The extra power of the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation heralded an important development in gaming: the dreams of matching the cinematic narrative style so prevalent in Hollywood could finally be realised. In hindsight, this strictly linear approach had arguably more failures than successes – for every Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare there was a HAZE, every Heavy Rain matched by a Turning Point. It was clear that pure power wasn’t enough – it had to be utilised not only by expert coders, but also by writers and directors who understood the need for deep, compelling characters in an exciting story.
And the absolute peak of this new wave was Naughty Dog’s expertly constructed Uncharted 2.
The first Uncharted had paved the way quite well. Establishing Nate Drake as a likeable protagonist that was equal parts Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Naughty Dog really revelled in realising their love for classic 80’s adventure movies. A thrilling chase through jungle ruins and countless gunfights, it was especially notable for using motion capture for extremely realistic animations and cutscenes. Its gameplay, however, was less revolutionary, with many complaining about the repetition of combat and a disturbing lack of player choice. There was a single set path and the game gave you delicious eye candy all along the way.
Uncharted 2 answered many of those complaints. They weren’t necessarily removed, but the design of the game was so spectacular that the enjoyment of the set path overcame the niggles. Jumping wildly between snow and earth, action and solitude, clambering and combat, it was a tour-de-force that still forms a yardstick for immersive narrative games. There was a supreme confidence that leaked from every pore of the design, a brave assertion from Naughty Dog that they could take you into the diverse action as never before. A few key scenes stand out – the prerelease hype centred much on a train level that was a full 3D model moving through a complete background, and the level where an attack helicopter reduces buildings to rubble is still a wonderful display of sliding grab-the-ledge-by-your-fingertips platforming. And then there’s the twenty minutes of walking quietly through a mountain village, playing football with the children. A literal breath of breath air between the falling and gunfire.
However, my favourite moment of Uncharted 2 – and the perfect showcase for the technological potential of the generation – comes just over half way through. In characteristic fashion, Drake finds himself driving a stolen enemy truck at the tail end of a convoy speeding away on the edge of a snowy mountain. The next five minutes has you inching forward from jeep to jeep, taking out enemies as you go, in a kind of high-speed moving platform sequence. The best trick that Naughty Dog pulled was to make the linear path feel elastic and spontaneous, a feeling that is solidified every time Drake just makes a jump or throws a baddie onto the speeding road seconds before the jeep explodes in a Lucas-esque fireball. For someone that grew up pretending that the floor was lava at any given opportunity, it really was the moment where video games made my Indiana Jones fantasies come true. I recently picked up the game again just to play through the sequence, and it’s still exhilarating.
Unfortunately, the flatline drudge of Uncharted 3 really emphasised what an amazing job Naughty Dog did with the second instalment. It’s a fine balance with this kind of game, and the third title just wasn’t able to paper over the cracks. However, the recent announcement of Uncharted 4 for PlayStation 4 really made the mouth water at the prospect of what the new power could bring to a team who has surely learnt from their mistakes. Hopefully it’ll capture that joy and adventurous wonder all over again.