The Style Is In The Details
HIGH Finally glimpsing the lost city of Shambhala.
LOW Quickly dying ten times during a chase sequence before getting a hint as to what I should be doing.
WTF "Don't you love how the water makes your jeans all squidgy?"
From its harrowing opening moments to a climax that had me literally sitting on the edge of my seat, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a masterpiece of game design. While not dramatically innovative, it pushes the medium forward by setting a new bar for refinement in game mechanics, writing, voice acting, pacing, characterization, and attention to detail. Among Thieves improves upon its predecessor in every way; the result is an experience that is relentlessly delightful from start to finish.
For those unfamiliar with the series, the Uncharted games combine third-person, cover-based gunplay with Tomb Raider-style platforming and a globe-trotting treasure hunter aesthetic à la Indiana Jones. The games star everyman Nathan Drake (supposed descendant of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake) who is an expert in ancient civilizations and has a knack for getting into dangerous situations, making wisecracks, and escaping by the skin of his teeth. Gameplay is largely unchanged this time around; the one major addition is stealth kills and a number of stealth-based sections, of which only the first must be completed using stealth tactics exclusively.
Among Thieves takes place an undetermined time—a year or two, perhaps—after the first game and follows Drake and his cohorts on a journey through parts of Asia—from a museum in Istanbul, to the jungles of Borneo, to the streets of Nepal, to a tiny Tibetan village—on a search for Marco Polo's lost fleet and a powerful artifact called the Cintimani Stone. Of course, the villain, warlord Zoran Lazarevic, and his army—who represent almost all of the game's cannon fodder—confront Drake at every step of the way. The plot, while an improvement upon the first game (particularly how the twists are better integrated and not so jarring), is fairly standard for the genre and has a number holes, but it fills the purpose of propelling the action well.
Characters from the first game make a comeback—Sully makes a cameo and Elena is back as a major player—and newcomers Harry Flynn and Chloe Frazer, the latter whom adds a touch of much-needed diversity to our group of heroes, are introduced. Although at times characters' motivations are not clear, overall, characterization is one of the areas where Among Thieves is head and shoulders above nearly every other major game out there. Clever writing combined with top-notch voice acting, animation, and character design results in a cast of characters that come across as likable and, most of all, realistic—not only in their appearances and sharp banter, but their actions.
In particular, Chloe and Elena are brilliant examples of female characters done right, something gaming desperately needs. With her midriff-baring shirt and ultra-tight pants, Chloe is a bit sexualized, but overall both women are realistic, clever, and—above all—independent. While there is a love triangle element, it is handled with tact; lesser writers than Naughty Dog's team would have seen Chloe and Elena snap at each other in a childish "catfight" over Drake—not so here. Naughty Dog truly treats their female characters with the same care and respect as their male characters, not something most people in Hollywood, let alone video games, can boast. Further evidence of Naughty Dog's skill can be found in Tenzin, the Tibetan man who aids Drake briefly in the second half of the game. A minor character who could have easily devolved into a stereotype is instead a fully formed and sympathetic character with a background, motivations, and a family. In the end, the only character that suffers from a lack of development is the villain, who is, yet again, an over-the-top evil caricature, but this time he's Serbian instead of British.
The biggest gameplay innovation this time around is a subtle but effective one: a dedication to changing up the formula every five minutes or so in order to keep things interesting. After the first couple chapters, Drake is rarely ever simply shooting waves of enemies; by constantly introducing variations, such as forcing Drake into a shootout while hanging from a billboard, the game never feels repetitive. The sequence on the moving train does this masterfully, gradually introducing different elements and changing them slightly, and it makes even a fight with a helicopter feel fresh. Some changes are more dramatic, such as a number of chase sequences, each one with its own unique twist.
But the area in which Among Thieves is truly unique among games is its attention to detail. The extent to which the Naughty Dog team crafted a realistic world inhabited by living, breathing people is absurd. Drake has a vast array of animations for everything he does in the game; some of these animations are only used once or twice. When Drake is facing or walking toward an open flame, he shields his face with his hand; when squeezing through a tight spot, he holds on to the walls and moves painstakingly around the sharp edges. Characters will often engage each other during gameplay, which is not only amusing but contributes to the above-mentioned characterization—the charming and beloved banter from the first game is back and better than ever, since Drake's companions will now accompany him on climbing sections as well as in combat.
The humor in the game ranges from slapstick to slightly meta. The game is just self-aware enough so that Drake grumbling, "I am so sick of climbing shit!" is a funny coincidence with what the player is probably thinking, rather than a complete breaking of the fourth wall, which would clash with the tone of the game. Drake's notebook is no longer just a puzzle-solving tool, it's a hilarious look into Drake's character. And the characters never just stand around talking, they are always moving during dialogue; this is a change that is so natural that I did not even notice it was different from other games until I played something else and wondered why everyone seemed to be cardboard cutouts.
Environment details propel the action forward: in the first level, as Drake approaches a crashed train being held up by a tree, it creaks ominously, compelling the player to rush through before it crashes down—which is does, as soon as Drake is safely through. Pipes creak, handholds crumble, bridges snap—when Drake says, "Everything I touch turns to shit," he's not just talking about the big picture. These dramatic details keep the game moving at a breathless pace that does not let up until a powerfully quiet moment halfway through the game. And after that short break, it's off again, hurtling toward the climax without ever letting up.
In the end, it is this ridiculous attention to detail that elevates Uncharted 2: Among Thieves from a great game to a true masterpiece. The game sets a new bar for not only technological achievement and game design, but writing and characterization as well, something I hope other developers are inspired to emulate. Among Thieves is far and away the best game that I have played this year, and one I will likely come back to time and again.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 20 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed twice) and 6 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, language, suggestive themes and violence. While there are blood splatters when enemies are shot during gameplay, cut-scenes are almost completely bloodless. "Damn" and "shit" are used liberally, but sexual content is limited to innuendo and kissing.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All cut-scenes and important in-game dialogue are subtitled, though some of the nonessential in-game dialogue is not. Additionally, minor audio cues that let the player know where enemies are coming from (shouts of "He's over here!" etc.) are not visually represented, but overall, the game does a good job of communicating important information visually.