Take Cover: How a Cover System Spoiled Uncharted

Be forewarned: the following includes spoilers of the late-game elements of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

Last week I finally bit the bullet and purchased a PlayStation 3 along with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. That game is undoubtedly the prettiest belle at the ball and quite a joy in the gameplay department, so much so that I'm actually finding myself drinking Sony's Kool-Aid, waving a banner for the HD revolution and preaching about set-top boxes and such.

But there's one problem: Fuck cover systems.

I'll do anything for that sentiment to be adopted in some widespread fashion—tattoo it on my forehead, change my middle name to it, whatever. Aaron O'Fuck Cover Systems Linde. Let's get the word out, kick this off grassroots style. Whatever it takes to ensure that cover systems don't ruin any of my more favored experiences.

I don't disagree with cover systems ideologically, because in many ways they bring action titles a bit closer to functional reality, in which players and characters alike take advantage of terrain and behave as though they're actually being shot at. But what's discouraging about the cover system, or more precisely the implementation of the cover system, is the ways in which it informs design choices across the board and cheapens action.

Though these sorts of issues can be observed in a number of titles, it never stings quite as harsh as it does when you're really enjoying a game's level design. Uncharted is definitely one of those. Naughty Dog's opus has some really incredible levels that take advantage of both natural terrain in addition to ruins and other man-made features to keep things fresh. The levels feel fuller than the island paradise of Crysis, and not as bloated with set pieces as any number of Tomb Raider titles. The trouble comes with the rhythmic, predictable means by which Uncharted's combat is measured.

Nearly every encounter in the game is arranged around a long corridor, the bulk of foes at one end and you at the other. Between you are multiple points of cover. Everyone takes shelter, the battle ensues, one side emerges victorious, and the game soldiers on. Lather, rinse, repeat.

As observed in several other games released in the last few years, there's always fun to be had in finding new and interesting ways to dispatch your enemies; repetition isn't bad so long as it's restricted to, say, repetitive use of ballistic weaponry. But forcing the player to back into a solid wall, popping out to take a shot and hiding long enough to regain what health was lost in the following counterattack brings the action to a slow burn. Fellow Shacknews editor Chris Faylor shared some similar complaints in his review of the game.

Being the game's primary enemies, the pirates have a lot to do with Uncharted's limitations. Armed with pistols, rifles, shotguns and grenades, the waves upon waves of pirates pretty much necessitate that you take cover at every available opportunity. Rarely, if ever, do the pirates bring the pain in close quarters, usually relying—much as you do—on cover to save their bacon while they whittle down your health. The game only realizes its true potential with the appearance of the Gollum-esque cursed Spaniards in the late game, bounding creatures that abscond cover points in favor of getting up close and personal to rip you apart.

I loved those bastards. Suddenly no pile of crap, no barricade could provide safe haven. The game felt new, and—brace yourself—fun. Even better was managing the Spaniards while taking care of pirates from a distance as my two foes tore each other to shreds. Even if just momentarily, the spell of monotony was broken, just before Uncharted's last battle—one last hurrah of cover-takin' before the credits rolled.

Come to think of it, I probably disliked Epic Games' Gears of War for similar reasons—a cover system that prompted the same approach to the bulk of the game's battles. But where I found my enjoyment of Gears limited by a number of other design decisions inherent to the game, Uncharted was an otherwise excellent experience for me; the cover system is the proverbial lump of crap in the pool on a hot summer's day.

The problem might be technological in nature—hell, maybe there are games available right now that implement a cover system without resorting to this sort of claptrap bullwankery. I hear Army of Two does it reasonably well. But no matter how organic cover systems become in relationship to terrain and level features, it won't make much of a difference if level designers continue to craft battlefields and enemies around taking cover. Shift those paradigms, dammit—I'd hate to imagine a future in which a stack of sandbags or a knocked-over filing cabinet continues to scream "brace yourself, you're about to get your shit handed to you."