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The Memory Card .72: The collapsing building

4:00 PM on 10.22.2009 // Chad Concelmo

“The Memory Card” is a seasonal feature that dissects and honors some of the most artistic, innovative, and memorable videogame moments of all time.

For the last two weeks, The Memory Card has put on a fine suit and fancy top hat and become The Graphics Card, a three-part miniseries focusing on amazing, specific moments in outstanding videogame graphics over the years. The first installment focused on my first graphics memory from the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (Mega Man 2), last week centered on the 16-bit Super NES (Super Castlevania IV), and this week is about my first “Oh my gosh did you see that?!” graphics moment on the current generation of videogames.

Now, as of late last week, I had a moment all picked out. In fact, I even finished the entire article and was ready to share my fond gaming memory with the world.

But then Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for the PlayStation 3 was released and everything changed.

You see, in the game there is a sequence that pretty much made me lose my mind. I think I even let out an audible schoolgirl squeal when it happened. Once I experienced it, the previous moment I had scheduled -- while still cool -- seemed like nothing in comparison. So, I decided to scratch my original plan and talk about the moment from Uncharted 2 this week instead. So here we are. To be fair, there are at least fifteen graphical moments in Uncharted 2 that dropped my jaw to the floor (two words: train sequence). This just happens to be the one that affected me the most -- and was also early enough in the game to blow me away first.

So, without further adieu, hit the jump for one of the coolest things you will ever see in a videogame. A visually striking moment that combines the spectacle I felt during Mega Man 2 with the visceral, emotional connection I experienced during the rotating room in Super Castlevania IV. Oh, and then it multiplies everything by about a thousand. You really are not ready for this.

The Set-Up

It should be mentioned that this specific moment from Uncharted 2 will obviously be spoiled in this feature. Experiencing it for the first time without having it ruined ahead of time is, of course, the best case scenario, so if you haven’t played the game yet -- and plan to -- you should probably stop reading. The good news, though: this moment occurs closer to the beginning of the game, so if you are okay finding out about it, just know that not much more will be spoiled. I will try my best to avoid any story details or anything else of the sort.

Aaaaand ... let’s get started.

There was much anticipation leading up to the very recent release of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for the PlayStation 3. The original game was very well-received, and this sequel was promised by its creators Naughty Dog to be miles better than the first. You can probably already tell by my unbridled praise for the game so far, but Uncharted 2 not only matches all the hype, it surpasses it.

In the game, you once again play as treasure hunter Nathan Drake, this time as he searches for the mystery behind the lost fleet of Marco Polo (in your face, Indiana Jones!). In a cool twist, the game actually starts, timeline-wise, in the middle of the game, with the first, tutorial level being a sequence that happens much later in the story.

Once the first chapter is complete, the game flashes back many months, telling the intriguing story of how Nathan Drake ended up in the opening sequence’s perilous scenario.

Through many different landscapes and gameplay styles (each one more beautiful and fascinating than the last), Nathan Drake eventually makes it to a large city in Nepal. Here, he joins up with a gorgeous female companion as they search the city for a specific temple that may or may not hold a very important (and very valuable) clue to the larger mystery.

Unfortunately, the temple Nathan and his ally Chloe and looking for is one of hundreds that line the ruined, war torn city streets.

To make their search easier, Nathan and Chloe decide to make their way to the very top of the highest building in the city, the Hotel Shangri-La. By standing at the top of the massive, abandoned structure, the pair hopes to get a better vantage of the city, and, in turn, the specific temple they are looking for.

After engaging in a massive shootout with renegade soldiers, Nathan and Chloe finally gain access to the hotel’s lobby. In an exhilarating, tense sequence, Nathan uses his acrobatic skills to scale the huge hotel, climbing inside and outside of the building in some of the most white-knuckle inducing platforming ever experienced in a videogame.

Eventually, Nathan and Chloe reach the roof of the hotel. It is here when one of the most exciting and amazing videogames sequences I have ever seen in my entire life begins.

The Moment

Before looking for the temple, Nathan and Chloe stumble upon a pool filled with clean, refreshing, bright blue water that sits on top of the hotel roof. As they walk around the pool (and even jump in!), the duo catches their first glimpse of the giant city below.

To say the in-game graphics at this point in the game are beautiful is an understatement.

In a moment that could be a Memory Card moment by itself (and almost was!), Nathan and Chloe stare breathless at the details and scope of the surrounding mountains, jungles, and coastlines of Nepal. (I actually dizzily spun the camera around Nathan for almost twenty minutes to take in the gorgeous scenery before moving on. The visuals here are incredible.)

In a lucky break, Nathan spots a symbol on a distant temple that matches the symbol on a golden key he is carrying. Bingo! The temple he has been looking for!

Deciding the temple is their next destination, Nathan and Chloe begin their journey back down to the streets below.

Before they even have a chance to make it off the roof, a huge helicopter full of enemy soldiers swoops in to stop them in their tracks. Nathan and Chloe immediately ride a zip-line to a lower floor of a nearby building to avoid being shot by the massive, flying war machine.

Instead of finding safety inside the confines of the building, the pair is surprised as the helicopter begins shooting out windows and walls, determined to destroy them!

The next section of the game follows Nathan and Chloe as they desperately try to avoid the gunfire from the helicopter while also battling soldiers sent into the building to find them. Needless to say, it is challenging, tense, and absolutely exciting.

At one point during the chase the pair drops down to an open room -- an office littered with computer desks, file cabinets, and potted plants. After defeating three easy-to-beat soldiers, a massive explosion rips apart the entire far wall of the office, leaving a huge hole in the side of the building.

Nathan and Chloe look out and realize the explosion was caused by one of the helicopter’s missiles. Before they even have a chance to react, the helicopter starts shooting at them as more soldiers jump into the office from the floor above.

As Nathan begins to fight the enemies, Chloe notices something odd happening with the helicopter.

All of a sudden, the helicopter shoots four enormous missiles towards the bottom of the building Nathan and Chloe are standing in. The missiles collide with the building, shaking everything on-screen. The sound of the impact is deafening.

At this point, the entire building starts to sway. Every single object in the office starts to slide back and forth across the room with jaw-droppingly realistic physics.

Explosions continue to rock the building.

In a moment of awe and terror, the very building that Nathan and Chloe are standing in starts to collapse with them inside! As this is happening, the screen shakes and the furniture flips around the room. Nathan, Chloe, and all the other soldiers struggle to find footing. Some of the enemies tumble over the edge of the hole and plummet below to their deaths.

As all of this chaos is happening, Nathan must dodge all the realistic-moving furniture while also continuing to shoot at the battling soldiers. The floor violently shifts back and forth, making control of this all the more difficult.

Seconds before the building collapses to the ground, Nathan and Chloe look up and see a series of windows passing by the giant hole where the wall of the office used to be. These windows are from the building next door -- the floor they are on is passing by them as it falls to the ground.

With a final leap of faith, Nathan and Chloe leap in the air, break through a window, and land safely on the floor of an adjacent building.

The building they were just in collapses to the ground, leaving nothing behind except a cloud of smoke and a pile of sharp debris.

Nathan and Chloe, thankful to be alive, stand up, glance down at the fallen building, and slowly walk away, determined as ever to make it to the temple and locate the clue they are searching for.

You can watch the entire, stunning sequence -- from the beautiful views on top of the hotel (3:15) to the building’s heart-racing collapse (8:55) -- right here:

The Impact

Yeah. That happened.

It has only been a few days since I experienced the building collapse in Uncharted 2 and I am still completely floored and blown away by what I saw. And in case I wasn’t clear earlier: You are in full control of Nathan during all of this!

Where to begin?

What I mentioned at the beginning of the article is true: This moment combines the graphical awe of seeing the huge bosses for the first time in Mega Man 2 with the visceral excitement of the rotating room sequence in Super Castlevania IV. Those were the first two Graphic Card moments featured over the last two weeks and the collapsing building really is the perfect combination of both instances of visual discovery.

The awe of everything is obvious. The minute you see the luscious backgrounds when standing on top of the hotel is incredible. And I wasn’t kidding about staring at everything for almost twenty minutes. I was so impressed by the details of the Nepal landscape that I had to view it from every single angle. It really is stunning when you see it for the first time.

But then the action begins.

Running from the helicopter at first is pretty standard fare -- mind you, it is gorgeous standard fare, but nothing too out of the ordinary happens. Once you drop down into the office, though, that all changes.

When the helicopter shoots its missiles into the base of the building it is out of control. Granted, this may be beneficial to someone who has a big high-def television and booming surround sound, but once the building started collapsing it was one or the most visually impressive things I had ever seen -- videogame or otherwise.

First there is the explosion. Once the wall crumbles the light from outside streams in, causing dramatic shadows over every object in the room. Then the building starts to furiously shake. Then the surround sound kicks in to overdrive. As the building starts to collapse, this is when things get unbelievably cool. The way so many different objects move independently of each other is almost impossible to describe. It is a master class in visual presentation.

Everything in the office -- and I mean everything -- is affected by the collapsing building. Desks slide around. The walls bend. The lighting shifts. Outside, the background moves as you see the building start to fall. The way that every little detail (hundreds upon hundreds) reacts realistically to what is happening is ridiculously impressive. Combining all of these elements makes the sequence one of the most amazing pieces of visual fireworks ever seen in a videogame.

Looking past the graphics, though, you have to realize that the entire sequence keeps you in control of Drake. This is when the visceral side of everything kicks in.

You are not just sitting back and watching these visuals unfold in a cutscene. You are controlling every movement of Drake as the building collapses around him. Because of this, you are Drake. As he is experiencing all this, so are you, as you try your best to figure out a way to escape all the chaos alive.

When the floor starts to bend and tilt, it completely affects the way Drake is controlled -- moving is harder and aiming with your gun becomes near impossible. All of the objects you can usually use as cover start to slide around the screen, making it difficult to hide behind anything. Not only that, these pieces of cover (desks, cabinets) actually can hurt you depending on how fast they are moving around the screen. Basically, everything is treated as it would be if this were really happening in real-life.

Right before the building collapses completely, the floor leans so much to the side that it actually becomes physically impossible to control Nathan anymore. At this point, he and Chloe slide forward towards the giant hole in the wall. Right before they fall, you have to push the jump button at the perfect time to have them leap through the adjacent window, saving them from death. This isn’t cued by an on-screen prompt, though. During all the chaos, Nathan shouts to Chloe to “JUMP!” This is when the player has to hit the jump button. Having all this done in the context of the character’s dialogue makes the sequence that much more effective.

Every beat of the hotel collapse is mind-blowing. From the minute the helicopter shoots its missiles to Nathan and Chloe’s leap of faith, every graphic, every sound effect makes you feel like you are part of the action happening on-screen. I really can’t say it enough. Everything in this sequence is amazing.

It is really cool to play a game nowadays that contains a moment (or, in the case of this game, several) that brings out that childhood sense of discovery sorely lacking in the videogames of today. Not that current videogames aren’t incredible -- far from it, actually. There is so much visual flair in current videogames that we as gamers are starting to become numb to seeing something that would have been unforgettable ten years ago.

The collapsing building sequence in Uncharted 2 is like nothing I have ever experienced in a videogame before. The intricately detailed design, the creativity, the polish, the overall presentation -- they are better than almost anything I have seen in a videogame in recent memory. Let’s hope Uncharted 2 challenges other designers to create videogames with as much creative energy and skilled visual artistry.

If this is an indication of where videogames are headed in the future, I have never been more excited.

The Memory Card Save Files

.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21 - .40 (Season 2)
.41 - .60 (Season 3)
.61: The dream of the Wind Fish (The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening)
.62: Leaving Midgar (Final Fantasy VII)
.63: Auf Wiedersehen! (Bionic Commando)
.64: Death and The Sorrow (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)
.65: A glimpse into the future (Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter)
.66: Taloon the merchant (Dragon Quest IV)
.67: Scaling the waterfall (Contra)
.68: Anton's love story (Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box)
.69: TKO! BJ! LOL! (Ring King)
.70: Giant robot fish! (Mega Man 2)
.71: The rotating room (Super Castlevania IV)

Chad Concelmo,
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