Monday, November 2, 2009

Synthetic Play | Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

I actually own Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and while I certainly had fun with it, I ended up tossing it in my trunk as another title I’d just as soon reminisce about rather than actually play again. With everyone now ‘suckin the sack’ for Uncharted 2, I felt compelled to get my hands around ‘the experience’ somehow (though I still stand by Assassin’s Creed 2 as the only title I’ll possibly buy this year). So being that people consistently rang out on how cinematic the game was, I decided to give the game a post for itself, but with a twist; I made the best out of my own stubbornness (being broke also works here nicely as well) by ‘synthesizing a playthrough’. It’s actually not as exciting as I’m making it (or failing to make it) sound, but it is simple. I downloaded an entire playthrough from YouTube, stuck them all on continuous play, and sat watching the entire game while miming engagement with my PS3 controller in hand. This is me addressing that that bit of assedry. I’d love to say I’ll make it up to Naughty Dog someday, but judging by the numbers and scores that the game is pulling --- I’ll take solace in the fact that they probably don’t give a damn either way.

Animatory Acknowledgement

I always sing praise for animation when I see it and I think it’s here that Uncharted shines most prominently. The way Nate’s model looks when it jumps, descends stairs, and even the more subtle instances of his ‘breaks’ as the player moves him all look gorgeous in this game. Things such as the stair animations and wet clothes specifically were in the first game as well, but they plug into the scenery more effectively in this title, mostly because of the banter and precision of the sequences. I’m pretty sure I even caught the son of a bitch wiping away rubble as if he got it in his eyes. Speaking of the audio, it’s specifically setup to aid the game’s own visuals (I call it auditory animation).

“Wow, that’s convenient”
– said by Nate just after a cutscene where he notices some ammo nearby as the player regains control

“Of course it’s locked, it’s always locked…”
– said by Nate at the beginning of the game as he makes his way from a crash site

Contextually speaking, this is a master stroke --- as there’s a generous window of variance for when the player will hear any banter at any particular moment. Some of the enemies still ‘melodranimate’ but that’s fine, as that gripe is already steps above the first game, when it negatively impacted the play itself. I’m actually surprised some of the pans to reflect the scenery weren’t more self-indulgent. Due to that, the game even gains itself a sense of humbleness despite being directly linear. There’s also some engaging instances of just good design in this title as well. For example, In Nepal --- there’s a distinct point where Nate has to let Chloe out of a building in order to help him. After shooting the lock, the player has to then kick the door in to release her. This is opposed to what I was expecting where after the lock was shot, she would just come barging out. The trigger point was still there, it simply requires a tad more contextual interaction. Shooting the ‘scarecrows’ falls into this category as well (specifically the points where they grab Nate); they could easily be misconstrued as quicktime events, when they’re actually keeping the player in the loop --- a bit more than what the traditional QTE fails at to begin with.

Henry or Ben?

This question has begun plaguing many gamers and it didn't go away with this title's release. Nate and his adventures are really a bit reminiscent of both, I just kept jumping to National Treasure from the simple springboard of me enjoying those films more (yeah, I said it). I think people are hesitant to relate the game to the likes of NT simply because it's not as acclaimed or 'iconic' as Indiana Jones, so jumping to Spielberg's films is an easy safe haven for gamers to once again wage their war with validating video games in a cultural light. The humor, the pacing of the quest, and even the progression of its characters all resonate stronger for me when held in tandem with Disney’s templar mess. Why the title is related to things like Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones is just the game becoming self-victimizing.

“Great, the power’s out and the girl’s trapped. I swear to God --- if there’s a zombie around the next corner…”
-by Nate as he travels he scrambles outside of a building in Nepal

“See ya….*mumbling* jackass…”
-Nate, following a stealth kill where the player pulls a sentry out of a window.

The fact that it’s taking place in jungles and admist the perils of lost treasure exploits are just mere ‘aesthetic coincidence’. What sealed the deal in this comparison for me however, was the music. Make no mistake, Edmonson did a fantastic job on Uncharted 2, but I always found myself wandering aimlessly in what the music happened to be doing in conjunction to the action on-screen at the time. When I layered Rabin’s score over some of the sequences however, the game simply felt better to me --- but also presented the problem of how well the sequences themselves are meant to communicate with the player’s own actions. The cueing of layers as Drake makes his way across certain areas are but one example of this.

At this point we also have to consider the cultural permeation of the game’s own world, which is what I think Among Thieves favored over a more 'Rabinesque' scoring. The absence of leitmotifs for example (apart from Nate’s Theme that is) is definitive proof of this. The game isn’t tying itself together through its music mainly because it’s using so much background muscle. Generally speaking, most ‘cinematic games’ don’t do that at all (and I’m left to wonder why?). Anyway, my main statement to make here is that the title could have used a more effective stitching in this area. The pacing of Rabin’s National Treasure score is just something I personally thought worked there.

Set Pieces

The falling building shown during the E3 demo was as impressive as ever, but there were a few other sequences in the game that even made my hateful ass do a double take. The most talked about one apart from that previously mentioned building shown at E3 is the train, and I’m sad that my synthetic play barred me from feeling any of the tactile maneuvering in that sequence. Though it’s a very eye-catching portion, it’s also very subtle --- using a good deal of visual and audio backup to reinforce an already gorgeous scene.

“HO---ly shit...”
-Nate spots an attack chopper while shimming across a beam

*windless* “I’m okay…”
-Nate, after falling from a large Nepalese statue

Once such example are the train crossing signals, which I found hilarious each time they were dodged. It opens up a dynamic to play against while the player makes his/her way towards the front of the train. My favorite portion of the train was when it began to ascend into the mountains. There’s a specific spot where a helicopter is firing on Drake who can in turn make use of a nearby turret. Meanwhile, the train itself is curving around an inset turn in the mountain. This means the player can see in full beauty the scale being set by the background. Across a huge gap between the mountains, they can view the front part of the train curving around the bend as they fire upon the helicopter. There’s a sense of placement there, an admirable visual dynamic that gamers just don’t get too often. There were a couple of instances on this scale, such as a sliding platform in Shambhala or chase sequence that basically amounted to platforming between moving enemy trucks.

Linearity

A blind spot that I initially had with this kind of game was the degree of variance in terms of exploration, but I reset my stance on that after this game. This is mainly because I acknowledged what the game was doing for itself while completely ignoring everyone else’s take on the matter. Granted, I should have done that in the first place, but the irony is that I fell into that trap while actually playing through the first game; I’m moving away from it with this title, which I still haven’t even technically played yet.

The endless comparisons to stuff like Tomb Raider ended up being little more than confusing roadblocks for how this title was seen rather than the touchstone comparison they were no doubt meant as. It’s a damaging perception that weakens all games, but Uncharted just fell prey to it even more since it doesn’t have such a large family in terms of that specific type of adventuring play. To say the game is linear isn’t a slight against; it doesn’t need to be composed any of all the expansive tropes that all titles of today are often lauded for. In reality, I think this game more closely resembles Prince of Persia than Lara’s exploits (e.g. the verticality of the game’s areas like Nepal), but even that’s a stretch to simply to relate it somewhere. I did notice one glaring weakness in the game’s main strength though and that was one of formulaic awareness. During multiple times over the course of the game, Drake is constantly paired up with someone who he can talk to while making his way towards his current objective. It’s certainly broken up by the game’s own pacing (and the caliber of the dialogue), but it’s not completely hidden. It’s dangerous because it undermines every cinematic merit badge the game earns for itself. No matter how good Elena, Sully, or even Flynn’s characterization turned out to be --- the game kind of stumbles in its own quicksand regarding this.

This Year and Last Year’s Model

Rather than try and negate out the worth of both female leads in this game (which I'm automatically compelled to do due to their acclaim *I didn’t notice how that initially read, whoops*), I’ll simply exceed to the notion that Naughty Dog is paving some admirable ground with its depiction of women. The flaw which Uncharted 2 rather unabashedly acknowledges itself is the differentiation between Chloe and Elena. Simply put, I didn’t need the ‘new model’ to begin with, so I ended up antagonizing its very presence. Chloe annoyed me personally, but in all honestly --- I felt that the game would have functioned just fine without her. To her credit, the dynamic she presents is carved out rather nicely, but the only thing she ended up serving was not playing into some cliché love triangle plot (which could have been avoided entirely by her absence to begin with). Both she and Elena acknowledge each other without becoming embittered over Drake, but that’s about it. If nothing else, both girls in the same game risk infringing on the character of Drake, which risks compromising their own individuality simply to make him a more 'interesting hero'. This is doubly so when concerning Elena, who in both titles comes across more effective as an actual character rather than a narrative springboard. Chloe can be taken out entirely whereas Elena simply cannot. I’d be interested in hearing what drove Chloe’s conception to be honest, as the need to ‘update’ Elena was unnecessary in my eyes.

“A tank? What the hell do they need a tank for?”
-By Nate as he makes his way along the train

“Sorry love, this isn’t a movie, and you’re not the plucky girl who reforms the villain and saves the day. It’s just not done like that.”
-Harry Flynn, right before releasing a grenade

So yeah, Uncharted 2 is definitely a progressive title in terms of cinematic games (all I really cared about in the first place), but it’s still not quite something that will make me any less of an ass when looking at my games. There’s a level of craft and design in this game that simply begs attention to itself. Since gamers seem to be so perpetually starved for the medium being seen on equal narrative playing ground as its predecessors (an illusory ideal mind you), titles like this fall prey to shallow over-indulgence. Thanks to that, it’s a game I’ll happily wait to play for myself.

~sLs~