Review by DDJ
"Pure gaming flow."
Review in Brief
Game: A third-person cover-based shooter with platformer, puzzle, and stealth elements set on a massive Indiana Jones-like treasure hunt.
Good: Beautifully minimalistic controls and presentation; excellent cinematic details; chaotic, non-formulaic battles; natural, seamless variety of play modes; subtle, believable in-game guidance; truly memorable playable sequences; a wildly immersive environment.
Bad: Too many "Where's the exit?" moments; some remaining gameplay interface issues.
Verdict: More able to create and sustain gaming flow than any other game I've ever played.
Recommendation: One of the only must-play games of this console generation.
"Pure gaming flow."
The psychological concept of "flow" refers to the mental state associated with full, complete immersion into an activity. It results in a feeling of enhanced focus, complete involvement, and ultimate achievement and success in whatever activity is spawning the mental state. Flow is what happens when you're doing something and you get so completely enthralled in the task that you forget the world around you. It can distort your view of time, suspend your awareness of your own emotions and your own consciousness, and merge action and awareness into one constant feedback loop. It's a single-minded immersion into an activity that leads to a feeling of pure enjoyment and blissfulness, and it arises when engaging in an activity that challenges your already-high skill level in that task. Flow can be seen in any task; an expert programmer will get into a flow with his software development just as a professional athlete will get into flow in a particularly challenging game. It's even been hypothesized that the primary reason people play games in the first place is the desire to achieve this state of flow. (More about flow can be found on Wikipedia and in a psychology textbook near you.)
Thus, the greatest thing any game can achieve is to induce this feeling of flow in the gamer. It is, however, by no means an easy task, and not a standard I would ever hold games to. Flow demands such a heightened sense of unity, cohesion, and pacing that it almost cannot be designed; it almost has to arise by accident. Flow can be learned in the context of any game (for example, professional StarCraft players almost certainly enter a state of flow in their matches), but for that feeling to be induced in the average gamer throughout an entire game is an incredibly high calling. It involves an unbelievable synergy of plot, graphics, pacing, gameplay, guidance, and numerous other factors to deliver a flow-inducing gameplay experience, along with an understanding of the traps and pitfalls that can interrupt flow. Some say that flow comes with mastery of a skill, but true mastery of a complex takes hundreds of hours of practice; for a game to induce flow, it has to mimic this mastery in a way that retains the perception of challenge along with the perception of player skillfulness.
All the above is to say that, simply, the greatest thing a game can achieve is to induce this sense of flow in the gamer, and at the same time, achieving that mental state is an incredibly difficult challenge for game designers to fulfill. All that makes it all the more remarkable just to what extent Uncharted 2: Among Thieves manages to succeed.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is pure, nearly-unadulterated gaming flow. It immerses the player into it in such a seamless, consuming way that the entire distinction between the player and the game world disappears. But what's remarkable about this is that while it seems so simple and cohesive for the player, that feeling relies on the simultaneously symbiosis of numerous broad and sweeping design choices. That brilliant design weaves together so many different elements into such a strong and cohesive experience that the praise for the developers almost cannot be understated. It's not completely perfect -- there are moments that frustratingly break the flow for one reason or another that likely could have been avoided -- but the very fact that the game can induce and sustain that immersion for such long stretches of gameplay is nothing short of remarkable.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves chronicles the continued adventures of Nathan Drake, a professional treasure Hunter. Having not learned his lesson from last time, Drake signs up for another treasure-finding expedition, this time following in the footsteps of the explorer Marco Polo. As you might expect if you played previous game, Nate believes Marco was in pursuit of the treasure of massive work and left a series of clues behind in order to find it. This time the treasure is the Cintamani stone located in the ancient city of Shambhala, better known to us as Shangri-La. Although Nate's quest starts as contract work for a rich benefactor, soon he finds himself going head-to-head in a race to recover and destroy Cintamani Stone before the evil antagonist can reach it and make his wish. But as you might expect, not everything is as it seems, and the ancient cultures have left plenty of secrets for our heroes to unravel.
Gameplay-wise, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves continues the same third-person cover-based combat popularized by its predecessor and several other games in the past few years. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is by no means another Gears of War rip-off, however, in brings a very distinct flavor and style to the third-person cover-based shooter genre. The controls are simple, with the vast majority of the game broken down into straightforward platformer sections, cover-based heads-up combat sections, stealth and melee sections, and puzzle sections. Unlike its predecessor, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves provides a significant variety among these various gameplay styles, and one would be hard-pressed to identify any particular part as the "primary" part of the gameplay.
As I outlined this review, it became very apparent to me that never before have I played game about which I had more positive things to say. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is not a perfect game, but it has more positive features about it than arguably any other game I've ever played. What's most remarkable, however, is that all of these positive features actually combine to form a very cohesive, solid final product. With many games the positive features all stand on their own to deliver something separate to the gameplay experience; in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, however, those features. Each contribute to the central theme of gaming flow. In their own way, each of the following positive characteristics in some way contributes to that persistent overwhelming sense of flow that makes Uncharted 2: Among Thieves such an incredible game.
Minimalistic Controls and Presentation
If using the word 'minimalistic' to describe Uncharted 2: Among Thieves sounds strange to you, take a second and glance over my review for the original Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. In a nutshell, no, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves's world isn't minimalistic, but the controls and presentation are. On the presentation front, nothing has changed from the minimalistic presentation that spawned my comparison between Uncharted: Among Thieves and Shadow of the Colossus: the screen, for the vast majority of the game, is empty of anything except the characters and the environment. There is no persistent HUD; ammunition counts only appear when in combat, as do crosshairs. There is no minimap. There is no persistently visible game information. The only markers indicating events on the screen are grenade notes. When I describe the presentation as minimalistic, these are the things that come to mind. The game goes out of its way to give you a very realistic, straightforward depiction of the games events, uncluttered by additional details and interface clutter on the screen.
The controls mirror this. While Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a bit more complicated than its predecessor, it's controls are still significantly more simple than many other games available today. Your actions still boil down to a very small set of tasks that you can take: you can run and jump in the platformer sections; in open combat, you can hide, lean out and shoot, jump between cover spots, and shoot blindly while hiding or running; all interaction with details in the environment is handled with the triangle button. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves does get a bit more complicated. By providing optional zooming with weapons, a greater variety of weapons in general to remember, additional tools in the environment like riot shields and Gatling guns, and a few other details, but still highly listed in comparison to games to overload the buttons, have multiple context-sensitive commands, and make use of every button on the controller.
In order to make it more clear what the heck I'm talking about, let's take the example of another recent game series that has a lot in common Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: Assassin's Creed. Like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Assassin's Creed is a third-person viewpoint involving both melee and projectile combat, stealth sections, and a lot of climbing and jumping. Consider the combat for second. Always visible on the screen are a minimap, a weapons selector, a health bar, and button guides to every option available to you at present. Compare that with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and you'll start to see what I mean by minimalism. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves avoids all these verticals and focuses on a pure and simple gameplay experience. For an even more concrete example, consider only the detail of detection during stealth sections. In Assassin's Creed, there is a meter above every enemy's head that indicates how close they are to detecting you as well as a meter in the top left indicating whether you have been detected yet. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, how do you know if you've been detected? There are people frickin' shooting at you. That, in my opinion, is a much more organic and minimalistic way to inform the player that they are in danger.
Now don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that these "frills" are inherently bad things. However, in the context of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, the absence of these goes a long way toward facilitating some of the other positive features of the game. This minimalism meshes strongly with several of the positive features will examine and the rest of this review.
Excellent Cinematic Details
The other major detail I talked about in my original Uncharted: Drake's Fortune review was the cinematic nature of the game. The cinematic nature of this entire series is one of those details you hear about in the first couple sentences of any conversation involving these games. They're so significant that Sony even based an entire commercial for the PlayStation 3 around the notion that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is such a cinematic game your unsuspecting girlfriend might not realize she's not watching a movie.
For many people, this "cinematic nature" basically just means there are big set pieces, fast-paced events, and a focus on a beautiful environment. However, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves takes cinema to a whole new degree. It's not sufficient to save that the game is only cinematic for these reasons. Rather, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves creates this whole and continuous cinematic nature through a combination of the amazing graphics that you always hear about and intelligent design in various elements of the gameplay.
The major emphasis of the cinematic nature of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and what causes it to go above and beyond what many people give it credit for, is that the developers and designers devote significant attention toward never breaking that cinematic nature. There are never those moments that snap you out of what's going on on the screen. A significant part of that comes from the minimalism mentioned above; for example, obtrusive interface pop-ups have a tendency to snap the player out of what is going on behind those alerts. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, by supplying a very minimalistic presentation and interface already avoids some of those moments.
However, that focus on the cinematic nature of the game works its way into other details as well, some of which often go underappreciated and under-acknowledged. Take, for example, how frequently the game auto-saves the player's progress. The impact of that is that even when the player dies, they barely have to replay any segment of the game that they've already played before. Replaying a certain portion of the game to get back to the part where you die is itself the kind of experience they can snap you out of the cinematic nature of the game. Adding on to that, another element that significantly contributes to the cinematic nature is the appropriate reaction to player deaths. Death does not appear, in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, to represent a failure in a game, but rather between realistic death scenes in appropriate reactions from your character's friends to your death, the player feels like that death is something that actually happened within the cinema of the game. The realistic death scenes coupled with the immediate "respawning" and the frequent checkpoints creates a very organic and flowing gameplay experience. The contribution to the game's flow is that few things can break a player out of flow like failure and dying in the game, but in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves failure and dying are not as jarring as they are in most games.
Chaotic, Non-Formulaic Battles
The two above positive features of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are both things that its predecessor executed to perfection as well. However, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves does not simply take the good qualities of the original and create a new game around them; instead, it improves on them in nearly every possible way.
The first improvement is what I am describing as chaotic, non-formulaic battles. One of the major problems that I found in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was that the battles tended to be mostly the exact same thing. You were always starting on one corner of the battlefield facing increasingly many enemies, tasked with destroying them all before you could move forward in the game. The battles didn't feel completely organic; you definitely got the feeling the enemies were spawning or originating from somewhere and that there was a certain sequence of coverages and movements the game expected you to take to win the battle.
That's not quite the case in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Instead, the battles have been improved to the point where engaging in battle actually feels like a legitimately chaotic, unscripted, unplanned experience. When in battle you move from cover point cover point, aim and shoot when possible, scavenge weapons and ammunition, sneak up behind enemies and fight melee-style, all in a seamlessly flowing, organic, hectic environment. It does not feel like there's a right way or a best way to win the battle; it legitimately feels like you are in the position of your character, tasked with choosing one of many possible ways to get through your current situation. Of course, in many of those instances, there really is only one proper route, but the important thing is that it feels properly chaotic.
Because of this, improvisation doesn't feel like something you only do when you mess up like it did in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. In the previous game, in my experience at least, you typically entered the battle with a plan in mind, and improvisation is just what happened if your plan failed. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, nearly everything feels improvisational. You feel like you're flying by the seat of your pants just the way your character is meant to feel in the game. Rather than making a plan and attempting to execute it, you're just trying to stay alive and get past whatever is right in front of you.
That dismissal of formula in terms of overall battle structures appears to apply to enemies themselves, too. Some enemies follow somewhat predictable scripts, such as heavily armored enemies showing less hesitation to walk straight into the line of fire, but by and large the enemies don't follow very notable formulas. What that means is that if you fail a battle and then re-enter it, you're not going to get the same experience the second time, and chances are what helps you win may be significantly different than anything you had an option to do the first time. That means that even after several failed attempts at a battle, you'll still feel the same fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach that you felt the very first time when you had no idea what was in store.
Even melee combat gets into the act. In Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, melee combat tended to only be something you resorted to when you really screwed up. Enemies should never be that close to you anyway, so if they are, you're probably already screwed. Not quite so in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, though. Here, melee combat actually legitimately comes up in the regular course of battle. The chaotic battlefields, along with your actually helpful comrades, give you the chance to sneak up behind enemies for a stealth takedown or charge directly at them for some hand-to-hand combat. The melee system has gotten a tiny bit more complicated with both punches and counters, but the system actually helps with the chaotic feel since melee battles don't feel scripted either.
What all that is to say is that the battles themselves are highly conducive to this feeling of flow I've been talking about. They demand quick, on-your-feet thinking and pure gaming in the moment. Quick reactions, impromptu planning, and improvisation are all entirely necessary, and the way you improve is through improving your skills at the game rather than formulating a better plan. There's no better way to describe than pulse-pounding because there's no way to feel like you're on the outside of the game looking in to control it; it immerses you into its environment with its pacing and demands your complete, undivided motivation. That game structure lends itself much better to that feeling of euphoric flow that characterizes Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
Natural, Seamless Variety
I alluded to this in the above section, but it's significant enough to warrant its own notes as well. One of the major problems I had with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was that there was a distinct lack of variety. That applied in the context of scripted, deliberate battles as mentioned above, but that also applied in other ways as well. The game provided a melee and stealth gameplay style, but only once in the entire game did it ever give a chance to use them. The game had platformer sections, but they largely felt boring and uninspired. The puzzles were alright, but still felt a little bit obligatory. Basically, the gameplay felt like it was 90% cover-based combat, 10% everything else.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves solves that problem better than I ever thought possible. I would put my finger on four gameplay modes: platforming, puzzle-solving, cover-based combat, and melee/stealth combat. What's remarkable, though, is that those four elements exist in a relatively even balance. Cover-based combat might make up the largest chunk, but it isn't more than 40% of the game. Stealth sections come up frequently with one section mandating stealth and several others benefiting from it. There are more puzzles and more platformer sections, but more importantly, these sections are better-designed and more interesting than ones in the past.
Right from the get-go, you're introduced to this greater variety in the gameplay. The first extended sequence in the entire game (after the tutorial) is a stealth sequence where there isn't even the option of combat; if you're detected, you lose. From there it transitions into a section that's outright fleeing; I describe it as platforming, but it's a hybrid of platforming and combat given that part of what you're fleeing are flying bullets. On top of that, there are enemies elsewhere in the game that basically require melee and stealth combat to defeat in any reasonable way; you can take them out with enough advance warning that they're approaching, but when they're near, you have no real choice but to go head-to-head. There's an excellent variety of gameplay styles to the game, and unlike in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the level and battle design actually leverages all of its available options.
That on its own is great, but it's not the game's crowning achievement in this realm. I didn't even become aware of this until about halfway through the game, but that's the beauty of it: this isn't something you're supposed to be aware of. You're aware when it's done badly, but its entire purpose is to disappear into the background when it's done well. That crowning achievement is the seamless blending of all these various gameplay styles.
I've often said that one of the hallmarks of good game design is well-varied gameplay. No game nowadays can be complete with only one type of gameplay. However, many games differentiate the different types of gameplay incredibly. RPGs, for example, take you to a whole different screen for battle. Platformers often have minigames. Action games, like the aforementioned Assassin's Creed, explicitly describe whether you're in "combat" mode, "stealth" mode, or something else. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, though, you're always in the same visual mode: Nathan Drake, on the screen, with little else. You move from mode to mode, but you do so absolutely seamlessly. There is no abrupt transfer from one mode to another. One second you'll be stealthily creeping around trying to take out guards without being detected, and the next, they've found you and are attacking; but the shift is a natural one. It isn't like Assassin's Creed where suddenly everyone is running after you and formerly unsuspecting guards are now on your trail; the enemies in your immediate vicinity are just naturally aware of your presence and attack accordingly.
The same applies to the interactions between puzzles/platforming sections and combat sections. You'll be in the middle of solving a puzzle when enemies will swarm in, but as far as the view and portrayal goes, you're still the same character in the same place suddenly tasked with reacting to the new development. It's seamless, organic, natural, and serves that cinematic nature of the game because it avoids as many cutaways and set-aside plot expositions as possible. It feels like you're legitimately controlling the character in the situation, and just as he would have to suddenly react to the change in circumstances, so also must you.
Subtle, Believable Guidance
One of the most flow-breaking moments that can happen in a game occurs when the player has no idea what to do next. It could be that they don't know where to go in their immediate area to escape, or it could be that the action they need to take is non-obvious in the event that there's a door to open or a level to switch. And, unfortunately, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is guilty of that in several locations (one of the two major criticisms I'll raise in the next big section). However, in those places where it doesn't commit those issues, it gets around them relatively remarkably.
Lots of games have this issue, and most break it relatively artificially. Sometimes it's in the form of a minimap that makes it clear where the pathway ahead of you is, as in the case of Final Fantasy XIII-2. Sometimes it's in the form of a directional indicator, as is the case in Batman: Arkham City. Sometimes it's in the form of a waypoint, as it is in Assassin's Creed. In all those cases, however, the method of telling you where to go is relatively artificial, and artificial things don't fit into the minimalism and cinema of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
So, how does the game provide this guidance? With four beautifully subtle styles of guidance. The first among them, and the most subtle, borrows once again from Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, as well as other games. In many sequences where the path forward is non-obvious, the camera tweaks itself to center the screen around the path forward you're meant to take. The effect is so subtle that in action, you almost don't even pick up on the change, but it goes a long way toward both providing guidance and preserving the cinema and minimalism of the game.
That doesn't work in every instance, however; there are times when the next point is more complicated or too far away for a simple camera shift to point out. In this case, your partners (who, I must reiterate, are fantastically implemented) will give realistic verbal cues as to the next task, like pointing out a place to climb up or commenting on the need to affect a door. In the context of playing, these actually barely even come across as hints; they legitimately feel more like the normal verbal interactions of the game, but in many instances they're the only real reason the player has a strong idea of where to go next. These verbal cues are often accompanied by visual cues like the partner standing near the next point or pointing and looking at it. These hints not only give subtle, realistic guidance as to where to go, but they simultaneously enhance the narrative as well.
The third and fourth types of hints almost always happen together, but I think both deserve recognition. One of the buttons (D-Pad Up) in the game allows you to shift to a first-person view just to look around. It's a good way to get a gauge of your surroundings without having to seduce the camera first, but it doesn't come up all that often. When you've been in an area for a while and are obviously having trouble making progress, though, a prompt appears for you to press Up on the D-Pad. If you do, it shifts to first-person mode like usual, but directs the camera straight to wherever it is you're supposed to go, whether it be a higher platformer, a locked door, or a hidden pathway. By overloading an existing operator and by directing the player's attention within the context of the game, the minimalism and cinema are once again preserved; and, as we've discussed, preserving minimalism and cinema helps preserve the game's flow.
The fourth and final type of hint is kind of the game's "Ok, you're really at a loss and don't know what to do" option. It's what occurs when the game basically throws its hands up and says, "Alright, you're helpless, we'll just tell you what to do." These usually occur when the player has made no progress in a while or has died several times in a row. Yet, even here, the game stays as minimalistic as it can be with a simple text prompt at the bottom of the screen noting what you need to do. No complicated cinematic, no voiceover, no frills at all, just a very simple text prompt. Once the player's reached the point of needing explicit help, there's little else that can be done except give direct information, but the game still manages to do that in a subtle way.
Now, the game is by no means perfect in this realm. There are areas where they didn't account for the player having any trouble escaping, so there aren't any hints in those areas. The hints system also has a tendency to repeat the obvious sometimes, such as giving the hint, "Open the door" when one of your partners is repeating over and over, "Hey, open this door!" And, lastly, the game doesn't adequately keep track of your progress within sequences for the hints system, and after dying several times, the hint might be for how to get past an early part of the sequence rather than a later one. All that said, though, when the hints system works, it works beautifully. We'll talk more about what happens when it doesn't in a few paragraphs.
Truly Memorable Sequences
For as much fun as Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was, I did leave the game feeling like it was lacking a bit in something. The entire game felt like a series of open-area chest-high walls to cover behind as you moved through fight after fight. Toward the end of the game there ended up being some variety, with one sequence in particular standing out as memorable, but aside from that I have trouble remembering any particular major gameplay sequence. It belied what I had always believed about the Uncharted: Drake's Fortune series' propensity for fast-paced movie-like sequences. Apparently, though, I had gotten that perception from my tangential exposure to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, there are no fewer than a dozen highly memorable scenes. Some of these are just better-executed or more memorable variations on normal battles, such as ones happening in larger or more amorphous areas, or ones involving more stages to the battle. Others are somewhat standard battles taking place in far more interesting locations, such as the now-iconic battle along the top of a train (a sequence the game somehow makes feel fresh despite having been done in countless games and movies). Others involve more interesting enemies, like helicopters and tanks.
Even the platforming sections are more memorable. Whereas in the previous game, platforming typically took place in beautiful but somewhat non-descript buildings and locations, here it often takes place in grand, sweeping temples or monasteries, or along great icy cliffs, or in a viciously war-torn city. The locales differ in much more pronounced ways than the simple dichotomy present in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. The puzzles reflect this as well; in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the puzzles largely felt like small and obligatory obstacles that barely explained why the treasure was hidden, but in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves they actually feel much less contrived and more legitimate. Solving them, even if they're relatively simple, is an actually memorable experience.
The point all of that is meant to drive home is that, as mentioned before, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has some amazingly legitimately pulse-pounding and exciting scenes, something that its predecessor, while fun, sorely lacked. It has peaks to the action instead of remaining at a relatively consistent level. Part of that comes from switching up the environment more often and in more notable ways, and a lot of it also comes from the increased variety mentioned before as well. All these things combine to create that cohesive experience and thus are very hard to tease apart, but they all lead to that feeling of euphoric flow. These fast-paced memorable sequences are perhaps the greatest examples of that, in fact.
Incredibly Immersive Environment
When I describe the environment of the game, I'm not solely talking about the trees, the set pieces, the atmosphere, and things like that. Those are a part of it, and are executed incredibly, but environment, for me, goes beyond that. Environment refers to the way in which the player feels to be a part of the game world. Environment isn't just about how the area looks, but also about how the player interacts with the area.
But first, focusing on the graphical side, the environments in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves really are absolutely breathtaking. Even solely considering the visual element of them, the realism and fluidity of the environments is something at which to marvel. Every element of the environment, from snowscapes to jungles to cities, is stitched together with an incredibly attention to reality. Even the tiniest bits of the street signs or trees comes through in gorgeous detail.
But the environments aren't just a visual spectacle; the environments are there to invoke some sense or feeling in the player about the broader context in which they are playing. Towards that end, environments need to feel limitless even if they aren't. The game pulls that element off beautifully as well. Even as the game areas prescribe linear pathways through which the player has to go, they feel limitless. The sense is that the player is playing in a game world broader than their immediate area, and even though that's rarely if ever technically true, it's the perception that matters. I wrote in my Final Fantasy XIII review that hardly any game is truly non-linear, but it's the perception of non-linearity that matters, and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves masters that perception beautifully.
There's another side to the environmental interaction angle as well. It isn't just about how you feel in the context of the broader world, it's about how, literally and immediately, the player can affect the world around them. The most prominent place that comes up is with context-sensitive kills. When you kill an enemy, the reaction and results actually reflect the atmosphere around them. If you're stealth killing someone, for example, you might bash their head into a wall, sweep their leg, strangle them with their mouth covered, or other things depending on where they were standing and what they were doing. It's not to the Batman: Arkham City level of quality, but it's definitely superior to most games out there.
Most games also have a nasty habit of only putting things in the environment to interact with if they're actually needed to move forward. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves resists that as well. The environment actually feels dynamic because there are lots of things thrown into it solely to create a realistic environment. If you see an exploding tank, for example, you don't automatically know that there will be a reason to blow it up. That way, when there's an exploding tank in a situation where it is beneficial to blow it up, it doesn't feel like the game put it there just as part of some scripted battle sequence. It feels like you're legitimately making intelligent decisions on how to react to your environment rather than just picking up the trail of breadcrumbs that the game left for you. And, of course, these two details contribute to the cinematic quality of the game as well.
And, to make things even better in one last way, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves uses sound to augment all these principles as well. It's been a while since I've played a game where the sound was particularly notable, and the music in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves actually kind of bothers me sometimes, but the sound effects are incredible. They don't just add to the already immersive visual nature of the game, they actually manage to supply some additional immersion themselves. Too many games nowadays relegate sound effects to a background role, but Uncharted 2: Among Thieves uses it to emphasize threats in the area, or... well, I can't say much more without spoiling something, but suffice to say, it's excellent.
Sufficiently Interesting Plot
Although "sufficiently interesting" isn't the highest compliment in the world, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a game that is in no way driven by its plot, and thus "sufficiently interesting" is all that's really required to facilitate the rest of the game. In fact, the lack of emphasis on the plot might actually be a boon to the game's flow: long drawn-out cutscenes of plot exposition can break the sense of flow the player achieves in straight-up gameplay, and while the game can do some plot exposition during other sequences, a more complex plot would require more stoppages.
So, the game opts for a more minimal plot that can basically be summed up as what you'd expect: you're racing a ruthless treasure-hunter to the Cintamani hidden in Shembhala, and every step of the way you seem to collide with his minions. There's a few twists, but they're minor, somewhat expected, and, most importantly, somewhat simple. With a minimal plot, the game succeeds in still keeping things interesting by acting very efficiently with its plot exposition.
The opening scene, for example, is no more than 4 minutes long, but in that brief time it sets up an incredible palpable character dynamic between three of the main characters, two of which were not in the previous game. With no real background whatsoever and without directly informing the player of anything, the player gets an excellent view of the past relationships between the new characters being introduced, as well as the relative trustworthiness of each.
Throughout the game as well, these character interactions remain strong. Every scene is believable, even with characters that seem to switch their pursuits and allegiances at the drop of a hat. No scene comes across as contrived or fake, but there are plenty that easily could have. The best way to describe it is that the game interface disappears and the player feels like they're just viewing a realistic story. That applies in the cutscenes as well as in the regular gameplay, wherein the banter has been improved and just the right amount of comic relief is added.
The most impressive achievement of the relatively simple plot is the way it makes the player actually, viscerally hate the main antagonist with relatively little effort. A non-polarizing antagonist can be the kiss of death for a game, and I'd argue that that was one of the problems with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: the enemy wasn't very polarizing. He was obviously evil, but you got the gist that you could have just walked away and let him go be evil somewhere else. With the enemy in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, a few simple scenes actually make the player hate him. He's an evil man that's having negative repercussions on the world around him, and it's actually very satisfying to thwart him. I felt more enmity toward this enemy toward those of the last several RPGs I've played, and yet it's RPGs that supposedly have the reputation for polarizing enemies.
Someone asked me not long ago why I never give a 10/10 to a game. To me, a 10/10 is a perfect score, and the only way for a game to get a perfect score is if there's absolutely nothing to criticize about it. If there's anything that could be improved, how can it deserve a perfect score? And so, as amazingly solid as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves happens to be, there are still some points that remain to be criticized about it. Both of these tie back into the flow issue that frames this entire review: the strength of the game is in its ability to induce and maintain this sense of flow in the player, and thus the game's major weaknesses are the two instances where it manages to significantly break that flow.
Flow-Breaking "Where's the Exit?" Moments
My biggest complaint about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is that it has a propensity to have several moments where the flow is completely demolished by the apparent absence of an exit from the player's current area. This flies in the face of the 'subtle guidance' praise I had before, but they're both still true: when the game provides that subtle guidance, it's great, but too often the game seems to forget to.
After significant battles, the next step is obviously to exit the area and continue on your merry way. However, on numerous occasions, continuing on your merry way is not as obvious as following the yellow brick road. Finding that one particular pathway out of your current area can be an exercise in frustrating futility. At worst, in one instance I spent 10 minutes wandering around a very small area trying to find the exit, only to realize there were two concrete-gray ropes hanging against a concrete-gray wall. In other places, there are outcropping from the wall that lead to the only climbing pathway away, but unless you already know you're looking for that particular path, they just blend into the background -- a problem that will come up again in the next section.
This is a significant problem for two reasons. The shallow reason is that it's just effing annoying. Nothing breaks flow like running around in circles for 5 minutes trying to find that one piece of brick that will let you climb up. Just like a long scene of plot exposition, a long sequence with little challenge, or a significant part that has to be repeated before continuing can break flow, so also does a long period of running around in place break flow. That part isn't terribly surprising.
The broader issue, though, is that it not only breaks the immediate flow, but it also chips away at the broader perception the game has tried too hard to create. As stated above, one of the game's strengths is the illusion of non-linearity; we know the game is linear and it's not going to progress until you run down this narrow corridor to that waypoint, but the various positive elements of the game combine to give it the appearance of non-linearity. Nothing breaks that overall perception, though, like suddenly realizing, "I'm stuck here, there's exactly one pathway out of here, and I can't find it."
The game succeeds in presenting itself as non-linear when the path forward is the immediately obvious path. The player does not feel like they're following the only path available to them, but rather like they're actively choosing this path. It just so happens that that path is the only way out and any other exploration would be futile; but as long as the player doesn't perceive that, the game's illusion of non-linearity remains. As soon as it becomes obvious to the player that there's only one way they can go, though, the illusion is broken and you're back into just playing a game by its own rules. And sure, the hints and guidance systems can sometimes help with this, but they're by no means perfect. Sometimes they can even make the problem worse by giving you obvious advice that just makes you feel like an idiot for being unable to figure it out yourself. But maybe I'm just being sensitive.
Suffice to say, there were moments I wanted to throw my controller out the window just because it was so unclear where to go next. Part of that, though, comes from some of the interface issues...
Flow-Breaking Interface Issues
If you're familiar with Zero Punctuation game reviews, you'll find I'm echoing one of his criticisms here. In that platforming climbing Assassin's Creed-y sections (yes, I know Assassin's Creed didn't do it first, but it did it best), the game is so obsessed with maintaining its cinematic nature that it sometimes forgets to make pathways and choices obvious. That might not have been a bad thing if it didn't inadvertently bait the player into making bad decisions or missing available pathways, but it definitely does.
The best way to describe this fault with the platforming segments is that it's inconsistent. An analogy to the game's design might help. In Assassin's Creed (which I'm using as an example of a game that does this better), you get the feeling that they created the game engine itself in a way that automatically generated the grab points, jump points, etc. as they built the architecture. The two were directly tied together; if you put a decoration in one place, it automatically became something to grab on to. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, on the other hand, it feels like they created this great game world, then after the fact manually put in the jumps, wall pathways, and other details like that.
As a result, the visualization of the scenery isn't always consistent with how you can interact with it. Sometimes there will be a jump in your pathway that appears far too far to make, but as soon as you issue the jump command, Drake will suddenly transform into Kid Icarus and leap across it like an Olympic long-jumper. Then, a little further down the pathway, you'll see a much more believable jump, but instead of landing, he'll hit the other side and fall off because apparently the coders didn't deem that to be the appropriate path. Instead of being able to jump that distance emerging as a product of the geography and construction of the area, it's directly applied on top of the existing game, meaning that little inconsistencies can spring up plenty.
These issues provide a broader negative impact as well. I've talked in past reviews about the difference between planning and execution. In a nutshell, in every game (platformers and puzzle games most notably), there is a way to get past a particular section. In order to get past that section, you have to plan the right approach, and then you have to execute that plan. If you fail either, you'll fail to pass the section. Good design makes it clear to the player where their error was. The player should know if they're even trying to do the right thing or not (how many times have you stood trying to jump onto a ledge or balance on a beam only to realize you're supposed to be doing something completely different?). The player should know if their error is in planning or in execution. However, when executing is so fussy in the first place, it becomes very hard to differentiate between a faulty plan and a faulty execution. In one instance, I kept trying to climb to a higher ledge by balancing on the slanted roof of a building, only to discover the game expected me to jump over that roof altogether with one of Drake's Superman-leaps. If they game were more consistent in how it treated these issues, it would be easier to tell if the planning is off or if the execution is off. I think it springs from the game's cinematic nature, but I also don't think it's a necessary evil that comes with that cinematic focus.
That's true to a large extent about the cover-based combat system as well. The game is notably persnickety about what comprises a cover and what doesn't. There are doorways, obstacles, and numerous other things that are indistinguishable from the various other things around them, yet for whatever strange reason won't let you take cover behind them. That can get extremely aggravating in the heat of battle, and on more than one occasion I died because the system stuck me on the wrong side of a chest-high wall while under fire.
The cover system in general still needs some work as many of the old annoyances from Uncharted: Drake's Fortune are still present. Oftentimes in combat, it feels like you're simultaneously struggling against the enemy and the cover system to get the results you want. For example, if you've taken cover and want to jump to another cover spot but screw up the direction slightly, you'll find yourself taken out of cover. The same thing applies when attempting to move around the wall you were previously hiding behind; although it appears like you're staying in cover, you're actually opened up to enemy fire. In some of the more hectic battles, the unfortunate outcome of this is that you're hesitant to even move away from a certain area whose mechanics you've figured. Sure, you could hypothetically move around and flank the enemy (and, unlike Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the enemies don't magically know where you are at all times), there's always the risk that once you get over there, the cover isn't going to behave like you expect it to and you're going to be opened up to unexpected fire.
And, as I've repeated over and over by now, the primary negative repercussion of those issues is this breakage of the game's flow. You know that feeling you get when you're lying in bed, half asleep, and suddenly you feel like you're falling and you jar yourself away? That's essentially the equivalent of what these moments do to the player. You're moving along at your own engaging, enthralling, immersive pace, getting into a nice state of cognitive flow and euphoria, and suddenly, slap!, you're now trying to solve a tedious little platformer section whose visualization does nothing to tell you where to go, or twiddling around in the same area for several minutes because the grab point looks like just a regular clump of moss on the ground. These moments are relatively few, but they're very significant, and they're the only things standing in the way of the first perfect score I've ever given.
The greatest thing a game can achieve is to inspire and create a true sense of cognitive flow in the player. To a large extent, that's why we play games in the first place. Cognitive flow is a desirable state, and games create a far more perfect atmosphere for it to arise than the majority of real-world endeavors can in such a short time span. I'm not saying that games are superior to other sources of cognitive flow, but they're a far more accessible source for it.
The success of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is in its ability to create and maintain this sense of flow. The player gets incredibly immersed in the game, and the game interface almost disappears between the player and the game experience. The reactions, the decisions, the improvisation all happen so smoothly that the player is almost immediately and seamlessly engrossed. Creating this feeling in the first place is an achievement, but to maintain it at such a high level for such a consistent portion of the game is purely remarkable.
The achievement itself is remarkable, but the way in which it's executed is remarkable as well. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves achieves this through an incredibly consistent, cohesive effort on the part of nearly every element of the game. The minimalistic presentation and controls and the cinematic nature from Uncharted: Drake's Fortune make a return, but they're augmented by improvements in every other domain. The battles legitimately feel open, unscripted, and non-linear. The variety of play styles (combat, stealth, platformer, puzzle) merge together seamlessly, overlapping in appropriate places as well. The game provides guidance in subtle, immersive ways, and provides some of gaming's most memorable sequences. The physical environment in which the game takes place absorbs the player, and there's just enough plot to keep them interested in that element as well.
All those elements play a role in creating and maintaining the flow. The minimalistic presentation, simple controls, and cinematic nature create a game in which the 'game' perception is minimized; without the complex HUD, equipment, and other common gaming conventions, it's much easier to recognize the game as realistic. The chaotic battles push the player to make legitimately impromptu and improvisational decisions, lending to the sense that the actions of the game are legitimately unscripted. The seamless merging of the variety of play styles suggests that the characters are engaging in a real adventure, avoiding another place where the flow could be broken. The guidance methods leave the player immersed in the game word, and the physical environment (and the player's interactions with it) complete the sense of realism that so accurately facilitates that sense of cognitive flow.
The game is not perfect, and there are definitely places where that flow is broken and the player becomes aggravated, but for the vast majority of the game, the execution is flawless. It's an incredible ride, and one of the best games ever created.
One of this generation's few must-play games, for nearly all audiences. Not for younger kids, or (obviously) anyone that has a problem with violence in games, but for the vast majority of gamers -- and especially PlayStation 3 owners -- it's an absolute must-play.
Reviewer's Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Originally Posted: 04/02/12
Game Release: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (US, 10/13/09)
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