Game Description: Follow-up game to 2007's critically acclaimed Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the PlayStation 3 exclusive Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a continuation of the adventures of Nathan Drake, a fortune-hunter with a shady reputation and an even shadier past. Chock full of all the action, adventure, cinematic story elements and beautiful graphics that set the first game apart, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves adds deep online multiplayer options, including co-op and competitive campaigns, and a whole new supporting cast of characters, making it yet another must-have title for the PlayStation 3 platform.
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.
HIGH Watching Uncharted the movie, I mean game, unfold.
LOW Actually playing the game.
WTF There is absolutely no need to figure out what to do on your own, eventually the game will tell you.
There is no denying the existence of games with sophisticated storylines, scripts, characters, etc (Mass Effect, BioShock, the Metal Gear series, certain early RPGs for example); no denying the existence of games that truly define themselves as games, but these are few and far between in comparison to the amount of schlock (not meant in a degrading way) that is released. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is schlock without doubt, but it may be the best schlock ever.
While certain stories necessarily present themselves with the intent of moving their audiences, making you think of questioning ideologies, or of repelling you to the point that knowledge is somehow gained in the process, Uncharted 2 is mindless. Take National Treasure, The Mummy, and Indiana Jones and the bare bones plot full of cheeky emotion involving Drake, Elena, and Sully from the first installment, along with a new cast of friends and enemies, and Uncharted 2 is summed up quite succinctly. Cliché-ridden, character development akin to that of a Russ Meyer (dir. of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, he was the king of big breasted women films in the 70s) movie, it's as if John Woo and Looney Tunes had a baby and named it Drake. Cajoled into a treasure hunt involving the rumored Cintimanni stone, double and triple crossing abounds. The big bad guy Lazarevic is after immortality, and something creepy at the end of the trail awaits. Predictability has never been so embraced (exaggeration but...). Nevertheless, something about Uncharted 2 grabs hold and won't let go. It swims in its own inanity, self-reflexive beyond belief, and voice-acted so well I couldn't help but keep listening, and considering how good it looks, I couldn't stop watching either.
Alas, we have what sounds like a B-movie (which is not to say that B-movies are not capable of evoking thoughtful insights) on our hands. Lines of dialogue delivered with such irony it's clear the cast is winking at us and a plot so global, not to mention desperately dependent upon classic Hollywood gender roles, the player's laughing at its desire to impress (if only Bruce Campbell, star of the Evil Dead series, could travel the world in search of lost treasure, providing one-liners as only he can) is inevitable. Well Drake ain't no Bruce, but he's good nonetheless; just serious enough that it's not a turn-off (like an afternoon Syfy channel movie), just self-deprecating enough to make it clear the game is aware of its limits. This isn't high art (as if high art is perfect), but it is certainly better than the average popcorn fare.
It provides thrills incessantly, verging on numbingly, but encapsulated in such a tightly knit, short spurt of a game that there's no time to lose feeling. It is basically all adrenaline. This may get tiring for some, and I'll admit at times a slower paced game would've been welcome. Fortunately the cut-scenes provide breathing room, and once again, the visuals are so crisp that even in all the commotion, my eyes found a way to appreciate the various sites. The diegetic sound is also fantastic, scenes breathe with life the way Michael Bay (The Island, Armaggedon, etc.) wishes his plastic images could. But all is not worthy of praise.
Regarding the game's mechanics, they aren't worth mentioning. If you've played a video game recently (this specifically being a third-person adventure/shooter), you will be fine. One problem I encountered more often that I would've liked is the cover system intruding when I just wanted to roll, or vice versa. Otherwise the game runs smoothly. Too smoothly. In fact so smoothly that the gamer almost isn't needed. When running into a situation I couldn't immediately get out of, and this only occurs because it's hard to decipher what can and cannot be climbed, a hint will pop up. Sometimes I like to explore an environment, attempt to climb everything just because. But this game seems not to favor the explorers (despite promoting the discovery of "hidden" treasures), and while the hints may be ignored, they show up with almost vehement regularity, as if the game just wants to finish, and doesn't really care whether or not the gamer does.
With Uncharted 2, I was not playing a game, I was watching a movie that happened to allow me to play very specific scenes. This could potentially draw comparison to the excellent Metal Gear games, but I would beg to differ. Metal Gear Solid pushes the envelope of game mechanics, difficulty level, freedom vs. predestination (both philosophically and gameplay-wise); Metal Gear Solid refers heavily to the medium that clearly influences it most directly, but firmly establishes itself as a video game (movies can break the fourth wall, but they can't make you unplug and re-plug the controller in order to continue progressing). Metal Gear Solid is not a 20 hour movie, it is a 20 hour video game that uses a multimedia approach to fulfill its goal. Uncharted 2 would succeed as a movie, albeit on the scale of a B-movie/Bruce Campbellish level. That may be a subjective statement, but considering nothing new is brought to the table save itself, it is undeniably clear where Uncharted's priorities lie.
Raw entertainment is not to be dismissed. Room should always be made for mindless fun, we can't always fill our plate with Kojima and BioWare (or the meticulously complex, unforgiving Demon's Souls, essentially the antithesis of Uncharted 2, another PS3 exclusive fittingly released a week before Uncharted 2 in the States). It is not even always a problem of sophistication, but of simple time management. Among Thieves is crystal clear with its intentions, it delivers in spades, is able to deliver in small dosages, and always with unmatched quality.
But the pressing problem/question remains: if video games only seek to mimic they're close relative (cinema), and succeed in doing so (both financially and critically), will there be room for games that wish to use the mold for more unique, differentiating purposes? I certainly hope so, because despite loving the swash-buckling ruckus of Pirates of the Carribean (or a David Jaffe game), I need to get my fill of Manhattan(s) (early Woody Allen, or a Team Ico game).
The problem is further complicated by the fact that in writing this review I used more references to films than video games! Video games have forged a path of their own, but with abundant territory left to discover, a game like Uncharted 2 (and many like it) feels a tad regressive. It is definitely not that Uncharted doesn't provide a good time, but if all Drake and Elena's adventure adds up to is the tried and true formulaic adventure of a classic Hollywood genre perfected years and years ago, I have to wonder why I even bother playing Uncharted. Those classic films are sitting on my shelf, might as well forget the game and watch those.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 9 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 1 times) and 5 hours of play in multiplayer modes.
Still on my quest to play all the "big" games of 2009, I've almost got Uncharted 2 wrapped up… only two or three more sections to go. Having already put together a rough list of the year's top ten, I was wondering which title I might have to bump to make room for it. That concern is now moot, since it's not going to make the list.
If nothing else, the production values put pretty much everything else on the market to shame. The graphics are stunning in nearly every scene, and the voice work is excellent. I certainly can't fault it there—it's the other aspects that fail to impress.
Despite the impressive number of showy setpieces that kick the energy level into high gear, there are just as many things that drag it back down. For example, with all the time and energy put into designing the levels, I'm actually surprised that there are as many "where do I go now?" moments as there are. Naughty Dog gets around this by often having an AI partner lead the way, but that's a bit like cheating, if you ask me. They get caught out in areas when main character Drake is alone, and the way to progress is not obvious.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, despite the desire to incorporate a bit of tomb raiding, the devs sacrifice complexity (and hence, satisfaction of completion) of jumping/climbing puzzles for the sake of making them pass by quickly. Ostensibly, they don't want players to become bored by being unable to find their way (which didn't seem to bother them in the land-based areas), but the result was that there was no pleasure in climbing ledges and jumping gaps when there's precious little fear of falling, and the only correct path is usually quite obvious.
The gunfights, by far the worst aspect of the first game, are certainly improved but are still a sore spot. They just drag on for far too long, often throwing wave upon wave of enemy at the player. While something like that might work in a game akin to Gears of War or somesuch, it just feels like filler to me here, and rarely do the fights excite. Nearly every combat situation felt like it lasted about twice as long as it should. Conversely, the stealth aspect of the combat is much improved, and when granted the opportunity, taking enemies out quietly is a much more enjoyable experience than the "stop and pop" that chokes everything up.
Uncharted 2 certainly isn't a terrible game, but I think most of the 9's and 10's tossed its way are result of reviewers experiencing premature ejaculation due to the graphics and presentation. Although I haven't seen the end quite yet, I can't see much replay value here, and when the shine and polish are stripped away, the core gameplay mechanics aren't strong enough to keep you coming back for more.
From what I understand, multiplayer is a very worthwhile experience, but generally preferring the single-player as I do, I'll leave that for others to decide.
Read more on the Drinking Coffeecola blog.
It's been suggested by critic emeritus Gene Park, staff critic Matthew Kaplan and others outside of the GC community, that adding more interactive choices/decisions to the popular PlayStation 3 title, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, would change the very thrill-ride nature and universal appeal of its gameplay. The argument is that the inclusion of such choice would result in something that was "not the point of the game".
Gene insists that: "...I've followed the game's development through media and it's been said time and time again (even in the game's in-game documentary) that the purpose of the game was never going to be about player choice, but providing the same experience for all players."
I disagree with this logic of thought for multiple reasons.
1. Games are by nature subversive
As indie game developer, Jason Rohrer, so eloquently expressed on the A Life Well Wasted podcast, games defy authorial control because they require player initiation and persistent participation. No matter what vision or parameters the game developers decide to impose on players, ultimately the gamer is free to do as he or she chooses within the construct of the game. As Jason remarks "you can play Mario just by standing there if you want to or jumping up and down over and over until time runs out. You don't have to go all the way to the end and that's a complete game of Mario."
Whether or not a game is linear by design or tries to impose authorial control doesn't mean a player doesn't make decisions. The act of moving forward is in fact a player decision. As I played Uncharted 2, I always preferred to use the grenade launcher due to its bigger punch. I would try to horde it at every opportunity and save it for tougher situations, but it always seemed like a constant struggle to keep the weapon because the game wouldn't give me enough ammo, insistently dropping all kinds of other weapons instead. Uncharted 2 worked against what I wanted to do in favor of what it wanted me to do and that didn't feel particularly gratifying. I understand that there's plenty of room for games that don't require choices and there's nothing wrong with the developers making such design decisions, but you would think that a more progressive and praise-worthy game design would acknowledge this inherent dynamic rather than fight against it.
Gene argues that such an acknowledgment in game design would go against "providing the same experience for all players." I believe this is another fallacy, which leads to my next point:
2. Gameplay experiences are interpretive
"Every Breath You Take" by the Police is a sinister song about the obsession and control, but is largely thought to be a haunting love ballad by the masses and later reinterpreted as a commercially crass memorial tribute to Biggie Smalls by P. Diddy. There isn't one correct interpretation. They are all valid readings depending on who is doing the interpreting. Video games are no different from music and any other art form in that its artistic, cultural and personal context is malleable.
The ending to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty holds a deeper meaning for me as a New Yorker because the 9/11 terrorist attacks are something that impacted my life firsthand and the Wall Street Washington Memorial featured prominently at the end of the game is a symbol that I was intimately familiar with having walked past it so many times throughout my life. The development of MGS2 predates the events of 9/11, but that doesn't change its historical and cultural significance in my mind.
So the notion that Uncharted 2 is able to provide the exact same gameplay experience to every player and every player will derive the exact same meaning from the game, is simply unattainable since we all interpret the game differently based on our own world-view (Alex Raymond's feminist readings of Chloe and Elena in Uncharted 2, for example). Again, there's nothing wrong with the developer, Naughty Dog, attempting a one-size-fits-all model, but you would think a more thought-provoking and artful game would allow for more player interpretation rather than minimizing it.
3. Linear games with choice(s)
As part of this blog post, I wanted to provide three case studies of linear games that did provide choices to the player without having altered the nature or integrity of its game design and instead improved it tremendously.
Case Study #1 - Metal Combat: Falcon's Revenge
The Choice: Metal Combat: Falcon's Revenge is a 17-year old SNES light-gun game made up of 11 boss battles whose game mechanics are a close cousin of Punch-Out. Prior to the final stage, the game plays out close to what one might expect given its genre and premise. It isn't until the final stage that the game interjects an interesting dilemma to the player. The final boss uses the player's mission handler as a shield and the player has to choose between shooting and killing the handler to expose the final boss' weak spot or taking the more difficult road to victory by shooting around the handler.
The End Result: The subtle and seamless inclusion of choice in the final boss battle made an already exceptional game that much more memorable and unique for its time and genre. Rather than disrupt the traditional light-gun design, the choice only served to enhance the gameplay experience because players had to make an in-game moral decision whether or not the handler should be sacrificed and those who defeated the boss without harming the handler, felt more heroic and rewarded for doing so.
Case Study #2 - Super Mario Bros. 2
The Choice: At the start of each stage, the player is able to choose between four characters, each with their own characteristics: Mario (well-rounded), Luigi (highest jump), Princess Peach (floaty jump) and Toad (strength).
The End Result: Rather than change the DNA of the side-scrolling platform genre, the inclusion of character selection in SMB2 was an evolution that made the game more exceptionally diverse and replayable since each stage could be approached differently by each character. Giving each player-controlled protagonist unique traits also started a legacy of memorable Mario character designs and gameplay characteristics that endures to this day.
Case Study #3 - Resident Evil 4
The Choice: Unlike previous Resident Evil games, the player had the option to purchase and upgrade weapons through the colorful Merchant.
The End Result: At the time of release, the Resident Evil franchise was thought to be creatively stagnant and in need of a serious make-over. While giving the player the choice in weapons and upgrades wasn't the only thing that was progressively overhauled in the trademark survival-horror series, it was an integral part in allowing a more personalized gameplay experience and gave the sagging franchise the creative boost it needed to stay relevant with gamers. The weapon choice feature is still a part of the latest entry in the series.
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In each of the vastly different case studies above, the inclusion of choice only served to improve the gameplay experience and make the game more distinct. So I'm not quite sure why this wouldn't apply to Uncharted 2 and how choice would irreparably alter what makes Uncharted 2 what it is. It's also funny to note that contrary to its reputation, Uncharted 2 is not a non-stop by-the-seat-of-your-pants roller-coaster ride that it's purported to be. Sandwiched between some of the game's explosion-filled action set-pieces are some tactical stealth- and puzzle-based stages where the player has to dial down the adrenaline and put on a thinking cap. So is thinking somehow inconsistent with the notion of decision-making? Don't the two usually go hand in hand?
I've maintained throughout this ongoing debate that I don't think Uncharted 2 is a bad game by any means and it's certainly notable for its technical implementation, visual design and character performances. I just think that a game that is deemed the best of what video games have to offer in 2009 should contribute more to interactive design because that is what makes video games unique as an art form. To suggest that any game would be better without choices is simply backwards thinking.