I didn't fully appreciate how good Uncharted 2 is until I played Halo 3: ODST. "Naughty Dog" is about right. The studio did, after all, ruin a game I'd been looking forward to all year. Bungie wasn't to know I'd play ODST right after the return of Nathan Drake, of course. But boy, that was a mistake.
How quickly does the familiar pall in the wake of fresh wonder. In Halo's case, how uninspiring the action, how rudimentary the characterisation, how drab it all felt after 11 hours and 21 minutes in Drake's wild world.
Halo 3: ODST's only crime was to be merely good. A good game can be judged on its own merits; a great one by the shadow it casts over others. Which might go some way to explaining ODST's hub world colour scheme.
Assassin's Creed II was the next to suffer. Now, this is a brilliant game and my Most Improved Franchise of 2009. But for the first few hours it was that same nagging, hollow sensation of drabness. The wooden acting, the stilted dialogue - it was all so 'videogame'. And that wasn't good enough anymore.
It's a chemistry thing. There is a palpable emotional connection between Drake and his two love interests, Chloe and Elena. Uncharted 2 isn't the first game to capture vocal and physical acting simultaneously. But compelling performances, a strong script, masterly direction and technical wizardry imbues these digital creations with real human warmth and depth of feeling.
Yes, I know it's just a cheesy Hollywood adventure. But it's also a videogame and in this context chemistry between characters is the shock of the new; the fulfilment of a medium's promise.
Some more context (and spoilers lie ahead, kids): the treatment of sex in Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed II. The flirtatious, sexually charged banter between Drake and Chloe feels convincingly real. As she makes her dignified exit in the final scene, quipping, "You're going to miss this arse", it works because you care about the characters. And probably her arse. The same goes for the loved-up teasing between Drake and Elena as the adventure fades to black.
In Assassin's Creed II, sex is reduced to a Quick Time Event. Ubisoft is toying with the nature of interactive entertainment here - explicitly so with the final command for the player to "interact". But holding physical intimacy at arm's length for laughs feels a little adolescent next to Uncharted 2.
Naughty Dog also manages a cinematic feat alien to most of its clunking peers: subtlety. Nothing better illustrates this than the moment the player first catches sight of the monster in the mountains. Having stumbled upon the ravaged corpses of wolves in a cave, Drake and his charmingly unintelligible companion press on. As the player thrusts Drake across a cavern and onto a natural ladder of craggy ledges, the camera zooms out to reveal a snorting, yeti-thing bristling in the foreground, gone in a moment.
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