Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Huh? What? Uncharted 2 is Actually Really Good

I was planning on spending this holiday season cooped up in my room, playing fifteen year old PC games (I just bought a new joystick and Wing Commander II is SO BEAUTIFUL) while complaining about dearth of reasonably interesting titles, since most of them got delayed until 2010. I was in for Demon's Souls and Brutal Legend based on forum hype and pedigree, but I really wasn't expecting much from Uncharted 2. I only got it because of the Toys R Us B2G1 free sale, and the hype from all around made it too much to pass on.

I wasn't really a fan of the first Uncharted. It was the first PS3 game I bought while I waited a few weeks for MGS4 to be released, and my feelings were roughly the same as Yahtzee's - a well made game, but remarkably bland. I actually thought it was a long running joke amongst PS3 fans that such a dull game was somehow championed as one of the best games on the console...then I realized a year and a half later that they weren't kidding.

The nature of sequels usually assumes that if the first game sold well, then there was nothing wrong with it, and may as well just write a new "script", make a few new levels and call it a day. (As much as I like the atmosphere and general feel of Halo,they still really haven't learned much about level design.) Thankfully, it's not the case with Uncharted 2 - it's a rare case, like with Zone of the Enders and Dark Cloud from the PS2 generation, that actually builds substantially on the last game. I don't know if the actual engine was improved, but the visual direction is nothing short of outstanding - and if the snow in the first chapter doesn't convince you, the Turkish landscape in the second one will. I think that's the big thing that's impressed me - instead of just being a dude running around a jungle shooting other dudes, it's really come up with some interesting setpieces, right within the first hour. Even the (fairly easy) stealth section at the beginning is pretty smooth.

Anyway, you've probably heard all of the fantastic stuff about this already, and I'd say that yeah, for the most part, it's actually true and not just overblown fluff. So let's take a bit of time to discuss where (so far) it's failing.

The plot's not great. Well, no, I haven't seen enough the plot to really say that, so let's say this - the writing's a bit subpar. Anytime anyone says "I have a bad feeling about this", then immediately cuts to a bad thing happening...there should be some kind of punishment for that. Yes, we understand what irony is, please don't do this ever again.

I'm not sure what the appeal of Nathan Drake is, but apparently he's the model of the New Action Hero - gelled hair and jeans, looking like an Abercrombie and Fitch model without the overtly homosexual overtones, with a laid back attitude and scruffy facial hair that suggests a slacker everyman who can do pretty much anything the Old Action Hero can do, except with irritating smarminess replacing cheesy catchphrases. The constant praise I see heaped on it is even weirder. I actually heard someone say that the dialogue gets better later on, and compared it to Monkey Island in its cleverness. Oh? Was this the same person that called the cringeworthy Grand Theft Auto IV script "Oscar-worthy"? I'm not very far so there's always hope for improvement, but somehow I think these people have a substantially different concept of "good writing" than I do.

Then there's Chloe. Chloe rubs me the wrong way. She reminds me a lot of Zoe from Dreamfall - black hair with slightly dark skin, somewhat racially ambiguous, with skimpy tops and a British accent. Zoe was a real character after my own heart, but Chloe's something of a negaverse version of the same basic idea, completely lacking in both charm and depth. And there's something about the way the eyes are modeled that makes her look suspiciously glassy. It's distracting. I still think it would be hilarious if Drake ended up with some fat chick as "the best driver in the business" - are female criminals all wannabe models? - but I don't really think being subversive is Naughty Dog's MO.

This criticism might sound like it's being a bit tough, and it definitely is. The writing is still several steps up from GTA4, and certainly better than the Gears of Wars of the world. But "blockbuster Hollywood movie" and "good writing" aren't mutually exclusive. That's something not even the actual movie industry has figured out consistently, though, so I guess it's a bit premature that a video game could possibly do the same thing. At least it's not a jumbled mess a la Transformers 2, so it does have that going for it. But it does seem awfully weak when compared to something like Brutal Legend. I wouldn't want Tim Schafer to waste his talents working on a summer popcorn action flick, but at some point the developers should strive to be more than just adequate.

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