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Uncharted: The Hollywood Problem

The Uncharted franchise has been a long-standing system seller for Sony since its original release on the PS3 back in 2007. Spanning 3 sequels and a few spin-off titles, Uncharted has been critically acclaimed by critics and the public alike. Having sold over 25 million copies across the series, it’s fair to say that it’s quite popular with a lot of people, and the main character has become a bit of a mascot for Sony in the industry. Some would say they’re examples of the best video games ever made – but for me, the Uncharted series is something that I haven’t ever quite got my head around. Time and time over I’ve heard that they are examples of great gameplay, level design and innovative storytelling, but to me they showcase a dull and mediocre side to video games. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I despise them, my time spent in their world has not been favourable compared to many others that have shared the experience. I’m here to address some of the issues and problems I’ve faced with them, and provide an alternative perspective to the mainstream regarding what is often considered one of the PlayStation’s top video game franchises.

For context’s sake, this piece is only in reference to Uncharted 1-3, in particular the PS4 remasters. Uncharted 4 may have ironed out some of these problems, or maybe they’re the fault of a sloppy port. Also this is full of spoilers. Take this piece with a grain of salt.

I guess it would be ideal to start with a brief explanation of what Uncharted is on a basic level, and how it works. Created by Naughty Dog (the team behind Jak and Daxter and The Last of Us titles), the Uncharted series follows Nathan Drake, an explorer and salvager of lost artefacts, as he travels the globe in search of hidden treasures. You play as Nathan, killing bad guys and clambering around the ruined and rocky environments, in order to prevent these treasures from getting into the wrong hands. The whole thing is a very cinematic experience, akin to the Indiana Jones movies more than anything and it tends to wear its inspirations very proudly on its sleeve. The games scream Hollywood appeal, and it’s hard not to find yourself getting involved with the characters.

I think this is where my first problem stems with them. It’s hard to translate the action and scope of big budget Hollywood blockbusters to video games without removing some of the magic and intensity that you see on the big screen. The best way to do that is to remove the player from the equation and roll cutscenes for scripted set pieces that can’t be interfered with. A lot of the time, Uncharted does exactly this, but the frequency of set pieces like this over a 9 hour period tends to drain them of the spectacle that they’re supposed to be. It’s hard to care about being ejected from an aeroplane when about 20 minutes ago you were trapped in a capsizing cruise liner with water gushing in from every corner, about an hour before that you were running around the streets of Yemen in a drugged up haze, prior to that you had escaped a burning castle in France, and so on and so forth. Each moment tries to up the ante compared to the previous experience, but nothing ever really feels like it’s at stake.
The games will often give players the chance to experience a lot of these moments with full control over Drake, which in itself is something that should be lauded – a lot of games would tell the player not to worry: the game is here to make sure everything goes according to plan by taking over the reins. In that respect Uncharted does something right, but handing the situation over to the player comes at a price. This is a Hollywood movie where the main character has infinite lives: failing to make a jump in the burning building, or taking a wrong turn in the capsizing ship will kill Drake, meaning you have to repeat from the last checkpoint. The game does a good job of leading you on the right path out of disaster, but if you make a genuine mistake the game resets you to a few seconds prior and any feeling of danger just spills away. The situation is just as much out of your hands as it was when the game was handling it, but now you just need to lean on the forward direction to advance. After a few of these set pieces, it stops being engaging and nothing tends to feel like an actual threat, just another obstacle for you to meander through. There’s no intensity to the action – just casual frustration.

Related to feeling out of control of the entire experience, is how the whole thing handles. It’s not that the controls don’t feel tight or poorly executed, which they definitely aren’t. There’s just no need to put any effort into controlling Drake, making it feel like a bit of a brain-dead endeavour. This is mostly in reference to climbing and exploring segments of the game, but applies to shoot-outs to an extent too.
Climbing is very simple – you point your analogue stick in the direction you want Drake to go and you press X to make him jump between gaps, if you time it right. Hell, you can sometimes time it wrong and still get where you need to go. The game doesn’t punish you if you’re feeling impatient and just hit X constantly to try and get to your end goal faster, but it begs the question, what is the point in these segments? They’re abundant throughout the entire game and don’t add anything to make the game interesting, fun or engaging. You can quite easily just button mash your way to the top of a cliff without thinking about it. Frequent segments like this detract from the movie feel that the game seems to be striving for. You don’t see Indiana Jones climbing cliff faces every 10 minutes, and when he does climb mountains it feels like he’s risking life and limb to get something out of his reach. There aren’t any moments like this in the Uncharted games. Drake feels like a climbing machine, and when you move from a shaky ledge and see it drop to the watery oblivion below you, it never feels like it’s going to happen to you. Sure, if you hold onto the shaky ledge for too long you’ll drop with it, but it doesn’t feel like an obstacle blocking your path. There’s only one way to your destination typically, the ledge breaking is basically telling you to keep moving onwards. You can’t return to the previous area now because there’s no way back up. Climbing is an entirely linear and disconnecting experience, and never feels like it achieves anything other than slowing you down to pad out the game.

Combat is also unrewarding and just a pain in general. The game offers two ways to defeat enemies: stealth takedowns, or to go in guns blazing. Initially I thought “great! I love stealth games” but the game doesn’t want you to succeed with that tactic alone. On some levels, it seems fair that the game wants you to try to vary the way you play, but when it’s presented in this manner it can feel like you’re being cheated out of tailoring the experience to your own preferences.
I remember a specific moment in Uncharted 2, after climbing up the train in the snow,  vigilant enemies waiting at the top for you (one of the best set pieces of the three titles in fact). I spent what felt like an age replaying the segment, taking down all the enemies without being spotted, only for the game to follow up with more enemies that spot you almost instantly regardless of how you approached the situation in the first place. This just felt like the game was telling me I was playing wrong, and that winning isn’t determined by trying to outsmart the AI but by shooting more bullets than them in the long run. You can’t complete a stealth run of the game, and the game doesn’t throw a lot of incentive at you to even try getting stealth kills. It honestly feels like they forgot to flesh out a sneaking mechanic and just left a bare-bones version in to give you an alternate way of kicking off a skirmish.
Gunplay is just as aggravating as stealth is too. There’s a variety of guns to try out and play around with, and although most of the rifles all function the same, there are a few cool different weapons dotted around that makes it potentially easier to win a shoot-out. The issue with combat is that the series (Uncharted 3 in particular) liberally throws in random difficulty spikes throughout the story, just for the sake of trying to change up the pace. Quite often you’ll be tossed into a situation where you’re being ambushed from several directions and your only option is to switch between cover every 15 seconds in order to just avoid dying constantly. This is where the games tend to get very frustrating, and it becomes more like a chore. Winning a firefight never feels satisfying because you always feel like you’re resorting to the cheapest method available just to stop the rinse and repeat of respawning. While I’m not expecting the levels of satisfaction that I’d get from beating a boss in a Legend of Zelda title, I’d expect to at least feel a sense of pride in my ability to win against the odds, but instead all I’ve learnt is how far games can push me before I just get really impatient with them.
While there is a variety in weapon choice, the variety of environments that gunfights take place in are a lot more sparse. By the end of the first Uncharted I found myself cynically groaning every time I saw some hip-high broken rubble, with a few AK-47’s scattered around for good measure. The pattern didn’t change with 2 and 3, and by the end of the third game, getting into a shoot-out was something that I dreaded.
Enemies also suffer from this same lack of diversity too. There are about 3 types of human enemy; ones with no armour, ones with head armour, and ones that are armoured up to the teeth and have Gatling guns or something powerful to that effect. The weaker enemies will die to a single head-shot, and the more armoured ones tend to take a few more or even an entire clip of ammo to the head, providing you can land those shots. The idea of bullet sponge enemies is just so lacklustre and boring that the parts of the game that suffer with difficulty spikes aren’t hard because they offer a challenge to what you’ve learnt while playing the game, they’re just hard because the game wants to put the equivalent of a human brick wall in your path. There’s no need to learn attack patterns, alternative weak spots, or discover alternate routes to avoid the enemy entirely. It’s a battle of endurance; can you kill the enemy before you need to move to the next block of cover, or will they just overwhelm you with their sheer number advantage? It might seem silly to constantly compare these games to Indiana Jones, but in Raiders of the Lost Ark, there’s an important moment where Indiana is outmatched by a rather large guy in a fist-fight by a plane. Eventually, Indiana manages to outsmart his enemy by luring him towards the planes propellers. Uncharted lacks these moments, instead replacing them with enemies that you don’t need to outwit, just put more holes in them than they can put in you.

To Naughty Dog’s credit (and to address some kind of balance), the Uncharted games are narratively pretty sound, and the characters are a lot of fun to interact with. They play out like big blockbuster movies, and I suppose that’s their intent, to which they do achieve. The premise of each of the three is often promising and some of the set pieces are actually a great spectacle to watch unravel. I had a lot of fun with Uncharted 2 especially, and consider it the strongest of the three PS3 titles. Naughty Dog clearly have a lot of love for adventure movies and have tried their best to bring that sense of action to the world of video games, but maybe I’m a bit cynical about big Hollywood action films.

Despite all this, I’m really curious about Uncharted 4 and it’s on my ‘To Play’ list of PS4 titles. Naughty Dog obviously know what they’re doing and I think I’m in the minority of people that really just can’t get to grips with Uncharted (and The Last of Us but that’s a whole other thing to get into). Maybe I’m just too impatient with them, or I’m just not approaching with enough distance. Maybe I’m just thinking too much about it. I appreciate that a lot of people really do love these games for whatever reason but I just can’t see past what I think are glaring faults and issues with the game on a mechanical level. Maybe playing Uncharted 4 will change my stance a little bit, but as it stands I guess the Uncharted series is one of those that just goes right over my head.

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