Uncharted 3's linearity is a strength, not a weakness
3rd Nov 2011 | 11:54
Happy Uncharted week, folks. Yes, Drake's Deception is here and it's predictably brilliant, Naughty Dog once again marrying breathless action with breathtaking scenery in a swashbuckling Saturday matinee spectacular starring the loveably genocidal Nathan Drake.
As fun as Uncharted 3 is, however, it's not without its flaws. The game is a little too fond of those awkward running-towards-the-screen sequences, and is not above throwing in a few cheap difficulty spikes to extend its runtime. Like bullet-sponge enemies who can shrug off three sawed-off shotgun blasts...to the face.
And while we admire the new animations, Nate's newly-found love of wall-touching makes him look like a man staggering home after a night on the sauce, regularly stretching out towards the nearest vertical surface as if to prevent the ignominy of a concrete faceplant. Oh, and while we're at it, "oh, crap" is hardly the wittiest of bons mots.
Yet the criticism most regularly levelled at the game - enough for Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig to pointedly defend its approach - is its linearity. As we reported yesterday, Hennig claimed that branching level paths and dialogue trees would have a negative impact on the force of the game's storytelling.
"It's about having a very clear, linear story arc that doesn't allow for a lot of the dilution that is created by player choice in some cases," Hennig explained. "We always call it 'wide linear' - within the path that we give, you have a lot of choice within it, it's not just hit this button, and this button, and this button."
Of all the things to have a go at Uncharted about, to single out its linearity is crackers.
For starters, that would be forgetting the wonderfully flexible gunplay. Taking place in expansive combat bowls, its encounters offer plenty of room to manoeuvre, with a verticality to the environments that's all too rare in the genre. The ship graveyard around the midway point is a case in point, as boats bob and sway and Drake is able to dive underwater to avoid bullets, or even swim carefully around the floating hulls to stealthily take out single patrolling enemies.
Indeed, the intelligent behaviour of your pursuers means you're not just crouching behind waist-high walls and waiting for a goon to pop his head up. In fact, it's almost a relief on the rare occasions this does happen. Until you realise that his mate has looped around behind you with an AK-47 trained at your skull.
But even ignoring the combat, the fact that it should happen now is odd. Criticising Uncharted for being linear is a bit like having a pop at Call of Duty for...well, being linear. It wouldn't be the same if the player was allowed to wander around aimlessly.
The method the developer has chosen allows it to set the pace, and it's telling that the game's weakest moments are those where it doesn't signpost your next objective well enough, leading to sequences where you're bumping up against walls and doors waiting for the button prompt in the bottom-right that tells you you're in the right spot.
The propulsive force of the storytelling is such that these moments frustrate more than they would in other games, holding you back from the next revelation or the next spectacular set-piece. These rare moments of freedom all but prove that Uncharted is better precisely because it's linear.
And if the game occasionally guides you down the right path with subtle camera shifts and other smoke-and-mirrors trickery, so what? When the action is this spectacular, this cinematic (that's an oft-overused term in games criticism, but boy does it apply here) you won't care that you're just tapping X every now and again and moving the analogue stick a bit. At one point during the Chateau level I genuinely let out a little shriek of combined terror and delight.
Let's be honest, this is the kind of thing you show non-players to get them excited about games. Sure, Harrison Ford would have been paid handsomely for those Japanese ads, but if his skills with a DualShock leave something to be desired (his apparent phobia of triggers lend credence to that whole 'Greedo shot first' business) his awe at Drake's plane escape seems entirely genuine.
Perhaps the reason the third game in this terrific series is facing criticisms the first two avoided is that a relatively guided experience feels comparatively anomalous in the current climate, as more and more games cede authorial control to the player. It's rare that a major release doesn't at least offer the illusion of choice, and the likes of Mass Effect genuinely allow the player to shape the ongoing narrative. L.A. Noire, meanwhile, closed off narrative avenues and opened up others depending on your actions during its interrogations.
That said, many argued that Team Bondi's might have worked better as a straight crime drama; that it didn't really benefit any from its open-world setting. Granted, that wasn't a criticism of its branching storytelling so much as the driving and exploration that occasionally spoiled the pacing of the plot. It seems spinning a compelling yarn is much easier when the developer is at the wheel.
I wouldn't want every game to be like Uncharted, but a little linearity is no bad thing, and Naughty Dog's adventure shouldn't be considered a lesser game than its sandbox peers simply for choosing a different way to keep the player entertained.
Uncharted and Call of Duty might be castigated for being little more than funfair rides, but since when did rollercoasters stop being fun? Would the world be a better place without Alton Towers? Would Nemesis be improved by the opportunity to climb off for a sandwich break between its stomach-flipping corkscrews?
By all means, whinge about Drake's magical webbed fingertips or his bizarre ability to disrupt space-time during fistfights that - let's be honest - are hardly up to Arkham City standards. But Uncharted shouldn't be criticised for something it's not trying to be. Instead, its developer should be applauded for crafting something that easily outdoes this year's crop of Hollywood blockbusters for cinematic thrills.
On rails is just fine if the ride is exciting enough - with Uncharted 3, it undoubtedly is.