Much ado has been made of 2009′s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and for good reason. At its release, I hadn’t played any videogame that came so close to replicating the summer action blockbuster feeling. As an action-adventure experience, treasure hunter Nathan Drake’s second escapade actually surpassed 2007′s National Treasure 2 and 2008′s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The fictitious Uncharted 2: The Movie would likely be the world’s second-greatest film of its kind, behind only the legendary Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I would not say that Uncharted 2 is the second-greatest game of its kind. It’s a thoroughly competent product, and certainly a pretty one, but it’s not particularly interactive and it doesn’t feature the complex design I expect from something that has been hailed as “the best videogame in the ever of forever”. Uncharted 2 predominantly relies on long stretches of linear wall-climbing and straightforward shooting, but excels at neither. Also, the pacing is misguided; I love watching heroes explore ancient ruins at the end of an enchanting summer flick, but large, empty spaces with no enemies and linear climbs across rocks, linear climbs across gears, and linear climbs over statues does not translate to an exciting endgame.
If I’ve dashed your expectations a bit, rest assured that Uncharted 2 is still a hell of a lot of fun, whether or not it’s a good videogame.
This third-person-perspective adventure follows treasure hunter Nathan Drake in his efforts to prevent arms dealer Zoran Lazarevic from finding Marco Polo’s fabled cintamani stone and becoming a god. Zoran makes a habit of shooting his own mercs in the head, so it’s pretty evident that we don’t want this loathsome chap as a god. Both ruthless and clever, Zoran is a compelling villain, and he never becomes “cool” enough that I wanted him to live. On the other hand, Nathan is an unassuming and likable hero.
From the start, the clues leading to the cintamani stone make more sense than National Treasure 2′s ridiculous leaps of faith. Nathan Drake is obviously just as intelligent as Nicholas Cage’s character, but doesn’t come across as borderline delusional. That’s a good thing. If you get stuck on one of the in-game puzzles (some mysteries are unraveled during cinematics), there are optional hints to highlight the next step. Most in-game puzzles revolve around finding the appropriate way to climb further into the level, or locating a hidden switch . . . and then climbing to reach it. There’s a lot of climbing, which wasn’t nearly as enjoyable on the second playthrough as it was on the first.
The environments that Nathan climbs through are rich in detail. A friendly Tibetan town shines with vibrant primary colors and teems with peaceful life — quite a change from the smoky, war-torn streets of Nepal. Even amidst chaos and gunfire, the scenery often surprised me with its beauty. Step out of a dilapidated house and you’ll see a golden temple across the garden. While searching for the temple’s lost treasure, Nathan is more concerned about whether his ex and her cameraman are a couple (I had to wonder, too; the cameraman didn’t seem smart enough to deserve her).
SPOILER: While inside the temple, I noticed a glimmer in the corner. I climbed up there and found a secret treasure. BRONZE ALTAR SPOON get! There are 99 more to be found.
After you climb to the top of a broken-down hotel, the gorgeous skyline awaits. When you’re done taking in the breathtaking view, there’s a swimming pool on the roof. Nathan leaps in to play the Marco Polo kids’ game . . . and he actually gets his ladyfriend to begrudgingly play along. From a scripting standpoint, this is random but clever stuff.
Uncharted 2 has been heralded as a graphical masterpiece. Some touches are nice (such as enemies dropping grenades when you shoot them after they’ve pulled the pin), while others betray a lack of attention (such as snow hovering in mid-air, or piles of snow not shifting at all when I walk right through them). This is not perfection — plenty of other games look better on the surface, if you’re looking for set design and rich colors. The area in which Uncharted 2 excels is in the characters’ believable behavior and motion.
I was impressed early on when I saw the way Chloe chuckled at rival treasure hunter Flynn’s goofy joke. I know it sounds stupid to be impressed by “chuckling”, but it was the most natural and convincing laughter I had ever heard — and seen — in a game. Which is odd, considering the characters still look like plastic-skinned dolls with creepy glass eyes. This believable behavior, this stellar voicework, emanates from every character without exception. Consider me impressed.
In short, Uncharted 2 isn’t good because it’s pretty; Uncharted 2 is good because it’s convincing. Through elaborate scripted events, the quest manages to be linear without feeling linear. The high-speed convoy scene in particular was jaw-dropping . . . until my second playthrough, when I realized I was basically playing Dragon’s Lair. Watching Nathan jump from speeding truck to speeding truck in the snowy mountains is gorgeous, but the proper path is so pre-determined and the jump controls so forgiving that the scene is closer to an old-time FMV adventure than to the ball-busting, truck-hopping scene from Sega’s Nightshade.
But I’ll be damned if I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the first time through.
While jumping from truck to truck, I still had to fend off Zoran’s henchmen. Combat is pretty straightforward: guns put holes in peoples’ heads, a streamlined melee system shows off Nathan’s martial arts, and a competent “cover” system works just like all the other cover systems we’ve seen. I also enjoyed grabbing propane tanks and tossing them at enemies, then bursting the tank while it was in the air (next to the target’s head).
Now imagine doing all that with a bunch of other people. I’ve never been a big fan of multiplayer, but in a game that loses so much on the second play, it was a wise inclusion. More importantly, it’s true multiplayer — with entire teams pitted against each other — that uses the ever-present “climbing” to positive effect. The insanity almost felt like a high-budget Power Stone. Money earned during multiplayer can be spent on single-player tweaks such as unlimited ammo; I just wish I could play locally with a friend, instead of online only.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has the right storyline, the right characters, and the right talent. Even though the characters look like dolls with creepy glass eyes, I was glad when the love interest proved her sincerity to the hero. Even though the jungle looked like a low-budget Hollywood setpiece, I was still itching to see the massive explosion after setting a half-dozen detonation charges . . . and I was pissed that the game didn’t let me see the result of my effort. The outstanding helicopter scene at the hotel, a scene that I shall not spoil, more than made up for the disappointing jungle. From Nathan Drake’s raid on a guarded Istanbul keep (reminiscent of Conan’s raid on the Tower of the Elephant) to Nathan Drake’s uncovering of a lost civilization, Uncharted 2 felt like a big-screen epic, and I’m glad we were all given the chance to experience this adventure.