failure’s eternal return

Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves (2009)
Naughty Dog
Genre: Thrill Ride Simulator

To prepare for Uncharted 2: The Return of Drake’s Revenge, I skimmed some reviews to get into the right mindset, one that is ready to love. The critical consensus is that Uncharted 2 isn’t the best game in the world, but it certainly is one hell of a ride. It’s got these characters and they’re saying funny things and there’s a love triangle and there’s climbing and shooting and all sorts of set pieces and Nathan Drake is soooooo funny and and and this thing is the best, most skin-blistering ride you’ve ever ridden. I looked up from my computer and out the window to the hills across the way, visualizing my destiny of having fun with this game, of marching into gaming Valhalla like a sweaty, grinning champion.

And after playing straight through to the very end, I can say this: it has some sweet graphics. The textures are colorful, the animations have the stylistic excess of actual hand-drawn animation, and the temples and ruins are rendered with such verve that the final in-game renders are actually better than the concept paintings. Videogame graphics usually don’t phase me because of how elevated my consciousness is, but these were really, really great. There were times where I felt like I was genuinely climbing around in highly stylized, videogame versions of enormous serial-adventure/Indiana Jones temples. So that was neat.

Unfortunately, the actual mechanics of gameplay and the overall narrative progression are so fundamentally problematic that I almost feel petty for bringing them up. Most glaringly is that as an entertainment, Uncharted 2 takes it cues from those slop bucket PG-13 action-adventure movies that get released in the Fall, the ones that are filled with long expository dialogue and short on frictive and clear action/adventure. Why is this game Next, or Jumper, or Anaconda, or the Max Payne movie, or Tomb Raider? Hey, why does this game take more cues from Tomb Raider: The Movie instead of Tomb Raider: The Game? Why does this ride involve an unending number of cutscenes in which I’m forced to just let the game make me do moronic things? I can do bad all by myself.

Lazy problems abound. Drake moves around like a nimble monkey, literally, but he is always wearing these jeans that I see the cool dudes wear when they’re doing something after-hours in San Francisco. They wear these jeans after-hours because before-hours they are working some job that necessitates before-hours slacks but pays for after-hours jeans. Drake is an all-hours kind of guy that is unlikely to waste his time doing something slick like being a guy-in-the-office-by-day and cat-burglar/treasure-hunter-by-night, so why is he wearing these pristine jeans that have clearly never been broken in? Why isn’t he wearing something that allows more flexibility, like spandex, or least stretch-jeans?

Then there’s the whole problem of how half of the game consists of little “what do I do now?” climbing puzzles. I mean, it’s already enough of a problem that my eye candy thrill ride turns climbing into the equivalent of walking really slowly up walls with my hands, but then to make me take a break from seeing thrilling set pieces to try to figure out where the hell I’m supposed to go next in a world where I can ostensibly climb everything is a huge, game-breaking problem, one that is tied to the larger problem of having the game consist entirely of nothing but set pieces that exist only to look cool and which take place in a void of chained together set pieces. How am I supposed to figure out where I’m supposed to be going if all of this action takes place in a void, a contextless place that lacks any cues as to where here and there are, let alone whether there actually is a There that I’m supposed to travel to. I know that there’s a There because videogame convention dictates that there must be one, but what how am I supposed to go and find it? Jump on everything until Drake grabs the climbable object that the developers wanted me to grab in the first place? Naughty Dog tries to alleviate this by implementing a Help button, and–

well first of all, ugh, and second of all I wouldn’t need a Help button if the game wasn’t so focused on breaking itself in the first place. I think the underlying problem here is that Naughty Dog’s linear game design instincts are clashing with the game’s obsession with displaying immersive, naturalistic and eye-popping environments, leading to a situation where they’ve basically designed another Crash Bandicoot that’s about running straight-forward, but have included the kinds of obstacles that make sense in games that have things like world maps and destination markers, and are otherwise gracious enough to simply tell you which way you’re supposed to be going without implying that you are stupid for not automagically knowing.

The other half of the game consists of serviceable, if limp, third-person shooting. The guns work, the guys die, but every part of it is doughy and soft. What usually happens in a given firefight is you find a place that has reliable and easy to defend cover, and then spend the rest of the time taking potshots at all the guys who keep running out of the spawn point to get you. There are times where Naughty Dog realizes that this is happening and spawns people behind you, but all that means is you need to relocate to somewhere that has better cover. There isn’t any of the immediate run-and-gun excitement of, say, Far Cry 2 because the pace of killing guys is sloooooowww, with headshots often taking two or three hits, depending if the enemy is wearing one of those kevlar ballcaps or not. There isn’t the tactical tension of, say, Far Cry 2 because the levels and AI weren’t designed to be interacted with as much as they were to be experienced. Note the subtle irony in which Far Cry 2 – an open-world game whose major hallmark is having an immersive and minimally restricted environment – has better level design and pacing than Uncharted 2’s highly linear and ostensibly diagrammed stages.

Slight modifications to this formula include a cover system that fails in the way most cover systems fail (cover suction —> perpetually being sucked into the wrong cover, usually cover that isn’t cover so much as a wall that faces the exact people you are trying to hide from), stealth segments (which inevitably end with you getting into a firefight, making me wonder what the point of having “sneaking” is supposed to be in the first place), and melee combat.

The melee has the most interesting in terms of implementation, as it lies somewhere between beat ’em up and quick-time-event. Once you start punching a guy, the game swivels the camera around to a side view and encourages you to keep mashing the punch button. At some point, your enemy will take the beginning motions of a counter and a little Triangle Button icon will pop up, signifying that pressing the Triangle Button right now will counter the guy’s counter. As a whole it’s an incredibly simple and shallow system, but I found it pleasantly mindless. Its main benefits are that it acts as a break from the endless shooting, and it lets you watch some more of the game’s manly animations. The drawback is that people will keep shooting you while you’re doing this, so basically anytime you aren’t using melee as a last-ditch maneuver to beat up a guy who saw you sneaking before he can hollar out about seeing your creepin’ ass; anytime you use it for something besides that, like just regularly beating people up, you are committing suicide. You are pointing to your kisser between punches and daring the AI to shoot you right there, which it does with aplomb. Why does this game include an action which is not only useless, but only serves to get the player killed when he tries to do it? Why does this golden retriever of a game want to make me look stupid?

The other other half of the game consists of cutscenes that seem to always be happening. I’ll spend ten minutes climbing around like a monkey and there’ll be a cutscene where Drake says something flirty. Five minutes petting cattle and there’s a cutscene of Drake talking to an old man. Shoot some people and a cutscene where Drake gets his bacon saved by an NPC. Why not take out all these garbage cutscenes and just have these things happen in real-time? Because the game would then be eight consecutive hours of poorly implemented shooting instead of ten with snack breaks.

A scene from True Blood, God’s gift to both geniuses and us regular common folk, came to mind as I humped around the game’s last leg in Shangri-La. Lafayette and Tara are looking at the bounty of leftover pot-luck goods at a dead character’s wake, and Tara says,

Tara: What the hell we gonna–

actually, it starts with Lafayette being like,

Lafayette: What the fuck is it with white people and jello? I don’t understand.
Tara: What the hell we gonna do with all this?
Lafayette: Toss it. Sookie don’t need no bad juju cooking.
Tara: Bad juju?
Lafayette: Way to a man’s heart is through his stomach: that shit true as gold. You put some love in your food and folk can taste it. Smell this. //he then lifts up a pan of cornbread// You can smell the fear and nastiness comin’ off that cornbread.
Tara: //takes a bite// Tastes just fine to me.
Lafayette: See bitch, you gonna wish you ain’t did that. Watch.

I can’t say I feel poisoned, per se, but it did take like seven episodes before Tara got caught up in all sorts of crazy shit. I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Naughty Dog of intentionally making a game filled with evil spirits and market-paralyzed ideas, where the only moments of passion come from ladling the visual gravy over the player’s precious eyes, but I would say that this game will subtract about ten hours from your lifespan that could’ve been spent petting a cute dog, playing Team Fortress 2 or wearing your favorite t-shirt. Uncharted 2 isn’t a videogame as much as it is a reason to reevaluate why you play or make games in the first place.

For further discussion on this topic, play REDDER.