Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
With the release of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception last week, I felt a little guilty twinge deep within myself. You see, despite my supposed neutrality when it comes to the various gaming systems on offer – as any player will tell you, eventually you develop a preference and this predilection can inform some of your game purchases.
Which isn’t to say that I don’t want Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I want it very much, but it is to say that I kind of, sorta, forgot about the other Uncharted games until now – and hastily moved to rectified my mistake. Before you light your torches and stone me into the hills, keep in mind I acquired a PS3 quite a bit after the release of Uncharted 2, so I realistically did not know what I was missing.
And now I do. And I was missing something amazing.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is easily the most story-driven game I have ever finished playing. I say “finished playing” because there are two games which may have rivalled it in terms of story, L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain – both of which I couldn’t finish because the gameplay wasn’t on the same level as the story (and games that are all story are called “movies”). But moving on.
The Uncharted series, as I discovered since this was the first Uncharted game I have played, puts you in the shoes of Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider hybrid Nathan Drake – an endearing, witty protagonist who somehow subscribes to every generic aspect of the reformed thief with a conscious and yet comes off as completely original. His quest, in a very “Raiders of the Lost Ark” style, is to retrace the steps of Marco Polo in order to discover the location of Shambala and with it a priceless diamond the size of a beachball called the Cintamani stone.
This quest takes you across the world, from Istanbul to Borneo to Tibet – each beautifully rendered and accurately detailed. Really just the geographical content of this game is astounding, and when you put together some of the most picturesque landscapes imaginable backed by the hardware support of the PS3 – jaw-dropping is a relevant description in most cases.
With twist after twist and a screenwriters bible worth of adapted Hollywood plot techniques, the worst part of Uncharted 2’s arguably formulaic plot is how little I can give away writing this review for fear of ruining things. Yes, it reminded me of Tomb Raider, of Indiana Jones, of National Treasure, of any history/treasure adventure – but it was a comfortable familiarity, not an obtrusive one.
This game has one of the best stories I have ever encountered, mainly because at no point did it feel forced and at no point did it insist upon itself. It was just consistently present and it swept me away.
How did it blend so easily with the gameplay? Simple: the characters.
Uncharted 2’s writers could teach a master class in developing likeable, memorable protagonists from proven models. I mean, basically all the characters are archetypes – but the sheer wit of the writing softens the blow of recognisable character formats and forges a unique identity in your mind early on.
Starting with Drake. Never before have I felt such an intense connection to a protagonist, just based off his incidental comments. For example, at one point I accidently dropped a grenade in front of myself in a closed off room. Immediately (in real life) I said “Oh shit.” At the exact same time in the game I heard Nathan Drake say “Oh shit”. Coincidence, yes, but the point is that the dialogue flows in a very natural fashion – the characters say things that an actual human being would say, every hidden insult and flirty “nice view from here” included.
And it doesn’t stop there, the running self-monologue that Drake keeps up is also consistent with how someone would talk to themselves when no one is around – alongside providing helpful tips to the player. Unlike Arkham City where Batman’s thoughts were so common and repetitive that I often felt he kept a string of repeated ideas constantly verbalized in his head, here some restraint is used and it has a very positive effect on the player.
Even outside of the protagonist, the attention paid to character development is palpable. Once again, not because these characters are brand new (the traitor-friend, the sassy “bad girl”, the Russian/eastern-european/whatever scarred antagonist, the blonde tomboy love interest, the grizzled veteran) but because the way they interact with you and each other is believable in a very (dare I say) Joss Whedon-esque way.
Uncharted 2 is an action-adventure platformer, with strong puzzle-solving and FPS elements. Which, is a damn mouthful worth of game types. So let’s break it down further:
The game consists of two different types of segments. First are climbing/puzzle-solving areas which mainly consist of figuring out where to go next or how to open that door, reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed in the climbing or Ocarina of Time for some of the puzzles. Second are FPS/Stealth areas, where you either begin by stealthing around and silently taking out as many enemies as possible before a fire fight breaks out – or you are just dropped into the shit guns blazing. The third-person cover-based FPS/Stealth was a little Gears of War and a little Deus Ex, and it was a little too prevalent for my taste – but maybe I just sucked at stealth.
The majority of the game alternates between these two types of areas, with a few exceptions like run-for-your-life sections or particularly cinematic moments (like jumping from car to car in the middle of a mountain convoy). The climbing parts especially are quite classic Pitfall or Tomb Raider, usually involving exposed rocks or bits of rope in order to progress. However the constantly altering backdrop and colour palette stops these from becoming repetitive, and in fact I found myself somewhat looking forward to these areas.
The FPS/Stealth areas are fun as well, but after awhile they can be a bit trying. This is partially due to the checkpoint system always kicking in before a room (regardless of length) and never again until all the enemies are dead. So if you die on that last guy out of 30, prepare to face the other 29 once again. The guns are fairly bland and generic and at no point did I feel particularly attached to them beyond their ability to get me from A to B. What I did get particularly attached to is the melee combat.
Uncharted 2 employs a particular brand of fist-fighting which I have dubbed “context-sensitive combat”. Basically, if you are running along some crates (for example) and an enemy is on the ground level and you press melee – instead of a typical melee encounter (where you trade blows like backyard boxing) you instantly kick them in the face (as you would if you had the higher ground in that situation). Similar events can occur if you are running, jumping or basically based off where you are and what you are doing. Even if there is no environmental factors nearby, the melee cycles through 3-4 different cinematic quick-time events, which make it feel dynamic and original.
Something I particularly have to note is Drake’s notebook, a mish-mash of funny cartoons, relevant plane tickets and problem-solving information. The rare moments (generally inside ancient temples) where you are prompted to pull this bad boy out are still with me as some of my favourite moments in the game – because the contents of the notebook fully reflected the character I had created in my mind to go along with the information presented to you about Drake over the course of the narrative.
At it’s best Uncharted 2 is a one of a kind experience which brought me back to the adventure-action movies of my childhood. I was hooked from the get-go and I relished the cinematics that explained more of my quest. It’s one of the only games I have played where the actual story-experience was a driving factor for me, more than a few times I found myself saying “If I can just get through this room… I’ll find out where the temple is!” or similar.
Add to this solid, if bland, FPS and stealth gameplay and some of the best visuals I have ever seen in a game and you would have a title to remember for years to come.
Add to that the unforgettable characters and you have a game which has assured it’s place in my Kanye-list (Top 10 OF ALL TIME!).
At it’s worst, Uncharted 2 slows it’s amazingly written plot and characters with predictable combat and climbing experiences which tend to repeat themselves more and more obviously as the game goes on. Thankfully the repeated sections serve as “filler areas” between parts which are obviously more unique, and it is rare that you feel overwhelmed with repetition between areas.
That being said, for the FPS parts especially – sometimes there just seemed to be too many enemies just for the sake of it, in order to slow down the player than for any real necessity to have them.
What’s the difference between a room with 10 bad guys and a room with 15 bad guys? If you play this game, you will find out. Many times.
One particular thing that keeps coming back to me is how contained the story of Uncharted 2. Somehow it comes off as ambitious, and yet restrained. It’s fantastical, and yet semi-believable (bar one particular blue-skinned element). It’s appropriate, and yet deliciously inappropriate.
Within the first couple of hours I found places I loved, people I loved and things I loved to do.
And if I asked any more than that from a game – I would be a pretty greedy man.