Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Anybody who read my review of the first Uncharted game knows I was less than generous with my language.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's in my top three worst game playing experiences, right up there with F-Zero for the GameCube and ... Well, third place is up in the air.  But I really hated playing that game.

So, with most second parts of stories being the best part of the trilogy (Godfather, Spider-Man, Nolan's Batman movies, Back to the Future, etc.), will this one change my mind and get me to like the characters, story, and whatever else it decides to throw at me?

Well, I'll spoiler this much: I didn't hate it.

So there I was, a frosty root beer by my side, a small plate of pretzel chips in front of me, and the Playstation 3 was loading up the next Nathan Drake story line.  I had read the rave reviews, I saw the trailers, and I watched a friend of mine play through some of the very beginning some years ago, but had almost no memory of it besides it "involved a train."

With the opening stage opening before me, I was intrigued by the fact that a) they don't start with Nathan being cocky or smug, and b) they're willing to give an introduction to the game play in a way that actually makes sense.  Being stuck on a train hanging over a mountain, with apparently a bullet hole going through his abdomen, Nathan was instead being presented to us as vulnerable, alone, and serious.

Of course, this was all ruined the moment I realized I could still have him spring up poles and ladders like he was trying out for Ninja Warrior despite the gunshot wound, but more on that later.

It's in a flashback, then, that we started to have the warning alarms go off.  Nate meets up with a British guy who screams "lying, backstabbing, smarmy a-hole" right off the bat, and the two start to discuss stealing something from a museum.

Now, maybe I missed something in the first story line, but I don't remember Nathan actually being a thief in that game.  He was more Indiana Jones-ish, seeking lost treasures for fun and (mostly) profit instead of repeating "THIS BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!"

And then she entered the scene.

...higher, please.

See, part of what I didn't like about Elena was that she and Nathan Drake seemed to have all the chemistry of two rocks covered in moss leaning against each other, with occasionally one of them saying something spiteful and "witty" to the other.

Chloe, however, is voiced by Claudia Black, and she could have chemistry with anything.  Immediately, my hopes went up.  Instead of someone who couldn't keep their character straight during any given scene, we had a character who was seductive, scheming, had a past with Nate, but still seemed to genuinely like him.  I wasn't sure if she was going to stab me in the back, take a bullet for me, or simply be the only other character in the game as determined to survive as my character was supposed to be.

Plus, there was no Sully to ruin things.

The game progressed as I expected, with the stab in the back making absolutely NO sense considering the guy actually tries to get my attention to make sure I'm looking when he does it instead of just, oh, I don't know, DOING IT... or just killing my character instead of figuring it'd be a better punishment to leave me in Turkish prison (unless he also watched Mighty Max and knew about the giant killer eyeball...).

But then Chloe came back into the picture...but she brought Sully with her.  Okay, still, at least we have Chloe to keep things interesting.

I will say, the story line apparently got a major overhaul between one and two, because I could actually focus on this one.  It wasn't simply a matter of Nate stumbling through locations without any real sense of why I was going anywhere, this one took the time to set up the narrative, keep the twists coming, flesh out some of the characters, and give me a genuine reason to want to get the treasure ahead of the bad guys, even if I had no idea what the treasure was.

I'm getting pretty far through the game and actually enjoying myself.  I have Chloe turning into more and more of a reliable "coworker" of sorts, able to keep up with Nate through all of the action.  I have intense boss fights against helicopters that require artful dodging across rooftops and trying to predict where it'll be when I fire a rocket at it.

And then she came back and ruined it.

Every moment I had Elena running around with me instead of Chloe, I found myself gritting my teeth again through what felt like genuinely forced banter.  I did like that Elena wasn't nearly as helpless this time as she was before and seemed able to (mostly) keep up with me, but she seemed just as mad to be paired up with me as I was to have her around.

Okay, she didn't ruin the game, but there's a point in the game where you get separated from her and I let out a sigh of relief.  I thought I'd get to meet up with Chloe again and the real fun would pick up again.  No such luck there, unfortunately, I soon found myself teamed up with Elena again.

This was one of the few times I really wished they had set up a "who do you want to end up with at the end of the game" option, because I would've been mashing the "Chloe" option so hard my controller would've broke.

Anyway, to some positives.  The graphics get a significant step up in this game, darting between jungle, urban exploration, and mountains.  It presents a real, genuine threat to you early in the game with the primary antagonist, and doesn't try to pull off some lame last minute switch like the last one did.  The game also took the time to make sure I knew there was actually a stealth option, something I found myself using more and more often instead of simply running and gunning my way through multiple deaths like I did in the first game, which is greatly appreciated.  The score was just as well crafted as in the first game, and they mixed up the game play quite a bit, such as having sections where you have to jump back and forth between trucks on a mountain pass, or have to align mirrors in an underground temple to shine light in just the right places.

As for the bad, well...the game play can still be extremely frustrating when it feels that some of the progress of the game is based around "jump and see what happens."  Certain puzzles left me muttering swears because I had to aim the directional stick in just the right direction in order to have Nate make a jump, or he'd hang helplessly or jump off to his death without a second thought.  The game also has the same problem with combat, where bad guys seem to swarm from every corner, one at a time, including the one you just emerged from, leaving you often getting shot in the back while you're looking to make sure all targets ahead of you are dead.

The game also tends to really like to have guys with shotguns step out from nowhere and blow your head off in one shot, including having it happen the moment the screen was fading up from the last time I died.  It also got frustrating during a few moments when I wasn't really presented with a means of getting from point A to point B except for an open path, and the path guaranteed instant death.  This became particularly frustrating in one part involving a tank, when more than once I found myself sprinting down the street in front of it because I couldn't see the slightly different shaded wall outcropping telling me where to climb to cover.  There's another moment where you're actually in a tank shooting at a helicopter, and what I thought were actually puffs of smoke showing that I hit the vehicle were actually missiles being launched at me.  However, I couldn't keep the focus on them long because the helicopter would immediately swing around to the side of me and I'd move the turret over to keep firing, unaware I was about to die horribly.

However, my biggest issue is still the characters.  Chloe is wonderfully developed.  She has a clear goal (look out for number one...and possibly number two if she knows she can count on you), but can be convinced to do the right thing despite herself.  She has a genuine understanding of how relationships between people work, and can appreciate when she might not belong in the picture without pouting or holding a grudge.  She's confident, independent, and able to stand up to even the toughest opponents in the game without flinching or batting an eye.  She might not always make the right choices, but she's always willing to entertain another choice if it presents itself to her.

Sully...likes treasure, booze, and women, and that's it.  He even excuses himself from the game at one point (a moment I genuinely liked) because he felt he was too old for the adventure, which I find funny since I've heard he plays a big role in the third game.  I mean, it's not like your best friend might need you to help him stand up to small armies of enemies or anything.

Elena is still as obnoxious as ever, as I stated before, but now she seems to be completely self-righteous as well.  It wasn't her who was the problem when she and Nate broke up or split up or did whatever they did after the last game, obviously, because she couldn't ever be wrong about anything.  I wanted to shake Elena a few times and tell her to go home because while Sully felt he had no place being there, Elena really had no business being there.

And then there's Nate.

Let's once again compare him to Indiana Jones.  They both kill an amazing amount of bad guys during their attempts to get to massive occult/science/other treasures first.  They both can be cocky sometimes, they both tend to have things go wrong at really inconvenient times, and they both have a wacky supporting cast.

Indiana Jones, though, is all about getting the treasure to a museum.  He isn't in it for self gain.  He isn't even really doing it to stop the bad guys from doing it.  In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he has an opportunity to blow up the big magical McGuffin before the Nazis can unleash its power, but he can't because it's too much of a treasure to the world.  His quest for knowledge is bigger than him, and it's what truly guides his actions.  Yes, he'd rather see it in "good guy" hands rather than "bad guy" hands...but most importantly, he'd rather see it exist than not exist at all.  He has valid fears (snakes), and is fiercely loyal to his friends but it's because he knows they're also fiercely loyal to him.

Nate...okay, I get that he wants to be rich and find fabulous treasures, and I get that he doesn't want anything bad to happen to his friends, but...why does he do the right thing?  Other characters actually ask him this question, "why go over there and fight the bad guys when we could just leave now?"  He doesn't have an answer for it.  He doesn't seem to know himself.  It can't really be that "the bad guy will be unstoppable" because I'm pretty sure that by the time this game came out someone has invented napalm or land mines and we know that other people who used the McGuffin could still be stopped with bullets...so, what's the big deal?

Nate is a character without depth.  We can't project ourselves on his attempt to be an "everyman" because he can do elaborate jumps after being shot in the stomach (and yet, somehow they decided it would make sense for him to flinch when he throws a punch), his grunting and yelling as he leaps from place to place makes me wonder how the stealth mechanic can even work since you'd think someone would look up if they heard a guy going "AAAAAAAH" overhead as he tried to jump from one cliff face to another, and we can't really look at him as heroic since he seems to flop back and forth between "revenge" (which is a fine motivator in itself, don't get me wrong), and a nobility that seems to have no grounds other than "stop hurting my friends."

If I want a series based around always being there for your friends, I'd go back to My Little Pony.  At least that has character depth.

Plus, you have to take into account that a repeated point through the game is that, "sure, that one person betrayed you...but you were plotting against him first."  And it's a valid point, for all Nate wants to try to appear honorable and heroic, from the very beginning of the game he was leading another character on and not being fully honest with them.

Overall, though...the game did win me over.  With gorgeous backdrops and settings, a story that actually engaged me from beginning to end, and game mechanics that made the game significantly less frustrating to wade through, I found myself enjoying myself quite a bit.  I still think the game designers really need to think about how many people I should have to shoot before the bad guy runs out of troops (I swear, South American guerrilla forces don't have as many troops to call on) and stop having me need to fight everybody from every angle, as it still puts me off attempting to really explore an area if I suspect I'm going to just get ambushed again the moment I take a few steps.

There's a moment at the end of the game when the bad guy compares Nate to himself, and flat out asks Nate "how many people have you killed?"  Normally I can say "well, at least I was doing it for the right reasons," but in this game any attempt at justifying myself would've sounded really hollow.  I should feel like an adventurer, not Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando simply walking along with a chaingun mowing down troops.

The game is almost there, it just needs to tweak a few things to be really, truly great.

Oh, and one completely side note.  While I appreciate the fact that I could reskin the main character after I completed the game once with other characters, it's really unsettling to hear Nate's dramatic narration come out of Chloe's mouth when she's on screen.

But man, if they made an Uncharted game starring Chloe, I'd be all over that.

...yes, I know they already have Tomb Raider, but considering there's two huge modern first person shooters ruling the gaming market these days, I'm sure there's room for two female action heroes.

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