Tuesday, October 27, 2009

High Honors Among Thieves

If "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" marked the opening shots of a revolution, "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" will prove to mark the moment when the war became winnable. The original game had an emphasis on narrative that changed the standards for video games as a storytelling medium. The sequel does not necessarily change the standards again, it just ensures that future games will have no choice but to meet them. Everything, absolutely everything, that worked in the first game (and everything that did not) has been polished to perfection in "Among Thieves," instantly elevating the series into the pantheon of seminal gaming franchises.

There was a moment while I was playing the gripping single-player campaign in "Uncharted 2" when I stopped and thought, "This game is going to have other video game developers throwing themselves off of buildings." Before I get too exalting, however, let me concede that there remains room for improvement (the game's final third cannot maintain the perfect pace of the previous sections – it all degrades into mere greatness, in lieu of excellence). So, at the very least, let us hope that no one at Naughty Dog will be defenestrating themselves over the prospect of the inevitable "Uncharted 3."

Now, Mr. Keeley has already discussed the game's myriad improvements in his two posts, so I will look closely at a specific segment of the game that I believe best illustrates its strengths: Chapter One.

We find Nathan Drake sitting in a train car, stunned. He quickly realizes that he is bleeding heavily, then he slowly realizes that the train car is dangling off of the side of a snowy cliff. Debris comes tumbling down onto him, knocking him out of the car and leaving only the car's back handrail from which to hang. With this, gameplay begins. Scaling the car is every bit as nerve-wracking as it should be. The cliffside is crumbing, the train is pulling apart, winds are blowing and Drake is dying. All of these factors inform the gameplay. Progress is slow, as falling boulders set Drake back, unreliable footholds nearly throw him to his death, and his injuries keep him in nearly palpable pain.

This one train car proves to be a marvel of level design, as the changing state and position of the car force the player to traverse every side of the car's exterior, as well as its vertical interior. First time players will find a number of small, yet thrilling surprises in the gameplay, simply during the course of the minute or two spent climbing the car. No average person could look at a train car and see so much potential for challenging, dynamic platforming; this is the work of true artists. Furthermore, it serves as a wonderful refresher on Drake's abilities. Almost every aspect of the climbing mechanic is utilized here, but with a stilted speed that both heightens the tension and allows players to ease back into the controls.

Reaching the top of the train car brings a second car, this one horizontal (for the moment). This triggers the first of many harrowing, scripted sequences in the game. The second car begins to slip off of the cliff as Drake is walking through it and he must to run for his life. This is not, however, a cutscene. Like so many moments like this throughout the game, the player remains in full control, forcing him or her to frantically work to reach safety; as Drake finally scampers onto solid ground, he is not the only one breathing a sigh of relief. For far too long, video games have featured gameplay that fails to reflect the circumstances within which they are set. Throughout "Uncharted 2," however, contextual handicaps to the controls, dynamic level design, dramatic camera positioning and, of course, excellent voice acting ensure that the emotion of a situation is always brought home to the viewer.

What follows the collapse of the two train cars exemplifies this, too, as the game's narrative enters the mix. Drake must stumble through a dangerous wreckage of about a dozen other cars. He receives some very serious blows here, as other parts of the wreckage explode or collapse, and many of them trigger flashbacks. In these flashbacks, players watch and play through the events that lead up to the train wreck. The trickle of information has a bewildering effect that only brings the player even closer to Drake's stunned state. The final flashback lasts a few hours, as the story circles back around to the wreck.

If one were to look at the elements that compose this sequence, he or she would find very little in the way of new things. Predetermined camera angles, quick-time events, cutscenes, scripted musical cues – all of these things have been used (and, often, overused) for years, but never before to this effect. Games of the past dreamed of an experience that combined all of these elements into something truly seamless and immersive. "Uncharted 2" is brimming with sequences that are wildly successful at it. Time and again, the game leaps two or three steps ahead of the player, sparing him or her those all-to-familiar thoughts of, "Wouldn't it be awesome if I could..." In other words, "Uncharted 2" is the game that players have been unconsciously wishing for over the past few years, but never received.

Again, there is little in the way of apparent innovation in "Uncharted 2" – and that is what will undoubtedly make it so scary for other developers to see. What Naughty Dog has achieved with this game cannot be easily replicated because, on some level, it cannot be attributed to anything other than unadulterated talent. It is difficult to believe that this game was crafted in two years. So many developers devote more time to games that do not feature anything approaching the minute level of polish that this game does (not to mention its incorrigible personality). The past few years have been great for video games, without a doubt, but Naughty Dog has ensured that no one in the industry will be allowed to rest on their laurels any time soon.

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