Uncharted 2 – “Hail the King of Thieves”
“Uncharted 2’s” introductory moments are an absolute marvel. Most importantly, they represent a clear break from traditional game design logic, showing off exciting new possibilities in terms what a video game can (should?) be. Interested? Read on. The game starts, as you may already know, with Drake, half-bleeding to death inside a cliff-hanging train (the game opens with a cliff hanger, one can only enjoy the irony). Drake soon realizes, verbalizing it in his signature “oh God…”, that the train isn’t about to hold on much longer, and will soon plunge deep into the gorge. Debris suddenly fall over, plummeting Drake nearer to the precipice, as he desperately clings to a rusty bent hand-rail that stands centimeters away from nothingness. Up to this point it’s cut-scene territory, extraordinarily directed as in the previous game, and perhaps even more so. That warm sense of witful charm is reprised, once again heralding back to the terrain of summer blockbuster movies, of Spielberg and Lucas fame. But what was missing in the first “Uncharted”, soon becomes reality in the second: the embodiment of that same spirit during actual game-play sequences.
As Drake dwindles in the rail, the game kicks in, and you’re in charge. Climbing the train is simple and intuitive for anyone who has ever played a Tomb Raider-esque action-adventure game. But, despite it being absurdly simple to avoid Drake’s death while climbing, it retains a sense of tension and dramatic peril that video-games seldom impose without resorting to actual game-over screens. The trick Naughty Dog employed is devilishly clever: they enunciate danger through pre-scripted events but… it isn’t really there. For instance, the moment Drake nears the end of the hand-rail he’s clinging to, it bends unexpectedly. As you climb, objects keep falling down… a bit too near Drake for his own sake. Later, the second Drake jumps away from another rail, it suddenly breaks and falls. This sequence is simply riddled with these small nerve-cringing incidents that give you the illusion of danger [as you can see for yourself here], without it ever truly existing, as you can’t really die because of them. The whole level, in fact, is nearly impossible to fail, shifting “Uncharted 2” away from a pure game, and into somewhat of an interactive, yet highly cinematic experience. The game becomes much more tense because of this, as you never have to repeat the sequence, thus maintaining its initial emotional impact intact. It represents as pure a translation as there has been of the concept of a film-like experience into video game terms; it’s all a matter of deception and misguidance, and the powerless witnessing of danger, as opposed to its confrontation, as is common for games. Something tells me that Spielberg would approve.
From then on, the game continues this strategy to impose tension, throwing unexpected events at the player in any given situation. Trains explode, buildings crumble, bridges fall – the sense of playing a roller-coaster film is pervasive. This engagement improves significantly because of all the work and thought that was noticeably invested in understanding and replicating the cinematic language – from the outstanding set design of each exotic location, to the delicious voice and facial animation, notwithstanding the superlative use of camera directing (especially in-game). Cut-scene and game mesh in such natural and emotional ways, it almost begs the question of why didn’t anyone do this before. Nevertheless, not all is rendered with the manipulating edge of the first few moments of the game. As “Uncharted 2” moves on, it becomes an actual game, with the expected challenges and trial and error sequences. For the most part, it remains an expertly crafted work, exhilarating as few can be, despite the continuous interruption of death scenarios. There’s also the overuse of the by now blasé “Gears of War” combat, that insists on outstaying its presence, but no amount of slow crawling, tedious and repetitive cover combat can impair “Uncharted’s” sense of style and amusement, let alone its humor, both in and outside cut-scenes. It’s just a shame that such “military” influences are not toned down, as the action in “Tomb Raider”, as a way to punctuate the scale, instead of dominating every beat.
“Uncharted 2” could have easily been one of the most important mainstream games in recent history, had Amy Hennig and the team at Naughty Dog had the courage to forfeit genre conventions and the ridiculous tick boxes which modern action games are governed and reviewed by, like multiplayer and co-op modes. Had that wasted energy been invested in further exploration of the subtle new grounds of action adventure experience which “Uncharted 2” skims by, and it might have been a shining new example of a new genre. As is, it’s still the best of its kind – as unoriginal in its game-play as others before it, though designed with a finesse, care to detail and artistry that its competitors are sorely lacking.