The above title reads like satire. I know.
When I watched the Uncharted 4 demo that closed Sony’s conference at E3 last Monday, I’ll admit I was a bit underwhelmed. Vehicles aren’t what I want out of Uncharted, and for all the graphical fidelity, a car chase isn’t as exciting as Uncharted 2’s crumbling buildings or Uncharted 3’s insane cargo plane fight shown at previous Sony events.
But then I watched it again with new eyes, noticing tiny details I failed to recognize the first time since I was only looking at the surface level scenario.
Before going further, I want to take a step back and look at current trends and what we expect from games in 2015. If there is any binding characteristic among games across all conferences and E3 booths, it’s large open-worlds and non-linear storytelling. The upgrade from 512 MB of ram to 8 GB has let a new generation of consoles offer larger, more detailed worlds—but, for the majority of games, the focus is on LARGER.
From Mad Max to a gritty, drug-cartel-themed Ghost Recon reboot, it seems every publisher has one or more games with a large open-world focus. With Skyrim and Minecraft selling gangbusters, it’s no surprise this is the path developers have gone down. It’s also a much easier path since it means doing the same thing as the last generation, only now you do more of it. The world is four times larger, rooms hold twice the items, and towns feature enough AI wandering around to almost, but not quite, be believable. Advances in AI, systems that interact with each other, graphical detail, and physics are ignored for what can be easily replicated and implemented.
Personally, I felt robbed of gaming’s true potential during what I consider the “fake HD” generation of Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3. I say fake, because instead of using improved hardware to make more compelling worlds, we got far less detailed worlds and physics systems in a high resolution. The high resolutions were real but it came with the cost of detail, which would make a game deserving of those resolutions to begin with. It made for eye-catching games that sold TVs and consoles, but the progress from Half-Life 2’s physics and Doom 3’s detailed lighting of the Xbox & PS2 generation felt stalled in many ways.
Expansive open-worlds are to this generation what pursuit of high definition graphics were to the last. As someone more interested in experiencing than exploring, I favor detail and interactivity over empty space and resolution: which brings me back to Uncharted 4.
As a kid, I dreamed of large open-worlds games that let me travel and do almost anything. We got those. I also dreamed of cinematic games that are so rich with detail and interaction that they feel tangible. These are far fewer in number, probably because it takes a studio with the resources and technical prowess of Naughty Dog to pull off.
When I rewatched the Uncharted 4 demo, I focused on the details instead of the the main action on screen (shooting dudes and driving down narrow streets). For the first time in an action game, I could look at any detail on screen and it seemed beautiful, realistic, and detailed. A bullet breaks a table, items on a table roll into the middle as a result, some fall on Drake, and Drake’s body naturally pushes these objects away. Objects and systems within the game react to each other in way that builds a convincing, detailed experience.
In an era where we put up with characters falling through worlds and crude animations for the sake of larger, open worlds, it’s jaw-dropping to see what happens when a smart developer puts a focus on details. Something as small as a character realistically stumbling slightly over a body is groundbreaking. Or watch how an explosion sends objects flying away, each remaining in the world and reacting realistically in its and surrounding objects' physical properties.
To an extent, this is all frivolous eye-candy that doesn’t directly affect the core mechanics of Uncharted, but when a game is committed to immersing you in a role in a story, all of these details add up. Watching a panic-stricken crowd realistically disperse and run away is an unnecessary detail that will be lost on most players, but it’s details like these that make a compelling, realistic game world. Every time you play the game, the world is going to be a bit different because your inputs will change and everything reacting to those inputs will also change. Where open-world games throw a player into a mostly stagnant world that the player reacts to, Uncharted 4 is putting the player in a living world where everything is reacting to the player.
In the ongoing pursuit of the almighty open-world RPG dollar, it’s great to see a developer committed to making a fun, linear action game that attempts to improve physics and graphical details in a way no other game has before due to hardware constraints.
I’m excited for VR, but it’s a long way from offering the robust experiences we’ve become used to. VR games will only be as strong as the details of their world. For example, take Adr1ft which turned a skybox featuring Earth into a high-detail illusion relying on multiple texture layers. The closer we are to the action, the more detailed it has to be.
As great as open-world games are, they aren’t pushing us closer to making compelling, believable worlds. Realistically rolling bottles and characters tripping over bodies may not be back-of-the-box bullet points, but these are the complex details that answer problems that most developers don’t even acknowledge.
I look forward to an even larger world full of even more stuff to do in Fallout 4. I also look forward to how VR headsets will bring me closer to virtual spaces along with the complications to current hardware and game design that brings. But really, it’s Uncharted 4 that feels like a new, fully-formed experience to me; one that makes good on my child imagination of a world that reacts and acknowledges my presence in the smallest of details.
It’d be nice to have Uncharted feature a large, open world and offer intelligent VR support, but neither of those things will ever amount to much if games can’t offer the level of detail and interactivity that Naughty Dog are making happen in the here and now. Cover-based shooting and vehicle chases may be old-hat, but I imagine I'm going to be smiling with childhood wonder at all the details coming to life surrounding the action in a way hardware hasn't enabled before.