Posted by Alex Jordan on
There's nothing like going back to work on a Friday to make you pine for a snow storm, because there's nothing like a snow storm that'll give you as much free time to just screw around and play video games.
I spent the past week at my girlfriend's house, and her housemate has a PS3, something I've gone this far without needing. Well, after several days of playing Uncharted and watching the housemate play through Uncharted 2, I'm wondering how I ever went without one.
I didn't play Uncharted 2 myself, as I had yet to beat the first game. In fact, by the end of the week, I'd only made it into the watery depths of an old Spanish fortress, an hour or two in. This was borne of my desire to "put the requisite time in", a desire which apparently was compatible with watching the roommate play Uncharted 2. Which I was fine with.
I guess I wanted to experience the gameplay and see how it evolved from the first game to the second. As it was, I got quite familiar with Nathan Drake's penchant for firearms and hanging from things. The shooting mechanics are fairly meh, with the bad guys being slightly more responsive to bullet impacts than their Modern Warfare 2 counterparts. The cover system is okay (seeing as how it's mandatory in every single game released these days), although Drake tends to get a bit picky about which cover he wants to stick to and when he wants to leave it. And, of course, the platforming is really fun, as it is really fast and responsive, with more emphasis on timing and problem-solving than, say, Assassin's Creed 2. (Which I will finish! One of these days.)
But I didn't play through two hours of Uncharted and sit through, like, four hours of Uncharted 2 to just play the game. In the case of the latter, I wasn't even playing it! No, I wanted in on the experience.
Video games' strong point (and primary feature, as a medium) has been its interactivity. Gradually, over the years, video games have been horning in on Hollywood's niche: presentation, story, characters, the whole works. And like any not-yet-mature medium, it's had its fits and starts. There's a dearth of good writing in video games, and a good plot with good presentation is even rarer. Asking for all that in addition to great gameplay is rarer still.
For instance: Grand Theft Auto IV. Good writing anchored to a passable plot that went on for way too long without any discernible rising action. (How the hell was the last boss more compelling than any of the other candidates offered up along the way?) Remember my fascination with the writing in Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2? That shone like a diamond in the rough, lashed to an above-average beat-em-up that I'd already played three previous versions of.
In each of the above examples, plot and presentation take a backseat to gameplay, i.e. the game itself. GTA has strict cutscenes that bookend its missions. MUA2 has cutscenes and the occasional in-level audio disk that you have to stand right on top of to listen to.
Uncharted 2, on the other hand, is the most cohesive and compelling synthesis of game and presentation that I've ever witnessed. Cutscenes don't need to load, so they frequently appear mid-level. And they don't feel like they're interrupting the game, as they're usually bite-sized and, well... interesting. Exposition occurs all the time, thanks to not only the cutscenes, but running commentary from Drake and his various allies. Even the levels themselves expand the plot, with everything from architectural clues to stunning vistas explaining to the player just what is going on.
Presentation is nothing without its various hangers-on. And Uncharted 2 has all of them in spades. On characters, few other games can compare. Nate Drake is smart and witty and sarcastic and self-deprecating depending on the situation, and it's always a delight to control him. Furthermore, his character has weight to it: on the surface, he's hunting treasure for his fortune and glory, but interaction with other characters and the weight of the responsibilities he assumes bespeak a nobility and seriousness of purpose.
The other characters play very well off Drake. Elena is a wonderful foil/romantic interest, and it's fun watching her clash with Drake's Other Woman, Chloe the fellow rogue. Players get to compare Chloe to Elena, determine their strengths and weaknesses, and wonder who's love with prevail in the end. Then there's the genocidal bad guy, Lazaravic, and traitorous asshole Harry Flynn, who give some color to the bad guys: unstoppable power in Lazaravic, and weasely, cowardly malice in Flynn.
Naturally, these characters are brought to life by talented voice actors. Emily Rose is great as Elena, but Nolan North is flat-out incredible as Drake. Although his voice is being spread thin between all sorts of franchises these days (his credits include Assassin's Creed 1 and 2, Wolverine and the X-Men, Shadow Complex, and God knows what else), he owns Drake. Everything from wisecracks to solemnity is amazingly delivered, the result being that North and Drake are synonymous. So much so, that I can't foresee an Uncharted movie without North reprising the role of Drake in realtime.
With good characters and good voice actors, it makes sense that the writing is good as well. And it is. Usually, "good writing" in video games amounts to overuse of $1,000 words in the service of Grand Speeches of Exposition. (Bioshock, which also had good writing, is guilty of this too.) Here, "good writing" means speeches when speeches are called for, good jokes when humor is needed, and little elements of humanity to remind us that we're being allowed to control a set of pixels which are supposed to be "real" human beings. A scene in a remote Tibetan village - with no shooting, no climbing, and no puzzles - where Drake is the only English speaker provides a warm experience, with Drake earnestly shaking hands, playing with kids, and attempting to make chitchat with bemused villagers. Drake/North make simple lines like, "Um, hi, I'm Nathan Drake" and "Easy there, fella" (said to a placid yak) take on a peaceful, welcoming feel.
Also, for my two cents: the angry, incredulous "Don't you assholes see the chopper?!" line is the best in the whole game.
So, there it is. It's got great characters. Great writing. Great plot. Great presentation. And that goes along with the great graphics, good-ish gameplay ('scuse me for already being sick of cover mechanics), and great sound. The combination of all these elements is nigh-seamless, and comes closer to a Hollywood epic than I've ever, ever seen in video games. Uncharted 2 may just be the first of its kind on the road to video games maturing as an art form, but that doesn't make it any less awesome.