Thursday, July 14, 2011

Off the edge of the map: Here there be dragons. Or, treasure and enemies to shoot. Whichever.

Woo! Uncharted! Here I'm going to review the first two games, Drake's Fortune and Among Thieves, at the same time.

If you’ve never followed this PS3-exclusive series by Naughty Dog, you play as Nathan Drake, a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, who is an adventurer and treasure-hunter by trade. (Which sounds like a pretty sweet gig to me. Where do I sign up?) The games take you, respectively, on quests for El Dorado and the Cintimani Stone, which eventually leads you to Shambhalla. It’s a third-person shooter and platformer, with all the gimmicks to be expected of those genres.

The characters are a lot of fun and their banter and Nate’s comments give the game heart. I found the stories to be the right balance of realistic with just a touch of the improbable. They’ve got an Indiana Jones-esque aesthetic going on, and they play it well. Everything from the beautifully rendered environments to the primitive-sounding music places you in the jungle, Incan ruins, a Tibetan village, Shambhalla. I appreciate stories like this that just bend the rules of possibility a little, so that I can imagine that somewhere out there, it could actually be hidden. The extra pages in Drake’s journal in the second game are a fantastic bonus, and I love the notes he scribbles in there.
"It's like a camera, you just point and shoot, right?"
Speaking of graphics, my favorite part is that Drake’s clothing will realistically get wet or snow-encrusted as he swims or trudges through snow. This will also only extend to parts of his body that got wet / snowy. It’s a lovely little detail that helps add to the realism of the games. And I appreciate that both main females have realistic body shapes, and are somewhat designed to be normal. Elena in particular is very down-to-earth; pretty, but not drop-dead gorgeous, and not afraid to get her hands dirty. And I like that. The platforming sections were seamlessly integrated into the environment, so I rarely couldn’t find the next ledge but neither did it seem out-of-place either.

Before I start talking about gameplay, I have to take a moment to geek out about the music. I’m a musician, and from the title and loading screen theme, these games had me hooked. The sweeping orchestral theme has that sense of adventure about it that got me excited to play, with some beautiful echoes and counterpoint going on. Lovely horn theme. While playing, the music is always setting the mood, with primitive flutes and drums accenting the ruins around you. The release of musical tension at the end of a battle tells me I can let up on my grip on the controller. I often didn’t specifically notice the music because it was so integrated into the experience. Fantastically done.
Don't fall.... Don't fall...
Okay, now onto gameplay. Like I said earlier, Uncharted is a third person shooter and platformer. Let’s address platforming first. All the platforming was pretty easy and straightforward. It was relatively simple to see where to go next, and if you get confused the game will prompt you with a hint. I only just discovered that you can turn these hints off in the menu, because occasionally they seemed to insult me, popping up while I was just looking for ammo or treasures. Good option to have though. Drake is simple to control, and he’ll lean out to reach for the ledge you’re pointing him to, which can sometimes save him from jumping the completely wrong way. I chalk up most of the times he plummeted to his death to my own mistakes rather than poor programming. :-) On that note, the checkpoints were well placed so that I never felt like I had to go back too far whenever I screwed up a jump.

As a disclaimer, I don’t regularly play shooters and am not particularly good at them, which can often entertain everyone in the room. I went in having played only bits of Halo and Call of Duty, and really nothing else with guns, so I needed a little instruction on the different guns. Luckily my little brother is always eager to make fun of me and show off his own gaming knowledge. On the whole, I found the system very accessible. It will auto-reload for you, which, while I’ve gotten better at remembering to reload, is a great feature for gamers like me. I apparently only manually reloaded 18 times in my entire playthrough of the second game. Aiming is simple enough, and you can change the sensitivity in the options menu. The kickbacks of each gun are easy to get used to, and I thought that there was a good balance of enough guns to have fun with and not so many that I got overwhelmed. The grenade system is clunky in the first one, but got a nice overhaul in the second, so hang in there if that’s bothering you.
Cracked we are not. I'm not witty enough.
I actually discovered the best thing about this system after restarting the first game on Hard: I’ve gotten a lot better. I’ve died less than I did on my first playthrough by this point, and am breezing by sections I remember being really hard. The accessibility of the system let me learn how to play shooters, and now I’m casually lining up headshots with my pistol. I still get a little reckless whenever I pick up a shotgun though. Charging in with those things is just so much fun.

There were a couple things that irritated me about the gameplay, but they were mostly removed between the first and second game. First off, the jet ski levels were terrible. I hated having to steer, stop, shoot explosive barrels, shoot the guys shooting me, and then start steering again. Those were the only levels where I felt the checkpoints weren’t generous enough, mostly because I wanted to be done with them. There are no such levels in the second game, however, with someone else always doing the driving while you shoot. The other thing is quick-time event cutscenes. I can’t decide how I feel about these. On one hand, I do appreciate the bits of interaction when you’re asked to mash triangle to unstick a rusted hatch opener and then circle the control stick to open it. It keeps the sense of interaction during what would otherwise be a simple, boring stretch, and it makes sense to have the player control Drake as much as possible. But I hate quicktime cutscenes because when the game takes over, I’m not expecting to have to react quickly like that. Often, I freeze and can’t figure out which button they’re asking for (I get square and circle mixed up all the time). They don’t tend to set you back too much, so it tends to just be a minor annoyance, and it sucks to stop a kill streak like that.

I love collecting shiny things. Some of my friends nicknamed me Magpie. So it stands to reason that I love collecting the treasures hidden throughout the games. I’ll suspend my disbelief that these valuable treasures are just lying around in shiny glints on the ground or up in trees, and that shooting ones that are out of reach isn’t going to damage them at all. In each game, I picked up about 44 / 46 treasures, respectively. For the first one, this meant I was only shy 16 treasures (I’ve since found another one in my Hard game). But for the second one, I was just shy of half. 100 is a lot of treasures. I’ve never been much of a completionist, but the PS3’s achievements are making me into more of one. I did a good job of mixing up which guns I used to gain achievements, and used melee combos and stealth melee to take out as many enemies as possible, which is helping to make me into a better gamer. But the treasures are driving me nuts. The first game seems more achievable, though I may turn to a guide just to figure out what chapters to look on. In the second one, I think a lot of the treasures may require a guide to find. There were chapters at a time where, despite me looking, I didn’t find any. However, I like a challenge.
Of course I take all my own screenshots.
The game has a small amount of replay value if you’re a perfectionist. Once you’ve beaten a chapter, you can reselect it from the menu, which is a good way to earn some of the harder trophies, or trophies for techniques you don’t use much (like Steel Fist...). That’s also a good way to get to treasures that you’ve missed if you have an idea of where they are. However, if I want to get the platinum trophy, I’ll need to play it three times, since the Challenging mode is locked until you’ve beaten the game on Hard.... that might not happen. I am enjoying the replay, however, as it’s just a fun game. You can also unlock modes like Flip World, where the game world flips vertically whenever you die, or unlimited ammo and one-hit kills.

The games have online multiplayer, and the second game added in a co-op mode, which is the only one I’ve played. It was a lot of fun though, and I’m hoping to get my brother to play with me again soon. Maybe this time I won’t mix up the buttons and keep jumping over my cover (I’d been playing lots of Mass Effect...).

And now that I’ve beaten the second game, I’m even more excited for the third. The graphics look smoother and we can expect the same level of detail and solid gameplay as the first two games. Let’s watch the E3 trailer again, since I’m so excited:

As a side note, I've recently read that somebody's making a movie based on the games. Nathan Fillion wanted to play Drake, and was passed over for the role. However, Neil Berger was just brought on to write and direct, so the starring role is back up for grabs. At least they've listened to fan outcry so far, though Berger has said anything about his approach. I'm not getting too optimistic though; I'm very picky about my movie adaptations, and video games have not historically transferred well. Under a good writer/director though, this one has enough meat to possibly defy that trend.

Next up on the playing list: Dragon Age: Origins
Also playing: inFamous as evil, Fallout 3, steam games

No comments:

Post a Comment