Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Uncharted Series

For a couple weeks now I've been playing two video games: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Both games have strengths to them, and they also have weaknesses that were not addressed in the change from original to sequel. I want to look at these topics with the goal of assessing the negative aspects first, then the positive.

The Mythic Failure

The story of both games seems reminiscent of Indiana Jones. Like the famed archaeologist, Nathan Drake (the main character) finds himself seeking historical artifacts and treasures beyond imagining. The first game involves the search for the lost treasure of El Dorado; the second, the mythical city of Shambhala. We accompany Drake as he encounters dangerous complications, romantic possibilities, and intense action setpieces. The problem with both games, though, is that I'm making this sound far better than it really is.

Both games fail at making the plot matter. When I hear that Sir Francis Drake stumbled upon the city of gold, I fail to be impressed. When I hear that Marco Polo's trail can be followed to Shambhala, I wonder why I should care. Because the games fail at something that the Indiana Jones trilogy did marvelously. They fail to establish mythic importance.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark, we see a number of scenes that cement the Ark's importance in the minds of the viewer. We see Harrison Ford's eyes light up, we hear about its history, what makes it unique, and the supernatural hints and events that surround it. The same applies for the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. We get the sense that these artifacts are larger than life, that they have seen generations of men rise and fall, and that searching for them is the chance of a lifetime; creating an epic journey that would define one's self. This, along with many other reasons, is why the Indiana Jones movies are so well-regarded.

By contrast, the Uncharted games mention Marco Polo and Sir Francis Drake as if merely stating their names is enough to engender interest and drive the plot. El Dorado and Shambhala sound like interesting places to look out, but don't sound anywhere near as legendary as they should. Nathan Drake sounds excited about these prospects, but his rationale is unclear, and he seems distracted from this goal most of the time. Often it seems that he and his companions are mostly interested in the money they could get from the find, not exactly a gripping motivator.

For a game rendered so cleverly to seem as if one is participating within an interactive movie, the plot seems taken for granted. The historical adventures lack resonance, and attempts to make the goals epic and mythic fall flat, making it difficult to stay interested in anything other than the characters and admittedly awesome action scenes.

--Edit-- This turned out to only apply to the first half of Uncharted 2. The second half was much better about making the story, the end goal, and Shambhala feel as if it truly matters. It instead has a slow start leading up to this increased attention.

Experiences with Drake's Fortune

The first game was, blunt as it is to say, an exercise in patience and a constant fight with frustration. The story and characters were largely interesting, but the way the gameplay is approached creates an increasingly annoying grind. Most of the problem lays with the lackluster approach toward gameplay and story segregation.

Basically, what that means is that the story and the gameplay seem altogether different and unattached. This could be seen from the start. As you guide Drake through a temple that has been untouched for hundreds of years, one is jarred out of immersion by the suspiciously convenient placing of explosive gunpowder barrels; each one immaculately placed in a position that blows up something important, allowing one to progress further in the game. It raises questions that distract from the game. Why on earth would Sir Francis Drake have left these barrels of gunpowder behind in such places, as if he could somehow predict precisely how the temple would decay with time so that barrels could be blown up in the future to clear overgrowth or fallen ruins? It seems horribly contrived.

The jumping puzzles throughout the game similarly had no thought put into how this appears to the player. At one point, Drake must ascend the side of a fortress to see what happened to his companion. Naturally, there are bricks protruding out of the sheer wall, vines grown in perfectly aligned positions for climbing or swinging; all of this leading to an open window maybe 300 feet above one's starting position. If one ever doesn't know what to do next in this game, needless to say, it will probably involve some impressively nonsensical jumping puzzle from one area to the next, despite all odds that rock formations, trees, and boxes would ever be aligned in such a helpful manner.

This also shows up in the action sequences. Basically, every part of the gameplay seems designed to ignore and distract from the story. In a number of temples and ruins abandoned for hundreds if not thousands of years, one somehow encounters hordes of mercenaries coming from god-knows-where in order to give the player something to fight. Again, this makes no goddamn sense, but is there nonetheless. After a cutscene, you can guarantee fighting endless mercenaries for half an hour or more, freezing the plot entirely until you defeat them all and move on.

I won't even go into the difficulty of the game because it nearly compelled me to throw my controller out the window in an apoplectic rage.

Drake's Fortune: Conclusion

Now, you ask yourself, perhaps this is nitpicking. Perhaps I'm looking at the presentation too seriously. But the thing that made this stand out was my inclination to take Uncharted: Drake's Fortune seriously. The game has excellent cinematic leanings within its cutscenes, the chararacters are vivid and realistic, and it has a realistic feel to it with a dash of romantic adventure. Thus, I figured that they would create it as if it was an interactive movie, and looked at it as if it was such.

Consequently, I was given reason after reason to pray for another cutscene around the corner. Endless waves of enemies gets old fast. Nathan Drake himself complains constantly about the infinite mercenaries. The lack of importance given to Sir Francis Drake and El Dorado killed my interest in the overall plot. And, finally, the contrived nature of the game's geography made me lose immersion repeatedly. The only saving grace were the characters, of which I wished there were more of, and more time spent on them.


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