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March 10, 2016

UnchartedPalooza!! Drake’s Deception

I want to start this post off with a list of games. 

*pulls envelope out of pocket and unfolds a sheet of paper*

Ahem.  So.  This list of games includes, in no particular order:

--Tales of Zestiria
--Xenoblade Chronicles X
--The Witcher 3
--Metal Gear Solid V
--Street Fighter V
--Yakuza 4
--Valkyria Chronicles
--Ni no Kuni

By no means is this a complete list, but I’m sure you can already guess the meaning behind them.  Indeed, this is a backlog of games that I want to play -- and hopefully write about at some point.  Moreover, it’s a list of games that are readily available to me; they were within a few steps of me every time I sat down to play Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.  But I refused to play them until I cleared every last game in The Nathan Drake Collection.

And every time I sat down to play Drake’s Deception, I was reminded just how dearly, how desperately I wanted to bail and play something else.

So if that intro wasn’t clear enough, I’ll say it plainly.  I think Uncharted 3 is terrible.  I don’t think I had any fun with it, and if not for completion’s sake -- writing about it, and getting ready for Uncharted 4 -- then I would’ve dropped it in an instant.  But I didn’t.  I played through all three of the console games, and honestly, I’m inclined to believe that the first one is the best of the three.  Bear in mind that I think the first one is rough beyond rough, and a game I didn’t have a lot of fun with.  But had I known what was looming around the corner, I’d have sung its praises from the rooftops back then.

So does that make Drake’s Deception the worst of the three?  Well, yes and no.  I’ll gladly admit that (for what it’s worth) the villain in this game is the best of the three.  The visuals have seen another uptick in quality.  The environments are just as good as they’ve always been, and probably better.  There are a couple of wrinkles in the gameplay that at least try to shake things up.  I wouldn’t say Naughty Dog was successful with them, but the effort is appreciable.

But that’s pretty much where the praise ends -- largely because that’s where the effort ends.  Drake’s Deception is not only a blatant rip-off of earlier installments in the franchise (and movies in general), but it also manages to be a worse rip-off of earlier installments.  Somehow, the gameplay and story alike have gone downhill.

And I have to be honest: the game’s slipshod, autopilot nature left me dead inside, even before I reached the halfway point.

So, once again, let’s go over the setup.  The game opens with Drake and Sully strolling through London, en route to make a big score by trading in the ring of Sir Francis Drake.  It’s a con orchestrated by our “heroes”, but they’re conned in turn and forced to bail.  Of course, the real thrust of the plot is that they’re hot on the heels of treasure left hidden by Sir Francis -- the treasure they’ve (supposedly) been hunting for the past twenty years. 

As a result, Drake and Sully -- along with their old pal Chloe, new comrade Cutter, and series mainstay Elena later on -- embark on a globe-trotting quest to uncover the mysteries of Drake’s off-the-record bounty, and the supposed “Atlantis of the Sands” where it’s hidden.  The only problem is that they’ll have to contend with an enemy from the past: the villainous (and British) Katherine Marlowe, alongside her loyal gunman Talbot.  Oh, and their army of hired goons, agents from a cabal of ancient conspirators, and pirates out to pilfer their way to the top.

I have…issues with this story.  But let’s talk about the gameplay first.

As always, Drake’s Deception makes use of the standard action-adventure suite.  Gunplay, stealth, platforming, and puzzle-solving, all interspersed with a heaping helping of setpieces.  Presumably, it’s all to help further the ultimate goal of the game and the franchise at large: create the feel of a big Hollywood blockbuster.  Or, alternatively, make the game into an unforgettable, adrenaline-pumping experience from start to finish.

How successful were they?  Opinions may vary, and I’m genuinely interested in hearing what people have to say about the franchise as a whole (especially if they’re playing the game fresh in the present day).  But if someone asked me, I’d say “not very”.  Like I said, I feel like the gameplay has gotten worse -- or if not worse, then the fact that it’s stayed the same since 2007 doesn’t make me want to say kind things about the franchise.

I assumed (or maybe hoped) that The Nathan Drake Collection would improve upon and refine the game so that it played better than ever.  Did Bluepoint Games change anything besides the graphics?  I don’t know.  But if they did improve the gameplay, then it either wasn’t enough, or there’s just too much inherently wrong with the franchise to fix.  Drake still doesn’t control very well; he’s sluggish, slow to turn, and his jump doesn’t feel particularly great.  Supposedly there’s a mechanic that lets you move to/around cover more easily, but I never got it to work right -- and really, ducking into and out of cover seems like a dice roll more often than it should.

One thing I noticed about Drake’s Deception -- and presumably, the Uncharted games before it -- is that you can’t hammer Circle to repeatedly dodge roll.  Following a roll, Drake will take a few steps before he can perform another roll.  I guess it’s a measure to help prevent players from abusing invincibility frames (assuming Uncharted even has those), but it’s more of a mobility tool than a perfect defensive measure.  Being a cover shooter, you need to be able to take cover quickly -- and being forced to saunter around when bullets are whizzing past your skull doesn’t make for a fun experience.  I mean, Gears of War also had a bit of a cooldown with its roll (IIRC), but you could do it again with minimal recovery frames.  Given the firefights there, it was a system that worked.

And now I’m praising Gears of War.  See what you’ve made me do, Naughty Dog?

Movement is haphazard, but the gunplay is basically the same as it’s ever been.  Well, on a surface level; I thought that Among Thieves had an uptick in difficulty so that you couldn’t rely solely on pistol headshots, but Drake’s Deception looped right back around to (usually) being a breeze.  There’s no shortage of headshot opportunities this time around; likewise, if you grab a shotgun then you can reliably clear an entire skirmish with run-and-gun “tactics”.  I know that playing on higher difficulties is an option, but shouldn’t Normal by definition feature a decent level of challenge?  Or better yet, shouldn’t there be a difficulty curve to hone and test a player’s skills?

It seems like Drake’s Deception confuses challenge for “cheapness” and “frustration”.  Some of these firefights basically come down to memorization, luck, and repeated failures -- almost like the devs thought it’d be cool to redo the Navarro fight from Drake’s Fortune over and over.  More than any other game so far, Drake’s Deception skews toward unfair enemy placement and unaccommodating arenas; sometimes it’s less about adapting to situations and more about knowing exactly what moves to make.  You know, unless you feel like enduring an instant kill and being forced to start a sequence over again.

Wait.  Flashbaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack…

…To nothing.  I don’t even know why I brought that up. 

Stealth in the game is still not great.  Once again, you’re occasionally given opportunities to sneak through areas and dispatch enemies quietly.  You know the drill: sneak from cover to cover, wait for baddies to sneak into your attack range, and snap their necks one they expose their backsides.  (Or you can slam them against walls and junk.)  You can whittle down their numbers, but unless you’re an ultra-skilled ninja, you probably won’t be able to get rid of everyone. 

The levels aren’t conducive to it, both in terms of layout and enemy placement; the odds are much higher for you to be spotted by enemies you’ve got no chance of spotting beforehand.  To be fair, I was under the impression that using the default punching instead of a stealth kill would immediately alert everyone, but that’s not the case.  With that said, you can get caught easily thanks to animations that lock Drake into a stealthy attack, and make him that much easier to spot.  So begins another firefight, where it’s less about skill and more about testing your endurance. And patience.

Melee combat is back, of course, but despite its tweaks and greater emphasis it feels decidedly worse than before.  I long for the days when you could succeed just by hitting Square, Triangle, Square for a Brutal Combo; now it’s as mechanical as it is annoying.  The two big wrinkles this time around are environmental attacks and grappling.  In the former’s case, you can do more damage to a foe by attacking them (with the Square button) near something interactive or static in a level.  You can bash guys while they’re pressed against walls or tables, or you can grab stuff like fish or bottles to wallop them.  I say can, because -- with this being more attuned to shooting -- you’re not given a lot of opportunities to start a big brawl…well, in theory.

The major drawback comes from the new grappling system.  The Circle button is mapped to a grab you can use to toss baddies around or away from you -- and if they lay their hands on you, then you have to mash to break their hold.  But the problem is that melee encounters are even harder to break away from because there’s so much mapped to one button.  Grappling, dodge-rolling, and getting into cover are all done with Circle, and the game doesn’t know which one you want to do until you’re a corpse. 

Moreover, melee combat is not fun in this game (or Among Thieves, by proxy).  Despite the shifting, “cinematic” camera angles, the fighting is beyond rudimentary.  All the dynamic visuals and slo-mo in the world can’t mask the fact that you beat everyone just by mashing Square until an enemy drops.

Although…something about that makes me feel nostalgic…

Well, whatever.  I’m in the present.

The fastest way (if not the only way) to beat baddies in a melee fight is to mash Square.  Occasionally you’ll have to hit Triangle to counter telegraphed moves, and occasionally you’ll have to mash Circle to break grabs.  It’s not a nuanced system, and there’s an inherent flaw: barring sequences where you’re forced into hand-holding fights against goons and big guys (because delusions of Hollywood grandeur), there’s absolutely no reason why you should prefer melee combat to gunplay.  This is why the Brutal Combo system helped in the first game; it incentivized a punch-up because it could potentially give you more ammo in a pinch, AND it offered up a quick way to resolve close-range battles.

In Drake’s Deception, there’s no incentive.  Why would you ever venture out of cover and take fifteen or thirty seconds to beat up one dude when you can safely kill them in less than a third of the time via that magical thing we call a gun?  I ask this, because if you get into a fistfight, other enemies will still shoot at you.  You can’t roll your way out of those fistfights, and you can’t really walk away, either; you’re locked in and have to end it as quickly as possible.  (It doesn’t help that the wonky movement makes it just as likely to accidentally enter fistfights instead of escaping them.)

The most reliable way I ended brawls prematurely -- and even then, with a middling success rate -- was to mash X to try and jump away from an opponent.  It kind of works, but it exposes another problem: Drake has to redraw his gun, slowly, and then aim at a foe, slowly.  How is it that a franchise that idolizes the Indiana Jones movies gets it so wrong so frequently?

So no, there isn’t a single element of the combat that I find exciting.  The exploration is still basically the best part of the game and the franchise at large, but it’s A) lost its allure across three separate games, and B) is in service of a franchise that’s basically beneath it.  Platforming with Drake still feels messy and imprecise; the game seems to arbitrarily decide what gaps Drake can clear and where he can land, and which drops -- however minor -- turn him into the secret unlockable costume, Street Pizza Drake.  Puzzles still offer a change of pace, but there’s no satisfaction to be had from challenges where the answers are laid out to you from the start via Drake’s notebook.  It doesn’t feel like I’m solving anything.  It just feels like the same process over and over again.

Step 1: Ask “What should I do here?”
Step 2: Look at stuff.
Step 3: Say “Oh, I guess I should do that here.”
Step 4: Solve puzzle via climbing and/or busywork.

And really, what’s it all for?  The environments in this game are cool, but I don’t want to explore them with a shitlord like Drake and his merry band of assholes.  He doesn’t care about the world around him, so even if the player wants to enjoy the sights and sounds of a lavishly-rendered, multimillion-dollar world, they can’t because they have to get railroaded into the next bit of “action”.  It’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist all over again; the devs made a beautiful world ready for exploration and interaction, but I can’t engage with it because Naughty Dog thinks I want to play a terrible game with an even more terrible plot.

I feel like this whole game -- if not the whole franchise -- exists to carry players toward the next big “fist-pumping” sequence.  And I pretty much have to put that in quotations, because virtually every time Uncharted tries to induce thrills -- often by wresting control from the player -- it completely falls flat.  Or it gets run into the ground via repetition.  I should’ve done this from the outset, but for Drake’s Deception I decided to try and keep a running tally at how many times something would collapse/fall from under/bend thanks to Drake.  And you know what?  I actually lost count.  It’s more than thirty, I can tell you that much.  But that number is taken from a point well before the climax.

Setpieces are back once again, but the veneer has practically faded away.  I don’t have anything against spectacle, but it has to be good, and it has to be deserved.  Earned.  I’m not going to clap my hands like a brain-dead seal just because there’s lots of noise and explosions on the screen.  I’m certainly not going to do it if the setpieces aren’t good enough -- and they aren’t good enough, because some of them are copy-pasted from Among Thieves.  You shoot at guys while hanging from a precarious position, again.  You jump from one speeding truck in an enemy convoy to the next, again.  You escape from a crumbling ancient city, again.  And as always, there are sequences where you have to run at the camera to escape from danger -- whether it’s killer spiders (repeated twice) or a verifiable tidal wave.

So, like…does anyone reading this remember Metal Gear Rising?

That game is good for a lot of reasons, most of which are based on the fact that it does the opposite of the Uncharted games.  True, MGR also makes use of some scripted sequences and setpieces, but does them better; for starters, the spectacle is original and stylish, and impossible to reproduce in virtually any other universe.  More importantly, though?  The spectacle and setpieces are actively made into part of the gameplay in a palpable way.  To put it simply, the setpieces aren’t just “move as you normally would, only with in-game triggers making stuff happen around you” or “run away from the thing that’s only a threat if you forget how to use a control stick”; the boss fights themselves are what contain the most action, earned by both the characters’ efforts and the player’s skill.

It’s the mission of every piece of fiction out there to put up an illusion -- to pull audiences out of the real world and into an imaginary one.  That holds true for games, because they suck their players into a rhythm that can’t be broken.  But not all of them can excel at that.  MGR does because its spectacle is made into an active part of the experience; by and large, you’re still playing, and living through epic action without agency being wrested from you.  Uncharted doesn’t because its spectacle is passive.  Cruise control gameplay begets cruise control setpieces; the second you realize that the action can be cleared just by holding the stick in a direction, you realize that it’s all a bunch of smoke and mirrors.

But it gets worse.  It gets way worse.

You could say this about the other Uncharted games, but it comes to a head in Drake’s Deception.  Naughty Dog was so hell-bent on pumping up their third game with spectacle -- on following CliffyB’s mantra of “bigger, better, and more badass” -- that I’m convinced absolutely NO thought went into making sure the setpieces actual have contextual relevance.  Or, to put it simply: they just threw shit in and never stopped to ask “Wait, does this make sense?”  The simplest answer is that it doesn’t.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when the game just dies.  Granted, it was already bleeding out on the floor before that, but I’ll get to that earlier section in a bit.  For now, I have to talk about a scene when Drake and Sully are in Syria to find Chloe and Cutter.  They find them quickly, of course, but so do the bad guys.  Cue a scene where two of Marlowe’s men rush Drake while he’s exploring a tower.  They’re in a narrow hallway at least ten stories up, and one of the dudes decides to use a grenade point-blank to kill Drake. 

The grenade explodes.  The wall gets blown out, and all three men are thrown into a fall.  The two goons bite it, presumably.  But Drake?  Drake, despite being INCHES away from the grenade’s blast -- keeping in mind that this is the same franchise where getting blown up at that range nearly killed Elena -- doesn’t take any damage from it.  Not only that, but he just so happens to be flung out the hallway and onto a chain that just so happens to be hanging from the side of the tower, and just so happens to have a clear route back to the interior.  The fucker isn’t even winded by any of that.

I stared at the screen for minutes on end -- literally agape, with the pad dangling limply in my hand.  I couldn’t believe that it had actually happened.  I couldn’t believe that someone thought that sequence was a good idea, much less committed to virtual film.  Like…how do you even write or storyboard a scene like that?  “Drake gets blown out of a tower thanks to a grenade detonating in his face, but he survives without a scratch and grabs onto a chain hanging conveniently on the outside wall of the tower.” 

It’s like…Naughty Dog, do you just want to make cartoons?  Why don’t you just make cartoons?  You seemingly have no grasp of verisimilitude or reality in general, so why don’t you stick to what you clearly excel at and stop pretending otherwise?  Is this just the company mantra?  Is this their M.O.?  Is this their ninja way?  It’s as if they have a plaque hanging up in their headquarters that just says “Nothing has to make sense or connect in any organic way!  Logical and emotional grounding is for bitches!  You can just do whatever you want as long as it leads to cool moments and is backed by cinematic visuals!  Now to sit back and let the GOTY awards roll in by the truckload!”

This rant is making me think back to something.

I’ll think of it someday.

The more reasonable -- if cynical -- answer to my woes is that Naughty Dog just didn’t give a shit.  I know I try to be fair to devs and the men and women behind them, and I try to respect the effort that goes into making even the most basic product, but I’m seriously out of sympathy for this company and this series.  This is the third game in a lauded, popular, financially successful, big-budget franchise, and yet they couldn’t be bothered to make a plot that isn’t copy-pasted almost entirely from Among Thieves…which in its own right was copy-pasted from Drake’s Fortune

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Drake finds himself getting into some shady business while he’s on the lookout for treasure.  Naturally, he stumbles -- conveniently -- upon a lead that’ll take him straight to a hidden bounty (bonus points for it being Sir Francis Drake’s exploits, just like the first game…though that begs the question of why we’re only just now hearing about a treasure Drake’s wanted for decades).  A batch of villains that doubles as a private army also wants the bounty, and Drake out of the way…even though multiple opportunities to kill him are ignored.  Cue a globetrotting adventure where Drake explores ancient ruins, solves puzzles, and finds more conveniently-placed clues that lead him to the next stage of the game area to investigate. 

Despite constant arguments with his companions about whether or not he should do anything, Drake soldiers on…even if it means leading the baddies closer to the bounty.  Speaking of which, Drake discovers that the bounty is actually some dangerous weapon from the past that can be misused.  Drake finds the lost city he’s been looking for alongside the bounty -- and he destroys it, along with the lost city in question.  Drake and pals make it out alive, and toss around jokes with a sunset backdrop -- with Elena in tow as his reward for single-handedly acting as an archaeologist’s nightmare and one-man embodiment of genocide saving the day.  Speaking of, Elena continues to suck.

Obviously, I consider the grenade sequence to be a game-breaker in a lot of ways.  One of them carries over directly into the story: there are no real consequences for Drake to face throughout the entirety of Drake’s Deception.  Oh, sure, he’ll get kidnapped by pirates, but he’ll murder his way through all of them.  He’ll get lost at sea, but he’ll wash up on just the shore he needs to be on to advance the plot.  He’ll wander through a desert for several days, but once it’s time for the gunplay to happen, he’s perfectly fine.  And just like the last game, he’ll be saved by a skilled local native when there’s even the slightest chance he could fail.  (Let’s not dwell on the implications here.)  He’s indestructible, which means that the illusion of danger from the setpieces completely vanishes.  No danger and no stakes = no quality.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the game’s treatment of Sully.  I’ve said before that Sully’s probably the best character in the whole franchise -- or if not that, then certainly my favorite of the bunch.  Things are at their best when he and Drake are clowning around; since I knew going in that Drake’s Deception had the highest Sully concentration, I assumed that it would mean the third game would be the best.  Unfortunately, it just served as a reminder that there are no consequences, and thus no reason for any excitement or concern for anything that happens.

Elena foreshadows pretty heavily that Drake’s antics are putting the people he cares about most at risk, which would imply that Sully ends up biting it thanks to Nate’s mistakes.  It’s true that Sully ends up getting kidnapped by Marlowe and crew, but he still makes it to Iram, the Atlantis of the Sands, in one piece.  One would think Sully’s kidnapping would offer up a chance for Nate to reflect on his actions, and realize the error of his ways.  And indeed, a little ways into Iram it looks as if Sully got shot to death by Talbot…only for it to be revealed a bit later that it was all a hallucination brought about by drinking tainted water.  (Which also leads to fighting imaginary psycho-soldiers, but this franchise has shown consistently that no supernatural force prepared for the advent of the gun.)   

Sully doesn’t actually die, and he and Nate walk away from Iram (a city Nate destroys, because fuck archaeology) with just a few scrapes and dirt.  Meanwhile, everyone who came even tangentially close to crossing them is dead.  Marlowe even sinks to the bottom of a conveniently-placed pool of quicksand…although Drake, “hero” that he is, tried to save her.  Just in case you forgot he’s totally a good guy despite all the murder and selfish motivations.  Also, let’s take a moment to soak up the irony; Drake imagines Sully’s death and goes on a slightly-angrier killing spree than usual.  Marlowe actually dies and Talbot -- as the parallel protégé -- goes berserk…but not one second was spent considering the implications.  Not even one.

I’d think (or hope) that Drake at least lost some money thanks to his venture, as he did in Among Theives.  If he didn’t, then it would mean that he doesn’t have the impetus needed to say “Gee, maybe my obsession with travelling the world in search of treasure left buried for a reason is pretty self-destructive.  I should give it a rest.”  He’s safe and sound, his enemies are defeated -- i.e. dead -- and Sully, Chloe, and Cutter are all alive.  (Granted Cutter broke his leg due to a fall and had to be removed from the story -- coinciding with his actor being forced to bail and work on The Hobbit -- but he came stupidly close to biting it.)

What really gets to me is that Elena ends up emphasizing the lack of consequences even further.  Let’s set aside the fact that she’s bland at best and annoying at worst (or often, depending on your point of view).  Likewise, let’s ignore that for the third time in a row, she’s forced to be an accomplice to murder and ostensibly break all sorts of international laws just to help out a criminal she finds dreamy.  Once again, Drake and Elena had a falling-out off-screen that led to them splitting up, only for them to reconnect by story’s end (because delusions of Hollywood grandeur).  This time, however, it apparently happened after Drake proposed to her.

So basically, Drake left Elena with nothing but the ring on her finger to go chase after some ancient bounty, putting himself and his mentor in danger for the sake of something he can’t even be sure exists.  But despite that -- despite only the vaguest traces of onscreen chemistry -- Elena still helps Drake out in his mission, offers him support, and is right there at the end despite him putting her in danger again.  Seriously, Drake makes a big speech near the end about how he doesn’t want to risk her life, but this is after he had her risk her life to help him sneak onto Marlowe’s cargo plane.  She even offers him a lap to sleep on after his little pirate adventure…even though he probably needed a doctor, and desperately, but I guess Mr. Invincible can just sleep off his drift across the ocean.  And of course, she’s right there to welcome him back with open arms…AFTER he finished his little adventure.

Okay, soooooooooooo…I don’t like Drake, and I can’t say I like Elena either.  But even if I was neutral toward the two of them, I feel like this is kind of a messed-up relationship.  Nate abandons Elena for a selfish quest with no guarantee of success, a chance at financial ruin, and potential -- if not regular -- dealings with the criminal underworld.  He only calls her up to help further his selfish quest, and gets her involved as well as pulled into firefights against scores of trained gunmen. 

I'm sure it's fine.  It's not as if Elena almost got blown up in the last game.

Then he abandons her again to go save his pal Sully -- someone he ended up endangering because for some reason he thought he’d trust plot-critical information solely to Sully, despite no precedent for it throughout three separate games -- and only crawls back to her once his search for Sir Francis Drake’s treasure is a bust.  And she takes him back.  Despite all of that.  Despite the fact that the mere THOUGHT of abandoning someone you supposedly love, let alone the act of it, is the greatest sin a man could make.  I’d like to think that I’m a patient and forgiving person, but if I were Elena, I would’ve told Drake to fuck off and never look back -- not act as his enabler from start to finish.

And it would be fine -- or at least a little better -- if this, the third game in the franchise, actually gave us a legitimate reason as to why Drake keeps endangering himself and his closest friends on his treasure hunts.  The game even shines a spotlight on that, with several characters asking why he does what he does.  And yet, even with three games down, there hasn’t been a single clear reason for Drake’s motivation.  No explanation, no train of thought.  The most I can get out of it is that our “hero” just shrugs, smirks, and goes “Why not?”  Or, when pressed on the subject, his answer -- if not his mindset -- basically boils down to “Come ooooooooooooooooooon.  What are you, scared?”

And not even that meager bit is consistent.  Throughout this whole franchise, there’s been a flip-flop of who says what; sometimes Drake will be the one who says “What are you, scared?”  And other times, it’ll be another character -- like Elena -- who tells him to keep going for unexplained reasons.  It’s basically the same conversation over and over (repeated about three times in Drake’s Deception), and despite seeming like something substantial, nothing ever comes of it.  It’s lip service.  It’s filler.  It’s all a bunch of nonsense to convince the audience that the conflict, internal and external, is bigger than it is.

Drake’s Deception acts like it wants to characterize Drake, but it’s still woefully inadequate -- partly because it’s the third game in a four-year span trying to add depth to a character that’s basically had none.   Even then, I don’t feel like I learned a damn thing about the inner workings of this character despite spending what might be a good twenty-five hours with the franchise.  Like, I had high hopes for the game because it has a flashback chapter featuring Kid Drake -- because I thought it’d peel back the layers to show who he really is.  And it didn’t.  It’s almost as if a twenty-year disconnect from the meat of the game is ultimately inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

It kind of makes you wonder…

…About nothing.  Let’s continue.

I guess the big takeaway from the flashbacks (and the third game at large) is that Drake isn’t the descendant of the legendary Sir Francis, but just someone pretending to have a famous bloodline so he can feel better about himself.  I’m not entirely sure how hunting after ancestral bounties is supposed to compensate for the fact that he was a poverty-stricken inductee into a boarding school/escapee from a broken home -- especially since Sir Francis “buried” so many of his secrets -- but whatever.  Also, why he’d choose to define himself as a treasure-hunting criminal for the past twenty years is similarly suspect, but double-whatever.  The important takeaway is that Kid Drake is also a smart aleck thief with an improbable skill set, unclear motivations, and a taste for murder in gameplay…but can’t pull the trigger when he’s in a cutscene, because fuck gameplay and story integration.

And really, what does seeing Drake’s origin (such as it is) add to the game or the understanding of the character?  He starts off trying to steal a centuries-old treasure from a museum, which would be riveting if he didn’t do that exact same thing as an adult at the start of Among Thieves.  We see how he met Sully and became his protégé, but their relationship and bond was basically understood well before that point (though it’s worth noting that Sully says he’ll always be there for Nate, despite bailing out early into Among Thieves).  The most substantial thing to come out of it is setting up Marlowe as the game’s villain.

By default, she is the best of the three villains.  Being around Sully’s age, she doesn’t exactly get a lot of opportunities to go head-to-head with Nate (though that makes her a Rule 63 version of Gabriel Roman from Drake’s Fortune, especially since he also had a younger right hand man to fight as the last boss).  But at the very least, she’s the only character who opts to hurt Drake psychologically instead of physically, since she knows his origins better than Roman or Lazarevic. 

The groundwork is there for a strong villain and rivalry, but nothing substantive really materializes from it.  It certainly doesn’t help that she’s removed from hours upon hours of the game, which means she only has enough time to be a stock upper-class British villainess.  And she gets sucked into the sand because…uh…come to think of it, why did she decide to head to Iram personally?  Given its desert location, wouldn’t she want to delegate from the safety and comfort of an office?

Ah, why am I even asking such a valid question?  Naughty Dog acted like it didn’t give a shit, so why should I?

Here’s the proof that they were on autopilot from start to finish.  Early on, Drake and his pals gain a lead on the Atlantis of the Sands, largely by combining his and Marlowe’s MacGuffins and making use of related clues.  As a result, he figures out where they need to go -- or at least narrows it down to two locations: France and Syria.  Drake and Sully opt for France, and proceed to a long-lost chateau to find the plot more clues.  After a while, they stumble upon a nasty surprise: Marlowe’s men are on the scene, fully-equipped and ready to murder their way to victory.

Question: how did they know where Drake and the others went?  Only the four “heroes” were present for the assembly of both MacGuffins.  They had the clues, and all of the power; conversely, Marlowe had none.  So that means Marlowe lost.  The trail ran cold for her.  There was no way she or her goons could’ve figured out where Nate went -- so of course, Naughty Dog Teleportation™ spawns a small army on-site.  The only justification given is a throwaway line where Drake says “They must have followed us.”  I’m not sure how they pulled that off, given that they could barely even find you when you snuck around their base.  So the only explanation is that Drake and crew are incompetent idiots…despite them being professionals in the art of thievery, plunder, infiltration, and general misdemeanors.

I didn’t say it was a good explanation.

That’s basically the whole game’s M.O.  Some of the stupidest and most contrived things I’ve ever seen in a video game will happen because this event or that plot point has to happen -- even if it means warping the narrative to make that happen.  The plane sequence is one of the most famous moments of Drake’s Deception, since it features our “hero” struggling to stay safe inside a wide-open and busted-up plane.  But while a trailer will show you such an “epic” setpiece, it won’t show you the reason for it.  Get this: after sneaking onto Marlowe’s cargo plane, Drake decides it’d be a good idea to leave his safe zone and start exploring, only to get spotted immediately. 

But then, instead of the goon snagging his gun and shooting him immediately, he decides it’d be cool to open the main hatch and throw Drake out of it, because fuck good ideas.  But then, Drake decides it’d be a good idea to unload all of the cargo -- which ends up doing more damage to the plane and inducing some explosive decompression -- just so he could have it slam into a guy he’d already basically killed. 

So basically, the scene is started off by sheer idiocy, and the only reason Drake survives is because he slams into a random crate with a parachute and drifts safely to the desert below…while everyone else on the plane presumably dies.  But hey, gotta get him into the desert scene featured on the box and promo art somehow, right?  You can take as many shortcuts as you want as long as it leads to a cool setpiece!  That’s the Naughty Dog way!

People have taken issue with the boat/pirate ship segment of the game before, and I’m 100% in agreement.  It’s got the “thrilling” “action” you’d expect gameplay-wise, coupled with one of the most frustrating firefights in the entire franchise to date (because it demands memorization, luck, and basic clairvoyance).  Likewise, playing in arenas where water becomes a factor -- and makes you bob up and down so your aim gets disrupted -- isn’t what I’d call pleasant.  But while the gameplay is annoying enough, it’s the circumstances surrounding it that make the sequence even more annoying.

Like I said earlier, Drake entrusts Sully with crucial information -- a proverbial map of the stars that’ll lead to Iram -- for reasons I have yet to understand.  Like, he just tells Sully to memorize everything in a couple of seconds and doesn’t bother to write it down.  Why?  Presumably, it’s so the plot can happen; Drake gets nabbed by Marlowe, but since he doesn’t have the info she needs, that puts Sully in direct danger.  Note that Nate telling Sully to keep that vital info comes just minutes after Elena pulled our “hero” to say his antics are putting Sully at risk.  And he’s even more at risk because that crucial info paints a target on the old man’s back.

What’s even more irritating is the fact that the game pretends like the sea adventure -- wherein Nate gets taken in by pirates -- acts as it it’s relevant to the plot when it clearly isn’t.  For whatever reason, he’s convinced that the pirates have Sully locked up somewhere on their ship, and is genuinely surprised to find a dummy in his stead.  But think about it: why would the pirates ever have Sully?  Marlowe dumped Nate off to get rid of him; since Nate’s useless, she needs Sully to fulfill her ambitions, so there’s no reason why she would ever hand him over to the pirates.  Why would the game even entertain the thought of Sully being in the pirates’ care, especially since they interrogate Nate about the treasure’s location?

Remarkably, things get even more irritating.  Not only does Drake saunter deep into enemy territory to find Sully -- and walk into a trap -- but he’s also directly responsible for the big “sinking ship” sequence.  He pulls a grenade off some dude (who approached him despite being held at gunpoint, because fuck the concept of long range), and it ends up getting thrown at the ship wall…which in turn blows up a chunk of it, and makes the ship start to sink.  But it’s fine, because it’s something Drake can escape from easily.  All he has to do is survive improbable collisions, have stuff fall from under him, and run at the camera while something chases him.  As a side note: I just love how the game FORCES you into The Prometheus School of Running Away from Things to escape a wave of water.  Try to turn when you have a clear opening?  You die and have to start over.  I just love it when games force you to play in one exact, perfect way under penalty of death.


I’ve got it.  This franchise is slowly killing me.  And by slowly, I mean I think I can see my flesh melting away.

So Drakes motivations basically boil down to what might as well be a game of Truth or Dare.  What about the villains?  Honestly, I can’t believe that Drake’s Deception pulled this: it’s revealed in the last hour, maybe hour and a half, that Marlowe’s plan is to harvest the contaminant in Iram’s water to create a fear drug that’ll more or less see use as the ultimate biological weapon.  Think of it as Scarecrow’s fear gas, and you’re pretty much there. 

Sounds terrifying right?  I mean, if you ignore the fact that A) Marlowe’s been behind Team Drake for most of the game, and arguably shouldn’t know anything extensive about Iram’s secret, and B) she couldn’t even be 100% sure there was anything to find in the desert, thereby blowing what might as well be millions in expedition costs.  And as a corollary, if it turned out Sir Francis Drake just hid a big treasure, how does that help out someone presumably rolling in dough already?

But here’s the main problem: Marlowe already has the ultimate biological weapon.  Talbot has shot up Drake and crew with toxins throughout the entire game, forcing them to hallucinate, go nuts, and even obey the commands of the baddies.  It sounds like some magic bullshit to me, but this is a game that’s already featured zombifying gas and regenerative tree sap, so it’s fine.  But I don’t understand why Marlowe and Talbot need to go to Iram if they’ve already used their magic drug to great effect in the past.

And since the full extent of the drug (up to and including its quantity) is never explained, there’s no telling why they need to go on this risky venture…or why they aren’t always using it.  Hell, I’m still not even sure why they need to bother with getting a magic drug; they seem to have infinite manpower, resources, weaponry, connections, and diplomatic immunity already, so haven’t they already technically won?  I seriously hope the game isn’t implying that Marlowe spent twenty years of her life searching for a golden goose when she already had ample opportunities to control the planet from the comfort of a spiffy chair.  Even if she didn’t, the whole venture strikes me as entirely pointless.

And honestly?  I’m inclined to say that’s the game in a nutshell.

I don’t know if Naughty Dog planned for Uncharted to be a trilogy from the outset, or if the success and AAA-dominated market forced them to rely on safe-bet sequels.  If Drake’s Deception wasn’t planned, then I can see why; crowbarring in Marlowe, Nate’s “origin”, a secret use for Nate’s ring, and another heretofore unmentioned treasure of Sir Francis Drake seems like plenty of evidential material.  If Drake’s Deception WAS planned, then I weep for the devs and everyone involved. 

No lessons have been learned.  No evolutions have been made.  No progress has transpired.  Things either stayed the same over the course of four years, or got progressively worse -- because of baffling changes to an already-flawed foundation, or an absolute refusal to work on inherent problems.  And I know that it takes effort to make a game.  I know it takes passion.  Creating anything takes time and dedication, so I hate that I have to hate a creation Naughty Dog put so much into.  But part of making a good creation is having the skill and wisdom -- the discipline -- to know what should be added, and what shouldn’t.

At no point in Drake’s Deception -- and retroactively, throughout the three main Uncharted games -- did I get a sense of that discipline.  The franchise got off to a rough start, as far as I’m concerned.  The second game offered a chance to improve, but squandered that potential and staunchly refused to work on underlying problems for the sake of masking them with “high-adrenaline” sequences -- which ultimately feel unearned without a strong narrative core to ground them.  And with this, the third game -- a game that would help ensure that the franchise would sell more than 21 million copies -- those problems were put under the magnifying glass.

Playing Drake’s Fortune left me disappointed.  Playing Among Thieves left me furious.  Playing Drake’s Deception left me dead inside.  Killing Talbot in a rudimentary boss fight/setpiece was a souring experience, but immediately lifted my spirits.  Once the trophy notifications popped up, I had finally been freed.  The shackles dropped from my ankles, and I could move on to other games.  Better games.  Games that respected my intelligence.  Games that delivered on their promises.  Games with mechanical complexity.  Games with challenge and gratification.  Games with artistry woven into every frame.  Games with pride and confidence -- with the delight in being games, and being the very best they could be.

Maybe someday, Naughty Dog will make a modern game that’s truly worthy of the pedigree.  But until that day comes, they really should just stick to making cartoons.  They might as well; they are the guys behind Jak and Daxter.

Wait a minute…Jak and Daxter?



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