I’m having a lot of trouble concentrating on writing this post today, to be honest with you. This morning was my son’s first day at a new pre-school, and… it didn’t go so well. Now, this is a common thing among toddlers, and it’s a process that he’s already been through a few times, and I should’ve been better prepared for it. But… man. I can’t get his face out of my head. I’ve seen him cry before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had my heart broken by it the way it broke this morning. He held on to us as tightly as he ever had; he wasn’t full-out bawling, but rather clenching his jaw and trying to not full-out bawl; I have to stop describing it. It took all we could to not run back in and take him home and give him hugs and never let him out of our sight for the rest of our lives. I’m sure he’ll be OK. Hell, last night he had a tantrum in the bathtub because of some stupid thing and yet within 30 seconds he was happily making towers out of Team UmiZoomi shapes; I know he’ll be OK when my wife picks him up later this afternoon.
But still. It’s awfully hard to focus on anything when the last image of your child’s face is of a desperate pout, sniffling and sobbing, as you close the door behind you because you have to.
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I suspect that one of the many reasons why I’ve never been able to land any games writing gigs is that 99% of my writing samples probably include some sort of personal preamble. I know that I can write about games and music and books and stuff without adding those sorts of details, but I like it when the writer adds a bit of extraneous context. It helps me better understand where the person’s coming from; it helps me understand what informs their opinions. Almost nobody in a professional capacity does it this way, and I totally get that, but it’s become a stylistic tic for me that I can’t shake. And in any event, I’ve long since resigned myself to the knowledge that I will never have a full-time job writing about games or music or books, so: fuck it. I’m going to be talking about the Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection today, because I’ve played quite a lot of it over the last week, even if that wasn’t my original intention.
The original plan for the last week was to spend my free time working on new music (and fixing old music while I was at it). Alas, I ran into some technical problems that, among other things, made doing any sort of music work impossible.* So I resigned myself to play Uncharted instead.
Which isn’t a bad thing; I like those games a lot. And the remasters are about as well-executed as one could hope for, which is saying quite a bit considering that both Uncharted 2 and 3 are among the best-looking games of the previous generation. I’m not sure that you’d mistake them for current-gen games, especially during the cut-scenes – the faces look a bit plastic and not-quite-but-almost-uncanny-valley-ish – but by and large everything looks fantastic, and the PS4 controller makes the actual playing of these games 1000x less frustrating than they were with the Dualshock 3.
I’ve been bouncing around between all three games, with a primary emphasis on 1 and 3 (since I know 2 the best), and I’ll switch up either during a story break or when I run into a frustrating enemy gauntlet.
Speaking of which – one can’t help but notice how Naughty Dog’s approach changed between each game, even if I feel that they still ultimately paid too much attention to the wrong things – specifically, the combat. I’m certainly not the first to make the observation (nor is this even my first time making it) that the disconnect between Nathan Drake’s scruffy charm and his murdering of hundreds of enemy soldiers becomes awfully distracting with each successive chapter break, and it’s only because Nolan North’s performance is so disarmingly charming that they can even begin to get away with it. Still, it feels very much like Naughty Dog threw in as much combat as they could because they weren’t fully confident that the platforming and the exploration would be enough to sustain the kind of massive audience that Sony was hoping for. Uncharted is primarily a combat game with some platforming thrown in every now and then, and even with some fun set pieces (like the cliff-side machine gun car chase) it gets tedious.
U2 changed this up considerably by putting much more emphasis on the characters and the narrative and integrating the platforming and puzzle-solving a bit more, and even if the game is still over-reliant on combat as the main meat of the experience, it at least makes the combat more spectacular, specifically through some still-extraordinary set pieces. I mean, the train sequence remains as jaw-dropping as ever; I’m still not 100% sure how they managed to pull off that sequence’s pacing. (Like: if you start that sequence and simply don’t move for 20 minutes, will you still end up facing off against the helicopter at the end?)
U3, if anything, suffers from a bit of over-confidence, making everything a spectacular set piece at the expense of a coherent narrative. The character work is still charming, yet it feels obligatory rather than necessary – yes, it’s kinda neat to see how young Nathan Drake met his mentor, Sully, though the relic linking the past and the present is a bit of a stretch in terms of narrative justification.
* * *
I just re-read those paragraphs and they make it sound like I’m not enjoying myself; I am picking nits, I guess. These are extraordinarily well-made games, and they do what they do exceedingly well, and if you haven’t played those games, this is the best way to play them.
Are they as good as I remember them being? Well… what’s interesting is that they are still very much what I remember them being. (Also, I keep dying in the same spots, which is either a sign that my blind spots haven’t changed, or that the games have difficulty spikes that can sometimes be overwhelming.) Uncharted 1 is a promising debut that’s marred by an over-reliance on gunplay, Uncharted 3 is an astonishing technological experience without any real heart or soul, and Uncharted 2 is still one of my favorite games of the last generation.
But if I’m being honest with myself, I think I’m going to enjoy the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider a bit more. I like what that reboot is doing with this genre, specifically how it approaches combat and why combat is necessary. The first of these reboots handled it quite well; Lara only killed because she had to kill, and it wasn’t something she ever enjoyed doing even as she got better at it. But the literal very first thing you do in Uncharted 1 is kill a bunch of pirates that are attempting to board your illegally parked boat; you already have your gun, you’re kinda already expecting it, and killing dudes ain’t no thang. Drake wisecracks his way through hundreds of headshots per game, and I suppose you’d sorta have to in order to not completely lose your humanity. Even so, the body count becomes absurd, and there’s really no way around that fact. It is what it is, I guess, and I can only hope that next year’s finale finds a better balance between all its elements.
* * *
Earlier this afternoon I managed to snag a Pip-Boy edition of Fallout 4 for the PS4, which ended up answering two questions in one go – (1) which system I was going to get it for, and (2) that I wasn’t nearly as done with pre-ordering as I keep saying I am. Considering that the XBone is still getting the short end of the technological stick as far as multi-console games go, I couldn’t help but err on the side of the PS4 being a better way to go. And, I mean, look; the Pip-Boy is maybe the only tangible pre-order bonus I’ve cared about in at least a dozen years. So, there you go.
* “Impossible” is not necessarily an overstatement, even if it really looks like one. While it’s true that I’ve written lots of music without having a computer, it’s not really how I work any more, and a lot of the editing work I needed to do required being able to re-record parts, which I simply couldn’t do. There’s a longer post I could write about my music-writing process – and someday I’ll write it, because frankly I’d like to figure it out – but this is not the time or place for that.