Sunday, January 10, 2010

Charting New Territory

I held out against the appeal of owning a PS3 for a long time. This was fairly easy in the beginning, seeing how there was no appeal for a good long while. Things got a little harder when MGS 4 and Little Big Planet were released, though a host of much-touted but sorely disappointing titles (anybody remember Lair? or the one that should have been called Goddess of War?) were enough to sober me. I heard that Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, was a good enough game, and that the Ratchet and Clank series was still going strong, warming me back up to the idea of PS3 ownership, though I wasn't swayed until I heard the praise for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

I think Uncharted is a pretty cool guy, eh seeks Cintamani Stone and doesn't afraid of anything.

In a world where journalism and marketing hype are not only indiscernible but treated interchangeably, the value of high praise has pretty much dissolved. There are a few phrases that still command some attention however and "Best Game I Ever Played" is one of them. I heard it applied to Uncharted 2 more than once. Now, that's not a bridge I'm willing to jump off of, but I will say Uncharted 2 won my vote for best game of 2009 (against some stiff competition), and that it is the most cinematically pleasing video game I have played thus far.

Now my use of "cinematically" is problematic for a couple reasons. First of all, it is not actually a word, and secondly, when a game is described as cinematic, it generally means that there uses lots of cut-scenes; narrative videos that transform operators into an audience as opposed to players. Many 'cinematic games' tell excellent stories, but they also have the obnoxious habit of seizing control of players right before they get to do something incredible. That is never a problem in Uncharted 2. Rather, the game employs cinematic techniques in gameplay to excellent effect (Reader beware, spoilers ensue henceforth.)

The coolest moments of the game, the ones that make you hold your breath and exhale an emphatic "Holy mackerel!" when they pass, all exist within the context of play. Building collapsing in the middle of a firefight? The firefight continues as the world slides apart beneath you. Hero decides to carry a wounded comrade to safety as villains chase you with machine guns and rocket launchers? All you. Chase scene with Jeeps in the Himalayas? "Let me guess: you drive the jeep?" No. Because you have done that in other games and doing it again is considerably less incredible than jumping from jeep to jeep while sniping at tires and bad guys. Playing Uncharted 2 is the closest most of us will ever get to living Indiana Jones' life. Until Uncharted 3 anyway.

In addition to letting players take part in the action, there are host of cinematic touches that don't actually change the gameplay so much as they surprise the player. That may not sound like much, but when you remember that video games as a medium are dominated by explosive imagery and constant movement, visually surprising a gamer is an impressive feat indeed, and Naughty Dog pulls it off consistently throughout the narrative. They do this by employing time tested cinematic techniques that have yet to arrive in video games. You'll be walking through a hushed frozen cavern, and part of the foreground will turn out to be a monster; a surprise in a game that has been devoid of the supernatural thus far. Another example is when you manage to escape a tank by going onto a mountainous ledge, only for the tank to suddenly start to go over the wall and think better of it. In text, these sound like cheap, "Gotcha" moments and they may be; but in play, such direction makes for an exhilarating experience.

The content of the narrative itself may not be groundbreaking, but the quality of the writing and voice acting that delivers it is superb. There is more chemistry between Nathan Drake and each one of the lovely heroines than there is in most modern adventure movies, let alone most video games. How people can still be transfixed by 'characters' like Bayonetta when there are personalities like Elena Fisher and Chloe Frazer boggles my mind a bit. Leather, long legs and boobs are awesome, but there are other ways to be appealing, and indeed sexy, in video games. I am similarly perplexed by the antiquated trend of the mute hero in adventure games. I can understand the case for "immersability" in a role-playing context (though I tend to disagree with it), and Link has a long standing laconic legacy so he gets a reprieve, I can't imagine another action/adventure scenario that would benefit from a lack of speech. After enjoying Nathan Drake's wit and charm, taciturn protagonists seem woefully under-realized. Then again, this is another issue entirely; one deserving it's own discussion.

In conclusion Uncharted 2 is an incredible game right down to the details. The graphics are lush with details and pop off the screen with color, the sound effects are spot on and the music swells with the same majesty as John Williams scores. Just listen to this theme! Even stripped of this presentation and the narrative, you have an incredibly tight 3rd person shooter featuring positively effervescent freedom of movement. You read that right: your ability to climb, hang and jump from almost everything in the environment bubbles with possibility. If games like Gears of War and MW2 didn't feel dated before, they should now. Uncharted 2's multiplayer may not offer as many guns and brutal methods of execution as those other titles, but it is more balanced and mobile, which to my mind, equates to greater variety in play.

Long story short: If you have a PS3 you should do yourself a favor and play through Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It is the best video game of 2009.

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