In my office there hangs a picture of Marilyn Monroe, a woman synonymous with beauty and sex appeal, but when you get closer to that picture the outline of Albert Einstein replaces the blonde bombshell. Uncharted 2 is a exactly like that.
It’s hilarious to me that in a world where I want people to stop comparing video games to movies, I find myself so enthralled by what is actually the best action movie of last year. I’m pretty sure that I said that about the first game too, but that’s how consistently the folks at Naughty Dog deliver top-notch, high-quality games. Nathan Drake is the Indiana Jones of the modern age, especially after George Lucas betrayed us all with that abomination of a movie in 2008. I’d even go so far as to say that the success of the series almost exclusively lies with the dude himself.
In the world of male power fantasies, I’d say there are a few ways to go. Muscle-bound ‘roid freaks who have big guns and kill everyone while being super macho men, suave ladies men who can get any girl they want, and the kind of skinny, smart-mouthed, clever scoundrel type (there are also combinations of these three for those who like to double dip their archetypes). Nathan Drake is the scoundrel type who gets to adventure in exotic locales in a partially tucked in t-shirt and jeans with a gun. As a guy who doesn’t own a gun or really go adventuring in exotic locales, but who does wear jeans frequently and plenty of t-shirts, how could I not want to be just like Nathan Drake?
Now that you’ve got this lovable scoundrel adventurer crafted, the next step is to have him hunt for a famous treasure, but put a spin on it somehow. The first game has Nathan hunting for El Dorado, but I won’t spoil what the spin is. This game has him searching for the Cintamani stone, a lesser known mythical object of wealth, but a valid one nonetheless.
Just like that, we’ve got two parts of every Indiana Jones movie already figured out. The next step is pretty obvious, you need a love interest for the hero. She can be either loyal, innocent, and a bit snobby or she can be sexy, dangerous, and possibly traitorous. We had Elena in the first as the first archetype and now we’ve got Chloe for the second. Perfect, we’re almost there.
The final touch for any Indy movie is a bad guy, preferably of foreign origin so that the Yanks can feel like they’ve triumphed against the world. Drake’s Fortune featured Gabriel Roman, an older British man, and his sidekick Atoq Navarro of unknown Hispanic origin. For U2, we get Eastern European warlord Zoran Lažarević. Just like that our pulp movie plot is complete.
It seems so simple when you put it that way that it really gives me pause. This is more than the plot to the (awesome) Indiana Jones movies, it’s also a fairly common plot that I find myself bored with 98% of the time, so why do I love it so much? What is so crunchy about the way this game is structured that I find myself unable to put the controller down when I’d normally just turn off the tv?
I give a tremendous amount of credit to Amy Hennig, who I know has creative authority over all of Naughty Dog’s products. It’s got to be her touch that gives Uncharted its extra little bit of awesome, because it’s an otherwise standard game. Plenty of folks complain about the shooting mechanic being imprecise not to mention the ease with which most puzzles can be completed. In fact, if you’re ever just a wee bit stuck on a puzzle, all you’ve got to do is look in Nathan’s notebook and the solution is right there. The only natural conclusion is that the strength of the game must come from the way that Hennig and the folks at Naughty Dog put together all these mechanics combined with the look of the game and the behavior of its characters.
A great example of how all of the game elements combine to create something great (and how Naughty Dog is a superior developer) has to do with the set pieces throughout Uncharted 2. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a set piece takes all of the elements that you’ve been used to dealing with throughout the game and throws them at you in some ridiculously awesome form. For example, both Uncharted games have Drake hiding behind cover on land shooting at enemies. My favorite set piece in Uncharted 2 has Nathan jumping from truck bed to truck bed, shooting enemies and using the truck walls for cover. It’s a fantastic application of the mechanics I’ve already been playing all game long and, best of all, they only use it once during the entire game.
Many developers would be tempted to try and reuse the same set pieces over and over with slight modifications. Since they spent so much time on them, they may as well get use out of them, right? Think of the old arcade and SNES classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. They had these bonus stages where the turtles were on hoverboard-type things that they created to break up the typical sidescrolling stages. Not content to just let this happen once, they reuse the stage twice in the game, dulling the impact of how cool it was. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have something like Miyamoto’s hyper conservative use of Kuribo’s Shoe. It appears in only one level and plenty of players can just skip it with a whistle.
I applaud Uncharted 2 for taking these huge moments, the train fight, the truck part, the part where you’re escorting the cameraman, and do them only once. Then again, maybe I’m giving them too much credit, since the same background motion tech in the first two scenes I mentioned were probably first developed in the first game (that jeep escape scene comes to mind) and helicopter fights do make repeated appearances in many places, but still, it does seem like the big moments are unique.
Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, the game is not perfect. The game may not repeat set pieces over and over again, but the firefights can start to wear on a player by the 50th time he has to do the same thing. They do a better job of pacing the cutscene, shoot, explore, shoot, cutscene, lather, rinse, repeat structure that persists in this game, but it’s still not quite perfect. There are plenty of times where I’ve just thought, “Boy, I’d much rather just keep exploring around instead of shooting fifteen guys again.”
Speaking of the shooting mechanics, Naughty Dog clearly heard everyone complain about men in t-shirts taking so many bullets to take down, so they completely adjusted the bullet counts to take down enemies. Most lightly armored enemies mercifully take only two or three bullets while the seriously armored Gatling dudes (and those stupid blue guys at the end) take clips upon clips. Aiming is also a little easier and the weapon variety is way better.
Uncharted 2 is unbelievably beautiful and, more importantly, completely brilliant at exactly the same time. There was not a better put together gaming experience all last year. It’s a must play.