After beating the first Uncharted, I immediately jumped on the second one. It’s the one widely considered the best in the series, with the highest scores from both fans and critics and all, so my expectations were higher than the ones I had from the first game. Suffice to say, Uncharted 2 delivered. It improves on the first game in many ways, the most obvious one being graphics, while keeping the tight adventure gameplay which, if a bit linear, keeps you on your toes pretty much constantly. Drake’s second adventure is a memorable experience, adding some much appreciated polish to what we saw in the first game.
Game: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PlayStation 3
Original release: 2009
Uncharted 2 is a marvellous game, and this is a case where this adjective is used in its full meaning, rather than just thrown in for good measure and in attempt to appear more literary. The PS3′s graphical capabilities are pushed to their limits (even though I’m yet to play Uncharted 3, so who knows…), Naughty Dog proving themselves to be masters in this department once again. There are some clear improvements over the first game, such as an increased amount of different environments and the introduction of stealth attacking. Of course, there are also some things from the first game that are not present in the second, such as aiming grenades or balancing with the Sixaxis, and the brutal combo, which was “replaced” by the dubious counterattacking. There are also no jet ski stages, quite likely a case of fans’ complaints getting through. But these are just details – at the end, the overall package is very satisfying.
Yeah… The story follows the tried and true formula of the first game – Drake comes across some clues pointing to a legendary location, and he sets off to find it. Naturally, so have the bad guys who will try to eliminate Drake and his friends who dare stand in their way. This time, the location is the mythical land of Shambhala from Buddhist religious texts. And the source of the clues is none other than the famous traveler Marco Polo. “I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed” – a simple quote in the very beginning, yet enough to pique the player’s curiosity, to draw him/her into the game. The promise is clear – we would find out what Marco Polo didn’t tell. And Naughty Dog fulfil that promise.
Make no mistake, of course… If you’re looking for a deep, thought-provoking story, the Uncharted series is not the place. But you did not watch Indiana Jones hoping to see the protagonist struggle with some inner conflict, you watched it to see Indy run and roll out of that giant boulder’s way! And, like I said in the first game’s review, Uncharted is gaming’s answer to Indiana Jones, in just about every way imaginable. Well, sure, there’s more… MUCH more shooting than in all Indiana Jones movies combined, but come on, it’s still gotta be a game and offer challenge.
Uncharted 2 offers a fascinating, dynamic adventure story. There is also a little gimmick many works of fiction like to use – the game starts with Nate waking up on a train that’s just about to fall down a giant cliff. Immediately, you are thrown into the action and must do everything in your capabilities to survive. Only after Drake manages to survive that situation, will the story actually start – and at a point some time before the scene you just endured, which was merely an episode of the whole story. Still, this beginning makes you start asking yourself – “What happened to make Drake arrive at such a situation?!” It’s a rather transparent, but quite effective way to keep you playing so that you can find out the answer. Later on, you’ll end up in a Tibetan village, not understanding anything they speak, yet you have to somehow manage in that situation. Very strong touch, adding to the immersion.
There are also some small twists adding much-needed flavour – nothing as impactful as the first game’s big twist, but there are more of them, at more points through the game, which keeps the dynamic alive in a better way. The theme we saw in the first game – of mysticism with an actual base in reality, in what seems a copy of the modern world, also appears here. But it’s sold better, as the very premise is based on Buddhist religious beliefs, which made more impact to me in terms of suspension of disbelief than searching for El Dorado that history has proven to be a myth. Of course, some things near the end are a much harder sell, but that’s to be expected after the first game.
THE CREW IS BACK, PLUS AN ACTUALLY COOL VILLAIN!
All three major main characters from the first game make their return here. I guess this is just a bit of a slightest spoiler, as Elena only shows up a few hours into the game. But how can I make the character section of the review without mentioning her? Especially since Uncharted 2 made her so much more realistic and likeable.
But first things first – Nate is the same light-hearted guy we saw in the first game, and he’s also not afraid of danger in his often desperate pursuit of the next big treasure. But he also grows in Uncharted 2, taking more responsibility for his actions, and also refusing to take the easy way out when somebody else needs him. I suppose he is more heroic in this game. But not to a fault – he’s also not lost his fine sense of humour, and he cannot help some human weaknesses, especially ones related to women. An exquisite touch in adding some depth to Nate is his journal – aside from the info related to puzzle-solving, you can see a lot of Drake’s comments toward Sully, the girls, Eddy… In short, it’s hard not to like Drake, but here, he again suffers from the Indiana Jones syndrome – you’ll like and sympathise with him, but he’ll hardly become an all-time favourite if you look for more in game characters than the funny, heroic type (which is, I suppose, still much better than the silent protagonist ).
Sully doesn’t change much compared to the first game, nor does he need to – he is well-established as the drinking, womanising, gambling mentor of Drake, somewhat of a comic relief, but not quite, of the series. Nate makes fun of him in a cute manner in his journal. Elena is where Naughty Dog really impressed in the character development department – from a rather air-headed (if skillful with guns) journalist looking for a big scoop, she becomes much more of a humanist, a person with a mission, in pursuit to expose the game’s main villain who is also one of the most dangerous men on the planet. She’s matured so much, she’s much more responsible and plans things more carefully than before. Her voice actress also really grew on me in Uncharted 2, she does justice to this improved version of Elena.
Speaking of the bad guy, this aspect is also a massive improvement in comparison to the original. Zoran Lazarevic, a Serbian war criminal, is a much more menacing villain in every way than what we got in the first game (that I don’t even remember the name of Uncharted’s white-haired villain without double-checking says enough). He’s absolutely ruthless, he’s in it for more power, not just money, and he has his subordinates under his iron fist. Yes, it’s cliche, but it works well here. You’ll either really hate the guy and won’t be able to wait to finish him off, or stand in awe at how plain evil he is, depending on the way you perceive this kind of stories (I’m the latter ).
Some other important characters appear, such as Harry and Chloe – the people who convince Drake to go on this search for Shambhala in the first place, and the latter being especially notable for being a seductress (with the character modelers being generous on her bottom) and with a way of thinking quite grounded in reality. I’d also highlight the Tibetan Tenzin who shows that you can like somebody even if you don’t understand a word they speak. His dynamic with Nate is very nice, you can tell the events in the game have given birth to a strong friendship between them.
EVEN MORE ENGAGING GAMEPLAY THAN THE ORIGINAL
If you have played the first game, you’ll feel right at home here. Everything significant concerning the gameplay carries over. Again, the game is divided in chapters. And again, it’s about exploration, puzzles, gunfights and platforming. You will often find yourself in unknown environments, trying to find your way. Nothing to fear, though, like most modern games, Uncharted 2 is a rather linear experience and you will have a hard time ever getting lost for more than a minute.
That reminds me of one think I did not like – the hints. They were there in the first Uncharted, and they’re back. I’m sure they’ll be there in the third one, too. There are some environmental puzzles in Uncharted, you need to interact with some object or climb some not-so-clearly visible place at some points in the game. And, as long as you take more than 10 seconds or so, the option to ask for a hint comes up. That hint is available absolutely for free, you just need to press Up on the D-pad to activate it. And it’s annoying because you may do so accidentally sometimes. The puzzles are not even that hard! At most they may take a couple of minutes to figure out… But I guess Naughty Dog had to cater to the lowest common denominator that can’t take a minute’s break from the constant action… Indeed, the hints are optional, but the fact you could activate them accidentally (at least make them two presses instead of one) makes them a minus in my eyes, if a small one.
Anyway, back to the point. A very large part of the gameplay consists of third-person shooting. It also holds pretty much all the difficulty of the game. There is only one significant change from the original Uncharted, and it is the introduction of stealth moves. If you can sneak behind an opponent without getting detected, you get the chance to execute a stealth move and take him out silently, saving yourself from danger, detection, and also saving some ammo. Hand-to-hand combat is also a bit different, the brutal combo is gone, and you can dodge an enemy’s attack and counterattack to finish him off. The time frame given to do the dodge is so big, though, that it’s a total joke – it’s just too easy to do.
Aside from that, battles offer what we saw in the first game – a very nicely executed cover system that will be your key to success, a variety of weapons with a limitation of two at a time (small and large) and grenades. Again, if you take too many bullets, but manage to survive, all you have to do is hide for a while and you’re good to go again. The same, of course, does not go for your enemies, or the fights would last forever.
The weapon variety is nice, much like in the first game, with the introduction of some cool new ones. The normal pistol and magnum are there again, so are the semi-automatic, shotgun, sniper rifle and grenade launcher. The good new additions are a crossbow that’s very useful in some situations, a cool shotgun-type pistol, and a heavy Gatling gun that has the cool side effect of forcing you to move really slow while you’re holding it. There are also propane tanks scattered all over the place – you can spot them near enemies and shoot them to cause explosions, or even lift and throw them at enemies and then shoot to explode them for show and damage.
Once you get a hang of shootings, they’re just fine. Sometimes, you’ll die, simply because you’re overwhelmed with enemies, you made a dumb decision to open yourself before too many bullets, or Drake accidentally pressing against a side wall instead of against a front one for cover (annoying, but what can you do. It mostly works fine, though). Veterans of the first game will not have too much trouble with gunfights. Once again, there are no real bosses per se, but some enemies are tougher (a point where you have to take out two large enemies armed with Gatling guns is especially notable… oh, you also fight a tank at another point). Naturally, the last fight does feel like a boss fight, but how couldn’t it?
Platforming is once again quite limited most of the time. Once again, it’s due to the camera. Being fixed in the key moments instead of freely rotatable, it simply pushes you in the right direction. Often, it’s also impossible to jump off a ledge to your death, Nate only jumping up, even if you press right towards an empty space (while left, of course, works, as there is another ledge there). So yeah, a lot of the time platforming looks cool, but does not necessarily take much skill. Oh, collecting treasures is also back. I only managed to find about 40 of them from a total of 100. They are better hidden this time.
Uncharted 2 also offers multiplayer mode, which is a very welcome addition making the game much more worth owning than the original. And it’s not just tacked-on multiplayer for the sake of saying you’ve got one, it’s a rather complex one with a level-up system, money, and character improvement options, such as the ability to purchase weapon upgrades, boosters, taunts and such with the money earned in multiplayer games. There are co-op and competitive modes available, with “Good” (Drake and his friends) and “Evil” (Lazarevic and his subordinates) sides in the latter.
SNOW, LOTS OF IT… AND ICE
The lush, green jungle was the most distinguishing environment of the first Uncharted. For this one, that is definitely snow – more specifically, the snowy mountains of Tibet. Yes, there are also other environments – like the huge Turkish museum you have to sneak into to get your first clues to Shambhala, the green Borneo that reminds of the first game, or the urban warfare-torn Tibetan city that is a clear homage to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’ Act 1. But snow is the main theme of the game, and also the most impressive thing about it. Even just the way you can see your footsteps if you turn around after walking in the snow a bit makes the game that much more enjoyable. The snowy scenery is beautiful, even breathtaking at times. Be it mountainous terrain, icy caverns, or the snowy Tibetan village.
The character models are further improved compared to the original, in terms of both detail and motion. The special effects are also quite pleasant to look at – Naughty Dog just know what it takes to make a good cinematic adventure game. As for the music, it’s once again atmospheric that blends in rather than standing out. Of course, that does not earn Uncharted 2 any extra points, but it works. The song I’ve chosen to share in the review is called “The City’s Secret”.
A STRONG PILLAR OF THE PS3 LIBRARY
In short, Uncharted 2 is a notable improvement over the original. Furthermore, it’s one of PS3′s emblematic titles and pretty much a must-own, unless you really hate the genre. It’s a really beautiful game, the length is just right, and it’s a bit on the easy side, but not enough to detract from the experience. You’ll have fun exploring, you’ll have fun with the cinematic episodes, and last, but not least, with the gunfights. I’m sure you’ll also enjoy the further development Nathan and company got, the new faces introduced, and the cool and menacing villain.
In comparison, the problems are minor – mostly the camera restrictions in platforming sections, the occasional death due to Drake not covering where you wanted him to, and the lame and easy to do counterattacking. Of course, the main problem is its inherent linearity, but that’s more of a general problem in gaming nowadays. Uncharted 2 offers several memorable battles, episodes and environments, the Tibetan village being my favourite. Last, but not least, there is the rich multiplayer, adding many more hours of gameplay and fun with friends. As a whole, Drake’s second showing is an excellent, console generation-defining experience.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10