Uncharted 2: The little things
October 28, 2009
When the menu screen appears in Uncharted 2, composer Greg Edmonson greets you with "Nate's Theme," the signature song for this game and the original Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. At first hearing, they sound identical, but they're not. Listen carefully to the first few bars of each:
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Notice how Edmonson and arranger Alan Steinberger have moved the dholak drums to the front of the mix, making them more prominent in the score. They've also intensified the attack of the horns at their entrance in bar 5, pushing the melody harder than in the original.
Subtle changes, but they reflect the evolution of this game from its source material, and they indicate a more systematic approach by developer Naughty Dog to focus on a myriad of little things and get them right. They suggest an iterative approach to design that prioritized nuance and detail, succeeding a very good game with a truly great sequel.
Uncharted 2 is full of wonderful little things. Taken individually, they may seem insignificant, but considered collectively they convey Naughty Dog's commitment to big production values and small enhancements; spectacular action sequences and subtle visual/sonic moments. All combine to elevate the game and make the player feel part of something special.
This post is my attempt to catalog the many such little things I encountered in Uncharted 2. My list is by no means comprehensive, so feel free to supplement it if you like. I'm steering clear of spoilers, but if you prefer to know nothing about a game before playing it, you may wish to stop reading now.
- After choosing to start or load a game, the menu disappears with an old-school screen wipe. A very little thing, yes. But it's a stylistic tip of the hat to the old serial adventure movie cloth from which the Uncharted games are cut.
- Facial animations are truly expressive without descending into 'uncanny valley' territory. In particular, the space between the eyebrows (the 'Glabella' - hey, I learned a new word!) is key here. Pay attention to Drake's face the moment he realizes Chloe is holding a grenade. Games rarely succeed at communicating meaning with gestures and facial expressions, but Uncharted 2 manages it throughout the game.
- The game's dialogue is full of sardonic humor and self-aware moments that fill in the spaces of the narrative, rather than 'explain' the characters or stockpile backstory. Compare voice-actor Nolan North's (the hardest-working man in the VO business) Drake to his work as the Prince in last year's Prince of Persia, where the dialogue bore almost no relationship to the world or the characters presented by the game. Favorite Uncharted 2 aside: "Great. The power's out and a girl's trapped. I swear to god, if there's a zombie around the next corner..."
- The foley work in this game is astoundingly good. Wear headphones when you play this game, if you can. When Drake's partner is nearby, we hear his voice in the environment; but when he's far away we hear his voice in our right earpiece. Throughout the game, voices emerge from within the environments instead of sounding as if they were recorded separately. Little bits of sonic detail, like handling a book and putting it on a table during a conversation sound perfectly unified and convey a vivid sense of place. Footsteps, breathing, grunts, etc. are all delivered with extraordinary attention to organic detail.
- I'll talk about the game's use of cutscenes later this week, but for now I'll just mention that the seamless way the game shifts from player control to cutscene and back is admirable; but Uncharted 2 has found a middle ground (triggered actions mixed with player control) that effectively blurs the line between the two. More on that later.
- Drake's handwritten notebook, complete with scribbles, personal marginalia, and post-it notes is a terrific, funny, and useful touch.
- Climb to the top of the Hotel Shangri-La and look around. Just do it. And take a dip in the pool.
- The awkward scene in which Elena encounters Chloe is exactly the kind of nuanced situation video games botch or dumb-down. Not this time.
- The game subtly reminds you that you're not the center of the universe. Distant traffic and gunfire can be heard at various places, suggesting continuing action beyond your view.
- Best flashlights ever. Note how you alter the effect of Chloe's flashlight shining from behind you.
- Chemistry. Actual chemistry - not the forced script-driven kind - between characters. The scene with Elena near the trainyard is a terrific example. She's smart not because the script tells us she's smart via 'clever' quips. She's smart because the game offers her room to think and behave intelligently.
- The Tibetan village is a wonder. Tapestries, photos, silent interactions with villagers, children giggling at Drake. All completely unnecessary, but all invaluable to the storytelling and pacing, which I'll discuss next time.
I'll stop here and encourage you to play the game and discover other little things for yourself. As I noted in my previous post, Uncharted 2 isn't perfect. It goes to the well too many times with climbable street signs, extensible ladders, and circuit breaker hunts. Locked doors are too inevitable and function as predictable platforming segues. And those ubiquitous white gas tanks must have been on sale worldwide.
I'm also willing to concede that this game's full embrace of the roller-coaster globe-trotting intrigue/romance/adventure genre may not appeal to everyone. It's full of cutscenes; it's decidedly not open-world; and it's linear. Very linear. Sublime authored linearity, you might even say. ;-) More on that soon.