Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Video Game Assessment: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)

After the abomination and train-wreck that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, don't you just want to relax with some good treasure-hunting that doesn't involve stupid plots, terrible CGI, Shia LeBeouf, or a guy escaping at ATOMIC BOMB by hiding in a friendly refrigerator. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, an action-adventure game developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Entertainment for the PlayStation 3 (PS3), is as close to a good Indiana Jones story as we're going to get without Indiana Jones. This video game is at a very basic level Indiana Jones in its better days crosses with something like National Treasure, but without being National Treasure. It's also a video game, and adventure really does seem to translate better in video game format than in movie format. I guess it's one of those things. How many other really good adventure movies are out there besides Indiana Jones, National Treasure, and The DaVinci Code... and even most of those aren't good by any stretch of the imagination. I do like the first three Indiana Jones movies. They're fun rides and that's what this game is. It's an action-adventure styled in the good parts of the adventure genre.

I liked this game. I liked it a lot. I thought it had a lot of very interesting stuff in it. It had interesting villains, heroes with motives beyond simple video game or movie logic, and banter that was incredibly well done. The gameplay was fluid, and the cover-based combat was mostly pretty good besides a few exceptions which I'll get to.

Honestly though, I don't think this game is about the gameplay mechanics or the combat, the shooting, or the leaping around like a gigantic monkey. (I'll get to that too...) This game is about the story. It's about the characters. Those are the things that make this game every bit as memorable as something like Indiana Jones, because there are characters that are memorable, situations that are fun and interesting without being stupid or absolutely unrealistic. The world feels real. Hell, with the graphics on this thing, the world looks more real than real life. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous. I've heard the term "scenery porn" thrown around talking about this game and it's a good description. The scenery here is simple breathtaking. If I weren't actually trying to beat the game and kill the bad guys in the game I could just stop and stare at the beautiful mountains and forests that this game has to offer. Oh, and the rain and snow! I've never seen rain and snow really captured like it is in the game. It looks like real rain and snow, and also acts like real rain and snow. I guess my final word on this matter is that this game is visually stunning and can really show what our current generation consoles are capable of.

Now, getting back to the critiques and analyses of the actual game... Uncharted 2 was called, by most, the game of the year for 2009, and now I see that it was for good reason. With the varied environments, great character interactions, great shooting mechanics, and great story, it's hard to see another clear contender for the best game of 2009. I'd nominate Dragon Age: Origins, but that game also had some weird bugs in the system, and had mostly terrible gameplay and graphics, and the story was nowhere near as epic as Uncharted 2. I liked Dragon Age a lot, but it's nowhere near the level of what Uncharted 2 is.

Now, I'd never call this game sublime or wonderful. Maybe it was the difficulty setting I had the game set to, or maybe it was that I was being constantly distracted by the pretty colors in the environments, but I was constantly dying. Most of death of poor Nathan Drake (the player character) were because I had no idea where the hell I was supposed to jump to. And now I get to the real meat and potatoes of my annoyances with the game and why it could never be one of my favorites despite all of the praise I gave it. The jumping mechanics, although fun at first, do tend to get old very quickly. Yes, game, I understand how to jump. I don't need to have a jumping puzzle that takes me an hour to get through involving a bunch of clockwork gizmos. Yes, it looks very cool, but Nathan Drake must have jumped or fallen to his death in the one huge jumping puzzle I'm describing a good... oh, let's be conservative and say twenty times. I'm not saying that the jumping puzzles are hard exactly, but it can be really hard to see where the hell you're supposed to jump to, and you pretty much only have the option of trial-and-error, where error is Nathan Drake's death. I think if the game had fewer stupid jumping puzzles I'd have less a huge issue with the game.

As for other issues, why did I have to do the same jumping puzzle twice? It's not as if I screwed it up badly the first time I did it. Why do you want me to waste time seeing something you already brought to my attention? I don't forget things right after I play them. And the fact that I can go back and play the chapter again in freeplay mode... well, I guess I don't quite understand why I had to do it again... That made me ornery.

Also, some of the levels seem to be reminiscent of other older games... hell, most of this game reminds me of a game I played on the PlayStation 2 a few years ago called Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb. This game could be a remake of that game. They share a lot of similar environments and set pieces... they even set off to similar areas with similar goals in mind. There are jumping puzzles in each game too... sometimes terrible jumping puzzles... jumping puzzles that will haunt me...

There's a train level... and what I mean by that is a level that takes place on a moving train... that takes place about halfway through the game. I hate that level and all levels like it. I played Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire back in the day on my good old Nintendo 64. I remember that stupid train level. This level in Uncharted 2 was as annoying as that one was. Hell, I'm pretty sure levels like that must come with the genre. I don't remember if Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb has a train sequence, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade had that train chase sequence at the beginning of the movie...

Those are a few complaints that I've found about this great game... and even though I complain, I played through those levels to get to the parts I wanted to play. Now, I was also playing on a hard difficulty setting. Maybe parts of the game would have been much more enjoyable if I had played it on a leisurely easy setting, but being the hardcore man that I am, I had to play it on hard and subsequently died a lot, although honestly the things that killed me mostly probably had nothing to do with the difficulty settings... mostly jumping. I died a lot while jumping... or when I tried to get Drake behind cover or over cover and he wouldn't listen and died from a shot to the back.

I am going to tell one hilarious anecdote that happened during the final boss fight. I was fighting the final boss (fairly obvious from when you first meet him that he'll be the final boss) and as I was fighting him I jumped and landed on his head and directly next to a vine. Drake looked like he was falling, flailing his arms about and everything, but he was just hanging in midair. It was hilarious. I died, obviously, but it was worth it to see the game bug out like that. I guess my point is that sometimes there can be really funny bugs in video games.

I guess my ultimate assessment of this game is that although flawed in small ways, it is both beautifully stunning and enjoyable. It's an Indiana Jones of the modern age, when current Indiana Jones is awful and we have nothing else to hold on to except a smug man named Nathan Drake and his adventures finding old stuff. I'd go and play this game a million times over rather than watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that insipid piece of garbage.

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