I’ve taken with issue with parts of developer Naughty Dog’s gameplay for quite awhile now. Throughout the three games in the Uncharted series, I’ve felt annoyed by what I perceived as disingenuous stealth gameplay. Not so much in the first game, Drake’s Fortune, because that particular game had more straight shootouts, but throughout Uncharted 2 and 3, enemy encounters were set up as enemy patrolled areas to progress through by either stealth or force. Most encounters started with the enemy unaware, leaving you the “opportunity” to stick with chokeholds and stealth kills to make getting through an area easier. The word “opportunity” is in quotes because my whole problem is that so many enemy encounters throughout the games are presented to encourage you to start with stealth, but are made functionally impossible to finish in stealth.
A good example of this is outside the Himalayan temple area in Uncharted 2, just after you’ve escaped the wreck of the convoy with Elena. You infiltrate the area by the gate where the trucks are parked from the cliffside, getting a prompt to pull the first guy off the cliff to his doom in a stealth kill. This first bit outside the gate can be done with stealth (there’s only 5 or 6 total enemies). The next part in the first building just in the gate can be finished by stealth with a lot of effort and very careful use of the crossbow. But no matter what you do, once you try to go to the next section, you’ll be “spotted” and the stealth will be over. From a cinematic perspective, it’s necessary because the bridge defense section that follows requires that you are no longer in stealth. A similar problem occurs in the boat graveyard section of Uncharted 3, but it is still incredibly frustrating to put a lot of effort into keeping a low profile and to be given up by a game scenario.
The thing is, the Uncharted games use the Call of Duty gradual health recovery system and frequent checkpoints, so at least it mess up any more than one section. However, I took a bit of a greater issue with the situation just after you come out of the hotel with the Hunters in The Last of Us. Ellie takes the rifle in the scaffolding to cover you and Joel drops down to clear out the street of enemies so you can progress. Playing on Survivor or Grounded difficulty, every hit to your health is important as there is very little in the way of health pickups and you don’t want to get painted into a corner with a difficult combat section and no health. Because of this, when I got to this section, I figured I would do a stealth run to save my health and ammo. I carefully and slowly worked my way up the right side of the street, taking out enemies both in the shops on the ground and the snipers upstairs. Then I came back around to the starting point and did the left side of the street. Finally, with only the one enemy in the back corner left, I did a full sweep of every corner of the map for supplies and enemies and made sure I hadn’t missed anything before finally moving in on that last guy and doing a stealth kill. Except instead of doing the usual choke out animation, Joel inexplicably pistol whips the guy, which is an alternate grab animation that is used in combat and suddenly 6 enemies come running out of the buildings across and behind me as though they somehow heard me. The problem is that I know those buildings were empty a minute before when I searched them. So I can’t do anything accept throw up my hand and yell “bullshit” as I’m surrounded. Now, being a competent player, I got out okay, but I took a good health hit because the game broke stealth on me. The funny thing is that I actually know where those guys came from because on a previous play-through a glitch caused by the timing with which I got killed experimented caused this second wave of enemies to spawn without breaking my stealth. So I found them in various corners of the map, behind a car, in the freezer in the coffee shop and killed them where they stood.
Now in these games, its never made sense how being seen by one enemy right before you kill him causes every enemy on the map, even when they’re nowhere near you, to come running. Do all the bad guys have telepathy? But at least I feel like I made the mistake of being seen by the one guy. Even if it isn’t logical, at least I’m being punished for a mistake I made. However, when I clear a map, including the corners where the second wave spawns and kill the last person, the fact that more enemies spontaneously appear because they magically sense me killing the last bad guy actually on the map feels like I’m being punished for not playing the section of the game exactly how the developers wanted me too. Except its a stealth game, so what did they expect me to do?
Unfortunately, magical enemy knowledge of my location is something that happens all the time in The Last of Us. The reason I titled this article the way I did is specifically because of how I felt about the AI that controls the Clickers. These are infected humans whose faces have been overgrown by the fungal infection, rendering them blind. They navigate only by sound, so if you move very slowly past them, they won’t even know you’re there. Except sometimes they do. During first section of game with multiple clickers, in the subway adjust area, I would hold perfectly still while a clicker made its rounds. I was literally not touching any buttons on the controller, but every third of fourth time, the clicker walking past would suddenly freak out and sprint at me and kill me. The rest of the time, despite me doing the exact same thing, it would walk right past. I would love to know what in the coding caused this.
Then there’s the generator under the hotel. The second I saw that thing, I knew that starting it would cause infected to hear it and come running to kill me. So first I swept the area. It was empty. So I went to scavenge supplies. When I picked up the key card in the closet, two runners sprinted at me. I was standing still, making no noise, but they knew where I was. So I swept the area again. There is only one door into the place and it can’t be opened without the power on. So I’m safe, right. So I go start the generator and immediately 4 stalkers and a bloater (various types of infected enemies) come running in to kill me. Once again (because this is not my first play-through), I’ve taken the precaution of moving away from the generator right away and making no noise. The stalkers run down to the generator to investigate the noise, then immediately run back up the ramp, turn two corners and find me hiding in a closet as though I had a homing beacon attached to me. I was smart enough to plan for the scenario and the game has straight-up punished me for it. Thanks so much, Naughty Dog game designers.
This is a post about difficulty in games. Specifically, I’ve realized that when I want to really evaluate the mechanics of a game, the best way to do it is to see how it holds up on the hardest difficulty. Playing The Last of Us on its hardest difficulty while pursuing the platinum trophy caused the game to some cracks. Its always strange to me because there are some games, like the remake of 007: Goldeneye for Wii that get better and better when you dig into them (I fully recommend the time trial and Classic difficulty modes in that game. It encourages abuse of AI and enemy spawns in extremely clever ways, actually embracing the limits of scripted AI design to make the game more fun) while others show the limits of their scalability, the worst offender of which is probably Call of Duty (playing those campaigns on Veteran difficulty is just straight up not fun. When any stray bullet can kill you in a game all about over the top criss-crossing bullet hell, you will die a lot, no matter how good you are, and no matter if it isn’t your fault). It would just be nice if a developer as dedicated to putting realistic polish on a game as Naughty Dog would find a way to organize their AI and gameplay scenarios so that the play doesn’t feel punished for using their head and playing smart.
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