Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Post-Launch Review
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Developer: Naughty Dog
Released: October 2009
Played: story complete in 9h45m

No screenshots. Sigh, PS3.


Following clues left by Marco Polo, treasure hunter Nathan Drake is on the trail of the fabled city of Shambhala and the Cintamani Stone, a legendary sapphire said to be bigger around than a man's armspan. But a ruthless warlord also wants the Stone for its mythical powers. Racing against the warlord and faced with betrayal, Drake hops around the globe to find the secret of Shambhala.

At Launch

Uncharted 2's reception was overwhelmingly positive, with average review scores of 96%. Critics were blown away by the game's cinematic style, very impressed with the quality of the game's visuals, voice acting, music, and gameplay. The only complaint was occasionally finicky controls during climbing segments.

Post Launch

5 or 6 DLC packs were released for multiplayer, adding maps, skins, and medals/trophies (varying per pack). Most notably, the Eye of Indra pack includes a four-part motion comic, with its two character skins based on characters from the comic.
The Game of the Year edition released in 2010 includes all multiplayer DLC.

Drake wakes up covered in his own blood in a train hanging off the edge of a cliff. Whoah, how'd he get there? Gotta escape the train before it falls off the cliff! Made it up in time for a flashback, ending with "what could possibly go wrong?". There are a couple more cuts, and then we stick with the past following the story of what happened up to that point. It's a classic hook, but it's an effective one.

That opening sets the stage for a highly cinematic experience. The first Uncharted was very good, but here it's far more refined. The characters are extremely expressive in both face and body, and the voice acting is again top-notch. Graphics are improved: the first full level is in a spottily-lit museum at night with all kinds of ornate decor; Borneo features dense jungle with lots of detailed foliage and water (there's even heat shimmer!); and the next level takes place in Tibet in a war-torn city where, again, the level of detail is fantastic. Everything looks great. In fact the cutscenes are so well done and so movie-like that sometimes I almost forgot I was playing a game - took me a few seconds to remember to push buttons once things stopped happening by themselves.

As a Canadian who's had some experience with snow, sometimes I watch movies or play games and I wonder if the people involved have ever seen an actual cold winter. The snow and ice in Uncharted 2 look very good. Characters leave footprints, the snow and ice cling realistically to the folds of clothing, and when characters walk in snow they push it around a bit in little piles and clouds (which could look better, but whatever). Anyway, the part that bugged me is that Drake doesn't cover up his ears and hands in the cold. This might seem like a minor nitpick, but in a game that pays so much attention to detail and character wardrobes, it's a curious oversight. I don't understand how his hands don't fall off from frostbite when he's constantly got his hands on snow and rock and metal and ice in the frozen Tibetan mountains. Seriously, go to the freezer and grab an ice cube and hold on to it for five minutes without dropping it and you'll see what I mean. But actually don't because it could give you frostbite and that's dangerous.

And speaking of oversights... why is it that Drake is so reluctant to believe that anything supernatural (or at least weird) is going on with the legendary artifact and the creepy monsters after the events of Drake's Fortune, where he personally witnessed a legendary artifact turn people into creepy monsters? The creepy monsters from the first game even make an appearance in Drake's journal, so it's not like he forgot about them.

The sequel is even more action-packed than the original... and that's kind of a bad thing in terms of the hidden collectibles. Even when I'm supposed to be running for my life in the middle of a war zone I'm still going as slow as I can and poking around in corners to make sure I don't miss anything. I know I'm doing it to myself, but I can't just ignore the relics, I'm too obsessive to do that. On the plus side, the relics are better hidden than in the previous game. In the first Uncharted they tended to be on the ground in dark corners, so you just had to walk a few steps off the beaten path to spot them. This time a lot of the relics are embedded in wall carvings or sitting on a high ledge, and you have to shoot at them to get them to come down - in other words you don't just stumble across things, you actually have to look.

But anyway, about that action. The start, hanging from the train, is tense and suspenseful, but it's not an action scene. The real action is plenty crazy There are several running escapes with plenty of tension, the best of which has to be when you're trying to get Jeff the injured cameraman out of a war zone in one piece. No wait, that's not true, the best chase scene is the big setpiece where you're being chased by a tank through a mountaintop village and the tank keeps busting down walls and blowing stuff up and almost killing you again and again.

There's also a bit where Drake has to hop across the tops of a bunch of trucks as they weave across the mountainside to catch up to the lead truck, and an awesome train level where Drake works his way up a train across the rooftops and inside the cars, dodging crossing signals and an attack helicopter.

And while I'm talking about the action, I might as well mention the combat, which is improved in a mostly indirect way. The mechanics of shooting and cover are all exactly the same as in Drake's Fortune, but the combat arenas are much more varied and make better use of vertical space so that you can actually climb around during fights. Also, it seems as though there are fewer enemies, but there are new tougher guys too - the frustration of endless waves is replaced with the immediate need to take out the minigun guy or to deal with the heavily armoured shotgunners. There is a new option to go for stealth takedowns, which is really stressed in the game's first full level, a museum heist. Stealth is only mandatory in that heist level, but it can be helpful later on to thin out the enemies before engaging.

If there's a flaw in Uncharted 2, it would be that its action movie structure makes the plot a little predictable. Because it has to be this way to keep the action and drama going, you know that the villain will always be either right behind or one step ahead of the hero, so every time it looks like Drake pulls ahead it's not hard to guess that the bad guys are right around the corner. The plot is solid, if a little conventional and predictable - there aren't any particularly exciting or unexpected twists, but the action and characters really strengthen the story. And the last scene is heartwarmingly cute.

Recommendation: play it.

I said in my review of the first game that I'd never played a game that felt more like a movie. Well, now I have! While I had a bunch of minor nitpicks, Uncharted 2 was really fantastic. Great visuals, excellently acted and animated characters, tons of crazy action, fun humour, and just enough mythical weirdness to keep you on your toes.

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