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The video game market has become so oversaturated with huge numbers of titles that it can be hard to tell the good from the bad. The only place most gamers can turn to is review scores, but unfortunately the majority fall between the 7.0 to 9.0 range. What’s even worse is that the same game that is rated a 7.0 on one website will be rated a 9.0 on another. How is a person supposed to know what makes a good game and what doesn’t.
This is where I come in. I’m starting a new series entitled “Breaking through game Limitations”, which will take an in-depth look into past and present releases to explain what makes incredible games so great. This series will not focus on the negative, but will instead strive to only examine the positive aspects of a game’s design. My hope is that you will take away from this an idea of what elements of great game design you should look for in future titles.
The first game I will be taking a look at for this series is Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. To find out what developer Naughty Dog did to make this title so great, hit the jump.
When Uncharted was first announced back at E3 2006, many people were perplexed at exactly what it was. While the developer, Naughty Dog, did have a great reputation thanks to popular games like Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot, no one knew what to make of this Tomb Raider look a like. Was Nathan Drake really an original character who people would enjoy playing as, or was he simply another Indiana Jones rip-off with no redeeming qualities of his own.
As more and more gameplay footage was shown people started comparing the game to Gears of War, thanks to a cover system which appeared almost identical to the one designed for the Xbox 360 exclusive. The game simply could not catch a break, and many people started thinking it would bring nothing new to the table that would cause anyone to remember its place in the PS3 library. When the game was finally released in November of 2007 everyone’s doubts were quickly erased, as the game was met with rave reviews. Immediately it became apparent that Uncharted got a lot of aspects of its design right, things which the games people compared it to did not.
The first thing Naughty Dog gets right with Uncharted is the 3D platform gameplay mechanic. One problem with Tomb Raider is the impossibly hard acrobatic platforming. Whenever you are trying to jump from one ledge to another, or when you are trying to scale a wall, you have to have perfect timing and control. One small mistake and you’re forced to start all over. This has caused millions of gamers to rage out in anger as they try for the 30th time to get the last jump in a section of the game exactly right in order to move on. Subsequently, Tomb Raider has been blamed for many holes in walls, thanks to controllers being thrown across the room.
Uncharted never suffers from any cases of overly difficult platforming elements. Surprisingly, the game seems to make every jump have the perfect timing for you. Even if it looks like your aim was a little off and you won’t finish a jump, Nathan Drake always seems to change his direction just enough to just catch a ledge in time. This is a very good thing because well over 30% to 40% of the game is platforming. If these sections were as difficult as they would be in Tomb Raider, many people would be throwing their controllers in anger all the time. Instead, the exasperation is kept to a minimum, allowing people to actually enjoy the platforming sections. Trust me when I say it’s a welcome relief.
Another thing Uncharted gets right is its characters. Nathan Drake, the games’ main protagonist, is one of the best game personalities to come along in years. What makes him so likeable is the fact that he’s an “every-man” explorer. There’s nothing particularly special about Nathan and he appears to suffer from the same character flaws as most people do. He’s arrogant, selfish, self centered, and seems to have a witty remark for everything. At the same time though he seems to care about his friends and those around him who are under his protection, like his female companion Elena Fisher.
When Drake finds himself in tough situations he doesn’t just pull out a big gun and start shooting like a lot of other leading characters. Instead he has to use quick thinking, hard work, and a little bit of luck to find his way out of those predicaments. Of course there are many situations which call for him to do a lot of shooting, but the game never makes you feel like you are some super human soldier. You are simply one guy who’s trying his best to not get his head shot off in order to make it out alive.
The other character Naughty Dog gets right is journalist Elena Fisher. The first thing you’ll notice about her is that she doesn’t have the super huge breasts or round voluptuous butt of most other female game personalities. She also doesn’t wear super tight clothing that reveal her womanly features. Instead she comes off as the girl next door who you would bring home to meet your mom. Now how often do you find girls like that in a video game? I can only think of few, if any at all, to be honest with you.
The other thing that’s great about Elena is that she’s not the typical damsel in distress. While there are many points in the game that Nathan wants to turn away and just give up, Elena always wants to push forward. She might have just escaped a gun fight by the skin of her teeth, but her thirst for adventure is never fulfilled. She appears to be very goal oriented and she doesn’t know how to quit until she’s met that goal. It’s a character trait that not a lot of female side kicks have these days. They are either all rough and tough and carry a big gun, or they are whiny and just need to be saved by a big strong man. Elena is neither, and that makes her extremely unique in the video game world.
While Uncharted might get its characters just right, another thing it excels at is level design; specifically, its use of colors. I’m not sure how anyone ever attempted to compare this game to Gears of War. While Epic’s blood and gore fest uses a 16-color brown and gray palette, Uncharted uses millions upon millions of colors to create it set pieces. Everything from the jungle environments to its Spanish Monasteries are all bathed in beautiful Earth tones which really give the game a look and feel of its own. If someone was to put this game on a TV in public and leave it playing, rest assured people would stop to gander at its beauty. It’s a shame more games don’t attempt to use the entire range of the color spectrum the way Uncharted does.
Finally, the last thing Naughty Dog really gets right is the fully orchestrated musical score for the game. Created by composer Greg Edmonson, best known for his work on the cult TV show Firefly, the music always seems to capture the exact atmosphere of the scene. Thanks to a mix of traditional and more unusual ethnic instruments, Greg is able to make a sound for the game that is really all its own. You know he has created something special when you turn off the game and you can still hear the title screen music resonating in your head. There just aren’t enough game soundtracks that stick with you anymore long after you’ve walked away.
As you can see, while Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune might be two years old at this point, it still stands as a pinnacle in game design for this current generation. It managed to get a lot of things right like its 3D platforming mechanics, character and level design, and its musical score. Other companies would do well to take a lesson from Naughty Dog and learn from their creativity. They are one of the best developers out there today, and they have made Uncharted a game that truly breaks through game limitations.