It’s not often that a game like Uncharted 2 comes along.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is an experience that defies traditional reviewing methods. No other game in recent memory presents such a complete, well-rounded, and polished experience. To call it flawless may be a stretch, but Uncharted 2 comes about as close as a videogame can get. You thought the original was a thrillride? Just wait until you see what Mr. Drake has in store for him this time.
Those who played Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune will feel right at home here. Uncharted 2 doesn’t stray far from the superb formula set down by the first game; rather, it just adds a few dozen layers of polish to an already very polished experience. This time, Drake is on the trail of the infamous explorer Marco Polo, and the treasure he brought back from his travels to Asia. Unsurprisingly, things become much bigger in a short span of time. What begins as a simple treasure hunt soon becomes a desperate race against time to prevent a madman from gaining the powers of the mystical Chintomani Stone.
Suffice to say, Uncharted 2 is one hell of a ride. The pacing is absolutely impeccable; you’ll never, ever want to put your controller down. The game never goes too long without a bombastic high-energy gameplay segment, or a dramatic twist in the storyline. But you’re also given just the right amount of time to take in the sights, per se, in the game’s slower portions.
The plot is narrated through a liberal number of non-interactive cutscenes, which are among the most well-produced cutscenes in videogames. Like the original Uncharted, all the voice actors were motion-capped for the dialogue scenes, which not only lends an incredible believability to the voicework, but to the character animations as well. A fine thing, because Uncharted 2 is very much a character-driven story. As well-crafted as the plot may be, it would be nothing without the presence of the infamous badass, Nathan Drake. Drake’s devil-may-care attitude and snappy dialogue is back and better than ever in Uncharted 2. He is, quite simply, one of the most likeable protagonists in gaming, and his ability to crack a sarcastic joke no matter how dire the situation will keep you chuckling the entire game.
That’s not to say he’s the only character from Uncharted 2 worthy of mention – quite the opposite. Uncharted 2 features an extremely well-rounded cast of both heroes and villains that drive the story along. Each and every one of them is a well-conceived and well-developed character; there are no flat stereotypes here. (With the possible exception of the game’s main baddy, Lazarovich.) Even Nate, who generally acts the part of invincible action hero, has a few moments in Uncharted 2 that show a weaker, less cocky side. And, rather than seeming out-of-place or melodramatic, these moments only make him that much more likable.
However, the writers at Naughty Dog did screw up in one regard: Sully’s role in Uncharted 2 is practically non-existent. It’s almost as if they didn’t realize how likable he was in the first game. Sully is around for some brief moments near the beginning, but that’s about it. It’s a minor nitpick given how enjoyable the story is, but here’s hoping that the pessimistic, foul-mouthed codger sees a little more action in Uncharted 3.
In all, Uncharted 2 features one of the best stories ever told in a videogame. Not necessarily due to the originality or depth of its content, but because of its unparalleled presentation, and the quality of the writing, acting, and directing. Uncharted 2 is living proof that the non-interactive cutscene is hardly a dated convention, if it’s utilized correctly.
But it’s not what you watch that makes the game such a constant thrillride, it’s what you do. In Uncharted 2, you don’t watch as Drake and Chloe escape from a collapsing hotel building, you do it. Naughty Dog could have just crafted a pretty cutscene showing Nate fighting his way up a moving train, but instead, they designed a lengthy gameplay segment in which you do it yourself. I could go on and on, but suffice to say, Uncharted 2 features some of the most intense, enjoyable, well-crafted gameplay segments ever seen in a videogame. Ever.
Like Drake’s Fortune, Uncharted 2 has three basic gameplay tiers: combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving. Those who played the original game will know what to expect here, because practically nothing has changed. The most notable difference is the hand-to-hand combat, which has been given a bit of a facelift. Rather than confusing button-combos, Uncharted 2 adopts a punch-and-counter system, which gives the combat a much more enjoyable feel than the original game. To go along with the improved melee combat is the ability to perform sneak attacks on unsuspecting foes. If you’re careful, it’s possible to take down a whole room full of enemies without a shot being fired. However, it’s clear that the developers expect you to rely mainly on firepower to take enemies down. Stealth kills can be useful, but they’re almost never required.
Platforming and puzzle-solving are also largely identical to what was seen in Drake’s Fortune. Drake has a few new tricks up his sleeve, such as the ability to swing on horizontal poles, but they’re very minor addition to say the least. Puzzle-solving takes on a somewhat smaller role in Among Thieves, but you’ll find that the puzzles themselves operate on a much larger scale than before. Generally, Drake must navigate entire, massive rooms for the sake of solving a single puzzle. They’re always a lot of fun, but never really challenging; in fact, most of the time all you’re required to do is reference Drake’s journal, and then solve the puzzle based on what’s written inside. It sounds cheap, but in reality, it’s quite a rewarding mechanic. You’ll feel like a real fortune hunter when you make sense of the clues scrawled in Drake’s journal. In fact, you’ll probably find yourself flipping through it when you don’t have a puzzle to solve; there’s more than a few humorous goodies inside.
However, as solid as they are separately, what makes these gameplay conventions so impressive is how well they complement each other to form a cohesive whole. This is particularly noticeable during the game’s more intense segments – such as when Drake must escape a hotel building that’s literally collapsing around him. While the building implodes, Drake must dodge bullets from a helicopter, engage in a firefight with the tenacious guards trapped in the building, and perform the run-and-jump acrobatics required to get the hell out of there. It all feels perfectly natural, and above all, fun.
That’s to say nothing of the fact that the entire sequence looks fantastic as well. No matter what crazy things are happening on-screen, Uncharted 2 never slows down for a second, and never stops looking amazing. In my firm opinion, this is the best-looking game of this generation, bar none. When I played the original Uncharted, I didn’t really see how it could look better, but take my word for it: in Uncharted 2, the character models have even more depth, the environments are grander, and the water looks even better. No, seriously. It does. But it’s not just the technical aspect that impresses: Uncharted 2 is simply a piece of artwork. Never before have I played a game that so frequently made me (and Charlie, who doesn’t even play videogames) open my mouth and say “wow.” (Or some other, more inappropriate expletive). To put it simply, the game features the most inspired and skillful art direction I’ve ever seen in my life. Uncharted 2 defies the gritty-grey aesthetics featured in so many of today’s games, and instead presents us with a world that’s lush, organic, colorful, and above all, larger-than-life. If you don’t find yourself frequently stopping just to take in the sights, be it the view of a cityscape in Nepal, or the ruins of a tainted paradise, then you might want to do a little soul-searching.
Anyone who likes to say “graphics don’t matter” clearly hasn’t played Uncharted.
If you really wanted to nitpick, it’s possible to find a few minor chinks in the armor of Uncharted 2. The cover mechanics aren’t as graceful as they could be which can be frustrating in tight spaces when you have literally dozens of enemies firing upon you. Naughty Dog clearly strove to keep the environments realistic, despite the fact that they must be properly engineered to allow Drake to platform around them. They did a fantastic job, but in some cases, they did almost too good a job, and you’ll find yourself stumbling around a room without the slightest clue what Drake is suppose to jump to, swing on, or climb in order to advance. Finally, I have to say, by the end of the game I was pretty tired of hoisting my partner up to just-out-of-reach ladders. It was fine for the first few hours, but it soon began to feel amazingly contrived and annoying.
However, these complaints are so minor that they’re barely worthy of mention. I’ll say it once and I’ll say it again: Uncharted 2 comes about as close to flawless as any game can get. The plot and narrative is brilliantly conceived, and feels like Indiana Jones at his best. The scripting and acting is absolutely unparalleled in the world of videogames. The gameplay is unbelievably fun, featuring some of the the most unique, high-energy sequences I’ve ever experienced. The graphical presentation is, again, unparalleled. Oh, and the game features one hell of a soundtrack to go along with it. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is interactive entertainment at it’s very finest. It doesn’t just set a bar for action-adventures; it sets the bar for the medium itself.
Note: While I played the campaign in its entirety, I’ve yet to spend any time with online multiplayer or co-op. If I find the time, I might check said components out and review them separately. If that’s something you’d really like to see, be sure to let me know in the comments.