Charting the Uncharted
Rather late to the party, I have recently discovered the Playstation 3, which means it is at last time for me to cast my eye over the much lauded Uncharted games. One of them, thankfully, lives up to its reputation. Let’s take the them one at a time.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
I’d played this originally on release courtesy of a friend’s PS3 and was immediately taken by the charisma of the lead character. While games have had many intriguing, intimidating, troubled and amusing characters, very few of them manage to rise to the challenge of being charismatic. There have been attempts, certainly, almost all of them doomed to embarassing failure – the Prince of Persia, for example, or Max Payne, or anybody in Oblivion – but Uncharted managed it within the 20-minute demo, effortlessly crafting witty banter between protagonist Nathan Drake and vague love interest Elena Fisher. The characters may have been archetypal hand-me-downs from the Indiana Jones movies but they were efficiently drawn nonetheless, with writing, voice acting, gameplay and animation all combining to make them memorable. That I knew and remembered their names sets them apart from most game characters.
The rest of the game’s demo didn’t prove so compelling: released unfortunately around the same time as Crysis on the PC, Drake’s Fortune‘s jungle environments seemed dated, daft and artificial, both in their bizarre day-glo colour palette (which the developers seemed to have mistaken for ‘lush’) and their corridor-based level design. No matter how pretty your trees, invisible walls and enforced corridors in a supposedly natural location will break the immersion everytime. The gunplay was awkward, with unarmoured, human enemies that had to be riddled with bullets before finally falling down and a flighty aim that made me long to return to the comforting world of keyboard and mouse.
Having now played and completed the entire game I can finally form an educated opinion on the game that was meant to make the PS3 a ‘must have’. Now that the launch hyperbole has diminished it would seem that it’s flaw are well known: the rather blatant binary design of platformer (of which there isn’t nearly enough) and shooter (of which there is far too much) that never really tries to blend the two together in a convincing manner; the repetitive jungle/underground tomb environments; the sub-par combat; the tedious difficulty spikes, no more so than the game’s aggravating finale which spoils the enjoyment of the story.
All of which paints a rather bleak picture,yet I find I’m left with an overall feeling of fondness for the game. It can be maddening at times but also achieves that rare quality as mentioned earlier: charisma. For all its gameplay and structural flaws, it never falters in terms of story or character – exceedingly simple though they may be, they’re effective nonetheless. Much like Batman: Arkham Asylum, Drake’s Fortune put you directly into the main character’s shoes. You know what it is to be Nathan Drake, just as you know what it is to be Batman. There was untapped potential in the franchise: apply Arkham Asylum‘s polish and the Uncharted games could find some substance behind the charisma.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Which brings me neatly to Among Thieves, a game that should be henceforth used by all developers as a case study of how to successfully approach sequels.
The differences come thick and fast, with much more exciting and dynamic platforming mechanics, highlighted neatly by the game’s opening train crash, which finds Drake hanging off the edge of a cliff, desperately trying to climb his way to safety while the broken carriages fall to pieces beneath him. The combat, while superficially similar, has in fact been reworked from the ground up, with all aspects improved dramatically: aiming is easier and more satisfying, enemies fall logically according to how much armour they’re sporting, grenades are actively useful rather than a mess of UI confusion and the hand-to-hand combat is thrilling in its simplicity.
More daring is the inclusion of stealth elements, giving you the option of sneaking up behind enemies and thinning their ranks before they even know you’re there. It’s surprisingly effective, particularly given the conceit that sneakily removing enemies in advance will help you avoid some of the more frantic gun battles.
Every aspect of the gameplay has been tweaked almost to perfection, meaning that Among Thieves feels like the game Drake’s Fortune should have been from the outset. The various gameplay elements are more skillfully interwoven this time, shifting gears from puzzle to platform to pistol smoothly and realistically. The general structure and design of the game is reminiscent at times of Half Life 2, the locations changing fast enough so that they never outstay their welcome and always applying subtle reinventions to the core mechanics, offering enough variety within the established template in order to keep things fresh. Weapon choice is minimal but meaningful. The leaping and climbing makes more sense in the context of a warton urban area and ice caverns, where the rational, physical constraints of streets and ice walls make much more sense than the walled-off jungles of the first game.
Throw into this an even more compelling story and probably the finest voice acting and character animation this side of a Tim Schafer game and Among Thieves provides a truly engaging experience. Coupled with some remarkable technology that allows for buildings and terrain to collapse beneath the player’s feet, Among Thieves also offers the kind of set piece thrills that the recent Indiana Jones film sorely lacked.
In some ways, Among Thieves is an interesting counterpoint to the film Avatar. While the visual fidelity can’t be sensibly compared directly, the end result is the same: just as I believed entirely in physical existence of the digital cast of James Cameron’s latest epic, so did Among Thieves‘ character imprint themselves on my mind. Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer are real people. I expect to see them play other roles in other games, before remembering that they exist in the real world only as disembodied voices. Among Thieves succeeds both on a storytelling level and a gameplay level and I find myself looking forward to subsequent installments as much as I would a new novel or movie in a favourite series.