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February 18, 2016

UnchartedPalooza!! Among Thieves

Uncharted 2 pushes a pretty big question right out of the gate: do you believe in second chances?

Speaking personally, I suppose I do.  I’m the guy who wound up hating Final Fantasy 13 before game’s end, but played the unneeded sequel and a franchise spin-off despite common sense beckoning me to stay the hell back.  But I’m the sort that wants to believe, and believe that people can do the right thing.  Okay, so you made a mistake the first time?  Fine.  Do better next time.  Learn from your mistakes, and leave them behind on your way onward and upward.

That seemed to be the case with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.  I missed the game when it first came out, but others didn’t.  And from what I can gather, others were -- and still are -- willing to call it a masterpiece.  Accolades across the board, adoration from gamers and critics alike, and the codification of one of Sony’s biggest franchises; Uncharted 2 is a big hit, and makes up for whatever shortcomings the original game had.  In my experience, my brother told me that instead of playing Drake’s Fortune -- via The Nathan Drake Collection remaster -- I should just skip ahead to Uncharted 2.  “It’s basically the same story,” he said.  And more importantly, “The game’s a masterpiece.”

So after finishing Drake’s Fortune, I dove into Among Thieves

And now I’m not so keen on second chances.

Once again, let’s start with the setup.  The game (setting aside the in media res opening) starts with Nathan Drake drinking at a summery beach resort, only to have some old friends approach him -- the wisecracking Harry Flynn, and the sultry Chloe Frazer.  They approach him with a new gig: if they can break into a museum in Istanbul and make off with a lamp handled by Marco Polo, it’ll lead straight to the biggest treasure the world has ever known.  Nate buys in wholesale, only to get betrayed mid-theft by Flynn (because he’s British and thus inherently evil, according to the Uncharted canon). 

Nate spends three months in jail, but luckily gets bailed out by Sully.  In the intervening time, Flynn used the clues sniffed out from the theft to get closer to the goal -- and by extension, bring the gun-toting villain Zoran Lazarevic one step closer to his goal.  As a result, it’s a race against time to get to the treasure and uncover its secrets -- secrets that could doom the world, if they made it into the wrong hands.  Well, presumably.  It’s…not exactly clear.

I’ll be blunt.  It’s true that I didn’t enjoy Drake’s Fortune very much, but I went into the sequel thinking that it would be an improvement.  And yes, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some upgrades here and there; Among Thieves is the more technically proficient of the two, with more content and better pacing overall.  With that said, it’s proficient in gameplay that isn’t nearly as riveting as it should be -- inasmuch as a cover-based shooter can be riveting.  Exploring the environments is still the best part of the game, but that’s starting to mean less and less to me with this series (because its luster waned well before I reached Among Thieves’ endgame).  I don’t think I need to explain that the setpieces had as much impact on me as a fart in the wind.

But where Among Thieves really fails is with its story.  Drake’s Fortune wasn’t all that great, either, but it at least managed to scrape its way into par territory (by how much or how little, I’ll leave to you).  But the sequel couldn’t even manage that.  Yes, it’s a retread, but its problems go WAY further than that.  Somehow, everything ended up being told in a worse fashion.  Everything.  The characters are worse.  The plot is worse.  Contrivances and plot holes abound.  Things keep happening that are in direct contradiction of one another, and there’s so much that doesn’t make sense -- even in the realm of video game stories.  Among Thieves’ story ventures into spiteful, hateful territory, and I’m surprised I didn’t have a brain aneurysm.

This would be the part where I’d say “this is all in my opinion” and “what bothers me won’t necessarily bother you”, but A) that’s a given, and B) this game pisses me off.

So.  Is there anything good about Among Thieves?  In my opinion?

The environments in this game have been improved, without question.  It’s a linear game, but every now and then the areas open up either in actuality, or in an illusory way.  Real or fake, there’s lots of artistry in the game; ancient temples, urban sprawls, verdant jungles, snowy peaks, and more.  Last time I said that I liked how Drake’s Fortune kept a unified aesthetic by sticking to one area, but Among Thieves is no poorer for exploring multiple areas.  Granted they run into the problem that Sonic games have where the designs make it impossible for everyone who isn’t the main character to traverse, but it’s fine.  Outside of a buddy or two, Drake is typically the only one leaping and climbing around.

Exploration and puzzles are pretty rudimentary -- everything in the Uncharted universe can pretty much be solved by platforming -- but they’re still something.  And something appreciable, no less.  I can’t help but wonder how monks managed to accomplish anything when it requires parkour expertise and/or the proportional leg strength of a grasshopper, or just how the fantastic machines got constructed in the first place (and how they’re still in working order after centuries of disrepair).  But you know what?  I can at least try to overlook that; it leads to some impressive visuals, and moments where I want to stop and take in the sights.

Apparently, Naughty Dog picked up on the fact that their environments are a big draw.  Setting aside the fact that there are more of them (and you can just feel the money they’re burning with each new pixel), the pacing is significantly better.  Gunfights are still plentiful, but there are actually times when you get to enjoy the scenery instead of going straight from one skirmish to the next with no stops in between.  You get to breathe.  Take it all in.  Do something besides recklessly murder people.

I’m pretty sure I’ve made my weariness for the combat known by this point, but I think it’s actually seen a little improvement in Among Thieves.  At the very least, I wasn’t breezing my way through enemy encounters with frame-perfect headshots.  Whether it’s because there have been changes to the underlying mechanics or I just got lucky, there’s been a slight uptick in difficulty.  And once in a while, the combat seems to click; firefights actually seem to take on a level of energy and spirit when you’re being challenged, and forced to move out of cover with your life in the red.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand that’s pretty much where my praise ends.

To be fair, Among Thieves is almost the same game as before -- and by extension, it’s got the cover-based shooting, climbing, jumping, puzzle-solving, stealth-killing mechanics that have long since worked their way into modern gaming.  But even if that’s true, and even if this game helped (further) solidify the hodgepodge of genres, I can’t say that Among Thieves is compelling.  That sounds hard to believe, since I just praised the exploration aspect a few paragraphs ago, but hear me out on this.

In the last post, I called Uncharted a bizarro American Zelda game, and that’s still true enough here.  But I’ve been mulling it over, and thinking about why I like one and tolerate the other (at best).  Zelda’s dungeons aren’t exactly designed to melt anyone’s mind, after all; plus, it’s not as if the visuals have ever been hardware-intensive -- though that could change with the Wii U installment.  What’s the difference?  Aren’t both franchises about -- and subsequently allow for -- exploration of their worlds?

Yes.  But here’s the thing: Zelda games are about evolution.  Uncharted games are about progression.

That’s not to say that the Zelda games are without progression.  But think about it: whether it’s in the overworld or in dungeons, the games present challenges and obstacles -- environmental or otherwise -- that need tending to.  Wind Waker (which also got a remaster semi-recently) gives you a boat, and shortly after you need to buy a sail and ride the wind to your next location.  But there are times when you need to change the direction of the wind, or else your sailboat might as well be sunk.  To do that, you need to make use of the Wind Waker, and shift the environment in your favor. 

But if you want to interact with the glowing halos out there in the ocean, you need to get the grappling hook -- which lets you scour the depths for treasure.  If you want to take out the pirate ships and open up plot-relevant areas, you’ll need bombs.  If you want to stave off an angry frog-god’s tornadoes, you’ll need the bow -- which in turn lets you warp around the ocean at will, which then nets you access to an otherwise-unreachable area to snag fire and ice arrows.

The point I’m trying to make here is that Link changes over the course of the game.  He gets more hearts, more equipment, more skills, and more resources in general as dungeons are cleared and the world gets traversed.  In turn, the dungeons are an application of that knowledge; the player uses the skills and items gained up to that point to progress from room to room.  Not every problem can be solved in an instant, or with exactly the same answer every time; after all, the room before the dungeon boss usually demands all the knowledge gained up to that point to manipulate the area and reach the big baddie.  But what matters is that things do change -- subtly or drastically, take your pick -- so that the Link at the start isn’t the same Link at the end.  And indeed, you could say the same about the player.

That sense of evolution is completely missing from Uncharted.

Obviously, it’s not a one-to-one comparison; the two franchises are trying to do two different things, and that’s fine…to an extent.  No guesses as to which approach I prefer, but even then Uncharted’s exploration (such as it is) has long since lost its sheen.  Drake at the start is exactly the same as Drake at the end.  I’m not saying he needs to have some kind of skill tree or crafting system, but 90% of his problems can be solved with “look for a ledge to climb, and then keep climbing until you reach the thing.”  The other 10% are solved with “check your journal for the answers to this rudimentary puzzle spelled out for you.”  Jeez, the puzzles in this franchise are basically menial busywork for the sake of saying that it’s not just wall-to-wall violence.


I think -- I think -- no, I lost it.

I still posit that the exploration/puzzle-solving is the best part of the game, but as the days go by that statement deflates more and more.  Setting aside the “puzzles”, I do this thing in a lot of platformers where I gasp (and/or my heart skips a beat) when making a precarious jump.  It’s not just when I do it, either; videos on YouTube have left me reeling before.  And yeah, Among Thieves made me gasp on several occasions -- but not for the right reasons. 

Controlling Drake still feels sluggish and sloppy; despite the tutorial implying that moving from cover-to-cover has improved, I usually only died because I got stuck against the environment and ate a bullet sandwich.  Drake’s movement speed is less-than-ideal in all scenarios, and the dodge roll isn’t what I’d call potent.  Kingdom Hearts 1, it ain’t.  Or KH2 Final Mix, apparently.

But the platforming still seems like a problem.  I don’t feel like I have a good grasp on Drake’s jumping ability, mostly because there were times where jumps I should have made resulted in certain doom -- yet paradoxically, jumps that Drake has no business clearing are fine.  That’s setting aside the fact that some of the more precise movements still feel wonky -- jumping from a post to a ledge was unreasonably difficult -- and even when things work, it’s basically because you’re following a set, linear path, not a path you made with skill or ingenuity.  Follow the white-painted ledges, or the gold-painted ledges, or the red-painted ledges, or those bricks sticking out.  No, not those bricks sticking out, you idiot!  See?  Now you’re dead.

The big issue here is that Among Thieves -- befitting a AAA-status game -- relies on quantity instead of quality.  Sure, exploring ruins is pretty interesting, but there’s only so many times I can do that (with the gameplay of the Uncharted franchise) before I get bored.  So Drake’s Fortune suffered because it didn’t have enough exploration, but that was a consequence of its meager length.  On the other hand, Among Thieves suffers because, even though there’s more exploration, it’s not nearly compelling enough to justify its length -- which, reportedly, runs for about 11 hours.  Something tells me I would like this game more if it was about half as long.

Funny, though.  It feels like I’ve said that once before.

This is making my brain itch.

So one of the things that Among Thieves mixes up is a newfound emphasis on stealth.  Granted, stealth was also in Drake’s Fortune, but A) I found that out by accident, B) you almost never get the chance to use it, and C) the mechanics aren’t conducive to stealth combat.  I’m happy to report that Among Thieves refines the formula by jamming in stealth sequences…that inevitably go awry and force you into firefights, because the mechanics still aren’t conducive to stealth combat.  Drake can’t crouch, and whether or not he moves stealthily is basically determined by a dice roll. 

Distant enemies are practically clairvoyant, so if you move just paces out of cover -- and even then, if you manage a successful neck snap -- then you’ll immediately be spotted, you lose your shot at stealth, and you have to go into gunplay mode.  Managing the placement of enemies is probably possible, but it’s not even remotely efficient; the environments are so expansive and layered that (unless you die) they’ll spot you long before you spot them. 

But I guess it doesn’t really matter, since you still don’t get that many opportunities to use stealth.  Sure, the game will create situations where “they haven’t spotted you yet”, but that just means you’ll get one or two instant-kills before someone sees you.  And, more pressingly, Drake is almost always on the receiving end of an ambush or thrown headfirst into a firefight.  He isn’t exactly given full reign to show off his ultra-skilled ninja skills.

Weirdly, I can’t shake the feeling that the melee combat has been downgraded from the first game.  In the last post, I thought that the Brutal Combo mechanic was kind of cool, because it partially justified taking a big risk to get some extra ammo.  Imagine my surprise when its sequel completely axed it, and replaced it with…nothing.  Okay, sure, you can get extra grenades and weapons if you successfully stealth-kill an opponent, but I JUST finished saying that you don’t get many opportunities to use stealth. 

The biggest wrinkle for the melee combat, in turn, is twofold.  First off: you just mash Square until the enemy dies.  Second: you press Triangle to counter when they go for a hit or a grab.  So basically, melee combat is unsatisfying, unnecessary, and actually pretty unsafe; if you get into a fistfight, breaking off the encounter isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world…and said world is one where you can still get shot by distant foes mid-fight.

I know this game is from 2009, but that’s still two years after its predecessor.  So why does it feel like it’s either stalling, or moving backwards?

I don’t think I need to talk about the gunplay, because it’s exactly what you’d expect (though I’m increasingly annoyed by the fact that enemies can constantly throw grenades within millimeters of your location).  So instead, let’s talk about setpieces.  They’re in much greater supply in Among Thieves, and I’d be lying if I said none of them were winners; there’s a sequence where you’re in a toppling building that’s actually pretty cool.  Of course, setpieces like that one are spoiled when clearing them requires what borders on clairvoyance to know how to clear it; you’re supposed to jump from the falling building through the window of another building, but learning the timing and distance needed took a few tries too many.  Needless to say, it spoiled the effect.

On average, the setpieces weren’t even close to making me stand and cheer.  Even ignoring the fact that it’s a 2009 game and can get away with being “done before”, Among Thieves still does that thing where you run at the camera while danger happens behind you.  Multiple times.  It even reuses the “bad guys chasing you in a runaway vehicle” thing, which in itself is a holdover from something like Sonic Adventure 2 (or SA1 for that matter), but whatever.  Even the more unique stuff is hardly impressive.  Oh no, a helicopter’s attacking.  Oh no, train cars are getting blown up.  Oh no, one of the cars is rolling after Drake.  Oh no, Drake has to climb the thing that shouldn’t be climbed.  Oh no, the thing fell.  It’s all a bunch of white noise.

And I know exactly why: there are no stakes in Among Thieves.

That seems impossible, given that the fate of the world is (presumably) on the line.  But it’s true.  Nothing matters in Among Thieves, because there are no consequences.  No reason to fear, or fear failure -- unless you’re like me and failure means having to replay a section over again, but whatever.  Drake jumps from that building to the next, crashing through a window on his way there.  And he’s fine.  Not even winded.  Cutscenes and setpieces will have him getting blown back by tank rounds, but he shrugs it off in seconds.  Again, and again, and again, and fucking again something will collapse under his weight, but it won’t mean anything besides being the action-adventure equivalent of a jump scare.  It doesn’t matter what he slams against, or what he falls off of; that damage doesn’t really matter.

And sure, that might seem like a spurious claim -- because after all, Drake starts off the game with a bullet to the gut.  Surely that means he’s vulnerable, right?  You’d think so, but no.  The opening sequence has him -- with that seemingly-mortal wound, denied of even rudimentary first aid -- climbing up a train hanging off a cliff, wherein he proceeds through snowy mountains into a gunfight.  During that gunfight, none of his abilities are hampered; it’s as if he was never shot at all.  But then, as soon as you finish, the game suddenly remembers that he’s supposed to be injured, so it snaps back to him limping his way through the snow.  Naughty Dog, you can’t have it both ways.  Either he’s human, or he’s a terminator.  Pick one.

That sequence aside, Drake is never worse for wear despite the abuse he goes through.  At most, he’ll get a couple of cuts on his arms and forehead, and he’s almost perpetually grimy so you can’t even toss that out there.  Supposedly, “damage” in this game actually represents how much luck Drake has; the bullets are actually coming closer and closer to hitting him until you actually take a hit and die.  But if that’s true, then it means Drake is waltzing his way through gunfights like he’s Cypher Raige from After Earth.  If there’s no chance of Drake failing or being harmed, then what does it matter if there’s spectacle out the ass?

And yes, I’ve heard the argument that it’s dumb to expect realism from a franchise that features not-zombies and ancient treasures -- or, alternatively, that it’s a video game and it doesn’t have to be realistic.  I’ll grant that there are some fantastic elements, but here’s the thing: it’s not a franchise entirely rooted in fantasy.  Drake is still human.  He lives on planet Earth, where the laws of physics -- and even then, common sense -- still apply.  I can go for some suspension of disbelief, but there still needs to be a level of verisimilitude.  If impossible events and their results are only happening because “epic moment” and “because then there would be no game”, respectively, then you’re basically paring everything down to a Saturday morning cartoon.

And sure, it’s not as if action movies and summer blockbusters don’t strain the rules of reality.  But the best among them have an advantage that Among Thieves doesn’t: they at least have competent writing.  Or, more pressingly, they have likable characters.

Conversely, I hate everyone in Among ThievesEveryone.

I don’t understand how this happened.  I mean, Drake’s Fortune wasn’t all that great, but it was at least passable.  Nobody was infuriatingly awful.  But I can’t think of a single likable character throughout the entirety of Among Thieves.  Well, no, I take that back.  Sully’s still all right, but that’s only because for whatever reason, he -- as the best character -- decides to stick around for one chapter before disappearing from the game (except for a minutes-long cameo at the end).  So I guess the best character in his stead is Tenzin, a Tibetan Sherpa who has a family to stay mindful of.  Also, he can’t speak English, which means he can’t throw out shitty quips and sarcasm.

In case it wasn’t obvious, my patience for Drake has worn thin.  Despite being the hero of the game -- and trust me, I’ll come back to that later -- there’s nothing that’s charming or redeeming about him.  He’s still the bland joker he was in the last game, with all of the flaws and none of the perks.  But paradoxically, being Nathan Drake means that he gets even more perks.  He’s impervious to harm until the plot says so (and even then…) his athleticism is on the Olympic level, and women keep throwing themselves at him. 

He’s also some kind of anthropological genius for reasons not yet adequately explained, which just reinforces how little the guy has to try.  If there’s a problem in his way -- some riddle or puzzle left unsolved for centuries -- he just needs to look at it for a few minutes to solve it.  If he needs a lead, it’s found within the same cutscene.  Just once I’d love to see Drake say “I’m stumped”, mull it over in his sleep, and come at it with fresh with a sudden insight.  But I guess the game has to keep throttling the player toward “epic” “action”, so it’s fine.  Just make him good at everything.  No one cares when men are better than Jesus.

Believe it or not, Drake still might not be the worst character in the game.  Like I said, women keep throwing themselves at him -- and one of them is franchise newcomer Chloe Frazer.  And I won’t lie: I HATE Chloe.  She shifts the snark and sarcasm into overdrive, only she mixes it with lots of innuendos and seduction -- and I can’t think of a single moment where she said something that put a smile on my face.  I know that she and Drake go back -- she was an old flame of his, at the very least -- but in their first scene alone, she straddles him and places his hands on her ass…and it felt absolutely cringe-inducing, least of all because of the derpy face Drake puts on.  (Speaking of faces, I feel like she’s got the uncanny valley/quasi-realism/overcorrected issue that plagued Miranda Lawson in Mass Effect…though it could just be me.)

I guess she’s supposed to be the bad girl -- the Catwoman of the franchise -- but that’s accomplished via an asinine subplot that runs throughout.  Chloe actually starts playing double-agent on the good guys’ behalf, which in all fairness could be used in some interesting ways.  Unfortunately, it completely goes to waste.  Chloe is repeatedly caught in firefights and gunning down goons on Drake’s side -- and yet she always manages to slink back to the baddies’ side with them none the wiser.  Despite spending huge swaths of time away from the bad guys for reasons unspecified.  Despite gunning down baddies who have clearly demonstrated intercommunication skills.  Despite working for a villain who can and will kill anyone for even the slightest amount of insubordination…yet apparently decides that keeping an obvious traitor in his midst is a good idea.  But hey, she acts tough and knows how to use a gun, so clearly she’s a strong female character, right?

Wait.  Hold on a second…

Huh.  I think my brain just passed gas.

But as bad as Chloe is, somehow Elena Fisher manages to be worse.  I’m pretty sure she got completely rewritten between Uncharted 1 and 2; not only does she have a completely different job (how do you go from hosting a cheesy History Channel series to pursuing war criminals across the globe?), but her personality has practically had its neck wrung.  For starters, her relationship with Drake -- such as it is -- has seen some revisionist history; she went from someone who had a mutual appreciation for our “hero” to a squawking nag/scorned ex-girlfriend.  She chews him out for going on his little escapades…that is, until the plot says that she should chew him out for trying to back out of his little escapades.  Note that when that happens, she’d already been in various firefights, held at gunpoint, watched her cameraman die before her eyes, and blown away by an RPG.

It’s plainly obvious what happened.  Naughty Dog had to reset their relationship to zero (or slightly below it) so that she could bond with Drake, be his arm candy/reward at the end of the game, and most importantly, jam a love triangle into the game.  Nobody comes out of it clean, given that the two women end up squawking at Drake almost simultaneously -- and indeed, Elena introduces herself to Chloe as “last year’s model” -- and both of them end up being used as victims for Drake to “save” or leverage in the baddies’ plans.


You know, I’d like to believe that video games in the past and present have been able to represent women at least fairly well.  But Uncharted is NOT doing the medium any favors.

Her face is up there, Nate.

Given what I’ve written so far, I don’t think I need to explain that Lazarevic is a terrible villain.  But I’m gonna go ahead and explain that Lazarevic is a terrible villain.  He’s as bland and clichéd as all the rest, and lacks the screen time needed to fully establish his presence.  When he is on screen, he doesn’t leave the best impression -- just snarling villain talk that might as well be an empty threat, for all the damage he can do to Drake and pals.  Seriously, Lazarevic manages to kill more of his own men than Drake’s crew; note that this is despite him having multiple, ample opportunities to put a bullet through our “hero’s” head.

Lazarevic only gets characterized in the worst ways possible.  He’s a generic soldier guy with scars, so you know he’s a bad guy.  He dresses in all black, so you know he’s a bad guy.  He kills his own men, so you know he’s a bad guy.  He shoots whoever happens to be wearing the reddest shirt of the cast, so you know he’s a bad guy.  He starts talking about how super-ultra-awesome Hitler was, so you know he’s a bad guy.  He doesn’t kill Drake when he has the chance, so you know he’s a bad -- wait, that last one’s not so great.  The point is that he’s saddled with the sloppiest writing imaginable.  It’s almost as if Naughty Dog realized that Drake was less-than-heroic, so they decided to double-down at the last second with someone whose villainy is basically cartoonish. 

That…rings a bell for some reason.

Oh, wait, I just remembered! Harry Flynn is also a character in this game!  His traits are “is British”, “traitor”, “asshole”, and “dies”. 

Okay, moving on.

Lazarevic embodies two of the biggest problems with Among Thieves: it abuses shortcuts, and it’s horrifyingly contrived.  The game is basically held together with Popsicle sticks, glue, and a lot of prayer; right off the bat, it’s never adequately explained why Drake would agree to go on a dangerous heist with Flynn and Chloe.  “Because money”, presumably, but the end of Drake’s Fortune had Sully pulling up in a boat full of gleaming treasure.  He should’ve been set for life, but instead he decides to go on another quest for more money? 

Then when he actually starts his adventure -- keeping in mind that there’s been a three-month jump in time -- he’s able to instantly and immediately find areas and solve puzzles that Lazarevic’s army couldn’t even begin to touch.  And that begs the question of how Lazarevic is transporting what’s seemingly a massive army (based on the body count Drake racks up) across Asia -- i.e. moving weapons, helicopters, and tanks across borders without raising suspicion, ignoring the fact that Lazarevic himself is a criminal.  Is Elena the only one in the world looking for him?  What does anyone expect her to do, nag him to death?

On the other hand, Elena can survive various explosive blasts during a gunfight, including one instance where I accidentally (?) threw a grenade at her and Chloe.  She shrugged it off without a scratch…but then in a cutscene, she decides that she needs to try and offer Flynn (a man that held her at gunpoint multiple times and has shown no redeeming qualities) a chance at redemption, because her character got rewritten for the sake of one scene.  And then instead of moving away, she stands there dumbstruck and takes a grenade blast.  Then she gets hurt by it, and is apparently about to die -- but she’s not so hurt by it that she actually dies, and is in fact healthy enough to make a return trip from Shambhala to that Tibetan village, where she’s walking around without a scratch on her.

Wow.  Just…wow.

Let’s set aside the fact that the plot is copied point-for-point from Drake’s Fortune -- wherein a supposed treasure turns out to be an ancient force that threatens humanity and needs to be destroyed, but there are still inexplicably dozens of clues left by the people who know it’s dangerous.  The lynchpin this time around, i.e. the key to accessing the “Cintamani Stone”, is a dagger-shaped key needed to access each plot-relevant area.  Lazarevic needs it to take a single step closer to the stone (read: blue tree sap) and (hopefully) achieve immortality, even though the full effects of the stone are basically just speculated about until the last 25% of the game, but whatever. 

My question is this: if the MacGuffin is so critical to the plan, then why does Lazarevic let some random soldier carry it in his front pocket during the infamous train sequence, knowing full well that Drake is murdering his way towards him?  Why isn’t it being kept somewhere safe, or at the very least in the big boss’ pocket?  But the real issue here isn’t that Drake gets an excuse to reclaim the MacGuffin.  No, the big, game-breaking issue is the same problem that the modern Final Fantasy games have had.

Drake is empowering his villain every step of the way.

Lazarevic is stuck, repeatedly, without Drake; Flynn supposedly has some skills in the field, but he’s not the “hero”, and thus can’t solve problems in 16.2 microseconds.  So Drake uses the MacGuffin, or finds the ancient ruins, or unlocks the hidden sanctuary, or opens the sealed pathway again, and again, and again, and again.  And every time, he invites Lazarevic and his soldiers to re-enter the race.  Through the magic of Naughty Dog Teleportation™, soldiers swarm the place and either figure out where to go next, or open fire on Drake.  It’s as if he doesn’t understand there are multiple options in every instance: he could ditch the dagger and keep everyone from reaching the Stone, or get his hands dirty and take out Lazarevic (and just like the big baddie, he has multiple chances to do so), which could disrupt his army beyond repair.

As it stands, Drake basically leads the bad guys directly to Shambhala for their chance at snagging the Stone -- with all of the murder along the way that that implies.  And it does imply murder, because Tenzin’s village ends up getting wrecked by the army and their tank in search of Drake and the MacGuffin that Lazarevic’s dumb ass let slip away in the first place…even though the train sequence hours prior to that showed that they lost that very same tank in the jungle via violent, explosive train derailment

Oh, but I guess it doesn’t matter, because the village’s destruction and all those dead bodies were all part of a setpiece.  When it’s time for the end credits to roll, everything looks fine and there’s a beautiful sunset for Drake and Elena to stare into…even though I’m pretty sure they did that exact same thing in Drake’s Fortune.

*sigh* Shit.

I guess this is just how things are supposed to be, huh?  “Nothing has to be compelling or make sense as long as you move fast enough and throw explosions at your audience.”  That’s what Among Thieves is telling me -- and based on the reactions I’ve seen, the game seems to pretty much have the right idea.  Don’t worry about trying, kids.  Just scrape the barrel, and the accolades will come pouring in.

Like…am I going crazy here?  Am I the only one who has such crippling problems with this game?  (Besides Yahtzee, who seems to be coming closer and closer to being a prophet by the day?)  Is it wrong of me to expect the laws of causality to be in effect here?  Should I just not care that there’s no organic flow between anything that happens?  Does anyone out there notice that the story only exists to justify stupid moments of spectacle, which are worthless because there isn’t a single fucking character worth caring about over the course of at least eleven hours?

I ask this because Among Thieves’ attempts at being more in-depth are basically insulting.  Again, the “writing” here is comprised almost entirely of shortcuts -- tropes and clichés that only exist to artificially create the proper mood and circumstances.  To put it simply, it’s blatant manipulation.  And there’s no greater example of this than the game’s token attempts to make Drake out as a hero -- as if Naughty Dog heard the criticisms for Drake’s Fortune, and tried to run that back with some ham-fisted shortcuts.

I’m not exaggerating here.  Drake is called a hero, in-universe, at least three times.  And I burst out laughing each time.

Let’s set aside the fact that Drake is only a hero relative to stock strawmen like Lazarevic and Flynn.  Once more, there’s a massive gap between what happens in the gameplay and what happens in the story.  In one of the opening sequences, Drake chews Flynn out for trying to whip out the guns against innocent security guards in a museum -- and then minutes later, Drake tugs a guard off a roof so he’ll fall to his doom, and our “hero” can proceed with grand larceny.  I’ve heard the argument that the guard survives (he swims away, implausible as it sounds), but that’s ignoring the fact that A) Drake still tried to kill the guy, and B) Drake had no idea the guy would survive. 

Once more, Drake racks up a massive body count over the course of his adventure -- but in the one instance where he gets to travel with Sully, he starts having doubts about all the murder and thievery, and says maybe it’s not such a good idea.  Of course, this is minutes before he gets into a fistfight with a bunch of goons and beats them to death; even if he didn’t, he’d still be a gunman riddling body after body with bullets.  And he’d crack wise the whole time.  Does that sound like the kind of person who’d regret his actions, or the constant stream of violence?  Or is it the kind of guy who’d believe in a “fuck you, got mine” mantra?

Wait.  Something’s coming back to me.

Aaaaaaaaaaaand it’s gone.  Well, it couldn’t have been that important.

Anyway, the biggest amounts of bullshit in this game occur whenever an incidental character is introduced.  Elena enters the story with her cameraman Jeff, and you can basically count the seconds until he bites it.  But Drake, “hero” that he is, declares that he refuses to leave the dying man behind; so begins a sequence where you have to drag his body through a firefight.  All to save a character with what can’t be more than twenty words spoken throughout the entire game.  And then gets killed by Lazarevic because the Story Generator 5000 decrees that the bad guy must establish that he’s a bad guy, and thus must kill someone close to Drake.  But no one important, of course!  Just the most expendable guy in the scene.

Then later on, Drake meets Karl Schafer, a former Nazi living in that Tibetan village who also tried to find Shambhala (I know, right?  What a coincidence!).  Schafer’s basically just there to push Drake back towards a quest that’s jeopardizing the world -- probably, maybe, somehow -- with aggrandizing speech that wouldn’t be out of place in a movie trailer, or at the very least acts as if finding that cursed ground is his destiny.  And of course, Karl ends up biting it as well -- captured and later killed by Lazarevic to make the bad guy look worse (even though I thought he was dragging Schafer around to have a seasoned anthropologist to guide him), and for Drake to symbolically declare “it’s personal”…for a guy with what amounts to minutes of screen time.

When Drake finally slaughters his way to Lazarevic -- with a final boss fight that’s mercifully better than the one in Drake’s Fortune, but still annoying -- the baddie asks him how many men he’s killed in just that day.  Drake’s response?  Nothing.  Lazarevic taunts him by saying he doesn’t have the guts to end his life, and Drake agrees.  So he lets the cursed Shambhala guardians (oh yeah, they’re in the game too, I guess) kill Lazarevic on his behalf. 

Soooooooooooooooo…Drake understands he’s still an accomplice to murder, right?  And he hasn’t really managed to deflect Lazarevic’s question, or even consider it.  How is leaving him to get torn apart by blue meanies any different from putting a bullet through his head?  (That begs the question of how Ol’ Lazzy thought getting his hands on Shambhala’s immortality sap would make him unbeatable, given the existence of things like armies and ordnance, but whatever.)  If anything, isn’t Drake’s decision far crueler than granting him a swift end?

I guess it’s not worth worrying about, though.  Because thanks to Drake, Shambhala -- and everything that it entails, including what might be a cure for all of humanity’s diseases and ailments -- ends up getting destroyed.  All of itUp in fucking flames.

I don’t.  I just…I don’t.

This is it?  This is the game people have called a masterpiece?  This was the game that solidified one of the biggest franchises in modern gaming?  I mean…I don’t want to say that anyone who likes the game is wrong for liking it, but I simply cannot see the appeal.  Any of it.  It would be fine if there was even one likable character, but I’m two games in now, and I can’t say I care about anyone.  Well before Among Thieves’ credits rolled, I was more or less going “Shut the fuck up, Drake” and “Shut the fuck up, Chloe” and “Shut the fuck up, Elena” every time they spouted off a line that was supposed to be funny.  Or just talked in general.

Supposedly, Among Thieves’ faults can be forgiven because it’s “dumb fun”.  “Dumb” I can buy, but fun?  This is a game that opens up with a man bleeding out, and then stumbles desperately through the snow.  It’s also a game where heads get shot, necks get snapped, and bodies hit the ground one after the other.  It’s a game where towns and villages get ravaged by war, for the sake of a mission and goal that might not even pay off.  It’s a game where half the dialogue is wearisome snark, and the other half is breathless exposition about the weight of the plot.  It’s a game where things happen for no good reason besides cheap attempts at thrilling an audience, all to mask the fact that -- despite millions of dollars pumped in -- Among Thieves doesn’t have the slightest idea of how to thrill an audience.

But hey.  At least that Chloe has a sweet ass, amirite? 

*sigh*  That’s two down.

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