Uncharted 2: The struggle between action and exploration


“Where’d I park my… aw, shit.”

So, like Jenni mentioned in her bigass IF Comp Wrapup, I’ve been playing Uncharted 2. It’s very good. If you’ve heard of Uncharted 2, you already know that it’s very good, because everyone is talking about how good it is. They’re not wrong.

What’s so good about it? Well, let’s see. Firstly, it’s incredibly cinematic. The environments are beautiful and detailed, and a ton of work has gone into things like how water looks, and the particle effects produced when you shuffle around in ankle-deep snow. When you aim a rifle, different parts of the view drift in and out of focus depending on where you’re looking. Things like that. Most importantly, there’s no HUD cluttering up your screen — no automap, no life bar… when you shoot a gun, a little indicator of how many bullets that gun has in it pops up in the corner of the screen, and then fades away when you stop shooting. That’s all. No constant reminders that you’re playing a game (except for Clippy, about which more in a minute). You are, for the most part, watching an action movie, except by ‘watching’ I mean ‘playing’.

And, the smoothness of the mechanics of playing also contribute. The controls are very simple and natural — you don’t have to hold down an extra button to run, because, duh, that’s what an analog stick is for. There’s no manual ‘crouch’ button, because ducking for cover is context-sensitive based on what you’re ducking behind. Another reviewer has discussed this minimalism in further detail, so I won’t belabor the point.

Where the game really shines, though, is in the voice acting and characterization. The voice acting is very, very good — so good in fact, that I’m going to look up the name of the dude who does Nathan Drake’s voice so I can credit him properly. Nolan North. Well done, Nolan North. It’s not just that he sounds like a real person instead of someone reading a script though, it’s also the fact that the writers have given him appropriate things to say.

See, Nathan Drake is, basically, an asshole. He’s a very typical self-serving gung-ho action movie dickhead. But his dialogue isn’t the typical action movie dickhead dialogue; it’s much more realistic than that. When he’s running around a Turkish museum with his buddy Flynn (who by the way is an even bigger asshole than Drake, and that makes Drake even more likable due to contrast) and Flynn makes some kind of snarky comment, Drake doesn’t reply with a witty comeback. He rolls his eyes and says “Whatever, dick.” just like you or I would.

That’s not a specific example; I don’t exactly remember what Drake said in the moment I’m thinking of. But here’s a more precise one: Drake is climbing around in a ruined monastery, and the strip of wood paneling he’s holding onto breaks. He frantically grabs another little ledge below that as he falls, and that breaks too. And the next one. And he’s going “Aaaah! Whaa! Augh!” as he desperately tries to keep himself from falling to his death. Finally, the last little wooden outcropping holds his weight, and he’s just close enough to the ground to drop down without dying. I push the button that makes him let go, and Drake lands, catches his breath, and then mutters emphatically and with feeling: “Shit.”

It’s a moment that probably doesn’t play very well when I’m just telling you about it, but when it happens in the game, it’s perfect. It’s just what you or I would say, and it’s said with just the same intonation that we would say it in. In fact, there was one moment in the game where I was suddenly and unexpectedly attacked, and Drake and I both said “What the hell?!” simultaneously. Having a protagonist that accurately voices what the player is thinking, and speaks the way real people do, makes for a very likable game.

Okay, well, I suppose he’s not really saying the same things I would say. Otherwise he would never stop shouting “Fuck! Who are all these fuckers shooting at me? I’m not climbing on that are you fucking kidding me!? Oh fuck! FUUUUUUUUUUUCK!!” But yknow, he’s saying the things I would say if I were a reasonably cool-headed adventuring type.

The other characters are great too; Flynn is a charming cocky asshole that you want to strangle even before he turns out to be a (spoiler!) backstabbing cocky asshole. Action Girl Chloe (voiced by Farscape/Stargate’s Claudia Black) is cool, strong-willed and intelligent, and is a round peg that refreshingly does not fit into the square holes of “Good Guy” or “Bad Guy”. The Other Girl, I’ve forgotten her name, is whiny and annoying, particularly after having played the first part of the game with Chloe. Okay, so, two out of three isn’t bad.

So. If the acting and characters are one leg of our Uncharted 2 Is Awesome tripod, and the second leg is the immersion and cinematic…ness, what’s the third? I’ll just steal a point from yet another review and say: momentum.

Action game is for action. You’re running down an alley and you see some handholds on a nearby building — you jump and grab them. You climb up on the roof, and there’s another roof nearby, so you jump over. That flagpole is obviously for swinging on, and then you grab the next ledge, and then you climb up and there’s guys shooting at you so you duck behind a crate and kill them. Catch your breath, see some ledges painted in colors that contrast with the background scenery, climb up. And the cycle continues. The flow of the game, the current, pushes you forward seamlessly; you are very rarely stuck wondering where to go next. It’s all about pacing, and Uncharted 2’s pacing is pretty impeccable. As an action game.

And then our tripod falls over, because Uncharted 2 isn’t satisfied with just being an action game, it also wants to be an exploration game. This schizophrenia is the single flaw in an otherwise perfect gameplay experience. (And yes dammit, I know that’s not what ‘schizophrenia’ means, but I can’t very well say “This multiple-personality disorder is the single flaw…”, that sounds stupid. If you psychologists wanted us to start using the word ‘schizophrenia’ properly you should have given us a better word to replace it with.)

See, like every other game in the universe these days, Uncharted 2 has trophies and unlockables. And like every other game in the universe these days, the biggest and most intrusive set of trophies and unlockables has to do with Collecting All The Trinkets. There are 100 little treasures hidden in nooks and crannies all over the game, and goddammit, my brain will not let me ignore their existence. I have to explore every structure, find every alternate path, sweep the camera around every ten feet to look for that little blinking light that means prizes. This ruins the momentu

It’s like there were two teams of designers, and the first team said “We’ve created this extremely tight and fast-paced action movie, except it’s a game! We’ve carefully tuned everything for maximum forward momentum and excitement and thrills!” And the second team replies “Great! Now we can totally destroy that by forcing you to poke around in every unused and unimportant corner to find shiny trinkets!”

So you end up with The Other Girl shouting “Look! They’re taking Dr. Kidnapped Scientist over that bridge! We’ve got to get there fast!” and I reply “Fuck Dr. Kidnapped Scientist, he’ll keep. I have to thoroughly search this ruined building for delicious candy first.” And then, because the Action Movie part of the game doesn’t know about the Careful Exploration part of the game, it pops up every ten seconds asking if I want a hint about how to get to the next bit, like MS Office’s Clippy, or Ocarina of Time’s Navi.

“It looks like you are wandering around aimlessly like a moron. Would you like me to point out the very obvious ledges you’re meant to be climbing on so you can get to the next bit? Or would you prefer to ignore the thrilling chase we’ve spent years tuning, and instead bang your head into the walls some more? Hey! Listen!”

I don’t really blame the developers for this. It’s a problem throughout the games industry. Collectibles are a fucking plague. They’re perfectly appropriate for a Mario game, but that doesn’t mean every damn game should have a load of trinkets for you to search for. Some games definitely should not, and Uncharted 2 is one of them.

At least not in the first play-through. Put them in the New Game+, sure. After I’ve gone through the exciting action of the game as it was meant to be played, I might quite enjoy going through it again and poking around in the corners, looking for extra bits and Easter-eggs. But they should not have been allowed to interrupt the flow and pacing of the game on the first run-through. Looking for trinkets should have been a bonus feature like Big Head Mode or One-Hit Kills Mode.

But anyway, there it is. Fantastic game, and if you have the sort of personality that can ignore the hidden treasures on your first play-through, I’d say it’s a nigh-on perfect game.

Jesus that’s a lot of words.

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