Put The Gun Down, Dawg
Since debuting with Crash Bandicoot in 1996, Naughty Dog have gone from strength to strength and have picked up quite the following on the way. With three well-loved franchises under their belt, history suggests that their next move is to create another new franchise. What that might be, I can only guess at but whichever direction they decide to go, I’m hoping that they drop guns completely in their next game. Why? Because they don’t do guns all that well, because it is beginning to spoil my fun and because they have a track record of making great games that focused on other things than guns.
In an interview with CVG in 2003, Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin talked about why their sequel to Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was so different in style, tone and mood. "Jak II is about revenge" he said, as he explained how the team were taking cues from the current trends in gaming. Grand Theft Auto III was released two years prior and had arguably matured the gamer demographic, Rubin said of this that "younger kids want to play what older kids are playing and older kids are playing Grand Theft Auto." With a single stroke the Jak and Daxter franchise dropped its coming-of-age, candy shop coloured innocence. It would prove to be a permanent change for Naughty Dog, one that brought out their darker side featuring guns, vehicle hijacking and hardened criminals. Jak II sold well, was a hit with the critics and did indeed chime with that generation of gamers. They never looked back.
Naughty Dog moved on to the Uncharted franchise, a culmination of over a decade of work and arguably the ultimate cinematic action game. Like Jak II before it, Uncharted drew inspiration from popular games of its time such as Gears of War and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare that leaned heavily on violence, corruption and gritty aesthetics. Uncharted differentiated itself through more vibrant environments and an upbeat mood, but it awkwardly follows their examples by being a cover shooter in the first place and then adding multiplayer in Among Thieves. While the Uncharted games are undeniably successful, I think Naughty Dog have fallen into a trend that does not play to their strengths.
Forte Strikes Back
Throughout Uncharted's three-game lifetime, there are a number of memorable moments such as climbing around beautiful tombs and palaces, chuckling along with Drake and Sully after a shave with death and dangerous encounters with inhabitants of a long forgotten city. Yet, burned into our skulls more than anything are the frustrating shooting sections. The fluidity of Drake's movement as he scales crumbling walls is traded for stiff, robotic mechanics as soon as a gun is drawn. Over the course of the three iterations of Uncharted, Naughty Dog have claimed to improve this blindingly obvious problem, yet have arguably made it worse.
It is upsetting to see that they do not realise they have stretched themselves too far when it comes to creating a coherent gunplay experience throughout the series. There is a clear disparity between the terrible shooting mechanics in the single player modes and the more capable ones in Uncharted 3's multiplayer modes, but a good game has both; something that Naughty Dog is unable to deliver. Their inability to fix this despite fans telling them exactly what the problem is only proves that they have ventured into territory that simply does not suit them. Of course, they can be commended for at least trying to fix the problems with the shooting mechanics in Uncharted 3 with the incoming patch, but maybe it's time they just admitted they do not suit making games with guns.
The place to cite as the beginning of Naughty Dog’s problems with gunplay is undoubtedly when they changed their outlook on gaming during the work on Jak II. In the years prior to Jak II, the studio was heavily associated with platform games. While not pioneers of the genre, they did go towards reinventing the platformer into a very enjoyable and, for the time, modern experience. They proved over and over again that they were able to rival the likes of Nintendo's greatest platformers. The platformer is undoubtedly Naughty Dog's forte and they continued to prove this throughout the Uncharted series. I’m willing to bet that your favourite moments from the Uncharted series either involve Drake dangling over the edge of a cliff, jumping along rooftops or delicately navigating the depths of a tomb. As a platformer, the Uncharted series is one of the best, as a shooter it's closer to the worst. Unfortunately, the series is more parts the latter than it is the former and even more so with each new entry. In fact, the latter half of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is almost pure shooter, and it's horrible for it.
There is some hope though, as long as we get in early enough and beg for Naughty Dog to redirect their focus back to their platforming roots. With a new franchise likely to appear for the next generation of console hardware, change may be just what is at the forefront of Naughty Dog's minds. No doubt, gaming trends will be a deciding factor and at the moment it's hard to say what that may be other than the unrelenting popularity of the first person shooter.
As Naughty Dog have always made third person games I cannot see them moving into first person territory. It seems that the third person cover shooter is heading for a decline, though. With major franchises such as Gears of War and Uncharted seemingly concluded, future releases like Max Payne 3 may decide the fate of the genre but it seems probable that cover shooters are not the future. While I do not expect Naughty Dog to revert back to their stylised beginnings, I do hope that they pick up the gasp-inducing platforming sections of the Uncharted series and place them as part of a much stronger package not plagued by incapable shooting mechanics. Please?