Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Uncharted 2 is a supremely confident game, and rightfully so. Naughty Dog know they have something remarkable on their hands and are keen to emphasise its best aspects; whether it be in the immaculate cut scenes, breathtaking action sequences or just wandering around, marvelling at the scenery and hitherto unseen presentation and production levels. Naughty Dog really really know their stuff, and Among Thieves could easily be the poster-child for games leading movies, not the other way around.
Among Thieves is unquestionably one of the most alluring and exciting titles to have ever graced a gaming platform. Protagonist Nathan Drake again takes us on a globe-trotting action packed matinee adventure with a partly-factual-but-mostly-nonsensical premise armed with all manner of weapons and an army of quips. Naughty Dog know it’s a damn fine looking game, and they know that they can design some stunning levels and set-pieces, pushing Among Thieves to the fore in terms of visuals and technology, representing one of the finest games the PS3 has yet housed.
“Among Thieves is unquestionably one of the most alluring and exciting titles to have ever graced a gaming platform”Drake’s second outing represents an increased maturity in the developer’s level design. The cracks which showed in the transition between the first game’s platforming/combat was a little unsubtle and jarring, and this has been addressed with much more fluid and fluent level design often requiring deft balancing of the two gameplay elements to proceed. Often Drake has to shake things up by mixing the two, and overall the meshing of the individual gameplay aspects is much smoother. Further, the platforming and climbing feel improved, due to environments feeling more naturalistic and convincing in their design. The route forward is always still clear and it’s nowhere near as effective as Assassin’s Creed, but at least efforts have been made to make it appear somewhat less one-track.
Among Thieves can comfortably boast some of the most exciting and invigorating level design ever. There’s a mixture of giddy euphoric rush and visual awe from some of the levels, such as being chased across Nepalese rooftops by a helicopter gunship, clambering up the side of a Himalayan mountain amid a precarious burning wreckage or – our particular favourite – having an intense gunfight along a speeding locomotive, which ranks up there with Goldeneye as the best gaming level based on a train. The game keeps up impeccable levels of entertainment across its ten hours or so, but wisely balances the more intense action with quieter sections. Veterans of the original Uncharted would be wise to play through it on Hard, for a stern challenge that’s perfectly balanced with regular checkpointing.
Puzzles are more impressive and grand than previously, being of larger scale and often feel like they have more of an impact on the level itself, as opposed to merely opening a door. Drake still uses his journal for hints and there’s still too much rotating of levers or positioning of objects, but overall they comfortably sit alongside the rest of the game, and crucially break up the pacing of the constant combat or platforming. Naughty Dog have wisely seen fit not to mess with neither the cover/shoot mechanic nor the controls. Compared to other third- and first-person shooters it initially feels a little spongy and loose, but it’s enjoyable and so easy to play that after a few minutes anyone will soon adjust to the particulars. The guns feel brutal and powerful (the pistol is still ever-reliable), the characters snap to cover mostly without issue and Drake still has a line in simple, brutal and pleasing melee take-downs. Nothing like a swift scissor kick to the face to drop an opponent.
This time, the plot will take Drake and co. on a trip around the world, from locations as diverse as perilous cliffs and abandoned civilisations in the Himalayas, to war-stricken Nepal. They are seeking the lost city of Shambhala, which is linked to a mysteriously undocumented voyage by legendary Venetian seafarer Marco Polo – whether Polo discovered the city, and what lies there remains to be seen, but needless to say it’s another action-packed adventure that is more or less on par with the original. The jet-setting allows for a much more diverse range of environments, and level designs are of high quality while the pace is constantly flipped with flashbacks, stealth sections (more on this later), and good old firefights.
Among thieves, indeed. The cast has been considerably expanded with returning heroes, additional allies, a more pronounced and vicious villain and a couple of folk whose allegiance is continually brought in to question. It’s all told in superb cut scenes easily as well-directed and beautiful as any other game (and most of Hollywood’s output for that matter – you can see why Sony intends to make an Uncharted movie), and with that witty, amiable charm Drake and his cohorts have in such abundance. The voice work is flawless and the cast seem very comfortable in their roles, displaying just the right mix of wit and seriousness. The score is excellent, setting the scene very competently and with an assortment of excellent tracks, and the sound effects and dialogue are all absolutely top-drawer. This is one game which sounds so good that it really needs to be played in surround sound to make the most of it.
This time the cover/shoot gameplay is occasionally broken up with stealth sections. Perhaps the chief thing to remember with the mandatory stealth levels is that they’re more linear than the rest of the game, and usually must be completed along the path the game dictates, which is a bit of a shame, but nonetheless their inclusion helps with the game’s balance and introduces some tension. The enemies have also been vastly improved – they can now jump, climb, and are just as agile as Drake and his friends, and frequently they will perform flanking manoeuvres, catching the player unaware. Firefights are much more dramatic and enjoyable against enemies who can scale any obstacle and perform pincer strategies, lending a much more dynamic and versatile feeling than combat in Drake’s Fortune had.
Possibly the most talked-about aspect of Among Thieves has been its multi-player modes, following its various Betas in the months before release. There’s a variety of modes under Competitive or Co-operative, and both are tremendously successful. Competitive covers teams of up to five in various deathmatches and treasure hunt matches, and is very enjoyable and unique thanks to the ability to jump and climb all over the levels – pulling someone over a ledge to their demise is particularly satisfying. The Co-op includes Arena, where up to three players must defend against waves of enemies, and Objective, where treasure items must be recovered and delivered for points. Played with a couple of friends and some mics, the Co-op modes are superb fun and probably the game’s high point overall. Points earned increase the player’s level and subsequently allows access to new items and perks, and quite appropriately characters move slightly faster in this mode, camera control is a bit quicker and generally it’s steamlined for a more fluid and fast-paced gameplay style. Matchmaking is present in all modes, or rounds can be set up and invites sent to friends, and overall it all sits together really well, and perhaps the only ever-so-slight criticism might be that you can’t play through the campaign with a friend in co-op, given how through most of the game Drake is accompanied by an NPC. Regardless, the multi-player modes are sterling and can definitely sit in the upper echelons of PS3 multiplayer titles.
So, Among Thieves obviously does a lot right, but is there anywhere it slips up? Occasionally Drake doesn’t stick to cover when he should, or the level is designed in such a way that he can’t grab a ledge that should otherwise be accessible (an unfortunate spillover from the first game). Further, sometimes the pre-set camera angle the game chooses is a little counter-intuitive and hinders rather than helps. These occurrences are relatively infrequent and mostly forgiveable, but when the rest of the game is of such high quality they appear all the more noticeable. Further, perhaps a trivial comment, but actually getting in to the single- or multi-player can take minutes, as the game does seem fond of loading. Perhaps this is a trade-off for the incredible visuals and presentation (and that once in the campaign there is no loading at all), but it does suppress enthusiasm a little when having to wait three minutes for a co-op game.
Action games don’t come much better than Uncharted 2. From its polish and presentation, through the excellent and thoroughly successful multi-player modes and the whole damn like-ability of it, there’s not a great deal here that won’t resonate with gamers of all levels. Nathan Drake takes pride of place as one of the best new characters in gaming and star of the best PS3 franchise, and it would be foolish to miss out on this extraordinary and exemplary title.