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Uncharted 2 and the burden of excellence


Much has been said about how much Uncharted 2 does right. The Destructoid review offers a ton of praise for the game, especially its ability to offer thrilling moment after thrilling moment, keeping your adrenaline pumping and your controller gripped tightly in your hands. These moments are truly excellent.

Yet this excellence, for me, proves to also be one of the more disappointing things about Uncharted 2; not the excellence itself, but the moments in which the game doesn’t offer the same level of quality as its high points. Indeed, Uncharted 2 seems torn between the incredible scripted thrills that it offers a couple of times per level, and the same tired, poorly done shooting that leaves the player feeling unsatisfied.

I’m not here to review Uncharted 2 for you, but rather to look at a specific issue that the game brings up—how excellence ends up making something “good” feel simply mediocre. I’ll be discussing specific scenes from the game, just to warn you.

It’s my feeling that the majority of the incredible moments in Uncharted 2 are made so excellent largely due to how they look; they’re visual wonders, taking our breath away much like the view from a snowy mountaintop does.

Take the example of the opening train sequence: one that contains so many incredible scripted events that, as Nick suggest in his review, it instantly propels itself above the somewhat lacking “adventure” films of recent memory. You instantly feel as if you’re participating in a truly grand adventure.

Much of this feeling is due to the visuals, both technically, artistically, and what I’ll call “situationally” for lack of a better word. It’s fairly apparent that Uncharted 2 is an incredible game visually, and these three elements combine to make it leaps and bounds above other recent games.

First off, the screenshots of this game show of just what the team was able to pull of technically. Whether the characters are inside or outside, everything looks incredible. Textures are fantastic, characters move fluidly (for the most part), and environments look impressive.

Similarly, the artistic side of the game is quite extraordinary. Dilapidated cities have the look and feel of real dwellings, and old temples, despite having seemingly been built with Drake and his jumping ability in mind, have some incredible designs. But perhaps the most effective artistic choices are related to camera angles and movements, giving the game a far more cinematic feel than any game before it.

When you’re in control of your character, the camera is in constant movement, especially during those heavily scripted events I’ve referred to before. But let’s take a simple example of squeezing through a crack in the landscape. This is necessary a few times during the game, and while it’s an incredibly basic and, frankly, meaningless action, Naughty Dog has managed to make it look exciting simply through the use of camera movement. As Drake approaches the crack, the camera sweeps extremely close to Drake, showing both him and the crevice itself in extreme detail. You can see every body movement required of Drake as he squeezes through, and you even share in the feeling of contorting your body to pass through the crack.

But what’s most important to the overall quality of Uncharted 2 are the situational visuals that pop up in scripted events, and they’re the things that make an event like the opening train climb so thrilling. To offer an example, the struggle of climbing the hanging train car ends just as the rest of the train is falling off of the cliff, and Drake must make a last-second jump from the falling car to the cliff. If the scene sounds incredible, you’d be right, and the best part is that you’re in full control throughout, from rushing past the seats as the angle of the car rapidly approaches vertical to the last-second jump.

The visual details here are the main source of excitement. Chunks of rock and snow fall as the car slips closer and closer to its inevitable plummet, sparks fly as metal grinds on metal, and the camera remains in constant motion, getting closer to, getting farther away from, and sweeping around Drake. Even as Drake’s grip on the cliff slips, and control is finally taken from the player, the sequence remains completely gripping. The camera lags behind Drake’s movement, making it appear that he has fallen from the cliff.

These are the moments that define Uncharted 2, yet they are, for the most part, moments that last for no more than, well, a moment. Put together, their sum provides one of the most compelling experiences this year, but not all is well in Naughty Dog’s well-crafted world.

The core mechanics of the game—what remains when all of the incredible visual qualities are stripped away—are far less compelling. In essence, the game mixes jumping and climbing with cover-based gun battles, very similarly to the way that the previous entry in the series did. Is there anything inherently wrong with this? No.

But the fact of the matter is that those levels in which you’re simply progressing from point A to point B, jumping over and shooting anything in your path, pale in comparison to those heavily scripted events like the one described above. Your average firefight against the game’s bullet-sponge enemies simply doesn’t elicit the same excitement.

But in my disappointment over the regular jumping and shooting, I realized something: there’s nothing bad about them. Plenty of other games, like Borderlands, have bullet-sponge enemies. Prince of Persia made nearly an entire game out of jumping, and I thought it was great. So what’s the problem here?

The excellence of parts of the game was making much of it feel quite a bit worse to me. It’s something, as the title suggests, that I started to think of as the burden of excellence. If you’re going to make some sections of your game so unforgettably awesome, you must also be prepared for how it will affect the rest of your game. Here, unfortunately, I feel that it’s a negative effect. Parts of the game that are simply good seem mediocre or even poor simply because our expectations are raised so high.

Of course, I don’t want to suggest that Uncharted 2 fucked up by being so damn awesome. I still consider it to be a fantastic game, and among the best this year. But it does show us the danger of putting so much into a certain part, section, or aspect of a game. In this case, impressing the player with visuals—whether they’re technical, artistic, or situational—takes precedence over the actual gameplay mechanics, and if you ask me, the game suffers somewhat because of it, even if the game doesn’t necessarily do anything “bad.” Good enough isn’t good enough when it’s paired with pure excellence.
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About Andrew Kauzone of us since 5:10 PM on 04.30.2009

In loving memory: PAX 2009 (thanks ZombiePlatypus! And WalkYourPath, of course)

I'm Kauza, which is pronounced like cause-uh. My real name's Andrew Kauz, if you'd rather go for that.

I like talking to Dtoid people, so please add me on your favorite social networking site:
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kauza
Gchat: santakauz[at]gmail.com.

Basics: I'm 25, and I write things.

Eternal thanks go out to Y0j1mb0 for the amazing header image you see above. So, thanks, sir!

Look at some of the things I've written.

Things on the Front Page:

Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Moon Unit, and more: An interview with Jennifer Hale
The Future: Demanding more from the voices of videogames
Love/Hate: A plea to play as a female Shepard
A warning: Regrets from a former life and experiences yet unlived
Top ten games for people who hate Thanksgiving
The wrong thing: Being evil should be more like sex
Staying dry in a sea of spoilers is a matter of building a boat
Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
Come, take your pilgrimage to gaming's one true mecca
Here's to you, random-JRPG-dialogue-writer-man
The forgotten: Crushing disappointment at the hands of Crash 'n the Boys
The people who have the power to change the world
Improving game communities: Enough with the negativity
The draw of exploration: Antarctica to Oblivion, Shackleton to Shadow Complex
I suck at games: BlazBlue and a slapdash attempt at fisticuffs
I, the Author: My Everest
Untapped Potential: The Gamer's Education
Other Worlds than These: Our World, Only Different

A series sort of thing about status effects
Toxic Megacolon and other fresh status effects
Curse you, status effects, stop confusing my heart
Status effects are poisons that turn my silent heart to stone
Also check out the related forum thread.

The Fall of the Titans (wherein I talk about dead or dying gaming companies)

The fall of the titans part 3: What once was shall be again
The fall of the titans: Sega died so that we might dream of the future
The fall of the titans: Why do the giants of gaming die?

Stories from the Past (a series about my experiences playing certain games):

Stories from the Past: Tobal 2, Tomba! 2, and console double-vision
Stories from the Past: Diablo and the Dark Ride
Stories from the Past: What the f*ck, mom?
Stories from the Past: Xexyz and the battle aboard Turtlestar Lobsterica
Stories from the Past: The One-Balled Man-Bear
Stories from the Past: The Battle of Olympus
Stories from the Past: Suikoden 2

Storytelling (a series about, well, storytelling):

Storytelling: The Problem of Genres
Storytelling: Mass Effect, Vonnegut, and the Fourth Rule
Storytelling: Doing Nothing in "The Darkness"
Storytelling: The Power of a Single Line (Yeah, it was my first post.)

Other stuff that is good:

Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
A consuming power: The demon and the borderlands
Can games transcend good and evil?
Nothing is sacred: We won't let you go alone, but we have made a tragic decision
How Destructoid single-handedly changed my mother’s opinion of gaming
Why Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest sports game of all time
Seven reasons that I will end you in creative ways if you don't play Folklore
Mother Nature and the Impending Death of the Gaming Spirit
Times Games Forgot: The Dark Ages
The Sins and Successes of In-game Collectibles
The Lock is Broken
When Music Surpasses the Game
Truckasaurus Rex and the Humor of Games
I Want to Cry (storytelling related, but not part of the series)

I have others as well that you can check out on my blog. You'll enjoy them or your money back.

Since it seems like the cool thing to do, here a list of my favorite games that is coming straight out of my ass and onto your computer screen, and in no particular order.

Fallout 3
Uncharted 2
Suikoden 2
Mass Effect / ME2
Metal Gear Solid followed by any number you can think of
Tales of Somethingendinginia (OK, and the Abyss)
Battlefield: Bad Company
Xbox LIVE:kauza
PSN ID:santakauz
Mii code:kauza


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