A collective distraction

"Tell those guys to stop shooting for a second - I have to take a look at this shiny thing."
"Tell those guys to stop shooting for a second - I have to take a look at this shiny thing."

Bullets zipped through the undergrowth as Nathan Drake ran from the mercenaries' overwhelming firepower. "Come on, Nate!" his companion shouted before being swallowed up by the greenery. "I'm right behind you!" he shouted at her disappearing back, "but first I have to climb up onto that ledge and retrieve that small piece of carved jade, while five guys fire automatic weapons at me..."

On my extensive travels over the past few weeks, my 3DS and PS Vita both got a workout. One of the titles I was determined to finally finish off was Uncharted: The Golden Abyss, perhaps the most technically impressive of the Vita's launch line-up.

It's a deeply disappointing sequel, with a string of near-identical gunfights punctuated by overly-simplified puzzle solving, and weirdly mundane activities such as photography and charcoal rubbing. The expected top-quality voice acting and motion capture is present, but it can't mask the overall tiredness of the series. Naughty Dog was transfer their talents to a fresh new project, the dark and wonderful The Last of Us.

One of the game features that bugged me the most, though, was the collectibles. In the first half of the game, level s are strewn with antique pieces of hand-carved turquoise, and the second half with essentially identical chunks of jade. These are interspersed with old clay pots, dusty jewellery, and other standard antiquities.

The game's hero, Nathan Drake, is expected to collect these at the most ridiculous of times. For each stone that it simply lying in a dark corner, waiting to be tripped over, another requires Drake to put himself in ludicrous danger to collect them. Never mind the ones at the tops of cliffs; as suggested above, many can only be collected in forced fleeing scenes, when you can't stop and fight even if you want to. He even picks up a few after falling into whitewater rapids, grabbing them off the banks while trying to avoid being smashed against the rocks. It defies belief.

The most irritating to me was when good old Drake decides to go fossicking while his best friend is lying at the bottom of a chasm, presumably with two broken legs, after missing a fall. I can just imagine him saying, "See if you can staunch the bleeding on your own for a moment - I see something shiny on top of this wall." Drake's insensitive wandering destroyed any drama present in what should have been a tense scene.

What really made me laugh, though, came near the game's climax. Drake, would we know will risk his own life and his friends' in order to fetch a shiny trinket, finds himself in a room literally heaped with gold artefacts, piled in the corners like gleaming snowdrifts. He ignores all of it. I finally saw the telltale sparkle that hints at a collectible treasure, off in a remote corner, and went to pick it up. It was a small piece of pottery.

Still, during the few extended periods, long lulls between increasingly samey battles, when Drake indulges in real archaeology and exploration, I started to wonder if it would have been a better game without any enemies or guns at all.

I found myself fantasising about an Uncharted game in which Drake and company simply explore remote locations, find their way into dangerous ruins, take charcoal rubbings, compare notes to solve riddles, take photos, and examine rusty old helmets and mud-encrusted arrowheads. Now once would he encounter any bloodthirsty Caribbean pirates or mutant Nazi gorillas.

At the very least a game like that would make the collectibles feel important and meaningful. As it is, the precious objects Drake stuffs into his bottomless pockets give no benefits, at least in single-player. Despite having an antiquities collection jammed inside his underpants that would put London Museum to shame, we know that Drake will start the next game just as broke and desperate as ever.

I know that collectibles are a staple of video games, and they are probably here to stay, and normally they don't bother me. I can usually just ignore the non-fun ones, such as Grand Theft Auto IV's endless pigeons or Mafia 2's pointless wanted posters.

However, there was just something unusually grating about the treasures in Golden Abyss. For a series that prides itself on its strong characters and meaningful relationships, encouraging Drake to run off into the bushes to fetch a shiny rock while his friend lies in a crumpled heap at the bottom of a cliff just feels insulting.

What do you think, readers? Do collectibles add depth and complexity to a game, or are they a time-wasting distraction? Please share your thoughts below, and perhaps include examples of games that you think have done collectibles particularly well, or badly.

- James "DexX" Dominguez

twitter DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez

This story A collective distraction first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.