A set piece in a movie or a video game is a part of the story that has been elaborately planned, “executed in a fixed or ideal form often with studied artistry and brilliant effect.”
One of my favorite set pieces in any movie or game is the sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones has to capture the Ark of the Covenant after it’s been loaded on a truck.
“Truck. What Truck?”
What follows is a staggering piece of cinema where Indy rides a horse to catch up with an armed Nazi convoy, leaps from the horse onto the truck and proceeds to take it apart, one blond German soldier at a time. It’s a Wilhelm Scream of a good time, an amazing set piece combining character, stunts, story, orchestral music and special effects into the very definition of a movie experience and I’ve probably watched it easily over 75 times in my life. Watch it again below!
Raiders is relevant to mention here, because the Uncharted video game series from Naughty Dog is the best Indiana Jones Game never made. Even though there’s no actual Indy and no connection to that auspicious movie franchise (minus the inauspicious The Crystal Skull), Uncharted is inspired by the action series vibe, storytelling, character building, action sequences, music, exotic locations and set pieces from every Indiana Jones’ movie and beyond.
With the next chapter of Uncharted releasing on May 10, I thought it might be fun to look back and remember the best set pieces from the prior three Uncharted titles.
Where should we start? “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go.”
Cruising for a Bruising (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception)
Running and gunning generally makes for a fun video game. Running and gunning while on a sinking pirate cruise ship is insanely fun. In this set piece, Nathan Drake is forced to fight his way out of the bowels of a cruise ship as it slowly begins to submerge. The boat tilts, while cars in the hold roll forward and break open the hull. Brilliantly executed water effects spill into the camera view. Dynamic lighting effects make for an immersive environment. The camera for extended sequences is askew, twisted like some 1960s Batman fight scene. It really sells the fact you’re in trouble.
The water continues to flood towards you. Not fast, but it’s inexorable. You’ve got to find a way out! This sequence really pushes the old PS3 technology. A seamless cut scene flips the ship completely over and suddenly you’re in the water floating around with flotsam and jetsam and… A car!
Everything is on its side now. Doors are on the floor. Corridors you ran down are now deep and deadly shafts plunging down to certain doom. It’s a genius sequence, but you can’t spend too much time marveling at it all. The water’s still flooding in!
Swimming levels are often a gamer’s least favorite part of a level, but here when they’re so well integrated, who cares? As you make it to the top of the cruise ship, which is actually its port side, the camera zooms over the scene and you see yourself as Nathan Drake running down the side of the ship outside. It’s true in-game cinematography worthy of Spielberg. The enormity of the ship and your challenge to survive just begins to dawn on you.
Check out the entire set piece below:
Sh*tting Your Parachute Pants (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception)
In the James Bond movie, The Living Daylights (1987), there’s a terrific action sequence near the end of the movie which has Bond hanging off the back of a military plane flapping around on cargo nets while fighting the villain. Clearly some smarty pants at Naughty Dog thought, “Wouldn’t that set piece be great in a video game?” Whomever that person was, I thank you. You were right.
Nathan Drake is playing around under the floor panels on a large plane when he’s suddenly plucked up by a large evil henchman. In the Indy movies, this would have been played by Pat Roach. The thug opens the back of the plane door, clearly intending to throw Drake off the plane. The scene is reminiscent of the fight between Indy and the bald German soldier (Pat Roach) around the plane in Raiders, even down to the dirty way Drake fights, kicking the thug in the balls.
Drake releases a parachute and cargo to knock the gigantic thug out the plane but ends up getting thrown out with it. Now he’s left hanging on a cargo net, trailing out the back of a plane.
Drake has to scale up the cargo net, dodging fire, returning fire, all the while the truck and net keep roiling up and down. It’s a truly masterful set piece of video gaming. Once Drake has scrabbled his way back into the plane, you’re sunk into more typical crouch-and-shoot gaming mechanics, with the added twist that the plane is still rocking and Drake’s cover can slide out from in front of him any second. To add intensity to the scene, the inside of the cargo plane catches fire. You’ve got to get Drake out of here. But he’s on a plane, remember!
After an explosion rips through the side of the plane, the environment literally disintegrates around Drake and he’s sucked out into mid-air, several thousand feet above the ground. Having actually parachuted once in my life during a tandem dive, I will state that this is the most accurate representation of freefalling I’ve ever experienced in a video game. The use of sound and sudden muting, followed by a beautiful orchestral score is quite simply, breathtaking. This set piece is why fans love Uncharted. It’s no wonder the end of this sequence became the box art for Drake’s Deception.
Drake’s Got a Train To Catch (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)
The train in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves plays an important part in several set pieces. The chronology is inverted a little as Uncharted 2 goes all neo-noir and shows us an injured and dying Drake before we ever see how he arrived at this point in the story. More plotting genius from Naughty Dog.
Nate and his ex-girlfriend, journalist Elena Fisher, steal a jeep and rush to catch up to the bad guy, Zoran Lazarevic, a former Soviet intelligence agent turned warlord who’s after the Cintamani Stone (aka MacGuffin) who’s now on the train. Drake gets on the train and begins to fight his way to the front. That’s when a big Russian military helicopter arrives.
Nate displays his sense of humor in the set piece and drops some great one liners which echo what we are thinking, “Oh no, I don’t like that noise,” when the helicopter is charging its rockets to fire them. The train/helicopter fight allows Drake to cover and shoot, climb around moving objects, leap from one speeding platform to another, all whilst avoiding being turned into red mist by the helicopter. When you finally get the rocket launcher, oh sweet payback!
After losing the helicopter through the tunnels, Drake continues up the train. This train is really, really, really long. I mean, the train from Snowpiercer has nothing on this train. After the tunnels comes the snowy mountains which an intelligent gamer will actually remember from the very start of the game. The helicopter re-appears and begins to make life hell for Drake again. Drake downs the helicopter with a mini-gun, makes his way to the front of the train where he is double-crossed and shot in the belly. Drake manages to stagger away but collapses. As he is about to be killed, he shoots a pile of gas cans which derails the train and leads to the first scene in the game.
Hang On There, Buddy (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)
The iconic image from Uncharted 2 was this image of Drake hanging off the edge of a train which is hanging off the edge of a mountain. It’s a literal cliff hanger. This is the scene which opens the game, but it’s not until half-way through the game we figure out how Drake got here.
In terms of set pieces, this one is a doozy.
Drake wakes up with a bullet wound in his abdomen. He’s sitting on a train, but the train is inverted over a precipice.
What follows is a gripping little mini-game as Drake works his way up the ever-shifting train before it careens down the mountain.
There are really too many great set pieces to detail them all. From jet ski action sequences to rooftop crouch-and-shoot set pieces against choppers, the Uncharted series really offers memorable, movie-like film experiences within a video game. Judging by the trailers and footage released from Uncharted 4, powered by superior PS4 technology, we may be in for the best Uncharted adventure yet. Here’s hoping.