Learning To Love The Uncharted Series

During the late 2000s and most of the 2010s I was the owner of an Xbox 360. I think my main reasoning behind choosing that system was that all my friends had one, so if I wanted to play with them, that would be the console.

Before I had chosen a 360 I was scouring through games that looked interesting to me and I remember one catching my eye. I remember going into game stores and continually picking up one box and reading and re-reading the back cover.

That game was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. I knew nothing about the series at that part of my life, but I was already hooked. I mean, it looked like a modern Indiana Jones game. Anyone who knows me knows I love Tomb Raider, so another treasure-hunting simulator would be right up my street.

But alas, when I finally picked up an Xbox I realised that Uncharted was a PlayStation  exclusive title, therefore I couldn’t play it (and I was not the position to buy a separate console). So Uncharted moved to the back of my mind until I picked up a PlayStation 4 in mid-2018.

With Uncharted being one of Sony’s premiere exclusives, the first three games were given a quick polish and sent out as a boxset to customers. I quickly bought the collection and settled down for some classic shooting/platforming fun. I mean, these games were beloved, how could they be anything more than excellent?

Well…

What Spending 100+ Hours With Nathan Drake Looks Like

I felt very confused while playing Uncharted 1. Here was this game, lauded as inspirational and influential in its design and gameplay…yet all I could think was single sight plains, flat geometry, and tedious whack-a-mole gameplay.

I died many times just to try and speed up the process; it felt like my life was ebbing away from me as I continued to play. The only time when it livened up for me was when the Nazi Mutants appeared, changing gameplay into a more run-and-gun affair. This was on normal/moderate difficulty setting (because ‘normal’, as the word suggests, would be the standard way to play the game), yet it was like pulling teeth.

UC1 ElDorado
The game certainly livened up by the end, but couldn’t save the rest of the experience for me. (Source: engadget.com).

I rationalised my thoughts by thinking, ‘Maybe this was standard for 2007.” However, 2007 also gave us Assassin’s Creed (genre-defining), Bioshock (narrative behemoth), CoD4 and Halo 3 (game-changers). Even Tomb Raider Anniversary, much maligned by its own fanbase, felt fluid and fast, the complete opposite of UC1.

So maybe this was just a blueprint game, one that would get better with subsequent titles.

I put those bad feelings aside as I booted up Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. This one was going to be good. It is generally accepted as the best game in the series.

Hhhmm, how to put this…Uncharted 2 made me want to stop playing games.

There have been times where I have played games I haven’t enjoyed. There have been games I’ve actively disliked. But never have I played a game that has made me waver in my love of the medium.

Most of my complaints for UC1 were back, but tenfold. Long flat corridors or arenas, plinking away from behind cover with ineffective weapons, I could feel that draining sensation again.

The gunplay was serviceable, but it was nothing compared to the climbing. In most platforming sections, Uncharted 2 switches to a cinematic camera. I’m all for the cinematic approach to games, especially when it heightens the gameplay.

I hated Uncharted 2 from the very first sequence because of that bloody camera. Climbing up the train cars is a moment most gamers found thrilling, but because of the camera switches I couldn’t even figure out where to go.

The angles would throw off my depth perception, making me push forward and die when I should have been pushing sideways. Dying over and over again two minutes in because the game is giving you insufficient information will drive anyone to anger.

UC2 Train
Even now I still can’t do this sequence in one go…I feel my blood pressure rising already. (Source: playstation.com).

Even the introduction of Chloe Frazer hardly tempered my loathing. Just like UC1, the game picked up during the final stretch at the monastery, mainly due to the excellent level design and geometry, and the inclusion of the Nazi Mutants again.

As I booted up Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I was worried. Was this third entry going to be more of the same? What was wrong with me? Was I playing the game wrong?

I knew I liked third-person shooters; I’ve spent unknown hours with several 007 games, I love all of Remedy Entertainment’s work, Spec Ops: The Line is my favourite game of all time. Even at the same time of playing UC2 I played The Order: 1886, Ready at Dawn’s Victorian-steampunk shooter PS4 launch title. I loved that game and still hope to see a sequel some day.

So, I started Uncharted 3…and a new feeling came over me. I was having fun. Good-hearted, honest fun. I thought there had to be a catch, but none came. It was a blast.

The fights and shootouts in London, the rooftop chases in Colombia and Yemen, the attack on the citadel in Syria, the shipyard/sunken cruiser (with a beautiful cinematic camera, this time not obscuring the way to go), the cargo plane…repeat, THE CARGO PLANE, the horse ride into the desert, then finishing off once more with an ancient city crumbling to dust, I loved it from start to finish.

UC3 Plane
Uncharted 3 still has some of the best set-pieces in all of gaming. (Source: YouTube.com, GameSpot).

Upon finishing UC3 I had a lull in my games at the time, so I went back to the first two games and cranked up the difficulty to Crushing. I had nothing to lose if I didn’t enjoy it, but I adored every second.

I don’t know what came over me, but it was like experiencing the game for the first time again, but this time being the game that everyone told me it was. Even in Uncharted 2, it seemed all the levels I had hated had switched positions, making the final push towards the monastery even better.

Uncharted 4 follows in UC3’s stellar footsteps. I’ve always liked when Nathan has had someone to bounce off like Charlie or Chloe, and Sam is a great addition to the narrative. Throw in some excellent set pieces and locations and delving into the married life of Elena and Nathan (something seldom seen in games), I think this one might be my favourite one.

Conclusion

So what changed? Well, obviously the graphics and design became better and more intricate as subsequent games were made, but what about that turnaround for UC1 and UC2?

As I said previously, I’ve played my fair share of third-person shooters, but I wasn’t exactly raised on them in same way I was raised on racing games or Tomb Raider. Looking back at my favourite TPSes, most come from the PS2 or 360 generations. I haven’t played a straight, linear shooter since Spec Ops, because they aren’t really made as much any more.

Sure, there are shooting games galore, but not many single player shooter games. Even Amy Hennig said they are “…a harder and harder proposition.” (Takahashi, D. 2019). The closest I could think of besides The Order: 1886 was Ghost Recon: Wildlands, which is another open-world extravaganza from Ubisoft.

Order 86 GP
If you haven’t had the chance yet, please play The Order: 1886. It looks and sounds stunning. (Source: huffingtonpost.co.uk).

That might be the reason. It is enthralling to see a gameplay or mechanic that hasn’t been felt in over a decade, to see a simple beginning-middle-end structure with some shooty bits in the middle. I know, what a concept!

But that sounds offensive, ‘I only liked your game because I had nothing else to play,’ that is definitely not the case. I must come clean and say the problem was probably me.

I just needed time. I came to Uncharted with my own ideas on what it would be and my own biases. I wasn’t on the game’s wavelength, and I found it increasingly hard to get a handle on.

It may have taken a few games to get me to understand, but I get it now.

I like it now. I love it now.

I’ll treasure the experiences, both good and bad.

 

Banner Photo Source: gamespot.com

An Ode To Sam Nishimura From Tomb Raider

Once upon a time, there was a girl. She was a film studies graduate and looking for her big break in the world of post-education. She followed her friends to a mystical and mysterious island, documenting their travels.

When we as an audience first met the girl, it was only for a few seconds, where we saw her dragged off by a scary-looking man with a knife. She was hidden away until the release of the full story.

When the story was released, we saw the girl in a different light. Sure, she was still a little bit of a damsel in distress, but she turned out to be a lot more than that.

We saw her playful but sensitive banter with our protagonist. We saw the half-smiles. We saw the girl and the protagonist bond over the course of the narrative. And of course, some of us saw a little more, underneath all of the subtle movements and words. Something that kept us going. Something that pushed us forward.

But that girl is now forgotten, passed aside with a hand-wave explanation in the sequel, and only slightly more of a payoff in the side-stories.

At this moment, we are just like our protagonist. We think we know about sacrifices, but what we have here is a loss, a choice that is made for us. Despite the cries to bring her back, we must sadly think that the girl will never come grace our screens again.

***

I’ve been mulling over the loss of Sam Nishimura for the past few weeks. With the months leading up to the release of the new game, Shadow Of The Tomb Raider, we’ve been seeing a lot of people ask the developers, “where is Sam?

And I sadly have to admit, I’ve grown apart.

Please understand.

I love Sam; in the same way I love Lara as a character. But sometime that is not enough. And we need perspective. Lara is our protagonist, not Sam (although I would totally buy  Tomb Raider Snap, a spin off in the style of Pokémon Snap, where Sam tries to photograph Lara beside certain objects like a T-Rex, a relic and holding her dual pistols).

To love her knows when to let her go. Not forgotten, not a footnote, but a defining part or our heroine’s legacy. And with her departure, Lara can eventually start to heal and move on.

I, along with many others in the Sam Nishimura movement were unsatisfied with the way Sam was maligned during the interim between 2013 and RotTR. But I can see why they decided to focus on Jonah rather than Sam.

With Lara flying from desolate desert to hazardous hiking expedition, she needed someone to keep up, and Sam isn’t that. Jonah, Reyes, Roth, they would all be able to keep pace with our lead. Sam could not, not without changing a large sense of her character from 2013. Sure, Alister and Zip (Lara’s mates from the LAU trilogy) wouldn’t keep pace either, but a different Lara calls for different rules.

So I begin to look to the horizon. Shadow Of The Tomb Raider is nearing completion, so unless Eidos Montreal throw us a curve ball, these would have to be in a sequel.

So, what do I want from Lara’s belle?

Easy one start with, keep her ambiguous enough. I know, I know, we all want her to make out with a girl by the end of the game, and with Kassandra in AC: Odyssey and Ellie from The Last Of Us II at this year’s E3 being major talking points, TR could have been riding ahead of the curve with it’s non-straight lead.

Maybe it’s me, but I’m more of a fan of all that sweet hand-holding and the longing stares rather than character full on snogging each other. Yorda and Ico’s closeness in Ico has much more depth to it than if the characters just made out.

The problem with trying to add a character in is the questions that it poses. With Lara jetting off around the world, she needs a character that wants to wait for her and understands what her job is and where it takes her. For her to be a recurring character (which is needed if the interaction is going to have any bearing on the story), she needs to compliment our heroine, essentially becoming the “other half” or at least offering vital help.

And the major problem is, is that Sam was those things. Which is why it hurts more to cut her out and start anew. Because it was there. It was within reaching distance and possibility, but it wasn’t used.

So how to construct it?

The new Tomb Raiders take much from Uncharted, so here is another thing it can take from them. In Uncharted 2, Nathan Drake had a diary filled with sketches, notes, and importantly, phone numbers and names of girls all around the globe (this was actually inspired by a tweet by @pfangirl, who has written extensively about Lara Croft being a gay character).

Lara has a notebook, filled with her Dad’s notes, but soon they will be full of her own. She’s taken notes all the way since AoD and Anniversary. Her notebook can be filled with numbers and drawings. Jonah, Reyes, Conrad’s daughter (wouldn’t that be a scene to watch? Lara talking to her surrogate father’s ACTUAL daughter), these are all people from the first reboot game that Lara helped and in turn they helped Lara become the Tomb Raider.

From Rise, there is Sofia (because you could cut that sexual tension with a knife) and Nadia (who also had a full-on crush on our protagonist), two women who mirrored our protagonist; characters that she could relate to and find solace from their shared experiences.

And aside from character from the games, there could be a myriad of one-time flings; girls from Kathmandu to Kansas. Have her wake up next to a girl a la Girl With The Dragon Tattoo beside some watering hole in the backwoods of whatever country she’s in. There are so many ways you could play with this idea.

However, with the loss of Sam, I’m kind of annoyed that instead of a monogamous, strong relationship between two characters will be swapped out for the “promiscuous lesbian/bisexual” trope (I personally read her as ace, since I see Lara as seeing sex more as a biological need than an emotional one). But with Lara’s lifestyle, she can’t ask for a special someone to wait for her while she spends other ten months shooting chickens with fire arrows or petting another twenty llamas.

Conclusion

I had never thought about Lara as being part of a couple before 2013. And with Lara and Sam’s time together, seeing that vulnerable side, I was touched, because it was sweet and adorable, in that way first blossoms of affections are (and relationships of any kind are rarely seen in AAA games). But then I become irritated, because that vulnerability gives us a character like Sam, but then discards her. Would it have just been better to never have that part of Lara? The heart doesn’t miss what it doesn’t know.

I also see the limitations. I recently replayed 2013, in my series of “Play-Games-While-Listening-To-Podcasts-And-Achievement-Hunt” and despite talking to Sam several times; she doesn’t have much of a character. There is a base there, but not a fully developed character. She needed shades, she needed dimensions. To give her those aspects would have taken time, which would have disrupted the pace of RotTR, unless it was incorporated as an integral feature. Which as a side-story, it wouldn’t be.

Again, please understand.

I love the character. But I have to stop. I need to say goodbye. Because while Sam has been a character in my heart for half a decade, Lara has over four times that. And between the girl I have grown up with, against the girl I met when I was an adult, the former will win out every time.

Let me conclude with the poet Rumi’s #1849 from Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi, which I feel fits the moment…

 

“The moment you find a companion in joy,

Is the moment you find your life’s own fate,

Beware that you don’t waste that moment in vain,

You will find very few such moments again.”

 

Sayonara Nishimura-san. 

Thank you for being there, for both the fans (so many who were brought in by you) and for being there for our dear Lara.

 

Banner Photo Source: Video Games Source, July 23 2013, Tomb Raider – Coastal Forest: Samantha Nishimura, Mathius Introduction Cutscene HD Gameplay PC. [YouTube video].