The Tensionless Fun of Uncharted

The Uncharted series has been highly recommended to me on numerous occasions, mostly after I bought my first PlayStation console. This should come as no surprise: The series has received many game of the year awards and is beloved by a very large community. Being the cynical critic that I am, however, I always thought the games looked like interactive movies that lack strong and rewarding gameplay. I decided to throw my concerns aside and play Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, which led into a playthrough of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

Thanks to their oversaturation during the 7th generation of consoles, linear cover-based third-person shooters have a wealth of flaws. This retrospective review will focus on player agency, mechanics, dynamics and aesthetics while also discussing the flaws of the genre that seep into the game. Despite the heavy character-driven nature of the series, a majority of Uncharted involves its combat, puzzles, and platforming. The story and cinematic plot will not be ignored as that would be unfair to the clever and fun writing by Naughty Dog. I truly believe, however, that if I am to enjoy a game to its fullest, its gameplay must take the forefront.

As previously stated, this is a cover-based third-person shooter where a good 70% of gameplay involves combat. Get behind cover, aim and fire, get back into cover, jump from cover to cover, etc. This is the standard of combat in this genre, but there is one element that sets Uncharted above its contemporaries: speed. Anytime Drake is running through an arena or scrambling to find more cover, the player truly feels the momentum of movement. This isn’t to say that Drake is as fast as the Doom Slayer or Sonic the Hedgehog, but whenever the player is dashing around an area, the player feels completely in control.

For a moment, let’s compare Uncharted to another major franchise in this genre, Gears of War (2006-2016). The Gears series is very similar to Uncharted in its cover system, quick-time melee encounters, and basic combat in general. When it comes to speed, however, Marcus Fenix moves at an unbearably slow pace. Sprinting and rolling in Gears is monotonous and sluggish. Uncharted uses its well-defined pacing in combat to balance its not-so-satisfying gunplay. The player feels in-tune with the frantic pace that they are forced to take, and it adds a good amount of tension to the adventure.

The low enemy variety is a major detractor between these two games, specifically in Among Thieves. In Drake’s Fortune, the player is fighting grunts in street clothes and minimalist armor. Halfway through the game, there is a major shift in opponents as antagonist Roman brings in heavily armed mercenaries. The shift in combat styles is a welcome change of pace because the game begins to look and feel more threatening. In Among Thieves, every enemy is a part of the same private army: They look nearly identical and have little variety in terms of how they attack the player. This removes an element of surprise because the player always knows what they’re getting when going into a new arena. While large portions of the games are combat-oriented, the step backward from the first game into the second is quite disappointing.

This lack of variety, coupled with the fact that most enemies were bullet-sponges, did not make for rewarding gunplay. On hard difficulty, enemies take about 10,000 more hits than they have any right to, and Drake could go down in one long-range shotgun blast. This is extremely disappointing because the same element that puts Uncharted above its genre becomes a major detriment on a harder difficulty. That element, of course, is speed. Running from cover to cover and trying to outrun enemies is impossible on harder difficulties, despite Drake’s speed, because he cannot take a hit. The harder difficulties take away the best aspect of combat in both games. The speed is what makes combat more fun because the gunplay isn’t as rewarding as some other cover-based third-person shooters. The fact that speed cannot be properly utilized on a harder difficulty is a huge detriment.

One of the most notoriously difficult aspects of any 3D platforming game is the platforming itself. In Uncharted, this is where player agency becomes lost. The hitboxes for many of the platforms are either too large or too small. There are many ledges that Drake must jump to that cross seemingly impossible distances or heights. Yet when Drake finally attempts the jump, he clips into the target ledge because the distance was in fact too long for him (or at least too long for his jumping animation). On the opposite spectrum, there are a great number of ledges that do not register Drake’s hands when clearly he should have grabbed the ledge. Any tension felt is just the player worrying about if the game is going to glitch and force Drake into an early grave.

There are two aspects of platforming that truly excel in terms of satisfying gameplay. One of those aspects involves the utilization of platforming during combat. Hanging from cover and shooting with your pistol is hilariously satisfying, and pulling enemies down from high ledges while you hide at their feet adds a unique aspect to stealth combat. Surprisingly, this is the furthest extent of variety seen in combat during either game. The most impressive platforming comes into play during the games’ best segments: high-speed chases.

As previously stated, Uncharted is at its absolute best when speed is well utilized. I mentioned this as speed during combat, but there are other more cinematic sequences where the player is forced to outrun trucks, enemy armies, or even jump from car to car in a desperate chase. The momentum behind Drake and company trying to outrun the demonic natives and Lazarević’s men at the end of Among Thieves is thrilling. Jumping from ledge to ledge never felt more threatening, probably because of the direct threat of many enemies behind the player. Running sequences feel so fluid because of the control that the player has and the threat of failure, unlike when Drake is climbing a non-distinct wall in a static, tensionless environment.

By far the best platforming/combat sequence in either Uncharted game is the truck jumping level in Among Thieves. This level is the ultimate culmination of momentum, control, and intensity in the game. Fighting your way through truck after truck, finding the machine gun to annihilate even more vehicles, the cinematic conclusion to the entire sequence: This is the perfect blend of action, adventure, and sheer fun. To top it all off, this comes after the excellent Tibet Village Siege level, in which Drake and Tenzin scramble their way through the village while fighting off Lazarević’s forces. This constant movement from cover to cover, street to street, and building to building is the best combat the game has to offer. It’s just a shame that the games didn’t try to add more variety through both combat and platforming.

Both games, Among Thieves in particular, have been praised for their storytelling prowess and blending of adventurous fun with serious consequences. The consistency of the tone across both games’ stories is due for some praise. Nathan Drake is always one step ahead when it comes to witty quips but knows when to back off (specifically when his companions are in danger). A lesser script would have Drake “cracking wise” when Roman and Navarro captured Elena, or when Lazarević was theatrically choosing between shooting Elena or Chloe. Drake is grounded despite his inability to take harm from all of his adventures, and that balance feels very much earned.

In terms of supporting cast, Elena and Sully play off Drake very well. They each have their own unique takes on the adventures they take part in (or are forced into) that makes them feel like fresh foils to Drake’s quips. Elena is the most rational and practical of the group. She is quite unsure of her ability to defend herself in combat in the beginning of Drake’s Fortune but slowly learns to be a meaningful participant in the dangerous adventures. By the end of Among Thieves, she can hold her own with the best of them and is more comfortable with Drake’s incessant good mood. Sully is a jovial old man who really shouldn’t be getting in firefights at his age but loves the thrill of adventure (and the promise of high reward). He and Drake have a wonderful father/son friendship that makes his apparent death in Drake’s Fortune heartbreaking. His surprise survival and suspected betrayal leads to infuriation, and finally players breathe a massive sigh of relief when he is found out to not be a traitor. His underlying fear of “running out of luck” convinces him to step away from Drake during Among Thieves. This, unfortunately, makes room for Drake’s least compelling companion.

Chloe is introduced in the sequel as Drake’s former lover and relic-hunting partner. She enters Among Thieves at a huge disadvantage because she must follow Elena and Sully, two very compelling characters, as Drake’s counterpart. The main reason why she can’t quite ascend from being a flat character is that she’s equally as sarcastic as Drake. She matches him for every witty remark and quip, which leads to what I like to call “quip-overload”. This pushes Chloe into obscurity when compared to Elena and Sully because they had specific and unique ways of responding to Drake that made their friendships stand out. Drake and Chloe together are a non-stop quip machine, and that annoying nature doesn’t do her any favors.

One of the major issues of Among Thieves is that it is eerily similar to its predecessor in terms of plot. Both Sully and Chloe are of questionable allegiance throughout most of the narratives. The villains and their subordinates are always at each other’s throats, foreshadowing betrayal (Navarro kills Roman, Lazarević shoots Flynn). When the vanilla enemies become too mundane, supernatural demons are introduced. They are later revealed to be former humans who have been corrupted by the game’s respective McGuffin relic. Those McGuffins are both revealed to be something different from legend: El Dorado is a statue and not a city, while the Cintamani Stone is amber and not a sapphire. Toward the end of the game, Drake and Raja/Flynn are trapped in a circular arena that becomes flooded with monsters. The mustache-twirling villains want to use the object not for money but to rule the world. Both Roman and Lazarević are consumed by that cursed power.

The heavy similarities between the two stories was disappointing, especially since the story of Among Thieves has been praised to no end. While I still believe these similarities are important to discuss, these two games are not trying to present the most complicated and groundbreaking plot lines. I am not holding the plots of these games to the highest of standards, but I certainly did not expect both Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves to play out in such similar fashion.

There were many moments during cutscenes where I was ready to take part in a quick-time event or to even start the level, but the scene kept on rolling. I never felt like I was a major player in the overall stories, pun intended. Similar games, like The Last of Us or Rise of the Tomb Raider, have very similar mechanics and dynamics to those of Uncharted. The edge that those games have over Uncharted is that the player has many more options when it comes to how they approach the gameplay. They allow the player to salvage supplies and craft weapons and gear to their liking, there are different approaches to many situations, and the player can even control their health with med-packs. On top of that, these games also tell stories that are equally as cinematic and impressive as Drake’s Fortune or Among Thieves.

So why are these games, specifically Among Thieves, praised to no end? I believe it leads back to the innate human nature that drives us to explore. It’s why films like the original Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Goonies will always stay in our hearts. There’s a simplicity to those films that fills us with a sense of wonder and excitement. Uncharted does the same. Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves are uncomplicated and too simplistic to be praised strictly as games. As unique cinematic experiences, these are fun, well-rounded, and entertaining adventures. Drake is a fun lead character, and his adventures are the best Indiana Jones sequels that we will probably ever receive.

These are great experience-based games, and that allows me to understand why others love these games more than I ever will.  I cannot imagine myself ever playing Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception or Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. There wasn’t enough gameplay that I enjoyed that makes me want to continue with the series. You never really fear for our main characters, which removes all the tension. The same can be said, however, of those movies I listed. You’ll certainly have fun during these wild adventures. Tensionless fun but fun nonetheless.

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