Saturday, April 17, 2010

Uncharted 2: I'm Still Playing

Way back in October, Me and Matt on Media devoted several posts to Uncharted 2, then the hot new thing on the Playstation 3. I claimed that the single player was a masterpiece, but was slightly less taken with the multiplayer. In this Tuesday's post on patches, Mr. Hollis-Lima criticized some of the changes that Naughty Dog made to their game's multiplayer, though he acknowledged that the developers at least had their hearts in the right places. That the recent patches discouraged us is, in an odd way, a triumph of sorts for Uncharted 2. Neither Mr. Hollis-Lima nor myself expected to be playing Among Thieves online seven months after launch. This multiplayer game, for all its flaws, still has legs.

When Uncharted 2 launched, I found that its multiplayer was enjoyable, but I felt that, amongst other things, there were not enough maps wherein to slay your foes in competitive modes and too few levels for cooperative play. Naughty Dog very quickly began fixing the first of these problems. About a month after the game appeared, a new map, The Fort, appeared as free downloadable content. Alas, this free level was the last substantive addition to Uncharted until the end of February, when two new maps debuted (though this time we had to pay for the new content). Next week another two maps, The Museum and Highrise, should show up on the Playstation Store. Naughty Dog has also stated that they will once again "subtly" rebalance the game – let us hope that these changes will be better-conceived than some past adjustments. Unless the forthcoming 1.07 update utterly ruins the game's balance, I believe Uncharted 2's competitive modes will remain viable for quite some time.

Unfortunately, Naughty Dog has not given Uncharted's cooperative modes enough attention. The game shipped with three great "narrative-lite" levels wherein two to three players fought enemy soldiers, platformed, took on helicopters and tanks, and generally relived the high points of a single-player campaign. The cooperative campaigns were difficult without being unfair, and Naughty Dog employed a number of mechanisms to ensure true cooperative play. I've played through all these scenarios several times, but they eventually seem tired. It's a shame that Naughty Dog has announced there will be no more new story co-op levels until their next game; apparently co-op missions are too resource-intensive to develop.

In addition to the mini-story missions, Uncharted 2 features Gold Rush and Survival modes, cooperative challenges set within the normal multiplayer maps. These are fun, but feel somewhat constrained; to break into cinematic parlance, they lack set pieces and scenery changes. I was glad to hear that next week's update will include Siege, a new cooperative mode in this vein, but I will be shocked if I find the new mode particularly enthralling. I'll doubtless play several Siege matches, but I don't expect to become a habitual user.

I've already discussed my quibbles and frustrations with the Uncharted multiplayer experience; it's somewhat harder to explain why the game still interests me, seven matches and hundreds of matches on. I suppose that the game's greatest strength is its use of space and the game's consequent variety. Uncharted allows the player to roll, clamber, and climb around its environments with far greater freedom than most multiplayer shooters. The map isn't just a backdrop for blood and violence, it's an active participant in the apparent chaos.

It doesn't hurt, of course, that Uncharted 2's various arenas are all beautifully rendered and ornately detailed. The majority of the Facility, for example, is generic industrial chic, but the designers have added small touches of color and beauty throughout: the lovely jungle and blue sky seen through the window, the detailed topographic maps spread over tables and walls, the WWII sub sitting in (mostly) dry dock at the level's center. Every time I play I seem to notice something new, unnecessary, and appreciated.

Since the introduction of multiplayer trophies in February, Naughty Dog has tried to increase Uncharted's variety by incentivizing it. Too few players using those nice explosive propane tanks? Now there's a Trophy for getting twenty separate "BBQ" kills. Too few players using pistols? Come Thursday, there's a Trophy that requires pistol use. Trophies may be silly, but I'm glad to see Naughty Dog using them to make all those rounds of Uncharted fresher and more surprising.

While some of Uncharted 2's failings stem from a lack of content, others derive from technical issues. The matchmaking system is still extremely slow and continues to suffer from occasional crashes. Even worse, the game seems to put matches together without giving much consideration to player level. In your first online game, you might well face a group of people who have spent hundreds of hours mastering every level. I can't imagine starting to play Uncharted today; the learning curve would be far too steep. Once in a match, there's a small chance that you will encounter cheaters; while Naughty Dog has fixed many exploits, enough remain to occasionally make games extremely frustrating.

In the more than a half a year since my last blog post on Uncharted, my feelings about the single player haven't changed one jot. Had the game lacked all its multiplayer modes, it would have remained the best game of 2009. My feelings on the multiplayer, however, have become far more complex than I would have expected in October. Uncharted 2 has a great multiplayer modes, but its shortcomings constantly remind me of how far Naughty Dog still has to go. I don't know how they will ever top the single-player, but the ways of improving the multiplayer are both myriad and obvious.

No comments: