Unpacking | The Matrix | Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
Not one of these things is like the others.
GAME REVIEW /// Unpacking
Game summary: Part block-fitting puzzle, part home decoration, you are invited to create a satisfying living space while learning clues about the life you’re unpacking. (Xbox.com)
It's time to thank Game Pass again as Unpacking is a game that feels made for that service thanks to its short length and limited gameplay. I don't intend those as negatives, but there was just something unfulfilling about the game as a whole that made me glad I hadn't spent the money to pay for it outright. Okay, that might sound really harsh, especially as it is a genuinely fun game for the most part.
The premise is simple: you play an unseen female protagonist at various stages of her life - from childhood to settling down with your partner - and unpack the possessions they bring to each new place they live. It's pretty simple and you can progress by just placing items where the game counts as being correct, but it felt more fun to me to try and make everything look neat and like it belonged rather than simply trying to beat the game.
There are a couple of issues with this though, as I genuinely couldn't figure out what some of the items were and was forced to fit them in as neatly as possible where the game accepted them; and - on the last two levels - there were objects that I had placed where they looked appropriate and where I would put the same things, but the game didn't accept it and I was forced to make things look a little untidy as a result.
Due to playing Unpacking through Xbox Game Pass, there's also an issue of the controls being a little fiddly as the character ages and they accumulate more and more smaller items. On console, this effectively forced me to zoom in to select certain objects at times due to the imprecise nature of the gamepad controls, so I would absolutely recommend playing this on PC instead if you get the chance.
The game is also strangely paced, with what feels like earned leaps forward each time from one point in the protagonist's life to the next, but the jumps for the last couple feel especially large and like there were other moments in their life that were missing. I can understand why they would be cut as it would almost certainly prove to be too repetitive, but that feeling kicks in anyway.
Unpacking is not a game that I'd suggest bingeing as there really is only the one type of gameplay and would suggest spacing out each level, because the last two felt a little boring and like I was just repeating things I'd already done - after all, once it's clicked what's changed in the character's life, you're left with just the same gameplay mechanics and lots of fiddly items to find new places for.
That environmental story-telling does deserve praise though as you can absolutely follow the narrative of the protagonist's life without ever seeing them, hearing them or having anything spelled out for you. Unpacking really is a master of showing and not telling, letting the player figure things out from context, and I think a lot more narrative-based games would benefit from following this example.
I don't think Unpacking is especially brilliant, but I'm definitely glad I played it and would recommend that you at least give it a try, especially if you have Game Pass. It's family friendly too, steering clear of items a teenage girl/young woman could potentially own that might shock some more 'sheltered' players, although I will just repeat that I think playing this on PC might provide an even more enjoyable experience due to the more precise level of control a mouse affords you.
Unpacking is a fun game with a pretty unique premise that suffers a little from control issues on console and, strangely, feels both too short and too long. The environmental story-telling is excellent though, providing more than enough information about the unseen 'unpacker' that you play as to follow the narrative of their life through the items they own and the spaces they inhabit.
[7/10 - Good]
MOVIE REVIEW /// The Matrix
Movie summary: When a beautiful stranger leads computer hacker Neo to a forbidding underworld, he discovers the shocking truth--the life he knows is the elaborate deception of an evil cyber-intelligence. (IMDb)
I not only saw The Matrix at the cinema on release, it was also the second DVD I ever bought after Blade - clearly I had a thing for action movies involving kicking arse using martial arts while wearing a lot of black leather at that time. On reflection, that seems to have been the lesson learned by most studios at that time who set out to replicate the look of those movies rather than what made them so good.
And make no mistake, The Matrix is still a bloody good movie - and not just for fantastic action either. Having now been revealed as a metaphor for being transgender, which makes complete sense when watching the movie with that in mind, it also works on a more basic level of feeling like you don't really fit in to the role that society expects of you - something the trans community must be all too aware of.
This feeling of being 'lost' in the world and not belonging to a particular identity that others might place on you is perfectly portrayed by Keanu Reeves acting, limited though it may be. Despite this, Reeves sincerity as Thomas Anderson - aka Neo - is what shines through and his journey from someone being swept along to becoming the fabled 'One' (an anagram of Neo) feels both genuine and deserved.
Carrie-Anne Moss and Laurence Fishburne both stand out as Trinity and Morpheus, aiding Neo in his life-changing experiences in different ways while also having far more depth than simply helping to prop up the protagonist. The rest of the crew suffer from their rather disposable nature, although they're all fleshed out just enough for you to care about them when the shit hits the fan.
However, the real standout role in The Matrix has to belong to Hugo Weaving as the vicious Agent Smith, a program pissed off that he too is effectively trapped in the Matrix along with everyone else and wanting to complete his mission for selfish purposes rather than because it's what expected of him - hey, another person who identifies as something other than they might appear!
As for the action, the martial arts choreography is outstanding almost the entire time, although there are some moments of unintended weightlessness from the wire work (the nature of the in-movie Matrix means that weightlessness is usually fine when it happens) and the CGI is mostly fine, but still dated somewhat as you'd expect it to be after so long, but nothing that will ruin the experience.
One thing I did notice while watching The Matrix again for this review is just how loud the movie is, especially when it comes to the gunfire. It's not Christopher-Nolan-movie bad when it comes to sound levels, but you might want to be ready to adjust the volume when prolonged gunfights break out, or at least be ready for some truly deafening sound.
Overall, I still really enjoyed The Matrix even if the fashions feel very late Nineties/early Noughties and a few moments in the action feel a fraction off due to how much this movie was pushing at the technological limits of the time. That it manages to combine such excellent action so well with a serious message - about identifying as who you really are and not how others perceive you - is astounding and something that more blockbusters today should really aim for.
The Matrix is still a fantastic action movie, even if it is starting to look a little dated now for reasons beyond fashion. To be fair, that's pretty damned good going for a science-fiction, effects-heavy blockbuster from over two decades ago and is a pretty big indicator of just how mind-blowing it was to see on its original release. And unlike a lot of franchises since, you can watch just the first movie too - which some might prefer.
[9/10 - Great]
GAME REVIEW /// Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
Game summary: As the newly-appointed Warden-Commander of Ferelden, you are tasked with rebuilding The Order of the Grey Wardens in the region, based around the ancient fortress of Vigil's Keep. (IMDb)
While Awakening is set directly after the events of Dragon Age: Origins, you don't actually need to play the base game first if you don't want to - why you'd skip the main story is beyond me, but the option is there because this is more what used to be considered an 'Expansion Pack' rather than the more modern idea of DLC. It helps that there's a hell of a lot more to do here than you'd find in almost any other DLC going.
Having played this additional adventure more than once, I can get through it pretty easily, although there is some help due to how overpowered some of the new abilities you acquire can be. It also helps that I like playing the first Dragon Age game as a sword-and-shield tank, meaning that an otherwise very difficult battle towards the end of Awakening can be soloed, even if it might take some time.
There are new characters to get to know, most of whom won't show up ever again. It's a shame that we get to spend so little time with them, but it's also understandable with them only appearing in this smaller adventure and they can all potentially be killed off if you bungle your choices - and there are still plenty of those to make, as you'd expect from a BioWare RPG.
In fact, the biggest praise I can give to Awakening is that this is the direction I wish the series had gone in, with everything feeling far more confident, as if the team behind this expansion were completely comfortable at this point in development and confident about trying out new things. The extra abilities, new enemies, choices affecting almost everything, and even flashier cutscenes all speak to a team that were in total control of their efforts.
I get that Origins and Awakening aren't the prettiest games - even on release - but I think it would've been possible to keep everything that was so good here and expand on it even more with improved visuals rather than how Dragon Age II turned out - and I like that game! It's astonishing how much everything improved in just months after Origins' release to get the standard of Awakening, and it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to not continue down the same road.
As for the gameplay, it plays pretty much identically to Origins as you'd expect, although there are little bits and pieces here and there to keep you on your toes. Awakening really does feel like a true 'expansion' pack, not just because it adds more, but because what was added is pretty great and lives up to the supremely high standards set by the base game.
The main reasons I wouldn't rate Awakening higher is that the side stories here aren't as well fleshed out due to the much shorter game length. You don't really get to know your new team all that well regardless of how good an impression they all make, and the narrower focus does take away from the epic feeling of grand adventure spanning an entire country contained in Origins.
Still, someone playing through Awakening for the first time will likely take somewhere between ten and twelve hours to finish it if they try to do as much as possible, which is pretty great for a 'smaller' adventure. And you really can't do everything in a single playthrough either, with the game forcing events before you can fully ready your forces - a cheat to artificially induce stress over how best to proceed, but it works.
Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening is a great follow-up to the base story of Dragon Age: Origins, focusing on a smaller area and (slightly) lesser threat, while still containing everything that made the main game so enjoyable. There's a slew of fun new characters to get to know (and Oghren...), new skills to learn and new places to visit, with more content packed in than a lot of full releases.