‘Polished’ is a word overused in video game commentary. Typically used to describe impressive presentation, it’s usually frowned upon by readers and writers alike. It’s considered to be evidence of lazy writing, a word used to mask a lack of technical knowledge on more specific constituents.
Yet I could forgive writers wanting to use it to describe Uncharted 2’s impressive presentation. But it’s not quite the right word, in my opinion. My choice would be ‘classy’, simply because Uncharted 2 is further proof of an increasingly apparent class divide that exists between gaming’s chasing pack and its cream of the crop.
That class, however, is not found in what’s obvious, like the intricacy of the game’s lighting or the extreme level of detail in the facial animations. It’s also found, and maybe primarily so, in the game’s wealth of little touches.
Nearly everyone I’ve talked to about Uncharted 2 has mentioned what happens in the rooftop pool. It’s probably the game’s best example of that little touch of class. If you jump into the pool, you’ll activate an amusing interchange between lead characters Drake and Chloe, in which Drake tries to tempt Chloe into a game of Marco Polo (cleverly playing on the pair’s quest to uncover part of Polo’s history). This touch transforms an odd jaunt into water during an integral branch of the plot into something unexpected and rewarding.
While it seems like something minor, an inconsequential touch, what’s clever about is that there’s nothing accidental or unlikely about it. The pool takes up a large space of the rooftop, immediately drawing your eye to it. It plays on the inner child within us, on a history of screwing around in games and trying to break them by doing silly things. The developer, Naughty Dog, knew (or at least found out) that most players would jump into the pool. So they built something around it, something ingenious.
There are other examples, too. Try browsing through the whole of Drake’s scrapbook, or swinging a hook at Flynn in the game’s closing stages. The game is full of these little touches.
It reminded me of Grand Theft Auto IV. That game also impressed me with its details, like how a call to Niko’s mobile phone produced interference on his car’s radio, or how slowly bumping his car into people would make them put their hands on the car’s bonnet, disturbingly realistically. Batman: Arkham Asylum’s unique scrawling, Sonic tapping his foot impatiently in Sonic the Hedgehog; the truly great games often feature these little touches.
They show that the developer has taken the time to add something that they didn’t need to. They are things that easily could have been discarded. No-one would have criticized their being left out, because noone would have known about them in the first place. Yet when we discover them we fall in love with the game a little more. They are the delectable icing on what was already a delicious cake.
And it’s the icing that helps to ensure that we forgive Uncharted 2’s flaws. Arguably, the game’s most major of flaws is that if you strip away its presentation, and with it the story, characters and world, what you’re left with is very basic gameplay. The platforming is simplistic, similar to the unchallenging fare of Assassin’s Creed. The gunplay is improved from its predecessor, but hardly anything to match more specialized third-person shooters like Gears of War. The set pieces do stand up well, but even then that’s more to do with the spectacle than it is to do with the gameplay.
I’ve heard some people criticizing the platforming for being nothing more than a giant quick time event. I argued last year that Prince of Persia’s platforming was exactly that, and that the game suffered for it. So what’s different between Prince of Persia and Uncharted 2 that makes the former lamentable and the latter outstanding? Well, for one there’s the shooting, but if we ignore that, then it simply comes down to the things that surround the simplistic platforming.
Prince of Persia artificially moved its plot forward through player-activated dialogue, in which the Prince and Elika talked to each other, all but immobile in a stagnant cut scene. Uncharted 2 moved its plot forward on its own terms via continuous banter and well produced cut scenes – with natural movement, I might add.
As for what you see, Prince of Persia’s environments were beautiful, but they were all quite similar. This contrasts against the ever-changing backdrops of Uncharted 2. One moment you’re in a dimly lit cave, wondering what’s lurking around the next corner, the next you’re in the middle of a snowstorm, trudging your way through a wrecked train. The two games are not comparable, for me.
And when you see the trail behind you of your footprints in the snow, you know you’re dealing with something that’s a level above other games, even if its gameplay is not. Sometimes, if the view’s good enough, it’s fine to simply admire it.