Last-Gen Zero: Why I Say The Things I Do About Uncharted 2

So there’s this excellent piece that talks about Uncharted 2 better than I ever could, and you should probably go read it at some point. With that said… I’m still going to try. Those of you who know me know that I’m not a big fan of Uncharted 2. But today? Today, I’ve got something special for you. Not only am I going to tell you why I think Uncharted 2 is a pretty bad game—I’m going to tell you why, in the spirit of Kotaku's Last-Gen Heroes and Zeroes, I think it was the worst single game of the generation.

Okay, okay, let’s be fair and get this out of the way: some people have released games which don’t function at all. Others have released games that have worse animation, sound, or art. I’m sure, if you try hard enough, you can find a script that’s worse. If we were simply working from a list of features a game should have and comparing and contrasting them to other games, Uncharted 2 would not, in fact, be the worst game of all time.

So why am I arguing that it is?

Because Uncharted 2 hurt gaming immeasurably.

But… I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up a bit and talk about Uncharted 2 as a game. It looks utterly gorgeous, as long as you don’t pay attention too hard to notice all the flaws, ranging from poorly-textured surfaces (after the truck sequence on the mountain, you’ll cross a huge bridge; eventually, you’ll end up in a combat arena, and you can look back and see that the outside of the bridge has some of the worst texturing ever), the low-quality skyboxes, the low-poly models, and so on and so forth. Plenty of games avoid some of Uncharted’s straight-up amateurish mistakes, but few pull off its brilliant successes. Just walking through the environment, a ridiculous amount of things feel hand-crafted. You might see a scuff on some walls that you’ve never seen before, a patterning of the wood that feels wholly unique. In all the places Uncharted 2 wants you to look, you’ll see nothing terribly less than hand-crafted genius.

Then you’ve got the animations. Wow. I’m fairly confident that, at least where player animation is involved, Uncharted 2 is, like, top five all-time best animation quality or something like that. It’s ridiculous how good the animations are… but… well, that’s not entirely true. Where the enemy reactivity concerned, FEAR still blows everything away. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not as horrifically bad as the extreme twitchiness typified by certain Capcom games, where enemies, upon being hit, exaggeratedly fail, then shrug as if nothing happened and carried on. Uncharted’s enemy deaths seem, well, rather bleh in comparison to Drake’s movement. And then you’ve got that tremendous facial animation that just rocks the cutscenes.*

Speaking of cutscenes, we should note that Uncharted’s character models and stuff are way more complex in cutscenes than they are in gameplay. One of the ways the game helps maintain the illusion of amazing graphics is, as I understand it, through cleverly mixing gameplay with pre-rendered footage (ever wondered why it’s got such a massive file-size? HD video, bros). Sometimes, when they can’t pull off stuff in gameplay, they just show it to you as a cutscene, which is… well, somewhat problematic. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Oh, and it generally sounds pretty fantastic. The guns pop, the explosions resonate, and the characters are wonderfully expressive—who can forget that hilarious line about squidgy jeans, or the remark about clowns? The game just sounds so good. I love listening to it, and I could do so for hours.

So, uh, yeah. I’m not really helping my case so far, am I?

Maybe. You know what else looks and sounds awesome and occasionally has great lines?

Last-Gen Zero: Why I Say The Things I Do About Uncharted 2

Yup.

A Michael Bay film.

I know, I know—most people seem to want to compare Uncharted 2 to Indiana Jones, but down that path lies nothing but despair. If you truly compare Uncharted 2 to Indiana Jones, you’re going to walk away saying “well, crap, Uncharted 2’s just about the worst, palest imitation of Indy ever made. I feel embarrassed for Naughty Dog.”

Okay, that was my reaction. Maybe you’ll feel differently.

The way I see it, Uncharted 2’s script is terrible. Oh, don’t get me wrong, some of the dialog makes me laugh myself silly. It’s fantastic. But, well, all the stuff that actually matters sure seems bad. Anyone can do amusing dialog. My first screenplay this semester had people laughing their butts off. Much, much more challenging are things like character, plot, pacing, and the like, and Uncharted 2 fails miserably at all of this.

A good story starts with its characters. Who are they? What do they want? What keeps them from getting what they want? How do they overcome this to obtain their goal? A good action story imbues even the finer details of its action with these same desires, hurdles, and successes, but more on that later.

With Uncharted 2, we have Drake. Drake wants a treasure. There is a bad guy who also wants the treasure. Okay… so far, so good, right? At first, Drake just wants something minor, and some annoying guy gets him imprisoned over it. So, cool, we also want revenge.

But, hey, here’s the thing: the characters suck.

Last-Gen Zero: Why I Say The Things I Do About Uncharted 2

Drake a reasonably good character, as is Sully. They’ve got this neat relationship going on, they’re cool bros, they find treasure, and that’s all well and good. Sully acts like the wiser mentor character, expressing distrust towards the femme fatale, Chloe. Ah, Chloe, such a terrible character. It’s hard to figure out what the game wants to do with her: on one hand, it looks like the folks at Naughty Dog are attempting some sort of romantic triangle with Drake, Chloe, and Elena, a character from the first game who is reintroduced mid-way through Uncharted 2. But it never really seems to go very far.

I’ve heard said that a good romance, for the audience at least, is a “will they, won’t they?” situation. We, the audience, should want two characters to fall in love, and the drama of the romance stems from our worry that we might not get to see that happen. It’s one of the reasons most people seem to enjoy Marian and reject Willie: nobody likes Willie, because she’s annoying and grossed out by everything, but Marian seems to make Indy’s knees go all wibbly-wobbly.

Uncharted 2’s romance is more of a “wait, what?” thing.

Chloe seems to really enjoy having sex with Nathan Drake, but Nathan doesn’t really care about her. He cares more about Elena, because Elena’s a normal and good person, and Elena’s a dangerous femme fatale type. It’s really obvious that the down-to-earth, occasionally-impulsive, generally good-hearted person is going to win out here, but the game keeps trying half-heartedly to act as though it’s a romantic triangle we should care about, kinda like how Mass Effect 2 tried to pretend that its audience had no idea the Collectors worked for the Reapers.

One might argue, then, that the script is actually about unrequited love, but if so, why doesn’t the game ever really do anything with that? All we really have is a “When will they and why won’t they do it now?” situation going on, with Chloe existing more to provide some degree of tension which she completely fails at doing.

But the problem doesn’t stop there. The villain is the villianiest of villains. You know how The Expendables 2’s enemy is named Jean Vilain, and that’s literally the most villain-y name ever? Uncharted 2’s is even more villain-y, because he is a Russian with a scar on his eye, and his ultimate goal in life is to obtain “power.” When a minion fails him in a minor way, our scar-eyed Russian friend—who goes by the name of Lazarevic, not that it matters—kills him. Make as many comparisons as you want to Indiana Jones, but never let it be said that Indy’s enemies weren’t textured, interesting characters. Remember Toht? Remember how he seems to threaten Marian… only to reveal his creepy “torture device” was actually a coat hanger? Remember why he was terrifying—not just because of the way he acted, but because of the way he outmaneuvered Indy? Lazarevic merely has a head start and lots of guys with guns. Toht, in contrast, is smart, has lots of guys with guns, and is extremely devoted to Naziism.

Remember the amazing fight in Indiana Jones with the airplane propeller and the Nazi? Or, hey, how about that guy with the sword that Indy fights? The end of the train level features a mini-boss like that… and it’s just a QTE. The guy’s basically just a scaled-up enemy with body armor. Can I get a proverbial show of hands? Who thought this guy—whose name I can’t even remember—was anywhere near as memorable as those guys?

At some point in the game, when Drake meets up with Elena, she has a cameraman with her.

This man will die.

We know he will die because the game limits the number of people we accompany at any given time, and up until we meet this man, the game’s been giving us a series of increasingly-flimsy excuses to remove a character or two from our presence. Then, hey, we’ve got one too many people, and no excuse for him to run off on his own… yeah. He’s going to die. Also, he’s just a side character, and this game seems to have no room for side characters. Jeff reacts to things—he doesn’t have a choice. Things happen and he responds and carries on.

And… Uncharted 2 plays this up like it’s the most dramatic thing ever. A generic character who hasn’t got a name gets killed, and the game’s all “have some dramatic MUSIC” and “look at their anguished FACES” and “please feel all these EMOTIONS” and… no. Just no.

Shockingly, Jeff the Cameraman, as he was named, did not wear a red shirt.

His death exists more to prove that Lazarevic is a bad guy than anything else, which could have been done in so many other, more interesting, less cliché ways. My first creative writing teacher imposed a wonderful rule on her students: “don’t write about death.” It required thinking outside the box, because humans, as we are, just can’t help resorting to using death as a dramatic device. It’s so easy. How many people does Toht kill in Indiana Jones? How do the scenes he’s in convey that he’s dangerous? Why are people willing to die for him? Contrast this with Lazarevic, and some stark differences appear.

Which brings us to the purple yeti hulks.

Last-Gen Zero: Why I Say The Things I Do About Uncharted 2

Oh, right, I probably should have mentioned: this game has purple yeti hulks. Probably long-lost, color-contrasted cousins of the Incredible Hulk or something. They wear yeti suits so people won’t know they’re hulks, you see, for, um, uh… reasons. Seriously, when just about the only way to be killed is to be shot with a crossbow (because crossbows are deadlier than guns), why do you need to disguise yourself as a yeti?

For that matter, how were these guys able to build some big, fancy city… and then completely fail to have any sort of culture surrounding it? Shambhala looks like it was a magnificent city once, so, uh, why isn’t it magnificent now, with all these big, super-strong creatures—apparently the people who had been living there and made said city—keeping it intact? Why does the whole thing crumble like paper? Why didn’t their culture flourish (what with the whole super-power-giving magical tree)? I’ve heard it argued that the yeti hulks aren’t the original inhabitants—okay, what happened to those inhabitants?

Those of you who have played Far Cry might understand the frustration here: remember the Trigens? They come out of nowhere, drastically alter the game, and make no sense. With Uncharted, the plot, so far, has been suggesting that there is a treasure in Shambhala. That treasure, apparently, is superpowers. And the super-power-giving tree is still there, and, presumably, the people who built the city were getting super-powers, because why else build your city around a tree that gives you super-powers? So… how did their civilization collapse? It takes hundreds of years to make a city that eventually becomes ruins like that (I know a thing or two about archaeology!), so, the whole “the superpowers diminished their brainular abilities” argument doesn’t really hold water.

Why am I even bothering to try to make sense of or poke holes in this? The story’s a gigantic sieve of nonsense. Nothing about it holds water.

With twists like these, I almost get the impression people have been trying—and failing miserably—to pull off Halo’s The Flood, which was a good revelation that had been adequately set up and designed to affect the player’s overall gameplay flow. That was a change that mattered. In Uncharted, you get one new enemy and one new gun for story reasons that don’t matter, because the only thing that really matters are the dramatic set pieces.

Make a note of that last bit.

To top it off, the game’s final boss fight is basically the game pointing out the dissonance between the gameplay and its story: it’s a bizarre twist that feels like a failed attempt at some sort of “Would You Kindly” or “You are Destiny” commentary. While Bioshock’s “Would You Kindly” moment failed, and Marathon’s “You are Destiny” perfectly defined the player’s role in video games, both made some arguments worth talking about. All Uncharted 2 did was call attention to how it failed—unless Naughty Dog was trying to make a bad game specifically to say “don’t make games like this.”

Okay, okay, we’ve talked about the audiovisual presentation (and it seems pretty good!). We’ve talked about the story (and it’s looking as if it’s atrocious!). But most people will tell you, when asking what the single most important aspect of a video game is… that gameplay is all that matters.

Where to begin? The game’s few puzzles are immediately solved—I put more work into the recent Tomb Raider’s, and those are, by all accounts, just about the easiest puzzles known to mankind. Uncharted 2’s puzzles on par with Dragon Age: Origin’s dull bridge puzzle. The climbing in the game is comparable to Assassin’s Creed, while the platforming in Uncharted 2 could generously be described as “autoplatforming.” I seem to recall reading somewhere that Uncharted 2 actually gives you a boost if it looks like you’re going to fail a jump, because it’s not important that you’re good at playing the game—it’s important that the pacing is kept up.

There’s no significant skill involved in any of this, because none of it’s particularly well thought out. Just press your stick in the direction you want to go, and when you stop, jam a button to make things happen. That’s all there is to it. Don’t worry about things like timing or accuracy—they’re irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.

When it comes to the shooter gunplay, things are a bit more mixed: one of the best gunfights I have ever experienced involved Nate scrambling on a series of giant road signs, hanging from one side or the other, using the whole thing as cover while enemies spawned all around him. It was amazing, and put a huge smile on my face.

And that is literally the only time I had fun shooting in this game.

Last-Gen Zero: Why I Say The Things I Do About Uncharted 2

Some of the maps are cool, encouraging verticality and stealth, but nothing ever quite satisfies. Better games have pulled off more interesting levels—check out Dishonored for a recent example. It often favors verticality and player choice, presenting you with a solution and multiple ways to solve it. Uncharted 2 rarely pulls that off, and when it does, it’s never anything near as good as the other games that try. Indeed, when you’re sneaking around, you’re doing it more because you’re doing exactly what the designers wanted you to, rather than because they want to facilitate a variety of players and play styles. Sneak for a bit, shoot some guys, take cover and pick ‘em off.

As soon as Nate alerts enemies to his presence, they seem to know where he is at all times—not only that, but they have x-ray vision. At one point, I was in a hallway, where no one could see me, reloading, and they were shouting “he’s out of ammo!” Swinging my camera around, I discovered that the snipers were pointing directly at my head, with only a foot of bricks between us. How did they know where my head was? Bad AI. It’s generally accepted that good AI can be ‘fooled,’ and can lose track of the player. Some poorer games, unfortunately, have AI which always knows where the player is, at least as long as it’s aware of the player’s presence. This definitely seems to be the case in Uncharted 2.

The weight of movements feels wrong (but this could just be that the Dualshock has the worst sticks I’ve ever encountered on a first-party controller). The weapons and health system do as much as they can to encourage you to stay in cover, and the enemy types don’t really encourage player movement. A significant amount of the game’s combat can be reduced to simply running to cover, shooting some guys, and occasionally moving away when someone fires an explosive your way. A few instances encourage movement, but they’re few and far between: it’s almost entirely made up of sequences where you simply climb behind cover, shoot some guys, and move on. Better games, like Gears of War 3, present enemies who lose track of you, or slowly increase the variety of enemy types you face, offering new behaviors that mix things up. Sure, enemy footsoldiers might not force you out of cover, but the heavy enemies with those burrowing mines that ignore cover, or Kantus Priests, or mortar throwers, or a half dozen other enemy types will definitely affect the way you move.

What’s most frustrating, though, is all the things Uncharted 2 has that could have made it an interesting game if any of it had depth: fist-fighting is neat, and while I’m not expecting Drake to have pull off as much cool stuff as Oni’s Konoko, some greater depth would have been nice. Climbing is cool, but rarely does it factor into the combat arenas themselves—it’s generally more of a way to get to points A, B, and C. Combined with an improved stealth and AI system, Uncharted 2 could have really been something special, giving players combat arenas with a degree of stealth, player freedom, and verticality that could have made for a fascinating mix.

Honestly, as shooters go, Uncharted 2 seems like pretty generic fluff wrapped in great production values. It’s the lowest level of understanding of what makes shooters good—a few stand-out moments hardly stand up to the overall low quality of shooting it has.

So… okay, we’ve got a game that seems to have great production quality, bad story, and bad gameplay. Pretty much the exact same thing we talked about in the Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect 2 articles, right?

What makes Uncharted 2 different—or, more specifically, worse than the other two?

Last-Gen Zero: Why I Say The Things I Do About Uncharted 2

Those of you who know my taste in games know I’m a big proponent of this idea that gameplay and narrative are ultimately two different sides of the same coin: that is, what you do ultimately tells the story of part, or even all, of the experience you’re interacting with. Take, for example, an experience I once wrote about in regards STALKER: Call of Pripyat:

"Blowout soon!" comes the now-familiar alert. I've just taken out a base full of mercenaries in Call of Pripyat's huge opening map. I'm overburdened, but I've got about five minutes—enough time, sure, but still cutting it a bit close. I start running across the fields.

Crap.

Maybe I'm not as fast as I thought.

I keep chugging energy drinks to boost my stamina, but they don't last long enough. Still, though, I can make it. I drop an unneeded sawed-off shotgun, then another, then an—oh. I've just fallen into a hole. It's not exactly a small drop, either; the hole is about forty feet deep, but I hit enough stuff on the way down not to kill myself.

Neat, I think to myself. I can wait out the blowout here, then find my way out through the caves!

As I begin winding my way through the caves, I hear the telltale woosh of a gravitational anomaly, as well as the miniature thunderclap of its electrical counterpart. Irritating, to be sure, particularly in this pitch-black cave, but no matter. I've got a flashlight and some bolts. I'll just throw them ahead of me and suss out a path through the anomalies.

That's when I hear a snork.

Their razor-sharp teeth and massive jumping distance are more than enough to make me panic and bolt out of the cave, dodging between anomalies and praying that don't die from death by gravitational implosion. My shotgun is next to useless against the snorks—they're fast, so hitting them with slugs won't do the trick, but I don't have the time to stop and switch to buckshot either.

Finally, I'm out of the cave, still killing snorks. When all is said and done, I've killed a dozen or more. I'm shaking. Hah. I'm shaking. I'm shaking. I drop whatever excess gear I have, even though the immediate threat has been dealt with, and start running to the ship's skeleton where my fellow stalkers have taken refuge. I just need to be with people for a while.

Clearly, there's a lot I have to learn.

Why am I talking about this?

Last-Gen Zero: Why I Say The Things I Do About Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2, you see, is a perversion of this ideal. In a medium defined by interactivity, Uncharted 2 seems decidedly out of place, in the way it wrangles the player, curating his or her experience. Instead of helping progress the medium in a way where interactivity is king, Uncharted 2 tries to push the medium towards cinema—and what poor cinema it is. We get an experience where you press a button to watch something cool happen, rather than being the instigator of that action. With Uncharted 2, you’ll never feel like a genius for using the game’s mechanics to trick a bunch of zombies in a room where you can kill them all with the splash damage from your holy water arrows, taking delight in the knowledge that you wouldn’t have been able to kill them all without getting them so close together because you didn’t have enough arrows. Thief, however, puts you in that situation all the time, as do games such as STALKER or Deus Ex.

These games thrive on creating a framework in which you can interact, telling, in a way, your own story, or greatly affecting the story that the developers want to tell—even enhancing it. STALKER wants to create a desolate mood for its story, and the gameplay enhances this. Thief’s spooky. Deus Ex wants you to feel like you’re a protagonist in a cool cyberpunk story, with just as much agency as they have, still following a somewhat linear path.

Uncharted 2 and its ilk are all about making you do what it wants you to do, rather than helping you feel what it wants you to feel. It’s all about curated, controlled experiences—Valve’s design ideal of player conditioning taken to an extreme. It’s about robbing you of even the simplest of things, like camera control. It’s about insipid combat and largely-bland level design that encourages the player not to interact, but to stop and pretend they’re in a shooting gallery. It’s about saying that the story and gameplay don’t matter—the presentation does.

In short, Uncharted 2 is trying to be a film, and as the essay in this article’s first paragraph argues: it fails miserably. Worse still, in trying to be a film, it fails at being a game.

To put my perspective simply, I believe that Uncharted 2 is the biggest Zero game of this generation because it was a bad game that introduced a concept that was heavily anti-game: that of the game designers robbing the experience of its interactivity in order to show players inane refuse. Worse still, Uncharted 2 inspired other games and designers because of the praise it received: everyone wanted to make these anti-games.

Look at the games that came later: Max Payne 3, for instance, had a ridiculous install size because of its excess of HD video. Why all the video? Apparently, an animation of a player climbing up a ladder wasn’t enough: Max Payne 3 had to show a cutscene as Max climbed up a ladder, then another as Max transitioned from sniping people on one side of an arena to the other. Rockstar Vancouver, the developers, couldn’t simply enable the player to pick positions, as Remedy had done in Max Payne 2.

Look at how Mass Effect 3’s ending slows the player down, making them stumble, to indicate some dramatic, weighty moment. Watch it done similarly at the opening of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, to demonstrate how old the player is. Go back to the intro of Uncharted 2, which presents the same situation better than other games… and ask yourself if that’s worthwhile. Personally, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves.

Look at Assassin’s Creed 3’s ending chase: it’s so busy trying to be cinematic that it forgets to actually do good gameplay. And yes—yes, we can argue that Uncharted understood things better, providing physics boosts to keep the pacing going… but is that really any better? Should designers sit there going “okay, I want you to see this and I want you to hear that, and it’s all going to look very dramatic.”

The way I see it, Uncharted 2 and its reception encouraged designers to put the gamers in the back seat.

There’s this beautiful line at the end of Marathon: Infinity, Bungie’s pre-Halo shooter, which you can download for free here. It talks about the times you’ve died, the paths you’ve followed—how you fit into an infinite pattern, that which has been laid out by the game designer. But then, as the universe collapses, Durandal, the game’s villain, realizes that you’re all that matters: you are Destiny. You, the player, are the single most important component of a video game. It’s not about set pieces. It’s not about showing you something cool. It’s not about trying to be cinematic.

It’s not about graphics, or sound, or gameplay, or even story.

It’s about you.

And Uncharted 2 doesn’t get that. The game’s more interested in the presentation of an experience than displaying even the minutest awareness of your involvement, and this seems wrong: what is the most important part of a game, if not its player? We’ve got some great, big, debate about whether gameplay or story is the most important part of the game, and I have to wonder if the answer hasn’t been under our noses this whole time, and what we really should be doing is constantly keeping in mind an awareness of player’s presence within the experience. If games are to be interacted with, surely establishing good interaction should be of the utmost priority within the experience.

Uncharted 2, conversely, encourages designers to go the other way. Players, to Uncharted 2, are only important as eyeballs to witness and mouths to proselytize what has been witnessed.

To Uncharted 2, you, the player, don’t matter.

And really, for a game, what could be worse than that?

But is that enough to make Uncharted 2 this gen's biggest zero? Nope. Uncharted 2's just one terrible, terrible cog in a larger machine. Tune in next time to learn what I think is the last-gen's biggest Zero. As usual, you can find me on Tumblr, Twitter, or the DocTalk tag. The fat people pictures were just hilarious and are arguably Uncharted 2's strongest point outside of its artwork.