Honestly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Uncharted 2. After my first couple hours with the game, I even had a little piece written up about why corridor shooters leave me so cold. My first night of Uncharted 2 didn’t leave me impressed. It was as charming as ever, and the writing was sharper, but I just wasn’t interested in the gameplay. Before I could finish my post, however, Uncharted 2 confounded the conclusions I drew from its first first act. Still, I like what I wrote. It’s true in more cases than it’s not, and it’s worth recording how our views evolve. So I post my first impressions below, unredacted:
Jumping to the Wrong Conclusion
I spent my weekend playing Uncharted 2, as part of my ongoing effort to work through my console backlog. I was in the mood for charming violence and, really, there’s nothing like Uncharted for providing an onslaught of both. One minute Drake is playing with hand-puppets in a Turkish prison, the next he’s snapping one guard’s neck an instant before shooting twice in the back of the head.
Still, this is not and never will be my kind of game. The possibility to space is too claustrophobic, the guidance too heavy-handed, for me to feel involved in the way that I want. It’s not that I expect every game to be as open as STALKER, but I can’t abide corridors that are so narrow that I might as well not be playing, and that’s often where Uncharted places me.
Trekking through a jungle path wide enough for two Drakes to stand side-by-side, I scale a wall using some obvious handholds. Then I cross a river balancing on a log, except Drake never really seems in danger of losing his balance. Now I come to a guard who has his back turned to me. Another guard stands a few yards away, looking in another direction, also with his back turned. I take the game’s obvious invitation to stealth-kill the two men. Then I come to clearing with two lines of obvious cover. One for me, one for the bad guys who will pop up as soon as I hit the invisible tripwire. Now I cycle between the cover points, waiting for the mercenaries to stick their heads out of cover so I can kill them. Eventually, they’re all dead. Then it’s onto another narrow passage, which will end with another set of carefully set-up, idiot-proofed stealth kills.
I could turn up the difficulty, but higher difficulty won’t redesign the levels and encounters so that I face meaningful choices, or tests of skill. I might be a little more vulnerable in firefights, my enemies a little less, but it won’t be any more interesting than it is on “Hard”. The exciting story and action set-pieces that unfold on the screen get a little less exciting as the game’s limitations become clearer. Drake isn’t really in danger of falling. The next handhold is right there, or his off-balance animation will trigger and he’ll stand, twisting and turning, on the edge of a precipice from which he will never take a plummet. The guard won’t turn around. Other guards won’t hear his muffled scream, or come investigate his disappearance. The enemies won’t keep up a sustained cover-fire, pinning you in place while they flank.
I’m reminded of an old MST3K, where a woman was being chased by some kind of crocodile. Except they weren’t even in the same shot. It was just pictures of her running, screaming across a field, with insert shots of a crocodile scuttling through a swamp. Then the woman reached the safety of her friends. One of the robots said, “Wow! That was… not close at all, actually.”
If you’re going to sustain tension, you’ve got to mean it. If Nathan Drake is living by his wits, nearly dying a half-dozen times a minute, then I should at least feel a faint echo of the same. Nolan North can grunt and gasp all he wants: I’m sitting with my feet up on the couch, drinking an Old-Fashioned while shots fly over Drake’s head. What Uncharted 2 needs to do is throw an elbow. Let me know that it’s time to stop screwing around and start playing.
When I was Garrett the Thief, I had to take time to get a feel for the landscape before I could start wiping out a regiment of guards. Execution and timing mattered, and if I didn’t do my job right, it turned into a huge bloody mess. When the bullets started to fly in F.E.A.R., I had to think fast and approach each gunbattle with some tactical acumen, or the weight of numbers and grenades would take me down in short order. That’s gaming as I knew it. The tightly scripted corridor shooter is tee-ball by comparison: “Way to hit that ball! Yaaaay, Slugger! Here’s your participation ribbon.”
On Second Thought…
After I wrote that, I played more of the game. Now the interesting thing about this is that I still stand by a lot of what I wrote. Hell, even as someone who completely converted to the cause of Uncharted 2, I still think a lot of my criticisms are completely valid. But what I didn’t know is that from the next chapter, “Urban Warfare”, until the end of the game, Uncharted 2 was about to annihilate my expectations. I’ll get into the reasons why in my next post.
But for now? I’m still pondering what I wrote above. If I still chafe at how tightly Uncharted 2 occasionally holds your hand and constrains your actions, can that be squared with how completely I ended up buying into the experience? With how involved I became with the story and the action? Is a compromise possible between Uncharted 2′s exhilarating cinematic qualities and more open gameplay?