Missing the Zeitgeist with the Uncharted Series

Since its debut in the PS3 era, the Uncharted series has become one of the most popular franchises. As an Xbox 360 owner, I missed out on the series when it originally released. When I got a PS3 relatively late on, one of the first games I got for it was the first Uncharted game, and whilst I liked it, I wasn’t blown away by it. I soon purchased the second game and was looking to playing it in the near future. However, it was only during lockdown that I eventually got around to dusting off my PS3 to give the much vaunted Uncharted 2: Among Thieves a play. Uncharted 2 has been named by many as one of the greatest action games of all time, so surely I would enjoy it?

To my surprise, I disliked my time with Uncharted 2. In terms of visuals, it holds up very well despite being a game that is over a decade old – the characters look relatively well detailed, expressively animated, and overall, it has a bright and colourful appearance. I can also see why it has such a positive reputation as an action game as it has some impressive set pieces, with my favourite being a shootout that takes place in a collapsing building. However, I would suggest that these set pieces are placed in an otherwise dull game. There are three basic gameplay styles: climbing, puzzle solving and combat, and I have problems with all three. The combat is one that is cover-based, which is very much of its time. I am glad this has fallen out of fashion as in this case, it makes combat stationary and repetitive.

The climbing sections do not present much of a challenge for the player, with climbable ledges being clearly marked out. Puzzles are fairly simple thanks to a book that Nathan Drake carries that contains heavy-handed hints for solutions. It all adds up to a game that holds the player’s hand too much, and on the odd occasion when puzzle solutions aren’t immediately obvious, it can be frustrating since I had been trained to have my hand held. Not to worry though, after a period the game outright tells the player the solution with a not so subtle hint. On top of these dull gameplay types, the story is a simple one involving a set of villains that are underwritten or reflect stereotypes. Then there is Nathan Drake, a popular and iconic protagonist. For me, he lacked depth, and I found his quips to be irritating and out of place considering the mass slaughter he commits. 

I started to wonder why this game had been so popular and critically acclaimed when I had found it to be a slog. Nevertheless, as a popular series, I felt duty bound to play the third iteration of the series, especially since I had already previously purchased the remastered version of the series for the PS4. I quickly regretted this.

I found Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception to be a significantly worse experience than the second game. It did look amazing with the updated HD visuals, but it continued to be a dull experience between some more impressive set pieces. These set pieces are tied together with a threadbare plot that seems to be an excuse to move haphazardly between them. For example, there is a pointless diversion in a shipyard that, for the most part, is a drag to play through but culminates in a sequence where Nathan Drake has to shoot his way through a flooding ship. There are also some attempts to add some depth and drama with Drake that are undercut by the game. This is most transparent in a lengthy sequence where he has a near death experience in a desert. However, it is not long before he returns to his wall-vaulting ways, shooting his way through masses of enemies, despite going without water and food for days. There are also two instances where Drake’s mentor, Sully, is seemingly shot and killed, but they are revealed to be fake outs. Other characters arrive and disappear from the plot seemingly at random, and villains again seem to lack a tangible motivation. Granted, Uncharted 3 was never as well regarded as its predecessor, but it still received rave reviews upon its release. 

I have thoughts on why the original Uncharted trilogy was so popular, despite the glaring issues that I had identified whilst playing them. I would suggest that compared to other mediums, games have a tendency to age badly due to how quickly the medium changes. Game mechanics that are in vogue in the previous generation can feel antiquated in a contemporary one. As generations pass by, ease of control has further developed, with control responsiveness having since becoming prioritised. In this series, Naughty Dog have seemingly focused on how Drake looks when he moves, with theatrical movements that invoke action films at the expense of responsiveness. This leads to the player feeling a disconnect with Drake and turns the large set pieces into something to be appreciated purely on an aesthetic level.

Naughty Dog’s focus on making the Uncharted series a cinematic experience reflects the importance of context. We have seen in other mediums where context of a release can be integral to its success. When Uncharted released on the  PS3, the extra power available on that generation’s consoles meant that games could look more lifelike. On the PS1, games had started to be cinematic in style as seen with releases like Metal Gear Solid. The Uncharted series was the fruition of this style, featuring characters who looked, sounded and moved like they came from an action film. Players could finally play out the fantasy of being in a film, namely films like the Indiana Jones series, which the Uncharted series was clearly inspired by. I would suggest that this meant that the gameplay issues in these games were easily overlooked as a result.

However, games are their own medium and are fundamentally different to films. By aiming for a cinematic experience in a game, all it can do is highlight ways games are inferior to films in certain ways, instead of embracing the strengths of the medium. Games like Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are pure game experiences, and even when some games draw inspiration from elsewhere, like Silent Hill 2, the success of these rely on the power of the subjective experience that the interactivity of gaming brings. The counterpoint to this would be that The Last of Us is a revered game and is an example of cinematic-style game. But it felt like Naughty Dog had something to say in that game, and the reason the ending works so well is because of the subjective experience of the player. It wasn’t just Joel that was doing some questionable actions at the end of the game, it was the player, and that is why complex emotions were invoked, like guilt. In contrast, the original Uncharted series felt like they had nothing to say, and by drawing on cinematic elements so heavily, its shortcomings in plot and characters make it clear that it only hits the levels of only the most average of films.

If I had played the Uncharted games closer to their original release times, I am sure I would’ve enjoyed them a lot more. However, I missed out on the zeitgeist, and as a result, these games now feel shallow, slow and dated. My original plan was to play the whole series, but my time with the last two games was such a bad experience that I’m not sure I can stomach two more, despite my understanding that these are improvements to the Uncharted formula. 

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