December 30th, 2009
There’s an awkward contradiction in the original Uncharted where the gorgeously detailed jungle landscape and its lack of interactivity juxtapose to create a hollow feeling within the player. In fact, it’s just one of ways in which Uncharted, through Naughty Dog’s virginity to the genre and the Playstation 3 and their determination to neatly place the player in one of either two modes of gameplay, severely de-equips the player, or rather instill the feeling of being de-equiped.
Eats Your Greens
(We’re still razzing on the inactive landscape here)
Intended as a benchmark for the Playstation 3’s technical capabilities, Uncharted‘s jungle landscape, even now after the release of its sequel, still inspires great awe. Yet I’ll be damned if it isn’t anything more than digital window dressing. Sure, wind will blow in and stir up foliage or a scripted event will send a rock crashing onto car, but during standard play the landscape does little to respond to the player. The jungle is simply a conduit to the next gun fight, climbing sequence or story event where Uncharted can operate in its comfort zone as a derivative mix of Prince of Persia and Gears of War. External to these sequences, the player is covered in bubble wrap and can only look but not touch. In this sense, the landscape hardly contributes to the game in a meaningful way on a mechanical level, unless of course it’s within the aforementioned capsules of gameplay. Examples of the latter include shooting exploding oil cans and the tear-away platforms.
(One could quite correctly argue that this is the case for most games, and indeed it is. My response to that would therefore be the very fact that Uncharted‘s environment is so darn pretty, that is has such an important presence in the game world unlike most games before it, that it almost suggests to be more important than it really is. This, I’d wager, is the implication.)
The lack of seamless interaction cuts at the environment’s personality and to some extent the believability too (although it’s pretty hard not to believe it when it looks so good!). Personally speaking, I found that the implications affecting my attitude towards the game were numerous. There’s feelings of betrayal as the environment is something of an illusion. There’s the feeling of selfishness in that you’ve been spoilt with such lovely visuals but don’t have the means to appreciate it beyond turning the camera angle to get a more picturesque view. To put it in another way, it feels as though you’re “wasting” Uncharted’s graphical splendor. The feeling which lasted the longest for me though was a feeling of helplessness. That is, you want to interact with the environment but you can’t, the game does not permit it.
A Tiny High Definition Reticle in a Highly-detailed Jungle Landscape with Fast-moving, Ultra Responsive Enemy Types
Put those words together and consider what this means for gameplay. That is, have you ever tried to shoot an ant from 30 metres away? Everything that you shoot at in Uncharted feels so distant. There are several reasons for this as touched upon in the title:
Means more stuff can fit on screen, more so than it takes for an analog stick to cleanly sweep and target. Naughty Dog haven’t quite hit the right spot when matching this with a suitable reticle movement speed.
This is the area where you shoot; a tiny white circle in the middle of a high resolution image
That high resolution image is full of heavily textured landscape, swatches of rich colour, dispersed lighting, detailed scenery and animation. Point being that there’s many distractions to throw your attention off target.
–Fast-moving, Ultra Responsive Enemy Types
Maybe they’re not that fast, but they’ll certainly flinch once you’ve hit them. Hitting a pirate (bad guy) anywhere on the body apart from the head will cause them to sporadically throw themselves in the opposite direction. This can totally off-balance your shooting as the nimble reticle speed makes it difficult to re-align your shots.
–Layout of the Arenas
Although not mentioned in the title, the layout of the gun fights (arena layout, cover spots, enemy spawn points, movement patterns, etc) is the primary reason why aiming in Uncharted feels so terribly myopic. Gun fights are very spread out, layered almost like a shooting range where the player clears a hoard of goons, jumps the fence and closes in the enemies by taking refuge at the next point of cover. The closest row of goons in the shooting range are often distanced at a point which is a little uncomfortable. However, the core problem lies in that enemies which occupy the back rows are given startlingly good accuracy—and with three or so of them in the back and reinforcements moving to the front, it’s tactically safer to camp at a distance than risk moving forward. Furthermore, when the rows of pirates at the front are few, there are side rows which contribute to the tactical security of staying put.
Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the PSP’s lower resolution screen in the similarly-styled Syphon Filter PSP titles, but damn it can difficult to shoot things in Uncharted. I actually played Uncharted on the hard difficulty setting (hence my comments for the last dot point may have otherwise differed) and unlocked most of the headshot trophies (I think), so it’s not that the shooting is bad, by any stretch, rather shooting feels like trying to put thread through a needle. Myopic is the perfect word to describe it. Uncharted‘s shooting makes the player feel nearsighted. The reticle moves at a speed unaccommodating of the resolution and the AI makes no allowances for this. The player has to therefore put in extra work (though more considered aiming and willingness to tacticise around missed shots) to make up for the “weaknesses” they’ve inherited.
The visual cues in the platforming sections can be really unclear at times. Some might say that I’m nitpicking here, because generally it’s pretty good. The camera in particular follows very dynamically and presents rather well, but the points of interaction can be difficult to read. Ledges, for instance, are represented by black decay in the side of a building, resembling a groove, yet these are often more akin to random structural decay than a climbable surface. Much is the case for other parts of the game. Constantly missing a visual cue puts fault on the player and further makes them feel unequipped for the game world. My twin brother disagreed with me on this one, perhaps I’ve again been spoilt, this time by the Prince of Persia series.
As we know, gun fights occur in preset “arenas”. As the pirates are often just going about on their usual business, the action doesn’t always start right away, rather the player is offered the opportunity of approaching these sections stealthily by hiding behind props and so forth. This mechanic feels ill-thought-out as rarely can the player make any progress as an assassin. Pirate walking routes almost always ensure that the arena is heavily monitored. Paths of sights cross too frequently for stealth to be a tenable option
Saying that Uncharted de-equips the player is a false argument. It’s as guilty of this as any other game. Rather, Uncharted, by the dilemma presented in its graphical splendor and the player’s want to engage with this in a meaningful way, its imprecise aiming and spastically-flinching enemies, difficult to discern platforming cues and wonky stealth, creates a sense of being de-equiped, of not being able to fully provide the player with the tools to the task. Incidentally, one could argue that this is the very nature of Drake as an avatar.