Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review
In Uncharted 2’s opening sequence, Naughty Dog wastes no time throwing treasure hunter Nathan Drake into harm’s way. Only this time, he isn’t the bulletproof protagonist we knew from the first adventure. Beaten, bloodied, and left for dead, he’s been humanized. The emotional timbre is engaging and powerful. Yet this opening sequence isn’t a movie to watch with bated breath. It’s gameplay, and you’re controlling Nathan in a nearly unconscious state.
The divide separating video games and motion pictures is expansive, but moments like this one bring them closer together. I’m not saying games should be movies, or vice versa, but exploring characters in different conditions, emotional or physical, can open the doors for more dynamic storytelling and gameplay in games. Uncharted 2 is testament to this idea.
Many of these gameplay moments bleed directly out of the story breaks. With the notable elimination of loading screens and no discernable difference between the cutscene and gameplay graphics, I often found myself tapping the analog stick during a conversation or action sequence just to make sure I wasn’t supposed to be playing. In some cases, I was supposed to be playing! Ditching load screens may seem like a trivial technical merit, but it greatly enhances the game’s pacing, flow, and overall cinematic impact.
Without skipping a beat, this adventure rolls like a boulder chasing Indiana Jones, picking up momentum and bouncing unpredictably every step of the way. Naughty Dog’s scribes penned a fascinating, tightly wound mystery centered on Marco Polo’s lost fleet. The set pieces accompanying this tale deliver the sense of miraculous discovery, and are instrumental in evolving both the characters and gameplay. Nathan, who is voiced brilliantly by gaming vet Nolan North, turns in one of the most believable performances I’ve seen from a game character. His emotions are fully established, and his comic timing is spot on, often bringing about big laughs in stressful situations.
Not once did I feel that the plot was altered to fit the gameplay. This was one of my big complaints with the first game; it just didn’t move naturally. In Uncharted 2, every aspect of the game is harmonized. The environments players traverse embody a higher level of realism, meaning you won’t see man-made barriers positioned strategically for a gunfight in a lush jungle. Small touches like these remove predictability from the equation.
Rather than following the traditional sequel process of adding more components to the action, Naughty Dog instead chose to iterate upon the original mechanics. The gunplay is most improved, now offering smooth targeting, weapons that kick, and credible targets that don’t fidget like they have full bladders. On top of this, diversity in the enemy types adds dimensions to battles. An armored trooper may send you to a vertical space to use heavy machinery, whereas a squadron of light troops may be best tackled through stealthy neck snaps. Moreover, the weapon selection is much more satisfying, and assigning grenades to a specific button removes any chance of players tussling with the weapon selection wheel more than the enemies. The battles end up delivering a satisfying blend of pop-and-shoot and run-and-gun tactics. No longer did I find myself wishing they would be over so I could reach another cliff to climb.
Beyond the Adventure
Uncharted 2’s quest is worth the price of admission alone, but it’s only one small slice of content provided on the disc. Players can also dive into fully featured competitive and co-op modes. Competitive multiplayer supports up to 10 players, and offers a wide selection of satisfying match types. Like Call of Duty 4, player performances bring an array of rewards, such as perks (of which you can carry two into a match), ranks, and cash to exchange for new skins and gear. The solid gunplay from single-player transitions well into the multiplayer field. Grenade play is particularly impressive, and the maps embrace vertical gunplay. Pre-match loading is a bit extensive, but the action more than makes up for the wait.
If you don’t enjoy shooting your friends, Uncharted 2 offers a deep and rewarding cooperative experience for up to three players. In addition to three standard co-op modes (which Naughty Dog has fleshed out with unique character banter and animations), teamwork skills are put to the test in the addictive Gold Rush and Survival modes. Cash earned can be used in the store for co-op only weapon upgrades.
If you are vain enough to watch how much ass you kick, Naughty Dog rounds out the multiplayer experience with a cinema mode.
Platforming is Naughty Dog’s unquestioned strength, and Uncharted 2’s doesn’t disappoint. Nathan’s moveset remains largely unchanged, but Naughty Dog found ways to intensify the art of leaping. On one hand, the levels are better designed for vertical exploration; it’s not like Tomb Raider where you have to piece together the path. The platforming is still as linear as can be, but the challenges are now larger in scope, and often accompanied by some kind of unforeseen dilemma – be it falling ledges, moving gears, or dangerous explosions. The platforming and gunplay are seamlessly united, often overlapping when you least expect.
Nathan never jumps upon a jet ski, but several vehicles are used throughout the game. Trucks create one of the game’s most memorable gunfights, and a train becomes the centerpiece to one of the most exciting levels I’ve seen in an action game.
Naughty Dog’s mastery over the PlayStation 3 hardware is evidenced most in Uncharted 2’s visuals. A staggering level of realism is attained in both the characters and worlds. I couldn’t find a texture with a blemish or an animation that looked goofy. I often found myself marveling at the smallest of details, like the way light bounces off rocks or how flags blow in the wind. With the action moving at a fevered pitch, it’s hard to soak in all the details, but they are there, even in the far corners most people will likely never venture into.
Uncharted 2 is a masterstroke of game creation. This is the killer app PlayStation 3 owners have been waiting for, and I’d even be saying this without the outstanding competitive and co-op multiplayer (see sidebar). Given the complexity of the character relationships, I urge players to play the original game before venturing into the sequel. Some of the jokes and references fall flat if you don’t have the knowledge of Nathan’s previous exploits.
Uncharted 2 is a ringing testament to the power of both games and storytelling. It pulls you in, keeps you engaged, and concludes with a thunderous bang.