Thursday, November 19, 2009

Uncharted 2

Spoilers ahead; my only warning.

I've been wanting to write about Uncharted 2 but have been hesitating. Analyzing my hesitation now, I would guess it comes from knowing there are big overlaps between the goals that drive the Uncharted series -- to make a character-driven, active cinematic experience -- and the goals that have driven me for the last 5+ years of my career. I am biased in any review I give of this game. And with that caveat, I feel comfortable unloading.

The early word awhile back was that Uncharted 2 was getting stellar reviews. Despite that, I could see how gamers -- esp. gameplay purists -- would have a few bones to pick. Examining the three pillars of design as described by their "making of" videos (which if I recall correctly, are cover-based gunplay, melee combat, and adventure exploration / puzzling), they strike me as solid-but-mundane implementations.
  • Regarding adventure, other than aiming and timing a jump, there's almost no skill to appreciably gain or challenge in Drake's exploration other than detecting the cues what illogically can or cannot be interacted with. But they are very successful pace-breakers (a term I use for actions that distract you from the main gameplay mode to keep it interesting), and give you satisfying ways to touch the world help make it seem more real.
  • Regarding melee combat, again, there is little skill to appreciably gain or challenge the player with. He can either begin to engage an enemy or not. Upon doing so, he either insta-kills them (e.g., jump on back and break neck) or not. If not, you tap a button until time slows down, and you have a silly-long window to press the other button and continue. But also again, it satisfies the most basic needs of melee in keeping the player focused on paying (perhaps too little) attention to pressing different buttons, and gives him another way to get up-close, cinematic, and personal with enemies.
  • And regarding cover-based gunplay, it seems serviceable and solid, and action is such a good design foundation because so much bang-for-the-buck is there. But making this the primary gameplay mechanic is interesting since killing tons of enemies has so little to do with Drake the character. This point seemed to pop up in Yahtzee's review of the game when he brought up body count, and the oddity of this was underlined with an unfortunate choice of dialog where the main baddie tries to provoke your guilt for murdering so many people throughout the game. Though it makes sense for a real-life Drake, it falls flat on players that were never even intended to feel negative vibes for their actions previously.
Not that solid-but-mundane is easy. It isn't, and Uncharted 2 deserves a massive tip of the hat for making that job vastly more complicated by immersing these moments in at times a very cinematic environment that plays with the animations of the characters. This has the net effect of making each of these basic implementations in concept potentially much more interesting and novel in play, and the effect especially stands out in the scenes where platforms are falling and tilting beneath you while play goes interrupted.

And another hats off for not giving me control of AI and integrating them in a way that never pissed me off. This is one of the invisible aspects of game design that happens to be particularly meaningful to me because I know how difficult it is to wrangle AI, and because uncontrollable characters seem more grounded in reality when they aren't an extension of my will. I remember HL2 driving this home for me like a two-ton hammer.

Though many ideas come to mind for improved base mechanics interesting ways, it feels like nitpicking because the holistic experience is so impressive. The highest compliment I could pay the development team is that I hated my "buddy" for betraying me, felt responsible for my Tibetan friend and what happened to his village, and wanted to see Elena and Drake together. There are tons of things to nitpick about the characters and story, but I've long asserted that games will be the most popular art form of the future and this is a leap many non-gamers have a difficult time making, especially when comparing it with their favorite, emotionally-stirring, passively entertaining films. And Uncharted 2 may be the first game wherein a casual gamer, skills allowing, could hear the first audible knock on the door of the summer blockbuster. That is a step in the right direction. In my view, Drake is a commendable example of design in the service of emotional experience, and a benchmark in character-based emotion, a critical axis in the development of games. It was a great ride.

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