Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review
It's been a huge year for the PlayStation 3. Not only was there a price-drop, but there was also the all new PS3 Slim redesign. Most importantly, though, it's been the games for the PS3 that have swayed opinions left and right. It started off with Killzone 2 early in the year, then continued with inFamous, and of course an all new Ratchet game is set to launch shortly, as well. But it's been one PS3 game in particular that everybody's been talking about, as it has displayed simply the most jaw-dropping game design on any console ever seen. Of course I'm talking about Uncharted 2. With Gran Turismo 5 pushed back to early 2010, Uncharted 2 stands as the front-runner for 2009's game of the year. And it's simple to explain why...
The first thing you need to know about Uncharted 2 is that it isn't laden with a plethora of features and borderline confusing game mechanics. There are no intricate systems you're required to use in order to progress throughout the game. No combos, that you'll likely never use, to earn, upgrade, or purchase. Same goes for the weapons. There are no complicated menus to navigate through. There is simply no unnecessary clutter. This is a game that brings it back to the basics, and reminds us that action-adventure games don't have to be stuffed with tons and tons of worthless mechanics for them to be wholly enjoyable.
Instead, what Uncharted 2 does is offer an adventure that is free of such things by offering an epic experience where the story is constantly flowing and you are never once distracted by anything, allowing you to focus on nothing but the game and its story. But don't get me wrong, it's not that I dislike said mechanics, I just find them annoying when they interfere with the game, or you're forced to use them, games like Metal Gear Solif 4 have pulled this off perfectly in the past, I just want to be clear about that. Essentially, what Naughty Dog has done is created the modern-day Super Marios Bros. game, albeit on a much more epic scale. Think about it, the main principles are there: just like, say, Super Mario Bros. 3, Uncharted 2 focuses on the core adventure, by offering a compelling experience, with absolutely breathtaking level design, simplicity that is welcoming, yet with gameplay that is absolutely addictive. You may be hard pressed to call the similarities true, but ultimately, it is what makes both games so utterly amazing, and what has made one of them a classic for the past 20 years.
This is game design that rings true to gamers such as myself who have been craving for a proper action-adventure game that isn't riddled with useless mechanics, is presented on such an epic-scale, with production quality that isn't too far off from what we've seen come out of Hollywood's computer-animated films. Not since Metal Gear Solid 4 have I been so wrapped up in a game. It took me only two days to beat the game, because each time I sat down, I couldn't pull myself away from it for about five hours each session. And to be perfectly honest, it takes a really special game for me to devote so much of my time to in such a short time span.
Nathan Drake is back, as the game takes place just a few years after the first. This time around, an old friend approaches Drake about breaking into a Turkish museum, finding a hidden relic, and trying to discover the untold story of what happened to Marco Polo's crew of 600 men and 14 ships, of which only 18 men on one ship survived, during his voyage to Persia. The game is very spoiler sensitive, so I'll refrain from saying anything else about the story. But know this, it's quite a well written game, and it's one of those titles where you keep going just to find out what happens next without realizing how many hours you've already spent. I love it.
The basic mechanics in Uncharted 2 are very simple, but extremely effective. Drake's ability to explore has increased ten-fold, as the amount of climbing and jumping he'll do all throughout the game may give you some vertigo. The kinds of heights you'll reach during your expeditions will surely leave you with your jaw on the floor in complete awe, as the level design is nothing short of brilliant here, easily some of the very best I've ever seen. While most puzzles are fairly straightforward, they are, nevertheless, quite a lot of fun to take on and complete.
Action continues to the basic formula of carrying two guns, a pistol (or anything that can be shot with one hand), and a rifle. There's a great variety of guns to choose from, from an assortment of different hand-guns (uzis, pistols, revolvers, etc.), to an equally impressive assortment of rifles and heavy artillery (automatics, sniper rifles, minigun, shotguns, grenade launcher, rocket launcher, and so forth). Each and every gun is well balanced and has its unique advantages, as well as disadvantage. The balance of the weapons is surely brought to light when you're in multiplayer heat, seeing as how you'll have to choose what guns to pack depending on the stage. Stages that aren't as open and are more prone to closer quarters are better off with a shotgun, where as if you're in an environment that is a bit more open, you're better off with a proper rifle that'll allow for some zoom. Throughout the adventure, you'll get to even mount turrets and fight off swarms of enemies, which makes for some really fun times, in addition to picking up shields some enemies leave behind.
The hand-to-hand stuff works well, too. You'll put the Square and Triangle button to good use when you prefer to do a few stealthy attacks, or when you just feel like taking enemies out one by one with your bare hands. Square is your general attack button which you'll punch and kick with, but Triangle is the counter/parry button which you'll have to use when you see an enemy is about to counter and attack you. When the enemy begins his swing at you, a slow-mo segment occurs, and within that time frame you'll have to hit the Triangle button to perform a parry and then immediately attack some more to finish him off. It's simplistic, but, again, highly effective. Other actions you can perform with your bare hands is the ability to throw an unsuspecting enemy off a ledge. If, for example, you are climbing up a ledge and you see an enemy is standing right above you, you can grab his leg and throw him down. Likewise, if you sneak up behind an enemy who is near a ledge, you can push him to his death - this one you'll use often just past the middle of the game, and it's a ton of fun.
Enemy A.I. is pretty solid, perhaps even smarter than the first game. For starters, the A.I. is still smart enough to not stay in one place during a gun fight. You'll often see your enemies moving around finding new places to cover. Second, enemies don't require 6-8 bullets to kill anymore, three well placed bullets should do the trick, but one spot on bullet to the head will do it immediately. Speaking of head-shots, the game tracks your head-shot skills, and there in-game medallions, as well as trophies to earn by pulling off headshots. Next, the A.I. is pretty damn good with a grenade, so beware. And lastly, and this is what leads me to believe the A.I. is smarter than before, I've actually been snuck up on by an enemy a few times in the game, and it wasn't a scripted event, either. Instead of calling in for a swarm of backup, these little bastards just thought they'd be smart by attacking me from behind and knocking me out.
Now, the overall adventure is good for about 10-12 hours, including cut-scenes and all. But chances are you'll want to replay the game again just to experience the whole thing over again. It's one of those games you'll want to play over and over again. But when the adventure is over for you, there's the multiplayer, which is, quite honestly, much better than it should be. I mean, the actual core is already so amazing, that just a few table scraps of multiplayer goodies would've sufficed. But Naughty Dog went all out. First, we have a multiplayer mode that takes various segments and scenarios similar to that of the single-player mode, and allows up to three gamers to get in on the action, by playing as Drake, Sully, and Chloe. These scenarios will include gunfights, puzzle solving, aiding fallen partners, and much more. Another co-op mode includes Gold Rush, will requires the three players to collect the treasures spawning all over the map, all the while a horde of enemies try to stop you. Collecting as many as possible before dying is the obvious goal here.
Other multiplayer modes include Deathmatch, Plunder, Elimination, and Chain Reaction - with all modes capable of up to 10 players. Deathmatch is your standard affair that pits five heroes against five villains, last team standing wins. Plunder is a capture-the-flag mode where you have to steal treasure from a base and bring it back to yours. Elimination is similar to Deathmatch, except teams are not split into a classification, and there are numerous matches played, with the team who wins most declared the winner. And lastly, Chain Reaction is another capture-the-flag variant, albeit with a twist that requires the teams to pick up the flags in a specific order.
On the technical scale, Uncharted 2 is absurdly impressive. But it isn't perfect. There are a few camera issues, which can cause confusion as to how close you are to the next ledge you're trying to jump to. This also presents a few control issues, so you will occasionally experience a death here and there, usually from thinking you could jump down to a certain platform, only to find out it was a bit too far. Beyond that, during my play through, the game did exhibit a few bugs, one of which that froze the game. Another bug some may notice is the game severely lagging behind a cut-scene trigger. For example, in one of the chapters, I climbed up the roof of a house only to find myself wandering aimlessly trying to figure out what to do next. I spent five minutes viewing my surroundings, trying to find something to climb or slide down on, to no avail...thinking I went the wrong way, I dropped myself down realized there was nowhere else to go, turned back and climbed that same building again, and suddenly a cut-scene began as soon as I made it up. What the hell?
Aside from these two little quirks, I never again had a single problem with the single-player mode, and chances are if these issues become common, a patch will fix them up immediately. But it must be said that Uncharted 2 performs on a level never before seen in a console game to date. For starters, the framerate is smoother than the original game, which had a tendency to stutter often. Running at 30 frames per second without fail, Uncharted 2 also manages to run smooth, as well. But it's the overall quality of the visuals people will notice, especially during the absolutely jaw-dropping cut-scenes. Running in real time, these cut-scenes display character detail no other game has ever done before, with textures that have no equal. The same can be said for the graphics when you're actually playing the game. Not only are the environments massive in scale, but the draw-in distance goes on for miles, and the textures that are wrapped around the game world are extremely detailed.
Nearly everything about Uncharted 2's visuals are breathtaking, from the flawless lighting, to the animation, to the character detail, to the art, to the texture work, and especially the gorgeous cinematic cut-scenes. Uncharted 2 represents a level of aesthetic quality that sets the benchmark for all games this generation, achieving a look that rivals even the PC's Crysis - it's that gorgeous. The keen eyed gamer may notice a few minor visual quirks, such as shadows that smooth out as you approach them, or an occasional object popping up here and there, but again, considering the overall scope of things, these issues are truly minute.
Lastly, to go hand-in-hand with the almost flawless presentation is the audio, which is largely driven by the superb voice acting. The dialogue is extremely well done, as each and every voice actor performs their respective part without a hitch. Nathan Drake is still as quippy as ever, adding quite a bit of charm and humor to his character. The supporting cast, which includes both new and old characters also come off extremely strong with their acting. A motion picture-like soundtrack plays in the background usually when enemies are present, and does a great job of setting the tone of the moment. And enabling one of the various surround sound settings in the game further enhances the already surreal experience.
Uncharted 2 represents everything I've always wanted to see out of an action-adventure game such as this. It defines what videogames mean to me. It's designed in such a way that is completely the opposite of what most games in the genre have been doing, and yet, by taking a step back to a more traditional setup, it is without question the best game the genre has seen in a very long time. It is also without question the best looking console game I've ever seen, easily the best of the generation. And, it is also without question the very best game we've seen all year.
10/7/2009 Arnold Katayev