Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Review: Uncharted 2

To start with I currently do not have the means to take video or screenshots from my consoles, so my apologies in advance for the lack of both (until I break down and get something like a Hauppauge HD-PRV). Uncharted 2 was my first Playstation 3 (PS3) experience, and what a fun experience it was. I had such a great time with the single-player component of the game that I am perfectly content without experiencing either the co-op or multiplayer modes for now.

Being the proper gentleman that I am, when the system was unboxed, hooked up and the game was in the system, the controller went right into my girlfriend’s hands. I watched with youthful glee as she snuck up behind guys and snapped their necks, worried for naught as she shot advancing hordes of soldiers in their heads with an AK-47, and marveled as she navigated Drake through the well-designed and lovely playgrounds otherwise known as the levels in Uncharted 2. Even the act of observing somebody play the game was memorable and enjoyable, and I can’t say that about many other titles. Thinking back, I actually watched a friend play Metroid Prime for about 5 min. before that put me to sleep. So before I even got my hands on the controller I was impressed; Uncharted 2 was almost literally an action movie with an input device.

Eventually the hordes of soldiers became too much, and after hours of uninterrupted play and a couple of loaded checkpoints the controller fell into my lap. The controls were intuitive even in my Xbox 360-molded hands, and the platforming elements felt solid; I missed a total of two jumps on my journey to the rolling credits. One was at the very beginning, and the second miscalculation was a leap toward something that wasn’t actually interactive in the environment. I was worried that my girlfriend was just making the stealth kills look easy, but the melee system seemed to be well designed whether it was grabbing enemies from behind, punching them in the face, or slipping out of their grapples with appropriate quick-time events.

Uncharted 2’s cover system gets special mention though. Movement generally feels fluid, but then you get behind a wall or something and water turns into glue. This is disappointing, because frequently in combat there was something tripping me up enough to make the issue stick in my mind. If this was Gears of War it wouldn’t be so notable because in Gears you basically play a brick in a real sense of the word: no definition, no personality, and no real movement. Nathan Drake is the antithesis to this and probably has no idea of the concept of “trench warfare.” If you’re not constantly moving around the environments, staying one or two steps ahead of the enemy you’re playing Uncharted 2 wrong. If the cover wasn’t such a double-edged sword in how entangling it can be the combat would probably be more remarkable.

Another flaw with the combat was the gunplay. Aiming was straight-forward, as were the guns, and getting headshots was not difficult to achieve. The animation of the bullets registering on the enemies as I shot and hit them was very satisfying. Often enough though, that animation would go off, yet the enemy would not go down, and these were the run of the mill minions and not the tougher variety of bad guys that could maybe survive a hit like that normally. In an action game this kind of bug is absolutely distracting and damn-near unforgivable. Coupled with the cover system with assimilation on its mind these issues really pull the player out of the game that otherwise draws them in so well, and it’s kind of disappointing.

At one point Uncharted 2 crashed my PS3. I finished a rather lengthy battle sequence near the end of the game, went into a hallway, and then my TV screen went black and the PS3 was frozen and no longer responsive. I had to unplug the system to get it restarted. The game reloaded and I was at a checkpoint just past the room with the conflict. It only happened that one time and nothing else even close has occurred since. It was slightly upsetting though, especially with a brand new PS3. To be fair though, I had to remind myself about this to get it into this review.

A conscious decision was made in Uncharted 2 to have the player constantly doing new things, and repeat was minimal. From chapter to chapter I had no idea what kind of crazy thing I was going to be doing next, and for the most part it added to the charm of the game. After a certain point though, the “think fast” moments started to feel a bit overused and the enthusiasm for having accomplished something like surviving something like a falling building or not dying in a deadly game of hopscotch was noticeably diminished. To be honest though, from a single-player perspective I’d much rather a developer takes the chance of fatiguing me rather than spoon-feeding me combat with a sprinkling of one or two neat little events. This view especially takes preference when the interesting situations blended into both the gameplay and the story of Uncharted 2 so well, and when an event was gratuitous a character usually finished my thought for me with a funny bit of tongue-in-cheek dialogue.

The puzzle elements are probably the biggest conceptual fault I need to take with Uncharted 2. At some point I was randomly prompted to press a button to bring up a journal. Apparently Drake was taking notes and drawing sketches between the microseconds that I was having him climb a wall or take a shot at somebody. With these sketches I was able to match foreign characters and align them in the proper way to unlock doors and whatnot. If I remember correctly, this only happened three times, but it just wasn’t handled well enough to warrant this particular mechanic’s existence in the game. It would be amazing if the player actively took the notes, or snapped pictures of some statuette with an iPhone and was subsequently rewarded later with an easier or more lucrative path or a new gun for having taken the initiative to use such a mechanic, without overly punishing less forward-thinking players who could frankly care less. Holistically though, this journal checking ends up as more of an annoyance that slows down an otherwise well-paced couple of levels, rather than being of a missed opportunity.

Second behind the worthless puzzles would be a schizophrenic approach to some of the skirmishes, or what might better be referred to as boss fights in Uncharted 2. In most cases, the player would be required to move around the environment and evade the boss character to scavenge ammo or acquire more powerful weapons to use in their present predicament. Ammo management is a simple enough a concept to understand, and something that the player presumably gains proficiency at over the course of Uncharted 2. Then there are some encounters where Drake conveniently finds a gun with unlimited ammo. Without spoiling the story, from a design perspective this actually makes sense because of the setting, and leaving the player with a clip of only 20 bullets would be ridiculous. But it is an incredibly lazy and unimaginative way to handle such encounters, especially in a game that is otherwise so creative and fun. A clip of bullets doesn’t always have to be the answer, and for a game where the environment is otherwise important, that the player couldn’t just outmaneuver these bullet-sponges into a trap is kind of stunning, especially since this concept is touched on in the final encounter of the game!

But I digress.

To say that Uncharted 2 was presented well would be an understatement. Save for some kind of weird glossy sheen over the characters’ eyes, there is nothing negative to mention. This eye-thing was pretty distracting during the cut-scenes, particularly with the character Chloe, who was voiced by Claudia Black. If you read my Dragon Age: Origins review, this factoid should provide better context for my fatigue with this actress. Otherwise, the voice acting, and the writing behind it was superb and of a caliber I would not expect to see in a console game. I mentioned above that characters would often finish my thoughts for me as I was playing the game, and this happened to an extent that would almost seem creepy except for the disappointing reality that original thought has been surpassed by cliché. That Naughty Dog’s writers have been able to harness this tells me that they really have a solid understanding of multimedia today when most everyone else is fixated on simply stealing superficial details from each other to try and make the next blockbuster a success. Uncharted 2 is a gourmet pizza when every other game in its section of the menu is fast food.

Uncharted 2 had an entertaining story that wasn’t allowed to take itself too seriously. It stands alone well enough that I don’t feel a need to go back and play through the first game which feels kind of liberating against some contemporary releases like Mass Effect 2. Additionally, everything wraps up without the cliffhanger every other release seems to afflict gamers with these days: this is excellent.

I would go so far to say that Uncharted 2 is Generation X/Y’s shot at Indiana Jones. In effect, Naughty Dog walked up to Spielberg and Lucas and kicked them in their baby-boomer balls after proclaiming that they can keep squandering their gold and turning it into shit because we’re ready for our time in the spotlight. And thank God that they did that! In turn, Uncharted 2 is pure and unadulterated fun with only a few hiccups in comparison despite my above, overly verbose criticism. I pray that Naughty Dog takes their time and further refines what made Uncharted 2 great for the inevitable third release that I find myself eagerly anticipating.

I would like to end this little piece with a challenge: If you can, name me better developed action-game characters than Nate Drake in the comments to this post. The list I can think of is pretty short.

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