Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I actually only got round to playing the first Uncharted game, Drakes Fortune, a week or so ago. It'd been sat amidst my pile of shame for ages and only the imminent release of its sequel managed to propel it into my PS3. Better late than never however and after a few days and many happy hours play time not only finished it but I'd mentally installed it firmly in my top five games of the current generation. Interest now well and truly spiked for the arrival of Among Thieves I was intrigued to see how Naughty Dog could possibly improve on so complete an experience.
For anyone not up to speed at this point you once again take control of treasure hunting explorer Nathan Drake in a third-person action adventure game that combines exploration, platforming, shooting and puzzle solving into a single, satisfying gaming pie. It is a concept that's admittedly hardly original and it is not difficult to see the obvious influences that have inspired the Uncharted formula. Happily this never feels like a bad thing and rather than coming off as a clone Uncharted instead feels like Naughty Dog have cherry-picked the best bits from a number of sources and, more often than not, improved them to ensure Nathan does the whole Tomb Raider thing far better Lara ever has; but for the lack of hat, whip and license, this is the best Indiana Jones game ever.
This time out the game takes place a couple of years after the events of Drake's Fortune with Nathan and new love interest Chloe Frazer investigating the mystery of Marco Polo's doomed voyage home from China back in 1292. Throw in a magical Buddhist sapphire called the Cintamani Stone as well as the legendary kingdom of Shambhala, or Shangri-La as its better known and you've got a plot as steeped in ancient wonder and mystery as you could possibly want. To give any real detail would be to do the game a disservice as the plot is inevitably better experienced spoiler-free but suffice to say it's full of all the twists and turns you'd expect and will most definitely not disappoint.
While it's true to say that fundamentally Among Thieves is more of the same in terms of basic gameplay there's a very real sense that this time Naughty Dog feel confident enough to show off. Having proved their ability to craft a great game with Drake's Fortune they've taken this opportunity to ensue the experience is as close to perfect as possible. While the original game could at times feel a little like a non-stop cycle of combat and platforming without any real change of pace, everything here flows far more organically so that while its still made up of the same gameplay pieces the edges have been blurred sufficiently that you rarely see the joins anymore.
As fans of the original will remember, what elevated the game from being simply very good to genuinely fantastic was how natural controlling Nathan felt. Part of that was the constant sense that the game understood what you were trying to do and did its best to help you along. It was never done in a way that made you feel invincible or like it was cheating for you, it just did its best to make you feel safe enough in its hands not to worry about needing pixel perfect jumping all the time, et al. Thankfully little has changed in the control scheme for the sequel, Nathan still responds and reacts almost perfectly to both his surroundings and your input, doing his best to make you look good at all times, and he even has a few new moves to keep things feeling fresh. Most helpful of these is the ability to shoot while dangling single-handed from ledges, something that comes in handy far more here than it ever would have in the original, while some new stealth kills complete the improvements.
Although levels you'll be exploring are still firmly linear their design is clever enough that you rarely feel like you're being led by the nose. Instead the game expertly ensures that nine times out of ten you simply want to go the way it needs you to, meaning you don't really notice the dead ends and locked doors.
Combat was another area that didn't need any fundamental changes, the original's slick duck and cover system having stood the test of time admirably. One thing that has changed is that there's noticeably more verticality to the combat this time out. How much this is a natural evolution caused by the level design and how much is deliberate is hard to tell but it does make the action feel less formulaic as well as constantly keeping you on your toes.
One niggle carried over from the first game is the way enemies still appear in clearly unnatural waves. What looks like a clear area often suddenly has a new contingent of bad guys running into it just when you think it's safe to move on. On the one hand artificially spreading them out like this is better than finding a room filled with a huge number of enemies all at once but on the other it never feels natural, instead conjuring up images of bad guys hiding round corners just waiting until their friends have been shot.
If there's one area of the game that's not really changed much it's in the puzzling. As with last time these brainteasers rarely evolve much beyond the simple pull or push something to open a locked door kind of thing we've been solving for years now. To be fair complex puzzles aren't really a core part of the Uncharted experience and those that are here at least fit naturally into the world, but it's a still bit of a shame more hasn't been made of them.
Drake's Fortune, as wonderful as it was, did have one thing missing - a multiplayer mode. Thankfully Among Thieves corrects this in quite spectacular fashion. A well stocked set of options allows a whole myriad of possibilities to be played out based on multiplayer staples like deathmatch, capture the flag and team games while the fact that you're controlling a character far more agile than the usual FPS grunt brings an entirely new perspective to modes you may feel you've played to death in other titles. Levels you'll recognise from the singleplayer game are given a subtle multiplayer makeover often complete with their own ever interesting gimmicks, a meandering tank that kills whoever it can find being a perfect example. A enjoyable spattering of co-op levels give the multiplayer package a fully rounded feel, something of a first for a third-person action-adventure game.
Spending time with the original last week I was struck by how it remained one of the best looking PS3 games around even now, two years after its release and wondered if there was really much room for improvement in Among Thieves. Well, you'll be pleased to know that the simple answer is yes, in fact it's surprising just how much extra grunt Naughty Dog seem to have found within the PS3's high tech innards. Put it this way, if there's a better looking game around at the moment I've yet to see it. The attention to detail is simply astonishing at times with every little part of the world shown as much love and attention as the next. The startling fact that by Naughty Dog's own estimates the original game used a mere thirty percent of the PS3's processing power compared to Among Thieves which apparently clocks in at above ninety tells its own impressive story.
As you'd expect Nolan North and Emily Rose return as Nathan and Elena respectively and both are on top form here, as in fact are the entire voice cast. Until you've witnessed it for yourselves it's hard to convey just how well realised the games characters actually are. The leads especially benefit from a delightful blend of pitch perfect delivery and understated natural writing that should cause every other game out there to blush with embarrassment. There's a real sense that these are people genuinely interacting, rather than actors quipping one-liners alone in a recording booth somewhere and you're sucked into their story to a greater degree because of it.
That sense of immersion is also helped by the way the story is told through both cut-scenes and in game dialogue. The cut scenes in particular give the game engine yet another chance to shine with some beautifully framed moments showing off the world as well as possible. These regular non-interactive interludes never feel jarring, or worse still unwanted, in fact Uncharted 2 does such a good job of blending its storytelling into the game proper that the dreaded phrase 'interactive movie' actually starts to sound like a good thing.
Interestingly, Naughty Dog have obviously realised the potential of their engine for cinematics and opened it up to allow you to create your own using the Cinema mode. Think the movie maker in Halo 3 with added bells and whistles including a green screen mode and the ability to get Nathan and chums to lip sync to your own dialogue.
Since Drake's Fortune was so good there wasn't actually a massive amount Naughty Dog needed to do to craft a sequel. In all honesty there'd have been barely a moan from anyone had they simply slapped a new story and levels onto the bones of the first game, pushed it out of the door and watched the money roll in. So it's to their huge credit that instead they've taken the time to craft a game that manages to feel like a genuinely significant step forward while retaining everything that was so great about the original. The addition of a stunning multiplayer component and the creative freedom of the Cinema mode are like the enjoyably overindulgent pudding after a wonderfully satisfying main meal that make you thankful for elastic waistbands.
If, as some have said, the PS3 is still in need of a killer exclusive to take into the festive silly season then Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is, without a doubt, it. Anyone with a PS3 should be beating down the door of their favourite games emporium come release day and the rest of you still waiting for a reason to belatedly join Sony's party have just found it.