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BomberJacket avatar 9:36 PM on 11.02.2011  (server time)
Case 4 Thing - Playable Downtime

Case 4 Thing is a when-I-feel-like-it analysis/promotion of game mechanics I never hear talked about

"Pitch the damn thing kid! I've got to rescue a hostage in an hour."

I don't like Uncharted 2. Its mechanics are solid, the storyline's enjoyable if predictable, and the characters are well written. But towards the end of the campaign, I put the game down and never picked it back up. I've also forgotten most of it since then. And it's because Uncharted 2 failed in a way that many action games do: it never really changed things up.

You may disagree with this statement, but give me a moment. It isn't enough to change the setting if the mechanics don't change as well. Visual flair is a great thing to have in a game, but it adds very little when the gameplay doesn't change along with it. In Uncharted 2, you'll explore Nepalese ruins, a city in the middle of a civil war, a jungle, and a train, and they're almost all identical in terms of structure. Yes, there are guerrillas duking it out with the mercs in the city. Yes, the ruins will crumble from time to time. Yes, the train will sway and occasionally give you free shots at enemies, but how I'm fighting never really changes.

One sequence that did change things up was hobbling through the streets with Jeff on your shoulder. In addition to the constrained movement, you couldn't take cover, were limited to pistols, and shooting became much more twitch as a result. Another is towards the end when you have to fight acrobatic humanoid monsters on the run, primarily with a crossbow. Both instances broke up the "wait behind cover", "fire machine gun", "duck into cover" slog that the rest of the combat was, and both did it with very subtle tweaks.

"Who ordered a blue ninja Locust?"

Now, I'm sure Naughty Dog was aware of how gameplay needs to be changed up, hence all the platforming and the occasional square-peg puzzle. But they failed to realize how those sequences can become stale as well without enough variety within them as well. Keeping the game interesting is more than just alternating shooting and climbing. Where were the wall traps, the moving platforms, the dummy flooring, and the blades of death that made Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia so fun from start to finish?

However, what's really unfortunate here is that Uncharted 2 could have been such a better game in terms of pacing had it broken up combat with something other than jumping or slightly different combat. It wouldn't have needed any more stages or enemies to shoot, just something else on the side between stages. My suggestion? Poker.

"Now Bomber", you may be asking your computer screen because you're a crazy person, "I can easily see Nathan Drake as a card shark. But why would I want to be playing cards instead of shooting people?" The answer isn't obvious to you now, but it would make much more sense had you just played two hours of Uncharted. The reason is that it isn't shooting people. It's not car chases or death-defying leaps or any of the other gradually diminishing adrenaline rushes you've been binging on for the past two hours. Rather, it's a totally peaceful activity you can use as a palate cleanser from action fatigue. It needn't be deep or particularly rewarding, aside from Drake maybe gloating or whining about how the game went, but it's something else, something unexpected even, and the next shooty bits would go down a lot easier.

See, Uncharted's biggest problem is that it never stops being oppressively intense; it's wired like a cheetah on cocaine. And as a result, the player's appreciation of the intensity continually diminishes. Think about how many vehicles Nathan Drake has gotten into in his games. Now think about the ones that didn't get blown up. By which I mean none of them. If Nathan Drake gets in a car, that car is predestined to explode in the next ten minutes because exploding cars are exciting and unexpected, right? Normally true, but diminished somewhat if you can still smell the burning carcass of the last one. Here's hoping Drake never gets on anything organic.

This fabulous chart is a rendition of the ideal dramatic structure. You see this in a lot of music too. It's why singers stop singing so the drummer can have a solo, or why the camera goes away from Luke Skywalker and focuses on C-3PO for some comedic asides. Action, or more generally intensity, must be broken up by something to change the mood so the audience doesn't get bored. This is why, instead of every frame being a blaze of gun/laser fire, Chewbacca plays space chess, Indiana Jones drinks with Marcus Brody, and Artyom wanders around a subway station turned settlement. Speaking of which, let's look at Metro 2033 for a second shall we?

In Metro 2033, stages are broken up by towns. Now, these aren't your typical videogame towns. There aren't quests in the traditional sense, although you can play good Samaritan and give money to the needy. But aside from that and a very limited shop, they're mostly just full of NPCs milling around. Really the only thing to do is explore and poke around for the odd free bullet, but it still manages to be engaging, and the melancholy it provides makes going into another action stage seem exciting again.

Now, compare that to Uncharted 2, where there was almost no downtime whatsoever. Rarely is a break in the action is done outside cutscene, and even in them, the calm never lasts for long. The best thing Uncharted 2 did in terms of a break was the ability to walk around a Nepalese village for a few minutes. There's not much point and you're hounded by your guide to keep moving, but it's a nice aside. Granted, since Drake's cursed presence has graced it, the only uncertainty will be if you'll come back to find it completely destroyed or partially destroyed. You didn't think Naughty Dog would make a level without loads of bullets and explosions, did you?

But one thing has gotten me hopeful. See, there's a clip, apparently of gameplay, of Drake doing something non-physical for a few seconds. It breaks changes the mood wonderfully, and I can't help but hope there will be more of these moments in the game. Here's hoping this is Naughty Dog's mea culpa.


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