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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

March 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Problem: A prevalence of one-hit kills causes the combat system to contradict the player’s expectations.

The combat system in Uncharted 2 seems to reward closing in with the enemy.

  • Most of Drake’s weapons are less effective at long range.
  • The cover system encourages quick movements between cover, allowing Drake to quickly and safely move forward.
  • The game has a simple but fun close combat system, which makes it satisfying and effective to fight enemies at close range.
  • The game allows Drake to take plenty of damage before dying, allowing the player to take some shots then dive behind cover to heal.

About halfway through the game, enemies start appearing with body armor and shotguns. These shotguns are one-hit kills at close range, and the body armor prevents the player from having enough time to defeat the enemy if they’re too close. Suddenly, the player’s entire combat strategy is invalidated – getting up close is suicidal.

It would be okay if their combat strategy was simply challenged, and close range became more dangerous. The player could take some risks and learn the right strategies for each situation. But a one-hit kill isn’t challenging or dangerous – it’s suicidal and frustrating. The player can’t even attempt the close-range strategy anymore, because there’s no margin for error. If they let these enemies pull the trigger once, they have to restart the entire battle.

The game can’t seem to decide – does it want the player to move forward and engage the enemy at action-hero close range, or hide at a distance at take carefully aimed shots? The entire combat system seems to encourage the former…then it blows Drake’s head off with a shotgun if the player actually attempts it.

So the game progresses a bit further. The player learns to remain behind distant cover, carefully lining up their shots. Then the player encounters enemies with rocket-propelled grenades and other explosives, who are an accurate one-hit kill at long range! Now carefully lining up your shots behind cover is invalidated as a strategy. Now, getting close is suicide. Hiding at range is suicide. And running around out of cover is always suicide. What is the player supposed to do?

(Get frustrated and angry at the frequent cheap kills and restarts, most likely.)

Solution: Enemies with the potential to kill the player in one hit should call attention to themselves as priority targets, and should never be heavily armored.

Enemies with instant-kill weapons should be lightly armored, and dressed in light colors. For enemies with shotguns, bands of bright-red shotgun shells should alert the player to the weapon they’re carrying.  The player should be able to identify them as potentially deadly targets, and prioritize them appropriately. The player will still get killed by them if they get too close – a point-blank shot from a shotgun isn’t survivable – but at least they’ll feel like the death is their fault for not prioritizing that enemy and eliminating them before advancing, rather than the game just being unfair.

If I were running a well-funded private army, I’d definitely put my shotgun users in heavy armor, so they’d be able to survive long enough to get close to their target and use their shotguns effectively. But I’m not a Russian psychopath, I’m a game designer, and it’s okay for my shotgunners to die like punks if it’s more fun for the player.

Solution: Enemies with instant-kill explosives should be lousy shots, and have limited ammunition.

Ranged explosive attacks have a role in the game – they should shake up the player, knock them out of cover, and force them to prioritize on defeating the enemies with explosives first. They should not be a real threat to kill the player, unless the player is already wounded. Nathan Drake is an action hero, and action heroes thrive on diving away from explosions, or getting knocked to the ground with no real damage.

Enemies with explosive weapons should be terrible shots. They should be able to hit near Drake, injuring him behind cover, but it should be nearly impossible for them to score a direct hit and kill the Drake instantly. There are a few enemies near the end of the game which are particularly bad about this; if the player doesn’t stay in motion constantly, they’ll be hit right between the eyes by an overpowered explosive. These fights also feature enemies which can quickly kill Drake if he’s not behind cover…which is a frustrating combination. Hide and die, or move and die.

Lower their accuracy significantly, so that Drake can at least take a moment to hide behind a pillar and recover. The game’s health mechanic rewards hiding and catching your breath; turning that into a death sentence is unfair.

Additionally, enemies with explosives should have limited ammunition. Drake can only carry two RPG shots; why can an enemy with an RPG fire shot after shot? After they’ve fired two or three times, have the enemy switch to a pistol or close-combat weapon and move forward to engage Drake at close range.

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