it over. I have been reading the tea leaves, if you will. Please, indulge me and see how I think PlayStation may be gearing up to sell more than just video games and consoles.

I want to start with Guerrilla Games and their Decima engine. Decima has been used in six games:

  • Killzone: Shadowfall
  • Until Dawn
  • Until Dawn: Rush of Blood
  • RIGS
  • Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • Death Stranding

A short list, but the facts that accompany those titles is interesting. Three of the games were made by second-party studios: Supermassive Games and Kojima Productions. Two of them are PS VR titles and one is confirmed for a PC release (Death Stranding). This says to me that Decima, while seemingly tailored to open-world titles, is pliable. It even can support a strand game with a wide network of players engaging in the same game world, unlike something like Frostbite with Anthem. Decima appears to be powerful and diverse.

Sharing is in the code of Decima too. Here is technical director Michiel van der Leeuw in an interview with Len Mariken Maessen reporting for The Next Web on December 20, 2019:

Inventor types like us don’t just like to make things, we like to share them. Sharing makes you stronger. Sometimes you don’t get anything back but thanks – that’s also nice. But sometimes you find someone who’s on the same track, and it gives you all this creative energy. It’s all just code in the end, anyway: it’s the mindset of the maker that matters.

The sharing has gone beyond the PS4 as well. Death Stranding is releasing on PC this summer and will be published by 505 Games, not by SIE Worldwide Studios. If the report on Horizon making its way to the PC is true, that would have to be a SIE joint. Death Stranding alone proves Decima is capable of porting its games to PC, but Horizon would be a poster-child for the engine’s prowess.

The other half of this equation is Dreams. Media Molecule has been developing Dreams for nearly eight years. The game runs on Media Molecule’s BubbleBath engine and the tools players will use are what the developer used to make Dreams itself. Its long development cycle is just another testament to Sony’s willingness to back their first-party developers to the max and allow for such long development cycles. Sony bought Media Molecule back in 2010 to “secure excellence in game development for current and future PlayStation platforms.” Dreams certainly seems to be nothing if not excellence in game development.

The games that have been developed during the game’s early access period are astonishing to look at from afar. From the picture-perfect food, to the inevitable Star Wars game, to making E3 demos for the masses, to recreating Dead Space(!), the community seems to have taken the tools Media Molecule has created and run with them.

Seeing what people can make with Dreams always made me wonder what if someone made a full-fledged game and wanted to charge for it. If someone used Dreams as their game engine, would there be a way for them to make money off their game. Creative Director Mark Healey has thought about it too. In an interview with Edge Magazine in March 2018, Healey said that people selling Dreams-made games on PSN was a long term goal for the team.

The golden egg for that needs to crack for my theory is porting these Dreams game to other platforms. It appears to be another long-term goal for Media Molecule, according to Media Molecule co-founder Kareem Ettouneym at the View Conference:

The very limited exporting features [at] the moment are like exporting a video, but we have in the long-term [plans for] exporting a standalone game outside of Dreams entirely—exporting to other devices and beyond.

What ties these two engines and this idea I have together is how PlayStation’s leadership has been staked going into the next-generation where ecosystems will be the dominating factor. In 2019, PlayStation saw two new internal promotions to executive positions: Jim Ryan became the CEO and President in April and Hermen Hulst became the studio head of SIE Worldwide Studios, which oversees all first-party development. Both executives have spent their time with the European division of PlayStation. The company has been centralizing key people in the company’s executive leadership in Europe, home to both Guerrilla Games and Media Molecule. You may also recognize Hermen as the (now former) Managing Director of Guerrilla Games.

I agree with Mat Piscatella that ecosystems will be the battle to be won in 2020. It is readily apparent that is what Microsoft believes. It’s a practice that works pretty well for Apple. I think that Decima and Bubblebath can adapt to a wide variety of platforms and ecosystems. We know Decima has some sort of pipeline in place for porting massive open-world games to the PC. It even works with game streaming services based off Horizon joining the PS Now library this month until April. Horizon is technically on PC right now. We know they both work with VR development and it is a safe bet that they work with the PS5. These engines are future-proof for more than a PlayStation.

PlayStation has spent the PS4 generation backing their first-party studios, championing open-world, single player games, and making the PS4 “the best place to play.” As the industry moves into its next-generation, the “place to play” matters less than it ever has. Cross-play barriers are being shattered. Cloud streaming is stepping onto the scene in a big way. Games are no longer trapped in a special box under the TV, they go every where with us. I think PlayStation doesn’t just want to be the “place:” They want to power the play.