Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich are hacks. Sure, many of us with half a brain know that these two were already below-par film directors, but now I think I can say with confidence that they are complete phonies. You can only have so much overloaded CGI and you can only destroy the planet so many times until everyone realizes you’re a one-trick pony, and one that can’t do their tricks well enough to save their lives. I got said confidence after playing a video game that did everything Bay and Emmerich set out to do…only about a million times better. That game is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog’s sequel to the immaculate Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. In the two years since that game, Naughty Dog has honed their craft to not only create a sequel that improves on everything that made the first game so special, but also a game that may go down as one of the best of all time.
“Honor among thieves, huh?”
As the game opens, series hero Nathan Drake awakens to find himself on a train car with a gunshot wound to the gut. After getting his bearings, Nate realizes that the train car he is in is currently dangling vertically off of a snowy cliff somewhere in Nepal. A little bit after these series of events we flashback to four months earlier to learn how Nate got himself into his latest brush with death…
Nate is approached by and old friend named Harry Flynn and his girlfriend Chloe Frazer (who also happens to be a former flame of Nate’s), who offer him a job: to break into an Istanbul Museum and steal a Mongolian Oil Lamp for Harry‘s client. Dismissive at first, Nate changes his tune when Harry tells him that the lamp may hold a clue to discovering the lost fleet of Marco Polo. As Nate so conveniently explains, Marco Polo spent 20 years in Mongolia before setting out with 14 ships full of treasure with over 600 crew members. However, a year and a half later Marco arrived at his destination with only one ship left and 18 surviving crew members. Marco Polo took the secret of what happened on this voyage to his death bed. Agreeing to the heist (and deciding to eventually screw over Harry‘s client), Nate and friends head off to Istanbul to begin a story full of twists, turns, and of course, action.
Engaging, funny, and clever are just some of the words that spring to mind when describing the events of Uncharted 2. Some of the best dialogue ever written for a video game guide likable heroes and treacherous villains through an action-packed plot that will keep you hooked until the very end. If Nathan Drake and his friends (both new and old) get me to root for them anymore I would have to buy a skirt and some pom-poms. Likewise for the villains, who are very believable and earn the player’s hate. You’ll even like the guy who can’t speak any English, that’s how good the script is! Can Shia LeBeouf do that? No, didn’t think so. More entertaining than the first game by far, I can’t see any other game released this year having a better story. Hell, it’s a better story than most games will ever have, period. But the story isn’t the only thing to celebrate here…
“I‘m sorry, do you have a plan to go with that grenade?”
Just like it’s predecessor, U2 is divided up into three main gameplay elements: Gunfights, platforming, and puzzle solving. Just like my review for Uncharted: DF I’ll start off with the gunplay, since once again that makes up the bulk of the gameplay (doesn’t mean the other two elements have been made a whole lot better, but I’ll get to those later). For the most part aiming and firing remain unchanged: raise your weapon with L1, aim with the right stick, and fire with R1. Nate can also still run-and-gun by simple firing with R1 while moving, and aiming with the right stick (or course, it‘s a lot less accurate). Like the last game, Nate can hold one sidearm and one main weapon at a time, and he can pick up new weapons strewn around the environment and off of fallen foes. Most weapons are familiar to Uncharted vets (AK, .45, M4, Micro-Uzi, Shotgun, Sniper Rifle) but there will be a few new toys to play with (a sidearm shotgun, a three-shot rifle with a dot sight, a crossbow, and a freakin’ Gatling Gun). One huge and welcome change however comes with grenade handling, as now instead of choosing to equip them just like guns, they are now assigned to the L2 button. Nate can carry four grenades at a time, and holding L2 with cause the grenade arc to appear which you can then adjust and let loose (no more Sixaxis control for this, it’s now done exclusively with the right stick). What this also means is that you can quick throw grenades by tapping the L2 button, and you can even throw grenades while aiming a gun, which is definitely a huge help when up against the foes you’ll encounter. No crummy pirates here, as Nate will be going up against a small, well-trained army employed by Harry’s now-scorned client. As such, the AI and enemy types have been beefed up here, with foes flanking a lot more often, chucking grenades to get Nate out of cover, and coming in armor-wearing, blast-shield holding, and Gatling gun wielding varieties. That’s of course adding to the regular grunts, shotgun wielders, and snipers that appeared in the original Uncharted. Overall, the platoons of enemies you’ll be going against here make U2 a tougher game than it’s predecessor. It’s a good thing that Nate will usually always have an AI compatriot or two with him, and like the first game they handle themselves well enough to not be a bother. And yes, there are some surprises here as well, but I’ll leave those for you to discover.
With all these commandos getting all up in Nate’s grill, it’s a good thing that melee combat also sees somewhat of an upgrade. You still engage in fisticuffs with the square button, and repeated presses will have Nate throw out various combos. However, seeing as how his enemies are better trained, they can counter Nate’s attacks and leave him wide open. When this happens, you have to time a press of the triangle button to perform a counter attack of your own to deliver a finishing blow. This basically replaces the “Brutal” combos of the first game, and truth be told it’s a lot more dynamic and involving. Another new addition to hand-to-hand combat is the addition of stealth attacks. If Nate can sneak up on enemies without alerting them, he may be able to thin out there numbers more quickly with some quick neck snakes from behind. Nate can also reach over cover to grab unsuspecting foes to knock them out, and he can even throw enemies off ledges while he hangs below them. Don’t worry though, for the most part going stealthy is completely optional with the exception of the Museum stages in the beginning of the game, where you have to stay stealthy as not to alert the museum guards. This is far from a low point in the game, however, as these stages are well-paced and last long enough not to be tedious…and really overall the addition of stealth works out well and it can be very fun and rewarding to pull off these maneuvers.
Another feature that makes the gunplay even more dynamic and exciting than in Uncharted 1 is that the levels are now a lot more open. In the first game, you basically had set-pieces that gave you plenty of cover to utilize, but that was basically it. You stayed on the ground, used cover, shot fools, and moved on. It was fun as hell, but room for improvement was definitely there. While the game still flows in a linear fashion in U2, thanks to fantastic level design the environments now give you plenty of new options when dealing with your enemies. You can still stay on the ground and do it the old fashion way if you want, moving from cover to cover (still assigned to the circle button) and taking shots at your foes, but you can now take advantage of higher vantage points, more open areas allow for more flanking options, and dramatic and constant changes in the environment. A good example is the train segments, where the constant movement will keep you changing up your battle tactics. Also, remember how I complained about the abundance of red exploding barrels in the original game? Well, army dudes know better and don’t keep those things around in every area they populate, instead there are propane tanks that are scattered in combat areas that Drake can actually pick up, throw at enemies like a grenade, and shoot in mid-air to blow up right into his enemy’s faces. Very cool and I’ll take that over conveniently placed exploding barrels any day. Giving you more combat options, weapons, and tougher enemies that the first game, U2’s gunplay never feels tedious or repetitive and is much more fun and entertaining.
Now we come to the platforming of Uncharted 2, and while it still doesn’t make up a giant percentage of the game like combat does, there’s is a lot more of it than in Uncharted 1 and in my opinion it’s a lot more challenging and fun. Like in Uncharted 1, the platforming segments are mostly linear and are akin to a Prince of Persia game as they are very fluid and very fast. Nate can still perform his usually jumping, climbing, hanging and shimmying maneuvers with the addition of 360 degree rope swinging and monkey bar antics. The difference here is that they take place in bigger environments are much more involving. Whether it’s jumping from rooftop to rooftop in war-torn Nepal to hanging off a speeding locomotive to traversing a giant ice cavern hidden in snowy mountains, playing monkey with Mr. Drake is very fun and the more numerous segments easily clear away one of the major complaints I had with the first game. Finally, we come to puzzle solving, which is still the least in the Uncharted formula but is still very involving. Like in the first game, you know it’s puzzle-solving time when the prompt appears on-screen to press select to check out Nate’s own personal journal. Nate will open it up automatically to the page you need to study, but using the left stick you can have Nate finger through the pages to see some other interesting items and some very funny sketches and observations he has made (The expressions of Sully, The Scare-o-Meter, Marco Polo in Shades, and Skelzor! all come to mind). Anyway, you use the diagrams to help solve the puzzle you’re currently doing, ranging from moving the hands of a giant Buddha statue to matching symbols to certain objects. One even combines the excellent platforming with mirror and light reflecting. There seems to be the same amount of puzzles here that were featured in Uncharted 1, but they are a little bit more tougher to solve, but at the same time they aren’t brain-busters either. Overall, another upgrade from the predecessor.
Now the keen observer may see that once again these gameplay elements are not all wholly original, and those observers would be right. However, what puts Uncharted 2 well above it’s predecessor and also well above most other game in general is the way it blends them all together and hones them perfectly in a excellently paced game that has more “WOW” and jaw-dropping moments than any other game I have ever played. The E3 demo of the helicopter chase and the collapsing building is just the tip of the iceberg here, people. The game has one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever seen, and actually gets better and better and better right until the credits role. Of course, to spoil the things I’m talking about would be a crime, but after you experience them for yourself you’ll see why Bay and Emmerich are now hacks in my eyes. Something special must be in the water at Naughty Dog studios.
All of that…and I even haven’t talked about the multiplayer yet!! Yes, Naughty Dog has graced Uncharted 2 with an online component, complete with both competitive and co-op modes. Up to 10 players in two teams of 5 can compete in the usual modes such as team deathmatch, elimination, capture the treasure, zones, and king of the hill. However, combine these modes with Uncharted 2’s gunplay, melee, and stealth combat with good-sized and fantastically designed levels and you’ve got good times a-coming! Then we have the co-op modes, which are a whole different beast altogether. Up to three players take control of heroes from the game in two different modes: objective and arena. Objective, to me, is the best co-op mode, which has you and your teammates going through an area taken from the single-player game performing various tasks while fighting off platoons of enemies to reach your ultimate goal (usually finding a treasure or bombing an enemy command post). These missions can take up to 45 minutes to complete and are very satisfying. Arena modes basically just put you and your mates into one of the multiplayer stages and have you survive 10 rounds against hordes of enemies, either by simply killing them all or by capturing a treasure before they can kill you. Both co-op mode types are very challenging and can be hard as hell to actually complete, but the rewards are worth it. Those rewards being bonus cash, which acts as the game’s experience points and is earned through every mode you play. You’ll also get bonus cash for being on the winning side in competitive mode and by performing various special tasks (kill two players in rapid succession, revive a partner more than 10 times in co-op, etc.). Earning cash not only levels you up, but also allows you to buy boosters, co-op upgrades, and other various things in the multiplayer store. Boosters are similar to COD’s perk system, which gives your character various advantages in competitive modes (better accuracy, hold more ammo, drop a grenade when you die, and so forth). Up to two boosters can be equipped at a time, with the better ones only available to purchase after reaching certain levels. Co-op upgrades allow you to make the weapons you can use better overall, with better accuracy and faster reloading. Like the boosters, you unlock the ability to purchase certain ones at higher levels. The game’s matchmaking and party systems have worked out very well, and all the games I have played have ran flawlessly with ZERO lag. The only complaint I may have is that sometimes the matchmaking will put high level players all on the same team while all the low level players are on the other. Needless to say, it led to a few massacres and hopefully this gets tweaked up right. Still, this is easily one of the best online games for the PS3, and Naughty Dog deserves serious praise for including it without compromising the single-player game at all.
“It’s a shame that you have to sit on something so pretty.”
WOW! WOW! WOW! WOW!
Yes, that’s three more “WOW”s than I gave Uncharted 1’s graphics. Unlike Uncharted 1 which took place entirely on a single island, U2 takes Nate and friends to various spots around the world, from the jungles of Borneo to the war-torn streets of a Nepal city to snow-covered Tibetan mountains, and the level of detail here is unfathomable. Photo-realistic textures, phenomenal lighting and weather effects, and amazing draw distances don’t even begin to describe the beauty on-screen. The view you get when you climb to the top of the hotel in the Nepal city almost brought tears to my eyes…ok it did bring tears to my eyes (don’t make fun). And if you thought the train level in Killzone 2 was impressive…boy oh boy. Once again, I don’t really want to spoil anything for you, because seeing is definitely believing. Character models are phenomenal, and one look at Nate’s hair will easily tell you how much better they are than the first game. The real star here is the motion capture and facial expressions during the game and in the masterly directed cut-scenes, which is nothing short of fantastic. This is probably the closest we’ve come to having real, believable actors in a video game. Animations are equally as phenomenal, and once again the little things like water wetting Nate’s clothes and snow covering certain parts of his body when he rolls around in it is going above and beyond. Best of all, the screen tearing that brought down the beauty of the first game slightly is completely GONE. Just like Uncharted 1, the game has a couple of decent load times when you boot up and start the game, but afterwards there is ZERO load times, even when you die. The game runs in 720p in 30fps without a single hitch, and while the graphics do take a slight hit in multiplayer (some texture pop-up, toned-down effects, and more noticeable jaggies) it’s still won’t take your jaw off the floor. Sorry MGS4 and Killzone 2, but Among Thieves in the best looking PS3 game and easily the best looking console game of all time. Amazing.
U2’s sound is nothing to balk at either, as DTS 5.1 sound hammers home all the fantastic sound effects and the soaring music score. Voice acting once again is phenomenal, with Nolan North as Nate leading an equally-as-impressive supporting cast. The acting really shines with the various short conversations and funny one-lines that Drakes shares with his allies while playing the game. Nothing to complain about here, a perfect sound design to go with the perfect graphics.
“Yeah, good luck pal, that’s almost impossible to- oh you did it. Nice.”
Uncharted 2 is easily a longer game than the first, and took me a little over ten hours to beat. Of course, there are plenty of incentives to go through the breathtaking adventure again, including both hard and Crushing difficulty levels (unlocked after beating hard mode). The game’s 26 chapters also hold 100 hidden treasures to find (40 more than the original) and various tasks to perform to unlock medals, trophies, and extra cash (get a number of kills with a weapon, kill a certain number of enemies with headshots, etc). The cash can then be used to purchase various goodies for use in single-player, like character skins, mirror world, unlimited ammo, and tons of other cool stuff. Cash earned in story mode is also shared with the cash you earn in multiplayer and vise-versa, giving even more incentive to keep on playing. The game will also record your competitive multiplayer matches and allow you to watch and edit them, even letting you take screenshots of your favorite moments to save on the PS3 HDD. There is also an included Machimana mode that should bring out the creativity in some people. Needless to say, Uncharted 2 will stay with you for a long time, in your PS3 and in your memories.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is an absolute masterpiece. Sure, the gameplay still isn’t wholly original, but the way Naughty Dog has brought it all together into one sublime action-adventure game is something gamers will remember for years to come. If there was any doubt that the PS3 lacked a “Killer app”, then those doubts have been systematically crushed. Buy, borrow, steal…just play this game. Don’t let kitty get wet.
+Too many to list
-Matchmaking in multiplayer needs a little tweaking
-The graphics take a slight hit in multiplayer
-I wrote this review instead of playing Uncharted 2 some more
Reviewer’s Score: 10/10