Monday, May 26, 2014

Uncharted 2 Is So Much Better Than UC1

The first Uncharted is one of the worst games of the previous console generation that I've ever played. I absolutely hated it. If I had to decide whether or not to play the sequel based solely on my experiences with the first game, I never would have given it a chance -- but since I'm a glutton for punishment and everyone insisted that the second game was better than the first, I figured I'd give it a shot and see if the general public would be wrong about the same series twice in a row.

As it turns out, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a competently-designed game. Basically everything that was wrong about the first game (which was basically everything) has been fixed and improved in the sequel; the story has more momentum behind it, the puzzles actually require some thought to solve, the platforming requires careful timing and precision, the combat feels much more fluid, there's much more variety, and the different gameplay elements are balanced much more appropriately. This is what I expected (and did not get) from Drake's Fortune.

Among Thieves takes place some time after the events of Drake's Fortune. The game begins with the hero, Nathan Drake, clutching a bloody gunshot wound in his side while sitting in a train car that's dangling off the edge of a cliff. Badly wounded, Drake struggles to climb his way out of the train before it falls, and makes his way to an ornate phurba resting in the snow before collapsing from exhaustion. The game then flashes back to the proper start of the story, where Nathan Drake is approached by some old friends -- Harry Flynn and Aeryn Sun Chloe Frazer -- with a job offer.

Chloe and Flynn offering Drake a job

Drake agrees to take part in a museum heist on account of his unquestionably noble, honorable love for archaeology, in order to find an ancient oil lamp for Harry and Chloe's employer, Zoran Lazarevic. The trio quickly realize that the oil lamp is actually a clue left by Marco Polo pointing the way to the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, where the Cintamani stone is said to reside. They decide to abscond with the clue themselves and pick up the trail where Marco Polo left off, but Drake finds himself double-crossed and has to escape on his own. From there, he sets out to catch up with Flynn and Lazarevic while the plot continually thickens with more twists and double-crosses. 

The story is the same basic premise as it was in the first game: follow the trail of a historic explorer in search of a mythical kingdom that holds a sacred relic of untold power. There's a lot more going on in this story, however, and it gives you greater incentives to care about what's going on. For one thing, it introduces the central conflict much earlier in the game and gets you more personally involved in it. You spend a lot more time interacting with the main villain, Lazarevic, who takes a more active role in the story, so you have a more concrete grasp of what you're up against and what the stakes are for failure. I think I cared less about finding Marco Polo's treasure than I did about finding Sir Francis Drake's treasure, but I cared about stopping Lazarevic, which was enough to propel me through the game.

It helps that the game takes the time attempting to establish its characters in the very beginning. By getting to see a little backstory with Flynn and Chloe and getting to do a full mission with them, you're able to feel a more personal connection to the story when Flynn betrays not only the character of Nathan Drake, but you as the player. It's equally interesting what they did with Chloe, since you're never really sure whose side she's on, even though it ultimately becomes clear by the end of the game. Whether it's finding the treasure for the sake of uncovering lost history, or stopping Lazarevic from using its powers for evil, or getting revenge on Flynn for his betrayal, or figuring out what Chloe's angle is on everything, or just trying to save your friends when they fall in harm's way, there's probably something in the plot that will intrinsically motivate you to see it through to the end. 

Lazarevic looks like a stereotypical villain. Yawn.

I was kind of annoyed in the very beginning when the game kept flashing back and forth between flashback cutscenes and Drake trying to climb his way out of the train -- it's not exactly fun to start a game watching a ton of cutscenes and controlling a crippled character slowly trudging through snow -- but I realized later that it was really good foreshadowing. The obvious intention is to hook your interest by making you wonder how the story gets from point A (meeting Flynn and Chloe) to point B (nearly dying in the train car), in addition to wondering what that thing is that Drake finds in the snow, but there came a time when I found myself in a train car that looked eerily similar to the one in that introductory gameplay sequence, with no choice but to pull a lever to make it go down the tracks. 

When I realized that I'd caught back up to the story, a minor sense of foreboding dread descended upon me knowing that I had to pull that lever to advance the story, and that bad things were going to happen. As it turns out, I was in a completely different (but still the same-looking) train car, and the disaster didn't happen until much later. But even still, that was a good feeling of anxiety not knowing when to expect what I knew was ultimately going to happen.

The story works very well, but it's still plagued by typical video game tropes that I feel hold it back from rising above my meager expectations. Drake is hit by dozens and dozens of bullets in combat, but when he's shot by a major character in a cutscene, the game suddenly remembers that bullets are, in fact, lethal, just for the sake of creating a dramatic twist that leaves Drake mortally wounded. Later, after it's already been established in a dozen hours of gameplay that Drake is a formidable fighter in hand-to-hand combat, he suddenly becomes an inept buffoon when trying to throw a punch at an easily-disarmable foe just because it would break the artificial tension if Drake were to do what he's been able to do all along.  

Chloe, Elena, Jeff, and Drake

Other things feel so incredibly convenient for the sake of the story that I find them difficult to swallow. Elena's appearance in this game is completely shoe-horned (Drake just happens to bump into her in the middle of Nepal -- what are the odds of that happening), and Jeff was written into the story simply so he could die to raise the stakes for the main characters. At one point some random henchman is seen carrying the precious, invaluable key to Shambhala just so that Drake can get it back (why the hell isn't it locked up under heavy guard), and later Chloe is left alone with the key to Shambhala after it's been made blatantly obvious that she's been working with Drake all along, just so that, once again, Drake can get it back. 

These aren't major, game-breaking issues, of course, but I think they're significant enough to nitpick here, just because of all the praise directed at the game's story. I guess the story is ultimately pretty good for a video game, and I normally wouldn't care that much about these kinds of tropes and shortcomings, but when a game tries so hard to be likened to a cinematic movie, the problems stand out more. The story is alright and the cutscenes look nice, but that's about it. 

In contrast to the previous game, the writers and designers put at least some effort into making Drake act more like a likable hero. The game begins with robbing a museum -- not exactly a noble cause -- but Drake at least insists on not bringing guns with them and avoiding conflict with security whenever possible, since it would not sit well with audiences to have the main character murdering innocent guards who are just doing their jobs, even though he has no qualms about beating them up, knocking their heads into stone surfaces, and pushing them off a cliff so they fall a hundred feet straight down into potentially lethal, rocky water. 

Fighting evil Russians in the jungle with Sully.

I still ended up murdering 784 dudes over the course of the game, according to the end-game statistics, but the guys you kill are portrayed as more deserving of that fate than the t-shirt clad mercenaries of the first game. These guys are supposed to be evil war criminals, after all, and at one point in the story they burn down an innocent mountain village, so I felt no remorse about killing so many people this time around. I kind of wish they weren't Russians, though, because I'm getting a little tired of Russians always being the stereotypical bad guys. 

Combat is vastly improved over the first game; whereas combat previously felt like a boring, tedious, repetitive chore, it now feels genuinely challenging and, more importantly, fun. I think there's about as much combat in UC2 as there was in UC1, but it's balanced with a lot more (and better) platforming sections, puzzle sections, and story sections -- you don't spend the entire game fighting endless waves of enemies, room after room after room. The key difference in this game is that combat feels much more sensible; you fight fewer enemies in each battle, they don't seem to spawn from out nowhere in never-ending waves, they're dressed more appropriately for combat, and they only show up in places where they would logically be. 

Enemies are no longer bullet sponges and react more realistically to getting shot -- they stumble and drop to one knee after getting hit once or twice, and go down for good after a couple more hits. Aiming is better because enemy movement animations are much smoother and therefore more predictable, and weapon recoil is much more controllable. In the previous game, every time you shot a gun your aim recoiled upward and you had to manually correct your aim after every single shot; in this game, your aim recoils up and progressively outward as you sustain fire, but then reverts to your original position when you release the trigger. Thus, you can fire in controlled burst and reliably hit your target, and you can even rely on the recoil to help you get a headshot if you aim at the enemy's chest initially. 

Some enemies use riot shields, which you can pick up and use too.

Getting in and out of cover is easier and more consistent, thanks to the ability to transition around corners and automatically return to cover, and you can sustain more damage before dying so you don't spend the entire game with your face pressed against a wall recovering health. They also removed the sixaxis motion control from the game so you can throw grenades more reliably. The effect of all of this is that I actually enjoyed the combat in UC2; I turned the difficulty down to "easy" in UC1 because the combat was so bad I didn't even want to bother with it, but I played this game on "normal" difficulty and felt pleasantly challenged, though I possibly could've bumped it up to "hard" and enjoyed it even more.

What's especially nice about UC2, though, is that it gives you a better feeling of control over the situation. Most of the time, you get to see enemies up ahead and decide how to approach the situation -- where you're going to set yourself up initially, whom you'll target first, whether you'll try to go in for some stealth kills before opening up the fight, and so on. You still get ambushed from time to time, thus forcing you into quick reactions where you have to think on your feet, but it's not like the first game where you were ambushed all the damn time. Like everything else, it feels more appropriately balanced in this game, and I really like having the agency over deciding how I'm going to play the game, rather than it essentially playing me. 

It's worth mentioning that stealth is now also a viable option from time to time, whereas it practically did not exist in the previous game. The stealth system isn't up for the job as well as dedicated stealth games (I really wish the game would let me control when I crouch) -- you'll usually end up having to fight dudes in open combat because the game isn't designed to accommodate stealth in every level, and even in levels where it's allowed or encouraged the system isn't robust enough for you to go the whole way without getting caught -- but it's nice that the game rewards you with extra ammo and better weapons for taking enemies out with stealthy melee takedowns, since it adds to the variety in gameplay. 

Dodging helicopter fire in Nepal.

Action sequences are much more varied than they ever were in the first game. Every fight in the first game was literally the exact same scenario; in UC2, there are several mechanically unique action sequences, and it's a different scenario every time. Besides just fighting enemies in a square room, you have to run along a train as you work your way to the front; you have to run through tall city buildings dodging helicopter fire; you have to jump along a moving caravan of trucks; you have to run through a village dodging a tank; you have to escort a wounded character through alleys; and so on. Even though you're using the same basic combat mechanisms and fighting many of the same basic enemies from encounter to encounter, the scenario, the level design, and your ultimate goals are different every time. 

Many of these action sequences incorporate platforming into the mix, but you also get to spend considerable time outside of combat in more elaborate platforming sequences. Unlike the first game where platforming felt entirely straightforward and consequence-free, platforming in this game often requires you to dodge obstacles and time your movements in order to succeed -- in other words, platforming in UC2 feels like you're actually playing a platformer and feels more satisfying. The paths you have to take aren't always as blatantly obvious as they used to be, so there were times when I had to look around and actually figure out what I had to do, rather than mindlessly following the dotted line, which was nice.

Puzzles are another improvement over the first game, since these ones require some semblance of thought to solve. By no means are the puzzles in UC2 up to par with those in actual adventure games, but they're at least moderately satisfying to solve because there's some deduction and experimentation required in a few key areas of the game. Even though it's usually pretty obvious what you have to do, I appreciated that the game didn't blatantly tell me the solution. Using mirrors to aim a beam of light and stepping on Zelda-style floor switches was much more engaging than the lame picture-matching nonsense of the first game. 

Scaling an icy mountain with Tenzin.

Finally, there's a lot more scenic variety in UC2 than there was in UC1. In UC1, you spent virtually the entire game on the same island and everywhere looked (and felt) kind of similar. Uncharted 2, in contrast, incorporates some adventure-style globetrotting that takes you to diverse locations like a modern museum, a tropical jungle, snowy mountains, a war-torn urban city, a quaint mountain village, and an old cliff-side monastery. Everywhere looks really good, and even though the game is just as linear as UC1, it doesn't feel as boring because you get to see all these different places. My only complaint on this subject is that I think you spend too much time around man-made structures; a little more nature might have been nice. 

Unfortunately, some of the problems from the first game carry over into the sequel. The game is still way too linear and offers you no opportunity and no incentive to explore off the main path. Treasures are still represented with the same lame sparkle effect and they still serve the same useless purpose of only unlocking achievements and bonus content. Ammo management is still an issue since you can still only carry one pistol and one rifle at a time, and the game even goes so far as to forcibly remove certain weapons from your possession if you were diligent about preserving them. On a few occasions I managed to carry a fully loaded rocket launcher or grenade launcher into a new encounter, hoping/expecting to use them on a boss, only to find them inexplicably replaced with an AK47 after the cutscene finished.

This game's final chapter is much better than the terrible, terrible "one-hit-kill-trial-and-error-quick-time-event" nonsense of the first game, but that's also the point when UC2 trips on a rock, bumps its head, and forgets what it was about the first game's combat scenarios that made them so unbearable. Suddenly, in a lame attempt to raise the stakes in the climax, you're fighting multiple enemies that absorb hundreds of bullets before going down and which can kill you instantly if you get caught in a bad combo, while 50-100 enemies constantly stream in at you. 

The statue puzzle in Nepal.

It was admittedly a little tense having to fight that many enemies and stay alive for that long in one go, and that's admittedly the only time when the enemy spawns get to feel ridiculous, but it was almost as tedious as playing the first game all over again and made the finale feel like more of a boring slog than an exciting climax. You can tell some of these encounters weren't designed very intelligently when the game has to give you infinite ammo to make sure you can actually get past them. 

So that's Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. It's a tremendous improvement over Drake's Fortune and plays more like what I expected from the first game. It isn't perfect, though -- the story feels a little contrived, it's still way too linear, some of the issues from the first game (like ammo management) carry over into this one, there's not enough of Victor "Sully" Sullivan -- but it fixed all of the major issues that ruined Drake's Fortune. Each of its individual gameplay components (third-person shooting, platforming, puzzle-solving, etc) has ultimately been done better in other games, but Uncharted 2 is a pretty good combination of everything in one package. 

If you're looking to start the Uncharted series, do yourself a favor: skip Drake's Fortune altogether and start with Uncharted 2


  1. Told ya ^^

    One quick note though. Lazarevic is Serbian and not Russian if that is enough difference for you.

    1. Well, there you go. It seemed to me like they were going for the stereotypical "post-soviet warlord" character that's been used in so many other games and movies, but I missed the fact that he was, in fact, not Russian. Either way, he still seems intended to fit into that same basic archetype, which is still a bit wearisome.

  2. So you didn't like the first one because it was harder. I mean yes the story and the puzzles are better in 2, but the difficult was watered down, the enemies in 1 are smarter and the shooting is tight.

    1. There's a difference between a game being "difficult" and providing a "satisfying challenge." I play most of my games on hard mode these days because I like to feel challenged and I like the satisfaction of overcoming a tough scenario.

      The first game was indeed much more difficult, but it was not a satisfying challenge. The main thing is that the controls felt like they were actively working against me -- a lot of the times I died were because I tried to jump over something, or take cover behind something, or roll into a certain position, only to have Drake do something completely different than what I intended, thus getting me killed while I struggled to correct the error.

      Other things like enemies being able to soak up dozens of bullets without reacting, while I could only take three or four hits before being dropped to near death made the difficulty feel cheap and artificially inflated. The control problems were frustrating and the bullet sponge enemies were annoying, but the real downfall is that it just felt so repetitive because it was basically the same scenario each time.

      Uncharted 2, by contrast, seemed to smooth out a lot of the controls, making it significantly easier to do what I wanted to -- I rarely felt like I was battling the controls in addition to the enemies -- and the enemies seemed to react to bullets more realistically. All of this makes the difficulty easier, technically speaking, but it really makes the gameplay feel much more natural.

      A lot of my deaths in UC1 felt like they just weren't my fault, whereas the times I died in UC2 were often because I made a tactical error or just wasn't physically good enough at the game. It felt like beating a lot of encounters in UC1 required rote memorization of enemy spawn patterns through trial-and-error, whereas it felt like you just had to be good at the game to beat encounters in UC2.

      It's also worth mentioning that I've beaten The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, Tomb Raider 2013, and Gears of War (in coop campaign), all similar third-person cover shooters, on their hardest difficulties. The fact that I turned UC1 down to "easy mode" would either suggest that UC1 is an outlier in this equation, or that all of those games' "hard modes" aren't really that hard. Both of which could be true, but I just thought UC1 was too tedious and repetitive for its own good.

  3. man, don't know how you'll take the 3rd game.

  4. I'd wonder a lot if he doesn't say it is just mediocre in every way especially compared to UC2.

  5. Frankly, I thought there weren't enough puzzles. :P
    I really enjoyed the large density of them in the first half of U3. Of course everything went downhill when Drake got abducted.

    Maybe that's because I'm a massive 90s adventure games geek.