For gaining such critical acclaim and winning Game of the Year awards, I didn't feel I'd have anything new to say on the title. Everyone must have covered every angle, down to Chloe's creepy beady eyes. However, I believe the game was being lauded more for its technological spectacle than for the game part of it.
Uncharted 2 is a 3rd person shooter with some platforming. Uncharted 2 is also a cinematic experience sometimes, with dazzling action setpieces that were more for the eye than the thumbs. Raising the cinematic expectations so high, I think Naughty Dog found themselves in a rut. I felt like I was going through the motions of the generic gameplay just to get to those cinematic moments. In fact, I played through the combat and platforming sections, in fast motion. This had the benefit of reducing the amount of sluggishness Drake has, due to the reliance on player mo-cap animation (which was also a problem of Grand Theft Auto 4). Because of the many great movie action scenes, the problems of the combat and platforming came to front and center.
While level design and environments were more creative compared to the first game, that couldn't stop how this game had the same predictable structure of shooting and then "platforming". There were still very few portions where the combat and platforming mixed to give the game an identity. There were the Gears of War shooting bits, and then the Tomb Raider "platforming" bits (although that might be a disservice to Tomb Raider). As Naughty Dog themselves said, the "platforming" segments were the lulls to relax the player. But to me, I didn't feel relaxed. I was bored (and slightly offended) by the hand-holding, no-fail-state navigational experience that I couldn't even call platforming without laughing. It's so conventional, you could make a drinking game out of every time Drake landed on a platform and it broke (to prevent backtracking).
The clear disconnect of structure (40% adventure, 60% action) still makes me hold out for when the Uncharted series will have a great "game" on its hands. Oh did I forgot to mention the puzzles? Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw said it best, "puzzles which I usually solve by opening your journal and having it bold-faced tell you the solution; so the only thing being tested is WHETHER OR NOT YOU STILL HAVE EYEBALLS IN YOUR FACE!" There is only one single moment I could remember where you're platforming and in a combat scenario, which is when you're hanging off a street lamp and enemies come from all directions high-and-low. This is the only time where you had to actively platform around the street signs to avoid being shot in the back. Unfortunately for the rest of the game, I felt like I was moving from one movie set to another. So, what about the story?
Yes, the story. Wasn't it supposed to be "the best"? Amazing voice acting? Characters "so human and believable"? Amazing cutscenes? Amazing mo-cap work?
Yeeeaahhh. I thought we moved on from declaring the story of a game can only be shown through cutscenes 11 years ago. Uncharted 2 had few moments where the storytelling and gameplay melded to memorable effect, such as the Tibetan village or where you're dragging Jeff Gerstmann across street alleys while avoiding incoming gunfire. Most of the storytelling was done through cutscenes, and that was a shame considering how many animations were piled on. However, what became a bigger problem was when another character from the cutscene transitioned into gameplay.
The graphics of Uncharted 2 were breathtaking at times, to the point of photorealism. Which caused much higher expectations for logic. When in that same above video of dragging the wounded Jeff you see Elena get hit with an RPG and then again and again, you lose the suspension of disbelief that she's a living, breathing character in this world. Whenever a story character was with you, they couldn't be killed by enemies, yet, in cutscenes they're completely fallable like any human. Of course, micromanaging non-playable characters would be frustrating if they could die, but the game lost its attention to detail that had been revered so much.
It felt like "cutscene over, characters over too". The disconnect is very jarring for such a photorealistic and detailed game. If you're going to be a 3rd person shooter with emphasis on story and characters, you should learn from the very best. Naughty Dog got the narrating through gameplay part right, but forgot to put enough meaningful character interaction during gameplay e.g. when Drake sees a statue and does a mom joke to Flynn while he's trailing behind. To ruin the best storytelling moment in the game (the intro) with a rehash, but with added Drake unwitty narration felt like Naughty Dog was uncomfortable with Drake just shutting up for a second. They further ruined it with how fast in Chapter 15 he's fit for shooting duty. I wouldn't be jumping around with a gunshot wound to the gut.
I'd like to think Max Payne 2 heavily inspired similar hallucinogenic episodes in my personal 2009 Game of the Year (GoTY), Batman: Arkham Asylum. Tangent aside, I'd like Naughty Dog to learn that interactive storytelling is the future with the technology we have now, not mo-capped cutscenes. Max Payne games are very cutscene-heavy also, but they also know how to tell a story while you're playing to great emotional effect. We're not just limited to cutscenes, you know.
Will the Real Nathan Drake please Stand Up?
After having formed my opinion on how the gameplay isn't anything to write home about and that the storytelling isn't quite there, we conclude on my biggest issue with the game. Nathan Drake, the protagonist of this pulpy adventure. Naughty Dog stated the character was a nod to previous heroes of the pulp genre, from Indiana Jones all the way back to the 30's. This is where they fell into another rut.
Nathan Drake is a kitchen sink, borrowing fragments from so many similar characters, he loses his identity. Is Drake a thief, a simple adventurer, a player, a psychopathic maniac, a super athletic jumper, and a puzzle-solver? Nope, not buying it. I won't belabor the point about him being the most sadistic protagonist in videogaming history, and instead move straight to his inconsistencies. This guy has no problem in starting his own genocide, but he suddenly grows a conscience when he doesn't want to shoot museum guards. He makes ridiculous leaps of faith that you can't gauge because this isn't a platformer, but to always grunt and heave each time? When did chronic smokers learn to be that athletic? During gameplay, he can die off very small heights, but survive much higher heights because they're part of a cutscene?!
This massive disconnect in the character from cutscene to gameplay just didn't jive with me, and made me feel more disconnected than with Niko the psycho in Grand Theft Auto 4. Nathan Drake just isn't a very consistent character, and it doesn't help that I hate every single unwitty remark that he pulls out of his bag of cliches. I'm sure if you watch Zero Punctuation, you know how someone can hate such a character even more than me.
There's Still Hope, Naughty Dog
I still have hope that Naughty Dog will one day be able to deliver a great game to go along with the great characters, cutscenes, and cinematic moments. I'm a little surprised in how many GoTY awards this game was rewarded, though. It makes a statement that gaming critics would rather award a game that tries to be a movie, which I thought was what we were trying to move away from as an industry. I hope that Uncharted 3 is enough of a great game that I wouldn't mind replaying any part of the game, instead of skipping to the best action scenes like some Hollywood blockbuster.
Good luck, Drake, you'll need it.