Letting the dust settle: Uncharted 2

   15/07/2010 at 19:47       Joe Bennett       11 COMMENTS. - Score 5/5
 - Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog, PS3, Game, Pledge

This is the first in many ‘Letting the dust settle’ articles. Well, when I say many, there will at least be one more. Really it all depends on what sort of response they get and how many of you choose to read them instead of commenting on whoever has the nicest arse in the forum.

So what is a ‘Letting the dust settle’ article then I hear all (some, maybe one) of you ask. Well it’s an opportunity for me, and potentially others, to go back to titles that have been released at least six months ago and discuss them in the cold hard light of day, away from any of the pre and post-release hype, euphoria and PR waffle.

You may be one of the others, like me, who can’t afford to buy every game they want on release day. Or, like me, who just don’t have the time to play all of the games we would like, due to work or family commitments, or because you were sent review code of some low-budget gaming atrocity that you had to complete for review purposes.  These articles should hopefully provide you with an idea as to how well a particular game has aged and whether the scores it received at launch were justified or not.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Perhaps I should start by giving you my thoughts on the original Uncharted. I got the opportunity to play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune for the first time earlier this year during the heavy snowfall that we had and I was somewhat disappointed.

Perhaps my expectations had been set too high due to the praise that had been lavished upon it by colleagues in the industry and by friends and forumites. There were aspects of it that I liked, such as the cinematic presentation and characters, but I thought that the production quality and gameplay dropped considerably around one third of the way through. It wasn’t a travesty – just merely a ‘7/10’ (or three out of five stars in AATG currency) experience. A good, solid, yet unremarkable game that at no stage had me wanting to go back to complete it again.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I started playing Uncharted 2 a few months later. Having garnered even more praise and recommendation than the original, including a colleague messaging me whenever I was on the PS3 to tell me to stop playing whatever I was playing and play Uncharted 2 instead, I tried to keep my expectations realistic. I kept telling myself that I had enjoyed Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and that even a small improvement would make for a very entertaining game.

But Uncharted 2 isn’t a small improvement. It isn’t even as much of an improvement over the original as I had been led to believe by friends and colleagues. It’s so much more than that. To merely say that Uncharted 2 is an improvement over Uncharted is under-selling its achievement. This is one of the best examples of this or any generation; it goes beyond gameplay and transcends into an entertainment package that is every bit as good as a great film or novel in terms of captivating its audience.

From beginning to end, there isn’t one level that fails to deliver character or humour in abundance. The voice acting is second to none – better than anything I have experienced in any game I have ever played. I don’t see Nathan Drake (Nate to his friends) as an animated character. Instead I see him as a real character, brought to life superbly by the vocal talents of Nolan North.

It’s not so much what they say, but how they say it. The dialogue flows just like it would in a real conversation; people don’t wait for others to stop speaking before they interrupt or start speaking themselves. In life, people often unwittingly finish another person’s sentence, especially if they’re in a close relationship and have a bond. This is the type of immersive, real-life dialogue delivered in Uncharted 2.

I’ve seen some rave reviews of Mass Effect 2’s dialogue over the past few months. Personally I found it all rather stilted and far too prosaic – nothing like having a real conversation at all. The human characters lacked humanity, with conversations between them being far too heavy on psychological insightfulness; it often felt as though the characters were public speakers, trying to deliver as many memorable quotes and anecdotes as possible whilst feeling the need to make every sentence reflect their personality, effectively force-feeding the audience with insight into why they have done what they have done, or why they are the way they are.

Real life isn’t like that. Conversations like that just don’t happen, at least not regularly. You’d be lucky to have one conversation like that in your lifetime. Conversations happen naturally. Unless you’ve been mulling over how to tell a partner you’re leaving them or confessing to breaking their favourite and most treasured CD, they just happen. Words come out unrehearsed, you interrupt each other, there can be awkward pauses, sighs or displays of physical communication such as shrugs, facial expressions or other types of body language. Unrehearsed conversations between friends and loved-ones are as real as life gets; you’ll get more insight into a persons personality from an off-the-cuff conversation than you will anything that they’ve rehearsed and spoon fed you with. Uncharted 2 is full of these types of conversations, and it’s what helps it transcend being a mere ‘videogame’ and instead occupies that enviable space of being an entertainment product, displaying perfectly why this medium is (or at least can be) as good as movies or books at delivering emotional, funny and/or thought-provoking content.

A massive part of bringing Uncharted 2’s characters to life and making them so believable is by making them act like real humans. Aside from the superbly delivered dialogue the team responsible for the animation of the characters also deserve a massive compliment. Every little sigh is met with a grimace or a shrug of the shoulders; an argument will end up with someone having a smirk on their face and the other looking hurt or defeated; a touching moment will be met with either an embrace or an awkward, long, silent gaze into the other person’s eyes, possibly with an unintended light brushing of hands, before both turning away in embarrassment.

There was one scene later in the game where Drake and Elena are sitting on the floor, having a conversation. During the conversation Drake stands and walks around a little. When it’s time for them to move on Drake walks over to Elena and goes to help her up by taking hold of her hand. Except he does what we’ve all done before; he’s done it so many times that he’s become comfortable. His body knows what to do, so he offers his hand, turns his head automatically in the direction he’s about to set off in and takes a step forward. It’s at this point that Elena reaches for his hand and just misses it, she stumbles just a fraction, Drake turns around to see what is going on and extends his arm a little so Elena can grab it and helps her to her feet.

This little display of clumsy affection adds nothing to the story and is easily missed, but that’s what makes it so special. It’s another great example of Naughty Dog knowing exactly how to bring characters to life – it wasn’t a plot twist, it was only a second long and I doubt it was ever intended to be a game-defining moment, but in essence that’s exactly what it ended up being. By giving this scene as much care and attention as they did to any of the plot developments, it shows Naughty Dog really care about its characters.

Boiled down into individual gameplay elements, Uncharted 2 isn’t actually that impressive. The cover mechanics don’t always work, sometimes ignoring your request to go into cover and at others sending you leaping over a piece of scenery straight into enemy fire rather than crouching behind the low wall. It’s almost impossible to use stealth, as the enemy AI has the ability to see you even if you’re creeping up behind them. The re-spawning of enemies is almost as horrendous as that seen in Call of Duty. Climbing rock-faces is never as exhilarating as it could be either, as generally very little timing is needed and a repeated cack-handed stab at the jump button will, the majority of the time, be all that is required.

But to boil Uncharted 2 down into individual elements would be missing the point. It’s a fantastic entertainment experience. Just like a film can be funny or thought-provoking or even disturbing, I see no reason why a game can’t be more than just brilliant gameplay.

The ending is one I’ll remember for a long time (not because it was particularly spectacular, more because it felt about as real as you could get and wrapped up the character development and story perfectly), the multiplayer extended the longevity considerably and all things considered, Uncharted 2 fully deserves its place in my all-time top ten.

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