Why The Industry Should Be Proud Of Uncharted 2
For the record, I don't normally produce editorials like these; they only arrive if I'm properly inspired. I have only done one such piece this generation so far, and it was for the masterful Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. The bottom line is that after over a quarter-century of gaming, it takes a great deal for my jaw to drop; for my palms to perspire, for my attention to remain firm and focused, and for my brain to allow over-the-top objectives like, "amazing" and "unbelievable." Furthermore, I find that as I get older, I really do require more in the way of substance in my entertainment, which is probably why I'm now an avid reader of literary classics.
And yet, here I am, considering Naughty Dog's latest project known as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and wondering how best to impart my thoughts to a hopefully attentive audience. I suppose it's best to break it down but before I begin, I would urge you to check out our review if you haven't already. Not only do I agree with the overall score - right down to the tenth - but I also think it proves that PSXE provides gamers with some of the best pieces of analysis on games. Anyway, here's why the entire industry, from those who design games to those who play them to those who report on them, should be very, very proud of Uncharted 2:
We ARE playing the action movie
Perhaps for the very first time in history, we can honestly say that's exactly what we're doing with a video game. I recall when such a claim was made on the back of the box for The Bouncer, a game I liked but many did not. In Square-Enix's beat-'em-up, it really was story-driven and despite the shortcomings in the gameplay, it certainly did feel like playing a movie. Well...in retrospect, a video game movie. Uncharted 2 is something entirely different. About midway through my first hour of play, I remember critiquing what I saw in the acting and cinematography - old habit - and suddenly, I stopped playing and froze: I realized I wasn't comparing the experience to other games. I was comparing it - the acting, the "filming," if you wish to call it that, the story progression, the pacing, the special effects, etc. - to movies. I have never once done this before.
This happened subconsciously and you can choose to disbelieve me if you so desire. But it happened. And when I corrected myself and began to make the comparison to games (as I should), I realized there was no comparison. Look, I've played just about every quality action/adventure game in the industry for some decades, and to have this happen to me was, in a word, momentous. So sue me.
Humanity captured in a video game
This has always been one of my pet peeves and something the industry has been slow to embrace. Even games with the very best storylines and character development fail to provide us with personas that are not only believable, but also believably enticing and intriguing. And as great as MGS4 is (re-read my editorial if you think I'm doing it a disservice), I did find it hard to equate those characters with "humanity;" I would compare them more to comic book heroes and heroines. In Uncharted 2, while the stunts are still nuts and the heroes and heroines can still survive injuries that would kill most humans, we are still left with the indelible mark of humanity. My degree is in Psychology but more than that, I'm quick to notice actions, reactions, certain movements, and especially facial expressions, which is why I was so impressed with Drake and Co.
You've never seen anything like it. Watch the small things. I will use Chloe as an example, just because she has an exotic face and seems more animated throughout the game: watch her facial expressions during that cut-scene where she saves Drake with a rocket launcher (I believe it's in the Urban Warfare chapter). Watch her face when she asks if the dagger is "the key to everything" and Drake says he's not sure; watch her face when she says, "we can spot our needle in the haystack" and taps Drake's face. Again, watch it when she first meets Elena and teases Drake. It's just easier to spot with Chloe, but this happens with all the characters and although seemingly minor, immediately separates this title from any other game ever made.
We close in on the authentic virtual action experience
There are still obstacles to face. For instance, Drake can hang from anywhere for an infinite amount of time, which of course is incorrect, logically speaking. And while some gamers may not like it, I might suggest to the developers to look into the Stamina concept from Team ICO's Shadow of the Colossus. In it, the hero could only hang on for as long as his Stamina held out; obviously, this trait would get better over time, but his muscles still weren't superhuman. This of course presents all sorts of new gameplay challenges, but I have complete faith that if anyone can manage it, the Naughty Dog team can. I mention this because it's one of the very few areas of the game that made me understand I'm not really playing as a creepily realistic human. But damn...was it close. Drake's movement physics and how he reacts to the environment has gone unheralded in my opinion, and that's one of the more impressive aspects of this production.
This is about as close as I've come to stepping into the shoes of someone I could believe as a real person. Do you realize how many games have tried this over the years?
Pacing and diversity
In my last point, I have to address the pacing and gameplay variety. This is another hot topic for me as gaming still hasn't really understood the concept of excellent action pacing; Uncharted 2 is a gigantic step in the right direction. It starts out with a satisfying bang and proceeds to tell you the story through a well-implemented and well-timed series of cut-scenes interspersed amongst gameplay segments. At no point do you feel that either the interactive or non-interactive segments last too long; just when you've had your fill of one, the game reads your mind and switches gears. It's great that this happens in the storytelling but it also happens with the gameplay, which is even more applaud-worthy. This is a game that features platforming, third-person shooting mechanics, and puzzle-solving, and I haven't seen any title that splits everything out so evenly. When I finished the game, I didn't feel shortchanged on any one of those three aforementioned elements, and every last element felt right. "Finished cool puzzle...major firefight...must climb up there..." It was just fantastic.
In the end, the game isn't perfect, as there are a few slight problems, one of which annoyed me when taking on that tank. The Rocket Launcher I needed kept popping out from a dead enemy and falling to the ground, thereby ending my chances. And while I didn't experience any glitches, I have heard about a few. But upon completion, I immediately wanted to start a new game and that hasn't happened to me in...oh, I don't know how long. Furthermore, this is the benchmark achievement that will cause those who know little about the industry go, "wait...that's a game? And good God, I love it when that happens.
So in short, I give a heartfelt congratulations and a big fat "thank you" to Naughty Dog for this experience. And you know what? Y'all should, too. :)
10/20/2009 Ben Dutka