Thinking Out Loud – Repairing Uncharted 2

January 5th, 2018

In the last few years I’ve moved away from including game repair ideas in my critiques as any suggestions on my part ultimately reflect my own tastes. However, these alternative visions can still make for good food for thought, particular when the my own views are quite different from the game in question. Uncharted 2 is one such game. The following notes were written back in 2013.

All Gunplay and No Interplay

Realistic gunplay lacks interplay, so when the player can fire high-impact, fast-moving projectiles at their enemies, there’s not much room for back-and-forth interactions. The inherent limitations of bullets can potentially limit the dynamism of the gunplay. Uncharted 2 already includes a few dynamic interactions (such as shooting soldiers off ledges), but not many. The following ideas could make the shooting much more responsive:

These recommendations would not only make the game more dynamic, realistic, and engaging, but they’d also allow the player to explore the inventive side of Drake’s personality, creating their own mini-set pieces.

Bending Realism for the Sake of Difficulty

Uncharted 2‘s hard mode floods the battlefield with soldiers which can sustain multiple head shots and take incredible amounts of damage. By the end of the game, the number of these superhumans ramps up significantly. This lazy form of difficulty adjustment has a number of problems:

Scalable difficulty would allow the game to better address the needs of amateur and advance players while also fitting within the game’s existing context. Here is one potential application:

Nothing Climbing

Spot an obvious-looking grapple point and push a button to have Drake jump to it, that’s about all that’s involved Uncharted 2‘s climbing sequences. The problem isn’t the contextual nature of navigation or the mechanics, which are direct and generally intuitive. It’s just too easy.

The developers could increase the challenge by de-optimising Drake’s climbing mechanics. Zelda: Skyward Sword does this with the energy metre (which adds a timing and risk/reward element to climbing). This widget could be a good fit for Uncharted.

Alternatively, the developers could repurpose the climbing sequences so as to reduce the number of cutscenes and support the game’s primary function, shooting. Most climbing sections precede shootouts, so they’re well positioned to function as a scaffold. Climbing sequences could give the player a good view of the upcoming arena and inform them of enemy patrols, cover spots, and the locations of explosive barrels prior to arrival. This reorientation in climbing would positively impact the game in a number of ways:

In order to facilitate the use of climbing as scaffolding, the levels would need to be reworked to include more dimensionality or openings through which Drake could climb past undetected. More opportunities to shoot whilst climbing or even shoot to open up areas for climbing would go a long way in adding more dynamic interactions to these rather static sequences.

Functional Approach to Chapter Design

Critics generally believe the two train chapters to be the best sequence in the game. Unlike most other chapters where the gameplay lacks a coherent direction, Locomotion and Tunnel Vision benefit from a functional design. The developers based the two chapters around a clear set of interactions which they then apply to a variety of increasingly complex gameplay scenarios (Adventures in Games Analysis will contain a full critique of Locomotion). Here are two theoretical examples of how Uncharted 2‘s levels could be orientated around a particular set of interactions.

By incorporating some more dynamic elements into the shooting gameplay, the developers could also increase the sophistication of the gameplay challenges while still keeping the action grounded. For example, using grenades to flush enemies out of cover (AI) or exploiting the lack of mobility of enemies caught in knee-high water (environmental element).

Conclusion

Gunplay and interplay, scalable difficulty, easy climbing gameplay, and functionally organised gameplay are issues which extend beyond Uncharted 2 and into a variety of other games (Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Timesplitters 2). Likewise, I took many of my suggestions from games which I believe address these challenges well (Resident Evil 4, Evil Within, Perfect Dark, and Zelda: Skyward Sword). Of course, without implementing these ideas and testing them in practice, they are simply food for thought.

Uncharted 2 – I’m Not Here, This Isn’t Really Happening

January 3rd, 2018

Uncharted_2_Among_Thieves_JP_boxart

Player agency separates video games from passive media such as film and literature. Unlike these other art forms, players of video games must exert skill so as to overcome challenges. And so playing a video game requires effort and commitment, much like any other skill-based task. However, not everyone wants to sit down after a hard day of work and put their learning and mastery to the test. And so in the last decade or so, the games industry has seen an increase in titles in the AAA games space which attempt to appeal to a wider audience at the expense of player agency and gameplay. The Uncharted series stands out in this regard. In a series of livestream discussions surveying games criticism on the Uncharted series, critic and game developer Richard Terrell concluded that Uncharted 4 (the latest game in the series) is a “super casual game”, citing the simplified shooting sequences and increased proportion of low intensity climbing and walking sections. While I haven’t played Uncharted 4, I would argue that the series has always sought to appeal to a wider audience by creating a more passive game experience. The following examples from Uncharted 2 may seem slight on their own, but together they play a significant role in reducing the player’s agency and the potential interactivity.

Too Many Cutscenes

According to How Long to Beat, most players need 10.5 hours of game time to beat Uncharted 2, yet around 3 hours of this time consists of non-interactive cutscenes. To put this into perspective, for roughly every 3 minutes of play time, the player will spend 1 minute watching a video. While well written and engaging, these sequences mostly consist of characters in dialogue, exchanging information which perhaps could have been integrated elsewhere. After all, Uncharted 2‘s plot isn’t terribly complicated.

Overuse of Checkpoints

For every significant gunfight won, the player reaches a checkpoint. While this measure keeps the game moving forward, the constant checkpointing also shortens the sustained length of time during which the player must play well in order to overcome a challenge. As a result, the player has little to lose going in to most confrontations and thus the game gives licence to more thoughtless play. The fast turn around between failure and attempt also reduces the intervening time where players subconsciously internalise mistakes and formulate new strategies. With Drake’s recharging health and ability to sustain multiple gunshots as well as few hard locks forcing the player to engage with each challenge, the generous checkpointing only makes running past enemies an even more viable strategy.

Early Clue Prompts

If the player waits around in a given area for more than a minute, a clue prompt will appear on screen. Activating the prompt makes the camera frame the next point of progress. The hint usually doesn’t spoil any puzzles; however, I find that it chimes in way too quickly. Oftentimes throughout my playthrough, I’d be notified of a free hint before I even had a solid grasp of my surroundings—and once it pops up, I doubt few players could resist using it. In this way, the clue prompts sap some of the exploration out of the gameplay.

Best of Friends

The developers turned friendly fire off, which means that the player can’t accidentally shoot Drake’s companions. However, the AI generally tends to occupy the space to the sides of most confrontations and Uncharted’s third person view and open combat environments provide the player with plenty of visual and physical room to easily manoeuvre around the other characters (there are, for example, few firefights which take place in narrow corridors). So in this sense turning off friendly fire cuts out the effort needed to work around your team mates. Other third-person shooters such as Resident Evil 4 turn on friendly fire and thereby allow the AI character to add an extra wrinkle to the gameplay. In Uncharted 2 though, Drake’s companions don’t change the gameplay in any meaningful way.

Bubble Wrapped Realism

Despite the painstaking visual realism, Uncharted 2‘s environments are for the most part static window dressing. Animals, lights, glass, and vases, among other things, don’t react realistically when shot. Only in specific instances where the game designers need Drake to shoot something that isn’t Eastern-European or explosive will the item respond.

Not only do the player and game world lack interplay, but the game elements don’t react to each other either, as I found out when I got Drake to hold a gas canister over an open flame. For contrast, in the first level of Syphon Filter lights, windows, bottles, computers, padlocks, and police cars all react realistically to gunfire. Uncharted 2 can’t even match the interactive realism of a PSone game. Amazing.

Conclusion

Aside from these examples, Uncharted 2‘s low intensity climbing sections and the lack of dynamic interactions within the gunplay significantly reduce the interactive experience. However, these issues relate more to Uncharted 2‘s core gameplay, and so I’ve saved these topics for the next repair-focused article.

The Complexities of Castlevania: SOTN – Developing Game Challenges

December 22nd, 2017

Dracula

[When developing Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, director Koji Igarashi wanted to make a game which would “overturn player’s ideas about Castlevania, yet also feel like a Castlevania game”. In pursuing this vision, his team made SOTN’s game system much more complex, incorporating RPG systems and a wide variety of nuanced player actions. This series of articles will examine how these additions shape SOTN’s core gameplay of moving through space to dodge and attack enemies.]

To conclude the series, I want to discuss a handful of game challenges which demonstrate how SOTN’s designers leveraged the game’s various systems and complexities to create the moment-to-moment gameplay. The examples generally fall into one of two categories: challenges which utilise the core dynamics of space, time, and gravity and challenges which test the player’s knowledge of SOTN’s nuanced complexities. By looking at these examples, we can make sense of how SOTN’s game systems work in context.

Bone Pillar and Morning Star Trap on Stairs

Bone Pillar

This example is one of the few challenges that leverages gravity to great effect. At this point in the game, Alucard shouldn’t yet have the double jump or high jump, so the player cannot jump over the arrangement of game elements. The Bone Pillar’s fire breath shoots out at set intervals, so the challenge is orientated around timing. However, by defeating the Bone Pillar, Alucard releases the morning star which subsequently rolls down the staircase. So defeating one challenge organically facilitates another. Alucard’s lower position on the staircase limits his options for escape. (He should probably jump to the left and then swing back to the right, which is hard to do with limited hang time). The designers leverage height and gravity to create a lock and increase challenge.

Blood Skeleton Mosh Pit

Blood Skeleton Moshpit

Blood Skeletons (enemies that walk back and forth, and rebuild themselves after taking damage; think Dry Bones from the Mario games) swamp the shallow pit. The low ceiling and raised ledge sandwich Alucard and make it difficult for him to enter the crowded space. These limitations encourage more creative solutions. I came up with two: running through as Wolf Alucard and air kicking my way across, allowing the mosh pit to carry Alucard.

Corpseweed in a Dome Pit

Corpseweed

A series of curved pits draw the player towards the centre where a corpseweed lies. The slowing effect of the bowl, the crouching height of the weed, and the flat space in the centre for the player to crouch attack together converge to shorten the time the player has to stop the weed from sprouting into a giant plant. Air-kicking the leafy mass allows the player to traverse this area quickly as the diagonal-downwards trajectory avoids the slowing effect of crossing the curves of the dome and allows the player to rebound and jump into the next dome, setting up the subsequent attack.

A Tight Squeeze Past Balloon Pod

Balloon Pod

Balloon Pods fill the gaps that lead up the shaft. If Alucard attacks or touches a Balloon Pod, it will burst open, unleashing a spray of spores. Since the spores fill the gap and take several seconds to vanish, the arrangement encourages the player to carefully squeeze past the obstacles, with dexterity being a required skill.

Imp Swarm

Imp Swarm

In this long, narrow shaft, a steady stream of Imps spawn. These pests track Alucard and interrupt his ascent by knocking him back to the ground. The longer the player spends recovering from knock backs, the more Imps spawn in, and the harder it is to avoid the swarm. Furthermore, the floating devils sometimes petrify Alucard or curse him to stand on the spot and attack, allowing even more of their pitchfork-wielding friends to swoop on in. The column constricts the space around Alucard and by extension the player’s movement options, while the pit (pictured) acts as a choke point, trapping Alucard within. The arrangement of game elements leverage two nuances (Alucard’s knockback and the Imp’s petrify and curse attacks) to create a unique “race against time” themed challenge.

Galamoth Boss Fight

Interviewer: Who do you think is the toughest enemy in Symphony of the Night?

Hagihara: Under normal conditions, Galamoth is a tough fight. If you don’t have any extra power from equipment it’s a real slog.

Igarashi: We made him so that if you just tried to fight him normally, you couldn’t win. I mean, that’s the kind of character he originally was. (laughs) Please enjoy him as one of the post-game challenges.

Hagihara: The truth is Galamoth was supposed to be far stronger than Shaft or Dracula..

Interview Source

The developers intentionally inflated Galamoth’s difficulty so as to encourage players to find creative ways of defeating the monster. In this case, taking advantage of the complexities and nuances of SOTN’s combat system. The video below highlights the excessive extremities of SOTN’s abstract subsystems.

Shield Rod + Alucard Shield – This technique requires that the player exploit a hidden property of the Shield Rod. According to the Castlevania Wiki, when the player equips a Shield Rod and Alucard Shield, the Alucard Shield has:

“the ability to deal a base 255 Hit damage multiple times per second when in contact with the enemy. The shield also recovers 8 HP, 1 Heart, and grants 3 seconds of invincibility, although MP is drained continuously when in use”.

The Shield Rod’s text description (“Extra Effective With Shield”) appears to be the only clue the game provides. Even after following the hint, a significant degree of trial and error would be needed to unearth the combination and its effective application against Galamoth.

Use the Duplicator to Spam Healing Items and Expendable Weapons – Post-game pick-up the Duplicator allows Alucard to hold an endless supply of items. So when facing Galamoth, the player can spam healing potions to minimise any damage taken. Then when they have a moment to breathe, they can shower the boss in TNT. I suppose with the Duplicator equipped and limitations on single-use weapons removed, the player can finally experiment with this tertiary area of the SOTN’s combat system.

Wear Lighting Mail to Reduce Damage – Knowledge of the elemental attributes and equipment systems can reduce some of the challenge of the boss battle. Given that Galamoth clearly fires lightening out of his rod, this suggestion makes sense.

Use the Beryl Circuit to Absorb Galamoth’s Damage – The Beryl Circuit absorbs lightening damage, so Galamoth’s lightening attacks heal Alucard instead of hurting him. Given the nonsensical sidequest needed to obtain the Beryl Circuit, this technique is easily the most far-fetched in the video.

Trap Galamoth in a Stun State – The video shows two positions where the player can trap Galamoth in a stun state: in the bottom-right corner and when attacking his head on the right-hand ledge. Although this technique exists within the spatial game, it’s more of an exploit than a genuine solution.

Conclusion

From the traversal mechanics, weapons, and subweapons anchored in the dynamics of time and space; to the less functionally effective systems of expendable items, spells, and familiars; to the abstract layer of equipment and levelling; and finally the excesses of super nuanced techniques required to defeat Galamoth, Symphony of the Night‘s complexities support the core gameplay of moving Alucard through space to dodge and attack, have very little of an effect at all, and even warp the gameplay into something else completely.

Overall, I would argue that the majority of SOTN’s new additions don’t really enhance the game very much at all. And even the most grounded addition, the weapon system, shifts the gameplay in a dramatically different direction, and not necessarily for the better. By allowing the player to choose their weapon, SOTN forgoes the tuned and optimised gameplay of the earlier titles for a rawer, more player-driven experience. SOTN’s developers provided plenty of options which players can tinker with, but struggled to create rich and challenging gameplay out of those options.