It’s one of the great contradictions of the brutally progressive world of videogames that playing it safe is never really playing it safe.
Now, more than ever, a game without an obvious gimmick is a hard sell, and while Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune had an embarrassment of virtues, with vivid animation, a pleasantly hammy matinee story and a charming protagonist who hadn’t been over-designed to the point of shrill caricature, some found it too easy to dismiss the game as a cocktail of influences with little to truly call its own.
Despite the daredevil onscreen action, the game’s design was often carefully unadventurous, as treasure hunter Nathan Drake boldly leapt chasms, fought off zombie Nazis and scaled cliffs, the development team picked their way more cautiously through the thirdperson action game landscape, raiding only the most tried and tested of ideas along the way: the cover system from Gears Of War, and Tomb Raider’s graceful moveset.
The result was a game that sometimes struggled to find its own rhythm – it handled both platforming and shooting with confidence, but struggled to blend them, preferring instead to break its core mechanics into discrete chunks. Uncharted, therefore, leaves Naughty Dog with a particularly tricky challenge.
Some sequels have the obvious job of fixing the gaping flaws of the original. Instead, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has to take some largely successful elements and turn them into something coherent and truly individual; it has to transcend mere excellence of execution and create a convincing identity to call its own. So far, things are looking extremely promising.
“Our last story was about Francis Drake,” says creative director Amy Hennig, sitting in the meeting room of Naughty Dog’s Santa Monica offices, while Trumpet, co-president Christophe Balestra’s dog, wanders around under the conference table, chewing at wires and brushing up against journalists’ ankles. “Our ‘what if’ was: what if Francis Drake hadn’t died when everyone thought he had? This time we’re going with Marco Polo. Our catalyst is this man who catalogued all of his journeys – all the details of everything that happened in his life – but despite that he left one gaping hole.”