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?
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.
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.
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.”