Saturday, February 16, 2008

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune... Initial Experience

So far I am liking, but not loving Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. I guess I've always been more of a Ratchet & Clank guy than an Jak & Daxter guy -- the Insomniac games folks just have me better figured out than the Naughty Dog folks do.

The game feels a lot like a mashup between King Kong and Tomb Raider with elements of Prince of Persia. There's a strong narrative, and the game switches me between traveling with a buddy, getting separated from a buddy, and then meeting up with the buddy again. I really do love the "hints via your buddy" system that these games employ (e.g., they stop and look at things; they talk to you; they trigger events that move the plot forward). As an aside, I really must give props to King Kong where the character played by Jack Black carried a movie camera around and actually pointed the camera at the things you were supposed to look at. Both meta and clever at the same time.

I generally prefer female leads in third person adventure games for the extremely shallow reason that if I'm going to be staring at someone's butt for 15-25 hours, it may as well be an attractive female butt. That said, the character I play is entertaining (in terms of dialog) and really reminded me of Mal from Firefly in the opening game sequence.

Now that I'm a few hours in, I have a few points to make re: Initial Experience:

  • The difficulty setting was kind of catchy: All options were displayed (not hidden behind a spinner), with the default being "normal". There was also "easy" and "hard" and a locked "crushing" difficulty setting. Cheeky -- yet not at all confusing.
  • The game seemed to take a while to load and I worried that this would be a problem. As it turns out, loads are really pretty fast in this game which is great because there is a reasonable amount of dying during some portions of the game (more on this later).
  • While the writing, mocap, VO, and acting were quite good, there was a little bit too much of it in the first 15-20 minutes. Normally this is when I would want to start familiarizing myself with basic game play mechanics, but instead my learning and practice kept being interrupted by more cut-scenes.
  • The first major "dang" was that I was immediately dropped into a firefight without having an inverted aim and look. Whoops. This was (as per usual) very disorienting and not the kind of thing you want to learn while not under heavy fire. I await the day when the industry standard will be that all games that allow you to aim/look using the right thumb stick will include include in-game calibration (like in the original Halo). Interestingly, Uncharted supported independent horizontal and vertical inverting (as opposed to other games I have railed against for either not offering horizontal inversion; or worse tying horizontal to vertical inversion). However, they also differentiate between "aiming" and "camera". While this is very cool (in some games I actually do want normal camera and inverted aiming) I messed up at first because I only adjusted the aiming and not the camera. I initially thought I had exited the options screen without saving my preference (because the camera was still "normal") and only after some fiddling did I realize that I needed to set both to inverted (actually called "flipped" in this game).
  • I died during the first battle (5 minutes into the game). At first I was a little aggravated, but the game is very good about save points for the most part and quick loads are lightning fast. Learning by dying is actually OK in this game for the most part -- but, personally, I'd still rather not have the player die in the first hour or so.
  • The initial puzzles seemed overly artificial. In some ways I'm sure they were done this way in order to teach the basic world interaction and puzzle solving mechanics.
Other usability/playability notes:

  • The game really has a nice state of the art hinting system. At the L1 level my partner shouts out useful commands, investigates points of interest, and triggers sequences that progress the action forwards. On the L2 level, there are occasional on screen button icons suggesting that I interact with the world (triangle button) or with the diary that I found (select button). On the L3 level, whenever there is a pause in the action and the game is waiting for me to go somewhere in specific, the game will periodically flash the L2 button which directs my attention to the next location I need to reach.
  • Also, the autosave system is excellent. Not only do checkpoints seem logical and forgiving, but the load times are so quick that dying frequently (which happens at the occasional choke point) isn't as frustrating as it can be in other games. I'm not opposed to learning by dying. I am opposed to being penalized for dying.
  • Weapon combat is reasonably fun. It's very much in the Gears of War mode (run for cover; shoot from cover). There was also a bunch of attention paid to cool animations -- it's hilarious to watch my female companion blindly reach around a pillar and fire her gun blindly at the enemy.
  • Some other cool things about combat:
    • They added an interesting twist on aiming. By clicking the left thumb stick you can switch which shoulder you aim over. This makes it easier to see around things and seems especially helpful when targets tend to be grouped on one side of the screen because you can focus more of your attention on the more threatening side.
    • The AI and combat/level design make it so that while you can turtle a bit, it's not an effective strategy. There are enough variants of "baddie" such that they present a challenge when they attack as a mixed force. Some are much more gung ho and charge while others sit back and plink away. And, of course, if you turtle too much you'll get grenaded.
  • Two slight improvements to combat I would love to have:
    • Better audio feedback when I kill someone off screen or that is hard to see (Half life 2 did an awesome job of this).
    • Better music/visual cues when the combat sequence is over and it's safe to explore again.
  • There are a couple of downers, though:
    • I'm having a tough time with the hand to hand combat. The combos should be simple, but I can't seem to execute them correctly even though it should just be a matter of tapping square-triangle-square. I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong, but I tend to get slaughtered when I'm in close quarters.
    • Death by ladder. I managed to die a couple of times while trying to climb down a ladder. This isn't unique to this game, but I figured I'd mention it.
    • The Load Game interface isn't up to snuff. Load game slots contain no useful metadata at a glance. You need to hover over each slot and wait for the data to load -- there's no way to look at all of the saves at a glance and decide which one you want to select.
    • Stupid 6-axis controller. I'd rather have a controller that felt beefy and had rumble functionality then a gyroscopically controlled "leaning" mini game when I walk across logs.
Game polish notes:
  • I know I've said that the health bar is dead in another column. Uncharted recognizes this and does a great job of desaturating the world and playing up audible cues like grunts and gasping for air when I get hit.
  • The U-boat exploration mission was cool. In order to simulate the narrow and claustrophobic feeling of being in a submarine they used a very Resident Evil-like camera and control scheme (e.g., camera close, but stationary; controls are screen relative). This was augmented further by adding custom animations to my character whereby as he maneuvered through narrow walkways and port holes, he would grab or push or touch things in a very human way. It was a neat way of making a fairly linear journey seem pretty immersive and cool.

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