Videogame sequels: is more of the same enough?

With the autumn seeing the release of big-budget games such as Modern Warfare 3 and Uncharted 3, Ryan asks whether we should expect more from our sequels…

The autumn months are now the videogame industry’s equivalent of cinema’s blockbuster season; it’s the time of year where the medium’s most expensive games are rolled out in time for Christmas. And like most summer blockbuster movies, this season’s big games are almost exclusively sequels – the past few weeks have seen the likes of Arkham City, Battlefield 3 and Uncharted 3 all arrive in a swirl of hype and excitement.

On Metacritic, those three games mentioned above have garnered some extremely high aggregate scores – Uncharted 3 is currently at a heady 93, and therefore one of the highest rated games among the recent crop of releases. What’s notable, though, is that Uncharted 3’s aggregate score is, at the time of writing, a shade lower than its predecessor, which achieved a rating of 96.

Now, looking over some of the reviews for Uncharted 3, the general consensus is that Naughty Dog’s second sequel is technically superior to Among Thieves, but doesn’t take the series anywhere radically different. This was certainly the opinion of Eurogamer’s reviewer Simon Parkin, whose write-up quickly became the target of angry comments from fans who, for some reason, saw a score of eight out of ten as a terrible affront to a game they hadn’t yet played.

Oddly, The AV Club’s far more negative review, which said, “Uncharted‘s gameplay mechanics and conventions are no longer dated; they’re borderline archaic,” wasn’t vilified to the same degree as Eurogamer’s, even though its C rating dragged down Uncharted 3’s overall score somewhat.

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The critical reaction to Uncharted 3 raises some pertinent questions about videogame sequels in general. What should we expect a developer to bring to the latest instalment in a videogame franchise? More of the same, but with greater technical polish, or something radically different?

From a gamer’s perspective, Uncharted 3 is difficult to fault. Naughty Dog has sought to create an interactive action adventure movie, and it’s undoubtedly succeeded. Visually, it’s smoother and more detailed, and from a gameplay standpoint, I’d argue it’s superior to Among Thieves, too – shooting feels tighter and more accurate, and it’s now far easier to bring a bad guy down with a punch or two, which makes for a more exciting experience overall, particularly in instances where ammo’s in short supply.

So far, Uncharted 3 hasn’t used the tactic of flinging wave after wave of goons at the player in order to slow down progress – something that the first Uncharted did almost from the off, and Among Thieves began to do at the end, with its seemingly endless train shoot-out, for example. It’s slightly distracting that enemies no longer physically react to your well-placed shots – all you’ll see is a puff of blood, which seems like a bit of a retrograde step – but that’s a trade-off, perhaps, for a series of gun-heavy encounters that prove to be less frustrating and repetitive over all.

Where Uncharted 3 falters a little, I’d argue, is in its narrative. The good-natured heart and soul of the series is still present and correct (and it’s the likeability of Nathan and his friends, I’d argue, that is one of the keys to the franchise’s success), but the game’s events all occur to such a familiar rhythm that it’s hard to ignore a creeping sense of déjà vu.

Then again, isn’t this sense of familiarity another part of what we’ve come to love about the Uncharted games? PS3 owners embraced Drake’s Fortune, in spite of its faults, for its evocation of any number of joyous childhood movies. Among Thieves was greeted with such glee because it was everything the original almost achieved, but didn’t quite manage.

If Naughty Dog had taken Nathan Drake down an unexpected path – an open-world adventure, perhaps, with light RPG elements – it’s possible the results may have been met with indifference or even hostility. After all, there’s a reason why Indiana Jones and James Bond movies are all broadly the same from a structural standpoint – those properties have been designed from the ground up to work as exciting action adventures. A descent into full-on, hard-hitting dramas or heavy current issues would almost certainly backfire.

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Besides, isn’t it enough, sometimes, for a game to just offer more of the same? The FIFA series does nothing to evolve its core gameplay – there’s not a lot you can do to football without going down the route of Speedball, in any case – but instead provides an annual update featuring better physics, more realistic non-player behaviours, and more polished mechanics.

The Call Of Duty series, the closest the games industry has to a Harry Potter, Star Wars or Twilight cinema franchise, is broadly the same each time – a bankable package of explosive single-player campaign and insidiously addictive multiplayer. Critics will often conclude a review of any CoD game with variations on the words, “…but where does the franchise go from here?”

Modern Warfare 3 was unleashed just past midnight, and will no doubt answer that question: it’ll provide more of the same, but a bit bigger, and more slickly programmed. Some reviewers will no doubt bring this up in their analysis, and adjust their scores accordingly. Fans will respond to this with vehement comments typed in uppercase. And so it goes.

The problem, then, isn’t necessarily with the games themselves, but our own expectations. I agree wholeheartedly with Den of Geek’s very own five-star review, but then, I can also see the argument for giving the game eight out of ten. In the hysterical outcry following the publication of Eurogamer’s review, one Internet commenter shrieked, in a moment of delightful self parody, “Quality is not subjective!”

Aside from sounding like a spoof comment written by Chris Morris, this statement is utterly wrong; the quality of anything is subjective, whether it’s an eagerly-awaited videogame, a blockbuster movie, or your mum’s roast dinner. All a critic can do is provide an informed opinion based on their knowledge of the hundreds of other games they’ve played in their lifetime, pick a number or star rating that reflects that opinion, and leave it up to readers to decide whether they’d like to buy it or not.

The Call Of Duty and Uncharted franchises reminds me a little of Agatha Christie’s novels. The success of her first novel, The Mysterious Affair At Styles, published in 1920, led to an entire string of similarly popular murder mystery novels. Structurally, Christie’s novels are all broadly the same – a murder victim (or sometimes several), a gallery of suspects, and a detective resolved to crack the case. Readers adored Christie’s stories, so she responded, quite understandably, by writing more.

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With Uncharted, Naughty Dog has come up with a videogame formula that is reliably and justifiably popular. It’d be exciting to see the developer come up with a new property that takes its talents in a different, unexpected direction, but then again, it wouldn’t be a tragedy if they kept making Uncharted games, assuming they can keep finding ways to improve them.

Like Agatha Christie, the makers of the Uncharted and Call Of Duty franchises have responded to their games’ success with more of the same, except better – and who can blame them for that?