Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Half-Tucked: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (PS3) Review

Nothing dates a game quicker than its alignment with a fashion trend. Enter the half-tuck, a clothing statement brought to the mainstream by action hero protagonist, Nathan Drake in 2007 for his debut in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (UDF). What exactly is the half-tuck? It's when you tuck in about half of your shirt, starting front and center, and continuing to tuck about 3/4 of the way back on one side. The rest of the shirt hangs loose. Nathan Drake wears a plain ol' grey long sleeve T-shirt in UDF, but the look can also be accomplished with a button-up for a more pronounced contrast between tucked and untucked.

The problem with the half-tuck is that it's an inherently conflicted fashion statement. It's a style that is visibly and hopelessly contrived, like sculpting your hair to look like you have "bed-head." You want to appear like you don't care about your appearance, but obviously you care a whole lot. The half-tuck is a signature of UDF, but it's also metaphor for the game's aspirations and shortcomings.

What are you supposed to think when you see someone sporting a half-tuck? Perhaps that even though they don't have time for fashion, they can still be fashionable. The half-tuck implies dressing with nonchalance or in a great hurry. They would have tucked their shirt in all the way if they simply had the time, but they don't and dammit they have more important things to worry about! Maybe they were even interrupted in the act of tucking and were so preoccupied that they never got around to finishing the task.

This is the dream back-story of the half-tucker, but in reality you're envisioning a desperate individual in front of a mirror delicately pinching tufts of fabric around their waistline, failing, and starting the process all over again, until reaching just the right aesthetic to illustrate the unspoken tall-tale. It's either that or it looks like the individual is just really bad at shirt tucking. Not helping matters is the half-tuck's frat-boy association as a cousin to the much maligned collar pop of the mid-00s.

The thing is, Nathan Drake, and the whole of UDF sort of pulls off the half-tuck, but not without revealing the artifice behind it. UDF is a gorgeous game, rendering ocean ripples, jungle foliage, and crumbling stonework in exquisite, realistic detail. Drake himself is a handsome guy, believable both as an adventurer and action movie star. There's a cocky swagger to the half-tuck that sets out to deflect focus from the contrivance of the situation. The pretty visuals and captivating character performances are essentially UDF's big, shiny belt buckle, doing their part to sell the whole ensemble. If the game wasn't otherwise so chock full of enemy bullet sponges and prescribed arenas it might have had me. Drake realizes and embodies the "interrupted" half-tuck fantasy as the whole game revolves around dudes with guns surprising him when he's going about his treasure hunting business. While this duality of activities suits Drake quite well as a character, as an interactive experience UDF feels torn between wanting to be a film and a game.

Surprisingly UDF actually has more problems being a game than it does a movie. The blockbuster action flicks that UDF tries to evoke (most obviously the Indiana Jones series) are delivered to viewers with a snappy pace and constant forward progress. The old 7-second shot length standards for film were brought to the fore in blockbusters to ensure that the film was holding viewers' attention, constantly offering fresh angles and scenes. Through UDF's cutscenes and more directed, narrowly focused adventuring bits, it possesses that blockbuster energy. However, when most firefights break out, that momentum slows to a crawl or stops entirely, like an ill-conceived long-take in desperate need of an editor.

Nathan Drake and that whole of UDF is in the constant state of interruption, and not to its benefit. While the incredible body count Drake racks up is truly preposterous and at odds with his archaeologist chops and nice-guy demeanor, gunfights also bog the gameplay flow down, like the game is stretching to fill time. There are a couple sequences where you navigate narrow waterways on a jet-ski as foot soldiers fire upon you and floating explosive barrels that line your path. Conventional action movie logic says that jet-skis should go fast, and if you can take out some key barrels and enemies on your way from point A to B, then you've got a potentially thrilling scene on your hands. The problem is that you'll die and restart the sequence from the beginning if you try to run n' gun it. In order to best the gauntlet, you have to treat the area like a stealth sequence, edging your way around corners, taking out nearly every shooter and barrel from a distance before treading out into open water. It's the wrong kind of nonsense.

The jet-ski areas are the most extreme example of the failed logic behind UDF's pacing, but this approach is apparent in nearly every instance where you enter a room full of waist-high barriers. The level design itself is actually quite inventive in most cases, but third-person shooting, when dialed to the repetitive settings of UDF, in incongruous with the cadence the game is otherwise going for. Is Nathan Drake an everyman or a super-soldier? Depending on which part of the game you're playing, either could be correct, but never both at once. You see where I'm going with this?

In fact, Drake's half-tuck is perfect, too perfect. It remains in immaculate order throughout the entire game despite numerous climbing and jumping sequences that would surely untuck a lesser man's garment. Over time, the half-tuck becomes more of a running motif than a simple costume accessory. At every vault, splash, and shimmy, the half-tuck defies the laws of physics and remains in place, an unflinching facade. While that dedication is something a script supervisor could be very proud of, it's all too telling of UDF's style-over-substance approach to game design. On occasion, exceptional style can be enough to go on, but with UDF, we're not talking about high-concept fashion. We're talking about the half-tuck.

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