Game Design Analysis: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – An Analysis of Game Design
This week sees the release of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on the Playstation 3, and I’ve had the pleasure of spending last weekend with the title’s single player and multi-player offerings, and have come away so amazed by not only the game, but the capabilities of the Playstation 3 system.
While completing my second playthrough, I was really able to take my time with the game and let what developer Naughty Dog had done sink in. Uncharted 2 is unlike any action/adventure game I’ve ever played, and it does a lot of subtle gameplay things that we don’t really notice or we simply take for granted. Below, is an analysis on what Naughty Dog has accomplished with the Playstation 3, and as game designers. Before I begin, I must warn you that I go into detail about the game, it’s mechanics, and even some story points, so be aware of spoilers. I highly recommend you play through the game before continuing reading.
Naturally, the first thing that captivates you upon beginning a game of Uncharted 2 are the graphics. The game is stunning. The best looking console game on store shelves at the moment. The visuals, however, are more than just for show. Throughout the entire experience of Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog employs it’s excellent graphics engine (and Havok physics middleware engine), to guide the player along the journey of Nathan Drake, and they do so without blatantly holding the gamers hand, and yet they still manage to show you everything they want you to see.
Take for example the opening moments of the game. Nathan Drake awakens to find himself sitting in the seat of a train, covered in his own blood. Perplexed, he soon realizes that the train is hanging precariously from a cliff, and is starting to slide over it’s edge. Gravely wounded, Nathan must escape the train and climb to safety while avoiding the hazards of the snow and debris that are falling down upon him. This would have been a cutscene in many a game, but in Uncharted 2, it is completely controlled by the character, and yet maintains it’s cinematic flair.
The player gains control of Nathan after he slips to the bottom of the train and slams into a guard rail. From there, it may be easy to not realize that you are now in control, because the cutscene segues seamlessly into gameplay (all the cutscenes are being rendered real time by the Playstation 3 using the games graphics engine). As the player climbs up the undersides of the train, in an attempt to reach safety, the camera is constantly positioned in a cinematic angle, and yet the flow of gameplay is not broken. This is beyond what games like the original Resident Evil did, with static backgrounds standing in for cinematic camera angles. The camera freely moves and pans around Nathan, while choosing the perfect position to highlight how precarious his situation really is. By the time the player reaches the top of the train and makes a leap of faith to hard earth, they feel like they have conquered the obstacle along with Nathan. With this one sequence, Naughty Dog has endeared the character of Nathan Drake to the player, even if they had never played the first game.
Continuing along this path, the game employs many subtle tweaks in camera positioning as you play, and they are never jarring or distracting. In the jungles of Borneo, for example, the camera is placed closer to Nathan’s body (even when not aiming with the L1 Button), and slightly closer to the ground, which serves to highlight how dense the jungle’s canopy of trees are, and the spectacular light filtering through to the jungle floor. Naughty Dog utilizes the camera in creative and clever ways throughout the entire single player campaign, even employing clever use of depth of field, where the camera will guide the player’s eye by blurring unimportant elements and sharpening the important ones. Players can even do this when aiming a weapon, as whatever is in the targeting reticle will be sharp and crisp, and everything outside of the reticle, or nearer or farther from the highlighted object, will be blurred. Again, the use of these camera tricks are so subtle that many a gamer won’t even notice them. It’s part of their beauty and why they are such an effective part of the whole gameplay experience. I have to say that I think the camera system used in Uncharted 2 is possibly the best in the industry, or at least one of the best.
It should also be noted that the game does not feature load times at any point in the game. Everything is a seamless transition, with cutscenes masking what loading there is in the game. The only time you see a load screen is when you first boot up the game, or when you are loading a saved game. Once the game begins proper, it is a seamless experience from beginning to end.
Beyond the camera tricks, Naughty Dog has spent a lot of time and effort to ground Nathan Drake into his world by employing an extensive set of animations, while also maintaining an incredible level of smooth, responsive controls. Nathan seamlessly transitions between running, jumping, rolling, climbing, taking cover, and reloading, often able to pull off many of them at the same time. Never once does it feel like you are not in precise control over everything he does. A mixture of motion capture and keyframe animation helps to add to the believability of Nathan Drake, even when he does rather unbelievable things (like leaping across chasms and pulling another character to safety with his bare hands). The subtle additions to his animation set like tripping, stumbling, and awkwardly grabbing a ledge or taking cover add not only to his believability as a real character, but in selling his environment as a real place. Nathan doesn’t look or feel like he is gliding across the environment like in many other games, but like he is actually placing a foot down on solid earth, or leaping across air that is offering him no shortage of wind resistance, thus making his death-defying leaps that much more spectacular.
A prime example of this technique are a scene where Nathan must leap across moving train cars to reach the front and snag a mystical dagger that was taken from him. The way his body moves and shifts with each turn on the tracks the train takes is simply astounding. He has a slight forward angle to his movement, expressing the effort it’s taking him to press forward on the train, and his shots must be carefully taken, because the enemies on the train are affected by the same physics and weight shifting.
Another excellent example is in Nepal, where Nathan and partner Chloe are fleeing from an attack helicopter inside of an apartment complex. The helicopter grows weary of the chase, and launches a barrage of missles into the base of the building, causing it to begin to collapse. As more enemies file into the room Nathan and Chloe are in, the building is collapsing all around them. The player must run along this collapsing floor, shooting enemies and avoiding furniture that is being affected by the gravity of the falling building. It is truly a sight to behold, and Naughty Dog employs this technique in a few smaller areas of the game, where the player must react to an environment that is out of their control. So many video games are, for lack of a better term, static. They take place on generally one plane, and the environment is just a backdrop for the action, and not an entity that needs to be considered while playing the game. Not so in Uncharted 2. Just as much care was placed in level design and environmental design in regards to gameplay as was placed in making the cast of characters as endearing as they are.
As equally important to the visuals, cameras, and controls, is the overall pacing of the game and level design. After Nathan leaps from the plummeting train car, he is left to fend off the chill of the icy tundra, while fighting to avoid the shock of the bullet hole in his stomach. He collapses numerous times during this player controlled trek through the train wreckage, and we are treated to a series of flashbacks that set the stage for his current predicament. From a museum heist that goes arry, to following the war criminal Lazarevic through the jungles of Borneo, to fleeing an attack helicopter across the roofs of Nepal, Uncharted 2 has no shortage of exotic, fantastical locations and a large variety of heart-thumping setpieces.
Unlike the first game, the combat is not limited to just Nathan being on foot. He is free to fire his weapons and shoot grenades while hanging from a building or streetlamp, or ledge. Combat scenarios are also set up beyond just the “ambush here,” “shootout in this room there.” Each of these scenarios are generally capped by a “boss battle” of sorts, or a complicated puzzle that needs to be figured out. The “boss battles” aren’t quite laid out as such, but it is clear that you are fighting an above average enemy with power and health to spare. The “levels” are laid out so well that you will barely begin to tire of any one element due to overuse. Even the standard shooting mechanic is mixed up more than in the first game, because of the sheer number of locations and setpieces you find yourself shooting in.
Take for example a chapter in Tibet. Nathan and company are fleeing a village that has been attacked by Lazarevic’s men. The chapter begins with Nathan and companion Tenzin fighting through hordes of enemies with the help of the villagers in an attempt to help a captured ally. Just when you tire of battling the enemies, a tank appears, blowing away walls and sending debris flying, while taking aim at Nathan and Tenzin. Now players are forced to contend with the tank, and the waves of soldiers, while still trying to escape the ruined town.
After racing through destroyed buildings and across rooftops, Nathan and Tenzin take out the tank with the help of an RPG, but not before Elena Fischer, Nathan’s on again, off again love interest, appears in a truck and Nathan hops on board, in pursuit of Lazarevic. Of course, they soon find themselves surrounded by enemy trucks and jeeps, and now Nathan must leap from moving truck to moving truck, disposing the enemies with his fists and guns. Eventually, this leads to him manning a turret and protecting Elena in the truck from other enemies. It shouldn’t have to be said, but the entire sequence from start to finish was fully controlled by the player. Outside of a cutscene or two setting up the action, all of it was done in gameplay. The game is filled with this level of gameplay variety from start to finish. Thanks to the clever implementation of the camera system, all of these encounters feel fresh and are all exciting.
I must also mention the narrative of Uncharted 2, which is, I believe, taken for granted by a generation of gamers that most likely are used to games pretending to be movies. Naughty Dog has gone above and beyond the call of duty to produce a character driven video game experience. Even if it wasn’t wrapped in the pulp adventure genre, I believe the characters are so well realized and fully developed that they could stand in any genre: survival horror, noir, comedy, romance. The performances by Nolan North, Emily Rose, Claudia Black and every one else are so spot on that you forget that you are playing a video game, and that the characters on screen aren’t real people (the gorgeous visuals certainly don’t make this any easier). Many games attempt to be a movie, but not many have actually bothered to develop characters that would actually work in a movie. They are either too shallow, and 1 dimensional, or they are wreaking of the cliches of the genre. Just because a game features cutscenes, doesn’t mean a genuinely gripping narrative is being told or that it has mastered some of the subtle arts of performance that movies employ. That is where Uncharted 2 sets itself apart from the rest of the games out there. The character performances are beyond strong; you can 100% believe that these people exist.
The story in Uncharted 2, if you were to really analyze it, is standard stuff for the pulp adventure genre: Idealistic adventurer on the search of a mystic relic that can grant unimaginable power. Unfortunately, crazed bad guy is after the same thing, and idealistic adventurer must stop him. What makes this story stand out among the others in the genre is the attention to character development and detail. Moreso than the first Uncharted, Naughty Dog and the scriptwriters have added so much ancillary dialogue to the game while the player is just running around, getting from point A to point B, that further fleshes out their personalities and endears them to the gamer. Uncharted 2, like it’s predecessor, is a character driven story, that just so happens to be in the video game medium.
Very few games really take the time to flesh out their protagonist, let alone their supporting cast, but such is not the case here. There are 93 minutes worth of cutscenes in the game, about the length of a feature film, but there is just as much, if not more, dialogue and banter between characters during gameplay. It is mostly humorous quips and adlibs from the cast, but it’s nonetheless effective. Although the genre dictates a level of black and white in terms of character morality, there’s a bit more shades of grey in Uncharted 2, and character motivations are solid and reasonable enough for the genre.
Naughty Dog has truly put in a superlative effort in the creation of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and the game will, more than likely, be taken for granted by most gamers who don’t realize the amount of thought and care that went into crafting every element of the game, from the visuals, to the camera tricks, to the character development and level design. I know many a long day and night was spent crafting this $60 piece of entertainment, and I appreciate every bit of blood, sweat, tears, and strained marriages that went into the making of this game. It deserves all the praise and success it gets, and then some. Very few game developers are out there creating games that they truly love and want to create, and we are fortunate that Naughty Dog has not given in to the quest for more money, and simply rested on the successes of the first game, and expounded upon it in every way. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a masterpiece, and a testament to what the video game genre can accomplish when a talented developer like Naughty Dog is given the opportunity to really push their creative boundaries and the hardware at their disposal.

108763_uncharted-2--among-thieves

This week sees the release of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on the Playstation 3, and I’ve had the pleasure of spending last weekend with the title’s single player and multi-player offerings, and have come away so amazed by not only the game, but the capabilities of the Playstation 3 system.

While completing my second playthrough, I was really able to take my time with the game and let what developer Naughty Dog had done sink in. Uncharted 2 is unlike any action/adventure game I’ve ever played, and it does a lot of subtle gameplay things that we don’t really notice or we simply take for granted. Below, is an analysis on what Naughty Dog has accomplished with the Playstation 3, and as game designers. Before I begin, I must warn you that I go into detail about the game, it’s mechanics, and even some story points, so be aware of spoilers. I highly recommend you play through the game before continuing reading.

Naturally, the first thing that captivates you upon beginning a game of Uncharted 2 are the graphics. The game is stunning. The best looking console game on store shelves at the moment. The visuals, however, are more than just for show. Throughout the entire experience of Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog employs it’s excellent graphics engine (and Havok physics middleware engine), to guide the player along the journey of Nathan Drake, and they do so without blatantly holding the gamers hand, and yet they still manage to show you everything they want you to see.

Take for example the opening moments of the game. Nathan Drake awakens to find himself sitting in the seat of a train, covered in his own blood. Perplexed, he soon realizes that the train is hanging precariously from a cliff, and is starting to slide over it’s edge. Gravely wounded, Nathan must escape the train and climb to safety while avoiding the hazards of the snow and debris that are falling down upon him. This would have been a cutscene in many a game, but in Uncharted 2, it is completely controlled by the character, and yet maintains it’s cinematic flair.

The player gains control of Nathan after he slips to the bottom of the train and slams into a guard rail. From there, it may be easy to not realize that you are now in control, because the cutscene segues seamlessly into gameplay (all the cutscenes are being rendered real time by the Playstation 3 using the games graphics engine). As the player climbs up the undersides of the train, in an attempt to reach safety, the camera is constantly positioned in a cinematic angle, and yet the flow of gameplay is not broken. This is beyond what games like the original Resident Evil did, with static backgrounds standing in for cinematic camera angles. The camera freely moves and pans around Nathan, while choosing the perfect position to highlight how precarious his situation really is. By the time the player reaches the top of the train and makes a leap of faith to hard earth, they feel like they have conquered the obstacle along with Nathan. With this one sequence, Naughty Dog has endeared the character of Nathan Drake to the player, even if they had never played the first game.

Continuing along this path, the game employs many subtle tweaks in camera positioning as you play, and they are never jarring or distracting. In the jungles of Borneo, for example, the camera is placed closer to Nathan’s body (even when not aiming with the L1 Button), and slightly closer to the ground, which serves to highlight how dense the jungle’s canopy of trees are, and the spectacular light filtering through to the jungle floor. Naughty Dog utilizes the camera in creative and clever ways throughout the entire single player campaign, even employing clever use of depth of field, where the camera will guide the player’s eye by blurring unimportant elements and sharpening the important ones. Players can even do this when aiming a weapon, as whatever is in the targeting reticle will be sharp and crisp, and everything outside of the reticle, or nearer or farther from the highlighted object, will be blurred. Again, the use of these camera tricks are so subtle that many a gamer won’t even notice them. It’s part of their beauty and why they are such an effective part of the whole gameplay experience. I have to say that I think the camera system used in Uncharted 2 is possibly the best in the industry, or at least one of the best.

It should also be noted that the game does not feature load times at any point in the game. Everything is a seamless transition, with cutscenes masking what loading there is in the game. The only time you see a load screen is when you first boot up the game, or when you are loading a saved game. Once the game begins proper, it is a seamless experience from beginning to end.

Beyond the camera tricks, Naughty Dog has spent a lot of time and effort to ground Nathan Drake into his world by employing an extensive set of animations, while also maintaining an incredible level of smooth, responsive controls. Nathan seamlessly transitions between running, jumping, rolling, climbing, taking cover, and reloading, often able to pull off many of them at the same time. Never once does it feel like you are not in precise control over everything he does. A mixture of motion capture and keyframe animation helps to add to the believability of Nathan Drake, even when he does rather unbelievable things (like leaping across chasms and pulling another character to safety with his bare hands). The subtle additions to his animation set like tripping, stumbling, and awkwardly grabbing a ledge or taking cover add not only to his believability as a real character, but in selling his environment as a real place. Nathan doesn’t look or feel like he is gliding across the environment like in many other games, but like he is actually placing a foot down on solid earth, or leaping across air that is offering him no shortage of wind resistance, thus making his death-defying leaps that much more spectacular.

A prime example of this technique are a scene where Nathan must leap across moving train cars to reach the front and snag a mystical dagger that was taken from him. The way his body moves and shifts with each turn on the tracks the train takes is simply astounding. He has a slight forward angle to his movement, expressing the effort it’s taking him to press forward on the train, and his shots must be carefully taken, because the enemies on the train are affected by the same physics and weight shifting.

Another excellent example is in Nepal, where Nathan and partner Chloe are fleeing from an attack helicopter inside of an apartment complex. The helicopter grows weary of the chase, and launches a barrage of missles into the base of the building, causing it to begin to collapse. As more enemies file into the room Nathan and Chloe are in, the building is collapsing all around them. The player must run along this collapsing floor, shooting enemies and avoiding furniture that is being affected by the gravity of the falling building. It is truly a sight to behold, and Naughty Dog employs this technique in a few smaller areas of the game, where the player must react to an environment that is out of their control. So many video games are, for lack of a better term, static. They take place on generally one plane, and the environment is just a backdrop for the action, and not an entity that needs to be considered while playing the game. Not so in Uncharted 2. Just as much care was placed in level design and environmental design in regards to gameplay as was placed in making the cast of characters as endearing as they are.

As equally important to the visuals, cameras, and controls, is the overall pacing of the game and level design. After Nathan leaps from the plummeting train car, he is left to fend off the chill of the icy tundra, while fighting to avoid the shock of the bullet hole in his stomach. He collapses numerous times during this player controlled trek through the train wreckage, and we are treated to a series of flashbacks that set the stage for his current predicament. From a museum heist that goes arry, to following the war criminal Lazarevic through the jungles of Borneo, to fleeing an attack helicopter across the roofs of Nepal, Uncharted 2 has no shortage of exotic, fantastical locations and a large variety of heart-thumping setpieces.

Unlike the first game, the combat is not limited to just Nathan being on foot. He is free to fire his weapons and shoot grenades while hanging from a building or streetlamp, or ledge. Combat scenarios are also set up beyond just the “ambush here,” “shootout in this room there.” Each of these scenarios are generally capped by a “boss battle” of sorts, or a complicated puzzle that needs to be figured out. The “boss battles” aren’t quite laid out as such, but it is clear that you are fighting an above average enemy with power and health to spare. The “levels” are laid out so well that you will barely begin to tire of any one element due to overuse. Even the standard shooting mechanic is mixed up more than in the first game, because of the sheer number of locations and setpieces you find yourself shooting in.

Take for example a chapter in Tibet. Nathan and company are fleeing a village that has been attacked by Lazarevic’s men. The chapter begins with Nathan and companion Tenzin fighting through hordes of enemies with the help of the villagers in an attempt to help a captured ally. Just when you tire of battling the enemies, a tank appears, blowing away walls and sending debris flying, while taking aim at Nathan and Tenzin. Now players are forced to contend with the tank, and the waves of soldiers, while still trying to escape the ruined town.

After racing through destroyed buildings and across rooftops, Nathan and Tenzin take out the tank with the help of an RPG, but not before Elena Fischer, Nathan’s on again, off again love interest, appears in a truck and Nathan hops on board, in pursuit of Lazarevic. Of course, they soon find themselves surrounded by enemy trucks and jeeps, and now Nathan must leap from moving truck to moving truck, disposing the enemies with his fists and guns. Eventually, this leads to him manning a turret and protecting Elena in the truck from other enemies. It shouldn’t have to be said, but the entire sequence from start to finish was fully controlled by the player. Outside of a cutscene or two setting up the action, all of it was done in gameplay. The game is filled with this level of gameplay variety from start to finish. Thanks to the clever implementation of the camera system, all of these encounters feel fresh and are all exciting.

I must also mention the narrative of Uncharted 2, which is, I believe, taken for granted by a generation of gamers that most likely are used to games pretending to be movies. Naughty Dog has gone above and beyond the call of duty to produce a character driven video game experience. Even if it wasn’t wrapped in the pulp adventure genre, I believe the characters are so well realized and fully developed that they could stand in any genre: survival horror, noir, comedy, romance. The performances by Nolan North, Emily Rose, Claudia Black and every one else are so spot on that you forget that you are playing a video game, and that the characters on screen aren’t real people (the gorgeous visuals certainly don’t make this any easier). Many games attempt to be a movie, but not many have actually bothered to develop characters that would actually work in a movie. They are either too shallow, and 1 dimensional, or they are wreaking of the cliches of the genre. Just because a game features cutscenes, doesn’t mean a genuinely gripping narrative is being told or that it has mastered some of the subtle arts of performance that movies employ. That is where Uncharted 2 sets itself apart from the rest of the games out there. The character performances are beyond strong; you can 100% believe that these people exist.

The story in Uncharted 2, if you were to really analyze it, is standard stuff for the pulp adventure genre: Idealistic adventurer on the search of a mystic relic that can grant unimaginable power. Unfortunately, crazed bad guy is after the same thing, and idealistic adventurer must stop him. What makes this story stand out among the others in the genre is the attention to character development and detail. Moreso than the first Uncharted, Naughty Dog and the scriptwriters have added so much ancillary dialogue to the game while the player is just running around, getting from point A to point B, that further fleshes out their personalities and endears them to the gamer. Uncharted 2, like it’s predecessor, is a character driven story, that just so happens to be in the video game medium.

Very few games really take the time to flesh out their protagonist, let alone their supporting cast, but such is not the case here. There are 93 minutes worth of cutscenes in the game, about the length of a feature film, but there is just as much, if not more, dialogue and banter between characters during gameplay. It is mostly humorous quips and adlibs from the cast, but it’s nonetheless effective. Although the genre dictates a level of black and white in terms of character morality, there’s a bit more shades of grey in Uncharted 2, and character motivations are solid and reasonable enough for the genre.

Naughty Dog has truly put in a superlative effort in the creation of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and the game will, more than likely, be taken for granted by most gamers who don’t realize the amount of thought and care that went into crafting every element of the game, from the visuals, to the camera tricks, to the character development and level design. I know many a long day and night was spent crafting this $60 piece of entertainment, and I appreciate every bit of blood, sweat, tears, and strained marriages that went into the making of this game. It deserves all the praise and success it gets, and then some.

Very few game developers are out there creating games that they truly love and want to create, and we are fortunate that Naughty Dog has not given in to the quest for more money, and simply rested on the successes of the first game, and expounded upon it in every way. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a masterpiece, and a testament to what the video game genre can accomplish when a talented developer like Naughty Dog is given the opportunity to really push their creative boundaries and the hardware at their disposal.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: