Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
January 11, 2010, Author: Bryony Stewart-Seume
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune blew me away; in fact, it was the visuals that sold the PS3 to me. I was delighted to hear the announcement of a sequel, but also wary of being over-excited. The pre-release hype-o-metre grew steadily, and I became more and more anxious. Everybody seemed to think that this game was going to re-write history. Surely not? So, other than reading every non-spoiler article and booking release day off work (something I have never done for a game) I kept myself hype free.
“Am I sensing some history here?”
Uncharted 2 takes place a couple of years after Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and the earliest point in its time line finds Nathan drinking alone. The game does not follow the story in a linear manner, but uses flash backs to reveal how Nathan finds himself lying face down in the snowy Himalayas half dead from a bullet wound. Having been tracked down by Harry Flynn, a character from his past, Nate is asked for help in acquiring an apparently worthless oil lamp. This item is for a client of Flynn’s who, according to Nate, has “too much time and money on his hands.” It doesn’t take long, however, for Nathan to put two and two together, and come up with seventy-five.
Nate’s trail of thought leads him to suspect that the oil lamp was a gift from Kublai Khan to Marco Polo, and that Marco Polo hid a clue inside that would lead the finder to his lost fleet and the treasure that surely lies within. This is enough to persuade Nathan to take the job of robbing a Turkish museum of one of its artifacts. The dialogue between Nate and Flynn firmly suggests that this is not the first time our dashing hero has broken into this museum; in fact, last time it seems that Nathan was the only one to make it out alive. So, we can add larceny to his impressive list of skills and accomplishments! It is at this point that I found myself disliking Mr Drake a little (but don’t think for one moment that that dislike lasted more than about five minutes). Nathan comes across in this game as being endearingly naïve, someone who people with less honourable intentions and inferior IQ try and take advantage of.
Anyway, what follows is a romp through Turkey, Borneo, Nepal and Tibet filled with more twists and turns than a Curly Wurly, and enough double crosses to have you questioning where some peoples’ loyalties lie right up to the final scenes. Nathan and his allies (who change almost on a chapter by chapter basis) race through the world following clues left by Marco Polo that should lead them to the mythical kingdom of Shambhala, and to the Cintamani Stone (a raw sapphire of immeasurable worth) that could be found there. Unfortunately that would be too easy for a man like Drake, so throw in a fugitive war-criminal hell bent on getting his mitts on the stone before Drake, and you’ve got yourself a story.
“How am I meant to take out a… hel-lo!”
The controls of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are mostly identical to those of Drake’s Fortune, with a couple of exceptions. Gone is the Sixaxis grenade aiming, which apparently caused so many people so much grief. Lobbing grenades into a group of gun toting baddies is now a joy, as well as a highly effective way of decimating them.
The other slight change is that ‘up’ on the D-Pad is no longer used for reloading, and is now pretty much redundant. Yes, I did take a few more bullets than I felt I needed to trying to reload by pressing ‘up’. For those in the same situation as me who relied on this in Drake’s Fortune; save Nate a few injuries by learning that R2 does the job now. Yes, I know it did in Drake’s Fortune, but I used the ‘up’ option. I am pleased to say that this did not ruin my gaming experience, though. If anything it toughened Nathan up for what was to come.
The combat system remains, on the surface, largely unchanged from the first game. Walk into a new area; listen to Nathan say “Oh crap”; watch the area fill with baddies with guns and death wishes; find somewhere to get in to cover; and shoot until you either run out of mercenaries or ammo. However, Naughty Dog have tweaked the feel so there is a much greater emphasis on silently taking out your pursuers. If you are careful, and peek around corners instead of running through a door firing your .45 Defender you may find that you can kill half of them before they can even tie their shoelaces. I know this is slightly sadistic, but it is great fun hanging from a ledge, and simply pulling soldiers off cliffs should they be dumb enough to step too close to the edge. Surely they know it is Nathan Drake they have been hired to eliminate, right?
Of course it isn’t all silent killing that gets Nathan ahead; what Naughty Dog did with the first game was to create a world with which characters could interact and through which they could move naturally with ease. What they did with Among Thieves was to take this as a base, and turn it up to eleven. Drake’s Fortune, for me, was a near perfect gaming experience, but it wasn’t until Among Thieves that I started to see its limitations. The levels of Uncharted 2 are designed so well that you can really plan your strategies for survival. For example, one particular gunfight in the snow caused me some trouble on my first playthrough. However, with a few tries, a shotgun and me yelling words of encouragement at Nate I triumphed. Second time around I discovered an area I hadn’t even seen before, and succeeded by picking off the baddies one by one from afar. Same level, same baddies, same weapons on offer, but two very different strategies. (Three if you include getting killed! – ed)
The second point worth noting about level design is movement. At several points during the game (most notably on the much talked about train sequence) what Nathan stands on isn’t attached to the background. This gives the very real feeling of placing you within the environment. The result is far more sensational than a vibrating controller, which, let’s face it, frankly sucks. The adrenalin levels ramp up and up, and my advice to you is, do not fight it. Let go and really feel the game. If you need a pee, now is not the time to go.
“Yeah, great. I can see your house from up here.”
From the war torn streets of Nepal, to the mountain top village in Tibet this game provides feasts for the eyes on such a massive scale. At one point in the game, Nathan follows Elena Fisher up a rock face. “Nice view,” he says. “Men,” is the sighed response from Elena. Nate defends himself by saying “No, I meant the mountains…” And actually, he might have meant the mountains. If there were fewer people shooting at Nate, I may have wanted to stop more often for a bit of sightseeing.
While the first game, for me, had no real issues with graphics, it did maybe lack variety. As it was mostly based in one location the backgrounds, although very well presented were, well, similar. With the move to a multiple locations, the Naughty Dog graphics team clearly had a ball. Their skills do not stop at creating stunning backdrops; the number of animations the characters have been given to go through is utterly staggering. I found myself (I admit, I am a teensy bit sad) flicking the left stick with Nate in cover just to see how many positions he could get his self into (not like that you perverts…) and, although I didn’t count, it was impressive nonetheless.
I realise that what probably happened was that Nolan North (the lucky chap who gets to BE Nathan Drake) spent several days wearing an oversized baby grow covered in ping pong balls forcing himself into as many crouches as he could. Nolan, if you are reading this; I, for one, really appreciated the effort you put in.
“Quietly, Nate. Quietly!”
Speaking of Nolan North, his voice acting (and that of all the cast) continues to be outstanding. Hold on; I’m going to take time out here and just say to you that I really AM trying to find something about this game that I don’t actually like, but it is really, really difficult. I promise. Back to the voice acting: the script is superbly written, but I understand that the actors were instrumental in finalising the script. The result is dialogue that flows naturally with warmth and humour, and when I say humour, there were several lines that genuinely had me laughing out loud. I won’t spoil it for you, but listen particularly to what Nate and Flynn say to each other at various points in the game. I also heard that Nolan North watched a play through of the game, and ad-libbed lines as he saw fit, so those moments that I can almost guarantee will happen for you when Nathan says something that you were thinking; this is why.
Greg Edmonson was re-hired to write the score for this game, and he starts where he left off on Uncharted 1. The jungle sounding flutes are mostly gone, to be replaced by what sounds like a single stringed instrument that evokes the sound of the Tibetan Himalayas. Here is something that is a minor disappointment! Phew, this was beginning to sound sycophantic. Nate’s Theme (the tune that plays while the game is loading) is still used but there is slightly less emphasis on the strings, and slightly more on the brass in the second game. I prefer the stringier version. By a fraction.
“I hope you can make that jump. I sure as hell won’t wait for you.”
Aha. Now here is a part of the game that was not so great. Naughty Dog introduced an online multiplayer feature, in which one gets to team up with chums or randoms and shoot the bajeezers out of each other, whilst also trying to procure artifacts for your team. It sounds like fun, but I have tried several times to get in and failed miserably. There seem to be some issues with accessing the game; the screen hangs, and hangs, and hangs. Accepting an invite from a buddy was unsuccessful as well; we both got in, and were promptly and unceremoniously spat out after no more than a second. Therefore I am not really able to comment on the multiplayer, but let’s face it, aside from the problems described, it is most likely awesome.
“So, what’s your angle on all this misery?”
All in all this was a weak game that Naughty Dog clearly put little or no thought into, and pushed out quickly in order to make a quick buck… Oh, who am I kidding? Honestly, this gave me the most delight I have ever had in playing a game. Just about everything about it seems so well thought through, and executed immaculately. I expected to enjoy the game, but I was genuinely surprised just how much I did. Not once did I get fed up with a sequence, or wish there were fewer baddies to kill, or more puzzles to solve; the balance just worked. For the love of all that is good and holy, if you have a PS3 and don’t have this game; what in the name of Hell are you waiting for? If you don’t have a PS3 and want an excuse to buy one; here it is. If you don’t have a PS3 and don’t want one; goodness me, there really is no helping some people.