My Reconciliation with ‘Uncharted’

When it comes to the Uncharted series, I’m a bit of a wet blanket. I’ve derided Nathan Drake as a more generic, murderous version of Indiana Jones. I’ve accused Uncharted 2 of . I’ve complained that the Uncharted games afford players frustratingly inconsistent levels of freedom. I’ve even criticized them as potentially dangerous to the medium’s long term health. I say all of this not as attempt to demonstrate my sophistication or elitism, but rather to emphasize the unlikelihood of my next statement: I can’t wait to play Uncharted 3.

What is the cause of my sudden enthusiasm, you ask? Even though the game is almost universally renowned as the epitome of single-player games, it was the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta that has turned me into a believer. Not only does the game incorporate and iterate on the competitive modes and rules of other shooters, it turns many of the aspects I see as weaknesses in the single-player game into strengths.

In a post-Modern Warfare world, shooters are almost obligated to have persistent progression systems, unlockable special skills, and weapon modifications. Uncharted 3 incorporates these things, but it does so in a way less punishing to new or unskilled players. New guns and special killstreak-style bonuses are still unlocked through attrition: play for long enough, and you’ll earn the ability to instantly gain a rocket launcher or turn into a horde of murderous spiders. However, getting to use these abilities is about more than simply being a killing machine.

Gaining “medals” in a match eventually activates combat bonuses, but these medals are given out for a wide variety of actions. In addition to being a superhuman warrior, players can gain medals for surviving a close call, helping a friend, or being fragged by an unlucky shot. The result is the softening of the “piling on” dynamic that arises in Modern Warfare in which the best players are rewarded by a positive feedback loop that furthers their dominance. In Uncharted, the best players usually still win, but medals ensure a greater sense of parity throughout the match, which is a welcome thing to people lacking the hours needed to fully master the game.

Collecting the treasure that spawns on the map during matches boosts players’ medal counts and cash reserves and also explores the themes of Uncharted‘s world of treasure hunters. Moving as a team and cooperating on objectives is often the safest way to play, but the promise of riches serves to lure players into dangerous situations. Uncharted‘s single-player stories often explore issues of trust and betrayal, but the multiplayer lets players discover first hand whether there is such a thing as “honor among thieves.” What is worth more: a team victory or individual advancement? Can your teammates really handle the enemy on their own, or are you just saying that to justify your greed as you scramble to be the first to the treasure?

In the single-player stories, Drake and his crew ponder these questions, but their intellects and human frailties (both physical and emotional) are discarded when the player takes control. The lovable everyman of the authored narrative becomes a sociopath during the gameplay. Without drastic changes to either the game’s mechanics or its plot, the two versions will never meet. The multiplayer has the courage to make a choice: all pretense of solemnity is thrown out the window in favor of an environment in which people leap from three-story buildings, barrel roll across the stage, and celebrate a great shot with hearty pelvic thrusts. Since there is no obligation to reality or a single coherent plot, the game’s deep-seated silliness has room to breathe.

Uncharted‘s other single-player quirks take on new, more meaningful roles in the multiplayer context. Sometimes, “bullet sponges” have their advantages: It takes quite a few bullets to down a player, which leads to longer, more dynamic encounters. In the campaigns, Uncharted is only a platformer in the loosest sense, as there is rarely any real danger of failing to make a jump or scale a wall. In the multiplayer, this sense of certainty is less important, as the real challenge comes the possibility of being exposed while climbing. While the environment often looks hazardous, it is actually other humans that give it danger.

In multiplayer, the gorgeous clutter strewn about the dense surroundings is more than mise-en-scene: rooms crowded with trinkets, crumbling buildings, and shadowy corridors add to the ambiance, but also force players to make tactical considerations. Bright colors and tricks of the light are more than neat graphical demonstrations, as players can use them to ambush their opponents. The sheer amount of material in the world requires players to hone their skills in identifying its most useful parts. Knowing whether a ledge is low enough to reach or anticipating a player lurking in the dark is the often the difference between victory and defeat.

While most of the drama in matches is player-created, hints of Uncharted‘s cinematic sensibilities are present. When your team is at a disadvantage, an orchestrated tune is piped in to augment the sense of desperation. Ancient treasures fill the roles of flags or markers. Short cutscenes bookend matches and teams are clearly designated as “heroes” and “villains.” Such small touches are subtle, but they imbue the game with some of the personality the single-player mode fosters. Without trampling the carefree chaos of the multiplayer, Uncharted 3’s aesthetic style helps differentiate it from the multitude of other on-line shooters.

Nathan Drake and I have had our differences in the past, but playing the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta has proven that reconciliation is possible. Outside of the single-player context, the exaggerated action sequences and striking attention to detail take on new, more dynamic meanings. Rather than feel constricted by a single story, I can enjoy emergent stories wrapped in Uncharted‘s uniquely beautiful style. Uncharted 3 learns from the innovations of Modern Warfare and Gears of War but it escapes the claustrophobic first-person view and drab gray surroundings of such contemporaries. It seems like everyone in the world is looking forward to Uncharted 3 and now, at long last, I can join them.