Uncharted quadrilogy (2007-2016) and Jak trilogy (2001-2004) review, and the downward spiral of Naughty Dog and Gaming

Uncharted: The Characters and Story

It took a long while for me to give a console game a shot again.  I have played the previous 3 Uncharted games a while back, and enjoyed them, so I’ve been curious to try out the 4th and final one (and yes, I am aware of that 5th spin-off game; and no, I’m not interested in playing it) ever since it first came out.  But I must admit, my reasons for wanting to play Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End extend beyond just simple gaming fun (there are hundreds of other games out there that can be played for simple gaming fun).  Aside from being interested in seeing an end to the franchise (like I said, not interested in that spin-off), I’ve also become worried about the path Naughty Dog has taken recently, what with their virtue signaling with The Last of Us 2, and a little bit of that with the Uncharted game that followed the 4th one, I fear this game company is going down the SJW path.  So I wanted to see if there were any hints of that permeating within this game (2015 was the year virtue signaling became a trend, that has only grown up to this point in time, and shows no signs of slowing down for the next few years, unfortunately).  Or if I’m just being overly paranoid and just becoming too political for my own good.

“This makes us lesbians, which someone probably exploited in a CG animated porn short somewhere on the web.  We can’t win against Rule 34 can we?”

Because let’s face it, the main games that have come out over the past decade have been memorable more for their story and characters than for their gameplay (but if the gameplay sucked to the point that it’s broken, the story and characters aren’t going to matter; it just had to be adequate at the very least).  This franchise is very much aware of this at this point, and maybe to a lesser extent in Uncharted 2 and 3 (which were both fun games in their own right, for the same reasons, but they had some minor faults as well).  Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is easily the most story and character-focused out of the franchise up to the point of its release.  One cannot ignore this aspect if they are to get the fullest enjoyment out of the game.  If such a focus is made on this, then it can suffer similar flaws that films do, but can also gain similar successes.

Regarding adding the brother Sam into the mix.  He isn’t a bad character per-se, and there’s enough explanation to provide a reason as to why he wasn’t mentioned in the previous games.  And the flashbacks with him and Nathan give reason as to why Nathan took on the Drake name, and how their mother was an archaeologist who inspired them to take on that work trade (albeit in a manner that is less legal).  However, his presence comes at the expense of other characters. Sully is given more of a backseat and loses that whole “father figure” element which was built up in the 3rd game.  Chloe Frazer and Charlie Cutter are nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be mentioned.  Their existence is dropped completely.  In fact, you could play Uncharted 4 right after playing Uncharted 1 and not miss a single goddamn thing that would make you lost in this story.

Although there is this one moment where Drake looks longingly at this picture in his house, longingly remembering the adventure times (with Jake the Dog and Finn the Human).  I found this a bit fucking hilarious considering how similar it is to imagery found in Uncharted 2, when Nathan and Chloe are having sex with each other on a bed in some hotel.  Cut to Uncharted 4, Nathan looks longingly at this picture while Elena Fisher (who has been the romantic interest in all of the Uncharted games, to the point where they hooked up, broke up, got back together and got married, broke up again, then got back together again to live a calm city life at the start of Uncharted 4) is talking to him and trying to have a conversation, or at least small talk, with her husband.  Wishing for the good old days.  Taken in this context, it seems like he misses both adventure and having sex with Chloe.  Fuck Elena, Chloe is who he should’ve gotten married to.

But aside from that and maybe one or two very subtle nods to the 2nd and 3rd games here and there, it pretty much acts like those don’t exist.  For a franchise finale game, that seems like a serious misstep.  A franchise finale is supposed to take into account all that was built up previously, unless there is a very good reason to ignore some tidbits here and there, address them, expand on them, wrap them up, and then overall conclude the main protagonist’s story and/or character arc.

But let’s focus on the main protagonist for a moment, Nathan Drake.  Consider how his character was in the first game, and what his story is, and what drives him.  He’s an Indiana Jones rip-off (not saying that’s a bad thing) with the smart-ass level ramped up to 11, who can shoot and brawl just as well as he can explore archaeological sites and find valuable objects and decipher languages and goods and solve ancient puzzles, while doing some mountain-climbing and parkour for good measure.  A basic caricature, a basic adventure character stereotype who’s pretty much a Gary Stu (but the game and anyone playing it is aware of this).  In addition, he is shown to care more about his livelihood than the treasure he is after, even if its a treasure that links to his so-called father he descends from.  When the bullets start flying and so many people start getting involved in going after the treasure, Nathan doesn’t care about the treasure or the Drake legacy anymore, he wants to get the hell out of there.  But not his partner in crime Victor Sullivan (aka Sully), who has debts to pay (which doesn’t matter much at the end of the first adventure considering all those he owes debts to got killed, so that worked out).  And not Elena, who is so desperate and passionate for coverage on a major story that she’s willing to take major risks to get it.  They want to press on when Nathan says they shouldn’t, and he has very good reason to not press on.  But in the end the fate of the world is in their hands, so Nathan is obligated to stick around and save everyone at the end of the day, while Sully gets plenty of gold afterwards.  So they end the adventure filthy rich and debt free (well maybe no Elena, but that’s easily remedied).  There’s also a hint early on that Nathan Drake may not be a Drake descendant, with a brief mention that will get built upon later, primarily in the 3rd and 4th game.  But he also learns to respect his supposed lineage in the end, thinking Francis Drake did nothing significant and died a nobobody who never found the treasure, to realizing he gave his life to keep the treasure secret from everyone to prevent a catastrophe from occurring, thus dying a hero, which earns Nathan’s respect, as he learns that there are other types of fortune besides literal treasure (though they still get some literal treasure by the end).

Cut to the 2nd game, Honor Among Thieves.  It’s pretty much the same old story but with a few new characters thrown in, and a more interesting and ambitious villain (though no less 2-dimensional; “I want power, muahahahah!”).  We are introduced to the only real significant addition to the franchise, Chloe.  An ex-lover, an ex-partner in crime, a thief archaeologist just like Nathan.  But she has more questionable ethics compared to Nathan, is more selfish, but still has a good heart hidden in there somewhere.  Nathan is once again pulled into an adventure he’s all on-board with at first, especially since it relates to Sir Francis Drake (just like the adventure in the last game).  But eventually Nathan realizes they’re way in over their head (even though he’s been proven as capable of being a one-man army), and tries to convince everyone to leave, but circumstances prevent them from doing so, because friends get captured he needs to rescue (like in the last game), and the treasure ends up being something that could change the world for the worse (again) and so must kill the bad guy and save the world (again).  Drake doesn’t have an arc in this so much as Chloe does.  She becomes a bit better by the end.  And then there’s fucking Elena.  She should’ve had an arc, mainly because her reporter obsession is still there, chasing the villain internationally, only for it to result in her film partner to get killed by the villain.  She does seem to have some regret over it, and over her being partly responsible for the violence that is caused upon some native mountain people.  But nothing much comes of this in the later games, which would eventually start to piss me the fuck off.  Almost as much as Nathan not going with Chloe, the more badass chick with more character and personality.

The 3rd game, Drake’s Deception.  This is the game that changes Drake a bit.  In the previous 2 games, he was a treasure seeker but only up to a point to where he wanted to back out when it got too dangerous, even when others who are close to him encourage him to keep going.  This game reverses all that.  He becomes obsessed with going after the treasure even when things get dicey.  And his friends ask him why.  Why keep going?  What is driving you here?  What’s your motivation?  What’s the point?  On my first playthrough I couldn’t find a point where the game answers this question or even resolves this arc it set up for Drake.  But then thinking back on it, we do learn that there is a point.  It has to do with that ring Nathan has, a ring worn/made by Francis Drake (and yes, the adventure in this game is yet another treasure adventure related to what Francis Drake did in the past, thus getting Nathan’s attention yet again).  Aside from acting as a key to a mechanism that can interpret symbols etched in certain places (because of course it can), it also has to do with the backstory Nathan has setup for himself.  That he is a descendant of Francis Drake.  This was questioned in the first game, and now it is shown to be a lie in this game.  Nathan is an orphan, who broke out of the orphanage to take on the Drake name, but he’s really a nobody (sort of like Rey from Star Wars).  So Drake has not only deceived others, but deceived himself.  He considers himself worthy of taking on the Drake name even though he’s not related by blood, and now his worthiness is called into question in spite of his achievements in the past, let alone his current skills and knowledge.  By the end of the game, he states he has nothing left to prove.  Which I guess implies that he has accepted his position, that he is worthy of the Drake name.  Or maybe that it doesn’t matter if he’s worthy or not, because it’s not worth all the bloodshed he has done, to the point where he puts African warlords to shame.

The third game is when the character of Elena became problematic for me.  She acts high and mighty over Drake and what he does, yet her position of both moral high ground and literal geographic position rings false to the point of insulting.  First, she’s in a Middle Eastern city not wearing any burkas or veils, and seems to get around no problem in her casual American woman attire.  She acts like she’s above Drake morally, yet acts as having no regrets over the fact that she is in-part responsible for her companion in the 2nd game getting killed (something I normally wouldn’t bitch about, except it seems ok for her to threaten Nathan over losing friends through his obsessive actions when that hasn’t happened, and not once does anyone call her out on that).  Plus Chloe is better than Elena.

And on that note, this game does a major cop-out in what could’ve been a great gut-punch moment that would’ve made this game truly memorable.  Sully seems to get killed off, except it’s a psych-out moment.  This game pulled a major punch, the one punch it shouldn’t have pulled.  Would’ve been easier to swallow if Nathan was more sorry afterward on how he “almost” got Sully killed.  It would’ve been more impactful if he stated he was going to change his life after this.  Well, in the 4th game, I guess you can argue that’s exactly what he did as a result of this “almost” moment.

 

Cuntcharted 4: The Story/Character Stuff That Pissed Me Off

So finally, the 4th game.  Nathan has settled down, gotten married to Elena (goddamnit), and does a more safe job of working for some transportation company, and retrieves any lost cargo that falls into the sea via accidents.  Nathan’s long-lost brother Samuel Drake shows up, convinces him to go on an adventure to get some treasure to appease an angry drug lord who will kill him if he doesn’t get this treasure.  So, begrudgingly, Nathan decides to help.  However, he lies to Elena about why he’s gone off out of the country.  Why does he do this?

A. Well at first I thought it was because he didn’t want her to know about his long lost brother he thought died during a prison escape.  He didn’t want Samuel to be a part of their life because Nathan wanted to leave this old life behind, even though he misses the old life and doesn’t seem entirely content with the new life.

B. Considering how close she came to losing her life in the 2nd game, and how close Sully came to losing his life in the 3rd game, he didn’t want anyone he cared about to get involved in this adventure.

Either of those options seem good right?  Well apparently not, because when Elena eventually figures out Nathan lied to her and miraculously tracked him down and confronted him and seemed like she would leave him after making him feel guilty about lying to her and going behind her back about something this big, the reason Nathan gives later on is that he didn’t want to lose her.  Not lose her in the sense that she might die, but in the sense that she wouldn’t agree to this decision and leave him because he’s stepping back into this old lifestyle even after promising he wouldn’t.  This is dumb and cliched as fuck.  There’s no depth to this reasoning.  This isn’t anything like the Nathan in the previous games.  So from there the rest of the game is largely about Nathan feeling guilty while Elena keeps making him feel guilty and less morally superior to her because the writers decided to force the franchise to go this route for the finale, and Elena shows how she’s gotten more badass since the last few games even though she’s been living the calm life for the past few years.

So aside from that, the game more or less proceeds as the rest of the past games.  There’s a treasure, but something like love and/or friendship is more important than the treasure, so most of the treasure becomes lost along with the villain who dies in some ironic fashion.  But because Nathan isn’t enough of a Gary Stu, and because no one is in this franchise that quite hits the Mary Sue mark, they decide to introduce this black African warlord bitch Nadine Ross, who can not only wipe the floor with Nathan Drake in a fight, but can also wipe the floor with Drake and Samuel in a 2-on-1 fight.  This fucking lady pisses me off more than fucking Elena.  I don’t care how fucking skilled she is in martial arts, no one can wipe the floor with 2 guys who are experienced street fighters who have decimated entire armies with their skill-set, and who have survived prison multiple times.  Besides, just because you have experience enough to be a blackbelt, or even a  redbelt in something, that doesn’t mean shit in a street fight.  Consider that fight which happened on that show (though I can’t recommend this series; despite this scene, this series is far-fetched and gets ridiculous at times; case in point, this criminal impersonating a sheriff doesn’t get any real repercussions from this incident, taking out a major MMA star, who is black; someone would’ve cried racism at the very least).  The MMA star trained to beat guys up for a living is clearly the better fighter in terms of technique, but street fighting has its own advantages and techniques, not to mention the endurance.  Hell, this broad even takes the mother of all superman punches and basically just shrugs it off.  Nathan got more scars on his face from taking less.

The worst part is that the game doesn’t allow Nathan to get any proper revenge on this woman who is responsible for killing a lot of people (among other things) during her time in Africa.  In fact, the game wants her to be a more sympathetic villain, more of a nice girl, who gets out of the whole damn thing Scott-free (fyi, that term originated in the mid-1800s with the Dredd Scott case; Great Scott!).  And let’s face it, this broad is put into the game for one reason and one reason only.  To subtly virtue signal.  Black people, especially black women, have been misrepresented or not given enough strong roles in the past in games, so they had to make up for it by putting in a woman who is far too fucking tough, even by villain standards (and she isn’t even the main villain, even though she should’ve been, because she’s more interesting than lame brain Rafe Adler).  I imagine they continued this trend with the game that followed Uncharted 4, and are continuing the virtue signalling in the upcoming Last of Us 2.  If you want a badass black chick in a videogame (excluding those RPGs where you can make a character of any gender and any color), just make a fucking game where you get to play as one.  It’s not that fucking hard.  Make some cyberpunk game where you play as a black female hacker, or a black female assassin.  You have options.  And for the record, I still would’ve hated this fucking character if it was a white guy, or even a white woman.  Or a Mexican/Middle-Easterner/Dwarf.

Anyway, they end the game by showing Nathan and Elena had a daughter (this was rewritten from them having a son), and begin to reminisce on the past.  Thus potentially encouraging players to revisit the older games until coming full circle all over again.  Seems like a happy ending.  Nathan has a family now, has settled down, runs a business with his wife that encourages them to travel around (though his wife coerced him into doing this by going behind his back a bit, slightly hypocritical all things considered).  But it may not be as happy of an ending as you think.  Consider what YouTuber Damien Scott had to say about it:

Not many people realise that Uncharted is actually a hidden tragedy. It’s one of the most depressing stories ever told, I was devastated after finishing U4. Most of the people think that it’s about last adventure of Nathan Drake, yay, woohoo, but it’s not. Center of the story is disfunctional relationship between Nathan and Elena. They had some kind of light sympathy through Uncharted 1, it didn’t work past that, they didn’t even kissed at the end. They met again half-way through Uncharted 2 – they both know that nothing gonna work between them, but they have FEELINGS which is called love addiction in psychology. In Uncharted 3 we know that they almost got married, but, of course, it didn’t worked out. Why? Because Nathan Drake is a infantile, hedonistic adrenaline junkie and, let’s say it, he is a criminal. Why? He was raised this way by Sully – hedonistic criminal who likes to steal shit and fuck hot bitches on regular basis. But it’s Nathan”s natual lifestyle, his personality, it’s what keeps him happy. Elena, on the other way, is a ‘normal person’ – a careerist, almost archetype of STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMAN who just thinks that she loves Nathan. She is mentally stronger than Drake, she undeniably more adult. Truth is – she don’t love real Nathan, she loves that Ideal Nathan, that she think she can make from him. They are incompatible as a couple (Chloe is STRONG INDEPENDENT WOMAN too, but she is a criminal, she had more in common with Drake and they make a pretty good team). There is some chemistry, but they just can’t be together. And at the end of the Uncharted 3, they decide to give it a shot, because FEELINGS. In Uncharted 4, we see so called “typical normal life” of Nathan and Elena – he is actually WORKING (what a tragedy) in the docks and she is doing some freelance shit, writing touring guide for Thailand. Of course, it just a facade of prosperity. Interactive elements of the house tells us that they were genuinely happy together at first. But when we finally see them eating that fucking salad in front of the TV and Drake just staring at that picture on the wall, not listening to Elena… At this moment we see the truth – it’s not love, it’s some kind of deeply troubled codependency and bad habit of being together just because there is nowhere to go for both of them. Nathan is spiritually castrated empty shell of himself and Elena is just a chronically unsatisfied woman (remember that joke about ‘mango’ being their stop word – casual sex is not working anymore between them, they are practicing some risky shit together to keep it fresh) with neurotic tendencies. I mean – she made Ideal Family Man Drake exactly as she intended and, surprise, he is fucking boring, he is not himself, he is miserable. She don’t love him, but she can’t leave. And when Sam appears, Nathan is not that happy to see him – he is happy that there is a justifible enough reason to escape this hell of ‘normal life’ for a while. In first three games, Nathan is alive, young and energetic man with immature impulsive behaviour, but nothing is wrong about it – it’s who he is and why we all love him in the first place. In Uncharted 4, he is broken graying shadow of a man in his mid-40s, you can physically feel some spiritial chains on his character – even his stupid jokes, which were fun at first three games, are awkward in U4. When Elena finds him after that car chase segment, she give him THAT LOOK, to make him feel guilty. Guess what? It didn’t worked as planned, Nathan decides to continue the journey. He even say to Sam that he maybe lost his marriage because of him, but that’s a lie – he don’t need this marriage himself, but he is scared to think this way. At this point I thought – thank god, Nathan is free now. He is still irresponsible son of a bitch, but he is free from her pressure. But no – Elena finds him again. And she continue to make him feel guilty, to preserve the strings that she pulls. She is putting herself in the position of a hero, saviour, who is given One Last Chance to Nathan, who is a ungrateful stupid man. At this moment we understand – Nathan is just fine on his own, but Elena just simply can’t be alone, she won’t let Nathan go. Through their shared chapters, we find out that they are happy together exclusively in extreme situations of danger (like, private army danger). They just don’t have any common ground in peaceful normal life, which are clearly exhaustingly boring for both of them. Final of the game is a real tragedy. Happy end would be Nathan and Elena getting divorced and move on with their lives separately, doing their things and be happy. But no, Elena is not willing to release her bitch Nathan from her thumb – she suggests some half-assed ‘compromise’ born in despair – to sell their shitty house and other goods and go TRAVEL, like it wil change something (in real life, it’s the final agony of relationship between two people – when they are starting to downshift – sometimes it helps, but only sometimes). Their marriage is all the way dead at this point, but she just can’t let go. Not on her watch. Nathan is her property, she owns him. He is still that immature, stupid man with psychology of teenager, so he even don’t mind, because FEELINGS. And epilogue is just a heartbreaking disaster. They have a kid. Do they look happy? They look old and tired, they even don’t look at each other at this chapter – they don’t care about each other anymore, but there is no way to run. Their daughter was the final nail in the coffin of the Nathan’s freedom and happiness. If you think that I’m just making this shit up – walk through the game again, knowing all this. It will be totally different game for you. Little details, body language, acting nuances will point out everything.
“Yep, I’ve got you by the dick and balls.”

I have to agree with him.  Except this wasn’t a blatant message, this was seeing the subliminal messaging, witnessing what wrath virtue signaling hath wrought upon a franchise’s end.

If there is one thing I’ll give the game credit for, it did have the most interesting and investing story to it in terms of the history behind the treasure they seek.  The story behind those pirates, what they did, what happened in their utopia.  For the first time, I was heavily invested in that, more-so than the treasure stories in the previous games, and more so than the Nathan/Elena relationship.

 

Uncharted’s Gameplay

Outside of the puzzle solving and the 3rd-person-shooter elements, the first 3 games don’t really offer much.  The puzzle elements are decent enough for what this game is.  The shooter elements, fun enough.  I’ve played and beat the first 3 games on their hardest difficulty.  And I honestly don’t recommend playing the games in that manner.  You’re better off playing them on Normal or Easy.  These are games where you should be able to run wild and run and gun how you want.  The cover shooter element can be fun, especially when you’re under pressure to take enemies out ASAP before they flank you, or force you to move with a grenade throw (though Uncharted 3 lessens this effect by allow you to toss grenades back at the enemy, which is fun, but takes away from the challenge element on harder difficulties, further enforcing the notion that this is best enjoyed on lower difficulties).

The first game is nowhere near as scripted as 2 and 3.  There are scripted moments, sure, but it’s a fairly basic shooter.  The 2nd game set a standard for the franchise, a standard the 3rd game copied.  A lot of scripted moments to create the feel of witnessing an interactive action-adventure game, that tries to make it feel like you’re playing a movie.  It succeeds, even if it loses elements of being a game in this regard.  What I mean by that is, outside of the shooter elements, the game is full of jump-scare moments that don’t amount to hardly anything on the gamer’s part.  Portions of a wall you climb on crack and break, bars bend and break, floors can fall from under you.  All to create the illusion that your character is in danger.  Most of the time, he isn’t.  You are perfectly safe and can take your time through these, I guess you could call them “platformer,” moments.  Because this game tries to fit in platformer gameplay along with the shooter and puzzle elements.  And as a platformer, it sucks.  The scripted moments primarily come from the platforming segments.  And it doesn’t really take much, if any, skill to get through the platforming portions of any of these Uncharted games (except for maybe the first one, but that is thanks in-part to the less-than-polished camera and platforming controls).  And a good portion of the first 3 games are platforming segments (again, at least somewhat challenging in the first, not so much in 2-3).  So what to make of the platforming when it doesn’t take much skill to get through it?  It makes it into a glorified walking simulator.  It’s just something to do rather than letting a cutscene transition from one gameplay segment to another, which would’ve been a more efficient and better choice in my opinion.  But these games are desperate to convince you that you have mad platforming skills in addition to shooting skills.  On the one hand, this does allow you to feel like Nathan Drake, to feel like a guy capable of mountain climbing and utilizing those skills to get across all sorts of walls and signs and obstacles.  On the other hand, there’s no real skill involved in doing so, which defeats the purpose of platforming from a gamer perspective.  They act as semi-breather portions until the next shootout.

To be fair, there are some portions of these games that incorporate the platforming into the shooting.  Such as the 3rd game when you’re climbing up the side of a ship and using these, um, things, jutting out from the sides as cover while you shooting guys above you.  Climbing around cliffs, walls, vehicles, ships, other structure to get an angle on enemies and flank them yourself while preventing yourself from being flanked.  So in a sense, the platforming outside of shooting is practice for when you need to implement it during the shooter segments.  Unfortunately, most of the time, you’ll just be doing a cover shooter ala Gears of War and Killswitch.  These games don’t take advantage of the platforming-shooter potential as often as they should, though the 3rd game improves upon the 2nd in this regard.

And then there’s the 4th game.  So let me get this out of the way first.  When the shooter segments happen, they are among the best the franchise has ever produced.  The car chase sequence is amazing (as is the clock tower puzzle).  There are bits where you can sneak your way up to a tower and snipe people from there until you run out of ammo and then you move back down to finish everyone else off.  You can swing on a rope and shoot from the rope (including shooting off RPGs).  The 4th game fulfills the potential the franchise has to offer from a gameplay perspective.

The problem, however, is that the shooter segments are very few and very far between.  The game decides it wants to be a glorified walking simulator.  They wanted to make it more like The Last of Us after that game’s success, hence the pacing change from the previous games.  It tosses aside what made the games gamey and focuses more and making it an interactive story.  And it gets fucking boring.  Not only that, but it gets fucking pretentious.  You can’t go 1 minute without some asshole, whether you or someone else, saying something.  The game complimenting itself on how beautiful it looks (and it does look fantastic, but it comes at a cost, not limited to characters saying something along the lines of, “Wow, what a view,” in every other chapter).  The characters constantly drop hints and what you should do and how you should think, killing the ability for you to figure out how to get past some of these platforming segments, as if the skill bar wasn’t low enough for those.  There’s only 2, maybe 3 sections, tops, that involved some amount of skill to get past them in terms of platforming skill.  That does not make this game exciting!  You have to get through loads and loads of boring bullshit and cutscenes and dialogue and fucking walking before you get to the only things that have ever engaged players in the franchise, the shootouts.

I would almost say that Naughty Dog has forgotten what it means to make a game be an actual game, to have more gamey elements than narrative elements (otherwise just make a fucking movie), except they haven’t.  They know full well what good platforming is.  They have it near the beginning of the motherfucking game!  They let you play through the first level of Crash Bandicoot.  The first one!  With original PSOne graphics!  And its more engaging than any other platforming segment in this game!  But they look at it as outdated old school, as stuff of the past.  There are bigger and better things to have nowadays.  It’s a metaphor for why Nathan is so bored with the way things are just as players get bored playing this fucking game, which is why he longs for the past just as many long for old-school.  Because the old-school is better than the new school.  The old school may be a bit rough around the edges, not as polished as the new games, graphically inferior, and demands more of the players, but at least they were more engaging, more fun, and actually required the one thing that makes a game a game, skill!  Honest to God skill!  The thing that makes some players better than others!  But Naughty Dog doesn’t want that anymore.  They don’t want to have people play the game who give up because they are frustrated at not being skilled enough to beat it.  They want everyone to be capable of beating the game.  They want hardly any skill involved.  They want everyone to be a winner.  But if everyone wins, no one loses.  If there are no losers, there are no winners, thus no one can win.  You can’t have winners if you can’t have losers.

Yes I’m exaggerating a bit here, but this does show the direction Naughty Dog has been going in.  By trying to appease everyone, they appease no one (which is why those who praised The Last of Us 2 for it’s virtue signalling lesbian kiss later cried foul when they see all the violence that comes after, making my point).  So let’s go back to a time where they had their priorities straight.

 

The Jak and Daxter Trilogy (ignoring the racing game and PSP spinoffs)

The first Jak and Daxter game (the only one that would be called Jak and Daxter before they drop Daxter out of the title) has a story, but it’s not much of one.  The story is used as a backdrop for the gameplay.  You could say there’s some shooting in this game, but only about as much as there’s shooting in Super Mario Bros. 3.  There are portions where you’ll be given a temporary gift to launch projectiles at enemies, but this game is a platformer through and through.  And honest to God one, not one that is platformer in name only.  You have to time your way running through obstacles, jumping on platforms, dodging projectiles, etc.  Timing!  Timing is what makes a platformer a platformer!  Knowing when to jump at the end of a run, and/or in reaction to some other moving obstacles.  Something that is largely absent from the Uncharted games!  And the game gets pretty damn hard at times, especially near the end.  The worst thing about this, and the other Jak and Daxter games, the camera.  Trying to rotate that camera to where you want it to until it runs into a wall and stops, so then you have to fight/jump semi-blindly.  It’s doable, but the camera issues make the games even more frustrating.  It’s less of an issue by the time we get to the 3rd game, but it’s prevalent through most games back then.  Wasn’t really until the PS3 era where this issue becomes largely absent from 3rd person games.

By the 2nd game (and pretty much carried over into the 3rd game), Naughty Dog brought the story and characters more to the forefront.  I began to give a damn about the characters, and the plot (which gets much deeper than you would expect compared to what the first game brought to the table).  Plus it became considerably darker, though it definitely kept the slapstick humor in-check, and ramped up the low-brow humor in ways I found delightful (the best the first game had in that regard was the evil sister with the big tits).  Daxter becomes more hilarious, Jak finally has character.

This game entered the market in a time when everyone was trying to be edgy.  No wonder it ripped off Grand Theft Auto gameplay with the whole hijacking cars aspect.  This is basically implemented for similar reasons as walking around in Uncharted, unskippable cutscenes.  The difference here, however, is that you do need to pay attention and keep up your reflexes, dodging security guards and vehicles while they chase you.  Plus it does serve a long-term purpose.  Outside of getting familiar with the whole city, you get to see full-on devestation during the last act of the game when the Metalheads invade, and they’re engaged in a full-on war with the security guards, and battles are happening on every block of the city.  Quite a spectacle, and it makes the whole “open-world” feel, and the long driving from one mission to the next kind of seem worth it when that goes down.

As for the platforming, it’s still there and as difficult as ever, but with 2.5 changes.  1.) You get guns that you can blast enemies with.  It’s doesn’t have the slickest implementation, but once you get used to it, it works well enough, though I get fucking irritated when having to shoot at flying enemies, especially when they’re out of view.  The camera angles are still a problem, and they remain a problem through all of the games.  2.) The jet board.  Oh Lord yeah, the jet board.  2.5) The racing bits were pretty damn fun too (except in the 3rd game when driving on the fucking sand randomly causes you to shift to the side and nearly guarantees you spinning out of control).  Tough, but fun.

And those optional side-mission, fuck my life those are hard.  So hard I decided not to do them.  I put up with them when I was younger, but I can’t take the stress of trying to be a perfectionist at those anymore.  Besides, there’s youtube for the bonuses they provide (even though I really hate Youtube’s fucking guts right now).  The challenges wouldn’t be so bad if I thought they were reasonable, but they kind of aren’t.  Primarily because the gameplay isn’t as slick as it should be for feats like this, and the camera control is tolerable at best during the frantic moments.  The side missions are do-able, but you usually need some online guide help to make it happen for a good portion of them.

The main missions get progressively more difficult as the game goes on, though some are more difficult than most (it’s not a smooth curve upwards in difficulty, there’s some spikes here and there).  The 2nd game will really test your patience (but it does feel rewarding once you complete each mission), and the third game eases up on the difficulty for the most part.

The point being these games challenge the player.  It forces the player to get better through trial and error, to gain skills, to memorize the way enemies move, what weapons to use for which situations, how to time the platforming, etc.  It may be rough around the edges compared to today’s games, but I found myself happy with the games by the end of it all.  Don’t get me wrong, there are platformers today that are more slick than this game, but none of them can really match the characters and stories told in this trilogy.  Naughty Dog knows this, which is why they’re re-releasing the trilogy (plus Jak X Racing) on the PS4.

Comparison

The Jak and Daxter games are platformers with some gunplay thrown in for good measure.  The gameplay is definitely there, and it has some nice narrative to keep you going (though it’s more episodic in nature as opposed to a constantly progressing story).  The gameplay flow isn’t smooth, but its acceptable.

The Uncharted games, on the other hand, went for narrative first and foremost (at least by the 2nd game and onwards) compared to the gameplay.  There are long segments in each Uncharted game where the player goes around obstacles by rock-climbing, but sacrificing the challenging platforming found in the Jak trilogy as a result.  The Jak trilogy implemented vehicle driving or animal riding as a means to travel around between missions, as opposed to borderline mindless rock climbing, but it can get tedious in its own right even if it keeps the player engaged via mad max vehicles coming after you, or security guards.

Games that emulate (or straight up are) open-world gaming are inevitably going to fall into this trap at some point, usually failing to strike the right balance between moving from one destination to another with no frills along the way (ala Shadow of the Colossus), or having something happen at every moment at the risk of the encounters not being anything special when they do happen (Jak 3 when driving in the desert).  What is strange is that the Uncharted franchise isn’t an open-world game in the sense that I’m familiar with (though it did make an effort to seem that when when driving in Madagascar in Uncharted 4), yet it spends the same amount of time doing similar tedious tasks between missions (aka setpieces).  But to fool the player into thinking it’s an exciting romp between missions, the Uncharted games implement scripted moments which amount to nothing more than “jump-scares.”  At least the Jak trilogy had the decency to not bullshit the players in this regard.

Many will appreciate the format of the Uncharted franchise more than I, and that’s fine.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy those games (but the 4th one is not something I’d ever want to play again, thank you very much).  But I’ve been noticing how the Uncharted franchise is picking up dangerous trends in the gaming industry.  Trends that suck out the “game” in videogame.

Now of course games are an activity, an activity involving at least one or more people interacting with something someone else has created, and adhering to the rules the designer has set forth while doing the activity.  And every game has a goal, whether that be a goal imposed on the player clearly, or a goal that is so vague it is open to interpretation by the player (for example, the Uncharted and Jak games are all about completing the main campaign, everything else is a bonus; but open-world RPGs, that could entail anything from completing specific missions, to leveling up your character in a certain manner to a specific threshold, to defeat a specific individual, to play for so many hours, to test a mechanic or theme within the game, etc.).  But when I say sucking the “game” out of videogame, I mean the competitive element.  The thing that makes the game a gamer’s game.  A true game in the sense that I’ve come to understand it is one where a player tests and improves his/her skill and mitigates luck, all to defeat an opponent and/or reach a goal.  The best example of this are fighting games, like Street Fighter, Soul Caliber, Mortal Kombat, Killer Instinct, etc.  Or even racing games ala Need For Speed, the Formula One series, etc.  Games where players go head to head, and the more skilled the player, the more likely they are to win, to the point where there are leaderboards and player rankings.  Granted, some competitive games don’t have leaderboards or high scores either because they’ve never been implemented, or because they never got popular enough.  Or because they’ve been designed for a personal single player experience from the ground-up.  One may have a high record for playing Street Fighter, but no one really has a top tier bragging rights for games like Doom (the original) or Descent.  Yet all of the above can be considered games that are competitive, gamer’s games in their own way.

Those that lack a demand of skill and/or competition are more of what I like to call casual games.  Casual games are games that try to appeal to everyone.  And when appealing to everyone, that means the bar of challenge/skill must be lowered.  Sometimes this is mitigated with difficulty levels, but that can have it’s own issues and only attempt to fool the hardcore gamers into believing they are playing a game that demands skill.

Which brings me back to Jak and Uncharted.  Now while neither franchise is aimed at being designed for the most hard-core of videogamers (as opposed to something like Super Meatboy; good luck not smashing a few mouses and keyboards getting through that one), there is a distinct different when it comes to offering challenge.  Uncharted has varying levels of difficulty, but consider what the game forces players to do on the hardest difficulty levels.  It forces the “cover shooter” element onto the player.  It turns the game into a glorified whack-a-mole.  Stay behind cover until you see a target, shoot at said target and try to kill it before you start to take so much damage that you die, at which point retreat back behind cover until you regenerate to full health, rinse and repeat.  The only thing really being tested is the player’s accuracy.  Sure AI can try to flank you, but all that really does is impose a time limit on how long you have to kill a certain number before you’re either forced to move elsewhere to repeat the whole thing, or die.  There are some segments, primarily in Uncharted 4, which mitigate this a tad.  The level where you’re hijacking vehicles and being dragged by vehicles causes players to strategize on where to jump and what to prioritize when it comes to shooting, where to drive, who to ram, how many bullets to risk, along with accuracy.  And there’s the elevator level where you can hang along any side of the elevator, and/or run to a few cliff-sides.  The whole time you’re on a time limit.  You’re forced to consider where to run to and hang from more feverishly than in any other point in the entire franchise.  It’s about as good as the cover-shooter gameplay can get outside of something like Vanquish.  It may still be a sort of whack-a-mole, but it freshens it up enough to work.  But those are the only two real exceptions in the entire franchise.

As for Jak, the gun-play is so-so.  The only real strategy is knowing what weapon to use for which situation, and not blasting too many bullets.  You just need to aim in the general direction of the foes.  The main strategy comes with the platforming.  You’ll be running and gunning, and not using any cover most of the time.  You’ll be bullet dodging.  This was incorporated better in Ratchet & Clank, but at least it wasn’t glorified whack-a-mole.  Bullet-dodging is the main element that makes 3rd-person-shooter games work.  You can see the bullets coming, you therefore have to move out of the way.  Part of the skill is knowing where to move, where to jump, and not fall of a platform or get to close to another enemy as a result.  This also allows for boss fights.  Uncharted may have boss fights too on some occasion, but let’s face it, they’re just beefed up versions of similar enemies that move slower and/or soak up more hits.  The bullet-dodging mechanic allows for more skill on the part of the player.  Hell, even the first 2 Max Payne games managed to work well enough without a cover system.  Players had to react more quickly and implement bullet dodging at just the right time (though that being said, I wouldn’t play those games today, they didn’t age as well as Jak and Daxter).  Too many games are cover shooters that all play exactly the same.  Third person shooters with bullet dodging tend to have more variety, and more player options and strategies and tactics, compared to cover shooters (which really only have 1 tactic).

But that’s the thing.  Because cover shooters are so basic at their core, they are easier to use by a wider range of casual gaming customers.  Thus it’s more likely they will sell better.  And to compensate for lack of diverse strategy options, the games rely harder on narrative.  Thus they become glorified interactive movies rather than games with film elements.  But why not?  Hardcore gamers are there primarily for the gameplay, not for the story.

Or are they?

Many come back to old classics like Baldur’s Gate and Diablo II not just for the gameplay, but also for the world, the characters (even if that just means the game allows players to customize a character precisely the way they want), the environment, all that in addition to the solid gameplay.  Same thing with Thief I and II.  Fallout 1 and 2?  Neverwinter NightsGothic IISystem Shock 1 and 2?  Deus Ex?  While some hardcore gamers may only be there for the gameplay and not care about the story, there are games that strike a balance between narrative and gameplay well enough that even hardcore gamers enjoy it.  It’s not impossible.  And the games that manage to do that tend to live on longer than those that lack in the gameplay department.

Or Planescape: Torment

If Naughty Dog wants to eradicate the “game” element from their Uncharted franchise so badly, why not just get it over with and make a fucking movie?  Oh wait, they did, with Ratchet & Clank.  Guess that turned out well for them.

 

Conclusion

The Jak trilogy is better than the Uncharted quadrilogy.  Even when Uncharted implements narrative more strongly than in the Jak series, it faltered in its most narrative-driven game since The Last of Us and implemented bullshit character with contradictory motivations, plus empowering the female characters too strongly.  Maybe they should consider making their own Tomb Raider knockoff that actually stars a female protagonist as opposed to a male protagonist.  Or make a Metroid knockoff.  Heavenly Sword knockoff?
PS: Oh yeah, another comparison between the Jak trilogy and Uncharted quadrilogy.  By the end of it, Jak ditches the bland Keira (similar to Elena in Uncharted) for Ashelin (similar to Chloe in Uncharted) in the 3rd game.  Choosing the badass chick who has earned her place and has an actual personality over the bland semi-control freak.  Guess Naughty Dog has regressed in that regard too.  Next thing you know, they will remove “Naughty” from Naughty Dog.

 

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